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Posts Tagged ‘news and current events’

Hi all!

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I think everyone was busy last week worrying the NSA is judging them for not calling their grandmother more often.  I know I was.  Which is why it took me a bit to get this post up, and also why so many fascinating things happened in the energy and climate world that I had to talk about them all in one post.

First of all, our least favorite pipeline that doesn’t even exist yet is back in the news.  The Sierra Club has quietly taken the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline over to the judicial branch.  The litigious environmental nonprofit (for those of you who don’t know, Sierra Club has acted as plaintiff for some of the nation’s most pivotal and groundbreaking environmental lawsuits – it’s one of their specialties as an organization) filed suit against the State Department last week regarding the sketchy-as-all-hell (from what I’ve read) environmental impact statement that the agency issued about the pipeline.  The impact statement – which suggests the pipeline will have no negative impacts – was prepared by a third-party contractor that has an active membership in the American Petroleum Institute, which Sierra Club and other environmental groups widely regard as evidence of a conflict of interest.  Perhaps more critically, the State Department did not respond to requests to produce documentation proving that the department screened for such a conflict of interest.  The lawsuit is seeking access to those documents and extension of the public comment period for the agency to finalize the determination so that the documents can be considered.  In the continued debate, Al Gore weighted in on the pipeline in a recent interview, stating that the project was ‘an atrocity.’  

Meanwhile, climate change is happening, you guys.  A five year study by FEMA that was just released has predicted a 45% increase in flooding in the United States during the coming decades – as a result of climate change.  (Except in North Carolina, of course, where flooding and climate change is illegal.  I suppose all the hurricanes will have to stick to Florida and South Carolina this year?) FEMA, which manages disaster relief, is expecting to have to insure 80% more properties, with a 90% increase in the average cost of a claim when filed.  But, this is all totally worth it, because it was definitely too expensive for us to regulate carbon through a cap-and-trade or tax system, and it was also definitely too expensive to make some of those fossil fuel companies maybe pay a little instead of collecting government subsidies.  What? Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit?

Fine. I’ll end on a good note.  Behold, Robert Redford for NRDC:

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Still better looking than you.

Redford, an environmental activist and partner to National Resources Defense Council, has put together a series of short ads calling for action on climate change and clean energy initiatives.  You should watch them.  Because it’s Robert Redford.  And, he’s got something really important to say.  And then you should send them to everyone you know.

That’s all for now folks.  I’ll be back next week, and maybe I’ll be less cranky.

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We haven’t talked much about Keystone XL here at Spinach HQ for a while now, mostly becauase the news on that front continues to be more of the same – and more depressing.  Quite frankly, I’m not sure whether or not the general public (those of you outside the environmental field, that is) are sick of hearing about Keystone or not.  False claims and an incredibly convoluted regulatory and political process regarding approval of the environmental impact determination as well as the pipeline itself have slowly muddied the waters better than an oil spill.  I’ll be honest, even I’ve had a hard time keeping track of the timeline and the number of times the pipeline has been resurrected and then killed.

Which is why I was somewhat surprised (but excited!) to wander into the Foggy Bottom Metro stop in D.C. on Tuesday and be greeted by something that looked like this:

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I couldn’t capture the whole ad in my camera phone (especially while trying not to look like some creeper taking a picture of the metro floor during rush hour….) but activist group SumOfUs.org is continuing to fight the good fight not just against Keystone XL, but against the expanded Tar Sands extraction that would come with it.

The ads direct you to the SumOfUs anti-tar-sands site, where they have already collected more than 17,000 of their goal level of 20,000 signatures for a petition to President Obama regarding the pipeline and expanded tar sands extraction.  Rather than solely attacking Keystone XL, the group is focusing on the impacts of the recent ExxonMobil tar sands oil spill in Arkansas.  Exxon’s response to the spill has been heavily criticized, with many community members voicing their doubts that the spill is contained or that Exxon is truly doing their part to take responsibility for the spill, contain it, and mitigate damages.

While the Keystone XL pipeline is likely to be decided by politics and not environmental impacts, the statement made by SumOfUs here is clear – and is taking the debate one step farther.  Instead of focusing on the impacts of the pipeline alone, the group is working to inform regarding some of the inherent risks (both environmental and economic) to expanded tar sands oil use as an energy source.  I’m happy to see these ads placed front and center in several key metro stations – maybe it’s a chance to finally have some dialogue about the real issue here, which is the overall direction of our energy future, and not one single pipeline.

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Well, here’s something new for ya: after watching weirder and weirder weather unfold for the past few years, a poll released today (reported by the New York Times) shows that the majority of Americans believe these events are the result of – wait for it – climate change.

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Like I said: weird weather.

It’s certainly true that the past years have been an adventure.  Between the infamous east coast Snowmageddon (which I missed, because I was totally in Abu Dhabi, no joke), record flooding of the Mississippi River in 2011,  last year’s summer heat wave, the 2011 droughts in Texas and Oklahoma,  increasing tornadoes across the midwest and southern U.S., and 2012 bringing the warmest March on record, there have been no shortage of unusual patterns.  That’s just inside the U.S., too.

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This might be a good time to turn around, eh?

Conducted by Knowledge Networks on behalf of teams at Yale and George Mason University, the study itself is the most comprehensive to date tracking public opinion on climate change. By almost a 2 – to – 1 ratio, Americans believe extreme weather patterns are due to global warming. A higher percentage than ever say that they have personally been impacted by the effects of climate change.  On top of that, after years where economic issues and concerns about international unrest eclipsed the issue of climate, the poll shows climate change is starting to climb the ranks once again.  (As an aside, failure to act on climate and energy could have profound negative impacts for both international politics as well as the economy, so I’ve always seen the issues as linked – but that hasn’t been the case with popular opinion.)

Of course, whether or not these individual events ARE directly caused by climate change is not as clear-cut as we’d like it to be.  Evidence is strongest that increased precipitation as well as heat waves are a result of climate change.  Wind patterns are also shifting, which could be the cause of the recent increase in the number of tornadoes. But, as with most environmental issues, the science isn’t what sways public opinion.  After all, the scientists have been beating the drum for years. We’ve seen the Keeling Curve showing the increase in CO2 detected by Manua Loa observatory in Hawaii.

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(But just in case you haven't, here it is again.)

We’ve all seen photos of flooding in Bangladesh, and sad pictures of polar bears trapped on a single block of ice. But it hasn’t done much.  What sways public opinion, if past is precedent, is when people start to be impacted.  When it’s my town, my home, my family, my friends, my job, or my future that is on the line, people start to sit up and listen.  The issue, at that point, is real.

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So is this polar bear. Hey, I had to include at least one.

And that’s precisely why many advocacy groups are jumping on shifting weather patterns as an opening.  Groups like 350.org, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and other advocacy organizations see this as a way to grab public attention and increase momentum towards action.  Perhaps for the first time, climate change is no longer a far-off warning that we might not live to see, but something that could actually impact our daily lives.  That’s a new thought for a lot of folks, I think.

While it’s a shame that the past few decades politicized the issue and drowned out the voice of the scientific community, many are wondering if this real shift is what we need.  For years, climate change deniers could point to the fact that there was ‘no concrete evidence’ as a way of poking holes in scientific data.  Now, it seems events might be shifting to fall in favor of the other size of the fence.

Of course, whether or not any action comes of it remains to be seen.  If not, we’ll just be buying those sustainable bikinis in January, right?

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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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And we’re totally worth following.  @SpinachHQ.  Only nutritious stuff, and we promise not to tweet about what Kara had for breakfast unless it really, really impacted environmental policy (which is always possible.)

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