On Monday February 24 the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in cases challenging EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from stationary sources. In an unusual twist, the focus of the challenges by industry groups and some states appears to be the claim that EPA has acted too reasonably by regulating only the largest sources of GHG emissions. The oral argument attracted the largest crowd of Supreme Court bar members that I had ever seen. I arrived at the Court at 7:15AM and I felt lucky to get a seat in the courtroom. Comments by the Justices during the argument made it appear likely that the Court will split 5-4 with Justice Kennedy holding the decisive vote. At the argument Kennedy appeared genuinely undecided. Ironically, the fact that the Court had narrowed the issues in the case so as not to threaten EPA’s overall ability to regulate GHG emissions under the Clean Air Act may increase the chances that Kennedy will vote against EPA. Counsel for those challenging EPA’s regulations repeatedly argued that a decision striking them down would only affect a small subset of the sources EPA can regulate.
On February 25 the European Parliament approved the world’s most stringent limits on CO2 emissions from new automobiles. The new standards lower the existing emissions limit from 130 grams per kilometer to 95 g/km. In response to lobbying from Germany and automakers BMW and Daimlet, full implementation of the new standards was delayed from 2020 to 2021. Members of the Green Party in the European Parliament voted against the new standards because of the year delay in full implementation, but environmental groups expressed general satisfaction that the standards were lowered.
Li Guixin, a Chinese citizen in Hebei province has sued the Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau of Shijiazhuang for failure to “perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law.” Li is seeking damages for having to purchase faces masks, an air purifier, and a treadmill to exercise indoors. He maintains that the economic losses caused by pollution “should be borne by the government and the environmental departments because the government is the recipient of corporate taxes” from the polluters. Most observers do not expect the District Court to accept Li’s lawsuit. Northern and central China have been plagued by severe ait pollution in recent weeks. Sui-Lee Wee, Chinese Man Becomes First to Sue Government Over Severe Smog, Reuters, Feb. 25, 2014.
Last week the Wall Street Journal released a study finding that crude oil from North Dakota contains combustible gases at much higher levels than oil from most other sources. The combustibility of oil transported by rail has become a significant issue in the wake of two fiery train crashes in Canada and North Dakota. The Canadian accident caused the deaths of several dozen people. The Journal study tested the vapor pressure of oil originating in 86 locations around the world. It found that light sweet crude from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale field had an average Reid Vapor Pressure (RPV) of 8.56 pounds per square inch, far more than oil from any other source except for oil from the Eagle Ford Shale field in Texas. RPV measures how quickly a fuel evaporates and emits gases. No law, regulation, or even industry guideline requires that it be tested before oil is shipped. The day after release of the Journal study the Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency order requiring railroads shipping oil to evaluate factors contributing to the risks of combustion and to develop transportation security plans.
On February 25 the government of Japan released a new draft of its Basic Energy Plan that largely repudiates a pledge by a previous administration to phase out nuclear power. The plan includes efforts to restart the 50 nuclear reactors shut down in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. It also includes the possibility of building additional nuclear power plants in the future. Chico Harlan, Japan Backs Off Nuclear Phaseout, Wash. Post, February 26, 2014.
Last week the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) issued sustainability accounting standards for the financial industry. The SASB is a private, nonprofit organization focused on developing standards that will enable publicly-listed corporations to account for “environmental, social and governance factors that have the potential to affect long-term value creation and/or are in the public’s interest.” The standards, which are the second set issued by the SASB, govern how companies should aggount for the environmental consequences of their operations. The standards may be downloaded from the SASB’s website at sasb.org.
Russian forces have seized control of Crimea in the south of Ukraine and many believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is hoping to reestablish some of the former Soviet empire. If Putin must seize part of Ukraine, why not take the part of the country where the Soviet Union left its most indelible mark? For nearly 28 years a wide swath of land a couple of hours north of Kiev has been a human exclusion zone due to the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Ukraine’s then-Soviet masters delayed for several days before informing the world about the worst nuclear accident in the history of the planet. Damaging fallout from the disaster spread north across Belarus and a wide portion of Europe, but no one was every compensated by the Soviet Union for the transboundary harm. During a brief visit I made four years ago to Chernobyl and the crumbling ruins of the nearby town of Pripyat (see March 22, 2009 blog post), one can still see faded posters extolling the virtues of the Soviet empire. Shoppers are often told, if you break it you must buy it and the Soviets surely broke Chernobyl and areas of Ukraine and Belarus surrounding it.