Archive for the ‘Air Pollution’ Category

Block Here, Block There, Block Everywhere

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

Back in the beginning of June, the EPA released its long-anticipated guidelines for cutting carbon pollution from existing power plants. The guidelines, implemented after the administration grew exasperated with Congress’ inability to cobble together sensible regulations, are intended to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants – the single largest source of such pollution in the United States. Power plants account for one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the Agency. The Agency hopes to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels which it says is equal to the emissions from powering more than half the homes in the United States for one year.

Nobody expected the coal industry to celebrate the new rules. And nobody expected the climate change deniers in Congress to roll over, either. And sure enough, the obstruction machinery is being fired up.

Bloomberg tells us that Republicans in Congress are determined to cut the funding necessary to enforce the new guidelines and prevent them from taking effect. They are preparing for a “pitched battle” over the carbon rules which they describe as “job killers.” John Podesta, the president’s top adviser on climate change, said last month that Republicans have a ‘‘zero percent chance” of stopping the rule. We’ll see. When it comes to blocking the administration’s environmental regulations, as with every other initiative from the White House, the congressional Republican caucus has shown itself to be as tenacious as a junkyard dog.

Air Quality in Urban China Is Often Worse Than Smoking Areas in Airports

Photo by Zhanyanguange. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Zhanyanguange. Some rights reserved.

Here in Seattle, especially around this time of year when snow may be in the mix, a lot of folks will end up checking Cliff Mass’ Weather Blog for laser-accurate and regionally specific updates on the weather of Puget Sound (and beyond). The local weather guru has been at it for years and offers much deeper and more thoughtful insight into weather patterns and trends than your average local news station. In fact, I started checking Cliff Mass’ blog again this week as rumors and whispers of snow have been whipping up over the last week, and it lead me to this disconcerting post.

In short, Mass compares a study done by the CDC last year of nine large US airports to determine what effect a designated smoking area will have on air quality in and surrounding the area itself. It comes as no surprise that airports with smoking areas were found to have worse overall air quality, but what is extremely disconcerting is that Mass then compares the figures from this study with recent air quality data from China’s largest and most industrialized cities. Now, we’ve talked about air quality in China before so we know that the air quality in most Chinese cities is far from ideal. But Mass’ report indicates that many Chinese cities have particulate levels well above what you’d find in a smoking lounge or bar in a U.S. airport. For instance, the air quality rating (by particulates per cubic meter) in Beijing on the day of measurement was 327 micrograms per cubic meter, while Changdou, Suzhou, and Nanjing all reported numbers above 300 micrograms per cubic meter (311, 325, and 351 respectively). Meanwhile, while Shanghai only reported 168 micrograms per cubic meter that day (under the reported average for smoking-permitted areas in airports in that CDC report, which was 276.9), but as Mass points out, Shanghai has reported days in which its total has surpassed 600 micrograms per cubic meter, so it seems Shanghai just got lucky on the date of measurement.


That’s One Way to Clear the Air

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

I was perusing photography websites the other day and came across an article on DP Review describing Hong Kong’s latest efforts to give tourists a nice clean view of the city. Hong Kong has stunning vistas, but they are often obscured by smog. Hong Kong, being on the ocean, has somewhat less lethal air pollution than Beijing or Shanghai, but tourists’ dissatisfaction has prompted authorities in Hong Kong to make lemonade out of the lemons they’ve been handed. In a novel solution, the city has erected giant photo murals depicting the city as it might appear on its rare clear days. Instead of photographing your sweetheart in front of the Hong Kong skyline as it actually is, you can snap a picture in front of a billboard showing how it would look if the air wasn’t so filthy.

The word “smog” doesn’t really begin to describe the air pollution which has reached staggering levels in many cities in China. In Beijing, where the hazardous air is literally off the charts, they talk of an “airpocalypse“.

The Chinese government has come under tremendous pressure, especially from urban elites who have grown increasingly alarmed by what they are forced to suck into their lungs. In August, Chinese leaders went to the resort town of Beidaihe where they have traditionally gone to discuss national policy since the days of Chairman Mao. Der Spiegel reports that, with little fanfare, the national government has announced a dramatic shift in its development and environmental policies. The world’s second largest economy and biggest environmental polluter is poised to radically realign its economy to boost the environmental sector to the rank of a “key industry,” on par with steel production, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology.  According the government’s plans, the sector is expected to earn $728 billion dollars in just the next two years.  The plan is to use tax breaks, government subsidies, and investments (foreign investment is expressly encouraged) to boost the production of more efficient power plants, the use of liquefied natural gas, and dramatically boost renewable and nuclear energy. Above all, the plan relies on economic incentives. Says Zou Ji of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, “Environmental protection can make you rich!” The government is determined to shift from a reliance on manufacturing to a more environmentally sustainable urban service economy.

Der Spiegel, being a German publication, points out the enormous opportunities the new policy presents for German businesses which are flocking to China to take advantage of the country’s need for Germany’s advanced technology and manufacturing prowess. In fact, 80 percent of all the machinery used in China to manufacture solar panels comes from Germany.

China has shown that when it sets itself a national goal, it tends to pursue it relentlessly, for better or for worse. This new and fundamental shift in energy policy may not only present profit making opportunities for foreign business investors, but it promises to curb the ever growing emissions which are choking the life out of the Chinese people and their economy. It’s certainly a more sustainable and substantive solution than Hong Kong’s Potemkin billboards.

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.

China Is “All Out of Love” For Its Air Supply

Photo by Erik Charlton. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Erik Charlton. Some rights reserved.

Last summer, we reported on a Twitter account operated from the U.S. embassy in Beijing (@BeijingAir) which tweets hourly reports on the air quality levels in Beijing. We noted in our report that the Chinese government was hoping to get the account shut down and, while it is still up and running at the time of writing this, a cursory glance at any of its tweets makes it easy to see why. The pollutant levels are almost always deemed “Hazardous,” and at certain times, the quality is pushed into the category “Beyond Index,” which, to me, is utterly terrifying.

This week, the AP reported extensively on the worsening air quality in Beijing and northern China in general, where thick blankets of hazardous smog got so bad this week that airports were forced to cancel flights due to poor visibility, and 103 factories were also temporarily shut down by the Beijing government to prevent further pollution of the air. Hospitals saw a 30% increase in patients seeking treatment for respiratory issues over the past month. In some areas, visibility in the streets was less than 100 meters, causing landmarks and skyscrapers to disappear behind the curtain of fog.

The U.S. embassy Twitter account monitors PM2.5, a fine particle pollution of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, and posted an hourly high of 526 micrograms per cubic meter, which is more than 20 times higher than the maxim set by World Health Organization safety levels. Even the figure reported by the Beijing city government (which consistently reports levels lower than those reported by @BeijingAir) for the same hour block was 433 micrograms per cubic meter, still considered highly dangerous by the WHO. A poll created by Chinese real estate mogul Pan Shiyi calling for a Chinese Clean Air Act to deal with some of these issues and prevent the situation from worsening even further received over 32,000 affirmative votes in under 10 hours.

EPA Uncovers Hyundai/Kia Mileage ‘Discrepancy’

Photo by Alex Proimos, some rights reserved.

Today, we get to see how the EPA can impact 900,000 people almost immediately – that’s the number of car owners across the U.S. who could be affected the agency’s recent findings. Hyundai and Kia will lower their fuel economy estimates for 2012 and 2013 models after EPA testing found discrepancies between the agency’s testing and the companies’ data of up to six miles per gallon, the agency reported last Friday. New labeling on most vehicles will reflect only a one to two mpg reduction.

EPA’s audit testing, which also ensures vehicles on the road meet tailpipe emissions standards, occasionally discovers that the mileage listed on vehicles’ labels is incorrect, and requires the manufacturer to re-label – but this has happened only twice since 2000. Between 150 and 200 vehicles a year are tested, some randomly and others targeted, based partially on consumer complaints. EPA received a number of consumer complaints about Hyundai’s mileage estimates, and after it observed discrepancies between Hyundai and EPA testing data, expanded its investigation into data from other models, including those made by Kia, of which Hyundai is a part owner.

Already, three lawsuits targeting the Korean automakers have been filed. One, filed in the U.S. District Court for Central California, is seeking class-action status and $775 million in damages. Hyundai and Kia, though, have proposed a reimbursement program that reimburses owners for the difference between how much would have spent on fuel had the stickers been right (based on odometer readings and the old mileage estimates) and the amount they actually spent (based on the new estimates), plus a 15% ‘inconvenience’ premium.

EPA Has An Air of Defeat


“Photo by Richard Croft. Some rights reserved.”

The DC Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision Tuesday striking down the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule  (aka the “Good Neighbor” Rule).  In a 2-1 opinion, EME Homer City Generation v. EPA , the court concluded that the required emissions reductions for states were too far-reaching and that the EPA had exceeded its authority.  The court did leave open the possibility that a revised rule could be enacted in place of the current version.

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