April 20, 2013
China Environmental Experiences: Table of Contents
Over the last year and a half, I contributed a series of essays about my environmental experiences while living in China as a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at Ocean University of China. A few readers who had missed installments suggested that I create a single post with a roadmap of links to all nine essays. That seemed like a good idea, so with apologies to regular readers for the redundancy, here it is (truly the last of the series):
New Series: Environmental Adventures in China. “This first post provides some context for my series of through-the-looking-glass observations about what it’s like to plunge into China’s modern industrial revolution as an American environmental law professor....”
China Environmental Experiences #2: Rocky Mountain Arsenal. “But as this blog speaks directly to environmental law professors, the first story is one that clutched at my heart while teaching Natural Resources Law in my first semester here….”
China Environmental Experiences #3: Breathing Air with Heft. “…It’s easy to cite the mind-boggling statistics of how bad the air quality can get here. It’s hard to describe the actual experience of it. Harder still to endure it.…”
China Environmental Experiences #4: Wifi Without Potable Water. “This month, I peek beneath one of the more surprising, seemingly contradictory stones in China’s path toward increasing prosperity and world power….”
China Environmental Experiences # 5: Milk, Pesticides, and Product Safety. “Friends joked that given how much of what we use in the United States is actually made in China, we probably didn’t have to bring anything—whatever we needed would be here! But after our arrival, we were surprised to discover how mistaken these assumptions were.…”
CEE #6: Environmental Philosophy and Human Relationships with Nature. “In these final musings from the field, I reflect on a topic that is admittedly delicate but equally important, and which has been simmering behind many of the substantive environmental issues that I’ve addressed to now: environmental philosophy…."
CEE #7: Environmental Philosophy - Conservation, Stewardship, and Scarcity. “[Previously], I opened a discussion about how diverging Chinese and American environmental perspectives may be informed by different baselines in our cultural relationships with the natural world. But other differences in underlying environmental philosophy are also important to understand—and as always, some reflect our two nations’ different stages of economic development….”
CEE #8: Environmental Protection as an Act of Cultural Change. “This essay concludes with parting thoughts about the philosophical roots of some of these differences, the Cultural Revolution and the processes of cultural change, and the significance of all this for environmental protection in China….”
CEE #9: Post Script: Returning from China to the U.S. “This essay is about the experience of coming back to the United States from China, or perhaps more generally, returning to the developed world from that which is still developing. It mixes deep gratitude for the blessings of the American bounty with queasy culpability over the implications of that bounty for international and intergenerational equity….”
April 20, 2013 in Air Quality, Asia, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Economics, Energy, Environmental Assessment, Food and Drink, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Legislation, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, Travel, Water Quality, Water Resources, Weblogs | Permalink | TrackBack
October 25, 2012
Shifting Seas: The Law's Response to Changing Ocean Conditions - November 14th and 15th at RWU
On November 14-15, 2012, the Marine Affairs Institute at Roger Williams University School of Law is putting on its 9th Bi-Annual Marine Law Symposium. This year's theme is...climate change! (Shocking, right?) But even with all the attention given to climate change at similar events, this symposium fills an important gap: The symposium will specifically address climate change's impacts on the oceans, and the ways in which coastal and ocean law and policy are (and are not) responding. We have scientists, policymakers, practitioners, and a good helping of legal scholars to talk about ocean acidification, rising sea levels, state and munipal adaptation efforts, the implications for the maritime industry, and emerging issues in the Arctic. You can find the agenda here. And here is the description:
This Symposium will examine the laws and policies that are implicated as climate change impacts coastal and ocean environments. The land-sea boundary is shifting, ocean water is warmer and more acidic, fluctuating weather conditions and storms increasingly impact coastal communities, and the melting Arctic ice cap raises new international boundary and resource exploitation issues. These changes trigger many corresponding legal considerations for natural resource managers, planners, attorneys, insurers and law enforcement entities. At this Symposium, experts and legal practitioners from governmental bodies as well as private industry, academia and non-profit organizations will explore the state of the law, how disputes have been handled to date, and what may be on the horizon. Attendees can expect to walk away with the law and policy tools necessary to engage in these rapidly changing issues, and an understanding of the natural and social science behind changing coastal and ocean conditions.
You can contact me if you have any questions. And I hope to see you in Bristol!
- Michael Burger
August 30, 2012
NEW DELHI — Here’s what the monsoon season looks like in India. This summer, the northern states have been lashed with rain. In the northeastern state of Assam, July rains swamped thousands of homes, killing 65 residents. Floods and mudslides in northeast India sent nearly 6 million people heading for the hills in search of temporary housing (a tarp, a corrugated roof) and government aid (when they can get it). In New Delhi, the monsoon hasn’t caused anything nearly as traumatic. But one cloudburst can easily flood roads and storm canals, sending bubbling streams of grease and sewage across the urban slums.
Haven’t heard about all this? Normally, I wouldn't have either. But this semester I’m living in New Delhi, near one of those storm canals, working as a Fulbright-Nehru Research Scholar affiliated with India’s Centre for Policy Research. My plan is to examine the ways in which Indians are adapting to climate change, at the national, regional, and local levels.
Perhaps no country in the world is as vulnerable on so many fronts to climate change as India. With 7,000 kilometers of coastline, the vast Himalayan glaciers, and nearly 70 million hectares of forests, India is especially vulnerable to a climate trending toward warmer temperatures, erratic precipitation, higher seas, and swifter storms. Then there are India’s enormous cities (home to nearly a third of the population), where all of these trends conspire to threaten public health and safety on a grand scale—portending heat waves, drought, thicker smog layers, coastal storms, and blown-out sewer systems.
Those floods I mentioned earlier are typical of India’s monsoon season—data for this season, in fact, show a monsoon with slightly less total precipitation than normal. But the floods demonstrate the kinds of extreme events that if multiplied in the future will bring even more risk to a fragile country. According to a recent report issued by India’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, current projections indicate “a 3% to 7% overall increase in all-India summer monsoon rainfall in the 2030’s with respect to the 1970’s.” In contrast, during the winter and pre-summer “dry” season, most regions “are likely to have lower rainfalls.” Such a “barbell effect”—a more extreme wet season joined to a more extreme dry season—could mean trouble for India’s growing cities and struggling rural farmers.
India’s public and private sectors have begun developing adaptation strategies, although most are at the beginning stages. With prodding from the national government, some states are now developing vulnerability assessments and setting priorities. International non-profits like the Rockefeller Foundation are joining with local governments and citizens’ organizations to find better ways to control storm water, irrigate crops, and improve health against the backdrop of a changing climate. Manufacturers, insurance companies, and banks are also examining ways to adapt. This has led to an array of discussions about how public or private initiatives should be used to build resilience in the Indian communities, to make them “climate-ready.” Some of these ideas are particular to India, but many of them will be tested here and exported to the rest of the world, including the United States.
Should rural farmers in India be encouraged to protect against monsoon vagaries by investing in a legalized “weather derivatives” market, like some American hedge funds do? Is there a way that India’s expansive Public Trust Doctrine (inspired by American case law) could be used to protect threatened assets like coastal wetlands and groundwater supplies? Am I nuts to think that a megacity like New Delhi—home to 16 million people, 11 million vehicles, nearly half a million stray dogs, and scores of loitering cows—can coalesce into an environmentally sensible and climate resilient city of the future? Over the coming months, I’ll take on some of these subjects in this blog. I’ll talk with local experts, visit project sites, and venture an assessment or two. As for now, the afternoon thunder is rattling my office window, and I need to find my rubber sandals.
- Robert Verchick, Gauthier-St. Martin Chair in Environmental Law, Loyola University, New Orleans.
August 30, 2012 in Asia, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Environmental Assessment, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Sustainability, Water Resources | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Previewing Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center
In its upcoming term, the Supreme Court will consider two Clean Water Act/stormwater cases, which I think is two more Clean Water Act/stormwater cases than the Court has heard in all of its previous terms, combined. A few weeks ago, I posted about NRDC v. County of Los Angeles, which arises out of urban runoff and stormwater infrastructure in Los Angeles County. The post, in a nutshell, expressed my befuddlement about why the Court took the case. The other case—Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center—is an entirely different story. It contains thorny jurisdictional and statutory interpretation questions, and the stakes are high.
The case addressed stormwater runoff from two privately-operated logging roads in Oregon’s Tillamook State Forest. The logging companies had channelized the runoff though systems of culverts and ditches, and the runoff was conveying sediment—which meets the CWA’s definition of “pollutant”—into surface rivers and streams. The companies didn’t have National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits for these discharges. According to the environmental plaintiffs, those unpermitted discharges violated the law. The defendants moved to dismiss the case, and while the district court granted the motion, the Ninth Circuit reversed. Its opinion cast doubt upon—and, perhaps, invalidated, though that point is in dispute—EPA’s decades-old regulation exempting some silvicultural activities from point source permitting.
So why is this a case to watch? A few reasons:
1. The Stakes. The United States contains a lot of logging roads. Those roads may be relatively invisible to most urban dwellers, but their aggregate length is fairly mind-boggling; in Maine alone, for example, one of my colleagues estimates there are about 15,000 miles of logging roads. Not all of those roads have stormwater conveyance systems, but many do. You can’t have forests without rain, and, in many places, you can’t protect a road from erosion without channelizing the runoff. The number of discharge points potentially affected by the Court’s decision therefore is huge. And, as one might expect, the environmental and economic implications are substantial. Logging roads can be major sources of sediment, and the water quality benefits of improved sediment controls could be significant. On the other hand, with so many miles of roads, the costs of managing that sediment could add up, as would the administrative burdens associated with drafting and implementing new permitting approaches.
2. The Jurisdictional Issues. The case below involved a challenge to EPA’s longstanding approach to silvicultural stormwater runoff. With a few narrow exceptions, EPA has never sought to regulate stormwater runoff from forestry activities, and in 1976 it issued regulations that exempt some—perhaps most—forestry activities from the NPDES permitting program. The plaintiffs argued, and the Ninth Circuit agreed, that this exemption was inconsistent with the text of the Clean Water Act. But there’s a jurisdictional catch. Section 509(b) of the Clean Water Act compels petitioners to challenge EPA’s actions in the United States Courts of Appeals, and to do so within 120 days of the action, unless the cause of action could not be brought within that time period. The plaintiffs here brought their case in a federal district court, and they brought it decades after EPA issued its silvicultural rule.
The Ninth Circuit found this approach unproblematic. It concluded that because the plaintiffs could not have brought their action within 120 days (EPA’s broad interpretation of the silvicultural rule was never really clarified, according to the court, until the litigation commenced and the United States filed an amicus brief), section 509(b) didn’t apply. That was a mistake, according to the defendants and intervenors; they argue that even if the Ninth Circuit was correct that the 120-day period couldn’t have been met, the case still had to be brought in a court of appeals. But the environmental groups counter that they weren’t really challenging EPA’s silvicultural rule itself, but instead were challenging private actions, which the private entities then attempted to defend by relying on an impermissible interpretation of EPA’s stormwater rule. In those circumstances, they argue, section 509(b) doesn't apply at all. If it all sounds rather complicated, well, it is. But that jurisdictional argument will likely receive some significant attention from the court.
3. The Merits. On the merits, the case raises two major issues. First, do the ditches in question meet the Clean Water Act’s definition of a point source? That issue seems, to me at least, like an easy one. No matter what EPA's silvicultural rule purports to say, it seems impossible to credibly interpret the Clean Water Act’s definition of point source—a definition that includes “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel…”—to exclude discrete, discernible systems of roadside ditches, pipes and channels.
But in 1987, Congress amended the Clean Water Act in ways that complicated the matter and created the second key merits issue. The 1987 amendments struck a compromise between EPA’s longstanding resistance to regulating stormwater runoff and Congress’s (accurate) sense that stormwater runoff created significant water quality problems. In CWA section 402(p) Congress exempted stormwater runoff—even stormwater runoff that is discharged from a point source—from regulatory coverage. But it then designated several types of point source stormwater runoff that still would be covered by the NPDES program, effectively creating narrower exemptions from the broad exemption. One of those sub-exemptions was for “discharges associated with industrial activity,” which begs the question: are stormwater discharges from forestry “discharges associated with industrial activity?”
EPA’s answer to this question (given at 40 C.F.R. 122.26(b)) was muddled. It clearly considered forestry to be an industrial activity, but seemed to say that stormwater discharges associated with forestry were not “discharges associated with industrial activity,” unless those discharges derived from one of the activities the 1976 silvicultural rule said would be covered. The Ninth Circuit rejected EPA’s answer (or at least rejected an interpretation of EPA’s answer under which the 1987 amendments exempted silvicultural stormwater from regulatory coverage), and the defendants/petitioners now argue that the Ninth Circuit’s approach was in tension with Chevron v. NRDC. Not so, say the plaintiffs; in their view, the Ninth Circuit (which did cite Chevron as its standard of review) appropriately applied a clear statute. Those questions (to which I have not done full justice here; they’re much too complicated to fully explain in a few paragraphs) also will likely occupy much of the Court’s attentions.
4. The Federalism Questions: Lurking behind these statutory construction issues are some important implications for our federalist system. As co-blogger Blake Hudson has often pointed out, management of private and state forests remains an area of state primacy, with relatively little federal involvement. On the other hand, water quality protection is well established as a shared federal and state prerogative. This case puts those traditional approaches in tension. That tension shouldn’t be overstated; in some areas, new CWA-based permitting requirements would supplement, and might not significantly add to, existing state regulatory approaches. Much of the implementation of those new requirements would be done by the states, most of which have delegated authority to implement the NPDES program. Nevertheless, in areas where state and local regulation of forest practices is minimal—and there are many such areas—this case could ultimately lead to significant changes in the ways forest roads are built and maintained, and those changes would occur pursuant to federal law.
So stay tuned. The Court’s decision probably won’t be easy reading; complex statutory interpretation cases rarely are. But it should be interesting, and it will be important.
(image from wikimedia commons; M.O. Stevens, photographer)
May 30, 2012
China Environmental Experiences #4: Wifi Without Potable Water
This is the fourth in my series of reports from the field about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China. (For the full background on this series, see February’s introductory post, March’s reflections on China and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and April’s account of air quality issues in China.)
This month, I peek beneath one of the more surprising, seemingly contradictory stones in China’s path toward increasing prosperity and world power. China is the world’s fastest-growing major economy—the second largest economy of all nations, the largest exporter, and the second-largest importer in the world. It is a nation with 500 million Internet users, 100 million cars, and the world’s largest standing army. It is the third nation on earth to independently launch a successful manned space mission, with plans to send astronauts to the moon in the coming years. At least in urban areas, China is a thoroughly modern, explosively developing place—with department stores selling Prada, goofy reality TV, and wifi at the local tea house... but you still can’t drink the water.
Visitors to China are carefully warned that the water is not potable and must be boiled thoroughly before consumption. Every hotel room has a small water boiler for this purpose, and the more expensive ones provide a nightly bottle of safe drinking water by the bedside. Water quality problems are traditionally associated with the continuing use of “night soil” (human and animal waste) to fertilize crops—an effective and inexpensive alternative with an inexhaustible supply. Yet the problem continues even as farmers embrace more modern chemical fertilizers (perhaps too heartily, at the alarming expense of soil health), and as other contaminants enter the water supply. While visiting the old city of Lijiang in Yunnan Province, for example, I rose for an early morning walk to find cooks cleaning the carcasses of recently killed animals, intestines and all, directly into the Venice-like canals from which others draw their drinking water.
Shortly before our arrival, we were warned by a vaccination nurse familiar with the most dangerous waterborne diseases to only sponge-bathe our 3-year-old, rather than risk his inadvertent exposure to waterborne parasites through his open eyes or mouth in a shower. Once here, we quickly decided that this level of precaution was unnecessary, at least in urban areas where the municipal water supply receives some level of filtration or disinfection before reaching the tap (especially true in Beijing). Still, we have learned well the rules of life here in China: drink only boiled or bottled water, no ice that can’t be sourced to boiled or bottled water, no fruits or vegetables that haven’t been cooked or peeled, and brush teeth with tap water at your own risk. (Some friends do; others, including me, don’t.) You should also ensure that bottled water is truly factory-sealed, as scandals have occasionally revealed empty bottles refilled with tap water being resold as new.
Without a doubt, adapting to life without potable water was the biggest cultural adjustments for us when we arrived last summer. The first consequence was minor physical dehydration: without easily accessible clean water to drink, we drank less, and soon found ourselves more easily exhausted, ornery, and sick. (Indeed, nothing confirms the critical nature of this life-sustaining resource more effectively than losing the taken-for-granted tap.) Every journey away from our apartment involves water planning, as we take careful stock of how many are traveling, what will be needed, and how best to transport it. I seem to drink more than my Chinese friends, but I still seem to be always thirsty.
And there were other puzzling features of our new world. For example, we struggled to understand at exactly what point our dishes were clean enough to eat off after washing them in tap water. Were the still damp chopsticks safe to use, or the recently-washed cup still bearing that fine sheen? And when dealing with my son’s inevitable scraped knees and elbows, was it better to wash with soap and water to disinfect, or was the water itself a source of potential harm? (For the record, we have decided that dishes must be completely dry to be safe, and that cuts should be washed with soap and water until the dirt is out, but subsequently sterilized with disinfectant whenever possible.)
Chinese culture adapted long ago to the perils of non-potable water. Chinese people boil all their water before drinking it, but it doesn’t seem like a burden, because they prefer to drink their water hot. They range from amused to amazed when foreigners request cold water, which to them is as distasteful as drinking plain hot water is those foreigners. When I invite my students to ask questions of cultural exchange—anything they want to know about American culture, politics, or lifestyle—the most frequent question is always “Why do Americans like to drink cold water? (Yuck!)” Perhaps as a result, there is no groundswell of popular sentiment to “do something” about the water situation. From the perspective of most Chinese, there is no problem with the water. Everything is as it should be.
Yet China is suffering from increasingly serious water pollution problems that can’t just be boiled away. Chemical pollutants entering the water supply from industry and agriculture are getting worse, involving toxins oblivious to disinfectants. The World Health Organization has identified 2221 different pollutants in waters worldwide, and 765 of them in drinking water—but current drinking water standards test for only 35 indicators, and new criteria that will go into effect on July 1st will regulate only 106 pollutants. (Source: Dr. Yu Ming, water pollution researcher at Ocean University of China.) Chinese lawmakers and the Ministry of the Environment are struggling to cope with these problems through the PRC Law to Prevent and Control Water Pollution, but the even greater hurdle for environmental law is that of implementation.
Even where China’s environmental laws are comprehensive, their goals are imperiled by under-enforcement. Illegal discharging is reportedly very common, because there simply aren’t enough agency personnel to monitor them. And even when violations are discovered, they may or may not be prosecuted by the relevant government agency—depending, perhaps, on the economic importance of the violators, or their political influence. When the government fails to act, it can be hard for citizens and NGOs to take up the slack, because most Chinese courts don’t recognize standing for public-interest citizen suits. And even if traditional standing were established by a directly injured party, the court may or may not decide to hear the case (for my money, one of the most surprising features of the Chinese legal system). For these reasons and others, enforcement is usually seen as the major weakness in China’s environmental law regime. Perhaps China’s new experimentation with a handful of specialty environmental courts will help redress these important problems.
In the meanwhile, water quality problems intersect with and exacerbate other environmental problems. For example, one unfortunate consequence of unreliable tap water is the resulting prevalence of disposables: single-use bottled water, disposable plates and bowls, even the single-use toothbrushes that hotels at every level routinely provide. I spent the last year spearheading a university sustainability initiative that sought personal pledges to avoid bottled water and other disposables as much as possible, so it was particularly jarring for me to adjust to this new norm—where we are happy to eat at a restaurant that provides disposable bowls, plates, and chopsticks, because we know they won’t make us sick that evening. (And I was happy to note that, at least at our favorite local restaurant, the plasticware is marked as biodegradable.) By contrast, at restaurants that provide the reusables I normally seek out at home, we nervously try to sterilize them with hot tea before using them, because they have likely been rinsed in the too-thoroughly recycled dirty dishwater that compounds the problems already coming out of the tap.
So, after religiously toting my reusable aluminum bottle to my every American class last year, I now carry plastic bottles of water everywhere. And though I reuse the small bottles as long as possible rather than discarding them after a single use, they are usually filled with water that I get at home from the water-cooler bottle that many Chinese families use. On any given day, you can spot a handful of strong men riding motor-scooters with an improbably number of these strapped to the back, exchanging filled ones for empties at private homes and businesses. I’m happy to report that at least these large bottles are faithfully recycled. But I’m unhappy to say that smaller plastic bottles litter the streets, parks, mountains, landfills, beaches, and accordingly, rivers and oceans.
Neither is the important relationship between water quality and water quantity lost on China, which has one of the lowest per capita rates of fresh water in the world. Northern China is arid and especially lacking sufficient water, marked by some of the world’s great deserts, like the Gobi and the Taklimakan. But it rains plentifully in the south and along much of the coasts. As a result, China has erected the most massive water-delivery infrastructure in world history to shift enormous quantities from south to north, a project already underway for fifty years and scheduled for completion in another forty. Linking China’s four main rivers together in a network of diversions, it will eventually move almost 50 billion cubic meters of water annually. Although the project has already caused its fair share of negative environmental consequences and human displacement, most of the Chinese I have spoken to—even those from regions in which water is taken—are comfortable with the need for extreme inter-basin transfers to support northern population centers like Beijing. And they are proud of the ingenuity and engineering that underwites this aspect of "man-made China."
Like nearly everything else in China, its history of mind-boggling human interventions with water began thousands of years ago. I had the opportunity to explore a classic example last week while visiting the Turpan Depression near Urumqi in Xinjiang. Turpan is the lowest and hottest place in China, at 150 meters below sea level and in the middle of China’s most arid province. And yet there in the desert was a blooming oasis of vineyards, agriculture, and Uighur community. How was it possible? It is because 2,000 years earlier, the people who still live there dug 5,272 kilometers of underground canals with 172,367 vertical well shafts to collect and redistribute the groundwater accumulating from melting snow on the nearby mountains. At its height, the “Turpan Karez” channeled 858 million cubic meters of water into 1,784 lines to distribute it to all parts of the region. (You can’t even imagine what this looks like—best to see it, so try this aerial photo and this diagram). It is a staggering feat of civilization—a celebration of creativity, environmentally sustainable terrascaping, and the human ability to thrive against all odds.
Modern-day Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, relies on similarly creative water technology. During my visit, I saw acres of recently planted, spindly young trees in the desert outskirts of the city, lined up like toothpicks piercing the mostly barren earth. I would often ask my hosts, “How will these trees take root? With what water?”, and I was always told, “Oh, there is enough water here in Urumqi.” I knew that the trees had been planted for environmentally sound reasons—to help stabilize the soil, moderate ground temperature, and trap airborne dust—but I still couldn’t understand how they would survive in such arid ground, only occasionally studded with dwarflike sagebrush scrub. In my broken Chinese, I would persist, “but if there were really enough water to grow trees, wouldn’t there already be trees here?” And they would quietly insist, “no, no—there will be enough water,” though I could never understand from them why.
Then on my last day, I visited a popular public park in the middle of the city, where the temperature was ten degrees cooler thanks to the canopy of the many mature trees that ringed its central hill and the banks of the creek flowing around it. I followed my idle curiosity to the crown of the hill, where I was astonished to find a complex terrascaping system for just this park. There was a small, swimming-pool like reservoir at the top, supplied by a large pipe snaking up the hill (it wasn’t clear to me from where), and a network of canals extending radially outward down the hill in all directions. Indeed, the park’s oasis was created in the same manner as the Turpan Karez: decades earlier, the now lush trees had been planted in rings around the hill, and the reservoir fed them a steady supply of water through the canals at their base. I was awed by the success of the project, and the clear joy it gave the city residents who collected there en masse to enjoy its peace and beauty. And I suddenly understood what mechanisms were likely helping those new trees take root in the desert surrounding the city.
With such scarcity at hand, China is trying harder and harder to avoid squandering its precious water resources with regulatory efforts targeting both quantity and quality. Wherever there are flush-toilets, they are almost always low-flush toilets, with separate levers for the two types of waste they will encounter (one of which needs a stronger flush than the other). Solar-powered water heaters effectively reduce consumption by limiting hot water to what can be stored on the roof at any given time (although the more expensive ones have a gas or electric backup). Greater efforts are being made to reduce use and recycle water wherever possible. Hopefully, China will find a way to enact and enforce more effective water pollution laws to avoid further industrial and agricultural degradation of its water resources.
But for what it’s worth, I’m told there are no great plans on the horizon to achieve potability from the tap, because potability is just not a cultural priority in China. So the mantra will continue: boiled or bottled, cooked or peeled, rinse at your own risk…
April 23, 2012
The Good and the Bad in the BP Settlement, and the Main Course Still Ahead
I spent last Friday--the second anniversary of the BP Blowout--in the vast basement of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court building, shifting in my metal chair, ignoring the talk-show chatter from the flat screens, and keeping an eye on the red digit counter to know when my number was up.
I'd been called for jury duty.
Whether I will eventually be deployed is up to the gods, but until then I have resolved to study (with the help of this building's creaking Wi-Fi system) all 2,000 pages of the proposed multibillion-dollar settlement in the Deepwater Horizon case--the settlement made public last week by BP and thousands of Gulf Coast residents and businesses. (I blogged earlier when the broad outline of this settlement was first announced here.)
Now some of you may wish to savor the details, poring over the documents page-by-page between sips of Courvoisier. But for the rest, I've got the bottom line [SPOILER ALERT]: The proposed settlement rewards plaintiffs' hard bargaining, puts a crimp in federal and state hopes for a speedy trial, and demonstrates once again that despite the size of this deal, the main course is yet to come, in the form of federal civil fines and possible criminal prosecution.
Hard Bargaining Rewarded
The documents propose a class-action structure, in which private plaintiffs would be compensated for economic harm and health claims by way of a settlement fund. The fund would replace the one that began as Ken Feinberg's Gulf Coast Claims Facility, but would be administered by the court rather than BP. Payouts under the new fund could begin within weeks, following Judge Barbier’s preliminary approval of the plan.
Settlement claims are divided into those for economic loss and medical harm. It is the package for economic loss that offers the most sparkling feature: a Risk Transfer Premium or "RTP." The RTP is a kind of bonus, based on an agreed-upon "multiplier." It's meant to compensate plaintiffs for future uncertainty or for less concrete losses that are hard to monetize. So if you are the captain of a crabbing boat who can show $20,000 of lost earnings, you will get compensation in that amount plus a premium of $100,000--the $20,000 loss multiplied by the RTP multiplier for crab boat captains, which is 5. The multiplier varies by category. For coastal property owners, the multiplier is 2.5. For star-crossed oystermen, it is 8.75. I was especially pleased to find that subsistence fishers had secured an RTP multiplier (2.25) to compensate for non-monetized cultural losses, in addition to the multiplier for the economic value of the fish. In Louisiana and Mississippi, Vietnamese-American fishers often use self-caught fish as ceremonial gifts or as objects of community barter. Perhaps in exchange for RTPs, plaintiffs agreed to a total cap on seafood claims of $2.3 billion. All other claims are uncapped.
As for medical claims, any claimant who worked or lived on the coast may receive up to $60,700 for some specific ailments (but not many others), with the right to sue for medical harms that are identified in the future. Class members are also guaranteed 21 years of free medical monitoring.
The promise of quick payouts, combined with the RTP, gives plaintiffs compelling reasons to consider it. Surely, plaintiffs' lawyers will like it: BP has agreed not to object when they press the court for $600 million in fees (which would be paid in addition to plaintiffs' award). I suspect even BP is relieved to get this confusion of high-stakes claims out of the way.
Lost Hope for a Speedy Trial?
I envision federal and state lawyers, somewhere in Swampville, gritting their teeth over what appears the smallest of details. As part of the plan, BP has suggested the trial containing the state and federal claims be postponed all the way until November of this year. Ostensibly, that's because final approval of this settlement could not happen before then. But the timing all but ensures that the meatiest part of the trial--as well as last-minute settlement negotiations with the federal government--would occur half-a-year from now, when public concern has dissipated and a presidential election has just taken place, possibly putting a Republican in charge of the Justice Department next year. It will be up to Judge Barbier to decide that schedule, but right now the government lawyers must be steaming.
The Main Course
When that trial does happen, or when the federal and state claims settle, remember that those claims lie at the heart of this dispute. The partial settlement, valued at around $8 billion, is unquestionably one of the largest settlements in American history. But the remaining federal and state civil claims could eclipse that by many times. And it is possible that criminal penalties could add tens of billions of dollars more to BP’s bill. (See my itemizations here.)
Is their number up? Today, not by a long shot. But we’ll see.
April 23, 2012 in Current Affairs, Energy, Governance/Management, Law, North America, Social Science, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, US, Water Quality, Water Resources | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
March 09, 2012
Live Blogging from Silent Spring @ 50
"Heeding the Signs of a Changing Ocean" -- Susan Avery, President and Director, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:
- "Every second breath you take is provided by the ocean."
- "We have entered a new geologic age -- the anthropocene era."
- "The Gulf and other coastal waters have long been a dumping ground for human activities."
- "One thing that I think Rachel would be pleased about is that science [is now] at the stage where you can predict the emergence of harmful algal blooms."
- NOAA "has begun now issuing seasonal red tide alerts in the Northeast."
- "I really think it's harder to get into the ocean than to space. We probably know more about the surface of the moon and Mars than we do the ocean."
- "It's not funded, but we have a national ocean policy."
- "If we think about where we are now with the oceans, and what Rachel Carson would think today, I think she we be partly despairing and partly hopeful."
- "The economic benefit of the ocean is huge, and it is just beginning to be documented."
- "Everyone has a stake in the oceans."
- "One of the keys" to ocean management "is the realization that best practices by an individual corporation is not enough . . . . Collaboration is needed . . . . The problem is that there has not been a structural process to" bring ocean industries together.
- "Thinking to the future . . . , these are the kind of cross-sectoral things that . . . businesses can get involved in and be part of the solution and not just part of the problem:" (1) ocean governance -- Convention on Biological Diversity, (2) marine spatial planning, (3) regional ocean business councils, (4) smart ocean / smart industries.
- "Marine mammal issues will increasingly affect marine activities, especially shipping."
- "We need to balance that growing need for resources and food and energy with those areas that already have resources."
- "Better data means better modeling and better forecasting," which fundamentally helps businesses, "let alone leading to better environmental management."
"Challenges for Ocean Governance in a Climate Change Era" -- Robin Kundis Craig, Attorneys' Title Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Environmental Programs, Florida State University College of Law
- "I think what we should really be thinking about is how to keep those ecosystems healthy, functioning, and resilient rather than collapsing."
- "The problem is we have one ocean but many governments."
- "As much as we'd like to treat the ocean as one place, there are serious problems for doing that under our current legal system."
- "Marine spatial planning was introduced, internationally at least, before governments were really thinking about climate change. . . . It is not a panacea. . . . It will not really help with climate change mitigation . . . ."
- "Marine spatial planning can help with climate change adaptation, and it" can become "more climate change adaptable."
- "Ocean acidification is the technical fix for anyone who wants to [address] climate change" in the oceans.
- Australia has a climate change adaptation plan for the Great Barrier Reef. In part, it seeks to "fill knowledge gaps," "identify critical ecosystem thresholds," and translate that into management practices.
- "Australia is also using the Reef as a reason to engage in climate change mitigation."
- An example of dynamic zoning possibilities is TurtleWatch, which predicts on a daily basis where sea turtles will be so that fishers can avoid them (and thus prevent closure of the fishery).
March 9, 2012 in Biodiversity, Books, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Economics, Environmental Assessment, Governance/Management, International, Law, North America, Science, Social Science, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, US, Water Quality, Water Resources | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
March 05, 2012
After Partial Settlement, Oil Spill Case on a Slow Boil
The BP Oil Spill case settled! Well, part of it. The smaller part. But, still, we must count this a victory for U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, whose reported 72 million pages of assigned reading will inevitably be shaved down. (Does this man have an iPad?)
On Friday evening the court announced that BP had reached a settlement with the steering committee that represents thousands of private plaintiffs in the case. Judge Barbier postponed the trial indefinitely while the remaining parties, including the federal government, regroup. According to news reports, the settlement would cover claims for economic loss and medical harm. BP estimated that the settlement, which has no firm cap, might total $7.8 billion; the actual number would depend on how many plaintiffs accept the deal and how much they’re ultimately paid. Plaintiffs displeased with the offer could opt out and stay in the litigation. And all private claims against Transocean and other defendant companies remain.
On balance, the settlement appears to be a good thing. But this plate is just the appetizer. The main course—a pepper pot of federal civil claims and criminal charges—has yet to come. And that’s a dish that could really bust a gut.
Before I get to the federal claims, here’s why I like the settlement. The private claims—brought by shrimpers, restaurant owners, injured responders, the families of fallen rig operators and more—were incredibly diverse in factual elements and dogged by the uncertain standard that controls large punitive awards. That not only made their claims hard to value, but insured that any generous verdict would be sent into the deep-‐space of federal appeals, delaying for years the compensation that many families and small businesses need now.
For those, like me, who hope the oil industry will be driven to reduce catastrophic risk offshore, the more powerful lever has always been in the grip of government lawyers. As I explained in my last post, the current litigation also includes federal claims seeking civil fines under the Clean Water Act. If Judge Barbier finds that the spill resulted from gross negligence, the maximum fine for the release could total $21.5 billion ($4,300 assessed for each of 5 million barrels the government estimates was spilled). In addition, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder suggested last week that “within months” his office could announce plans to prosecute. (These actions would not be a part of the current litigation.) Provisions under the Clean Water Act allow for criminal penalties up to twice the total amount of the economic loss resulting from the accident. No one yet knows the extent of economic loss (which would include loss to private claimants, natural resource damages claimed by states and federal agencies, and more), but it doesn’t take much imagination to conceive of criminal penalties in the $30-‐50 billion range. (Take $6 billion in compensation fund pay-‐outs; add $8 billion for the settlement; add another $10 billion for estimated resource damage; double.) Did I mention fines and jail time for individual employees?
To be sure, I am talking about the high end of federal fines and penalties, but even the possibility of such liability must leave BP executives staring at the clouds. Could BP settle with the government? Perhaps, but to contain all liability, the company would almost certainly seek to settle the civil and criminal actions together. That makes Eric Holder the head chef. And for now he’s got these cases on a slow but steady boil.
March 01, 2012
Water Rights & A Seat at the Table
Next week, the Oklahoma Law Review will host a symposium on water law. The topic is timely because Oklahoma is reaching the conclusion of a multi-year, stakeholder-driven water planning process. The process includes both technical evaluations and an elaborate public engagement component. The latter is worth a closer look for its lessons in collective environmental decisionmaking.
A few features of Oklahoma are notable for their importance to stakeholder engagement processes—I highlight them here because I suspect at least some of these features are shared by a number of states. First, Oklahoma is a state where trust in the government is moderate to low and there tends to be a strong culture of individualism. Second, water issues are both legally complex and contentious. The water-rights system is a blend of riparianism and prior appropriation (yes, this produces bizarre results); there are numerous tribal claims to water; Texas is growing rapidly and getting thirsty; and the list goes on.
Mindful of these features, the Oklahoma Water Resources Research Institute (OWRRI) developed a process meant to engage any interested party from the outset. It began with 42 listening sessions held across the state. Next, 340 appointees participated in regional input meetings; these meetings were intended to identify the full range of Oklahoma’s water issues. Based on an analysis of the issues developed at those meetings, OWRRI identified 10 themes for planning workshops, each of which involved 20 participants. Resulting recommendations were the focus of a town hall meeting at which policy recommendations were drafted. From there, OWRRI conducted a number of feedback meetings to allow public input. Ultimately, the result is a plan developed by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, which is currently under consideration by the state legislature.
There is no doubt that the process included many and varied ways for the public to raise concerns about water policy in the state. Furthermore, updates from the OWRRI are easy to obtain, its website contains a wealth of information, and the staff are particularly patient and approachable. In many ways, the process is a model for deliberative decisionmaking… except…
It didn’t include a meaningful way for Native American tribes to work with the state on a sovereign-to-sovereign basis. To be fair, the relevant state agencies don’t have authority to negotiate with the tribes in that manner. But while tribal leaders and state officials seem to agree that water-rights issues are best resolved through negotiation, litigation and heated exchanges appear to be on the rise. Which might belie the importance of accommodating many voices in the first instance.
January 13, 2012
ABA's 41st Annual Conference on Environmental Law
The ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) will host its 41st Annual Conference on Environmental Law this March 22-24 in Salt Lake City. If you have not been before, this is one of, if not the, premier environmental law conferences in the nation. (If the weather turns right, there could also be really great skiing.) The conference used to be known as the "Keystone Conference."
As usual, there is a fantastic line-up. Just a few samples include:
- Environmental Protection on the Chopping Block? How Environmental Law and Enforcement Will Respond to Funding Cuts and Other Restrictions
- Hydraulic Fracturing on Trial: Possibilities, Pollution, and Preemption
- Federal Air Regulation of the Energy Sector: What to Expect for Oil, Natural Gas, and Coal
- Time and Scale: Emerging Challenges to NEPA and the ESA Getting Real About “Growing Communities”—How New Laws and Regulations Are Changing the Game of Urban Expansion
Of particular note, this year's conference has a number of opportunities for students, including panels designed to help acclimate students to emerging issues in the field and scholarships for students to attend (deadline: February 14, 2012).
To register, go to the conference website.
December 01, 2011
Is State Ownership of Public Trust Waters At Risk When SCOTUS Hears PPL Montana v. Montana?
When the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral argument in PPL Montana, L.L.C v. State of Montana on December 7, it will consider issues of constitutional history dating to the early days of the American Republic and legal sources that some claim (and others dispute) trace to Magna Charta and the Institutes of Justinian in Roman law. The court will also consider a factual record that includes the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Moreover, the case involves a challenge for the more conservative Justices on the Court, who arguably have to choose between their concerns for private property rights and protection of state sovereignty.
Despite these fascinating underpinnings of the case, some might argue that the core legal issue is interesting only to a water law or property law scholar: What is the proper legal standard to determine “navigability” for purposes of who owns the beds and banks of a particular water body?
The real-world stakes in PPL Montana, however, are potentially extremely important. The dispute involves whether the State of Montana or either private power companies or the federal government own the beds and banks of the Missouri, Clark Fork and Madison Rivers, and therefore whether the State is entitled to compensation for decades of hydroelectric power production by private companies using dams built on state land. More broadly, the Court’s decision could affect ownership and control of hundreds of miles of rivers throughout the country, particularly in the West. And more importantly, with state ownership comes a public trust duty to protect those waters for shared public values in navigation, commerce, fisheries, and environmental protection. (See, e.g., National Audubon Society v. Superior Court (1983).)
Because of common confusion about the legal import of the word “navigability”, it is also important to clarify what is not at stake in the case. This case will notaffect the longstanding dispute over the federal government’s jurisdiction over some kinds of water bodies under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Thus far, the Supreme Court has decided CWA jurisdiction cases largely on statutory grounds, interpreting the term “waters of the United States” in the statute. (See Rapanos v. United States (2006).) To be sure, the Supreme Court has indicated that the term “navigable” remains relevant to the geographic reach of the CWA, and that this issue may have constitutional dimensions. (See Solid Waste Authority of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (2001).) However, the Supreme Court has established a different—and for most purposes broader—standard of “navigability” for Commerce Clause authority than for title. Commerce clause authority extends to non-navigable tributaries of navigable waters and to waters that are navigable after artificial improvements. (See Kaiser-Aetna v. United States (1979); United States v. Appalachian Elec. Power Co., (1940).) The title test is broader than the Commerce Clause test only where a waterway is navigable solely for intrastate commerce; but one can hardly make that claim for the Missouri River and a major tributary (Clark Fork), which are part of the largest interstate river system in the contiguous states, along with a major tributary of the Columbia River system (the Madison River).
No one in the PPL Montana case disputes the core principle of state ownership of the beds and banks of navigable waters. The Supreme Court confirmed that aspect of state sovereignty in the first half of the nineteenth century (Martin v. Waddell’s Lessee (1842)), and then added that newly admitted states as well as the original 13 share those same rights under the equal footing doctrine of the U.S. Constitution. (Pollard’s Lessee v. Hagan (1845).) Later, the Supreme Court clarified that states held those lands in trust for their people, and therefore could not allow use of those lands for exclusive private benefit without safeguarding their public trust purposes and values. (Illinois Central R. Co. v. Illinois (1892).)
Rather, in PPL Montana, the power company petitioners argue that the Montana trial court and the Montana Supreme Court employed the wrong legal standard in determining whether the particular waters at issue in this case were navigable at the time Montana was admitted to the Union, the timeframe the Supreme Court has held relevant for purposes of ownership.
First, PPL argues that the Montana courts improperly applied the navigability test to the “whole river” rather than a segment-specific inquiry. In United States v. Utah (1931), for example, the Supreme Court found state ownership for large portions of the Colorado and Green Rivers in Utah, but held that title remained in the United States (which owns the surrounding lands) through Cataract Canyon, for which there was insufficient evidence of navigability at statehood. In other cases, however, the Supreme Court has held that temporary interruptions in navigability defeat neither navigability nor title so long as those stretches can be portaged such that the river continues to serve as a continuous highway for commerce. (See The Montello (1874).) Cataract Canyon was never portaged as part of a continuous highway for commerce, and anyone (like me) who has hiked that cliff-bound region knows that such an effort was likely impossible, especially when Utah was admitted into the Union. The State of Montana, however, introduced evidence that the rivers at issue in PPL Montana were portaged historically to transport gold, furs, and other goods in interstate commerce. Interstate commerce stopped at Cataract Canyon, but not at the waterfalls along Montana’s Rivers or many similar waterways throughout the nation.
PPL’s plea for a segmented approach to navigability really amounts to an attack on the factual findings of the state court, an issue the Supreme Court did not accept for review and on which the Court should defer in any event. From a policy perspective, however, PPL’s argument invites a piecemeal pattern of ownership that could impede a state’s efforts, under the public trust doctrine or otherwise, to manage rivers and their component resources as ecosystems. This is a matter of great importance to watershed managers and to businesses and members of the public who use and enjoy rivers for recreational or commercial navigation, for fishing, for water supplies, and for other economic and environmental purposes.
Second, PPL argues that the Montana courts improperly entertained evidence of current-day recreational use to support a finding of navigability at statehood, as well as evidence of other allegedly irrelevant commercial river uses such as log floating. PPL’s argument about current-day usage is ironic, because in the lower courts it argued that the State should not be allowed to rely on historical records of navigability because they are hearsay (no one remains alive who has personal knowledge of navigability when Montana was admitted to the Union in 1889) and inherently unreliable. If a State cannot use historical evidence of navigability at statehood, and it cannot use post-statehood evidence as probative of the legal test of navigability at statehood, states will have no reasonable way of proving ownership for many rivers. Proof will become increasingly difficult to harness as time passes, inviting private landowners to raise more and more challenges to navigability and thereby to strip the states of legitimate claims to title and, more importantly, to eliminate essential public trust protections.
As to the use of log floating to demonstrate navigability, floating logs to market was a major aspect of commerce in heavily forested parts of the country, and was critical to such major development as construction of the transcontinental railroads. The Supreme Court has approved of such evidence in prior cases (see St. Anthony Falls Water Power Co. v. Board of Water Com’rs of City of St. Paul (1897), but more important, who is better suited than the states (through their courts) to determine what kinds of economic activity are sufficient to show that rivers were highways for commerce for purposes of proving navigability for title?
From a rhetorical perspective, the briefs filed by PPL and various amici on its side appeal to the inclinations of a majority of the Supreme Court to protect private property and the stability of title against governmental takings. The State of Montana and amici on its side, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of preserving state sovereignty and the equal rights of states on admission to the Union. A ruling in PPL’s favor, however, could do serious damage both to property rights and to state sovereignty, because it would effectively constitute a private taking of public property and accompanying public trust protections to subsidize private resource development. The Court can best protect both sets of interests by upholding the Montana Supreme Court’s adherence to U.S. Supreme Court precedent in finding state ownership in the beds and banks of the rivers in question.
Guest post written by Robert Adler, Professor of Law, University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law; Wallace Stegner Center. This post was cross-posted on the Center for Progressive Reform blog.
November 16, 2011
Call for Articles - Fordham Environmental Law Review
In celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the Fordham Environmental Law Review plans to publish an issue devoted to water. They have issued a call for papers, with a deadline of December 15, 2011. The details follow:
CALL FOR ARTICLE PROPOSALS
The Fordham Environmental Law Review will devote its Spring 2012 issue (Vol. 23.2) to articles on Water, in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.
The editors of the ELR are looking for articles discussing a range of environmental, natural resource, energy law, and policy topics associated with issues of water and riparian rights. Articles may address state, national, or international issues. Suggested topics include:
- Clean Water Act
- Waste water treatment and disposal
- Citizen suits
- Invasive Species
- Conflicts between federal and state rights
- Congressional activism on environmental/ energy/resource issues
- Environmental enforcement at the federal, state and local level
- EPA and Surface Mining Act
- Agency issues
- Congress v. Agencies
- Role of science
- Cross-jurisdictional consistency/standards
ARTICLE PROPOSALS ARE DUE BY December 15, 2011.
Authors will work with an editor from the ELR Board throughout the publication process. Articles should be between 8,000 and 25,000 words and should be written in standard legal journal style (footnotes conform to The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation). ELR article guidelines can be found on the ELR website at: http://law.fordham.edu/fordham-environmental-law-review/5518.htm.
Contact: Lee Van Put, Senior Notes & Articles Editor, Fordham Environmental Law Review
November 02, 2011
Position Announcement - Environmental ADR Program Director
The Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law has posted a job opening for a new alternative dispute resolution program focused on environmental, natural resources, and energy issues. The position is for the director of the program.
Here is the announcement. Note the link at the end for online applications:
The Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law is establishing a new Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) program focused on environmental, public lands, and natural resource issues and is currently accepting applications for the ADR Program Director. The Director will play a major role in initiating, designing, and developing the new ADR program. Specific responsibilities include identifying issues of local, regional, and national importance and proactively investigating ADR opportunities; public education about the benefits of mediation, collaboration, and other ADR options; providing ADR services to government agencies, corporations, environmental organizations, and other entities; fundraising to support the program; and research on ADR processes and opportunities. Requirements include a Juris Doctor or equivalent degree, along with a minimum of five (5) years of experience in alternative dispute resolution. Experience with environmental, natural resources, or energy law and policy, and especially experience with these issues in the western United States, is strongly preferred. For additional information and to apply, please go to http://utah.peopleadmin.com/postings/11104.
November 2, 2011 in Air Quality, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Energy, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, Land Use, Law, Mining, North America, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, US, Water Quality, Water Resources | Permalink | TrackBack
August 07, 2011
In Case You Missed It -- The Week of August 1-7
* 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
June 27, 2011
Environmental Freakonomics: Bottling Water Not So Bad After All?
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
May 30, 2011
When All Else Fails Bring Up the "Other" Carbon Problem
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
May 02, 2011
New Supreme Court Opinion on Water Law
Today the Supreme Court released its opinion in the case Montana v. Wyoming. This water law case presented the issue of whether, under the Yellowstone River Compact, an appropriator can use more efficient methods to disseminate water, so long as the appropriator uses the water to irrigate the same amount of acreage. The Supreme Court held that it could even if changing watering methods would reduce the amount of return flow.
The Court upheld the decision of the Court appointed Special Master--Buzz Thompson--and the decision cites among others David Getches and Mark Squillace, and the great textbook by Sax, Thompson, Leshy and Abrams.
The Court's majority was made up of seven Justices, with Justice Scalia dissenting and Justice Kagan not taking part in the decision. While I enjoyed seeing the names of law professors I respect in the opinion and enjoyed reading an opinion about water law, for me, the most memorable part of the opinion came from Justice Scalia's dissent when he refused to call the people of Wyoming Wyomingites and instead called them Wyomans. He did this, because, as he put it, "the people of Wyoming deserve better."
A more detailed summary of the opinion can be found here on SCOTUSblog.
-- Brigham Daniels
April 21, 2011
Adler on Climate Adaptation and Drought
Bob Adler has posted to SSRN a fascinating new article on drought's role in climate change. Specifically, Prof. Adler argues that policy will need to shift how it balances the compassionate impulse to offer relief in times of disaster and the ways in which it encourages and discourages risky behaviors. Noting that we are already "committed" to a certain amount of climate change because of past greenhouse gas emissions, Adler concludes:
"[V]ulnerability increases with the frequency of the event, which decreases the recovery interval between disasters. The result will likely be a vicious cycle of relief and increased risk. Given the likelihood of this scenario, perhaps a more 'compassionate' approach is to implement systemic policies to reduce vulnerability to climate-induced disasters by increasing the sustainability of various economic sectors in advance." To demonstrate what changes we might make, Adler uses the agricultural industry, though there are of course applications to numerous other economic sectors.
Adler's article is an important addition to the climate change literature, in particular because it adds to the growing discourse on climate adaptation -- and the increasingly clear consensus that we need both climate change mitigation and adaptation. The focus on water is especially apropos given the close nexus between water availability and one of the key climate change inputs: energy production.
The article is Balancing Compassion and Risk in Climate Adaptation: U.S. Water, Drought and Agricultural Law. It can be downloaded here.
This article compares risk spreading and risk reduction approaches to climate adaptation. Because of the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from past practices, the world is "committed" to a significant amount of global average warming. This is likely to lead to significant increases in the frequency, severity and geographic extent of drought. Adaptation to these and other problems caused by climate disruption will be essential even if steps are taken now to mitigate that disruption. Water and drought policy provide an example of the significant policy tension between compassion and risk reduction in climate adaptation, and how those tensions affect broader national economic policies. Because water is essential to lives and livelihoods, the compassionate response to drought is to provide financial and other forms of relief. Guaranteed, unconditional drought relief, however, can encourage unsustainable water uses and practices that increase vulnerability to drought in the long-term. Moreover, the agricultural sector is the largest consumptive user of water in drought-prone regions, but longstanding U.S. agricultural policy encourages excess production and water use. Effective adaptation to climate disruption will have to strike a balance between providing essential short-term relief from hardship and promoting longer-term measures to reduce vulnerability through more sustainable water use and other practices. It will also require fundamental reconsideration of laws and policies that drive key economic sectors that will be affected by climate disruption. Although water, drought and agricultural law provide one good example of this tension, the same lessons are likely to apply to other sectors of the economy vulnerable to climate disruption, such as real estate development and energy production.
- Lincoln Davies
April 11, 2011
Roy Gardner on "Lawyers, Swamps, and Money - U.S. Wetland Law, Policy, and Politics" (New Book)
Wetlands expert Roy Gardner, Stetson University College of Law, has recently published a fascinating book on U.S. wetland law and policy. The book, Lawyers, Swamps, and Money, U.S. Wetland Law, Policy, and Politics has recently become available for purchase (Island Press), and you may purchase a copy here. You can read the press release for the book below.
Professor Gardner is one of the nation's leading experts on wetland law and policy. His book reflects not only his expertise, but also his special ability to make the details of wetland law and policy accessible to all - even despite the complex web of constitutional, administrative, and environmental questions raised. I recommend this book to anyone interested in wetlands, and think it would be great supplementary reading for Natural Resources Law and Policy or related courses.
Professor Gardner is the director of Stetson's Institute for Biodiversity Law and Policy, and was instrumental in Stetson University College of Law becoming the first school in the country to gain membership to the US National Ramsar Committee, which supports the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in the United States. Stetson students worked with the site manager of Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to seek its designation as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, and it was successfully designated as such in the spring of 2010.
Lawyers, Swamps, and Money
U.S. Wetland Law, Policy, and Politics
By Royal C. Gardner
Washington, D.C. (April 2011) — A leading expert on wetlands law and policy has written an engaging guide to the complex set of laws governing these critical natural areas.
Lawyers, Swamps, and Money explains the importance of America’s wetlands and the threats they face, and examines the evolution of federal law, principally the Clean Water Act, designed to protect them. Royal Gardner’s writing is simultaneously substantive and accessible to a wide audience — from policy makers to students to citizen activists.
Readers will first learn the basics of administrative law: how agencies receive and exercise their authority, how they actually make laws, and how stakeholders can influence their behavior through the Executive Branch, Congress, the courts, and the media. These core concepts provide a base of knowledge for successive discussions of:
• the geographic scope and activities covered by the Clean Water Act
• the curious relationship between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency
• the goal of no net loss of wetlands
• the role of entrepreneurial wetland mitigation banking
• the tension between wetland mitigation bankers and in-lieu fee mitigation programs
• wetland regulation and private property rights.The book concludes with insightful policy recommendations to make wetlands law less ambiguous and more effective.
The book concludes with insightful policy recommendations to make wetlands law less ambiguous and more effective.
- Blake Hudson
April 11, 2011 in Biodiversity, Constitutional Law, Environmental Assessment, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Physical Science, Science, US, Water Quality, Water Resources | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
March 10, 2011
Plater on Deepwater Horizon and TVA v. Hill
Environmental law, by definition, looks forward. But it also pays to look back.
The first, "Lessons from Disasters: What We Are Learning from the BP Deepwater Blowout in the Gulf of Mexico That We Should Have Learned 21 Years Ago in Alaska," draws on Prof. Plater's experience as Chair of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission's Legal Task Force following the Exxon-Valdez disaster. Any examination of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, of course, raises questions not just of environmental degradation but of energy planning, national security, the debate over peak oil, sustainable development, and the direction of our society itself.
The second talk will be delivered as the annual Wallace Stegner Lecture, sponsored by the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment. As counsel for farmers, Cherokees, and environmentalists in the U.S. Supreme Court, Prof. Plater is perhaps better equipped than anyone to comment on what one of the most important cases in the field, TVA v. Hill, has to teach us about where environmental law -- and environmentalism -- is headed today. The title of the lecture is "Classic Lessons from a Little Fish in a Pork Barrel."
Prof. Plater's remarks on the Deepwater Horizon begin at 12:15 p.m. Mountain (2:15 p.m. Eastern; 11:15 a.m. Pacific).
His Wallace Stegner Lecture will begin at 6 p.m. Mountain (8 p.m. Eastern; 5 p.m. Pacific).
If you cannot join live in Salt Lake City, there will be simultaneous webcasts at www.ulaw.tv.