News on the Environment Over the Holidays

by Bill Chameides | January 5th, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Welcome back to a new year. Here’s a look at a few recent environmental happenings.

Protests Against New Coal-Fired Power Plant Spark Police Response

Citizens upset over plans for a new coal-fired power plant took to the streets in December, “turning over cars and throwing bricks in clashes with police” who, armed with batons, responded with teargas.

Another publicity stunt by some radical wing of the tree-hugging crowd? Perhaps, but not exactly the green crowd we’re accustomed to. Call it “Occupy Haimen”: The demonstration took place in China’s Guangdong Province. Said one protester explaining the opposition: “The factories are hazardous to our health. Our fish are dying and there are so many people who’ve got cancer.”

The outcome of the protest was also somewhat different from what we are accustomed to or might expect from China: Instead of ignoring the opposition, officials announced that “they would suspend construction on the project.”

Tremors Shaking Up Fracking Operations

New Year’s Eve saw 2011’s 11th earthquake near Youngstown, Ohio. While not known for its seismic activity, Youngstown is the site of a well used for disposal of toxic brines from hydrofracked shale gas wells, most of which have been trucked in from Pennsylvania. Concerned that the quakes are being induced by injecting these brines deep underground, Ohio officials have halted disposal operations in the area. (Similar small quakes have occurred in the vicinity of disposal wells in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.)

It’s important to underscore that it’s not fracking itself but the underground disposal that may be linked to the quakes: The very large quantities of waste fluids injected to a depth of almost ten thousand feet below the surface may be activating ancient faults. Should the waste injection turn out to be the cause of the quakes, thus stopping or limiting this disposal method, there’d be problems since more traditional disposal methods (for example through wastewater treatment) do not remove major pollutants contained in fracking brines.

Tar Sands Concerns and a New Keystone Deadline

Many of the issues that have surfaced in the United States over horizontal hydrofracking for natural gas trapped in shale have also arisen in Canada over its oil (or tar) sands, including significant environmental concerns.

On the seeming plus side, as with America’s shale gas, the proven reserves in Canada’s oil sands are huge: about 170 billion barrels. But on the downside, whereas shale gas is thought to have a significantly lower global warming impact than conventional oil, tar sand oil has a significantly larger warming impact. An internal document for Environment Canada (the equivalent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) warned that contamination of the Athabasca River from the exploitation of the resource is “a high-profile concern” and that there are “questions about possible effects on health of wildlife and downstream communities.”

The oil-sand debate has spilled over to our side of the border where the Obama administration must decide whether to approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline which would allow the Canadian crude crude to flow in a straight shot to Texas refineries. Many environmental groups oppose the pipeline in part because it would cross over areas of environmental concern.

The news on that front over the holidays: On December 23rd, in a compromise with Congress, the president signed an 11th-hour bill extending the payroll tax holiday for two months. Included was a provision requiring him to decide up-or-down on the pipeline within 60 days of the bill’s becoming law — well before the process for determining whether the pipeline is in the “national interest” has run its course.

(Meanwhile, on another front in this ever-changing story, the state of Nebraska has sent TransCanada a map of the environmentally sensitive areas to be avoided by the pipeline.)

The Year in Animals

Last year’s apparent uptick in extreme weather made for some heated discussions (see here, here and here), but much less discussed was the elephant in the room (but not in the bush): According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, poachers involved in the illegal ivory trade killed about 3,000 elephants — making 2011 the deadliest year for elephants since the ivory trade was banned in 1989.

Not such a great year for gray wolves either. In December, another federal protection was removed with the Obama administration’s announcement that the wolf will be taken off the endangered species list in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. (See here for the latest on Wyoming’s gray wolves.)

EPA’s Air Pollution Rule Stopped Before It Began

Just before Christmas, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced the first-ever Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS).

This rule, which set emissions standards for toxics like mercury and arsenic from power plants, would work in concert with the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR, which was designed to reduce power plant pollution that crosses state lines) to improve air quality across the country.

Industry representatives strenuously opposed these standards, warning that they would prompt widespread closings of older coal-fired power plants and undermine the stability of the electrical grid.

On December 30, 2011, just two days before the CSAPR was to take effect, a federal appeals court in Washington, put a stay on it in response to requests by a coalition of utilities and industry groups. The court expects to hear the case by April [pdf] and EPA expects the rule to prevail, but until then, it’s back to the Bush administration’s Clean Air Interstate Rule.  

Ethanol Loses Its Status As the Nation’s Darling Fuel

Did you know that Congress actually reached a bipartisan agreement on an energy and environment issue? Not by passing legislation
, but by quietly allowing old legislation to expire.

For more than 30 years, ethanol has enjoyed special treatment with its own special tax credit for refiners who mix ethanol into gasoline, a subsidy that was ostensibly to foster the growth of a domestic source of gasoline. Over that period the industry received more than $20 billion, $6 billion in 2011 alone. Not exactly chump change.

Since most U.S. ethanol is made from corn, corn farmers have arguably been its staunchest defenders and beneficiaries. The subsidy has helped prop up corn prices. A boon to corn growers but not so much for meat and poultry producers and consumers. And not so great for balancing the federal budget.

Given the power of the corn industry, the prospect of the subsidy’s demise seemed slim — especially given that the pathway to the White House starts in Iowa. Nevertheless, with concerns about rising government debt on the rise, the ethanol subsidy quietly expired with the close of 2011 with little fanfare and virtually no public discussion.

Now if you’re worried about what’s going to happen to the poor, subsidy-less corn-ethanol industry, don’t be. The industry has hardly been left bereft of a government leg up. The homegrown stuff still benefits from a tariff on imported ethanol, and federal mandates for ethanol in gasoline will undoubtedly keep corn prices inflated for quite some time.

Especially good news for the corn growers is the lack of growth in domestic capacity to produce cellulosic ethanol — the stuff that’s supposed to replace corn ethanol. Because of the gap in cellulosic ethanol production, EPA slashed the 2012 mandate for cellulosic ethanol by 98 percent in late December — the third year in a row that EPA has reduced the mandate.

Things do change, but not that much. Welcome to 2012.

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