Big Oil Attacks California’s Climate Revolution

The Huffington Post
by Preeti Vissa

Last month I wrote about California’s quiet revolution in climate policy, a revolution that has the potential to both save our air and create thousands of jobs in economically struggling communities. But no good deed goes unpunished: The oil industry has declared all-out war on California’s climate law, and has enlisted the help of a number of state legislators.

The effort is being led by the Western States Petroleum Association, the trade association that includes companies like Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell. Knowing that an appeal from big oil aimed at protecting its own profits isn’t likely to resonate with Californians, the oil lobby set up a succession of front groups purporting to represent ordinary citizens, small business owners, etc. These front groups have warm and fuzzy names like Californians for Affordable and Reliable Energy and the California Drivers’ Alliance.

Don’t be fooled. This is a battle between oil industry profits and the health, well-being and economic survival of California families, and it will set a precedent that will reverberate nationwide.

Big oil’s latest tactic aims to frighten Californians with scare stories about a “hidden gas tax” that will send pump prices soaring next year. It’s baloney, but it’s effective.

As I mentioned last time, California’s law called AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, commits the state to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. To do this, California began charging polluters for their carbon emissions under a cap-and-trade system, putting a price on pollution and raising hundreds of millions of dollars that will go to clean energy and energy-saving projects. Those projects will create good, urgently needed jobs and help low-income families cut their energy bills.

Cap-and-trade is being implemented in stages, part of a carefully laid-out plan. The next stage, which has big oil so alarmed, includes fuels in the cap, meaning that the oil companies will be forced to pay for the pollution their products dump into the air.

And pay they should. Air pollution from gasoline and diesel causes illness and shortens life expectancy, even as it contributes to global warming. According to the American Lung Association, more than 70 percent of smog and soot in California’s air comes from transportation-related sources:

“Unhealthy air causes more than 9,000 premature deaths each year in California, in addition to tens of thousands of asthma attacks, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations. These health impacts cost California billions of dollars each year, and disproportionately impact low income communities and communities of color.”

The oil industry and its shills are warning of huge gas price increases, and have persuaded state Assemblymember Henry Perea (D-Fresno) to introduce legislation to keep fuels out of cap and trade for three more years. In fact, more sober estimates indicate that any price increase is likely to be small, and well within the normal up-and-down fluctuations of gas and diesel prices.

Actually, prices don’t have to go up at all. Chevron alone made $21.4 billion in profit last year. These massively profitable companies could easily choose not to pass along this small increase in cost and they’d barely feel it. Instead, wanting to horde every last penny of profit at the expense of our health, our families and our neighborhoods, big oil is pushing to change the law.

We will stop them. California legislators are wisely refusing to put Perea’s bill on a fast track, giving those of us working to protect our communities time to organize. California will build a new economy with cleaner energy sources, cars and trucks that don’t belch garbage into the air, and new, good jobs for communities that need them, creating a template for America and the world. We will not be stopped by the desperate flailing of what is literally a dying industry.

Big Rate Hikes Pose Questions for Insurance Commissioner Candidates

californiaprogressreport.com
By Carla Saporta and Rosa Martinez
The Greenlining Institute

Major California health insurers have big rate hikes coming – raising questions that the candidates for state insurance commissioner must answer.

The insurance commissioner race has gotten relatively little attention in this election season, but the start of implementation of national healthcare reform and a wave of rate increases raise urgent concerns. These questions are of great concern to all Californians, and especially to the low-income Californians and communities of color that we represent – the people who have generally had the least access to quality healthcare.

Continue reading “Big Rate Hikes Pose Questions for Insurance Commissioner Candidates”

Bill Would Gut Consumer Protections

The Progressive
By Orson Aguilar

Do you have a bank account? A credit card? Any dealings with banks or other financial institutions? If so, Congress wants to empower Wall Street to rip you off.

The 2008 crash and Great Recession resulted largely from unethical behavior by lenders and other financial firms. Lenders talked people into signing up for predatory mortgage loans that were literally designed to fail—after the lenders had made a quick buck selling them to investors.

In response, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, establishing significant reforms to prevent the disaster from repeating. While imperfect, the law has done real good. Now, the new Congress and the White House are joining forces to destroy some of its most important reforms.

Earlier this month, the House Financial Services Committee approved the so-called Financial Choice Act, authored by committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas). Powerful bank lobbies like the American Bankers Association lined up behind the biggest effort yet to weaken financial reform.

The bill—dubbed the Wrong Choice Act by opponents—would make it easier for banks to avoid requirements designed to keep our financial system stable. Worse, it would drastically weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the first and only federal agency whose sole function is to stop banks and other financial firms from cheating you.


Through its enforcement actions, the bureau has already forced big financial firms to give back billions of dollars to American consumers who were cheated by shady, illegal banking practices. These crackdowns have involved some of Wall Street’s biggest players, from Chase Bank and a group of American Express subsidiaries, to credit reporting firms like Equifax and TransUnion.

The bureau has also moved to curb abuses in payday lending and aggressive debt collection practices. And—particularly important given the shady lending that caused the crash—it created the Ability-to-Repay rule. This requires mortgage lenders to make a good-faith determination about whether someone actually has the ability to repay a loan and prevents the use of teaser rates to hide a loan’s true cost.

The victims of these abuses are often the most vulnerable, including people with low or moderate incomes and communities of color.

Democrats in Congress have vowed to oppose the Financial Choice Act as it now heads to the full House and Senate. The threat of a Senate filibuster could force some changes—especially if the public is alerted to the harm it could do.

While the Financial Choice Act would not kill the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, it would destroy its independence, putting it under the thumb of politicians who get millions in campaign contributions from the very bankers it regulates.

“It is an enormous package of gifts for Wall Street and the worst actors in finance,” Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform, told the New York Times.

She’s right. Congress and the White House must hear loudly and clearly that voters don’t want to go back to the bad old days.

Billionaire Facebook Co-Founder Flees to Repressive Country to Avoid Taxes: What an Insult to Hard-Working American Families

Saverin’s move is an insult to immigrant families like mine who worked hard to build something in this country.

AlterNet by: Samuel Kang

The recent announcement that Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin had renounced his U.S. citizenship to avoid future capital gains taxes on the fortune he’ll make from Facebook’s initial public offering upset quite a few people. More than anything, it’s an insult to millions of immigrants who built this nation and are continuing to build it.
When my family immigrated to the United States almost 30 years ago, my parents barely spoke English and had no relatives here. So they did what millions of immigrants have done for 200 years: they started a business of their own. My parents ran a motel, and it really was a family operation. After school, I watched the cash register while my dad showed guests to their rooms. On weekends I helped rake the leaves while my mom cleaned the rooms.
Life was tough — harder on my parents than on me because they felt so guilty for having to put me to work at age 10. In Korea, my dad would have been guaranteed cushy jobs through my grandfather’s businesses, so my parents constantly contemplated moving back.
One particularly bad time 20 years ago, the family business was failing badly, so they sent my sister and me to Korea for two months to test the waters on whether we would all move back. But it became obvious that we were now more American than Korean, so my parents brought us back and they buckled down, toiling and struggling. By the time I reached college, we had all become naturalized citizens.
Becoming an American citizen was the result of incredible sacrifice and struggle, for which my parents are still paying the price, both financially and personally. But to them it was worth it to have their children become citizens of the country they love and that has given them a brighter future.
Saverin, a billionaire no longer connected to Facebook but who still owns a share that could add $4 billion to his net worth, has become a citizen of Singapore, which has no capital gains tax. While it’s hard to say how much tax he will save, it won’t be trivial. Conservatives were quick to gloat, with Mike Brownfield posting on the Heritage Foundation’s blog, “A billionaire like Saverin can afford to flee for greener pastures, but the rest of America isn’t so lucky.” America, Brownfield wrote, is “less economically free” than Singapore.
Ah yes, the green pastures of  freedom – in a country that ranks 135 on the 179-nation World Press Freedom Index; a country so oppressive it banned chewing gum. Michael Levin, co-founder of the Activist Investor, called Singapore “Cuba with money.”
It must be nice to be so rich you don’t care about such things. What Saverin is expected to make from Facebook’s IPO would be enough to cover all of the budget cuts to education and medical care for the poor Gov. Brown is proposing to address California’s state budget crisis – with enough left over to buy himself a new Ferrari for every day of the year through 2014.

South Korea was a dictatorship when my parents left, so they know something about freedom. They made huge sacrifices to become Americans and give their children the lives of American citizens. Millions of immigrants, some undocumented, gladly pay taxes as they seek their small piece of the American dream. Many risk their very lives for that dream.

I hope you like Singapore, Mr. Saverin. As for me, I’m proud to be an American citizen and grateful for my parents’ sacrifices that made my citizenship possible. Patriots don’t cut and run. We exercise our responsibility to form a more perfect union.

But I hear you can chew gum in Singapore now — as long as you get it from a pharmacy and put yourself on a government list. Enjoy.

Samuel S. Kang is general counsel at the Greenlining Institute.

Blockbuster Bank Settlements Leave Consumers Hanging

Al Jazeera
by Sasha Werblin

Last week Bank of America reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to the tune of $16.65 billion for its role in selling faulty mortgages in the financial crisis. Such big-dollar settlements with large banks — including, in the past year, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase — sound like harsh punishments but in actuality amount only to slaps on the wrist.

For one, those colossal dollar figures are rarely the actual prices the banks will pay. The real costs to these companies is muddled by tax deductions, unclear directives and accounting loopholes. The secretive negotiation process for settlements is also inconsistent with the civil and criminal process the average American faces.

To read the rest of the story on Al Jazeera’s website, click here.

California and the Proposed Comcast–Time Warner Cable Merger

The Post News Group
by Paul Goodman, Michael McCauley, Bruce Mirken, Tracy Rosenberg, Mindy Spatt, and Sarah Swanbeck.

Federal regulators are currently reviewing the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which would combine the two largest providers of both cable and Internet service into one giant corporation. At the same time, the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees telephone and broadband Internet service in the state, is evaluating the merger to determine whether it’s in the public interest.

If the merger is allowed to go through, Californians can expect higher prices, fewer choices, and even worse customer service. We’re writing to urge the Post to editorialize against the merger and to call on California PUC to use its authority to block this lousy deal in our state.If California acts to stop the merger, it would likely undermine the merger nationally.

Consumers are already frustrated with their lack of options. According to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, three quarters of Americans have no competitive choice for truly high speed broadband. Most have just one provider to choose from and it’s usually their local cable company. Cable companies provide the overwhelming percentage of high speed Internet connections in the country and Comcast is already the dominant player in the market.

If the merger is approved, Comcast would control most of California and over half of high-speed broadband customers in the country. One of the key areas where Comcast would extend its dominance is Southern California, including the Los Angeles market. In California it would cement the already existing duopoly of an incumbent telephone and a cable provider, leaving customers with even fewer options and hamstringing competition.

The merger would combine two companies that have consistently scored low in survey after survey on customer satisfaction. Both Comcast and Time Warner Cable were rated poorly by consumers in the latest Consumer Reports survey for value and earned low marks for customer support. Long waits with customer service, technicians who fail to show up as scheduled, and billing mistakes are some of the more common complaints. A larger Comcast with increased market power will have even less incentive to address these issues.

With meager competition come steep prices. Comcast has been among the worst offenders when it comes to price hikes, raising rates faster than other providers and significantly higher than the rate of inflation. Consumers can expect more of the same if the merger goes through. A Comcast executive has even acknowledged that the company can’t promise that customer bills “are going to go down or even that they’re going to increase less rapidly” as a result of the merger.

By controlling so much of the broadband market, Comcast would become, in effect, a national gatekeeper of the Internet with tremendous power to decide who could pass through the gate, and on what terms. Online video programmers would be dependent on Comcast’s “last mile” network for access to millions of consumers.

Comcast already used its gatekeeping power last year to raise prices on Netflix as a condition for ensuring faster and smoother access to broadband subscribers. The merger would give Comcast even more leverage to do this and make it difficult for smaller online video distributors to enter the market or compete. Consumers stand to lose since those higher costs will likely be passed on to them or they’ll have to put up with slower speeds from online content providers who can’t pay higher fees for faster speeds.

No one corporation should be allowed to dominate the marketplace and have that much control over our choices. Comcast could dictate what programs get carried not only in its markets but across the country. Since video programmers would have to distribute their programs through a bigger and more powerful Comcast, the merged company could hinder programming diversity by deciding what to carry, where, and when.

The companies claim the merger would not harm competition because they serve subscribers in different geographic areas. But that narrow view of how competition works does not make sense. By that logic, Comcast should be free to acquire every cable and Internet company throughout the country in every market it does not already serve. That’s why it’s so critical for California PUC to consider the national picture as it reviews the merger.

The proposed merger would cause disproportionate harm to low-income communities and communities of color, both of which already have lower broadband adoption rates. In addition, the proposed transaction would give Comcast the power to control which television channels are available to watch, potentially eliminating non-English content and diverse viewpoints from communities of color.

This concern is heightened by Comcast’s generally weak track record with communities of color and lack of minority contracting. While California telecommunications providers reported spending over $2.6 billion on supplier diversity in 2013, Comcast’s share of that amount was only $24 million, by far the lowest amount of any provider.

If this deal goes through, Californians can expect to be hit with more price hikes and worse service as Comcast gains even more control over what we see online and on TV. No package of concessions or conditions is capable of addressing the fundamental flaws in this ill-conceived mega-merger. The only effective response to the merger application, the only response that will serve the public interest, is for the California PUC to deny it.

For more information, please contact Michael McCauley (Consumers Union) at (415) 431-6747 and see the filings opposing the merger submitted to the California PUC by the Greenlining Institute and Consumers Union, TURN, and Media Alliance.

California Blazes a Trail for a Green New Deal

The Progressive
By Alvaro Sanchez

While politicians and activists debate the idea of a federal plan to fight climate change and boost our economy, the Golden State is quietly showing how it could actually work.

While politicians and activists debate the idea of a Green New Deal to fight climate change and boost our economy, California is quietly showing how it could actually work. The state has a successful model program that could be used by any community that wants to make itself cleaner, more livable and more prosperous.

It’s called Transformative Climate Communities, or TCC, and it focuses on ways that different agencies can work together with communities to make neighborhoods better.

As it is, most governments put each of its various functions in separate buckets. One agency approves transportation projects, another deals with housing, and so on. Often no one considers how their agencies affect each other or what residents need.

But TCC puts communities in charge of pulling these various pieces together, with a goal of reducing carbon emissions.

This might mean replacing old, smoky diesel buses with clean electric buses or light rail, building affordable housing near those transit stops, and connecting it all with improved pedestrian and bicycle pathways. It might mean planting trees that shade those new bikeways and sidewalks even as they take climate-damaging carbon out of the air. It could mean outfitting those new, affordable homes with solar power and designing them to be energy efficient.

And instead of applying to a dozen different bureaucracies for a dozen separate grants, TCC gives communities a “one-stop shop” where they can get the whole package funded.

The result: A community that’s cleaner, greener and easier to get around, with less air pollution and traffic and lower energy bills for residents. And hundreds of people are put to work making it all happen.

This isn’t a fantasy. It’s happening right now in five California communities.

Consider Fresno. This medium-sized city in the middle of the state’s Central Valley agricultural heartland has long suffered from poverty and air pollution. As required by TCC, Fresno’s plan was put together by the residents themselves – who are, after all, the real experts in their community’s needs.

The plan funds about two dozen projects with dollars collected from polluters through the state’s cap-and-trade program. These include affordable housing close to transit, bike paths, a community garden, home weatherization for low-income families, electric car, vanpool and bikeshare programs. Taken together, the projects will make life better for thousands of low-income residents, clean the air, and put people to work in a region with chronically high unemployment.

There are also full-fledged TCC plans in Ontario, Sacramento, and the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Watts and the northeast San Fernando Valley.

My organization, the Greenlining Institute, worked with state legislators to create the TCC program and has been able to offer technical assistance to several communities seeking to apply for funds. But we’re the first to admit that we’ve barely scratched the surface. This sort of comprehensive, community-led effort should happen nationwide and on a much larger scale.

What’s needed is a commitment to community-driven transformation and reliable funding.

The proposed Green New Deal offers the opportunity to do that. The idea that we can fight climate change, improve our neighborhoods and build prosperity for struggling communities isn’t some fantasy. California is showing how to do it right now.

California Climate Law Is Paying Off – Literally

San Francisco Chronicle
by Ryan Young and Alex Jackson

The millions of Californians receiving the first “climate credit” on their electricity bills in April have the state’s landmark climate and clean energy law to thank. Not only is the Global Warming Solutions Act, known as AB32, reducing the amount of carbon pollution dumped into the atmosphere and improving the air we breathe, it also is literally paying off for customers of Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric.

The California climate credit ranges from roughly $30 to $40 depending on the utility supplying your power. It will be distributed every year in April and October. It exemplifies California’s balanced approach to shift from fossil fuels to clean, low-carbon energy under AB32 by holding polluters accountable and ensuring households aren’t left with the cleanup bill.

One way AB32 is moving us off dirty energy is a cap-and-trade program that requires the state’s largest polluters – like power plants – to acquire permits to emit carbon into the air. Over time, those permits grow scarcer, requiring facilities to find ways to pollute less. In a landmark decision in 2012, the California Public Utilities Commission voted to rebate the majority of proceeds from pollution permits allocated to the state’s three investor-owned utilities, which together serve more than two-thirds of the state’s electricity demand, to their residential customers.

As environmental and consumer advocates, we pushed hard for this outcome. It ensures electricity rates reflect the cost of pollution to encourage cleaner alternatives, but protects households’ bottom lines. Now, two years later, with the cap-and-trade program up and running, California households are about to reap the dividends.

While the credits vary slightly by utility, every household within each utility’s service territory will receive the same amount – regardless of how much electricity the household uses. This ensures those who reduce their energy use are not penalized by receiving a smaller credit, and maximizes the benefit for low-income households – who spend more of their income on basic needs like energy and who of necessity conserve more energy than wealthier families.

The climate credit also offers an unprecedented opportunity for customers to slash their energy bills even further while reducing reliance on dirty energy. How? By investing the amount of the credit, or even part of it, in a low-cost energy efficiency option that will pay off in lower bills for years to come.

If you’re still using old-fashioned, power-guzzling lightbulbs, for example, you can use your climate-credit savings to buy a few energy-saving compact fluorescent or LED bulbs. You’ll easily cut your electric bills enough over time to cover the initial cost, essentially doubling your climate dividend. Not only will this reduce your energy bill, but these small steps also could make a significant difference in avoiding dirty power if millions of utility customers using their credits do the same.

When the “climate credit” appears on your utility bill in April, it should be a good reminder that we don’t have to choose between affordable, reliable energy and preserving the health and prosperity of our state for generations to come. AB32 is moving California into a brighter, cleaner, more efficient future. Let’s join the effort by using our climate credits to get us there even faster.

California Climate Policy Changing Latino Lives for the Better

Eastern Group Publications
by Orson Aguilar

Something amazing is starting in California, and it’s changing Latino lives for the better all over our state.

Jesus Magallanes, who usually calls himself Jesse, is one of them. Born in Los Angeles, Jesse has lived in Visalia since age 17, working in construction most of that time.

But the construction industry “took a big old hit with the economic downturn,” he explains. So he did odd jobs to get by – at packinghouses, driving a forklift, whatever he could get. The jobs were always part-time, at or near minimum wage, and he often had to juggle four or five small jobs at a time to barely make ends meet.

It was a struggle. “I was making $300 a week and I had to move back into my parents’ house in Visalia,” he recalls. He helped his parents out with rent, living with them for three years while working multiple jobs and looking for better opportunities.

Then, he heard that jobs in the solar energy industry were starting to open up in his area. Jesse went through solar installation training at Proteus Inc., a local technical school. While training with Proteus, he did over 100 hours of volunteer work with GRID Alternatives, a national nonprofit that provides job training in solar installation and no- to very low cost solar power systems for low income families. He did well enough that he became a GRID team leader.

When we met Jesse, he was leading a crew putting solar panels on the home of a low-income Latino family in the Central Valley town of Madera, Gerardo and Leticia Ramirez.

That’s where California’s policies to fight global warming come into the picture. GRID Alternatives manages California’s Single Family Affordable Solar Homes program (SASH), installing solar for low-income families who otherwise couldn’t afford it. SASH is part of California’s effort to promote clean energy and combat climate change.

Thanks to two smart laws, AB 32 and SB 535, SASH and similar programs are now getting a $75 million boost in the current fiscal year, and will continue to grow over time.

Under these laws, California charges big, industrial polluters for the filth they put into our air. That money then goes into a fund that finances projects to further clean our air, save energy and promote clean power sources like solar and wind. And by law at least one quarter of those funds must go to projects that help economically disadvantaged, highly polluted communities.

Sadly, that list of polluted and economically struggling neighborhoods includes plenty of heavily Latino communities and other communities of color around the state, from Madera and Fresno in the Central Valley to East Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, parts of San Diego and more.

The polluters don’t like it one bit, and they’ve been pressing the state legislature to weaken and kill these good laws.

We can’t let them succeed. To help get the word out to our communities about the benefits of California’s climate and clean energy laws, we’ve assembled the stories of people like Jesse, along with practical information for families and business owners, and put it all onto a special website, in both Spanish and English. We invite you to visit es.UpLiftCA.org (Spanish) or UpliftCA.org (English) to learn more.

Orson Aguilar is executive director of The Greenlining Institute, greenlining.org, which recently launched es.UpLiftCA.org.

California Climate Policy Improves Lives in Valley

Visalia Times-Delta
by Orson Aguilar and Tate Hill

Denny Sysaknoi had never met Leticia and Gerardo Ramirez until last November. Today, they not only know each other, they stand as real-world examples of how California’s climate change laws are changing lives for the better here in the Valley.

The Ramirez family lives in Madera, in a home they literally helped build themselves under the auspices of Self-Help Enterprises. With four kids and not much money for extras, the Ramirezes – like many working families – never imagined they could have solar power for their home.

But they have it now, thanks to a state program that helps low-income families afford clean, efficient rooftop solar systems. That program is about to grow, thanks to California’s global warming law, AB 32, and follow-up legislation called SB 535.

Under AB 32, polluters have to pay for the filth they put into our air – carbon that damages our climate and the soot and toxic chemicals that come with it. That money then goes to fund projects that further cut pollution – for example, by promoting energy efficiency and clean power – and SB 535 mandates that one quarter of those funds must go to projects in highly polluted, economically struggling communities. Sadly, parts of Visalia, Fresno, Madera and many other Valley communities meet that definition.

That’s where 21-year-old Denny Sysaknoi comes in. He helped lead the crew that installed the Ramirez family’s solar system, but his life nearly took a very different turn.

Denny “grew up with no parents,” he says, in a corner of Fresno “that was violent, and there were always shootings around.” His brother, a gang member, has been in prison in Oklahoma since age 15. Denny had his own brush with the law at 16, when he was arrested for possessing an unregistered gun. He got kicked out of school. He knows that his life could have gone downhill from there.

But it didn’t. He enrolled in a vocational training program through Fresno’s Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC). EOC sent him to nonprofit GRID Alternatives, where he did a six-month internship that eventually led him to a position as a crew leader with Lifestyle Solar, a Central Valley solar installer.

GRID Alternatives manages California’s Single Family Affordable Solar Homes program (SASH), installing solar for low-income families who would not otherwise have access. At the same time, the organization provides hands-on solar training for people like Denny, giving them the experience they need to land jobs in the growing clean energy economy.

Our pioneering climate change and clean energy law will pump $75 million into programs like SASH this coming year, making solar affordable for working families and creating jobs for people like Denny.

Thanks to California’s smart, sensible laws, the Ramirez family will save as much as $25,000 on power over their lifetimes. And Denny Sysaknoi, who could easily have slipped into a life of gangs and prison cells, now has a job, a family and a future.

We’re hearing a lot from the oil industry and its front groups that are fighting California’s clean energy laws tooth and nail. They want to frighten you, and they don’t want you to think about the real families and real neighborhoods these laws are already helping.

But Denny and the Ramirezes know better. To learn more about them and about California’s clean energy laws, visit www.UpLiftCA.org (English) or es.UpLiftCA.org (Spanish)