President Obama delivered his 2013 State of the Union Message to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday February 12. Environmentalists were pleasantly surprised that the President devoted a substantial portion of his speech to energy and climate issues. The President began on an upbeat note by declaring that "After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future.” Obama noted that domestic oil production was at its highest level in 15 years while domestic natural gas production is at its highest level ever. U.S. fuel economy standards will double “the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas” and domestic solar and wind energy capacity has doubled. Due in part to the economic slowdown, “over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.” But Obama declared, “for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.” The President noted that “the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.”
The President then urged Congress to enact cap-and-trade legislation to control greenhouse gas emissions. Republican Senator John McCain visibly squirmed in his seat when Obama praised his since-repudiated support for this “bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change.” But since there is no realistic prospect of the current Republican-controlled House approving such legislation today, Obama pledged that “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will” by taking executive action “to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.” The President pledged further support for wind and solar energy and for speeding up new oil and gas permits. He proposed to devote a portion of funds from oil and gas permits to create “an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.” Finally he announced “a new goal for America: let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years” by providing states with funds to encourage the construction of more efficient buildings.
In the Republican response Senator Marco Rubio of Florida showed how sharp the partisan divide has become on energy and environmental issues. Declaring that “any time anyone opposes the President’s agenda, he and his allies usually respond by falsely attacking their motives,” Rubio made the following puzzling statement that apparently was a reference to climate change: “When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather – he accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air.” While conceding that “solar and wind energy should be a part of our energy portfolio,” Rubio opposed “wasting more taxpayer money on so-called ‘clean energy’ companies like Solyndra.” Instead, he argued for increased domestic production of coal, oil and natural gas.
On February 19 the environmental committee of the European Parliament will take a crucial vote on whether to delay the sale of 900 million tons of carbon allowances for its cap-and-trade program from 2013-2016 to 2019-2020. The delay is being proposed because of fears that the EU carbon trading system could collapse due to an oversupply of allowances. Allowances that sold for 25 Euros per ton in 2008 are now selling for around 5 euros per ton. The decision may have important consequences for plans to link the EU carbon market with the Australian and California cap-and-trade programs. Australia’s carbon price is currently fixed until 2015 when it will be allowed to float when Australia links to the EU market. Carbon Markets: Extremely Troubled Scheme, Economist, Feb. 16, 2013, at 75.
As China struggles to cope with its worst air pollution, pressure is mounting to require the state-owned oil company Sinopec to reduce the sulphur content of its petroleum. Current Chinese regulations allow as much as 150 ppm sulphur in petroleum, compared to European standards of 10 ppm. Sinopec owns half of China’s refining capacity, but it is losing money on refining operations because of government price controls on the sale of refined petroleum and diesel products. China’s State Council has decreed that permissible levels of sulphur in fuel will be reduced to 10 ppm for diesel fuel in June and for petroleum in December 2013. It is estimated that this will cost Sinopec between $4.8 billion and $6.4 billion to upgrade its refineries. Oil in China: Smog and Mirros, Economist, Feb. 16, 2013, at 68.
For several years scientists have been concerned about the potential effects of water pollution from pharmaceutical drugs discarded by humans. They now are examining how pharmaceuticals affect the behavior of fish found in waters contaminated with them. A study published last week in Science magazine found that perch exposed to the anti-anxiety drug oxazepam changed their behavior in three significant ways. The fish started swimming alone instead of in schools, they took greater risks by swimming into novel environments, and they were greedier in pursuing sources of food. T Brodin, J. Fick, M. Jonsson & J. Klaminder, Dilute Concentrations of a Psychiatric Drug Alter Behavior of Fish from Natural Populations, 339 Science 814 (Feb. 15, 2013) (online at: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6121/814). Scientists believe this could cause profound ecological impacts as fish on drugs wipe out other populations or become more vulnerable to predators from their riskier behavior.
Last week the French oil company Total disclosed the results of its investigation of the source of the natural gas leak in its Elgin-Franklin field in the North Sea that started on March 25, 2012 (see April 8, 2012 blog post). Due to the leak, Total has shut down for nearly a year production from the field, which accounted for 7 percent of British production. The Total report blames the leak on corrosion caused by the interaction of bromine in the fluid used in the well and grease on the threads of the well casing. It also noted that the Hod gas formation that is more than 3,000 feet above the Fulmar formation that was being drilled started releasing gas unexpectedly, making the accident unforeseeable. The leak was plugged after two months and no one was injured. A total of 238 workers were evacuated due to fears of a catastrophic explosion and fire. British authorities are still investigating the leak. Total hopes to escape penalties and eventually to be able graduyally to restart production using more conservative extraction methods. Stanley Reed, Total Discloses Origins of a Gas Leak in the North Sea, N.Y. Times, Feb. 16, 2013, at B6.
On Valentines Day Professor Zhao Huiyu and her daughter Jennifer returned to China after spending a year in Baltimore while Professor Zhao served as a visiting environmental law scholar at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. I unfortunately was required to spend two days on jury duty in D.C. and thus was unable to say a final goodbye in person to Professor Zhao. However, she went to the Maryland law library and took a final photo of herself standing next to the poster of me that the library has on display. The photo appears above.