Monday, August 29, 2011
Hurricanes/Heat = Global Warming, but Cold/Snow = Lunacy? How to Handle Isolated Weather Events When Discussing Climate Change?
As this is an issue that I have struggled with for some time now, I write this blog post to ask for advice, guidance, and the perspective of others - so please chime in with comments.
It seems to be the bane of existence for those familiar with climate change science - the person who posts on Facebook or Twitter, or who boldly asserts in the classroom or office, "it was a record low in X city, Y state today - suuuurrreeee global warming is real. And there's been record snowfall to boot!" These types of misunderstandings of climate change science have resulted in a shift from "global warming" terminology to "global weirding" or "climate change" - a recognition that though the earth's overall temperature will increase over time, climatic conditions will be quite variable in any given location.
Stephen Colbert has parodied this thought process quite well in the following video:
When people make comments that cold weather days must disprove global warming, Colbert quips, "Folks, that is simple observational research: whatever just happened is the only thing that is happening . . . [Currently] it is dark outside. Now based on this latest data, we can only assume that the sun has been destroyed. The world has plunged into total darkness. Soon all our crops will die and it's only a matter of time before the mole people emerge from the center of the earth to enslave us in forever night....thanks a lot Al Gore."
Even though I agree with the silliness of such arguments, I cannot help but wonder what our responsibility is as educators, scientists, and other professionals in the field when it comes to isolated weather events that appear to support "our" position. Over the course of this summer I have seen numerous posts on Twitter and various news articles and blog posts from both environmental groups and professionals asserting what essentially sounds a lot like "See! Record heat! Climate change is real!" Also, I saw even more posts, and some articles, during recent Hurricane Irene that seemed to highlight this one hurricane event as proof of climate change. Don't get me wrong - I certainly trust the statistics on warming trends and increased hurricane frequency and intensity over the last few decades. There is little doubt that those trends reinforce and form part of the foundation of climate change science. But my question is more about framing the issue. It is really hard for me to criticize someone for arguing that cold weather events disprove global warming, and then turn around and say that a single hurricane or a hot month of July support my "position." This is despite the fact that some may say "well sure, of course it is ok to do just that, because we are right. The data is on our side. So of course it is ok to point to these events as proof." That may very well be true, but something about that approach just doesn't feel right. I think it may be one of those arguments we should consider dropping so as not to allow the delivery of the message to disrupt or confuse the message itself.
In the end, I believe that if those pointing out the reality of climate change do not want to sound exactly like those they criticize, it might be in our best interest to not use hyperbolic sounding arguments based upon isolated weather events. And trust me, this is hard for me - I like hyperbole. But maybe we should stick to the whole story, and not just parts of it? What are your thoughts?
- Blake Hudson
Friday, August 26, 2011
The most recent edition of the ABA Journal inspired me. Its cover story is the feature "30 Lawyers Pick 30 Books Every Lawyer Should Read."
This got me thinking. What are the must-read energy, or energy law and policy, books out there?
Looking around a little, I found one person's answer. Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic and author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, came up with these "13 Energy Books You Need to Read":
- Consuming Power by David Nye
- Petrolia by Brian Black
- The Prize by Daniel Yergin
- Energy Policy in America Since 1945 by Richard Vietor
- Technology and Transformation in the American Electric Utility Industry by Richard Hirsh
- The Bulldozer in the Countryside by Adam Rome
- Soft Energy Paths by Amory Lovins
- Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil
- Hubbert’s Peak by Ken Deffeyes
- A Golden Thread by Ken Butti and John Perlin
- Sorry Out of Gas: Architecture’s Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis by the Canadian Centre for Architecture
- Wind Energy Comes of Age by Paul Gipe
- The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart
Madrigal's is a fascinating, insightful list. I'm still wondering: what's my list of must-read energy and energy law/policy books?
More to the point, what's yours?
Friday, August 19, 2011
In the months since the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, it seems that nuclear energy increasingly has been in the news. This week was no exception. If anything, it was a particularly busy few days for news on nuclear energy. A few highlights:
- A U.S. envoy to Japan severely criticized that nation's government for their response to the Fukushima disaster. According to an AP story, Kevin Maher, head of the envoy and the former diplomat to Japan, said: "“There was nobody in charge. Nobody in the Japanese political system was willing to say, ‘I’m going to take responsibility and make decisions.’”
- Meanwhile, Japanese citizens are still dealing with the radioactive aftermath of Fukushima.
- In New York, residents are split over Governor Cuomo's plan to shutter Entergy's Indian Point nuclear generating station. According to a recent poll, 49 percent of those living near the plant oppose shutdown, while 40 percent favor it.
- The Tennessee Valley Authority unanimously approved a proposal to complete construction of the Bellefonte nuclear power plant in Hollywood, Alabama. Prior construction ended in the late 1980s.
- At the same time, Exelon's CEO John Rowe spoke out on the difficulty of building new nuclear plants in the U.S. "The country needs nuclear power if it is going to tackle the problem of climate change," he said. "But we must keep our hopes for new generation harnessed to facts. Nuclear needs to be looked at in the Age of Reason and not the Age of Faith. It is a business and not a religion."
- And the NRC approved a license for a uranium milling operation in Wyoming.
Monday, August 8, 2011
Last week, I spent some time in the Nixon Library reviewing documents produced by the Nixon Administration relevant to the beginnings of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air Act. In doing so, I found many interesting documents that relate to my research. I ran across one document, however, that I did not expect to find: a memo from White House Counsel (and later Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan discussing climate change. The memo was addressed to John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs. The memo in part reads as follows:
As with so many of the more interesting environmental questions, we really don't have very satisfactory measurements of the carbon dioxide problem. On the other hand, this very clearly is a problem, and, perhaps most particularly, is one that can seize the imagination of persons normally indifferent to projects of apocalyptic change.
The process is a simple one. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has the effect of a pane of glass in a greenhouse. The CO2 content is normally in a stable cycle, but recently man has begun to introduce instability through the burning of fossil fuels. At the turn of the century several persons raised the question whether this would change the temperature of the atmosphere. Over the years the hypothesis has been refined, and more evidence has come along to support it. It is now pretty clearly agreed that the CO2 content will rise 25% by 2000. This could increase the average temperature near the earth's surface by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. This in turn could raise the level of the sea by I0 feet. Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter. We have no data on Seattle.
It is entirely possible that there will be countervailing effects, for example, an increase of dust in the atmosphere would tend to lower temperatures, and might offset the CO2 effect. Similarly, it is possible to conceive fairly mammoth man-made efforts to countervail the CO2 rise. (E.g., stop burning fossil fuels.)
In any event, I would think this is a subject that the Administration ought to get involved with...
I often had wondered what might have happened had the Nixon Administration identified climate change as a problem. (Or as the bumper stickers sold in the Presidential Library ask "WWND--What Would Nixon Do?") After all, during the Nixon Administration, Congress and the President worked dilligently to address a wide array of environmental issues. To my surprise, climate change was at least recognized as a problem by those working on environmental policy within the administration. Unfortunately, not so much unlike the Administrations that followed, for the Nixon Administration it was a problem that was acknowledged by some but left unaddressed.
If anyone is interested in getting a pdf of the memo, feel free to contact me.
-- Brigham Daniels
Sunday, August 7, 2011
* The famine in Somalia continues to worsen.
* Shell received conditional approval from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Enforcement and Regulation to drill in the arctic Beaufort Sea, off the coast of Alaska.
* EPA proposed a rule that would exempt carbon dioxide streams from hazardous waste regulations under certain conditions. The hope is to spur greater use of carbon capture and sequestration technology.
* A new PAC has formed to promote energy efficiency legislation.
* If you haven't seen it yet, Science has out an impressive set of materials on population trends, their environmental impacts, and prognostications about what it all means for the future of the planet.
* The leopards are not happy.
August 7, 2011 in Africa, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Energy, Land Use, Law, Legislation, North America, Science, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, US, Water Resources | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Saturday, July 30, 2011
Earlier this year, the University of Utah law school hosted what turned out to be a great symposium on the topic, "The Future of Energy Law." The articles from that conference have just been published, and offer what can only be described as a virtual treasure trove for energy law enthusiasts.
They feature some of the brightest minds in the game. To wit:
- The Past, Present, and Future of Energy Regulation by Dick Pierce
- Controlling Greenhouse Gases from Highway Vehicles by Arnold Reitze
- Residential Renewable Energy: By Whom? by Joel Eisen
- The Next Step: The Integration of Energy Law and Environmental Law by Amy Wildermuth
- "Our Generation's Sputnik Moment": Regulating Energy Innovation by Joe Tomain
- The Future of Energy Law - Electricity by Ed Comer
We were lucky enough to hear in person these emerging ideas in what is an ever-changing field here in Salt Lake City earlier this January.
They're now all available for download as well.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
I am in Seoul participating in the Korea Legislation Research Institute's conference, "Architecting Better Regulation to Overcome Energy Crisis." The conference has produced a fascinating discussion about how best to transition to a renewable energy economy.
Korea has been using a feed-in tariff ("FIT") system to promote renewables deployment. That changed in 2008 when the system came under criticism, in large part because it placed a strain on government finances. This goes to show that how policies are designed very much matters. FITs that raise consumer prices too much are subject to challenge on that ground, but those that choke government coffers may make the point even more acutely.
The plan now is to switch to a renewable portfolio standard ("RPS"), much like what many of the states in the U.S. are using. It will be a very interesting case study that puts these two mechanisms in sharp contrast. Debates about whether FITs or RPSs are better at incenting renewables deployment are longstanding; others have advocated that they can work together. Korea's change may add some clarity to the discussion.
It may also prove to drive home some of the themes that emerged from the conference speakers:
- Jannik Termansen, a vice president at Vestas, noted that what industry needs is not as much one scheme over another, but rather, "TLC": not tender loving care, but "transparency," a "long-term, stable commitment," and "certainty." He noted that installed wind capacity in the Asia-Pacific region has now surpassed that of North America, and looks to grow even further in coming years.
- Penny Crossley from the University of Sydney argued that renewables are important not just from a climate change perspective but also from that of energy security. "Energy security is another reason why renewables are important," she said. She noted six different ways that renewables promote energy security, and argued that we should commoditize those security benefits.
- Prof. Wu Zhonghu and Libin Zhang reminded us of the heavy role China will play in shaping the world's energy future. They noted that China is now a leader in world energy consumption, and that China remains in a transition from a centrally planned system to a market-based one. How this affects renewables development long-term remains to be seen.
- Nicolas Croquet highlighted the EU's 20-20-20 challenge. It is ambitious indeed: By 2020, 20% renewable energy use, a 20% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, and 20% decreased primary energy use. Is this a goal to which Korea, the U.S., and others should aspire? Should we go further?
It is a lot to chew on, both for the energy outlook for Asia and at home in the U.S. as well.
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Legal scholarship of late has highlighted the need not just for climate mitigation but also for climate adaptation. One energy option that falls somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum is carbon capture and sequestration ("CCS"): removing carbon dioxide streams from commercial operations, especially coal-fired power plant emissions, and then transporting it to geologic formations where it can be stored long-term underground.
Despite the fact that the oil and gas industry has used this process for years in enhanced oil reocvery operations, commercial-scale CCS has yet to get off the ground as a climate change solution. Numerous recent scholarly articles have addressed legal concerns related to carbon capture and sequestration, including, to name just a few, excellent pieces by Victor Flatt and by Alex Klass and Elizabeth Wilson.
While many studies have suggested barriers to using CCS on a broad-scale basis -- including its high cost compared to traditional coal combustion, possible legal liability for underground storage gone awry, and difficulties in building the massive pipeline infrastructure that would be needed for commercial CCS -- no study to date has methodically addressed which of these barriers is greatest. The answer to that question is important, because it implicates what CCS regulation should look like.
One study that I have been working on with colleagues from the University of Utah's Institute for Clean and Secure Energy takes up this question (and several others). While we are still in the process of finalizing the report, here is a partial preview.
The study includes a survey of about 230 industry, professional, regulatory, and academic representatives involved in CCS. One of the survey questions asked the participants to rate, on a 1 to 5 scale, a number of possible barriers to CCS commercialization. A score of 1 means that the barrier is "no obstacle" to CCS commercialization, a 2 is a "minor" barrier, a 3 is a "measurable" barrier, 4 a "significant" barrier, and 5 a "critical barrier.
Four obstacles to CCS commercialization ranked highest in the survey: cost, lack of a carbon price or other financial incentive for using CCS, liability, and lack of comprehensive CCS regulation.
In one respect, this ranking is unsurprising. Cost, liability, and the lack of climate change legislation have been widely acknowledged as problematic for the roll-out of CCS, so one might expect them to top the list. Perhaps more interesting, however, is how highly the lack of CCS regulation rates. What this means is that before CCS is likely to get off the ground, a predictable, comprehensive regulatory regime will need to be put in place.
The survey has more to say on that front. Look for the full report later this summer.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Earlier this week, it was hard to tell whether the cries coming from southern California were of joy or despair. San Diego Gas & Electric is in the process of building a massive transmission line from the Imperial Valley to its load center in San Diego. Increasingly, it looks like SDG&E will be able to fend off the numerous legal challenges to the project and bring scores of renewable electrons home.
The Sunrise Powerlink project is, by any measure, impressive. According to SDG&E, the line will run nearly 120 miles. It will cost almost $2 billion to build. It will create hundreds of construction jobs and "thousands" of jobs in renewable energy. It should save consumers $100 million annually. It will give SDG&E access to numerous renewables projects. And it will have a capacity of 1,000 MW, enough to power "650,000 homes."
All this sounds like a good thing. One would think so. It is well established that one of the biggest impediments to renewables is the need for more transmission lines -- lots of them in many places. On that score, the Sunrise Powerlink project should be most welcome news. SDG&E repeatedly has pointed out that this project can only help the state achieve its renewable portfolio mandate of 33% renewable electricity by 2020.
Still, the fact that the Sunrise project has been plagued by litigation highlights the contentious natureof completing any large energy developmenttoday. NIMBYism reigns not only when developments harm the environment but also when they help. Companies building environmentally beneficial projects know well by now that environmentalism is not a proper noun, a capitalized word representing a unified front. It's very much lower-cased; disaggregated, splintered, fractured, multifarious, subject to hijacking.
This, then, underscores three important points that are becoming more and more obvious as we, it increasingly seems, begin a transition to a more sustainable energy infrastructure. First, the process will be slow. Sunrise is all about renewables but still facesopposition. What will be the fate of more mixed projects? Second, if we are to move to renewables, legislation facilitating transmission build-outs will be extremely helpful, if not necessary. Utilities clearly prefer big, centrally planned projects. Without transmission, they can't go forward. Third, a united front will be necessary. Climate change certainly has been a galvanizing force for environmentalists over the last decade, and more. If they want meaningful progress, environmentalists cannot say no to everything. Some things have to be yes, and the yes needs to be resounding. That especially goes for projects that have both environmental and economic benefits.
Then there will be some good news indeed.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
A recurrent axiom in energy law today is that "efficiency is our cheapest resource." It's true. Every day, we forgo massive amounts of monetary and environmental savings we could achieve without ever building a new wind farm or replacing gasoline with natural gas, simply because our energy systems are not as efficient as they could -- or should -- be. The beautiful thing about efficiency, moreover, is that it is generally non-controversial. It's cheap. It's green. So everyone loves it.
Earlier this year, the kerfuffle in Congress over light bulb regulation drew into question the political legs of the efficiency argument. A portion of the 2007 energy bill signed by President George W. Bush -- and supported by industry -- required the phase-out of lower-efficiency incandescent light bulbs. But at least some members of this Congress, newly invigorated by the anti-regulation flare of Tea Party Republicans, took issue with this measure, using it to highlight their philosophical aims.
Now, however, at least two bills pending in Congress pack enough efficiency punchto make one forget there ever was a light bulb debate.
The first, S. 398 or the Implementation of National Consensus Appliance Agreements Act of 2011 would update existing, and institute first-time, efficiency standards for numerous appliances and devices, including refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, furnaces and A/C units, portable electric spas, and drinking water dispensers. Supported by a broad coalition of environmental groups and appliance manufacturers, the bill would conserve enough energy to fuel "4.6 million homes" save consumers a net "$43 billion by 2030," according to an analysis by the Alliance to Save Energy.
The second, S. 1000 or the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2011, would address efficiency in further ways. In addition to establishing efficiency standards for appliances, it would strengthen national model building codes, encourage private investment in residential and commercial efficiency upgrades through DOE loan guarantees, create a "SupplySTAR" program to enhance the efficiency of companies' supply chains, and require the nation's largest energy consumer, the federal government, to institute efficiency and energy-saving measures. Industry also is getting behind this bill. Eric Spiegel, Siemens Corp.'s president and CEO, said this: "Federal, state and local budgets are as tight as they have ever been, but energy efficient products and solutions that will be advanced through this important piece of legislation can help government, industry and consumers save energy and millions of dollars, create jobs and spur competitiveness."
For those who are endeared by measures that both save money and our nation's environmental future, these bills should come as welcome news.
And if that's not enough, take a walk down the aisles of your local hardware store. You might be pleased to find some of the light bulbs that are now for sale.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
When discussing climate change with students, it is quite common to get the question, "What about climategate?" Even if students do not ask about it, given the media and political attention paid to the episode referred to as climategate, it is something that is probably going through many students' minds. In this post, I will discuss how I deal with this question.
To start with, it is important to note that reality of climategate and the perceptions of it, while certainly different, are both important in the policy debates on climate change. Of course, in political discourse what climategate has come to represent is an assertion that climate change science is nothing more than a fraud, a hoax, a conspiracy, and even the scandal of a generation. Some climate skeptics have gone to great pains to detail how climategate shattered the notion that there is a scientific consensus that the globe is warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
So, what is the reality of climategate? For those unfamiliar with the story, in November of 2009, a computer hacker was able to access and copy thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit's server. (The Climate Research Unit is the academic home of a number of scientists involved in some important aspects of climate change science, including helping to draft reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.) Climate change skeptics pounced on the emails and made an aggressive press in the media, asserting that the emails' content effectively debunked climate change science as science. In this efforts, a number of emails were held out as smoking guns.
More than the information contained in the emails, the most damaging thing about this episode to climate change science was the press's response to this so-called scandal and the inability of the scientific community to respond effectively. To put it simply, on one hand, many in the press retold and reinforced the story put out by climate skeptics (see this story in the Wall Street Journal example as an example.) On the other hand, those involved with the so-called scandal were unable to quickly answer the questions posed to them in a way that effectively defended their scientific work. (A number of media outlets have have made this point, see The Economist an an example.) Those inclined to persist in rejecting the findings of climate science or even not inclined to act on these findings have continued to point to climategate (see this report from a number of U.S. Senators as an example).
While many in the media immediately got out the story, time has passed and allowed others to fully investigate the claims of climate skeptics. In large part, these reviews have come to the conclusion that some of the scientists involved with important climate change research at the University of East Anglia were:
- Disposed to dislike some climate skeptics and their work.
- Not only trying to further science but also trying to present their work in light that would prompt political leaders to take action.
- Unwilling to be transparent with their work, including in responding to requests to share background materials with some climate skeptics.
While none of these things paint the scientists at issue in a flattering light, they are do not even come close to amounting to the scandal of a generation, fraud or even a hoax. Many news organizations, having reviewed the investigations, have tried to address prior coverage and to get the story right (see the New York Times and Newsweek for example).
For particularly eager students, I often refer them directly to these independent reports: The Guardian's investigation; the report of the House of Commons' investigation; and (while less rigorous still my personal favorite link to share with students) factcheck.org's investigation.
While I have found it tempting not to really address climategate in class because it seems somewhat of a waste of the class's time, I have come to believe that it is important to discuss this issue with students. It has a lot of lessons to offer. It certainly shows that in politics, and in this case in particular, perception is often more important than facts. Despite that there was not all much of a gate in climategate, this does nothing to stop people from giving it great weight nonetheless.
-- Brigham Daniels
Monday, June 6, 2011
Bonn--At a climate conference in Germany, with lager in hand, I was prepared to ponder nearly any environmental insult or failure. But rat pee? Really?
The urine of rats, as it turns out, is known to transmit the leptospirosis bacteria which can lead to high fever, bad headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea. During summer rainstorms in São Paulo, Brazil, floodwaters send torrents of sewage, garbage, and animal waste through miles of hillside slums and shanties. Outbreaks of leptospirosis often follow the floods. And in a metropolitan region of 20 million people, that’s a public health emergency.
I learned this and more at the 2nd World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change, organized by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability and the World Mayors Council on Climate Change, with support from the U.N. Human Settlements Programme. The event brought together 600 delegates, including mayors and UN officials, to address what may be this century’s defining challenge: keeping up with the climate.
While some of our national politicians continue to ignore basic climate science, and while I continue to rail against my local climate-denying weatherman who just last month spoke to my kids’ elementary school, the rest of the world is getting on with life. Specifically, scores of municipal governments from all over the world—rich and poor, iconic and ordinary—are beginning to make plans for adjusting to a planet that is going to be warmer, wetter, and just plain weirder.
In consultation with the World Bank, the City of Jakarta, Indonesia, has launched an assessment of geographical hazards, socioeconomic vulnerabilities, and institutional weaknesses now posed by rising seas, hotter temperatures, and swifter storms. This coastal megacity, 40 percent of which lies below sea level and is sinking because of groundwater depletion, is developing comprehensive disaster management programs, plans for coastal fortification, and new storm water systems. Half-a-world away, the city of Toronto has employed sophisticated computer modeling and a set of 1,700 plausible future scenarios to prepare for the impacts of stronger snowstorms and wilder floods. They have excel spreadsheets (and accompanying PowerPoint slides) on just about everything—traffic-light outages, sewer overflows, falling bridges, you name it. And down south in São Paulo, city officials are calling for vital “slum upgrades,” safer zoning, and, yes, improvements to sanitation and public-health networks to prevent and treat leptospirosis.
Don’t think American mayors are sitting on their hands. While their efforts do not often make the national news, a few metropolitan areas are driving change in impressive, innovative ways, including Boston, New York, Chicago, and Seattle.
As in the anti-pollution movement of the 1970s, in the climate mitigation movement cities and local governments are leading the way. But they will hit a wall without the sustained support of national governments and the international community. The needed financial resources and scientific and engineering expertise are simply too great. And the shared nature of climate problems will sometimes require uniform standards and behavior across municipal boundaries.
The Obama administration has begun developing its own climate-adaptation strategy which would require adaptation plans for all federal agencies. And just last week, the EPA issued its first-ever climate-change adaptation policy statement, which promises an official adaption strategy by June 2012, puts an emphasis on environmental justice, and includes a plan to survey existing laws to determine how adaptation goals should be implemented into the federal regime. (Full disclosure: as a member of the Obama administration at the time, I had a hand in both documents.)
It’s important for all of this work to keep going. Remember, politicians don’t always see the light, but they feel the heat. And the heat I’m talking about here is political.
- Guest post written by Robert R.M. Verchick. He is a former environmental official in the Obama administration and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He is the author of “Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World.” This post was cross-posted on the Center for Progressive Reform blog.
Thursday, June 2, 2011
Picking up on Prof. McAllister's post Tuesday about top environmental law films, one recent movie should not be missed. Strikingly shot, beautifully conceived, Into Eternity traces the story of the construction of Onkalo, Finland's version of the United States' Yucca Mountain: a deep-beneath-the-earth, labyrinthine permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste.
The film is as much art as it is documentary, but at its core its mission is to ask the hardest questions there are about spent nuclear fuel: How is it that we continue to rely so heavily on nuclear power when no one has yet to find a politically palatable solution for the waste? How can humans conceive of, much less maintain, a structure that will last 100,000 years when nothing we have ever built has lasted even a fraction of that time? What are our obligations to future generations, whether from a theological or humanistic perspective, in terms of the planet that we all share? If power storage is likely to become electricity's "killer app," Into Eternity seems to be asking, is nuclear waste its "zombie app"? Is nuclear waste likely to come back years from now, undead-like, once gone but now resurrected, to haunt humankind and the planet on which we live?
The film is at its best when it asks these questions in its uniquely creative ways. Filmmaker Michael Madsen puts his own, indelible imprint on the long-debated issue of nuclear waste. Whether pointing out that "merely" 5,000 years later we hardly understand what the Egyptians were doing with their pyramids; asking if Edvard Munch's The Scream would be an effective, universal warning sign for Onkalo millennia or even centuries from now; showing the contrast between Onkalo's dark, underground tunnels and the gorgeous winter white forests they lie beneath, the film drives home both the difficulty of the task and the contrast between nature and the high-tech civilization we have erected.
Still, Into Eternity is rather one-sided. It zeroes in only on the problems of nuclear waste without highlighting the many benefits we garner from nuclear power. It emphasizes the temporal length of the waste's risk without discussing the likelihood. It, quite intentionally, elicits emotion, particularly fear, without exploring the social, economic, and political dimensions of the dilemma. True, the Scandinavian experts who are interviewed throughout the film are excellent, but they are used more as ornamentation to spotlight Onkalo's mind-boggling complexity than they are to explore it.
In the end, the choice of how to portray Onkalo is the artist's prerogative. Art, at its core, is all about perspective.
The vision of nuclear waste offered here may be a somewhat jaundiced one, but it is no less sobering -- or worthwhile -- for the wear.
Monday, May 30, 2011
When confronted with friends or students who may be skeptical of the human role in climate change, I say "forget the temperature, let's talk about ocean acidification." Ocean acidification has been described as "the other carbon problem," and only recently have the implications of increasingly acidic oceans garnered much attention. Can we measure the increased concentration of carbon in the atmosphere when compared to pre-industrial levels? Check. Do we know that as a result of higher concentrations of CO2 the oceans have absorbed an increasing amount of carbon over time? Check. Do we know the scientific process whereby this carbon causes ocean water to become more acidic, and can that increasing acidity be measured? Check and check. In short, the increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reacts with ocean water to form carbonic acid, and surface waters today are 30% more acidic than they were at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
A recent article highlights that even conservative projections are that the oceans will be twice as acidic by the end of the century as they were in pre-industrial times. This increased acidity reduces the ability of a variety of important sea creatures to form and maintain shells or skeletons built from calcium carbonate - a result that would likely ripple all the way up the food chain. As these creatures are taken out of the food web, the negative impacts on fisheries and ocean life - and correspondingly the 1 billion humans that depend on those resources - will be profound. This is not to mention the damage that will continue to accrue to the ocean's dying coral reefs and other abundant biodiversity.
Researchers have recently set out to investigate the potential implications of rising ocean
acidity. These researchers have monitored a variety of viruses, bacteria, phytoplankton, and zooplankton, introducing varying levels of acidity into their local environment (mesocosms) to predict future impacts on these organisms.
It certainly seems clear that since we can measure the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, we know it is humans who released (and continue to release) it, and we know the basic workings of the "greenhouse effect" when there are higher higher concentrations of CO2 and other gases in the atmosphere, then we should see the need to, at the least, proceed cautiously by reducing carbon emissions and attempting to mitigate against climate change. But until that exercise of logic becomes as mainstream among the populous as it currently is among scientists, the case of ocean acidification is a more tangible example of how increased levels of carbon dioxide damage our environment. My approach is to challenge people to go measure it themselves, rather than wallowing in uninformed denial.
For a compelling introduction to the issue of ocean acidification, see this documentary produced by NRDC:
- Blake Hudson
Monday, May 23, 2011
The U.S. Forest Service recently released a report detailing the projected impacts population growth and urbanization will have on southeastern forests over the next 50 years, reducing them by as much as 23 million acres (or 13%). The report provided four primary reasons for the decline: population, climate change, timber markets and invasive species.
Southern forests are among the most biodiverse forests in the United States, and a disproportionate number of endangered species are located in the southeast when compared to other regions of the U.S.
The report indicates that private individuals and companies will be crucial to the effort to curb the destruction, noting that nearly 90% of the forestland in the south is privately owned. Even so, regulation of land uses such as private forestry and urban development is seen as a role constitutionally reserved for state and local governments. In turn, the southeastern U.S. maintains some of the most lax forest regulatory standards (not to mention zoning standards) in the world, even less rigorous than many developing countries, according to a study performed by Cashore and McDermott and as seen in the below chart (a "9" denotes the most stringent forest regulatory standards and a "0" the least).
Most all southeastern U.S. states maintain "best management practices" that are completely voluntary on the part of the forest manager. These BMP's may suggest to a private forester that he or she leave a buffer zone of trees around watercourses in watersheds in order to prevent erosion, siltation and eutrophication of waterways, among other environmental and economic harms. But foresters can feel free to ignore those "standards" and clear timber to the edge of the stream if they so choose. The only claim an adjacent landowner might have against the offending party is a common law nuisance claim, if there was damage caused to their property by the erosion, etc., since no regulatory remedies are available.
A co-author of the Forest Service report stated "We're counting on policy-makers...to implement and act on some of the findings...That is our hope." Hopefully policy-makers at the state and local level will take heed of the report and make much needed changes to the approach and rigor of both southern forest management and urban growth control. As a southern forester myself, I really would prefer not to have 10% fewer trees gracing this beautiful, and environmentally rich, part of the country.
- Blake Hudson
Thursday, May 19, 2011
This week, news outlets are reporting that Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko has been out-voted by other commission members. The issue du jour is whether to release an unredacted preliminary safety report to Congress -- formally, draft "Volume III of the Safety Evaluation Report ('SER')" for the Department of Energy's now-withdrawn Yucca Mountain license application.
According to an April 28, 2011 letter released this week by Congressman Ralph M. Hall (R-Tx.), a majority of commissioners disagreed with Jaczko and sent an unredacted version of the technical report to Congress. "I have reiterated my belief that public release of preliminary staff findings and conclusions establishes a dangerous agency precedent," Jaczko wrote in the letter. "Notwithstanding my reservations, a majority of the Commission is willing to provide unredacted copies in response to Congressional Committee requests provided that they are held in confidence."
At multiple turns, Chairman Jaczko's letter emphasizes the tentative nature of the Commission staff's evaluation:
- "[T]he findings and conclusions in the document are preliminary."
- "The staff's preliminary findings may turn out to be incorrect or incomplete. As such, they can mislead or confuse the public."
- "The redacted portions represent the predecisional findings and conclusions we normally protect from public release consistent with the Freedom of Information Act. Even my colleagues and I have not had access to the redacted portions of SER Volume III. As the appellate body for the agency, the Commission does not have access to predecisional, non-public information regarding the staff's substantive review of the Yucca Mountain application."
Perhaps more than anything, the Commission's release of this report exposes the increased politicization of energy policy in the nation's capital this year. Yucca mountain long has been a political battleground. Now, despite the Obama administration's express support for the nuclear industry, the current Congress is using the president's decision to shutter Yucca as political ammunition.
Add to this the ongoing debate over tax credits utilized by the oil industry, the increasing spotlight on natural gas fracking, and continuing malaise in D.C. on climate change policy, and the political nature of energy policy in the United States is laid bare. It resurrects the persistent question of American energy law and policy: Will we let markets decide our fate, or will we affirmatively choose the energy path we desire?
Once again, the answer seems to be "neither." Like the few Jedi scattered in an army of so many Republic clones, the real debate gets lost in the politics.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Over the past several years almost all of the Republican candidates vying for their party's nomination to run for President have tried to walk back past positions taken on climate change. Governor Tim Pawlenty, for example, was a supporter of addressing climate change when he was governor of Minnesota, but when addressing CPAC earlier this year, he not only backed off, he said of his prior position, "it was a mistake, it was stupid, it was wrong." Last week, Ann Carlson wrote an informative post for Legal Planet documenting the many flip flops on this issue.
However, a few of the candidates have stayed true to their past positions on climate change. Of these only Ambassador/Governor Jon Huntsman has stuck to his guns with a former position that acknowledged that climate change is a real problem that is worth addressing. In an interview Time published earlier this week, he said,
This is an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community; I’m not a meteorologist. All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community—though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.
Given the political realities of the Republican nominating convention, this is a courageous position for a candidate to take. Despite the fact that he stands with the National Academies of Science, the InterAcademy Council, the International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences, the National Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, and even the Bush Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, it is still awkward company to also stand alongside President Obama and the Sierra Club.
Obviously, both Democrats and Republicans have their blind spots and almost every politician flip flops on an issue at some time or another. (President Obama, for example, is currently struggling with explaining how he could have voted against raising the debt limit when he was a Senator but why it is vital for Congress to raise the debt ceiling now.) To me, it is a distressing commentary of our time that so many politicians are willing to walk away from their better judgment when it serves their political interests. Particularly when it comes to issues as massive as climate change, it seems that we would be best served by politicians willing to tell us what we need to hear instead of what we just want to hear.
-- Brigham Daniels
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Twelve years ago to the month, my wife and I stood in a long line at the classic Uptown Theater in northwest Washington, D.C. to see the much-anticipated Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace. Whatever your view is of that movie, Jar Jar Binks, or the science fiction genre in general, for me The Phantom Menace evoked a very particular response. Having come to film as a child largely on repeated viewings of the VHS copy of the original Star Wars my father had made for me when it aired on network television -- the commercials almost, but not quite, perfectly cut out by the pause button -- The Phantom Menace left me awestruck by its effects, struggling with its disconnection from the original trilogy, and certain of only one thing: there would be more.
If anything was clear at the end The Phantom Menace, it was that there would be another installment of the Star Wars enterprise. The story would go on. The saga would continue.
Those who have been following the story of high-level nuclear waste in the United States must be feeling the same thing this week, as yet another installment of the saga that is Yucca Mountain was revealed. While Congress is investigating the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's delay in issuing a final decision on the Department of Energy's withdrawal of its permit application for Yucca, this week the Government Accountability Office released a report examining what motivated DOE's decision to withdraw its application in the first place. The GAO report is critical enough of the DOE that it is accompanied by a 14-page letter from the Department asserting, in part, that "some" of the GAO's "conclusions are based upon misapprehensions of fact."
A few highlights from the GAO report:
- "DOE’s decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons."
- "After decades of effort and nearly $15 billion in spending, DOE succeeded in submitting a license application for a nuclear waste repository. However, since then, DOE has dismantled its repository effort at Yucca Mountain and has taken steps that make the shutdown difficult to reverse."
- "DOE undertook an ambitious set of steps to dismantle the Yucca Mountain repository program. However, concerns have been raised about DOE’s expedited procedures for disposing of property from the program . . . In addition, DOE did not consistently follow federal policy and guidance for planning or assessing risks of the shutdown. Some of these steps to dismantle the program will likely hinder progress if the license application review process resumes—should NRC or the courts require it."
- "[There are] two broad lessons for developing a future waste management strategy. First, social and political opposition to a permanent repository, not technical issues, is the key obstacle. Important tools for overcoming such opposition include transparency, economic incentives, and education. Second, it is important that a waste management strategy have consistent policy, funding, and leadership, especially since the process will likely take decades."
Thursday, May 5, 2011
When I teach administrative law, we start the semester with one of the primary lessons of the course: "Everything in administrative law is political." The same, often, can be said about energy law. Our policy, our decisions, the directions we head on the nation's energy landscape are driven as much by politics -- interest groups, ideology, inertia -- as they are by reason, calculus, and a careful assessment of costs.
This is perhaps nowhere more true than with nuclear energy. The political storm that surrounds that resource is on full display again this week. As I posted previously, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has begun investigating the Obama administration's decision to (depending on your perspective) mothball or permanently shutter the Yucca Mountain project, which was originally slated to serve as a long-term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.
Yesterday, the Committee held hearings on the matter and sparks flew. The heart of the hearing was why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not yet acted on the Department of Energy's request to withdraw its permitting application for Yucca. A prior decision by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled that DOE lacked the authority to withdraw its application. That decision, however, is subject to review by the full NRC.
The implication by Republican lawmakers is that Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko, who was appointed by President Obama, has bowed to the administration's -- and his former boss's, Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) -- will by stalling issuance of the Commission's appellate decision. A tied vote by the Commission would mean that the Board's decision stands, and other commissioners stated that they had given their votes last year.
A few highlights:
- Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) called the NRC "the most secretive agency on Capitol Hill.”
- Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) suggested that Chairman Jaczko was "foot-dragging . . . because he thinks on June the 30th" the Commission will have a different makeup.
- Rep. Morgan Griffith (R.-Va.) said it appears "from the outside" that the NRC is attempting to stall "until somebody comes along that agrees with you more than apparently whatever votes you got behind the scenes."
Yucca thus now may have officially earned the moniker "energy law's political yo-yo of the century." No other project is as critical to the future of nuclear energy in this nation, and no other has been as stalled, delayed, debated, wrangled, or fought over. It is, as politics so often are, truly up and down.
Or, as Rep. Terry asserted about the NRC itself, "this is a politically run organization now."
That sounds just like administrative -- and energy -- law to me.
Monday, April 25, 2011
Discover recently highlighted a new (and old) tool to combat climate change - dirt. The article, titled "Could Dirt Help Heal the Climate?," details new research demonstrating that better stewardship of agricultural soils "would have the potential to soak up 13 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today - the equivalent of scrubbing every ounce of CO2 released into the atmosphere since 1980."
The research is focused on the benefits of "regenerative agriculture," which boosts soil fertility and moisture retention by increased use of composting, keeping fields planted year round and increasing plant diversity. Not only do these methods have the potential to combat climate change, but they also can rejuvinate farmlands upon which a variety of developing societies depend for subsistence.
Agriculture has been one of the most disruptive forces interfering with the planet's carbon soil building process, both with respect to the planting of crops and grazing of animals. Land use changes associated with agriculture have "stripped 70 billion to 100 billion tons of carbon from the world's soils and pumped it into the earth's atmosphere, oceans, and lakes since the dawn of agriculture."
In one case study, the researchers determined that by adjusting agricultural methods to achieve 1.5 additional tons of carbon dioxide absorption a year - a task certainly within reach of agricultural practices - 28 million acres of California grazing lands could absorb nearly 40 percent of the state's total yearly carbon emissions from electricity generation.
This research further demonstrates the important role that land use practices play in combatting climate change. States and private actrors could certainly be more proactive in guiding agricultural practices on the nation's farmlands. Given that states are the primary arbiters of land use, however, the federal government and states should also be more proactive in seeking cooperative approaches to adjust land uses associated with agricultural soil retention and enhancement. When a few modifications to such a simple resource as dirt could have such profound impacts on carbon sequestration capabilities, failure to act should leave our governments and private actors feeling, well, down right dirty.
- Blake Hudson