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Sunday, August 25, 2013
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Beyond Coal: Working on the Sierra Club’s PSE Campaign

By Guest Author, Nora Hawkins, F&ES '14

If you say coal in my home state of Washington, more likely than not, people will assume you are talking about coal exports. The terminals currently proposed in Washington and Oregon would enable coal mined in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to be shipped to China. This new export avenue would provide a market for American coal, which is becoming less and less economically competitive in the US given the expansion of hydraulic fracturing and decreasing natural gas prices.

In a region proud of its efforts to be more sustainable, coal exports are a galvanizing issue. Participation in public meetings has been staggering with thousands showing up to comment on the proposed environmental impact statement for the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point in northern Washington. (To learn more about this complex issue, check out PBS’s recent documentary.)

Coal Free PSE

This summer I returned to the Pacific Northwest to work on coal and climate change, but I had the interesting challenge of not focusing my efforts on the export issues that have taken center stage. Instead, I worked on the Sierra Club’s Coal Free PSE campaign, which aims to encourage, and ultimately convince, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) to transition entirely off coal.

For decades Washington’s abundant hydropower has made the state a national leader in using less greenhouse-gas-intensive electricity, and just a few years ago, an environmental campaign succeeded in securing a retirement date for the last coal-fired power plant in the state. PSE is the main investor-owned utility for residents on the east side of the Puget Sound in western Washington, providing electricity for over one million Washingtonians. While PSE is respected for its effective customer service and is widely regarded as a green utility – it is the second largest wind developer in the country and has made notable efforts on energy conservation– it still relies on coal for approximately 30 percent of its electricity generation.

Of particular concern to the Sierra Club and the members of the coalition is the Colstrip Generating Plant in Eastern Montana. PSE is the single largest owner of this large, aging coal-fired power plant. The EPA consistently ranks Colstrip as one of the top two sources of greenhouse gas emissions west of the Mississippi, and the plant faces numerous other environmental and public health liabilities.

Many advocacy groups feel compelled to choose between persuading decisionmakers to select a particular course of action and demanding public accountability, especially since holding decisionmakers responsible for their choices could jeopardize the relationships through which these advocacy groups exercise influence. As I witnessed firsthand this summer, there is a way to do both: the Sierra Club relies on an extremely effective blend of the politics of persuasion and the politics of pressure.

Assessing PSE’s Resource Mix

My initial project was to translate and streamline the Sierra Club’s robust, technical analysis of Puget Sound Energy’s 1,000-page Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) in a way that would be accessible and palatable to a broader audience. In an electric IRP, a utility analyzes the various resources it could rely on to provide power to its ratepayers and determines what resource mix is most economically feasible going forward. New IRPs are issued every two years, and the planning process is a critical time for a utility to make sure its resource investments are not leading it down a slippery slope of ever increasing costs.

As an investor-owned utility, PSE is regulated by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC). The UTC regularly reviews utilities’ proposed rate increases and issues an order allowing for recovery of costs and setting a rate of return. The UTC does not approve the IRPs, but the commissioners can note areas of risk in their comments on the IRP. If that happens, the subject utility likely will reevaluate its plan since it creates uncertainty about whether the UTC will approve proposed rate increases in the coming year.

Starting with the analysis summary, my work with the Sierra Club focused on finding ways to succinctly describe the fundamental flaws we found in PSE’s IRP, specifically in its evaluation of the economics of the Colstrip plant. Throughout the plan, PSE either ignored or vastly underestimated the significant public and environmental health costs that the vintage coal plant faces. PSE’s IRP ultimately dismissed the fact that, while the aging Colstrip plant may be able to be maintained somewhat cheaply in the short term, the plant will likely require increasingly costly investments in coming years to comply with new regulations. Much of my internship centered on communicating these oversights to “grasstops” – elected officials, academic experts, and community leaders – and encouraging them to submit comments to the UTC, expressing their concerns about the IRP.

Lake Washington Rally

In contrast to our efforts to engage influential individuals, my second week on the job I assisted with a rally during which we barged a large inflatable coal plant around one of the bridges of a main interstate highway at rush hour, with a sign urging PSE to move beyond coal. Several subject matter experts spoke at the event, and a group of citizen activists demonstrated their support.

While I wondered if our rally might be conflated with coal exports by the casual observer, I learned that earned media is often the true testament to a successful public event. (Check out the news stories on our event here and here and here.) This type of coverage reaches people in their homes and empowers them as ratepayers to call on their utility to provide them with electricity that won’t result in ever-increasing costs or cause environmental harm. The impact of Colstrip’s pollution on local ranchers in Montana is a particularly compelling rallying point in the Coal Free PSE campaign, the emotionality of which is captured in this documentary.

The official public comment period on PSE’s IRP ended August 16. When I return to FES this fall, I look forward to staying engaged with the campaign. Sooner rather than later, I believe Washington State will finally be able to say that it is 100 percent coal free. This victory will be won both through technical arguments and appeals to emotion, and it will give Washingtonians even more justification for opposing the transport of coal across our state.

Nora Hawkins is a Master of Environmental Management candidate. She graduated from Whitman College in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in chemistry. Prior to commencing her studies at Yale, Nora worked as a paralegal in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC. At F&ES she is focused on environmental policy and is committed to building a richer, more genuine dialogue between scientists and policymakers.

Posted in: Energy & Climate
Friday, August 09, 2013
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Carbon storage in CA Tidal Marshes: the Role of Tidal Marsh Restoration in Carbon Credit Programs

By Guest Author, Kevin Sherrill, Yale F&ES '14

Five years ago – the last time I walked through the Giacomini Wetlands -- I was working to rescue 12 leopard sharks that had stranded themselves in a pasture after a levee broke, just six months shy of its scheduled removal. This is just one of the many interesting land-sea conflicts that arise in a state that has seen 91 percent wetland loss, well above the estimated 53 percent national average for the lower 48.

The 560-acre area at the southern end of Tomales Bay was leveed and drained in the 1940s to make room for expanding dairy farms and roads in west Marin County, California, cutting off the Lagunitas Creek watershed’s connection with its flood plain and increasing pollutant loading to the bay. Thankfully, a lot has changed since the 2008 restoration project effectively doubled the size of tidal marshes.

Following the restoration Tomales Bay has seen improvements in water quality, native plant recolonization, along with a rise in wildlife abundance and diversity. Aside from the more obvious improvements to the Bay’s health, tidal marsh restoration or conservation projects also have a huge potential to store carbon, an appealing prospect for those seeking to mitigate climate change.

Intact marshes that can keep pace with relative sea-level rise are usually sinks for the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and sources of methane and nitrous oxide. Emission rates of the latter are much smaller in magnitude; however, they have 25- and 298-times, respectively, the global warming potential of carbon dioxide on a 100-year time horizon. While marshes play a vital role in carbon sequestration rates, it is essential to quantify how greenhouse gas emission rates vary across marsh complexes – especially with more large-scale restoration projects for the San Francisco Bay area on the horizon.

I’ve spent the summer back in Giacomini Wetlands – much less wary of submerged drainage ditches and stray leopard sharks than I was in 2008. Instead, I’m using static soil chamber and gas chromatography techniques to see how greenhouse gas emissions rates vary across a number of variables including salinity gradients, vegetation communities, and restoration histories. My research should offer a more accurate portrayal of restored marshes’ net carbon-storage capacity, potentially elucidating the restoration strategies – for example, the re-vegetation palettes – that minimize greenhouse gas emissions.

Kevin Sherrill is a MESc candidate at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, YCELP Research Fellow, Carpenter-Sperry awardee, and Jubitz Family Endowment awardee. This summer he is working on quantifying carbon storage rates for restored and intact wetlands in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Contact: kevin.sherrill@yale.edu

Posted in: Energy & Climate
Monday, August 05, 2013
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Off Alaska’s North Slope: To drill or not to drill?

By Guest Author, Amy Mount, Yale F&ES '14

“This is good: now that we’ve got an adult with us, we can walk along the beach!” said the 9-year-old Inuit girl.

“Erm, why do you need an adult to walk along the beach?” I asked tentatively, wondering what I’d committed myself to when agreeing to hang out with the bunch of kids who’d been watching Nickelodeon in the cafe where I was eating lunch.

“In case there are polar bears,” she replied nonchalantly, slurping her garish blue Slush Puppie and flicking her hair behind her head.

We were in the tiny village of Wainwright, Alaska, roughly 70 miles from the northernmost city in the United States, perched on the coast where the great expanse of tundra that covers Alaska’s North Slope meets the chilly Arctic Ocean.  The sea ice had begun its springtime melt and three or four whaling crews had towed their boats using snow-machines across the land-fast ice to the patch of dark blue water that had opened up a mile or so from the shore. The rest of the village’s inhabitants had tuned into channel 12 on the CB radio to listen for updates from the whalers, pausing in their work or play occasionally to scan the sea through their binoculars, looking for tell-tale spouts of water.

I couldn’t help gazing out to sea. I’d never seen an ice-covered ocean before and something about it fascinated me: the way it had grown a temporary topography during the dark winter, the frozen layer exhibiting a kind of plate-tectonic behaviour, pushed and pulled by currents and tides, leaving not a smooth landscape but one of ridges and fissures. 

In the 19th century, whales were hunted in large numbers by non-indigenous commercial whaling boats, in what one Alaska Native described to me as the North Slope’s first “offshore oil rush.” The blubber was boiled to extract oil that, in turn, was burned in lamps. Commercial whaling (as distinguished from indigenous people’s subsistence whaling) has been illegal for some time now, but these days there is talk of a new offshore oil rush on the horizon. Decreasing Arctic sea-ice coverage and relatively high global energy prices have been drawing drillships northward in search of the fossilized hydrocarbons thought to lie beneath the sea bed.

I had been drawn north too, intrigued by the media narratives of an inevitable “opening up” of the Arctic. I was travelling around Alaska to research the decisionmaking process that determines whether or not drilling will happen in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas; to learn about who makes those decisions, whose views are considered, and which factors are seen to be important. I have so far interviewed more than 40 people from a variety of backgrounds: oil companies, the Alaska legislature, federal and state agencies, environmental organisations, and Alaska Native institutions. 

Hours of analysis and writing await me in the coming academic year, so it would be rash of me to announce any conclusions just yet. I do, however, want to share one thought. The urban Alaskans from Anchorage and Juneau often alluded to the “bind” or difficult situation in which people up on the North Slope find themselves. Since oil began to flow from the onshore area around Prudhoe Bay in the 1970s, the villages dotting the Arctic coastline have become accustomed to a parallel flow of benefits in the form of greatly improved public services, infrastructure, and cash. Now that the onshore fields are producing less, some hope that offshore drilling could fill the gap and ensure the continued flow of cash to the local economy. 

At the same time, there is great concern for the wellbeing of the bowhead whales that are seen as essential to those communities’ food security, social practices and cultural heritage. Whales might be harmed or pushed away by the noise of drilling, seismic testing, or perhaps the mess of an oil spill – not to mention the impacts of fossil-fuelled climate change on the region as a whole, which indeed were not often mentioned by many of my interviewees but which are increasingly documented in scientific literature. 

No one seems to know a satisfactory way out of this apparent tension between the need for ecological integrity and the need for cash. People in the south sigh and shake their heads in pity at the situation of those in the north. Yet it seems to me that the tension on the North Slope is but an early indication of a condition that exists globally, in a world whose leaders declare their countries to be “addicted” to fossil fuels but whose security is undermined by the extraction and combustion of those very materials – due principally to global warming but also to more locally felt environmental impacts. Understanding the politics, policies and decisions that surround fossil fuel extraction is important not just for Arctic inhabitants but for us all.

Amy Mount, a joint-degree master’s of environmental management and international relations student, is studying the politics of offshore drilling in Alaska.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate

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