EPA Releases Updated Rule on Coal Pollution Cap and Trade Program

The Environmental Protection Agency announced the details of its new rule which aims to stifle cross-state pollution from coal power plants this Thursday.  The rule, entitled the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, will effect 27 eastern states where coal power plants are prominent.  It calls for significant reductions in pollutants that lead to the formation of smog and soot, both of which negatively impact public health and the vitality of our natural ecosystems.

The rule, which is a cap and trade program, will come into effect on January 1, 2012.  It requires approximately 1,000 power plants in the east to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide by 73% and nitrogen oxide by 54% by the year 2014.  Both of these pollutants can be carried extremely far from their point of entry into the atmosphere by wind and weather.  Thus, they contribute to high levels of fine particulate matter not only in the vicinity of the coal power plants where they originate, but also in residential communities great distances away.  As EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson stated: “No community should have to bear the burden of another community’s polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses.  These Clean Air Act safeguards will help protect the health of millions of Americans and save lives by preventing smog and soot pollution from traveling hundreds of miles and contaminating the air that they breathe.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the economic and health benefits realized as a result of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will far outweigh any costs incurred.  Smog and soot claim thousands upon thousands of lives prematurely each year in the United States.  Both can lead to deadly lung conditions as well as to fatal heart attacks.  Smog and soot also represent a health threat to asthmatics as they can cause serious asthma attacks.  According to a press release on the EPA’s website, by 2014 the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will “prevent up to 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 19,000 of acute bronchitis, 400,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 1.8 million sick days.”  The EPA estimates that enforcement of the rule will require approximately $800 million in initial spending, but that the annual health benefits will add up to as much as $280 billion.  Despite the costs that power plants will have to take on in order to comply with the new rule is a source of discontent for some, Harvard economist Robert Stavins stated that overall the rule makes good economic sense.  Stavins reported “it doesn’t mean that there are no costs, but the benefits of the transport rule in terms of human health protection tremendously outweigh the costs of this.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has worked on this rule for nearly six years, and it is being issued under the “Good Neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act.  This rule will replace its predecessor, the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR).  The Clean Air Interstate Program, which was also a cap and trade program was finalized in March of 2005 under the Bush administration.  CAIR called for less aggressive cuts in nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide than the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule does and also allowed for states to trade credits more freely.  The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule only allows states to trade credits within their designated region, so as to limit the geographical range of the targeted pollutants.  CAIR was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. in 2008 because it allegedly did not have enough positive impacts on human health to warrant the burden placed on power plants in order to comply.  However, the courts also ruled that CAIR would stand until the EPA was able to develop a new rule.

Ostensibly, there are people who are dissatisfied with this new rule.  While environmentalists are applauding the rule, those in the business of coal and politicians based where coal plants provide jobs are up in arms.  They do not believe the costs associated with the new rule are justified and that the EPA has no right to impose costs on businesses during such difficult economic times.  However, this time the EPA is certain that its new rule will stand up to any potential appeals in court.  

Photo credit: fnal.gov/pub/today/archive_2008/today08-05-23.html

New Index Tracks Voluntary Corporate Renewable Energy Usage

This week Vestas Wind Systems of London and Bloomberg New Energy Finance of New York City unveiled their joint project, the Corporate Renewable Energy Index (CREX).  The goal of the index is to clearly lat out what companies are using renewable energy, where that energy is coming from, and how much renewable energy they are utilizing compared to conventional energy.  The idea is that ultimately the availability of this newly quantified information will help corporations (and interested consumers) see where they fall in terms of being “green” and will encourage them to derive more of their energy needs from renewable sources.

The survey provides data for the years 2009 and 2010, and was conducted beginning in November 2010.  The preliminary results provided by the report will be continuously updated to track progress and maintain transparency.  Vestas Wind Systems and Bloomberg New Energy Finance see transparency as tantamount.  They believe that transparency will benefit consumers who wish to make informed and green purchasing decisions, corporations who need to know what industry leaders are doing, investors who want to analyze risk in a company’s energy management and supply, NGOs who need to assess corporate actions in order to affect change, and policy makers who must understand the implications of their decisions regarding energy policy.

Vestas Wind System and Bloomberg New Energy Finance began the study by sending out surveys to the 1,000 largest businesses in the world based on market capitalization.  Of those corporations, 176 firms completed the survey.  According to the report, the CREX “represents the most comprehensive snapshot to date of corporate voluntary renewable energy purchases… it is the largest and most global ever conducted to measure this corporate activity.  In 2010 two U.S. based corporations topped the list: Kohl’s Corporation and Whole Foods Market Incorporated.  Both procured more renewable energy than they actually consumed.  

Noteworthy findings of the study are as follows:

Purchasing of renewable energy is increasing, but renewable energy consumption still makes up only a small part of overall corporate energy consumption:

  • In 2009, renewable energy accounted for 8.2% of total energy used by the respondents of the survey.  That figure increased to 12.1% in 2010
  • 74% of companies surveyed reported that they used a higher percentage of renewable energy in 2010 compared to 2009.  
  • More than 40% of companies who answered the survey procure less than 5% of their energy from renewable sources.

Wind is the most prevalent source for renewable energy among large corporations:

  • While 30% of respondents were unaware of the source of their company’s renewable energy, wind was the most popular for those who did know the source.
  • Wind power accounted for 51% of the renewable energy used by these large corporations.  

European corporations tended to use more renewable energy than their American or Asian counterparts:

  • Of the 176 corporations that participated, 25 were based in Europe.  Those companies met 40% of their cumulative energy demands through the utilization of renewable energy sources.  American companies hovered around 22% and Japanese corporations averaged only 3%.

CREX respondents historically outperform their peers:

  • While the MSC World Index has fallen 12.6% over the last few years, CREX constituents have grown by 24.7%.  CREX corporations also outperform MSC World Index corporations on a ten year, five year, or one year period.  However, this is not an indication that using renewable energy causes companies to outperform the market.  In fact, it very well may be the other way around (companies that are performing well have the resources necessary to utilize renewable energy.

To read the full report, please click here.

Photo credit: blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/09/10/science-Wednesday-better-together-wind-and-solar-power-in-california/

House Votes Against “Frankenfish”

Who doesn’t love salmon?  With so many great health benefits, it is hard to imagine how anyone could not like it.  It is rich in amino acids, iron, protein, calcium, a plethora of vitamins, and soon it may even be genetically modified!

But not yet.  And in the minds of many, hopefully not ever.

The United States House of Representatives recently amended a bill in order to block the Food and Drug Administration from funding the approval of genetically engineered salmon.  Blocking all funding to approving genetically modified salmon will effectively prevent it from entering the market as the Food and Drug Administration will not be able to conduct final studies on the effects the fish could have on people and the environment.  Representatives Don Young (R-AK) and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) proposed the amendment.  The rest of the bill, an appropriations bill entitled “The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Appropriations Act,” was passed.

The genetically altered salmon is manufactured by AquaBounty and has been dubbed AquAdvantage, though many refer to it as “Frankenfish” because it is composed from the genes of three distinct breeds.  AquaBounty started with an Atlantic salmon and spliced its genes with genes for the growth hormone from a much larger breed of salmon, the Chinook.  Then, that gene sequence was put under the control of a DNA from a third fish, the Ocean Pout.  The end result is a new type of salmon (though the Food and Drug Administration insists that for all intents and purposes the new fish is simply an Atlantic Salmon which has been administered a “veterinary drug”) which grows to be much larger than naturally occurring Atlantic salmon.  They also reach their full size twice as fast because their growth hormones are perpetually “turned on.”

There is a multitude of reasons for the concern surrounding genetically modified salmon.  The general populace of both the United States and Europe is clearly against the idea:  The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal both conducted polls which showed that only 36% of American consumers would be willing to eat genetically modified salmon.  Figures in the European Union were essentially 0% and ultimately no genetically modified foods are permitted to be sold in the European Union.

Don Young, the Republican representative from Alaska who helped create the amendment, states that it will harm fisheries in Alaska.  Ostensibly, he is concerned that if approved, AquaBounty’s salmon will hurt business purely because consumers will purchase it instead of Alaskan caught salmon.  After all, the salmon industry brings in $100 billion annually worldwide and it is one of Alaska’s key livelihoods.  However, Young insists that changes in consumer purchasing patterns is not the issue, especially given the public’s apparent attitude towards genetically modified salmon.  He is worried about the potential for these farm salmon to escape an invade native populations.  Every year tons of salmon do escape from farms, and they can potentially wipe out the genetic diversity of native populations and ultimately cause them to disappear completely.

The health effects (or lack thereof) are also unclear, which makes people especially weary of the “Frankenfish.”  Currently the FDA’s position is that because the vast majority of the AquAdvantage fish comes from the Atlantic salmon it “meets the standard of identity for Atlantic salmon” and that there are “no material differences… and there is a reasonable certainty that no harm” will come from eating it.  However, many activists and scientists claim that the FDA has based its conclusions on flimsy scientific research performed only by AquaBounty.  In fact, as recently as September of 2010 an eleven member advisory panel to the FDA could not decide whether or not consumption of the AquAdvantage was safe for humans.

Beyond potential negative effects on economic and human health, many claim that the process used to “grow” the salmon is environmentally sustainable.  AquaBounty plans to clone the fish in Canada, then transport them to Panama to grow, and then fly them back to the United States for consumption.  All that movement seems pointless when according to many accounts, the fisheries in Alaska are in good shape and almost all are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Like any complicated conflict there are experts who support both sides.  Many claim that the fish are indeed healthy for human consumption and that because our population and therefore our demand continues to increase, we must rely on something like the AquAdvantage fish to prevent over fishing in the future.

For now the FDA, along with every body else, will have to wait and see if the Senate also votes to pass the bill with this key amendment.

Photo credit: commonhealth.virginia.gov/recipes.htm

Supreme Court Strikes Down States’ Lawsuit Against Power Plants

Earlier today the Supreme Court voted unanimously to block a lawsuit brought against five major power companies by six states, New York City, and several other land trusts.  The plaintiffs sought to force the companies to limit their greenhouse gas emissions by categorizing the pollution they create as a public nuisance according to common law.  However, the court ruled that it was not the duty of the court to set greenhouse gas emissions standards because that responsibility has previously been delegated to the Environmental Protection Agency.  The EPA has not yet created regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions from power plants but plans to later this year.  This case could be revisited if the plaintiffs (or other parties) are not satisfied with the regulations that the EPA will eventually set or if congress votes to revoke the EPA’s power to regulate such emissions.

The lawsuit originated in 2004, in a very different political and regulatory environment.  At that time, Republican President George W. Bush and his administration was arguing that the Clean Air Act, which was originally passed in 1963, did not give the Environmental Protection Agency the right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.  Eight states were originally involved in the case: California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.  New Jersey and Wisconsin dropped out of the lawsuit earlier this year after electing republican governors.  Their targets were five of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the country: the Tennessee Valley Authority and four members of the Edison Electric Institute (American Electric Power, Southern, Xcel Energy, and Duke Energy).  The plaintiffs in the case asserted that the defendants collectively accounted for one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions from domestic power plants and for 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions for the United States.

Because former president George W. Bush was actively attempting to strip the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in 2004 when the lawsuit was originally filed, the states felt it was necessary to find another path to regulate them.  The plaintiffs ultimately invoked traditional federal common law which gives state governments the power to intervene when something is creating a public nuisance.  In their eyes, pollution was a public nuisance.

Judge Loretta A. Preska, a judge for the Federal District Court in Manhattan, originally dismissed the suit for reasons similar to those cited by the Supreme Court earlier today.  She believed that the task of regulating greenhouse gas emissions was “consigned to the political branches, not the judiciary.”  Preska’s ruling was later reversed on appeal by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  Ultimately the case was brought to the Supreme Court, but the political landscape had drastically changed between 2004 and now.

One of those changes resulted from the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in the case of Massachusetts versus EPA.  In a 5-4 decision the court ruled that the Clean Air Act did give the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions to the EPA.  George W. Bush’s attempt to take this responsibility away was thus unsuccessful.  The precedent set by the decision made in that case all but determined the decision handed down by the court today.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the decision on behalf of the court and declared that “The critical point is that Congress delegated to EPA the decision whether and how to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants the delegation is what displaces federal common law.”

Clearly, the decision handed down today has upset many environmentalists.  However, just as many are partially relieved that this case did not prompt the court to revisit the decision made in 2007 in the Massachusetts v EPA case.  Going back to the days where the EPA was deemed powerless to regulate power plant emissions would have been a step backwards in their eyes.  However, when the EPA will set standards is yet to be seen.  The Obama administration assures that limits will be set soon, but with numerous bills aimed at crippling the EPA circling around congress, environmentalists know that the issue is far from resolved.

Click here to read the court’s full ruling.

Photo credit: whitehouse.gov/our-government/judicial-branch

US Exports of Used Car Batteries to Mexico Reach New and Dangerous Heights

Earlier this week Occupational Knowledge International released its latest study, and its findings are causing quite a stir.  Occupational Knowledge International is a non-governmental organization based the the United States that aims to prevent lead poisoning resulting from unsafe lead exposure.  Its most recent report is entitled “Exporting Hazards: U.S. Shipments of Used Lead Batteries to Mexico Take Advantage of Lax Environmental and Worker Health Regulations” and it was completed in cooperation with an organization based in Mexico, Fronteras Comunes.  The study, which was conducted between November 2010 and May 2011, found that businesses in the United States have more than doubled their exports of spent lead acid batteries in the last year, because recycling fees in Mexico are cheaper.  However, because of a lack of proper environmental regulation and technology, the people who work in the Mexican recycling centers and the surrounding environment is at great risk.  Occupational Knowledge International, together with Fronteras Comunes, is calling upon American businesses to cease exports of such batteries to Mexico for recycling.

Each used lead acid battery contains approximately 20 pounds of lead, sulphuric acid, and plastic.  The lead present in the batteries is especially dangerous to human health.  According to the United States Agency for Toxic Substances, lead can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and the reproductive system.  Those who are exposed to high levels of the toxin can experience severe brain damage and, ultimately, death.  The World Health Organization estimates that 120 million people are over-exposed to lead and that a shocking 99% of the most severely affected people live in developing countries.  

The study is being credited as the first to quantify the amount of batteries that is being shipped off to Mexico by American businesses.  Researchers discovered that in 2010, 236,746,892 kilograms (or over 520 million pounds) of spent lead acid batteries were sent from the United States to Mexico to be recycled.  That represents an increase of 112% over the previous year.  This huge increase is amplifying the negative effects on the people and the environment, who the ultimate victims of Mexican recycling plants’ inadequate processes and environmental legislation.  Mexican regulations allow airborne lead emissions reported by battery recycling plants to soar to levels 10 times that which is permissible by American battery recycling facilities.  Because environmental regulations in Mexico are not strongly enforced, the actual level of airborne lead emissions is recorded at a whopping twenty times the legal limit imposed by the United States government.  All of this excess exposure has serious health consequences for Mexican plant workers: their average blood lead levels are five times higher than the average American plant worker’s level.  

Perhaps the most alarming discovery made by Occupational Knowledge International and Fronteras Comunes is that less than half of the approved recycling plants in Mexico have reported their lead emissions to the RETC (the equivalent of the United State’s Toxic Release Inventory).  This implies that there are most likely many more recycling plants operating in Mexico whose practices are even more problematic:  those plants which are approved but chose not to report their numbers because they do not comply with the already overly lax regulations, and those that are in operation but are not even approved by the government.  

While it is certainly true that lead pollution problems in Mexico will not end if the United States ceases to export its used batteries, it will certainly help the situation.  Many groups feel that it is completely unconscionable for American businesses to send one more battery now that the true repercussions felt by the people of Mexico are known and the fact that American plants are adequately prepared to recycle the batteries in a much safer manner.  Marisa Jacott, director of Fronteras Comunes noted that both her organization and Occupational Knowledge International “are hopeful the the results of this report will provide the evidence needed to encourage action on behalf of both the U.S. and Mexico to better regulate these hazardous imports to our country.  For the first time, we have a thorough understanding of the scale of these exports and how it contributes to lead emissions in Mexican communities and how workers’ health is suffering because the Mexican government has failed to enact protective standards.”

Photo credit: cdc.gov/niosh/nora/symp08/photocontest.html

Google Forms New Renewable Energy Research and Development Team

Google’s newly minted CEO, Larry Page, announced the formation of a new research and development team at the company’s latest annual shareholder meeting.  The team, which will be composed of five employees, will be responsible for developing utility-scale renewable energy technologies.  The end goal is to create a form of renewable energy  that is more cost effective than coal that can be applied on a mass scale.  Page acknowledges that people are always curious to know “what is the latest crazy thing that Google did.”  But, this new team was not created to develop an off-the-wall, obscure, or purely entertaining form of technology.  It is being assembled to hopefully realize Google Inc’s longstanding goal of “RE<C,” meaning creating a way for renewable energy that is cheaper than coal, in a relatively short time span.

The creation of the research and development team marks Google’s latest green move, but definitely not its first.  The company set a goal in 2007 to become completely carbon neutral.  That involved focusing on the efficiency of its massive operations, and in order to do that Google hired Rick Needham in 2008 as Director of Green Business Operations and Strategy.  His initial task was to cut down on Google’s overall energy use.  However, as Needham noted, “Efficiency doesn’t get you to zero, and so, our next step is to go and seek and use renewable energy.”  Needham’s role eventually evolved.  Soon he was no longer just in charge of reducing Google’s carbon footprint.  

When Needham joined Google in 2008, the company was making only very small investments in clean energy ventures.  Before the end of the year, though, the Great Recession was in full swing and the financial institutions who were investing in renewable energy development had crumbled.  Google saw an opportunity to scale up their investments in renewable energy, resulting in benefits to company shareholders and the planet alike.  The company soon started researching potential projects that would produce favorable financial returns and projects set to have large impacts.  The company’s philosophy on these investments is that larger projects are, by definition, going to have larger impacts.  And with the end goal of revolutionizing energy use all over the globe, it makes sense that large-scale projects are of greater interest to the company.

Google made its first major investment in renewable energy over a year ago.  Last May the company made a $39 million tax-equity investment in two distinct wind projects in North Dakota.  Following the success of this initial project, Google recently made two additional astronomical investments: one in the amount of $168 million in the Ivanpah solar farm (located in the Mojave desert), and a $100 million investment in the Shepherds Flat wind farm (the largest wind farm in the world).  Within the last two weeks Google invested another $55 million in a wind farm in Tehachapi, California.  To date, Google’s total investments in clean energy top $400 million.

Photo credit: http://www.hamiltoncountyohio.gov/hc/translationServices.asp

Hockey Goes Green Again

Game three of the Stanley Cup is underway, and unless you are a fan of the Vancouver Canucks or the Boston Bruins, you may not really care.  Maybe you’re a fan of the San Jose Sharks or the Tampa Bay Lightning and you are still trying to comprehend that this isn’t going to be your year.  But, regardless of which team you cheer for, NHL Green (the National Hockey League’s sustainability initiative) recently made an announcement that all hockey fans can be proud of.

Last Wednesday, on the first day of the best-of-seven game series, NHL Green announced that the 2011 Stanley Cup would be the first ever “water-neutral” series in the history of the National Hockey League.  This represents the latest efforts of NHL Green to make professional hockey as sustainable as possible.  With water being a key ingredient for the game of hockey, it makes sense that conserving water would be a priority for the initiative. 

How does the NHL plan to make the Stanley Cup “water neutral?”  

To begin with, every drop of water used at the Stanley Cup this year will be tracked.  That includes everything from the ice on the arena floor to the ice cubes handed out in thousands of drinks to the water used from every faucet.  Once that amount has been calculated, the National Hockey League will work with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to ensure that an equal amount of water is returned to a troubled stretch of the Deschutes River, which is in Oregon.  

The National Hockey League will be purchasing Water Restoration Certificates from Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF).  BEF created the Water Restoration Certificate program in 2009 to enable businesses and other agencies to offset their water use.  It is the first national, market-based program that uses purchased credits to restore river flow to deteriorating fresh water habitats in America.  Each Water Restoration Certificate purchased by the NHL at the conclusion of the Stanley Cup represents 1,000 gallons of water.  Regardless of the actual amount of water used at the Stanley Cup, the NHL has committed to purchasing at least 1,000 Water Restoration Certificates.  Consequentially, the NHL will be helping to restore at least 1 million gallons of water to the Middle Deschutes river. 

Where will the water come from?

This agreement does not mean that the NHL is paying the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to move 1 million gallons of water from a healthy ecosystem to an unhealthy ecosystem.  The way that Water Restoration Credits work is by creating an economic incentive for landowners along the river not to use the water in the river.  Water laws in many western states give water rights to those who own land surrounding rivers.  Landowners are given water permits which delineate how much water they are legally allowed to extract from the river.  When river waters are running low, especially in dry summer months, the combined volume of water permits often exceeds the amount of water in the river.  Compounding this issue is the fact water laws dictate landowners must use their allotted amount of water, or they risk losing their water rights.  The end result, not surprisingly, leads to rivers that run dry.

Fortunately, however, water laws are beginning to evolve.  The law declares that water must be used for permit holders for a “beneficial use”.  In the past, leaving the water running in the river was not classified as a beneficial use but that is beginning to change.  Many water rights holders are now permitted to leave the water as is without risking losing their rights.  This is where the Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s Water Restoration Certificates come in.  Now that not using the water is an option, BEF creates an economic incentive for landowners not to use the water.  They essentially use the funds gained from selling Water Restoration Certificates to pay landowners to leave the water in the river.  

The BEF’s Water Restoration Certificate program has been hugely successful in restoring multiple watersheds in the Pacific Northwest.  This recently announced collaboration with the National Hockey League will enable them to continue renewing damaged ecosystems, and hopefully will inspire similarly green initiatives from other professional sports leagues.

Photo credit: baycounty-mi.gov/CivicArena/2010%2011YouthHockeyTournaments.aspx

Governor Chris Christie Pulls the Plug on Cap-and-Trade Program

Last Thursday Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, made yet another controversial decision; one that, not surprisingly, tickled many Republicans and irritated most Democrats.  After less than three years of participation, Christie announced that New Jersey would pull out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative by the end of the year.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a cap-and-trade program and is the first market based carbon dioxide emissions reduction program in the U.S.  The goal of the program, whose first auction of emissions allowances took place in September 2008, was to cut carbon dioxide emissions in the ten participating states by 10% by 2018.  Until last week, when New Jersey declared its intent to exit, member states were as follows: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  

Cap and trade systems are a market-based policy mechanism designed to reduce various types of pollution.  Successful programs have been launched in the past to curb emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.  In a cap and trade system, an initial cap of the total emissions permissible by all participants must first be set.  Allowances (permits to emit a certain unit of the pollutant) are then auctioned off by the participants (the states, in this case) to businesses that emit that specific pollutant (power plants).  Businesses are able to either use less allowances than they have purchased, or continue to emit the pollutant at a level exceeding the allowances they have purchased.  Businesses are rewarded for using fewer allowances as any leftover allowances can be saved for later use or sold.  Firms that choose to pollute above the amount permitted must purchase additional allowances; hence further increasing their operating costs.  This creates an incentive for companies to be more energy efficient and to pollute less.  Periodically, the total number of allowances auctioned by the participants is lowered, until the overall reduction goal is met.  States are to use the proceeds garnered from the auctions to invest in improved energy efficiency and renewable energy development.

Chris Christie’s decision makes New Jersey the first state to withdraw from the agreement.  Though there has been some speculation of lawsuits and challenges to his decision to exit the initiative, most seem to agree that he does have the authority to remove New Jersey from the coalition.  Shortly after news broke regarding Christie’s decision, the remaining nine states in RGGI released a statement reaffirming their continued commitment to the program.

Christie, who last year denounced the science of global warming, has at least finally come around to believing that human activity is a leading factor in climate change.  He asserts this decision came about not because he is against protecting the environment, but rather because New Jersey has already lowered emissions of carbon dioxide and Christie believes the program to be ineffective.  

A press release written by the New Jersey State Department on the same day as Christie made his decision states that in 2008 the state lowered greenhouse gas emissions by 8%.  That means it has already met the goals outlined by the state’s own Global Warming Response Act.  And, according to Christie there are many reasons why the program is a purported failure.  He was quoted saying “RGGI does nothing more than tax electricity, tax our citizens, tax our businesses, with no discernible or measurable impact upon our environment.”  Yet he has also stated that the price that carbon allowances were auctioned off at has been too low to encourage companies to emit less carbon dioxide.

Christie asserts that he is still devoted to lowering emissions in his state, but no longer believes RGGI is the way to go about it.  He intends to move forward with plans to install solar panels on landfills and to disallow any new proposed coal plants.  However, critics report bowing out of RGGI was a bad move for the environment.  They state that just because the state’s power plants reduced emissions in one year by burning more natural gas and less coal does not guarantee future emission reductions.  If the economy picks up, so would the demand for energy.  If power plants are facing higher demands, the cap-and-trade system would encourage them to operate as efficiently as possible.  Also, the price of natural gas could always increase.  If burning coal suddenly becomes cheaper than burning natural gas and there is no cap-and-trade system in place to limit plants’ carbon dioxide emissions, plants will simply return to burning coal for energy and the amount of emissions will soar.

What remains to be seen is how democrats in the state of New Jersey will fight back, if other states will try to mirror New Jersey’s actions, and how Christie’s decision may impact the formation of other cap-and-trade systems developing elsewhere in the country.

Photo credit: state.nj.us/governor/news/photos/2010/eventphotos/20100917b/20100917FireFighters105.JPG

Are Biodegradable Products Doing More Harm Than Good?

You are a responsible, environmentally conscious consumer.  So when you walk into the sidewalk cafe that just opened down the street and see that your tasty to-go order is packed in a biodegradable container, your heart smiles and you decide you’ll become a regular.  And after enjoying said tasty meal, you place your biodegradable container in the garbage and revel in the satisfaction that while your waste is landfill-bound, it will not be there for long.  After all, isn’t that what makes biodegradable products so eco-friendly?  They decompose quickly and that is good for the environment, right?

According to a new study released by North Carolina State University, maybe not.  The study, entitled “Is Biodegradability a Desirable Attribute for Discarded Solid Waste?  Perspectives from a National Landfill Greenhouse Gas Inventory Model” was conducted by Dr. Morton Barlaz and James Levis and was published by Environmental Science and Technology.

The results of the study reveal the simple fact that, under present conditions, because biodegradable materials decompose so quickly they may actually be harming the environment.  This was, of course, supposed to be the great benefit of biodegradable materials.  Unlike other plastics, papers, etc, biodegradable materials were developed to take up space in a landfill for only a very short amount of time.  According to the EPA, in 2008 135 million metric tons of trash were dumped into landfills in the United States.  America is currently home to well over 3000 active landfills and finding new places to discard our waste is becoming increasingly difficult.  The assumption has, up until this point, been that biodegradable materials would help to ease our need for new landfills.

So what is happening to biodegradable waste once it reaches the landfills that makes it harmful to the environment?  During decomposition, biodegradable materials release methane.  Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas- though it is not as prevalent as carbon dioxide, it does more damage.  However, methane can also be harnessed and burned for fuel and it burns much cleaner than many other natural gasses.  In the United States, approximately 35% of landfills capture methane onsite and use it for energy, while another 34% of landfills capture the methane and burn it offsite.  The problem is that current government regulations do not require land fill operators to harvest methane for energy until two years after the trash has been discarded.  When you combine that with the Federal Trade Commission’s requirement that biodegradable products must decompose within a “reasonably short period of time” the result is that too much methane is being released into the atmosphere.  By the time methane capturing techniques are put in place in a landfill, the biodegradable materials have already decomposed significantly.

Fortunately, the problem is fixable.  Manufacturers of biodegradable materials could develop and produce materials that decompose more slowly.  These products would still decompose faster than conventional products, thus reducing the volume of our landfills, but slow enough that most of the resulting methane could be captured.  Alternatively, the government could alter existing regulations.  If landfills were required to harvest methane immediately after burying trash, no methane would be left to waft into the atmosphere.

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Germany to Shut Down All Nuclear Power Plants by 2022

Germany’s Environment Minister, Norbert Roettgen, just announced that the government has decided to permanently shut down all nuclear reactors by the year 2022.  This announcement marks the end of the government’s official review of energy policy which began in March.  The review was launched in the wake of the earthquake and resulting nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor on March 11th, 2011.  This decision comes only months after Chancellor Angela Merkel opted to extend the life of Germany’s current reactors past their original termination dates by an average of twelve years.  This decision, which was handed down at the end of 2010, was unpopular with Germans even before the disaster in Japan.  Germany will be the first major economic power to abandon nuclear power.

Nuclear power plants generate electricity through nuclear fission.  The nuclear fission, which is typically powered by uranium, heats water to the point of evaporation.  The resulting steam turns turbines, and those turbines power electric generators.  Nuclear power currently accounts for 22% of Germany’s overall energy mix.  It has been a highly controversial topic for decades, and the recent events in Japan have sparked international protest against nuclear power.  Those who are against nuclear power assert that Fukushima once again proves the dangerous nature of the plants.  This spring also marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, whose effects are still evident in Ukraine.  Protesters in France and Germany were heard chanting “Chernobyl, Fukushima, never again.”

Of the 17 reactors that currently exist in Germany, seven are already off of the power grid.  They will remain inactive.  Six other reactors are scheduled to go offline by 2021, if not earlier.  The final three will follow by 2022.  As nuclear power supplied nearly a quarter of the country’s energy needs, many wonder how the gap in demand will be met.  Germany does rely on alternative energy sources for a significant amount of its power, approximately 17%.  No other country in the world is utilizing alternative energy to the same extent.  However, it is unlikely that an increase in alternative energy alone will be able to compensate for all of the energy provided by nuclear power.  Instead, consumption of coal is all but guaranteed to increase in Germany, and that means more pollution and carbon will be released into the atmosphere.  While green solutions, such as increasing the number of wind farms, are on the table, every source of energy has its pros and cons.  Residents throughout the Rennsteig, a ridge of forests and hills in the center of the country where wind farming would be ideal, worry about the harm that pylons may cause to birds and the disruption to the landscape.

While Germany is the first country to decide to close the door on nuclear power, it is not the only country where the disaster in Japan has renewed opposition to nuclear reactors.  It is predicted that many planned nuclear reactor projects will either be stalled or altogether canceled in reaction to the events that unfolded in Japan this March.  Professor Claudia Kemfert of Berlin’s Institute of Economic Research believes that coal use will increase across the globe in response to the disaster.  However, Yukiya Amano, who is the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that he expects “between 10 and 25 new countries to bring their first nuclear power plant online by 2030.”  With global energy consumption predicted to increase a staggering 49% by 2035, governments all over the world will have to reexamine their stance on nuclear power, and figure out a way to meet demand if they decide to follow in the footsteps of Germany.

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