Buzz From The White House: New Steps Announced To Save The Bees

The White House issued a wide-ranging new plan to stem the deaths of pollinators on Tuesday, with the goal of reducing the honey bee colony losses to no more than 15 percent within 10 years and increasing the Eastern monarch butterfly population to 225 million by 2020. The initiative directs federal buildings across the country to construct new pollinator gardens and seeks to restore 7 million acres of federally managed lands in a manner friendly to pollinators. The plan fails to ban existing uses of the pesticides, called neonicotinoids, known to cause the most harm to bees and other pollinators. Environment America’s Executive Director Margie Alt issued the following statement in response: 
“Honeybees, monarch butterflies and other pollinators help maintain a healthy planet and a healthy food supply. Bees alone pollinate 70 percent of the world’s most common crops, and everyone should be alarmed that colonies are dying off in record numbers. It’s great that President Obama and his administration want to act to stem the loss of our pollinators. 
“While restoring habitat and planting gardens will help, these measures skirt the root of the problem of dying bees and butterflies. We can’t save the bees unless we ban the pesticides that are killing them, and that’s where the White House plan falls far short.”

Amtrak Derailment Reminds Us Of Need For Investment -- But Is Met With Funding Cuts

Last week's tragic Amtrak derailment reminds us of the dire need to address funding for the country's transit infrastructure, maintenance and repair -- yet just hours after the May 12 accident, which left eight people dead, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut Amtrak funding by $260 million. 

“It's unbelievable that Congress would vote to cut Amtrak funding just hours after this tragedy,” said John Olivieri, PIRG's national campaign director for transportation. “The nation’s intercity rail network has seen growing ridership and Americans increasingly are looking for alternatives to driving. They should be increasing the Amtrak budget, not cutting it.”

That's why PIRG is urging our members to send a clear message to Congress: Stop the Amtrak funding cuts! With increasing amounts of Americans using rail transit each year, it's more important than ever to bring our rail system up to speed. With ridership of 11.6 million, the Northeast Corridor -- the route the derailed train was traveling on -- rail had its highest ridership year ever in fiscal year 2014, up 3.3 percent from the prior year. Yet, America's rail system still lags behind Europe's or Japan's, where trains travel up to 200 mph routinely. Last week's Amtrak train was traveling at 106 mph on a 50 mph curve when it derailed.  

“Our policy makers should take the long view. We need commitment to creating a world-class passenger rail system where traveling 106 miles per hour would be seen as shockingly slow, not fast," said Olivieri. "High-performance tracks and other technology should enable substantially faster speeds.” 

Duke Energy To Pay Millions For N.C. Spill

On Thursday, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to violations of the Clean Water Act, stemming from a February 2014 pipeline collapse where more than 39,000 tons of coal ash spread 70 miles down North Carolina's Dan River. The company agreed to pay $102 million in fines and fees related to the coal ash spill, as well as other environmental violations.

According to the New York Times, the fine is believed to be among the highest criminal penalties assessed under the Clean Water Act since it was passed in 1972.

Earlier this year, Duke Energy was fined more than $25 million by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural resources, due to groundwater contamination from coal ash.

Environment North Carolina has been working to protect the Tar Heel State from the threat of coal ash. Last September, they delivered more than 40,000 comments from North Carolinians to Gov. Pat McCrory calling on him to require Duke Energy to clean up every coal ash site in the state.

U.S. PIRG Hosts Event To Discuss Big Money In Politics

U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) hosts event with University of Maryland Law School Professor Frank Pasquale featuring a discussion of his new book “The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information,” as well as panels of civil society and government experts to discuss how to empower citizens and consumers in today's digitally-driven financial services era.

“Looking Inside the Black Box Society” is one in a series of events hosted by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and CDD to promote needed discussion of digital marketplace impacts on economic opportunity. The project has also authored path-breaking research, including the Suffolk University Law Review article “Selling Consumers, Not Lists" and the report, “Big Data Means Big Opportunities and Big Challenges: Promoting Financial Inclusion and Consumer Protection in the “Big Data” Financial Era.”

Change Corps Wins Gun Background Checks In Oregon

Change Corps celebrated a big win May 4 as Oregon lawmakers passed a bill to require background checks for the sale of firearms. This bill makes Oregon the 18th state to require criminal background checks on all handgun sales, and the 12th the require them on all gun sales. 

Change Corps organizers have been working since last fall with allies Everytown for Gun Safety, Ceasefire Oregon, and Americans for Responsible Solutions to first defeat a candidate who voted against this bill last year in the fall elections, and then organize public support to pass background checks this spring.

Everytown for Gun Safety posted on their Facebook page: "This is an incredible victory for Oregon -- but also for gun sense across the country -- because it shows what happens when we come together and stand up to the gun lobby. Not only do we win, we win BIG."

Dogwood Alliance Thanks Green Corps Organizers

For the past few months, Green Corps organizers Katya English, John Qua and Rita Frost have been working with the Dogwood Alliance on their campaign "Our Forests Aren't Fuel." The campaign seeks to save Southern forests from the growing threat of the biomass industry, which is increasingly cutting down Southern forests to use for fuel. 

In their three months there, the organizers were able to collect nearly 3,000 messages to save southern forests, bring 500 people to 5 different events, and generate 31 media hits.

The Dogwood Alliance thanked Katya, John and Rita for their work on the campaign, saying, "Their passion and dedication to forest protection sparked a growing movement in the cities where they worked – Baton Rouge, Wilmington and Savannah. In these port cities, where our Southern forests are exported away to be burned as fuel, residents are standing up to send a clear message to policy makers and industry leaders: Our forests aren’t fuel.

"The leadership and energy of these three organizers was instrumental in growing a movement that will protect our southern forests now and long into the future." 

10,000 Petitions To Sen. Murray For Clean Water Protections

On Monday afternoon, WashPIRG Students' Organizing Director Toni Bellante reported, "We had an awesome meeting and delivered over 10,000 petition signatures to Sen. Patty Murray's staff, as well as pictures from our Clean Water campaign and letters of support from student groups and business owners."

WashPIRG Students, Environment Washington and the Fund's canvass joined the meeting to urge Sen. Murray to be a clean water champion, as we work to restore clear protections for all of America's waterways.

Who Pays For Roads?

The latest report from U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group, released via webinar Tuesday, has the answer: General taxes paid by all taxpayers cover nearly as much of the cost of building and maintaining highways as the gas tax and other fees paid by drivers. So that old adage that roads pay for themselves? Not true. 

The new report comes with just a month left before expiration of the federal transportation act, and with the federal Highway Trust Fund on the brink of insolvency. Revenues from gas taxes and other user fees this year are expected to come up $16 billion short of the level needed to maintain current federal transportation spending, leading to the need for urgent congressional action.

 “Congress is stuck in an endless loop,” said Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst at U.S. PIRG and co-author of the report. “Either Congress will have to raise gas taxes to the high levels that would be needed to fully pay for the costs of highways or it will have to admit that the ‘users pay’ system no longer exists and needs to be reformed.”

The new report pulls back the veil on the “users pay” myth, finding that:

  • Gas taxes and other fees paid by drivers now cover less than half of road construction and maintenance costs nationally – down from more than 70 percent in the 1960s – with the balance coming chiefly from income, sales and property taxes and other levies on general taxpayers.
  • General taxpayers at all levels of government now subsidize highway construction and maintenance to the tune of $69 billion per year – an amount exceeding the expenditure of general tax funds to support transit, bicycling, walking and passenger rail combined.
  • Regardless of how much they drive, the average American household bears an annual financial burden of more than $1,100 in taxes and indirect costs from driving – over and above any gas taxes or other fees they pay that are connected with driving.

“The ‘users pay’ myth is deeply ingrained in U.S. transportation policy, shaping how billions of dollars in transportation funds are raised and spent each year,” said Tony Dutzik, co-author of the report and senior analyst at Frontier Group, a non-profit think tank. “More and more, though, all of us are bearing the cost of transportation in our tax bills, regardless of how much we drive.”

Our First Line Of Defense At Risk

Our nation's wetlands are our first line of defense against flooding. But according to "Shelter from the Storm," a new report written by Lindsey Hallock, Tom Van Heeke and Judee Burr, of Frontier Group and John Rumpler with Environment America Research & Policy Center, a loophole in the Clean Water Act is correlating with a dramatic turn in loss of wetlands, putting communities at risk from damaging floods. And, as global warming continues to progress, the extreme rain events that often trigger flooding are likely to become more common.

Last March, the Obama administration issued a proposed rule to restore Clean Water Act protections to all wetlands, along with streams that feed drinking water supplies for one in three Americans. Though restored clean water and wetland protections have won support from hundreds of thousands of Americans, farmers, small businesses, and local officials, many have bitterly opposed the rule, including the oil and gas industry, developers and their allies in Congress. The United States is left with only 53 percent of the more than 221 million acres of wetlands that dotted colonial America.

Released April 29, the report demonstrates for 15 states how wetlands protect against flooding, the most common natural disaster in the U.S. It includes data for communities especially susceptible to flooding, including those represented by Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill. and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., all of whom have voted to block the wetlands protections rule.

Read the report's news release here, which links to the report. 

Protecting Our Troops From High-Cost Loans

After a key vote for consumer protection late Thursday night, PIRG commended U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (IL), a veteran, for leading the bi-partisan fight to strike language from the National Defense Authorization Act that would have delayed important new protections for servicemembers and veterans from high-cost loans by up to a year or more.

"The vote to strike language delaying PIRG-backed improvements to the Military Lending Act of 2007 was 32-30, with five Republicans joining all 27 Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee in support," said Consumer Program Director Ed Mierzwinski in our statement.

We're disappointed that predatory lenders, led by the American Financial Services Association and payday lenders, had originally prevailed in subcommittee to insert the provision that would have delayed the much-needed improvements. We expect further attacks on the Department of Defense's important new rules, on the House floor and in the Senate, but are prepared to stand alongside Rep. Duckworth, Sen. Jack Reed (RI), and others who are working to "protect our troops," while others who may often say "support our troops" are working against them.

Representatives Honor Earth Day With Bill To Protect Public Lands From Fracking

In honor of Earth Day, Reps. Mark Pocan (WI) and Jan Schakowsky (IL) introduced The Protect Our Public Lands Act (POPLA), the first-ever Congressional effort to ban fracking on public lands, which would protect precious areas from Florida’s Everglades to New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon.

The Introduction of POPLA comes just one month after the administration released rules regulating fracking on public lands.

“We’ve seen fracking contaminate our drinking water, put our families’ health at risk, and turn treasured open spaces into industrial zones,” said Rachel Richardson, director of Environment America’s Stop Drilling Program. “Some places are just too precious to drill and frack, and that includes our parks, canyons and forests.”

The Protect our Public Lands Act would ban fracking in areas that provide critical drinking water sources for millions of Americans, such as the Delaware River Basin and the George Washington National Forest, and on all federally managed lands. The move comes as oil and gas companies have already secured leases on 36 million acres of public lands and expressed interest in fracking 12 million more acres of public parks, forests and other lands.

Each place fracking has touched in the United States has been wrought with widespread environmental damage -- from polluting waterways to increasing air pollution and disrupting wildlife. The process generates millions of gallons of toxic wastewater laced with benzene, caustic salts and even radioactive material. Waste pits have contaminated groundwater at more than 400 sites in New Mexico alone. In the Pinedale Mesa region, extensive gas development has coincided with a significant reduction in the region’s population of mule deer.

“From contaminated drinking water and air pollution, to heavy traffic and exploding pipelines, this kind of industrial activity has no place in the heart of our country’s most precious federal lands,” Richardson said. “While the only way to protect our health and communities from this dirty drilling practice is to ban it altogether, banning fracking on public lands is an important first step to ensuring our prized forests and natural areas are protected from the devastation fracking causes.”

PIRG, Consumers Celebrate As Comcast Abandons Plans To Merge With Time Warner

Consumers had reason to celebrate on Thursday as news emerged that Comcast had abandoned its plans to merge with Time Warner Cable, a move that would have consolidated the two largest cable and internet providers in the country, and given them unprecedented control over the market.

U.S. PIRG had spoken out against the merger as far back as last August, saying the deal "would perpetuate unrestrained cable price increases, allow terrible service to deteriorate even further and stifle innovation." According to the New York Times, had the merger gone through, the companies would have controlled as much as 57 percent of the nation’s broadband market and just under 30 percent of pay television service. Reports say that in recent weeks, federal regulators signaled that they were leaning toward blocking the deal.

The public demanded a faster, free and open Internet with more choices for consumers. The recent FCC victory on net neutrality and this massive retreat by a powerful Internet gatekeeper show that Washington can listen to consumers, when we speak loudly enough. 

WashPIRG Joins Gov. Inslee And AG At Privacy Bill Signing

On Thursday, WashPIRG Director Bruce Speight joined Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson for the signing of HB 1078, after the consumer protection bill passed unanimously through both houses of Washington's Legislature.

The new law will strengthen data breach notification requirements to better safeguard personal information, prevent identity theft, and ensure that the attorney general receives notification when breaches occur so that appropriate action may be taken to protect consumers. It'll also provide consumers whose personal information has been jeopardized due to a data breach with the information needed to secure financial accounts, and make the necessary reports in a timely manner to minimize harm from identity theft.

This bill comes in the wake of a number of privacy breaches in recent months, from the health insurer Anthem, to the online tax preparer TurboTax, to the Apple Pay system rolled out with the most recent iPhones. 

45 Years Of Environmental Action

Forty-five years after we were born at the first Earth Day in 1970, Environmental Action is still going strong. Just this week we're helping to support or organize more than a dozen events and campaigns all across America.

Director Drew Hudson recorded this message to share with members highlighting the events Environmental Action is helping with right now.

Environment Illinois Launches Ad Campaign

Environment Illinois launched an ad campaign this week on the homepage of the Chicago Sun-Times, Facebook, and other targeted social media. The ads called out Sen. Mark Kirk for his vote against the Nelson Amendment to the budget resolution. The Nelson Amendment would prevent a ban on public employees from mentioning climate change, which some states reportedly banned. 

Green Century Organizes Investors In Support Of Divest Harvard's Heat Week

Green Century President Leslie Samuelrich spoke at Harvard University in support of Divest Harvard’s efforts to persuade Harvard University President Drew Faust to transition the university’s investments out of coal, oil and gas. Samuelrich appeared with other investment advisory and financial services firms from the Greater Boston area on the culminating day of Harvard Heat Week to discuss the potential financial benefits of fossil fuel free investing.

“Opponents of divesting have said that it is too risky, that divesting is too costly, that shareholder advocacy is the better way to go. I run a company that ONLY invests fossil fuel free and I’m here to tell you that these arguments just don’t add up,” said Samuelrich. 

Harvard Heat Week kicked off with a launch event at First Parish Church in Cambridge on Sunday evening with speeches from supporters ranging from Former Senator Timothy Wirth to 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben to Reverend Yearwood of the Hip-Hop Caucus and Harvard alumni and students.

“Even if Harvard University was only motivated by financial considerations and not its leadership position in the world, there are compelling reasons to move its investments out of the fossil fuel industry. The case is based on performance, dividend payments and the volatility of the energy sector, as well as the potential for devalued or stranded assets,” said Samuelrich.

More than a dozen impact investing and socially responsible investing firms from the Greater Boston area including Trillium Asset Management and Progressive Asset Management in Wellesley, Mass., were present.

While Green Century has offered a fossil fuel free investing option with its Balanced Fund since 2005, it has seen a surge in institutional and individual investors looking to invest fossil free. In response, Green Century, with 350.org and Trillium Asset Management, produced “Extracting Fossil Fuels from Your Portfolio,” a guide to fossil fuel free investing that has become a tool for those who want to transition out of dirty energy.

LA Reveals First-Ever Comprehensive Sustainability Plan

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed the city's first-ever, comprehensive sustainability plan last Wednesday, which lays out major environmental goals for the city to reach by 2035. 

Environment California's Michelle Kinman wrote on social media with a photo of the event: "Proud to stand with members of the LA Clean Energy Coalition and Mayor Eric Garcetti today at the launch of the city's first ever comprehensive sustainability plan. Time to roll up our sleeves and get to work making 1500 MW of local solar a reality!"

The plan includes several ambitious goals, including sourcing 50 percent of water locally and having zero days where air pollution reaches unhealthy levels. Some proposals are already in place, while others will be added on a rolling basis.

If all the goals in the 105-page plan are enacted, they could have an incredible impact on Los Angeles and the surrounding environment. 

Environment Texas Fights Legislation That Would Undermine Local Drilling Ordinances

With the Texas Legislature scheduled to vote Tuesday on a bill preempting municipal and county oil and gas drilling ordinances, Environment Texas joined Dallas civic and environmental leaders at an event late last week denouncing the legislation. The bill would put local control to protect health and safety at risk, making Dallas and the region's populations vulnerable to fire, pollution and other dangers.

“Drilling operations pose real risks to our health and safety and that’s why we passed strong protections in the City of Dallas two years ago,” commented Dallas Council member Philip Kingston who testified against the bills on behalf of the City of Dallas. “Now, Austin lawmakers are threatening to roll back these critical protections, undermine our local control and put our families and community at risk.”

The bills -- HB 40 (Darby-San Angelo) and SB 1165 (Fraser-Horseshoe Bay) -- have recently passed out of the House Energy Resources and Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee and could soon be debated on the floor within the coming week. The bills “expressly preempt” oil and gas ordinances by municipalities or other political subdivisions, making oil and gas operations the “exclusive jurisdiction of the state.”

“Run, don’t walk,” commented Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. “If Austin lawmakers are successful, oil and gas drilling could be coming to a school, playground, or daycare center near you.”

Environment Texas warned the bills could undermine drilling ordinances in more than 300 Texas cities, including Dallas, Ft. Worth, Southlake, Lewisville, Irving, and Flower Mound. Limits on drilling near homes, prohibitions of drilling in parks, and bans on waste injection wells could be threatened with legal challenge if not deemed “commercially reasonable,” a standard the group argued is vague and largely undefined.

An 800,000-Pound Gorilla

More than 800,000 students in Colorado have student debt, and on April 7, CoPIRG Director Danny Katz joined Rep. Diana DeGette at CU-Denver to push for college affordability policies that keep a college degree within reach for all Coloradans. 

At the event, Rep. DeGette announced her support for the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, a new bill that will allow students to refinance their student loans that was introduced just last month on March 18. The average student's debt in Colorado is $24,500, and the percentage of students with $25,000 worth of private student loan debt has increased, from 5% in 1996 to 24% in 2008.

In a statement released by CoPIRG about the event and the announcement, Katz said, "Student loan debt isn’t an 800-pound gorilla in Colorado. It’s an 800,000-pound gorilla with nearly 800,000 people in Colorado with student loan debt." Katz applauded Rep. DeGette for her commitment to the issue.

500,000 Petitions Urge President Obama To Shine A Light On Dark Money

Last week, activists gathered in front of the White House with the backdrop of a large inflatable flashlight, to deliver over half a million petitions calling on President Obama to shine a light on dark money.

By issuing an executive order, the president could require government contractors -- some of America’s largest companies -- to disclose their political spending. The event marked the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, which for the first time struck down a federal contribution limit, allowing more wealthy donors to flood our elections.

“The Supreme Court got it dead wrong when it allowed corporations to spend unlimited money on elections. But while that is allowed, companies -- especially those that get taxpayer dollars -- shouldn’t be able to hide their political spending,” said U.S. PIRG Democracy Campaign Director Dan Smith. “With the stroke of a pen, President Obama can lift the blinders by saying that companies awarded government contracts must disclose their political spending.” 

More than 50 rallies were held in 25 states around the anniversary of the McCutcheon decision, and in March, U.S. PIRG joined 50 organizations to urge President Obama to shine a light on dark money.

“Unlimited big money from special interests and wealthy donors -- especially when hidden from the public -- drowns out the voices of average citizens and leads to a loss of faith in democracy. There are many reforms needed to reclaim our democracy, including amplifying the voices of ordinary Americans by matching small contributions with public funds, but this would be a great start. In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for ‘a better politics’ without dark money. Now it’s time for him to back up those words and take action,” said Dan.