Archive for June, 2013

Oil and Water Don’t Mix

Ogallala Aquifer via Wikimedia Commons

Ogallala Aquifer via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama gave his long-awaited climate change speech this week. In it, he discussed possible approval of the Keystone Pipeline – the massive conduit to bring Canadian tar sands oil down to the gulf coast. In discussing the pipeline’s potential environmental effects, he focused – as most commentators do – on the impact of carbon emissions, both in extracting the tar sands oil and burning the stuff after it makes its way down the pipeline and into American (or Chinese) automobiles. “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest,” he said. “And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Obama said that he would only approve the pipeline if the State Department certifies that it will not lead to a net increase in global carbon emissions. That drops the fate of the Keystone project in the lap of the new Secretary of State John Kerry who has not shown himself to be an enthusiastic backer of the plan.

The Keystone pipeline has been drawing lots of heated opposition of late, and not just from the usual tree-huggers and totebaggers.  Rock-ribbed Republican sections of the country are beginning to sour on the idea of sluicing some of the filthiest fuel ever devised across the entire center of the country.

And carbon pollution is hardly Keystone’s only problem, despite Obama’s emphasis on emissions. It’s not just the stuff flowing through the pipes which can cause problems when it’s ultimately burned. The pipelines themselves pose significant environmental hazards on their own.

Existing pipelines haven’t been doing Keystone any favors lately in the publicity department. The fact that the nation is crisscrossed with fuel pipes literally burst into the country’s consciousness when a natural gas line exploded in Bellingham, Washington in 1999, killing three boys playing nearby. A decade later, a PG&E pipeline exploded in Burlingame, California, killing eight people and leveling 38 homes. In March, an ExxonMobil pipeline dumped some 5,000 barrels of diluted bitumen onto Mayflower, Arkansas, forcing an evacuation, contaminating local rivers and lakes, and sickening local residents.

Then, just this month, a whopping 9.5 million liters of toxic oil waste leaked in Alberta, the source of Keystone’s tar sands oil.  The Globe and Mail tells us that across a broad expanse of northern Alberta, the landscape is dead. “Every plant and tree died” in the area touched by the spill, said James Ahnassay, chief of the Dene Tha First Nation. The leak is just one of several major spills in the region, and local residents are alarmed at what all those toxins will do to wetlands and their water supplies.

And what of Keystone? Well, aside from providing a means of moving filthy fuel from one of the largest and most destructive energy projects in the world, the proposed pipeline just happens to run smack dab through the Ogallala Aquifer, the principal source of water in an area composed of  174,000 square miles of eight states. The Ogallala Aquifer is the single most important source of water in the High Plains region, providing nearly all the water necessary for residential and industrial use, and supporting a whopping one-fifth of  the wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle raised in the United States. It’s a big, big deal.

The Aquifer is already being severely stressed by drought and over-consumption.  In some areas, the water table has declined by 200 feet.  Aquifer residents, already alarmed about stresses to their vital water supply, aren’t taking kindly to the prospect of a foreign company laying down hundreds of miles of inevitably leaky pipe over that precious resource.  Quite aside from balking at TransCanada’s aggressive pursuit of eminent domain claims over farmland, High Plains residents are increasingly concerned about the possibility of oil leaking into their wells. One notable property of tar sands oil is that it sinks, rather than floats, making clean up difficult and expensive.

TansCanada is lobbying furiously to gain approval for it’s pipeline. But Secretary Kerry would be well advised to consider the likelihood of contaminating some of America’s key drinking and agricultural water as his agency weighs the environmental impact of the Keystone pipeline. Carbon emissions are only one of the problem Keystone poses. Its potential threat to one of our nation’s most vital water supplies should not be shrugged aside.

This Week in Online Environmental Impact Statements: Atchafalaya River Bar Channel

While Federal agencies are required to prepare Environmental Impact Statements in accordance with 40 CFR Part 1502, and to file the EISs with the EPA as specified in 40 CFR 1506.9, the EPA doesn’t yet provide a central repository for filing and viewing EISs electronically. Instead, each week they prepare a digest of the preceding week’s filed EISs, which is published every Friday in the Federal Register under the title, “Notice of Availability” (NOA). However, starting October 1, 2012 all EIS submissions must be made through e-NEPA. An EPA source says that as EISs begin to come in electronically, they will appear alongside EPA comments here.

In the meantime, we’ve done the dirty work for you. Below, we’ve located and linked to the EISs referenced in last week’s NOA. Please note that some of these documents can be very large, and may take a while to load.

You can read any available EPA comments on these EISs here.

* * *

EIS No. 20130178, Draft EIS, USACE, FL, Port Everglades Harbor Navigation Improvements, Comment Period Ends: 08/13/2013, Contact: Terri Jordan-Sellers 904–232–1817. Website.

EIS No. 20130179, Draft EIS (Not yet available online – check back here for updates.), BLM, WY, Buffalo Field Office Planning Area Resource Management Plan, Comment Period Ends: 09/28/2013, Contact: Thomas Bills 307–684–1133. Website.

EIS No. 20130180, Draft EIS (Not yet available online – check back here for updates.), BLM, WAPA, 00, TransWest Express Transmission Project, Comment Period Ends: 09/25/2013, Contact: Sharon Knowlton 307–775–6124. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Western Area Power Administration are joint lead agencies for the above project. Website.

EIS No. 20130181, Final EIS (Not yet available online – check back here for updates.), USAF, AK, Modernization and Enhancement of Ranges, Airspace and Training Areas in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex in Alaska, Review Period Ends: 07/29/2013, Contact: Tania Bryan 907–552–2341. Website.

EIS No. 20130182, Draft EIS, EPA, LA, Designation of the Atchafalaya River Bar Channel Ocean Dredged Material Disposal Site West, Pursuant to Section 102(c) of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, Comment Period Ends: 08/12/2013, Contact: Jessica Franks 214–665–8335. Website.

EIS No. 20130183, Final Supplement, NRC, NY, Generic—License Renewal of Nuclear Plants, Supplement 38, Regarding Indian Point Nuclear Generating Unit Nos. 2 and 3, Review Period Ends: 07/29/2013, Contact: Lois James 301–415–3306. Website.

EIS No. 20130184, Draft Supplement, FHWA, AK, Gravina Access Project, Comment Period Ends: 08/13/2013, Contact: Kris Riesenberg 907–465–7413. Website.

EIS No. 20130185, Draft Supplement, Caltrans, CA, San Diego Freeway (I–405) Improvement Project, Comment Period Ends: 08/12/2013, Contact: Smita Deshpande 949–724–2000. Website.

Obama Puts the “Change” in “Climate Change”

Screen grab from whitehouse.gov. Some rights reserved.

Screen grab from whitehouse.gov. Some rights reserved.

Under swollen, D.C. summer skies, President Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech on climate change yesterday, unveiling an aggressive plan to combat rising temperatures by cutting greenhouse gas emissions in key industries, shoring up U.S. coastlines, promoting “homegrown energy,” and working with allies the world over to create a definitive international climate strategy.

This speech marks, according to major news outlets, the first time that a President has set a legislative course of action to deal with climate change (this fact is at once alarming and completely unsurprising to me). The changes promised within have been long anticipated and were even promised as a key component of Obama’s second term by the man himself. The methodology behind the changes is scattered – his plan for lowering emissions involves overseeing an EPA effort to regulate GHG output from power plants, and also proposing new energy efficiency standards for all U.S. buildings and appliances. Predictably, the plan also includes large investments and loans for solar and wind energy projects as well as carbon capture projects and hi-tech green energy technology.

As is to be expected, however, there has already been a large backlash from conservatives, claiming Obama’s plan is “authoritarian,” and that it circumvents Congress entirely in a way that is “undemocratic.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee apparently sent out statements in advance of Obama’s speech claiming the plan would “destroy jobs, raise energy costs, and hurt working families.” But that’s been the go-to Republican line on the climate change agenda in the past, so their continued stubbornness comes as no surprise. And yet there does still seem to be a legitimate last leg for these deniers to stand on politically, so its hard to imagine (even with more and more right-wingers caving on the issue of global warming) this being a huge issue in next year’s Senate race.

Watch the speech here and read along here.

In A World With More Bikes Than People…

Photo by Tariqabjotu. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Tariqabjotu. Some rights reserved.

Since it’s Monday and we’re easing back into the week, this is more of a “food-for-thought” post than an “actual news” post. The New York Times ran a story late last week about a problem that, so far, seems unique to certain parts of Europe (but could become an international issue with a little luck!): In Amsterdam, bikes now outnumber people, and they’re running out of space for them.

Now, Amsterdam is reportedly the most bike-friendly city on the planet, so this report isn’t exactly surprising. The Times presents this as a unique problem, but a Guardian story from 2011 indicates that bikes have become a problem in Copenhagen too. With more and more cities worldwide expanding their bike lanes and encouraging more bikes on the road, we could be dealing with this “unique problem” more and more in the coming decades.

Now of course, this is purely a space issue. Bikes don’t pollute and they don’t run on any other fuel besides human energy, so this debate is far different than those regarding any other types of travel. Still, the scenes of entirely parking lots being completely filled with bikes indicated in the NYT makes me wonder: how do we better prepare for a world in which bikes are more common than people?

This Week in Online Environmental Impact Statements: Cattle Fever Tick Eradication

While Federal agencies are required to prepare Environmental Impact Statements in accordance with 40 CFR Part 1502, and to file the EISs with the EPA as specified in 40 CFR 1506.9, the EPA doesn’t yet provide a central repository for filing and viewing EISs electronically. Instead, each week they prepare a digest of the preceding week’s filed EISs, which is published every Friday in the Federal Register under the title, “Notice of Availability” (NOA). However, starting October 1, 2012 all EIS submissions must be made through e-NEPA. An EPA source says that as EISs begin to come in electronically, they will appear alongside EPA comments here.

In the meantime, we’ve done the dirty work for you. Below, we’ve located and linked to the EISs referenced in last week’s NOA. Please note that some of these documents can be very large, and may take a while to load.

You can read any available EPA comments on these EISs here.

* * *

EIS No. 20130171, Final EIS, BR, CA, Bunker Hill Groundwater Basin, Riverside Corona Feeder Project, Review Period Ends: 07/22/2013, Contact: Amy Witherall 951–695–5310. Website.

EIS No. 20130172, Final Supplement, USACE, MA, Boston Harbor Deep Draft Navigation Improvement Project, Review Period Ends: 07/22/2013, Contact: Mike Keegan 978–318–8087. Website.

EIS No. 20130173, Draft EIS (Not yet available online – check back here for updates.), USA, AK, Fort Wainwright Disposition of Hangars 2 and 3, Comment Period Ends: 08/05/2013, Contact: Lawrence Hirai 210–466–1594. Website.

EIS No. 20130174, Draft EIS, FERC, TX, Toledo Bend Hydroelectric Project No. 2305–036, Comment Period Ends: 08/05/2013, Contact: Alan Mitchnick 202–502–6074. Website.

EIS No. 20130175, Draft EIS, BIA, MT, Proposed Strategies to Benefit Native Species by Reducing the Abundance of Lake Trout in Flathead Lake, Comment Period Ends: 08/05/2013, Contact: Barry Hansen 406–883–2888. Website.

EIS No. 20130176, Draft EIS, APHIS, TX, Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program—Tick Control Barrier, Comment Period Ends: 08/05/2013, Contact: Michelle Gray 301–851–3186. Website.

EIS No. 20130177, Final EIS, USFS, MT, Wild Cramer Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project, Flathead National Forest, Review Period Ends: 08/05/2013, Contact: Michele Draggoo 406–387–3827. Website.

 

Amended Notices

EIS No. 20130146, Final EIS, USFS, CA, Whisky Ridge Ecological Restoration Project, Review Period Ends: 07/15/2013, Contact: Dean A. Gould 559–297–0706. Revision to FR Notice Published 5/31/2013; Change Review Period from 7/1/2013 to 7/15/2013. Website.

Angry Mob Will Wait to Hear Obama Out on New Climate Change Legislation

 

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker. Some rights reserved.

Way back in April of this year, we heard rumblings from a coalition made up of three leading environmental groups as well as New York and nine other green-friendly states, which intended to sue the EPA for the agency’s failure to meet an April 13th deadline to issue final regulations which would enforce stricter greenhouse gas emission limits for power plants (the biggest source of harmful GHGs in the country). The Proposed Rule was first released in March 2012, and would limit CO2 emissions from new power plants to 1,000 lbs per megawatt-hour. The April 13th deadline was set as the final version was supposed to be released within a year of receiving public comments a month after the draft rule was published. Obviously, that hasn’t happened yet.

In response to initial threats in April, the EPA said they were still hard at work on the rule and that, as EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson put it, “no timetable has been set. We continue to review the more than 2.7 million comments we have received.” Well, at least it’s good to know they take those public comments seriously!

However, after two months of bated breath, the group that rallied in April around suing the EPA announced this week that they would wait to take any official legal action until after Obama supposedly unveils new climate change regulations next month as a part of a “larger climate strategy.” Well that seems only fair! We’ve talked a bit already this week about the challenges Obama faces when trying to enact such legislation, but hey – at least the gears are still turning.

The EPA, Greenhouse Gases, the D.C. Circuit, and Political Warfare

Photo via D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

Photo via D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

The Obama administration, increasingly frustrated by Congressional hostility to any efforts to contain greenhouse gases, has turned to the EPA as a tool for reining in carbon emissions. The agency is developing regulatory standards under the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon pollution on a number of fronts. It is coordinating with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to promote new technologies with the goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles by 3,100 million metric tons by the year 2025.  It is implementing rules requiring minimum amount of renewables in transportation fuel, setting national limits on carbon emissions by power plants, and implementing rules which are expected to bring about a 95% reduction of  volatile organic compound emissions from fracking gas wells. Where Congress has refused to act, the Agency has embarked on an aggressive and far-reaching effort to fill the void.

But the agency’s efforts to curb America’s copious carbon discharge may encounter a fatal snag in an unexpected place: the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It is this court, arguably the second most important in the country, which reviews decisions and rule-making by many federal agencies,including the EPA, and has jurisdiction over regulations enacted under the Clean Air Act, the very act upon which the EPA is basing its regulations. The D.C. Circuit Court has a conservative reputation and environmentalists have been growing increasing concerned about the likelihood of it de-clawing the EPA’s efforts. As Steven Pearlstein has written in the Washington Post, the D.C. Circuit represents a “ new breed of activist judges …waging a determined and largely successful war on federal regulatory agencies.”

Without question, the court is well positioned to block the administration’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions via agency action. The administration, however, is determined to counter-balance the political composition of the court. The court currently has three empty spots on the bench.  The administration has put forth candidates to fill the vacant seats, a move which has some Republican politicians reaching for Orwellian political analogies. Senators Mitch McConnell and Charles E. Grassley accused Obama of “court-packing”, as though simply filling long-vacant seats on the court were the equivalent of President Roosevelt’s efforts to expand the size of the Supreme Court, a plan that would have resulted in a total of six new justices at the time. The senators know perfectly well that the D.C. court, like many others across the nation, is under staffed – it’s just in their interests to keep it that way. A dysfunctional, chronically short-staffed, and conservative court is exactly what is called for to keep the EPA’s hands off the climate control switch. The New York Times has called Republican intransigence on filling the court’s vacancies “something not far from a crisis in our constitutional system.”

Readers of this blog are well aware of the necessity of tackling global climate change. Faced with a stone wall of willful denialism and industry resistance, the administration had little choice but to turn to the EPA. The political battle over greenhouse gas emissions has now shifted inexorably to the courts: The Republican’s bone-deep hostility to regulation has assured it. Filling the D.C. court’s empty seats is likely to provoke more than a skirmish. It could turn into a major battle in the country’s – and the globe’s – efforts to keep from cooking itself to death.

%d bloggers like this: