Saturday, July 27, 2019

Last Call For Powering Down The Buckeye State

Ohio's fall to the GOP means the state is a solid Midwest Republican bastion, and the results are painfully obvious under new governor Mike DeWine: a state that serves the energy companies at the direct expenses in the billions for Ohio citizens. Vox's David Roberts:

Amid a flurry of ambitious state action on climate change policy, the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature has just passed an energy bill that represents an enormous step backward. It is the most counterproductive and corrupt piece of state energy legislation I can recall in all my time covering this stuff — the details must really be seen to be believed.

The bill, just signed by Republican Governor Mike DeWine, is called HB6. Though the story behind it is complex and sordid, the bill itself is pretty simple. It would do four things: 
Bail out two nuclear plants: From 2021 until 2027, Ohio ratepayers will pay a new monthly surcharge on their electricity bills, from 85 cents for residential customers up to $2,400 for big industrial customers. The surcharge will produce about $170 million a year. $150 million of that will be used by the utility FirstEnergy (one of the largest investor-owned utilities in the country) to subsidize its two big nuclear power plants — Davis-Besse, outside of Toledo, and Perry, northeast of Cleveland — which it claims are losing money and will be closed in the next couple of years without bailouts. The remaining $20 million will divided among six existing solar projects in rural areas of the state. (Note: as we’ll discuss below, nuclear power plants generate low-carbon energy and are worth saving. But not like this.) 
Bail out two coal plants: FirstEnergy customers across Ohio will pay an additional monthly surcharge ($1.50 for residential customers; up to $1,500 for big industrials) to help bail out two old, hyper-polluting coal plants owned by the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation (a collective owned by several large utilities), one in Ohio, one in Indiana.
Gut renewable energy standards: Ohio has one of the oldest renewable portfolio standards in the country, requiring its utilities to get 12.5 percent of their power from renewables by 2027. The bill reduces the target to 8.5 percent by 2026, exempts large industrial customers, and kills the standard after 2026, effectively nullifying any incentive for new renewable energy development in the state. 
Gut energy efficiency standards: Ohio utilities are required to reduce customers’ energy use 22 percent from 2008 levels by 2027 through energy efficiency programs (which were set to save Ohio ratepayers $4 billion over the next 10 years). HB6 allows utilities to abandon those programs entirely once they hit 17.5 percent, a level most have almost reached already.

To summarize: the bill would subsidize four uncompetitive power plants, remove all incentive to build more renewable energy projects, and cancel efforts to help customers use less energy. It is a bill only a utility (and the lawmakers who do its bidding) could love, an extravagant gift to FirstEnergy investors that hoses Ohio ratepayers. (FirstEnergy’s stock price has been rising all year, despite, or perhaps because of, its 2018 bankruptcy.)

Despite a tsunami of dark money supporting the bill, HB6 was overwhelmingly opposed by ratepayer groups, business groups, free-market conservative groups, environmental groups, and Ohioans generally. Its only support came from its only beneficiaries: the utilities that own the bailed-out plants, the employees of the bailed-out plants, the communities where the bailed-out plants are located, and possibly Donald Trump, who doesn’t want to see coal plants closing during his reelection campaign.

Not to mention the bill will cost state taxpayers billions of dollars per year in energy rate increases, something we've already seen in neighboring Kentucky and Indiana as their own coal bailout bills have stuck ratepayers with electric bills 50% higher than just three years ago, with multiple rate hikes under GOP governors.

Now it's Ohio's turn.

Enjoying one party rule yet?

A Supreme Disappointment, Con't

Republicans are now in the process of getting rid of what few campaign finance limits remain, and the next frontier is the Last Frontier, Alaska.  The case is Thompson v Hebdon, involving overturning Alaska's campaign finance donation limit for out-of-state individuals for state races.  It's been bopping around for the last two years in the court system.

The challenger to the law is David Thompson, who in 2015 donated $100 to support the re-election of his brother-in-law, former Republican Alaska state Rep. Wes Keller. Thompson lives in Wisconsin, and Keller had already reached the limit for out-of-state contributions, so the campaign had to return the money. Thompson’s lawyers are aping the arguments in Citizens United, contending that this limit on campaign contributions is an unconstitutional regulation of free speech. Thompson told the Alaska Dispatch News, “I thought it was pretty restrictive and it held up my ability to speak out.”

Attorneys for Alaska are citing as precedent Bluman v. FEC, a 2012 Supreme Court case ruling that foreign citizens do not have the right to contribute money to U.S. elections. The state’s attorneys wrote in their brief, “Just as a Canadian citizen is not part of the political community governed by the U.S. federal government, a Florida resident is not part of the political community governed by the Alaska state government.” Advocacy group Free Speech for People, which filed an amicus brief supporting Alaska in July, points out that the state has long been suspicious of out-of-state actors interfering in its politics. The Alaskan tundra is often the target of companies seeking to tap its natural resources and to influence local elections—presumably for extraction privileges.

Although the decision on Thompson v. Hebdon would only directly affect Alaska’s state-level elections, the legal rationale behind these limits, if upheld in court, could be of consequence for elections in other states, including congressional races. A state’s election laws must abide by the Constitution, so if a federal court decides that a state is not hindering the First Amendment by limiting outside donations, then any future laws imposing similar restrictions on congressional races would also likely be consistent with the Constitution. George Washington University professor David Fontana, whose work was the basis of Free Speech for People’s amicus brief, wrote in an email, “If our argument is accepted, the reason why it would have broader implications is because it would be a federal court interpreting federal constitutional law, and federal constitutional law is relevant everywhere and in every election.”

Republicans had this case on the back burner for a while, but now it's a top priority ahead of the 2020 campaign.  They want the Supreme Court to take up the case now, and that effort is being led by former Bush 43 Solicitor General Paul Clement, as UC-Irvine law professor Rich Hasen details at The Atlantic.

Supreme Court deference to democratically enacted campaign-finance laws changed dramatically as the Court’s personnel shifted, especially with the retirement in 2006 of O’Connor and her replacement with Justice Samuel Alito. In the years since O’Connor’s departure, the Court has not upheld a contribution or spending limitation under consideration, except one related to foreign spending in elections, which it upheld without argument or briefing. In Citizens United, Kennedy resurrected his McConnell argument about ingratiation and access not being corruption, this time for the majority. In a 2014 case, McCutcheon v. FEC, Chief Justice John Roberts all but laid out the road map to finish the work begun in Citizens United and start using much stricter scrutiny to review, and strike down, campaign-contribution laws. The two newest justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, have both expressed great skepticism about the constitutionality of any campaign-finance limits.

And so it is somewhat of a mystery why the Court has not taken more campaign-finance cases as vehicles to free up more big money in politics. The Court has turned down numerous challenges to the soft-money portion of McConnell, which still stands. It has repeatedly turned down an attempt to reverse a 2003 case, which held that corporations cannot contribute money directly to candidates. (Citizens United concerned only corporate spending independent of candidates.) And just this past term, the Court turned down a case from the Ninth Circuit upholding strict Montana contribution limits, and another from the Fifth Circuit, upholding low contribution limits in Austin, Texas. The latter case garnered a scathing dissenting opinion from Fifth Circuit Judge (and former Thomas clerk) James Ho, who said that if people don’t like too much money in politics, the solution was to shrink the size of government.

Perhaps the justices did not take these cases because they did not see them as ideal for overturning more precedent. Perhaps the Court is gun-shy about taking on more controversial issues that it could choose to avoid, when cases about guns, abortion, and LGBTQ rights wait in the wings.

Maybe Paul Clement can change that. He has just filed a petition, Thompson v. Hebdon, together with a conservative group, the Alliance Defending Freedom, asking the Court to review a Ninth Circuit decision upholding Alaska’s $500 contribution limits in candidate elections. The petition argues that the limits are too low under existing precedent, but Clement also drops a footnote suggesting that if existing precedent would allow such low limits, the Court should consider overturning such precedent. He hammers home the point, which Roberts reiterated in McCutcheon, that ingratiation and access are not a form of corruption.

Clement’s petition will be noticed at the Court, and not only because he argued the other side of these issues in the McConnell case, defending McCain-Feingold. A new study finds that repeat players have much greater success at the Supreme Court than novices, and Clement is one of the most talented lawyers I have ever seen argue a case. He argues without notes and has a casual, direct, conversational style with the justices. It is pretty remarkable.

If the Court takes this case and reverses the Ninth Circuit, it would not spell the end of all contribution limits immediately. But it could hasten a world in which individuals could give unlimited sums directly to candidates, buying all the ingratiation and access they want. The Court has been moving in this direction; the question is whether it wishes to act now, or delay the inevitable a bit longer.

Such a ruling in June 2020 would be just in time for the heart of the 2020 campaign season, and the wealthy could give unlimited campaign funds to the GOP.  Imagine being swamped with GOP campaign ads everywhere, tens of billions of dollars' worth, for the final five months of the campaign season.

It would be madness...and if you thought lobbying was bad before, imagine corporate giants giving billions to get the exact legislation they want from the candidates they buy in every House and Senate race.  We're essentially at that point now on a lot of things, but the last few limitations on that would be gone.

Everyone would be corrupt as Trump, and anyone who wasn't would be buried in races by people who were.  We're rapidly approaching the era where corporations are the only free speech game in town.

Deportation Nation, Con't

As I mentioned two weeks ago, the Trump regime is trying to use Guatemala as a dumping ground for asylum seekers (and eventually everyone to be deported) but the deal went south when the government of President Jimmy Morales balked at the idea of becoming America's new "safe harbor" asylum friend. 

On top of that, a federal judge Thursday blocked the Trump regime's asylum dumping scheme on the grounds that the Trumpies had no safe harbor nation as a backup.  As recently as 48 hours ago, it looked like Trump was losing this bigly.

But all of that has now gone straight down the crapper as Trump threatened Guatemala with massive economic, trade, and tourism sanctions Thursday night if Morales didn't immediately comply, and on Friday, Morales folded like a cheap card table.

The Trump administration signed an agreement with Guatemala Friday that will restrict asylum applications to the U.S. from Central America.

The so-called “safe third country” agreement would require migrants, including Salvadorans and Hondurans, who cross into Guatemala on their way to the U.S. to apply for protections in Guatemala instead of at the U.S. border. It could potentially ease the crush of migrants overwhelming the U.S. immigration system, although many questions remain about how the agreement will be executed.

President Donald Trump heralded the concession as a win as he struggles to live up to his campaign promises on immigration.

“This is a very big day,” he said. “We have long been working with Guatemala and now we can do it the right way.”

He claimed, “This landmark agreement will put the coyotes and smugglers out of business.”

The announcement comes after a court in California blocked Trump’s most restrictive asylum effort to date, one that would effectively end protections at the southern border.

The two countries had been negotiating such an agreement for months, and Trump threatened Wednesday to place tariffs or other consequences on Guatemala if it didn’t reach a deal.

“We’ll either do tariffs or we’ll do something. We’re looking at something very severe with respect to Guatemala,” Trump had said.

On Friday, Trump praised the Guatemalan government, saying now it has “a friend in the United States, instead of an enemy in the United States.

Nothing like mobster threats to get the job done, right?

And now, Trump has somewhere to immediately dump asylum seekers.  Morales wanted a friend in the United States, and he's about to get hundreds of thousands of them.

To make things worse, bet on Trump deporting non-asylum cases to Guatemala.  Potentially millions.

It's going to be bad, folks.  One of the last major logistic pieces for mass deportations has now fallen into place, and that means the ICE raids from earlier this month are going to look like a Boy Scout Jamboree by comparison.

Faster Than A Speeding Bullet

Three asteroid whizzed by the Earth this week, and one missed the planet by less than the distance from the Earth to the moon, in a demonstration of just how lucky we've been so far from a cosmic perspective, according to Alan Duffy, the science head at the Royal Institution of Australia.

This asteroid wasn’t one that scientists had been tracking, and it had seemingly appeared from “out of nowhere,” Michael Brown, a Melbourne-based observational astronomer, told The Washington Post. According to data from NASA, the craggy rock was large, an estimated 57 to 130 meters wide (187 to 427 feet), and moving fast along a path that brought it within about 73,000 kilometers (45,000 miles) of Earth. That’s less than one-fifth of the distance to the moon and what Duffy considers “uncomfortably close.”

“It snuck up on us pretty quickly,” said Brown, an associate professor in Australia with Monash University’s School of Physics and Astronomy. He later noted, “People are only sort of realizing what happened pretty much after it’s already flung past us.”

The asteroid’s presence was discovered only earlier this week by separate astronomy teams in Brazil and the United States. Information about its size and path was announced just hours before it shot past Earth, Brown said.

“It shook me out my morning complacency,” he said. “It’s probably the largest asteroid to pass this close to Earth in quite a number of years.”

So how did the event almost go unnoticed?

First, there’s the issue of size, Duffy said. Asteroid 2019 OK is a sizable chunk of rock, but it’s nowhere near as big as the ones capable of causing an event like the dinosaurs’ extinction. More than 90 percent of those asteroids, which are more than half a mile wide or larger, have already been identified by NASA and its partners.

“Nothing this size is easy to detect,” Duffy said of Asteroid 2019 OK. ″You’re really relying on reflected sunlight, and even at closest approach it was barely visible with a pair of binoculars.”

Brown said the asteroid’s “eccentric orbit” and speed were also likely factors in what made spotting it ahead of time challenging. Its “very elliptical orbit” takes it “from beyond Mars to within the orbit of Venus,” which means the amount of time it spends near Earth where it is detectable isn’t long, he said. As it approached Earth, the asteroid was traveling at about 24 kilometers per second, he said, or nearly 54,000 mph. By contrast, other recent asteroids that flew by Earth clocked in between 4 and 19 kilometers per second (8,900 to 42,500 mph).

“It’s faint for a long time,” Brown said of Asteroid 2019 OK. “With a week or two to go, it’s getting bright enough to detect, but someone needs to look in the right spot. Once it’s finally recognized, then things happen quickly, but this thing’s approaching quickly so we only sort of knew about it very soon before the flyby.”

The last-minute detection is yet another sign of how much remains unknown about space and a sobering reminder of the very real threat asteroids can pose, Duffy said.

“It should worry us all, quite frankly,” he said. “It’s not a Hollywood movie. It is a clear and present danger.”

Duffy said astronomers have a nickname for the kind of space rock that just came so close to Earth: “City-killer asteroids.” If the asteroid had struck Earth, most of it would have probably reached the ground, resulting in devastating damage, Brown said.

“It would have gone off like a very large nuclear weapon” with enough force to destroy a city, he said. “Many megatons, perhaps in the ballpark of 10 megatons of TNT, so something not to be messed with

One of these days, a city is going to get erased off the map by an asteroid.  It may not happen in my lifetime, but it's going to happen.  I just hope we have the technology to predict and deal with the situation when it does.
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