Stuff that matters

Toxic Tour

Protestors harangued EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt as he visited East Chicago.

“We are here because environmental racism is here,” said Rev. Cheryl Rivera, one of the activists leading yesterday’s demonstration. “We are here because thousands of families’ lives are at risk.”

After lead contamination of both soil and water was publicly revealed last year, roughly 1,000 residents fled the Superfund site in western Indiana where low-income housing was built on land once occupied by a smelter.

According to The Chicago Tribune, Pruitt spoke with residents who lived in the toxic environment. He also gave brief remarks, pointing to money EPA recently awarded to the town.

“I’m focused on getting EPA back to the basics of protecting human health and the environment, and one of my top priorities is delivering real results for the people of East Chicago,” said Pruitt.

Proposed cuts to the EPA’s budget could cause Pruitt to eat his words. According to Nancy Loeb, director of Northwestern University’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic, the breadth of programs targeted by President Trump — including the possible shuttering of the EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago — will “pretty successfully” halt environmental protections by passing federal responsibilities to ill-equipped states.

Next stop on Pruitt’s tour: a coal-fired power plant in Missouri. Mixed messages much?


God help us, Donald Trump tried to dispense energy facts again.

I didn’t listen to President Trump’s speech Tuesday night in Phoenix, because, well. It’s fine — I can read. The following syntactic hallucination, however, tested that ability:

We’ve ended the war on beautiful, clean coal, and it’s just been announced that a second, brand-new coal mine, where they’re going to take out clean coal — meaning, they’re taking out coal. They’re going to clean it — is opening in the state of Pennsylvania, the second one.

Hmm, good. OK! There are a few ways to clean a coal: Carbon capture and storage is the most climate change–relevant way, and also probably the one that Trump knows the least about. Basically, coal-fired power plants develop mechanisms to “capture” the CO2 they emit once it’s out the door. The Petra Nova plant in Texas is the only working “clean coal plant” in the country right now. Another built in Mississippi (which Grist investigated in 2015doesn’t actually work and has replaced coal with natural gas. 

The New York Times reports that Trump’s proposed 2018 budget will cut funding for research into coal pollution reduction by 85 percent, which means that the way we “clean” coal will likely become just sloshing it around in a bath. (That’s a real practice, does nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, and was likely something Trump read about in a 1979 issue of the Wall Street Journal.)

Carbon crunching comeback

California’s carbon market roars back to life.

Legal challenges and political uncertainty had etherized the scheme — at an auction last year, 98 percent of the credits were left unsold. Nobody wanted to buy into a program that might die. But now that the courts have cleared the legal challenges and the legislature has extended a bulletproof version of the policy until 2030, industry has bought up every carbon credit available.

Earlier this month, California and Quebec, working together, auctioned off 64 million carbon credits at $14.75 — the highest price in years. The sale raised nearly a billion dollars. Some $300 million of the proceeds will go to low-income electricity users and pay for energy efficiency programs in California and Quebec. The balance, $640 million, will go to California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, an all-time high, according to the Environmental Defense Fund’s Erica Morehouse.

California’s cap-and-trade system sets a limit on greenhouse gases then lets the market figure out who gets to emit those gases. You can see a fun explanation in video, here.

So now that the trade part is working, California will have to take a close look at the cap: Is it limiting greenhouse gas emissions enough to meet its goals?

brunch of decisions

Zinke might shrink our national monuments, but hey, he cooks a mean breakfast.

Many around the country are anxious about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s pending decision on 21 national monuments, which he plans to release on Thursday. But Zinke seems to be taking the pressure in stride — and in a chicken apron.

Lola Zinke tweeted this picture of her husband, also known as “Z,” on Tuesday. Note that beneath the goofy apron, “Z” sports casual cooking attire: a white button-down, a red tie, and black dress shoes.

Last week, Lola’s tweets showed the two on vacation in the Mediterranean, prompting some questions about how seriously Zinke was taking the upcoming monument decision.

But if he takes one thing seriously, it’s breakfast. We can’t help but wonder if Chef Zinke makes his pancakes in fun shapes. Might we suggest bears ears?

off the grid

The eclipse was a test, and the solar industry aced it.

As the United States momentarily plunged into darkness on Tuesday, from California to North Carolina, the electricity grid ran smoothly — despite the loss of a predicted 12,000 megawatts of solar power supplies.

“Things went really, really well,” said Eric Schmitt, vice president of California’s grid operator, at a press briefing.

Prior to the eclipse, some utilities were worried the temporary dip in solar resources might put strain on the grid. But others saw it a “dress rehearsal” for how the renewable-heavy system of the future might handle such disruptions. As solar and wind resources fluctuate with the weather — as opposed to fossil fuels, which can be burned continuously — it’s important to establish that they can reliably meet America’s energy needs.

For reference, solar made up just 1 percent of the electricity produced in the country in 2016. It reached the 2-percent milestone for the first time in March this year.

So, the eclipse came and went, but solar power — fresh off this small proof-of-principle — appears to be here to stay.

Backup Plans

New Orleans is now planning to evacuate the city if a heavy rainstorm comes.

That’s worrisome, especially for communities still struggling to recover from the damage of Hurricane Katrina — which was 12 years ago this week.

Since Aug. 10, New Orleans has been operating under a state of emergency in the aftermath of a freak storm earlier this month. To make things worse, city officials lied about the state of the below-sea-level city’s pumping infrastructure, which the mayor said has “never been fully operational.” As of Monday, 15 of the city’s 120 pumps were offline for repairs, and fixing the system is expected to take weeks.

Now, the New Orleans Advocate reports that officials are developing a plan to evacuate the city if more than a foot of rain is expected within a 24-hour period before repairs can be completed.

The good news is that the last time that kind of rain fell was 1995, so it’s a pretty rare occurrence. The bad news: Evacuating on the forecast of a rainstorm would be unprecedented in city history. In fact, I can’t recall ever hearing of such an evacuation anywhere in the world.

Potentially related: There’s a tropical system brewing in the Gulf of Mexico with a “near 100 percent” chance of development in the next five days. It’s expected to head very slowly northward — a perfect recipe for intense rain.

life in plastic

Trump reversed a plastic water bottle ban in national parks.

And pretty much nobody is happy about it, except maybe Nestlé.

Since 2011, 23 national parks had ended the sale of plastic water bottles to cut down on trash and litter. Before the ban took effect at the Grand Canyon, for example, water bottles made up 20 percent of the park’s total waste. But on Aug. 16, the Trump administration ended the six-year-old policy that enabled the ban, welcoming plastic bottles back to the Grand Canyon, Zion, and other national parks.

Bottled water companies had lobbied against the Obama-era policy for years. Coincidentally, the National Park Service’s statement on the reversal echoes the industry’s arguments: “It should be up to our visitors to decide how best to keep themselves and their families hydrated during a visit to a national park.”

Lauren Derusha Florez, Corporate Accountability International* campaign director, is calling for park superintendents to resist. “We know that many of our parks want to do away with bottled water,” she wrote in a blog post. “Let’s make sure they know that we support them in that move, even if the current administration doesn’t.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Florez as the campaign director at the Sierra Club.