Tuesday, April 30, 2013

New Coal Plants Rush Completion to Beat EPA’s Postponed Emission Rules

The following was cross-posted with the Public Education Center's D.C. Bureau, which you can find by clicking here.
By Nick Cunningham

Politics Trumps Clean Air?  Climate Change Can Kicked Down the Road

On April 12, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would delay regulations on greenhouse gases from new power plants after hearing complaints from the electric power industry. The much anticipated rules would have effectively prohibited the construction of new coal-fired power plants and remains one of the few major tools the Obama administration could use to address greenhouse gas emissions, given the current gridlock in Congress.
The proposed rule, published in March 2012, would have limited emissions from new power plants larger than 25 megawatts to 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour (CO2/MWh). With the average coal-fired power plant emitting 1,768 pounds of CO2/MWh, future coal plants would not meet the standard without carbon capture and sequestration.
According to the Energy Information Administration, there are 13 proposed coal projects over the next four years, totaling 8,336 megawatts of capacity. These facilities would be subjected to emissions limits if the EPA finalizes its rule, potentially killing many of these projects. On April 3, The Macon Telegraph reported that developers of an 850-megawatt coal plant in Sandersville, GA were in a “dead sprint” to complete the project before EPA solidified the rule. Now that EPA delayed the rule, when the plant finishes construction, it will qualify as an “existing” power plant, avoiding greenhouse gas limits.
EPA decided this month to revise the rules, ostensibly to firm them up in order to withstand legal attacks. The utility industry opposes the rule and threatened litigation because they argue the rule violates the Clean Air Act.

Senator James Inhofe
The rule is an outgrowth of the 2007 Supreme Court ruling inMassachusetts vs. EPA. The court found that under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must regulate greenhouse gases if found to be an endangerment to public health. This ruling led to EPA’s December 2009 “endangerment finding,” which declared greenhouse gases to, in fact, be a threat to public health.
Using this legal foundation, last year the EPA proposed limits on greenhouse gases for new power plants. However, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to set standards so that industry can meet them using the “best system of emission reduction.” The industry argues coal plants cannot meet the proposed limits of 1,000 pounds of CO2/MWh because carbon capture and sequestration is not yet available. Thus, the industry claims, EPA’s regulation is illegal.
Fearing the rule would not hold up in court, the EPA decided to revise the rule to provide separate emissions limits for coal and natural gas. (Natural gas plants emit only about 800 pounds of CO2/MWh.) However, rewriting the rule will significantly delay implementation. The EPA Press Secretary, Alisha Johnson stated that “no timetable has been set,” for issuing the rule.

Robert Perciasepe
More importantly, by delaying the rule on new power plants, limits on greenhouse gases from existing power plants – something Acting EPA Administrator Robert Perciasepe stated the agency would like to roll out within 18 months – could be pushed back as well. While rules on new power plants may stop a dozen or so coal plants from being considered, there arecurrently over 1,400 existing coal generating stations, adding up to 343 gigawatts of power. Together, these power plants account for about 28% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. If the United States is to deal with climate change in a meaningful way, it will need to shut down the vast majority of the coal plants already operating.

Gina McCarthy
While the EPA claims that it is rewriting the rule to ensure it can withstand a legal challenge – which necessarily means watering them down – there remains the possibility that political calculation played a role. President Obama has nominated Gina McCarthy for EPA Administrator, but she had not yet been confirmed by April 13, the deadline EPA was required to meet to finalize the rule. During her confirmation hearing, Republicans raisedlittle opposition to her nomination, focusing their ire on the lack of transparency at the EPA.
Despite the general congeniality between Senate Republicans and McCarthy, who has previously worked for Republican governors, the prospect of issuing a final rule on limits of greenhouse gas emissions for power plants might have changed that equation. In fact, Senator James Inhofe, who has long called climate change a “hoax,” sent a letter to Gina McCarthy on April 16, 2013 asking whether or not she will agree to withdraw the rule on limiting greenhouse gas emissions on new power plants if confirmed as EPA Administrator. From the letter:
“If confirmed, will you agree to withdraw the current rule so the Agency can deliberate on the path forward it plans to take without unnecessarily impacting the immediate construction of new [electricity generating units]?”
One has to wonder whether or not the administration anticipated the rule becoming a political firestorm. After the contentious nomination process for Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, it’s possible the administration did not want to revisit a fight with Senate Republicans until McCarthy is safely confirmed.
Meanwhile, the decision by the EPA to delay the rules means that for the time being there will continue to be no limits on greenhouse gases from power plants. With zero prospect of legislative action from Congress, EPA authority under the Clean Air Act to address greenhouse gases remains one of the few avenues to rein in carbon pollution. However, the administration has punted once again.

Friday, April 26, 2013

DC Tree Canopy Gets a "B-" from Casey Trees

by Duncan Gromko

Tree Planting (Source: Rosser1954)
Every year, Casey Trees grades progress on protecting Washington DC's tree cover. Based upon four criteria (tree coverage, tree health, tree planting, and tree protection), the city received a B- for 2012.

Before I get into the details of the report, a little background on trees in urban areas and Casey Trees.

While forests in remote areas are hugely important, urban trees play a critical role in improving well-being for city dwellers. From Casey Trees: "Most Washingtonians know that trees cool streets and our homes, but energy savings is just the start. Trees slow storm water, clean our air, increase property values, and create a less stressful environment that benefits human health. In short, trees make cities more livable." Among these many benefits, mitigating the urban heat island effect is probably one of the most important contributions that trees make. On average, cities are 2-5 degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer than rural areas. For DC residents that have experienced our brutal summers, imagine how much worse they would be without trees in the city! Another benefit that I want to highlight is absorbing water, particularly during storms. In Washington, for anyone who lives in Bloomingdale (or other low lying areas), the flooding you experience is directly related to the lack of tree cover (and high proportion of impervious surfaces).

There's a lot of research done to put a dollar sign on all these values. In New York City, the 600,000 street trees provide an annual benefit of $122 million, which is five times the cost of maintaining them. In Portland, trees increase property values by $1.1 billion - maintenance costs are an annual $4.6 million. Presence of street trees in east Portland added an average $8,870 to the sale price of a home.

In Washington, the total tree coverage is 36%. A large portion of tree canopy coverage comes from Rock Creek Park, but this statistic also counts the many street trees and smaller parks throughout the city. While more than one third may seem high, in the 1950s the canopy was 50%. The loss in tree canopy is mostly due to urban development and pests and diseases that kill trees.

Compared to other cities, 36% is pretty good. Of the 20 biggest US cities, only Albuquerque, Atlanta, Nashville, and Pittsburgh had greater canopy coverage than DC. Surprisingly, Denver, with less that 10%, has the least canopy coverage. Another important statistic is a city's impervious surface cover because it predicts how much storm water will be absorbed into the ground and how much ends up in the sewer system. Roads, sidewalks, roofs...basically anything concrete is impervious. 41% of DC is impervious. New York City has the most impervious cover with 61%, while Nashville has the least, with 18%.

One more background paragraph before I get into the report. Casey Trees is a non-profit in the city with the goal of increasing tree canopy to 40% (this goal has also been endorsed by Mayor Gray's Sustainable DC Plan). In addition to producing reports like the Tree Report Card, Casey Trees does actual tree plantings and lobbies the city to protect trees. Participating in the tree plantings is how I first got involved with Casey Trees and, on a personal level, digging in the dirt on a beautiful DC day is one of the most pleasurable ways to spend a Saturday morning. If you live in DC, I recommend checking out Casey Trees.

Now for the report. I'll go through the four categories one by one. Casey Tree gives each category an individual grade, which adds up to the overall grade.

For tree coverage, the city got an A-. 36% coverage is pretty good, and not far away from Casey Trees's goal of 40%.

For tree health, Washington got a B-. The biggest threat to trees' health is invasive insects, and mostly the Asian Longhorned Beetle (ALB). Up to 35% of Washington's trees are vulnerable to the ALB. The beetle has plagued Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York, but has not yet been found in Washington. However, given the proximity to other infected areas, it's likely that the city will be infected. The city currently has no plan to deal with ALB, which is a primary reason for the lower grade.

In tree planting, the city got an A+. 10,404 trees were planted in Washington in DC in 2012. Considering that, in order to meet its goal of 40% total tree cover coverage, the city must plant 8,600 trees per year, this is one area for celebration. Of those 10,000+ trees, Casey Trees planted 15%. The National Park Service planted 27% and the Urban Forestry Administration, of the Department of Transportation, planted 26%.

By far the worst grade is in tree protection, for which the city received an F. Clearly, this is Casey Trees' main gripe with the city government. There are three reasons for this poor grade. 1) It's too easy for property owners to remove trees. Under the Urban Forest Preservation Act (UFPA), a property owner has to give a convincing reason to remove a tree. Yet most property owners that applied to remove trees were granted the request. 2) Lost trees are not being replaced. The UFPA requires that trees that are removed be replaced. However, Washington does not monitor the survival of replacement trees so there's no way of knowing how successful this effort is. 3) Money from the Tree Fund is not being used well. When a property owner illegally removes a tree, he/she must pay a fine to the Tree Fund (which is used to plant more trees). Again, the city is not monitoring the health of trees planted through the Tree Fund.

What's to be done? Washington faces a challenge to preserve its tree canopy while population growth in the city places greater pressure on trees. If the Mayor's Sustainable DC plan is properly implemented, then 40% tree canopy is a possibility. However, there are few specifics supporting the Sustainable DC plan - it's more of an aspiration statement than an actual policy - and it's likely that tree cover in Washington will continue to decline, unless Casey Trees' recommendations are adopted.

It's a tough balance for the city, which wants to increase its tax revenues and provide space for incoming residents. While the rest of the country struggles with the recession, the federal government makes Washington relatively recession-proof; Washington has received more new denizens than any other US city for four straight years. This places huge pressures on the city and its tree cover. But if Washington and Mayor Gray want to protect quality of life and the long-term attractiveness of the city, they must balance these pressures against protecting the canopy.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Divestment Push Gaining Momentum

by Duncan Gromko
Swarthmore Mountain Justice Logo

10 cities committed to divesting from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies today. Mayors from Seattle WA, San Francisco CA, Boulder CA, Madison WI, Bayfield WI, Ithaca, NY, State College PA, Eugene OR, Richmond VA, and Berkely CA joined together to make the announcement. In a movement that has been slowly gaining momentum over the last months and years, this is a huge step forward.

Mayor Mike McGinn of Seattle said: “Divestment is just one of the steps we can take to address the climate crisis. Cities that do so will be leaders in creating a new model for quality of life, environmental sustainability and economic success. We’ve got a head start on that here in Seattle, but there’s a lot more work to do.”

Here's a brief history of the divestment movement:

In November last year, Unity College announced it was divesting. I recommend reading all of President Mulkey's call to divest, but here is an excerpt: "Higher education is positioned to determine the future by training a generation of problem solvers. As educators, we have an obligation to do so. Unlike any time in the history of higher education, we must now produce leading-edge professionals who are able to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, and understand social, economic, and resource tradeoffs among possible solutions. Imagine being a college president and looking in the mirror twenty years from now. What would you see? Would you be looking at a professional who did his or her best to avert catastrophe? For me, the alternative is unacceptable."

Other schools have joined Unity. Hampshire college has an investment strategy to only invest in socially responsible corporations. Sterling College in Vermont announced on February 2 that it was divesting. The Santa Fe Art Institute of New Mexico announced divestment on February 15. The College of the Atlantic made its announcement on March 11. The divestment push has also gone international, with the Australian National University announcing that it would divest from the natural gas giant, Metgasco. Additionally, several schools are seriously considering divestment. Most recently, the Brown University oversight committee, which is charged with ensuring that the University's investments are in line with its with its ethical principles, voted unanimously to to recommend that the University divest from fossil fuels.

In addition to divestment commitments, discussion of the issue has led to continued discussions of universities' role in supporting fossil fuels. Most notably, Harvard's student body has pushed its administration to divest. This led to an awkward moment for Harvard, where its Vice President reluctantly accepted 1,300 student and alumni signatures supporting divestment. At NYU, students and alumni met with administration officials to demand divestment. Similar discussions are happening at UPenn, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Vermont, the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, and the University of California, San Diego. At Swarthmore College, there was a planning meeting for students urging for divestment, which received TV coverage from MTV.

Over 300 universities and municipalities have public campaigns to shame the fossil fuel industry. The series of op-eds and articles cited above represents considerable involvement from young adults. While the 2008 push for cap-and-trade was dominated by industry insiders, this is clearly an "outsider" movement.

Divestment (and the Keystone XL pipeline) is the opportunity to create that passionate base and send a message that there is a political cost to inaction on climate. It can turn fossil fuel companies into social pariahs. Even if the only thing that comes from the divestment push is a conversation about the irreparable harm that fossil fuel companies are doing to our livelihoods, that is a great outcome.

AND, there is a moral case to be made here. Tobacco, apartheid, fossil fuels, etc. whatever. Personally, I don't want to profit from things that cause others harm. Universities should be moral examples for the young adults they are shaping.

A final, new angle to the divestment campaign is that there is a "carbon bubble:" fossil fuel investments are incompatible with mitigating climate change. The fossil fuels reserves counted on as assets by companies will become worthless if climate change is to be mitigated. If you believe in climate change and have faith that there will be a response to mitigating it, investing in fossil fuels is a bad business decision.

So what is to come of this? Bill McKibben brings up the immense powers that the divestment movement is up against:

"We've watched great cultural shifts and organizing successes in recent years, like the marriage-equality and immigration-reform movements. But breaking the power of oil companies may be even harder because the sums of the money on the other side are so fantastic – there are trillions of dollars worth of oil in Canada's tar sands and the North Dakota shale."

Despite this challenge, divestment advocates are optimistic about turning fossil fuel companies into social pariahs:

"The fossil fuel initiative may be more akin to divestment campaigns targeting tobacco companies. Just as those campaigns tried to link tobacco companies with the health effects of smoking in the popular consciousness, the current campaign wants to tie fossil fuel companies' reputations to droughts, rising sea levels, and the obstruction of climate action."

In sum, the divestment movement has quickly changed the conversation and involved young people in advocating for climate change action. The announcement today is a huge victory for the campaign and hopefully just the start.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Court Rules that EPA Can Veto Mountaintop Removal Permits

By Nick Cunningham

mountaintop removal site (photo: Library of Congress)
Big environmental news this week - On April 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the EPA has the authority to veto mining permits for mountaintop removal, a significant win for the environment. The ruling overturned a 2012 District Court decision that declared the EPA did not have the statutory authority to do so.

Let's back up. As discussed previously on this blog, one particularly nasty way of mining coal is through mountaintop removal. This is where you blow up a mountain to gain access to the coal seams beneath. When you destroy a mountain, there is a lot of left over dirt, mining waste, chemicals, etc., and you have to put that stuff somewhere. Coal companies like to dump it in nearby ravines, creeks and rivers, I suppose because that's the easiest thing to do. In order to do that, under the Clean Water Act, coal companies must first get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. 

Back in the late 1990's, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, a major mining company, planned to expand an existing mountaintop removal site, called the "Spruce No. 1." The expansion would be truly massive - 3,113 acres - the largest mountaintop removal site ever. It was subsequently scaled down a bit in a compromise, but would still be an enormous project. For this reason, it became a focal point for environmental and local activists. In 2007, the Army Corps of Engineers issued the permit that allowed the company to "fill" in rivers and creeks near the mine - effectively green lighting the mine. 

In 2011, the EPA revoked the permit, a historic move, using its authority under the Clean Water Act. This made the mining industry and Republicans in Congress apoplectic. Arch Coal appealed, and in March 2012, the U.S. District Court struck down EPA's decision, stating that EPA did not have such authority.

Which brings us back to the present. EPA appealed that decision, sending it to the higher U.S. Court of Appeals. The Appeals Court decided on April 23, that yes, the Clean Water Act "does indeed clearly and unambiguously give EPA the power to act post-permit." In other words, if the Army Corps of Engineers issues a permit that is going to lead to the destruction of rivers, streams, and mountain sides, the EPA can overrule them and veto the permit. 

It is hard to overemphasize the importance of this ruling. The Army Corps of Engineers has consistently failed to protect the environment. Over the years it has issued permit after permit, allowing the decimation of Appalachia to proliferate. Whether willfully colluding with industry or simply not having the resources to adequately assess the damage (there is much evidence for the former), it is important for the EPA to have policing power over such a destructive practice.

The industry predictably issued trite statements about the loss of jobs and "uncertainty." But, there is nothing redeeming about mountaintop removal. It actually provides very few jobs - it requires just a bunch of machines and explosives. And without that good, you are just left with the bad - it destroys mountains, deforests vast swaths of forest, buries streams, and contaminates local water supplies. All to get a product that, when burned, fouls the environment once again and is a leading driver of global climate change. If the recent court ruling leads to more coal being left in the ground, then it is indeed a big win - not just for the global and local environment, but for the people living in Appalachian communities as well. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How is the Keystone XL Protest Affecting the Broader Climate Movement?

by Duncan Gromko

Over 1,000,000 comments have submitted to the State Department, asking for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to be stopped. The comments specifically address the State Department's Environmental Impact statement for the pipeline, but, like the years-old stand against the pipeline itself, they represent a growing movement demanding action on climate change. Latest to comment on the Environmental Impact statement is the EPA, which delivered an excellent critique

Nick and I attended an interesting debate last week (hosted by Chris Mooney of Mother Jones), featuring May Boeve of 350.org, Michael Grundwald of Time Magazine, Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, and David Roberts of Grist. May, Michael G, and David are outspoken supporters of the protest against KXL, while Michael L has argued that the pipeline is the wrong fight. There has been lots of in-fighting amongst environmentalists on the actual carbon impact of the pipeline and thus whether or not it was worth protesting.

What amazed me most about the debate was that not one of the speakers addressed the merits or climate implications of the pipeline itself. This reflected the consensus that the pipeline has become a symbol for the environmental movement. As Bryan Farrell wrote:

"But these critics [of the anti-Keystone movement] are missing something vital about the anti-Keystone movement: It was never about just a pipeline. [Bill] McKibben and a handful of others had another, less talked about goal—to remake the environmental movement into something far more active, creative, and formidable for years to come."

As an 350.org organizer, May attested to that sentiment at the debate. She talked about the importance of having a symbol to rally a diverse set of environmental groups. It has managed to unite the Sierra Club and Occupy Wall Street, ranchers in Nebraska and college students. Climate hawks have had a tough time getting attention when they talk about CO2 concentrations, parts per million, and other abstract concepts. She said that having a physical (proposed) piece of infrastructure is a much more tangible thing to get people's attention. 

David spoke mostly about the sociology of social movements. Central to his point is that movements are often slowed by pluralistic ignorance. Basically, people make false assumptions about the beliefs of their neighbors and peers. In the beginning of the civil rights movement, for instance, although many people might have supported desegregation, they assumed that others did not, and kept silent about it. David said that people need social proof - cues from others around them - that it is socially "OK" to change beliefs or behaviors. The recent surge in support for gay marriage rights is a reflection of this. Although people's views on homosexuality have probably been changing slowly for decades, over the last five years, public opinion has changed dramatically. There is a sort of tipping point to social movements, where, once people get enough social proof that it is "OK" to support a change, a minority opinion quickly becomes a majority one. And, having politicians come out and say that they support gay marriage is a particularly strong social proof. 

David's argument then, supported May's: we hope that having 40,000-50,000 people out under the Washington Monument, protesting the pipeline, serves as a sort of social proof for average folks who are unsure of what to think about climate change. 

It was a bit unfair to have Michael L as the only debater "for" the pipeline as I suspect that a large part of him supports the protesters. Fortunately, he is a smart guy and can easily hold his own. Michael L's main point was that the protest against Keystone XL alienates mainstream people that the climate movement needs on their side. People in "fly-over states," might be mildly sympathetic towards the climate movement, but turned off by rabid opposition to one pipeline. Right-wing pro-pipeline people have also turned the KXL fight into a symbol, but one of governmental-overreach and sentimental, hippie environmentalists. Michael L said that environmentalists should adopt more rational positions to avoid the backlash that protesting the pipeline would create. For instance, he said that if Obama does not approve the pipeline, it may make it more difficult for him to regulate power plants via the EPA

I think the smartest riposte to this was the idea that only 350.org and other activist groups are responsible for the changing opinion and mitigating climate change. For some people, the excitement of getting arrested to protest a pipeline might be what brings them on board. For others, it's going to be the rational analysis of Michael L. In fact, said David, the backlash created by people like May might make some centrists seek out analysts like Michael Levi. 

The hard part is that there are no definitive answers to the question of how best to organize a movement. Yes, the pipeline fight is creating support for climate change action. But is it alienating more people than it recruits? Is this the kind of social proof that people need? Is it making it harder for Obama to support other climate change action? As much as we analyze other social movements and test our theories of change, the unique context of the climate movement today make it different than any other movement. What worked for civil rights may not work for climate change.

This led to another important conclusion of the debate: why can't we all just get along? Rather than waste ink criticizing May and 350.org, focus on your theory of change and the positive way you want to affect the world. 

And, to paraphrase Michael G: you don't want to be the one telling Rosa Parks, "It's not about the bus system."

Monday, April 22, 2013

Will the Carbon Bubble Burst?

By Nick Cunningham

methane flaring on offshore oil rig
(photo: Pacific Northwest Lab)
In 2010, participating nations in the UNFCCC negotiations on climate change agreed in Cancun to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. In order to avoid breaching this threshold, according to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, all nations would have to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 565-886 billion tons (gigatons, or Gt) of carbon dioxide between now and 2050.

This so-called "carbon budget" stands in stark contrast to the 2,860 Gt of carbon dioxide that would be emitted by simply burning through known reserves of oil, coal and natural gas. Burning these known resources of fossil fuels would mean we would blow past our 2 degree target and careen towards a much more dire situation as climate change starts to slip out of control.

However, the Carbon Tracker Initiative does not believe humanity would condone such a scenario, and they argue that mounting public pressure as well as the determination of politicians and regulatory bodies to achieve the 2 degree target would result in a lot of fossil fuels that would have to stay in the ground. This "unburnable" carbon amounts to 60-80% of the reserves owned by companies listed on stock exchanges. In other words, major oil, coal and natural gas companies would be stuck with stranded assets. The Carbon Tracker Initiative estimated that $6 trillion will be spent on developing fossil fuels in the next decade, and if we are to stick to our carbon budget, much of this money will be wasted on "unburnable" fossil fuels.

As a result, many of the major fossil fuel companies present serious financial risks to investors, as the "carbon bubble" continues to inflate. Lord Nicholas Stern, a revered voice on climate change, warned that the carbon bubble could result in a massive financial crisis. The trillions of dollars invested in fossil fuels will have to be divested as the world begins to address climate change. However, investors and market watchers are thus far oblivious to the financial bloodshed that is coming down the road, putting more than fossil fuel companies at risk. The financial system is in peril, Lord Stern warns.

It is worth noting that not all financial entities are ignoring climate change. Standard and Poors, a credit rating agency, warned of credit downgrades for major oil companies in the future because of action on climate change.

Still, when you take a step back, it is remarkable at how poor the market is at handling such long-term risk. Investors only think about short-term profits. Long-term investments tend to mean making bets on quarterly earnings. Therefore, investors will ride the fossil fuel bubble until it becomes clear that it is on the way down. At that point, the bubble will burst as everyone scrambles for the exits.

Huntington coal plant, Utah (photo: Utah.gov)
It is a sacrosanct axiom that the market allocates capital to its most efficient use. However, that can't be true if the market is allocating vast sums to assets that will inevitably become worthless. On the other hand, should these investments actually pay off, then what does that say about society's priorities? A small number of people make a lot of money engaging in an activity that puts the planet, and human existence, into peril.

New economic models may be needed, but in the meantime, capital flows towards profitable activities. But, policymakers play an integral part in outlining the parameters within which investors find profitable ventures. In other words, Congress could pass a steep carbon tax, and all of a sudden, oil and gas companies may not look like a safe bet. Climate-friendly policies in the near-term could begin to deflate the carbon bubble.

Seeing the writing on the wall, fossil fuel companies have activated a massive PR and lobbying campaign to stave off any attempts at dealing with greenhouse gases. In 2012, for example, according to Open Secrets, Royal Dutch Shell spent $14.5 million on lobbying, Exxon Mobil spent $12.9m, and Koch Industries spent $10.5m. This, in a year in which there was no prospect of Congress actually doing anything on climate change. Imagine what the industry will spend when climate legislation becomes more viable.

I am pessimistic about the ability of politicians to make decisions that are good for society over the long-term, especially when there is a lot of money to be made. I fear we will keep our heads in the sand until climate change becomes impossible to ignore - at which point, it will be a little late in the game. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Unaccounted for Costs of Doing Business

by Duncan Gromko

Coal Plant (Source: Arnold Paul)
Businesses contributed $7.3 trillion - 13% of global GDP - in damages to the world's "natural capital" in 2009. That's the headline finding from the new TEEB for Business report on the unaccounted for costs of doing business. This figure is so high because of the value that ecosystems provide to human well-being.

When a business purchases a building or hires workers, these costs are privatized - only the business pays. However, when the costs of production are not paid for by the business (or government or community or individual), the costs are socialized. These "externalities" are what TEEB is measuring. Socialized costs don't have to be environmental, but that is what TEEB is focusing on. An easy is example is a coal plant. The owner of the plant buys the coal, the plant itself, the machinery needed to operate the plant, and hires the people needed to run the plant. What the owner doesn't pay for is the damages done by production to society. These costs can be local - if particulate emissions from the plant damage nearby communities' health. Or they can be global - the CO2 emitted by the plant contribute to climate change and the associated costs.

TEEB breaks these costs down by sector and by world regions:
In terms of absolute damages to natural capital, the greatest damages are done by power generation (coal) and agriculture (cattler, wheat, and rice). Most of coal's damage comes from its greenhouse gas emissions; TEEB estimates that total damage done from greenhouse gas emissions amounted to $2.7 trillion in 2009. Coal also does damage via air pollution (cost of air pollution = $0.5 trillion), but its impact on climate change is what makes it the villain. Agriculture's damages are a little more disbursed. Agriculture contributes to damages via land use change (natural ecosystems converted to agriculture - $1.8 trillion), water consumption (cost of water consumption = $1.9 trillion), greenhouse gas emissions (like methane from grazing animals), and land and water pollution (cost of land and water pollution = $0.3 trillion). 

The report ranks the top 100 most damaging sectors by region, so if you want greater detail about the most damaging sectors, check out the full version.

Geographically, the location of the these five sectors is unsurprising. Coal is biggest in East Asia and North America; energy consumption drives the Chinese and American economies, the two biggest in the world. Agriculture is huge in South America and South Asia, where population explosion is driving continued expansion into natural ecosystems. These regions also export a significant amount of agricultural goods.

An interesting finding of the report is the impact ratio. What TEEB is doing here is dividing the natural capital cost by the revenue generated from the sector. Although coal has huge damages, its monetary benefits nearly equal those costs. It is damaging, but productive. Agriculture, however, has returns that are much lower, meaning that its impact ratio is higher. Cattle ranching in South America, is the biggest culprit. I'm reminded of the trip that Nick and I took to Brazil, where we researched forestry issues in the Atlantic Forest. A big eye-opener for us was how unproductively deforested land was being used - an entire hectare of land was needed to support one cow. 

David Roberts wrote about this report just before I did (as he always seems to). He highlights one finding from the report:

"Of the top 20 region-sectors ranked by environmental impacts, none would be profitable if environmental costs were fully integrated. Ponder that for a moment. None of the world’s top industrial sectors would be profitable if they were paying their full freight. None!"

I'm not sure if Roberts means it this way, but the tone of this quote and that of the TEEB report sort of suggests that business is at fault for the situation. If everything else was equal, yes, internalizing environmental costs would make businesses unprofitable. But, if costs were internalized, business revenues would be higher. If farmers had to pay the full social costs of production, they wouldn't just go out of business. We still need food! Instead, some of these costs would be passed onto consumers. Food and energy would cost more. Internalizing costs would change incentives for producers and consumers, leading to a radical restructuring of the economy. Sectors with low impact ratio (say, solar production) would become more profitable compared to sectors with high impact ratios. Coal production would most likely be unprofitable.

What's to be done about all this? TEEB has a long list of recommendations for businesses, governments, investors, and even for itself. They are excellent suggestions for economic methodologies to internalize socialized environmental costs. However, what's really missing is the political will to enact these changes.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Debating the way forward on climate change

by Duncan Gromko

Keystone XL. Source: Ekhabishek
On April 18th at 6:30 pm, Michael Levi (energy writer for the Council on Foreign Relations), David Roberts (writer for Grist), May Boeve (executive director of 350.org), and Michael Grundwald (writer for Time magazine) will discuss climate change strategy at the University of California Washington Center (1608 Rhode Island NW). I'm really excited for the debate because it will cover competing views of the best way forward for the climate movement. Roberts, Grunwald, and Boeve have all supported protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. Levi, on the other hand, has argued that the pipeline, while not a good thing for the climate, is less important than other issues the movement could fight for: "The Keystone decision ultimately became far more about symbolism than substance. It’s a shame that so much attention was diverted from things that matter more."

In anticipation of the debate, here are several issues that I hope the panel discusses:

How important is it for the climate movement to be "reasonable?"
In terms of direct impact on greenhouse gas emissions, the construction Keystone XL pipeline is not as important as shutting down coal plants, improving energy efficiency, putting a price on carbon, or any number of other actions. But, KXL has successfully galvanized support for the climate movement. In choosing its issues, how should the movement balance changes in emissions against the need to pick issues that galvanize people.

What's next if the pipeline is approved?
It is looking increasingly likely that the pipeline will be approved. 350.org and Bill McKibben have made a point of repeating James Hansen's statement that the pipeline will be "game over" for the climate. Focus on one infrastructure project and exaggerating its importance has been one reason that 350.org has been able to organize any people. But if the pipeline is approved, how does 350.org pivot to other issues? If the game is over, how do they convince people that it is still worth fighting?

Is there some middle ground between Activists like Boeve and Analysts like Levi?
I've argued before that Activists could focus their efforts on issues that Analysts would agree are important: fossil fuel subsidies or West coast coal ports are two examples. Rather than fighting over the pipeline, there are issues that could excite both groups. What are these issues?

How can the environmental movement avoid being torn apart by natural gas and fracking?
Levi and many others have written about the climate benefits of natural gas; increasing fracking would increase natural gas production and decrease our dependency on coal. On the other side, 350.org and others are vociferous opponents of fracking, mostly because of the damage that fracking can do to local water supply. I doubt that the two sides will ever agree on the issue, but can they at least reach some truce that allows them to work together on climate change?

Is it important for Analysts and Activists to get along?
Analysts have undermined the Keystone protest, reducing its efficacy. You could also argue that Analysts have an important role to play in this debate, pushing Activists towards issues that will have the greatest climate impact. Should Activists worry more about what Analysts think?

What is your theory of change?
An interesting post by Jonathan Foley got me thinking about theories of change and how the ideas of a movement are realized. I'd expect that Levi, an "insider," might argue that policy in Washington is affected by good research and compelling ideas, advocated for from a respected position (like the Council on Foreign Relations). Boeve and 350.org have taken the opposite approach, by protesting outside the White House and organizing divestment campaigns. So how does change actually happen? How can the two sides work together?

What lessons can the climate movement learn from other movements?

Nick and I will be at the debate, hope to see you there!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Solar Progress

Photo: Randy Montoya
by Nick Cunningham

With dramatic cost declines in solar panels in recent years, solar power is making impressive inroads in electricity markets. On April 11, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) released monthly showing that solar energy accounted for 100% of new capacity installations for the month of March, a remarkable achievement.

The solar industry installed 44 megawatts of capacity, bringing its total to 537 megawatts thus far this year, or 28.5% of total capacity installed. This is enough to rank solar as the second most installed type of energy this year, only behind wind power with 958 megawatts (50% of total energy installed this year). By comparison, natural gas only installed 340 megawatts (other energy sources haven't added anything significant this year).

This is the first time that solar has ever captured the entirety of new power plant installations in a month, and adds further evidence to the notion that solar is transitioning into a mainstream option for generating power.

Costs for solar panels have declined by 60% since 2011, and as costs drop, installations surge. Last year was the best year for solar, a year in which the industry put up 3.3 gigawatts, a 76% increase over 2011. (For some nice charts on declining solar costs, check out this article)

To be sure, solar power's swift growth rate comes from a low base. In 2012, solar accounted for less than 1% of total electricity generation, a sector still dominated by coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. Critics also point to the mounting bankruptcies in the sector, as one solar manufacturer after another shutters its doors.

Suntech, a Chinese solar panel maker, was once the largest manufacturer in the world, but recently declared bankruptcy. Suntech's CEO, Shi Zhengrong was China's richest man in 2006, and carried the moniker "The Sun King." Once a billionaire, his net-worth has rapidly vanished. Clean energy naysayers point to Suntech as evidence that solar energy only fills a niche market - that it isn't ready for prime-time.

In fact, it was because of companies like Suntech that solar panel prices have plummeted so rapidly. Aided by cheap state financing and government subsidies, Suntech and other Chinese solar companies ramped up production, creating a glut in the solar market. Consequently, prices dropped, putting pressure on solar producers worldwide. Investment analysts downgraded company after company, seeing dark days ahead for the solar industry.

However, this is not a story of failure. Quite the opposite. We are merely in the midst of the maturation process - solar power is growing up. Like any maturing industry, which begins with tons of start-ups, not all companies make it. The more successful companies reduce costs, revealing the weaknesses of inferior competitors. High-cost companies (see: Solyndra) fold up shop, and the better ones move on and consolidate. This is what is happening now.

In fact, despite the spate of bad news from some solar companies, the future has never seemed brighter. While price declines may be bad for some producers, low prices are a boon for customers. A recent study found that the cost of electricity from solar photovoltaics could reach grid parity in some U.S. markets by 2014, and nearly all markets by 2017.

While it's still early times for solar, as it captures more and more market share, the business model for utilities is put at risk. Recently, several interesting articles have cropped up, arguing that utilities are going to either need to adapt or suffer a slow death. After all, utilities make money by selling electricity; if more and more people are generating their own electricity with solar panels on their roofs, utilities will begin to lose customers. Utilities will then be forced to jack up prices to make up for the shortfall, and customers without solar panels will have to pay more. But, when electricity prices for these customers go up, solar panels look even more attractive. David Roberts of Grist wrote about this phenomenon extensively last week.

Whether or not it occurs as Roberts describes remains to be seen. However, it does seem inevitable that solar will begin to rapidly capture market share. Prices for fossil fuels, a finite resource, must rise over the long-term as they are consumed. Coal-fired electricity is not getting cheaper. Easy, low-cost coal seams have been mined already, and companies are moving on to higher cost resources.

The reverse is true for technology (like solar). As more solar is consumed, manufacturing techniques become more efficient, panels are tweaked, materials science improves, etc. So, over time, panel prices will decline. Just look at cell phones or personal computers - they have become better and more powerful while simultaneously becoming cheaper.

Therefore, it is a near certainty that we will reach a point when renewable energy is vastly cheaper than fossil fuels in most places around the world. For solar, the future looks good, and FERC's March report is confirmation that the industry is on its way.

Friday, April 12, 2013

News of the Week - April 12

  • Bill McKibben wrote another excellent piece on the climate change movement for Rolling Stone.  "We've watched great cultural shifts and organizing successes in recent years, like the marriage-equality and immigration-reform movements. But breaking the power of oil companies may be even harder because the sums of the money on the other side are so fantastic – there are trillions of dollars worth of oil in Canada's tar sands and the North Dakota shale. The men who own the coal mines and the gas wells will spend what they need to assure their victories. Last month, Rex Tillerson, Exxon's $100,000-a-day CEO, said that environmentalists were 'obtuse' for opposing new pipelines. He announced the company planned to more than double the acreage on which it was exploring for new hydrocarbons and said he expected that renewables would account for just one percent of our energy in 2040, essentially declaring that the war to save the climate was over before it started. He added, 'My philosophy is to make money.'"
  • The other biggest headlines this week have been the hearings and confirmations of Obama cabinet appointees. Hearings for DOE appointee, Dr. Ernest Moniz were dominated by questions over natural gas. "Moniz tried hard to respond to questions on the issue from members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee without directly answering them, but his responses indicated that he would be more likely to support, rather than oppose, increased exports of natural gas." 
  • Sally Jewel was confirmed as Secretary of the Department of the Interior. "At Interior, Jewell will oversee more than 500 million acres of national parks and other public lands, plus more than 1 billion acres offshore. The lands are used for energy development, mining, recreation and other purposes. One of the first challenges Jewell will face is a proposed rule requiring companies that drill for oil and natural gas on federal lands to publicly disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations."
  • And on Thursday, hearings for the appointee at the EPA, Gina McCarthy, began. This hearing was more contentious: "As Republicans piled up attacks, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., shot back, "This is not a debate about Gina McCarthy.… It is a debate about global warming and whether we are going to listen to the leading scientists of this country who are telling us that global warming is the most serious planetary crisis we face.'"
  • In the McCarthy hearings, there was a particularly ugly moment featuring Republican Senator James Inhofe. "'What Sen. Inhofe has written and talked about is his belief that global warming is one of the major hoaxes ever perpetrated on the American people, that it’s a hoax pushed by people like Al Gore, the United Nations and the Hollywood elite,' [Senator] Sanders told the committee. 'I think that is a fair quote from Sen. Inhofe. Is that roughly right, Sen. Inhofe?' Sanders asked the Oklahoma Republican. 'Yes,” Inhofe agreed. 'I’d add to that list MoveOn.org, George Soros, Michael Moore and a few others.'"
  • The new President and CEO of the World Resources Institute, Andrew Steer, wrote on methane emissions from fracking and natural gas production. "Shale gas isn't a low-emissions fuel source yet. But by putting the right policies and technologies in place, it could be headed that way."
  • Nick wrote last week about the importance of apex predators, such as sharks, in maintaining ecosystem health. The Environmental Defense Fund had a similar piece this week. "Eliminating sharks may induce what scientists call 'ecological cascades,' where one effect induces another, and so on through the living world. One example of that process is the rise in populations of certain rays – key shark prey – in regions where shark populations have declined. If there are too many bottom feeding rays, that may threaten seagrass beds and the shellfish that inhabit them. Those seagrass beds also serve as nurseries for many other species. So losing sharks may seriously degrade marine ecosystems, which could threaten the human fisheries tied to them."
  • Climate change will likely make forests (and other ecosystems) vulnerable to invasions from pests like the Mountain Pine Beetle. "Since the late 1990s, climate change has driven a massive expansion of forest-destroying Mountain Pine Beetles in Canada, delivering the country one of the worst ecological disasters in its history. The insects are not technically invasive, and until recently they existed in a natural balance with their environment; killing off older trees and making room for new growth. But as a new documentary chronicles, climate change eliminated many of the natural limits on the beetles’ geographic spread and their rate of reproduction. The Mountain Pine Beetles were historically contained to the pine forests west of the Canadian Rockies, which had adapted to the insects’ presence. Their ability to spread and reproduce is heavily affected [sic] by temperature: as the climate warmed, cyclical cold snaps killed off less and less of the population. They dispersed over greater geographic areas and into higher elevations as warmer temperatures rendered those areas more hospitable. They even began reproducing twice per year rather than once. As a result, midway through the 2000s, the beetles crossed the mountains."
  • A Bloomberg piece argued that climate advocates should focus on coal, not the Keystone XL pipeline. "As two analysts committed to addressing climate change, we applaud the organizers’ show of strength [in fighting the pipeline], but recommend they switch targets and address a carbon enemy more worthy of their army: U.S. coal. Coal is the essential 'dirty' fossil fuel. Coal-fired power plants emit deadly particulates as well as smog-producing nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide that harm human health. They also constitute one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases. Moving away from coal would not only slow climate change, it would also protect the health of countless Americans."
  • And the US coal industry is facing increasing pressure and higher costs. "The confluence of low natural gas prices, mild weather and U.S. EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants generated much of the blame when coal markets experienced a swift downturn in 2012. But analysts and coal officials indicated in interviews that challenges closer to the mine are also significantly impacting revenues. In Central Appalachia, coal seams are thinner and more difficult to reach following decades of underground mining, hindering profitability among coal companies. Less capital-intensive mining methods, like mountaintop removal and surface mining, are under increasing regulatory scrutiny by the U.S. EPA."

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Theories of Change

by Duncan Gromko

James Hansen; Source: SchuminWeb
Ever since the failure of the climate cap and trade bill, there has been a lot of introspection within the environmental community. What did we do wrong? Why hasn't a clear message with scientific backing been heard by the mainstream political and media communities? How can we improve our message and our strategy to influence policy? The answers to these questions come down to your theory of change: how does change happen?

James Hansen, the preeminent climate scientist in the United States recently retired from NASA. Dr. Hansen was one of the first scientists to ring the alarm bell about climate change. He was an "insider," advocating for action on climate change, using his credibility and prestige to point out the dangers of climate change. For anyone that accepted the science and the associated warnings, it was a no-brainer: the world, led by the United States, had to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. But the climate change issue has been marginalized as a hoax, something not under our control, or just too expensive to deal with. The economic downturn has further pushed the issue aside, as governments prioritized growth over environmental issues.

An excellent piece on Dr. Hansen's career explains that he has given up on working within the system. Dr. Hansen has spoken out at political rallies and gotten arrested for civil disobedience. Retiring from NASA is the final step in this evolution from a scientist with an intellectual method to an activist using other means to spread that message. Dr. Hansen made a clear statement about his motivation for retiring: "As a government employee, you can’t testify against the government."

Another respected "insider," Gus Speth, also recently retired from an establishment position. Dr. Speth founded the World Resources Institute and the National Resources Defense Council, worked for the Carter Administration, and was Dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environment. As a lawyer, he tried to influence change more directly through policy. As Chairman on President Carter's Council on Environmental Quality, Dr. Speth was the administration's principal environmental advisor. Yet, he too retired from the insider role, writing in his book that he preferred to create change in a different way: "Civil disobedience was my way of saying that America's economic and political system had failed us all...We have to step outside of America's broken system of political economy and begin the difficult job of transforming it."

Everyone who is trying to influence the world around them has a theory of change. With an end goal in mind, an advocate has specific mechanisms to bring about that change.

In my work in international development, we have goals that are a little more narrow than the sort of sweeping change that climate hawks are advocating in the US. Simply put, we try to measure how our interventions lead to change on the ground. Output indicators measure our own actions: how many trainings we've done, infrastructure we helped finance, policy advice we've given, etc. Then, we measure the impact of these actions with outcome indicators: change in income, health, education, ecosystem health, etc.

Using this vocabulary, Dr. Hansen and Dr. Speth's actions suggest that their individual outputs were not having the desired outcomes. They're joining forces with social movements like the one Bill McKibben has started at 350.org to push for change via different outputs. McKibben and others have focused on creating social movements to create pressure on our political and economic institutions. They believe that using intellectual, rational persuasion like Dr. Hansen and Dr. Speth have done is not as effective as people in the street, op-eds in your newspaper, or calls to Congress.

McKibben wrote a great article for the Huffington Post where he debated this question in the context of the gay rights movement, drawing parallels between the gay rights movement in 1969 and the climate movement today. While the gay rights movement has been largely successful in changing public opinion and laws in the US, it took 40+years. McKibben says, "Stonewall took place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks."

Deciding on the right strategy is part of the reason for divisions in the environmental movement. Although we have similar end goals, we disagree about the most effective way to get there. I've already written about this some in my Activists and Analysts post. It's a little too simplified to think of things as just two groups with different versions (there is plenty of disagreement with the Analysts camp, for instance), but this sort of insider vs. outsider question is the decision most environmentalists are faced with.

There was a great post on this issue by Jonathan Foley, where he encourages people to test their theories of change to see what has worked and what hasn't. He makes a really depressing point: "When was the last time a social or political movement caused a major environmental policy change in Washington? Wasn’t it the early 1970s when we saw landmark federal legislation to protect clean air, clean water and endangered species?" Yet environmentalists persist with attempting to create change through a social movement.

But that doesn't prove that the activist approach is "wrong." The world is a lot more dynamic than just: does X output lead to Y outcome. I'd say that the other things matter: the quantity of the output, the quality of the output, and whole bunch of stuff outside of this model that is difficult or impossible to measure. For instance, the divestment movement against South African Apartheid "worked" in the sense that Apartheid ended. But how big a role did divestment in play in ending Apartheid? There was a lot of other sources of pressure, both internal and external, that led to change.

What does that mean for 350.org's divestment campaign against fossil fuel companies or more broadly for the environmental movement? Sorry to end this without a clear solution, but as much as analysts and activists disagree with each other, they might both be right. There is a great quote on FDR that is relevant to this schism: "FDR once met with a group of activists who sought his support for bold legislation. He listened to their arguments for some time and then said, 'You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.'" The movement has to win the argument AND create pressure on politicians. More and more Congressmen and Congresswomen have voiced their support for gay rights in recent weeks. While you can imagine that someone like Hillary Clinton has long supported gay rights on a personal level, she (and so many other politicians) only had the courage to do so publicly once the polls showed it was a winning political decision. The same will be true for action on climate change.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Section 735 of the 2013 Appropriations Act: AKA The Monsanto Protection Act

by Duncan Gromko

Monsanto Monoculture. Source: Hannob
On March 21st, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013 was passed to avoid government shutdown. Section 735 of the bill - popularly known as the Monsanto Protection Act - grants the food giant temporary immunity from legal challenges that question the safety of its seeds, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Whatever you think about the environmental and health consequences of GMOs, it's hard to see the inclusion of this section as anything other than collusion between a massive corporation and the highest levels of government.

Before I get into the politics of this legislation, just a little background on Monsanto and GMOs. Monsanto is an agricultural biotechnology company that provides seeds, herbicides, and other agricultural products to farmers across the world. It is a giant company that reported over $13.5 billion in sales in 2012. Monsanto was one of the first companies to genetically modify plant cells; they use this technology to make more productive seeds that are also resistant to their herbicides (they also make Roundup). This technology is an enabler of the vast agricultural monocultures found in the US and elsewhere. I'm not going to get any deeper into the environmental/health arguments for or against GMOs as frankly I just don't know enough about the subject.

Back to the politics. According to the Guardian, Section 735: "Sets a legal precedent and puts Monsanto and other biotech companies above the federal courts. It means, [environmental groups say], that not even the US government can now stop the sale, planting, harvest or distribution of any GM seed, even if it is linked to illness or environmental problems."

The actual text of Section 735 exhibits another issue with US politics; legalese writing makes it nearly impossible for the average citizen to understand what's been written:

"In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act."


The story behind this legislation is atrocious. In a nutshell, Section 735 was anonymously slipped into the bill during committee. That's right, there is no legal record of the Senator who is responsible for the legislation. Lawmakers disavowed knowledge of Section 735 and said that they had no choice to pass the entire Appropriations Act, with Section 735 included, or risk government shutdown.

Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri eventually owned up to including Section 735. According to Politico: "In the case of the Monsanto rider, Blunt said he worked with the company and had a valuable partner in the late chairman, Inouye, who was sympathetic given Monsanto’s large seed operations in Hawaii." Senator Blunt has received political donations from Monsanto since 2008. $10,000 in 2008, $44,250 in 2010 and $64,250 in 2012.

I have to give credit to the only Senator who spoke out against Section 735. Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana spoke out against the legislation:

"The second provision sent over from the House tells the USDA to ignore any judicial ruling regarding the planting of genetically modified crops. Its supporters are calling it “Farmer Assurance Provision.” But all it really assures is a lack of corporate liability. The provision says that when a judge finds that the USDA approved a crop illegally, the department must re-approve the crop and allow it to continue to be planted, regardless of what the judge says. Now let’s think about that. The United States Congress is telling the Agricultural Department that even if a court tells you that you’ve failed to follow the right process and tells you to start over, you must disregard the court’s ruling and allow the crop to be planted anyway. Not only does this ignore the constitutional idea of separation of powers, but it also lets genetically modified crops take hold across this country, even when a judge finds it violates the law—once again, agribusiness multinational corporations putting farmers as serfs. It’s a dangerous precedent. Mr. President, it will paralyze the USDA, putting the department in the middle of a battle between Congress and the courts. And the ultimate loser will be our family farmers going about their business and feeding America in the right way."

Fortunately, Section 735 expires at the same time as the appropriation act, on September 30th. Given the attention Section 735 has gotten from environmental and tea party groups alike, I expect more attention will be paid if the rider is included into another piece of legislation.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Environmental Policy and Congressional "Gridlock"

By Nick Cunningham

That the government suffers from "gridlock" has been something of a ubiquitous cliche in recent years, with the American public fed up with the inability of the government to deal with big problems. This extends to environmental policy, where environmental groups (as well as business interests on the other side) throw up their hands in frustration from time to time, lamenting the fact that nothing can get done. Congress hasn't really passed major environmental legislation in decades.

However, legislative gridlock is different than total policy gridlock. I'm currently reading "American Environmental Policy, 1990-2006," which takes a look at this issue, and although it is 5 years old, it is a fascinating read. The authors, Christopher McGrory Klyza and David Sousa, argue that while the federal legislative path for environmental reform is blocked, policy is still quite active on a variety of other avenues: policy is made through the executive branch by forming or gutting regulation; environmental and business groups sue the government, allowing courts to set precedents; "riders" are attached to appropriation bills, which can change law outside of the normal legislative process; and states make their own environmental policy, providing a sort of environmental policy laboratory.

LBJ Signs Clean Air Act in 1967 (Photo: LBJ Presidential Library)
The legislative route hasn't always been so barren. The environmental "golden era" of the 1960s-1980's saw sweeping environmental legislation, often with overwhelming bipartisan support. The authors write: "the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, described by Congressional Quarterly as then the most expansive federal environmental law in history, was passed by the Senate 74-0 and by the House 336-11." Also, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed by a 345-4 vote in the House without a single vote against it in the Senate.

Why have things since broken down?  Klyza and Sousa believe there were several causes. Partisanship on the environment began in the 80's under Reagan, when the deregulation mentality became in vogue. Before that, environmentalism was something everyone could get behind, and for politicians, supporting the environment had upsides with very little downsides. But, an environmental backlash began in the 80's, with Reagan leading the charge. The book notes other causes, such as corporate spending in politics, hyper-active media cycles, and declining trust in government to solve problems amongst others.

Back to the earlier point - policy making is not really ever static, but is in constant motion. Although there haven't been significant legislative changes to environmental statutes in decades, the constant fighting of competing interest groups shifts policies back and forth.

For example, when Newt Gingrich and his followers seized control of the House in 1994, they felt their victory gave them a broad mandate to roll back environmental protections. They largely failed in this regard, with Clinton painting them as extremists. However, Clinton also failed to pass his "Btu tax." Having failed the legislative route, Clinton made aggressive use of The Antiquities Act to designate lands as "national monuments," preserving them for conservation. Seeing legislative avenues blocked, Clinton used executive powers.

Going the other direction, under George W. Bush, his administration reclassified what constitutes "fill" in the Clean Water Act to include mining waste. Dumping "fill" into streams and rivers was allowed, but by including mining waste under that definition, his administration gutted the environmental protections in place. This opened the door to an era of rampant environmental damage, and led to increased mountaintop removal.

Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announces
"Endangerment Finding" Dec. 2009
A more recent example of non-legislative policy-making include the Supreme Court's 2007 decision (Massachusetts v. EPA) that found that the EPA not only has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, but has the duty to do so if it found that greenhouse gases were an endangerment to public health. Under President Obama, the EPA did just that with its "endangerment" finding in 2009. From that, last year the EPA issued regulations on new power plants that limit greenhouse gases. And now in 2013, environmental groups are hoping for additional regulations for GHGs put on existing power plants.

Only a few weeks ago at the end of March, the EPA proposed new "Tier 3" standards for motor fuel, requiring reductions in sulfur in gasoline.

These fights are all happening within a legal framework that is decades old. The Antiquities Act dates back to 1906. Bush's redefinition of "fill" for mining fell under the authority of the Clean Water Act (1977). The EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases comes from the Clean Air Act, which was passed in 1967 with major amendments to it made in 1970, 1977, and 1990. Other major laws over which we fight today include the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1972), Endangered Species Act (1973), Clean Water Act (1977), Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (1977), to name a few.

Times have changed, but the legal framework for environmental policy largely dates from this "golden era" of the 1970's. Congress is indeed in gridlock. However, as Klyza and Sousa note, this does not mean that policy is in gridlock. The fights continue in the courts, in the states, in the appropriations process and in the federal rulemaking process.

Moreover, the failure of Congress to update the legal framework ensures that environmental reformers are going to seek the alternative pathways. Whether or not that is a sound way to make policy (almost certainly not), it seems to be the way things will be for the foreseeable future. the The Obama administration has seemingly given up on the legislative process, and instead is seeking ways to advance environmental goals through executive powers (stronger EPA regulations on fuels and power plants for example); out-sized importance for judicial nominees; and fights at the state level over Renewable Portfolio Standards, for example.

It is important to remember that congressional "gridlock" does not mean "policy gridlock."  These fights will continue - and policy will continue to be made outside of the legislative process - as long as Congress cannot agree upon a 21st Century framework for environmental protection.