Ban on Uranium Mining Upheld in Colorado

A ban on mining uranium near waterways in Colorado was upheld by a federal judge last week, in a victory for environmental and conservationist groups. The ban, which applies to 42 square miles of land owned by the United States Department of Energy near the Dolores and San Miguel rivers in southwest Colorado, was first enacted in 2008 following a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity and four other environmental organizations.

The U.S. Department of Energy allowed the land in Colorado’s Mesa, Montrose and San Miguel counties to be leased for the purpose of uranium mining but, according to the judge, did not properly assess the impact that the practice would have on the land and water quality in the nearby rivers. In October 2011, U.S. District Court Judge William Martinez suspended the 31 active leases on the land, ruling that the U.S. Department of Energy had failed to conduct a thorough evaluation and review the specific impacts that the mining could have to the sites. New drilling and leases were also suspended.

In last week’s ruling, Judge Martinez denied a request by the U.S. Department of Energy to revisit the case and decided to uphold his original ruling from October.

The U.S. Department of Energy is now required to complete an environmental review and report the potential impacts that uranium mining could have on the site, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “The uranium leasing program threatens two of the West’s loveliest little rivers — these places deserve utmost caution, not bombastic haste.”

Uranium mining puts rivers at risk of being affected by more than a dozen pollutants, including uranium, manganese, ammonia, aluminum, barium, copper, iron, lead, zinc and arsenic. A study conducted on the Colorado River basin have shown these harmful pollutants left over from former uranium mining operations – especially selenium and arsenic – have contributed to the decline of populations of four endangered species of fish native to the Colorado River, the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker and bonytail chub.

“This is a welcome ruling from the court because it sends a strong message that the injunction was fully necessary in order to uphold the law and protect the environment,” said Hillary White, executive director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance. “The DOE’s request for the injunction to be lifted was denied because it was improper and premature. They must conduct the full analysis required by law, and we are pleased that the court is signaling so strongly that the law must be obeyed.”

The ban on uranium mining is not only thriving in Colorado – in January of this year, the U.S. Department of the Interior instated a ban on new uranium mining operations near the Grand Canyon. The Obama administration’s decision was based on a desire to protect the landscape of the Grand Canyon, and to preserve water quality in the Colorado River. The ban is effective for 20 years – the longest period of time allowed by law – and covers one million acres of waterways and federal land. It passed despite protests from mining supporters who argued that mining operations create needed jobs. This is the third time that the government has passed a uranium mining ban on the Grand Canyon, which provides drinking water to millions of Americans. Uranium mining is currently allowed at four sites near the Grand Canyon, but if the ban was not in place, there could be as many as 20 mining operations near the landmark, with several operating at the same time.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/tag-a-long/4728946549/ 

France Fights Obesity and Debt Crisis with Soda Tax

French soda-lovers: beware.

Hoping to kill two birds with one piece of legislation, France has announced that as part of its austerity measures, the nation will implement a new “cola tax” beginning January 1, 2012. The latest in a wave of “sin taxes”—taxes on food and beverages deemed unhealthy—in Europe, the move is meant to rein in obesity and take a bite out of the nation’s multi-billion dollar debt.

According to French officials, the tax is fairly benign: one Eurocent (a smidge over a USD cent) per can of soda, regular or diet. All told, however, it is expected to generate €120 million ($156 million) in government revenue annually. And while one cent may not be enough to curb soda consumption, corresponding increases of prices could give soda-drinkers incentive to quit; soft drink companies in France indicate that they might hike prices by as much as thirty-five percent to combat profit losses.

In addition to the soda tax, France will also raise taxes on spirits and cigarettes.

Yet while government officials have widely supported the move, claiming no “unfair disadvantages” for specific producers, and there has been no outcry from the French public, not everyone is happy about the tax. Soft drink firms in France, including worldwide corporation Coca-Cola, have been protesting the tax’s impartiality and its profit-reducing results.

In September, Coca-Cola announced that it would pull a €17 million investment in a new soda plant in France as a “symbolic protest against a tax that punishes our company and stigmatizes our products.”

Some legislators are backing the soda companies, having gathered a petition with sixty signatures to fight the new move. The Constitutional Council, however, rejected the complaint, and plans to push forward in implementing the tax.

Officials cite success for similar taxes in other European nations as evidence that the “cola tax” will be effective. Recently, fellow European Union member states Hungary and Denmark introduced a “fat tax” on foods and beverages with high fat, sugar, and sodium, including soft drinks.

Historically, “fat” and “cola” taxes have been contemplated since World War II, gaining steam in the early 1980s with fervent advocacy from Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. In 1994, Brownell wrote a New York Times opinion piece on the matter, claiming that unhealthy food’s lower cost serves as an incentive to consume it.

Shortly after, Rush Limbaugh shot back, arguing against government interference in food choices and personal decisions as a whole. Proponents of the tax, in turn, have maintained that the same holds true for taxes on other goods, including alcohol and tobacco.

With the tax about to go into action, its effects on health, both personal and economic, remain to be seen. Officials, however, have high hopes that this new piece of legislation can trim down the nation’s deficit—and its waistlines.

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Coca-Cola_bottles.jpg

Encourage the Federal Government to Reinstate a Ban on Offshore Drilling

A moratorium on offshore drilling instated in 1982 expired in 2010, and now, new deep-water oil drilling projects will be built unless action is taken to reinstate the moratorium. The ban, which applies to the rocky Outer Continental Shelf areas off of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, was implemented in response to an oil platform spill of unparalleled damage, caused by Unocal (now Chevron) in 1982. While this ban was supported by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, it was lifted by President George W. Bush in 2008 and expired in the same year. The White House then laid out a plan to implement drilling projects in these areas, but soon after his inauguration, President Obama announced that his administration would not carry out these plans.

Now, drilling projects could be instated on the Outer Continental Shelf unless the White House is persuaded to reinstate a ban on drilling in these areas. Offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has contributed to environmental damage, deaths in workers and pollution, as the oil can seep out from under the platforms into the ocean – all risks that could be incurred on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts if new oil rigs are installed.

From 1995 to 2007, offshore oil projects spilled 65,000 barrels of oil per year into the surrounding oceans, a figure 64 percent higher than the amount of oil released annually in the preceding ten years. From 1964 to 2009, a total of more than 520,000 barrels of oil were spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Offshore drilling also produces over 214,000 pounds of air pollutants each year, including chemicals like nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and arsenic.

Oil spills, such as the BP spill in April of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, have long-lasting and devastating effects for humans, the environment and wildlife. Efforts to clean up the 2010 BP spill are still ongoing, and its effects have killed countless marine animals and contaminated the shores as the oil seeped into the land. Oil companies are currently allowed to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without obtaining permits to examine potential threats to the area’s endangered species.

Oil platform workers work under high risk, which is increasing as the number of reported fires and massive blowouts on the oil platforms has grown since 2005. Chevron’s oil project in the Gulf of Mexico reported 9 injuries and 15 fires in 2009, and the company has lost workers in four of the last five years.

Oil production methods are not sustainable or environmentally friendly: offshore oil production kills up to 60 percent of wetlands and damages the coastal land in the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to erosion, flooding and drought, which affect local fisheries and eco-tourism along the country’s southern coast.

Proponents of new offshore oil platforms argue that the projects will help reduce the United States’ reliance on importing oil from countries in the Middle East. Even with additional oil wells built, though, it is uncertain whether the U.S. will be able to become completely independent of foreign oil. Drilling for oil in the U.S. is not expected to bring down the price of gas, and there are also millions of barrels of oil left untapped in the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling is already allowed.

Rather than focusing money, time and energy into building new offshore oil plants, the United States should invest money into creating renewable energy, which is cleaner, greener and more reliable than oil.

A ForceChange.com petition has been drafted to urge the President to support another moratorium of offshore drilling. To voice your opinion and your support for the environment, sign this petition and demand that U.S. waters, beaches and marine life be kept safe from the threats of further offshore drilling. 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/mikebaird/3898808431/

New Fuel Economy Labels Unveiled

The design for new, more comprehensive fuel economy labels was unveiled last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

Representing the most significant redesign of fuel economy labels in 35 years, these decals are intended to provide easy-to-read information that is more environmentally focused than stickers of the past, allowing prospective buyers to make more informed decisions when shopping for a new car.

The stickers reflect further initiative by the Obama administration to promote more fuel efficient vehicles, ultimately saving taxpayers money and stimulating the economy through savings in fuel costs. 

“Upon taking office, President Obama directed DOT and EPA to prioritize the development of new fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions standards, resulting in the historic standards that will be represented by these new labels. This is the latest step in EPA’s and DOT’s joint efforts to improve the fuel economy and environmental performance of vehicles and to provide consumers with useful information to inform their purchasing decisions,” the EPA announced last Wednesday.

The stickers feature information on each vehicle’s environmental impact through a fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission rating on a scale from one to ten, with ten being the best possible score.  For example, a vehicle with a fuel economy of 38 MPG or higher and 0-236 grams/mile of CO2 emissions will receive a “ten” greenhouse gas rating on a scale of one to ten.

There is also a separate smog rating, which will be based on tailpipe emissions, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, non-methane organic gas, particulates and formaldehyde emissions.

Additionally, the stickers sport each vehicle’s estimated annual fuel costs to consumers and the savings they will see on gas over the next five years, as well as familiar information on city and highway mileage.  By explicitly displaying information on long-term costs and savings of each vehicle, economic and environmental comparisons will be made easier for consumers.  

The labels will debut in the windows of all new passenger cars and trucks beginning with 2013 models, including gasoline-powered, plug-in hybrid, and electric vehicles, allowing for easy comparison between the energy use and cost of new-generation cars versus their conventional, gas-powered counterparts.  Electric vehicle labels will also display a category for charge time and driving range, in addition to average gas mileage and the number of gallons required on average to drive 100 miles. 

“To match a new generation of vehicles rolling off the lines in American auto plants, we’re releasing a new generation of fuel economy labels to help consumers decide which vehicle is right for them and their families,” blogged White House correspondent Lisa Jackson.

All of the labels will also feature a Quick Response (QR) code for smart phones, allowing prospective buyers to scan the code for instant access to more information on the car’s fuel efficiency and environmental impact.  Users will also be able to incorporate their individual driving habits for more accurate estimates and information, using the QR labels in conjunction with the fueleconomy.gov web site. 

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said, “Today’s car buyers want the best possible information about which cars on the lot offer the greatest fuel economy and the best environmental performance. The new labels provide comprehensive information to American car buyers, helping them make a choice that will save money at the gas pump and prevent pollution in the air we breathe.”

Consumers are being encouraged to take advantage of the historic fuel efficiency rule adopted last year by the EPA and DOT.  Under its new fuel economy standards, all 2012 through 2016 car and light-duty truck models must average a minimum of 35.5 miles per gallon.  The 2010 fuel economy rule will save consumers an average of $3,000 in gas over the life of their vehicle, and approximately 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of all vehicles covered.

The fuel economy decals will be required in 2013 models by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, however, buyers may start seeing the new labels as early as this year, if manufacturers voluntarily affix them to 2012 models.

Photo credit:  fueleconomy.gov

EU Nuclear Tests Subject of Controversy

On Thursday, Guenther Oettinger, the European Union energy chief, and European nuclear regulators plan to meet and draft up parameters for safety tests of the 143 reactors in Europe in the wake of the Fukushima atomic crisis in Japan.  

However, there is controversy in the scope and parameters of the actual test.  Regulators from Europe’s nuclear stations are pushing for the test to be limited to just natural disasters while Oettinger and other officials are pushing for the tests to include man-made scenarios, such as cyber-terrorism, terror attacks, and plane crashes.  

Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, also feels that “these tests should be comprehensive and include the widest range of scenarios, natural and man-made, focusing on their possible impact on the plants’ functioning systems.”  Though he made no direct reference to plane crashes of terrorism, his office reported that he had the same position as Oettinger.  

European nuclear regulators insist that conducting extensive, comprehensive tests on terror risks is not a possible scenario in the time they will be given.  Andre-Claude Lacoste, the head of the French nuclear safety regulator, said that it was “not possible to conduct serious tests on the terror risk in such a short delay.”  Yet Barroso and Oettinger have told the European Parliament that they will refuse to settle for “softer stress tests.”  

Even while there is controversy on the subject, Barroso remains optimistic and is hopeful that they can come to an agreement by tomorrow.

EU to Stress Test Nuclear Reactors

The EU President announced on Wednesday, following a meeting with European energy ministers, that stress tests will be conducted on the nuclear stations in the European Union starting in June.

The tests are being conducted to ease public anxiety in regards to Europe’s nuclear power stations in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan.  

The exact criteria of the test, which will be released and defined next week, will probably consist of six points and be “objective and severe” said European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger.  

The tests are designed to examine the effect of a disaster like an earthquake or tsunami on the nuclear reactors, like the disasters that hit the Fukushima reactors in Japan.  The scenario of a plane crashing into the reactor is also being decided upon as well, added Oettinger.  

Austria’s Environmental Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich complained that the test was not comprehensive enough, saying that the lack of testing against cyber attacks, terrorism or plane crashes was a major flaw.  
Berlakovich was also critical of the manner that the tests would be carried out, saying that it was unfortunate that “the heads of state and government did not decide to make them mandatory”.  He also insisted that the tests be carried out by independent experts, adding that “it makes no sense if the nuclear plants test themselves”.

As of right now, it is undecided on who will evaluate reports from each nations nuclear authority.  
The two options being discussed right now are having countries swap reports and doing a cross analysis, or to take a pool of experts from a couple of countries to take a look at another country.  

Photo Credit: insp.pnnl.gov/inspmedia/Pocketbook2001/photoDukovany.jpg

Italy Votes to Halt Nuclear Development

On Wednesday, Italy’s senate voted and approved plans to halt nuclear development and a return to nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster in Japan.  The proposal was voted over opposition from the Democratic and Italy of Values parties, and will head to the Chamber of Deputies for approval.  

Though the opposition holds an anti-nuclear stance as well, they challenged the proposal because they believe it to be only a short term fix that would only suspend the nuclear program temporarily.

Paolo Romani, Economic Development Minister, gives more detail in the progress of nuclear power.  Romani states that Italy will reconsider nuclear power only “when Europe as a whole takes decisions shared by all countries,” noting that Italy’s consideration of nuclear power may be dependent on the safety test results of Europe’s nuclear power stations.  Romani also displays sensitivity to public opinion, noting that “nuclear power is not culturally acceptable at the moment.”

Italy has been independent of nuclear energy since 1987, following the Chernobyl disaster, but may be reconsidering nuclear power as a way of cutting Italy’s power costs and fossil fuel dependence.  

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi spearheaded the effort to bring back the use of nuclear energy, first promising to do so in his 2008 election campaign.  Even more recently, he paved the way for atomic power stations to be built starting in 2014, despite polls showing that the majority of Italians still opposed the use of nuclear power.  

Photo credit: georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2006/03/images/20060301_v030106db-0114-515h.jpg

United States on the Way to Reaching 1 Million Electric Vehicles by 2015

obama-electric-car

According to the Department of Energy, the United States is on track to having one million electric vehicles in use by 2015, the goal established by President Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign.

The reaffirmation came from David Sandalow, Assistant Energy Secretary, following his keynote speech in Detroit to the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Speaking to reporters, Sandalow stated, “”The pace of innovation in this industry is extraordinary…If you look at the plans of the major automotive manufacturers, there’s a clear pathway to a million vehicles.”

The President has often subsequently reiterated the goal, including mentioning it in this year’s State of the Union address. “With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” he said.

Across the industry, demand for electric vehicles remains high. According to General Motors Spokesperson Robert Peterson, plans to produce and sell 10,000 Chevy Volts this year remain on track, with this number rising to 45,000 by 2012.

The Nissan LEAF also remains extremely popular, with the 20,000 cars already reserved in the US currently exceeding available supply. According to Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Renault-Nissan, sales of the LEAF are expected to reach 300,000 globally within three years. Ford expects to produce 10,000 – 20,000 units of its Focus Electric car annually, scheduled for release later this year.

President Obama has sought to bolster private sector sales with a number of government incentives, including a proposed $7,500 consumer tax credit in his fiscal year 2012 budget, research and development funding to generate innovations in battery technology, and grants for up to 30 communities which embrace electric vehicles. Obama has also called upon Congress to develop policies in support of innovations in natural gas vehicles.

The Obama administration has also sought to reform the Federal government’s fleet, calling upon government agencies to set 2015 as the year by which all new vehicle purchases will be electric or alternative-fuel powered.

According to the Department of Energy, the number of vehicles operated by the federal government currently surpasses 600,000. To date, steps taken under the Obama administration have already led to the doubling of hybrid and electric vehicles in this fleet.

The Obama administration has also taken measures to encourage the utilization of electric and hybrid vehicles among commercial fleets. The National Clean Fleets Partnership pairs the Department of Energy with five corporations – AT&T, FedEx, PepsiCo, UPS and Verizon – in a bid to reduce both fuel consumption and the number of gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles on the road.

Currently, the fleets of the five corporations collectively comprise over 275,000 vehicles.  The Department of Energy will assist these corporations in introducing 20,000 alternative fuel vehicles into their fleets, which will also reduce their petroleum consumption by 7 million gallons annually.

The Department of Energy hopes to expand the partnership to include other companies, seeking to help replace the 3 million gasoline-powered commercial fleet vehicles currently in use with alternative energy vehicles.

Critics remain skeptical of the President’s goal, however, citing the often limited range of electric vehicles, prohibitive cost of batteries, high sale price, and niche demand as deterrents to widespread use. Based on current sales of hybrid vehicles, the Center for Automotive Research estimates that closer to 469,000 electric cars will be in circulation by 2015.

Cuts to the Department of Energy’s budget may also present difficulties, with incentive and R & D programs likely to suffer. However, the Department of Energy has indicated that reductions in funding will not affect its commitment to promoting energy efficiency. 

“We will march forward aggressively to promote clean energy and we’ve got the budget to do it,” Sandalow stated.

Photo Credit: http://www.whitehouse.gov/assets/images/electric_car_blog.jpg

House Passes Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011

greenhouse_gas-EPA-HouseOn Thursday, the House passed the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 by 83 votes, with 255 representatives, including nineteen Democrats, voting in favor of the bill and 172 representatives voting against.

If passed in the Senate, the bill would strip the EPA of its power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Its passage would also render null the 2007 Supreme Court ruling requiring the EPA to regulate the same.

Representative Upton (R-MI), Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, introduced the bill with the stated intention of preventing the EPA from implementing a “back door” cap-and-trade system.

Cap-and-trade refers to the bill defeated in the Senate two years ago, within which a maximum emissions level would have been set. This maximum level would have been maintained through a market where large-scale polluters could purchase pollution permits from those who polluted less, and therefore had surplus permits. Senator Upton voiced concern that the EPA’s power to regulate large-scale polluters would enable it to establish a similar system.

 “This is the same debate we had last year when both Congress and the American people soundly rejected the cap-and-trade regulatory scheme. The rules supported by EPA seek the same ends as cap-and-trade and are no less costly in terms of lost American jobs and higher energy prices,” he stated.

Critics of the bill argued that its passage represented a backwards step in addressing both harmful greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Stated Representative Peter Welch (D-VT), “Supporters of this legislation are following the long-established tradition we humans have, the ability to disregard the obvious and proven when that conflicts with our ideology.”
Representative Welch was joined in his criticism by other members of Congress, numerous environmental non-profits, and health organizations including the American Lung Association. In a press conference held before the House vote, an official with the Union of Concerned Scientists referenced a letter signed by 2,500 scientists urging Congress to defeat the bill, stating, “this bill would legislatively overturn the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that carbon emissions pose a clear threat to public health.”

Passage in the Senate is unlikely however, as the bill currently does not appear to have enough votes to prevent a filibuster. A similar bill introduced by Senator McConnell (R-KY) was defeated in the Senate last Wednesday, receiving only 50 votes and therefore falling short of the filibuster-proof 60 votes.

President Obama has vowed to veto any legislation which seeks to impinge upon the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions. The White House released a statement supporting the Senate’s rejection of Senator McConnell’s bill, stating,

“By rejecting efforts to roll back E.P.A.’s common-sense steps to safeguard Americans from harmful pollution, the Senate also rejected an approach that would have increased the nation’s dependence on oil, contradicted the scientific consensus on global warming, and jeopardized America’s ability to lead the world in the clean energy economy. The Clean Air Act is a vital tool in protecting our families — particularly children — from a wide variety of harmful pollutants that cause asthma and lung disease, and the administration remains committed to protecting this important law.”

However, the debate regarding the extent to which the government should regulate carbon emissions remains contentious, with members of congress occasionally crossing party lines in votes. The bill defeated in the Senate last week included four votes in favor from Democrats.

Democrats themselves are also sponsoring legislation offering more moderate options to those outlined in the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011. One such bill, though defeated, still received 12 Democratic votes.

Commenting on the bipartisan support for the bill,  Representative Upton stated, “From the outset, it has been my goal to advance a sensible, bipartisan plan through both the House and Senate so we can stop the EPA and put Congress back in charge of our energy future.”

However, critics of the bill site re-election concerns when referencing Democratic support. A New York Times piece examining the Democrats who voted in favor of the bill found that many won their re-election bids by small margins or are facing difficult 2012 re-election campaigns.

Representative Upton and Senator McConnell have both indicated that if the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 fails to pass in the Senate, new legislation will be drafted.

Image courtesy of Oregon Environmental Public Health Tracking