Friday, February 12, 2016
Kings County opponents of high-speed rail get their court date
By Tim Sheehan
SACRAMENTO – Attorneys for and against California’s high-speed rail project made their final arguments Thursday to a Sacramento County Superior Court judge who will decide whether the proposed bullet-train system complies with the requirements set out in 2008 by Proposition 1A.
It’s taken more than four years for the lawsuit, filed in late 2011 by Kings County farmer John Tos, Hanford homeowner Aaron Fukuda and the Kings County Board of Supervisors against the California High-Speed Rail Authority, to reach Thursday’s trial. And both sides are going to be waiting a little longer, as Judge Michael Kenny takes time – possibly several weeks or more – to digest the arguments before rendering a decision. No matter how Kenny eventually rules, it’s a near certainty that whichever side loses will appeal the decision to the state’s court of appeal.
Stuart Flashman, an Oakland lawyer for the Kings County plaintiffs, and Deputy Attorney General Sharon O’Grady, representing the rail authority and the state, wrangled for more than two hours over key questions posed by Kenny. Those include:
▪ Whether a “blended” system on which high-speed trains would share tracks with Caltrain commuter trains along the San Francisco Peninsula blocks the authority from using any of the $9.9 billion in Proposition 1A bonds.
▪ Does a blended system mean that the high-speed trains cannot comply with requirements for trip times and train frequency?
▪ How much flexibility does the rail authority have in interpreting the law’s requirements that the system be “economically viable?”
Financial viability is a key point of disagreement between the state and its foes. Flashman contended that the issue involves much more than whether the train system can cover its operating and maintenance costs once it is built and running.
“They’re building a first section called the IOS South from Merced to Burbank, and they don’t have the money to build it,” Flashman said, pointing to the authority’s $31 billion estimate for that part of the system. “They’re nowhere close. How can you say it’s financially viable when you can’t even build it? … If you can’t build it, it obviously can’t operate at a profit.”
O’Grady said the authority “is entitled to rely on its experts” whose work has been scrutinized by federal and state reviewers. “The authority has worked very hard to get credible numbers, and we believe we have more than satisfied the standard.”
Kenny noted that the law appears to grant “extraordinary deference” to the rail authority in determining the financial viability of the route or its segments. Flashman agreed. “It does have deference; it says ‘In the authority’s determination it shall be financially viable,’ ” he said. “But it doesn’t say, ‘You’ve got free rein to do whatever the hell you feel like in terms of financial viability.’ It’s still got to meet that requirement.”
“What they’re doing is something they can’t finish, at least at the moment,” Flashman added. “They don’t have a way of finishing it, and that’s not financially viable.”
The rail agency is using $3 billion in federal stimulus and transportation funds, and money from the state’s greenhouse-gas-reduction program estimated at about $500 million or more per year, for its construction in the San Joaquin Valley. Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the rail authority, said the agency is not yet using Proposition 1A bond funds for construction in the Valley as it focuses on using its federal grants first. Bond expenditures could come later this year or in 2017, she said.
Flashman told Kenny that the blended system between San Jose and San Francisco represents a significant departure from what voters were told they were approving in the November 2008 election. Environmental assessments in 2005 and 2008 both indicated that the state was planning a line of fully dedicated tracks on the peninsula. The blended system didn’t surface until 2012, when the change was made into law by the state Legislature. Flashman argued that Proposition 1A isn’t just a bond measure limiting how the money is to be spent, but is an overall set of requirements for the entire system regardless of where the money comes from.
Because of that, he said, not only should the project be barred from using Proposition 1A bond money, it should not be permitted to be built at all. “If you’re not going to do it (with dedicated tracks), if you’re going to do something different, you should go back to the voters,” Flashman said. “The voters had an expectation that they were approving the project that was described in the 2005 and 2008 (environmental reports).”
O’Grady countered that the blended system is legal. “The Legislature has dictated a blended system on the peninsula,” she said. “The Legislature was empowered to amend this bond act … It’s not a substantial change in the project … This is a small piece of a very large system; it’s saving $30 billion to go with a blended system, which is in the interest of the taxpayers and the voters.”
She added that a state appeals court already determined “that the bond act only governs bond funds.
Flashman and O’Grady also clashed on the issue of trip times and train frequency, offering different interpretations of the law’s requirements.
Flashman said the reports on which the authority bases its claims of being able to make a 2-hour-40-minute trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles are flawed because they don’t account for trains having to slow in urban areas or on downhill grades coming over the Tehachapi Mountains between Bakersfield and Palmdale. He added that the shared tracks on the San Francisco Peninsula also sabotage the ability to get from San Francisco to San Jose in 30 minutes.
O’Grady said it’s impractical for opponents to speculate on trip times on the peninsula, over the Tehachapis and in other areas because the system has not been fully designed. But, she added, the authority has relied on ample expertise in making its decisions. “All (the opponents) are doing is disagreeing with the authority’s experts,” she told Kenny. “That’s not a basis for overturning the authority’s judgment.”
Flashman was unmoved. “The measure was very specific in saying on trip time, you’ve got to be able to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco or vice versa in 2 hours, 40 minutes,” he said after the hearing. “They can’t do it.”
While project opponents are seeking a court order to stop the project in its tracks, O’Grady urged the judge to continue to allow the authority to continue its efforts. “The bond act is intended to build a high-speed rail system, not to stop it,” O’Grady told the judge. “The authority is working as hard as it can and believes that it can and will comply with the requirements of the bond act. But fundamentally, this is a project that the bonds are supposed to get built, and not be halted.”
Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319, @TimSheehanNews, firstname.lastname@example.org
Los Angeles Times
Volcanic spires and Joshua trees: Obama protects 1.8 million acres in California’s desert
California desert gains three national monuments
By Louis Sahagun
President Obama designated three new national monuments in the California desert Thursday, expanding federal protection to 1.8 million acres of landscapes that have retained their natural beauty despite decades of heavy mining, cattle ranching and off-roading.
The designation was requested by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who for a decade has sought to protect land that wasn’t included in the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. That measure covered nearly 7.6 million acres, elevated Death Valley and Joshua Tree to national park status and created the Mojave National Preserve.
Unable to gain momentum on her California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act last year, Feinstein and conservation groups asked Obama to act unilaterally to create the three monuments overlapping biological zones between roughly Palm Springs and the Nevada border.
The areas embrace volcanic spires, dunes, ribbons of wetlands wedged between steep canyon walls, grasslands, Joshua tree forests, historic roadways and petroglyphs. They are home to species that thrive despite withering heat and scant rainfall: bighorn sheep, tortoises, fringe-toed lizards and more than 250 types of birds.
“The effort to preserve the California desert has been a long one, and today is a major milestone,” Feinstein said. “This kind of landscape is so much a part of what the West once was, and these monuments are icons of our cultural heritage. Simply put, the California desert is a national treasure. This designation only reaffirms that fact.”
Concern over the long-term health of the deceptively delicate terrain spurred Obama to designate the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which authorizes presidents to create national monuments on federal land to protect “objects of historic and scientific interest.”
With his second term winding down, Obama has now protected more than 265 million acres of land and water, more than any other administration. A year ago, Obama designated much of the Angeles National Forest as the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.
The designations, which do not include funding, were supported by groups including the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Assn., the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Mojave Desert Land Trust.
Much of the land was purchased more than a decade ago by private citizens and the Wildlands Conservancy, then donated to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in anticipation of its eventually receiving the protection of national monument status.
“This is the pinnacle of a 15-year effort to preserve the physical heart of the Mojave Desert for conservation, recreation and unparalleled inspiration,” said David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy.
The designations preserve unique natural and cultural resources and enhance the region’s economic activity by attracting visitors, increasing tourism and ensuring public access for hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, rock climbing and other outdoor recreational activities.
Mojave Trails National Monument encompasses 1.6 million acres of federal land and former railroad property along a 105-mile stretch of old Route 66 between Ludlow and Needles. It protects wildlife corridors linking Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.
Sand to Snow National Monument, about 45 miles east of Riverside, includes about 154,000 acres of federal land between Joshua Tree National Park and the San Bernardino National Forest in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
The area includes 24 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, an estimated 1,700 petroglyphs and Big Morongo Canyon, a bird-watching destination along a perennial stream designated a federal Area of Critical Environmental Concern in 1982.
Castle Mountains National Monument encompasses 20,920 acres featuring a row of jagged peaks rising above contorted Joshua trees and rare native desert grasslands between Interstates 15 and 40, about 100 miles south of Las Vegas. The area includes the historic mining camp of Hart, about 10 miles from the Nevada border.
It surrounds — but does not include — an open-pit mine at the southern end of the Castle Mountains owned by NewCastle Gold Ltd., of Canada, which has a permit allowing it to excavate nearly 10 million tons of ore through 2025. Mining at the site was suspended in 2001 because of low gold prices.
David Lamfrom, director of California desert and wildlife programs for the National Parks Conservation Assn., has spent nearly a decade arguing the cause of conservation in the Castle Mountains.
On a recent visit, Lamfrom’s pickup truck was the only vehicle in sight along a washboard dirt road lined with pinyon pine trees and barrel and cholla cactus on the northern flanks of the range he calls “one of California’s greatest scenic attractions.”
Lamfrom brought his truck to a stop on a ridge overlooking a prairie of native grasses stretching for miles in all directions. Giving the vista an approving nod, he said, “A few centuries ago, Mexican wolves chased pronghorn antelope across this very landscape.
“We’re already in discussions with federal wildlife authorities,” he added, “about taking the next step: reintroducing species of a bygone era, starting with pronghorn antelope.”
Syngenta deal could pave way for biotech acceptance from China users
SINGAPORE – ChemChina’s purchase of Syngenta (SYNN.VX) could remove some of the suspicion around genetically modified crops and ultimately lead to more rapid user acceptance of biotechnology in food production in China, Syngenta’s Chief Operating Officer Davor Pisk told Reuters.
The $43 billion all-cash deal unveiled last week is the largest foreign acquisition ever by a Chinese firm, and marks a massive upgrade to China’s crop production potential.
The deal would also give Swiss-based Syngenta unrivalled access to China’s massive, yet fragmented and underdeveloped, crop market. China is the world’s largest grain producer, and is a major grower of vegetables, oilseeds, cotton and sugar. (For other stories on the deal, please see)
The Basel-based COO of Asia-Pacific and North America, who is on a tour through Asia to address customer concerns about the pending takeover, said Syngenta had been limited in its activities in China as a foreign company but could now leverage ChemChina’s local knowledge to build its share of the multi-billion dollar agrochemical and seeds market.
Syngenta is already the market leader in the fungicides and insecticides industry within China, with a roughly 6 percent share.
“Our crop protection market share in China is significantly below our market share in other parts of the World,” Pisk said on Friday, adding that the company’s average share in Asia is around 12 percent, and nearly 20 percent globally.
CAUTIOUS UPTAKE OF GM
The Syngenta executive noted that while cultivation of GM food crops remains illegal in China, there are indications that the government wants to move toward adopting more use of GM technology, but to do so in a very cautious way, as it recognizes a lot of consumer uncertainty and anxiety about the question of GM foods.
“One of the benefits of ChemChina acquiring Syngenta is to hopefully remove some of the suspicion around modern technologies as they relate to agriculture amongst Chinese consumers,” Pisk said, adding that Chinese consumers had been reluctant to accept GM technology as long as it appeared controlled by foreign companies.
If the technology is owned by a Chinese entity, consumers will have more confidence in its safety, he added.
“This will ultimately lead to more rapid user acceptance and greater confidence that this can really contribute to a safer and more secure food supply chain in China,” he said.
Pisk also argued that the deal fits with China’s national ambitions to boost food security.
“This acquisition clearly is consistent with the stated strategic intent of the Chinese government which is looking to modernize its agriculture within China… I think that with ChemChina’s move here, this will add capability to China’s ability to invest in more sustainable agriculture practices within China.”
ChemChina’s purchase still has to be signed off by global regulators, but Pisk says both companies are confident it will be approved due to the limited overlap of commercial interests.
“The overlaps are quite limited as far as we can judge them, so we think from that perspective the regulatory approval risks are low,” he said.
Pisk also said that ChemChina is committed to supporting Syngenta’s long-term strategies.
“The biggest benefit for us of course is having a stable shareholder with a commitment to our existing strategy as a standalone entity, committed to support our innovation, committed to support our expansion in emerging markets,” Pisk said.
(Reporting by Rujun Shen and Gavin Maguire; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)
Trans-Pacific Partnership: A guide to the deal
By Jesse Marx
Barack Obama’s last visit to Coachella Valley came on the heels of a rebellion within his own party. The president had been seeking authority to finish up secret negotiations on a new free trade deal that would have eliminated future revisions — a take it or leave it scenario, in other words.
It failed, thanks in large part to skeptical Democrats.
But the rebellion didn’t last long. Immediately after returning to D.C., Obama received enough support from Democrats and Republicans to press ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The TPP is likely to be one of the topics of discussion at next week’s summit at Sunnylands, where leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are expected to join Obama to focus on mutual economic and security issues, including disputes in the South China Sea. For those who may be in the dark about the agreement or who haven’t followed the politics very closely, here’s a quick explainer.
What is the TPP?
Signed on Feb. 4, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is an agreement between 12 nations of the Pacific Rim — representing 40 percent of the world economy — that sets standards for trade and investment with one another. Besides the United States, the signatories include Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Chile, Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, Canada and Japan. The agreement is the product of almost eight years of negotiations and grew out of an earlier free trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement.
Who likes it?
Consumers who demand cheap stuff and don’t care where it comes from, as well as companies looking to sell goods overseas or even relocate there. The language of the deal was had been kept private from the public until November, but thanks to WikiLeaks documents, we know that Halliburton, Chevron, Monsanto, Walmart and hundreds of other corporate “trade advisors” have had access and say.
Investors also like free trade deals because they ease the flow of capital across borders. So do farmers, who’ve benefited from lower barriers to entry in other markets. Data analyzed by The Desert Sun suggest that an increased foreign demand played a fairly significant role in the export value of at least two popular crops grown in Coachella Valley: peppers and dates.
Labor. The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which originated with Ronald Reagan and was signed by President Bill Clinton, undercut the bargaining power of workers and devastated the country’s manufacturing base. The Economic Policy Institute — a liberal think-tank with financial ties to big unions — estimated in 2011 that the trade deficit between the U.S. and Mexico had cost California alone nearly 87,000 jobs.
Other estimates have been more generous. But keep in mind that economists tend to look hard at reports that fail to take into consideration export services, which have sharply risen in the last two decades.
Why so controversial?
You don’t have to be a member of a union or even the anti-globalization crowd to pause at the fine print. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for instance, is distressed by a chapter on intellectual property that includes far more restrictive copyright language than is currently required by international treaties.
The EFF also fears that journalists and whistleblowers will be at risk because of “dangerously vague texts on the misuse of trade secrets, which could be used to enact harsh criminal punishments against anyone who reveals or even accesses information through a ‘computer system’ that is allegedly confidential.”
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has argued that the deal will only exacerbate income inequality by allowing big corporations and banks to override environmental and consumer protections. He’s not alone in noting that the pharmaceutical industry will get stronger patent protections, thereby delaying cheaper, generic versions of life-saving drugs to low income people.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and others have raised concern over the “investor-state dispute settlement” provision, which is the fancy way of saying the ability of corporations and investors to sue governments over regulations that might undermine their profits. The tobacco industry has been excluded from this right in the TPP.
Democrats — who pride themselves on their labor, environmental and consumer protections — are more likely than Republicans to favor deals like the TPP, according to Pew Research Center data released in 2015. Young adults and Latinos overwhelmingly see free trade as a positive thing for the country.
Also consider that Obama described NAFTA as “devastating” and “a big mistake” when he was running for president in 2008. He even suggested that he would renegotiate the deal with Canada and Mexico to ensure stronger labor and environmental standards in those countries.
Now he’s touting the TPP as a major accomplishment of his second, and final, term in office.
Congress needs to draft legislation that will make the trade deal enforceable on American soil, possibly as soon as this spring. But if ratification is delayed, the next president could have a say in whether the deal survives.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders oppose it. Ted Cruz has called it “deeply concerning.” As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton called it the “gold standard” of trade deals, but now says she’s not a fan. Marco Rubio has voiced support, but refuses to say how he’ll vote if presented with legislation.
Jesse Marx is The Desert Sun political reporter. Reach him at email@example.com or @marxjesse on Twitter. His public PGP key can be found at keybase.io/jessemarx.
Drones a big draw at World Ag Expo
For most farmers, it’s all about the ground: What to plant in it, how much to irrigate it and how to tend it to generate the most bountiful yield.
But at this week’s 2016 World Ag Expo, many farmers were looking to the sky.
More precisely, they were looking at the booths with vendors selling drones to fly over ranches and farmland to perform a variety of tasks, from scanning crops with infrared cameras to spotting stray cattle at night to creating three-dimensional maps.
And the vendors noted that there were more of them here than there were just a few years ago, as drone technology has improve and their the uses have increased, leading to more interest in the small, unmanned helicopter-type and fixed wing aircraft.
Robert Ferrier, a Lindsay orange grower, were among the attendees on Thursday, the final day of the annual “Farm Show,” who stopped to look at the many drones on display.
He bought his first, relatively inexpensive drone about a year ago to fly for fun, and a year later he bought cameras to mount on it to provide aerial views of his grove.
“The main thing we do is get a birds-eye view of the grove without doing the legwork” of walking or driving through the property, Ferrier said, noting that he can view the aerial images on his smartphone.
But drones offer more than just a different perspective from which to see crops, as they can be mounted with cameras that can see non-visible light and sensors which can determine over-watered in dry areas of fields, places where pest damage is occurring and if plants are stressed days before signs of problems visible to the naked eye occur, said Ryan Johnston, chief executive office of Applied Aeronautics, a Santa Barbara maker of fixed-wing drones.
“What we developed is not just for one [industry],” he said, noting that insurance companies and banks have purchased his drones to get large-field views of and to assess property damage.
“It’s definitely grown huge among ag,” not only because of the drones have more uses than they did just a few years ago, but also because the controls generally are easier to use and increasingly computers can do most or all of the flying, following programmed flight plans, making many farmers more comfortable with the technology, Johnston said.
Also helping is the new aircraft is better designed, as are the batteries, both of which allow drones to carry more weight, fly father and fly longer.
Many at the Expo seemed downright amazed at the TopGan Drone booth, where a video showed one of the company’s helicopter drones with plastic tanks strapped to the bottom crop dusting a portion of a farm.
“We’re just surprised at how that looks. It’s awesome,” Kim Slatic of Fresno, who isn’t a farmer, said of the drone.
“’Drones’ is the wrong word,” said company owner David Gan of Oceanside, noting that his and other aircraft at the Expo actually are “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or “UAVs.”
Gan’s UAVs range in prices from under $300 to $12,000. And while he got a lot of interest from Expo attendees, most didn’t know yet what they would do with a drone.
Some didn’t have that problem.
Brian Nichols, a pistachio farmer from Clovis, said he’s in the market for a drone he could use on his farm but also to fly for fun with his son and to film family ski trips from the air.
“They have much better camera systems” he said of the latest drones, and the ability to automatically fly themselves back to where they took off, he said.
“With the new technology and the photo options coming out, you can really make some good decisions” based on the data the drones provide, Ferrier said.
And the number of farmers and ranchers using drones is growing, said Steve Caldwell, director of marketing for HoneyComb Corp, an Oregon-maker of fixed-wing drones that retail for just under $21,000.
Most small drones sold in the U.S. currently are used for recreation, while drones for agricultural uses come in a distant second, he said.
But drones are a fad in the recreational market that soon could be saturated, Caldwell said.
“My thinking is in the next two or three years, ag [purchases] will eclipse recreational,” he said.
“Right now, 5 to 10 percent of the farmers here want one — meaning they want one this year,” said Caldwell, whe estimated that number may grow to about 30 percent by next year’s World Ag Expo.
And as more farmers get Federal Aviation Administration clearances to fly drones, and innovations increase their uses, vendors here said sales of drones to farmers and ranchers likely will continue to grow.
Among the innovations expected are new aircraft-mounted cameras and software with capabilities that include differentiating between types of soil showing their compositions and avoidance technology that prevents drones from running into birds, wires and other aircraft.
For his part, Ferrier said Thursday that he was waiting for the next generation of drone technology to come out before replacing his old one.
Specifically, he wanted his next drone to include a collision-avoidance system to prevent him from flying his drown into power lines or wind machines or even getting it stuck in one of his trees.
“I’ve done that a few times. We had to wait for the pruner to come to get it down,” he added.
Tunnels aren’t the best fix for the Delta
By Mary N. Piepho
California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird is correct that California needs a Delta water fix that allows us to capture high flows in the rainiest of years (“To make the most of rain, state needs Delta tunnels,” Viewpoints, Feb. 5).
However, he is incorrect in stating that the governor’s twin-tunnel proposal is the only way to accomplish this.
Our state’s water supply challenge demands thoughtful consideration of all pieces of the puzzle, one of which is to maximize the storage of extra water in wet years. Only a portion comes from the Delta.
The Delta – the heart of California – deserves serious consideration of more than just the one option to tunnel through it. Numerous well-qualified and concerned professionals have recommended alternatives to the tunnels proposal.
For example, Craig Wilson, who served as the state’s first Delta watermaster, proposes a western Delta diversion system. Instead of tunnels diverting large amounts of water before it flows through the Delta, water would go naturally through the Delta and then get picked up near Sherman Island-Antioch and routed to the south Delta export pumps – half the distance called for by the tunnel proposal and at a much reduced cost. A western Delta diversion also could be screened to avoid damage to threatened native fish species.
This and other alternatives could protect Delta water quality by ensuring that diversions only occur when water quality is sufficiently high. On the other hand, massive tunnel construction and the resulting diminished water quality would damage the Delta’s agricultural, economic, cultural and recreational resources.
The Brown administration is seeking required permits from the State Water Resources Control Board even though the board has not yet determined how much water a healthy Delta ecosystem requires, as required by law.
It is disappointing that less costly and less damaging alternatives to the twin tunnels have not been equally and seriously considered.
Mary N. Piepho, a member of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, is chairwoman of the Delta Protection Commission. She can be contacted at Mary.Piepho@bos.cccounty.us.