Week of 12/20/09

Dear EarthTalk: I"ve been following reports about President Obama"s stimulus package and what it may mean for creating green jobs. Beyond that, are there programs in place to help businesses switch to greener raw materials and/or to green up operations overall?

—Diane, via e-mail

Even though the push to create green jobs is getting the lion"s share of business news headlines right now, almost $7 billion of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, the stimulus bill President Obama signed into law earlier this year, has been allocated to help businesses reduce their environmental footprints in any number of ways.

For starters, the stimulus package rewards businesses (as well as individuals) for investments in energy efficiency—that is, for doing more with less power. The federal government has extended its tax credit program for energy efficient business improvements—whereby 30 percent of qualified expenses up to $1,500 can be credited against your tax bill—through 2010. No one knows yet if the program will be extended beyond that, so 2010 could be a great time to finally go for that upgrade you’ve been putting off.

Qualifying upgrades include the installation of central air conditioners, heat pumps, furnaces, boilers, windows, doors and roofing that meet efficiency standards set by the government"s Energy-Star program. Likewise, the costs of upgrading to code-appropriate insulation and sealing as well as installing solar water heaters and biogas or biomass stoves also qualify for the tax credit. Business owners beware, though, that they can only claim a maximum of $1,500 combined for all efficiency-related upgrades.

Some billion in stimulus money has been allocated to help businesses, institutions, public utilities and government agencies reduce their environmental footprints in any number of ways, such as for upgrading fleets to electric or plug-in hybrid cars or trucks, which can score tax credits of between ,500 and ,500 per vehicle.© geonerd, courtesy Flickr

Stimulus money—some $2.3 billion over the next 10 years—is also available to businesses, institutions and government agencies that green up their vehicle fleets and/or take steps to encourage or subsidize employees to go green with their commutes. Companies that install alternative fuel (ethanol, biodiesel or hydrogen) pumps on site can qualify for tax credits for between 30 and 50 percent of installation costs through 2010. Likewise, businesses that buy electric or plug-in hybrid cars or trucks for their fleets can score credits of between $2,500 and $7,500 per vehicle depending on battery size and fuel efficiency.

Another way businesses can make use of tax credits is to install on-site wind or solar power systems. The federal government will pay up to 30 percent of the set-up cost. Congress has also allocated $1.6 billion for Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBs) to help finance construction of renewable energy facilities run by public utilities, electric cooperatives and city, state and tribal governments.

Businesses that qualify for any of the aforementioned tax credits should be sure to file IRS Form 5695 with their tax returns and keep all relevant receipts and copies of manufacturer certifications and Energy-Star labels where applicable. Tax advisors can provide more details on how to qualify for these federal incentives, and can also advise as to what additional incentives might be available from states. Be sure to check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE), which provides a continuously updated list of both state and federal ways for both businesses and homeowners to save cash by going green.

CONTACTS: American Recovery & Reinvestment Act; DSIRE.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the story with West Coast salmon runs? I"ve heard conflicting reports in regard to whether the fish are abundant or going extinct.

—Rebecca Shur, Kirkland, WA

A spawning Coho Salmon in Washington State. Cohos returned to spawn in Oregon and Washington in abundant numbers this year, but others, like California"s Sacramento River Chinooks and British Columbia"s Fraser River Sockeyes returned in near-record low numbers. Experts say reasons for the decline include diversions of river water for farming, pollution, the intermingling of wild salmon with weaker, disease-ridden hatchery fish, and global warming -­ which creates some problems and exacerbates others.Dan Bennett, courtesy Flickr

West coast salmon runs have been in decline for decades, stemming largely from the damming of rivers and the pollution throughout the fish"s extensive range from freshwater mountain streams to deep offshore ocean currents. Analysts estimate that only 0.1 percent of the tens of millions of salmon that used to darken rivers every summer and fall up and down the West Coast before white settlement still exist.

Particularly worrisome is the accelerated downward trend in the last few years, signaling that some populations just may not be able to cope with fast-changing climatic conditions heaped on top of other existing pressures. But others suggest that the health of some of the region"s salmon populations—such as bountiful pink salmon off of Oregon and Washington and still thriving Alaskan runs—shows that with proper management we may be able to retain lively populations of both wild salmon and fishers.

Perhaps the hardest hit and most talked about salmon fishery in the world—California"s Sacramento River Chinook run—has been off-limits to fishers for two years now because of the low volume of wild fish returning to spawn. In 2008, only 66,000 Chinook salmon, a fraction of the former run, returned to spawn. While last year was slightly better, biologists warn that numbers are still too small to warrant reopening the fishery anytime soon. As to reasons for the decline, most analysts point to a range of factors including diversions of river water for farming, pollution, the intermingling of wild salmon with weaker, disease-ridden hatchery fish, and global warming—which creates some problems and exacerbates others.

Elsewhere the news is also bad. Sockeye salmon numbers in British Columbia"s Fraser River were at a 50 year low this past season, forcing closure for the third year in a row of what had been an abundant and reliable fishery. Canada"s Department of Fisheries and Oceans had predicted that some 10.5 million sockeye would return to spawn in the Fraser this past summer, but only 1.37 million made it back.

Glimmers of hope do exist. Salmon fisheries in Washington and many parts of Oregon had a big year in 2009. "Returns to the Columbia River, the region"s biggest salmon producer, were on the increase,” reports Dennis Hull, an Oregon-based fishing guide and a contributor to Oregon Fishing News. "Coho returns in Oregon and points north were also on the upswing, allowing some commercial and recreational fishing off the coasts of Oregon and Washington." The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that 2009"s Columbia River Coho salmon run, numbering some 700,000 fish, was the biggest since 2001.

Groups such as Save Our Wild Salmon and the Klamath Forest Alliance are pushing policymakers to remove several large dams in the Columbia basin and elsewhere to spur wild salmon recovery. Other groups, such as Salmon-Safe and Stewardship Partners, are working with farms and other intensive users of the land to try to reduce pollution into salmon-rich watersheds. With 13 different salmon populations in the region already teetering on the brink, and the climate only getting hotter, time is surely of the essence.

CONTACTS: Canada"s Department of Fisheries and Oceans; Save Our Wild Salmon; Klamath Forest Alliance; Salmon-Safe; Stewardship Partners.

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