Archive for the ‘Environmental Activism’ Category

State Department Gets Coy on Keystone

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

The State Department announced on Friday afternoon that it had gazed upon the Keystone XL pipeline and found it passing fair. A model of diplomatic even-handedness, the report concedes that, yes, the pipeline will increase carbon emissions but heck, those emissions are going to increase anyway. The tar sands oil in Alberta is going to make it to market one way or the other, it concludes, and whether the pipeline is approved or not won’t make much difference in the end. “Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States,” the Department said.

Unlike an earlier draft, the final report addressed other environmental concerns beside carbon emissions. But its tone and conclusions are mild, allowing both opponents and backers of the pipeline to brandish the report in support of their respective positions.

The State Department was at pains to note that its analysis is only one factor in the administration’s final determination to approve the pipeline, which will also weigh national security, foreign policy and economic issues. Which is as much as to say that approval is all but assured. The environmental concerns were the alpha and omega of opposition to TransCanada’s plan to sluice the heavy oil from Canada to refineries in the Gulf Coast.

Consider some of the issues involved. Tar sands oil is some of the filthiest fuel on the market. Extracting it consumes extravagant amounts of water and leaves a wasteland of slurry behind. Large swaths of Alberta are even now heavily polluted as a result of the oil that’s already been sucked up. The pipeline will run through the Ogallala Aquifer, threatening the water supply for the world’s bread basket. Consider, too, that TransCanada has a hard time keeping oil and gas in the pipelines it’s already running around the U.S. Add all that up and throw in ham-fisted and sweeping seizures of private property under eminent domain to build the thing, and you have a volatile and messy way of moving a filthy product to market.

The report is blandly reassuring about the possibility of spills, noting that TransCanada is planning to change the line’s route through Nebraska, and will rely on satellite technology and an increased number of shutoff valves to minimize the risk of spills and leaks.

Eight other federal agencies have yet to weigh in on the project now that the Department has released its report. Meanwhile, the 30-day public comment period will open on February 5. You can let them know if their report troubles or soothes you.

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.

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.

Fracking in California and Moviemaking in Pennsylvania

The Promised Land? Photo by Alan Bowring, some rights reserved.

In July, we wrote about the scramble to regulate fracking. Last month, California entered the fray, releasing a “discussion draft” of hydraulic fracturing regulations and seeking comments from interested parties ahead of the formal rulemaking process set to begin in February.

California’s Department of Conservation’s Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Division released the draft, detailing testing, monitoring, operating, and disclosure requirements (thanks to Arnold Porter for their advisory). The Division will operate a chemical disclosure directory to which operators will have to disclose information about the chemicals and concentrations used as well as data on the amount of fluid recovered. There is a trade secret exemption, but in the case of an operator withholding information, they must submit documentation of the type of information withheld, why it was withheld, and that the proprietary information could not be gathered through testing. However, operators would have to be able to provide the information immediately if necessary to investigate a release of fracking fluid or to a doctor to treat an individual exposed to fracking fluid.

Information from required pre-fracking testing would be available to the public before fracking at a particular well begins, and operators would be required to monitor certain variables in and around a well during fracking and for thirty days after.

A personal tidbit of my own says something on the topic as well.

I just saw Matt Damon and John Krasinski’s Promised Land, which seems to encourage viewers to focus on its exploration of selling mineral rights leases to gas companies rather than its characters and story, so I will do just that. Centered on a Pennsylvania town whose struggling farms are sitting on millions of dollars of natural gas, Matt Damon’s character as a representative of Global Crosspower Solutions claims to be offering the town its last chance to fund and prolong the myth of the small town of family-run farms. At a town meeting, an influential local science teacher raises questions about the risks surrounding the type of drilling Global plans to do – fracking – leaving some of the community hesitant to join farmers promised a big payout in their enthusiasm for the gas company’s drilling plans.

And though the appearance of a fake environmental advocate employed by Global to discredit environmental concerns portrays townspeople as uncritical pawns of interest groups, the point that such tactics may not be far from the truth is certainly taken. The questions Promised Land raises are as much emotional and cultural as scientific and political, but maybe with the information gathered through California’s regulations the debate in the future can be informed by a more measured understanding of its risks.

New England Fisheries to Reopen, and the Missing Identity of Most Seafood

Photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some rights reserved.

The New England Fishery Management Council opened 5,000 square miles of protected waters off the coast of New England Thursday to new applications from commercial fishermen. These areas were closed in the 1990s to preserve habitat on the seafloor and give cod, haddock, and other species a safe place to spawn.

Fishermen have cheered the move, saying the 2010 adoption of a quota-based protection system made the geographic conservation areas an unnecessary restriction. Worried that 2013 will bring drastic cuts to the quotas for cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder, industry groups will have to wait until January for the Council to review further fish stock data.

Environmentalists and scientists are concerned in particular because the protected areas provide a haven for older female fish that help increase stocks – but hope that the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which has to approve the vote and is expected to act by May, will be more cautious.

Fish are also noteworthy this week with the news – or reminder – that seafood fraud is widespread. That means seafood is often labeled as something it is not, usually a cheaper look-alike. A new report by Oceana, an international organization dedicated to ocean conservation, finds that 39% of seafood from 81 grocery stores in New York City was not what appeared on the label, and that 100% of the 16 sushi restaurants investigated sold mislabeled fish. Last year, a Boston Globe investigation found a problem of similar scope.

The problem goes beyond economic duping. Consumers and diners are buying fish whose incorrect labeling might mean it was caught illegally or contains unlisted and illegal chemical additives. Enforcement, however, has focused on health claims, and individual restaurants know that they are at little or no risk of being caught.

Personally, I was glad to read the tuna steak I bought last week had been injected with carbon monoxide to keep its bright red hue. Many of us in Seattle enjoy our inexpensive Japanese cuisine, but the New York wholesaler quoted in the Times is right: “People want cheap sushi, and this is what happens.”

Second Term Preview of Environmental Regulation

Photo by Carl Chapman, some rights reserved

In the next four years, the Obama administration will make its mark on energy and environmental laws, working through pending legislation and proposed regulation as well as considering further reforms in response to environmental and industry lobbying.

A Marten Law memo has the rundown on anticipated changes to energy and environmental laws. Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy, well chronicled at the Green Mien, is likely to continue. Federal renewable energy programs have seen opposition recently, and the outcome of the pending battle of the wind energy production tax credit will be an early test of the Obama Administration’s policy. Either way, renewable energy growth is likely to be lower in the coming years as production of natural gas continues to increase.

Fracking, too, has contributed to the domestic supply surge, while prompting calls for closer regulatory scrutiny. In response, the Obama Administration has proposed regulation of fracking on federal lands, and EPA is studying the potential impact of horizontal drilling on drinking water.

Energy infrastructure questions are on the agenda, too. Most importantly, the Administration will decide whether to authorize a re-routed Keystone XL pipeline bringing oil from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Proposals for coal and natural gas export terminals are making their way through state and federal agencies as well.

In the news this week is Obama’s stance on climate change, a topic he avoided during his election campaign. A second term will ensure that EPA will proceed with its plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under existing provisions of the Clean Air Act, a plan upheld last summer by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. In addition, EPA is expected to release standards for greenhouse gas emission from power plants and refineries. Several challenges to air quality rules are still pending, though, notably the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the Boiler MACT rule affecting industrial facilities.

At a press conference Wednesday, President Obama responded to a reporter’s question about his specific plans to address climate change. You should read his entire response here, but he made himself clear that ignoring jobs and growth simply to address climate change is not on his agenda: “I won’t go for that.” An agenda for job growth that includes making a dent in climate change, however, is “something the American people would support.”

In addition to air and energy policy previews, Marten Law’s memo has summaries of expected policy developments in natural resources and hazardous waste regulation.

Sandy and Climate Science

Hurricane Irene. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, some rights reserved.

Looking back on Hurricane Sandy, everyone wants to use it as evidence for their own conclusion. With the devastation in New York, one thing is clear in retrospect – it should not be a huge surprise. Studies from, to name a few, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the State of New York, predicted that some form of “worst case” or hundred-year storm could in fact flood New York’s financial district, flood 3000 miles of roads in Brooklyn and Queens, and inundate the subway system. In short, this describes what happened this week.

As we would expect with most scientific or policy papers, most people probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you about these predictions two weeks ago, something that has left climate advocates scientists befuddled. The responses cited in yesterday’s Green Mien post are among the more measured comments I have read regarding the relationship between Sandy and global warming, and you should read them for an informed commentary on the strength of this relationship. But climate scientists and the journalists covering them are prone to the kind of moralizing ‘I told you so’ judgments that keep their ideas off the center stage of popular press. Sandy, they think, should change this, and propel their issue to prominence.

And they have a point. The national political dialogue has steered clear of climate change, its absence from the presidential debates confirming its place as a “boutique issue.” Sandy should make clear that addressing long-term risks, including, yes, those presented by climate change and associated weather events, absolutely have a place in policy debate. ‘Global warming’ might struggle to become a buzzword in Washington because of its association with the fear mongering to which climate science sometimes resorts. But risk management is certainly an acceptable way to absorb the issue into an existing framework for action.

Mother Jones’s Chris Mooney claims “science phobia” is responsible for the failure of climate scientists’ agenda to seriously affect national political discourse. To the contrary, I think environmental advocates struggle not with an unreceptive public but with framing their issue as our issue – and Sandy presents an opportunity to do so.

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