A Simple Reality Check

I work in a downtown Phoenix office building, where the city’s air pollution is the worst, and every afternoon I get up from my desk to take a 15-minute walk. I usually hike the several stories of our parking garage in order to stay out of the sun. I often pass by the parked cars of my coworkers. Sometimes I like to write “WASH ME” with my finger in the grime on the back windows of their vehicles. It makes the end of my finger filthy black.

I had another air pollution reminder after we had a couple of days of rare rainy weather last week. The air was so clean that I found it remarkable how clearly I could see the surrounding mountains. It reminded me that it had been that way for thousands of years before mankind started generating energy by burning fossil fuels.

Modern urban dwellers have become so used to air pollution that we’ve practically forgotten how bad it is, and what it’s doing to us and our planet. That makes it easier for the corporate oligopolies, and the politicians they control, to distract us from the fact that one of our primary goals should be putting an end to air pollution as soon as possible.

The Truth About Proposition 104

Phoenix metro light rail
Phoenix metro light rail (Wikipedia)

On August 25, 2015, Phoenix voters will be asked to approve Proposition 104, a 0.7% sales tax increase to help fund a 35 year urban transportation plan that will spend $31.5 billion from various sources to improve the city’s mass transit, add alternative transportation options, and help rebuild roads.

Phoenix already has a voter-approved transportation sales tax in place as a result of the passage of municipal Proposition 2000 in March of 2000. But it expires in 2020 and city leaders explain that the the revenue it’s generated has been inadequate due to the Great Recession. They say that achieving world-class status as a 21st century city depends on a modern transportation system, and they point to the success of the metropolitan area’s new light rail system, which they claim has generated more than $7 billion in development in the urban core along the train’s route.

Opponents of Proposition 104 are employing the usual anti-tax arguments, but the focus of their criticism is the transportation plan’s proposal to to extend the light rail system. They argue that light rail constitutes an unfair subsidy to a form of transportation used by a minority of the city’s taxpayers. This implies that freeway drivers aren’t subsidized – which is nonsense.

Transportation Spending Should Fund Transportation – Not Real Estate Development

For example, Phoenix also receives transportation funding from a sales tax approved by Maricopa County voters when they passed county Proposition 400 in 2004. The revenue generated by this tax heavily subsidizes freeways, as the proposition requires that about 57% of the money collected must be spent on freeway construction. You probably assume that all of this money is being spent to alleviate the terrible traffic congestion that occurs on the inner city stretches of metro Phoenix’s freeways during rush hour. But that’s not the case.

In June, for instance, the Arizona Department of Transportation announced the opening of a new freeway interchange at 64th Street in far north Phoenix. The department spent $23 million building the interchange in 2008, even though there wasn’t a road to connect to it. Then they spent another $7.42 million starting in 2013 to connect it to a road.

Another example is the Loop 303 in the far West Valley. The total cost for Loop 303 is estimated to be about $1.8 billion, and its proponents  proudly proclaim its primary purpose is to promote real estate development in the largely undeveloped far West Valley.

The truth is that all forms of transportation are subsidized by the government because building public infrastructure is one of a government’s primary responsibilities. The difference between building freeways on the edge town and light rail in the center of town is that light rail directly benefits the city’s existing residents – the people who are paying the taxes.

Republican Energy Policies Lack Foresight

dead republican elephantOne of the first things House Republicans did after their party took control of the U.S. Senate in the 2014 elections was to pass legislation authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Congressional Republicans remain fixated on approving the pipeline despite the fact that the recent drop in oil prices threatens the economic viability of the Canadian tar sands oil industry that wants to use it. The House bill to authorize the pipeline failed in the Senate, which is still under Democratic control until the newly elected senators are sworn in. But Republicans vowed to get it approved after they take control in January.

Another way Republican politicians have shown their affection for fossil fuel energy is by voicing their opposition to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The plan’s goal is to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants by an estimated 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This would be accomplished primarily by getting power plants to shift from burning coal to natural gas, which is cheaper and burns much cleaner. U.S. power plants account for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s CO2 emissions and the Earth’s atmospheric CO2 levels have risen to their highest levels in the last 800,000 years, primarily from humans burning fossil fuels for energy. Because CO2 is a greenhouse gas, this has contributed to the recent phenomenon of global warming, and the resultant ongoing climate changes. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report for 2014 recently confirmed that the effects of human-caused climate change are widespread and serious, already affecting every aspect of human life.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a first draft of the Clean Power Plan in June of 2014. It proposed state-by-state carbon emissions rate reduction targets, and offered a flexible framework under which states may meet those targets. Republicans have denounced the plan as a “war on coal”, despite the fact that public opinion polls show most Americans support Obama’s initiative. Also, more than 200 U.S. companies signed a letter supporting the EPA’s proposals, and Native American tribes with reservations near coal-fired power plants have expressed their support too.

Arizona Republicans have been especially critical of the Clean Power Plan because it calls for their state to achieve at least a 52 percent reduction in power plant CO2 emissions by 2030. They say that’s unfair because it’s a higher percentage reduction than almost every other state in the country. They’ve also been sympathetic to claims by local power company officials that it would be “impossible” for them to switch to burning natural gas as quickly as the draft plan requires, even though several gas pipelines already crisscross the state.

It seems, unfortunately, that Arizona Republicans and some of the local power companies have no intention of working on plans to switch from coal to natural gas as soon as possible, and are determined to resist the EPA. They will argue that it’s a matter of cost, or a violation of states’ rights, but I suspect that many of them still don’t believe that human-caused climate change is a reality.

On the national level, if Congressional Republicans really want to improve the economy by authorizing pipelines, they should show some foresight and pass legislation to promote the construction of pipelines that can supply natural gas to power plants.

Updates

On March 28, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring a review of Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

On October 10 EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed a proposed rule to repeal the Clean Power Plan. The proposal must go through the federal government’s public rulemaking process.

On June 1, 2018, Republican President Donald Trump announced he had instructed U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry to “prepare immediate steps” to keep unprofitable coal-fired and nuclear energy plants from closing. A broad coalition of environmental and business groups responded that it was illegal and would force consumers to pay more for electricity.

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