On Friday March 11 the largest earthquake ever to strike Japan, registering 8.9 on the Richter scale, triggered a massive tsunami that hit the northern coast of Japan, killing thousands and disabling cooling systems at nuclear power plants located along the coast. The quake moved Japan’s main island of Honshu eight feet eastward, shifted the earth’s axis nearly four inches, and sped up the earth’s rotation by 1.5 microseconds. The epicenter of the quake was 80 miles east of the town of Sendai, Japan, which was devastated by the tsunami. Japanese authorities are struggling to contain nuclear reactors whose cooling systems failed at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Fearing partial meltdowns of their nuclear fuel, authorities injected seawater mixed with boron in desperate attempts to cool the reactors, but two explosions released some radiation. The disaster is Japan’s greatest tragedy since World War II and the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. It ultimately may slow plans to resume building new nuclear power plants in the U.S., which had been part of the Obama administration’s energy strategy to combat climate change.
On Monday March 7 the Chevron Corporation obtained a preliminary injunction from a federal district court in New York barring the enforcement of the $8.6 billion judgment against the corporation for polluting the Oriente region of Ecuador. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ruled that there was "ample evidence of fraud in the Ecuadorean proceedings" and "abundant evidence . . . that Ecuador has not provided impartial tribunals or procedures compatible with due process of law." He cited a report from a legal expert commissioned by Chevron that the judiciary in Ecuador is subject to political pressure from the government and that Ecuador ranks among the lowest nations in assessments of the strength of the rule of law. Luis Gallegos, Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States, defended the country’s judicial system and expressed "consternation that a U.S. court has elected to pass judgment on Ecuador's courts." Lawrence Hurley, Ecuador’s U.S. Ambassador Speaks Out on Chevron Case, New York Times, March 10, 2011.
On March 10 the Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee gave preliminary approval to legislation that seeks to revoke EPA’s endangerment finding for emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and that prohibits EPA from regulating them under the Clean Air Act. At the committee hearing, Democratic Congressman Ed Markey denounced the committee’s proposed action by stating: “Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to a bill that overturns the scientific finding that pollution is harming our people and our planet. However, I won’t physically rise, because I’m worried that Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating about the room. I won’t call for the sunlight of additional hearings, for fear that Republicans might excommunicate the finding that the Earth revolves around the sun.”
In a meeting with Wall Street analysts last week, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson rejected the notion that the oil industry needs to reassess the safety of its deepwater drilling operations as recommended by the President’s oil spill commission. Tillerson argued that the Deepwater Horion blowout and subsequent Gulf oil spill was solely the result of management failures by BP. On Monday March 7, Alaska federal district judge Russel Holland rejected an effort by environmental activist Rick Steiner to reopen the Exxon Valdez settlement agreement, concluding that it was up to the state and federal governments to seek such a reopener if they believe that damage from the spill is continuing in ways not covered by the agreement. The judge ordered the governments to study continue harm from the spill and to report back to him by September 15.
On Wednesday March 9, several of China’s top environmental law professors appeared at a program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. to discuss “Green Governance Victories and Ongoing Challenges in China.” The professors included Wang Canfa from the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL), Li Yanfang from Renmin University School of Law, Li Zhiping from Sun Yat-sen Law School and Yu Wenxuan from CUPL. I attended the program with six of the students from my Global Environmental Law seminar. The professors expressed considerable optimism about developments in Chinese environmental law, including the government’s new Five Year Plan that makes environmental protection and responding to climate change major priorities. Several agreed that a “tipping point” had been reached in which sustainable development was now an important priority of the central government. On Thursday Professor Yu visited the University of Maryland School of Law and attended one of my classes before flying back to Vermont where he is a visiting professor this year.
On Thursday evening I flew to Rome for a spring break vacation with my wife. Rome is an amazing city with clean spring water provided from public outlets, though efforts to green the city by creating bike lanes have had only partial success, something locals attribute to the global economic downturn. Photos of the trip may be viewed online at: http://gallery.me.com/rperci/100799. Before returning to the U.S. later this week I will stop in Spain to participate in a World Health Organization Conference on prevention of environmentally-induced cancer. I will arrive back in the U.S. on Saturday in time to help judge the quarterfinal round of the Stetson International Environmental Moot Court Competition that Maryland is hosting for the first time.