Archive for the ‘Transparency’ Category

The Panels Are Transparent But the Practices Are Not

Photo by Phil Champion. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Phil Champion. Some rights reserved.

The solar power industry gets a lot of love for being a sustainable, creative, efficient alternative energy source – and rightly so. Once the manufacturing of the panels is complete, the upkeep is relatively cheap and the things are built to endure the weather and last a long time (save for the occasional defective panel). But what about the manufacturing process? The idea that solar panels are being mass produced using only sustainable energy and materials is a paradisal paradox and, sadly, too good to be true (the solar industry is an industry, after all).

Yes, the crafting of these solar panels often involves toxic materials and unstable gases, and the process with which they are made is not getting any cleaner. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a group that oversees environmental conditions involved in manufacturing solar panels, publishes an annual “solar scorecard” which ranks solar manufacturing companies based on factors like emissions transparency, use of conflict minerals, C2C recycling, etc. This year’s scorecard was published last week, and based on their criteria, it looks link Trina, Yingli, and Sunpower came in on top, with scores of 77, 75, and 69 respectively (out of 100, presumably). Seven companies tied for last place (with a score of 5), including manufacturing giant Westinghouse.

Mother Jones points out, however, that transparency has  become a huge issue in this arena. Apparently only 35% of the industry responded to the SVTC survey, compared to last year’s 51%, and many of the companies gave very little to no useful information about their business practices. As SVTC executive director Sheila Davis points out, “If they are not providing the information, we have to assume the worst.” But with crude oil prices on a steep rise again, the solar industry seems primed for rapid expansion, and these are the kinds of kinks that should probably be worked out before the next big solar boom.

SEC Requires Disclosure of Energy Company Payments to Foreign Governments

The Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday approved rules requiring oil and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments. The rule, under Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law (see the full text here through our Dodd-Frank Tracker), requires SEC-listed oil, natural gas, and mining companies to reveal payments to governments related to projects in their countries, including the type and amount of each payment and their totals every year. Money for production licenses, taxes, royalties, among other payments, fall under the rules.

The SEC vote was 2-1 for the rule, but a two-year battle has been raging behind the scenes. Human-rights groups and the oil industry threw their efforts at influencing the final rule. Groups like Oxfam American and the Revenue Watch Institute joined with other anti-poverty and human rights groups to build public pressure on the SEC to approve the draft rules proposed in 2010. They argued that greater disclosure helps ensure that revenues from energy and mining provide public benefit. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, noting that the EU is considering similar provisions because of Section 1504, lent her weight toward strong rules.

Oil companies, through the influential American Petroleum Institute, demanded that the SEC scale back the rules from their draft phase. They said the rules would make them less competitive, especially when competing with state-owned firms like Russia’s Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Company. They sought provisions such as allowing aggregate payment information by country, and exemption if host countries prohibited such disclosure.

Both sides agree that the goal of the rules is worthy: The “resource curse,” leaving many energy-rich countries in Africa impoverished by corruption and conflict, must be addressed. In favor of the rule, Luis Aguilar, Democratic SEC member, called on the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s saying that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” But Republican member Daniel Gallagher argued that an SEC rule is a strange way to achieve social and foreign-policy goals.

The rules don’t leave much middle ground, and the SEC estimates that the rule will carry industry-wide compliance costs of up to $1 billion initially, with annual costs between $200 million and $400 million. The only bone thrown to energy companies is a small one: By leaving out any specific definition of the word “project” (emphasized in the section of the rule entitled ‘Definition of the word “project”’), companies have some discretion in applying the rule to their business.

Salazar to Oversee U.S. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative

Photo by Clinton Steeds. Some rights reserved.

The White House announced yesterday evening in a press release the appointment of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as the Obama administration’s “Senior Official Responsible for Oversight of Implementation of Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.” This announcement comes a month after President Obama announced that the U.S. would become a part of an eight-year-old pact between countries to ensure that federal profits from energy and mining industries go towards providing public benefits, as part of the United States Open Government National Action Plan that was released last month.

The U.S. itself collects nearly $10 billion a year from these industries, and this EITI ensures that these profits will be closely monitored and publicly disclosed. The international program aims to clean up corruption involving these industries in underdeveloped yet mineral-rich countries in Africa and the Middle East. The Press Release assures that the implementation of the EITI is just “the latest in a long series of steps designed to make the U.S. government more open and more accountable to the American people.”

Let’s Hope This Sunlight Can Kill Coliform, Arsenic, and Bad User Interfaces

Photo by mrhayata. Some rights reserved.

In the name of transparency, the EPA announced yesterday the release of several improvements to the availability and usability of drinking water data in the Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) tool.

The updated Safe Drinking Water Act search page can ostensibly used to pinpoint violations of drinking water standards in any given individual’s community. The interface, however, leaves much to be desired.

A geographic search on the tool will return a list of violators in your area. However, because of the nature of any given city’s water systems, it can be difficult to know whether a specific discharge or exceedance of the maximum contaminant levels is affecting or has affected your neighborhood’s drinking water.

To boot, the page is riddled with acronyms whose explanations are difficult to locate, and – once you have the codes all figured out – it is still often unclear whether a given episode of noncompliance has been resolved.

If you agree that the functionality and usability of the Drinking Water Data Search could be improved, don’t be shy about letting the EPA know. They are currently accepting comments on the tool that will be used to improve the service.

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