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Six good reasons to watch the Supreme Court’s interstate air pollution case

Supreme Court building

The Supreme Court hears argument Tuesday in EPA v. EME Homer City Generation -- a case that offers everything a Supreme Court junkie could ask for in a potential blockbuster.

An industry challenge to an important Obama administration policy? Check. A decision by conservative judges on the D.C. Circuit striking down that policy? Check. Important stakes for the lives of ordinary Americans? Check. An early gift from Santa for Supreme Court junkies like me? Perhaps.

Let’s begin with the basics. EME Homer involves a challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, a rule designed to address the longstanding problem of interstate air pollution. Simply put, pollution generated by power plants and factories in upwind states inevitably drifts downwind into other states, putting the health of millions of citizens in those states at risk. Congress has been trying to solve this problem for decades and, through the Clean Air Act, has given the EPA authority to address it -- authority that the EPA has used to design the new rule at issue in EME Homer. However, the D.C. Circuit struck down this rule last year in a 2-1 decision [PDF] authored by conservative darling Brett Kavanaugh over a powerful dissent by Judge Judith Rogers.

These background facts alone ought to make EME Homer a case worth watching, but there’s more -- much more. Here are six reasons to keep an eye on EME Homer:


Postcard from the edge: Urban conundrums on the front lines of climate change


It’s 10 o’clock at night, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. I’m sitting on the sand in Miami Beach, outside the city proper, eating fish tacos and pondering how it’s come to this.

Overhead, a full moon lights up a swirling nimbus of clouds like one of the hurricanes that occasionally slam into this coastline. At my feet, the surf pounds the shore where the Army Corps of Engineers recently harvested tons of white sand and grafted it onto the shoreline further north, where beach erosion threatened oceanfront condos (total price for the job: $15.8 million).

Suddenly, down the beach, a highrise comes unmoored, calving off of the glittering skyline and sliding into the Atlantic. I leap to my feet, ready to run for high ground, then realize it’s just a massive cruise liner, disembarking from the Port of Miami. My god, those things would make the Pacific Princess look like a glorified canoe.

I may be a little jumpy -- cut me some slack, I’m not much of a beachgoer -- but here on the edge of the continent, it’s easy to feel like things are coming apart. During my time here, I've watched storm drains cough up seawater, looked at climate scientist's projections of huge swaths of South Florida submerged by rising seas, and listened to locals' tales of surviving past storms that have reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble.

Miami Beach, which sits on a barrier island across the narrow Biscayne Bay from Miami proper, is quite literally on the front lines of climate change. In all likelihood, most of this buzzing hive of tourists rocking spray-on tans and swilling Snooki’s favorite drink will be waist-deep in water by the end of the century.

And the city itself isn’t far behind. A story in Rolling Stone this summer called Miami a city “on its way to becoming an American Atlantis” -- a place that will someday be “a popular snorkeling spot where people [can] swim with sharks and sea turtles and explore the wreckage of a great American city.”

But I’m told that the reality here is more interesting than that -- that locals are thinking seriously about how to prepare for the rising seas, that there might be a future here, albeit one where the houses are on stilts and you need a Zodiac to get to the Deco Drive Hookah Lounge. I came to see for myself.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


The world’s greenest oil company?

SunPower's solar facility in Alamosa.
Mark Udall
SunPower's solar facility in Alamosa, back by Total.

When Total, the French oil and petrochemicals conglomerate, announced a joint venture Thursday with California biofuels company Amyris to produce low-carbon jet fuel and diesel, it was just the latest move into renewable energy by the fossil-fuel giant.

During the height of the green-tech investing boom before the 2008 global economic crash, oil companies from BP to ExxonMobil poured hundreds of millions of dollars into solar and biofuels. That served as both a hedge against a low-carbon future, and, not coincidentally, as a way to generate some green goodwill. It’s not a new phenomenon. Oil company Atlantic Richfield, for instance, bought an early solar panel maker back in 1977.

But that enthusiasm has waned in recent years. Oil companies as well as venture capitalists pruned their green-tech portfolios amid the worldwide downturn and the belated realization that some renewable energy technologies were not ready for prime time, while others would require billions of dollars to commercialize. BP -- which had rebranded itself as “Beyond Petroleum” -- shuttered its solar operations in 2011. ExxonMobil earlier this year said it’s reevaluating its investment in algae biofuels after putting $100 million into a company called Synthetic Genomics.


The Gates Foundation’s hypocritical investments


With an endowment larger than all but four of the world's largest hedge funds, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is easily one of the most powerful charities in the world. According to its website, the organization “works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives." So how do the investments of the foundation's $36 billion investing arm, the Gates Foundation Trust, match up to its mission? We dug into the group's recently released 2012 tax returns to find out.



Is genetic engineering a doomed effort to reinvent nature’s wheel?

lego caveman and wheel

Set aside, for a moment, any questions about how genetically engineered foods affect health or the environment. Set aside all the intellectual property arguments. Let’s ask a more basic question: Is genetic engineering useful? That is, is this technology fruitful enough that it merits further research?

According to the most hyperbolic rhetoric, genetic engineering is going to save the world. This is the technology that is going to liberate us from farms that run on fossil fuels. It will feed more people off fewer acres than ever before. And it will end our reliance on harmful pesticides. I say hyperbolic because no scientist I’ve talked to has ever suggested that genetic engineering is the only solution. But when the rhetoric heats up you’re likely to hear some version of this refrain: We don’t have any choice! We need this technology.

Recently, Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, made a convincing case that genetic engineering, or any kind of crop improvement actually, isn’t of primary importance. If we really wanted to feed ourselves responsibly, here’s how we'd do it: Reduce food waste, eat less meat, and make fertilizer and irrigation available to the farmers that need it.

Riffing on this reasoning, Doug Gurian-Sherman, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, took it a step further, pointing out that there is an opportunity cost to genetic engineering research. Essentially, public investments in genetic engineering eat up money and energy that we could instead be investing in more effective approaches.

So which is it? Do we have no other choice but to embrace this technology? Or is it basically the 8-track of agriculture? I wish I could argue one extreme or the other here -- it would make this essay more dramatic. But as usual, the answer is: It depends. There are some goals of genetic engineering that are probably a waste of time. And then there are others that will almost certainly bear fruit.

Read more: Food


Northeast states pissed at Midwest states over coal pollution


The governors of eight Northeastern states are fed up with the air pollution that blows their way from states to their west.

In the latest high-profile move to crush the antiquated practice of burning coal in the U.S., the governors filed a petition with the EPA today that seeks more stringent air quality regulations on coal-burning states such as Ohio, Kentucky, and Michigan. That's because pollution from those states' coal-fired power plants reaches the Atlantic coastline, sickening residents there. From The New York Times:


Feds will let wind farms kill eagles for 30 years

A bald eagle

The Obama administration recently sent a big message to the wind energy industry, imposing a $1 million fine under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for a wind farm that killed birds in violation of wildlife rules.

On Friday, the administration sent a different message when it moved to make such rules more lenient.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would begin handing out permits that give wind companies permission to unintentionally kill protected bald and golden eagles for 30 years, provided they implement “advanced conservation practices” to keep the number of deaths low. Such permits had previously been capped at five years.


College cops embrace solar, will now bust up parties sustainably

Daily Gazette

The best insult to drunkenly slur at cops when they break up your college kegger is, “You’re not even GREEN!” At least, it might be if you’re a rich liberal nerd at Swarthmore College. After all, cop cars’ electronic systems guzzle energy when the vehicles idle, which happens a lot. But unfortunately for Swatties, one of their own has joined forces with the Swarthmore Borough Police to make the force solar-powered. Students now may have to resort to the time-tested “You suck!”

Two former Swarthmore students got the ball rolling, snagging $5,000 in funding from the college president to put solar panels on a cop car. Sophomore Kara Bledsoe partnered with Engineering Professor Carr Everbach to finish the job. It was a bit of a bumpy road:

Read more: Living


Bill Nye and his bowtie want to find life on other planets

Space exploration doesn’t seem like the government's highest priority right now. There’s some healthcare website to fix, a widening income gap, climate change, and my inability to find a matching pair of socks (thanks, Obama). But Bill Nye the Science Guy (who now just goes by Bill Nye -- guess it’s a Snoop Lion sort of thing) wants to change that.

Nye and his trademark neckwear made a three-minute video urging Obama to dedicate $1.5 billion a year to space exploration, because funding for NASA and the Planetary Science Program is about to be cut. After all, new discoveries create jobs and boost morale and stuff:

Science rules! Matthew Tiscareno, a senior research associate at Cornell, has Nye’s back:

Read more: Living


These stunning nature photos blend faces and trees

Come, take my hand. LET ME SHOW YOU THE TREE PEOPLE:

Christoffer Relander

OK, fine, these gorgeous photos aren’t of people who live in trees, but hybrids of folks and foliage. Taken by 27-year-old Finnish photographer Christoffer Relander, the photos are part of his series We Are Nature Vol. III.

Christoffer Relander
Read more: Living