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The Political Climate Gets Legal December 17, 2013

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Law.
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This blog has been quiet for a while, but that does not mean the writing has stopped.  Here’s a link to my first print publication with the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, entitled, The “Lone Grid” State: Texas as the Ideal Location for State-Level Climate Regulation (pdf).  In short, I argue that the interaction between the interstate electrical grid and the Constitution’s limitation on state regulation of interstate commerce may actually make Texas better able to enact a strong climate program than even California.  Enjoy!

There is No Common Ground between Different Realities August 27, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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To call Republicans “the Party of No” is not quite fair – they say a lot of things besides ‘no.’ But that is the full extent of their political output: speech. Currently, Republicans are more accurately the Party of Rhetoric.

Now this is partly because they are in the legislative minority, but I can’t think of any other period in our history during which the minority party decided to so fully abstain from policymaking.  You can count on one hand the number of GOP senators willing to substantively work with the Democratic majority.  It makes you wonder what the rest of them are doing with their time.

In the past, when our country faced a problem, our two political parties fought about which policy was better to address it.  That is how our legislature is supposed to function.

You may have noticed that this occurs less today.  Increasingly, the political debate has devolved into an argument not of HOW to act but rather IF any action is even warranted.  Instead of debating solutions, we find ourselves arguing about whether or not a problem exists at all:

  • This is true of climate change: conservatives don’t have their own solution, they simply deny that the problem exists.
  • This is true of healthcare: how many times during the last year were we told that “America has the best healthcare in the world”?
  • This is true of any policy that involves regulation (finance, pollution, offshore drilling etc.), because a push for deregulation instead of better regulation contains the implicit assertion that no problems exist (or that regulations somehow cause what problems there are).

Republicans deny that these problems exist altogether, and that is problematic because they are quite real.

Historically, even policies supporting inaction were not based on denial.  Consider America’s now defunct isolationism.  Advocates of non-intervention did not dispute the existence of foreign wars, they simply determined that staying out of them was a better course of action.  At least everybody was still operating in the same reality – they debated the merits of different solutions.

In 2006, Stephen Colbert told President Bush that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”  So conservatives simply left.  Today, Republicans occupy their own reality.  They get their own news tailored to that reality, and anything that contradicts this fictitious worldview is simply denounced as biased, even empirical science.  No policy debate can occur because the conservative reality has its own facts and they distrust “ours.”  Experts are just elitists anyways.

But this planet and this country face real challenges, even if conservatives refuse to believe them.  Unfortunately, by the time they become full, immediate crises, it will be too late to act.  Think of America as riding in an SUV speeding towards a cliff: everyone in that car is in trouble – even the kid in the backseat with his eyes shut tight, plugging his ears and singing loudly to himself (presumably Mellencamp’s “[This Is] Our Country”).  But once the wheels leave the pavement, and likely well before then, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.  That kid is only forced to finally acknowledge the outside world upon impact.

So how we can bridge this inter-reality chasm?  It may not even be possible.  But there is one way we can try (and the Daily Show has been attempting this valiantly).

The Party of Rhetoric, especially now that it has started drinking Tea, has begun to make some wild claims.  Conservatives won’t listen to our words, so we must hope that they still believe theirs.

As Republican politicians increasingly resort to fear-mongering, they make ridiculous extrapolations and predict devastating futures that result from liberal policies.  So when these disasters do not occur, we must repeat their words back to them.

It will be a while before we can utilize this strategy for most issues, but we can start small with offshore drilling now.  Conservatives and the oil industry railed against the Obama administration for its perfectly justified temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling.  They insisted that this most minimal safeguard against another massive oil spill would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and more economic devastation than the BP spill itself.

As the New York Times reported this week, that simply has not happened.  Even the administration’s estimates were overly pessimistic (to a much lesser extent).  Instead of hundreds of thousands of laid off oil workers, unemployment claims attributable to the moratorium are currently just in the hundreds.

I’m sure that the conservative reality has an explanation for this development or simply rejects it altogether.  But if we can’t even look over our shoulder and agree about what just happened, how can we possibly look ahead and safely navigate the future?

Those who do not learn from oil spills… August 7, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Last week, the Senate failed to pass even an anemic oil spill response bill.  The oil industry learned a lesson from this episode, and it’s not the lesson we’d hoped to teach them.

The bill that was pulled contained commonsense measures to prevent oil spills.  Simple ideas like making oil companies fully liable for the damage they cause.  “You break, you buy” is not a tough concept, and the oil industry has zero goodwill with the public right now.  This should have been simple.

Yet for all of BP’s technical incompetence and possibly criminal negligence, they have thus far succeeded in minimizing the regulatory blowback from this terrible, preventable catastrophe.  Their formula is simple:

1)     Lie to downplay the spill size;

2)     Deny media access so that nobody can disprove the lie;

3)     Spend a tiny fraction of profits on lobbying; and, inevitably,

4)     …Repeat

We know that BP has consistently downplayed the size of the spill.  They used dispersants to keep oil underwater and then chose to measure the spill rate solely by the size of the surface oil slick.  That’s willful deception.

Yet because BP withheld video footage and denied reporters access, nobody could authoritatively challenge their claims (except maybe the government, but that’s another story).

And finally, over the last few months, the big five oil companies (BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell) have spent $18 million lobbying to kill the oil spill response bill.  Compared to their $21.7 billion in combined profits over the last quarter alone, that is a tiny investment.

And it worked.

Surely this legislative gridlock is influenced by the toxic political climate in Washington, but the industry has taken note of BP’s success.  In fact, we have already seen tactics from this new playbook employed elsewhere.  (Which means, unfortunately, that we have already had more oil spills since Deepwater Horizon…we didn’t pass this oil legislation how?)

In Michigan, there are numerous reports that Enbridge Inc. is denying media access to areas damaged by its recent oil spill.  In China, the amount of oil spilled when a pipeline exploded is suspected of being massively downplayed.  This pattern is not going to stop on its own.

Oily shoreline in Dalian, China, where BP's spill response tactics are already being replicated.

During future oil spills, what incentive does a company have to be honest or transparent about the damage it is causing?  None.

Not only have we failed to hold the oil industry accountable for unacceptable damage and deplorable safety records, we have taught them how to get away with it even when, for a few weeks, the whole country actually cares about the environment.

The oil industry has not learned from its mistakes.  Why should they?  It’s much cheaper to pay for lobbyists.  With limited liability, taxpayers and victims pay for much of the damage oil spills cause.

Case-in-point: despite the looming phase-out of single-hulled tankers like the Exxon Valdez, Exxon still hires more of these risky supertankers than the next 10 biggest oil companies combined.

Failing to pass this weak bill will be even worse than having done nothing.  It will let Big Oil know they can bully and buy their way out of any transgression, no matter how heinous.   Those who do not learn from their oil spills are doomed to repeat them.

And right on cue comes news that in Alaska, just thirty miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, BP is gaming the system to loosen restrictions and oversight on a new drilling project…

Republicans Block Anemic Energy Bill for Oil Industry July 28, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Despite the weakness of the pending oil spill/“energy” bills introduced in the House and Senate this week, Big Oil and their Congressional allies are doing everything they can to make sure we do not learn from BP’s unforgiveable mistakes.

100 days after the Deepwater Horizon spill began, Republicans oppose each of the small shuffles down the right path that these bills contain.

For example, anti-science champion Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) takes exception with a provision that requires natural gas drillers to merely disclose which toxic chemicals they are injecting into the ground near our drinking water supplies during the controversial practice known as “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking.”

Why does Inhofe oppose the simple disclosure of that information?  Because Inhofe and the industry claim that the dangers of toxic chemicals in drinking water are overblown.

Comprehensive energy reform is already dead, and even these bills, which could only euphemistically be called “half-hearted”, have a slim chance because Republicans claim that there is little room for compromise. That is a disgusting claim.  These bills are already grotesquely compromised.  They were so thoroughly watered down in hopes of attracting the necessary supermajority that they are scarcely progress at all.  To demand more compromise calls to mind a limbo player lying on the floor.

Republicans most vehemently oppose lifting the liability cap on oil companies that defile our nation’s environment.  They say that expecting oil companies to pay for the full consequences of the damage they cause will drive “mom and pop” oil companies out of business.  That is hardly a defense of limited liability: if that claim is true, perhaps mom and pop should pursue less risky projects.

Republicans are fighting to preserve the apparent right of every oil company, big or small, to remain blameless for the oil spills they continue to cause in American waters. That is senseless.

With midterm elections approaching, Republicans are pretending to have solutions of their own; toward that end, they are circulating an even bigger joke of an energy bill.  Their “alternative” bill contains energy “solutions” such as lifting the deepwater drilling moratorium and preventing the administration from blocking offshore drilling again. You know, the change we need.

However, the Republican bill does contain a provision that unfortunately may influence the Democratic bills.  Instead of unlimited liability for oil companies that cause spills (making them pay for all the damage they cause), Republicans have a different idea: ironically, the party of limited government wants to make the Department of the Interior set liability limits on each individual rig based on 13 different criteria, including a company’s safety record and the estimated risks involved with the specific location.

This is just another way to protect Big Oil and make sure that taxpayers are the ones who have to pay to clean up oil spills. Oil state Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) are attempting to broker a compromise on oil spill liability.

There is one additional point that must be mentioned.  Many Republicans are trotting out this line in various forms:

“This is a serious subject and it deserves consideration by the United States Senate on behalf of the American people.  We are ready for a serious debate, but it appears the Majority Leader is not.” –Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

This complaint is not just about the bill’s expedited timeline.  It is true that Sen. Reid is trying to have an energy bill passed by the August recess.  Yet perhaps more importantly, Sen. Reid is unlikely to allow any amendments to be added to this bill.

Such a parliamentary maneuver is necessary because Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is poised with his amendment to delay the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act; the final regulatory bulwark of climate action in the United States.

Rockefeller’s amendment, about which I will write more soon, is similar to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) “Dirty Air Act” amendment that was narrowly defeated in June.  If amendments were allowed, she too would certainly poison this bill with something similar.  Indeed, Murkowski is considering adding the amendment to an unrelated small-business bill as she tirelessly does the bidding of Big Oil in the U.S. Senate.

“Energy” Bills Drop and Big Oil Plays Doctor July 27, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Early this week, the House and Senate unveiled their minimalist energy bills.

Far from the comprehensive energy reform our country desperately needs, these bills are largely just a direct response to the oil spill (an approach with which I strongly disagree).

Both bills are amalgamations of other, smaller oil spill/energy bills that have already passed out of their various committees.  The House and Senate bills differ slightly (which was bound to happen even if the House bill wasn’t 238 pages compared to the Senate bill’s 16), but here’s a summary of the Senate bill’s provisions:

  • Lift the $75 million oil spill liability cap (retroactively, to apply to BP)
  • Increase the per-barrel tax on oil producers that feeds the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund
  • Restructure the Department of the Interior to remove conflicts of interest and increase drilling oversight
  • Lopsidedly incentivize electric and natural gas vehicles ($6 billion for natural gas, $400 million for electrification)
  • Finally enact the HomeStar home retrofit program

A full 24-page “draft” summary is available here but subject to change, especially as this bill is likely to move quickly ahead of the looming August recess.  Debate on this bill is scheduled for Friday.

TNR’s Bradford Plumer described the scope of this Senate legislation:

“All told, it’s a tiny bill—the total cost comes to around $15 billion. And it won’t do all that much for the environment: When one reporter asked committee staffers whether anyone knew how much greenhouse-gas reduction this bill would lead to, several people laughed out loud.”

Notably absent from this energy bill (aside from comprehensive energy policy) is a Renewable Energy Standard (RES): a requirement that America generate a certain amount of its electricity from renewable sources by a given date.

Could an RES pass right now?   Renewable energy advocates and former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle insist that they have 60+ votes for the popular, no-brainer policy.  Curiously, Sen. Reid says he doesn’t have the votes.  Someone is misinformed or lying.

Daschle, pictured above, and Reid disagree about whether the votes are there for an RES. Obviously, politicians are quite capable of the seemingly impossible feat of arguing about whether a given number is above or below 60, but Daschle doesn't really have a reason to lie; Reid could be saving the RES as a strong foundation for a subsequent, real energy bill, but he has not given any such explanation.

Both the House and Senate versions are weak as an energy bill, but the House bill does contain some additional commonsense solutions to protect America from the intrinsic risks of offshore drilling.

For example, the House bill would block oil companies with a “significant history” of violating worker safety of environmental laws from drilling in federal waters.  The legislative language, which already passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee, defines that “significant history” as a company having at least one of the following:

  • 5x the industry average for willful or repeat worker safety violations at its facilities;
  • More than 10 deaths at any facility; or
  • $10 million in fines under EPA laws within the preceding seven years.

The package includes further safety provisions that the Natural Resources panel approved unanimously, including new standards for blowout preventers.

It is worth noting that even in the comparatively more aggressive House bill, drilling regulations that were not direct responses to the oil spill were dropped.

So, what does the oil industry have to say about these moderate safety regulations?

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is the oil industry’s main trade association.  And they oppose almost all of these regulations, of course.  As far as Big Oil is concerned nothing needs to change.

In a call with reporters, API president Jack Gerard took particular umbrage at the blowout preventer regulations.  In his eyes, new blowout preventer regulations are premature because we don’t even know what caused the Gulf spill:

“We’re going into surgery without a diagnosis.  This is the ultimate in malpractice.” –Jack Gerard, President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

Granted, I have never been pleased by anything these API lobbyists have said, but this is a remarkably bold statement.  We know fully well that current blowout preventer regulations and practices are not up to the job.

Hypocrisy is a familiar sight in Washington.  In the past, however, you usually had to wait until after an election before side-by-side comparisons of a single person arguing against himself began to show up a la the Daily Show.  But not anymore.

Just a few weeks ago, API spokesperson Bill Bush fought against the deepwater drilling moratorium because:

“The 33 now idle deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf have passed thorough government inspections and are ready to be put back to work.”

Let’s continue the API’s medical metaphor: We can’t operate on (regulate) the deepwater rigs because we don’t know for sure what ails them.  But somehow, at the same time, we can pronounce them healthy and let them keep on drilling?  That does not compute.

API’s Gerard went on:

“We believe what comes out of the discussions on the oil spill should be directly related to the oil spill.”

That makes sense.  The patient was admitted only because of his inability to keep his oil down – why set his broken bones or cure any additional diseases you find during his checkup?

And remember, as I said before, needed but less directly spill-related drilling regulations have already been dropped from these bills in accordance with this oil industry demand.  Such is the price of attempting to overcome Republican obstructionism.

A brief New York Times article detailing the roll out of these bills summarized the likely resistance:

“The oil industry is expected to offer stiff opposition to some of the provisions…”

Maybe I’m reading into it too far, but this quote really irks me (because of the content, not the writing):

The oil industry screwed up, big time.  The damage to the Gulf of Mexico and its dependent economies is catastrophic.  In direct response, Congress is attempting to pass an anemic bill with long overdue and watered down regulations.

The ONLY opposition to this bill is from the very industry that screwed up in the first place and has long enjoyed a political free ride.

Are we really going to let them singlehandedly push back against the regulations they’ve so vividly demonstrated they require?  That’s like losing the bedtime argument with your young child.  This is pathetic.

Let Wasteful, Redundant Ethanol Tax Credits Expire July 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Politics.
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Background information about corn ethanol, including a discussion of its pros and cons, is contained in this separate post.

Oil has rightly dominated recent energy-related news coverage, but if you’ve been watching closely, you may have noticed that corn ethanol has crept back into the news hole.

Early last week, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced a bill (S. 3576) that is essentially a wish list from the corn ethanol industry; it is no surprise that the bill’s legislative text was available on the industry’s website before anywhere else.

Why is this bill being introduced now?  Because federal subsidies for corn ethanol – to the tune of $6 billion annually – are set to expire at the end of the year.

The main component of these subsidies is the “Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit” or VEETC: a $0.45 tax credit for marketers and fuel benders paid for each gallon blended with any ethanol.  “Small producers” get an additional $0.10 for their first 15 million gallons, and there is also a tariff on imported, foreign-produced ethanol.  This program began in 2005 as part of the Bush administration’s American Job’s Creation Act of 2004.

While propping up demand for corn ethanol helps the ethanol industry, this tax break largely benefits Big Oil: BP is one of the largest recipients of the VEETC, and is slated to claim about $600 million in corn ethanol credits this year.  It is estimated that over the program’s lifetime, $21 billion in credits have been funneled to Big Oil.

The Renewable Fuel Standard is doing a good enough job propping up corn ethanol demand. We don't need to throw more money at this unnecessary policy objective. Especially if that money is just going to BP.

Not only does this tax credit give even more money to oil companies, it is largely redundant.  The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) created in 2005 and expanded in 2007 mandates that American gasoline must include 15 billion gallons of ethanol by 2015 and 36 billion gallons by 2022.

The Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State released a study about corn ethanol this week. According to that report:

The Renewable Fuel Standard is the primary driver of ethanol demand. The tax credit prompts blenders to use about 900 million gallons of ethanol each year above mandated levels. This costs taxpayers some $6 billion annually (or almost $7 per gallon). Ending the subsidy would save that amount.

We already have a government system propping up ethanol demand.  Why do we need two?  Heck, we shouldn’t even really need one; corn ethanol causes a whole host of environmental and social problems!

The corn ethanol industry has been around for decades.  It is mature and does not need a second layer of support.  This is an easy $6 billion/year of taxpayer money to save.

The corn ethanol industry claims that allowing the subsidy to expire could wipe out nearly 40% of the U.S. ethanol industry. Those not in the ethanol industry find that assertion dubious.

The Iowa State study refutes that claim.  NRDC’s Sasha Lyutse has a great post explaining the study.  These are her major summary points:

  • Allowing the VEETC and import tariff to expire would have almost no impact on U.S. corn ethanol markets in 2011.
  • If the purpose of the VEETC is to push ethanol consumption beyond mandated levels, the magnitude of the costs greatly outweighs any benefits.
  • Eliminating the VEETC would not have major implications for U.S. employment and any jobs created by the VEETC come with at unacceptably high price tag.

In regard to the third point, the ethanol industry has issued alarmist claims that without this annual $6 billion in taxpayer money, 160,000 jobs will be lost.  Sasha finds that hard to believe when, according to the industry, the average corn ethanol plant employs only 45 people.  I tend to agree with her:

“Babcock [the lead researcher] finds that the decrease in U.S. ethanol production in 2011 caused by allowing the VEETC to expire would result in the loss of only 407 direct jobs. At a cost of nearly $6 billion, this is nearly $15 million per direct job.”

This report is the second major dose of reality to hit the corn ethanol industry in two week.  Lawmakers wanted to know what benefits American taxpayers really derive from the VEETC program, so Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) instructed the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to conduct an analysis.

That report was released last week, and it was not good news for the industry.  The CBO report found that the VEETC rewards the corn ethanol industry for producing roughly the same amount of ethanol that they would produce without the subsidy because of the Renewable Fuel Standard.  According to the CBO, we’ve wasted $6 billion each year since 2005 and have no reason to waste another $31 billion the same way.

The argument against corn ethanol is strong.  In fact, the only argument for corn ethanol is a political one: corn producers have a lot of clout in the sparsely populated Midwestern states, which gives them outsized influence in the Senate.  Additionally, Iowa is a major corn producer, and because Iowa is the permanent location for the first presidential primary, opposing such a major demand of corn producers is political suicide for a presidential candidate.

But Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, knows the truth about why we environmentalists oppose this senseless subsidy: “a lot of the problem with the environmentalists is that they just don’t like corn…” Hey, I love corn.  It’s yummy. “…and don’t want it used for fuel.”  …There’s the ticket.  Using food for fuel is not a solution to any problem.

I hope that Congress can side with the American people on this issue and overcome the administration’s stated support for corn ethanol.

Why the EPA Should Regulate Carbon July 7, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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…because the Senate won’t.

Despite what is shaping up to be the hottest year on record, the ongoing oil spill  and pubic opinion polls showing that Americans are finally ready to address our entwined energy and climate crises, legislation remains blocked by the usual suspects: Republicans, lobbyists and perpetual election year politics.

Most people think that Congress is the governmental entity that ought to address an issue as sweeping as climate change.  I agree.  So do most congressmen – loudly.

Unfortunately, many those congressmen who angrily rant about the importance of congressional authority are the very same people blocking congressional action.

The Obama Administration has made it clear that it does not want to have to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency.  Everybody would prefer that Congress pass a bill instead.  The House has.  The Senate, it seems, cannot.

Yet we must address a threat of this magnitude.  So if Congress won’t, the EPA should.  The Supreme Court agrees; if Congress doesn’t act, the EPA is legally obligated to regulate GHGs as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The EPA will not supersede legislative climate action; it will act in accordance with the Clean Air Act (written by Congress) unless Congress passes a newer law.

As the chances for such a law fade, it is worth examining what EPA carbon regulations might look like.

What Would EPA Regulations Looks Like?

There have been a number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through on the road to EPA carbon regulations.  Next January, when the EPA’s new gas mileage standards for cars comes into effect, greenhouse gases will finally be “subject to regulation” under the Clean Air Act.

First, new polluting power plants and industrial facilities would have to adopt the “best available control technologies” (BACT) for regulating carbon emissions.  The EPA gets to determine which technologies are “best.”  Carbon capture and sequestration technology could fall into this category if it was proven, but that’s a long way off.  In the meantime, the EPA would the mandate the use of existing technologies to reduce emissions and/or increase efficiency.

For example, the EPA could require any and all new coal-fired power plants to utilize integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology.  IGCC plants convert coal into a synthetic gas so that it can be burned more cleanly (in terms of non-GHG pollutants) and use excess heat from the primary combustion and generation to power a secondary steam turbine that generates extra electricity per unit of coal burned.  Or it could require new power plants use natural gas instead of coal.

Natural gas emits much less carbon than coal.  It’s not a long-term solution, but significant short-term gains could be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas.  The EPA could propose this change.

What is the “Tailoring Rule”?

Under the Clean Air Act, anyone trying to build or upgrade a facility that will emit a baseline level of a regulated pollutant (usually 100-250 tons per year) needs to get a permit from the EPA certifying that they are utilizing the “best available control technology” (BACT) to minimize their emissions.

For other Clean Air Act pollutants, like lead, 100 tons per year is quite a bit and well worth of regulation.  The problem here is that carbon emissions are on a much larger scale.  As the Clean Air Act is written, as many as 6 million buildings would need permits for their carbon emissions, including schools, churches, buildings that use heating oil…you get the idea.  Not the real targets of these regulations.

In May, the EPA released its “Tailoring Rule” to limit the focus of the permitting process to facilities that release >75,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year and already apply for other Clean Air Act pollutant permits.  This way, only the major polluters are subject to these regulations. The Tailoring Rule brings down the number of regulated buildings from 6 million to about ~550 of the biggest polluters.

For the record, when originally proposed, the cutoff was set at 25,000 tons per year, but after the comment period, the EPA realized that too many buildings would be unintentionally regulated (like schools and small businesses).

Additionally, any new power plants expected to emit more than 100,000 tons of GHGs per year would need to get a permit.  This would certainly cover all new coal plants, whose emissions are on the order of million of tons per year.

If the EPA does end up implementing these regulations, conservative groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will likely challenge the Tailoring Rule in court so that schools etc. would need be regulated as well.  Why?  Because they hate children.  …ok fine, because if the EPA enacts this policy, conservatives want it to become a regulatory nightmare.  Making the EPA permit the 6 million buildings that emit much smaller amounts of carbon each year would be impossibly cumbersome and cause considerable public backlash – so conservatives hope we would just scrap the whole thing and let them keep polluting for free.  Potential legal vulnerabilities such as this are a weakness of this less than elegant regulatory route.

Benefits of EPA Carbon Regulations

EPA regulations would hopefully be designed with less lobbyist influence than in Congress.

Most climate/energy bills – including the climate bill that pass in the House last year – end up “grandfathering” in some dirty coal plants.  That is, their emissions are exempted from regulation.  Such provisions completely undercut the energy bills that contain them by providing utilities with a perverse incentive to keep their oldest, most polluting plants open as long as possible.  They are written by lobbyists and exist solely as thank you’s from American legislators to their industry supporters.

Disgustingly, even the original Clean Air Act grandfathered in existing coal plants.

Everything Congress touches that is at all energy-related comes out blackened with soot and covered in tar balls.  The EPA is not impervious to industry demands, but it is certainly in a better position to stand up to industry than Congress (which isn’t saying much).

In fact, in many ways,

The EPA is Better Suited to Address this Issue than Congress

In 1997, economist Alan Blinder presented an interesting argument that some governmental challenges could and should be better solved by unelected experts.

Certain types of problems, Blinder correctly argued, are by nature better addressed by experts than by elected laymen in Congress.  These types of problems meet three criteria (discussed below):

  1. The issue deals with technical subjects requiring specialized knowledge.
  2. The issue is long-term, both in problems and solutions.
  3. The issue imposes short-term hardship to avert long-term hardship of much greater magnitude.

Consider the legislative challenges of issues that meet these criteria.  What follows are not critiques of our democracy but rather explanations of some unfortunate effects that institutional design can have upon policymaking.

Congress Lacks Specialized Knowledge:

Everybody knows that our elected representatives are not experts.  They are elected to represent us and cannot possibly be expected to have in-depth knowledge of all the issues our legislature must tackle.

To overcome this deficiency, they summon experts to testify before them.  But most testimony has little impact on legislation, and as anyone who has ever watched C-SPAN (or even the Daily Show) can tell you, sometimes “expert testimony” is nothing short of political theater.

For example, in 2005, the notorious Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK and Congress’s most vocal climate-denier), who at the time chaired the Environment and Public Works Committee, invited fiction author Michael Crichton to advise the Senate on climate science because he had recently written State of Fear, a fictional story about murderous eco-terrorists.  Inhofe also made that book “required reading” for members of the top Senate environmental committee.

Jim Inhofe is the poster child both for senators not being experts and political theater. He once disputed climate science by saying “God’s still up there. We’re going through these cycles.” This man CHAIRED the Senate’s environmental committee for 5 years and remains its ranking Repubican member.

When you hear about the final deal-making and compromises being made to pass a law, it has nothing to do with expert testimony or pure policy considerations – it’s often just about pork barrel politics and a particular legislator’s demands.

It is easy to see why under certain circumstances, our country would be better served if experts in the field at hand were asked to craft sensible and efficient policies to address technical problems.

Congress Cannot Address Long-Term Problems:

It is never more than two years from an election year in Washington.  If congresspersons want to be reelected, they need to deliver short-term results to their constituents.

It is no surprise, then, that long-term problems are not legislative priorities; they appeal to our legislators’ responsibility and duty, but those are not the forces that drive Washington.

Even if addressing a long term problem did not cost anything today, it would present an opportunity cost because a House representative only has 2 years to deliver demonstrably for his constituents.

For long term solutions that have short term costs, the future prospects grow bleaker.  Add a degree of uncertainty and magnify it with disinformation and demagoguery, and it is obvious why climate bills are hard to pass.

Congress Cannot Impose Short-Term Costs for Long-Term Benefits:

Legislators are held accountable for the present, not the future.  Until the end of their careers, the desire for reelection prioritizes short-term considerations.  Think about a Representative in the House.  If a bill in the House could save his constituents money in 10 years but will cost them money this year, he would have to be reelected 5 times before his constituents would feel the actual benefits of that bill, but he would surely be held responsible for the cost.

If that representative’s constituents are totally on board with that bill, they may give him credit for his work in the short term.  But if it’s a contentious law and there is disinformation circulating, that vote could well cost him his job.

If the problem that bill solves is only a small one today, even if it’s going to get much bigger in the future, his constituents may resent him for imposing a cost to solve a problem that was not unbearable yet.  This is why Congress is a reactive, not proactive, body.

Climate change is a long-term threat with long-term solutions.  Unfortunately, we only have a short-term window to address it and it will impose short term costs.

It is the perfect storm of an issue that Congress really cannot handle.  It is exactly the type of issue that Alan Blinder was talking about.  That is why the responsibility of carbon regulation may well fall to the EPA.

Downsides to EPA Action

1. Limited Scope: EPA regulations, at least early on, would do very little to clean up our existing power plants.  Recall from the Tailoring Rule that these regulations apply only to new or upgrading plants (unless they release other Clean Air Act pollutants too).  Obviously, we would need to reduce our current emissions to meaningfully reduce our climate pollution.

2. Cost: Congressional action could achieve emission reductions more cheaply than the EPA regulations could.  If EPA establishes carbon regulations under the Clean Air Act, they will be traditional “command and control” regulations.  The EPA will dictate what emissions-reducing technologies are best, and mandate their use.

Instead of that approach, Congress could use more modern market-based initiatives like cap-and-trade to put a price on carbon.  This would spur innovation and let us achieve our emission reductions for less.  The EPA would mandate the use a current technology, with no incentive to develop better ones.

The cost factor and other differences between market-based initiatives vs. command and control regulations are outlined in this recent post.

3. It’s Not Enough: EPA carbon regulations would provide emissions reductions where we need them most – the energy sector.  But they couldn’t put a price on carbon, which is a vital step to achieving the long-term reductions necessary to avert the worst effects of climate change.

“The only way to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050 is to put a price on carbon, and the only folks who can do that are in Congress.” –David Bookbinder, Sierra Club.

4. Threat of Being Overturned: Legal challenges could slow the EPA process but probably not derail it altogether.  The real threat is that Congress could overturn anything the EPA does, as Lisa Murkowski has already attempted to do preemptively.

Conclusion:

By virtue of not having gone through Congress, EPA climate regulations would likely emerge looking more like a sound policy solution than anything Congress has ever produced.  However, these regulations would not be enough. Combined with a good energy bill, they could be part of a real solution, but we would still need some congressional action to truly address this threat.

A comprehensive climate/energy bill would be preferable to EPA regulations.  But if Senate conservatives block another climate bill, the EPA will take action.  It will at least be a long overdue step in the right direction.

A Eulogy for Cap-and-Trade July 1, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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1 comment so far

Although it appears that immigration is cutting in front of energy on the legislative agenda, earlier this week, President Obama told Congress that he wants an energy bill that puts a price on carbon and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this year.

Cap-and-trade is the best way to accomplish this goal.  That is why the House passed the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act over a year ago.  Yet pundits have long ruled this elegant policy tool dead.

At this point, it seems that only a sea change within the Senate could ever bring cap-and-trade back again.  Before it receives its final judgment, it’s worth taking a look back at how this all started, how we got here, why it seemed like a good idea at the time, and why it still is.

Tom Crocker conceived of the cap-and-trade system as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s.  In the 1990s, it was applied with great success to control sulfur dioxide emissions from American coal plants that were producing acid rain.  Our sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade system achieved greater reductions than expected at less than half the projected cost. The Economist dubbed it “probably the greatest green success story of the past decade” in July 2002.

Here in the US, cap-and-trade efficiently reduced sulfur dioxide emissions for a fraction of the projected cost.

The EU implemented a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system in 2005 with mixed results.  But it is a rare step in the right direction and a valuable first try from which we can learn many important lessons.  To co-opt a Republican oil spill talking point, one plane’s turbulence shouldn’t preclude air travel.  We can rebuild it.  We have the technology.

A number of key Republican senators have stated that they will never vote on any energy policy that includes cap-and-trade.  This is an unabashed flip-flop for which they have not been held accountable. Many of these senators supported cap-and-trade before they started calling it a “job-killing energy tax.”

Point of clarification for Republicans: carbon dioxide is not energy.  It is a waste product and pollutant being dumped into a vital resource.  Cap-and-trade is no more an “energy tax” than charging people who pumped cow manure into our drinking water would be a “beef tax.”  Also, it creates jobs. Other than that though, “job-killing energy tax” is a perfect characterization.

Recent cap-and-trade “debates” have lacked relevant historical context; in 2003 John McCain cosponsored the first climate cap-and-trade bill, for crying out loud.  The theory remains unchanged, the only new development is these senators’ adherence to Republican lies talking points.  Blatant, partisan flip-flops are well-documented by McCain, Richard Lugar, Lindsay Graham, Scott Brown, and even Lisa Murkowski!

For decades, conservatives railed against “heavy-handed” traditional environmental regulations.  Known as “command and control” regulations, these laws mandate one solution for a given problem, regardless of the circumstances.  For example, if a factory emits too much of a given pollutant, by law it must install a specific type of scrubber to reduce that pollution, even if cheaper alternatives could produce that same emissions reduction.

While appropriate in many situations, economists and conservatives have argued against such regulations because they can be inefficient and impose higher costs than necessary upon businesses.  This is a valid criticism.  It is the reason why economists prefer and advocate for “market-based instruments” (MBIs) – such as cap-and-trade.

Market-based instruments, as their name implies, utilize markets for environmental regulation.  They are preferable to command and control regulations because markets enable us to achieve emission reductions as efficiently (i.e. cheaply) as possible.

Command and control regulations stifle innovation.  They mandate the use of a specific technology, and that is that.  In contrast, MBIs foster and catalyze innovation.  Cap-and-trade presents a great example.

Once we put a price on carbon pollution, it is suddenly within industries’ interest to invest in ways to cheaply reduce their emissions.  Instead of dictatorially deciding what technology to use, we unleash our nation’s intellectual resources upon this challenge.

Under cap-and-trade, cheaper emission-reducing solutions are developed and utilized.  And the benefits don’t just accrue for industry.  Third parties stand to gain from developing these technologies for them, so MBIs incentivize the creation of startups and the expansion of small businesses attempting to reduce carbon output and increase efficiency – and obviously spur renewable energy technologies for our future.

But just how does cap-and-trade put a price on carbon?

If you know how a cap-and-trade system functions, you will want to skip to the last paragraph.  If you’ve heard the phrase everywhere but aren’t really sure exactly what is entailed, I have provided a description here.

The Cap:

Regulators determine how much pollution the country is allowed to emit in a year.  Then they distribute permits for emissions up to that amount (the distribution method is a complicating factor that I will discuss below).  Because a fixed number of permits are issued, this system has the benefit of ensuring emission reductions (as opposed to a carbon tax).  Polluters want to emit a given amount of pollution but there are only so many permits available.  This creates a market for carbon pollution.  That market puts a price on emitting carbon and also provides a long-overdue economic disincentive to pollute.

A carbon tax also puts a price on carbon, providing some but not all of these same benefits.  A carbon tax is an inferior carbon control mechanism.  If you are interested in why this is or dispute this point, I could easily throw together a cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax post.

The Trade:

Suppose, for example, that there are two factories (see the graphic below to visualize this example).  One is ancient and spews pollution (Plant A) – making emission reductions at this factory is very expensive.   The other is brand new and could easily be upgraded to drastically cut its carbon emissions (Plant B).

Under traditional, command and control regulation (left example), it would be very expensive to bring the older factory into regulatory compliance.  Yet under a cap-and-trade system (right example), we could let the newer plant reduce its emissions for both itself and reduce its emissions further on behalf of the older plant.

In this cap-and-trade example, our polluters have permits entitling them to emit a certain amount of pollution.  In this scenario, the newer plant emits even less pollution than it has permits for; it has cleaned up so much that it has permits to spare.   So the older plant could pay the newer plant for offsetting its continued emissions (the newer plant sells its unused emission permits to the older plant).

Because paying the newer plant is cheaper than making further upgrades to the older plant would be, the same emissions reduction under command and control regulation is achieved for a fraction of the price using cap-and-trade.  And the system operates efficiently because we allow the market to determine the price of the permits.

Permit Distribution:

How these pollution permits would be distributed is the biggest source of contention within cap-and-trade proposals.  There are three ways to distribute credits:

1) Auction – companies bid for every one of the permits they think they need.

2) Allocation – the government gives away permits to polluters for free.

3) Grandfathering – permits are allocated based on historical emissions.  This accomplishes nothing because there is no incentive to reduce emissions, but it has been lobbied for heavily by major polluters.

Serious cap-and-trade proposals have included a mix of these distribution options.  From a climate change perspective, a pure auction is the best solution.  It raises the most money to help offset costs to consumers and spur research and development of renewable energy technologies while providing the most incentive to reduce emissions.  But direct allocations are attractive to legislators because it lets them in a sense “buy” the support of different groups that otherwise would not support the bill because they would be more greatly affected.

Some of this allocation falls into the realm of necessary political compromise, but it is also this aspect of previous climate bills that has doomed them in the contorted, propagandized public perception.  That being said, instituting a cap-and-trade system without any initial allocation would impose heavy costs on industry all at once.  I’m not saying they don’t deserve to pay for the free ride they have enjoyed for centuries, but helping them make the transition is not an outlandish idea.

Conclusion:

In any case, this all may be a moot point because cap-and-trade’s prospects in the Senate are beyond dim as long as Republicans stick to those guns they love so much and Democrats do not control a supermajority (and probably still even then).

I wrote this post because as this policy dies at the hand of partisan politics, it needs to be said that this was our best vehicle to address climate change.  Study after study have shown that cap-and-trade bills would tackle our climate pollution while reducing the deficit, creating jobs, and increasing our energy security.

But who wants that?  Not Republicans, apparently.

Oil Spill Legislation Pt. 2 June 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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3 comments

Now that I have devoted two recent posts to what Congress isn’t doing, it’s time once again to look at what little they actually are working on.  There are a couple of interesting pieces of oil spill legislation that have been introduced recently.  These are the most noteworthy:

Let’s start with the bad ones.

S. 3461, introduced by David Vitter (R-LA) on 6/9.  This bill would create a system for resolving claims against BP, which is fine.  But it also seeks to renegotiate BP’s lease on “Mississippi Canyon 252” (where Deepwater Horizon was drilling when it sank).

Lease renegotiation is the Republicans’ preferred vehicle to increase BP’s liability. It has two main problems:

1) It requires BP’s cooperation. In order for this to work, BP would have to say, “Ok, we admit unlimited liability.”  As TPM reported, BP could refuse or even simply walk away from the renegotiation talks.  Public pressure might prevent them from doing this, but there is no guarantee.  And certainly no good reasons to choose this over just lifting the liability cap, which takes us to the second point.

2) Lease renegotiation establishes no future precedent for oil spills.  It is the legislative embodiment of not learning from our mistakes.  If we pass this bill and no other, the $75 million liability cap will still be on the books when the next catastrophic oil spill occurs.  This is why the only cosponsor on this bill is oil industry lackey Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).  Her co-sponsorship indicates that this bill is supported by the oil industry, which in turn indicates that this bill is far too weak.

Also, it could violate the Constitution.

S. 3497, introduced by Scott Brown (R-MA) on 6/16.  This bill would “require leases under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to include a plan that describes the means and timeline for containment and termination of an ongoing discharge of oil.”  The actual legislative text is not available yet, so I don’t know exactly what this bill would require, but that this seems weak to me.  Oil companies saying “and it’ll take us 4 months to fix this thing if it blows” would seem to satisfy the requirements of this bill, nor does this appear to address the strength and efficacy of the oil company plans – is there anything in here to prevent them from submitting plans to protect walruses in the Gulf of Mexico again?

Scott Brown has offered no evidence that his is to be trusted on energy/environmental issues.  That being said, he has found a bipartisan cosponsor for this bill in Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), so we will have to wait and see what is actually in this bill.

Now, the good stuff:

S. 3514: Amends the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to prohibit anyone from buying an oil or gas lease unless they pay into an Oil Spill Recovery Fund (unspecified amount so far) or post a bond equal to half of their outstanding liability related to oil spills or cleanups.  If the payment into the recovery fund is low, then what appears to be the intent of the bill – prevent companies in BP’s current situation from expanding their operations before paying up for oil spills – may be undercut.  But the legislative language is not available yet, so we’ll see.  Introduced by Mark Begich (D-AK) on 6/21 with 2 cosponsors.

S. 3492: In light of negligent emergency planning and the failure of all other containment options, this bill would amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to require leaseholders to prepare for and actually drill at least one relief well concurrent to the drilling of any exploratory well in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).  The bill allows for “alternative measures” at least as effective as a relief well to be employed instead of a relief well as authorized by the Secretary of the Interior.  Probably unlikely to pass, but an interesting idea. Introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) on 6/15 with no cosponsors yet.

H.R. 5513: “Spilled Oil Royalty Collection Act.”  Oil companies pay royalties on each barrel of oil produced.  In the “unforeseeable” event of a deepwater oil spill (defined as depth > 200m), this bill would charge oil companies royalties of at least 12.5% on every barrel that comes out of the well, regardless of whether that oil is recovered, burned, “dispersed”…anything.  This bill would come into effect retroactively, right before the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  Were this to become law, it would further highlight the importance of accurate flow estimates for gushers.  Those royalties would certainly not offer much more deterrent than legal liability, but can you think of any reason that spilled oil should be exempted from royalties?  I can’t.  Especially because they are recovering and selling some of it.  Introduced by Chellie Pingree (D-ME) on 6/10 and has 2 cosponsors.

H.R. 5503: Amends the 90-year-old “Death on the High Seas Act” to make it easier for those such as the families of the 11 workers who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion to sue for non-pecuniary losses such as pain and suffering.  The bill was introduced with a statement that read, “We should not allow reckless corporations to use 19th century laws to shortchange their victims.”  Sounds right to me.  Introduced by John Conyers (D-MI) on 6/11 and has 12 cosponsors.

The companion bill in the Senate (S. 3463) was introduced by Patrick Leahy (D-VT) first, on 6/8, and has 5 cosponsors.

S. 3478: Would repeal parts of the Limitations of Liability Act of 1851, which Transocean has invoked to attempt to cap its liability at about $27 million.  This bill wins my personal award for Most Forced Acronym as its name is the “RESTORE Act,” which is supposed to stand for “Remuneration for Ecological and Societal Tolls Occasioned by Reckless Errors.”  Introduced by Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on 6/10 and has 3 cosponsors.

Bills to raise the liability cap:

S. 3472: “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Unlimited Liability Act.”  Completely lifts the standing $75 million liability cap for oil spills.  Introduced by Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on 6/9 and has 24 cosponsors.

H.R. 5520: Requires BP to pay at least $25 billion to a fund like the escrow the White House negotiated, but goes further by excluding this spill from the liability cap.  Introduced by Steve Kagen (D-WI) on 6/14 and has 32 cosponsors.

Bills to lift the deepwater drilling moratorium, which I fully support and have defended at length.

Senate:

S.3489: Introduced by David Vitter (R-LA) on 6/15 and has 1 cosponsor.

House:

H.R. 5499: Introduced John Mica (R-FL) on 6/11 and has 13 cosponsors.

H.R. 5525: Introduced by Pete Olson (R-TX) on 6/15 and has 28 cosponsors.

H.R. 5519: Introduced by Bill Cassidy (R-LA) on 6/14 and has 43 cosponsors, including some notable Gulf Democrats such as Charlie Melancon (D-LA).  Apparently Bill is more popular than John and Pete.

Sanders Amendment Defeated

Also worth mentioning but filed again under what Congress isn’t doing: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced an amendment to cut $35 billion in oil and gas royalties that don’t even add anything to the industry and would instead use $25 billion to reduce the deficit and $10 billion to encourage energy-efficient buildings.  The amendment was first blocked by climate-denier Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-KY) and then defeated in a vote, 61-39.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Ocean Acidification (Climate Bill Skirmishes Pt. 2) June 21, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Politics.
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5 comments

Fossil fuels threaten our oceans with dangers beyond just catastrophic oil spills.   Many people understand that carbon dioxide warms our atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.  It is much less publicized that carbon dioxide is also a critical pollutant in our oceans.

We are entering a period in which the very ocean services upon which humanity depends are undergoing massive change and in some cases beginning to fail.”  -Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Some people may be more familiar with ocean acidification than others, so I will start with the basics.

Because carbon dioxide is a gas, one might think that it resides predominantly in the atmosphere.  In actuality, about 93% of the world’s carbon dioxide is found in the ocean – 50x more than in the atmosphere.  In fact, the oceans are estimated to contain approximately 10x as much carbon as our remaining fossil fuel deposits. We don’t release it into the water, but it gets there nonetheless; like other gases, carbon dioxide can move easily from the air into the water.

When the atmospheric pressure of carbon dioxide is greater than the local pressure of carbon dioxide in surface water, molecular diffusion will transport the gas from the atmosphere into the water.  Therefore, as more carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere (and the atmospheric pressure increases), more carbon dioxide ends up in our oceans.

Upon entering the water, CO2 undergoes some significant chemical reactions.

When carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean, much of the gas reacts with water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3).  Carbonic acid is a weak acid that is not dangerous in and of itself – after all, we drink carbonated water and carbonic acid is actually formed in an intermediate step of human respiration.  However, if enough of it accumulates in the oceans, it can have severe indirect effects.

Carbon dioxide forms carbonic acid when dissolved in water.

On the 0-14 pH scale (in which lower numbers = higher acidity), ocean water has historically had a pH of about 8.16.  As a benchmark, “neutral” solutions like pure water and blood have a pH of 7, so our oceans are less acidic than pure water.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have absorbed almost half of the CO2 we have released into the atmosphere from fossil fuels and cement-manufacturing, and the pH has dropped by almost 0.1.  The pH scale is logarithmic, so each 1 point on the scale indicates an order of magnitude change; 0.1 may not sound like much, but it indicates about a 25% increase in ocean acidity so far.  It is estimated that the pH will drop another 0.4 by 2100.

That acidity would decrease the availability of the vital shell-building compound by 60% (explained below).  While the current pH levels are not record-breaking, the damage has already begun and the rapid rate of change is unprecedented and foreboding.  Ocean systems are remarkably sensitive to water acidity (which had remained relatively constant for millions of years), and marine biologists are very concerned that many species will not be able to evolve quickly enough to cope with this sudden, drastic change.

Ocean systems are remarkably sensitive to water acidity (which has remained relatively constant for the last , and marine biologists are very concerned that many species will not be able to evolve quickly enough to cope with this change.

Ocean acidification is occurring at an unprecedented rate. The scale of this graph is millions of years, that's why the last 2 data points and projections for the next century appear like a vertical line. Anywhere else in this record, 300 years would look like one overlapping, unchanged dot.

Sediment cores reveal that our oceans are acidifying at a rate not seen in 65 million years (since the dinosaurs roamed the Earth).  55 million years ago, virtually all shelled creatures in the ocean disappeared so quickly that geologists would consider it “overnight”.  Scientists attribute this die off to ocean acidification.  It took hundreds of thousands of years for shellfish to return to the oceans, and scientists estimate that we are now acidifying our oceans at a rate 10x faster than that which caused the last mass extinctions of shellfish.

How does ocean acidification affect marine life? Increasing acidity most directly affects aquatic organisms that form shells, such as corals, some algae, and the whole range of shellfish – as well as all the organisms and habitats that rely on those creatures.

Warning: chemistry content!
Shells are created out of calcium carbonate (CaCO
3).  Calcium carbonate structures can actually dissolve in water unless the surrounding water is saturated with carbonate ions (CO3).  If the carbonate concentration of ocean water is too low, shells will be deformed.  It’s like osteoporosis for shellfish.  If the carbonate concentration drops enough, their shells will literally dissolve, and the animals will not be able to survive.

Shellfish require carbonate to build and maintain their shells. In acidic water, they can't get the materials they need.

If you’ve ever taken chemistry, you may recall that acidic solutions undergo “partial ionization” – acidic reactions are reversible and form an equilibrium between the intact acid and its separated ions.  That’s why acid formulae use that double arrow (as in the formula above).  When carbonic acid dissociates, it breaks down from (H2CO3) into:

1)    hydrogen ions (H), which cause acidity, and;

2)    carbonate ions (CO3), upon which shellfish rely.

Carbonate ions can also bind with single hydrogen ions to form the bicarbonate ion (HCO3), which cannot be used for shell construction.

The amount of carbonate available in water is determined by the pH of the water. In more acidic solutions (lower pHs), there are more free hydrogen ions to bind with carbonate to form bicarbonate – and therefore there is less carbonate available in the water.

This is what is happening to our ocean water.  As you now know, that is very bad news for shellfish.

As water becomes more acidic, there is less available carbonate (CO3) for shellfish to use. This is happening today. The black line compared to pH is the one we care about.

A 2005 study examined the impacts of ocean acidification:

“Sea creatures such as corals, shell fish, sea urchins and star fish are likely to suffer the most because higher levels of acidity makes it difficult for them to form and maintain their hard calcium carbonate skeletons and shells. For example, even under the ‘low’ predictions for future carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, the combined effects of climate change and ocean acidification mean that corals could be rare on tropical and subtropical reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef, by 2050. This will have major ramifications for hundreds of thousands of other species that dwell in the reefs as well as for the people that depend upon them, both for food and to help to protect coastal areas from, for example, tsunamis.”

The “tipping point” for reefs, ensuring reef erosion and even eventual extinction, could come as soon as 2050.

Mind you, this will be a separate, additional stressor on vital coral reefs (albeit with the same cause) as coral bleaching in warming waters.

Ocean acidification presents a clear threat and a compelling economic argument, even independent from climate change.  U.S. commercial fishing brought in $4 billion in 2006.  Coastal tourism just in the Florida Keys, which is driven by coral reefs, contributes $1 billion to the economy every year.  These are all jeopardized by ocean acidification.

So, in December of last year, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced House Resolution 989:

“Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States should adopt national policies to prevent ocean acidification, to study the impacts of ocean acidification, and to address the effects of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems and coastal economies.”

Simple enough, right?  It finally came up for a vote this month.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who clearly has a lot at stake in regard to our nation’s oceans, voiced his objections: Why, he asked, do we need this resolution if Congress allocated $76 million to researching and monitoring ocean acidification as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009?

Because, as Rep. Inslee explained, merely monitoring is not enough.  A threat we see coming will materialize whether we watch it arrive or not. We need to act.

Now, H. Res. 989 was never going to be that action we need.  Such nonbinding resolutions are largely inconsequential.  If passed, H. Res. 989 would have done nothing but publically acknowledge that this is a problem we need to address and possibly raise some needed public awareness.  But it’s difficult to rationally oppose such a motion because it has literally no drawbacks.

Mr. Chaffetz finally arrived at the crux of the conservatives’ concern:

“It talks in the very first sentence, ‘Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States should adopt national policies.’ By ‘national policies’ does the gentleman mean the cap-and-trade?”

I could relay to you the rest of the congressional debate about this resolution, but I don’t think I have to.  Earlier this month, 241 representatives voted for the resolution, including 19 Republicans and those from the vast majority our nation’s oceanic coastline.  However, such resolutions require the support of 2/3 of the House to pass.

A minority of conservative representatives (including 20 Democrats) defeated H. Res. 989 – about ocean acidification – because they didn’t want to be bound to a non-binding resolution that could potentially be interpreted to offer written encouragement for a cap-and-trade solution to our global warming emissions.  Partisan politics at its finest.

I wrote last week about one of the first skirmishes in this year’s congressional climate battle: the Murkowski Dirty Air Amendment.  This debacle was another.

Like climate change, ocean acidification poses a threat that we must essentially address now or never.  In blocking urgent energy reform, irresponsible congressional conservatives are imposing unprecedented costs and burdens upon younger generations.  As a member of one of those younger generations, I would very much like to take this opportunity to tell those conservatives what they can go do to themselves.  …But I’ll restrain myself for now.

Just for the record, ocean acidification and climate change have more in common than just the same cause: ocean acidification is actually one of the amplifying positive feedback loop that will accelerate climate change if we do not stop it now.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ocean Acidification, check out this great video by the Natural Resources Defense Council: