Sunday, August 14, 2016

What Have TMDLs Done?

"TMDLs suck."  At least, that's what a guest speaker told my environmental law class a few years ago.  To be fair, he was just talking about TMDLs for urban stormwater; in that context, the speaker (a municipal stormwater manager and committed environmentalist) saw them as highly ineffective tools.  But I wondered then if the statement might have broader accuracy.

So last year, when the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law asked me to speak at a conference on TMDLs, I decided to look more deeply into the literature on TMDLs and to try to summarize what we know about what they've accomplished.  The results of that inquiry are now available on VJEL's website (as part of a larger volume; I'd add a link but the site seems to be having issues at the moment) and here (as a stand-alone article).  The nutshell summary: there's a lot we don't know, but what we do know is discouraging.  Once upon a time, TMDLs were one of the great hopes of water quality law.  Today, there is very little evidence that they have fulfilled that promise.  And there are reasons--which the article explores in detail--why we shouldn't be surprised at the scant evidence of success.

There are also important caveats to that conclusion, one of which the VJEL volume spends several hundred pages exploring.  At present, the most ambitious TMDL projects in the nation address Chesapeake Bay and Lake Champlain.  The Chesapeake Bay TMDL tends to get more attention, but the Lake Champlain effort seems genuinely promising.  At the symposium, my favorite panel brought David Mears--currently a Vermont Law School professor, but also a recent commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Protection--together with several of his government colleagues to talk about how Vermont was implementing the Lake Champlain TMDL.  It was an inspiring panel, and a good reminder that a TMDL can be an effective way to achieve water quality improvements if it has the support of committed, pragmatic, and smart state officials.  The written VJEL edition provides a similar story in much greater detail.  Unfortunately, however, that circumstance does not seem nearly common enough.

- Dave Owen


August 14, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

What Brexit Means for Biofuels, Means for Wood Pellet Markets, Means for Southern U.S. Forests

Southern wood pellet facilities

Great Britain's exit from the European Union ("Brexit") has both impacted economic markets and raised generalized geopolitical concerns. One of those concerns is what will happen to the U.K.'s commitment to addressing climate change. Renewable energy policies are squarely within the center of Britain's climate change commitments. In particular, questions have been raised about what Brexit will mean for biofuel use, such as for wood pellets that have replaced coal in boilers at electricity generating facilities. One such facility is Drax Biomass in England. Drax has made substantial commitments to converting its operations from coal to wood pellet biofuels. While debate rages regarding whether or not wood pellets as a means of generating electricity is a net climate positive, at least in the short term, wood pellets constitute a market that has expanded rapidly in in the southeastern U.S. (as represented in the image at the top of this post). Wood pellet generation in the South has surpassed 10 million annual short tons with more than 6 million short tons of additional capacity under construction. Exports from the US to Europe doubled between 2012 and 2013, and some project that capacity could increase 10-fold by 2020.

Others are not so enthusiastic about wood pellet market development in the South. Concerns range from the effect on southern forests—potentially converted more readily into monoculture plantations devoid of biodiversity and negatively impacting water quality—to concerns that even if wood pellets are "renewable" and "carbon neutral" in the long term, in the short term burning wood pellets for energy may release enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to push us past a climate tipping point.

The flip side of this debate, of course, is that southern forests are under increasing forest conversion pressure due primarily to urbanization. The U.S. Forest Service has projected that if trends continue, 13 percent of southern forests may be lost, due primarily to urban development. With fewer pulp and paper markets into which forest owners can inject their timber (pulp and paper has been steadily moving operations overseas), and with increasing forest fragmentation due to family forests being split up via generational transfers, forest owners are looking to convert forests to other uses. Wood pellet markets could provide a tremendous opportunity to incentivize private forest owners to keep their forests forested, or even incentivize non-forest landholders to reforest, leading to a net CO2 sink even while burning wood for energy.

Enter Brexit. Regardless of the debate about whether wood pellet market development is good or bad for southern forests or the climate, the recent English referendum to exit the European Union could have dramatic ramifications for market development. Many of the climate targets the UK maintains were driven largely by European Union goals. But in the wake of Brexit, and in a move that shocked many, the UK government decided to shutter its Department of Energy and Climate Change. The department will be merged into an expanded Department of Business, Energy and Environmental Strategy. Many see the replacement of the word "climate" with the word "business" in the department's title as an ominous sign of England's commitment to the Paris Agreement. In fact there is a high correlation between Brexit supporters and climate change deniers. A new group has even emerged called Clexit (Climate Exit) to push for the UK's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. 

I've recently discussed the potential effect of Brexit on the southern U.S. wood pellet industry with industry representatives, who take the position that while the UK may have taken cues from the European Union in developing its renewable energy policies, much policy development—and in particular regarding wood pellets—was UK driven. Even so, with shifting political winds giving climate deniers a more robust platform in the UK, even those domestic policies could be called into question. While wood pellets could be viewed favorably as another energy source, it is UK government subsidies (and thus UK citizen tax dollars) that prop up the market. Without those subsidies, coal would be four times cheaper than wood pellets as a means of generating electricity.

The UK's exit from the European Union has other probable ramifications. The UK has been more favorable toward the use of biofuels like wood pellets in its electricity generation sector than have other European countries. By exiting the European Union, the UK has lost much of its ability to influence other European countries in that direction. This could reduce the scope of the wood pellet market globally, which in turn could reduce timber markets in the southeastern U.S. and put southern forests at increased risk of conversion.

As far as immediate harm to wood pellet markets in the South, industry executives believe there will be no direct negative ramifications, at least for now. If the UK chooses to reduce subsidies for the use of wood pellet fuels, then it will certainly make wood pellet mill operation in the US more expensive. Industry representatives say that the key players are well hedged and are locked into long-term contracts. So it seems that at least until those contracts run out, or unless companies go bankrupt by not hedging properly, the southeastern U.S. wood pellet market will remain.

Ultimately, the ramifications of a decision like Brexit are more complex and far-reaching than many of those who voted for it likely understand (see, e.g., "After Brexit Vote, Britain Asks Google: 'What is the EU?'"). The southeastern U.S. could very well see an increased loss of southern forests and associated jobs due to the UK's exit—a result tied directly to the general trend in the U.K. toward a nationalistic voter base that is antagonistic to basic, well-established science. It is a tragic irony—many of those in the southern U.S. whose livelihoods depend on forest product markets also identify with the same nationalistic tendencies and predispositions to rejecting sound science—tendencies and predispositions that result in support of phenomena like Donald Trump's campaign. In doing so, these voters hurt their own economic well-being and place at risk the landscape that makes the southern U.S. the most productive forested region of the world.

- Blake Hudson 

August 10, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)