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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.

“Free” Energy Efficiency Funds Available to Michigan Small Businesses

17 Apr 2014

 The Michigan Energy Office recently announced a grant program where they will match building owner (private and non-profit) funds of between $5,000 and $20,000 for energy efficiency projects.  Any small business or private nonprofit organization with fewer than 100 employees statewide that owns a commercial building in Michigan is eligible to apply.

 There is a process with written and oral presentations and the goals are to improve energy efficiency by 20% or more through each funded project and to cause funds to be reinvested based on savings.  This may make some smaller private projects that have been sitting on the shelf awaiting funding viable.

You will need an itemized budget and budget narrative and be able to justify the expense and the savings you expect as well as jump through a number of other “hoops.”  Please let me know if you’d like more information about the program.

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.

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.

Earth Day at 43 – 43 shades of grey

22 Apr 2013

Earth Day 43 seems to have been lost given the recent events in Boston, Texas and elsewhere.  The environmental news continues to be a mixed bag – with reports of fewer Americans “caring” about the environment but perhaps more “acting” in a “green” way.

We have certainly 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 Erie; smog in Los Angeles and elsewhere and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean 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 must weigh on the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are far more complicated and, to many, more daunting.  We still have oil spills, but now they are from 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, impacts from and in China and the developing world, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

As is often the case, once the “low hanging fruit” of black and white are picked, what we are left with is grey and grey isn’t as shocking or engaging as black and white.  The issues are just as important, and in many ways, very high profile, but it’s unlikely that our polarized country would agree on what changes would be best, if any.

Is this a carbon tax? A windfall profits tax? Or just a DOA tax?

18 Mar 2013

On Friday, President Obama announced in a speech his plans for an Energy Security Trust  to fund $2 Billion in research into energy technologies to help the United States, among other things: (1) get off oil altogether (particularly foreign oil); (2) develop clean coal technologies; and (3) improve efficiencies in the production of natural gas (thereby reducing greenhouse effects).

This hits at two interesting sweet spots –  1. It finally relates energy to national security; and 2. It focuses on something everyone agrees government should be supporting – basic research (vs that nasty old picking winners and losers). As a concept I really like this and think it’s the sort of future-thinking investment our government should be pursuing (like investing in education, clean water, good roads, etc.).

What I find interesting is the concept that this Trust will be funded by “Revenue from Profitable Oil and Gas Companies” and thereby won’t increase anyone else’s taxes.  Per the President’s speech, he wants to fund the Trust from oil and gas royalties on federal lands.

The government already collects around  $9.5 billion in oil and gas royalties.  Over half of the revenue goes to the U.S. Treasury. About a billion goes to the Land and Water Conservation Fund which is distributed to states and federal agencies to acquire and develop public lands. Finally, distributions are made to states or monies generated on federal lands within those states.

The concept has been used before. Back in a somewhat less contentious era, the federal Superfund was created to clean up “orphaned” waste sites.

It was funded in part by excise taxes on crude oil and refined oil products, on hazardous chemicals, on imported substances that used hazardous chemicals and by an environmental income tax of 0.12% on a corporation’s modified alternative minimum taxable income over $2 million.  Those taxes expired in 1995 and since then the EPA has funded Superfund based on Congressional appropriations of around $1.2 billion annually and whatever EPA recovers from companies liable for sites that EPA had cleaned up.

The President’s speech left out exactly where the $2 Billion would come from – will it be from: (1) an increase in royalties; (2) eliminating royalty waivers; (3) a reduction in payments for public lands; or (4) a reduction in payments made to states?  Based on the commitment not to raise taxes, it appears that the Treasury will continue to get its cut. I suppose another option would be to increase by some 20% the number of wells being drilled.  This appears to be the direction that the group that developed this concept wants to go.

We can see where this fight is going.  The House of Representatives and many in the Senate have taken the “no new taxes” pledge.  Liberals in Congress will fight more arctic and off-shore drilling.  Will the President dangling more drilling rights encourage the politicians to go for this and spur some of the world’s largest companies to agree to help subsidize their own potential extinction?  The odds of this proposal getting enacted seem very long, even if the goals are quite worthwhile.

Planning for global change – low carbon by 2050?

13 Feb 2013

A recent report by the reinsurance firm, Swiss Re raises some interesting possibilities.  The first of which is that Swiss Re says it is possible for 92% of the world to shift to low carbon technologies by 2050 if agreements are put into place by 2015.  Swiss Re reports that low carbon technologies make up 33% of the global power supply.

The report reviewed 6 scenarios for the future:

1. Greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions are not pursued and adaptation to climate change is required;

2. Dramatic weather changes lead the world to drastically reduce GHG in 2025, including by building CO2 capture systems;

3. Gradual pursuit of GHG reduction happens, but not fast enough to impact climate change;

4. Research leads alternative energies to become competitive with, and replace, fossil fuels;

5. High carbon fuel prices allow alternative energies to compete with, and replace, fossil fuels; and

6.  Economic recovery and consensus lead to strong greenhouse gas policies to spur investment in green technologies.

The report concluded that options 3, 4 and 5 are believed the most likely to occur.   Interestingly, the report concludes that the cost to shift energy generation, while high, is roughly 20% of the cost of world-wide adaptation to a changing climate.