Chevron continues to be subject to harsh criticism in the wake of last November’s 3,000 barrel oil spill off the coast of Brazil. Last week Brazil’s largest oil workers union sued Chevron and its contractor Transocean in a Brazilian court to seek the expulsion of Chevron from drilling off the coast of Brazil. Samantha Pearson, Backlash Increase Pressure on Chevron in Brazil, Financial Times, April 2, 2012. Chevron is being sued for $11 billion by the government of Brazil and prosecutors are seeking to hold 17 executives of the two companies criminally liable. Brazilian prosecutors are seeking a 31-year prison term for George Buck, head of Chevron’s operations in the country. Most Brazilian legal observers do not believe the 17 executives will serve lengthy prison terms, but it seems clear that the government is intent on sending a message that corners must not be cut in developing Brazil’s oil reserves. Chevron’s criminal lawyer has denounced the criminal charges, arguing that little environmental damage was done and that the spill, which occurred nearly 200 miles off the coast, did not reach the coastline. Brazil is preparing to host the Rio+20 Earth Summit in two months with businesses set to play a more significant role than in past such events. “Bigger Role for Business at Next Rio Conference,” April 2, 2012.
Apple Inc. announced that it would correct labor abuses discovered in an audit by the Fair Labor Association of Apple supplier Hon Hai Precision Industry, known as Foxconn. Foxconn, Apple’s largest supplier who manufactures 40 percent of the world’s electronics, has pledged that by July 2013 no worker will work more overtime than the maximum 36 hours per week provided under Chinese law. Workers also have been promised that their incomes will not be reduced, signaling that they will receive substantial wage increases. Because Foxconn is China’s largest employer with 1.3 million workers, the changes could have far-reaching effects. Charles Duhigg & Steven Greenhouse, Electronic Giant owing Reforms in China Plants, N.Y. Times, March 30, 2012, at A1.
On March 26 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that EPA had acted arbitrarily and capriciously in rejecting Clean Air Act permit regulations adopted by the state of Texas for pollution control projects. In Luminant Generation Co. v. EPA, the Court noted that EPA had disapproved the Texas regulations years after the statutory deadline and had failed to explain adequately which portions of the Clean Air Act the regulations violated. EPA had voluntarily agreed to a remand of two of the three regulations it had disapproved, but the court found that the agency had not adequately explained its disapproval of the third.
Last week EPA proposed a new source performance standard (NSPS) for power plants that effectively would prohibit new coal-fired power plants in the U.S. The proposed rule would prohibit new power plants from emitting more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity produced. The average coal plant emits 1,600 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. The proposal generated less ferocious opposition from industry groups than one might otherwise have expected because the dramatic plunge in U.S. natural gas prices already has made new natural gas-fired plants, which emit roughly 800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, far cheaper than coal plants. Critics in the environmental community noted that the proposed rules do not cover existing plants, a subject that EPA promises to address at some date in the future. By grandfathering in existing plants for now the regulations could have the effect of encouraging companies to continue operating old coal-fired power plants for longer periods of time.
On March 30 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) responded to a court-ordered deadline by announcing that it had insufficient scientific information to enable it to ban bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical used to harden plastics, from use in food containers. The FDA acknowledged that there is research associating BPA with health risks, but it indicated that there are still too many uncertainties to justify a ban. The American Medical Association has concluded that BPA is an “endocrine-disrupting agent” and that products that contain it should be clearly identified. Bill Tomson & Thomas M. Burton, U.S. Says Too Little Data to Ban Plastics Additive, Wall St. J., March 31-April 1, 2012, at A3.
Violent protests spread across Indonesia in response to the government’s plan to increase fuel prices by one-third. The Indonesian government has been subsidizing oil prices to the point that gasoline in the country averages roughly $2 per gallon. Reduction of the fuel subsidy has been repeatedly proposed, but delayed, for more than a year. As global oil prices have soared, the subsidy has risen to more than $15 billion per year, consuming more than 15% of the government’s budget. Eric Bellman, Fuel Fight in Indonesia, Wall St. J., March 30, 2012, at A9.
Last Thursday evening Maryland visiting scholar Professor Zhao Huiyu and I went to Johns Hopkins University where we lectured to a class on “Comparative Environmental Challenges and Governance in China and the U.S.” The class consisted of 21 students from Hopkins Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering and 38 students from Nanjing University in China participating by video conference. The Polycom videoconferencing technology worked flawlessly in allowing students on opposite sides of the world to hear and see each other in high definition. The class took place from 7:30-10:00pm on Thursday evening in Baltimore and 7:30-10:00am on Friday morning in Nanjing given the 12-hour time difference.