Archive for November, 2010

PHMSA’s Friendly Reminder: Always Be Prepared

On November 3rd, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued Advisory Bulletin 10-08, reminding gas and hazardous liquid pipeline operators to make available pipeline emergency response plans to local emergency response officials.

There are a few federal regulations that cover these requirements. According to the PHMSA Bulletin, under 49 CFR 192.605, 192.615, and 195.402, “operators must include in their emergency plans provisions for coordinating with appropriate fire, police, and other public officials both preplanned drills and actual responses to pipeline emergencies.” Operators are also obliged to maintain relationships with local emergency officials, and work with them to establish the respective roles and responsibilities in planning for and responding to emergencies.

Photo by RekonDog. Some rights reserved.

Under 49 CFR 192.616 and 195.440, operators must develop a public education program pursuant to the American Petroleum Institute’s Recommended Practice (RP) 1162. (RP 1162 is incorporated by reference into said CFR sections. The full text of the RP can be ordered here for $93.00, though you can browse a PHMSA Power Point on the subject for free.) The RP includes additional requirements for emergency response plans, such as providing information on  “how emergency officials can access the operator’s emergency response plan.”

All this to ensure that in the event of a pipeline-related emergency, things go as smoothly as possible, ideally benefiting from the required communication and practiced responses. But public safety shouldn’t be your only motivation in updating response plans:  PHMSA intends to “evaluate the extent to which operators have provided their emergency plans to local emergency officials when PHMSA performs future inspections for compliance with liaison and public awareness code requirements.” As Van Ness Feldman points out, this Bulletin suggests that “PHMSA plans to target enforcement efforts in this area. In light of recent pipeline accidents in California, Michigan, and Texas, PHMSA’s focus on emergency preparedness is likely to remain strong.”

Feed An Alga, Starve An Ecosystem: Nutrient Pollution in Florida’s Waters

Photo courtesy of NASA. Some rights reserved.

The EPA today announced the release of finalized “common sense” standards (pending publication in the Federal Register) that will set specific numeric limits on nutrient pollution allowed in Florida’s waters.

Currently, excess nitrogen and phosphorus – attributed to sources such as stormwater runoff, industrial waste water discharges, fertilizer from agriculture and livestock production – are impacting “more than 1,900 rivers and streams, 375,000 acres of lakes, and 500 square miles of estuaries” in Florida. Elevated nitrogen/phosphorus levels, and the toxic algae blooms associated with them, can significantly impact aquatic life and contaminate drinking water. They can also have an economic impact when water quality is degraded to the point that fishing, swimming, or other tourist activities become undesirable (or downright disgusting).

The final rule that sets the standards is actually the result of a 2008 lawsuit against the EPA by the Florida Wildlife Federation, who hoped to compel the EPA to set legal limits on nutrient pollution in Florida waters. Florida currently only has “narrative standards” for water quality, which are difficult to apply in practice. In 2009, a federal court found that nutrient pollution standards are necessary for Florida under the Clean Water Act, and approved a consent decree requiring the EPA to adopt numeric nutrient pollution standards by November 2010.  The final rule, which will take effect 15 months after publication in the Federal Register, complies with the consent decree.

And it turns out that toxic algae blooms aren’t just a problem for coastal regions such as Florida. A recently published study from UC Santa Cruz found that “toxin-producing algae once thought to be limited to coastal waters are also common in the open ocean, where the addition of iron from natural or artificial sources can stimulate rapid growth of the harmful algae.”

This is disappointing news for scientists that had hoped to boost phytoplankton growth in oceans for the purposes of fighting climate change. According to National Geographic, “some scientists argue that by adding iron to areas of the ocean that are iron deficient, populations of iron-starved phytoplankton would blossom.” It was hypothesized that flourishing phytoplankton populations would help combat global warming by removing lots and lots of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by means of their increased photosynthesis. Unfortunately, in this case, the cure may be worse than the disease.

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Read more about the EPA’s new standards for Florida waters here.

More on the GAO Deepwater Horizon Financial Risk Report

As we reported last week, GAO released a report Friday morning assessing both financial risks to the federal government as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as well as policies surrounding cost reimbursement by (ir)responsible parties. Their conclusion? Yes, there are financial risks to the government, but their extent is unknown, as total costs of the disaster are still unknown. GAO also recommended that some applicable reimbursement policies be updated or amended.

Photo by sjbresnahan. Some rights reserved.

In environmental emergencies, often the government will step in to cover immediate response costs. These funds come from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which was established by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) (enacted, appropriately, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill). Revenue for the fund comes from past fees on barrels of oil, interest on the fund, money collected from the responsible parties, plus any fines or penalties collected. At this time, the fund has $1 billion per incident cap.

The fund is administered by the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC), who has designated two BP subsidiaries as “Responsible Parties” and subsequently billed them for expenses initially covered by nine different federal agencies, as well as some state agencies. These agencies will be reimbursed with the money collected from BP. So far, NPFC has received $518.4 million of the $581 million billed to the responsible parties.

GAO’s primary concern is that costs associated with the spill could skyrocket past the $1 billion cap (GAO reports current estimates in the tens of billions of dollars). While BP has voluntarily established a $20 billion trust to pay claims against them, it remains to be seen whether BP’s ability to cover costs will be compromised by numerous lawsuits or otherwise poor financial conditions.

The uncertainty surrounding reimbursements is compounded by holes in the relevant reimbursement policies. GAO found that the NPFC’s policies and procedures for obtaining reimbursement “did not always reflect current practices and were not sufficiently detailed to ensure they could be followed consistently.” For instance, “NPFC’s procedures for identifying and notifying Responsible Parties are dated 1996, when the Coast Guard was part of Department of Transportation, and are marked ‘draft.’”

Because of all the financial risks riding on this uncertainty, the GAO reinforces that it is “imperative that the federal government take prompt action to ensure that its policies and procedures are up-to-date, clear, and sufficiently detailed.” GAO also recommends that Congress eliminate OPA’s $1 billion per incident expenditure cap.

GAO Releases Report on Financial Risks Related to Deepwater Horizon Spill

In conclusion: “Financial risks exist for the federal government as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

Read the full report – in much, much more detail – here.

Local Stormwater Management: Yes In My Backyard!

A cistern expert once told me that there are some areas of Seattle (home to Knowledge Mosaic Inc!) in which, if you implement certain stormwater management practices, your property is then considered part of Seattle Public Utilities. I haven’t found the documentation to back this up, but the point is this: each individual can contribute substantially to their municipalities’ stormwater management.

Photo by Robert Lawton. Some rights reserved.

What is stormwater? Think about how filthy our city streets are – whether oil leaked from vehicles on the roads or runoff from lawns treated with pesticides. In most places, each time it rains, the rain takes all that grime with it to city drains and into city water systems that eventually empty into surrounding waters. In addition to putting a smelly or dangerous damper on your fishing,  swimming or other recreational water activities, stormwater can degrade ecosystems that salmon and other aquatic organisms call home.

Stormwater is regulated at a national level by the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Stormwater Program. Most states are then authorized by the EPA to implement the program and issue permits for stormwater sources within the state, such as municipal storm sewer systems. To obtain the permit, municipalities’ stormwater management programs must include certain “minimum control measures” to reduce pollutants discharged into receiving waters. These measures include public outreach, illicit discharge detection, and construction site runoff control.

Seattle currently faces an extra hurdle in managing stormwater. Like more than 700 other cities in the US, Seattle uses a Combined Sewer System (CSS) that hooks up stormwater pipes with sewer pipes. Normally, this combined runoff would go through wastewater treatment plants before rejoining local waterways, but during heavy rains, the pipes reach maximum capacity and we get a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO), in which some untreated wastewater is discharged directly into nearby streams, rivers or lakes. CSSs are not currently covered by NPDES permits. The EPA has policies for controlling CSOs, but authorities are still working to incorporate CSO conditions into the permits “and other enforceable mechanisms.”

Some of the quickest and most economical ways to prevent CSOs are to modify landscapes to prevent stormwater from entering the sewer systems to begin with. Rain gardens and cisterns are two popular options, both of which are being used extensively in Seattle to curb CSOs. Rain gardens work by diverting stormwater from drains – the water is corralled and filtered of pollutants by specially selected rocks, plants and soils. Cisterns typically collect water runoff from residential roofs – again, diverting water from city drains while providing a source of water that can be saved to water your garden during the drier summer months.

Currently, residents in one Seattle neighborhood susceptible to CSOs are eligible for rebates from the city if they install a rain garden or cistern. This helps the city meet regulatory requirements for reducing CSOs and the applicant gets a cheap cistern or aesthetically pleasing landscape. This kind of incentive is nothing new – harvestingrainwater.com has collected links to state and federal financial incentives related to water harvesting from around the world.

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You can read about Seattle’s RainWise Residential Rebates program here.

More about broader and larger-scale approaches to  “wet weather management” can be found on the EPA’s Green Infrastructure web page.

Building Code Officials Adopt Changes to Achieve Energy Savings of 30%

Photo by billjacobus1. Some rights reserved.

US building code officials recently assembled in Charlotte, NC, to take final action on proposed modifications to the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). The IECC – developed by the International Code Council (ICC), a membership association dedicated to building safety and fire prevention – governs the construction of residential and commercial buildings in the US. According to Environmental Leader, local and state building codes are often based on these national model standards, which address all aspects of building construction.

Attendees of the meeting, which was arranged by the ICC, heroically moved to strengthen the existing rules on energy efficiency. The new version of the IECC (the 2012 IECC) hopes to achieve 30 percent in energy savings for both commercial and residential buildings compared to the 2006 version of the code. The Institute for Market Transformation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the energy efficiency of buildings and a large supporter of the code changes, issued this press release on the “historic” decision.

The enhancements to these codes (the “30% Solution 2012”) were developed by the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition (EECC), an alliance of like-minded energy efficiency advocates. Specifically, the improvements to the residential portion of the IECC will:

  • Ensure that new homes are better sealed to reduce heating and cooling losses,
  • Improve the efficiency of windows and skylights,
  • Increase insulation in ceilings, walls, and foundations,
  • Reduce wasted energy from leaky heating and cooling ducts,
  • Improve hot-water distribution systems to reduce wasted energy and water in piping, and
  • Boost lighting efficiency.

These changes alone could mean big savings in energy bills. A study by U.S. DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that an average home that’s 30% more energy-efficient will return $511 a year in energy savings to homeowners.

The next step is the incorporation of the 2012 IECC into states and local codes. According to Clean Technica, “under the terms of the Recovery Act (ARRA), every state that accepted State Energy Program funding had to commit to 90% energy code compliance by 2017.  Virtually every state did accept this assistance…[which] means almost every state will now require efficient buildings.”

You can read the changes as originally proposed here.

You can also order the complete IECC (300+ pages!) from the ICC here.

EPA Finalizes GHG Reporting Requirements for Petroleum and Natural Gas Industries

Photo by geocam20000. Some rights reserved.

If you’re anyone who cares about GHG emissions, by now you’ve heard that the EPA has issued final rules which require certain facilities to monitor and report all GHG emissions to the EPA. Any petroleum and natural gas facility that emits more than 25,000 metric tons of CO2 a year must comply with the rules starting in 2011, with the first annual reports due March 31, 2012.

This recently finalized rule (“Mandatory Reporting of Greenhouse Gases from Petroleum and Natural Gas Systems – Subpart W”) is one of 45 different subparts that make up 40 CFR Part 98, which broadly requires reporting of GHG emissions from large sources and suppliers in the United States. The other subparts cover sources from a range of industries, from “cement production” to “soda ash manufacturing.” But Subpart W is a big deal – according to the EPA press release announcing the final rule, “annual methane emissions from intentional venting and equipment leaks from [the petroleum and natural gas] industries are comparable to annual emissions from more than 40 million passenger cars.”

Despite the clamor of angry public comments collected on the rulemaking docket (“Carbon dioxide as a dangerous green house gas? only idiot’s would believe this. Talk about a power grab by the EPA”), you’ll note that not one molecule of CO2 must be curbed as a result of these rules. The proposal only sets forth a detailed data collection program. But for some folks, that’s the problem. An equally large number of commenters are upset that these rules aren’t doing more to curb emissions (“THIS PROPOSAL SHOULD REQUIRE FULL CONTROL OF GREENHOUSE GASES. EPA CONTINUES TO ALLOW POLLUTERS TO CONTINUE TO POLLUTER. THAT IS WRONG.”). The EPA kindly took the time – and it must have taken a long time, as the combined documents come to 1,784 pages – to respond to the public’s outrage here and here.

Of course, it is a first step towards more stringent regulations. According to the EPA, the reporting system “will provide a better understanding of where GHGs are coming from and will guide development of sound policies and programs to reduce emissions.” And it won’t be particularly cheap – for this rule alone, EPA estimates an average cost of about $16,000 per facility for the first year and $7,000 per facility in subsequent years in compliance costs. Luckily, the 25,000 metric ton emissions threshold will exclude most small businesses on whom compliance could be a more substantial burden.

More from the EPA on the recently finalized Subpart W can be found here.

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Tip for knowledgemosaic users: Find out what your favorite law firms have to say about GHG reporting. Visit our Law Firm Memos search page and enter the text string “Greenhouse Gas Reporting.” There are already 65 memos on the topic.

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