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Earth Day at 44…. still crying?

22 Apr 2014

Earth Day brings me right back here

Earth Day brings me right back here

Happy Earth Day 44.  We have come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day -  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Eriesmog in Los Angeles and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of environmental laws like the Clean AirClean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly impacts the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are more complex and likely more daunting than those of 44 years ago.  We still have oil spills, but they are from rail cars, pipelines, larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, smog impacts from and in China unlike anything LA ever faced, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

Once the “low hanging fruit” of easy cleanups were “picked,” what we were left with was less shocking or engaging than dead fish and burning rivers.  Consequently, there’s much more debate about the best way to address them or whether they need to be addressed at all.  The issues are just as important – maybe more so, but it’s unlikely that our polarized nation would agree on what changes would be best, if any.

Solar mirror project goes on line.

14 Feb 2014

ku-xlargeNow this looks like something out of Star Trek.  Back in 2011, I blogged about this project which was being constructed in the California desert. It is supposedly the largest solar installation in the world and it has just gone on line. Wow.

Of polar vortices and Great Lakes

30 Jan 2014

Photo courtesy of Space Science And Engineering Center- University of Wisconsin - Madison

Provided courtesy of Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC), University of Wisconsin-Madison

A recent report tells us that evaporation isn’t well understood and that we may see more of it in the fall and early winter than in the summer.  According to the report, the relative humidity plays a bigger role than the temperature and as we know, it’s awfully dry in the winter. One quote from that report is staggering – “a 1-day loss of 0.5 inches of water from the total surface area of the Great Lakes represents a volumetric flow rate of 820 billion gallons per day – nearly 20 times the flow rate of Niagara Falls.”

The repeated polar vortices we have been experiencing have provided greater ice cover and, thus, there should be a later start to the evaporation season this year.  The Great Lakes are reportedly 62% covered in ice, which already ranks this winter as 17th most coverage in the last 40 years. 1979 had the highest ice cover at 94.7 percent.

Weatherwise, this high ice cover may mean less lake effect snow, colder days, less runoff when the snow melt comes (although it’s been a very snowy January) but again, less evaporation.

It’s certainly better (waterwise) to be here than, say, California, where Governor Brown declared a drought emergency which likely will have significant impacts on farming and the foods eaten across the United States.  This could be good for Michigan farmers.  2014 is already shaping up to be an interesting year for water and the Great Lakes.

What will be the top green stories of 2014?

8 Jan 2014

greatlakesAs this new year kicks off, we thought we’d look ahead at what we think may be the big stories of 2014 at MichiganGreenLaw.com, in no particular order:

Wetlands – Will EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finalize guidance regarding the scope of waters regulated under the Clean Water Act? Or will there be new rules or even new legislation?  There are members of Congress on  both sides of this issue and it is unclear which way this issue will go, although the federal trend is to try and govern as many bodies of water no matter what. This fall, EPA published a draft connectivity analysis which many view as a prelude to new regulations attempting to vest the federal government with broad jurisdictional over virtually every drop of water in the country. It will be interesting if the federal government tries to delete the “significant” portion of the Rapanos “significant nexus” test.

• Hydraulic Fracturing -  this continues to be a lightning rod for controversy.  At the end of 2013, the Associated Press reported on both alleged and confirmed environmental problems in 4 states including Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Michigan looks to beef up its oversight of, and its communications regarding, fracking proposals and operations.  The University of Michigan continues to study the technical issues.  The focus on this issue seems to be shifting toward the volumes of water used in fracturing and monitoring withdrawals used for oil and gas production. It appears that the 2012 U.S. Department of the Interior draft rules for fracking on federal and Indian lands remain draft – will they ever be finalized?

• MDEQ Brownfield Process Streamlining.  MDEQ has promised to convene a short-term task force to work on harmonizing, improving and streamlining the various funding mechanisms currently used to incentivize brownfield redevelopment. This can only be a plus.

• MDEQ Cleanup Rules – as required by the Legislature, MDEQ proposed adopting its previously informal standards as formal cleanup rules late in 2013.  The MDEQ will continue to work on improving and in some cases broadening its cleanup rules and criteria – we expect more work on the assumptions of exposure underpinning the standards, more work on vapor intrusion standards and more work on standards and processes applicable to groundwater venting into surface waters.  MDEQ also continues to discuss more rules and standards defining what constitutes “due care” which is an issue for property owners who are not liable pursuant to a BEA and for other reasons.

• Keystone Pipeline.  As we predicted, President Obama and Congress continue to be locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.  The President deferred it and lately the pundits have argued that pipelines are safer than transporting shale oil by truck and train.

• Energy Policy In Michigan – at the end of the year, and after a year of “listening” sessions and collecting information, Governor Snyder indicated that he intends to seek legislation improving Michigan’s energy policies, focusing on lowering costs, improving reliability and minimizing environmental impacts.  This will be interesting.

Go to jail; go directly to jail. Do not defraud the EPA.

18 Dec 2013

jailWell, this is hard to believe.  John Beale, a high ranking EPA official was sentenced to 32 months in prison Wednesday for defrauding the US government.  This story seems like something out of Seinfeld – this guy reportedly took premium travel for personal reasons and charged the government. He also took months off (he claimed he was in the CIA) and continued to collect his pay!  Over almost 13 years (which is why this won’t be painted as tied to any particular administration), he bilked the government out of more than $1 Million (much of which he has already repaid).  Beale, who was a former Senior Policy Advisor at the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation (OAR), reportedly admitted his guilt when confronted.

What’s really amazing is that he was only caught after Gina McCarthy, (now the EPA administrator) his former boss, noted that he was still drawing a salary after he had retired!  One report I read quoted the EPA Assistant Inspector General as saying that “There’s a certain culture here at the EPA where the mission is the most important thing,” and “They don’t think like criminal investigators. They tend to be very trusting and accepting.”  Again, I have this image of George Constanza sleeping under his custom made desk and no one noticing!

How many things are wrong with this?  Well, the lack of internal controls is disturbing to me as a tax payer and as someone whose clients are cited often for lacking controls (glass houses, anyone?).  Certainly, the statement that the EPA doesn’t think like a criminal investigator is intriguing as the EPA is charged with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws – and often seeks both civil and criminal sanctions!  And then there’s the biggest one – the undercutting of the agency’s positions on climate change and a host of other issues.  There is a legal doctrine that agency interpretations of laws and rules are entitled to significant deference.  This has rankled me and many in the regulated community for years as it seems that the EPA gets too much deference.  Now, when agency personnel stake out a position – will the Courts defer or will they wonder (as humans are often so inclined) “why should I trust this agency representative, if they can’t police their own house, why should they be policing anyone else’s?”  This is yet another kick in the teeth for an agency charged with ensuring our air and water are safe.

Energy creativity – thinking outside the box

31 Jul 2013

Has inspiration struck?

Can we produce “clean” energy to: (1) cost effectively enough to put into use, (2) reduce dependance on foreign oil and US coal; and (3) reduce carbon emissions?

Despite a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal discussing Europe’s experience with higher cost, less dependable solar and wind power, the creativity of academia never ceases to amaze me. I recently came across an article about this publication, Environmental Science & Technology Letters and a paper in it about utilizing CO2 emissions from power plants in fluids, where the CO2 was split into positive and negative ions. The ions were then used to create a flow of electrons that could be captured by an electrode, creating electricity. While this proof-of-concept is not yet efficient (i.e., it uses more energy than it generates), the researchers believe that they may be able to turn that around and make it cost-effective. While this wouldn’t reduce CO2 emissions, it could double the amount of energy associated with the same emissions, effectively cutting CO2 emissions in half per kilowatt generated.  If this works (and there’s no guarantee that it will), it would also enable us to continue to use the current grid system.

Just as interesting, and farther along, are the University of Michigan’s experiments, described here, with capturing energy from low flow water bodies.  The concept of hydroelectric energy is not new but UM apparently thinks that they may have found an efficiency that others may have missed allowing energy to be generated without dams and using natural flow rates.

Whether these technologies will turn out to be cost-effective remains to be seen but the ingenuity of mankind certainly gives me hope that we can protect the planet, be efficient and not have to become luddites.

Invasive Species and Unintended Consequences

12 Jul 2013

One action begets a reaction and another and another

Before I took off for vacation, I decided to finish reading 1493 which may be the most thought provoking book on invasive species I’ve ever read.  Author Thomas Mann takes a look at the last 500+ years of world history, economics, anthropology and environment and explains using interesting vignettes how the world we live in is not anything like the world of 1491.

He discusses topics like:

  • malaria and its relationship to the US slave trade;
  • sugar, silver and trade with the far east;
  • how South American potatoes and fertilizer revolutionized Europe and;
  • once the “eggs were all in the basket,” how European farming practices made almost inevitable the potato blight that virtually depopulated Ireland in the mid 1800′s.

He raises many interesting questions, some of which are still being asked today, as in this article regarding the popularity of the “superfood” quinoa as “gentrifying” or changing the South American farmers who used to eat it as a subsistance food.

A fascinating book which raises almost as many questions as it answers and shows how human actions – sometimes on purpose and sometimes not, have resulted in ecosystems (as well as economic systems) which are entirely foreign to the lands they occupy today.  We’ve blogged about Asian Carp and many of us are aware of invasive species like kudzu and purple loosestrife. But I never thought of wheat, onions, earthworms, potatoes, sugar, bananas and horses as invasive species.  I highly recommend this book.