SPOT-ON Writers:  Nolan  |  Klosky  |  Holt  |  Schmidt  |  Martinelli
Jackson  |  Spinney  |  Weeks  |  Kaul  |  Rodriguez  |  Allbritton

Archives for Environment

Bearing It All

Sep
12
2008

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. – George Orwell, Animal Farm

Now that we’ve all gotten over our giddiness at the excitement of a former beauty queen, mayor and short-term governor as John McCain’s running mate we should put to rest any thought that this was nothing more than a spur of the moment decision by John McCain. He only selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin after careful consideration of all the possible candidates for the post.

After all, there are lots of things in Gov. Palin’s background that render her a highly qualified candidate. One that has not been extensively commented upon is her finding common cause with Canada in a fight with the United States.

In what might be perceived a disloyal act coming from a Republican, Sarah took Canada’s side with respect to the status of the polar bear as an endangered species. Neither Sarah nor Canada wants the animal’s continued existence to interfere with life as we have grown accustomed to it.

Last month, a Canadian scientific panel released an April review of the polar bear’s status within that nation and said the bear population was a matter of “special concern” but was not a population “endangered or threatened with extinction.” This finding directly contradicted last year’s U.S. Geological Survey prediction that “two thirds of the world’ polar bear population could be gone by mid-century if “predictions of melting sea ice in the Arctic hold true.” Canada is also in direct conflict with the Bush administration’s decision in May 2008 to add the polar bear to the endangered species list, a decision that was promptly attacked by Gov. Palin. Within days after the ruling was announced, Alaska began a lawsuit demanding that the decision be reversed claiming that the climate models predicting the loss of sea ice were unreliable, a position that is reinforced by Gov. Palin’s belief that global warming, if it exists at all, has nothing to do with human activity.

Explaining the reasons she opposed listing the polar bears as an endangered species, Gov. Palin said that state wildlife officials had “found no reason to list the bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act” even though three marine mammal biologists in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game agreed with the studies the federal government relied on in declaring the polar bear endangered. In addition to opposing the rule because of her flimsy understanding of science, Gov. Palin pointed out that the rule would make drilling for oil and gas more difficult.

Her approach put herself and her state squarely at odds with the Bush administration that had promulgated the new rule in May. Dirk Kempthorne, the U.S. Interior Secretary, said his decision to add the polar bear to the endangered species list was based on three findings: “First, sea ice is vital to polar bear survival; second, the polar bear’s habitat has dramatically melted; third, sea ice is likely to further recede in the future.” Those comments were remarkably close to the beliefs expressed by scientists, an alignment almost unheard of in the Bush administration. Naturally, it wasn’t meant to last. Science would once again be sent to the back of the Bush Administration bus.

When the Bush administration discovered that it had come out on the side of science in connection with a sensitive subject, it quickly retreated thus lining itself up behind Gov. Palin In August, a regulatory overhaul of the Endangered Species Act was proposed was proposed. Instead of having independent scientific reviews to determine whether protected species like polar bears would “be imperiled by agency projects”, federal agencies comprising non-scientists would begin making those determinations, a conclusion reminiscent of the EPA’s decision to take issues away from scientists and place them in the hands of non-scientists. Dick Kempthorne, who so eloquently defended the May ruling, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that the new rules were simply an attempt to “provide clarity and certainty to the consultation process under the Endangered Species Act.”

Not everyone sees it that way.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall of West Virginia, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee said the rule gives “federal agencies an unacceptable degree of discretion to decide whether or not to comply with the Endangered Species Act.” And Bob Irvin who is senior vice president of conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife observes that most agencies do not have wildlife biologists on staff and, therefore, have no way to make qualified judgments on issues affecting wildlife.

Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serve disagrees and offers reassurance that all will be right with the endangered species. He says individual agencies will have to take responsibility if their projects do harm a protected species. “This really says to the agencies, ‘This law belongs to all of us. You’re responsible to defend it’” he explained to the Washington Post.

Those words are comforting. If the agencies err because of lack of scientific input they will be responsible for the consequences. The consequences will be extinction or reduction of the species. The agencies will almost certainly feel really bad about that.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Creative Class Accounting

Jul
13
2008

The Lord rewards him according to his works. – The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Timothy

Rewards. That’s the newest game in Washington D.C.

Almost simultaneously Republican presidential nominee John McCain and the U.S. Census Bureau have come up with clever ideas to make the United States of America a better place. The Census Bureau would like for more people to fill out the forms it sends out ever four years and John McCain would like for someone to invent a really good car battery.

Both have concluded that the secret is to offer rewards. Both are great ideas.

The United States Constitution requires that a census be taken every ten years pursuant to laws enacted by Congress which has determined that citizens must respond to forms they receive so that the census can be properly completed. Many people refuse to complete and return the forms and Congress and the Census Bureau have been trying to figure out how to get people to comply with the law. If the traditional approach were used, criminal sanctions would be imposed on those who refuse to obey the law. (Those who refuse to file income tax returns can explain how that works.) To address the problem of non-compliance in returning census forms, however, Congress and the Census Bureau are considering a solution that is thrilling in its simplicity. They have concluded it is more cost efficient to offer incentives to those who comply with the law than to prosecute those who don’t. Prior to the 2000 Census there was talk of having some kind of sweepstakes. That idea has resurfaced and a $1 million prize has been suggested. That amount seems a bit on the penurious side, given the fact that there are close to 300 million people living in this country. They could easily triple that without adversely affecting the budget.

Rewarding those who comply with the census law is, of course, just a first step in reforming our justice system. If encouraging compliance with the law by the use of rewards instead of punishments catches on, other proposals equally attractive will almost certainly follow. The money needed to pay those who abide by the law can be found in money saved by not having to build and staff prisons. Once we have established the appropriate reward for the citizen who returns the census form, it will be necessary to determine the appropriate rewards in other ways.

Those who do not break any traffic laws during a given year may be rewarded by being entered into a lottery for a modest sum. Those from families with criminal proclivities who do not, for example, rob any banks, would be entered in lotteries with considerably higher rewards. After all, the level of the reward should be commensurate with the level of the foregone criminal activity.

And offering money as an incentive to forego criminal activity is no less imaginative than is John McCain’s suggestion on how to encourage creativity.

Sen. McCain has suggested that the government (which most Republicans believe should stay out of people’s lives unless it is chasing terrorists on private phone lines or e-mails or determining what women should do with their bodies) , should offer incentives for creativity.

He has suggested that taxpayers offer a $300 million prize to whoever builds what he refers to as “a better car battery,” one that “has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.” He wants, said he, to “inspire the ingenuity and resolve of the American people.”

Until those words were spoken, few, if any citizens, realized that it was the prospect of a taxpayer reward that inspired creativity. Most people thought that the truly creative among us such as Bill Gates, believed their rewards were to be found in the satisfaction of a job well done and the profits that followed the commercial success of their efforts. McCain’s comments suggest that he has no confidence in the ingenuity and creativity of the American people unless the federal government steps in and offers them extravagant rewards for their efforts.

Surely, everyone would agree that both ideas have great merit. If implemented, only time will tell whether rewarding the compliant or the creative will produce better results for society.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:00 PM | Permalink

Return To Sender

Jul
4
2008

To be ignorant of one’s ignorance is the malady of the ignorant – Amos Bronson Alcott, Table Talk

This is an appendix. Not the removable kind. The kind that adds information to something previously reported. It is an appendix about George Bush and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Last week I told you about some of the things that went on between George Bush, science and the EPA. In every case George Bush won and science and the EPA lost. Here is what is happening as you read this. George Bush is scampering as fast as he can to make sure coal fired power plants can be built near several national parks. He isn’t personally scampering. His EPA is.

According to a recent report, the EPA is proposing a rule change to take effect before George Bush becomes nothing more than a bad memory. It would alter the way the impact of a new pollution source is calculated when determining if it can be built. Under the existing rule, peak periods of pollution are used to determine the effect of a new pollution source. If the pollution source would adversely affect a site at peak period times it could not be built. Under the proposed rule annual averages would instead be used thus making it easier to build polluting power plants near national parks.

Congress has designated 156 national parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges as Class-1 areas giving them maximum legal protection. Senator Lamar Alexander, the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, represents Tennessee, a state that includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, says that if the new rule is enacted Congress should promptly enact legislation to overturn it. In a letter to Stephen Johnson, the EPA Administrator, Mr. Alexander said the proposed rule “provides the lowest possible degree of protection” for those areas. The EPA disagrees. It says the rules are simply refinements to regulations that measure Class-1 air quality standards. When the Bush administration, the least refined in United States history, defines something as refined, warning hackles rise. Mr. Alexander’s hackles are not the only ones that rose.

Federal air-quality experts at both the EPA and the National Park Service describe the proposals as a step backward. John Bunyak, policy chief at the National Park Service’s planning and permit branch said the new rule “[C]ould allow additional pollution sources to locate in a particular area, where they wouldn’t have been under the old rule,” Clayton told the Christian Science Monitor. EPA regional staff experts say that the new rule provides “the lowest possible degree of protection” against spikes in pollution.

Echoing the staff experts’ concerns, Mark Wenzler, clean air director of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), says the new rule would permit “phony pollution accounting” methods. The EPA fact sheet, in contrast, says the “proposed rules would provide greater regulatory certainty and reduce complexity without sacrificing the current level of environmental protection.”

The NPCA’s list of threatened parks includes the Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave, Capitol Reef, Zion Canyon and Mesa Verde. If the EPA rule takes effect and is not overturned, higher levels of pollution in our national parks will become, together with the war in Iraq, one of the enduring legacies of George W. Bush.

It is, not clear that Mr. Bush is aware of this. It seems that if George Bush’s White House gets an email it doesn’t like it doesn’t open it.

That ‘s what the administration did with an e-mail report it got from the EPA in December of 2007, the month the agency responded to a 2007 Supreme Court order that it determine whether greenhouse gases represent a danger to health or the environment. The EPA’s conclusion: greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled.

Someone at the EPA thought such a conclusion should be shared with George “Ignorance is Bliss” Bush. The EPA could have saved itself the trouble. When Mr. Bush received the e-mail it told the EPA its e-mail would not be opened. And it wasn’t. As a result the EPA waited six months and then released what the New York Times described as a “watered-down version of the original conclusion contained in the un-opened e-mail that greenhouse gases are a pollutant.” Instead, according to the Times, the agency’s recent report simply “reviews the legal and economic issues presented by declaring greenhouse gases a pollutant.” The paper further says that for five days preceding the report’s release the White House put pressure on the EPA to eliminate large sections of the e-mail it refused to open that supported regulation of greenhouse gases.

Here’s a tip for my readers. Refusing to open e-mails because you don’t like the new it brings may work in George Bush’s White House world. It’s probably not good practice in the real world of which George Bush is not an inhabitant.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 6:08 PM | Permalink

Tree Mugger

Jun
27
2008

Blind and naked Ignorance
Delivers brawling judgments, unashamed,
On all things all day along.- Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
Merlin and Vivien

If there’s one agency that has consistently enjoyed the benefits lavished on it by an ignorant president who continuously diminishes its standing in the world of science, it would be the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. No other agency has so thoroughly given in to the importunings of a president who lives in constant fear of what science might offer if left to its own devices; science being a branch of knowledge that cannot be controlled by him or Dick Cheney.

A hint of things to come started with Mr. Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. That was an issue he preferred not to address since, to Mr. Bush’s way of thinking, it wasn’t the problem others thought it was and, more especially, was a problem he was prepared to address quite differently from the rest of the world.

Then came Christie Todd Whitman’s 2003 departure from the EPA., an agency she headed from the beginning of the Bush administration. Her tenure was marked by criticism from those outside the administration who thought she did too little to advance regulatory remedies to extant environmental issues, and White House insiders who thought she was doing too much. Irrespective of who was right, her departure marked the beginning of a change at the EPA that continued throughout the rest of the Bush years.

In October 2003 the agency announced a new set of rules permitting power plants, oil companies and other industries to avoid requirements of the Clean Air Act of 1970 which says, among other things, that industrial plants that upgrade facilities were not required to install modern pollution controls. In December of that year the EPA announced that mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants should not be regulated the same as other toxic air pollutants. According to the New York Times the proposal would place legally mandated mercury regulation “under a less stringent section of the Clean Air Act that governs pollutants that cause smog and acid rain, which are not toxic to humans.”

In December 2006 we learned of another of the administration’s encounters with science that involved eliminating some of the libraries maintained by the EPA, as effective a way of silencing critics as there is. (Presumably anticipating the departure of George Bush, on June 17, 2008 the EPA told Congress that the libraries were being reopened and books returned whence they’d gone during the Bush sponsored knowledge blackout.)

Concurrent with the library closings the EPA announced a new protocol pertaining to national air-quality standards. Instead of having independent scientists and professional scientists within the EPA set safety standards, staff scientists were instructed to come up with what is called “policy-relevant” science. Only after those standards are constructed are the agency’s professionals permitted to comment.

The most recent skirmish between science and the EPA occurred in December of 2007. California applied for a waiver from the provisions of the energy bill signed by Mr. Bush that established a federal goal to reduce automobile emissions by 40 percent by 2020. California wanted to accelerate that schedule and effect a 30 percent reduction by 2016. EPA staffers believed the waiver should be granted as had other waivers sought by California. Overruling staff, Stephen Johnson, the EPA administrator, said that California’s request did not “meet compelling and extraordinary conditions” and turned down the waiver.

In response to that decision and another made in March 2007 to issue smog regulations that were less strict that those recommended by an EPA science advisory board, the House of Representative’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee began an investigation. Among other things it wanted to know if the White House had pressured Mr. Johnson.

As part of its investigation the committee subpoenaed more than 10,000 documents but some 25 of the sought after documents were withheld. Government Reform Committee Chairman Howard Waxman, a California Democrat, and his committee would like to review the withheld documents, believing they may permit the committee to discover the level of involvement, if any, by the White House in the EPA decision in regard to California.

Mr. Bush refused to turn them over claiming executive privilege. In a letter to the committee supporting that claim, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said the release of the documents could inhibit the candor of future deliberations between the president and others dealing with political issues.

He could have argued that their release would have disclosed George Bush’s ignorance about matters environmental. That would be a convincing argument since most presidential observers would agree that if anyone were ever to be entitled to claim that ignorance is protected by executive privilege, it would be George Bush.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 8:00 AM | Permalink

Hiding Truths

Apr
30
2008

About 60 years ago, I said to my father, “Old Mr. Senex is showing his age; he sometimes talks quite stupidly.” My father replied, “That isn’t age. He’s always been stupid. He is just losing his ability to conceal it.” – Robertson Davies, New York Times Book Review (May 12, 1991)

The wonderful thing about having George Bush as president is that a commentator can write about the same subject repeatedly and it will always be timely and fresh. That is because when George Bush finds a bad thing to do, he does it repeatedly because he’s too sure of his own good judgment to notice that it’s a bad thing. One of his favorite things is hiding facts to protect myths. One of his favorite myths is that the war in Iraq is going swimmingly. Among one of many ways the myth is perpetuated is by not letting journalists photograph service personnel being brought home in coffins as they arrive at Andrews Air Force Base. Another, we have now learned, is not letting members of the press get near burial services taking place at Arlington National Cemetery.

According to a report in the Washington Post, at the burial of Lt. Col. Billy Hall, the family wanted the press in attendance to record the burial of one of the senior officers to be killed in Iraq and, by reporting on it, to honor Colonel Hall’s patriotism and sacrifice. Mr. Bush’s Pentagon believes Colonel Hall’s sacrifice can be better honored privately, the family’s wishes notwithstanding. Accordingly a yellow rope kept the press 50 yards from the grave site. A photographer complained there could be no pictures of the family without the yellow rope being in the way to which an employee of the cemetery responded: “This is the best shot you’re going to get”. When the reporters complained that the pastor’s eulogy, in which he presumably talked about Colonel Hall’s valor and sacrifice, could not be heard, the Arlington official responded by saying “Mm-hmm.” As a result, all the press could report to commemorate this brave man, father and husband was that it could not report anything. Mr. Bush likes it that way.

Another myth in which George Bush believes, is that in a well-run country politics should always trump science. The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report the end of April disclosing that science and ignorance (the latter clothed in garments purchased for it by Mr. Bush and his courtiers) have been in mortal combat during the Bush administration’s tenure and ignorance has proved its worth winning easily in many of the confrontations.

Focusing on the Environmental Protection Agency (an agency that has received attention in here), the report discloses that in a survey of the agency’s scientists more than half said there had been political interference in scientific decisions during the preceding five years. George Bush has been president for seven years and presumably the reason for interference during only the last five is that it takes a while for someone like Mr. Bush to figure out those areas in which commonly accepted scientific notions are deficient and should give way to political considerations.

In the survey fifty five hundred questionnaires were sent out and 1,586 scientists responded. More than half said they had observed political interference in scientific decisions made by the agency. Some said the interference came form the Office of Management and Budget for strictly political reasons. As a threshold matter that would seem a singularly inappropriate agency to be interfering in matters scientific until one realizes that if scientific decisions are to be made by the ignorant, it is a singularly appropriate agency to be making those decisions.

The Office of Management and Budget is not alone in thwarting science. According to the Washington Post report, when E.P.A. staff members came to the non-startling conclusion that greenhouse gasses were bad for public health, efforts at creating regulations halted after the White House received its findings. Mr. Bush also caused the agency to weaken its proposed limits on smog-forming ozone, he having apparently concluded ozone is not the problem the scientists believe it to be.

Following publication of the most recent survey, Jonathan Shradar defended his boss, Stephen L. Johnson, E.P.A. Administrator. Mr. Shradar said Mr. Johnson carefully weighs the input of staff in all agency decisions.

An example of how Mr. Johnson uses the scale to weigh agency decision can be seen in the decision to deny California the waiver it sought in 2007 to reduce tailpipe emissions by 2016 to 30% instead of to 40% by 2020 as mandated by the December 2007 Energy bill. The staff at the EPA was reportedly in favor of granting the waiver, being possessed of scientific knowledge and unencumbered by political considerations. Placing his thumb on the scientific scale, Mr. Johnson concluded his staff was wrong and denied the waiver.

Mr. Shrader told the Post that the findings in the Union’s survey would not change anything. That is very likely true-at least for the next eight months. Thereafter one can hope that science will once again be recognized as a valid field of study, the findings of which are entitled to at least as much, if not slightly more weight, than the conclusions of politicians led by the Grand Poobah in the White House.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 12:01 PM | Permalink

The Cigarette

Feb
8
2008

And a woman is only a woman,
But a good cigar is a smoke. - Rudyard Kipling, The Betrothed, a poem inspired by an 1885 Breach of Promise case in which the plaintiff reportedly told her husband: “You must choose between me and your cigar.”

It is not often I feel compelled to offer an apology to a corporation but one is required this week. Last week, in poking fun at Merck and Schering-Plough for having failed to disclose the results of their unfavorable tests of Vytorin and Zetia, I made fun of Phillip Morris for an ad that appeared in a 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

The ad touted the virtues of its cigarettes and their endorsement by leading doctors. It might seem to some that I was mocking Phillip Morris and that was not my intention. I have nothing but admiration for the company and had an article in the Wall Street Journal appeared just a few days earlier the column would have been written differently. The WSJ article described all the things Phillip Morris International, (PMI) is doing to make cigarette smoking more attractive in those countries that have not yet concluded they are harmful to a smoker’s health.

One of the cleverest ideas devised by Phillip Morris addresses the undeniably difficult problem posed for smokers in those countries where cigarette smoking though not frowned upon, is nonetheless not permitted with the confines of public buildings, thus forcing smokers to sneak outdoors to enjoy their pleasures. To help those people, Phillip Morris has come up with a cigarette that is the opposite of the 1940′s version of Pall Mall cigarette. That cigarette bragged that it was 20% longer than other cigarettes and, therefore, healthier because, as its commercial said: “Pall Mall’s greater length, filters the smoke on the way to your throat.” No one ever pointed out to the maker that once the first half-inch had been smoked the remaining length was the same as that of its competitors and the filtering advantage ceased to exist. That omission was not important, however, since nothing about cigarette advertising is designed to appeal to reason.

The cigarette that is the opposite of the 1940′s Pall Mall is called Phillip Morris’s “Marlboro Intense.” It is one-half inch shorter than ordinary cigarettes but, according to its advertising, packs the same carcinogenic punch (my words – not Phillip Morris’s) as the longer variety because it is more heavily infused with whatever it is that gives the smoker simultaneously pleasure and cancer. According to the WSJ, that cigarette is not only short but a bit fatter than ordinary cigarettes. Its advantage is that its pleasure and toxin can be inhaled in only 7 puffs whereas ordinary cigarettes require 8 or 9 puffs to achieve the same result, a definite benefit for those who, being short on time, are eager to shorten their lives as well by getting the same effect a long cigarette would give them. That is not the only creativity displayed by the company. It has also created the Heatbar, a smoke, but also a pollution-reducing device.

Everyone knows that a by-product of smoking is a pollutant known as “smoke.” According to the WSJ the Heatbar looks a bit like an electric toothbrush. The cigarette is inserted into the device and the smoker then inhales. Inhaling causes the device to heat up “delivering a flavored aerosol, without causing any tobacco to burn.” It releases 90% less smoke into the atmosphere. Whether it is less harmful to the user is not disclosed in the article and the company’s website has distressingly little information about what will surely be a big hit among the environmentally concerned smoking crowd. Although not the sort of device one would expect to see Humphrey Bogart brandish in “To Have And Have Not” or any other films in which he starred, Phillip Morris hopes the device will find a place of honor in the smoker’s world.

The foregoing is not intended to cast aspersions on PMI and the website of its soon-to-be-former corporate parent Altria would refute any attempt to do so. Under the rubric “Commitment to Responsibility” Altria says Phillip Morris International tracks “whether the company measures up to society’s expectations of a major multinational company-and a tobacco company.” It says it supports “strong and effective tobacco regulation for both its products and the industry”, is “open about the health effects of smoking” and works “to address society’s concerns about its products” and supports “minimum age laws” and “youth smoking prevention programs across the globe.”

PMI is clearly a conscientious company and one can’t fault it for continuing to market the only thing it knows how to make. One can only praise it for its efforts to improve the environment and accommodate its customers who have found themselves caught up in government regulations imposed by people who have never appreciated the pleasures that can be found in a well-timed smoke.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 8:51 AM | Permalink

A Choking Decision

Dec
28
2007

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows. . . .
— A. E. Housman,
To an Athlete Dying Young

With all the Environmental Protection Agency has been doing in the last few weeks it’s hard to believe its employees had time to enjoy Christmas or make plans for the New Year – there was so much to do in the old.

Last week this column pointed out that during the holiday season in 2006 the EPA. made it easier for companies to secretly release toxins into the air thus permitting communities to avoid the concerns and fears that would otherwise almost certainly follow news of the release. The change in the rules governing disclosure of the release of such substances only gained notoriety during the 2007 Christmas season. That was not the only December 2006 policy change whose fruits were plucked in December of 2007.

On December 7, 2006, Marcus Peacock, the Deputy Administrator of the EPA announced a new approach to making decisions that was known as “policy-relevant science.” According to the Union for Concerned Scientists here is how “policy-relevant science” works in practice. “[H]igh-level political appointees are involved (in setting National Ambient Air Quality Standards) right from the start, working with staff scientists to create a document containing ‘policy-relevant science’ that ‘reflect the agency’s views’ instead of the independent scientific paper that staff scientists have put together in the past.” In December 2007 we saw the results of the new process when California, a consistently rogue state when it comes to environmental matters, asked the EPA for permission to impose tougher emissions standards on the cars traveling its highways.

In 1970 Congress passed the Clean Air Act. As explained in the official summary of the act it is the “comprehensive federal law that regulates air emissions from area, stationary, and mobile sources . . . . The goal of the Act was to set and achieve National Ambient Air Quality Standards in every state by 1975.” One of the mobile sources the act regulates is the automobile. In the past some states, including California, have taken it upon themselves to come up with even stiffer regulations than those established by the EPA with respect to, among other things, the tailpipe emissions of automobiles. According to the Act that is permissible if the state applies for a waiver from the agency and the standards it seeks to impose are “at least as protective of health and welfare” as the federal standards. The act provides, however, that the waiver will be denied if the administrator finds that the determination of the state is arbitrary and capricious or the state has no need for the standards to “meet compelling and extraordinary conditions” or the proposed standards are not consistent with the purposes of the act.

Since the passage of the act, California has been given permission to regulate smog-forming pollutants 50 times. With respect to man’s best friend, the automobile, statistics show that 30 percent of the total U.S. creation of heat-trapping gases is attributable to motor vehicles. Under the energy bill signed by Mr. Bush in December 2007, the federal goal was to reduce those emissions by 40 percent by 2020. California applied for a waiver so that it could require automakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2016. That’s where “policy-relevant science” entered the picture.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, an anonymous EPA staffer said the staff at the EPA believed the waiver should be granted. The staffer said: “California met every criteria. . . on the merits. The same criteria we have used for the last 40 years on all the other waivers. We told him [Stephen L. Johnson, E.P.A.adminstrator] that. All the briefings we have given him laid out the facts.” Unpersuaded by science, Mr. Johnson introduced policy into the equation and said California’s request did not “meet compelling and extraordinary conditions.” It was the first time that California had requested a waiver and been turned down and it is likely that the state will take the EPA to court. Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board said his decision showed “that this administration ignores the science and ignores the law to reach the politically convenient conclusion.” She was right. This was not Mr. Johnson’s first experience with ignoring good science in favor of making good policy.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, in 2005 Mr. Johnson overruled a “nearly-unanimous recommendation from scientific advisors that the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAASQS) for fine particulate matter be strengthened. Commenting on the ruling. The Union said: “This case is yet another example of where political appointees have seemingly misused science for political reasons.”

George Bush will be remembered for many bad things. Substituting political agenda for science is one of them.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 12:52 AM | Permalink

Paper vs. Toxins

Dec
21
2007

It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice-there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.
— Frank Zappa,
The Real Frank Zappa Book

The Bush Administration has done something that on the surface appears to be anti-environmental when in reality all it is doing is implementing the Paperwork Reduction Act. George Bush takes great pleasure in finding any Congressional act with which he can cheerfully comply and his administration’s compliance with this law has earned it unjustified criticism. The criticism pertains to lessening the paperwork burden imposed on certain companies by weakening requirements pertaining to the release of toxic chemicals.

The Paperwork Reduction Act that is referenced in many forms the citizen encounters says one of its purposes is to “minimize the paperwork burden for individuals, small businesses . . . Federal contractors . . . and other persons resulting from the collection of information by or for the Federal Government.” Any attempt to describe in fewer than dozens of thousands of words any legislation enacted by Congress falls far short and this excerpt from the first section is no exception since the act itself has 20 sections.

The 1986 Emergency Planning & Community Right to Know Act was passed following the 1984 Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal, India. Signed by President Reagan, the act imposed reporting requirements on companies that dealt with toxic materials. Affected companies are required to produce a Toxic Release Inventory Report (TRI) disclosing, among other things, the release into the air, ground and water of toxic chemicals. Under the act the Environmental Protection Agency is required to publish a list of extremely hazardous substances and publish a final regulation “establishing a threshold planning quantity for each substance on the list.” Facilities dealing with those substances were subject to the requirements of the regulation “if one of the substances on the list is present at the facility in excess of the threshold planning quantity established for such substance.”

Until the end of 2006, the threshold planning quantity was 500 pounds. Facilities with more than 500 pounds were required to make annual reports using a detailed form prepared by the EPA. The requirements became known as the “community right to know rules” since they gave communities detailed information about toxic releases into their environments that would otherwise have gone unreported. Although the rules were good, they had one consequence that the Bush administration disliked. They created a lot of paper work for the affected facilities since they were required to complete a form known as Form R instead of a simpler form known as Form A. Aware of the burden the rule placed on industry, the EPA has issued a new rule that is going to make life easier for facilities by reducing their paperwork and will reduce concern in communities around the country about the release of toxic materials into the environment since they will not learn of them and, thus, have no cause for alarm.

Under the new rules that this writer has tried in vain to put into comprehensible English, the use of form A has been expanded “by raising the eligibility limit on total waste management of non-persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals . . . from 500 pounds to 5,000 pounds, with a cap on releases and other disposal of 2,000 pounds.” The number of communities that will sleep better at night as a result of being in the dark is, according to the General Accounting Office that understands the new rule, staggering.

According to the GAO summary, under the new rules the “EPA would allow more than 3,500 facilities to no longer report detailed information about their toxic chemical releases and waste management practices. As a result, more than 22,000 of the nearly 90,000 TRI reports could no longer be available to hundreds of communities in states throughout the country.” The summary goes on to state that 12 state attorneys general and the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board stated the changes “will significantly reduce the amount of useful TRI information.” That wasn’t all the GAO concluded.

It found that the EPA did not “follow key steps in agency guidelines designed to ensure that it conducts appropriate scientific, economic, and policy analysis” and went on to say that was because the Office of Management & Budget pressured the EPA to provide burden reduction by the end of 2006.

The GAO recommends that Congress overturn the rule by legislation and has supporters in Congress, according to the Associated Press. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg who authored the 1986 legislation said: “Unfortunately, this report makes clear the Bush Administration is putting politics ahead of science and letting facilities hide critical data about toxic chemicals.” Sen. Barbara Boxer said: “The public has a right to know about toxic pollution in local communities.”

They may be right. However, reducing paperwork, as all who have ever dealt with paperwork would agree, is far more important than alarming communities by telling them about releases of toxic materials when there is not much they can do about a release that’s already happened.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 10:00 AM | Permalink

Bush Warming to Global Warming

Jun
15
2007

What man has made, man can change.
— Fred M. Vinson, Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Day Speech, 1945

It was a confusing few days for the climate and those affected by it. On May 21, 2007, Robert Sullivan, the former associate director in charge of exhibitions at the National Museum of Natural History, said that a scientific exhibit on Arctic climate change at the Smithsonian had been toned down by museum authorities in order to avoid annoying Congress and the Bush administration. According to Mr. Sullivan, things that were perceived as possibly annoying were suggestions from scientists that there was a relationship such as cause and effect between people and global warming. The exhibit language was changed to minimize and introduce uncertainty into that concept. In addition to that change, Mr. Sullivan said that graphs in the exhibit were altered in order to show “that global warming could go either way”.

Responding to Mr. Sullivan’s criticism, the museum said the changes introduced objectivity to the exhibit by pointing out the benefits of global warming such as the ability to do more hiking, lower heating bills in the winter and an increased supply of hardwood (conifers being adversely affected by global warming.) No sooner was news of the censored Smithsonian exhibit made public than Michael Griffin, the head of NASA weighed in with his thoughts about global warming.

On May 31 Mr. Griffin said in an interview on National Public Radio that he was sure global warming existed but was not sure anyone needed to do anything about it: “I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with.” Continuing, he said: “I guess I would ask which human beings where and when are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.” Mr. Griffin could have asked James Hansen, the longtime director of NASA’S Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Upon learning of Mr. Griffin’s statement Dr. Hansen said: “It’s an incredibly arrogant and ignorant statement. It indicates a complete ignorance of understanding the implications of climate change.” Continuing, he said: “It’s unbelievable. I thought he had been misquoted. It’s so unbelievable.” What he didn’t say was that Mr. Griffin sounded like the pre-May 31 President George Bush.

On May 31 Mr. Bush disclosed that he had undergone an epiphany. Using the royal “we” he said: “In recent years, science has deepened our understanding of climate change and opened new possibilities for confronting it. The United States takes this issue seriously.” That was quite a change.

In a speech on September 29, 2000, relying on statistics furnished by the Greening Earth Society, a think tank financed by seven coal-burning utilities, Mr. Bush said the Internet consumed 8 percent of all the electricity produced in the United States and, therefore, the country needed many new power plants including coal-fired generators. In June 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency put out a report that said human activities such as oil refining, power plants and cars are major contributors to global warming. When asked about the report Mr. Bush said dismissively: “I read the report put out by the bureaucracy.” In Trenton, New Jersey, on September 23, 2002, Mr. Bush said “we need an energy bill that encourages consumption.”

Displaying his “deepened understanding” on May 31, Mr. Bush said that: “The United States takes this issue seriously.” He went on, saying: “The new initiative I’m outlining today will contribute to the important dialogue that will take place in Germany next week.” He said that the United States was in the lead for having technology to meet the “challenge of energy and global climate change”. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the plan was a big step forward. Damning by faint praise, albeit unintentionally, he said: “For the first time, America’s saying it wants to be part of a global deal. . . . For the first time, it’s saying it wants a global target for the reduction of emissions.” Of course it’s not all peaches and cream.

Mr. Bush still wants everything to be voluntary. He doesn’t want any fixed deadlines for reducing carbon emissions. James Connaughton, the White House environmental adviser, said the Bush goal would be to get countries to set “aspirational goals.” “Each country will develop its own national strategies on a midterm basis in the next 10 to 20 years on where they want to take their efforts to . . . reduce air pollution and also reduce greenhouse gases, ” Mr. Connaughton said. Mr. Bush likes things that are aspirational rather than mandatory. It’s too bad he thinks that to have the air we aspirate be clean is nothing more than aspirational.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 10:30 AM | Permalink

brauchli
's bio | Email




Get Our Weekly Email Newsletter




What We're Reading - Spot-On Books

Hot Spots - What's Hot Around the Web



Spot-on.com | Promote Your Page Too

Spot-on Main | Pinpoint Persuasion | Spotlight Blog | RSS Subscription | Spot-on Writers | Privacy Policy | Contact Us