A standard environmental history of American dams unfolds something like this: As a nation, we had a long love affair with dams. And while they helped our nation grow into an industrial power, the environmental side-effects were immense: lost forests and farmland, drowned canyons, and, perhaps most importantly, devastated fisheries. Yet even after some of those consequences became apparent, the story goes, dam-building marched on, powered by bureaucratic inertia and the seemingly unstoppable engine of pork-barrel politics. Finally, in the 1980s, we stopped, but by then we had built approximately one dam for every day of our national existence. As former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt once put it, “we overdosed.” We’re now starting to take dams out, and those dam removals often lead to dramatic environmental improvements. But, in the standard narrative, the removals aren’t coming nearly fast enough.
I agree with this story, and most of the underlying facts aren’t really in dispute. But another narrative of dams lingers on, particularly — but not exclusively — in the reports of the government agencies that manage much of our hydropower. In this story, hydropower remains an essential part of our energy mix. Hydropower still comprises approximately 7 percent of our national energy-generating capacity (globally, the percentage is higher). While that number may seem small, it dwarfs the contributions of wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewables. For a few key reasons, that 7 percent is also particularly useful. First, the greenhouse gas emissions of existing hydropower are minimal, at least in the United States. Second, both solar and wind power are somewhat intermittent in their availability, and studies finding that we can rely much more heavily on renewable energy (like this one here, which Lesley McAllister recently blogged about) generally assume that hydropower will even out some of the dips in the supply curve.
Hydropower’s share also could grow. Some recent studies have identified huge amounts of untapped hydropower capacity, much of it at sites where we already have dams (the United States has approximately 80,000 non-hydropower dams). How much of that capacity is economically available, given a reasonable set of environmental constraints, is a hotly debated question. But at least some capacity for expansion exists, and renewable portfolio standards or—dare we hope—a price on carbon could make expanded hydro look much more economically appealing. In this alternative narrative, then, hydro occupies a crucial and potentially dynamic role in our energy future. And this narrative is not just idle storytelling. In multiple bills, including, most recently, the Water Resources Development Act recently passed by the Senate, Congress has signaled its continuing enthusiasm for hydropower.Full text
Reposted from LegalPlanet.
People on both sides of the political spectrum agree that the boundaries of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act are murky, to say the least. But efforts by EPA and the Corps of Engineers to clarify those boundaries have been tied up in the White House for more than a year, with no explanation and to no apparent useful purpose. The President is fond of telling that nation that it should place more trust in government. No wonder he’s not convincing his political opponents — he doesn’t appear to believe the message himself. The White House Office of Management and Budget has become a black hole not just for new regulations, but even for attempts to clarify existing law. It simply swallows proposals, leaving them forever in limbo, and forever subject to continued politicking. The Clean Water Act jurisdiction guidance surely isn’t perfect, but that shouldn’t be the test. EPA should be allowed to issue its guidance, and to correct it when and if experience shows that to be necessary.
The jurisdictional issue has been problematic for a dozen years now. The law requires a permit for the addition of pollutants to “navigable waters,” which it defines as “the waters of the United States.” That seemed clear enough in 1985, when the Supreme Court decided U.S. v. Riverside Bayview Homes. At that point, most observers thought the Clean Water Act covered all waters constitutionally subject to federal authority, and that the Commerce Clause extended federal authority to the vast majority of the waters in the country. Federal jurisdiction was hardly ever in question.
But then the underlying assumptions changed. In the late 1990s the Supreme Court indicated a renewed interest in establishing boundaries to federal Commerce Clause jurisdiction. And in 2001 in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. US Army Corps of Engineers (SWANCC) the Court ruled that the Clean Water Act does not cover at least some “isolated” waters, but provided little guidance on where the jurisdictional line lies.
The Court revisited that question in 2006 in Rapanos v. United States. Sean posted this explanation four years ago of the mess left by Rapanos. The short version is that no opinion commanded a majority of the Court. Four justices, led by Justice Scalia, would have limited federal jurisdiction to relatively permanent bodies of water connected to traditionally navigable waterways and wetlands with a continuous surface connection to jurisdictional waters. Four others would have deferred to the Corps of Engineers’ broad reading. Justice Kennedy, writing only for himself, opined that jurisdiction over wetlands and waters that are not navigable in the traditional sense “depends upon the existence of a significant nexus” with navigable waters. Because Kennedy’s was the swing vote, his “significant nexus” test has been seen as controlling by most courts and commenters. But that test is hardly self-explaining, and confusion remains over whether Scalia’s “relatively permanent waters and adjacent wetlands” test is an alternative path to jurisdiction.Full text
Reposted from Legal Planet.
A couple of weeks ago, a major paper on the economics of government deficits turned out to have huge flaws. Matt Kahn and Jonathan Zasloff have already had something to say about this, but I’d like to add some thoughts about the implications for environmental issues.“Interesting,” you say, “But what does that have to do with the environment?”
I see two big lessons. The first lesson is about the danger of overreacting to a dramatic research finding, especially when you really want to believe it because it confirms what you thought all along. The second lesson is about how little economists know about the functioning of the economic system as a whole, as compared with their understanding of how individual pieces of the economy work. This is really important for large-scale issues like climate change. I’d suggest use of the warning on the left by journals in the future. More about all of this after the jump.
The paper in question purported to show that there’s a kind of deficit cliff — when government debt hits 90% of GDP, the bottom drops out of economic growth. As a new paper showed, that finding had fatal flaws. Due to a spreadsheet error, five countries were left out of the analysis. Also, the results were pretty much driven by a single bad year in New Zealand, when government debt was very high and the economy was doing very badly. (This was partly because the researchers only included that one year out of New Zealand’s history, maybe due to data availability, and also weighted each country equally no matter how many episodes of high debt they had or how they lasted). An additional problem is that the paper appeared in the American Economic Review, a very distinguished, peer-reviewed journal — but it turns out that the specific issue containing conference papers isn’t peer-reviewed, unknown to many of us.Full text
Reposted from ACSBlog.
“The easiest way to save money,” President Obama declared in his 2012 State of the Union address, “is to waste less energy.” In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama took another step and issued “a new goal for America”: “let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years.” The President also vowed that if Congress did not “act soon” to address climate change, he would “direct [his] Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
Such welcome sentiments! So sensible and right and good! But here is a puzzling fact: at the same moment President Obama was uttering these wise and welcome remarks, his White House was blocking rules to promote the very energy efficiency he was extolling. Far from urging the Cabinet to come up with executive actions on climate, his own White House was blocking his Cabinet from taking executive actions on climate. That situation persists to this day.
To understand this rather startling state of affairs, we need some background about how the regulatory system works today. Congress has passed laws to increase in many different respects the energy efficiency of the “homes and businesses” the President talked about. Like most complicated contemporary laws, the laws on energy efficiency are implemented by an administrative agency, in this case the Department of Energy (DOE). DOE writes rules that take the basic mandates given by Congress and give them shape; the agency specifies, for example, just how efficient new refrigerators and microwaves and lamps and buildings must be to meet Congress’s requirements.
Once DOE writes a rule, however, it does not simply issue it. Instead, the rule must first pass through a White House office that oversees the federal rulemaking process – the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or OIRA. Under executive orders reaffirmed or issued by President Obama, no rule deemed significant by OIRA can be issued without OIRA’s approval. In the Obama administration, moreover, OIRA has increasingly become simply a portal into the political machinery of the larger White House. Rules go to OIRA and, from there, to the Domestic Policy Council, the White House economic offices, the White House Chief of Staff, even sometimes the President himself. (The former head of OIRA in this administration, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, documents (and lauds) this new reality in his recent book, Simpler: The Future of Government.)Full text
Today's move by Senate Republicans to boycott a committee confirmation vote on Gina McCarthy to lead the EPA is just another in a series of shameless tactics aimed at hampering the Environmental Protection Agency and preventing it from doing the people's business. The list includes endless filibusters; sequester cuts that make it harder to enforce existing laws; a host of attacks on specific environmental regulations under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other statutes addressing critical environmental issues; and wholesale assaults on the regulatory process. To that undistinguished list, we can now add "taking their marbles and going home," rather than voting on a presidential nominee to lead the EPA.Full text
CPR's Lisa Heinzerling has an article in the most recent issue of the Pace Environmental Law Review, Inside EPA: A Former Insider's Reflections on the Relationship between the Obama EPA and the Obama White House, in which she discusses the ways that the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) under Cass Sustein exercised control over EPA's regulatory process. She writes that, using cost-benefit analysis as a point of access, OIRA
departs considerably from the structure created by the executive orders governing OIRA’s process of regulatory review. The distribution of decision-making authority is ad hoc and chaotic rather than predictable and ordered; the rules reviewed are mostly not economically significant but rather, in many cases, are merely of special interest to OIRA staffers; rules fail OIRA review for a variety of reasons, some extra-legal and some simply mysterious; there are no longer any meaningful deadlines for OIRA review; and OIRA does not follow – or allow agencies to follow – most of the transparency requirements of the relevant executive order.
Describing the OIRA process as it actually operates today goes a long way toward previewing the substantive problems with it. The process is utterly opaque. It rests on assertions of decision-making authority that are inconsistent with the statutes the agencies administer. The process diffuses power to such an extent – acceding, depending on the situation, to the views of other Cabinet officers, career staff in other agencies, White House economic offices, members of Congress, the White House Chief of Staff, OIRA career staff, and many more – that at the end of the day no one is accountable for the results it demands (or blocks, in the case of the many rules stalled at OIRA). And, through it all, environmental rules are especially hard hit, from the number of such rules reviewed to the scrutiny they receive to the changes they suffer in the course of the process.
All in all, it is a stinging indictment, offered by a scholar who experienced the relationship between OIRA and the EPA for herself.Full text
Last week, CPR’s Tom McGarity had a column in the Christian Science Monitor, describing the ways that the political right’s war on regulation and enforcement helped contribute to the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion last month. Today, he’s got a separate piece in the Dallas Morning News (and this past Friday, it was in the Houston Chronicle) taking a look at the Texas legislature’s response to the disaster.
In the piece, McGarity takes a state legislator to task for declaring — even while the investigation into the West disaster is still ongoing — that "'the state of Texas is in good shape' when it comes to regulatory programs designed to protect its residents from future explosions. Therefore, he didn’t see the need for 'any major changes.'"
McGarity notes that Texas doesn’t even have an occupational safety and health entity that might have inspected the plant. Had it, he writes, its concern for worker safety
would have alerted it to the risks posed by the ammonium nitrate. And the steps taken to reduce those risks would have protected the entire community of West, not just the workers. When it comes to protecting public health and safety from threats posed by unsafe fertilizer plants in rural areas and equally dangerous industrial operations in major cities, Texas politicians have adopted a Wild West attitude that gives Texas businesses great freedom to innovate and grow the economy. But the Legislature and the governor have been less concerned about ensuring that these companies exercise that freedom in a responsible manner and are held accountable when they don’t.
It's well worth the read.Full text
Just days before The Washington Post's Kimberly Kindy published her eye-opening story of chemical showers in chicken processing plants and the untimely death of a federal food safety inspector, OSHA announced fines totaling $58,775 in a case involving a worker fatality at another chicken processing plant – this one in Canton, Georgia. According to OSHA's press release, the worker "became caught in an unguarded hopper while attempting to remove a piece of cardboard."
The agency does not typically release the full details of an investigation until it is "closed" by virtue of penalties being paid, a settlement, or a court decision, so we'll only be able to glean the basics of this tragic incident from the public inspection file and press release, for now. But the basics tell a troubling story. OSHA cited Pilgrim's Pride, which boasts billions of dollars in chicken sales annually and employs about 38,000 workers, for violating rules that embody some of the most basic safety principles, like the need to have controls in place to prevent life-threatening machinery from starting up while a worker is servicing it. What's worse, the citation for failing to have procedures in place to control "potentially hazardous energy" has been classified as a "repeat" violation because the plant was cited for similar violations just two years ago.
And yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed to give this plant and others like it significantly more leeway to lower their production costs at the expense of providing safe workplaces. USDA's proposed revisions to poultry slaughter inspections will allow plants to speed up their processing lines in a way that poses serious threats to workers' health and safety. Musculoskeletal problems are already rampant in these factories as a result of repetitive motion and awkward positions. But speeding up the lines, which will decrease processing costs by about three pennies per chicken (a cumulative profit totaling millions of dollars per year), is the incentive that USDA is giving to Pilgrim's Pride and other processors to get them to make the capital investments necessary to adopt a new inspection system. That extra profit will be earned on the backs (and shoulders and wrists) of the workers who will have to cope with dizzying new line speeds.Full text
Reposted from RegBlog.
In his revealing new book about his nearly four years as President Barack Obama’s “regulatory czar,” Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein describes a striking moment: “After I had been in the job for a few years, a Cabinet member showed up at my office and told my chief of staff, ‘I work for Cass Sunstein.’ Of course that wasn’t true – but still.”
But still, indeed. Sunstein’s book, Simpler: The Future of Government, makes clear just how much power the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) wields in this administration. As I have written elsewhere, Sunstein informs us that, as OIRA Administrator, he had the power to “say no to members of the president’s Cabinet;” to deposit “highly touted rules, beloved by regulators, onto the shit list;” to make sure that some rules “never saw the light of day;” to impose cost-benefit analysis “wherever the law allowed”; and to transform cost-benefit analysis from an analytical tool into a “rule of decision,” meaning that “[a]gencies could not go forward" if their rules flunked OIRA's cost-benefit test.
As Sunstein’s statements attest, the person who leads OIRA is, in the rulemaking domain, effectively the boss of members of the President’s Cabinet. The head of OIRA determines which rules go to OIRA, what changes the rules will undergo before issuance, and indeed whether some rules will be issued at all. Rules that make OIRA’s “shit list,” to use Sunstein’s term, simply stay at OIRA indefinitely. Twenty-four of the 149 rules under review as of April 26, 2013, have been at OIRA since 2011. Three rules have been there since 2010. Three important rules on food safety, required by legislation signed into law by President Obama himself, have been trapped at OIRA for many months. A whole group of energy efficiency rules has languished at OIRA for years. None of these rules will see the light of day without OIRA’s say-so.
It is a matter of some importance, then, to know who is running OIRA now that Sunstein has left.
By law, the Administrator of OIRA must be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Since last August, when Sunstein returned to Harvard, OIRA has lacked a confirmed administrator. For several months after Sunstein’s departure, Obama appointee Boris Bershteyn served as acting administrator of OIRA. But because no one was nominated for the position within 210 days of Bershteyn beginning his service as acting administrator, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 prevented him from serving any longer. Since mid-March, therefore, Dominic Mancini – a career economist at OIRA – has been leading OIRA.
One might imagine that a career civil servant operating out of an obscure White House office would give a great measure of deference to rules forwarded by the heads of agencies, who were nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. But, it appears, one would be wrong.Full text
See the UPDATE at the bottom of the page.
Last Thursday, President Obama named Howard Shelanski as his new nominee for Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). As of that evening, Shelanski was listed on the website of the industry-funded, fiercely anti-regulatory Mercatus Center as an "expert" in its Technology Policy Program. OIRA has long operated as a regulatory chokepoint, stalling and weakening health and environmental safeguards at the behest of industry groups, and as I've written, the protection of the public will require the next Administrator to work hard to transform OIRA's role. Although much research remains to be done on Shelanski's record, his association with Mercatus raised serious concerns about whether he could be the person to bring that fundamental change to OIRA. (In fact, it brought back memories of George W. Bush, who culled his second OIRA Administrator, Susan Dudley, from Mercatus's ranks.)
I pointed the Mercatus connection out in a blog the morning after his nomination. By Friday afternoon, without any explanation, Shelanski's name had been quietly removed from Mercatus' list of experts. (Here's Google's cached version (in pdf form) from April 11, 2013 showing Shelanski's name; here's the same page still available on the web as of this morning; and here's the Shelanski-less version of the page as it looks today on the Mercatus website.)
So, questions arise: Did Mercatus take his name off its list of scholars at Shelanski's request, or on their own initiative? Was Mercatus somehow mistaken about who its own scholars were? The answers to those questions, if we ever get them, will give us a better idea whether Mercatus somehow over-reached when it listed him as one of their scholars, or—what's more concerning—whether there was some relationship that Shelanski, Mercatus, or both now would rather hide from view.
UPDATE: A few hours after this was posted, Benjamin Goad of The Hill put these questions to Mercatus spokesperson Leigh Harrington, who said that Shelanski's name was incorrectly added to the Mercatus website's list of Technology Experts. According to Goad's article, Harrington maintained that (quoting the article) "Shelanski should have been listed among the ranks of speakers who have participated in Mercatus programs, but was 'incorrectly categorized' as an expert. 'We fixed the error once it was pointed out to us,' Harrington said."Full text