Last week a large group of Chinese citizens - officially estimated to number 12,000, but many more by other estimates -- gathered in the northern port town of Dalian to protest the operation of a $1.5 billion chemical plant. The Fujia chemical plant, which has been operating for two years, makes paraxylene, a toxic chemical used to manufacture polyester. The plant is located on the coast. After the plant’s seawall was breached in a typhoon that hit a week earlier, seawater lapped at the walls of the plant, causing the public to fear that toxic chemicals would be released. The city’s Communist party secretary reportedly stood atop a car to beg the demonstrators to disperse, promising them that the plant would be closed. Sharon LaFraniere & Michael Wines, Protest Over Plant Shows Citizen Pressure on China, N. Y. Times, Aug. 15, 2011. The demonstration, organized in part through social media and other internet communications, is another sign of the potential power of public protests in China. Although the Dalian protest was peaceful, my Chinese sources indicate that some of the protesters may have been roughed up by police.
On August 15 the Japanese government announced that it will move the agency responsible for regulating nuclear power from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to the Environment Ministry. A new Nuclear Safety Agency will be created in April replacing the current Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Nuclear Safety Commission. It will be an affiliate of the Environment Ministry. The move is widely viewed as a means of strengthening regulation of nuclear power in light of the perception that the existing regulatory agencies were too close to the industry. Mitsuru Ore, Japan Tightens Nuclear Oversight, Wall St. J., April 16, 2011, at A9.
The shutdown of nuclear power plants in Japan in the wake of the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex continues to spread. Strong pressure from the Japanese public has prevented the restart of reactors temporarily idled for routine inspections. As a result, only 15 of the country’s 54 nuclear power plants are in operation now. If this trend continues through next spring Japan’s entire nuclear power industry, which accounted for 30% of the country’s electric generation prior to the accident, could be shut down. Although conservation measures reduced peak electric demand in Japan in July 2011 by 20 percent, several old fossil-fueled power plants have been placed in operation to prevent severe power shortages. In addition to increasing the cost of electricity generation by nearly $40 billion per year, increased use of oil and coal could increase Japan’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 16% over 1990 levels by the year 2013. Hiroko Tabuchi, Quake in Japan Causes Costly Shift to Fossil Fuels, N.Y. Times, Aug. 20, 2011, at B2. The Kyoto Protocol requires Japan to reduce its GHG emissions by 6% over 1990 levels during the 2008-2012 period. Meanwhile in the U.S. the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority has voted to resume construction of a nuclear power plant that had been put on hold in 1988. The decision to restart construction was taken to replace old coal-fired plants that are being retired in part due to pollution and climate change concerns. Matthew L. Wald, Alabama Nuclear Reactor, Partly Built, to Be Finished, N.Y. Times, Aug. 19, 2011, at A12.
The U.S. Department of Interior announced on August 19 that on December 14 it will conduct the first sale of leases for offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010. The Department raised the minimum bid to $100 per acre from $37.50 per acre in an effort to prevent oil companies from stockpiling properties that are never developed. Leases that are not developed can revert back to the federal government at the end of their term, though extensions routinely have been granted in the past. ExxonMobil recently sued the Interior Department for refusing to extend the term of its leases for the Julia oil field in the Gulf of Mexico that the company estimates may contain one billion barrels of recoverable oil. Russell Gold, Exxon, U.S. Government Duel Over Huge Oil Find, Wall St. J., Aug. 18, 2011, at A1. Statoil ASA of Norway, whose lease extension request also was denied, filed suit on August 15, claiming that Interior’s action was unprecedented because lease extension requests never previously have been denied for deepwater oil fields.
On August 15 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released its draft comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northern Alaska. 76 Fed. Reg. 50490. Public comment on the CCP and a companion draft environmental impact statement will be accepted until November 14. The CCP governs how ANWR will be managed for the next 15 years. Among the alternative it proposes are inclusion of parts of ANWR in the National Wilderness Preservation System as well as inclusion of some of the rivers in the area in the Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
Opposition reportedly is growing to Uganda President Yoweri Museveni’s plan to turn over part of the protected Mabira Forest Reserve for development by a family of sugar magnates. The Mehta family is promising to create jobs by developing the land for sugar cane production and to build a road and a power plant. Environmentalists are outraged that the property transfer, first proposed several years ago, would be done without observing procedures required by existing laws. While President Museveni is framing it as a “jobs v. environment“ dispute, the opposition to the proposal is broadening to include many groups not normally aligned with environmental concerns as well as some members of Museveni’s own party. Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, Uganda: Nation Lines Up Against Museveni Over Protected Forest, The Nigerian Daily, Aug. 20, 2011.
“Jobs v. the environment” may become a prominent theme of Republican presidential candidates in the U.S. Many are bashing EPA for issuing “job-killing regulations” even as public opinion polls continue to show strong public support for the agency. John M. Broder, Bashing EPA Is New Theme in G.O.P. Race, N.Y. Times, Aug. 18, 2011, at A1. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s claims that climate scientists “have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects” and that “almost weekly or even daily scientists . . . are coming forward and questioning . . . man-made global warming” received “Four Pinnocchios” as whopping lies by Washington Post “Fact Checker” Glenn Kessler. Noting that five investigations into the East Anglia email hacking had exonerated the scientists involved, Kessler declared the “scandal to be a figment of Perry’s imagination.” When asked to substantiate the claim that scientists increasingly are questioning climate change, Perry’s campaign cited “The Petition Project” (http://www.petitionproject.org/) that claims 31,487 American scientists question climate change. The Fact Checker noted that the petition includes very few people with expertise in climate research, that 10 million people in the U.S. would qualify under the project’s broad definition of “scientists” (see http://www.skepticalscience.com/scrutinising-31000-scientists-in-the-OISM-Petition-Project.html), and that there have been virtually no new signers in the last three years. Glenn Kessler, “Rick Perry’s Made Up ‘Facts’ About Climate Change,” Washington Post, Aug. 20, 2011.
Last Sunday afternoon my former student Neal Kemkar, who works at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), was kind enough to give my wife and I a private tour of the West Wing of the White House. White House staff are allowed to give such tours on nights and weekends when it will not interfere with other business being conducted there. Among the sites we visited were the Office of the Vice President, the White House Mess, the Rose Garden, the Cabinet Room, the Oval Office, and the Roosevelt Room. The Situation Room, where the famous photo was taken of President Obama monitoring the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, is not on the tour, but it is directly across from the White House Mess and as staffers entered and exited it was possible to get a brief glimpse inside of what is a surprisingly small room crammed with technology. Outside of the Cabinet Room is the “Blackberry basket” where all cabinet officers must leave their cellphones prior to entering cabinet meetings. As cabinet officers enter the room, a White House staffer posts stickies on each cellphone to identify its owner. The highlight of the tour is the Oval Office. President Obama has placed busts of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King on the wall opposite his famous desk that is made from timbers of the HMS Resolute. One of the three original copies of the Emancipation Proclamation is above the bust of King. A bowl of Washington apples, delivered fresh each day, sits on the table between couches.