Month: June 2006

Supreme Court to decide if CO2 is a “pollutant”

Well, I am not sure if the Clean Air Act has all the right tools to regulate CO2, but the kind of vehicle-to-vehicle and plant-to-plant focus that the Clean Air Act brings could be a good starting point. If the court decides in favor of the states, and the EPA can get its rule making together, we can start seeing regulation in 5 years. I am not sure if this is early enough, and it is definitely insufficient. A “pollutant” as ubiquitous as CO2 needs a a comprehensive national and global policy effort even bigger than the Montreal Protocol to be effective. Kyoto was meant to be a starting point, but is stalled at the moment.

Forcing motor vehicles to lower their emissions and increase efficiency is a no-brainer. If it takes the Clean Air Act to make this happen, I am all for it! But this will not really address the power plants that are the other huge contributor, most of the existing plants will be grandfathered in and as we know from previous experience, these grandaddies are bionic and immortal!

Any chance that the Supreme Court will find in favor of this addition? I don’t think so. I predict 6-3 for the government on this one.

Supreme Court to Hear Key Environment Case – New York Times

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider whether the Bush administration must regulate carbon dioxide to combat global warming, setting up what could be one of the court’s most important decisions on the environment. A dozen states, a number of cities and various environmental groups asked the court to take up the case after a divided lower court ruled against them. They argue that the Environmental Protection Agency is obligated to limit carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles under the federal Clean Air Act because as the primary ”greenhouse” gas causing a warming of the earth, carbon dioxide is a pollutant.

“Boutique” Fuels still fashionable – EPA

So, when someone says something that is refuted rather indisputably by one of their agencies, maybe a retraction is in order? I won’t hold my breath, but this is good news. Region-specific pollution problems require and demand region-specific solutions. It is as “Boutique” as saying you have to vacuum a carpet and sweep a wooden floor. But, as we all know, the first step to vilifying something is to give it a French appellation.

EPA: Special fuels not to blame for costs

EPA: Special fuels not to blame for costs

By H. JOSEF HEBERT, Associated Press WriterThu Jun 22, 4:38 PM ET

“Boutique” gasoline blends to help states meet clean air rules are not a factor in higher prices as President Bush has suggested, says a draft of a study ordered by the White House.

Although often cited as a reason for volatile gasoline prices, so-called “boutique fuels” have not caused unusual distribution problems or contributed to price increases, the report concludes.

The review was conducted by a task force headed by the Environmental Protection Agency and involving representatives from the 50 states as well as the Energy and Agriculture departments.

Apparently, the Earth is warming up… Dog bites man, yet again, it’s amazing how they keep doing that. Think of all the money being wasted on re-proving the obvious, this is money not spent in mitigating the effects, money not spent on research, money not spent on encouraging people to use more efficient lighting… It’s a shame. – Study: Earth ‘likely’ hottest in 2,000 years – Jun 22, 2006

Climate scientists Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes had concluded the Northern Hemisphere was the warmest it has been in 2,000 years. Their research was known as the “hockey-stick” graphic because it compared the sharp curve of the hockey blade to the recent uptick in temperatures and the stick’s long shaft to centuries of previous climate stability.

The National Academy scientists concluded that the Mann-Bradley-Hughes research from the late 1990s was “likely” to be true, said John “Mike” Wallace, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington and a panel member. The conclusions from the ’90s research “are very close to being right” and are supported by even more recent data, Wallace said.

The panel looked at how other scientists reconstructed the Earth’s temperatures going back thousands of years, before there was data from modern scientific instruments.

For all but the most recent 150 years, the academy scientists relied on “proxy” evidence from tree rings, corals, glaciers and ice cores, cave deposits, ocean and lake sediments, boreholes and other sources. They also examined indirect records such as paintings of glaciers in the Alps.

Combining that information gave the panel “a high level of confidence that the last few decades of the 20th century were warmer than any comparable period in the last 400 years,” the academy said.

Au Revoir, Clean Water Act?

Just like that, the Supreme Court chips away at one of the foundations of this country’s Environmental Law.
Court Splits Over Wetlands Protections – New York Times

By DAVID STOUT. WASHINGTON, June 19 — The Supreme Court set the stage for a re-examination of the 1972 Clean Water Act, as it narrowly ruled today in favor of two Michigan property owners who have sought to develop tracts designated as wetlands.

By 5 to 4, the justices overturned lower court judgments against the Michigan land owners, who had run afoul of the Clean Water Act over their plans to build a shopping mall and condominiums.

The ruling was not the resounding, unambiguous triumph that the land owners, John A. Rapanos and June Carabell, may have hoped for. Instead, five justices found that regulators may have gone too far in trying to thwart their plans, and it returned the case to lower courts for further deliberation. One of the five justices, Anthony M. Kennedy, even suggested in a separate opinion that the property owners might lose once again in the lower courts.

I was very afraid when I last thought about this challenge way back in February. It was pretty clear at that point that Kennedy was the swing vote and that 8 out of 9 minds were probably made up. Kennedy’s lawmaking seems to be a little incoherent in this case. He was obviously not comfortable with the Scalia-Alito-Roberts-Thomas cabal’s clearly ideological decision, but can’t bring himself to make the centrist decision.

But Justice Kennedy wrote that the evidence in the long-running Rapanos and Carabell cases suggests “the possible existence of a significant nexus,” or connection, between their properties and navigable waterways — a connection that, if established in the lower courts, would reaffirm the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act over the tracts and could cause the property owners to lose again.

If you thought that there was a “significant nexus”, what kind of logic would then make you turnaround and support the opinion that there is no connection?

But Justice Scalia had a different perspective as he questioned the extent of federal jurisdiction. Under the government’s logic, he said, “a storm drain, even when not filled with water, is a tributary.”

“I suggest it’s very absurd to call that ‘waters of the United States,’ ” Justice Scalia added. “It’s a drainage ditch.”

Where Hon. Justice Scalia pretends to misunderstand the concept of drainage? I wonder if he would feel the same way if it was a pollution issue in his neighbor’s backyard.

This will make things confusing for a while, and you all know who confusion favors!

North Carolina Mercury Alert

Mercury is a trace element present in coal/oil that is emitted when coal is combusted for energy – Coal fired power plants account for 40% of all Mercury emissions in the USA.

Is $10 a Year Too Much?

Courtesy the North Carolina Conservation Network
They alerted me to this opinion piece in the News & Observer

North Carolina municipalities are demanding it. Other states are doing it. Now our state must impose maximum available control technology on all coal-burning power plants to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent as quickly as possible.

Why? Because it is the best way to protect our most precious natural resource, the brainpower of our children.

Against the strong advice of the pediatric and public health communities, in 2005 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency passed a wimpy rule to reduce mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants 70 percent by 2018. The rule also allows a “cap and trade” process, which may produce local hotspots of mercury pollution.


Prenatal exposure at levels consistent with consumption of contaminated fish can lead to IQ loss, memory and attention problems, fine motor deficits and developmental delay. These changes are likely permanent.

Estimated costs to consumers are about $4-$10 per year.

This is a no-lose situation. Merury controls are easy to implement, cheap, and requires nothing other than the tweaking of already existing controls. The only reason not do this is knee jerk opposition to even sensible regulation on the part of powerful entities (check out the sweet astroturf on that website!) that have the ear of the federal government.

The NC Conservation Network is running a campaign to toughen the proposed NC law. Please comment if you live in NC.

Mercury regulation is a case where the EPA’s much maligned command and control regulation works better than cap and trade policies because mercury is in the unique position of being both a  local and long range pollutant. Local pollutants have to be controlled at each source, so the Federal government’s proposed legislation is a bad idea and states are trying to do better.

Scary Energy Consumption Trends

Per capita energy

Data courtesy World Resources Institute. As you can see, the people of up and coming powers India and China use barely use 10% the energy per person compared to the US/Canada and will be thirsting for more in the coming years. Of course, they will never get to the same per capita use because population density and crowded housing makes for a lot of energy efficiency.

China is going coal in a big way. A NY Times article last week spent 5+ pages on this subject. Coal is dirty, dirty, dirty. Coal puts out copious amounts of CO2. Of course, conventional coal fired power plants also pollute in ways that temporarily mask greenhouse effects, both from direct particle emissions and sulfate formation from sulfur in the coal. These effects are localized and temporary, and have pretty serious short term health consequences.

India is going coal too, being the third largest producer in the world. At least, there is lip service being paid to clean coal/gasification, and increased use of natural gas.

The world is going to get worse before it gets better…

Global warming gets local and cloudy in Seattle

seattle.jpgI’ve noticed that a lot of global warming stories, and books use abstraction and remote examples to illustrate their point. Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent and readable Field Notes from a Catastrophe calls up the Arctic, the Antarctic, Polar Bears and rising sea levels. The publicity for Al Gore’s (Gore/Obama 2008!) Inconvenient Truth which I have not seen, talks about the Snows of Kilimanjaro extensively.

This kind of imagery is useful, but in the end, Leigh Person in Gary, IN (my favorite name and average city, resp.) will not be moved by shrinking Arctic ice. How will global climate change affect Leigh’s commute? Will Leigh’s vacation home on the beach be below water in 30 years? Will Leigh’s house be invaded by cockroaches? What will happen to Leigh’s 401K? What about Leigh’s kids?

It is difficult enough, given the false balance on climate change reporting, to make long term predictions that will not be “disputed” by “sceptics”, so to make local predictions that are more uncertain is difficult, which is why reporting like the example below must be lauded.

Climate change is a difficult problem, because the countries responsible for the bulk of past, present and future emissions are not the ones that will face the most serious consequences. I want to go into this in greater depth as I read and learn more, but any change in the availability of fresh water in, say, India will result in utter chaos, decelerated growth and death. But the countries most significantly affected (the tropics) are helpless to deal with climate change….

Hopefully, local focused stories will spur people to action.

The Seattle Times: Local News: An even grayer Seattle from global warming?

For those harboring the guilty hope that global warming will transform Seattle into a sun lovers’ paradise on par with the Côte d’Azur, meteorologist Cliff Mass has some bad news: It might actually get cloudier.

Mass and his colleagues at the University of Washington recently completed the most detailed computer simulation ever conducted of the region’s future weather. Among the surprises was a big boost in cloud cover in March, April and May.

“The spring is going to be gunkier — if you believe this — under global warming,” he said.

The model also predicts that the number of summer days when temperatures soar into the 90s will more than triple before the end of the century, if greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and industry continue unabated.

And the hopes of some water managers appear to be dashed by the finding that catastrophic losses of winter snowpack will not be offset by more summer thunderstorms.

Bill to test private drinking water wells under fire

Ensuring that private wells in  North Carolina are  held to the same standards as municipal water sources seems to be a no-brainer. Why would any one NOT want to know if their primary water source has arsenic, or old lace in it! Apparently, the need to buy a house in one day rather than wait the week or two that most environmental labs in the state would take to run the various drinking water tests takes precedence, seems like a little spin to me.

The real issue here is the competing needs of the buyer and the seller, the buyer needs to know and the seller does not necessarily want the buyer to know. If this is a private transaction, no big deal, people can ask, but when you’re up against the cookie cutter developers (politically connected, of course) and the home builders association, the power asymmetry pretty much ensures that in the absence of regulation, bad things will happen. | Testing of new wells under fire

The state’s real estate and home building industries are opposed to mandatory tests of new drinking water wells, especially if a test backlog could delay the sale of a house.

Companion bills, introduced late last month in the state House and
Senate at the request of Gov. Mike Easley, would require North Carolina counties to enforce state well construction standards. Water-quality tests will be required of new wells that provide water to houses or small businesses that serve transient populations, such as service stations.

The News & Observer reported in March that more than 2 million North Carolinians drink water from private wells and that they are at risk from contaminants that they cannot see, smell, or taste. Some are man-made, from a nearby farm or business, and some are natural, such as arsenic or radiological contaminants.

There are no state testing requirements for private wells. At least three attempts over the past 15 years to require minimal testing have been defeated.

Rick Zechini, who represents the N.C. Association of Realtors, and R. Paul Wilms, who represents the N.C. Home Builders Association, say the bill should be defeated if it isn’t changed.
“Until we get assurance that there is [testing] capacity, that the tests won’t take weeks and months, and that the cost is not prohibitive, we’re not in a position to support the legislation,” Zechini said.