Environment

One Person’s Trash is Another’s Energy

Carlton Hemphill, MJLST Staffer

It comes to many as a literal and metaphorical breath of fresh air to see the new administration’s interest in reducing the effect we have on the environment, but achieving a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 is no small feat for such a large country and requires leaving no stone unturned. Much of the recent focus in the media has been on increasing the prevalence of electric cars and switching to renewable energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, such as wind and solar. That being said, there is another often overlooked process that, while not the end all solution, can still help us achieve this goal of reducing greenhouse gases, and in my opinion should be getting more attention than it is currently receiving. I am referring to the use of anaerobic digesters.

The Dirty Details:

Let’s face it, people generate a lot of waste, both food waste and excrement. Everybody eats and everybody poops. Moreover, the animals we raise for food also generate an enormous amount of waste. Methane, a byproduct from the decomposition of organic matter such as excrement, acts as a greenhouse gas if released into the atmosphere before being burned. Compared to CO2, methane is 25 times as powerful as a greenhouse gas. Anaerobic digesters use microbes to break down organic waste to produce methane (referred to as biogas) which is then burned to generate electricity.

This is not a novel concept either. Some cities and farms have already taken steps to implement anaerobic digesters for harnessing biogas from sewage and manure. States like Connecticut and New York already implement biogas programs, and many dairy farms across the nation have anaerobic digesters that produce methane from manure. A town in Colorado even powers vehicles using poop . . . yes, you read that correctly.

However, across the country the potential of biogas has not yet been fully realized, meaning there is still a large amount of methane escaping into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas that could instead be captured and transformed into electricity. The American Biogas Council states that there are currently over 2,200 biogas production sites across the U.S. with the potential for an estimated 14,958 additional sites “ripe for development.”

The biggest barriers to widespread implementation of biogas production stem from a combination of economic feasibility, infrastructure, and lack of political support. Biodigesters can require a large capital investment to setup with financial benefits not being immediately realized. Additionally, while wastewater treatment plants and landfills have existing infrastructure better suited for conversion to biogas production and utilization, rural farms would need either pipes to move the gas or connection to the electrical grid to sell back the generated electricity. Without the necessary political support, in the form of government programs financially incentivizing anaerobic digestion, these issues will continue to act as a deterrent.

Federal eye on Biogas:

While the recent executive orders dealing with the climate crisis do mention mitigating methane emissions, the focus is instead on mining in the oil and gas sectors and not repurposing existing organic matter. It seems then that in our nation’s quest to go green we are overlooking the potential to transform the very waste we create. With food waste constituting the second largest category of solid waste sent to landfills, and cities producing millions of tons of sewage annually, implementing anaerobic digesters would provide numerous environmental advantages. They save landfill space, prevent methane from leaking into the atmosphere, and generate electricity reducing our reliance on other forms of electrical generation.

Fortunately, the EPA recognizes the value in biogas production and, if Biden’s proposed $14 billion in spending towards climate change materializes, the EPA may be able to allocate some of that funding towards developing new sites. When creating new laws and policies aimed at climate change perhaps it is best to always keep in mind the universal law of conservation of energy. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but rather transformed; what we flush down the drain or discard as trash still has energy and it is up to us to utilize it.

 


It’s Not Always Greener on the Other Side: Challenges to Environmental Marketing Claims

Ben Cooper, MJLST Staffer

On March 16, 2021 a trio of environmental groups filed an FTC complaint against Chevron alleging that Chevron violated the FTC’s Green Guides by falsely claiming “investment in renewable energy and [Chevron’s] commitment to reducing fossil fuel pollution.” The groups claim that this complaint is the first to use the Green Guides to prevent companies from making misleading environmental claims. Public attention has supported companies that minimize their environmental impact, but this FTC complaint suggests that a critical regulatory eye might be in the future. If the environmental groups convince the FTC to enforce the Green Guides against Chevron, other companies should review the claims they make about their products and operations.

A Morning Consult poll released in early December 2020 showed that nearly half of U.S. adults supported expanding the use of carbon removal practices and technologies. Only six percent of survey respondents opposed carbon removal practices. In response to the overwhelming public support for carbon reduction, hundreds of major companies are making some type of commitment to reduce their carbon footprint and curb climate change. One popular program, the Science Based Targets initiative, has over 1,200 participants who made various pledges to decarbonize (or offset the carbon within) their operations.

International and non-governmental organizations took the reins of climate change policy, especially once the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017. “Climate change seems to be the leading fashion statement for business in 2019,” declared a Marketplace story in October of 2019. Yet, as with fashion, style only gets one so far. Substance is key—and often lacking. One of the founders of the Science Based Targets initiative criticized fashionable but flimsy voluntary corporate commitments: “[T]here is not a lot of substance behind those [voluntary corporate] commitments or the commitments are not comprehensive enough.”

The voluntary commitments placated environmental groups when the alternative was the Trump Administration’s silence—but the Biden Administration presents an eager environmental partner: the FTC complaint “is the first test to see if [the Biden Administration] will follow through with their commitment to hold big polluters accountable,” said an environmental group spokesperson according to a Reuters report. The consensus of environmental groups, industry commentators, and regulatory observers appears to be that government oversight is imminent to encourage consistency and accountability—and to avoid “greenwashing.”

Should organizations that make environmental claims be concerned about enforcement action?  It is too early to tell if the Chevron FTC complaint portends future complaints. In the Green Guides, the FTC declared that it seeks to avoid placing “the FTC in the inappropriate role of setting environmental policy,” which might suggest that it will stick to questions of misrepresentation and avoid wading into questions of evaluating environmental claims. It is also worth noting that the FTC is missing one of its five commissioners and Commissioner Rohit Chopra is expected to resign in anticipation of his nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While the FTC might not be in a position at the moment to enforce the Green Guides, organizations that make environmental claims in marketing materials should monitor this complaint and ensure their compliance with FTC guidance as well as any policy changes from the Biden Administration.


No, Dolphins Did Not Reappear in Venice Canals: The Effects of COVID-19 on the Environment

Drew Miller, MJLST Staffer

2020 was a strange, difficult year for billions of people as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the globe. The virus has claimed the lives of over 2,500,000 people, but the effects of the pandemic extend well beyond the loss of life. In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, governments at every level around the world began to implement protective measures such as stay-at-home orders and travel bans as early as March 2020 in the United States—nearly a full year ago. The mass quarantine forced over 100,000 businesses to close their doors in the first two months—some temporarily, some permanently— which in turn led to a rise in unemployment and massive drops in stock markets such as the Dow Jones and the FTSE. These economic effects and their potential remedies have been debated endlessly by news organizations, politicians, and regular citizens alike. However, the environmental effects of the pandemic have not been covered as extensively. Reduced travel tendencies have provided the climate and environment a reprieve, but it will not last; if we are to continue down the road towards environmental sustainability, we must continue to push for reform despite the unique challenges presented by COVID-19.

Environmental Effects

In mid-March, 2020, scattered among an unremitting flood of bad news, some happy stories emerged. Swans and dolphins had returned to formerly desolate Venice canals. A group of elephants had sauntered through a village in Yunnan, China, gotten drunk off corn wine, and passed out in a tea garden. Wild boars were wandering through towns. The stories continued. These reports of the Earth healing and wildlife reclaiming space in a world without people went viral, and understandably so: they offered a spark of light in a dark and uncertain time. One tweet (since deleted) about fish, swans, and clear water in Venice canals amassed over 1,000,000 likes.

Unfortunately, the stories weren’t real. “The swans … regularly appear in the canals of Burano.” “The ‘Venetian’ dolphins were filmed at a port in Sardinia, in the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of miles away.” The water was clearer because fewer boats were disturbing the sediment at the bottom. The elephants are a regular presence in the depicted village. If anything, allow these stories to serve as a reminder not to believe everything on the internet.

Moreover, the pandemic may have hurt wildlife more than it helped. Many governments pay for environmental conservation and enforcement initiatives with tourism revenue. As that revenue dried up and budgets were cut, those protections weakened. Financial distress caused by widespread unemployment further exacerbated the situation. In April, there were reports of increased falcon smuggling in Pakistan; in June, poaching of leopards and tigers in India; and in October, trafficking of rhino horns in South Africa and Botswana. The chaos of the pandemic also provided cover for illegal logging in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, which rose more than 50% in the first three months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

Nevertheless, despite the absence of Venetian dolphins, the pandemic looked “okay” from an environmental perspective in 2020. Although there was an uptick in reliance on single-use plastics during lockdowns and increased generation of biomedical waste, pollution levels improved. Transportation, the most significant source of greenhouse gases in the United States, saw a 14.7% decline in emissions, and America’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry plummeted more than 10 percent in 2020, reaching their lowest levels in at least three decades. According to a research group, the fall in emissions nationwide was the largest one-year decline since at least World War II. There were also reduced levels of water and noise pollution.

Policy Implications

Unfortunately, the pollution-related benefits of COVID-19 are likely only temporary. Emissions reductions and air quality improvements primarily resulted from reduced transportation. Consequently, as more people return to their typical travel habits, emissions and air quality are likely to bounce back to their pre-pandemic levels. As Corinne Le Quere, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia in Britain, stated, “We still have the same cars, the same roads, the same industries, same houses. So as soon as the restrictions are released, we go right back to where we were.”

In fact, emissions may bounce back to levels even higher than they were prior to the pandemic due to the dismantling of numerous climate and environmental policies worldwide. In the United States, nearly 100 environmental protection policies and regulations were reversed or rolled back during the Trump presidency. Citing economic concerns due to COVID, the Czech Prime Minister urged the European Union to abandon the Green New Deal and the European Automobile Manufacturers Association lobbied the European Commission to weaken vehicle emission standards.

COVID-19 has impacted just about every industry in the world, and its economic ramifications continue to present significant difficulties. However, the pandemic is, ultimately, temporary; rebuilding will be challenging, but just as the economy rebounded after the 2008 recession, so it will do again. The Earth may not be so resilient. If we are to achieve a healthier and more sustainable world, businesses and policymakers alike must not recoil from that effort even in the face of unexpected bumps in the road—instead, they must forge ahead.


Carbon Copy Critters: Cloned Species and the Endangered Species Act

Emily Kennedy, MJLST Staffer

The United States is home to over 1,600 species listed as threatened or endangered. These species face a number of challenges arising from human activity, such as habitat loss from encroaching human populations, pollution, climate change, and excessive hunting. While species such as the Houston toad or the Government Canyon bat cave Spider may seem insignificant, and perhaps a bit frightening, each species is an important part of an intricately connected biotic community. Losing a few species could trigger an “extinction domino effect” that results in ecosystem fragility and the loss of more and more species. The Endangered Species Act was designed to protect species and their ecosystems. While the Act did not contemplate cloning of endangered species, cloned animals are also protected.

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), a small mammal that historically inhabited the United States’ western mountain prairie region, is among the species listed as endangered. Black-footed ferrets were nearly wiped out entirely as a result of human efforts to kill them to ensure that prairie ranges were better suited for cattle. In fact, they were thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered and scientists captured the remaining animals for a captive breeding program.

Scientists recently announced the birth of Elizabeth Ann, a black-footed ferret who is the first clone of an endangered species indigenous to the United States. Born to a domestic ferret surrogate, she was cloned from a wild black-footed ferret named Willa who died and was frozen in 1988. After her death, Willa’s tissues were sent to a “frozen zoo” that retains genetic materials for over 1,000 species. Viagen, the company that cloned Elizabeth, also recently cloned an endangered Mongolian horse and will clone pet cats and dogs for a hefty fee of $35,000 to $50,000. Elizabeth and any future clone siblings will remain in the possession of scientists for study, with no plans for release into the wild.

The Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 to protect the plant and animal species threatened with extinction in the United States. One commentator has argued that an “aggressive federal governmental policy of cloning endangered animal species would be consistent with the language and spirit of the Endangered Species Act as interpreted by the courts.” Additionally, “lack of genetic diversity in species revived in the laboratory should not preclude [Endangered Species Act] listing.” This was the case with the listing of a plant known as the Franciscan manzanita. Much like the black-footed ferret, the Franciscan manzanita was thought to be extinct until a single plant was discovered. Genetically identical clones were then propagated from cuttings from that plant.

Cloning is a cutting-edge and high-tech practice, but that does not mean that it is a panacea for species extinction concerns. Firstly, the process of cloning wild animals is successful only around 1% of the time. But the primary problem is that many species succumb to extinction due to habitat loss or fragmentation. Cloning does nothing to solve this issue, since cloned animals will still lack the habitat they need to thrive.

Further, genetic diversity is already a concern for many endangered and threatened species. Because they were nearly wiped out as a species before they rebounded in a captive breeding program, black-footed ferrets, like the one Elizabeth was cloned from, descend from seven closely related individuals. Such genetic homogeneity results in increased susceptibility to some diseases. Currently, cloning does not address this concern and may even exacerbate it, by relying on genetic material from even fewer individuals. However, some hope that manipulating the genome to improve genetic resistance is a “possibility in the future.”

While cloning may not be a complete solution to increasing species extinction, some think that it is a useful tool to address the complex problem of extinction in conjunction with other measures. Perhaps in the future, cloning can offer a high-tech option that works in concert with more established methods such as habitat restoration and conservation, captive breeding programs, and measures to address climate change.


America is Ready to Fight Climate Change. Is the Grid?

Valerie Eliasen, MJLST Staffer

Climate change is perhaps the most serious threat to our planet’s future. From a rise in average temperatures to more frequent floods, fires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, the evidence of a warming planet is clear. Scientists warn that climate change and its dangerous effects will continue to worsen unless a strong response to counteract the threats is undertaken immediately. In response to these worries and widespread support of the issue by consumers, numerous large corporations have begun setting goals to combat climate change.

The Biden administration has also prioritized the issue. Among his first acts in office, President Biden signed an executive order, which acted to “place the climate crisis at the forefront of [the] Nation’s foreign policy and national security planning.” Among many other things, Biden’s executive order created a new position to “elevate the issue of climate change” and directed the United States to rejoin the Paris Agreement. The executive order includes a goal to “achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050” and “a carbon pollution-free electricity sector no later than 2035.”

To achieve such a lofty goal, businesses and corporations across the country will need to rapidly change how they do business. It’s easy to see that single use plastics will begin to disappear and that electric vehicles will become more commonplace, but what will the shift to cleaner energy look like?

California provides us with an interesting case study. California is well known for its aggressive and progressive approach to climate change. The State established a detailed climate plan in 2006, which outlines the ways in which the State will reduce emissions and emphasize clean energy in the long run. While a deeper look at California’s experience with aggressive climate policy over the past few years can help us envision what the United States’ increasingly electric future will look like, it provides us with some warnings as well.

The first problem is capacity. Because California’s renewable energy sources primarily come from solar and wind generation, a huge problem is presented when the sun doesn’t shine, the wind slows down, and backup resources aren’t available. In August 2020, when extreme heat hit the southwest, California didn’t have enough of its own energy to power its residents’ air conditioners. Further, the states California often borrows energy from in cases of shortage were experiencing the same heat wave and did not have resources to spare. The result: the first rolling blackouts in close to 20 years. Much of California’s problem lies in its ability to provide energy after the sun sets. The technology to efficiently store energy for later use is not developed enough to provide the kind of storage needed. Further, several of California’s fossil fuel plants have been retired in recent years and haven’t been replaced with enough non-solar energy sources. With increasingly hotter summers and insufficient sources of consistent energy, blackouts are likely to reoccur.

The second problem is the grid. With the United States’ new emissions goals and continued societal shift towards combatting climate change, we are likely to see a large shift to electric appliances and vehicles. Additionally, the use of air-conditioning could increase nearly 60 percent by 2050 due to the planet’s warming temperatures. As such, the power grids are going to need to be able to handle more variable sources of energy and increased demand of electricity in the coming years. The power grids in place in many regions of the United States are not cut out for these changes. California, for example, has the “least reliable electrical power system in the US . . . with more than double the outages of any other state over the last decade” and will likely only become more unreliable as clean energy sources are phased in and others are phased out. The power industry is going to need to invest countless dollars into making power grids more flexible and robust than what we have now. One article likens this process to rebuilding a plane mid-flight.

The nation’s new environmental goals are a vital and important step in combating climate change. Inaction is not an option. Failure is not an option. And thankfully, President Biden’s executive order has the force of law, so the government will be better able to make sure these goals are met. But unless policymakers understand that many of the recent issues in California were caused by poor planning and poor coordination between policymakers and energy producers, California’s reality will become a nationwide problem. The government and the States need to work closely with the power industry, to invest a large amount of money into improving and strengthening the grid, and to expand the amount of renewable energy available day and night. This may be the only way to keep the lights on while helping the planet stay cool.


Regulatory agencies spring into action after Supreme Court decides dusky gopher frog case

Emily Newman, MJLST Staffer

While “critical habitat” is defined within the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a definition for “habitat” has never been adopted within the statute itself or any regulations issued by the two agencies responsible for implementing the ESA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (collectively, the “Services”). In 2018, however, the U.S. Supreme Court called this gap into question. Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Serv., 139 S. Ct. 361 (2018). In Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Court reviewed a case by which the USFWS designated a particular area of land as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog, including private property and land that was currently unoccupied by the frog. Id. at 366. Weyerhaeuser Company, a timber company, and a group of family landowners challenged the designation because the land was not currently occupied by this species and would need to be improved before occupation could actually occur. Id. at 367. The Court vacated and remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit, determining that the land first must be designated as “habitat” before being designated as “critical habitat.” Id. at 369. More specifically, they remanded to the Fifth Circuit for it to interpret the meaning of “habitat” under the ESA; however, they did not specifically direct the Services to adopt a definition. Id. The Fifth Circuit ended up dismissing the case upon remand.

The Services’ proposed new rule aims to address this gap. The proposed rule was published on August 5, 2020, and within it, the Services propose two alternative definitions for the meaning of “habitat” which would be added to § 424.02 of the ESA. The first definition is as follows: “The physical places that individuals of a species depend upon to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas with existing attributes that have the capacity to support individuals of the species.” The alternative definition of “habitat” is listed as: “The physical places that individuals of a species use to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas where individuals of the species do not presently exist but have the capacity to support such individuals, only where the necessary attributes to support the species presently exist.”

The first definition emphasizes “dependence” while the second emphasizes “use”, but both allow for unoccupied areas to be included in the definition. Additionally, both definitions imply that the land has to be suitable for a particular species in its current condition with no improvements made. The Services clarified that the proposed rule would only be prospective and would not revise any designations of critical habitat already made.

The Services issued the proposed rule largely in order to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Weyerhaeuser, but the Services do mention additional purposes such as the desire to “provide transparency, clarity, and consistency for stakeholders.” The proposed rule is also meant to build upon regulatory reforms issued by the Services in 2019. Additionally, the Services place the proposed rule in a larger context as part of the efforts of the Trump administration to “bring the ESA into the 21st century.”

The proposed rule has received both support and criticism. Those in support of the rule mainly highlight how defining “habitat” would lead to more certainty as to when a particular area would or could be protected under the ESA. They say that this could positively impact species by “aiding the public’s understanding of those areas that constitute habitat” and also by helping companies plan out projects in such a way as to minimize any impact on habitat.

Those against the two definitions contained in the proposed rule have multiple reasons for their criticism. For one, they believe that the primary definition in particular runs the risk of conflating “habitat” and “critical habitat” even though “habitat” presumably should cover a wider area. Second, they argue that defining “habitat” through a regulation is unnecessary and has not been necessary in the 45 plus years that the ESA has been around. This is because defining “habitat” could undermine any critical habitat designations under the ESA, and it would also negatively impact or cause confusion in other parts of the ESA where the word “habitat” is used and other federal statutes that are often “implicated by actions related to listed species.” Third, while the proposed rule is prospective and would not require reevaluations of past critical habitat designations, that does not mean the Services by their own accord won’t reevaluate those designations using the new definition of “habitat.”

The last, and arguably most important, critique of the proposed rule is that either definition has the potential to exclude essential areas of habitat such as fragmented, degraded, or destroyed habitat that would need to be restored, and also habitat that is needed for species whose range will likely fluctuate due to the impacts of climate change. Critics, such as the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the American Fisheries Society (AFS), argue that this would only maintain the status quo and simply “wouldn’t make sense from a management perspective for species recovery or the legislative perspective intended by Congress in enacting the ESA.” The AFS makes a useful analogy to what would happen if a similar definition applied to polluted waters under the Clean Water Act: “Indeed, if a similar definition was used for polluted waters in the U.S. under the Clean Water Act, we would never have improved water quality by installing treatment systems to remove pollutants, as the definition leaves the only condition as status quo.”

Several opponents of the proposed rule provide their own alternative definitions of habitat or what that definition should include. The Defenders of Wildlife suggest a definition that is consistent with definitions of habitat in academia and with the intent of the ESA, as well as being complementary to but distinct from the definition of “critical habitat” in the ESA: “ ‘Habitat’ is the area or type of site where a species naturally occurs or depends on directly or indirectly to carry out its life processes, or where a species formerly occurred or has the potential to occur and carry out its life processes in the foreseeable future.” Additionally, the AFS advises that any definition of habitat account for areas that may not even “house” the species in question but that are nevertheless important for energy and resource flow; this broader suggestion reflects the move towards “holistic watershed approaches” in fisheries management.

The public comment period for the proposed rule closed on September 4, 2020, but the Services has not yet issued a final rule. Looking ahead, though, the strong opinions both for and against the proposed rule indicate that the Services will most likely face litigation irrespective of what they decide upon in the final rule. Moreover, a change in the Administration following the 2020 election will likely affect the outcome of this regulatory action.

 

 


Extracting Favors: Fossil-Fuel Companies are Using the Pandemic to Lobby for Regulatory Rollbacks and Financial Bailouts

Christopher Cerny, MJLST Staffer

In the waning months of World War II, Winston Churchill is quoted, perhaps apocryphally, as saying, “[n]ever let a good crisis go to waste.” It seems fossil-fuel companies have taken these words to heart. While in the midst of one of the greatest crises of modern times, oil, gas, and coal companies are facing tremendous economic uncertainty, not only from the precipitous drop in demand for gasoline and electricity, but also from the rise of market share held by renewable energy. In response, industry trade groups and the corporations they represent are engaged in an aggressive lobbying campaign aimed at procuring financial bailouts and regulatory rollbacks. The federal government and some states seem inclined to provide assistance, but with the aforementioned rise of renewable energy, many see the writing on the wall for some parts of the fossil-fuel industry.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to inflict immeasurable havoc on a global scale. The virus and the mitigation efforts designed to curb its spread have dramatically changed the way humankind interacts with each other and the world around us. In the United States, nearly all states at one time or another implemented mandatory shelter-at-home orders to restrict movement and prevent the further spread of the novel coronavirus. These orders have, in many ways, completely restructured society and the economy, with perhaps no sector being more impacted than transportation. At the peak of the virus in the United States, air travel was down 96% and, in April 2020, passenger road travel was down 77% from 2019. Similarly, the pandemic has altered America’s energy consumption. For example, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator reports a decrease in daily weekday demand in March and April of up to 13% and a national average decline of as much as 7% for the same time frame. A secondary impact of these market disruptions is on the fossil-fuel industry. The decrease in electricity demand has further diminished the already declining coal market, while the fall off in travel and transportation has radically impacted oil prices.

On April 20, a barrel of oil traded for a loss for the first time ever when demand fell so low that the cost storing oil exceeded its sale price. While the price of a barrel of oil, the world’s most traded commodity, has since improved, as of October 1st, the U.S. stock index for domestic oil companies remains down 57% in 2020. Similarly, coal consumption in the United States is projected to decline 23% this year. Natural gas remains resilient, with U.S. demand only dropping 2.8% between January and May of 2020. However, much of natural gas’s buoyancy comes at the expense of lower prices. These numbers are dire, especially for coal and oil, two domestic industries already on the decline due to the rise in renewable energy.

Fossil-fuel companies have gone on the offensive. The oil and gas industry is responding to these calamitous figures and grim financials by lobbying state and federal lawmakers for financial bailouts and the relaxation of environmental regulations. The California Independent Petroleum Association, an oil and gas trade group, requested an extension for compliance with an idle well testing plan that would push 100% program compliance from 2025 to 2029. Further, the trade group asked California to scale back on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to increase the staff of the California Energy Management Division, the state agency charged with oversight of oil and gas drilling. In Texas, the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Oil Economic Recovery, created at the behest of the state oil and gas regulatory body and composed of representatives and leaders of Texas’s oil and gas trade groups, recommended the suspension of particular environmental testing and extensions for environmental reporting to the state agency. The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association asked Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards to suspend the state’s collection of severance taxes.

On the national stage, the Independent Petroleum Association of America asked the Chairman of the Federal Reserve to support changes to the Main Street Lending Program, a part of the CARES Act, to expand the eligibility requirements to include many oil and gas producers. The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a refiners trade association, called on the Trump administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to waive biofuel policies that mandate the blending of renewable corn-derived ethanol in petroleum refining. The American Petroleum Institute also reached out to the Trump administration seeking the waiver of record keeping and training compliance.

Not to be left behind, the coal industry ramped up its lobbying as well. In an opinion piece, the CEO of America’s Power, a coal trade group extolled the virtues of the fleet of coal power plants and their necessity in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Mining Congress, the coal industry’s lobbying arm, sent a letter to the Trump administration and Congressional leaders asking for an end to the industry’s requirements to pay into funds for black lung disease and polluted mine clean-up

These lobbying efforts are being met with varied levels of success. In a move that garnered criticism from the Government Accountability Office, the Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management cut royalties on oil and gas wells leased by the federal government, saving the industry $4.5 million. The EPA scaled back enforcement of pollution rules, instead relying on companies to monitor themselves. The Governors of Texas, Utah, Oklahoma, and Wyoming sent a letter asking the EPA to waive the biofuel blending regulations in support of the refiners trade group. In September, the EPA denied the request. The Governor of Louisiana agreed to delay the collection of the severance tax, a revenue source for the state that can normally bring in $40 million per month. The Louisiana state legislature later voted to reduce the severance tax on oil and gas from 12.5% to 8.5% for the next eight years. The EPA finalized a rule that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate certain hazardous air pollutants, including mercury, emitted from coil and oil fired power plants.

It is difficult to discern what impact these industry efforts and resulting government actions will have in the long term. The financial measures may have propped up an industry that otherwise would have suffered permanent damage and bankruptcies without the influx of relief and capital. However, environmental groups are more concerned with the regulatory rollbacks. For example, after the EPA chose to allow companies to self-monitor pollution, there was a year-over-year decline of 40% in air emissions tests at industrial facilities and over 16,500 facilities did not submit required water quality reports. The ramifications of the state and federal acquiescence to the fossil-fuel industry’s requested regulatory non-compliance may end up costing the American tax payers millions of dollars, causing irreparable immediate harm to the environment, and delaying critical action needed to mitigate anthropogenic climate change.


A Cold-Blooded Cure: How COVID-19 Could Decimate Already Fragile Shark Populations

Emily Kennedy, MJLST Staffer

Movies like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and The Meg demonstrate that fear of sharks is commonplace. In reality, shark attacks are rare, and such incidents have even decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic with fewer people enjoying the surf and sand. Despite their bad, Hollywood-driven reputation sharks play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem. Sharks are apex predators and regulate the ocean ecosystem by balancing the numbers and species of fish lower in the food chain. There are over 500 species of sharks in the world’s oceans and 143 of those species are threatened, meaning that they are listed as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. Sharks are particularly vulnerable because they grow slowly, mature later than other species, and have relatively few offspring. Shark populations are already threatened by ocean fishing practices, climate change, ocean pollution, and the harvesting of sharks for their fins. Sharks now face a new human-imposed threat: COVID-19.

While sharks cannot contract the COVID-19 virus, the oil in their livers, known as squalene, is used in the manufacture of vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines currently being developed. Shark squalene is harvested via a process known as “livering,” in which sharks are killed for their livers and thrown back into the ocean to die after having their livers removed. The shark squalene is used in adjuvants, ingredients in vaccines that prompt a stronger immune response, and has been used in U.S. flu vaccines since 2016. Approximately 3 million sharks are killed every year to supply squalene for vaccines and cosmetic products, and this number will only increase if a COVID-19 vaccine that uses shark squalene gains widespread use. One non-profit estimates that the demand for COVID-19 vaccines could result in the harvest of over half a million sharks.

Sharks, like many other marine species, are uniquely unprotected by the law. It is easier to protect stationary land animals using the laws of the countries in which their habitats are located. However, ocean habitats largely ungoverned by the laws of any one country. Further, migratory marine species such as sharks may travel through the waters of multiple countries. This makes it difficult to enact and enforce laws that adequately protect sharks. In the United States, the Lacey Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act govern shark importation and harvesting practices. One area of shark conservation that has gotten attention in recent years is the removal of shark fins for foods that are considered delicacies in some countries. The Shark Conservation Act was passed in the United States in response to the crisis caused by shark finning practices, in addition to the laws that several states had in place banning the practice. The harvest of shark squalene has not garnered as much attention as of yet, and there are no United States laws enacted to specifically address livering.

Internationally, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA) are voluntary, nonbinding programs. Many of the primary shark harvesting nations have not signed onto CMS. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) is binding, but there are loopholes and only 13 shark species are listed. In addition to these international programs, some countries have voluntarily created shark sanctuaries.

Nations that have refused to agree to voluntary conservation efforts, that circumvent existing international regulations, and lack sanctuaries leave fragile shark species unprotected and under threat. The squalene harvesting industry in particular lacks transparency and adequate regulations, and reports indicate that protected and endangered shark species end up as collateral damage in the harvesting process. A wide array of regional and international interventions may be necessary to provide sharks with the conservation protections they so desperately need.

Research and development of medical cures and treatments for humans often comes with animal casualties, but research to development of the COVID-19 vaccine can be conducted in a way that minimizes those casualties. There is already some financial support for non-animal research approaches and squalene can also be derived and synthesized from non-animal sources. Shark Allies, the conservation group that created a Change.org petition that now has over 70,000 signatures, suggests that non-shark sources of squalene be used in the vaccine instead, such as yeast, bacteria, sugarcane, and olive oil. These non-animal adjuvant sources are more expensive and take longer to produce, but the future of our oceans may depend on such alternative methods that do not rely on “the overexploitation of a key component of the marine environment.”


Turning the Sky Orange and the Lights Off: West Coast Wildfires Diminish Solar Power Generation

Isaac Foote, MJLST Staffer

On September 9th, 2020 social media feeds were taken over by images of the sky above San Francisco.  As if it was a scene out of Bladerunner 2049, the sky turned a remarkable shade of orange due to smoke from forest fires raging across the West Coast. The fires have had a devastating effect on the region; they have burned over five million acres of forest, forced over 500,000 people to evacuate their homes, and killed over 30 people. Further, the combustion of millions of trees has threatened air quality across the United States and has released over 83 million tons of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. This is more CO2 than power plants in both California and Oregon release in a typical year and is another example of how climate change perpetuates itself.

In addition to CO2, when forests burn they also spew incredible amounts of soot (another name for black carbon) into the atmosphere. This soot can then join together with water vapor to create pyrocumulonimbus clouds in the stratosphere which, in turn, are very effective at absorbing light from the sun. Because carbon absorbs more blue light than red light, these soot clouds caused the ominous coloration of the sky above San Francisco on September 9th.

While most of the focus on forest fire smoke has (rightfully) been around its potential health effects, the absorption effect mentioned above can also have a significant impact on solar power installations. At a micro scale, the impact of forest fire smoke can be intense. One small scale solar installation in Cupertino, California saw a 95% reduction in energy generation on September 9th. Outside of California, a Utah study demonstrated that a single forest fire within 150 miles of a solar array reduced generation by 12.5% over a three day period following the start of the fire.

At the systemic level, California Independent System Operator (California ISO) reported that at times on September 10th statewide solar generation was reduced by ⅓ compared to typical summer levels. While this did not set off rolling blackouts (as California ISO was forced to implement in mid-August), a 33% shock to generation is a worrying sign for the future. After all, this wave of wildfires already resulted in significant strain on the California transmission system independent of solar disruption. California has a 100% clean energy generation target for 2045 (SB 100 (de León, 2018)) and projections estimate solar will need to constitute a large percentage of California’s energy production to meet this goal. While energy planners factor the instability of solar generation into forecasts of energy production, typical state-wide drops of this magnitude usually occur in winter, when energy demand is reduced due to lower temperatures. With the increased prevalence and intensity of forest fires, California grid operators must be wary of sudden smoke-related drops going into the future, especially during the hot and dry weather that corresponds with both forest fires and high energy usage.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, “[a] worst-case wildfire scenario could reduce annual solar-energy production from affected installations by as much as 2%.While this impact may seem small on the scale of the energy system, some back of the envelope math estimates this worst-case scenario would reduce California’s annual solar production by 569 gigawatt-hours or $94,340,000 in retail sales at current production levels. This calculation is not even considering additional maintenance costs and efficiency reductions that analysts worry may be necessary if soot settles onto solar panels after leaving the atmosphere.

Of course, none of this is to argue against the increased adoption of solar generation in California. In fact, rapidly moving from a fossil fuel based economy to one based on renewable energy is the most important step in preventing future large forest fires as “the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable.” Additionally, advocates of distributed solar argue that increased residential solar adoption may help mitigate the stresses that forest fires place on the electric grid. Instead, this should be treated as another example of the costs of climate change and, consequently, fossil fuel use. Even with aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, forest fires will continue in the American West and soot will continue to harm solar efficiency. The best solution is for grid operators (like California ISO) and government planners (like the California Energy Commission) to understand the risks forest fires pose to solar generation and factor that into their long term (like the Annual Planning Renewable Net Short) and short term planning processes.


COVID-19: Detrimental to Humans, Beneficial to the Environment?

Janae Aune, MJLST Staffer

No one is a stranger to the virus that has quickly changed life from recognizable to socially distanced and isolated. COVID-19, generally known as coronavirus, has gripped the world since the end of 2019 when it was first discovered. The virus has caused cities and countries to shut down, people to self-isolate, and Purrell to experience an increase in demand like never before. With so many negative consequences of the virus, are there are any possible positives that could come from this? Some argue yes –look at the environment.

COVID-19 Generally

Coronaviruses are not uncommon or unknown in the world. Every person has likely had one type of coronavirus in their life as these viruses are responsible for the common cold. The novel coronavirus currently gripping the world is not like other common coronaviruses’ however. The CDC has dubbed the disease COVID-19 because of the novelty and its discovery in 2019. Common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. Because these symptoms are similar to other coronaviruses and common allergies, many have experienced difficulty in properly detecting early COVID-19 symptoms. COVID-19 becomes even harder to accurately detect because some who have been infected or exposed to the disease are asymptomatic and may never know they had the virus.

COVID-19 was first discovered in Wuhan, China back in November 2019. Many other people recognize the area of discovery from the SARS outbreak back in the early 2000’s. Both of the diseases have been traced back to the wet markets in China housing wild animals being sold for food. For more information on the background of these markets in China see the short Vox documentary discussing these markets and the roots within Chinese society. While the first case was discovered in China, the disease has now spread across the world affecting every continent except Antarctica.

Spread of COVID-19

Much of the spread of COVID-19 around the world is  attributed to international travel. Since the discovery of the virus, many countries have gone on social distancing and lockdown orders to slow or prevent community spread of the disease. Even with these measures, some countries like the United States have yet to hit their peak number of cases. Countries like Spain and Italy have been hit the hardest in the European Union, however the situation is hoped to be improving soon. South Korea was hit particularly early, however given the government’s intense response with testing the country was relative successful in slowing the spread of the disease. The travel industry has taken a large hit from the disease with many not traveling and some countries shutting down airports and banning flights from certain areas of the world.

Within the United States in particular some states have yet to practice social distancing effectively. Big cities like New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. have been on shelter-in-place orders for multiple weeks with little sign they will end soon. New York City in particular has been hit hard with deaths increasing every day and hospitals becoming over capacity. This week (April 6, 2020) is expected to be the peak week of deaths, however some experts speculate the number will continue to grow after this week. Many have been critical of the response of the government in the United States in not taking the disease seriously when it was first discovered and properly preparing the country, while others have found the government’s response adequate.

Does the environment benefit from COVID-19?

COVID-19 has dramatically changed human life from what it was at the beginning of the year, and usually for the worst. COVID-19 has not only changed human life however. With most of the world being told to stay inside or practice social distance, environments, cities, and ecosystems around the world have experienced an abrupt departure from how life used to be. The canals of Venice have cleared up with fish returning. Goats have roamed back into cities in Europe where tourists usually dominate. City skylines previously blocked by smog are now clearly visible. Research shows the changes big cities have experienced due to the decrease in air travel with major cities like Los Angeles having dramatically different air pollution rates. Is it possible that COVID-19 will have a lasting positive impact for the environment? The answers are split.

In addition to these obvious positive impacts, some argue the benefits extend beyond the cosmetic. Lower levels of CO2 in the air can contribute to decreasing how often people experience diseases. Greenhouse gasses suppress the atmosphere and air around people and decreasing those levels can improve air quality and, in turn diminish how often people experience some diseases.

Even given the positive impacts, some worry the impact will only be temporary. UN officials argue exactly that. While the rebuilding efforts have not begun, one UN official argues once they do, sweeping environmental policy changes are needed in order to maintain the positive impact. Without these radically different policies, the positive impacts currently happening will be fleeting and unsustainable. Additionally, the official argues sweeping policy changes and increased spending for green energy and technology will lower the possibility of diseases spreading like this again in the future.

While some argue the deadly disease has created positive consequences for the environment, others feel very differently. Many states and countries have put their recycling programs on hold to contain the spread of the virus. Additionally, many retailers, grocery stores, gas stations, etc. have banned the use of reusable cups to eliminate the amount of potential contamination. This means more plastic, Styrofoam, etc. is being used on a daily basis around the world. Even online retailers have arguably contributed to the negative environmental causes by shipping more than usual due to people being at home and shipping things in multiple containers rather than consolidating into fewer boxed. Finally, many legislatures and governments have put serious climate legislation on the backburner to deal with the COVID 19 crisis. This could stall progress and cause delays in legislation and projects that had been started prior to the pandemic.