We Can’t Frack our Way to Clean Air

With mounting revelations that air pollution from fracking threatens public health, you’d think that the Obama Administration would be rushing to ensure these harmful emissions are kept in check.

After all, reducing this pollution actually makes the oil and gas industry money.  Companies including BP, Williams (now WPX), Anadarko, and more all report enormous paybacks.

The reason?

It’s simple.  Reducing pollution means capturing gas that is usually just vented into the air, wasted.  More gas means more money.  In other words, controlling harmful air pollution means being more productive.

And it doesn’t end with fracking.  A recent NRDC report confirms companies can make money by reducing air pollution at every step of the process of producing oil and gas.  From the wells downstream to the distribution system, the industry is blessed with an array of options to make money while at the same time keeping our air safe to breathe.

It’s no surprise that when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year proposed updates to a suite of rules to limit air pollution from fracking, they found the proposal would actually yield millions for the oil and gas industry.

Win-win would be an understatement.  Even investors are calling on industry to control its pollution, noting the “financial risks” of wasting gas.  It’s the no-brainer of all no-brainers.  And given the enormous public health benefits we stand to reap, there’s absolutely no reason to delay.

Yet sadly, delay is exactly what the Obama Administration is doing.

As was reported earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency is putting off new clean air rules for fracking for another two weeks.  These rules were spurred after WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance filed suit against the Agency over its failure to meet deadlines under the Clean Air Act.

Now two weeks isn’t that much time, but it comes as the Administration is seemingly bent on appeasing the oil and gas industry in a cynical move to score political points with the electorate, even at the expense of our health and the environment.

Take for example, the Environmental Protection Agency recently backing down from efforts to protect clean water from fracking.  Or U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s recent announcement that the Administration was “speeding up” federal drilling (nevermind that there’s a glut in natural gas right now that has pushed prices to record lows and tempered drilling plans across the country).

In fact, WildEarth Guardians has heard that the delay on the clean air rules may very well be due to a White House demand to scrap key provisions over concerns about how the safeguards would affect Obama’s re-election campaign.

More to the point, it seems that Obama’s re-election campaign has the perception that regulating fracking will somehow be viewed as being responsible for high gasoline prices.

Ergo, ditch the clean air rules.

If true, it would not only stand as an abhorrent attempt to let politics trump public health, but it would be one of the most monumental miscalculations by this Administration.  Nevermind that more drilling–and certainly environmental regulation–hasn’t had any effect on gasoline prices.  Ultimately, it would amount to the President turning a win-win opportunity into a loser for all.

Without a doubt, it would be an abandonment of any and all leadership.

For Americans dealing firsthand with air pollution from fracking, this outcome could be devastating.

Like for parents of Erie, Colorado, which is north of Denver, who are facing the prospect of wells being fracked near two elementary schools and a daycare center.

Sure, I suppose there’s a chance the President may score political points for rhetoric, speculation, sloganeering, fear, and hype.  But for those of us living in the real world where facts and reason rein, this does nothing to protect our clean air.

Delaying common sense protections for public health and the environment is bad enough, especially when those protections will make the oil and gas industry more productive and profitable.  The prospect of the Obama Administrating using delay to scuttle what are arguably some of the most reasonable fracking safeguards ever would be unconscionable.

Watch this great documentary on Hydrofracking and Air from Kyle Montgomery on Vimeo, which focuses on the Marcellus shale in the northeast.

On Winners, Losers, and All of the Above

After the President’s State of the Union address and his call for an “all of the above” energy policy (actually, to quote, “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy”), I tweeted:

 

I wasn’t kidding.  This “all of the above” approach to energy policy makes me cringe.  It’s a baseless and believes by mixing everything together, somehow we’ll come out with the best of everything on the other end.

The problem is, by mixing everything together, we rarely come out with anything good in the end (pancakes and sausage on a stick, anyone?).

And in the case of our energy, there’s a good reason for this.   It’s because an “all of the above” energy policy includes all of the worst kinds energy.   While my son mixing his sodas is gross, yet cute, an “all of the above” energy policy is downright disturbing.

Take coal, for example, which as I wrote before, actually costs our society more than the benefits it provides.

Or take natural gas, which scientists are increasingly finding can release significant amounts of greenhouse gases, to say the least about the water and air contamination it can cause.

And off-shore drilling?  Really?

I suppose “all of the above” makes for a good slogan.  Yet energy policy based on sloganeering is reckless.  It’s about as wise as making health care policy based on which pharmaceutical company has the hippest name for their prescription drugs.  That’s insane.

Which is the real problem here, that the President’s energy policy isn’t based on any rational assessment of what sources of energy really are good for our society.  It’s pure political pandering.

Sure, some would say that we shouldn’t pick winners and losers when it comes to our energy portfolio, but that’s absurd.  It’s like saying we shouldn’t pick winners and losers when dating.  Of course we should pick winners and losers, especially when it comes to something as important as our energy (or long-term relationships, for that matter).

In fact, I’ll take the liberty and help the President out here.  Below, I pick our nation’s energy winners and losers.  Simple enough.

Winners

Losers

Non-fossil fuels (e.g., wind solar, efficiency, conservation)

Fossil Fuels (e.g., coal, oil, oil shale, natural gas)

Tongue in cheek aside, I get that it’s laudable to want to keep all options on the able.  It’s like trying to spend a Friday night hanging out with friends at the bar and going out on a date.  Laudable, perhaps.  But perhaps not wise.

But what’s really bad about the President’s call for an “all-out, all-of-the-above” approach to energy development is that his Administration can’t even live up to this messed up ideal.

Take the latest decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to auction off more than 467 million tons of coal in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, which produces 43% of the nation’s coal.  That brings the total amount of Powder River Basin coal recently auctioned or slated to be auctioned by the BLM to more than 6.8 billion tons.

Even though the President was recently in Denver pushing for 10 gigawatts of renewable energy development on public lands, the amount of coal slated to be mined in the Powder River Basin would be enough to power 100 gigawatts–10 times that amount–for nearly 25 years (an average 500 MW plant burns 1,430,000 tons of coal annually).

That’s on top of the fact that every mine in the Powder River Basin already has around 10 years of reserves to mine through.  Basically, under the Obama Administration, we’re being locked into another lifetime of coal.

Putting aside the grossness of an “all of the above” energy policy, it ultimately just seems to be a euphemism for “fossil fuels above all else.”  This isn’t an energy policy, it’s business as usual.

It’s time to pick winners.  And it’s time to embrace an energy policy that includes all the best sources energy.  President Obama can start by finally saying enough to this country’s destructive dependence on fossil fuels.

Unbelievably, in the wake of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, President Obama has actually called for more off-shore drilling.

Ozone Déjà Vu

The Obama Administration’s refusal to listen to its scientists reared its ugly head last month when the President in early September abandoned plans to strengthen nationwide limits on ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.

But that wasn’t the only scientific sell-out we’ve seen of late.  And it wasn’t the worst.

Last August, the Environmental Protection Agency also rejected calls from its scientists to strengthen federal air quality standards for carbon monoxide.  A close cousin of ozone, carbon monoxide isn’t just lethal, it contributes to global warming and even forms smog.  The key source of carbon monoxide is fossil fuel combustion.

Current carbon monoxide standards limit concentrations in the air to no more than 9 parts per million over an eight-hour period and 35 parts per million over a one-hour period.  They were first adopted in 1971, over 35 years ago, and since then numerous studies have found that these standards should be stronger.

In fact, as EPA was reviewing the carbon monoxide standards, the agency’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee expressed “its preference for a lower standard,” noting its concern that the EPA was “underestimating CO [carbon monoxide] exposure among some vulnerable groups, especially persons with low income status.”  In a 2010 letter to the EPA, the Committee stated, “there is consensus in the Panel that the current standards may not protect public health with an adequate margin of safety, and therefore revisions that result in lowering the standards should be considered.”

The Committee also found that “there is substantial evidence that CO [carbon monoxide] has adverse effects on climate.”

This is a big deal because the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set air quality standards based solely on what is necessary to protect public health and the environment.  This means that if the science says stronger standards are needed to protect public health, then stronger standards need to be adopted.

So how did the EPA respond to this science?   It ultimately decided to keep the current standard, which was adopted in 1971, on the books.  The agency even had the gall to claim there was no scientific evidence indicating stronger carbon monoxide standards were necessary.

This wasn’t a matter of simply rejecting the science, as President Obama did on the ozone standards.  In this case EPA outright ignored the science.  The EPA’s decision is so egregious that yesterday, WildEarth Guardians joined Communities for a Better Environment in filing suit over the standards.

And while ignorance may be bliss for the EPA, it’s certainly not for the breathing public.

In its review, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee urged the EPA to consider strengthening the 8-hour standard to as low as 3 parts per million and the 1-hour standard to as low as 5.

Data from the EPA shows that if the 8-hour standard was lowered to 3 parts per million, a number of major urban areas would be in violation, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland.  And if the hourly standard was lowered to 5 parts per million, Anchorage, Alaska, Boise, Idaho, Billings, Montana, El Paso, Texas and more would also be in violation.

Science matters, and while the EPA may reject calls to strengthen air quality standards, the sad truth is that the carbon monoxide decision puts millions at risk.

Ultimately though, while EPA may not listen to its scientists, the reality is they will have to listen to a federal judge.  Hopefully we’ll be able to set things straight and continue to put this nation on track for cleaner air.

Carbon Monoxide Pollution over the United States and Canada Carbon monoxide concentrations measured by NASA over the U.S. on June 8, 2011.

Making the Best of a Smoggy Situation

It’s been a busy few weeks, but one notable glimmer of hope came out late last week:  despite being rebuffed by President Obama, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is staying the course and reinvigorating her efforts to tackle smog here in the U.S.

And to kick things off, her Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, Gina McCarthy, issued a memo last week affirming the EPA’s intent to finalize its designation of nonattainment areas.

The issue here is pretty simple.  Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA sets ambient air quality standards at a level necessary to protect public health and welfare.  Once established, the EPA then has to look across the country and find out which areas are violating those standards.  If an area is in violation, it’s declared “nonattainment.”  This designation triggers a mandatory duty for both states and the EPA to clean up the unhealthy air pollution.

Here, EPA promulgated ambient air quality standards for ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog, in 2008.  These standards were later found to be legally and scientifically unjustified, but nevertheless they were stronger than the previous standards.  The older standard, which came out in 1997, limited ozone concentrations to 85 parts per billion.  The 2008 standard limited concentrations to 75.  Yet the EPA’s own science advisers recommended a standard between 60 and 70 parts per billion.  So while the 2008 standard was stronger, it wasn’t strong enough.

That’s why in January of 2010, Lisa Jackson and the EPA decided to revise the 2008 standards and make them as strong as the science demanded.  In doing so, the EPA also decided to hold off on doing anything to implement the 2008 standards.  They reasoned that, even though the 2008 standards were were stronger, they’d be irrelevant in the face of a scientifically and legally justified standard, so why waste the effort.

That logic made a lot of sense at the time, but who knew that President Obama would put political expedience ahead of science and the law.

That’s why we filed suit against the EPA and have teed up two more to force the Obama Administration to at least start implementing the 2008 ozone standards.  It’s a travesty that President Obama would lead this nation on into believing that stronger ozone standards were on the horizon, then pull the rug from under them.  Fortunately, despite the politics of it all, the President isn’t above the Clean Air Act.

And fortunately, the EPA is heeding the writing on the wall.  As Assistant Administrator McCarthy said in her most recent memo:

[T]he current standard is 0.075 ppm [75 parts per billion].  This standard will provide additional public health and welfare protection until the next regular review is completed, and EPA fully intends to implement this current standard as required under the Clean Air Act.

It’s not ideal, but when it comes to public health, we need to make the best of it.  An amazing amount of progress has yet to be made to really confront smog in the United States.  The EPA has identified a number of areas likely to be designated nonattainment based on 2010 data, including Sublette County, Wyoming, Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and more.  Based on 2011 air quality monitoring data, we know that many more areas will be included.

So, here’s to clean air and making the best of a bad situation, and here’s a tip of the hat to the EPA and Lisa Jackson.  It’s a shame that President Obama naively sacrificed our health for perceived political gain, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t start making progress in reducing smog.  Our aim will be to ensure the EPA acts as quickly as possible to start cleaning up ozone.  With the law on our side, we’ll have a fighting chance for clean air, whether the President likes it or not.

Lisa Jackson stands for clean air, even if President Obama doesn’t.

How Would you Vote?

President Obama’s environmental record is discouraging support from a key constituency.  But really, how would you vote if his environmental record was put to the test today?  Let me know.

And just one more observation.  Actually, another question.  What does Obama have to lose by sticking his neck out for the environment?  The reality is environmental regulations are yielding more benefits than costs to this country (take, for example, the 30 to 1 benefit to cost ratio of the Clean Air Act–in other words, for every dollar spent reducing pollution, we reap $30 in return), they’re creating jobs (somebody’s got to produce, install, operate, and maintain the technology to keep the environment clean), they’re making peoples’ lives better (I’ve never heard of a kid who enjoyed asthma attacks), and hell, the public actually overwhelmingly supports environmental safeguards time and time again (take this most recent poll from NRDC).

Call me crazy, but it looks like Obama really has much to gain by standing firm on environmental protection.

80% of the West at Risk from Smog

More fallout from President Obama’s decision last week to scuttle scientifically based and legally acceptable nationwide smog limits.

Based on WildEarth Guardians’ analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency’s own data, the decision leaves more than 50 million westerners–up to 78% of the entire American West–at risk from unhealthy levels of smog.  If the standard would have been set at 0.060 parts per million, more than 90% of all of California and Arizona, 89% of all Utahns and Nevadans, 79% of all Coloradoans, and many more westerners would have been given new hope for breathable air.  Check out the table below, which is from our analysis.

The upside is that we are doing everything we can to at least keep the EPA on track to start cutting smog in areas like western Wyoming.  Stay tuned for more on that front.

And in the meantime, check out some more enlightened critique on Obama’s disastrous decision from our partners at NRDC.  And while you’re at it, check out their alert and make your voice heard at the White House, too.

The Great Smog Sell Out

Unreal.

Bowing to fossil fuel industry and anti-environmental pressure, President Obama today ordered the EPA to withdraw its plans to strengthen nationwide air quality standards to limit ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.

The White House actually had the gall to claim that the decision wasn’t political.

That’s complete bull.  This is putting politics ahead of public health plain and simple.

I can’t even begin to explain how misguided this is (maybe we could start with the lost $100 billion in health benefits?).  Even if one believed that playing politics with clean air was ethically sound, isn’t the point of political negotiating to get something in return?

Here, Obama’s giving up one of the most significant public health rules to ever be proposed in this country, yet what are we getting in return?  Nothing, except seemingly Obama’s “hope” that by caving into trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute, which is simply against any and all regulations, that they may give him their political support.

That’s the some of most insane wishful thinking I’ve ever heard.  And if this is what Obama means by “hope,” then he’s seriously mistaken about the integrity, ideals, and expectations of the American public.

People don’t want politicians selling out our environment for hopes.  Yet that’s exactly what Obama did here.

The one bright glimmer of hope here is that WildEarth Guardians is already poised to aggressively hold the Obama Administration accountable to cutting smog pollution nationwide.  Two weeks ago, we filed suit against the EPA over their failure to move to clean up areas that are violating the current smog standards.

The current standards, which were adopted in 2008, have been on hold while the EPA revised them.  Of course, with the revision now derailed, it’s time to hold EPA accountable.  Our suit aims to force EPA to designate areas violating the 2008 standards as “nonattainment,” triggering deadlines on states to clean up the air or face sanctions.

Among the areas that stand to benefit from this lawsuit–Western Wyoming, Phoenix, Salt Lake, Denver, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and dozens of other communities nationwide.

With the help of President Obama, the fossil fuel industry scored a victory against the environment this time.  But we’re not about to back down.  In fact, we think it’s time to get more aggressive than ever.

Godzilla could defeat the smog monster.  Why can’t President Obama?