Blog from Scott Strand, Executive Director

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Read Scott's thoughts on important environmental issues in Minnesota, the United States, and worldwide.


Clean Air: High costs, huge returns

A recent RAND report on air pollution in China analyzes the costs and benefits of switching electric power generation from coal to natural gas, switching to lower-emission vehicles, and investing in renewables and nuclear.  The size of China's problem is mind-boggling, but the report again confirms what we know from the US experience--that investments in clean air are expensive but the returns are enormous.

Supreme Court takes up Clean Air Act

Yesterday the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in three companion cases challenging the EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS).  The main issue in the case is whether the EPA could decide to adopt the standard without considering the costs to the electric power industry, or could defer cost considerations to the setting of particular emission limits.  This is less of an issue in Minnesota, where most all of our power plants are already in compliance, but has considerable implications nationwide for the country's aging coal fleet.  Prognosticators see the  Court tightly divided, with Justice Kennedy again providing the swing vote.  The EPA has been doing pretty well in Clean Air cases the last couple of years, but we could very well end up with a remand to the agency for further findings, which would delay progress for years.

War on rulemaking

This year, there are several bills before the Minnesota legislature, all currently moving through the House, that would require the executive branch to submit administrative rules and plans to the legislature for approval before they could go into effect.  HF 616 (Fabian)/ SF 689 (Eken) would make all new water quality standards subject to prior legislative approval, HF 333 (Newberger)/SF 231 (Brown) would require prior legislative approval before the MPCA could submit a state implementation plan to cut carbon emissions under Obama's Clean Power Plan, and HF 269 (Kresha)/SF 584 (Westrom) would require all rules with a potentially significant economic impact to get prior legislative approval.

This is an approach recommended by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is a conservative, corporate-funded organization that drafts "model" state-level bills to accomplish conservative objectives.  The proponents know that it would take very little to stop a bill to "approve" a set of administrative rules--one committee chair, leadership in one house, a governor--and the likely effect would be to stop administrative rulemaking in its tracks.

Legislatures have delegated rulemaking authority to administrative agencies since the late 19th century.  The reason is that legislatures are ill-equipped to do the technical analysis and detailed work necessary to put flesh on the bone of broad legislative policy objectives.  That is particularly true in the area of environmental law, which is dominated by highly technical standards developed by state environmental agencies and the EPA.  And, as Professor Farber pointed out in his blog entry today, administrative rulemaking is subject to requirements that do not apply to legislation:  1.  the requirement that rules be based on an evidentiary record; 2.  the requirement that the agency provide a reasoned explanation for their decisions; 3. the requirement that rules be consistent with statutes; and 4.  the opportunity to get judicial review.  Bills at the legislature do not have to meet any of those requirements.  Rulemaking also provides a greater and broader degree of public access to the decisionmaking process.

There is a movement among conservative judges to roll back rulemaking authority, particularly now in light of the Obama Administration's stated intent to use executive authority to fill gaps created by a do-nothing Congress.  Justice Thomas on the U.S. Supreme Court would do away with it altogether, as he declared in a recent concurring opinion two weeks ago in Department of Transportation v. Association of American Railroads.

For those concerned about science-based environmental protection, this is a dangerous development.


True cost of carbon and other air pollutants

Nice summary piece in Guardian on current research on the external costs of fossil fuels.

Three Cheers for the Guardian!

Today, the UK Guardian (full disclosure:  probably my favorite paper) launched an old-fashioned newspaper campaign to encourage divestment from fossil fuel companies.  This movement has been gaining some serious momentum, and of course reminds me of the South Africa divestment campaigns when I was in college. Not necessarily all that effective themselves, but very useful in movement building.  I'm very curious to see how this turns out.

Context is everything

As the President appears to be moving closer to a final rejection of the KeystoneXL pipeline, the number of pipeline projects going in all across the country continues to increase. The Enbridge project in Minnesota referenced in the article is the Sandpiper project, whose route is being challenged before the Minnesota PUC.  It is not clear what impact low per barrel oil prices will have on these projects.

Native prairie strips: big environmental returns

Interesting news article about Iowa State research on the huge environmental returns (less P, less N, less sediment) on interweaving native prairie strips into cropland.

Why didn't we think of that?

Florida bans use of terms like "climate change," "global warming," or "sustainability."  I guess if you can't talk about it, it will go away.

Agricultural water pollution and scale

More reminders of how the proffered "solutions" to our agricultural water pollution problems are tiny compared to the scope of the problem.  Last week's MPCA report showed how rivers, streams, and lakes in southwest Minnesota remain polluted despite all efforts to convince farmers to adopt voluntary best management practices. Today's Star Tribune front page article details how little the ballyhooed agricultural water quality certification program is going to accomplish

The governor's buffer proposal, which was unveiled and introduced last Friday, might do more, but again, any water quality improvements will be incremental.  What we need are substantial changes in what we grow and how we grow it, and the political will and the funding necessary to take on that challenge is not yet forthcoming.

Mining: Profits vs. people

Excellent op-ed from the Ely Timberjay's Marshall Helmberger in today's Star Tribune.  Focusing on US Steel's current lobbying assault on Minnesota's water quality standard for sulfates in wild rice waters, Helmberger takes the tired "jobs vs. environment" narrative head-on.  As the op-ed patiently explains:  (1) corporate profits are not the same thing as "jobs," (2) environmental protection often creates new jobs, e.g. new water treatment plants at US Steel's MInntac plant will require workers to run them; (3) threats of plant closings because of environmental regulation need to be taken with a grain of salt.  He challenges the Iron Range legislative delegation to stop carrying water for the mining companies, and start paying more attention to the real needs of people in the area.

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