Sunday Train: California Sierra Club Allies with Tea Party Against High Speed Rail

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

It’s a quite odd alliance. The Sierra Club is fighting the Climate Suicide Club both on the side of Supply, with the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline as one example and the fight against the establishment of Coal Export Terminals in the Pacific Northwest and on the side of Demand, with the Beyond Oil campaign, which in the Green Transportation component promises among other points that: “The Sierra Club will:

  • Ensure that all Americans have access to safe, affordable, clean transportation options. …”

And now the Director of Sierra Club California, Kathryn Phillips, has stepped up her attacks on the High Speed Rail project from “expressions of serious concern” to giving direct support for the attack from the Legislative Analyst’s Office that is working in concert with the Tea Party attack that is their most promising hope for killing the project :

“Inherent in AB 32 is that we need to act sooner rather than later,” said Kathryn Phillips, the Sierra Club’s California director. “The problem with taking that [cap-and-trade] money and applying it to high-speed rail is that we don’t anticipate that we’re going to get those benefits – reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – in the short-term. Given how urgent the problem is and has become, and how much we’re seeing the effects of climate change in this state, especially in water availability, it feels irresponsible to not apply that money to those programs that will get you greenhouse gas emissions reductions now.”

Given that we cannot feasibly arrive at a carbon neutral energy generation and transportation system within the next seven years, this implies that we should abandon the pursuit of a carbon neutral generation and transportation system and content ourselves with fighting for a slower rate of suicide as a national industrial economy than the faster rate of suicide that Big Oil, Big Coal and the rest of the Climate Suicide Club is pushing for.

Indeed, given that Sierra Club California had an official position in support of Prop1a which got the California HSR project moving , this could well be as strong an attack on the California HSR project that Kathryn Phillips is in a position to make.

The Tea Party Breakthrough

The so-called “Tea Party” (the latest label attached to the radical reactionaries that were at one time Birchers) has, of course, had a substantial element substantially driven by Big Oil since they were first pushed into national prominence by the “conservative” establishment messaging machine. And they early on delivered on the initial investment by Big Oil, given that one of the major impacts of the “make a noise” summer of 2009 attacks on Affordable Care Act legislation was to slow progress sufficiently so that the Energy Bill could be pushed into early 2010 and then killed in early election year politics.

So there is no mystery in why there is such strong messaging among radical reactionaries in which trains are socialism and highways are built out of pure freedom. And the successful squashing of the Florida bullet train project by a radical reactionary governor left the California HSR project as the sole bullet train project to be funded out of the $8b directed to a variety of intercity passenger rail projects in the 2009 Stimulus II legislation.

That made the California HSR project the focus of a full court press by radical reactionaries to stop the California HSR project before it sees a substantial construction get underway. And they have made some headway compared to their position in 2008 when Prop1A(2008) was passed. They have spread sufficient fear, uncertainty and doubt regarding the project to erode popular support in California, which leverages the natural ebbing of support for a long project after the initial wave of enthusiasm that sees it gain initial approval. They were able to win some delaying actions in the Environmental Review process. They seemed to have been able to leverage the hopes of some LA Basin and Bay Area democrats that they could redirect the funds into commuter rail projects to gain an anti-HSR foothold in the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

But the clock is ticking, since once there is substantial construction employment in the Central Valley in actually starting to build the project, their prospects for killing the project take a substantial hit.

One of their avenues of attack has long been whether the California HSR Authority is meeting the terms and conditions laid out in Prop1A(2008), which established the authority for state bond funding for the project.

This is critical. Unlike most federal rail funding, the Federal Stimulus II funding did not in general require a state financial contribution, where most intercity rail projects have a 20% minimum required state match (compared to 10% for some highway projects). However, Governor Schwarzenegger recklessly promised a 50% state match for any Federal funds in support of the California HSR program ~ the maximum state match allowed under Prop1A(2008), and the specific grant that was made to HSR was under the terms of that grant application.

So no State Bond funding, no Federal HSR funds. And unlike the funds from the cancelled Florida project, which largely went to expand the California proejct, and the cancelled Ohio project, which largely went to expand the Michigan prject, and the cancelled Wisconsin project, which largely went to expand the Illinois and Pacific Northwest projects, if the California HSR project fails to spend its federal funds at this point, there will be no opportunity to direct those funds to another project elsewhere (say, the Columbus GA to Atlanta HSR project), because it won’t meet the time window in the authorization and appropriation.

So this decision on Prop1A eligibility may be the Tea Party’s Last, Best Hope to kill the California HSR project:

A Sacramento judge issued two rulings on Monday that blew a major hole in California’s plans for a high-speed rail line, telling the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) to go back to the drawing board on their $68 billion funding plan. While Judge Michael Kenny didn’t put a stop to construction on the project, he also dashed the authority’s plan to sell more than $8.6 billion of the $10 billion in bonds approved by California voters in 2008 to build the first segment of the line in the Central Valley.

The project opponents – who include Kings and Kern Counties in the Central Valley the Union Pacific Railroad and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (of Prop 13 fame) – succeeded in stalling the bond sale, with Judge Kenny writing in the first ruling issued on Monday that the High-Speed Passenger Train Finance Committee, tasked with bond issuance and sales, made no attempt to prove that issuing the $8.6 billion in bonds was “necessary and desirable” as required by law. The bar for proving that going forward with the bond sales is necessary and desirable is fairly low, but this will force the project’s Finance Committee to go through the motions again, putting forth an argument for why issuing and selling the bonds is in the public’s – not just the authority’s – interest.

In the second ruling, Judge Kenny built on an August ruling to order the CHSRA to rewrite its $68 billion financial plan before it can spend any state bond money on the project (bonds that the authority isn’t yet allowed to issue in the first place). In August he ruled that the authority had not met the requirements that funding for a first usable (a key distinction, as it implies hundreds of miles) segment be fully identified and environmental clearance be completed before bond money can be spent.

The hope by California HSR opponents is that the delays implied by these rulings in allowing the majority of Prop1A(2008) bonds to be issued and then the funds spent will push the project out of the Federal funding window. For radical reactionaries, this would be a double victory, since that money would not just be lost to California, but it would not be available to provide for more sustainable transport alternatives anywhere else, either.


Governor Brown Offers a Lifeline

Governor Brown has already rescued the California HSR plan once, originally from the project requirements inflation as the California HSR was pursuing Judge Kopp’s puritanical and grossly wasteful “not one mile of shared track” approach to building an HSR corridor.

And it seems that he plans to ride to the rescue yet again:

Gov. Jerry Brown plans to propose spending millions of dollars in fees paid by carbon producers to aid the state’s controversial high-speed rail project.

The proposal – and the prospect of additional funding from the state’s cap-and-trade program in future years – could provide a significant lift to a $68 billion rail project beleaguered by uncertainty about long-term financing.

Brown plans to propose allocating several hundred million dollars this year, sources told The Sacramento Bee.

This proposal flies in the face of the anti-HSR stance of the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which argued in 2012 that:

The primary goal of AB 32 is to reduce California’s GHG emissions statewide to 1990 levels by 2020. Under the revised draft business plan, [California high-speed rail’s initial operating segment from Merced to Bakersfield] would not be completed until 2021 and Phase 1 Blended [from San Jose to San Francisco] would not be completed until 2028. Thus, while the high-speed rail project could eventually help reduce emissions somewhat in the very long run, given the project’s timeline, it would not help achieve AB 32’s primary goal of reducing GHG emissions by 2020. As a result, there could be serious legal concerns regarding this potential use of cap-and-trade revenues.

I have previously criticized the LAO analysis ~ for one, the LAO analysis was inappropriate for a multi-benefit project with several sources of funding, and for another, the LAO appeared to repeat life cycle emissions claims that had been dubious prima facie and turned out to be based on a unit conversion error in converting between SI and US units of energy consumption.

More recently, Robert Cruickshank at the California HSR blog has criticized the LAO’s reading of the text of the cap and trade legislation:

That claim first appeared in 2012 from the Legislative Analysts Office, an office with a notorious record of presenting deeply flawed information designed to undermine the HSR project. Here’s what the LAO said in April 2012:

Would Not Help Achieve AB 32′s Primary Goal. The primary goal of AB 32 is to reduce California’s GHG emissions statewide to 1990 levels by 2020. Under the revised draft business plan, the IOS would not be completed until 2021 and Phase 1 Blended would not be completed until 2028. Thus, while the high-speed rail project could eventually help reduce GHG emissions somewhat in the very long run, given the project’s timeline, it would not help achieve AB 32′s primary goal of reducing GHG emissions by 2020. As a result, there could be serious legal concerns regarding this potential use of cap-and-trade revenues. It would be important for the Legislature to seek the advice of Legislative Counsel and consider any potential legal risks.

Notice the weasel words used by the LAO. “The primary goal of AB 32″ but not its only goal. There “could be” serious legal concerns. There are “potential” legal risks.

… In 2006, the state legislature passed and Governor Schwarzenegger signed AB 32, the state’s landmark global warming law. It includes a goal of reducing CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. But that wasn’t its only goal. The point was to use the 2020 goal as a kickstarter to get the state to commit to lasting, permanent reductions:

It is the intent of the Legislature that the statewide greenhouse gas emissions limit continue in existence and be used to maintain and continue reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases beyond 2020.

The Legislature followed through on that intent by directing the California Air Resources Board to prepare a scoping plan that shows not only how the 2020 goal will be met, but how that reduction will be maintained beyond 2020.

In 2012 the state legislature passed a few bills relating to the use of cap-and-trade revenues, primarily AB 1532. This bill would govern how the funds in the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund would be used, directing the Department of Finance to develop a 3-year investment plan. Nowhere in this bill are the funds restricted solely to those things that would achieve CO2 reductions by 2020 – because again, the point of AB 32 and cap-and-trade is to make those reductions lasting. …

… As a result, on page 25 of the final investment plan, high speed rail is explicitly listed as an investment priority.

This argument that cap and trade funds must be entirely devoted to things that will reduce CO2 emissions by 2020 therefore seems to be fatally flawed, yet Kathryn Phillips is using a muted version of this same argument in claiming that about 19% of annual cap and trade funds should not be dedicated to HSR funding.

Just as the LAO office did previously, Kathryn Phillips is applying a fixed fund, single benefit analysis to a flexible fund, multi-benefit problem. That is, while one consequence of the California HSR project will clearly be reduced CO2 emissions, it will also be providing intercity transportation capacity that would cost in excess of $100b to provide through investments in roads and airports, and will also be addressing the historic under-provision of intercity transport options in the San Jaoquin Valley, and will also be providing employment during the construction phase in areas of California still suffering from the effects of the collapse of the outer suburban and exurban residential real estate bubble.

And Kathryn Phillips is ignoring the fact that the majority of these funds are not fungible. If California does not get moving on the California HSR project, it does not have the freedom to redirect the Stimulus II HSR funding to commuter rail or BRT projects in large cities around the state. It does not even redirect the Stimulus II HSR funding to other states. Rather, that funding simply goes away ~ authorized, appropriated, but never spent. And that $8.6b in Prop1A(2008) funding does not suddenly become available for those purposes either: it simply remains as a standing authorization should the terms ever be met sometime in the future, though of course with declining purchasing power since the bond authorization is in nominal dollars and inflation will eat away at its purchasing power over time.

To be conservative, suppose that there is a total of $1b-$2b in cap and trade funds directed to the California HSR project before it finally satisfies each point in the recent Prop1A(2008) rulings to allow release of Prop1A(2008) funds. That $1b-$2b would enable the allocation of $13b to the construction of intercity transportation infrastructure, which would be under 16% of the funding of the project from cap and trade funds. Given that degree of leverage, the use of the cap-and-trade funds for a portion of the funding easily stands the test of cost effectiveness.


Kathryn Phillip’s Underlying Surrender

I want to finish where I started. I am convinced that we cannot feasibly reach by 2020 the position that we have to reach if we are going to survive as a national industrial economy. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil campaign recognizes that in its Green Transportation component. On the order of 27% of our CO2 emissions come from our transport sector, and we are not going to be able to substantially eliminate that without revolutionizing our transport sector. And that necessarily includes transportation alternatives that will require more than seven years from authorization to beginning operation.

So Kathryn Phillip’s opposition to dedicating about 19% of cap-and-trade funds to the California HSR project on the grounds that only quick-fix projects should be funded is a substantial surrender to the Climate Suicide Club.

Now, I know why the Climate Suicide Club advocates positions that amount to the eventual collapse of the United States as a national industrial economy. That is simply a side effect of defending their wealth. No further explanation is required there, just as there is no difficulty explaining why slave owners in the United States opposed the emancipation of the slaves in the run-up to and through the course of our Civil War. They may have been risking ruin, but in their eyes they were fighting against certain economic ruin. The same with Big Oil and Big Coal. Their wealth is not in the physical existence of carbon fossil fuel reserves, it lies in their entitlement to exploit the reserves as an energy source. Humankind acting in self-preservation to keep the majority of those reserves in the ground implies a loss of the majority of their wealth.

I do not know, however, exactly why Kathryn Phillips has bought into a position that brings the prestige of the California Sierra Club on the side of the radical reactionaries that are the reliable dupes of Big Oil. It may be that the everyday realities of coping with the gap between the maximum that is politically feasible and the minimum that is required has led her to buy into the austerity fantasies of neoliberal economics, and the invidious messaging from Big Oil regarding a false rivalry between electric intercity passenger rail and local and regional transport alternatives. But that is just speculation on my part: in the end, I do not know why Kathryn Phillips is joining forces with Big Oil and their radical reactionary allies in the fight against the start of construction of the California HSR project.


Conclusions & Considerations

So, that is what’s on my mind this week in the sustainable energy and transport policy arena. What’s on your mind?

As always, rather looking for a more ringing conclusion that that, I now open the floor to the comments of those reading.

If you have an issue on some other area of sustainable transport or sustainable energy production, please feel free to start a new main comment. To avoid confusing me, given my tendency to filter comments through the topic of this week’s Sunday Train, feel free to use the shorthand “NT:” in the subject line when introducing this kind of new topic.

If you have a topic in sustainable transport or energy that you want me to take a look at in the coming month, be sure to include that as well.

And no need to introduce yourself or justify your participation first: just jump right in and start participating. Your presence here is sufficient justification.

1 comment

  1. … something from the O’Jay’s, (c) 1972 Philadelphia Int’l …

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