Pills, patents, profits

Here’s my latest article for The Big Issue on how patent laws help keep the profits rolling in for multinational pharmaceutical corporations. It delves into how some of the proposed changes to South Africa’s patent granting system could alter the pharmaceutical landscape in future.

Pills and profits_The Big Issue

California’s carbon market may succeed where others have failed

Cap trade

Image: first of a three-part infographic about how California’s cap and trade program works. Designed by Andy Cullen and copyright High Country News.

This year, California rolled out an economy-wide carbon cap and trade program, the first of its kind in the U.S. There is a lot riding on the success or failure of this program, not least because California is the ninth largest economy in the world and is going it alone with cap and trade in the U.S. The Golden State also has a legacy of introducing pioneering environmental legislation that other states and eventually the federal government adopt.

In my latest story for High Country News, I write about how the state has designed the program to avoid the mistakes of the European Union’s carbon trading scheme, which has suffered from overallocation of carbon credits and subsequent slumps in the carbon price.

The story also highlights the concerns of a major steel producer, California Steel Industries, which, like other businesses, is concerned about finding cost-effective ways to reduce its carbon emissions as the carbon “cap” tightens in future.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Golden State forged ahead with the carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program despite the U.S. Senate’s 2010 failure to pass a national program. Given the state’s history of implementing environmental regulations that later become national policy, a successful cap-and-trade system could serve as a federal model. If cap-and-trade in California “fails, or is perceived to have failed, then that could be the nail in the coffin for cap-and-trade consideration as a policy instrument in Washington,” says Robert Stavins, a Harvard professor who studies climate policy.

While its overall impact on U.S. emissions won’t be major, the California experiment makes several improvements to existing cap-and-trade strategies. It covers more sources of pollution than the five-year-old Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeastern U.S., which applies only to power plants. The European Union started the world’s largest carbon cap-and-trade program in 2005, but it had a significant flaw: the initial stage of the program gave away too many free credits, resulting in some power companies raking in windfall profits by raising electricity prices even though they didn’t have to pay for their allowances. It also contributed to low prices for carbon allowances, which provides scant incentive to cut emissions.

Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, the agency steering the state program, is confident that California’s effort will be different. The program covers 360 businesses, which represent about 600 facilities that each release more than 25,000 metric tons yearly — enough to put a big dent in California’s total carbon output. The EU’s difficulty, Nichols notes, was that authorities didn’t have an accurate measure of the total quantity of emissions initially. California, though, has had a greenhouse-gas reporting requirement in place since 2008.

Full article at High Country News.

Government Focuses on Natural Gas for US Energy Future

From left to right: Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Nancy Sutley, principal environmental advisor to President Obama, Phil Weiser, dean of CU-Boulder's Law School, and Patty Limerick, director of the Center of the American West, chaired a town hall meeting about the environmental aspects of President Obama's State of the Union address. Boulder, Co. Jan. 27, 2011. (Photo/Brendon Bosworth).

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama made it clear that further expansion of natural gas drilling is a key part of the government’s vision for America’s energy economy.

“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years,” said Obama. “And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.”

Speaking at a town hall meeting at CU-Boulder’s Wittemyer Courtroom Friday, Nancy Sutley, principal environmental advisor to President Obama, touted the government’s commitment to expanding natural gas development as playing a vital role in the transition to a new energy economy. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Phil Weiser, dean of CU-Boulder’s Law School, and Patty Limerick, director of the Center of the American West, joined Sutley in chairing the meeting.

“Some have said the United States could be the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” Sutley told the crowd. Cheap natural gas is generally very good for the economy and, as the president talked about, the U.S. is not going to cede leadership in this area to other countries, she said.

While greater reliance on natural gas as a fuel source has the ability to bring down energy costs and decrease greenhouse gas pollution, the federal government has to engage with states, communities and industry to ensure that natural gas exploration is done safely, she said.

Weiser also stressed the need for federal oversight. “Better than having lots of communities say ‘I don’t trust fracking I want to have a ban on any fracking’ — this technology that’s integral to natural gas — there’s an important discussion about what rules are necessary to protect public health,” he said.

In many cases, those in the natural gas industry are willing to cooperate because they have a long-term interest in a sustainable regulatory regime, he said.

As the president announced Tuesday, companies that drill for gas on public lands will soon be required to disclose the list of chemicals they use in the hydraulic fracturing process, which involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the earth to release gas and oil harbored deep underground. Texas and Colorado recently passed state laws that require such disclosure. The new laws will take effect in Texas in February and in Colorado in April.

During the question and answer session, Alice Madden, the Wirth Chair in Sustainable Development at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs, raised concerns about how a focus on natural gas expansion, and the affordability of natural gas, could detract from efforts to promote and sustain the development of renewable energy technologies.

A failure to renew the production tax credit available to wind energy companies (which expires at the end of the year), as well the tax credit for other renewables, could lead to a loss of jobs in the renewable energy industry, she said.

In his address, the president called for the creation of a clean energy standard and an extension of manufacturing and production tax credits for the renewables industry, Sutley replied. “We’re hopeful that congress will act on that,” she said.

House Hard on Environment in 2011

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is one House representative who challenged the Environmental Protection Agency last year. "I guarantee you the EPA will have doors locked and lights turned off, and they will only be about conservation," she told supporters at a rally in Iowa in Aug. 2011. (image via bachmann.house.gov).

(Post also appears at The Boulder Stand).

In 2011, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 191 times to obstruct protection of the environment, earning it the title of the “most anti-environment House in the history of Congress,” according to a report prepared for representatives Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

On average, the House cast just over one anti-environmental vote for every day it was in session last year, according to the report. The report also highlights that, all told, during voting 94 percent of Republicans took an anti-environmental position, as opposed to Democrats — 86 percent of whom voted pro-environment.

Votes against the environment focused chiefly on stalling efforts to address climate change, stripping the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to enforce certain Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act standards, allowing oil and gas development off the coasts of Florida and California instead of offshore drilling, preventing the Department of the Interior from identifying areas suitable for wilderness designations, and cutting funding for the Department of Energy, and its renewable energy endeavors, by 80 percent, according to the report.

The Environmental Protection Agency bore the brunt of most anti-environmental votes. Of the 191 votes against the environment, 114 targeted the EPA, 35 targeted the Department of the Interior, and 31 targeted the Department of Energy, according to the report.

“The House Republican assault on the environment has been reckless and relentless,” said Rep. Waxman in a press statement. “In bill after bill, for one industry after another, the House has been voting to roll back environmental laws and endanger public health.”

Read the full report, “The Anti-Environment Record of the U.S. House of Representatives 112th Congress, 1st Session” online.

Occupy Denver Marches in Rain

A man with a sign marches down Colfax Avenue. Photo: Brendon Bosworth

The weather in Denver was miserable on Saturday morning. But the steady rain and slate grey sky didn’t extinguish close to three hours of colorful, nonviolent protest. About 300 to 400 people joined Occupy Denver, a group showing solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Together, and marched through the city’s wet streets.

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