On Tuesday the political arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of America’s most influential environmentalist groups, made its first presidential endorsement ever, giving the nod to Hillary Clinton. This meant jumping the gun by a week on her inevitable designation as the presumptive Democratic nominee, but the NRDC Action Fund is obviously eager to get on with the general election.
And it’s not hard to see why: At this point Donald Trump’s personality endangers the whole planet.
We’re at a peculiar moment when it comes to the environment — a moment of both fear and hope. The outlook for climate change if current policies continue has never looked worse, but the prospects for turning away from the path of destruction have never looked better. Everything depends on who ends up sitting in the White House for the next few years.
On climate: Remember claims by climate denialists that global warming had paused, that temperatures hadn’t risen since 1998? That was always a garbage argument, but in any case it has now been blown away by a series of new temperature records and a proliferation of other indicators that, taken together, tell a terrifying story of looming disaster.
At the same time, however, rapid technological progress in renewable energy is making nonsense — or maybe I should say, further nonsense — of another bad argument against climate action, the claim that nothing can be done about greenhouse gas emissions without crippling the economy. Solar and wind power are getting cheaper each year, and growing quickly even without much in the way of incentives to switch away from fossil fuels. Provide those incentives, and an energy revolution would be just around the corner.
So we’re in a state where terrible things are in prospect, but can be avoided with fairly modest, politically feasible steps. You may want a revolution, but we don’t need one to save the planet. Right now all it would take is for America to implement the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and other actions — which don’t even require new legislation, just a Supreme Court that won’t stand in their way — to let the U.S. continue the role it took in last year’s Paris agreement, guiding the world as a whole toward sharp reductions in emissions.
But what happens if the next president is a man who doesn’t believe in climate science, or indeed in inconvenient facts of any kind?
Republican hostility to climate science and climate action is usually attributed to ideology and the power of special interests, and both of these surely play important roles. Free-market fundamentalists prefer rejecting science to admitting that there are ever cases when government regulation is necessary. Meanwhile, buying politicians is a pretty good business investment for fossil-fuel magnates like the Koch brothers.
But I’ve always had the sense that there was a third factor, which is basically psychological. There are some men — it’s almost always men — who become enraged at any suggestion that they must give up something they want for the common good. Often, the rage is disproportionate to the sacrifice: for example, prominent conservatives suggesting violence against government officials because they don’t like the performance of phosphate-free detergent. But polluter’s rage isn’t about rational thought.
Which brings us to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who embodies the modern conservative id in its most naked form, stripped of the disguises politicians usually use to cloak their prejudices and make them seem respectable.
No doubt Donald Trump hates environmental protection in part for the usual reasons. But there’s an extra layer of venom to his pro-pollution stances that is both personal and mind-bogglingly petty.
For example, he has repeatedly denounced restrictions intended to protect the ozone layer — one of the great success stories of global environmental policy — because, he claims, they’re the reason his hair spray doesn’t work as well as it used to. I am not making this up.
He’s also a bitter foe of wind power. He likes to talk about how wind turbines kill birds, which they sometimes do, but no more so than tall buildings; but his real motivation seems to be ire over unsuccessful attempts to block an offshore wind farm near one of his British golf courses.
And if evidence gets in the way of his self-centeredness, never mind. Recently he assured audiences that there isn’t a drought in California, that officials have just refused to turn on the water.
I know how ridiculous it sounds. Can the planet really be in danger because a rich guy worries about his hairdo? But Republicans are rallying around this guy just as if he were a normal candidate. And if Democrats don’t rally the same way, he just might make it to the White House.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 3, 2016
As a devastating deluge of polluted water darkens two coasts of Florida and threatens their tourist economies, Gov. Rick Scott is once again a flaky phantom.
Billions of gallons spiked with agricultural waste is being pumped daily from Lake Okeechobee toward the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, browning the blue coastal waters, choking sea grass beds and crippling small businesses that depend on a healthy marine ecology.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the discharges are necessary because the water in Lake Okeechobee is too high and the old Hoover dike is too weak. Gov. Scott says it’s all President Obama’s fault for not rebuilding the dike, which is absurd.
Scott, who aspires to be a U.S. senator, either has no clue how the appropriations process works, or he’ll simply say any brainless thing to duck responsibility.
A brief civics lesson for Florida’s dim and furtive governor: The president cannot write a check for major capital projects. Congress is in charge of funding, and Congress happens to be controlled by the Republicans.
Being a Republican himself, Scott should fly straight to Washington and persuade his colleagues to rebuild the lake dike and fund a flow-way to the Everglades for the excess water.
Why hasn’t that happened? One reason is that Scott has even less clout with Congress than he does in Tallahassee.
Currently, the state Legislature is gutting or discarding basically all of the governor’s major budget proposals, including a goofball request for a $250 million honey pot to lure private companies to the state.
Scott is the emptiest of suits. He’ll pop up whenever a new business opens, count the jobs and take credit for them. In times of crisis, though, he’s a spectral presence.
Privately, the governor is busy muscling special interests to bankroll his Senate run in 2018. Some of his biggest donors are the worst polluters of Lake O and the Everglades, so you can understand why he’s been hard to find lately.
Scott’s pals in Big Sugar have been back-pumping dirty water from their cane fields into the lake, which through Friday was being emptied into the St. Lucie River at a rate exceeding 2 billion gallons a day. The Army Corps says it will soon drop the daily flow to 1.2 billion gallons.
So far this year, more than 72 billion gallons has been expelled toward the Treasure Coast, ruining the salinity of the St. Lucie Estuary, chasing sea life from the Indian River Lagoon and creating a foul brown plume miles into the Atlantic.
The visual is repelling tourists who might otherwise be interested in fishing, swimming or paddle-boarding. This is also happening along the Gulf coast, where Lake O discharges gush from the Caloosahatchee River.
Under pressure from exasperated business owners and officials, Scott last week declared a state of emergency for St. Lucie, Martin and Lee counties, citing “extensive environmental harm” and “severe economic losses.”
The governor used the opportunity to bash Obama, calling out the president six times in a five-paragraph press release from his feeble Department of Environmental Protection.
Never once did Scott mention the Republican leaders of Congress, who have the power but not the enthusiasm to allocate the $800 million needed to repair the Lake O dike. If they put that item in a budget, Obama would sign it in a heartbeat.
The same is true for Everglades restoration. Showing zero sense of urgency, Congress continues to lag far behind on its commitment to share the costs 50-50 with the state.
Every year when it rains hard, an algae-spawning tide from Lake O is flushed toward the coastal bays and beaches. No president yet has stepped in to stop corporate farms from using the lake as their toilet, or stopped the Army Corps from opening the pump valves.
If Obama tried that, Big Sugar (and Scott) would scream bloody murder.
As for the governor’s “state of emergency,” it’s barely just a piece of paper. The agencies in charge are officially in “observation mode.” I’m not kidding.
TC Palm newspapers reported that the head of the state Division of Emergency Management was attending a conference in New Orleans last week. What better place than Bourbon Street from which to ponder Florida’s coastal pollution crisis?
Scott himself would benefit from spending time at the marinas or waterfront motels in Stuart, meeting the working people whose dreams are drowning in a flood of silt.
But this governor prefers upbeat media opportunities where he can talk about new jobs — not dying jobs. He’d much rather cut a ribbon at a gas station than hear from a boat captain who can no longer find any fish.
By: Carl Hiaasen, Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, March 8, 2016
“The Wrong Way To Honor Florida’s Rick Scott”: No One In Their Right Mind Would Give Rick Scott An Award For Protecting Wildlife
After five years in office, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has not made many friends among those concerned with the environment, the climate crisis, or the state’s natural resources.
“By most expert accounts, Gov. Rick Scott’s tenure in Tallahassee has been a flat-out catastrophe for the Sunshine State’s already-fragile environment,” the Miami New Times reported this week. “He slashed water management budgets and stacked regulatory boards with developers. He battled tooth-and-nail against new clean water mandates. Even muttering the words ‘climate change’ was banned in state offices.”
With this in mind, the Tampa Bay Times’ Craig Pittman found it curious when a Florida group announced that the far-right governor is receiving an award for his work on the environment.
The award, announced via email last week, is being given to Scott later this year by the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, which functions as a support group for the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is run by gubernatorial appointees.
In the announcement, the foundation’s chairman, Miami real estate developer and lobbyist Rodney Barreto, hailed Scott for being “instrumental in helping develop a strong connection between fish and wildlife conservation and traditional outdoor activities like hunting and especially fishing.”
The Sierra Club’s Frank Jackalone told the Tampa Bay Times, “No one in their right mind would give Rick Scott an award for protecting wildlife.”
Asked for an explanation, Brett Boston, the foundation’s executive director, insisted the group is “very apolitical.” And what about the governor’s critics, who find it ridiculous that Scott would receive an environmental award?
“People complained about Mother Teresa,” Boston said.
I’m going to assume that this is the first – and quite likely the last – time anyone has tried to draw a parallel between Rick Scott and Mother Teresa.
As for the Republican governor’s environmental record, the Tampa Bay Times’ report added:
Scott has cut funding for the state’s water districts, vetoed funding for all the state’s regional planning councils, and eliminated money for a University of Florida lab considered key to stopping invasive species from ruining the state’s agriculture and environment.
In addition, Scott’s Department of Environmental Protection has shifted away from punishing polluters with fines and other penalties to instead assisting polluters with getting back into compliance. Scott praised the DEP last year for cutting the amount of time it takes to get a permit to a mere two days – down from 44 days when Jeb Bush was governor.
Scott’s DEP has also made several controversial moves to alter the award-winning state park system – selling off some land as surplus, for instance, or opening some parks to timber harvesting and cattle grazing or even hunting.
Alan Farago, president of Friends of the Everglades, told the Miami New Times. “In terms of the environment, I think [Scott is] the worst governor in modern Florida history.”
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, July 31, 2015
This month may mark the end of a decade-long saga that’s highlighted the lengths to which oil companies will go to drill in the Arctic—and the huge risks such endeavors entail.
If everything goes according to plan, Royal Dutch Shell will soon bury its first drill bit into the Arctic seabed since 2012. The exploration project, which began in 2005, has faced numerous setbacks—logistical issues, expensive equipment repairs, regulatory hurdles, environmental challenges. To date, Shell has sunk more than $7 billion into this hunt for oil and natural gas, and even if successful, it won’t see anything resembling financial success for more than a decade. But if it hits the substantial deposit of oil it believes to be under the Chukchi Sea, the payoff could be enormous.
That’s because, in the next few decades, companies expect it will become harder to extract oil and gas from existing wells, and even the fracking boom may begin to deplete. The race is on to find untapped resources, with companies pushing further and further into harder-to-reach areas.
As the warming ocean and atmosphere has melted Arctic ice, companies have particularly eyed the Chukchi sea for its fossil fuels. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the wider region contains 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its oil. Shell purchased its first leases here nearly a decade ago, and it is determined to see a return on its investment.
Shell reached this stage once before, drilling two wells in 2012. But the trip was plagued with problems. At the time, Shell underestimated Arctic dangers and overestimated how much time it had before heavy ice and storms made travel dangerous. The New York Times chronicled the mishaps in a lengthy and dramatic article: One rig, the Noble Discoverer, appeared to ground before reaching the Chukchi that July. Shell’s voluntary spill containment was crushed. A rig caught fire. From there, it got worse: The lines attaching the old rig Shell used, the Kulluk, to towing boats broke, the rig ran aground, and the Coast Guard had to rescue the 18 men trapped aboard it. These setbacks have helped bolster environmentalists’ case that the Arctic is too dangerous to drill.
This time around, Shell has planned to drill two more wells. Two oil rigs, 29 ships and seven aircraft are currently making their way north—an even bigger fleet than the one the company assembled for its previous trip to the Chukchi. Shell says it has never been better prepared, insisting to the Wall Street Journal that the risks today are “negligible.”
Environmentalists certainly don’t feel that way. Before one of the two rigs even left its Seattle port in mid-June, about two-dozen activists took to the water in kayaks, in an attempt to block the rig from leaving port.
There have been other hurdles. Shell’s original plan was to use the two rigs to drill for oil simultaneously, nine miles apart. A backup rig is already required in the aftermath of BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, and Shell figured it would put it to good multitasking. The rigs would double the efficiency of the drilling operations and meet federal requirements in case of a blowout. In a win for environmentalists, however, federal regulators decided in June against Shell’s plans to speed things along, citing the harm simultaneous drilling could cause walruses.
And then, just last week, Shell found a 39-inch gash in its vessel, called the Fennica, which contains a crucial piece to cap a well in the case of a blowout. Shell has taken it to Portland for repairs, and says there’s no reason it will delay the start date for drilling in late July. “We do not anticipate any impact on our season, as we don’t expect to require the vessel until August,” a spokesperson for Shell told Joel Connelly. Greenpeace USA spokesperson Travis Nichols disagreed, saying the company can’t possibly begin work on schedule without the essential equipment.
Shell is still waiting for a final permit from the Department of Interior before it can begin drilling. Department spokesperson Jessica Kershaw said they are watching the situation closely. “We continue to review Shell’s proposal for drilling activity in the Chukchi Sea this summer,” Kershaw said. “As we’ve said from day one, Shell will be held to highest safety and environmental standards. This includes having on hand the required emergency response systems necessary for each phase of its drilling program.”
Even as a long-term prospect, Shell is years behind schedule as the problems add up. And it can’t afford another slow season this year. The company faces pressure to prove to investors it can deliver on its $7 billion bet. By 2017, the Times reported, Shell’s first leases will expire if it doesn’t begin producing oil a decade after it first acquired them.
“Everybody’s watching to see if we’re going to fail or succeed out there,” Ann Pickard, Shell’s Executive Vice President running its Arctic division, told the Wall Street Journal. “If we fail for whatever reason … I think the U.S. is another 25 years” away from developing Arctic resources.
So even minor delays this year—like an incident akin to 2012’s—could be devastating to Shell. Above all else, it faces natural challenges. The weather is fickle, sea ice doesn’t always melt on schedule, and there’s a limited window of a few months a year when the Arctic is calm enough to drill. Interior has given Shell a hard stop to drilling in late September.
Environmentalists say that this pressure is exactly what makes Shell prone to risky decisions. “The Fennica could have easily travelled along a much safer route instead of going over a shallow, rocky shoal in an area that to begin with is not well charted,” said Chris Krenz, Arctic campaign manager and senior scientist for Oceana, an ocean advocacy organization campaigning against Shell’s oil development, in a statement.
If Shell continues, environmentalists warn it’s only a matter of time before the next big disaster strikes. “I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to have a ‘perfect season’ in the Arctic,” Nichols said. “The margin of error is so slim. Things that fly in the Gulf [of Mexico], even though they shouldn’t,” won’t in the Arctic “because conditions are so hard.”
By: Rebecca Leber, The New Republic, July 15, 2015
“Supreme Court; If It’s Worth It For Corporations, Pollution May Be Okay”: EPA Can Only Regulate Pollution When It’s Cost-Effective
The case, Michigan v. EPA, specifically dealt with the EPA’s regulation of mercury emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act—a long, twenty-year process that has been opposed by industry at every turn, even as mercury air pollution from coal-fired power plants has ++irreparably poisoned the Great Lakes .
Today, the clock has been set back. In its third 5-4 decision of the day, with Justice Kennedy again providing the swing vote, industry has prevailed. Writing for the court, Justice Scalia held that the EPA had to factor in costs in deciding whether to regulate, not just how to regulate.
If you think about it, this is an impossible task practically and philosophically.
Practically speaking, the regulatory process for mercury has lasted twenty years—in large part because the EPA weighed dozens of options, evaluating the costs and benefits of each. Today’s decision requires the EPA to balance costs and benefits at the very beginning of the process, before either the costs or the benefits are known.
EPA’s position was that, while costs must, of course, be taken into account in deciding how to regulate toxic chemicals like mercury, the initial decision of whether to regulate them should not be dictated by how much it costs to do so. What matters at that point—whether regulation is “appropriate and necessary” under the statute—is only whether public health is at stake.
In policy-speak—as I wrote in a law review article twenty years ago—the difference is between “risk assessment” and “risk management.” Risk assessment is when you notice a leak in your basement, and decide you have to do something about it. Risk management is when you evaluate your options, and decide what to do.
The difference is obvious, and intuitive. But it does mean that the initial decision may not take cost into account.
Thus the EPA argued that the words “appropriate and necessary” do not imply a balancing of costs and benefits, only a determination of public health. Justice Scalia said this was not “reasonable decisionmaking.” As Justice Kagan said in her dissent, the EPA took costs into account later in the regulatory process. But Justice Scalia said that is not enough—the initial decision, too, must include costs.
This is as incoherent philosophically as it is practically. Think about it this way: Who owns the right to your health?
In the EPA’s reasoning, you do. Under the Clean Air Act, if someone else’s activities are going to meaningfully endanger your health, the government is entitled to stop them.
In Justice Scalia’s reasoning, now the law of the land, the toxic chemical emitters do. If it is economically efficient to poison you with mercury—if the costs to them outweigh the benefits to you, calculating an economic value of your health—then they get to do it.
If this seems outrageous, it’s because it is. Justice Scalia had to focus exclusively on the first sliver of the regulatory process in order to make his argument. “EPA’s interpretation precludes the Agency from considering any type of cost,” he writes. But that’s only true at the initial decision of whether to regulate or not (risk assessment). In subsequent decisions of how to regulate (risk management), cost was taken into account many times.
Which is what makes sense philosophically, as well as practically. Deciding whether to regulate a toxic substance should not be an economic decision. Deciding how to do so should be—of course, the government should choose the most efficient method of regulation, and balance costs and benefits appropriately. But the decision of whether a toxic substance is toxic is a matter of science, not money.
Zooming back a bit, Michigan v. US now starts to look a lot like the corporations-are-people cases like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby. In this growing body of cases, corporate interests have been equated with individual ones. Corporations have rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.
Now their right to make money running dirty power plants is equated with the right of human beings to breathe free of mercury pollution. Your rights, their rights—what’s the difference?
Ironically, Justice Scalia’s originalism—which last week had him arguing that if a practice could be banned in 1868, it could be banned in 2015—would have cut the other way here, if he took it seriously. For the first hundred years of US history, there were no corporations as we know them today. Corporate charters were time-bound, limited, and revocable. Only in the Gilded Age did they attain “legal personhood” as we know it today.
This is the point conservatives often miss in decrying the growth of government and regulation. Yes, government has grown well beyond anything the Founders could have imagined. But the Founders could not have imagined today’s mega-corporations either.
Peabody Energy, one of the primary backers of the current lawsuit, has an annual revenue of $6.79 billion. In 1812, the largest non-banking corporation in America, the American Fur Company, was worth about $1 million—about $17.2 million in 2015 dollars.
In other words, just one of the corporations fighting the EPA’s mercury regulations is worth 394 times the largest US corporation in existence two centuries ago. While the growth in governmental power since then, represented by regulations like the Clean Air Act, has indeed been significant, it is dwarfed by the growth in corporate power.
Michigan v. US now stands for the principle that corporate interests are equal in kind to human interests. Whether the EPA should regulate mercury depends on whether it’s cost-effective to do so, treating the costs to industry and the benefits to health equally.
Because corporations are people, right?
By: Jay Michaelson, The Daily Beast, June 29, 2015