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Obama confirms: No big moves on climate in the works

President Barack Obama
The White House

Based on conversations with senior White House officials this week, we reported that the president's State of the Union threat to act unilaterally on climate change didn't appear to have any force behind it. The largest weapon Obama has to that effect is the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants -- something that officials suggested isn't in the works.

Yesterday, Politico asked the president directly what he's planning to do about climate change:

Obama said in his State of the Union address that he is prepared to take action if Congress doesn't act, but he didn't detail what that action might look like. He hinted during the chat Thursday that it could resemble what his administration did to require higher fuel efficiency standards in automobiles.

"The same steps that we took with respect to energy efficiency on cars, we can take on buildings, we can take on appliances, we can make sure that new power plants that are being built are more efficient than the old ones, and we can continue to put research and our support behind clean energy that is going to continue to help us transition away from dirtier fuels," he said.

As we noted on Wednesday, the administration's action to increase fuel-efficiency standards for cars was a good one that will have a significant effect on greenhouse-gas and particulate pollution. But it is also a very different political fight than the one over emissions from existing power plants, and far less important.

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Ohio fracking company owner faces federal charges for dumping wastewater

Things just got a little worse for the owner of the Ohio fracking company whose employees were caught dumping fracking wastewater into the sewer system last month. Yesterday afternoon, the U.S. attorney for Ohio's northern district announced federal charges against him.

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced the criminal charges against Ben Lupo, 62, of Poland, Ohio, at an afternoon news conference on the banks of the Mahoning River.

If convicted, Lupo faces up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

ohio fracking protest
progressohio

Lupo, who co-owns D&L Energy, was directly implicated in the dumping.

The charges state that Lupo ordered Hardrock employees on at least six occasions to pump polluted waste into a storm drain, which led to the tributary and emptied into the Mahoning River about a mile away. The waste consisted primarily of salt-water brine, but also contained crude oil and benzene, Dettelbach said.

Two employees told investigators that Lupo actually ordered them to dump the polluted waste at least 20 times since November, and directed them to lie to investigators about the number of times they dumped the waste, according to documents related to the charges.

Lupo specified that the dumping should only occur at night and after all of the other employees had left the facility, according to an agent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who conducted the interviews.

As the article notes, Ohio is sensitive about the quality of its waterways.

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Tesla offers incomplete, misdirected response to New York Times critique

Here's the latest installment in the great war between Tesla Motors and The New York Times, launched after a Times reporter chronicled a troubled test drive of Tesla's all-electric sedan. For background, see here; for additional commentary, just turn on your computer. There have been dozens of posts on the subject, from the Times' public editor, GigaOm, Gawker, MIT Technology Review, Jalopnik. But the place to start is where our previous piece left off: with a post on the Tesla blog responding to the Times' claims, written by chair Elon Musk.

You may have heard recently about an article written by John Broder from The New York Times that makes numerous claims about the performance of the Model S. We are upset by this article because it does not factually represent Tesla technology, which is designed and tested to operate well in both hot and cold climates. …

When Tesla first approached The New York Times about doing this story, it was supposed to be focused on future advancements in our Supercharger technology. There was no need to write a story about existing Superchargers on the East Coast, as that had already been done by Consumer Reports with no problems! We assumed that the reporter would be fair and impartial, as has been our experience with The New York Times, an organization that prides itself on journalistic integrity. As a result, we did not think to read his past articles and were unaware of his outright disdain for electric cars. We were played for a fool and as a result, let down the cause of electric vehicles. For that, I am deeply sorry.

It is not clear for whom Musk feels sorry, but it is quite clear whose feelings have been hurt: his own. It's clear in the emotion behind his post, emotion that he bolsters with nine bullet-pointed counterarguments, five graphs of data from the car, two Google maps, and one annotated graphic from the Times article.

The Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S, in a sunnier climate.

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New Jersey officials arrested for conspiring to hide water pollution

In the great Goofus and Gallant cartoon of life, this is the Goofus version of protecting clean water. Oh, also if this Goofus and Gallant cartoon were actually an episode of The Sopranos.

From Environment News Service:

Two top officials of the East Orange Water Commission have been charged with conspiring to close contaminated wells before monthly water tests so as to falsely report low levels of a regulated contaminant in drinking water supplied to customers, then opening the wells, allowing the chemical back into the water supply. ...

[Executive director Harry] Mansmann and [assistant executive director William] Mowell allegedly conspired to falsify mandatory testing of the EOWC’s water supply to hide elevated levels of the contaminant tetrachlorethene, or PERC, an industrial solvent used for dry cleaning, which is classified as a probable carcinogen.

Now with more PERC
joeshlabotnik
Now with more PERC.
Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Japan and the Ukraine will now remind you why nuclear power makes you nervous

One reason the United States isn't rushing to build new nuclear power plants is that they're expensive, especially so in an era of cheap natural gas. Another is that we haven't figured out what to do with the resulting nuclear waste, which most elected officials aren't eager to have in their districts.

And then there's the third reason: Nuclear energy scares people. This week's news brings us two reminders of why.

The reactors at Fukushima
The reactors at Fukushima.

In Fukushima, Japan, the first possible health effects of the 2011 meltdown have been seen in humans. Teenagers, to be specific. From The Japan Times:

A Fukushima Prefectural Government panel said Wednesday that two people who were 18 or younger when the triple-meltdown crisis started at the Fukushima No. 1 atomic complex in March 2011 have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, bringing the total cases to three.

Reporting at a meeting on the health impact from the catastrophe, professor Shinichi Suzuki of Fukushima Medical University said it is too early to link the cases to the nuclear disaster, because it took at least four to five years for thyroid cancer to be detected after the Chernobyl meltdown calamity that started in 1986. ...

Radioactive iodine released in fallout tends to accumulate in thyroid glands, particularly in young people. In the Chernobyl disaster, a noticeable increase in thyroid cancer cases was detected among children in the affected area.

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Bloomberg proposes banning plastic foam containers, probably because they can hold soda

When I was a kid, you could come to New York City and buy a big soda in a large styrofoam cup. (You could also get murdered a lot more easily or score some drugs or afford a place in Soho, but that's not my point here.) Big soda kept cool in a nice big cup -- paradise, in its way.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Reuters / Eduardo Munoz

Last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided that the big soda had to go. And this year, according to reports, he's got his eyes on that cup. From Bloomberg (the media company, not the mayor for whom the company is named) (New York is a complicated place) (the city, not the state from which the city is named):

In his final State of the City address today, the third-term mayor will attempt to cement his legacy as a leader who made the most-populous U.S. city healthier and more environmentally friendly. His office previewed portions of the speech that focused on three initiatives intended to boost air quality, recycling rates and sustainability.

A requirement that 20 percent of all newly constructed public parking spaces be outfitted to charge electric vehicles would create 10,000 such spots within seven years. The plan would need City Council approval. A pilot program to collect curbside food waste from Staten Island homes to use as compost for parks would expand citywide if successful, cutting down on the 1.2 million tons of scraps sent to landfills each year.

(Apparently the city could use more charging stations.)

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GAO adds climate change to list of fiscal risks to the government

A nondescript government office building
ncindc
A nondescript government office building.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office is basically the definition of bureaucracy. It is bureaucrats on bureaucrats on bureaucrats, probably organized into an Excel-like matrix of desks. The GAO will not order lunch before assembling 14 accountants to do an overview of the competing economics.

This morning, it released a 275-page report (short, by its standards) in its "High-Risk Series," addressing the main economic risks the government faces. It's an update to the agency's 2011 offering, noting that two problems cited then (interagency contracting, IRS modernization) are no longer high risks. You know what does pose a high risk to the government's fiscal health? Climate change. From the report [PDF]:

This year, GAO has added two areas.

Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks. Climate change creates significant financial risks for the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure, such as defense installations; insures property through the National Flood Insurance Program; and provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters. The federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, and needs a government wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks.

Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data. Potential gaps in environmental satellite data beginning as early as 2014 and lasting as long as 53 months have led to concerns that future weather forecasts and warnings—including warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods—will be less accurate and timely. A number of decisions are needed to ensure contingency and continuity plans can be implemented effectively. [Ed. - We've covered this before.]

That “managing climate change risks” wasn’t seen as high risk in 2011 is a little alarming, but then, the GAO isn’t known for leaping into action.

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A third of North Dakota natural gas never makes it to market — which may be a good thing

Of all of the natural gas extracted in North Dakota over the past few years -- so much that it has rewritten the state economy and overhauled electricity production across the country -- only two-thirds has reached market. A full one-third of the gas sucked out of the ground never makes it off the drilling site and is instead burned on the spot, in gas flares now visible from space.

Gas flares visible from space
NASA
North Dakota's pieces of flare are visible from space.

Yesterday, a bill aimed at curbing the practice died in the North Dakota state senate. From the Associated Press:

Sen. Tim Mathern’s measure would have cut an exemption commonly used by oil companies claiming an economic hardship of connecting a well to a natural gas pipeline. Oil companies in North Dakota can flare natural gas for a year without paying taxes or royalties on it. After that, companies can request an extension because of the difficulty of connecting the well to a natural gas pipeline. The exemption is nearly always granted by state regulators, who took no position on the legislation.

About one-third of North Dakota’s gas production has been burned off, or “flared,” since the oil boom began about five years ago. Less than 1 percent of natural gas is flared from oil fields nationwide, and less than 3 percent worldwide, according to the U.S. Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration.

Mathern's argument is that the gas is a missed economic opportunity. Extractors could be selling the wasted gas, increasing supply and lowering prices for consumers. Oh, and the state could be collecting royalties on it, too.

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Read and take over: Occupying urban streets with guerrilla libraries

Whether because of budget cuts or natural disasters, many of our nation's libraries are struggling. But DIY efforts are filling the cracks in a few especially hard-hit communities.

13-02-13UrbanLibrariansUnite
Urban Librarians Unite

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Urban Librarians Unite in New York has set up sidewalk mini libraries outside less-mini libraries that have closed due to storm damage.

These tiny, all weather libraries house about a hundred books at a time and there is no expectation whatsoever that the books will come back. ... The Mini Libraries are a resource for our communities, a chance to experiment in library science, and a reminder to the public that even if the library itself is in ruins the librarians are still thinking of them.

ULU is quick to point out that its orange boxes, while super-awesome, aren't a replacement for real library infrastructure.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Obama’s threat to act unilaterally on climate change? Looking empty

Some good news for congressional Republicans: The president’s threat to take unilateral action on climate isn't looking all that threatening. White House officials are talking about small steps the administration could take, but aren't currently pushing forward on the big executive action that advocates have wanted to see: EPA regulation of greenhouse gases from existing power plants.

During Tuesday night's State of the Union address, the president issued a challenge to Congress to act on climate change. He pointed at previous efforts to pass market-based, cap-and-trade legislation as an example. "If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations" from the threat of climate change, he warned, "I will."

Prior to the speech, there was some speculation that Obama might announce support for carbon regulations on existing power plants. Last week, the EPA reported that such facilities are the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., which means new rules for the plants would be a powerful step in fighting climate change. The EPA has had the power to impose such regulations for a while, but has so far only proposed measures limiting emissions from brand-new power plants. A threat to regulate old plants, many of which have been belching out carbon and particulate pollution for decades, could be potent.

President Obama in Oval Office

In a meeting this morning, however, it became apparent that this isn’t going to happen any time soon -- if at all. A small group of reporters from various outlets, myself included, met with several administration officials, including Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate; and Brian Deese, deputy director of the National Economic Council. Pressed to explain what steps Obama would take if Congress didn't act, the response was underwhelming.

"We're not in a position to say, 'These are the 15 things we're going to do,'" Zichal said, "but I think the point here is that we have demonstrated an ability to really use our existing authority -- permitting-wise, what we can do through the budget -- to make progress." She noted that the administration has opened up federal land to renewable-energy development and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the government itself. And don't forget the work done to improve the energy efficiency of walk-in freezers and battery chargers.

Which is all fine -- but it seems unlikely that Congress will feel is it forced to address the problem when faced with the prospect of Obama mandating even tighter efficiency standards for commercial appliances.