05/07/2020 - The Revolution pipeline explosion resulted in a huge fine for Energy Transfer. Now, DEP says it’s found hundreds of new violations

A pipeline company fresh off a record $30 million fine for a 2018 explosion that leveled a Beaver County home has racked up hundreds of construction violations for hillside slips, soil erosion and stream pollution at construction sites for the same pipeline. 

According to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, ETC Northeast Pipeline LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer, has had 680 violations along the route of the 40-mile Revolution pipeline in Beaver County since the beginning of the year. The violations are the subject of settlement talks between the agency and the company. 

Since January, DEP inspectors observed slopes along the pipeline route slip, erosion and sedimentation barriers fail, and sediment-laden water getting into streams, all violations of the company’s clean water permits. 

“There have been a number of slides and stability issues along the route of the Revolution Pipeline,” DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley said in an email. 

Over the course of four months, DEP inspectors documented more than two dozen slope failures and dozens of instances of soil erosion into nearby streams. 

The DEP is not releasing documents and correspondence related to the violations because they “would be part of settlement discussions and would be considered confidential,” Fraley said. 

The 24-inch pipeline would carry natural gas between two processing stations in Washington and Butler counties in Western Pennsylvania. 

In January, the DEP announced a settlement with Dallas-based Energy Transfer that included a record $30 million fine for violations related to a September 2018 explosion. 

The Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation into the blast; the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office is also investigating. 

The explosion occurred less than a week after the pipeline was put into service. After a landslide near Ivy Lane in Center Township, a section of the line ruptured. The blast forced evacuations and burned one house to the ground. 

The January settlement noted widespread problems with the company’s construction of the pipeline, including failure to stabilize more than a dozen hillsides, hundreds of cases where sediment from its construction spilled into rivers and streams, and more than 2,000 cases of improper construction. 

The DEP found a landslide had taken place at the site just months before the blast, and the company failed to consult engineers or other geotechnical experts when restoring the site.

The settlement lifted a nearly year-long permit freeze on the company’s pipeline projects in the state, including the cross-state Mariner East pipelines. 

But days after the settlement was announced, DEP inspectors began finding problems along the pipeline’s route in Beaver County, according to the DEP’s online oil and gas compliance report database.

On Jan. 7, a DEP inspector observed a four-foot section of “slope material” enter a stream in New Sewickley Township. At a separate site that same day, the inspector observed failing erosion and sedimentation control devices, resulting in “direct discharge of sediment” into a stream.

On a March visit to the pipeline in New Sewickley Township and Conway Borough, inspectors found “sediment laden water travel(ing)” underneath a sediment barrier and into a nearby stream.

On April 29, another inspector found numerous sedimentation violations, including “accelerated erosion” downhill from the construction site. 

The company says the DEP is inflating the extent of the problems. 

“(T)here are many areas where we disagree with DEP on whether there is a violation,” said Alexis Daniel, an Energy Transfer spokeswoman. Daniel said the DEP was “not in compliance with its own guidelines” in the way it reports violations, and that the DEP was citing the same violations in some cases “multiple times” — “in essence double, or even triple reporting alleged violations, even in some instances where the issue has already been addressed.”

Daniel noted that the company self-reported many of the violations, which it’s required to do under its DEP-issued permits. 

Fraley said the DEP was in compliance with its own guidelines for citing violations, and said the agency keeps observing, and documenting, violations along the pipeline. 

“One on-site condition may violate several laws, regulations, and permit conditions…,” Fraley said. “If during a subsequent inspection, DEP observes that the violations have not been corrected, the inspector will note the ongoing, uncorrected violations.”

In the “rare circumstance” where the DEP issues a violation citation where the violation has already been corrected, “the DEP has had ongoing cooperative discussions with ETC to ensure that those violations are marked as corrected,” Fraley said.   

Daniel said some of the violations occurred in areas where the company is “not released to work.”   

“We have a comprehensive plan to address all issues and once we are approved to work, these will be appropriately remediated,” Daniel said.  

Fraley said the areas Daniel was referring to are parts of the pipeline where the company had requested a modification to an already-approved construction plan, and that the DEP hasn’t kept the company from accessing those areas “to implement the approved plans” or maintain and repair erosion control features. 

“Nearly all of the violations have been the result of ETC’s failure to maintain and repair erosion and sedimentation control devices,” Fraley said.  

05/01/2020 - Report finds poultry farming sends more pollution to Chesapeake Bay than previously thought

The Environmental Integrity Project’s analysis estimates that about 1 million more pounds of nitrogen pollution are entering the Chesapeake Bay each year from the poultry industry than state and federal cleanup programs estimate.  

04/30/2020 - Report: Chesapeake Energy plans to file for bankruptcy

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennslyvania

Chesapeake had a large presence in Bradford County. A billboard touts the gas company’s support of a local hospital.

One of Pennsylvania’s largest and most controversial shale gas drillers, Chesapeake Energy, has taken steps toward filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, according to a Reuters report.

Under the direction of its high-spending, risk-taking CEO, Aubrey McClendon, the Oklahoma-based company led the land rush into northeast and north central Pennsylvania that helped kick off the fracking boom about a decade ago.

“They would come into a community and lease and lease and lease,” said Bill Holland, who covers natural gas for S&P Global Market Intelligence.

By doing so, the company took on debt. And eventually, the fracking boom it helped create led to a glut of natural gas, and prices tanked. At the beginning of Pennsylvania’s shale boom in 2009, the price of Marcellus Shale gas was about $14/million British thermal units, but by 2016 it had dropped to less than $2/MmBtu, and it remains in that range today.

McClendon resigned from Chesapeake in 2013 and started another energy company. He died in March 2016 after his car slammed into an overpass in Oklahoma City a day after he was indicted on federal conspiracy charges.

In Pennsylvania, Chesapeake has faced allegations that it cheats landowners out of royalty money. The company has denied that. However, it’s the target of a number of class-action lawsuits, and in October, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to take a case launched by the state Attorney General.

In May 2011, the Department of Environmental Protection fined the company about $1 million, at the time the largest fine issued by the DEP. Chesapeake had polluted several drinking wells in Bradford County.

The company holds 3,471 drilling permits in the state but has just 993 active wells, according to the DEP.

Though Chesapeake Energy is on shaky ground, other Pennsylvania shale producers have actually benefited from the current drop in oil prices and the COVID-19 crisis. That’s because drops in oil production in places like Texas are accompanied by drops in natural-gas production as well. 

Less supply nationwide, and an increase in natural gas-generated electricity, means prices for Marcellus Shale producers are expected to start creeping back up by the end of this year.

04/30/2020 - Greenhouse gas emissions predicted to fall nearly 8% — largest decrease ever

The International Energy Agency warns that emissions will rebound when the economy recovers, unless countries focus their economic relief packages on boosting clean energy.

04/29/2020 - Rust Belt and midwest cities need to plan on many fronts for new ‘climate migrants’

Photo courtesy of the Noyes family

Damage outside the home of Chris and Kelly Noyes caused by Hurricane Isabelle in 2003.

When Chris and Kelly Noyes stepped out of their house after Hurricane Isabelle, the first thing they noticed were the trees.

“Just the amount of trees that were down, it was overwhelming,” said Kelly, describing the damage in their neighborhood. “When we walked outside after the storm, it was like you didn’t even recognize where you were.”

“It was overwhelming in that the whole area was like that,” Chris added, thinking about how far the storm reached. “So you couldn’t like, drive out, ‘oh there’s a nice place’. [It was] just everywhere.”

Two years after moving to Chesapeake, Virginia, Chris and Kelly Noyes were struck by the hurricane in September 2003. It caused more than $5 billion in damage through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and into Pennsylvania. In Virginia, the storm surge was much stronger than predicted — flooding further in than people expected. For Chris and Kelly, they were left stranded for 11 days with their three year old daughter and no power.

“You’re trying to get back to normal, but you don’t realize what a loss like that just for days and days…” Kelly trailed off. “When it is catastrophic like that, it’s really terrible. It’s really, really difficult.”

The Pittsburgh natives moved to the East Coast from Las Vegas in 2001, hoping for “the beach life.” With Kelly working in the public school system and Chris managing a local hotel, they figured the small town would be a prime place to raise their daughter. But in the wake of the storm, it became clear that it would be too hard to make Virginia feel like home again. The Noyes lost hundreds of dollars in food, their heating system, and access to water.

The uncertainty of the situation was what scared them. In the days that they waited for help, a curfew was placed on the community, making it difficult for Chris to work. As the night shift manager, he had to make a daily choice of driving to work to get paid — risking the heavy fine if he were caught — or not make any money at all by staying home. He said that driving back to the empty house in the darkness, with no streetlights and no windows lit up on the drive back, was disorienting and frightening.

“Although you would not experience a storm to that degree every year, on a yearly basis you would have that worry because you’re right in the hurricane zone,” Kelly said. “So I think that’s what had us starting to think, like, maybe in the long term this beach life is not really what we had planned for.”

A few months after the storm, Chris and Kelly began searching for a new home. They wanted to stay somewhere by the ocean, but up and down the coast, cities were either too expensive or didn’t have the right jobs. So they decided to come back to Pittsburgh — a place that was familiar to them, but also, in their minds, was more environmentally secure.

Climate Migration on the Rise

This move the Noyes made — fleeing hurricane-hit Virginia for inland Pittsburgh — is what some experts are calling climate migration.

Though there is no formally recognized definition, climate migration broadly refers to people who have been displaced, permanently or temporarily, from their homes from natural disasters or averse, long-term impacts of climate change.

More than 15 million people worldwide have been displaced by weather disasters every year in the last decade. In 2018, more than a million Americans were forced to leave their homes because of natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, all of which are expected to get worse and more frequent due to climate change. In these situations, people often return to their homes.

Photo courtesy of the Noyes family

The Noyes’ new home in Pittsburgh is on top of a hill to avoid flooding.

But people are also being displaced because of more gradual climate change impacts, like sea level rise, which is predicted to displace nearly 13 million Americans by the end of the century, according to a University of Georgia study published in Nature Climate Change.

Dr. Jack DeWaard, from the University of Minnesota’s Population Center, said in these situations, which are often more permanent, it’s difficult to tease out whether people move because of environmental reasons, or because of economic situations, or a mixture of both. For example, jobs that depend on environmental conditions, like agriculture, may be lost if those environmental conditions change.

“In those situations, you can’t necessarily tease out the role of climate and environment from the economic livelihoods that are sort of giving people pause about whether they might stay in an area, how long they would stay in that area, or whether they would migrate away,” DeWaard said.

But people mostly try to find ways to adapt and stay before making the decision to leave. “What we also know from the literature is that people migrate — they utilize migration as an adaptation option often of last resort,” DeWaard said.

Becoming a Climate Haven in the Rust Belt

Understanding how people move after natural disasters can help cities better prepare for new populations. A new study in the journal PLOS ONE predicts that most climate migrants will move just inland of hard hit communities, staying close to friends and family. But others will relocate further from the coast, to the Rustbelt and Midwest.

Even though this region will experience extreme storms, flooding, and temperature rise, it may be more tolerable than the South or along the coasts. And, it boasts freshwater access and infrastructure meant for larger populations before manufacturing declined in the 1970s.

Some cities in the region are already positioning themselves as climate destinations.

Byron Brown, Mayor of Buffalo, New York, said in his 2019 State of the City Address that Buffalo has “a tremendous opportunity, as our planet changes. Based on scientific research, we know that Buffalo will be a climate refuge city, for centuries to come.”

A Harvard researcher dubbed Duluth, Minnesota, “Climate proof Duluth”.

And Cincinnati stated in its 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan that they intend to promote the city as a climate haven for people and businesses, in hopes of growing their economy.

Cincinnati resilience officer Oliver Kroner said this idea was inspired by the 2,000 people who moved into the city after Hurricane Katrina. He said the city, so far, has focused on greening infrastructure and, in particular, restoring empty housing stock.

“Largely, we believe that it will really be a test of infrastructure that will be most challenging,” Kroner said. “And if we provide a solid foundation for people to live here and move here, we’ll be better prepared, to handle an influx of people.”

Pittsburgh has decidedly not described itself as a climate haven. Chief Resilience Officer Grant Ervin said this isn’t because it’s unimportant — just that as an inland city, they have more time to respond to potential climate migration.  “We’re seeing what like a 2050 could look like in terms of coastal cities,” he said. “For an inland place like Pittsburgh, that’s going to affect us.”

Inland cities, Ervin notes, are in a very different position from coastal communities, which face immediate dislocation.

“Inland cities are thinking very much in terms of like, ‘okay, so this is going to happen, how are we going to absorb a growing population,’ ” said Ervin. “They’re different questions and they require different policy responses.”

According to Ervin, many of the actions Pittsburgh is taking to address climate change would also help handle an increase in new residents. The city’s climate plan addresses obvious issues like energy efficiency, encouraging the use of public transportation and renewable energy, but also things like fixing vacant properties and increasing demand for local food.

But Kroner said implementing social initiatives necessary for in-migration has proven to be hard for governments when it comes to climate policy.

“I think the infrastructure piece is better understood and is being addressed in a more meaningful way right now,” Kroner said. “That is in part due to the fact that that is typically where government focuses and what we can control to some degree. The social component is harder to understand, harder to manage. It’s more complicated.”

Embedding Social Sciences into Climate Policy

But cities need comprehensive social support systems that go beyond environmental or climate actions, said DeWaard, especially because migration won’t be fair for everyone. Typically, people who can afford to move will move.

“If everybody with means leaves an area and they all migrate to Duluth, Minnesota or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, maybe what we’re going to start seeing are housing costs going up,” said DeWaard. “Maybe what we might see is changes in inequality within that specific place, if those who are migrating in are very different, socioeconomically, for instance, from the folks who are already there.”

When people with means leave a climate-hit area, it leaves behind poorer families, concentrating poverty in vulnerable communities.

On the flip side, lower income families who decide to resettle may need additional support in their new homes. DeWaard said that social programs to help people adapt can ease the strain on cities like helping people find housing, jobs, or even healthcare.  Otherwise, inequality may get worse as climate migration increases, “because disasters are inherently social phenomenon, that require us to think about place vulnerability and social vulnerability,” he said. “And indeed there has been growing calls, even by natural scientists to embed the social sciences in climate policy.”

The Noyes, who left Virginia’s “beach life” for the social and environmental security of Pittsburgh, may be an example of what many Americans could face in the future. For Chris and Kelly, it was easy — they had family here, they knew the area, and they bought a house on top of a hill, just to avoid flooding. But Chris still thinks about friends and family along the coast, and the storms they might face.

“Being close to the Outer Banks, there’s parts of the Outer Banks where the road washes away and people are stranded,” Chris said. “And I look back now and say ‘I’m just glad that’s not me’, you know? I don’t ever want to have to go through that again.”

04/29/2020 - Two Pa. colleges hit carbon neutrality goals

Allegheny College and Dickinson College hit their goals this month. 

04/28/2020 - Ex-EPA official: Rollback of Mercury and Air Toxics Standards ‘forshadows what’s to come’

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), finalized in 2015, were designed to lower the amount of mercury and toxic air pollution Americans are exposed to from coal- and oil-fired power plants. But earlier this month, the Trump administration relaxed those standards, rewriting a major aspect of the rules. With the vast majority of power plants already in compliance, why roll it back now?

On this episode of our podcast, Trump on Earth, we hear first from someone who helped write the original rule. Joseph Goffman is a former senior counsel at EPA under the Obama administration. He now runs the Environmental & Energy Law Program at Harvard. And next, we hear from John Walke, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defence Council. He explains why the rollback of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards foreshadows what’s to come.

Reid Frazier: So let’s start with the basics. What is the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards Rule? 

Joseph Goffman: The MATS rule is and was issued by the EPA, originally 2011. The power plants that were affected by the rule had to put pollution reduction equipment on their smokestacks and have it essentially up and running by April of 2015.

The rule not only went into effect on schedule, but the vast, vast majority of power plants put the equipment in that they had to put in and they turned the equipment on. It’s been running successfully ever since, reducing lots of pollution, not only mercury and air toxins, but lots of other pollution as well. From the point of view of protecting what the air that people breathe, it’s been very, very successful.

Frazier: So what did the administration do here last week? They did not just roll the whole thing back, but they changed something important about it. What was that? 

Goffman: Well, the good news is that even this administration explicitly said that they didn’t want to have the utilities turn the equipment off. But there is a tricky part of this particular part of the Clean Air Act as it applies to power plants. And that tricky part is what the administration changed.

Congress told the EPA that as a first step before they set the [original] emission standards, the EPA had to analyze whether or not power plants were emitting mercury and other air toxics at high levels. And after analyzing that question, they had to determine whether or not it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate emissions from power plants [as the Clean Air Act states].

Back in 2011, after the EPA had done a study of the question about how much mercury was coming out of power plants and whether it was a problem, the EPA took the step of determining that it was, “appropriate and necessary,” to regulate that mercury. Then it took the next step to set the pollution reduction targets.

What this EPA did was say, ‘Hold on a second. We actually think that in our analysis, it isn’t “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury. We think that the costs of regulating mercury outweigh the benefits. And even though at this point in time, we can’t undo the standards, we are going take off the books the determination that it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury. And we’re going to take it off the books specifically because we don’t like the way the costs and the benefits balance out.’

This is a chapter in a much longer story that is all about the war that the Trump EPA is waging against cost-benefit.

Frazier: So the major change is they’re basically arguing against using something called co-benefits for these regulations when doing a cost-benefit analysis of the regulation. Can you explain what a co-benefit is and how the EPA had been using it before? 

Goffman: One way to think about a co-benefit is to think about it in practical terms as co-reductions. When you put a piece of equipment on a power plant to scrub out of the smokestack mercury and acid gases, which are a byproduct of burning coal and oil, that same piece of equipment scrubs out an awful lot of soot. The technical term is fine particles.

So when you turn on the equipment and you run it, you get rid of the mercury, you get rid of the acid gases, and you get rid of a lot of deadliest form of pollution. Up until this point, whenever the agency adopted any kind of rule, it would look not only at the reductions that the rule was intended to achieve, but it would also look at the co-reductions.

You put a piece of equipment in that reduced one form of pollution because that’s what you were intending, and it also reduced lots of other forms of pollution, then the EPA would count all of that as the total benefits of the rule.

This administration has said we don’t want to do it that way. We don’t care how many different kinds of pollution a particular rule achieves. We want to just count specific parts of the total pollution burden and only have to be responsible for the benefits from that smaller subset of pollutants. So that’s what’s going on here.

I want to jump to the back story. Two things basically happened more or less at the dawn of this administration. Thing number one was that the administration made clear that it wanted to deregulate as much as possible. It wanted to roll back, particularly Environmental Protection Agency regulations and rules.

In fact, the President issued an executive order in March of 2017 that went through a list of rules that were on the books and told the EPA to relook at those rules. It didn’t take much insight to realize that what he was telling the EPA to do was roll those rules back or at least weaken them.

Now about the same time, another part of the government, the Office of Management and Budget, did a comprehensive study of all of the regulations, including the regulations that EPA had issued in the previous 20 years, counted up the costs of those rules and counted up the benefits. The benefits of those rules outweighed the costs by millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars.

So you see the problem for the administration. They wanted to roll back rules, they wanted to deregulate. But at the same time, the calculation was that the benefits clearly outweighed the costs. What do you do with a dilemma like that?

Well, the answer is, change the way you count the benefits and change the way you count the costs so that you are deregulation project looks like it makes sense, even though your own analysis shows that it doesn’t.

They couldn’t change that arithmetic, so they changed the math, if you will. They’ve done it three or four times already involving different rules. Last week’s change was just another flavor, using just another tool to change the way costs and benefits are balanced against each other.

Frazier: Changing the cost-benefit formula that you use for these regulations, is that simply to make the regulations look better to the public? Or is there a legal requirement to make sure that the numbers work. Why is that cost-benefit analysis so important? 

Goffman: It is to make it look better to the public. The president says he wants to undo the rules and the government also shows how valuable the rules are. You know that’s a conundrum.

So in order to accomplish the first thing, you want to change the second thing so that the public doesn’t see how much we’re all losing in terms of the value of pollution regulation.

Sometimes comparing costs and benefits is a legal requirement. But going back to the Reagan administration, and carrying through to every administration since, the White House has required all of the government agencies to do a rigorous analysis comparing costs and benefits.

Frazier: So if this isn’t going to allow coal plants to shut off their pollution controls and they’ve already complied with this rule, what is the impact of this rule? Will this impact how future regulations in this and future administrations are made? 

Goffman: The thing that’s really maddening is that EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler signed the rule on Thursday of last week. The rule turns on a very specific legal argument that’s connected directly to one particular provision of the Clean Air Act that is close to unique within the Clean Air Act.

So at first blush, you would say, this only involves one provision of the Clean Air Act and it won’t have much effect going forward. But about 24 hours later, Administrator Wheeler, said, oh, no, this rule foreshadows things we’re gonna do elsewhere. What he meant by that, and I think he was pretty clear, is this foreshadows the fact that in other rules, we’re going to use similar tactics to minimize the dollar value of the benefits so that you’re comparing smaller benefits to larger costs. That will create momentum against more regulation.

Frazier: Just on a personal level, what is it like to see a rule that you presumably spend a lot of time helping put together get dismantled? 

Goffman: Well, it’s really kind of traumatic. What’s going to make it worse is that the good news that we have today, which is that the rule that was issued on Thursday does not tell the power plants to turn their pollution control equipment off and start emitting again — that part of the Thursdays rule is going to be challenged, I think, by certain companies and maybe certain states and maybe certain parts of the coal industry.

That’s going to be playing out in the coming months and maybe years and frankly create a lot of stress on the power plant operators. They’ve already committed to buying and running this equipment. It’s going to put a lot of stress on states whose job it is to make sure that air quality is maintained and improved and who’ve been counting on the reductions that this rule creates.

Personally, I got into this business because I really think that people’s lives are affected by how much pollution they’re exposed to. The reason for doing all this is to use the law to protect people’s health. Here we are in the middle of a pandemic when everybody’s health is on the forefront of everybody’s mind. Now comes along yet a new risk that there’ll be another way that their health will be put in danger, and that is by increases in pollution.

We’re entering a nerve-wracking period. There’s another answer, of course, Reid which is when you work in this area as long as I have and particularly when you’ve had the good luck of working in the Environmental Protection Agency, which employs amazing people, you really learn to respect the integrity of the methods that the government uses to do analysis.

To the extent that the quarry here that’s being attacked by this rule is trying to sabotage that methodology and sabotage the integrity of these methods, that’s really painful to watch.

All of our fates are dependent on how good a job or how bad a job the government does in analyzing science, analyzing technical issues and applying that analysis.

Next we talk with someone about what happens next with this rule. John Walke is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Frazier: John, I guess my big question is what happens next with the MATS rule? What is the upshot if all these coal plants are already in compliance, and if they still have to keep their air pollution controls on, what is going to happen with this rule now. 

Walke: Let me walk through that. This rule was challenged by some coal companies and other utility companies that not only thought we should be ignoring all benefits from reducing air pollution, but thought that these lifesaving standards that avoid up to 11,000 deaths every year should be overturned in court. That lawsuit is still pending.

So we know that there are bad actors out there, coal companies that want to see these standards overturned, even though everyone across the country is complying with them.

On the other hand, the utility companies themselves support the standards. Their perspective is, ‘look, we’ve spent the money on the controls. We’re meeting the standard. We can continue to meet the standards. They’re protecting our communities and our customers. We don’t want these standards undermined or jeopardized because that could threaten our ability to recover costs for the pollution controls that we’re running to protect our communities.’

So you’ve got an interesting dynamic there. We’ll find out whether there will be lawsuits resumed or initiated anew to seek to overturn the standards themselves. So you’re going to have a whole range of people and parties rushing into court, some seeking to overturn the Trump EPA attack on the standards, some seeking to exploit the Trump EPA attack on the standards, in order to try to kill the standards themselves, even though they’re being universally complied with across the country.

Frazier:  So lawsuits in both directions then. And does this ruling on co-benefits throw into question other regulations? I mean, every EPA regulation comes with cost-benefit analysis in terms of, you’re preventing 30,000 deaths but it’s going to cost the industry $300 million dollars or something. And they have to sort of justify it, at least in writing. Do you think that this will have some carryover into other types of regulations? 

Walke: That’s a great question Reid and you’ve really gone straight to the bull’s eye. I would say that this Trump EPA attack is just as much about, if not more about, attacks on a wide range of clean air and climate change safeguards adopted by EPA not just now, but well into the future to try to constrain actions by a future president.

Here’s why. When you control smog pollution or toxic air pollution or the dangerous pollution that drives climate change like methane and carbon dioxide, you also helpfully reduce fine soot particles that contribute to heart attacks, strokes and premature deaths.

Every EPA since the beginning, including the Trump EPA, prior to this week, has recognized the logic and the appropriateness and the need to recognize all benefits from cutting all pollution because Americans enjoy those benefits.

What the Trump EPA has done with this attack on the mercury standards is to unleash a very clear agenda to ignore the benefits of reducing all forms of air pollution. If you ignore the benefits, then it seems on paper to become much more costly for industry to cut those other forms of pollution like smog and methane and climate-changing carbon dioxide.

So this is really part of a broader, more insidious agenda to prevent EPA from adopting effective climate change regulations, effective smog regulations and effective regulations for toxic air pollution like the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards that launched this broader ideological attack this week.

Frazier: So what happens if we have a change in the White House. Is this making it harder for a Biden administration to bring up a new regulation in the future? 

Walke: Yes, that’s exactly the Trump EPA agenda. We know this because just last week, the Trump EPA sent over to the Trump White House a broad rulemaking to apply to the entire Clean Air Act, not just the power plants, and how it regulates industries and vehicles and all forms of air pollution in America.

What this rulemaking will do is to adopt radically different methods for accounting for the benefits and costs of regulating air pollution and climate change pollution. We know from inside sources at EPA that it intends to adopt the exact same approach used in the attack on the mercury standards, namely ignoring the benefits of cutting all forms of pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes using the Clean Air Act.

Now, a future administration under a different president could certainly move to reverse that rule, just like it could move to reverse the mercury rule. But that takes years, and that’s exactly why this cynical ploy is being carried out in what amounts to the latter half of 2020 when they’ll finalize this broad, sweeping rule.

They are acting simply to constrain possible new president next year and presidents. beyond that with this mechanism that dishonestly accounts for how much air pollution is actually being reduced in the real world by clean air standards.

Frazier: I’m thinking a little bit about the Clean Power Plan or any future climate change policy. I’m sure that any kind of Democratic administration that puts forward some sort of climate change proposal would want to calculate in the co-benefits of, say, reducing particle pollution from fossil fuels if we stop burning gas and stop burning coal and gasoline and things like that. It’ll be a big carbon benefit, but there will also be less air pollution. 

Walke: That’s exactly what will happen. But here’s the dirty little secret and the irony. The Trump EPA and this former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, who runs EPA, has done exactly that with their rollbacks and attacks on the Clean Air Act in an effort to claim those rollbacks have benefits that outweigh the costs. The Trump EPA itself has credited and recognized the benefits of cutting all forms of air pollution, including deadly soot particles.

The Trump EPA did that with its rollback of the Clean Power Plan, with its substitute called the American Clean Energy (ACE Rul). They’ve done that with methane rules for oil and gas. They’ve done that with air attacks on the clean car standards.

In several of those examples, the only possible way that the Trump EPA could muster any claim that the rollback had benefits greater than the cost was by considering the benefits of cutting toxic soot pollution. Had the Trump EPA done, in those rules, what they did in the mercury standard for power plants, namely ignoring co-benefits, then the Trump EPA would have been forced to admit that the rollbacks had cost greater than benefits.

So there’s just rank hypocrisy and some real disingenuous behavior here. They’re willing to consider co-benefits when they think it aids adoption of rollbacks, but they’re not willing to consider co-benefits when it aids the protection of safeguards for the American people.

Frazier: So obviously, this is going to be heading to court, the question of whether what the EPA did here was was legal essentially and following the guidance set by Congress. We have a 5-4 Supreme Court in favor of the conservatives. What are your predictions in terms of what they would say about whether or not what the EPA did here was was OK? 

Walke: I actually think Reid, that any judges or justices, whether you call them liberal or conservative, will have severe problems with a Trump agency that decides that it can simply ignore benefits that occur under its rules. The reason is that that is just an irrational and arbitrary approach to considering benefits and costs.

In fact, it is at odds with Trump EPA guidance that remains in place to this day. The Trump EPA has adopted and ratified the same guidance that requires agencies to consider so-called ancillary benefits and costs, which is the same thing as co-benefits when it also considers direct benefits and costs. That’s because you want to have an honest accounting of what the consequences of rules are going to be

So this is a situation where what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If an agency like the EPA is going to ignore co-benefits, that means the agency should be able to ignore indirect costs. That’s going to be harmful for industries in the future. It won’t be tough for conservative judges or justices to figure that out very quickly.

I think that they are going to find that an agency that acts in this manner, whether it’s a Republican or Democratic agency, is just flouting sensible, logical and longstanding benefit-cost practices, and is engaging in behavior that the law considers irrational and arbitrary. I don’t think it will survive a judicial challenge.

Trump on Earth is a podcast exploring the environment in the Trump era with deep analysis, clear information, and real talk from the critics, scientists and thinkers who know the issues. Hosted by reporters for The Allegheny Front and produced by Andy Kubis. Subscribe today.



04/27/2020 - The coal industry was already struggling. Now it’s getting hammered by coronavirus

Andrew Blumenfeld has been around the coal industry for over three decades. He’s seen his fair number of bad times for the industry. And Blumenfeld, a coal industry analyst with the firm IHS Markit, says this downturn is as bad as he’s ever seen.

“It doesn’t compare — we have seen some relatively severe downturns. But nothing this sudden and this severe,” Blumenfeld said.

Businesses have shuttered to slow the spread of COVID-19, and as a result, electricity use is down. That has hurt coal in particular.

Five years ago, coal made up one third of the nation’s electricity. This year it’s around half of that.

“We’re seeing coal production numbers and power generation numbers from coal going back to roughly late 1960s, the mid 1970s levels,”  Blumenfeld said.

Since the coronavirus hit the U.S., coal mines across the country have begun shutting down, laying off workers and slowing production. Bankruptcies loom everywhere in the industry.

In Pennsylvania, Consol idled its Enlow Fork mine in Washington County, citing low demand. Just over the border in West Virginia, Longview Power — the most efficient coal-fired power plant in the country — filed for bankruptcy, citing reduced demand because of coronavirus.


Matt Smith / for Keystone Crossroads

A view of Blaschak coal mine in Mahanoy City.

“Just about everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong for the coal industry,” said Matthew Preston, a coal analyst at the firm Wood Mackenzie. He said coal demand this year is down between 35 and 40 percent from last year, “and last year wasn’t a great year.”

Coal has been struggling for many years. Now, there’s a drop in demand because of the economic shutdown (as well as warmer weather).

In the mid-Atlantic power grid, that demand fell by 8 to 9 percent in March.

Preston said that right now, coal is more expensive than natural gas, wind or solar in many parts of the country. So when demand slows, coal plants are the first to shut down.

In fact, over three days earlier this month, wind and solar actually produced more electricity than coal in the U.S., the first time that has happened, according to a new research note from the Rhodium Group.

Rhodium found that coal accounted for just 16.4 percent of U.S. electric power from mid-March to mid-April, compared with 22.5 percent for a similar period last year.

All of this means that — just as with the oil glut — there’s too much coal sitting around.

“We’re seeing coal stockpiles run up to some historically high levels,” said Joe Aldina, a coal industry analyst with S&P Global Platts. He said it’s “actually pushing the physical constraints of the coal fired generation system.”

Blumenfeld says coal stockpiles at power plants were “basically double what it should be at this time of year.” He also suspects excess inventory is forcing some mining companies to shut down.

Aldina said coal plants could decide to run at a loss this summer, just to burn off excess stock. He sees a potential rebound for coal next year if natural gas prices rise as expected.

The industry’s problems weigh on people like James Starcher. He works at Contura Energy’s Cumberland mine, where 46 miners were laid off last week.

Starcher, 44, of Grafton, W. Va., was not among the layoffs. But he says the 500 or so other miners who work there are worried for the future of the jobs.

“Now everyone is thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness. Will there be more? Could there be more?’” Starcher said.

Analysts say there could be more layoffs, bankruptcies and shutdowns this year. And if coal-fired power plants decide to retire early, then the damage inflicted by the coronavirus on the industry could leave a permanent mark.

04/26/2020 - ‘Horrible hybrids’: the plastic products that give recyclers nightmares — and what you can use instead

This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

The cheerful, singing voice inside your musical “Happy Birthday” card is enough to strike horror in the heart of your local recycler.

The musical cards, which play a recording when opened, look like plain cardboard, making them easy to accidentally throw in the recycling bin. But experts say the insides are laced with cheap electronics and toxic batteries – making them a nightmare to dispose of.

Such cards are just one example of what recyclers say is a growing trend in mixing different materials to create new types of products and packaging, which is making the work of recovering reusable products much harder.

“I call them ‘horrible hybrids’,” said Heidi Sanborn, who heads up the National Stewardship Action Council, a network of groups that seeks to get manufacturers to take responsibility for the proper disposal of the products they sell. “They are made of multiple materials or materials that are impossible to recycle. It’s a mushing of things.”

Discarded single-use plastics have become an international environmental flashpoint, as they have turned up in the bellies of birds and fish, flooded pristine beaches in remote countries with litter and even been detected in microscopic quantities in rainwater. Plastic products designed to be used for a few minutes can take decades or longer to decompose.

Studies have also shown the proliferation of single-use plastic is accelerating climate change through greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its lifecycle. While environmental groups fighting to reduce the use of throwaway plastics have gained visibility in the last few years, the oil industry is investing heavily in a huge surge of plastic production – which the industry expects to grow by 40% by 2030. The increase in plastics production is to be fueled by the ultra-cheap shale gas flowing from the US fracking boom. The petro-chemical industry has already invested $200 billion to build new cracking plants that separate ethane from gas to produce the ethylene needed to make plastics. Another $100 billion in investments is planned.

Industry often points to recycling as the solution to all those new plastics. Yet only a fraction of plastic products end up recycled, a problem that was exacerbated when China shut its doors in 2018 to the deluge of plastics from other countries that it had previously been recycling.

The US municipalities and recyclers are scrambling to increase the amount of recycling they can do domestically. But these new formulations of hybrid packaging – items mixing materials like foil, paper and sometimes multiple types of plastics – stymie recycling solutions and mostly just end up in the trash.

Examples include shoes and clothing embedded with electronics; the increasingly popular flexible plastic pouches used to package things like detergent pods, rice and baby food; and recyclable bottles and cans tightly wrapped in extra plastic labeling.

Tiny batteries

Singing cards and other products with tiny electronics inside them are especially vexing to recyclers. Not only do they include toxic electronic waste, but when the small batteries get crushed in the machinery inside recycling plants, they have been frequently known to cause fires.

“One of the biggest problems for recyclers right now is all the products containing lithium ion batteries, such as the singing cards, balloons and other novelty products,” said Kate Bailey, the director of research at Eco-Cycle, a Boulder, Colorado, recycler. “These batteries can spark easily when they get caught in the processing equipment or run over by a front-end loader, and these sparks can lead to disastrous fires in the recycling center.”

Recyclers are urging manufacturers to simplify the products they make to make it easy to recycle them. But they say consumers can also help by searching for more recyclable products – and then voting with their dollars.

Bad: singing greeting cards
Better: regular cardboard cards
Best: cards made from recycled paper or E-cards

Bad: musical mylar balloons
Better: colorful pinwheels
Best: edible bouquets

Bad: tennis shoes with light-up wheels
Better: regular tennis shoes
Best: shoes made of natural or recycled materials

Plastic pouches

Another growing menace for recyclers are the plastic pouches increasingly used to hold everything from laundry detergent pods to cereals and juices. This flexible packaging is made with many thin layers of different types and colors of plastic and is sometimes layered with foil and wax.

Manufacturers and plastic producers tout these pouches for making packages smaller, reducing shipping costs and increasing the shelf life of foods. “A few thin, carefully chosen layers mean more value, less footprint,” says a video by the plastic producer lobbying group, the American Chemistry Council, promoting such pouches.

But recyclers say they are pretty much impossible to recycle. And they are apt to end up in the ocean and take decades to biodegrade. When choosing laundry detergent, they say, consumers might look for products in unlined boxes or try new formulations such as concentrated detergent strips, which require no plastic packaging.

Bad: detergent pods packaged in film plastic bag
Better: detergent in recyclable see-thru plastic jugs or cardboard box
Best: laundry detergent strips

Bad: Baby food sold in plastic pouches
Better: The old recyclable glass jars
Best: Make your own from fresh fruits and vegetables

Plastic labels

Another bugaboo for recyclers is the increasing use of non-recyclable wrappers around perfectly recyclable bottles and cans. For instance most spray cleaners come in bottles made of high-density polyethylene, which can be readily recycled. But first consumers must remove the spraytops, as they are made from different plastics and are not recyclable. Then consumers must find a way to pry off the brightly-colored, printed plastic wraps that packagers are increasingly wrapping around bottles to make the labeling more attractive.

“Who does all that? Nobody,” said Sanborn. “We’ve made recycling too complicated. Who has the time to read a manual for everything they get rid of?”

Instead consumers can look for clear-colored or white bottles with the labeling printed on the bottle itself. It’s even better if they choose brands committed to using recycled plastic to make these bottles, such as Method cleaning products. Another great option is for customers to mix their own cleaners and reuse the plastic bottles.

Bad: plastic spray bottle wrapped with an extra layer of printed plastic
Better: white or transparent bottle without the extra wrap
Best: make your own cleaner and refill the bottles

Bad: beer cans with plastic wraps or vinyl stickers
Better: regular, very recyclable cans

Sanborn says that the best recycling outcomes happen when companies pay to create programs to make sure the waste from their products gets recycled in the end. Such programs are often mandatory in other countries. In the US, a few companies are promoting this type of effort voluntarily, such as a program to recycle plastic disposable razors coordinated by the company Gillete in partnership with the recycling enterprise, Terracycle. The program allows consumers to mail in their razors to be recycled.

“We should have it so these companies have to have an end-of-life system for all their products,” said Sanborn. “That’s producer responsibility.”

04/25/2020 - For U.S. coasts, high-water hazards have just become more hazardous: a lot more hazardous, say scientists.

This story originally appeared in Climate News Network and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

A new study of high-water levels on US coasts in 200 regions brings ominous news for those who live in vulnerable towns and cities.

By 2050, floods expected perhaps once every 50 years will happen almost every year in nearly three fourths of all the coasts under study.

And by 2100, the kind of extreme high tides that now happen once in a lifetime could wash over the streets and gardens of 93% of these communities, almost every day.

The message, from researchers led by the US Geological Survey, is that sea levels will go on rising steadily by millimetres every year, but the number of extreme flooding events could double every five years.

Researchers outline their argument in the journal Scientific Reports. They looked at the data routinely collected from 202 tide gauges distributed around the US coasts and then extended the tidal levels forward in time in line with predictions based on global sea level rise that will inevitably accompany ever-increasing global average temperatures, driven by greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use.

Other scientists have warned that the damage from coastal flooding, storm surges and marine invasion will rise to colossal levels by the century’s end, that routine high-tide floods will become increasingly common, and that up to 13 million US citizens now in coastal settlements could become climate refugees.

But researchers based in Chicago, Santa Cruz and Hawaii wanted more than that: they wanted to know what sea level rise will do, as the waters lap ever higher, from year to year.

“Sea level rise is slow, yet consequential and accelerating,” they point out. “Upper end sea level rise scenarios could displace hundreds of millions of people by the end of the 21st century. However, even small amounts of sea level rise can disproportionately increase coastal flood frequency.”

The researchers selected 202 sites, most of them in sheltered harbours or bays, for their tide data: that way their record reflected the highest tides and storm surges, but not the haphazard readings of waves.

They concentrated on what they called “extreme water-level events” of the kind that happened once every 50 years, because most US coastal engineering work is based on that kind of hazard frequency. And then they started doing the calculations.

StateImpact Pennsylvania · Sea level rise threatens airports across the U.S.

Exponential hazard growth

For nine out of 10 locations, the difference between the kind of flood that happened every 50 years and the sort that occurred maybe once a year was about half a metre. For 73% of their chosen tide gauges, the difference between the daily highest tide and the once-every-50-years event was less than a metre. Most projections for sea level rise worldwide by the end of the century are higher than a metre.

Once the researchers had set their algorithms to work, they found that even in median sea-level rise scenarios, the hazards grew exponentially. They found that all tidal stations would by 2050 be recording what remain for the moment 50-year events, every year. When they set the timetable to 2100, 93% of their locations would be recording a once-in-50-years flood every day.

“The impact of this finding bears repeating: sea level rise will likely cause ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ coastal flooding events to occur nearly every day before 2100,” they warn.

This would have profound consequences for what they call extreme events. And even in ordinary circumstances, beaches are increasingly likely to be washed away, and cliffs eroded.

The researchers conclude: “Our society has yet to fully comprehend the imminence of the projected regime shifts in coastal hazards and the consequences thereof.”