Sunday, October 23, 2011
Climate change regulation is dead? Not in California, which this week adopted the nation's first economy-wide cap-and-trade program.
The Tenth Circuit, in a 120-page decision, upheld a Clinton-era rule protecting 50 million acres of forestland from logging and roads.
The Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy released its first annual rankings of states; Massachusetts was first, with California second.
An advocacy study observed that FCC standards for cell phones "grossly underestimate the amount" of radiation that "smaller adults and children retain," as reported by Greenwire.
BP received approval for a plan to explore for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, its first such approval since the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
There is a fascinating article this week in The New Yorker about the aftermath of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan. (hat tip: Joe Tomain)
October 23, 2011 in Asia, Cases, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Energy, Environmental Assessment, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, Law, Legislation, Science, Sustainability, US | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Sunday, September 4, 2011
* The Obama administration decided to abandon proposed ozone regulations, which the oil industry and other business interests had criticized as unnecessarily costly.
* Although most of the 9 million people who lost power due to Hurricane / Tropical Storm Irene have had their electricity restored, utilities have gone on the defensive, launching PR campaigns in the face of likely investigations from regulators.
* Tropical Storm Lee has forced evacuation of over a third of oil and gas production platforms and drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
* Japan has adopted a feed-in tariff that will take effect next year and seeks to incent 30,000 MW of new renewables installations in the next decade.
* A beetle called the goldspotted oak borer is threatening trees in southern California.
* President Obama is pushing for a transportation spending bill, to fund federal highway projects and keep fuel taxes in place.
Friday, September 2, 2011
If you haven't seen it yet, the Obama administration announced today that it will not implement the more aggressive ozone regulations that EPA had proposed. In his statement on the matter, President Obama alluded to the economy and then cited the fact that the proposed standards would be revisited in two years as the reason for his decision:
I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover. With that in mind, and after careful consideration, I have requested that Administrator Jackson withdraw the draft Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards at this time. Work is already underway to update a 2006 review of the science that will result in the reconsideration of the ozone standard in 2013. Ultimately, I did not support asking state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that will soon be reconsidered.
This decision is interesting for a number of reasons. Politically, it shows both how dominant the economy continues to be and also how much the country has shifted to the right since 2008. Whether one sides with them or not, the Tea Party's anti-regulation message clearly has resonance. Many already see this decision as bowing to oil and other interests who had blasted the proposed regulations.
The decision also shows Obama's cold calculus about who will and will not be on his side in the next election. Environmentalists already have decried this move. But will they vote for him anyway in 2012? The President appears willing to make that gamble, despite continued disappointment within the community over the administration's failure to make many of the environmental achievements the campaign promised.
And, interesting indeed, the decision may reflect a shift in the way the administration is messaging environmental concerns. In the last election, Obama -- wisely, many would contend -- was careful to link job growth with environmental protection. The two go hand in hand. This decision, however, falls into the old trap of seeing the economy and the environment as binary choices, when ultimately the two are intrinsically interlinked on a long-term basis. True sustainability requires both. Is this change a permanent shift or a temporary slide? Only time will tell.
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?
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.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
The Problem of the Prehistoric Refrigerator (and it's Neanderthal environmental law professor owner)
The other night I made my hourly (it seems) trip out to the garage to get some scholarly clarity....ah-hem....Pepsi Max or some other equally caffeinated drink (why are my teeth so sensitive, by the way?). See, in my benevolence and high-minded environmental consciousness (please note sarcasm) I decided to keep the previous homeowner's prehistoric refrigerator, seen to the right (literally, Neanderthals kept frozen dinosaur meat in this thing). It not only makes a great home for my summer stipend....er...caffeinated go-juice....but it also preserves the functionality of a still-working appliance and keeps it from unnecessarily entering the waste stream (why do we always feel we need "new" stuff anyway?). Forget the fact that I don't need two refrigerators, the amount of extra electricity it consumes....look, just leave me alone. Anyway, nothing brings the high and mighty environmentally unassailable down like reaching into the refrigerator for a Pepsi Max, only to discover that YOU - and YOU alone - are responsible for the Montreal Protocol. YOU kept the international community tied up with trying to fix the ozone layer during much of the 80's, rather than focusing on more important things like the harm caused to children by slap bracelets, or the amount of carbon fiber sequestered by Hammer pants, or [insert next cliche 80's joke here]. Alas, when I looked into the refrigerator, this is what I saw:
My heart sunk. No longer were CFC's a ghost of my youth or something "over there" in the less environmentally conscious developing world (sarcasm, again), but they were right there in my own d@!%, Bluebookin' garage. I was single-handedly harming public health and the environment by destroying the upper atmosphere. I felt like a villain in a Superman movie, and just knew he was going to swoop down, fly around the earth 100 times-a-minute to take us to a future where this evil dump truck of an appliance had finally blown a fuse. Or perhaps an upgraded "Refrigerterminator" would come BACK in time and eliminate the GE-1000 to save us all from a future ozone apocalypse.
In all seriousness - to the extent that this post can be serious - it did raise in my mind the issue of lag time on policies aimed at improving the environment. It is easy to wax poetic to students about how "we need to transition fast to energy star appliances....more fuel efficient vehicles..." and on and on. Even when the prices are competitive with less environmentally friendly products, this simply isn't always so easy. It's also not clear that when pitted against the problems of consumption it is always so desirable. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we need to buy less stuff and use what we have longer so that we can lower our consumption rates, which would require 5 earths to sustain if the U.S. per capita rate of consumption went worldwide. Yet buying a bunch of new stuff and discarding perfectly useable stuff is exactly what I promote when it comes to innovative new products that are better for the environment.
The highlight of my law school career was having my 1994 Ford Ranger pick-up truck (I am from Alabama, after all) stolen right off the street. Of the 250 (seriously) cars stolen in Durham that month (no joke), I am certain this had to be the theft that generated the greatest ridicule for this thief by his professional colleagues. Why would anyone besides a broke law student want a 1994 Ford Ranger? Well, first it was paid for, and a second it still worked. When the thief finally had a moment of lucidity, a month later (who waits a MONTH before deciding a 1994 Ford Ranger is not the vehicle for them!?.....ahhh, besides me that is?), he graciously deposited my vehicle behind a crack house. I paid my $500 to the wrecker company to get it back (it's Blue Book value [Kelley Blue Book, that is] was $900 - thank goodness I didn't file an insurance claim), and guess what....I still drive it today. I'll be Bluebooked if I'm getting rid of it till it croaks, nevermind it's gas mileage is about 20 mpg's these days. As for the fossil of a refrigerator sitting in my garage, I'm still on the fence. Do I send it to the trash heap, for my kids to figure out what to do with it, or keep it and have them simply apply stronger SPF? Tough call.
- Blake Hudson
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Every summer, it seems, I am reminded of something I always think I will never forget.
For the past several years, I have made a point every summer of visiting a national park. Living in Utah, which is blessed with five of these most beautiful and amazing places, this is a relatively easy task.
Last year, I spent several days with my sons hiking and camping in what has become one of my favorite parks: Capitol Reef. Not only does Capitol Reef sport some of the most breathtaking canyons I have ever seen, but it is, at least from my perspective, a relatively less used park. Sometimes solitude is nice. In Capitol Reef, I have found myself on many hikes, for hours, with no one but those in my party. Add to this the chance to see ancient rock art, find desert creatures like snakes and lizards, and partake of a searing summer heat, and I can think of few places that make a nicer getaway for a few days from the city. (It also doesn't hurt that the nearby town of Torrey also features some amazing food.)
This past week, I camped with my sons as part of my wife's family reunion in Yellowstone. It has been almost two decades since I was there last, in a frigid winter to snowmobile. Two things immediately overtook me as we drove in through West Yellowstone in a misting rain turning to dusk. I was reminded of just how gorgeous the place is; there is a reason why it was the first national park. And I realized how each of these parks has their own personality, their own story to tell. Capitol Reef and Yellowstone could not be much more different, but I love them both.
Toward the end of the trip, as I looked into the brilliant turquoise and coral pools at Mammoth Hot Springs, I contemplated this. I recalled Prof. Daniels' comment from earlier this year about why he got into environmental law in the first place, and how each of us has our own back-story about why we did too. For me, I realized, much of it is bound up in my childhood, and part of that was a trip I took when I was about the age of one of my sons to this same park. I recall standing face to face with a bison; I remember hiking into the aspen with my father; I see clearly in my mind the awe I felt then, that I feel now.
As we drove out of the park, having just hiked Geyser Hill near Old Faithful, we came into a valley. We were on our way out, and on its way in was a lone gray wolf, undisturbed, traversing the greens, following the Gibbon River to the trees.
Once again, I was reminded. I was so glad I was.
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.
Monday, June 27, 2011
As I got deeper and deeper into my Natural Resources Law and Policy material on water, I lamented to a friend that "we just don't have enough water." My friend, an economist, said "no, we just don't have enough properly priced water." My concern was driven by a Scientific American article about the Ogallala Aquifer, which supports the breadbasket of the world and stretches all the way from South Dakota to Texas. In West Texas alone, the number of irrigation wells grew from 1,166 in 1937 to more than
66,000 in 1971. The overdraft of the aquifer in 1975 was equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado River, but today the aquifer is being depleted at an annual volume equivalent to 18 Colorado Rivers. In some places agriculture is withdrawing four to six feet a year, and nature is putting back half an inch. Natural aquifer recharge would would take 6,000 years if it were to be fully drained.
In a fascinating guest post on freakonomics.com, Charles Fishman describes some of the drivers of water overconsumption within the context of a very interesting case study. Fishman highlights a move by the National Basketball Association's Cleveland Cavaliers to remove all of the 18 water fountains in Quicken Loans Arena (the "Q"). As an alternative to the water fountains - which, of course, provided free water - the organization directed people to free cups of water available in the concession stands, or patrons could purchase a $4 bottle of Aquafina. Of course, to receive either of those options, people had to be willing to stand in line - which can be a lengthy proposition at a sporting event. Three months passed, and over 1 million spectators attended events in the Q with not one complaint. About halfway through the NBA season, however, a newspaper reported the removal of the water fountains. The fans were furious, even though the Q had sold out 29 home games prior to fans' awareness of the removal. The Q scrambled to put the water fountains back in.
This story demonstrates, first, the entitlement people feel toward things that they obviously do not need - which is a disturbing commentary on the societal drivers of overconsumption and environmental degradation as a general matter. But second, the story raises some very interesting facts about water and why we should consider paying more for it. Fishman notes that if you buy a 17 ounce bottle of water for $0.99, you could take it home and continuously refill it every day with tap water for 6 years before you spent $0.99 on that amount of tap water! Even cheap bottled water is 2,000 times more expensive than tap water at home. This demonstrates an amazing disparity between what we are willing to pay for water when we are at sporting events, on road trips, going to the beach, etc., and what we are not willing to pay, and indeed feel entitled to, in our homes - the place where most water overconsumption occurs. Fishman notes that "[R]esidents act as if increasing the water bill from $23 a month to $30 a month will force them to choose between their heart medicine and their water," even though the average household water bill in the U.S. is less than half the average cable TV or cell phone bill.
Though there are obviously big problems with bottled water - not to mention the toxic chemical and waste disposal issues posed by the plastic used to manufacture them - when considering overconsumption of water it may be useful not to rely too heavily on conventional wisdom ("convenient wisdom") regarding the parcelization of water resources. As Fishman notes, "'Free' is the wrong price for water. In fact, the lack of a price for routine water service is the most important thing that’s wrong with water — resources that are free are wasted; there’s no incentive to learn to use them smartly; there’s no money to maintain and modernize the existing water system; there’s no incentive to reach back and protect the source of something that’s free."
- Blake Hudson
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.
Monday, June 13, 2011
In the spirit of my colleagues posting on environmental films, and following on the Evil Animals post from last week and Professor McAllister's May 24 post on consumption, I thought I would highlight one of the most profound environmental insights in cinema (sci-fi cinema at least!). The movie "The Matrix" came out in 1999. At that time, the thought of my being involved in legal academics had never even crossed my mind, and had it done so I wouldn't even have known what that meant. Yet one clip in the movie had a deep impact on how I viewed our place in the world - and provided a theoretical framework for pushing me further along the path of environmental concern. The clip involves an interrogation of Morpheus by Agent Smith....
...The day after watching "The Matrix" I went to the Galleria Mall in Birmingham, Alabama. I stood at the top of the escalators above the food court and watched the people swarm. Hundreds of people scurried across each others' paths. Shopping bags filled with plastic and metal goodies were draped across arms, backs, and strollers. Hundreds more people sat in the food court stuffing their faces with hamburgers, chicken, pizza, cotton candy, cookies, ice cream and every other American delight you can imagine (a time release camera from 1995-2000 would have demonstrated these people getting larger as well, as the number of obese people worldwide increased by 100 million during that five year period). I couldn't help but feel the pall of depression come over me as I thought "Agent Smith was right!" And worse still I am sure I had just washed down an endorphin rush to the frontal lobe from eating an over-sized burger with an endorphin rush from purchasing some copious quantity of plastic play-things.
If everyone on earth consumed as much per capita as Americans do, we would need at least 5 earths to sustain us. I say "at least" because the number of earths we would need is increasing as our consumption increases. Stating the obvious, something needs to change.
The great thing about humans though, as the robots found out at the end of the Matrix Trilogy, is that we can think and do not always perform according to expected and established protocol. We have the ability to adapt and change and learn from past mistakes and previous destructive behaviors. Though we certainly can operate like a virus, and currently are operating like one at the rate at which we are consuming the earth, we have a chance and ability to change course.
The World Wildlife Fund's Jason Clay, in his talk "How big brands can help save biodiversity," provides some interesting insights into how we can actually harness components of our consumptive culture to protect the environment. His thoughts can be seen here:
- Blake Hudson
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 16, 2011
A recent article highlights the controversial concept of "conservation triage," whereby limited conservation resources are directed toward the species with the "best prospects for long-term survival." While the list of endangered and threatened species is growing, the funding for such programs is increasingly tight, and always finite.
The article highlights the plight of the California condor, the population of which dropped to 22 individuals in 1987. Twenty five years later the condor numbers only 192 living in the wild, while 189 live in captivity. The program to monitor and maintain condor populations costs more than $4 million a year, while the typical minimum viable population size for long-term species survival is about 5,000 individuals. At least one group of conservationists have asserted that "it is time for the global rescue operation to adopt the mind-set of a battlefield medic: Some endangered species are far more likely to recover than others, so we should identify those and save as many as we can." These conservationists argue that "you could save hundreds of butterfly species with the same investment being put into the condor."
Others, on the other hand, argue that "focusing on the cheapest wins 'may increase the short term tally of species, but we would end up saving only the most convenient ones.'" These conservationists point to the white rhino, the population of which dropped to 20 individuals at one point, but that stands at over 17,000 today.
This controversy demonstrates yet another tough choice faced by those concerned about the environment. It also highlights how approaches to habitat conservation can provide economic efficiency gains that can save both the most species and provide better long-term survival opportunities for those, like the condor, that are in limited numbers in the wild.
Land development activities are appropriating increasing and copious amounts of habitat/natural capital every day. It would seem a shift in focus from the costly propping up of single species in quickly developing areas to the prevention of habitat destruction is in order. The internalization of these environmental harms into our economic development costs may seem like triage to development interests and consumers, as they forgo - in the short term - a slight decrease in profit (or developers pass that cost down to the consumer). But in the long run it will be a far less costly triage than that proposed by some conservationists.
- Blake Hudson
Thursday, April 28, 2011
No doubt that one of the most important forces in environmentalism over the last three decades has been the environmental justice movement. Leaders in this field -- Bunyan Bryant, Robert Bullard, Sheila Foster, Eileen Gauna, Hazel Johnson, and Beverly Wright, to name only a few -- changed the way environmental issues are seen. They point out that much of environmental protection has been myopic, and that its focus must change: to include equity, gender, income, race, and, ultimately, justice.
This week, the Department of Energy, the EPA, and the Department of the Interior, among others, are sponsoring what looks to be a phenomenal conference on the state of environmental justice today. From the press release:
The U.S. Department of Energy, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Interior, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Small Town Alliance, the Howard University School of Law and others, kicked off the State of Environmental Justice in America 2011 Conference today in Washington, D.C.
This year's conference theme is "Building the Clean Energy Economy with Equity," and will focus on climate change, green jobs and equity for low-income, minority and Tribal populations. The goal is to continue bringing together participants from Federal agencies, academia, business and industry, nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations and local communities to participate in a dialogue on achieving equality of environmental protection.
Thursday, March 31, 2011
As the saga continues to unfold at Fukushima Daiichi, commentators continue to question what the disaster will mean for the future of nuclear energy. Numerous media outlets have extensive coverage, including at the Washington Post, the New York Times, the BBC, and Time.
This week's Economist has a particularly interesting article, "When the Steam Clears," which takes up the question from the international vantage. The article, in a way, begins with its conclusion: "Fear and uncertainty spread faster and farther than any nuclear fallout." Its point is clear. Whether one is on the nuclear energy bandwagon or not, perception matters terribly. And for an industry that, in the U.S. at least, has been largely stalled out for the immediate past decades, Fukushima is casting a rather long shadow.
More specifically, the article makes three observations worth highlighting:
- Nuclear is expensive. This is hardly revelatory, but the point The Economist makes with the fact is one often forgotten. It is worth remembering. As a result of nuclear's cost, most plants today are old: "[W]ith a median age of about 27 years and a typical design life of 40 a lot [of nuclear power plants] are nearing retirement."
- Nuclear is ubiquitous, if not dominant. Although the U.S. leads the world with over 100 reactors, we get about 20 percent of our electricity from them. Other nations take much more of their electricity from nuclear -- Germany at 26 percent, Japan at 29, South Korea at 35, Ukraine at 49, and, of course, France leading the globe at roughly three-quarters their total electric production. Still, the world average is much lower. "[N]nuclear power is much less fundamental to the workings of the world than petrol or aeroplanes. Nuclear reactors generate only 14% of the world’s electricity . . . ."
- Nuclear is not going away. While the disaster at Fukushima clearly has resurrected the specter of nuclear tragedy 25 years after Chernobyl and 30 post-Three Mile Island, even the dimmest of views on the technology has not stopped its continued use. Last week, with Fukushima still front page news, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended the license of one U.S. plant. And, as with many things nowadays, China is a leader. It is planning extensive nuclear expansion. "Though China, which has 77 reactors at various stages of construction, planning and discussion, has said it will review its programme in the aftermath of Fukushima, few expect it to stop entirely. China has a great appetite for energy, which will continue to grow."
Weighing these observations leads to a number of others that will certainly be in play as the fate of nuclear is considered, both here in the U.S. and abroad, in the aftermath of Fukushima.
First, virtually everyone will reevaluate plant safety because of Fukushima, and this may mean changes for both those already in existence and those planned to come online. The NRC has already said it will be taking a hard look in the U.S., and of course other countries have become even more skittish, as I posted two weeks ago. In any case, these (re)evaluations may well impact how much -- or at least how quickly -- new facilities are added to the grid. The massive stranded costs the companies that built plants in the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s faced after regulation kept changing cannot be far from the front of their collective minds.
Second, we still have not solved the largest stumbling block to using nuclear, whether that use is in its current proportion or an increased one. Long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste is a bugaboo. No state wants the waste. Yucca has dragged on for literally decades. Now it is unfunded. Meanwhile, there are already rumblings about whether the current de facto "solution" -- storing the waste at operating reactors, often in storage ponds -- should continue. None of those facts, or the questions they imply, are easy.
Third, if nuclear is going to be used, Fukushima only highlights the need to make the decision concsiously, openly, and democratically. As David Spence articulately observed yesterday on the envlawprofs email listserv, all energy options force tradeoffs. Fears associated with nuclear are persistent, whether they are accurate representations of its real risks or not. Compare the actual deaths and costs associated with nuclear over the past half-century with those of, say, coal, as Prof. Spence noted, and the factual (rather than perceived) assessment of risks may change. True, nuclear has clear downsides, but it has many advantages as well. As with climate change, if industry is going to continue pursuing nuclear as an option, clear signals are needed.
Right now, the legislative signals on climate change, in the U.S. at least, are muddled if not stalled out. Fukushima may have only the same effect for nuclear.
For an energy source that now provides one-fifth of our electricity, one wonders whether stalemate is the right answer. In a world where nuclear now faces multiple possible futures, that's a question we must ask.
Monday, March 21, 2011
You might expect an article titled "How the Budget Bill Will Decimate Conservation" to be found on the Environmental Defense, Greenpeace or a variety of other environmentalist websites. In fact, the article was posted at fieldandstream.com. When you search for "Field and Stream" on Google, the search heading reads "Hunting, Fishing, Survival, Guns, Gear." This is not the place conventional wisdom would suggest that you find an article criticizing recent Congressional proposals to slash the budget. The beginning of the article, however, sums up quite well the sentiment among conservationists who might also often be characterized as conservative:
"Unlike their counterparts at hard-line environmental groups, leaders of sportsmen's conservation organizations tend to measure their words. They avoid hyperbole, don't hyperventilate, and never hint that the sky is falling. That changed when they got a look at the budget priorities unveiled recently by the House of Representatives. Now they’re all looking nervously at the sky and using words like disaster, eviscerate, and destroy."
Last week I posted about Preserving Environmental Protection in a Down Economy, and how the current fiscal crisis creates difficult choices over the balance of government spending and environmental protection. The Field and Stream article is yet another example of how fiscal conservatism can often be at odds with conservation - even conservation supported by people who might under ordinary circumstances be categorized as fiscal conservatives.
The article highlights a point made last week that fiscal crises can sometimes cause the evisceration of needed environmental protections under the guise of fiscal necessity, noting that much of the budget bill's cuts "will not lower the deficit but simply take aim at environmental laws that polluting industries have opposed for years—laws that sportsmen's groups support because of their ultimate impact on fish and wildlife habitat."
Sporting groups have long been friends of the environment, often putting aside partisan politics when it comes to environmental protection - think President Teddy Roosevelt. Sporting groups are also a boon to the economy. As the article notes, "the federal government spends about $5 billion a year in conservation programs that are essential to the habitat that supports hunting and fishing, but it gets back about $14 billion in direct tax payments from people who make their livings in those industries--and that's a conservative estimate."
Ultimately, it would serve fiscal conservatives well to look to sporting groups' supported use of a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer when it comes to environmental protection. Professor Daniels' recent post about "Junk Politics" is nowhere more apparent as here, where fiscal conservatives demonstrate a lack of discernment over which government funded projects are waste and which ones serve a vital role in the continuance of our society. Sporting groups, with all their hunting, fishing, guns, gear and - perhaps most importantly - survival instincts, seem to discern the differences quite well.
- Blake Hudson
Thursday, March 17, 2011
While the people of Japan continue to deal with the devastation of the massive earthquake and tsunami last week, the tragedy there has reignited the debate over nuclear power worldwide. As the Washington Post reports, in the wake of the growing nuclear emergency in Japan, Germany announced that it will shut down seven of its older plants for safety inspections, and Switzerland declared a freeze on new nuclear construction.
At the same time, U.S. Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials assured Congress of the safety of the domestic nuclear fleet, as did leaders in France of theirs.
Nuclear energy inevitably elicits strong responses from both sides of the aisle. Whether it is Yucca Mountain or the Skull Valley Goshutes' suggestion to store waste on their reservation, rhetoric is rarely scarce when it comes to atomic power.
There is no question that the people of Japan deserve all the world can offer in this time of dire need, but isn't there a much deeper question here about energy policy than the immediate nuclear debate that Fukushima has elicited?
It is another entirely to ask what is at the heart of our modern energy dilemma.
That is the question we should be asking. At a minimum, as Professor McAllister rightly noted earlier this week, it is a question about our energy consumption, and our failure to heed efficiency as a goal with the same vigor that our energy policy gives it lip service.
Even more fundamentally, however, it is a question about energy planning. Nuclear plants provide roughly 20 percent of the United States' current electrical production. In France, that figure is closer to 80 percent. Turning that train around cannot happen overnight.
It could, however, happen over a longer period of time -- if we want it to.
Fukushima is not Chernobyl. But however bad the crisis in Japan ends up being, it should now be as clear as ever that when it comes to energy, we face hard choices.
These choices are not necessarily dichotomies. We can solve climate change, and nuclear power may be part of that solution -- or it might not, or it might be only for awhile. Natural gas certainly will play a role. Carbon capture and sequestration holds promise, if we are willing to pay the higher prices and energy penalties the technology entails. Renewables are always there. The number of possible resource mixes, in short, for energy production is virtually limitless.
The question, then, is not: "Whether nuclear power?"
The question is: "What do we want our energy future to be?" And, correspondingly: "Will we plan for that future, or will we leave it to chance?"
As Amory Lovins reminded nearly a decade ago, "Our energy future is...choice -- not fate."
Monday, March 14, 2011
A recent slate of reports have highlighted Congressional efforts to curb spending on environmental matters in order to prevent further deterioration of the economy. A House subcommittee recently voted to block EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, asserting that such authority would drive up energy costs and ship jobs overseas. Leadership in the House recently proposed cutting $1.2 billion (21 percent) out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's satellite program budget - a program used for hurricane and weather tracking. NOAA head Jane Lubchenco recently stated that this action would cause NOAA to "inevitably have a gap" in storm tracking and warning capacity. Paper and chemical industries have called on Congress to assess the cost of regulatory oversight, claiming that duplicative and burdensome regulation should be eliminated to avoid a loss of competitive advantage and preserve jobs in those industries. Congress has even taken aim at light bulbs, calling for a repeal of legislation mandating the use of more efficient bulbs. These are just a few of the many legislative proposals coming out of Congress that cut funding for environmental protection (for others, see "Losing the Future: House Republican Budget Cuts Would Strangle Innovation").
Current levels of Congressional spending are unprecedented and unsustainable. For environmentalists, who focus on sustainability of natural resources, it would seem quite consistent to express similar concern over the sustainability of the economic system that gives us the luxury to protect the environment in the first instance. Yet when high government spending and economic downturn overlap, difficult choices arise over which environmental protections to maintain. Spending on environmental protection may very well be duplicative and inefficient in some cases, such as when special interests procure wasteful subsidies - money that would be better allocated elsewhere. And often the parties complaining about environmental protection expenditures actually add to those expenditures, by increasing administrative costs through continual judicial challenges to environmental regulations. Perhaps of greater concern is the fact that an economic downturn allows the evisceration of appropriately allocated environmental protection resources under the guise of legitimate concerns over government spending. So, how can we use a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer? How can we preserve legitimate environmental protection interests while recognizing the need to move toward an economic policy that acts in a more fiscally responsible manner? Is it too much spending or rather too much inefficient spending? Where do environmental priorities rank when deciding where to tighten the belt?
- Blake Hudson