logo: Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy

YCELP News Feed

Section Image

On the Environment

Tuesday, January 29, 2013
| Share

Webinar Recap: An Industry Perspective on the Shale Gas Debate

By Bruce Ho

On Wednesday, January 23, Mark Boling, President of V+ Development Solutions, a division of Southwestern Energy Company, kicked off the spring line-up of our 2012-2013 Policy Workshop Webinar Series on Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development with a presentation on “Balancing Environmental, Social and Economic Impacts of Shale Gas Development Activities.”

In his presentation, Mr. Boling provided both a defense for continued shale gas development and an acknowledgment that the gas industry needs to do a better job, on the whole, of acknowledging and addressing legitimate environmental concerns. Toward this end, he discussed Southwestern’s efforts to: (1) study the rate of methane leakage from shale gas wells in collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and others (their final report is due out soon); (2) work with EDF to develop and promote a model regulatory framework for states to ensure proper well integrity; (3) develop improved well cementing technology with the University of Houston and CSI Technologies; (4) with help from The Nature Conservancy, train employees and contractors to reduce erosion and sedimentation impacts from project sites; and (5) develop new tracer technology with Rice University to help detect hydraulic fracturing fluids if they migrate into groundwater.

You can watch Mr. Boling’s full presentation below, in which he further discusses Southwestern’s views on the shale gas debate and the company’s vision of environmental responsibility and regulation.

Balancing Environmental, Social and Economic Impacts of Shale Gas Development Activities from YCELP on Vimeo.

 

In listening to Mr. Boling’s presentation and his responses during the subsequent Q&A, three things struck me as particularly important issues for regulatory discussions:

(1) “A Level Playing Field” – Mr. Boling noted that Southwestern strongly supports adoption of the model regulatory framework that it has developed with EDF. But he also stressed the need for a level playing field, suggesting that even companies interested in doing “the right thing” may hesitate to implement best environmental practices if doing so makes them less competitive. Companies may not always seek the lowest denominator – Mr. Boling noted that many implement best practices that go beyond regulatory minimums – but without effective regulatory safeguards, economic pressures will make it difficult if not impossible to address environmental concerns fully, even with good actors.

(2) “Straight Talk” About Regulations – In discussing what he sees as a need to “refocus the debate,” Mr. Boling recommended that his industry spend less time trying to minimize public concerns and more time communicating about the real risks involved in shale gas development and what the industry is doing to mitigate these risks. For example, during the Q&A, Mr. Boling noted that he has split with those in his industry who argue that “green completions,” which help reduce or eliminate air pollutant emissions from new shale gas wells, are too costly. New regulations adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year will require green completions of all new hydraulically fractured wells by the year 2015, though Southwestern has begun this process early by participating in EPA’s Natural Gas STAR Program. Mr. Boling noted that a few years ago, green completions cost his company $20,000 more per well than simply venting pollutants to the air, but these costs have since fallen significantly, and now green completions are often profitable investments because they capture natural gas that can be sold rather than wasted. Notably, these economic benefits are purely private and do not take into account the additional public benefits that arise from reduced air and climate pollution.

Companies such as Southwestern deserve credit for leading environmentally through the Natural Gas STAR Program and other such initiatives. Southwestern’s experience also reinforces the observation that the costs of regulatory compliance are often much less than originally anticipated as new technologies and solutions develop or become cheaper to implement over time (see, e.g., here, here, and here).

(3) Politics and Science – Mr. Boling lamented what he sees as too much politics in shale gas regulation and not enough regulation based on sound science and risk assessments. The goal of science-based (or scientifically informed) regulation is a good one, and it is true that some parties on both sides of the shale gas debate have stretched the science too far in support of their agendas. As more research is published – including studies involving Southwestern – these data will hopefully contribute to an improved public understanding of shale gas’ environmental risks and impacts as well as its potential benefits.

But it is also true that science cannot, on its own, determine the best regulatory approach when faced with uncertainty or questions of socially acceptable levels of risk. Decisions about whether to move forward with resource development or to wait for science (and policy) to catch up to practice are inherently political, and thus politics will continue to play a role in determining how shale gas fits into the future energy mix.

In the context of climate change, for example, it is indisputable, scientifically, that burning fossil fuels, including shale gas, contributes to a warming planet. Yet there is a debate as to whether shale gas will exacerbate this warming in the long run or instead help reduce the total warming by helping transition us away from coal and, eventually, to carbon-free energy. Ultimately, the outcome of political decisions about energy investments and environmental risks will determine whether the former or the latter is true. Sound science, including climate science, must be a key component of these decisions, but resource outcomes and policies are rarely pure questions of scientific fact. Politics will play a role.

Next Time in Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development

The Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development webinar series will continue on Tuesday, February 12, from 2-3pm EST with a presentation by Jeffrey Logan from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) on “The Role of Natural Gas in U.S. Electric Power Futures.” Mr. Logan will present research from a report he recently co-authored through the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, an initiative between NREL, the University of Colorado-Boulder, the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State, M.I.T., and Stanford.

To register for this webinar, please click here. As always, the webinar will be free and open to the public, but registration is required to participate.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
| Share

Cutting the Cats – the ‘Purr’fered Solution for Birds?

By Guest Author, William Miao, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies '14

The tiny island nation of New Zealand once again received a disproportionally large amount of media attention when the prominent and widely respected economist, Gareth Morgan, revealed his solution for saving the country's dwindling diversity and abundance of native birds: banning all cats, household or feral, in the entire country. His reason is simple. Cats are natural-born serial-killers of native birds – they have contributed to the extinction of nine birds species  -- so eliminating these furry mammals would save the avian population from ruthless paws and jaws. The controversial campaign – “Cats to Go” – has been widely reported in global media outlets such as New York Times and Huffington Post.

Proponents of the proposal underscore the necessity of protecting native species at all costs, and the naysayers ridicule this idea as radical and “over-the-top.” As the New Zealander-in-residence at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP), I have been asked on numerous occasions for my position on this issue. This blog is my response (and everybody can stop bothering me now).

While I agree with Morgan on the potential benefits of his proposal, I have my reservations. My reason is also simple: it is not because I hate the native birds. In fact, I have supported their conservation efforts for a long time through volunteering on an offshore bird sanctuary island. Rather, I am simply unsure about the practicality of a non-differentiating, nationwide feline ban, especially given the potential scale of the policy instruments required to implement the ban, as well as the constraints on the current political resources.

For those not familiar with New Zealand, the country has one of the highest cat ownership rates on the planet, with 28 percent of households owning one cat, and a further 20 percent owning two or more. This means cats form an integral part of nearly half of the families in New Zealand. The fact that cats as pets can provide intimate and tangible comforts and joy is deeply ingrained in this country’s culture. In contrast, the native birds are generally more elusive, and the more intangible ecosystem services they provide are very poorly appreciated by everyday New Zealanders. So I suspect that many more people would value the companionship of their cats over the existence of some native bird species that they probably will never see, as sad and cruel as this may sound. And, unfortunately, this conflict of personal and societal interests likely would make the ban very unpopular among the mainstream, at least in the short-term. As a matter of fact, despite the international publicity, a week into its launch Morgan’s campaign has only managed to attract around 2,000 signatures, equivalent to 0.04 percent of NZ’s already small population.

From the government’s perspective, it is wise not to invest limited resources in policies unlikely to attract supports. Furthermore, alternative bird-saving options are available and are far less controversial: elimination of other predators such as possums and weasels, implementation of breeding programs, construction of pest-free sanctuaries, just to name a few. If these bird species remain endangered, the government could even consider striking a middle ground and impose some type of cat controls, such as restricting household cats to indoors while eliminating feral cats, for example.  Conversely, a single-minded pursuit of a “home-run” is, in my mind, counterproductive, and will likely end in a lose-lose situation for both the campaigners and the birds they are trying to protect.

Interested in invasive species management? Attend the YCELP’s panel discussion, “Eating Invaders: A Panel Discussion on Invasive Species”, which will be held at Yale Law School at 6:10 pm on February 13.

***

William Miao is a first-year Master of Environmental Management (MEM' 14) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His research focus is on the application of integrated environmental tools and frameworks at corporate, industrial, and national levels. Originally a chemical engineer from Auckland, New Zealand, his previous work involved risk management for oil and gas production, waste to energy research, and life-cycle assessment for the steel industry.

Posted in: Environmental Law & Governance
Thursday, January 24, 2013
| Share

The Supreme Court, Takings, and Environmental Protection

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director

 

20 years ago, along State Road 50 in Orange County, Florida, land developer Coy Koontz proposed to fill 3.7 acres of wetlands in order to build a commercial center. At the time, the local water management district agreed to permit the project if Mr. Koontz would agree to preserve the remaining 11 acres of wetlands on his property and, in order to further mitigate the wetlands he would fill, to contribute approximately $10,000 to improve a separate wetland preserve several miles away. Mr. Koontz refused this arrangement, as well as several others proposed by the district, and instead sued, claiming that the district’s refusal to issue him an unconditional permit constituted an impermissible government taking of his property without just compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 
 
Over the last two decades, despite Mr. Koontz’ death, this case found its way from the wetlands of central Florida to the United States Supreme Court, with Mr. Koontz’s son, Coy Koontz, Jr., taking over for his father.
 
The environmental implications of this particular case are clear: Wetlands, which are sometimes called the “kidneys” of watersheds for their water purification functions and which also provide important wildlife habitats, are an essential environmental resource and this case involves the question of when and how Mr. Koontz can destroy wetlands on his property. However, the really interesting aspects of this case are in the details of the legal theory.
 
I. The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment
 
Mr. Koontz claimed that by failing to issue him a development permit, the government had “taken” his property. Among other things, the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution says “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”  This means that the government may take private property from individuals on two conditions. First, the government may take the property only for a public use, such as a road, a school, or environmental protection. Second, when the government does take private property for public use, it must offer the property owner compensation for the land taken.
 
A. Taking by Eminent Domain
 
Over the years this constitutional clause has given rise to several distinct types of takings. Eminent domain is the most traditional means of taking private property for public use. With eminent domain, the government will go to a court and tell the court that it wants to take ownership of private land. As long as the purpose of the eminent domain is public and the compensation is fair, the court will transfer ownership from the private owner to the government. 
 
B. Taking by Regulation
 
A regulatory taking is an alternative method of taking private property. This occurs when the government does not plan or intend to take ownership of private property, as it does with eminent domain, but instead regulates the property owners’ use of his or her property to such an extent that the government is essentially forcing the property into public use. For example, where a state regulation prohibited a mining company from extracting any coal that was under a residential building because mining would cause the building to collapse, the Supreme Court ruled that there had been a regulatory taking. The Court found that the regulation prohibited the company from using part of its property and that the state, in an effort to protect private homes from coal mining, had gone “too far”. [1]   
 
A later Supreme Court case helped explain, but did not completely resolve, how to determine when a regulation goes too far. In this later case, the Court developed what is now called the Penn Central test, which says that whether there is a regulatory taking depends on: (1) the economic impact of the regulation; (2) the extent to which the regulation interferes with distinct, investment-backed expectations of the property owner; and (3) the character of the government action. [2]  Unfortunately, in the nearly 40 years since the Court laid out the Penn Central test, it is still unclear exactly how to interpret and apply the details.
 
Some regulatory takings, however, are easy to identify because they are categorical. That is, they involve much less balancing and judgment. When a government regulation forces a permanent invasion of property, no matter how small that invasion, it is a taking, as was the case when a regulation forced building owners to allow cable companies to run wire across their roofs. [3] Likewise, when a regulation completely removes any private economic benefit of property, that is a  “total taking” and the Constitution requires compensation. For example, a South Carolina law required a special permit to develop in a critical coastal area. When the government would not issue a permit to a beachfront property owner, the Supreme Court said that stopping development is permissible, but as long as the government requires the landowner to preserve his property for public environmental purposes, it must pay him just compensation. The court explained that by denying the permit, the government denied the landowner any economically beneficial use of his land. In other words, where a regulation causes property to have only a public benefit, and no benefit to the private landowner, there has been total taking. [4]  
 
C. Taking by Exaction
 
Finally, there is a category of taking called an exaction. An exaction occurs when the government conditions issuance of a development permit on the developer giving up some smaller piece of property. Where a homeowner wants to build a new beachfront house, but the government will only issue a permit if the homeowner allows pedestrians to cross his property; that is an exaction. It is a taking of the small piece of property across which the pedestrians will walk. [5]  And if a hardware store wants to expand its parking lot but the government will only issue a permit if the storeowner gives up a portion of her property for a bike path, that too is an exaction. It is a taking of the land that will become a bike path. [6] 
 
Not all permit conditions, however, are exactions. First, to be an exaction, such a condition must require the dedication of property to public use. Second, a permit condition is permissible and is not a taking if the condition is closely related to the harm that that the permitted action will cause. The condition must be related in both its nature and its size. For example, when the beachfront homeowner builds a new home, that development has nothing to do with pedestrian beach access, so the pedestrian crossing does not have what the Supreme Court calls an “essential nexus” with the new development. [7] In contrast, a storeowner expanding her parking lot, does have a connection with traffic and commuting, so a bike path across the property does have an essential nexus. However, according to the Court, the traffic impact of a few additional parking spots is insignificant and is not weighty enough to warrant the dedication of private property for a bike path. The Court calls this test one of “rough proportionality”; the impact of requiring the landowner to establish a bike path is not roughly proportional to the impacts of the parking lot.   
 
At first, because the case of Coy Koontz is about permit conditions, it appears to concern only this last category of takings: exactions. But in fact, the case raises questions about the broad spectrum of takings law. 
 
II. Takings in the Context of Koontz
 
A. Has There Been an Exaction?
 
For the sake of argument, the Supreme Court might take the facts of Mr. Koontz’s case and decide that there is an exaction. They would of course look at the requirement that Mr. Koontz dedicate his undeveloped wetlands for preservation and that he contribute money to the preservation of additional wetlands and the Court would have to agree that there is an essential nexus between wetland destruction and wetlands preservation. However, they might decide that the harm done by filling a few acres of wetlands is not roughly proportional to the requirement of preserving and paying for so many additional acres.  Under this reasoning the Court could decide that there has been an exaction and that compensation is due 
 
In the exaction cases described above, the owners sued the government after the government issued permits requiring dedication of the walking path beside the beachfront home and the bike path next to the hardware store. But in this case Koontz sued the government for denying his permit. Because the government never issued a permit, there was no requirement forcing Koontz to do anything with his money or wetlands. The government never forced Koontz to dedicate his property to the public good. Thus, as Mr. Koontz sues, seeking compensation for the exactions, the Court cannot ignore the fact that there never was an exaction, the government cannot compensate for something it has not taken, or for a requirement that does not exist.
 
When the Supreme Court listened to arguments in this case Justice Sotomayor listened to Koontz’s explanation of this case and found herself wondering, “Why are we even in this case? Why are we here?” Justice Scalia, often the greatest champion of strict property rights, expressed the same concern, pointing out that the government never took anything in this case. Given the skepticism of the Court, it seems that Koontz’s exaction theory may fail. 
 
But perhaps other takings theories could rescue this case. Realistically, Mr. Koontz’s presented his case to the Supreme Court only on the exaction argument, so it is doubtful that the Court would address other theories. However, in the past decades and already this term, the Court has been inclined to rule in favor of complaining landowners, so an exploration of Koontz’s other constitutional and policy options is worthwhile.
 
B. Other Takings Theories
 
Mr. Koontz might argue that there has been a regulatory taking insofar as the government has denied Mr. Koontz all use of his land for commercial development. This argument has previously prevailed before the Court, as was the case, mentioned above, of the South Carolina landowner who was denied a permit to build on his beachfront property. However, in that case the Supreme Court considered the permit denial to be a regulatory taking because it left the landowner without any reasonably beneficial economic use of his land. That simply is not the case for Mr. Koontz. Coy Koontz can still build an economically significant commercial development on his property. Admittedly, Mr. Koontz can only build this development if he is also willing to preserve and improve various wetlands at what may be a non-negligible cost to him. But the economic opportunity to develop the parcel even with the proposed restrictions is also very real, and an argument that there has been a complete loss of value rather than only a partial reduction in value is unsound. 
 
Mr. Koontz might then argue that there has been a regulatory taking under the three-part Penn Central test. This argument also faces an uphill battle. The Court might find, for example, that when the government denies a permit because the landowner is not willing to accept conditions, that the “character of the government action”, specifically, the possibly extortionate conditions, should lead to a regulatory taking and compensation.  On the other hand, the conditions probably do not have a major economic impact compared to the value of the proposed development, nor do the conditions interfere with Koontz’s investment-backed expectations because he still stands to make a significant profit on the development, regardless of the conditions. More importantly, the Supreme Court has never found a regulatory taking under the Penn Central test. 
 
Koontz’s final argument might then fall from a constitutional argument to a policy argument. It is unfair, he might argue, that he must choose between what he sees as the lesser of two evils. He can refuse, as he did, to accept the permit conditions and the government will deny the permit, but then he cannot win on the constitutional merits. If he wants to succeed on a constitutional exactions argument he will have to concede to a permit with conditions he does not like and then sue the government as the beachfront homeowner or the hardware store owner did.  Koontz’s policy argument would be that he should not have to wait for an unconstitutional act in order to get his justice. But this argument should also fail because it sets up a false dichotomy.  
 
Mr. Koontz would want the court to sympathize with his untenable situation. Either he accepts an unconstitutional permit or he stands up for his principal but is then prohibited from getting justice. The flaw in this argument is that even if there were an exaction in this case, an exaction is not unconstitutional. Takings in general are not unconstitutional; they merely require compensation. This is the very purpose of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The government may take property, whether by eminent domain, regulatory takings or exactions, as long as the government pays compensation. If Mr. Koontz were faced with a permit that denied his freedom of speech or religion, then his choice would raise constitutional sympathies. When his choice is between making a lot of money or making a lot of money and spending a little to protect the environment, the Constitution does not prohibit permit conditions.
 
III. Takings and Environmental Protection
 
Through the Takings Clause, the United States Constitution strikes a balance between a severe and inflexible purity of private property and the logical inevitability that in democratic society property owners must, to some degree, consent to limited governmental interference.  Although this is the consensus embodied in the Fifth Amendment it is not welcome to strict property rights advocates. 
 
The alternative is not a welcome to environmental protection advocates. Whether it is wetlands or coalmines, flood protection or toxic remediation, environmental safeguards frequently bear on the private use of land. If the Court is to further expand the scope of the Takings Clause, the requirement of compensation could make environmental protection impractically expensive. Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District presents the Court with an opportunity to reject a further broadening of the scope of takings law and to avoid putting environmental safeguards—already in political jeopardy—in greater legal and economic jeopardy.  
 
_________________________________________________________________
 [1] Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, 260 U.S. 393 (1922).
 [2] Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104 (1978).
 [3] Loretto v. Teleprompter Manhattan CATV Corp., 548 U.S. 419 (1982).
 [4] Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992).
 [5] Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, 482 U.S. 825 (1987).
 [6] Dolan v. City of Tigard, 512 U.S. 374 (1994).
 [7] Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, 482 U.S. 825 (1987).
 [8] Dolan v. City of Tigard, 512 U.S. 374 (1994).
 
Posted in: Environmental Law & Governance
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
| Share

New Report on Climate Legislation

By Guest Author, Nathaniel Loewentheil, Yale Law School '13

 

The following is a guest post by Yale Law Student Nathaniel Loewentheil. Nathaniel recently authored a report for the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, which this post summarizes. You can find the full report here.

Two new reports out from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration add to the ponderous weight of evidence suggesting that our climate is changing more rapidly than we had anticipated – and with greater consequences.

This makes for reconciling two difficult truths: first, that climate change is already affecting all of our lives, and second, that our national political institutions are doing nothing to address it. They’re not now, and they won’t be for the next few years. The environmental movement is almost completely sidelined by a recalcitrant and increasingly conservative Republican Party and, we must admit, a public concerned more with daily economic necessities than long-term ecological challenges. When that movement will again be able to capture public attention is difficult to say.

In the meantime, the movement is biding its time and plotting strategy for the future. Before it looks forward, however, it must necessarily look back at the most recent climate campaign: the failed push for a cap-and-trade bill in 2009 and 2010.

In a new report out this week from Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, I  take a look at that climate campaign using historical trends in political parties, voting records, natural resource distribution and a variety of other indicators.

The report has two key findings. First, and unsurprisingly, there were a variety of forces that together blocked cap-and-trade legislation, from energy interests and political geography to polarization and the recession.

But, I believe, defeat was not inevitable.

To see this, all we have to do is look at the Affordable Care Act of 2010. The fact that a major healthcare reform bill got through Congress suggests that the climate movement might have succeeded, recession and the Tea Party notwithstanding.

Comparing the two campaigns, a key difference emerges. The healthcare campaign succeeded by combining a sophisticated insider strategy with large-scale organizing. The climate campaign, in sharp contrast, had an insider strategy only. Through the US Climate Action Partnership, organizations like Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resource Defense Council built an impressive coalition of NGOs and corporations and laid out the policy framework ultimately embedded in the Waxman-Markey bill. But the campaign didn’t build a grassroots network or attempt to win over public opinion. In this, it erred dramatically.

I also looked back at the history of environmental policymaking, from the Wilderness Act of 1964 up through the Superfund Act of the late 1980s. In case after case, the same lesson was clear: major environmental legislation can only succeed when an organized movement makes demands and the public voices its approval. Lacking both street power and endorsement by the polls, the climate campaign was doomed to a slow death in the Senate.

The bright side is that a careful analysis of the failure of the climate campaign provides a clear lesson for the future. The movement needs to begin investing in local and state organizations that can build a strong, enduring network of activists ready to spring into action the next time a realistic climate bill is on the table. Organizing, of course, is built around action – and now is a good moment to be running campaigns at the municipal and state level for energy efficiency measures and tax breaks for green technology.

But that’s not enough. The movement also needs to begin shifting public opinion. And to that end, we need a new generation of journalists who, like Rachel Carson, can capture the hearts of Americans, not just their minds.

Read the full report here.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
| Share

Beyond ‘Crazy Bad’: Explaining Beijing’s Extreme Air Pollution

By Guest Author, Angel Hsu and William Miao, Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy

Beijing’s air quality once again is making international headlines for off-the-chart measurements of air pollution. Images of Beijing show China’s capital city completely shrouded in gloomy shades of grey. According to Jan. 12 readings of the city’s official real-time air quality monitoring platform, air pollution levels exceeded the upper limit of 500 on the Air Quality Index (click here to read an explanation of China’s newly adopted AQI) in many of Beijing’s districts, meaning that air pollution was beyond “hazardous” levels.  The US Embassy in Beijing, which has been independently monitoring air pollution since the 2008 Olympics,  independently measured and reported AQI values topping 755 .

Infographic created by Monte Kawahara

The most significant contributing pollutant by far, as reported by both the Chinese and US measuring capacities, is fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5. Readings that topped 500 in November 2010 prompted a US Embassy official to tweet that the air was “crazy bad,” although this outtake was quickly recinded.

PM 2.5 – Small Particle, Big Threat

PM 2.5 represents fine particles suspended in the air with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns (about one thirtieth of the width of human hair). Particles of this size are capable of passing through the respiratory track and remaining in the human lungs, causing a range of short-term and chronic conditions such as asthma, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

So how PM 2.5 being measured and reflected in air quality indices, communicated by both the U.S. Embassy and Chinese government? Last March the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) released new national air quality standards and an index, the AQI, for communicating air quality that was more consistent with U.S. standards.  The main difference between the Chinese and U.S. AQIs for PM 2.5 is the pollutant concentration thresholds used. While the U.S has adopted a PM 2.5 concentration threshold close to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recommended levels of 10 μg/m3, China has opted for thresholds similar to the interim guidelines the WHO has set for developing countries.[JG1]

In Table 1, above, we see US and China AQI breakpoints for PM10 and PM 2.5. Note that the descriptions in column 2 are based on the Chinese AQI standards, not US standards.

Because the official AQI measurements are capped at 500, the real extent of PM 2.5 concentrations citizens faced this past weekend in Beijing are understated. In fact, the PM 2.5 readings of all regions across the city in the evening of Jan. 12 were above 700 μg/m3, peaking at 993 μg/m3)  When the US Embassy reported AQI values above 500 some asked whether their monitors were broken. 

When the US Embassy air monitor started reporting values above 500, some thought these were measurement errors, as the upper-end of the AQI only reaches 500. How were AQI values beyond 500 determined? Vance Wagner, a long-time Beijing air quality analyst, wrote a post explaining the linear estimation of the AQI beyond 500, demonstrating that the US monitor uses the relationship for concentration levels at 400 μg/mto 500  μg/m3.

Figure 2. The relationship between PM 2.5 concentrations and AQI. The red line is based on the China AQI, while the blue is interpolated values used by the US Embassy monitor AQI.  Note that the official PM 2.5 concentration to IAQI conversion isn’t linear, an online calculator is available to perform the conversion.In figure 2, above, we see the relationship between PM 2.5 concentrations and AQI. The red line is based on the China AQI, while the blue is interpolated values used by the US Embassy monitor AQI. Note that the official PM 2.5 concentration to IAQI conversion isn’t linear, an online calculator is available to perform the conversion.

Therefore, the equivalent-AQI of 755 reported by the US Embassy’s monitor, would have corresponded to a PM 2.5 concentration of 668 μg/m3. As a comparison, UN WHO recommends a safe level of PM 2.5 of 15 μg/m3, with an interim goal of 75 μg/m3.

These highly hazardous levels of PM 2.5 have prompted Chinese authorities to urge all residents to remain indoors and to order schools to cancel outdoor activities for children.

What’s Causing the Scale-tipping Smog?

Beijing’s air quality is the result of a complex interaction of many climactic, geographic, and anthropogenic factors. Here are some of the explanations set forth to explain why air quality is so hazardous:

·       Winter weather conditions and “haze”: According the official Chinese news channel, China Daily, the main reason for such record-setting pollution is lingering fog and haze. The article states, “Experts and residents in the worst-hit areas such as Shijiazhuang are becoming increasingly worried about the air pollution brought by frequent winter haze.” In the same article, Ma Xuekuan from the National Meteorological Center attributed the formation of fog and haze to the wet air, little wind, and stable atmosphere conditions common in winter. Hazy, humid and stagnant air are perfect for trapping pollutants such as fine particles, which lead to the smog.  While there is logic to this explanation, as Beijing lacks precipitation during the winter months and a few days without wind prevents pollutants from being blown away, the weather and natural causes can’t be entirely to blame for off-the-charts pollution. Even long-term residents are shocked by the recent smog levels.

·       Heating from coal-fired power plants. Around 80 percent of China’s power comes from coal-fired power plants, although Beijing does have plans to eliminate the capitol’s coal plants by 2020. 

·       Increasing car ownership. Beijing now has 5 million vehicles, and the number is increasing. Authorities are now owning upto these staggering statistics and are beginning to think of more aggressive measures to curb emissiosn from vehicles.

·       Industrial activities in neighboring provinces. Beijing is bordered by Shandong and Hebei provinces, which are some of the most industrially intensive provinces in China. In 2011, according to official Chinese Statistics, Shandong had the third-highest industrial output GDP, while Hebei came in sixth.

·       Agricultural biomass burning. While it is unlikely that the severe pollution in Beijing this month is due to agricultural burning because January is not a harvest month, extreme air pollution last May in Wuhan was due to multiple fires of burning biomass, which puts a significant amount of dust, soot, and particulate matter in the atmosphere.

What can be done?

While China’s recent move to release PM 2.5 data for 74 major cities in China, with more plans to release data for all 113 key environmental protection cities by the end of this year, the beyond 500 AQI readings have called into question whether China should revise its AQI to account for pollution levels beyond the index. The meaningfulness of an index that reads “beyond Index”  in determining the severity of air pollution is questionable. Our observations of the MEP’s official PM 2.5 data in previous months show that air pollution is not as severe on a daily basis for all of China. However, considerations for increasing the scale beyond 500 would be helpful for situations like we’re seeing now. 

The good news is that the Chinese government is being more responsive and transparent than they have in the past. The government has been more open to official media reports covering the severity of air pollution and to citizens publicly airing grievances in media outlets. However, the more challenging task will be how the government can take this momentum and translate it quickly into enforcable policies addressing the root causes of the pollution, instead of shifting blame to uncontrollable, natural factors like wind or climate.  

 

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnergy & Climate
Monday, January 14, 2013
| Share

The Continued Decline of Environmental Journalism

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director

 

InsideClimate News reported on Friday that the New York Times is closing its environment desk. The Times confirmed this report and explains that the move is not a signal that they are moving resources away from environmental reporting. It is, they say, simply newsroom restructuring. Nonetheless, the move touches a nerve since the dramatic decline of the newspaper industry has been hard on environmental journalism.

The overall decline in the newspaper industry has been snowballing for some time. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in September 2012 that total employment in the newspaper industry declined by more than 40 percent over the 10-year period from 2001 to 2011. The New York Times itself had 12,050 employees at the close of 2001. By the close of 2011 Times employment dropped to 7,273 amounting to just under a 40-percent decline.

Environmental reporting may be particularly vulnerable to this upending of the newspaper industry. A study from 2008 found that about 555 daily newspapers had a dedicated environmental reporter in in 2000. By 2008 that number fell below 300.  Symptomatic of this decline, Columbia University suspended in 2009 its graduate program in environmental journalism, noting that the weak job market was the primary driver.

The New York Times describes its newsroom shift as an attempt to promote interdisciplinarity, attributing a change in the nature of environmental journalism from 2009 to today’s “pre-fracking and pre-economic collapse” world. To their mind, environmental journalism was “singular and isolated” in 2009 when the Times opened its environment desk. Not to suggest that the Times is giving up on environmental reporting, but this explanation is absurd. Fracking and the economic situation are certainly high-profile issues in 2013, but in 2009 one could have said the very same thing about the economic situation or healthcare reform or swine flu.

No single issue changes the nature of environmental journalism and, in any case, reassigning environmental reporters to other subjects does not create interdisciplinarity, it creates distraction. Good environmental reporting is difficult because scientific issues are complex by nature. The science may be difficult to summarize and its real-world implications—in other words, its inherent interdisciplinarity—spans a number of areas, from economics to politics and many others. A reporter’s ability to specialize should make reporting the connections easier, not harder. By removing the structural focus on a single area of reporting, an editor is more likely to direct a reporter’s focus away from the important environmental news and instead toward high-profile issues. In 2012 fracking was one, but so was the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

Posted in:
Wednesday, January 02, 2013
| Share

Wearing Two Hats: Reflections on the role of small islands at COP 18 in Doha

By Guest Author, Lia Nicholson, Yale F&ES '14

 

Doha, the capital of Qatar, is a glamorous construction – built entirely over the last 50 years – with an extravagant skyline where desert dunes meet the Persian Gulf. Attending the world’s biggest climate meeting there, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was a surreal experience. The glamor of the convention center, the deference with which our hosts treated the 9,000 COP participants, and the adrenaline needed to keep up with the chaotic schedule distracted me from the reality of the situation: we were convened to negotiate an existential threat.

With support from the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP), I had the good fortune of attending the convention and I did it wearing two hats. The objectives of each hat were even somewhat contradictory in nature, which, in the end, reflected my conflicting sentiments toward the multilateral climate negotiations and particularly the role of small island states.

I am enrolled in an environmental protection clinic at Yale Law School, and I work with Islands First, a New York-based non-profit organization with a small staff and a mammoth objective: to build the capacity of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), one of the groups most vulnerable to climate change. A conundrum of the negotiation process is that the most vulnerable countries generally have the least capacity to influence the negotiations. Small island countries, for example, may arrive with a delegation of six while the United States arrives with a delegation of 75. The diplomatic schedule is as demanding as it is confounding with plenaries, informals, informal informals, and drafting groups occurring simultaneously in multiple tracks, small delegations struggle to leverage their voice. Islands First helps to remediate this discrepancy by coordinating extra hands and interns such as myself to cover AOSIS priority meetings and provide research as needed. By strengthening representation, Islands First strives to bring about meaningful environmental policy reform.

In addition to my role with Islands First, I was at COP to organize an event that explored alternative routes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, culminating a semester of research by students in the Yale Law School course, “Climate Change and the International Court of Justice”. The Ambassadors for Responsibility on Climate Change, or ARC, in 2011 began an initiative to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The initiative sought a judicial opinion to define a state’s responsibility to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions based on established international legal concepts, including the precautionary principle and the prevention of transboundary harm (for an explanation of these legal concepts, please see Christophe Schwarte’s presentation and the ICJ summary brochure).

The event featured presentations on this subject from four diverse panelists (bios provided below). ARC member Ambassador Lima of Cape Verde brought a humanitarian vision that emphasized, “We are all neighbors with joined doors” as a reminder to value solidarity. The Ambassador referenced the extreme vulnerability of small islands and least developed countries as constituting a right to ask the ICJ for an advisory opinion on state responsibility to reduce emissions.

Attorney Christophe Schwarte, executive director of the Legal Response Initiative (LRI), presented an expert’s technical evaluation of the initiative. His critical appraisal recognized that an ICJ advisory opinion is not the “silver bullet” to reducing emissions. However, the presentation’s message was that the initiative passes the legal litmus test for an audience before the ICJ. Schwarte concluded that the action would have important benefits, such as increasing public awareness and responsibility, activating political pressure, and establishing “building blocks” for principles of international environmental law, particularly in relation to the atmosphere.

For Professor Michael Dorsey, the ICJ initiative embodies proactive action to reinvigorate the “low-intensity, politically possible, morally bankrupt conversations” of climate negotiations. This revision of the negotiation process could be achieved through an ICJ opinion that, if favorable, could create a paradigm shift towards a new international norm against greenhouse gases.

Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies’ student Dustin Schinn explained why an advisory opinion would be in the interest of all nations, including the biggest polluters and particularly the United States. An advisory opinion, Dustin explained, would reinforce the rule of law in responding to the international threat of climate change, and in the past the U.S. has been a proponent of such interventions. Furthermore, the economic costs of inactions in addition to the threat of climate change to international security and by extension U.S. national interest call for timely and effective action.

The four diverse perspectives – humanitarian, activist, student, and legal expert – resulted in a thought-provoking dialogue, evidenced in the post-presentation enthusiasm where the audience went to meet and greet the panelists. The event was a great success, and an encouraging symbol of the growing interest in the initiative, for which YCELP and Yale Law School are providing critical momentum.

Over the last twenty years, COP accomplishments in qualitative terms are at best modest compared to the urgency and scale of action required to prevent warming of a 3- to 5-degree magnitude. The plight of small islands continues to be largely overlooked, despite the efforts of groups like Islands First. I ponder that perhaps by attending the COP, these vulnerable island states are not only distracting from other efforts, but they are supporting a process in which a worthwhile outcome is politically infeasible. We might, therefore, ask: would islands be better served by not participating in the COP at all and focusing attention elsewhere? And within the negotiations, would their abstention be louder than their input?

Ambassador Stuart Beck of Palau, a small island in the Pacific, is an informed objector to the process. I can’t help but walk away from the 18th COP admiring the Ambassador’s decision, given my own growing feeling that the negotiation outcomes are pre-ordained by the specific instructions assigned to the negotiators from their country leaders back home. If this is truly the case, then through participation alone small islands are validating a broken process. Their validation of the negotiations is important because their sheer numbers help make the COP a democratic and representative process – what deficits there may be in size and resources, small islands make up for in numbers, as AOSIS represents 20 percent of total UN membership. Furthermore, small islands command a moral authority in the negotiations, which stems from extreme vulnerability to the issue at hand. This moral high ground is leveraged throughout the negotiation process through passionate interventions – for example, in Doha, the Philippines appealed to negotiators after their country was struck by a devastating typhoon during the COP.

By abstaining from the negotiations, small islands would send a very clear signal to the international community, that the negotiations have failed to reduce emissions in a timely fashion to prevent severe, sustained, and detrimental impacts to small island nations. Scientific research supports this statement, as the fourth report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified a global peaking year of 2015 in order to mitigate the worst of the effects for island states. Proactive and creative alternatives, such as the ICJ advisory opinion, will become increasingly viable as the COP negotiations fail to deliver a meaningful reduction in emissions year after year. Given their vulnerable position, it is likely that small island states, and their sympathizers and supporters, will have to pioneer a pathway forward.

 

Biographical information for the moderator and four speakers on the ICJ panel

Moderator: John Foran

Dr. John Foran is Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-Director of the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory, or iicat.at.

Ambassador Antonio Lima

Ambassador Antonio Pedro Monteiro Lima is the Permanent Representative of Cape Verde to the United Nations.  Prior to starting his current appointment in 2007, Ambassador Lima was the Political and Diplomatic Adviser to the President, a post he held since August 2001, while serving concurrently as the Head of State’s Permanent Representative to the International Organization of La Francophonie and Chairman of the National Francophonie Committee. From January 1999 to June 2001, he was stationed in Lome, Togo, as Director of the Communications, Compensation, and Development Fund of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).  He was the Fund’s Secretary-General from June 1992 to December 1998.  He was Secretary of State for External Affairs and Emigration from 1990 to 1991, and served as Director-General for Political, Economic and Cultural Affairs in the Ministry of External Affairs between 1988 and 1990. From 1985 to 1987 he was the Diplomatic Adviser to the Presidency.

Christophe Schwarte

Attorney Christophe Schwarte is the Executive Director of the Legal Response Initiative (LRI) - a network of lawyers that provides free legal advice to developing countries and observer organisations in connection with the climate negotiations. Before joining the Legal Response Initiative, Christophe worked as a senior lawyer at the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD) and served with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for over six years. Christophe is a qualified lawyer with over 12 years of practical experience in different arenas of international environmental law. He holds an LLM from the School of Oriental and African Studies and is a member of the International Law Association's Committee on the Legal Principles related to Climate Change.

Michael Dorsey

Dr. Michael K. Dorsey is Visiting Fellow and Professor of Environmental Studies in Wesleyan University’s College of the Environment and serves as a Director on the Sierra Club’s National Board. From 2010 to 2012, Michael was the Director of Dartmouth College’s Climate Justice Research Project. For more than two decades Michael Dorsey has provided strategic guidance and advice to governments, foundations, firms, and many others on the interplay of multilateral environmental, climate, and biodiversity policy, including for the Clinton administration. He was a member of Senator Barack Obama’s energy and environment Presidential campaign team, and in 2010, Lisa Jackson, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, appointed Michael to her National Advisory Committee.  Professor Dorsey’s highly cited work seeks to understand how institutional and organizational behavior explain and inform efforts to manage the environment and to effect a just transition to sustainable development.

Dustin Schinn

Dustin Schinn is a second year Master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies where he focuses on the economics, international policy and governance of climate change.  Previous to that, he conducted research in the field of physical environmental sciences at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Northern Rivers Institute, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  He became especially interested in sustainable development and climate change through his recent internships at the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations and at the Global Environment Facility.  For more information please refer to http://environment.yale.edu/profile/dustin-schinn.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate

Page 1 of 1 pages

Blog Home



2007-2010 Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy | Contact Us | Website by Asirastudio LLC