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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about the continuing legal battle over placing the American pika, a small mountain-dwelling critter, on state and federal endangered species lists due to climate change threats to the animal’s survival:

In an article in Wednesday’s paper, I wrote about an environmental law firm that persuaded thousands of San Francisco commuters to use their smartphones’ Foursquare application to “check in” at its advertisements in subway stations and raise money to save the American pika, a critter that may be threatened by climate change.

The nonprofit law firm, Earthjustice, scored a victory this week when a San Francisco judge ordered the California Fish and Game Commission to reconsider a decision to deny state endangered species protection to the pika.

A relative of the rabbit, the pika lives on the rocky slopes of alpine ranges in California and throughout the West. Even small increases in temperature prove fatal to the pika, which does not hibernate and maintains a high body heat to survive frigid winters. As temperatures rise in mountainous regions, some scientists have found that pika populations either have vanished at lower elevations or moved to higher ground. The pint-sized mammal is also at risk from melting snow packs, which it relies on to insulate its burrows during long winters.

Earthjustice represents the Center for Biological Diversity in its efforts to have the pika listed as a protected species under state and federal law. After initially finding that a listing may be warranted for the pika, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in February concluded that the species could adapt to climate change.

In California, meanwhile, Earthjustice has been enmeshed in a three-year fight with the state Fish and Game Commission. The commission has twice rejected consideration of the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition to list the pika as a threatened species.

“The record in this case unequivocally demonstrates that the petition failed to include sufficient, if any, scientific information about population trend, population abundance, range, distribution, and degree and immediacy of threat to the pika throughout all or a significant portion of its range in California,” Cecilia L. Dennis, a California deputy attorney general, wrote in a motion filed Sept. 1 that opposed the environmentalists’ effort to re-open the listing proceedings.

But Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is based in Oakland, Calif., argued that the Center for Biological Diversity offered more than ample evidence that a listing might be warranted for the pika, which would lead to a full investigation of the species’ status.

In court filings, Mr. Loarie said that the commission failed to properly consider new scientific evidence that his client presented in 2009 after Judge Peter Busch of the San Francisco Superior Court ordered the commission to reconsider the petition on the ground that it had used the wrong legal standard to reach its decision.

“As the expert agency charged with protecting California’s wildlife, the commission’s role is to evaluate the substance of the scientific evidence that it receives in support of and against a listing petition,” Mr. Loarie wrote in a brief.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photos: americanprogressaction, jmtimages, and jurvetson

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

As a new poll showed that nearly half of likely California voters now oppose Proposition 23, the ballot measure that would suspend the state’s global warming law, heavy hitters from President Obama to Al Gore and Bill Gates came out against the initiative on Wednesday.

With the president on a West Coast campaign swing, a White House spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times that Obama “is opposed to Prop. 23,” calling the ballot measure backed by two Texas oil companies “a veiled attempt by corporate polluters to block progress towards a clean energy economy.”

“If passed, the initiative would stifle innovation, investment in R&D and cost jobs for the state of California,” the Obama spokesperson said.

Gore, meanwhile, issued a statement saying, “The fight for America’s clean energy future is taking place right now, and it’s come to California. This is a fight we simply cannot afford to lose.”

Gates, the Microsoft founder turned philanthropist, weighed in with a $700,000 contribution to the No on 23 campaign on Tuesday. The Nature Conservancy donated $500,000, bringing this week’s No on 23 fundraising total, so far, to more than $1.3 million. The Yes campaign, which is being underwritten by the petrochemical industry, has taken in $7,000.

As of Wednesday, the No forces had raised a total of more than $28 million, compared to the Yes campaign’s $9.1 million, according to California Secretary of State records.

Prop 23 would suspend California’s global warming law, known as AB 32, until the state unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters, which has happened only three times in the past four decades.

The No forces’ fundraising lead and statewide television commercials appear to be paying off in the polls. A September survey by the Public Policy of California found voters in the state evenly split over Prop 23. PPIC’s new survey finds that 48 percent of likely voters now oppose Prop 23, while 37 percent support the measure. Don’t pop that champagne yet, though. Fifteen percent of California voters are still undecided.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Have the Texas oil companies backing Proposition 23 surrendered in the fundraising battle over the ballot measure that would suspend California’s global warming law?

Since Thursday, the No on 23 forces have raised more than $7.3 million as the Silicon Valley-Hollywood-environmental-industrial complex revved up for the final push before Election Day on Nov. 2.

The Yes campaign’s take since Thursday? $10,000.

The No on 23 campaign now has raised $25.8 million to the Yes effort’s $9.1 million as money from the petrochemical industry backing Prop 23 has all but dried up in recent weeks, according to California Secretary of State records.

The tsunami of cash flooding into the No campaign indicates the breadth of support from California’s establishment for the state’s global warming law, known as AB 32, which requires greenhouse gas emissions be cut to 1990 levels by 2020.

Avatar director James Cameron attracted the most attention with his $1 million donation on Friday. But Gordon Moore, the legendary co-founder of chip giant Intel, also dropped $1 million into the No coffers that day, and so did Pacific Gas & Electric ($250,000), California’s largest utility and a leading proponent of climate change legislation. Google co-founder Sergey Brin also donated $200,000 on Thursday, and an organization of Silicon Valley tech companies contributed $125,000.

On Tuesday, a group of some 66 investors controlling more than $400 billion in assets are scheduled to hold a press conference to announce their opposition to Prop 23.

In the meantime, national environmental groups and non-profits continued to pour cash into the No campaign last week. The National Wildlife Federation contributed $3 million on Friday. ClimateWorks Foundation, a San Francisco non-profit, gave $900,000. New York’s Rockefeller Family Fund kicked in $300,000 on Thursday and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a top No on 23 donor, added $300,000 more Friday.

Environmentalists are also starting to focus on Proposition 26, a little-noticed California ballot measure that would reclassify environmental impact fees as taxes and require a two-thirds vote of the state legislature to impose them rather than a simple majority. Green groups and AB 32 supporters fear Prop 26 could cripple efforts to levy fees to implement the global warming law.

The oil, alcohol, and tobacco companies backing Prop 26 have so far raised $13.6 million while opponents have managed to collect only $2.8 million, according to state campaign records.

Still, a spokesman for the No on 23 told the Los Angeles Times that the No campaign would not redirect its cash to the Prop 26 fight, saying the battle over the global warming law has yet to be won.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The air war over California’s global warming law has begun.

Flush with cash, the campaign to defeat Proposition 23, the ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s landmark climate change law, broadcast its first two television commercials Tuesday. The ad blitz came as the No campaign collected new contributions Tuesday from old and new economy firms, including $25,000 from electric carmaker Tesla Motors, $50,000 from Florida-based energy giant NextEra Energy Resources, and $25,000 from health insurer Blue Shield of California. Also on Tuesday, the California Teachers Association contributed $200,000 to the No on 23 effort.

The Yes on 23 campaign also hit the airwaves Tuesday in what will probably be a protracted — and expensive — battle for the 21 percent of California voters who’ve told pollsters they’re undecided about the ballot measure. A Field poll released on Sunday found that voters surveyed oppose Prop 23 45 percent to 34 percent.

The ads broadcast Tuesday — hours before California gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman were to face off in their first debate – highlight the different tacks the campaigns are taking.

The No forces’ 15-second spot is grainy and ominous:

“Prop 23 is one deceptive ballot measure from two Texas oil companies that would have three disastrous consequences,” intones the announcer over gray-tinged images of belching smokestacks, oil refineries, and jammed freeways. “Twenty-three would pollute our air, kill clean energy jobs, and keep us addicted to costly oil. Vote No on 23.”

The second ad from the alliance of environmentalist, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and green tech companies also aired statewide in California — and on YouTube, of course — takes a somewhat sunnier tone.

“California is outlining a clean energy future, a growing workforce of bright Californians who harness wind and solar power to move our state forward,” goes the 30-second script over scenes of wind farms and workers installing rooftop solar panels.

“But two Texas oil companies have a deceptive scheme to take us backwards. They are spending millions pushing Prop 23, which would kill clean energy standards, keep us addicted to costly polluting oil, and threaten hundreds of thousands of California jobs. Stop the job-killing dirty energy proposition. Vote No on 23.”

But the 30-second ad from the Yes on 23 campaign — largely backed by two Texas oil companies and the billionaire Koch brothers, owners of a petrochemical conglomerate who have bankrolled efforts to derail climate change legislation — shows what the environmentalists and their allies are up against.

“I have enough bills but now the politicians are putting a new energy tax on us to pay for California’s global warming plan,” says a youngish middle-aged woman dressed in a pink sweater and white slacks as she walks from her mailbox to her sunny suburban house on a tree-lined street. “Yes on 23 stops the energy tax, preventing a 60 percent increase in electricity rates, and higher gas prices. And saves more than a million jobs.”

“I want to do my part on global warming,” she adds, flipping through a ballot guide. “All Yes on 23 says is let’s wait until people are back to work and we can afford it. Yes on 23 – it’s common sense.”

The ads’ claims immediately triggered howls from the No campaign.

“The Yes on 23 campaign is up with a new television advertisement chock-full of the deceptive claims the oil companies behind the ballot measures have been making for months,” wrote No spokesman Steve Maviglio in an email blasted to reporters Tuesday and which cited various academic studies disputing the Yes claims.

Misleading, but potentially effective on voters who are not versed in the arcane economics of cap-and-trade.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

In any emerging industry, there are turning points that bear watching. One of those occurred Tuesday when BrightSource Energy, a California developer of solar power plants, announced the appointment of John E. Bryson as its new chair.

Bryson is a key player in the energy-enviro-regulatory industrial complex, and a member in good standing of the Fortune 500 whose decision to join BrightSource is another signal that Big Solar will be a Big Thing.

A co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970, Bryson went on to become chair and chief executive of Edison International, one of the United States’ largest utilities. He also serves on the boards of Boeing and Disney, as well as the Santa Monica electric car startup Coda Automotive. He is also an advisor to New York private equity and buyout giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

Before going corporate, Bryson was president of the California Public Utilities Commission and California State Water Resources Control Board.

In short, Bryson, 67, is someone who knows his way around the top echelons of the nation’s energy and financial power structure.

Such connections will be key for BrightSource. The company has so far signed contracts to supply more than 2,600 megawatts of electricity to California utilities PG&E and Southern California Edison. It will need to secure many billions of dollars in financing to build more than a dozen large-scale solar power plants to fulfill those deals.

The California Energy Commission on Wednesday is expected to license BrightSource’s first solar project, a 370-megawatt power plant to be built in Southern California’s Ivanpah Valley.

Bryson will serve as non-executive chair, meaning he will not have operational control over the company. A BrightSource spokesperson, though, told me Bryson “intends to be a very active board chair.”

BrightSource has shown itself adept at developing strategic relationships. It counts Google, Morgan Stanley, and Chevron as its investors and brought on engineering giant Bechtel as the chief contractor to build its first power plant as well as to take a stake in the project.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

A company controlled by the billionaire Koch brothers, who have bankrolled numerous right-wing causes, has donated $1 million to the campaign to pass Proposition 23, the California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s global-warming law.

The contribution was made Thursday and came from Flint Hills Resources, a Kansas petrochemical company that is a subsidiary of Koch Industries. The Koch brothers were the subject of a recent profile in The New Yorker.

The Koch donation came a day after Tesoro, a Texas oil company that has been bankrolling the pro-Prop 23 campaign, put $1 million into the campaign coffers.

According to the No campaign, 97 percent of the $8.2 million raised by the Yes forces has been given by oil-related interests and 89 percent of that money has come from out of state. Three companies, Koch Industries, Tesoro, and Valero — another Texas-based oil company — have provided 80 percent of those funds.

“There are three companies from out of state that have a very specific economic interest in rolling back our clean energy economy and jobs,” Thomas Steyer, a San Francisco hedge-fund manger who is co-chair of the No on 23 campaign, said during a conference call Friday.

“I am a businessman,” he added. “I believe in the free enterprise system. I believe in profit. But companies have to accept the rules that are placed on them.”

Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital Management, has pledged $5 million of his own money to the No campaign.

As the traditional Labor Day kickoff to the fall campaign season approaches, the No campaign has also been collecting some large donations, albeit from individuals rather than corporations.

A Southern California businesswoman, Claire Perry, contributed $250,000 on Monday. Last Friday, Julie Packard, a daughter of Hewlett-Packard founder David Packard, gave $101,895.

“If the Yes on 23 folks win, we’re going to change the framework for investment here,” said Steyer. “We’re going to change our ability to create new industries. Those industries are going to go elsewhere, probably not in the United States. Probably specifically our biggest competition in this is China.”

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

At an event at Google last week, green tech investor Vinod Khosla noted that solar companies are building factories in California even though it would be cheaper to manufacture photovoltaic panels in China.

“The markets are here, the innovators are here, the ecosystem is here,” he said, noting that the state’s global warming law, known as Assembly Bill 32, or AB 32, had created a predictable regulatory climate, spurring investment in California.

Adding another data point to Khosla’s argument, AQT Solar, a Sunnyvale, Calif., startup, announced Thursday that it had officially flipped the switch on its first factory – in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The company’s trajectory is classic Silicon Valley and illustrates Khosla’s thesis of why California has become an epicenter of green technology innovation.

AQT was founded in 2007 by veterans of the Valley’s old-line tech industry who saw a way to repurpose existing technology to make cheaper and more efficient thin-film solar cells at a time when photovoltaic module prices were plummeting and competitors with high capital costs were being squeezed. (Thin-film solar cells are made by depositing semiconducting materials on glass or flexible materials, a process which allows them to be essentially printed on long rolls of metal.)

The startup managed to get to the production phase on $15 million raised from investors — a pittance for a solar cell manufacturer — and on Thursday the company also announced its first customer, the developer Sol Pacifico, which will install AQT solar cells at a luxury resort to be built in Baja Mexico.

The factory will initially be able to produce 15 megawatts’ worth of solar cells a year.

AQT has been able to recycle Silicon Valley’s old computer chip company infrastructure as well as tap its intellectual and financial capital.

“We found a building that was an old semiconductor plant that fit our needs perfectly,” says Michael Bartholomeusz, AQT’s chief executive. “In next six months, we’ll be expanding our Sunnyvale facility and hiring 40 more people. We’ll have a second manufacturing site next year.”

That’s not a huge number of jobs, of course, but inevitably some of those employees will capitalize on their experience at AQT and start their own companies, continuing Silicon Valley’s endless cycle of innovation.

Khosla’s point was that that feedback loop could be short-circuited if voters in November pass Proposition 23, a California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s global warming law and with it the certainty businesses that rely on to make investment decisions.

“More of the startups in Silicon Valley are setting up factories here rather than in China, and that’s because there’s a market here,” he said. “That will change” if Proposition 23 passes.

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