US Environmental Policy (Part 3)

21 January, 2021

It’s begun! When it comes to global warming we’re in a race for time, and the US has spent the last four years with its ankles zip-tied together. On his first day in office, the new president of the US signed this executive order:

ACCEPTANCE ON BEHALF OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

I, Joseph R. Biden Jr., President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the Paris Agreement, done at Paris on December 12, 2015, do hereby accept the said Agreement and every article and clause thereof on behalf of the United States of America.

Done at Washington this 20th day of January, 2021.

JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR.

He also signed this order connected to the climate crisis and other environmental issues:

Executive order on protecting public health and the environment and restoring science to tackle the climate crisis.

It undoes many actions of the previous president.

• It revokes previous executive orders so as to:

  • reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas sector,
  • establish new fuel economy standards,
  • establish new efficiency standards for buildings, and
  • restore protection to a number of park lands and undersea protected areas (“national monuments”).

• It instantly puts a temporary halt to leasing lands in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the purposes of oil and gas drilling, so this program can be reviewed.

• It prevents offshore oil and gas drilling in certain Arctic waters and the Bering Sea.

• It revokes the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

• It revives the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases, to properly account for the full cost of these emissions.

• It revokes many other executive orders listed in section 7 below.

Here are the details:

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Policy. Our Nation has an abiding commitment to empower our workers and communities; promote and protect our public health and the environment; and conserve our national treasures and monuments, places that secure our national memory. Where the Federal Government has failed to meet that commitment in the past, it must advance environmental justice. In carrying out this charge, the Federal Government must be guided by the best science and be protected by processes that ensure the integrity of Federal decision-making. It is, therefore, the policy of my Administration to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.

To that end, this order directs all executive departments and agencies (agencies) to immediately review and, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, take action to address the promulgation of Federal regulations and other actions during the last 4 years that conflict with these important national objectives, and to immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis.

Sec. 2. Immediate Review of Agency Actions Taken Between January 20, 2017, and January 20, 2021. (a) The heads of all agencies shall immediately review all existing regulations, orders, guidance documents, policies, and any other similar agency actions (agency actions) promulgated, issued, or adopted between January 20, 2017, and January 20, 2021, that are or may be inconsistent with, or present obstacles to, the policy set forth in section 1 of this order. For any such actions identified by the agencies, the heads of agencies shall, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, consider suspending, revising, or rescinding the agency actions. In addition, for the agency actions in the 4 categories set forth in subsections (i) through (iv) of this section, the head of the relevant agency, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, shall consider publishing for notice and comment a proposed rule suspending, revising, or rescinding the agency action within the time frame specified.

(i)    Reducing Methane Emissions in the Oil and Gas Sector:  “Oil and Natural Gas Sector: Emission Standards for New, Reconstructed, and Modified Sources Reconsideration,” 85 Fed. Reg. 57398 (September 15, 2020), by September 2021. 

(ii)   Establishing Ambitious, Job-Creating Fuel Economy Standards:  “The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule Part One: One National Program,” 84 Fed. Reg. 51310 (September 27, 2019), by April 2021; and “The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021–2026 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks,” 85 Fed. Reg. 24174 (April 30, 2020), by July 2021.  In considering whether to propose suspending, revising, or rescinding the latter rule, the agency should consider the views of representatives from labor unions, States, and industry.

(iii)  Job-Creating Appliance- and Building-Efficiency Standards:  “Energy Conservation Program for Appliance Standards: Procedures for Use in New or Revised Energy Conservation Standards and Test Procedures for Consumer Products and Commercial/Industrial Equipment,” 85 Fed. Reg. 8626 (February 14, 2020), with major revisions proposed by March 2021 and any remaining revisions proposed by June 2021; “Energy Conservation Program for Appliance Standards: Procedures for Evaluating Statutory Factors for Use in New or Revised Energy Conservation Standards,” 85 Fed. Reg. 50937 (August 19, 2020), with major revisions proposed by March 2021 and any remaining revisions proposed by June 2021; “Final Determination Regarding Energy Efficiency Improvements in the 2018 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC),” 84 Fed. Reg. 67435 (December 10, 2019), by May 2021; “Final Determination Regarding Energy Efficiency Improvements in ANSI/ASHRAE/IES Standard 90.1-2016: Energy Standard for Buildings, Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings,” 83 Fed. Reg. 8463 (February 27, 2018), by May 2021.

(iv)   Protecting Our Air from Harmful Pollution:  “National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants: Coal- and Oil-Fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Units—Reconsideration of Supplemental Finding and Residual Risk and Technology Review,” 85 Fed. Reg. 31286 (May 22, 2020), by August 2021; “Increasing Consistency and Transparency in Considering Benefits and Costs in the Clean Air Act Rulemaking Process,” 85 Fed. Reg. 84130 (December 23, 2020), as soon as possible; “Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions and Influential Scientific Information,” 86 Fed. Reg. 469 (January 6, 2021), as soon as possible.

(b)  Within 30 days of the date of this order, heads of agencies shall submit to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) a preliminary list of any actions being considered pursuant to section (2)(a) of this order that would be completed by December 31, 2021, and that would be subject to OMB review.  Within 90 days of the date of this order, heads of agencies shall submit to the Director of OMB an updated list of any actions being considered pursuant to section (2)(a) of this order that would be completed by December 31, 2025, and that would be subject to OMB review.  At the time of submission to the Director of OMB, heads of agencies shall also send each list to the National Climate Advisor.  In addition, and at the same time, heads of agencies shall send to the National Climate Advisor a list of additional actions being considered pursuant to section (2)(a) of this order that would not be subject to OMB review.

(c)  Heads of agencies shall, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, consider whether to take any additional agency actions to fully enforce the policy set forth in section 1 of this order.  With respect to the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the following specific actions should be considered:

(i)   proposing new regulations to establish comprehensive standards of performance and emission guidelines for methane and volatile organic compound emissions from existing operations in the oil and gas sector, including the exploration and production, transmission, processing, and storage segments, by September 2021; and

(ii)  proposing a Federal Implementation Plan in accordance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Findings of Failure To Submit State Implementation Plan Revisions in Response to the 2016 Oil and Natural Gas Industry Control Techniques Guidelines for the 2008 Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) and for States in the Ozone Transport Region,” 85 Fed. Reg. 72963 (November 16, 2020), for California, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas by January 2022. 

(d)  The Attorney General may, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, provide notice of this order and any actions taken pursuant to section 2(a) of this order to any court with jurisdiction over pending litigation related to those agency actions identified pursuant to section (2)(a) of this order, and may, in his discretion, request that the court stay or otherwise dispose of litigation, or seek other appropriate relief consistent with this order, until the completion of the processes described in this order.

(e)  In carrying out the actions directed in this section, heads of agencies shall seek input from the public and stakeholders, including State local, Tribal, and territorial officials, scientists, labor unions, environmental advocates, and environmental justice organizations.

Sec. 3. Restoring National Monuments. (a) The Secretary of the Interior, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, including the Antiquities Act, 54 U.S.C. 320301 et seq., shall, in consultation with the Attorney General, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce, the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and Tribal governments, conduct a review of the monument boundaries and conditions that were established by Proclamation 9681 of December 4, 2017 (Modifying the Bears Ears National Monument); Proclamation 9682 of December 4, 2017 (Modifying the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument); and Proclamation 10049 of June 5, 2020 (Modifying the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument), to determine whether restoration of the monument boundaries and conditions that existed as of January 20, 2017, would be appropriate.

(b)  Within 60 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of the Interior shall submit a report to the President summarizing the findings of the review conducted pursuant to subsection (a), which shall include recommendations for such Presidential actions or other actions consistent with law as the Secretary may consider appropriate to carry out the policy set forth in section 1 of this order.

(c)  The Attorney General may, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, provide notice of this order to any court with jurisdiction over pending litigation related to the Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bears Ears, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monuments, and may, in his discretion, request that the court stay the litigation or otherwise delay further litigation, or seek other appropriate relief consistent with this order, pending the completion of the actions described in subsection (a) of this section.

Sec. 4. Arctic Refuge. (a) In light of the alleged legal deficiencies underlying the program, including the inadequacy of the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the Secretary of the Interior shall, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, place a temporary moratorium on all activities of the Federal Government relating to the implementation of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program, as established by the Record of Decision signed August 17, 2020, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Secretary shall review the program and, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, conduct a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program.

(b)  In Executive Order 13754 of December 9, 2016 (Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience), and in the Presidential Memorandum of December 20, 2016 (Withdrawal of Certain Portions of the United States Arctic Outer Continental Shelf From Mineral Leasing), President Obama withdrew areas in Arctic waters and the Bering Sea from oil and gas drilling and established the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.  Subsequently, the order was revoked and the memorandum was amended in Executive Order 13795 of April 28, 2017 (Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy).  Pursuant to section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, 43 U.S.C. 1341(a), Executive Order 13754 and the Presidential Memorandum of December 20, 2016, are hereby reinstated in their original form, thereby restoring the original withdrawal of certain offshore areas in Arctic waters and the Bering Sea from oil and gas drilling.

(c)  The Attorney General may, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, provide notice of this order to any court with jurisdiction over pending litigation related to the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other related programs, and may, in his discretion, request that the court stay the litigation or otherwise delay further litigation, or seek other appropriate relief consistent with this order, pending the completion of the actions described in subsection (a) of this section.

Sec. 5. Accounting for the Benefits of Reducing Climate Pollution. (a) It is essential that agencies capture the full costs of greenhouse gas emissions as accurately as possible, including by taking global damages into account. Doing so facilitates sound decision-making, recognizes the breadth of climate impacts, and supports the international leadership of the United States on climate issues. The “social cost of carbon” (SCC), “social cost of nitrous oxide” (SCN), and “social cost of methane” (SCM) are estimates of the monetized damages associated with incremental increases in greenhouse gas emissions. They are intended to include changes in net agricultural productivity, human health, property damage from increased flood risk, and the value of ecosystem services. An accurate social cost is essential for agencies to accurately determine the social benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions when conducting cost-benefit analyses of regulatory and other actions.

(b)  There is hereby established an Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases (the “Working Group”).  The Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, Director of OMB, and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy  shall serve as Co-Chairs of the Working Group. 

(i)    Membership.  The Working Group shall also include the following other officers, or their designees:  the Secretary of the Treasury; the Secretary of the Interior; the Secretary of Agriculture; the Secretary of Commerce; the Secretary of Health and Human Services; the Secretary of Transportation; the Secretary of Energy; the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality; the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; the Assistant to the President and National Climate Advisor; and the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council.

(ii)   Mission and Work.  The Working Group shall, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law: 

(A)  publish an interim SCC, SCN, and SCM within 30 days of the date of this order, which agencies shall use when monetizing the value of changes in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from regulations and other relevant agency actions until final values are published;

(B)  publish a final SCC, SCN, and SCM by no later than January 2022;

(C)  provide recommendations to the President, by no later than September 1, 2021, regarding areas of decision-making, budgeting, and procurement by the Federal Government where the SCC, SCN, and SCM should be applied; 

(D)  provide recommendations, by no later than June 1, 2022, regarding a process for reviewing, and, as appropriate, updating, the SCC, SCN, and SCM to ensure that these costs are based on the best available economics and science; and

(E)  provide recommendations, to be published with the final SCC, SCN, and SCM under subparagraph (A) if feasible, and in any event by no later than June 1, 2022, to revise methodologies for calculating the SCC, SCN, and SCM, to the extent that current methodologies do not adequately take account of climate risk, environmental justice, and intergenerational equity.

(iii)  Methodology.  In carrying out its activities, the Working Group shall consider the recommendations of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine as reported in Valuing Climate Damages: Updating Estimation of the Social Cost of Carbon Dioxide (2017) and other pertinent scientific literature; solicit public comment; engage with the public and stakeholders; seek the advice of ethics experts; and ensure that the SCC, SCN, and SCM reflect the interests of future generations in avoiding threats posed by climate change.

Sec. 6. Revoking the March 2019 Permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline. (a) On March 29, 2019, the President granted to TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P. a Presidential permit (the “Permit”) to construct, connect, operate, and maintain pipeline facilities at the international border of the United States and Canada (the “Keystone XL pipeline”), subject to express conditions and potential revocation in the President’s sole discretion. The Permit is hereby revoked in accordance with Article 1(1) of the Permit.

(b)  In 2015, following an exhaustive review, the Department of State and the President determined that approving the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would not serve the U.S. national interest.  That analysis, in addition to concluding that the significance of the proposed pipeline for our energy security and economy is limited, stressed that the United States must prioritize the development of a clean energy economy, which will in turn create good jobs.  The analysis further concluded that approval of the proposed pipeline would undermine U.S. climate leadership by undercutting the credibility and influence of the United States in urging other countries to take ambitious climate action.

(c)  Climate change has had a growing effect on the U.S. economy, with climate-related costs increasing over the last 4 years.  Extreme weather events and other climate-related effects have harmed the health, safety, and security of the American people and have increased the urgency for combatting climate change and accelerating the transition toward a clean energy economy.  The world must be put on a sustainable climate pathway to protect Americans and the domestic economy from harmful climate impacts, and to create well-paying union jobs as part of the climate solution. 

(d)  The Keystone XL pipeline disserves the U.S. national interest.  The United States and the world face a climate crisis.  That crisis must be met with action on a scale and at a speed commensurate with the need to avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory.  At home, we will combat the crisis with an ambitious plan to build back better, designed to both reduce harmful emissions and create good clean-energy jobs.  Our domestic efforts must go hand in hand with U.S. diplomatic engagement.  Because most greenhouse gas emissions originate beyond our borders, such engagement is more necessary and urgent than ever.  The United States must be in a position to exercise vigorous climate leadership in order to achieve a significant increase in global climate action and put the world on a sustainable climate pathway.  Leaving the Keystone XL pipeline permit in place would not be consistent with my Administration’s economic and climate imperatives.

Sec. 7. Other Revocations. (a) Executive Order 13766 of January 24, 2017 (Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals For High Priority Infrastructure Projects), Executive Order 13778 of February 28, 2017 (Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the “Waters of the United States” Rule), Executive Order 13783 of March 28, 2017 (Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth), Executive Order 13792 of April 26, 2017 (Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act), Executive Order 13795 of April 28, 2017 (Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy), Executive Order 13868 of April 10, 2019 (Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth), and Executive Order 13927 of June 4, 2020 (Accelerating the Nation’s Economic Recovery from the COVID-19 Emergency by Expediting Infrastructure Investments and Other Activities), are hereby revoked. Executive Order 13834 of May 17, 2018 (Efficient Federal Operations), is hereby revoked except for sections 6, 7, and 11.

(b)  Executive Order 13807 of August 15, 2017 (Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects), is hereby revoked.  The Director of OMB and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality shall jointly consider whether to recommend that a replacement order be issued.

(c)  Executive Order 13920 of May 1, 2020 (Securing the United States Bulk-Power System), is hereby suspended for 90 days.  The Secretary of Energy and the Director of OMB shall jointly consider whether to recommend that a replacement order be issued.

(d)  The Presidential Memorandum of April 12, 2018 (Promoting Domestic Manufacturing and Job Creation Policies and Procedures Relating to Implementation of Air Quality Standards), the Presidential Memorandum of October 19, 2018 (Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West), and the Presidential Memorandum of February 19, 2020 (Developing and Delivering More Water Supplies in California), are hereby revoked. 

(e)  The Council on Environmental Quality shall rescind its draft guidance entitled, “Draft National Environmental Policy Act Guidance on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” 84 Fed. Reg. 30097 (June 26, 2019).  The Council, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, shall review, revise, and update its final guidance entitled, “Final Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Effects of Climate Change in National Environmental Policy Act Reviews,” 81 Fed. Reg. 51866 (August 5, 2016).

(f)  The Director of OMB and the heads of agencies shall promptly take steps to rescind any orders, rules, regulations, guidelines, or policies, or portions thereof, including, if necessary, by proposing such rescissions through notice-and-comment rulemaking, implementing or enforcing the Executive Orders, Presidential Memoranda, and draft guidance identified in this section, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law.

Sec. 8. General Provisions. (a) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i)   the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii)  the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b)  This order shall be implemented in a manner consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c)  This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR.

THE WHITE HOUSE,
January 20, 2021.


Theoretical Physics in the 21st Century

22 December, 2020

In 2021, March 8–13 will be “Sustainability Week” in Switzerland. During this week, students at all Swiss universities will come together to present their current work, promote a sustainable lifestyle and draw extra attention to changes that must be made at the institutional level. Anna Knörr, a third year Physics Bachelor student at ETH Zürich, is president of the Student Sustainability Commission. She and Professor Niklas Beisert invited me to give the Zurich Theoretical Physics Colloquium on Monday the 8th of March.

She proposed the modest title “Theoretical Physics in the 21st Century”. I like this idea because it would give me a chance to think about the ways in which theoretical physics is stuck, the ways it’s not, and the ways theoretical physics can help us adapt to the Anthropocene. So, I could blend ideas from these two talks:

Unsolved mysteries in fundamental physics, Cambridge University Physics Society, October 3, 2018.

Energy and the environment—what physicists can do, Perimeter Institute, April 17, 2013.

but update and improve the second one. I think it’ll be pretty easy for me to explain that the Anthropocene is about much more than global warming. The hard part is giving suggestions for “what physicists can do”.

Of course we can all resolve to fly less, etc.—but none of those suggestions take advantage of special skills that physicists have. Anna Knörr correctly noted that many theoretical physicists have trouble seeing what they can do to help our civilization adapt to the Anthropocene, since many of them are not good at designing better batteries, solar cells, fission or fusion reactors comes easily. To the extent that I’m a theoretical physicist I fit into this unhappy class. But I think there are more theoretical activities that can still be helpful! And I have more to say about this now than in 2013.

One lesson I may offer is this:

If something is not working, try something different.

This applies to the Anthropocene as a whole, all the social problems that afflict us, and also fundamental physics. I just ran into a talk that the famous particle physicist Sheldon Glashow gave 40 years ago, called “The New Frontier”. He said:

Important discoveries await the next generation of accelerators. QCD and the electroweak theory need further confirmation. We need to know how b quarks decay. The weak interaction intermediaries must be seen to be believed. The top quark (or the perversions needed by topless theories) lurks just out of range. Higgs may wait to be found. There could well be a fourth family of quarks and leptons. There may even be unanticipated surprises. We need the new machines.

That was in 1980. The ‘weak interaction intermediaries’—the W and Z—were found three years later, in 1982. The top quark was found in 1995. The Higgs boson was found in 2012. No fourth generation of quarks and leptons, and we now have good evidence that none exists. To the great sorrow of all physcists, particle accelerators have found no unanticipated surprises!

On the other hand, we have for the first time an apparently correct theory of elementary particle physics. It may be, in a sense, phenomenologically complete. It suggests the possibility that there are no more surprises at higher energies, at least at energies that are remotely accessible.

He’s proved right on this, so far.

Proton decay, if it is found, will reinforce belief in the great desert extending from 100 GeV to the unification mass of 1014 GeV. Perhaps the desert is a blessing in disguise. Ever larger and more costly machines conflict with dwindling finances and energy reserves. All frontiers come to an end.

You may like this scenario or not; it may be true or false. But, it is neither impossible, implausible, nor unlikely. And, do not despair nor prematurely lament the death of particle physics. We have a ways to go to reach the desert, with exotic fauna along the way, and even the desolation of a desert can be interesting.

Proton decay has not been found despite a huge amount of effort. So, that piece of evidence for grand unified theories is missing, and with it a strong piece of evidence that there should be a “desert” of new phenomena between the electroweak unification energy scale and the GUT energy scale.

But, we’re not seeing anything beyond the Standard Model: no “exotic fauna”.

Glashow’s “new frontier” was the “passive frontier”: non-accelerator experiments like neutrino measurements, and this is indeed where the progress came since 1980: we now know neutrinos are massive and oscillate, and there is still some mystery here and room for surprises—though frankly I suspect that neutrino masses will work very much like quark masses, via coupling to the Higgs. (This is in a sense the most conservative, least truly exciting scenario.)

So, very little dramatic progress has happened in particle physics since 1980—except for a profusion of new theories that haven’t made any verified predictions. I’ll argue that physicists should turn elsewhere! There are other things for them to do, that are much more exciting.


Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021

22 December, 2020

You may not have noticed, but the US Congress just passed the biggest climate-related bill in long time, with measures to help save the ozone layer and speed progress on solar, wind and nuclear energy, battery storage and carbon capture. It’s big news, though it’s been overshadowed by the pandemic and resulting economic disaster. Everyone is focused on another portion of the 5593-page Consolidated Appropriations Act: namely, Division M, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.

This is important. We’ll get through this pandemic, though the US at least has been doing a bad job so far. Global warming will be a much tougher test of our resolve. So it’s good to see this step toward recognizing its gravity.

• Sarah Kaplan and Dino Grandoni, Stimulus deal includes raft of provisions to fight climate change, Washington Post, 21 December 2020.

In one of the biggest victories for U.S. climate action in a decade, Congress has moved to phase out a class of potent planet-warming chemicals and provide billions of dollars for renewable energy and efforts to suck carbon from the atmosphere as part of the $900 billion coronavirus relief package.

The legislation […] wraps together several bills with bipartisan backing and support from an unusual coalition of environmentalists and industry groups.

It will cut the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chemicals used in air conditioners and refrigerators that are hundreds of times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. It authorizes a sweeping set of new renewable energy measures, including tax credit extensions and new research and development programs for solar, wind and energy storage; funding for energy efficiency projects; upgrades to the electric grid and a new commitment to research on removing carbon from the atmosphere. And it reauthorizes an Environmental Protection Agency program to curb emissions from diesel engines.

The legislation also includes key language on the “sense of Congress” that the Energy Department must prioritize funding for research to power the United States with 100 percent “clean, renewable, or zero-emission energy sources” — a rare declaration that the nation should be striving toward net-zero carbon emissions.

“This is perhaps the most significant climate legislation Congress has ever passed,” said Grant Carlisle, a senior policy adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The HFC measure, which empowers the EPA to cut the production and use of HFCs by 85 percent over the next 15 years, is expected to save as much as half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century. Scientists say the world needs to constrain the increase in the average global temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial times to avoid catastrophic, irreversible damage to the planet. Some places around the globe are already experiencing an average temperature rise beyond that threshold.

Advocates say the $35 billion of new funding for renewable technology and energy efficiency in the legislation will also help reduce pollution that is driving global warming and provide a much-needed boost to federal energy programs that haven’t been updated since 2007.

“It doesn’t have regulations or mandates in it,” Sasha Mackler, director of the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said of the energy package. “But from the bottom up it’s advancing the technology that’s needed. … This is definitely a bill that creates the enabling conditions for decarbonization.”

Support among lawmakers for the package suggests that tax incentives and research funding may be a rare area of common ground between two parties that have been divided on climate change.

Despite President Trump’s numerous efforts to roll back climate regulations, leading Republicans backed the package, which has been a top priority for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) for years. Senators John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) helped craft the bipartisan agreement to scale down polluting refrigerants.

“These measures will protect our air while keeping costs down for the American people,” Barrasso, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement Monday.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), an ally of President-elect Joe Biden and co-sponsor of the HFC provision, called it “a watershed moment” that bodes well for lawmakers interested in working with the incoming administration on climate change.

“The debate on whether climate change is real is over. It is real. It’s not getting better,” Carper said in a recent interview. “Our Republican colleagues, they get it, for the most part.”

The agreement comes on the heels of a major United Nations climate report, which found that nations’ current plans to reduce greenhouse gasses are just one-fifth of what’s needed to avoid catastrophic warming.

If leaders invest heavily in green infrastructure and renewable energy as part of coronavirus stimulus spending, the world could trim as much as 25 percent from its expected 2030 emissions, the U.N. report said.

Democrats and environmental groups say the legislation is not quite the sweeping “green stimulus” that’s needed. Though it meets Biden’s call to extend tax incentives for solar and wind generation and provide more money for clean energy research, it falls short of his requests for aggressive subsidies for electric vehicles and new requirements that utilities eliminate their contributions to global warming by 2035.

It also excludes a provision from earlier versions of the bill that would have set voluntary standards for energy efficiency in buildings — something that could significantly curb emissions from cities.

“Let’s be clear: Are these provisions enough to meet the demands of the science? No,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y). “But are they a significant step in the right direction? Yes.”

The HFC rule lays the groundwork for the United States to sign onto the Kigali Amendment, an international agreement in which more than 100 nations committed to replacing the chemicals with refrigerants that have a smaller climate impact. Signed in the final days of the Obama administration, the treaty was never submitted by Trump for ratification by the Senate. By voting to curb the climate pollutant now, Congress has eased the path for approval once Biden takes office.

Included in the energy package are roughly $4 billion for solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal research and development; $1.7 billion to help low-income families install renewable energy sources in their homes; $2.6 billion for the Energy Department’s sustainable transportation program; and $500 million for research on reducing industrial emissions.

It also authorizes $2.9 billion for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a program that funds high-risk, high-reward research and that Trump has sought to eliminate multiple times.

The increased funding is expected to make emerging clean-energy technology cheaper and more widespread. This is especially significant for ideas that have proved effective but are struggling to make the jump to commercial viability.

“This is an opportunity to not only make significant advances in climate action and reducing HFCs, but to help maintain leadership of U.S. technology and our competitiveness in that global market,” said Marty Durbin, an energy lobbyist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest corporate lobbying group in Washington.

In a boon for renewable energy companies, Congress extended tax credits for wind and solar and introduced a new credit for offshore wind projects, which Heather Zichal, chief executive of the American Clean Power Association, called “America’s largest untapped clean energy source.” One Department of Energy analysis suggested that developing just 4 percent of the total U.S. offshore wind capacity could power some 25 million homes and reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by almost 2 percent.

But many green groups were critical of provisions dedicating more than $6 billion to efforts to remove carbon from the air and store it, as well as funding for enhanced oil recovery projects, which reuse carbon dioxide to flush residual oil from existing wells.

“It just perpetuates the fossil fuel system,” said Jean Su, an attorney and director of the energy justice program at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If you pass something like this, you’re not doing the best we can do in terms of transforming our energy system.”

Others see carbon capture as a necessary tool for mitigating emissions from sources that aren’t easily decarbonized, such as air travel. The bill directs the energy secretary to estimate “the magnitude of excess carbon dioxide” that needs to be removed from the air to stabilize the climate.

The legislation includes more than $11 billion for nuclear energy [….]


The Swinomish

25 November, 2020

The Swimonish are Native Americans who live in the southeastern part of Fidalgo Island in northern Puget Sound, about 110 kilometers north of Seattle.

They’ve been doing interesting things about climate change and ecosystem restoration. So have other tribes:

• Jim Morrison, An ancient people with a modern climate plan, The New York Times, 24 November 2020.

For 10,000 years, the Swinomish tribe has fished the waters of northwestern Washington, relying on the bounty of salmon and shellfish not only as a staple of its diet but as a centerpiece of its culture. At the beginning of the fishing season, the tribe gathers on the beach for a First Salmon ceremony, a feast honoring the return of the migratory fish that binds the generations of a tribe that calls itself the People of the Salmon.

At the ceremony’s conclusion, single salmon are ferried by boat in four directions — north to Padilla Bay, east to the Skagit River, south to Skagit Bay and west to Deception Pass — and eased into the water with a prayer that they will tell other salmon how well they were treated.

In recent years, though, the tribe’s harvest, diminished by vanishing habitat and warming waters fueled by climate change, hasn’t been sufficient to feed the hundreds of people who come to pay homage to their ancestors and to the fish that sustained them.

“We don’t have that abundance anymore,” said Lorraine Loomis, an elder who has managed the tribal fishery for 40 years. “To get ceremonial fish, we buy it and freeze it.”

[….]

The tribe has responded with an ambitious, multipronged strategy to battle climate change and improve the health of the land and the water and the plants, animals and people who thrived in harmony for generations. In 2010, the Swinomish became one of the first communities to assess the problems posed by a warming planet and enact a climate action plan. An additional 50 Native American tribes have followed, creating climate strategies to protect their lands and cultures, ahead of most U.S. communities.

The Swinomish see the tasks beyond addressing shoreline risk and restoring habitats. They look at climate adaptation and resilience with the eyes of countless generations. They recognize that the endangered “first foods” — clams, oysters, elk, traditional plants and salmon — are not mere resources to be consumed. They are central to their values, beliefs and practices and, therefore, to their spiritual, cultural and community well-being.

In recent years, the tribe has fostered salmon recovery through a variety of projects. It has restored tidelands and channels, planted trees along streambeds to cool warming waters, and collaborated with farmers to increase stream setbacks to improve water quality.

Restoring salmon populations is just part of an ambitious climate action plan to blunt the effects of increased flooding, ocean acidification, rising river temperatures, more-destructive storms and habitat loss.

The Swinomish are rebuilding oyster reefs for the native Olympia oyster. They’re planning the first modern clam garden in the United States on the reservation’s tidelands, reviving an ancient practice. They’re monitoring deer and elk populations through camera traps to understand the climate change pressures and to inform hunting limits. And they have ongoing wetland restoration projects to explore preserving native plants and to help naturally manage coastal flooding.

“They’re doing really innovative climate adaptation,” said Meade Krosby, a senior scientist with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. “They were way ahead of the curve. And that really shouldn’t be surprising, because the tribes have shown tremendous leadership in climate adaptation and mitigation.”

The Tulalip tribes, neighbors to the south, are relocating nuisance beavers from urban areas to streams with salmon to improve water quality and lower the temperature, reduce sediment flowing into streams and mitigate the effects of increasingly intense storms. The Karuk tribe of Northern California has a 232-page plan that calls for prescribed burning to reduce increasing wildfires and removing dams to help decreasing salmon and eel populations.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of Montana have a resilience plan that calls for prescribed burns and restoring whitebark pine, a key part of tribal culture. They plan to identify trees resilient to blister rust — a fungus exacerbated by climate change — collect their seeds and eventually plant 100,000 seedlings on their lands.

And in Alaska, a partnership of 11 tribes has formed to identify harmful algae blooms so that it’s clear when shellfish can be safely harvested.

Native Americans acutely feel the effects of the changing climate because they were forced onto the most vulnerable lands, places that were of little use to others, said Nikki Cooley, co-manager of the Tribes and Climate Change Program for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals.

“There’s that big push to address climate change because we’re feeling the effects more so than other places,” said Cooley, 40, who grew up without electricity or running water, herding sheep in the sprawling Navajo Nation reservations of the Arizona desert.


US Environmental Policy (Part 2)

12 November, 2020

On his first day in office, President-elect Biden plans to have the US rejoin the Paris climate accord. He has also pledged to sign ten executive orders on his first day in office:

• Requiring aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations.

• Using the Federal government procurement system—which spends $500 billion every year—to drive towards 100% clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles.

• Ensuring that all U.S. government installations, buildings, and facilities are more efficient and climate-ready, harnessing the purchasing power and supply chains to drive innovation.

• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation—the fastest growing source of U.S. climate pollution—by preserving and implementing the existing Clean Air Act, and developing rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light- and medium-duty vehicles will be electrified and annual improvements for heavy duty vehicles.

• Doubling down on the liquid fuels of the future, which make agriculture a key part of the solution to climate change. Advanced biofuels are now closer than ever as we begin to build the first plants for biofuels, creating jobs and new solutions to reduce emissions in planes, ocean-going vessels, and more.

• Saving consumers money and reduce emissions through new, aggressive appliance- and building-efficiency standards.

• Committing that every federal infrastructure investment should reduce climate pollution, and require any federal permitting decision to consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

• Requiring public companies to disclose climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions in their operations and supply chains.

• Protecting biodiversity, slowing extinction rates and helping leverage natural climate solutions by conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030.

• Protecting America’s natural treasures by permanently protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attack on federal lands and waters, establishing national parks and monuments that reflect America’s natural heritage, banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters, modifying royalties to account for climate costs, and establishing targeted programs to enhance reforestation and develop renewables on federal lands and waters with the goal of doubling offshore wind by 2030.

According to article in today’s Washington Post:

In a sign of how Biden has already elevated the issue, he discussed the topic with every European head of state with whom he spoke on Tuesday, including the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Ireland. Biden has started frequently referring to the climate “crisis,” suggesting a heightened level of urgency.

A team of former Obama administration officials and experts have created a 300-page blueprint laying out a holistic approach to the climate while avoiding some of the pitfalls that hampered President Barack Obama, who shared some of the same goals but was unable to enact all of them. Dubbed the Climate 21 Project, it took a year and a half to develop and was delivered recently to Biden’s transition team. The document outlines how the incoming administration could restructure aspects of the government to move faster on global warming.

For more, see:

Climate 21 Project.


US Environmental Policy (Part 1)

8 November, 2020

This blog does not allow discussion of partisan politics. But I can still list some ways in which US environmental policy will change if Biden becomes president.

First and foremost, the US will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.

Besides leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trump administration did many other things that didn’t require approval from Congress:

• Nadja Popovich, Livia Albeck-Ripka and Kendra Pierre-Louis, The Trump administration is reversing nearly 100 environmental rules. Here’s the full list, New York Times, 15 October 2020.

Here’s the list. Biden can reverse or halt all these actions without approval from Congress:

Air pollution – completed:

  1. Weakened Obama-era fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for passenger cars and light trucks.
    E.P.A. and Transportation Department
  2. Revoked California’s ability to set stricter tailpipe emissions standards than the federal government.
    E.P.A.
  3. Withdrew the legal justification for an Obama-era rule that limited mercury emissions from coal power plants.
    E.P.A.
  4. Replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have set strict limits on carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants, with a new version that would let states set their own rules.
    Executive Order; E.P.A.
  5. Canceled a requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions.
    E.P.A.
  6. Revised and partially repealed an Obama-era rule limiting methane emissions on public lands, including intentional venting and flaring from drilling operations. A federal court struck down the revision in July 2020, calling the Trump administration’s reasoning “wholly inadequate” and mandating enforcement of the original rule. However, the Obama-era rule was later partially struck down in a separate court case, during which the Trump administration declined to defend it.
    Interior Department
  7. Withdrew a Clinton-era rule designed to limit toxic emissions from major industrial polluters, and later proposed codifying the looser standards.
    E.P.A.
  8. Revised a program designed to safeguard communities from increases in pollution from new power plants to make it easier for facilities to avoid emissions regulations.
    E.P.A.
  9. Amended rules that govern how refineries monitor pollution in surrounding communities.
    E.P.A.
  10. Weakened an Obama-era rule meant to reduce air pollution in national parks and wilderness areas.
    E.P.A.
  11. Weakened oversight of some state plans for reducing air pollution in national parks.
    E.P.A.
  12. Relaxed air pollution regulations for a handful of plants that burn waste coal for electricity.
    E.P.A.
  13. Repealed rules meant to reduce leaking and venting of powerful greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons from large refrigeration and air conditioning systems.
    E.P.A.
  14. Directed agencies to stop using an Obama-era calculation of the social cost of carbon, which rulemakers used to estimate the long-term economic benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
    Executive Order
  15. Withdrew guidance directing federal agencies to include greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews. But several district courts have ruled that emissions must be included in such reviews.
    Executive Order; Council on Environmental Quality
  16. Revoked an Obama executive order that set a goal of cutting the federal government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent over 10 years.
    Executive Order
  17. Repealed a requirement that state and regional authorities track tailpipe emissions from vehicles on federal highways.
    Transportation Department
  18. Lifted a summertime ban on the use of E15, a gasoline blend made of 15 percent ethanol. (Burning gasoline with a higher concentration of ethanol in hot conditions increases smog.)
    E.P.A.
  19. Changed rules to allow states and the E.P.A. to take longer to develop and approve plans aimed at cutting methane emissions from existing landfills.
    E.P.A.
  20. Withdrew a proposed rule aimed at reducing pollutants, including air pollution, at sewage treatment plants.
    E.P.A.
  21. Relaxed some Obama-era requirements for companies to monitor and repair leaks at oil and gas facilities, including exempting certain low-production wells – a significant source of methane emissions – from the requirements altogether. (Other leak regulations were eliminated.)
    E.P.A.

Air pollution – in progress:

  1. Eliminated Obama-era methane emissions standards for oil and gas facilities and narrowed standards limiting the release of other polluting chemicals known as “volatile organic compounds” to only certain facilities. A federal court temporarily halted the rollback from going into effect after environmental groups and several states filed suit.
    E.P.A.
  2. Proposed revisions to standards for carbon dioxide emissions from new, modified and reconstructed coal power plants, eliminating Obama-era restrictions that, in effect, required them to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions.
    E.P.A.
  3. Began a review of emissions rules for power plant start-ups, shutdowns and malfunctions. One outcome of that review: In February 2020, E.P.A. reversed a requirement that Texas follow emissions rules during certain malfunction events.
    E.P.A.
  4. Proposed a rule limiting the ability of individuals and communities to challenge E.P.A.-issued pollution permits before a panel of agency judges.
    E.P.A.

Drilling and extraction – completed:

  1. Made significant cuts to the borders of two national monuments in Utah and recommended border and resource-management changes to several more.
    Presidential Proclamation; Interior Department
  2. Lifted an Obama-era freeze on new coal leases on public lands. In April 2019, a judge ruled that the Interior Department could not begin selling new leases without completing an environmental review. In February 2020, the agency published an assessment that concluded restarting federal coal leasing would have little environmental impact.
    Executive Order; Interior Department
  3. Finalized a plan to open up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas development, a move that overturns six decades of protections for the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States.
    Congress; Interior Department
  4. Approved construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, less than a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. (The Obama administration had halted the project, with the Army Corps of Engineers saying it would explore alternative routes.) The pipeline is embroiled in a lengthy legal battle, but has been allowed to continue operating by the Army Corps of Engineers even though a federal court reversed the Corps’ decision to allow the pipeline to run along its current path.
    Executive Order; Army
  5. Rescinded water pollution regulations for fracking on federal and Indian lands.
    Interior Department
  6. Scrapped a proposed rule that required mines to prove they could pay to clean up future pollution.
    E.P.A.
  7. Withdrew a requirement that Gulf oil rig owners prove they can cover the costs of removing rigs once they stop producing.
    Interior Department
  8. Moved the permitting process for certain projects that cross international borders, such as oil pipelines, to the office of the president from the State Department, exempting them from environmental review.
    Executive Order
  9. Changed how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission considers the indirect effects of greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews of pipelines.
    Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
  10. Revoked an Obama-era executive order designed to preserve ocean, coastal and Great Lakes waters in favor of a policy focused on energy production and economic growth.
    Executive Order
  11. Loosened offshore drilling safety regulations implemented by the Obama after following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, including reduced testing requirements for blowout prevention systems.
    Interior Department

Drilling and extraction – in progress

  1. Proposed opening most of America’s coastal waters to offshore oil and gas drilling, but delayed the plan after a federal judge in 2019 ruled that reversing a ban on drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans was unlawful. Ahead of the 2020 election, Mr. Trump announced he would exempt from drilling coastal areas around Florida, a crucial battleground state, Georgia and South Carolina.
    Interior Department
  2. Repealed an Obama-era rule governing royalties for oil, gas and coal leases on federal lands, which replaced a 1980s rule that critics said allowed companies to underpay the federal government. A federal judge struck down the Trump administration’s repeal, but another court froze the original rule pending litigation.
    Interior Department
  3. Proposed easing the approval process for oil and gas drilling in national forests by curbing the power of the Forest Service to review and approve leases, among other changes.
    Agriculture Department; Interior Department
  4. Withdrew proposed restrictions on mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska, despite concerns over environmental impacts on salmon habitat, including a prominent fishery. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has so far denied a permit for a proposed project, known as the Pebble Mine, noting it “could have substantial environmental impacts,” but left the door open for a revised plan.
    E.P.A.; Army
  5. Proposed revising regulations on offshore oil and gas exploration by floating vessels in the Arctic that were developed after a 2013 accident. The Interior Department previously said it was “considering full rescission or revision of this rule.”
    Executive Order; Interior Department
  6. Proposed opening more land for drilling in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, a vast swath of public land on the Arctic Ocean. The Obama administration had designated about half of the reserve as a conservation area.
    Interior Department
  7. Finalized a plan to allow logging and road construction in Tongass National Forest, Alaska, by exempting the area from a Clinton-era policy known as the roadless rule, which applied to much of the national forest system.
    Interior Department
  8. Approved the Keystone XL pipeline rejected by President Barack Obama, but a federal judge blocked the project from going forward without an adequate environmental review process. The Supreme Court in July 2020 upheld that ruling, further delaying construction of the pipeline.
    Executive Order; State Department
  9. Approved the use of seismic air guns for gas and oil exploration in the Atlantic Ocean. The Obama administration had denied permits for such surveys, which can kill marine life and disrupt fisheries. However, the Trump administration’s permits to allow seismic surveys expired following a protracted lawsuit, ending the possibility of seismic air gun surveys in the Atlantic in the near term. Companies would need to restart the months-long permitting process.
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Infrastructure – completed:

  1. Weakened the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the country’s most significant environmental laws, in order to expedite the approval of public infrastructure projects, such as roads, pipelines and telecommunications networks. The new rules shorten the time frame for completing environmental studies, limit the types of projects subject to review, and no longer require federal agencies to account for a project’s cumulative effects on the environment, such as climate change.
    Council on Environmental Quality
  2. Revoked Obama-era flood standards for federal infrastructure projects that required the government to account for sea level rise and other climate change effects.
    Executive Order
  3. Relaxed the environmental review process for federal infrastructure projects.
    Executive Order
  4. Overturned an Obama-era guidance that ended U.S. government financing for new coal plants overseas except in rare circumstances.
    Executive Order; Treasury Department
  5. Revoked a directive for federal agencies to minimize impacts on water, wildlife, land and other natural resources when approving development projects.
    Executive Order
  6. Revoked an Obama executive order promoting climate resilience in the northern Bering Sea region of Alaska, which withdrew local waters from oil and gas leasing and established a tribal advisory council to consult on local environmental issues.
    Executive Order
  7. Reversed an update to the Bureau of Land Management’s public land-use planning process.
    Congress
  8. Withdrew an Obama-era order to consider climate change in the management of natural resources in national parks.
    National Park Service
  9. Restricted most Interior Department environmental studies to one year in length and a maximum of 150 pages, citing a need to reduce paperwork.
    Interior Department
  10. Withdrew a number of Obama-era Interior Department climate change and conservation policies that the agency said could “burden the development or utilization of domestically produced energy resources.”
    Interior Department
  11. Eliminated the use of an Obama-era planning system designed to minimize harm from oil and gas activity on sensitive landscapes, such as national parks.
    Interior Department
  12. Withdrew Obama-era policies designed to maintain or, ideally, improve natural resources affected by federal projects.
    Interior Department

Infrastructure – in progress:

  1. Proposed plans to speed up the environmental review process for Forest Service projects.
    Agriculture Department

Animals – completed:

  1. Changed the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, making it more difficult to protect wildlife from long-term threats posed by climate change.
    Interior Department; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  2. Ended the automatic application of full protections for ‘threatened’ plants and animals, the classification one step below ‘endangered’ in the Endangered Species Act.
    Interior Department
  3. Relaxed environmental protections for salmon and smelt in California’s Central Valley in order to free up water for farmers.
    Executive Order; Interior Department
  4. Overturned a ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on federal lands.
    Interior Department
  5. Overturned a ban on the hunting of predators in Alaskan wildlife refuges.
    Congress
  6. Reversed an Obama-era rule that barred using bait, such as grease-soaked doughnuts, to lure and kill grizzly bears, among other sport hunting practices that many people consider extreme, on some public lands in Alaska.
    National Park Service; Interior Department
  7. Amended fishing regulations to loosen restrictions on the harvest of a number of species.
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  8. Removed restrictions on commercial fishing in a protected marine preserve southeast of Cape Cod that is home to rare corals and a number of endangered sea animals. The Trump administration has suggested changing the management or size of two other marine protected areas in the Pacific Ocean.
    Executive Order; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  9. Proposed revising limits on the number of endangered marine mammals and sea turtles that can be unintentionally killed or injured with sword-fishing nets on the West Coast. (The Obama-era rules were initially withdrawn by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but were later finalized following a court order. The agency has said it plans to revise the limits.)
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  10. Loosened fishing restrictions intended to reduce bycatch of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. Nonprofits have filed a lawsuit challenging the rollback.
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  11. Overturned a ban on using parts of migratory birds in handicrafts made by Alaskan Natives.
    Interior Department

Animals – in progress:

  1. Proposed weakening critical habitat protections under the Endangered Species Act by making it easier to exclude certain areas, including for public-works projects, such as schools and hospitals, and for public lands leased to non-government businesses.
    Interior Department
  2. Opened nine million acres of Western land to oil and gas drilling by weakening habitat protections for the sage grouse, an imperiled bird. The Idaho District Court temporarily blocked the measure. The Montana District Court also invalidated the directive, nullifying 440 oil and gas leases, but the ruling is on hold pending appeal.
    Interior Department

Water pollution – completed:

  1. Scaled back pollution protections for certain tributaries and wetlands that were regulated under the Clean Water Act by the Obama administration. (A federal judge in Colorado halted implementation of the rule within the state, but it is in effect elsewhere.)
    E.P.A.; Army
  2. Revoked a rule that prevented coal companies from dumping mining debris into local streams.
    Congress
  3. Weakened a rule that aimed to limit toxic discharge from power plants into public waterways.
    E.P.A.
  4. Weakened a portion of the Clean Water Act to make it easier for federal agencies to issue permits for federal projects over state objections if the projects don’t meet local water quality standards, including for pipelines and other fossil fuel facilities.
    Executive Order; E.P.A. holding areas, which can spill their contents because they lack a protective underlay.
    E.P.A.
  5. Withdrew a proposed rule requiring groundwater protections for certain uranium mines. Recently, the administration’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group proposed opening up 1,500 acres outside the Grand Canyon to nuclear production.
    E.P.A.

Water pollution – in progress:

  1. Proposed doubling the time allowed for utilities to remove lead pipes from water systems with high levels of lead.
    E.P.A.
  2. Attempted to weaken federal rules regulating the disposal and storage of coal ash waste from power plants, but a court determined the original rules were already insufficient to protect the environment. The E.P.A. then proposed a new rule that would allow unlined coal ash ponds, previously deemed unsafe, to continue operating.
    E.P.A.
  3. Proposed a regulation limiting the scope of an Obama-era rule under which companies had to prove that large deposits of recycled coal ash would not harm the environment.
    E.P.A.

Toxic substances and safety – completed:

  1. Rejected a proposed ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to developmental disabilities in children. In 2020, the E.P.A. also rejected its own earlier finding that the pesticide can cause serious health problems. (Several states have banned use of the pesticide and its main manufacturer said it would stop producing the product because of shrinking demand.)
    E.P.A.
  2. Narrowed the scope of a 2016 law mandating safety assessments for potentially toxic chemicals like dry-cleaning solvents. The updated rules allowed the E.P.A. to exclude some chemical uses and types of exposure in the review process. In November 2019, a court of appeals ruled the agency must widen its scope to consider full exposure risks, but watchdog groups say the agency has not done so in some assessments.
    E.P.A.
  3. Reversed an Obama-era rule that required braking system upgrades for “high hazard” trains hauling flammable liquids like oil and ethanol.
    Transportation Department
  4. Changed safety rules to allow for rail transport of highly flammable liquefied natural gas.
    Transportation Department

Toxic substances and safety – in progress:

  1. Proposed limiting pesticide application buffer zones that are intended to protect farmworkers and bystanders from accidental exposure.
    E.P.A.
  2. Announced a review of an Obama-era rule lowering coal dust limits in mines. The head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration said there were no immediate plans to change the dust limit but has extended a public comment period until 2022.
    Labor Department

Other – completed:

  1. Repealed an Obama-era regulation that would have nearly doubled the number of light bulbs subject to energy-efficiency standards starting in January 2020. The Energy Department also blocked the next phase of efficiency standards for general-purpose bulbs already subject to regulation.
    Energy Department
  2. Changed a 25-year-old policy to allow coastal replenishment projects to use sand from protected ecosystems.
    Interior Department
  3. Limited funding of environmental and community development projects through corporate settlements of federal lawsuits.
    Justice Department
  4. Stopped payments to the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations program to help poorer countries reduce carbon emissions.
    Executive Order
  5. Reversed restrictions on the sale of plastic water bottles in national parks desgined to cut down on litter, despite a Park Service report that the effort worked.
    Interior Department

Other – in progress:

  1. Proposed limiting the studies used by the E.P.A. for rulemaking to only those that make data publicly available. (Scientists widely criticized the proposal, saying it would effectively block the agency from considering landmark research that relies on confidential health data.)
    E.P.A.
  2. Proposed changes to the way cost-benefit analyses are conducted under the Clean Air Act. Similar rules for the Clean Water Act and other environmental statutes are in development.
    E.P.A.
  3. Proposed freezing efficiency standards for residential furnaces and commercial water heaters designed to reduce energy use.
    Energy Department
  4. Created a product category that would allow some dishwashers to be exempt from energy efficiency standards.
    Energy Department
  5. Initially withdrew, and then delayed, a proposed rule that would inform car owners about fuel-efficient replacement tires.
    Transportation Department

The SPARC Fusion Reactor

21 October, 2020

There’s a lot of excitement about a new approach to fusion power:

• Henry Fountain, Compact nuclear fusion reactor is ‘very likely to work,’ studies suggest, The New York Times, 29 September 2020.

Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change.

Construction of a reactor, called SPARC, which is being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is expected to begin next spring and take three or four years, the researchers and company officials said.

Although many significant challenges remain, the company said construction would be followed by testing and, if successful, building of a power plant that could use fusion energy to generate electricity, beginning in the next decade.

This ambitious timetable is far faster than that of the world’s largest fusion-power project, a multinational effort in Southern France called ITER, for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. That reactor has been under construction since 2013 and, although it is not designed to generate electricity, is expected to produce a fusion reaction by 2035.

But fusion has been twenty years off since the 1950s. What’s the evidence that Sparc will work? I guess most of the evidence is here—a series of seven papers, which luckily are available open-access:

Status of the SPARC physics basics, Journal of Plasma Physics 86 (2020).

I have not read these! And even if I did, since I’m not an expert on fusion reactors—obviously a tricky subject—I’m not sure how much my impression would help.

Do you know any commentary on SPARC from other experts on fusion reactors? The more detailed, the better. All I’ve seen so far are very sketchy remarks from people who don’t seem to know what they’re talking about.


Markov Decision Processes

6 October, 2020

The National Institute of Mathematical and Biological Sciences is having an online seminar on ‘adaptive management’. It should be fun for people who want to understand Markov decision processes—like me!

NIMBioS Adaptive Management Webinar Series, 2020 October 26-29 (Monday-Thursday).

Adaptive management seeks to determine sound management strategies in the face of uncertainty concerning the behavior of the system being managed. Specifically, it attempts to find strategies for managing dynamic systems while learning the behavior of the system. These webinars review the key concept of a Markov Decision Process (MDP) and demonstrate how quantitative adaptive management strategies can be developed using MDPs. Additional conceptual, computational and application aspects will be discussed, including dynamic programming and Bayesian formalization of learning.

Here are the topics:

Session 1: Introduction to decision problems
Session 2: Introduction to Markov decision processes (MDPs)
Session 3: Solving Markov decision processes (MDPs)
Session 4: Modeling beliefs
Session 5: Conjugacy and discrete model adaptive management (AM)
Session 6: More on AM problems (Dirichlet/multinomial and Gaussian prior/likelihood)
Session 7: Partially observable Markov decision processes (POMDPs)
Session 8: Frontier topics (projection methods, approximate DP, communicating solutions)

 


Compositional Game Theory and Climate Microeconomics

5 October, 2020

guest post by Jules Hedges

Hi all

This is a post I’ve been putting off for a long time until I was sure I was ready. I am the “lead developer” of a thing called compositional game theory (CGT). It’s an approach to game theory based on category theory, but we are now at the point where you don’t need to know that anymore: it’s an approach to game theory that has certain specific benefits over the traditional approach.

I would like to start a conversation about “using my powers for good”. I am hoping particularly that it is possible to model microeconomic aspects of climate science. This seems to be a very small field and I’m not really hopeful that anyone on Azimuth will have the right background, but it’s worth a shot. The kind of thing I’m imagining (possibly completely wrongly) is to create models that will suggest when a technically-feasible solution is not socially feasible. Social dilemmas and tragedies of the commons are at the heart of the climate crisis, and modelling instances of them is in scope.

I have a software tool (https://github.com/jules-hedges/open-games-hs) that is designed to be an assistant for game-theoretic modelling. This I can’t emphasise enough: A human with expertise in game-theoretic modelling is the most important thing, CGT is merely an assistant. (Right now the tool also probably can’t be used without me being in the loop, but that’s not an inherent thing.)

To give an idea what sort of things CGT can do, my 2 current ongoing research collaborations are: (1) a social science project modelling examples of institution governance, and (2) a cryptoeconomics project modelling an attack against a protocol using bribes. On a technical level the best fit is for Bayesian games, which are finite-horizon, have common knowledge priors, and private knowledge with agents who do Bayesian updating.

A lot of the (believed) practical benefits of CGT come from the fact that the model is code (in a high level language designed specifically for expressing games) and thus the model can be structured according to existing wisdom for structuring code. Really stress-testing this claim is an ongoing research project. My tool does equilibrium-checking for all games (the technical term is “model checker”), and we’ve had some success doing other things by looping an equilibrium check over a parameter space. It makes no attempt to be an equilibrium solver, that is left for the human.

This is not me trying to push my pet project (I do that elsewhere) but me trying to find a niche where I can do some genuine good, even if small. If you are a microeconomist (or a social scientist who uses applied game theory) and share the goals of Azimuth, I would like to hear from you, even if it’s just for some discussion.


Electric Cars

24 September, 2020

Some good news! According to this article, we’re rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheaper to own an electric car than one that burns fossil fuels.

• Jack Ewing, The age of electric cars is dawning ahead of schedule, New York Times, September 20, 2020.

FRANKFURT — An electric Volkswagen ID.3 for the same price as a Golf. A Tesla Model 3 that costs as much as a BMW 3 Series. A Renault Zoe electric subcompact whose monthly lease payment might equal a nice dinner for two in Paris.

As car sales collapsed in Europe because of the pandemic, one category grew rapidly: electric vehicles. One reason is that purchase prices in Europe are coming tantalizingly close to the prices for cars with gasoline or diesel engines.

At the moment this near parity is possible only with government subsidies that, depending on the country, can cut more than $10,000 from the final price. Carmakers are offering deals on electric cars to meet stricter European Union regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. In Germany, an electric Renault Zoe can be leased for 139 euros a month, or $164.

Electric vehicles are not yet as popular in the United States, largely because government incentives are less generous. Battery-powered cars account for about 2 percent of new car sales in America, while in Europe the market share is approaching 5 percent. Including hybrids, the share rises to nearly 9 percent in Europe, according to Matthias Schmidt, an independent analyst in Berlin.

As electric cars become more mainstream, the automobile industry is rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheap, and maybe cheaper, to own a plug-in vehicle than one that burns fossil fuels. The carmaker that reaches price parity first may be positioned to dominate the segment.

A few years ago, industry experts expected 2025 would be the turning point. But technology is advancing faster than expected, and could be poised for a quantum leap. Elon Musk is expected to announce a breakthrough at Tesla’s “Battery Day” event on Tuesday that would allow electric cars to travel significantly farther without adding weight.

The balance of power in the auto industry may depend on which carmaker, electronics company or start-up succeeds in squeezing the most power per pound into a battery, what’s known as energy density. A battery with high energy density is inherently cheaper because it requires fewer raw materials and less weight to deliver the same range.

“We’re seeing energy density increase faster than ever before,” said Milan Thakore, a senior research analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultant which recently pushed its prediction of the tipping point ahead by a year, to 2024.

However, the article also points out that this tipping point is of the overall lifetime cost of the vehicle! The sticker price of electric cars will still be higher for a while. And there aren’t nearly enough charging stations!

My next car will be electric. But first I’m installing solar power for my house. I’m working on it now.