Saturday, April 3, 2010

3 Good Policies on The Environment This Week (That Outweigh But Do Not Diminish This Drilling Foolishness)

It's unfortunate that the President's drilling plan overshadowed some quite excellent and even transformative environmental/energy policies he implemented this week. They demonstrate the rather large impact a President can have on domestic policy through the broad regulatory powers allocated to the executive branch. Of course these decisions do not legitimate offshore drilling in some sort of quid pro quo (it would be more acceptable if drilling won votes for a desperately needed climate bill, but that seems pretty doubtful to me).

It's important to note that all of these 3 good policies came from the EPA headed by Lisa Jackson. In contrast to the Ken Salazar's Interior Department, the EPA has taken a somewhat progressive post-Bush tack. A President's choice for cabinet appointments reflects the President's own pedagogy and beliefs, but those appointments can also in turn shape the President's policy opinions. In this way, Lisa Jackson has been a mildly positive force while Ken Salazar has pushed the President towards a more corporate and developer-friendly approach to our public lands and environment. Salazar's effect is quite analogous to that of Summers and Geithner in economic policy.

1) Clean Water Limits on Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

If you haven't heard, mountaintop removal coal mining is the most destructive form of fossil fuel extraction humans have devised. This method, performed primarily if not exclusively in the Appalachian mountains from West Virginia down into Tennessee, involves blowing the top off a mountain the get at a coal seam below. The debris is dumped in valleys, which destroys forests, completely fills in miles of streams, and pollutes the remaining streams with heavy metals. Left behind are huge waste pools of toxic coal slurry. Not only is this is so terrible for the natural environment, but it pollutes drinking water supplies and toxic waste pools frequently spill near communities. The Appalachian Voices website has more info on these severe impacts.

As this Grist article recounts, the Jackson EPA has given the green light to some new MTR permits and rejected others, a decidedly mixed record. That was disappointing considering how obvious damaging this practice is, and how little benefit it brings to the local area (WV remains among the poorest states in the nation. Scholars of the "resource curse" persuasion have suggested that this is in part because of coal, not despite it as the coal companies say.)

This new rule restrains MTR projects by placing new limitations on valley fills. In announcing the rule, Jackson said very few mines if any will meet the new standard, meaning that it may become a de facto ban on this abysmal practice because the blown-up mountain tops have to go somewhere.

The excellent mining watchdog group Earthworks reminds us that the rule doesn't go as far it could have i.e. explicitly banning valley fills and/or MTR. Nor does it apply to other regions or the mining of other substances, which also employs valley fills at times. That said, more or less stopping this terrible practice is a major advance for the people and environment of Appalachia. A lot of hard-hit communities there have been fighting MTR for years, and my congratulations go to them. I only wish this happened sooner.

MTR in Appalachia accounts for almost 10% of our coal supply with disproportionately enormous environmental impact, so this decision is a big step forward. Allowing the destruction of Appalachia through MTR has been a subsidy to coal against much less carbon-intensive natural gas, nuclear, and renewables, so this is helpful in moving to curtail greenhouse gas emissions as well.

2) New Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

In the first time the Clean Air Act has been used to limit carbon dioxide pollution, the EPA issued new rules ramping up the gas mileage new cars must get between 2012 and 2016. Average fuel economy for cars will go from its current 27.5 miles/gallon to 39, and for light trucks from 24 mpg to 30 mpg, basically an increase in efficiency of 5% each year.

This is pretty freakin awesome. Transportation accounts for a big chunk of our carbon emissions, and autos account for a big chunk of that. A carbon price through a cap-and-trade system or carbon tax would make change more slowly in the transportation sector because oil is less carbon-intensive than coal and because the consumer of gas does not have direct control over the technology through which he is burning the gas (unlike say a utility company running a power plant).

Plus this is great for all Americans who need to drive to get around. It will definitely reduce the pain at the pump as oil prices will almost certainly go up over the next decade.

It also makes one wonder, besides all the other objections to offshore drilling, why bother when we can cut our oil consumption much more rapidly and deeply by ramping up fuel efficiency, electric cars, and high speed rail? Also from a public relations move, why hype up drilling and not hype something so good for Americans and the environment that is even supported by auto companies? Drilling won't win over Republicans while it discourages progressive voters, especially the young people who had a large part in putting Obama where he is, whereas increasing fuel efficiency standards would be quite popular. Seems like bad politics in addition to the bad policy of drilling.

3) New Water Heater Standards

Not the sexiest issue, but the EPA's more stringent efficiency regulations for new water heaters are another excellent policy. Water heaters comprise a large amount of home energy usage. These new rules will save families money while cutting carbon pollution. It also frees up natural gas to lower prices and make it more competitive with coal in electricity generation.

The huge benefits of these policies are way greater than the negative impacts of offshore drilling, especially more or less ending MTR and putting a dent in new vehicle pollution. We need to keep up the heat on the president to protect Alaska and our coasts, but we also need to publicize these positive steps so as to encourage more.

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