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Appeals court to EPA: You just keep on regulating greenhouse gas

A random courthouse photographed from a dramatic angle.

This morning, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) first-of-its-kind greenhouse gas regulations, dismissing out of hand a variety of challenges from industry and states. The findings uphold the agency's rules defining limits to the emission of greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act. Specifically, the court ruled: Yes, the agency acted properly in determining that CO2 is a danger to public health; yes, it was right to use that determination to regulate vehicles; and yes, it was within its authority to determine the timing (Timing Rule) and scope (Tailoring Rule) of the regulations.

The Wall Street Journal called the decisions "a blow to an array of industry groups"; Politico declared them "a surprisingly sweeping win." In short: very good news.

Here's how the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided. (At the bottom of this post, you can read the decision itself, via FuelFix.)

1. The Court determined that the EPA absolutely has authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant.

The genesis of this litigation came in 2007, when the Supreme Court held in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases “unambiguous[ly]” may be regulated as an “air pollutant” under the Clean Air Act (“CAA”). Squarely rejecting the contention -- then advanced by EPA -- that “greenhouse gases cannot be ‘air pollutants’ within the meaning of the Act,” the Court held that the CAA’s definition of “air pollutant” "embraces all airborne compounds of whatever stripe.”

In other words, when the Bush administration EPA was sued by the state of Massachusetts in 2007 for not regulating greenhouse gases, the Supreme Court determined that it unquestionably had the authority to do so. A pollutant is a pollutant, after all, regardless of impact.

Read more: Climate Change

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How’s the weather, America? June 26, 2012 edition

Some days, there's just too much news about the weather to warrant 45,000 individual posts. So, primarily out of laziness, we've compiled this handy overview of all of the (mostly but not entirely awful) weather-related things happening across the country. Did we forget/omit some? Probably! Tell us about them in the comments.

Flooding in Florida

Tropical Storm Debby is still hanging out in the little corner of the Gulf carved out by Florida, raining and raining and raining. State officials shut down part of Interstate 10 yesterday after flooding made it impassable.

There has been at least one death related to Debby: A young mother was killed when a tornado spawned by the storm upended her house. A man in Alabama was swept out to into the Gulf and has not been found. Oy.

Read more: Climate Change

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Visualize a shorter commute — or a better job

If you lived at the Watergate, this is how long your commute would be around the city by car. Good news is that should you be heading to, say, the White House, you can get there in about 10 minutes. (Probably faster under cover of darkness.)

Should you choose instead to travel by public transit, the trip takes slightly longer, but it's easier to blend in with crowds.

These images were generated by Trulia's awkwardly named "Visual analysis of local data" tool, henceforth known as the Commute-o-matic.™ It's less complicated than it seems. The tool looks at known public transit routes (bus stops, train stations) and the travel times between them. What makes it look magical is the speed with which it makes the calculations.

In most cities, you can almost always get more places in less time by car. That revelation won't shock you, though the extent of the problem might. Compare San Jose with San Francisco. Huge difference in what public transit allows.

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Coal plants are the VHS tapes of the energy production flea market

"Tell you what. You take three coal plants, I'll throw in this Schwinn." (Photo by Donna L. Faber.)

When the Clean Air Act was updated in 1977, existing power plants got a free pass: They didn't have to meet new standards until the next time their owners invested in them. So a number of pre-1977 plants simply never upgraded. (This is always a good thing to keep in mind during discussions of coal power.) (You do have discussions about coal power, don't you? At family reunions and the like?)

Some of these grandfathered coal plants have simply been shut down. But coal power has traditionally been so profitable that massive, expensive upgrades to old plants are worth the investment.

That may no longer be the case. From a Bloomberg News report:

An indication of how much new emissions rules and cheaper natural gas have hammered the value of coal-burning generation will come when Exelon announces the results of the first big sale of U.S. coal-fired power plants in four years.

Exelon, the largest U.S. power company, may have to take a 40 percent discount for three Maryland plants it’s seeking to sell by the end of August. Bidders including NRG Energy Inc. (NRG) have offered $600 million to $700 million for the units, which have a fair value of $1 billion, said Travis Miller, Chicago-based director of utilities research for Morningstar Inc.

Read more: Coal

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No, genetically modified grass isn’t killing cows with cyanide

Cows eating something besides cyanide. (Photo courtesy of the University of Missouri Extension.)

Perhaps you heard the story going around today. A genetically modified grass started pumping out cyanide gas, killing a herd of cattle. CBS News had the scoop, as seen at WTVR.com in Richmond: "Genetically modified grass linked to cattle deaths." It's basically a story custom-built for rapid spread around the internet.

And it is basically completely wrong. The grass at issue, Tifton 85, was not genetically modified at all, but rather is a hybrid. Confusion between hybridized crops (which is a process that is basically as old as the idea of "crops") and GMOs is not uncommon.

Nor did the plants suddenly start pumping out cyanide. Examiner.com was one of the first sites with a refutation of the story from which we excerpt this explanation:

According to local station KEYE, Abel first knew something was wrong when the cows started bellowing. He thought he was about to witness a calving but instead saw his unfortunate animals staggering around, obviously dying. Others in the area have also since tested their grass and found the same results—the grass has started venting cyanide.

True: Cattle died after eating grass that suddenly started venting cyanide [Update: the animals died of prussic acid or hydrogen cyanide poisoning.]

False: The grass was genetically modified

Reports indicate that the culprit was indeed prussic acid poisoning, a well-documented, if uncommon, threat to cattle.

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Congress’ flood insurance plans could actually pass despite being sensible and realistic

Photo by DVIDSHUB.

The Senate is expected to vote on a bill this week that would refine federal flood insurance rules to include global-warming-related flooding projections. From a report at E&E News:

The legislation instructs the 44-year-old program with 5.6 million policyholders to incorporate science's best estimates about future flooding changes into the map-making process that identifies floodplains across the country. …

The legislation instructs the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the program, to plan for potential "future inundation" by using the latest research on climate change when updating the flood maps that weave through most counties in the country. It pinpoints possible threats from sea-level rise, increased precipitation and intensifying hurricanes.

On the one hand, given the well-documented rise of sea levels (or whatever the incorrectly political term is), adjusting insurance rates to account for likely flooding will save the government money over the long run.

On the other hand, any admission that sea level increase is occurring in any capacity is an attempt to subjugate the United States to the United Nations-USSR-Weimar Republic's plan to create one world government in which Thanksgiving is comprised solely of soy products and sale items at Whole Foods. Which sounds awesome, but some people are against it for some reason.

Read more: Climate Change, Politics

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Everything you need to know about Tropical Storm Debby, and more

"Debby" is not a popular name, having never been in the top 1,000 baby names in America over the past 100 years. Its variant spelling, "Debbie," rose as high as America's 20th most-popular in 1959, before falling off the charts in 1992.

There was a movie in the 1970s that didn't help this trajectory.

It is, though, more popular as a name for storms. "Debby" has six times been used as a name for a tropical storm or hurricane; Debbie, four. In 1969, the most recent Hurricane Debbie was seeded with silver iodide in an experiment designed to test whether or not storms could be weakened. The tests were ultimately deemed failures.

Projected path of Debby.

Nor is "Debby" a particularly intimidating name, as befits 2012's Tropical Storm Debby, currently stalled in the Gulf of Mexico near Florida. It's noteworthy not for its expected impact, but for marking the first time since 1851 that four storms have formed before July. In the future, we'll look back on this and say things like, "Only four?" and then laugh as we put hurricane protection over windows in Wichita.

Read more: Climate Change

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Hope for the unemployed: Fukushima exec lands new gig

Image taken from Mr. Shimizu's resume. (Not really.)

Sometimes the jokes write themselves.

Here's the setup. Masataka Shimizu was the president of Tokyo Electric Power until last May. He was the head of the company when its Fukushima nuclear plant was crippled by last year's earthquake and tsunami, and he led Tepco's much-criticized response.

Last May, he resigned his position. So who hires a man whose leadership failures appear to have contributed to the irradiation of large areas of Japan? To a $26 billion drop in his company's value?

And here's the punchline. From a BBC report:

On Monday, Mr Shimizu starts his new role as an external board member at Fuji Oil Company.

Ah, yes. The oil industry.

Read more: Nuclear

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Coal companies routinely win ‘competitive bids’ against no competition

Coal trucks in the Powder River Basin. (Photo by KimonBerlin.)

There are two senses in which coal is artificially cheap.

The more sophisticated reason is the idea that coal has negative impacts on the economy and on public health which are not incorporated into its price. There's also a practical sense in which coal is too cheap: Coal producers pay far too little for it.

A report in today's Washington Post provides a clear example of this latter sense, focused on the Powder River Basin overlapping Montana and Wyoming.

The government’s longtime practice of auctioning coal mining rights to a single bidder may have cost taxpayers as much as $28.9 billion over the past 30 years, according to an analysis to be released Monday by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a Cambridge, Mass.-based think tank. ...

The phenomenon -- in which a mining company draws up a proposed area for leasing, and the Interior Department’s BLM auctions it off to that same firm -- is the rule rather than the exception in the country’s single biggest coal producing region. In the 26 coal leases the federal government has awarded in southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming since 1991, 22 have gone to a single bidder. In the other four instances, there were only two bidders involved.

Dave Roberts wrote about a similarly sweet deal in March, in which Peabody -- the sole bidder on a large seam -- paid the government $1.11 per ton for coal they could sell to China at $123 a ton. Peabody's next opportunity to win such an auction is this Thursday, as Greenpeace's Joe Smyth noted over the weekend.

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Earthlings: Bad at not emitting carbon dioxide

If CO2 were degrees. (Photo by Joe Chung.)

From The Guardian:

Carbon dioxide emissions have risen by even more than previously thought, according to new data analysed by the Guardian, casting doubt on whether the world can avoid dangerous climate change. ...

In 2010, the latest year for which figures have been compiled, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) said the world emitted 31.8bn tonnes of carbon from energy consumption. That represents a climb of 6.7% on the year before and is significantly higher than the previous best estimate, made by the International Energy Agency last year, that in 2010 a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide were released from burning fossil fuel.

Read more: Climate Change