November 25, 2011
Increasingly High Stakes in State Energy Decisions
As oil and natural gas drilling enabled by hydraulic fracturing has rapidly expanded in the United States, the importance of state regulation has become more apparent--as have concerns about regulatory capture at the state level. States have the bulk of the regulatory control over this practice, and they have taken different approaches to development, with New York showing perhaps the most precautionary approach. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has placed permits for gas drilling and fracturing on hold for wells that require large volumes of water in order to be fractured--which most in the Marcellus Shale do--as it completes a supplemental generic environmental impact statement reviewing high-volume fracturing. Any drillers wanting to press ahead with these wells while the statement is being completed must undergo a detailed site-specific environmental review. The public comment period for the Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement ends on December 12, 2011, and The New York Times reports today that as the DEC has come closer to finalizing the statement--and thus to a point where it will begin permitting more wells--industry has taken notice, spending "more than $3.2 million lobbying state government" since the beginning of 2010. I have not seen similar data for other states, but it would be useful to better understand how much money both industry and nonprofits have spent supporting or opposing proposals by other state regulators. Increasingly, states may be the primary battlegrounds for a number of important energy decisions, from updates to renewable portfolio standards to regulation of oil and gas development.
November 24, 2011
A Thanksgiving Post
A few blocks uphill from my old San Francisco apartment, halfway up the trail to the top of Buena Vista Park, is a viewpoint over much of the northwestern part of the city. It’s a beautiful spot, and also a place where one can see tangible evidence of the accomplishments of environmental activism and law. Had the highway planners of the 1960s had their way, the view would have been dominated by a major freeway. Instead, in one of the first major victories for the urban environmental movement, activists stopped the freeway and preserved a vibrant set of neighborhoods. Further in the distance are the Marin Headlands, once slated for a massive residential development but now largely preserved. On particularly fog-free days, you can look out over the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to the rocky outcrops of the Farallone Islands. The air is clear; the water of the bay, though by no means pristine, is swimmable if you can handle the cold; and the city below provides a great balance of development and green space. It’s a place where environmentalism has worked very well.
Just north of Portland, Maine, the city where I now work, the Presumpscot River pours over a series of ledges before spilling through a narrow gorge and into a small estuary. The falls are perhaps two miles from downtown Portland, but the river banks are largely undeveloped save for a local land trust's footpaths. It looks like a pocket of undisturbed nature in an otherwise urban setting, but looks are deceiving. In fact, for several centuries dams flooded this stretch of the river, and the falls weren’t there. Until fairly recently, the river also was so polluted that few people would have wanted to walk along the trails, let alone live nearby. But the Clean Water Act helped restore the river’s water quality, and after a 1996 storm damaged the dam, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers had it removed. Now anadromous fish are back, the river offers great spots to canoe or swim, and the trails to the falls are a short walk to an oasis of hemlocks and rushing water. It’s another spot where environmentalism has worked very well.
Thanksgiving seems a good time to think of places like these. For anyone who cares about environmental policy or law, the past ten years have not been easy, with the dysfunctional politics of climate change headlining a long list of frustrations. It's easy to feel that environmentalism has mostly been a lost cause. But all around us there are tangible reminders of what environmental law has achieved, and what it can achieve still. Today I’m thankful for those places.
November 22, 2011
Climate Change News in a Time Warp
Is anybody else feeling like climate change news has entered a time warp? Last week, one of the big stories was that climate change will bring more droughts and floods. As I dug into the story, I realized that yes, this news was spurred by a new IPCC report containing important further analysis of how climate change leads to extreme weather and its policy implications (particularly for adaptation). But my first thoughts upon reading the headline were: “This is news?” “Haven’t we known this for years?” “Wasn’t this an important finding of the IPCC’s 2007 report?”
Then, yesterday, a Reuters headline announced, “Record high greenhouse gases to linger for decades”. Apparently, the UN’s weather agency has said that concentrations of greenhouse gases “reached record levels in 2010 and will linger in the atmosphere for decades, even if the world stops emissions output today.” What’s new(s) about that?
The real kicker came this morning with a headline about hacked emails from East Anglia. The BBC is reporting that a “new batch of emails and other documents from the University of East Anglia's (UEA) Climatic Research Unit has been released on the internet.” The story then suggests that the emails are from the original hack, but are just now being put on the internet — timed for maximum disruption of international climate talks.
Is this 2011? Or is it 2009? Or 2007? Or perhaps even some earlier year?
I should make clear that I am happy that climate change is at least still showing up in major news outlets even if the substance of the news is not particularly new. But this time warp feeling is quite disturbing given that time is of the essence in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. It was several years ago that I recall first hearing that the window of opportunity for avoiding the most damaging climate changes was closing.
Oh – and have you heard the latest climate change news? The window (er, door) of opportunity for preventing irreversible climate change is closing, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency.
- Lesley McAllister
Abramoff on Protecting Us from People Like Abramoff
Over the past several years, the words Jack Abramoff have come to mean political corruption. While the challenges posed by those like Abamoff who use access and money to influence lawmakers and government employeees are much broader than the world of environmentmental policy, many would argue that these challenges are a major stumbling blocks standing in the way of sensible environmental policy.
Here Abramoff sizes up the extent to which politics has changed since the events that transpired that made him infamous and landed him in prison.
Despite the messenger, the segment provides a substantial warning that Washington needs much more than what politicians have propped up as reform. If Washington ever changes its license plates to say something other than "Taxation Without Representation," I hope the District decides to use the apt words spoken by Jack Nicolson playing the Joker in the movie Batman: "This Town Needs an Enema."
-- Brigham Daniels
November 21, 2011
A Snapshot of Climate Change - the Morris Island Lighthouse
A student in my Natural Resources Law class is writing a very interesting article on coastal erosion, the public trust doctrine, and takings. She passed along this interesting photograph of Morris Island, SC. As you can see in the image, moving left to right, the lighthouse was originally constructed 1200 feet onshore, then in 1938 was on the coast, and is now, well, in the ocean.
Our coastal areas have always been dynamic, but that dynamism will only become more apparent as sea levels rise. These images of Morris Island should give us pause. Over the last three decades, nearly half of all new construction in the United States has been in the coastal zone, and approximately fifty-three percent of the total U.S. population lives on the seventeen percent of land in the coastal zone. By 2000, counties along the coast had more than four times the population density of counties further inland. By 2020 an additional twenty-seven million people are expected to call the coast home (see here for citations). As a result, sea levels rising at exponential rates (over geologic time scales) will meet head-on with a rush of humans heading at exponential rates right into the face of rising sea levels—an ironic scenario that demonstrates the circular nature of human psychology related to climate change and sea level rise. Humans exacerbate climate change through the emission of copious quantities of carbon, and as a result sea levels rise; then humans move in disproportionate numbers into areas likely to be inundated by rising sea levels; then society expects governments to alleviate their difficulties after it becomes apparent that their structures will be out to sea. Hopefully we can take proactive actions to prevent more and more human-built structures from being consumed by the most vast natural resources on the earth - our oceans.
- Blake Hudson