ieBlog

Watch for sheep dressed in oil cloth. They can be slippery.

That’s what proposals for carbon tax can sometimes feel like.

The basics of a carbon tax are a per-ton tax on the carbon dioxide emissions generated by fossil fuels or other products. Other greenhouse gases, like methane, are often included by converting their emissions into a carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e.

Depending on its details, a carbon tax can offer many benefits for moving us all away from consumption of fossil fuels.  In some respects it offers more than a cap and trade system of pricing fossil fuels, as a carbon tax is simpler, often with fewer escape clauses, and it can be collected by existing taxing regimes and resources.

But there is the key question of what to do with the revenue generated by the tax.  Many if not most proponents argue for a revenue-neutral regime where the tax collected goes back to consumers of energy resources who have to pay higher prices for energy.  Environmentalists often argue to use at least part of the tax funds for the development and deployment of renewable resources, with the expectation this will reduce costs of energy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What needs to be watched is what else is proposed as part of a carbon tax plan.  What are the trade-offs for the fossil fuel industry supporting any carbon tax plan?

For example, in the US, a carbon tax plan has recently been proposed by former Republican Senator Trent Lott (Mississippi) and former Democratic Senator John Breaux (Louisiana), two well-known lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry from oil-rich states.  The plan is endorsed by Exxon Mobil and Shell and others.  The cast of characters behind the plan should raise alarm bells.

At first it seems like false alarms.   The proposal would result in higher energy costs, but all revenue from the tax would be returned to the public, with a family of four, for example, receiving a check for $2,000 every year.  And everybody would have the incentive to reduce the use of carbon fossil fuels.

Here come the alarms.  In exchange for the support of the fossil fuel industry, and its lobbyists and political supporters, the plan requires that Obama’s Clean Power Plan, allowing EPA to regulate carbon emissions, is repealed.  In effect, current and future EPAs could not regulate carbon emissions.  Trump is currently attempting to accomplish this through regulatory undoing but his potential success is questionable.

The carbon tax plan also provides that the fossil fuel companies get immunity from any lawsuits attempting to hold them accountable for any damage they have done to the climate.  This provision is a bonanza as there are more and more lawsuits against fossil fuel companies seeking damages for carbon emissions that are causing climate change impacts, e.g., more severe extreme weather events, rising sea levels, heat waves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is the unspoken scenario under which such a deal could work wonders for fossil fuel companies.  They agree to have a price set on carbon emission, say at $40 per ton as proposed, and in exchange they get the Clean Power Plan repealed, and immunity from lawsuits for what they have done to the climate with their fossil fuels.  Then after the deal is struck and implemented, the fossilists spend a fortune lobbying a future Congress to reduce the carbon tax to say $5 a ton, which the industry will hardly notice and which will most certainly not result in the reduction of use of fossil fuels.  Meanwhile, the Clean Power Plan remains killed and the fossil fuel companies remain immune from climate damages.

Sound far fetched?  Well, here’s what happened with the US federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, enacted by Congress on December 11, 1980. This law provided two systems for making sure that sites contaminated with hazardous substances were cleaned up without public expense.

First, it provided for strict, and joint and several liability for anyone or any entity (responsible parties) that disposed of hazardous substances if those substances were released into the environment, regardless of the volume of wastes or the care taken by the responsible party.

Second, CERCLA created a tax on the petroleum industries and others reflecting the polluter pays principal. This tax revenue was the source for the “superfund” that was used to pay for the cleanup of sites where no responsible party could be found or where recalcitrant responsible parties refused to pay for the cleanup.  Over first five years, $1.6 billion was collected for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The usefulness of the Superfund structure is that the governments can demand all responsible parties at a site clean it up, under governmental supervision, and if they refuse, the government can proceed to clean up the site using Superfund monies, and then sue all the companies to recover those Superfund costs.  As a result, the site gets cleaned up as soon as possible and the responsible parties become liable for whatever the government spends.

There were very few defenses available under CERCLA, but one did exclude liability for “petroleum” substances.  An argument for excluding “petroleum” substances from CERCLA liability was that the petroleum industry was paying for cleanups through the tax and therefore should be exempt from further obligation to fund cleanups.

What happened, however, was that the Republican Congress, in 1995, under Newt Gingrich, refused to renew the Superfund taxes and the fund began to dry up, and remains inadequate today for hazardous substance cleanups.  As a result, the tax on the petroleum industry to fund CERCLA was eliminated.  Yet the liability exclusion for petroleum remained in effect resulting in a significant protection for the fossil fuel industry against the onerous liability provisions of CERCLA.

As we noted, a similar result could unfold through the proposed carbon tax plan.  If passed, the fossil fuel companies would get immunity for damages caused by climate change, and no more regulation from a future EPA on carbon emissions.  Then in a few years, with a Republican controlled Congress, the carbon tax could be reduced to an inconsequential amount, say $5 a ton, with no changes to the repeal and immunity provisions.

While the success of the current lawsuits against the fossil fuel companies remains uncertain, the companies are well aware of the history of litigation against the tobacco industry which failed at first but which eventually gained support within the courts and then the public.  Fossil fuel companies have every right to be worried that what happened to sales and consumption of cigarettes may happen with sales and consumption of oil and gas.  The impending demise of coal is the canary in the cage.  Moreover, the movement for divestment of stock in fossil fuel companies, most notably Ireland’s decision to divest, is sending all sorts of market signals.

The fossil fuel industry is getting those signals, and it will fight back.

 

Sources:

Lee Wasserman and David Kaiser, “Beware of Oil Companies Bearing Gifts,” The New York Times, OpEd (25 July 2018).   nyti.ms/2vdaodc   Mr. Wasserman is the director and Mr. Kaiser is the president of the Rockefeller Family Fund

David Roberts, “The 5 most important questions about carbon taxes, answered:  A carbon tax can lower emissions, but it needs to be pretty damn high,” Vox (23 July 2018). bit.ly/2uNm3zr

Some cheery thoughts about action on climate change

Sometimes, maybe most times, we can be depressed and depressing on environmental issues so it’s only fair to be cheery occasionally

 

Trump, and other climate destroyers in, for instance, Australia, will be gone, hopefully sooner rather than later. While the US under T-Rex undermines climate change action, China and others proceed with developing the renewable and sustainable technology that will be critical over the rest of this century, and beyond.

As a result, energy technology (e.g., battery storage capacity, smart meters and grids, solar and wind, maybe carbon capture) will continue to grow by leaps and bounds.  Regional and local governments and institutions will continue to experiment with transportation and building practices and policies to promote energy efficiencies and renewable sources of energy.  Economies of scale and lower prices for renewables are in part the result of states mandating a portion of energy resources to be renewables.

 

 

 

 

 

Many multi-national businesses, accustomed to operating in climate-friendly places like the European Union and California, are resigned to accepting carbon regulation and even are embracing the increasingly lower cost renewables.  As we pointed out in a recent ieBLOG, big oil is making sounds like climate change progressives.  A Statoil n/k/a Equiver report is pushing the view that more renewable energy is urgently needed and that “The climate debate is long on targets, but short on action.”  NYTimes (Povoledo).   ExxonMobil has for years supported a carbon tax as a necessary and fair method for addressing carbon emissions.

Even in Australia, about half of big businesses are moving toward renewables.   As least 22 companies of the Fortune 500 have committed to buying renewable power to meet 100% of their electricity use.  While 22 out of 500 is just a start, 100% is an aggressive target from the 22.  And such action in turn drives utilities to meet these demands from some of their prime industrial customers.  The next step needed is to extend such arrangements to medium and smaller businesses, perhaps by their pooling resources and uses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A recent study has indicated that the fossil fuel industry is facing increasing financial challenges. One key reason is that it now has a competitor (renewables) that can deliver the same product — energy — with cheaper, cleaner, better technologies.  See McKibben.

Of course there are and will be the regressive exceptions, such as the Koch Bros and industrial farming.  But like T-Rex, they will also be gone some day while those who adapt to climate cost pressures will survive economically.

Besides enlightened local, regional and national governments, and progressive leaders of the business community, like Michael Bloomberg and many IT companies, and even some fossil fuel companies, we are also seeing religious leaders stepping up their commitment to climate and other environmental challenges.

In his 2015 climate change encyclical, Laudato si: On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis called for a transition away from fossil fuels.  The Pope is at it again, by recently bringing together at the Vatican representatives of some of the biggest oil companies.  At that gathering, Pope Francis reinforced his message from Laudato si making clear that the only debate over climate change was not whether we have to transition away from fossil fuels but how long the transition will be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around the same time, the government of Indonesia announced that it had joined forces with the country’s two largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, to encourage consumers to reduce plastic waste and reuse their plastic bags.  Such a collaborative effort is notable as Indonesia is the second largest contributor to plastic waste, after China, and it has committed to cutting its plastic waste by 70% by 2025.  And the two Islamic organisations that have committed to help the country meet this target have over 100 million followers.  NU has introduced “Ngaji Sampah” or “Sermons in Waste” which are broadcast online and rely on “Islamic principles to promote sustainable consumption and environmental awareness.”

So while there are lots of powerful special interests that are continuing to sabotage any meaningful action on climate change, there are also some progressive voices and commitments that we need to encourage.

Sources:

Brad Plumer, “ A Year After Trump’s Paris Pullout, U.S. Companies Are Driving a Renewables Boom, The New York Times (1 June 2018). nyti.ms/2Jn0sXG

Ben Smee, “Almost half of Australian big business moving to renewables,” The Guardian (14 May 2018). bit.ly/2IBWLNJ

Kate Lamb, “Preaching against plastic: Indonesia’s religious leaders join fight to cut waste,” The Guardian (7 June 2018).
bit.ly/2kSsrRe

Elisabeth Povoledo, “Pope Tells Oil Executives to Act on Climate: ‘There Is No Time to Lose’,” The New York Times (9 June 2018). nyti.ms/2kXnruC

Bill McKibben, “Some rare good climate news: the fossil fuel industry is weaker than ever,” The Guardian (21 June 2018).  bit.ly/2trDWDd

“The Pope, the Planet and Passion: LAUDATO SI’ and Getting the Tone Right” in the Reports section of irish environment (September 2015). bit.ly/2tyKgtm

“How Big Oil Now Talks about Climate Change: It’s real. It’s happening. It’s dangerous. BUT…” in the ieBLOG section of irish environment (May 2018).

 

Trump and Pruitt are trying to gut the US EPA and undermine its function to protect health and the environment

Reagan tried the same thing in the 1980s and here’s an example of how he failed at the Times Beach, Missouri dioxin Superfund site

At Times Beach, Missouri dioxin was spayed over a town and horse farms and Reagan’s emasculated EPA tried to ignore the impact on the people who lived in the town and on the horse farms. The people fought back and EPA had to reform itself.  Here is that story.

 

Times Beach, Missouri, 1982

Route 66, a highway that ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, has always been part pavement, part myth. At its birth in the 1920s, the road stretched 2,448 miles across eight states, from the conservative farmlands of the Midwest to the glamorous West Coast. The route was designed to connect the main streets of small and large towns along the way, providing access to markets for farm products and a means for Americans to explore the country with their newly acquired automobiles. It also provided an escape to California when land dried up during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, a journey depicted in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, where the road acquired the sobriquet the “the mother road, the road of flight.”

After the interstate highway system was constructed, beginning in the 1960s, Route 66 became obsolete and largely disappeared, physically as well as symbolically. A superhighway replaced the last stretch of Route 66 in 1984. In September 1999, an attempt was made to reconstruct the myth of the road. Route 66 State Park was opened along the Meramec River, twenty miles southwest of St. Louis. The park lies in the Meramec floodplain and covers 409 acres with hiking, biking, and horse trails, and wetlands that attract a broad range of birds, deer, and other game. There is a visitor center along with a small museum of Route 66 memorabilia.

The park is unremarkable, except for a vast mound covered with grass that stands next to the picnic area. The mound, which seems oddly out of place in this landscape, is the grave of the town of Times Beach, Missouri–torn down, bulldozed, and buried. Under the grassy mound lie the remains of houses, mobile homes, and businesses, including the Easy Living Laundromat, the Western Lounge bar, the city hall, and the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. It was not some mighty natural force that caused such devastation. Instead, it was a small-time waste hauler named Russell Bliss, in league with a company that was trying to save a few dollars on its waste disposal costs.

In the late 1960s, the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company, Inc., or NEPACCO, set up business in a portion of a manufacturing facility near Verona, Missouri, west of Times Beach. The former operator and still owner of the site was Hoffman-Taff, a company that made the defoliant Agent Orange used by American forces in Vietnam. NEPACCO produced hexachlorophene, an antibacterial agent used in soaps, toothpaste, and hospital cleaners. NEPACCO first made trichlorophenol (TCP), and then further refined it to make hexachlorophene, the same product made at the ICMESA plant in Seveso, Italy. At the end of the distillation process, liquid residues, known as still bottoms, accumulated and were stored in a black 7,500-gallon tank. Disposal of the bottoms was expensive, and though NEPACCO at first paid an experienced waste company to dispose of the still-bottom residues by incineration at a facility in Louisiana, it later looked for ways to cut costs. When a sales representative at ICP, a local company that sold solvents, heard that NEPACCO was looking for a solution to its high-cost waste disposal problems, the company contracted with NEPACCO to dispose of the still bottoms. ICP knew little about waste disposal, however, and it in turn subcontracted the disposal to Russell Bliss. Bliss operated a waste oil business, collecting used crankcase oil from gas stations and reselling it to refineries, recyclers, and anyone else who would pay for it. ICP charged NEPACCO $3,000 per load and paid Bliss $125 per load. ICP knew the material was potentially hazardous but did not know what was in it. ICP sent a sample of the still-bottom residues to Bliss. He dipped a paper napkin in it, lit the napkin, and concluded that it seemed like a heavy grease.

Bliss, or his workers, drained the NEPACCO waste into a tanker truck, and drove the tanker to his storage facility near Frontenac, Missouri. There the still bottoms were unloaded into storage tanks, which were also used to store used crankcase oil. Between February and October 1971, Bliss picked up six truckloads of still bottoms from NEPACCO, each load containing 3,000-3,500 gallons.

In addition to operating a waste oil business, Bliss kept a stable of Appaloosa show horses. To keep the dust down, Bliss drained the mixture of crankcase oil and still bottoms from his storage tanks in Frontenac and sprayed the material around his horse farm. It worked so well that Bliss began to sell his dust-suppressant services to others, including Shenandoah Stable, near Moscow Mills, Missouri. The owners, Judy Piatt and Frank Hempel, who also kept Appaloosas, paid Bliss $150 to spray the floor of their indoor arena in May 1971. Bliss told Piatt that the material would kill all the flies around the horses. It did more than that.

The night after the spraying, a horse grew quite ill. Within a few days, five more horses lost their hair, developed sores, and became severely emaciated. Sparrows, cardinals, and woodpeckers began to drop from the rafters of the barns. Before long the horses, too, began to die. Piatt blamed the deaths on the spraying, but Bliss denied responsibility, claiming that he had sprayed only used motor oil. To try to stem the flood of deaths, Piatt and Hampel removed a foot and a half of soil from around the arena, but to no avail. Eventually sixty-two horses died or had to be destroyed.

Both Piatt and Hempel suffered diarrhea, headaches, and aching joints. Piatt’s six-year-old and ten-year-old daughters also became sick after playing on the floor of the arena. The younger daughter had to be rushed to the hospital on one occasion, and both suffered from gastrointestinal pains and inflamed and bleeding bladders.

A young veterinarian, Dr. Patrick Phillips, who was a graduate student at the time, visited the Piatt stable but could not determine the cause of the illnesses or the deaths of the horses. Because of the unexplained deaths of the horses, and the illnesses of the children, the Missouri Division of Health alerted the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. In August 1971, the CDC inspected Shenandoah Stable and collected human and animal blood samples, as well as samples of the soil. CDC representatives also spoke with Bliss, who assured them that he had sprayed his own stable with the same material and that he had not experienced any problems.

Piatt and Hempel took matters into their own hands. In September 1971, they sued Bliss for the injuries and loss of the horses. Starting in late 1971, they also surreptitiously followed Bliss’s trucks as waste materials were sprayed or dumped around Missouri. Hempel sometimes wore a wig, Piatt wore a large cowboy hat, and they borrowed different cars to disguise themselves, but Bliss’s drivers often recognized them. Piatt and Hempel kept a record of where Bliss sprayed or disposed of materials, keeping up the surveillance for fifteen months.

While Piatt and Hempel followed Bliss, the CDC attempted to identify what might be in the waste oil that could cause such toxic reactions. By late 1972, they were still unable to identify the chemical culprit. Around this time, Dr. Phillips and Piatt heard about the Timberline Stable, where similar problems had occurred, including the loss of twelve horses. The son of the stable owner also contracted a severe skin disorder, chloracne, after playing in the stable. A colleague of Dr. Phillips took samples at Timberline and suffered a burn and then blistering of his face from the soil sample. The CDC was again notified.

In late 1973 and early 1974, the CDC analyzed more soil samples from Shenandoah Stable, and this time the agency found traces of trichlorophenol (TCP), an ingredient in herbicides that causes blistering. When the trace amounts of TCP were administered to the ears of rabbits, they developed the signs of blistering, as expected with TCP. What was not expected was that several of the rabbits died, and autopsies revealed liver damage. This reaction could not be attributed to such small doses of TCP. Something much more deadly was at work.

The CDC ran more complicated tests and discovered that the soil contained tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) or, more commonly, dioxin. In fact, the soil samples contained over 30,000 parts per billion (ppb) of dioxin. At this time, though dioxin was known to be deadly to animals, even in small doses, little was known about its effects on humans, and there was no standard for what constituted safe levels of dioxin.

The CDC immediately notified the Missouri Division of Health. Dr. Phillips found Piatt and Hempel at a restaurant and told them the news. He explained what dioxin was, although he himself had only that day learned about it. None of them knew how dangerous dioxin was, only vaguely connecting it with Agent Orange and the Vietnam War.

The authorities began to look for the source of the dioxin. The high concentration of the chemical indicated that it came from an industrial facility. Bliss stated that he got his oil from various sources in Missouri, none of which were industrial sources of dioxin. Dr. Phillips and CDC physicians discovered several facilities in Missouri, including the Hoffman-Taff facility, that could have made Agent Orange or TCP, but none seemed to have any connection with Bliss. Then the investigators located a former supervisor at the Verona plant, who informed them that Bliss had indeed hauled waste from NEPACCO. When they confronted Bliss about the waste hauling he did for NEPACCO, he claimed that he had just remembered the site and was about to call the CDC.

NEPACCO went out of business in 1972, after its main product, hexachlorophene, was banned for most purposes by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The ban followed the deaths of thirty-six infants in France who were exposed to high levels of the chemical in talcum powder. Dioxin is an unwanted byproduct of trichlorophenol, a constituent of hexachlorophene.

When the CDC inspected the Verona plant site, NEPACCO was gone, but the tank used to store still bottoms was there, filled with 4,300 gallons of liquid. The CDC tested the material and found dioxin at 343,000 ppb. One CDC representative suggested that there was enough dioxin in the tank to kill everyone in the United States. State and federal authorities, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), focused their efforts on securing and cleaning the Verona site, working with Syntex, the company that had purchased Hoffman-Taff and was responsible for the site. After securing the tank, the most pressing problem was the disposal of the dioxin-contaminated material. One method was to incinerate it, but Missouri did not have any hazardous waste incinerators, and neighboring states threatened to block any attempts to transport the dioxin across state lines. Disposal of the dioxin was delayed until a suitable facility was found.

Dr. Phillips and the CDC investigators also identified another site where dioxin had been sprayed and where several homes were later built. Tests showed high levels of dioxin in the soil. While the CDC recommended that the site be excavated and the people moved, its report also indicated that the half-life of dioxin was one year. Based on the estimate that half of the dioxin would degrade naturally within a year, which was later found to be erroneous, Missouri officials decided to leave the soil intact and not to move anyone.

In 1979, the investigations took another turn. An anonymous tip reported that NEPACCO had buried drums of chemicals on a farm near the Verona plant. Hundreds of drums were uncovered, and dioxin was found in the soil samples. As at the Verona plant site, the first priority was to secure the drums and prevent further discharges before determining how to dispose of the dioxin.

A lack of financial and human resources and insufficient legal authority hindered authorities in their investigation. The federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which was designed to regulate the generation and disposal of hazardous waste, was passed in 1976, but the EPA was slow to enforce the requirements of the new law. Also, RCRA did not address problems associated with old, abandoned hazardous waste sites.

The gap in the law was closed several years later through the passage of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund law. The Superfund law established a government fund for the investigation and cleanup of abandoned toxic waste sites, with strict liability provisions that allowed the government to recover the costs of the cleanups from the responsible parties. The law was based on the principle that those who threaten public health and the environment through the production and disposal of toxic wastes should be made to pay for the cleanup–the polluter pays principle.

As tough as the law was when it passed in December 1980, it immediately ran into headstrong opposition from the newly elected Reagan administration. Reagan was unsympathetic to environmental issues and immediately set out to diminish the effectiveness of the federal EPA by cutting resources, delaying regulatory actions, and reducing enforcement. These efforts to undercut the EPA, and the Superfund program in particular, were carried out by Anne Gorsuch, the head of the EPA, and Rita Lavelle, the head of the hazardous waste division. Both Gorsuch and Lavelle joined the EPA from jobs in industries that had been regulated by the EPA. Gorsuch had a reputation from her days as a Colorado legislator as someone who was deeply opposed to federal energy and environmental policies. Many viewed Gorsuch and Lavelle as foxes sent to guard the chicken coop.

The Reagan administration cut EPA funding by 17 percent, and Gorsuch abolished the enforcement office, dispersing the staff into other programs. Soon after Lavelle assumed control of the hazardous waste program, she met privately with industry representatives whose hazardous waste sites were being investigated by the EPA. The meetings led to claims that Lavelle was entering into sweetheart deals with companies to relieve them of the obligation to pay for the multimillion-dollar cleanup of these sites. When the Reagan administration refused to surrender EPA documents to Congress, it was seen as an attempt to hide such deals. There were also reports that the EPA was attempting to lower the standard for dioxin cleanups. This, and the reductions in staffing and resources mandated by Reagan, including laboratories needed to analyze samples, deepened the distrust of both the EPA and the Reagan administration felt by those trying to deal with the dioxin.

After reviewing all of the available records, including Judy Piatt’s record of where Bliss had sprayed, an EPA field investigator named Daniel Harris identified numerous sites all over Missouri that might be subject to dioxin contamination. The public demanded that the EPA take action to protect those exposed. Rita Lavelle stated repeatedly that no emergency existed, and that since not enough was known about dioxin, more studies were needed before action could be taken. When asked why some of the sites were not fenced, she infamously retorted that fences merely encouraged children to climb over them. Many saw these arguments as attempts to delay the process, as a denial of the seriousness of the dioxin exposure, and as an unwillingness to spend the Superfund money that Congress had appropriated.

The EPA’s handling of events in Missouri became an embarrassment in the fall of 1982 when an environmental organization, the Environmental Defense Fund, published a leaked EPA document that listed fourteen confirmed and forty-one suspected dioxin sites in Missouri, and reported that the EPA was going to clean up sites only if the level of dioxin exceeded 100 ppb, whereas the CDC was arguing for cleanups where the dioxin level was only 1 ppb. The town of Times Beach was included on the list. Piatt’s records indicated that Bliss’s trucks had sprayed his oil mixture on the dirt roads throughout the town. Bliss continued to spray Times Beach from 1972 through 1976. Since the town had the largest population of all the newly revealed sites, it received the most attention. Sampling began in late 1982. Residents in the town soon grew accustomed to people in white moon suits taking samples of the dirt on their streets.

Sampling was completed on December 3, 1982, which was fortunate, because on the following day Times Beach suffered its worst flood in history when the Meramec River overflowed. Residents of the town were evacuated, and it was several days before they could return. Even then, no cars were allowed, and the town was accessible only on foot or by boat. No one under sixteen was permitted to return at that point, and residents were warned to get tetanus shots, not to smoke because of leaking propane tanks, and to obey a curfew.

Many residents attended the town’s annual Christmas party at city hall, to celebrate the holiday and their safe return after the flood. At the dinner, the residents learned of the results of the samples taken by the EPA. They were shocked out of their holiday cheer. Dioxin had been found in the soil along roads and in backyards. The CDC advised that the people who had not yet returned because of the flood should stay away because of the dioxin, and that those who had returned should get out. Within days, police established roadblocks to prevent access to the town, and people in moon suits returned to take further samples. Times Beach quickly became Missouri’s Love Canal.

 

 

 

 

Courtesy artist Jim West

 

Despite the growing crisis in Times Beach, officials at the EPA headquarters remained dismissive. Lavelle insisted that there was no emergency. Others closer to the Reagan White House saw Lavelle herself as a disaster in the making. In January 1983 control over events in Times Beach was taken out of her hands.

Further tests conducted by the EPA indicated that dioxin was widespread throughout the town. Officials were uncertain about the health effects of exposure to low levels of dioxin in soil, and even more uncertain about how to dispose of it. The town was situated in a flood plain, and further flooding could spread the contamination. In the end, it was decided that buying the town would be more efficient than relocating the residents for an unknown period while the agencies figured out how to clean up and dispose of the dioxin.

The decision to buy out the town was announced at a press conference on February 22, 1983, by the EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch. The announcement was made to a room full of reporters, while the residents of Times Beach listened to a loudspeaker outside.

Within a few weeks, both Lavelle and Gorsuch were dismissed from the EPA for a variety of reasons, including their handling of Times Beach. Subsequently, in 1984, Lavelle was convicted of perjury before Congress, of obstructing a Congressional investigation, and of submitting a false statement. She spent four months in jail and served five years of probation.

Meanwhile, the people of Times Beach were stranded. They had to decide whether to stay and wait for the buyout and assume the risks to themselves and their children, or to get out. The authorities had indicated that staying was not safe, but no one could tell them how dangerous it would be to stay. If they chose to leave their homes, they had to find alternative living accommodations and pay for both those accommodations and their Times Beach homes. Businesses in Times Beach were lost, as were the jobs at those businesses. Parents attended countless meetings trying to figure what to do, where to go, for how long, and how to get some financial assistance. Every cough, sore, and fever experienced by the children of Times Beach was watched intently by their parents, always fearing that this was just the first symptom of some unknown disease. Pregnant women worried deeply about the consequences for their babies. For five families that moved away, it was soon discovered that the mobile home park they had moved to was another site that had been contaminated by Bliss. They were forced to move yet again.

The buyouts did not begin until August 1983 and ultimately cost more than $36 million, with the EPA paying 90 percent and the State of Missouri paying 10 percent of the costs. Based on the experience at Seveso, Italy, the state recommended that all the dioxin throughout Missouri be collected and stored in temporary facilities before being incinerated.

Since Times Beach contained over 50 percent of the dioxin in the state, and no one would be living there, it was the logical choice for a new incinerator. Once built, it burned more than 265,000 tons of dioxin-contaminated material, including over 37,000 tons from Times Beach. Syntex was responsible for most of the cleanup at Times Beach and the other sites in Missouri, including the construction of the incinerator, the construction of levees to protect the incinerator and related facilities from flooding, and the demolition and burying of Times Beach itself. By 1997 the cleanup was complete. With the settlement of personal injuries, the costs were close to $200 million.

Judy Piatt and her daughters eventually recovered on their claims against Bliss, IPC, and others. Bliss was prosecuted on a variety of charges, including illegal dumping and tax fraud, and was sentenced to a year in jail on the tax fraud conviction.

People typically visit the Route 66 State Park to pay homage to the famous national highway and perhaps to learn some of its history. Little do they know that the vast mound next to the picnic area, like some prehistoric burial ground, contains the remnants of the lives of some 2,000 people, including their Christmas decorations, their beds, their swing sets, the roofs over their heads–all buried in this spot.

 

Sources

“Times Beach, Missouri, 1982” from Robert Emmet Hernan, This Borrowed Earth: Lesson from the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters around the World (in English, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010; in Chinese, China Machine Press, 2011).

Natasha Geiling, “Former chemical industry attorney takes over EPA’s Superfund task force,” ThinkProress (29 May 2018).

NOTE:  In 2004, Rita Lavelle was convicted on federal charges of one count of wire fraud and two counts of making false statements to the F.B.I.  Lavelle committed these crimes in her personal business of environmental consultation.

 

 

 

How Big Oil Now Talks about Climate Change

It’s real. It’s happening. It’s dangerous. BUT…

Fossil fuel companies are notorious for their efforts to reject, rebut, attack or undermine any conversation on the need for climate change action. Over the past decade or two, however, some companies have softened their opposition, and even acknowledged the realities of climate change, often in private meetings or publications with limited readership rather than in public forums. Some ventured, albeit not for long, into the renewable energy world. But now a lawsuit in California and a new analysis by Shell have opened a much wider door into a fundamental rethinking by at least some of the larger fossil fuel interests. It would appear that the strident, powerful voice of opposition has shifted, in not inconsiderable ways. BUT, there are caveats.

The lawsuit raises claims by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland that five major oil companies (Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips and BP) are liable to pay the cities’ costs of coping with sea level rise caused by global warming. The judge in the case required that the two sides of the case provide him with a climate science tutorial that would set forth the parties’ position on climate change and where they differed.

Chevron started the science for the defense by stating that, “From Chevron’s perspective, there is no debate about the science of climate change,” accepting the work of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the broad scientific consensus. While the cities no doubt were delighted with this admission, there was likely a shockwave sent through various non-parties who had submitted briefs denying the legitimacy of climate change science. The usual suspects had submitted such briefs, including Christopher Monckton, Willie Soon, and Richard Lindzen.

 

 

 

 

 

The opening statement by Chevron may have suggested more than it delivered. For the position of the oil companies is that they accept the trustworthiness of the science and the basic realities of climate change — it’s big, it’s bad (in large part because of burning fossil fuels) and it’s happening. BUT, they argue that there are many, large uncertainties about what we should do as a result. Just how big and bad will it get, and where will the impacts be felt? They raise lots of questions of how much we should invest and in what strategies or alternative energy resources or technologies. And perhaps, they implore, it would be best to wait on taking any drastic actions until we know more or until as yet unknown technological developments resolve many of these questions.

More controversially, some would say disingenuously, the companies argue that the climate impacts are caused not by the extraction or production of fossil fuels BUT by the use of fossil fuels by consumers. In other words, the oil companies only make the oil, and it is the consumers who burn it, producing the greenhouse gases (GHGs), and all that climate change damage. One suspects that the more rational, thoughtful members of the fossil fuel world do not believe any such specious argument and are just trying to delay climate action. If it is the consuming public’s fault for the GHGs, then any climate action requiring drastic curtailment of consumption of fossil fuels is less likely.

The argument comes out of the playbook of the tobacco industry, which argued that they made cigarettes but it was the smoking of the cigarettes by the consumers that caused the damage to smokers. Courts rejected the tobacco companies’ claim and laid blame at their feet. It is reasonable to expect similar results with the fossil fuel argument.

This is not to suggest we can relax against such arguments.   There are lots of supporters of the fossil fuel interests who are not rational nor thoughtful. Just for this Earth Day (2018), in an Editorial in the Texas Public Policy Foundation, one of the many organisations funded by the Koch Brothers, it was argued that we need to be mindful of the critical role that fossil fuels play in “making America great” (sounds like a familiar mantra). For example, it is argued that fossil fuels are indispensable because “gasoline in a car is used to transport an expectant mother to a hospital,” and that “many in developing countries can’t save premature babies because they don’t have access to the reliable electricity that fossil fuels provide to Americans.” See McNamee in sources.   Presumably, renewable energy powering the car and generators would kill babies? What can one say about such logic or belief systems.

Around the same time as the California lawsuit, Shell issued a “Sky Scenario,” its latest projection of the course of climate change. The Scenario included how the Paris Agreement can be achieved and the global average temperature rise limited to well below 2°C from pre-industrial levels. Importantly it relies on a vision of a zero carbon world by 2070. The fact that a Big Oil company is projecting, and supporting, actions that will hold to the 2°C temperature rise, or lower, and that relies on a zero carbon world to do that is a major step forward in the conversation about climate change.

 

 

 

 

 

Like the submission in the California lawsuit, however, the Scenario relies on lots of assumptions and actions required to achieve such a goal, and many of these require the continued use of fossil fuels for an extended period of time. For instance, the Sky Scenario requires the building of 10,000 carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities and allows continued emissions in the short term with necessarily radical reductions and eventually negative emissions in the long term (with CCS). If these components of the Shell vision fail to matrialise, then of course we would continue to rely on fossil fuels to a greater extent and longer period. There are many aspects to the Shell vision that raise questions about its viability, as detailed by David Roberts in his Vox post (March 2018).

Yet the Scenario is an attempt to show a way to achieve the Paris Agreement and remove the need for fossil fuels, from a Big Oil company. Much of what Shell argues is consistent with the findings of the UN IPCC.

BUT both Shell’s Sky Scenario and the submission by Chevron in the California lawsuit reveal the handwriting on the wall as to the future of the world’s energy resources: fossil fuels have a limited lifespan. Technology and costs will continue to accelerate the drive toward renewable energy resources.  The only question is how long that drive will take. The more enlightened fossil fuel interests are hoping and arguing for an extended time period. Every extra day of extraction and production creates substantial profits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, other fossil fuel interests will continue to deny climate change and to vigorously fight it. The Koch Brothers come to mind. But it will be increasingly more difficult for the deniers, including the political supporters of the deniers, namely much of the Republican party, to push the argument against climate change when the major fossil fuel companies publically acknowledge the fundamental realities of climate change and are softening their opposition to climate action. Even ExxonMobil supports a carbon tax.

Sources:

Dana Nuccitelli, “In court, Big Oil rejected climate denial,” The Guardian (23 March 2018). bit.ly/2ISbLUX

David Roberts, “Shell’s vision of a zero carbon world by 2070, explained,” Vox (30 March 2018). bit.ly/2Igv8Wu

See David Roberts on “Climate change is simple” in the Podcast section of irish environment magazine (April 2018), where a leading commentator, formerly of Grist and now with Vox, in a TEDx presentation talks about the causes and effects of climate change in blunt, plain terms.  www.irishenvironment.com/

“Democratic senators scrutinize Koch brothers’ ‘infiltration’ of Trump team,” The Guardian (26 April 2018). bit.ly/2qYZ8Ae

Bernard McNamee, “This Earth Day, let’s accept the critical role that fossil fuel plays in energy needs,” Texas Public Policy (17 April 2018). bit.ly/2r5hK0G

 

Pushing for greater residential density near public transportation

To do or not to do

 

The California legislature is considering a proposed bill that would allow developers to build apartment buildings up to 85 feet tall (5 – 8 stories) with higher density within a half-mile of train stations (equivalent to 10 minute walk) and a quarter-mile of high-frequent bus stops.  Many of the affected areas are currently restricted by local zoning to single-family homes.  To effectuate these changes, the bill would pre-empt local zoning rules, precluding local communities from diverging from the minimum height or density minimums in the bill but otherwise able to set design and other zoning rules.  The provisions would apply only to parcels of real estate already zoned for residential use and historic-building protections and affordable housing requirements would still apply.

Transportation generates 1/3 of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the US and studies have found that people living in compact cities have smaller carbon footprints than those living in sprawling cities or wider urban areas.  For example, those living in dense San Francisco, which has wide public transport, emit on average 6.7 tons of CO2 per year, in contrast to the broader Bay area where people emit 14.6 tons, in large part because of long commutes.

The legislation would create compact neighborhoods near public transportation substantially reducing long gas-guzzling carbon-producing commutes and helping California to meet its  ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions.  It  would also help address the critical housing shortages in key communities throughout California as a result of the lower building and maintenance costs of higher density housing.  The sponsors of the bill expected broad support, especially from the environmental community.

 

But the Sierra Club, one of the largest US environmental organizations, has objected to the legislation, as proposed.  Of course the Club strongly supports GHG emission reductions, and more “smart, walkable and affordable housing.”  The concerns are with the “state-level preemption” that strips “local governments from the decision-making process.”  The Club points out how such preemption has been and is being used elsewhere to block local fracking bans, regulation of factory farms, and local protection of public lands. The Sierra Club concludes that “This bill has the right aim, but the wrong method.”

Elsewhere we need to look no further than the UK Conservative government’s efforts to take away local control over decisions on fracking and wind farms.  Or the Irish government’s deep frustration with the some local opposition to the huge Apple data center in Galway.

Of course, transit-oriented density development can be created and managed by local communities, and there are many useful case studies of such planning.

Assuming the troubling state preemption of local control over height and density zoning issues is addressed, there remain many concerns about increasing density, e.g., higher buildings, stress on existing infrastructure, overcrowding, destruction of the look of a traditional neighborhood.  Of course, density does not necessarily mean structures higher than what currently exists in the particular community or neighborhood.  Infrastructure can, and must, be built to accommodate more people, regardless of what housing they use.  And cities can be densely populated without being overpopulated.  Singapore is a small island with a high population density – about 10,200 per sq km – but is not considered overpopulated.   Of course it helps to be a wealthy city, as we can see by the contrast with one of the most populated cities, Dhaka, Bangladesh, which has a density of 44,500 people per sq km and which most people would consider overpopulated.

Dublin has provided for taller and more dense buildings near several transit centers, e.g., Connolly and Heuston rail stations, but the exception to low-rise buildings is limited.  And living accommodations will be needed for a projected increase in population of up to 400,000 in the greater Dublin area by 2031 and up to 286,000 in Dublin city.  This growth reflects the movement of over 70% of the world’s population to urban areas by 2050.

The challenge is how to provide affordable living spaces for this growth, and to prevent the unfolding disasters associated with climate change that will threaten these living spaces.  The choice does not seem complicated.  Either this crush of more and more people will live in higher, more dense buildings or they will spread out over the surrounding countryside, at least in developed countries where people migrating to cities can afford to spread out.  In developing countries the bulk of those migrating to cities are the poor who are crushed into shantytowns within the cities.

In any discussion of what needs to be done to meet this challenge, transit-oriented development, with higher residential densities, offers significant benefits and deserves a hearing.

Sources:

Conor Dougherty and Bead Plumer, “A Bold, Divisive Plan to Wean Californians From Cars,” The New York Times (16 March 2018).  nyti.ms/2DxDZjT

Maggie Kash, “Sierra Club Policy on Transit-Oriented Development,” Sierra Club Press Release (9 February 2018).  bit.ly/2pttetS

Poppy McPherson, “The dysfunctional megacity: why Dhaka is bursting at the sewers,” The Guardian (21 March 2018).  bit.ly/2G1z2BK

Royal Town Planning Institute, The Dutch connection: Transit-oriented development in the Netherlands (26 July 2013). bit.ly/2ucIvVt

US Environmental Protection Agency, Encouraging Transit Oriented Development: Case Studies that Work bit.ly/2FWd3Au

Urban Land Institute, Ireland Conference 2017: Residential Development, Density, and the Vital City bit.ly/2G2WHSE

Justin Comiskey, “Dublin’s development plan short on density,” The Irish Times (17 Nov 2016).   bit.ly/2Gmbuek

 

EDITOR’S UPDATE (4 April 2018):

On the California proposed legislation, including transit-oriented density and other issues, see David Roberts’ interview with one of the people who developed the ideas behind the legislation:

David Roberts, “The future of housing policy is being decided in California,” Vox (4 April 2018).  bit.ly/2GGDzK7