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Archive for the ‘Fresh Spinach & Current Events’ Category

It’s tough cleaning up after an oil spill – especially when it’s the largest one in U.S history.

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We don’t recommend trying to use your bare hands.

Between the looming fiscal cliff and salacious CIA scandal(s), it might have been easy to miss news last Thursday regarding settlements from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Although the disaster occurred more than two years ago, the story in the courts is far from over.  BP, Halliburton, and Transocean – all companies that had a partial responsibility for some aspect of ownership or operation of the Macondo well – have faced numerous criminal and civil charges. Both the government and private groups seek compensation for the environmental and economic damages resulting from the spill, which killed 11 rig workers, lasted over 100 days, and spilled million of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico – oil that some experts believe continues to slowly leak out to this day.

The latest settlement wasn’t an environmental one: BP agreed to plead guilty to 14 criminal counts, including 11 counts of felony manslaughter, misdemeanor violations of both the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and one felony count of obstructing Congress.  The $4.5 billion total includes $4 billion for criminal charges and a $525 settlement with the U.S. Securities & Exchanges Commission resulting from the fact that the company misled investors by minimizing reports regarding the size and extent of the spill in order to prevent their stock from losing value.  If you recall, the spill lasted for over 100 days while BP tried in vain to cap the leaking well and get the situation under control – all time during which they have now admit legally they were reporting intentionally low estimates regarding the amount of oil spilled in order to preserve their public image.    This is the second settlement that the company has reached so far in regards to the spill.  A $7.8 billion settlement was reached in March with private victims suffering health and economic damages (including small businesses in the Gulf that were impacted).

That’s not the end of the story, though.  Still to be decided are the major environmental charges brought against the company under the Clean Water Act for the massive ecological damage.  Under the Clean Water Act, there is a cap that to the amount the BP can be fined each day for the spill – unless the government can prove “gross negligence” on the part of the company.  Word on the street (that’s what we call news reports from the Department of Justice – they handle all litigation for EPA) is that they intend to do this, which could mean additional fines up to $21 billion for BP.  The company also faces private lawsuits from those with BP stock, who claim damages from the devalued stock and loss of public image as a result of the spill.

It’s tough to say whether or not these numbers actually reflect just compensation for the damages incurred by the BP disaster.  Total cleanup costs did run almost $41 billion, and the disaster also resulted in a government re-organization within the Department of the Interior regarding permitting and safety regulations for oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.  While it would be nice to say that Deepwater Horizon was a wakeup call regarding the downside risks of the worst-case-scenario disaster when it comes to deepwater drilling, the disaster didn’t bring about too many changes.  In fact, after a short term drop in production, economists and industry experts agree that the Gulf of Mexico is now in better shape production wise than it was before the disaster.  Yet the cleanup plan to fully restore the impacted areas of the Louisiana coast will take up to 50 years and cost upwards of $50 billion to complete.

Not to be depressing, but it’s something to think about next time you’re filling up your car, or listening to a pundit on TV talk about high gas prices or claim cost of alternative energy is too high.  Maybe the cost of oil is higher than the dollars and cents we pay at the pump – and maybe it’s already higher than we really want to admit.

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Spinach lovers.  It’s been a while since I’ve provided you with some munchies.  I’ve been lacking in a green diet myself lately, after having slipped into somewhat of a coma.  But I’ve emerged!  And boy, was there lots to catch up on.

It’s been a little like this.

I was quite tempted, for selfish purposes, to dedicate today’s post to catching you up on Congressional activity of interest–because there will be lots of interesting goodness this week.  We’ve got the transportation reauthorization conference kicking off on Tuesday.  Let me just say very quickly that while there is plenty to be concerned about there (coal ash regulation and NEPA “streamlining”), everyone’s favorite pipeline will also be back.  I’ve come to realize that Republicans believe that everyday is Halloween and therefore we should be constantly trying to resurrecting the dead. Good thing they brought me back instead.

ROAR! Or whatever zombies say.

The appropriations process is well under way, too.  For those who don’t remember, last year’s Interior-Environment bill was chocked full of nuts, particularly trying to strangle-hold the EPA.  House Interior-Enviro Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID) doesn’t think this year will be any prettier.

I wish I was referring to these nuts.

Then of course, we’ll begin preparing for what is now being dubbed Taxmageddon.  Expiration of the Bush tax cuts, payroll tax reduction, sustainable growth repayment formula for physicians, and, for our purposes, many energy tax provisions = Taxmageddon.  (See my previous post “Year of the Tax” for more info.)

So I was in the middle of muddling through these waters when I stumbled across this.  Have your vomit bag near or finish eating, take a walk, and then read this.

You all may remember sometime back hearing about the infamous Heartland Institute (see El C’s post) and their funding of projects to debunk climate change.  Well, if that wasn’t bad enough, Heartland has apparently said, “To hell with our tarnished image,” and decided to be up front about their views.  With that, I leave you with this image.

For those with strong stomachs who want to know more, see this from Think Progress.

Welcome back to the battle lines friends.

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Welcome to the weekend, friends.  It’s been a long week, but you’ve made it.  For those of you celebrating the Easter holiday, Happy Easter to you.  May the bunny bring you much joy, or the Post’s Peep Show competition (huge fan, here).

It’s on the note of the Easter holiday that I bring to you today’s post.  I will say from the outset that I am not Catholic, therefore I rarely follow the latest and greatest coming out of the Vatican or his Holiness, the Pope.   I do sometimes admire his hat and want my own version.

Perhaps Pam could try this on for a post?

This week, however, the Pope made some comments that not only drew my attention, but warranted a Spinach shout out.  While on holiday in northern Italy, Pope Benedict XVI took on some tough subjects, such as evolution vs. creationism.  He also decided to caution us that we must listen to “the voice of the Earth” or risk perishing.  Strong words.  And, he didn’t stop there.

He continued on to say that, “We must respect the interior laws of creation, of this Earth, to learn these laws and obey them if we want to survive…. This obedience to the voice of the Earth is more important for our future happiness… than the desires of the moment. Our Earth is talking to us and we must listen to it and decipher its message if we want to survive,” he said.

Very wise words.  And coming from the Pope, it’s clearly not an argument about liberalism vs. conservatism, environmentalism vs. skepticism, spinach loving vs. spinach hating, etc.  The Pope’s words are a simple, yet strong reminder that we must take care of what we have.  We must listen and observe our natural world, not burry our heads in the sand for fear of change.  This fight is a fight for our future.  Ignorance is not bliss.  Ignorance has its costs, and in the Pope’s view, the cost is survival.

So rock on, Mr. Pope.  You’ve got my support on this subject and for your Popemobile.

Next corporate car option?

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In case you had your head in the sand, there was a big announcement on Tuesday.   And I mean big, folks.  Tuesday brought forth our very first regulation curtailing greenhouse gas emissions.  Go ahead, have a “holy shit” moment.  Because you deserve it.  Because this is that big.

It's time to lift your head up and get some needed air.

EPA officially rolled out what is more commonly referred to as carbon rules.  Under the rule, new (that is key) power plants may only emit 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.

I see some of you skeptical minds in the audience who, instead of cheering victory, are throwing up your arms thinking, “Wait a minute buddy. How on earth did this happen?  Don’t we constantly lament the lack of action to address the climate?”

I'm onto you.

Don’t you worry.  It’s still 2012.  Congress still hates the environment and the larger public still looks at climate science with a less than necessary squinted eye.  This rule wasn’t birthed by way of a miracle; it was birthed by the famous 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA Supreme Court decision.

So here we are five years later with our very first federal action to address greenhouse gas emissions.  Hooray!  Right?

Celebrations to honor this rule are being thrown selectively and with hesitation.  This rule, while it’s been a long time coming, has limitations.  For starters and if you pick up only one thing, you should note that this rule does not cover currently existing plants.  As I mentioned, the rule only covers new plants, through what are called the New Source Performance Standards.  Old plants will not be covered under the rule—at least, not yet.

Which may create a problem.  Say for example a utility is considering retiring a plant that emits 2100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.  Under this rule, a utility may opt to continue with this plant because a newer plant that emits say 1600 pounds of carbon dioxide would not be permitted under this rule.

While some in the green loving community may also point to the new plant application, instead of an all-encompassing rule, as a sign for hesitation, Brad Plumer makes a great point in a post to Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog.  Plumer recalls a great 2005 paper written by Harvard economist Robert Stavins.  In his paper, Stavins wrote of “vintage-differentiated regulation.”  Huh?

“Vintage-differentiated regulation” is Stavin’s concept that environmental regulations have always taken on future problems while easing up on the existing problem pool.  He argues that this has been the case for the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and others.   Yet, he points out that this approach created problems for the Clean Air Act when Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME), the bill’s lead sponsor, was assured that regulating older plants wasn’t necessary because they would be retired at some point soon.  As we know, this didn’t quite turn out to be the case.  Now, we are aware of these limitations.  Hence, the hesitation to cheer victory, given that we’re not tackling older plants.

Most see this rule as a victory in that it will result in more natural gas plants instead of king coal.  Some say that the standard, 1000 lbs CO2/MWh, is roughly equal to the emissions of a natural gas plant.  Natural gas is also very cheap—right now.  Again, a double-edged sword: As natural gas prices swing back up, as they will, these plants will be less of a victory for the everyday, not so big into spinach, consumer.  Coal plants may also still (stubbornly) be able to exist, assuming they apply some very expensive and not entirely feasible technologies to their plants, like carbon capture and sequestration.

So what’s the final verdict?  Let out a cheer, and carry on.  The bigger rule will be the rule for existing plants.  That’s where the real impact can come.

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So, amid the flapping currently surrounding the Supreme Court about health care legislation, it might seem impossible that the high court could have been worrying about anything else this month….or even practically this year.  Or really, ever, since people seem to be getting pretty upset over health care.  However, there has been a lot going on in the judicial world, and some of it should catch the attention of enviro folks. I’m going to do my best to put on a legal hat and discuss this, although those of you who might be reading that have actual formal education in the law (hi, Carol!!! how’s law school?), feel free to weigh in!

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OK, so it's not exactly a hat. But if we were in Britain, I'd totally go to law school just for the sweet wig.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the people in this big building here:

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Ever wonder what their heating bill looks like?

…they handed down a decision that was reported in POLITICO last week regarding whether or not the process of judicial review can be applied to rule-makings by an agency – specifically, the EPA.

The case went something like this: an Idaho couple were told by EPA to reverse grading on their land after a determination by the agency that their property included wetland area protected by the Clean Water Act.  The work they performed was done without the necessary permit that should have been obtained.  As it stood, the couple had to means to challenge the EPA determination except to simply refuse to pay fines – which accrued daily with each additional refusal to pay and added up to millions.

The new determination by the court did not decide this particular case, but it did provide a potential out for this couple and anyone who might face a similar situation in the future.  The Supreme Court ruled that determinations made by the agency are subject to judicial review, the process by which a court can strike down a decision made by the executive (or legislative) branch of the federal government if a judge finds that the decision is arbitrary, unconstitutional, or outside the jurisdiction of the law.

For those of you unfamiliar with the law (probably most everyone reading this), wetlands are protected under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.  EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have wide berth when it comes to regulating the discharge of waste material as well as dredge-and-fill operations having to do with wetlands.  What is most debated, though, is the fact that the bodies of water (whether river, lake, stream, creek, wetland, whatever) protected by the Clean Water Act must be “waters of the United States.”  Based on this, conservatives tend to argue that EPA has no business regulating small bodies of water, water bodies that cut through private land, farmland, etc, and that the reach of “big government” and “regulations” into people’s lives should be limited.  Hence the objection raised by the Idaho couple: if it’s private land, what business does EPA have determining that it’s a wetland? And what can I do if I disagree?

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To wetland or not to wetland, that is the question.

What business indeed?

The problem with this – and virtually all jurisdictional limits that are placed on regulations – is that media-based pollutants tend to be somewhat of a nuisance when it comes to their willingness to respect municipal and regulatory boundaries.  It might be your stream, on your land, which is private property, and within your right to stand around pouring paint thinner into it all day long.  But what happens when your stream connects to a larger body of water, say, the Potomac River?  Are you just polluting your own water?  Or are you polluting water that is, through the interconnectedness of the watershed, water of the United States?  Is all water considered water of the United States?  Or is it just not your fault if you pollute, and it goes down river, becuase, well that’s somebody else’s problem – this is America, and we have rights and freedom?

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Or maybe you just never really liked wetlands much anyway.

I’m not trying to be one-sided here, but we’ve got a fundamental impasse.  On one hand, the law clearly isn’t written to extend to private property.  On the other hand, we can’t protect our main bodies of water if there are smaller problems on all the bodies of water feeding them, compounding the issue.  That’s bailing water out of the leaky boat without plugging the hole.

And stepping back a bit further: whose determination is it, anyway?  In this specific case – which allows for judicial review of EPA’s determination of what is a ‘wetland’ – who should be the one making the decision?  Which is the fundamental difficulty with most environmental regulation: there are always two ways of looking at the problem.  One is the science, and the other is the policy.

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A team of cutting-edge wetlands scientists from the U.K.

 

To take the first angle, clearly a judge – an expert in the law of the United States – is most equipped to determine whether or not EPA is keeping with the spirit of the legislation.  On the other hand, that judge has no training in what precisely a ‘wetland’ is, nor are they educated enough in critical topics such as ecology and hydrology to know how that particular tract of land fits into overall efforts to protect and ensure water quality.

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Don't worry - he's just a lab tech.

Agency scientists, whose entire careers are based on making these decisions, would obviously have the training, expertise and knowledge to make the most educated scientific decision. Is it then simply the job of lawyers arguing one side or the other to call the most qualified witnesses?  Is it the job of the agency to give the judge a crash-course in water quality and wetland science? And even if the science says that the land is worth protecting, is that a good policy?  Where does the science end and the policy begin?

 

 

 

Which leads us to a larger question – maybe even a moral question: Whose interests are we most concerned with protecting, anyway?  Do we err on the side of protecting the rights of the individual to alter, modify, dispose of, or destroy their property as they see fit? If I purchase a priceless artifact – say, a work of art that cannot be replicated or reproduced – is it then within my rights to burn it?  Or is there a moral obligation here to structure laws and regulations in a way that protects and ensures the good of the general public?  If my modifications will cause harm to others and detriment to the overall water quality of an area – arguably ‘harming’ others – is that still within my right?

These are big questions my friends, and ones which I suspect we will be pondering for years to come.

Or at least until this guy comes up with an answer.

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Of all the headlines floating around over the past week, one in particular caught my eye.  Rather, it wasn’t a headline; it was a picture of one adorable creature.

Check yourself if you don't think this is cute.

Maybe it’s just me.  Perhaps my soft spot is softer than yours, a byproduct of not having outgrown my childhood love for reptiles and still secretly aspiring to achieve my life-long dream of becoming a paleontologist.

A young Indy right here.

But that is neither here nor now.

What is here and is now is that two of our great passions—protecting animals and generating energy from renewable sources—may be on a course to collide.  The Washington Post brought this issue to light this past week in discussing how BrightSource Energy’s $2.2 billion solar farm project in the Mojave desert is being brought to a standstill by the threatened desert tortoise.

What are the facts in this case?  Accounts say that BrightSource was warned that they would be infringing on a part of the Mojave rich with these hardshells–the exact number of which was unknown.  Yet, because the site is ideal for solar energy generation, BrightSource decided to pursue.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife granted BrightSource a permit to move a maximum of 38 tortoises from the location and a total of three accidental deaths per year over the three years of planned construction.

Their first concession to the tortoise came at the expense of 10 percent of the project’s expected power output, by adopting a re-designed plan that reduced the size of the solar towers.  They then agreed to build a 50-mile fence, at a cost of $50,000 per mile, to prevent tortoises from relocating back into harms way once removed.  During all of this, biologists surveying the site continued to find more and more tortoises than estimates yielded.  In all, BrightSource has spent $56 million so far to protect and relocate the tortoises, but even this has been met with problems for the tortoise.  BrightSource, for their end, states that their efforts to help the tortoise could sink the project–and in turn sink California’s efforts to meet its proposed renewable energy goals.

This story highlights the need and often overlooked importance of the National Environment Policy Act’s environmental impact statement (EIS).  You’ve probably heard a lot about the EIS recently; it’s been at the heart of the Keystone XL struggle, with Nebraskans asking to complete a new environmentally impact statement that reviews a pipeline course that does not run through the Sandhills region.  The whole purpose of an EIS is to assess the impacts of a particular project.  Whether or not it is actually required of a project, the value of such considerations comes to light in situations such as this one with BrightSource and the desert tortoise.  It’s clear that a thorough and well conducted EIS can actually help companies (believe it or not) avoid situations that may end up costing them $56 million dollars more than they were anticipating for a project.

So now I’ll pose the question to you: What do we do in a situation like this?  Do we protect this cherished species at all costs or try at all costs to maintain our place as the top renewable energy using nation? (Check on Christian Science Monitor‘s article for more on that.)  Weigh in with your thoughts.

My thought on the situation: this beloved species has weathered 220 million years on this planet; it would certainly be a shame that it be lost to the war on fossil fuels.

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A quick but notable note from last week: According to the Department of Labor, green jobs accounted for 2.4 percent of total employment in 2010, or 3.1 million jobs.  Not too shabby.  This statistic, contained in a larger report, represents the first attempt of the Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics to quantify environmentally friendly jobs.

Most of these jobs, as it turns out, come from the private sector; only 860,000 come from the public side.  Furthermore, private-sector manufacturing accounted of the largest share of green jobs, a good sign for growth and investment in the green arena.  Of course, most of these jobs were located in the state that’s leading the way in green efforts: California.   Proudly, D.C. was near the top of the list when considering the proportion of green jobs relative to total employment, with green jobs constituting 3.9 percent of overall employment (Vermont led here with 4.4 percent of its total employment relating to green jobs).

You may be asking yourself at this point, “What exactly constitutes a green job?” Good question.  As it turns out that that definition isn’t straightforward as we might hope.  For this report, BLS developed a two-part definition for sorting out which jobs qualified as green.  Part one counted what they named “output based-jobs.”  This encompassed jobs that produced goods and services to either benefit the environment or conserve natural resources.  This means something such as producing solar panels.  Part two counted “process-based jobs” that make an enterprise more environmentally friendly or use fewer resources.  So bringing someone on board to compost your leftover food stuffs (call them Captain Compost) is an idea of what BLS means with this.  For purposes of this report, BLS used only the first definition; a part two report based on the second definition is due out later this year.

Who wouldn't want to be the captain of composting?

Businessweek made an interesting notation worth repeating here: By using these definitions, energy like nuclear is considered environmentally beneficial because it does not emit greenhouse gases.  But, producing a bike on the other hand is not deemed beneficial because the ways in which the bike is produced are generally not environmentally friendly, even if it is used by someone in lieu of using a car.

It’s also important to note, as the Washington Post did, that it is hard to use any of this data to reflect on the President’s green/clean job initiatives.  This is a very true point—these jobs may have very well been in the pipeline before President Obama came into office.  It’s also hard to go around surveying companies/governments, etc. and say, “By the way, did the Section 1603 Treasury grant program help you out?  Or was it your region’s SREC program?” It’s also hard to quantify what goes into making an organic tomato or even a solar panel (do you count the person who produced the parts that were then purchased to be used by the solar company to then make the panel?).  Being ever so optimistic, I am tempted to point out that this 3.1 million, with more to come this summer, could mean that the President’s goal of 5 million jobs may…actually…be…met.  How often does a politician actually make good on a goal?

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