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The Deadlier Scourge of Wildfires in an Age of Climate Change

2015 July 4
by chief

From InsideClimate News. Published July 2, 2015.

A Q&A with author Kyle Dickman, whose book, On the Burning Edge, explains why wildfire seasons are so bad and getting worse.

On the Burning Edge author Kyle Dickman was a firefighter for five years. Credit: Dan Winter

On the Burning Edge author Kyle Dickman was a firefighter for five years. Credit: Dan Winter

The 19 firefighters who died battling a wildfire in southwest Arizona captured the nation’s attention in 2013, but aside from being the largest loss of firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the worst in a wildfire since 1933, it served as a vivid reminder of climate change’s deadly force.

Kyle Dickman’s new book, On the Burning Edge, tells the story of the firefighters who died in what is known as the Yarnell Hill fire. Dickman spent five years as a wildland firefighter, and uses this story to spotlight global warming’s role and explore the state of America’s wildfire fighting system.

Wildfires in the U.S. have been growing more severe, more costly and more frequent over the past half century. Dickman writes that mismanagement, suppressing natural fires and allowing forests to grow dense, as well as encroaching development have led to worse fires, with climate change providing even more fuel. With longer periods of drought and hotter temperatures wicking moisture from the forests, much of the West is a tinderbox. Research shows conditions will continue to worsen as the planet continues to warm.

Four weeks into this year’s wildfire season, wide swaths of the U.S. are already ablaze. Fires are raging in four states, more than 1.7 million acres have burned and thousands of people have been forced to evacuate. National fire agencies and scientists predict this year could be a devastating one.

InsideClimate News spoke with Dickman about the Yarnell Hill fire and how poor forest management and climate change are putting millions more people at risk. Also, read an excerpt of his book.

ICN: How have wildfires in the U.S. changed over the last several decades, and how much of this is due to climate change?

Dickman: We have seen a six-fold increase in the acreage burned annually in the last 40 years, but how much of that is due to a century of failed fire policy where we suppress fires, giving forests an opportunity to grow thick and have more fuel, and how much is due to the fact that the climate is getting warmer and drier is uncertain. It is a hard thing to say this [increase in wildfire severity and frequency] is definitely a result of climate change.

But there are two things we can say without question: Based on projection estimates for a 4-6 degree increase in temperature by 2100, fires are going to continue to increase in size and severity, and that will absolutely be linked to climate change.

ICN: Exactly how will climate change worsen wildfires?

Dickman: It is a little bit tricky. We are expected to have an increase in temperature, but not necessarily a decrease in moisture. What the best models suggest is that instead of having your moisture spread out over four to seven months, you’ll have higher intensity rainfall less frequently. More rain in shorter periods. The result is that the forests will have more time to dry out between these events.

The other thing is you get an increase in temperature. Warm air holds more moisture than cool air, so if we get a 4- to 6-degree temperature increase over the next 80-90 years, that extra temperature is going to wick the forests dry. It will actually suck moisture from these already overly dense forests. Is it a combination of climate change and dense forests that will create more of what they call mega-fires in decades to come.

ICN: Over the last few decades, we’ve also been building in places we didn’t use to live in, and that puts people more in harm’s way than they used to be, right?

Dickman: Exactly. One study has 140 million people living in the most fire-prone land, land that abuts public lands, parks or grasslands. The thing is that once houses on the perimeter of the city catch fire, it is easy for that fire to spread, so that 140 million people figure may actually be much higher. But it makes things much harder for land managers because they feel political pressure to basically suppress any fire that starts near homes, and because homes now are effectively everywhere, that’s a large reason why so many fires are suppressed.

ICN: How actively is the National Interagency Fire Center, the federal group in charge of tracking wildfires and coordinating suppression, thinking and preparing for climate change’s impact on wildfires in the coming decades?

Dickman: They are certainly aware of it. They are the group doing the statistics of money spent and acres burned. So there is no question in their minds that what they are dealing with is about to get much more volatile, but I don’t think they’re necessarily being proactive enough about how they deal with it.

The problem is that under current policy, there is a lot of political pressure to stop all wildfires. The problem is that every time you put out one of those fires you’re doubling down on the failed policy. If you put out every fire when it is small, that forest has more time to grow. Not only is that forest going to be thicker, but it is going to be thicker at a time when the climate is warmer and drier.

ICN: The U.S. system for managing wildfires has been dysfunctional and unsustainable for a long time. Is climate change just one more pressure on this system?

Dickman: Yes, that’s exactly it. We’re going to continue seeing bigger fires, more destructive fires. I just had a conversation with a long-time fire commander, and he told me of course we need to see policy changes, but the truth is we’re probably not going to see any changes until you see something like the equivalent of Hurricane Katrina for wildfires, which would be Denver burning or something to that effect.

That’s a dark perspective, and I don’t know if it is entirely true, but it’s what a lot of people in the fire service talk about.

ICN: The Federal Emergency Management Agency is in deep financial trouble following a string of costly natural disasters, like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Are the federal agencies that fight fire facing the same dilemma?

Dickman: Yes. What happens now is once the Forest Service has overspent their firefighting allocation, which happens most years now, they start cannibalizing other programs, and little is left over for projects that would help prevent wildfires. Ron Wyden, a Democratic Senator from Oregon, has actually proposed a bill that would revise how wildfire fighting is funded.

ICN: For a long time, not a lot of attention was given to the connection between climate change and wildfires. Did the Yarnell Hill fire change that?

Dickman: Yes. I don’t think it is going to be the single turning point. It will be one moment in a long shift toward understanding how climate change affects wildfires, but I do think there is a growing consciousness certainly among the political community and even the greater populus that climate change is making fire more dangerous. The more incidents we see like this, the more likely we’re going to see policy changes.

ICN: The book is incredibly descriptive, reconstructing the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ 2013 wildfire season and the personal lives of the team. What was the reporting and research process like?

Dickman: It was sad. I spent a lot of time with the families, of course. In the book, there is Brendan McDonough, who is the sole survivor of the Yarnell Hill fire. But there are two other sources who were critical in telling this story of the crew before the fire: Brandon Bunch and Renan Packer, who both left weeks before the tragedy. I spent a lot of time talking to those guys, figuring out where did they go, what happened on the fire line, the sort of everyday stuff. I love that. That’s the stuff I think was exciting to report because I got to see these guys, who I spent so much time thinking about, alive in some sense.

What I wanted to do with each one of them was profile them so history won’t just remember them at the 19 guys who died, but as individuals. That was really what I was trying to do with the book.

ICN: How important was your own personal experience as a firefighter in helping to convey the story?

Dickman: I fought fire for five years, but it didn’t make me an expert on fire. All it did was to inform the questions that I asked. I had seen the stuff. For instance, I know being part of a hotshot crew [the term for troops specially trained in fighting wildfires], that when you went to a fire that the DJ up front was going to put on the soundtrack that was going to get everyone stoked. That wasn’t unique to my crew. That sort of insider knowledge really helped.

ICN: At the end of the book, you still didn’t find out what exactly happened that day on Yarnell Hill with those 19 men. Was that frustrating?

Dickman: Maybe in the beginning that was frustrating. When hotshot groups get together, they still ask that question. Why did they leave the black [the already burnt, and therefore safe zone]? But I think, for me, I don’t think we’re ever going to know, but that doesn’t necessarily bother me. Not to diminish all the other factors in play, but I think mostly it was human factors, and that is why if we continue to fight fires, we have to continue to expect people to die because people are fallible. People are going to make mistakes. In an environment as dangerous and dynamic as a wildfire, the cost of those mistakes can be deadly.

 

Posted by Gypsy Chief


Coal Industry Fighting for Survival on 7 Fronts

2015 June 18
by chief

From InsideClimate News.

The ‘war on coal’ started long before Obama took office to control the costly and deadly health impacts of an otherwise cheap and abundant fuel.

Industry groups have long blamed President Barack Obama, seen here with his former senior adviser John Podesta, for the so-called "war on coal." With the exception of the Clean Power Plan that Obama has pushed forward, almost all of the coal regulations were first promulgated before or during the administration of George W. Bush. Credit: White House photo

Industry groups have long blamed President Barack Obama, seen here with his former senior adviser John Podesta, for the so-called “war on coal.” With the exception of the Clean Power Plan that Obama has pushed forward, almost all of the coal regulations were first promulgated before or during the administration of George W. Bush. Credit: White House photo

Editor’s note: This article is part a series of stories by InsideClimate News reporters exploring the future of the coal industry, Coal’s Long Goodbye: Dispatches From the War on Carbon.

When Duke Energy announced a billion-dollar plan to shut down a 50-year-old coal power plant, switching the 376-megawatt site over to cheap natural gas and clean solar, the company proclaimed the “end of the coal era in Asheville, N.C.”

The largest electricity plant in western North Carolina—where Duke has closed half its coal-fired plants in the past five years—burns 700,000 tons of coal each year, some 6,300 rail cars full. Anti-coal campaigners have sought its closure for years.

Across the industry, old plants like this one are closing under the weight of a broad range of federal regulations, and under competitive pressure from natural gas and renewables. Nearly 200 have closed in the last five years. Dozens more are nearing the brink.

This closure illustrates just how many forces have been assembled on one side of the so-called war on coal. For decades, coal has been fighting for its survival on many different regulatory fronts at once, from limiting climate-warming carbon to lung-scarring pollutants to water-soiling waste. The regulations are often looked at and judged in isolation, but they work in concert, and their combined power has gathered so much force that even Duke, which had resisted ending the use of coal in Asheville, now calls it a “win-win-win” for the company, the community, and the environment.

At the Asheville plant, Duke said, the links between various pollution targets were plain. As gas and solar replace coal there, sulfur dioxide emissions, which environmentalists had complained were hitting unhealthy levels, would go down 90 to 95 percent; nitrogen oxides down 35 percent. Mercury pollution, being regulated for the first time this year, would drop to zero. Water withdrawn from nearby Lake Julian, for cooling, would go down 97 percent, and water discharges would drop 50 percent.

Coal ash, an especially sore point for Duke after a spill last year into the Dan River led to criminal prosecution of the company and a recent $102 million fine, would be brought under control in Asheville, where containment ponds were targeted for closure.

And the carbon dioxide emission rate per megawatt of electricity would be 60 percent lower at the new, efficient plant Duke plans to build. That would be a significant step toward meeting the state’s tough new targets under the Obama administration’s proposed crackdown on the greenhouse gas, a regulation that calls for CO2 emissions to be cut 40 percent across the state.

It’s not entirely certain how much coal will be driven out of the market by the EPA carbon rules, known as the Clean Power Plan, because they give states a lot of latitude in how to meet emission targets. But according to the latest government estimates, the carbon dioxide regulations could bring about the closure of an additional 50 gigawatts of coal fired capacity in the decades ahead, on top of 40 gigawatts that would be expected to close without new controls on carbon.

According to Ken Colburn of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a group that advises energy and environmental regulators around the country, utilities should integrate plans to cut carbon emissions with required reductions in other pollutants in order to avoid repeated, costly investments. Otherwise, inefficient and costly pollution controls may render plants unable to compete in the marketplace. (RAP, as the group is known, has developed a model known as IMPEAQ for this purpose.)

“How many times do you want to beat your head against this wall?” Colburn said of power companies that only recently addressed the need to control mercury, and now must reduce carbon emissions, and soon will likely face tougher limits on ozone. “I hope that behind the scenes, utilities are trying to look at a comprehensive picture.”

Coal’s Hidden Costs

Perhaps no industry has inflicted such widespread costs on society as coal. From debilitating black lung disease to the devastating removal of whole mountaintops, from decades of lung-scarring smog to unrestrained emissions of greenhouse gases, coal has imposed its own deadly taxation—hiding the charges under the smoky cloak of cheap and abundant power.

In a major study published in 2009, the National Research Council estimated that the non-climate pollution damages from smog, soot and acid rain brought on by burning coal amounted to about $62 billion per year, a hidden cost of more than 3 cents for each kilowatt/hour of electricity produced. (The climate costs, it said, were harder to estimate, but probably ranged from 1/10th of a cent to 10 cents per kWh.)

A more comprehensive analysis, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 2011, put coal’s hidden costs even higher, at a mid-range estimate of nearly 18 cents per kWh, a stunning penalty on the public of between one third and one half a trillion dollars annually.

So, adding the carbon rules on top of regulating coal’s other pollutants comes with enormous health benefits, far outweighing its costs. And the regulations have not been cheap: the EPA estimates that pollution controls of all kinds imposed by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 would amount to $65 billion a year by 2020. (The benefits, the agency has always argued, are vastly greater.)

In one landmark section of the 1990 law, Congress took on sulfur dioxide’s contribution to the devastating problem of acid rain with a cap-and-trade approach that brought about significant reductions in pollution, effectively solving the problem at a much lower cost than was expected. Several other pollution programs over the years adopted the cap-and-trade approach, which was generally favored for its market-based efficiencies.

But notably, an attempt to pass a cap-and-trade bill controlling carbon dioxide collapsed in 2010. Instead, the EPA was left to propose a much more complicated regulatory package under the Clean Air Act. Under its plan, it will be up to the states whether to rely on regional cap and trade, or on other approaches including efficiency and conservation, fuel switching, and so on.

If the rules survive challenges, the 25-year-long crusade to control coal pollution will have reached a historic milestone—the first time the nation reins in the emissions of carbon dioxide from what was once its premier fuel, but has fallen on hard times.

7 Fronts in the Coal War

Of seven developing regulations on coal identified by the Carbon Tracker project in a recent report on the financial risks facing the industry, only two are expressly aimed at controlling carbon dioxide. The rest were aimed at conventional pollutants. They “have been significant in continuing to reduce U.S. demand for coal even when the US natural gas price has risen, such as between the start of 2012 and mid-2014,” the report said.

Here are some details on several of the regulatory fronts in the coal war:

—MATS, The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. Finalized in December 2011, MATS requires existing and new coal fired power plants to install emissions controls by April 2015, with case-by-case one-year extensions. Many power plant operators have said they intend to shut down plants rather than spend the money, significantly reshaping the industry’s capacity toward natural gas and renewables. In March, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging whether EPA had adequately taken the rule’s costs into account when it determined that the rules were, as the law put it, “necessary and appropriate.” A ruling is expected in June.

—National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). Every five years the EPA is required to update standards for six common pollutants—lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, small particulate matter, and ozone, tightening the clean air law’s goals to whatever level the latest science says would best protect the public’s health. After years of back-and-forth, the agency proposed last November to set the new standard for ozone, a corrosive pollutant that is especially bad for people with asthma, at the most stringent level to date—probably between 65 and 70 parts per billion. (The agency is also taking comment on an even tighter 60-ppb standard.) Many states have not yet met the current standard, 75 ppb.

—The Cross-State rule. The cross-state air pollution rule (CSAPR) helps downwind states deal with nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide that drift across their borders and puts them out of compliance with air quality. Set up by the EPA in 2011, the regulation was vacated by an appeals court in 2012, but the Supreme Court reinstated it last year and its first-phase requirements took hold in January; a second phase begins in a few years, but some remaining legal issues are still being litigated. Most power plants in 28 states, mainly in the east, will be affected by this regulation, which uses a cap-and-trade approach.

—Cooling Water. Coal fired power plants are thirsty beasts—they draw in millions of gallons of cooling water from nearby lakes and streams, often sucking in and killing fish and other small creatures. Issued in May 2014, the EPA’s regulations were more flexible than environmentalists wanted, limiting the industry’s costs somewhat. But green groups have sued to get the rule tightened. Another proposed rule, to regulate toxic metal contaminants in water discharges, may require power plants (especially those that burn coal) to upgrade wastewater treatment equipment.

—Coal Ash. More than 30 years in the making, these rules for the first time set national minimum standards for disposing of coal combustion residuals—fly ash, scrubber byproducts and bottom ash. The EPA last December issued a final rule setting solid waste standards as a non-hazardous waste, an important concession to industry. Although this is a lighter burden on industry than might have been imposed, it will raise waste disposal regulations at more than a thousand impoundments where ash from hundreds of plants has been stored.

—New Power Plants. The first step in controlling carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that burn fossil fuels, the EPA’s proposal set a tight new standard for plants that burn natural gas, and in effect declared that no new coal-fired plants could be built unless they incorporated technology to capture the carbon dioxide emissions and bury them in the ground. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), as this is known, is expensive and technically challenging, and the industry and its allies have objected that it is not yet proven to be feasible and hence cannot be required. There have been indications the EPA may back away from this requirement when it issues its final rule. That would weaken the pollution standard, but might strengthen the rule against legal challenge; and in any event, new coal-fired plants are not considered economically viable at current prices for natural gas and renewables.

—Existing Power Plants. Finally, there is the administration’s proposal to overhaul the entire utility industry by setting strict new limits on the emissions of carbon dioxide from existing power plants. New state-by-state performance targets are based on four main approaches that the agency says could, in some combination, achieve deep reductions in emissions. These include burning coal more efficiently in plants that continue to operate; shifting the dispatch of power on the grid from coal plants to those burning natural gas; increasing the use of renewables, chiefly wind and solar, which account for most of the growth in generating capacity; and creating incentives for homes and businesses to conserve electricity, reducing overall demand. States would be allowed to use other methods, too, and would be encouraged to join interstate emissions schemes like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, a successful cap-and-trade network formed by several states in the Northeast.

Taken together, all these regulations form a comprehensive assault on the use of coal in the power sector. It’s not unlike a very aggressive course of medical treatments for cancer, one that includes drugs, radiation, surgery, bone marrow transplants and a severe diet.

If, as a result, coal does give up the ghost, it will be a long goodbye. Modeling studies done by research institutions and by the industry generally find, in the words of a study done by the PJM Interconnection, a grid operator in the mid-Atlantic region, that coal and other fossil fuel plant retirements “probably will occur gradually,” with the higher-cost units, which tend to be old and relatively small, closing first.

Decades of Inaction

Polluters have argued ever since the modern environmental era began that this kind of cure was worse than the disease.

And those cries only redoubled when President Obama came to office. Industry groups warned first of a regulatory “train wreck,” and later adopted the “war on coal” slogan.

Environmental advocates note that the rules have been a long time coming. Even the Obama administration’s crackdown on carbon is years behind the schedule it agreed to in a court order.

With the exception of the greenhouse gas controls that Obama has pushed forward, almost all the coal rules were first promulgated before or during the administration of George W. Bush. Many were vacated and remanded to the EPA by the courts. And a few decisions by the Obama administration either delayed or weakened actions proposed by the Bush administration or called for under court settlements.

“Some may question why EPA is undertaking so many regulatory actions at once,” a Congressional Research Service report observed four years ago, “but it is the decades of regulatory inaction that led to this point that strikes other observers.”

Put another way, the question is whether the foot-dragging that has characterized the broad fight against all forms of air pollution is going to continue for decades more before carbon dioxide is brought under control.

If that happens, the world will bust its carbon budget, and while the planet grows hotter, its air will also probably get dirtier and more unhealthy at the same time.

 

Posted by Gypsy Chief


Hillary Clinton Calls For Protecting Voting Rights, Automatic Registration

2015 June 5
by chief

From National Memo.

2015-06-04-hillary-clinton-voting-rights-cspan

Hillary Clinton made a major campaign push Thursday on the subject of voting rights in a speech delivered at Texas Southern University, a historically black college in Houston, Texas.

She also took a direct shot at the state’s former governor, Rick Perry — as well as other Republican presidential candidates — on the same day Perry declared his own candidacy for president.

Clinton called for a national requirement of universal, automatic voter registration in every state, plus a 20-day early voting period. She also called for repairing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was heavily damaged by a Supreme Court decision in 2013 that struck down the law’s automatic oversight over many Southern states that had historically passed laws to make it harder for minority citizens to vote.

Clinton castigated Republicans for having opposed such reforms, while supporting burdensome and unnecessary voter ID laws and other restrictive regulations.

Clinton said:

Here in Texas, former governor Rick Perry signed a law that a federal court said was actually written with the purpose of discriminating against minority voters. He applauded when the Voting Rights Act was gutted, and said the lost protections were outdated and unnecessary.

But Governor Perry is hardly alone in his crusade against voting rights. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker cut back early voting and signed legislation that would make it harder for college students to vote. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie vetoed legislation to extend early voting.

And in Florida, when Jeb Bush was governor, state authorities conducted a deeply flawed purge of voters before the presidential election in 2000. (Applause) Thankfully, in 2004 a plan to purge even more voters was headed off.
So today, Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting. What part of democracy are they afraid of? I believe every citizen has the right to vote — and I believe we should do everything we can to make it easier for every citizen to vote.

Screenshot: C-SPAN

 

Posted by Gypsy Chief


Feds fast-track approval for 3 solar farms | The Hill

2015 June 3
by chief

From The Hill.

solarpanel_041614getty

Federal officials have approved the first three proposed solar power farms under a streamlined permitting program for solar projects on federal land.

The three projects are all on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property in Clark County, Nev., and will together have a capacity of 440 megawatts, enough to power about 132,000 homes.

The projects benefitted from the Western Solar Plan, which identified 19 specific areas that could benefit from solar power, and set up streamlined permitting processes for them. The permits took less than 10 months to process, BLM said.

The Interior Department, of which BLM is a part, said the process shows that officials can effectively encourage solar power by reducing barriers.

“Through thoughtful planning and upfront public participation, these solar projects demonstrate we can reduce permitting times, create certainty for energy developers, and achieve better outcomes for communities and the environment,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.

“Through a landscape-level approach, we are cutting carbon pollution and creating jobs through responsible solar development on our public lands,” she said.

“Projects like these demonstrate that regional planning and mitigation can achieve much faster permitting times and better outcomes,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze. “The Western Solar Plan provides a win-win approach for communities and for our public lands.”

The projects are being built by Invenergy, First Solar Inc. and NV Energy. Each company won the project rights in a June 2014 auction that brought in $5.8 million for the federal government.

 

Posted by Gypsy Chief


Kentucky May Accidently Comply With EPA’s Clean Power Plan | ICN

2015 May 31
by chief

From InsideClimate News. Written by Naveena Sadasivam.

As coal-fired power plants in the state continue to close, Kentucky closes in on reaching federal clean-air standards it resists.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, right, walks a line between supporting coal and navigating federal regulations. Credit: Friends of Coal

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, right, walks a line between supporting coal and navigating federal regulations. Credit: Friends of Coal

Editor’s note: This article is part a series of stories by InsideClimate News reporters exploring the future of the coal industry, Coal’s Long Goodbye: Dispatches From the War on Carbon.

Kentucky has consistently opposed federal efforts to impose environmental rules on the state’s power plants. First, lawmakers passed a bill to exempt the state from submitting a plan to meet the proposed air regulations that work against coal. Then it sued the Environmental Protection Agency over the rule.

Now, the state may go from defiance to compliance — without meaning to.

Cheap natural gas is flooding the market as environmental regulations take effect and because upgrading aging plants is cost-prohibitive, coal-fired power plants across Kentucky are shutting down, as they are across the country. In Kentucky alone, more than a quarter of the coal-fired plants have already shut down, or are expected to in the next two years.

Last year, the Obama administration released the draft version of the Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and sets emission targets for each state. Kentucky is supposed to reduce emissions 15 percent by 2020 — and a total of 18 percent by 2030 — from 2012 levels. It’s also required to submit a plan showing how it will reach those goals.

With the announced retirements alone, Kentucky will reach the EPA’s goal, energy analysts and state officials believe.

KentuckyCoalGoals_1

“Kentucky could be well in compliance with the targets” provided the state replaced the coal power with clean energy sources, said Amlan Saha, a vice president at M.J. Bradley and Associates, an environmental consulting group. “That’s not the case with many other states.”

Coal is a vital part of Kentucky’s culture. Despite flagging production numbers and new lows in coal jobs, the attachment to coal runs deep, and the industry continues to maintain a hold over the state’s politics.

Hands Up, or Hands Off?

Kentucky was the first state in the country to pass a law restricting what its environmental agency can include in a state plan to the EPA. Well before the EPA released the details of its draft rule for power plants, the legislature passed a law limiting the state environmental agency’s ability to submit a compliance plan.

If Kentucky does not submit a plan — or submits one that does not pass muster — the EPA will create one for the state. Since the EPA likely doesn’t have the authority to force a state to expand its renewable energy production or impose energy efficiency measures, it would probably target emissions from coal plants. Reducing those emissions is more expensive than other strategies and will likely lead to higher electricity rates and less flexibility for the state, according to coal industry groups and environmental attorneys.

Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, is critical of the EPA’s carbon regulations but has declined to sign on to Sen. Mitch McConnell’s call to boycott the federal rule. Oklahoma is the only state so far to publicly refuse to submit a compliance plan.

“We strongly believe that a Kentucky-developed policy for reducing greenhouse gases would be superior to a one-size-fits-all policy imposed by Washington, D.C.,” Beshear said in a statement earlier this month.

The state law puts the Energy and Environment Cabinet, the agency responsible for drafting Kentucky’s compliance plan, in a bind. On the one hand, the agency is being directed to cut carbon emissions while operating in a state where 92 percent of the electricity is generated in coal-fired plants. On the other hand, state law prohibits the agency from submitting a plan that shifts power production away from coal.

“Why the state would want to shoot itself in the foot and not have control over its own destiny in this clean energy transition really defies logic,” said Jeff Deyette, the assistant director of energy research and a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Also, last year, buoyed by the coal industry, Democratic attorney general Jack Conway joined his counterparts from 11 other states in a lawsuit alleging the Clean Power Plan is unlawful and would cripple state economies. (Conway is a candidate for governor in this year’s election.)

A Workaround

In trying to simultaneously placate the EPA and adhere to the law, Kentucky might now have found — unintentionally — a solution.

As of 2012, the state had almost 18,000 MW of coal-fired power from 19 plants. Of that, 3,900 MW has already been retired, or has been scheduled for retirement in the next two years. According to a compliance tool created by M.J. Bradley, the environmental consulting firm, the emissions associated with those shutdowns alone are more than sufficient to meet the EPA’s targets.

Saha, who developed the tool, said the state will be over-complying by 2.6 million tons of carbon, provided the EPA’s final rule resembles the draft rule closely — and the state replaces the coal power with low-emitting sources of energy such as solar or nuclear power. Environmental groups, utilities and state agencies have been using the tool to forecast different scenarios under which states can meet their targets.

John Lyons, assistant secretary for climate policy in Kentucky and the person in charge of putting together the state’s plan, said the M.J. Bradley analysis “wasn’t exactly right, but it was pretty close,” to his department’s own calculations.

Kentucky’s energy and environment secretary, Leonard Peters, also seems to consider the retiring coal plants as the state’s best option.

The strategy’s success depends on whether the EPA’s final rule, to be released late this summer, diverges significantly from its draft rule. If the targets are raised, for instance, the state could find itself in a difficult position. The EPA could also decide that retirements occurring in response to factors other than the Clean Power Plan can’t be submitted in a state plan.

Lyons said he hopes that isn’t the case.

“We strongly submitted [to the EPA] that retirements should count regardless of the reason retirements occur,” Lyons said. “We’re talking about real carbon dioxide emission reductions.”

Other Hurdles

Many utilities are retrofitting coal units to meet air quality standards. The control technology targets toxic emissions such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which cause haze and create health issues. But in tackling those emissions, the pollution controls emit carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Carbon emissions from plants installing control technology will “spike dramatically at the same time as other plants come offline,” said Nachy Kanfer, a deputy director at the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

For instance, nine units at the Shawnee plant in southwest Kentucky are slated to be fitted with dry sorbent injection equipment. The technology works by injecting alkaline substances that react with sulfur dioxide emissions, partially converting it into carbon dioxide, Kanfer said.

Lyons said the state hadn’t looked at the penalties for installing those controls but theorized that they wouldn’t increase the state’s carbon dioxide emissions significantly.

The state also needs to plan for how it will replace the power lost by the shutdowns. Environmental groups contend that the state could see huge emission reductions through energy efficiency measures.

“Kentucky hasn’t historically been a leader on energy efficiency which means there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that can be tapped into at pretty low cost of avoided carbon dioxide,” said Deyette.

Lyons said the state hasn’t gotten far in its planning and pointed out that the gubernatorial election in November complicates the situation. So far, both the Democratic and Republican nominees have indicated that they will not allow the state to submit a plan to the EPA.

Lyons said the best he could do was work on a transition plan for the next administration.

 

Posted by Gypsy Chief


WATCH: Elizabeth Warren Gives Amazing Two-Minute Explanation of How Government Has Been Taken Over by the Rich

2015 May 30
by chief

From Alternet.

Tuesday night, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) spoke at the Re/code conference, a confab of media and tech influencers. During a question and answer session, a voter asked why politicians aren’t building infrastructure or implementing other policy that respects the will of the people. Warren explained that the government in Washington just isn’t responsive to the people who elected it — and won’t be unless their constituents revolt and demand accountability:

elizabeth_warren_1

QUESTION: How am I or the fifty percent of people who can vote or don’t supposed to actually believe any politician that says we are going to rebuild this country, energy infrastructure, internet infrastructure, education all these things matter. I believe that. And with interest rates this low, it makes sense for us to issue paper on 30 or 100 year notes to rebuild America. Why aren’t we doing that?

WARREN: It’s exactly the right question. We are not doing it because the people in Washington, too many of the people in Washington, do not represent the folks who elected them. They represent the rich and the powerful who don’t want their taxes raised, who don’t want to see any change. Who are perfectly happy with things where they are, indeed they’re doing great with things where they are. And they stay in the ear of enough of the folks in Washington that it has made it impossible to get any kind of change. The only way we get change is when enough people in this country say I’m mad as hell and I’m fed up and I’m not going to do this anymore. You are not going to go back and represent me in Washington, DC. if you are not willing to pass a meaningful infrastructure bill. If you are not willing to refinance student loan interest rates and stop dragging in billions of dollars in profits off the backs of kids who otherwise can’t afford to go to college. If you don’t say you’re going to fund the NIH and NISF because that is our future. We have to make these issues salient and not just wonky. When you hear us talk about this and you say this is like the wonkiest conference ever, can you imagine saying that at a tech conference, when you say this is the wonkiest conference we’ve ever had, no! These have to be the things that you wake up people all over America and say what matters? Whether or not you’re going to have a job, whether or not you’re going to have a retirement, whether or not your kids are going to have any chance to build a future for them. It’s gotta be about these core issues. And we gotta talk about ’em, talk about ’em enough until there’s some real change in this country that’s all I know to do.

 

Posted by Gypsy Chief


With New EPA Water Rule, Obama Again Takes Executive Action On Environment

2015 May 26
by chief

From National Memo. Written by William Yardley, Los Angeles Times.

File photo: Ducks come in for a landing in the flow-regulating wetlands at the Tres Rios Ecosystem Restoration Project, construction of which was managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers LA District’s Arizona/Nevada Area Office, in Phoenix’s West Valley. February 14, 2013. Via U.S. Army Corps of Architects/Flickr

File photo: Ducks come in for a landing in the flow-regulating wetlands at the Tres Rios Ecosystem Restoration Project, construction of which was managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers LA District’s Arizona/Nevada Area Office, in Phoenix’s West Valley. February 14, 2013. Via U.S. Army Corps of Architects/Flickr

In April 1989, a Michigan developer named John Rapanos dumped fill on 54 acres of wetlands he owned to make way for a shopping center. He did not have a permit, and when the state told him to stop, he refused. Courts found him in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Prosecutors wanted to send him to prison.

Rapanos took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that the wetlands on his property, about 20 miles from a river that drained into Lake Huron, did not fall under the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction over discharges into “navigable waters.”

Rapanos became something of a celebrity among property rights advocates, but the ruling raised as many questions as it answered. Although the court upheld federal protections for wetlands and streams when they connected with navigable waters, it left unclear what constituted a connection.

Now, nearly a decade later, the Obama administration is seeking to clarify those ambiguities, and the effort is causing controversy of its own. This week, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release a new rule to protect a significantly larger percentage of streams and wetlands that provide habitat for wildlife and sources of drinking water.

The move is another example of President Barack Obama taking executive action on environmental and climate issues regardless of whether he has the support of Congress. The administration has already protected millions of acres from oil and gas development and is expected to set aside more, even as it has allowed the expansion of oil and gas drilling elsewhere. It plans to issue new rules this summer to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

EPA officials say up to 60 percent of the nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands lack clear protection from pollution under existing regulations. The new clean water rule would for the first time clearly define which tributaries and wetlands are protected under federal law.

“There is nothing complicated about the idea that we should protect the tributary system that flows into our nation’s rivers,” said David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan who previously led the prosecution of environmental crimes at the Justice Department. “What is more difficult is deciding when to protect wetlands, which perform essential ecological functions but often make it difficult or impossible for landowners to develop their property.”

The new rule, drafted by both the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been under attack since it was proposed in draft form last year, with lawmakers, farmers, business groups, and some local governments often coordinating the efforts.

The American Farm Bureau has led the opposition.

“The proposed rule provides none of the clarity and certainty it promises,” the bureau wrote in a letter to Congress. “Instead, it creates confusion and risk by providing the agencies with almost unlimited authority to regulate, at their discretion, any low spot where rainwater collects.” That could include farm ditches, agricultural ponds, and isolated wetlands, it said.

The farm bureau started a social media campaign, using the Twitter hashtag #Ditchtherule. The EPA created its own, telling supporters to #Ditchthemyth. In a blog post in April, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency may need to look at “better defining how protected waters are significant.”

“A key part of the (new) Clean Water Rule is protecting water bodies, like streams and wetlands, which have strong impacts downstream,” she wrote.

At issue is the Supreme Court’s ruling that only water bodies with a “significant nexus” to navigable waterways fall under the Clean Water Act’s regulatory authority. But what that means has left room for debate for years.

McCarthy conceded that the agency’s initial definition of tributaries was “confusing and ambiguous” and could “pick up erosion in a farmer’s field, when that’s not our aim.” The agency was also revisiting how it addressed ditches, she wrote, “limiting protection to ditches that function like tributaries and can carry pollution downstream.” She also sought to assure local governments that the agency “did not intend to change” how stormwater systems are treated.

Several bills aimed at stopping the rule from taking effect have been introduced in Congress, including one sponsored by Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, both Republicans from Arizona. In a letter to McCarthy this month, the senators wrote that Arizona’s “vast majority of ‘waters’ are desert washes that are part of ephemeral systems and often found at substantial distances from traditional navigable or interstate waters.”

Under the proposed rule, they said, “every small ephemeral system of limited function, remote from traditional navigable or interstate waters, and with no practical ability to influence the physical, chemical, or biological integrity of those downstream waters, would be regulated.”

Arizona is “literally crisscrossed with man-made canals that are essential for critical water delivery,” they wrote, and under the new rule, “it is possible that every mile of these canals” will now fall under the Clean Water Act.

In another arid state next door, Sanders Moore, director of Environment New Mexico, said waterways there had been put at risk under narrow interpretations of the existing rule that did not protect streams that are often dry until snowmelt or stormwater runs through them.

“When they run, they pick up all of those pollutants and take them into larger rivers,” she said.

Ken Kopocis, deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s office of water, said the agency had heard concerns similar to those expressed by the Arizona senators, and that the final rule would clarify that washes and other ephemeral streams would not fall under regulation unless they had “bed and banks” and “ordinary high water marks” that indicated an active connection to waters that do fall under regulation.

“We understood and heard a lot from people in the Southwest that we need to be more clear, and the final rule will be more clear on this,” he said.

He also said the agency was not revising its policies on the vast network of canals and waterways that provide irrigation and drinking water in much of the arid West.

Although Rapanos won at the Supreme Court, he faced other penalties for his actions. He and other defendants in the case eventually settled with the government, agreeing to pay a $150,000 penalty. Rapanos was also required to construct 100 acres of wetlands and buffer areas to offset the 54 acres he filled.

 

Posted by Gypsy Chief


Coal Faces Three Hurdles and Steady Decline, Projections Show

2015 May 24
by chief

Coal’s future as a major energy source is being undermined by market forces, government regulations and moral arguments.

By John H. Cushman Jr., InsideClimate News.

The coal industry has many forces working against it as the world moves toward cleaner energy. Credit: Wikipedia

The coal industry has many forces working against it as the world moves toward cleaner energy. Credit: Wikipedia


Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories by InsideClimate News reporters exploring the future of the coal industry, Coal’s Long Goodbye: Dispatches From the War on Carbon. It begins with this look at energy source projections in the U.S.

If coal were a medical patient, its prognosis would be creeping toward the critical list.

Despite the major forces trying to align to save it, coal’s future as a major energy source is being attacked by a variety of pathogens: government regulations, market forces and moral arguments. As a result, government charts plotting coal’s life expectancy look like the flat vital signs of a very sick patient.

Those charts don’t even take into account President Obama’s regulation to crack down on carbon emissions from the nation’s nearly 600 coal-fired power plants, which will no doubt send the vital signs plunging.

The Energy Department’s statistical arm, the Energy Information Administration, forecasts in its its latest annual energy outlook that U.S. coal production “remains below its 2008 level through 2040.” And that is without weaving in the impact of the Clean Power Plan, because it hasn’t yet taken effect.

For the next 15 years or so production might creep up, it said, but only by a fraction of a percent each year. Considering that production has dropped 16 percent between 2008 and 2013, that’s hardly a robust recovery.

And then the tepid growth evaporates away. From 2030 on, the report said, demand for coal from its main users, electric power companies, would be essentially flat.

MASTERCoalGoodbyeLogoWhite_0

In this series of InsideClimate News stories, Coal’s Long Goodbye, we explore the reasons for coal’s bleak future, the forces aligning against it and what energy sources will likely replace it.

Coal’s dwindling prospects reflect several main factors: the increasing weight of other environmental regulations, including new standards limiting mercury emissions and other toxic pollutants; the availability of cheap, relatively clean natural gas; steadily increasing energy efficiency, and the surging installations of renewable energy plants, especially wind and solar.

Agency officials have promised to produce another forecast later this month that will show how much coal production might vanish once the Environmental Protection Agency finalizes its proposed carbon regulation, the center pole in the tent of the Obama administration’s climate action plan.

The Clean Power Plan aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the biggest source of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005. There’s no chance of meeting that target—or the nation’s international carbon pledge—without reducing coal consumption.

So the rule, EIA noted drily in its outlook, would have “a material impact on projected level of coal-fired generation.”

Explaining the Coal Turmoil

The same glum message for coal comes through in all the EIA’s forecasts—whether for the short term or the long term.

This year, natural gas is expected to supply 30 percent of the nation’s electricity, up from 27 percent last year. At any time now, electricity produced from gas may surpass coal power—they are running neck and neck this year.

“EIA expects natural gas generation in April and May will almost reach the level of coal generation,” the agency said on May 12, “resulting in the closest convergence in generation shares between the two fuels since April 2012.”

U.S. coal production, as a result, is expected to fall by 7.1 percent in 2015. The amount of coal burned by electric plants will drop 6 percent. Already, unburned coal started to pile up at power plants this winter.

It’s not just natural gas that threatens coal, however, according to a recent breakdown of new generating capacity.

The amount of renewable energy capacity coming on-line almost equals the amount of coal capacity going off-line. New gas capacity has helped compensate by providing the same steady reliable power that coal provided while the wind and sunshine come and go.

About 13 gigawatts of coal-fired generating capacity, more than 4 percent of the nation’s 300 or so gigawatts of coal, is expected to retire this year. New wind plants will add 10 gigawatts. Solar will add 2 gigawatts more. Gas will provide another 6 gigawatts. (A gigawatt of electricity can power at least half a million homes.)

PlantRetirements2015800px

If electricity demand picks up next year, so will the use of coal—but not by as much as might be expected.

The coal plants that are shutting down are relatively small, old and inefficient. The plants that would ramp up to meet any new demand for power would be bigger, more modern and more efficient—and they would need less coal to make the same amount of electricity.

The retirements of coal plants that are currently washing over the industry were brought on by a rule that sets new mercury and air toxic standards—the MATS rule, which has just taken effect. (It has been challenged in the Supreme Court, which will rule shortly.)

The combination of the MATS rule and the competition from gas and renewables will lead utilities to shut down 31 gigawatts of coal fired boilers between 2014 and 2016, EIA has projected. Another 4 gigawatts would shift from coal to natural gas.

The Government Accountability Office, in a separate estimate last year, said that between 2012 and 2025 total retirements would amount to 42 gigawatts—that’s 13 percent of total electric capacity nationwide. The plants that are shutting down, it said, are concentrated in four states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Downgraded to Negative

To the extent that new power plant capacity is coming on line—and that is not expected to happen as fast as it used to—new coal plants are not in the picture.

Plainly, this means that a lot of the money that consumers spend on electric bills will ultimately go to gas producers, not coal producers.

In 2040, 55 percent of the money utilities spend on fuel will go to natural gas companies, and only 35 percent to coal companies. In recent years, the two have been running neck and neck.

Coal’s financiers are taking note.

In March, the Moody’s debt rating service downgraded the outlook for North American coal to negative, predicting that earnings would “drop 6 percent to 8 percent over the next year or so.”

Peabody Energy, by far the biggest U.S. producer, said in its latest quarterly earnings statement that after watching power companies’ consumption wither in the first quarter, it had cut its own forecasts for U.S. demand, which it now sees dropping by up to 100 million tons this year. The fall-off in production would continue in the second half of this year, it said.

This month, Bank of America said it would be cutting back on lending to the industry. Its stance was aimed at confronting climate change and recognized the risks of lending to an industry whose assets might be stranded.

The decline in coal’s fortunes has been welcomed by environmentalist campaigners, although they say it’s not happening fast enough to keep the world within its carbon budget. At current rates of fossil fuel-burning, the world will exceed within a few decades the emissions limit that might keep the planet within the 2 degrees Celsius safe threshold this century. To hit that target, emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector have to decline rapidly, and eventually reach zero.

As negotiations continue toward a possible climate treaty in Paris later this year, the U.S. has said it will cut emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. That would require doubling its average recent pace of reductions, from 1.2 percent per year on average during the 2005-2020 period to 2.3-2.8 percent per year on average between 2020 and 2025.

Because it omits the influence of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan from its forecasts, the EIA projections don’t show any drop in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead, its business-as-usual outlook shows that emissions—which had been on a downward path since 2005, and then rose a bit—will go up gently in the next couple of years, then drift along a long, steady horizontal path.

 

Posted by Gypsy Chief


The real reason for the GOP’s all-out war on Obamacare

2015 May 24
by chief

Affordable Care Act End of Life Counselling

Death Panel Member

From Daily Kos.

During his press conference on Friday, [August 9, 2013] President Obama pondered why the GOP’s “number one priority, the one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don’t have health care.” But in attributing the 40 Affordable Care Act repeal votes, the threats to shut down the government over Obamacare funding, the tens of millions of dollars in misleading ads and another summer of town hall rage to the GOP’s “ideological fixation,” the President was only partly right.

At its core, the Republicans’ scorched-earth opposition to Obamacare has never been so much about “freedom” or “limited government” or any other right-wing ideological buzzword as it has been about political power, pure and simple. Now as for the past 20 years, Republicans have feared not that health care reform would fail the American people, but that it would succeed. Along with Social Security and Medicare, successful health care reform would provide the third and final pillar of Americans’ social safety net, all brought you by the Democratic Party. To put it another way, the GOP was never really concerned about a “government takeover of health care”, “rationing”, “the doctor-patient relationship” or mythical “death panels,” but that an American public grateful for access to health care could provide Democrats with an enduring majority for years to come

But what Utah Senator Orrin Hatch called a “holy war” to block health care reform didn’t start when Barack Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, but instead when Bill Clinton was inaugurated in 1993. It was then that former Quayle chief of staff and Republican strategist William Kristol warned his GOP allies that a Clinton victory on health care could guarantee Democratic majorities for the foreseeable future. “The Clinton proposal is also a serious political threat to the Republican Party,” Kristol wrote in his infamous December 3, 1993 memo titled “Defeating President Clinton’s Health Care Proposal,” adding:

“Its passage in the short run will do nothing to hurt (and everything to help) Democratic electoral prospects in 1996. But the long-term political effects of a successful Clinton health care bill will be even worse–much worse. It will relegitimize middle-class dependence for ‘security’ on government spending and regulation. It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.”

read more…

Meet The Duggars: Reality TV Stars And Moral Hypocrites

2015 May 23
by chief

From National Memo. Written by Briget Hughes.

Josh-Duggar

The Duggar family, of TLC’s popular reality series 19 Kids and Counting, has admitted their oldest son had a undisclosed history of molesting his own sisters. Josh Duggar, now 27 years old and father to three young children, has since made statements regretting his “inexcusable” actions.

The Duggars are known for their unusually G-rated show, in which they espouse a conservative, Christian lifestyle. Birth control is discouraged (obviously), women wear modest clothing, and contact between the sexes is strictly monitored.

Despite their moralizing, Josh, the oldest in the long line of children, has been revealed to have a history of fondling multiple unnamed minors. According to InTouch magazine, which originally broke the story, a female member of the Duggar brood informed her father in early 2002 that Josh had been fondling her while she slept.

Several months later, another daughter also confessed that Josh had been sexually abusing her. Other minors complained of ongoing abuse, finally prompting Jim Bob, the Duggar family patriarch, to go to the authorities.

Unfortunately, those “authorities” were, in fact, the church elders — and in their wisdom, they chose not to involve the police. Instead, Josh Duggar was sent to a “Christian program” consisting of “hard physical work and counseling” from March to July 2003.

Michelle Duggar, the family’s mother, later admitted the so-called program was actually just a temporary stay at a family friend’s house. The friend, a contractor, had no counseling experience.

Finally, in 2006, Jim Bob reported the abuse to the police. No other official action was taken and the family says that the victims “forgave” Josh, who had “sought after God and turned back to God.”

Since the molestation came to light, Josh Duggar has resigned his position at the Washington, DC-based Family Research Council, a conservative, religious non-governmental organization considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

TLC has canceled all shows featuring the Duggars that were set to air, and the program’s chances of renewal remain questionable.

The family has spoken out in defense of their son, stating, “That dark and difficult time caused us to seek God like never before. Even though we would never choose to go through something so terrible, each one of our family members drew closer to God.”

Josh’s wife, Anna, has also spoken out in support of her husband. She was evidently informed of Josh’s so-called “mistakes” two years before their engagement, and believes he is simply “someone who had gone down a wrong path and had humbled himself before God and those whom he had offended.”

The man at the center of the storm has also issued a statement, released to People magazine, saying, “I sought forgiveness from those I had wronged and asked Christ to forgive me and come into my life. In my life today, I am so very thankful for God’s grace, mercy and redemption.”

As far as Josh Duggar is concerned, God’s grace may let a confessed child molester off the hook, but it does not extend to gays and lesbians, whose sexual orientation Duggar has, not incidentally, frequently linked to pedophilia.

But if God has forgiven Josh and his family, He is not alone. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has already declared his support, so at least he’s guaranteed 10 votes from the Duggar household.

Screenshot: Josh Duggar speaking at the Rally for Religious Freedom, 2014. Via Family Research Council/YouTube


Posted by Gypsy Chief


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