Scott's Blog


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

Minnesota falling further behind on transportation

Important editorial in today's Star Tribune, pointing out how our state government's failure to deal with pressing transportation needs is hurting Minnesota's competitiveness. The editorial rightly decries the old, tired refrain, fairly associated with the state chamber of commerce, that Minnesota is in competition with low-tax, rural states like North and South Dakota, and should adopt policies like they have, and compares the more enlightened business view, fairly associated with our metro chambers of commerce, that Minnesota needs major transportation investments to compete with Seattle and Phoenix and other cities that are stepping up to the plate. The editorial also points out that even purely red states, where the governor's office and both houses of the legislature are controlled by Republicans, are jumping ahead of Minnesota. Meanwhile, here, the House leadership trumpets the failure to do anything on transportation as its major legislative achievement. We really need to do better.

Trans Pacific Partnership and the Environment

We won't really know until the actual agreement becomes public, but the environmental community has raised serious concerns about the Trans Pacific Partnership. Here's a good summary from last spring, when the "fast-track" authority issue was before the Congress. Here in Minnesota, with foreign companies proposing mining and other projects, the possibility of NAFTA or now TPP issues is a very real potential problem.

Disappointing new ozone standard

Last week, the Obama Administration finally lowered the ground-level ozone air quality standard from 75 ppm to 70 ppm. This was disappointing because the EPA's own science advisory council had recommended a standard in the 60 to 70 ppm range eight years ago, and the science since then all pointed to a standard tougher than 70. A stronger ground-level ozone standard is necessary to protect public health, but it is also part of an overall decarbonization strategy, since the sources of the ozone "precursors" are typically big CO2 producers as well. Today's Grist has a good summary

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), new source performance standards (NSPS), and the Clean Power Plan (CPP)

[WONK ALERT] The focus recently has been on the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan, which regulates greenhouse gas emissions from existing electric power generation units, and which will soon be the subject of a blizzard of litigation. So far, the central argument from the challengers has focused on a drafting glitch in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. There is a conflict between the House and Senate versions of the 1990 bill that never got resolved, with one of the bills saying that power plants are exempt from regulation under section 111(d) (the statutory basis of the Clean Power Plan) if the same "source category" is regulated under section 112, which covers hazardous pollutants other than the core "criteria" pollutants. The EPA position is that neither house of Congress intended that, just because power plants are regulated for pollutants like mercury under 112, they are exempt from regulation of different pollutants like GHGs under section 111(d).  My own view is that the EPA has the far better side of that argument, which is reminiscent of the argument about federal subsidies for state-run health insurance exchanges that failed in King v. Burwell last year.

What may be the bigger problem for the Clean Power Plan, however, are the rules adopted a couple of years ago for new power plants, the "new source performance standards," which are also the subject of litigation. If the new source standards go down, the Clean Power Plan will fall with them. The problem with the new source standards is that they have to be based on the "best" system of emission reductions, and for coal plants, the technology chosen is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is iffy at best, and expensive for sure, and opponents are arguing that it does not meet the test, and that the real EPA motivation is to kill coal altogether. The arguments risk becoming unmoored from reality, because the consensus view is that, for other economic reasons, no one is going to build a new coal plant anytime soon, CCS or not.

UCLA's Megan Herzog has a post on Legal Planet that goes through the issues with the new source rule in greater detail, and, for those willing to wade through the statute and the technical arguments, it is a good summary.

Copper and metals markets collapsing

Good summary in Business Week. Glencore, whose shares are down 71% this year and against whom traders are demanding upfront payments because of fear of default, is, of course, the primary backer of the PolyMet project. 

Bicycles and electrons

Gernot Wagner has a nice piece in the current Ensia from the U of M's Institute on the Environment. He analogizes the current electricity system, set up for fossil fuels, and the current transportation system, set up for gasoline-powered cars and trucks. Bicycles are an alternative, renewable energy is an alternative, but developing those alternatives requires significant infrastructure investments. The way to get that to happen is to get the prices right--make sure the external costs of coal and gas-fired electricity generation and gasoline-powered cars and trucks get internalized.

Avid readers of this blog will recall that I recommended Mr. Wagner's book from last year, Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet. Wagner is the lead senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Climate change and the collective-action problem

If global warming poses such a threat, then why aren't we doing anywhere enough to fix it?  Answering that question has generally come down to some version of the collective action or "free rider" problem--that, even though it is clearly in our collective interest to do something, it is in our individual interest that someone else bear the costs. So, for example, the US or certainly any individual state should do nothing unless and until China does more.

An interesting paper shows how this "collective action" observation has become a central part of the conservative Republican talking points opposing any effort to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. (We just saw this again with the House Republican letter to attorney general Lori Swanson asking that she join states like West Virginia to oppose the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan.) But the paper goes on to show how the collective action problem is less severe than it might appear, and that the real problems are that the benefits of good climate policy are delayed, but the costs are concentrated (and more immediate). The paper suggests ways of framing the arguments for better climate policy to reflect those barriers to change. 

New ground-level ozone standard

Today the EPA announced that it was tightening the ground-level ozone standard from 75 ppm, the standard set in 2008, to 70 ppm. This is the same standard that the Obama Administration pulled back prior to the 2012 election, and that has been the subject of litigation the past couple of years.

The science advisory panel at the EPA had recommended a standard in the 60 to 70 ppm range. Many environmental and public health groups will express disappointment that the standard was not made tougher yet, because of the documented link between lower levels of exposure and adverse health outcomes.

In Minnesota, this new standard puts us closer to falling out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. We have been aware of this for some time, and MCEA has been part of Clean Air Minnesota, a business/government/NGO collaboration to try to implement voluntary actions to reduce so-called ozone "precursors." Those efforts are reasonably well-conceived, and there has been some corporate support. Businesses understand that avoiding "nonattainment" is very important financially, because compliance with nonattainment rules is expensive and difficult. So far, however, there has been little to no public funding. An appropriation for non-point air emission reduction projects would be a welcome addition to any 2016 supplemental budget bill.

Ohio River covered with toxic algae

The New York Times reported yesterday that there is a huge blue-green algae bloom in the Ohio River (and, again, in western Lake Erie), which is quite dangerous to human and animal health. The cause is phosphorus and nitrate runoff from agriculture. Apparently, the amount of pollution isn't any greater this year, but weather conditions that can be linked to climate change--wet springs, longer hot summers--are the most likely reason a major pollution problem in Ohio has become a massive pollution problem this year. We have a lot of polluted rivers in Minnesota, and the interaction with changing weather conditions may well exacerbate our problem as well.

Governors respond to legislative setbacks

In California this year, heavy lobbying by oil and gas interests led to the defeat of SB 350, which would have required a 50% reduction in California oil consumption by 2030. In Minnesota this year, heavy lobbying by coal and old energy interests led to the defeat of legislation to strengthen our renewable energy and energy efficiency standards.

In California, Governor Brown responded by announcing that he was going forward anyway. "We don't have a declaration in statute, but we have absolutely the same authority. We're going forward. The only thing different is my zeal has been intensified to a maximum degree." And this past week, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) took steps under the state's existing low carbon fuel standard to put the oil consumption reduction goal into rule.

In Minnesota, not so much. The promise is that the "Climate Strategies and Economic Opportunities" (CSEO) effort will start up again "sometime this fall." The Administration tells the Public Utilities Commission that it can and should defer deciding on the fate of the two biggest coal-burning power generation facilities for at least a couple more years, when the evidence says those units can both be closed by 2023 at no extra cost to consumers. And Administration officials continue to divert attention from Minnesota's own statutory goals for reducing carbon emissions in favor of the far less ambitious targets from the Obama Administration.

The rhetoric is not matching the reality. Can't we do better?

Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
26 East Exchange Street, Suite 206
St. Paul, MN 55101 | (651) 223 - 5969

Copyright (c) 2015 Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy