Scott's Blog


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

More on Brazil tailings dam collapse

The recent tailings dam collapse in Brazil has not received enough attention.  This article in the Guardian has more of the details. Four key points: 1. The tailings basin that collapsed had all the government permits and licenses they needed. The government relied heavily on the mining company's experts to judge the dams safe. 2. Tailings basins cannot be made risk-free. Self-monitoring does not work. 3. The damage is massive. Twelve dead, eleven missing (mostly mine company employees), 500 homeless, hundreds of thousands without safe drinking water supplies. Brazil is suing BHP Billiton, Vale, and Samarco for "at least" US$5.2 billion. 4. Pressure to fast-track mine permits is particularly acute now because low commodity prices are prompting mine companies to shed jobs.

Yet Minnesota's DNR will not evaluate alternatives to the old tailings basin PolyMet intends to use. Are we going to repeat Brazil's mistakes?

Water quality summit

MCEA applauds Governor Dayton's announcement of a water quality summit in February. He has said he intends to make water quality a priority for the remainder of his time in office. Two takes from the Star Tribune:  an op-ed calling out Big Ag for its share of the problems, and last week's editorial praising the governor's commitment to the issue. To be successful, the summit needs to focus less on admiring the problem, and more on solutions--cover crops, lower N application rates, improved drain tile systems. We've been waiting for voluntary best management practices to save the day for decades now, and we know that will not do the trick, so let's hope the summit helps us get serious about the scale of change that will be needed.

Right to self-generate?

Interesting piece on the "right to self-generate," the idea that property owners have constitutional, common-law, and implied statutory rights to install and use solar panels free from undue interference from incumbent electric utilities and state and local governments. Incumbent utilities too often see distributed generation as an existential threat, and are trying to slow this process down through high fees, limits on net metering, and other regulatory barriers. This article suggests that there may be more tools to fight that than many assume.

Elections and climate policy

It is still not clear how far the new Liberal government led by new PM Trudeau will go in changing Canada's mostly egregious climate policy. But, in Alberta, traditionally the most conservative, most pro-extraction province in the country, the new NDP (New Democratic Party) government isn't wasting any time. The new premier Rachel Notley announced yesterday that Alberta is going to stop burning coal entirely by 2030, and that permits for tar sands extraction are going to be cut by more than half. Next up in Alberta is a carbon tax, where they will join their neighbors in British Columbia. Meanwhile, in Minnesota . . . .?

Climate change--What Everyone Needs to Know

Joe Romm from the Center for American Progress has a new book out that does an excellent job of laying out the basic case on climate in an understandable and useful format.

I had the chance to hear Mr. Romm speak last Friday at the annual state environmental leaders conference in Baltimore, and he highlighted the two things mentioned in this post. First, is the new compelling evidence from a set of Harvard studies that higher levels of exposure to CO2 actually undermine our ability to think, solve puzzles, and make decisions, especially at the levels that are much more common in indoor environments. This is new, because the assumption before was that it was volatile organic compounds in indoor air that led to those problems, but these studies isolate the CO2 effect. The other highlight is the likely impact of sea level rise on property values in US coastal areas and of new extreme drought conditions in the southwest. Those of you retiring to coastal Florida or Scottsdale might want to reconsider. Anyway, the new book is just out, and is worth a read.

Climate spiral problems

Troubling new report about how forests damaged by climate change will lose their ability to sequester carbon, in turn potentially accelerating climate change. Also, last Sunday's New York Times magazine piece on climate, which discussed the distinct possibility of catastrophic sea-level rises happening sooner rather than later, talked about the "albedo" spiral effect--that, as ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melt, they turn darker, which means they attract more solar radiation, which means they melt faster, which means they get darker faster, etc. etc.

Public v. lobbyists

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication recently tested the proposition that taking action to protect the environment will harm the economy and cost jobs. They found that only 15% of Americans agree with that claim. On the other hand, a solid majority (60%) say that, in the long run, protecting the environment improves economic growth and provides new jobs, while another 22% say that protecting the environment has no impact on economic growth or jobs. That's 82% of the American public saying that protecting the environment is good or neutral for economic growth. Yet, most politicians, virtually all business lobbyists, and, unfortunately, many media people continue to frame all of these issues--from PolyMet to the Clean Power Plan to ag pollution--as "jobs vs. environment." Perhaps someday political leaders will discover where their constituents actually stand.

New White House Policy on "Mitigation"

Two weeks ago, the President issued a memorandum to the Secretaries of Defense, Interior, and Agriculture, and the Administrators of EPA and NOAA directing them to revise their policies to incorporate a new "net benefit goal" for mitigating impacts from natural resource use. This goes beyond the "no net loss" goal the agencies often espouse, but, even more important, it makes it clear that "net benefit" is a substantive goal, not just something to be studied. It is not clear what policy changes will follow from this, but it is an encouraging sign, and an overall objective Minnesota state leaders should adopt as well.

Minnesota's future?

Let's hope not. Here is a recent article published in the Capitol Times describing Wisconsin's drinking water problems. Obviously, there are a number of similarities in terms of geography and ecology between our two states, but only one state government is making a serious effort to address water problems. We may sometimes express frustration about the pace of change in Minnesota, and the Dayton Administration could be doing better, but the Walker Administration is taking Wisconsin backwards on water quality, and the public health and economic consequences are going to be substantial.

"Standing" and Environmental Protection

On Monday morning, November 2, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case that could have serious repercussions for citizen access to the courts to protect the environment. The case is Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, and, on its face, it has nothing to do with environmental law. But it does have to do with a concept called "standing," which is the idea that a plaintiff must be able to establish a "concrete, particularized" injury-in-fact from a violation of law to gain access to federal courts; that mere "generalized grievances" shared by many are insufficient.

The Spokeo case involves the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which expressly allows anyone who has been the subject of a violation of the Act to sue. Mr. Robins alleges that a credit reporting agency disseminated false information about him, but he does not allege that anyone ever saw that information or that he was damaged in any way other than that the law was violated. He brings his case as a class action, and wants to recover significant damages as the statute allows.

It appears that, surprise, the Court is divided, with Justice Kennedy perhaps again being the deciding vote. The reason this case matters for the environment is that, often, plaintiffs in environmental cases have difficulty proving or even honestly alleging "concrete, particularized" injury to themselves from an environmental law violation. So, for example, if an environmental impact statement for a project does not address climate change adequately, can anyone sue? Or can no one sue? More conservative judges like to use standing to throw environmental plaintiffs out of court, and environmental lawyers have gotten used to finding plaintiffs who live directly downstream or downwind from a project or a violation. This case could have a dramatic impact on environmental litigation (and consumer litigation, and patent litigation, and pension litigation, etc.).

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