The National Climatic Data Center confirmed on January 8 that 2012 was the hottest year ever in the U.S. Average temperatures in the U.S. were more than one degree warmer (at 55.32 degrees Fahrenheit) than in 1998, the previous hottest year. Yet 2012 will only be the world’s 8th or 9th warmest on record due in part to a La Nina weather pattern that affected other parts of the world. But even if this proves true, the 10 warmest years on record for the planet will all have occurred within the past 15 years. While last year’s drought in the U.S. was not quite as severe as the 1930s drought that produced the Dust Bowl, it covered more than 60 percent of the nation and devastated soybean and corn crops. At least11 natural disasters occurred in 2012 that each caused more than $1 billion in damage with Hurricane Sandy’s damage likely to exceed $60 billion. Justin Gillis, It’s Official: 2012 Was Hottest Year Ever in the U.S., N.Y. Times, Jan. 8, 2013. Last week record heat waves struck Australia fueling wildfires in Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria state and the Australian Capital Territory. Enda Curran, Record Heat Wave Fuels Wildfires Across Australia, Wall St. J., Jan. 8, 2013, at A11. The extreme heat in Australia convinced Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology to add additional color codes for temperatures between 52 and 54 degrees Centigrade (125.6 to 129.2 degrees Fahrenheit) and above 54.
On January 8 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a very narrow decision ducking most of the issues raised in a very confusing case involving regulation of stormwater discharges under the Clean Water Act. In Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, the Court reversed a confusing Ninth Circuit decision finding Los Angeles County in violation of its permit by discharging polluted stormwater into the Los Angeles River. In a very brief opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg the Court concluded that “the flow of water from an improved portion of a navigable water into an unimproved portion of the very same waterway does not qualify as a discharge of pollutants under the Clean Water Act.” Justice Ginsburg noted that parties agreed that the Ninth Circuit had erroneously believed that the monitoring stations were placed outside the rivers receiving the stormwater instead of instream, requiring its decision to be reversed. She also noted that a new permit, which actually is under administrative appeal right now, will correct this problem by requiring end-of-pipe monitoring of the stormwater. The Court expressly refused to address NRDC’s claim that exceedances in the instream monitors could be sufficient to establish the District’s liability for its upstream discharges. The Court’s decision was unanimous except for Justice Alito who “concurred in the judgment” without explanation.
A study analyzing 50 years of sediments from six lakes in the province of Alberta, Canada has found steady increases in the presence of toxic pollutants since development of the Alberta Tar Sands began in 1978. The study, which was funded by the Canadian government, measured levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The study is significant because it debunks claims by some industry supporters that the pollutants were there prior to the development of the tar sands. Professor John P. Smol, one of the researchers who conducted the study, described the results as “the smoking gun” linking tar sands development with toxic pollution. Ian Austen, Toxic Risk Is Suggested in a Study of Oil Sands, N.Y. Times, Jan. 8, 2013 at A4.
The U.S. Interior Department has launched a 60-day review of Royal Dutch Shell’s drilling practices in the Arctic Ocean following the company’s Kulluk drilling rig briefly running aground in rocks near Sitkalidak Island off the coast of Alaska. After the accident environmentalists called on President Obama to suspend all Shell’s permits to drill in the Arctic. Tennille Tracy and Alison Sider, U.S. to Review Shell’s Arctic Drilling Practices, Wall St. J., Jan. 9, 2013, at B2.
Air pollution reached frightening levels in Beijing last week. The U.S. Embassy’s Twitter feed of air pollutant levels reached a “crazy bad” level of 755 on the evening of January 12. Edward Wong, On Scale of 0 to 500, Beijing’s Air Quality Tops ‘Crazy Bad’ at 755, N.Y Times, Jan. 13, 2013, at A16. Levels between 300 and 500 are considered “hazardous” enough to trigger emergency health warnings in the U.S. while levels between 200 and 300 are deemed “very unhealthy.” Visibility in Beijing was greatly diminished by the pollution even though there were no clouds in the sky. By Monday morning January 15 pollution had declined to 465 on the embassy’s Air Quality Index. Concentrations of small particulates (PM2.5) reached 886 micrograms per cubic meter on January 12, more than 12 times permissible levels in China and 25 times permissible levels in the U.S. Wayne Ma, Beijing Pollution Hits Highs, Jan. 14, 2013, at A10.
The French utility Electricité de France SA (EDF) reportedly is in talks with China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Co. to form a partnership to build nuclear power plants in the United Kingdom (UK). EDF wants to build four new nuclear reactors in the UK, but investors are shying away from nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. EDF’s first new nuclear power plant, the Hinkley Point project in southwest England, now is not projected to begin operation until 2020. Selina Williams & Géraldine Antîel, EDF Turns to Chinese Partner for U.K. Nuclear Plants, Wall St. J., Jan. 11, 2013, at B5. The Hanergy Holding Group of China, known for building hydroelectric projects, last week purchased the U.S. solar power start-up firm MiaSolé. The purchase allows the Chinese company to acquire significant patents for solar technology for a fraction of the cost venture capitalists initially poured into MiaSolé as the company struggled to compete with low-cost Chinese companies. In the last four years Chinese solar manufacturers have increased their production capacity by a factor of 17. Diane Caldwell & Keith Bradsher, Chinese Firm Buys U.S. Solar Start-Up, N.Y. Times, Jan. 10, 2013, at B1.
Greek environmentalists are claiming that their country’s financial woes are causing government officials to compromise environmental standards. Protests erupted last week over the Hellas gold mine being built by Canada’s Eldorado Gold Inc., a Canadian corporation. A decade ago Greece’s highest court vetoed the project on environmental grounds, but it now is expected to open in two years. Environmentalists argue that economic concerns have resulted in lax enforcement of environmental standards, mandatory environmental impact reviews have been sharply curtailed, coal use is increasing, and 95 percent of the country’s $1 billion environmental fund may be diverted to the general budget. Suzanne Daley, Greece Sees Gold Boom, But at a Price, N.Y. Times, Jan. 14, 2013, at A4.