ABA Environmental Law Conference

At the ABA Environmental Law Conference in Denver, the two main themes are:

  • Energy extraction (mostly oil and gas) law and regulation
  • Brownfield development, litigation, and real-estate sales

The attendees seem to be mostly big-firm lawyers who represent corporate clients, and, secondarily, regulators. This mix is very different from the mix at the Yosemite Environmental Law Conference, where NGO and petitioners-side environmental lawyers are dominant. As far as I’ve noticed, the Nature Conservancy and my NGO, Advocates for the Environment, are the only environmental organizations at this conference.

This morning’s session focused on the Clean Power Plan. The industry lawyer complained “how can coal plants survive when they have to aggregate their emissions with renewable sources to pass muster?” Has he considered that part of the point of the CPP is that coal plants are not supposed to survive? We need to put them out of existence as quickly as possible. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal program, pushing this agenda, is one of the most successful environmental campaigns in history, and probably the most important campaign occurring now.

Energy Folks Don’t Get It

I’m sitting here in the first session of the ABA Environmental Law Conference in Denver. Most of the attendees are from industry or government; there are few lawyers at the conference from environmental organizations. We’re listening to Norman Bay, Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and John Hickenlooper, the Governor of Colorado.

Bay presented a deck of slides showing how “unconventional production,” i.e. fracking and horizontal drilling, has dramatically brought down the price of producing natural gas and oil. Coal-based production of electricity has been declining, but natural gas, not renewables, is filling in for coal. He happily presented an EIA conclusion that the U.S. will be a net energy exporter by 2030.

Hickenlooper, who started out as an oil and gas geologist, and is very sympathetic to oil and gas interests in Colorado, was also enthusiastic about the U.S. exporting oil and gas soon. He was very upbeat that cheap natural gas is resulting in reduced GHG emissions and cheap energy. He characterized this as a win-win.

On dealing with anti-fracking protestors Hickenlooper stated that 9 out of 10 times when you listen to the protesters, you can reach an accommodation. This is of course wrong.

There’s no sense at all in the room that we need to stop producing oil and gas world-wide as soon as possible to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Perhaps the worst effect of fracking is that it lowers the cost of oil and gas production, extending the period during which we burn these fuels, postponing our day of reckoning.


How Bad is the Aliso Canyon (Porter Ranch) Gas Leak?

A huge underground natural-gas storage field located under the northern San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles has sprung a leak. The California Air Resources Board estimates that the Aliso Canyon leak is releasing about 30,000 kilograms of methane per hour. Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich characterized the leak as a “mini Chernobyl.” Erin Brockovich called it the “BP spill on land.”

Methane has about 60 times the global-warming effect of CO2, but it persists a much shorter time than CO2 in the atmosphere – only about 12 years. The EPA, combining these factors, concludes that a pound of methane in the atmosphere has between 28 and 36 times more global warming potential (GWP) than a pound of CO2.

We should be using the higher numbers, 60X and more, in formulating policy. We will eventually reduce GHG emissions to a sustainable level, i.e. the level at which natural processes remove GHGs from the atmosphere at the same rate we emit them. Atmospheric GHG concentrations will continue to increase until we arrive at that point. To reduce the worst effects of global warming, we need to get to the equilibrium point as quickly as possible, so that the peak GHG concentration is as low as possible.

The largest component of our long-term solution to climate change will be the elimination of fossil fuels as energy sources. We will have to stop burning coal, oil, and natural gas, in electric power plants and our homes. In the next decade or two we will have to dismantle our natural-gas distribution infrastructure. This means Southern California Gas Co. will stop using the underground reservoir in which it stores natural gas for Los Angeles, the source of the Aliso Canyon leak.

Re-tooling our energy system is a huge, long-term project. In the meantime, we continue burning fossil fuels, increasing GHG concentrations, increasing the planet’s temperature. We can help minimize the peak long-term GHG concentration by focusing now on short-term GHGs while the longer-term project is being undertaken. As Yale University’s Climate Institute sums it up, “with the world already flirting dangerously with the two degree warming threshold, mitigation of short-lived greenhouse gases offers one of the only opportunities to actually reduce radiative forcing in the near term, so ‘buying time’ to control and begin reducing emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases.”

In this context, the Aliso Canyon mega-leak is an environmental disaster. 30,000 kilograms (30 metric tons or MT) of methane per hour is 262,800 metric tons per year, or 15.8 million MT/year of CO2 equivalent (CO2E), using the 60X methane/CO2 conversion factor. The average car emits 4.7 MT of CO2E/year, so the GHG effects of the leak are equivalent to 3.4 million cars. Another way to appreciate the leak’s huge scale is by comparing it to emissions from coal-fired power plants, which average 1.21 pounds of CO2 per kWh of generated energy. The leak’s GHG emissions are the equivalent of the GHG emissions from coal-fired power plants generating 25 Gigawatts of electricity, which is pretty close to California’s total electric-power usage. Any way you look at it, the Aliso Canyon leak is an environmental disaster, significant on the national scale.

After getting the Aliso Canyon leak under control, we need to examine what potential there is for other large methane leaks, and make sure we have better means of controlling them, should they occur. The gas company detected the Aliso Canyon leak on Oct. 23, 2015, and estimates that it may take until March 2016 for the leak to be plugged. This five-month delay in staunching the leak is unacceptable. We also need to better control smaller methane emissions that occur every day from leaking pipelines, oil fields, waste dumps, and other sources. Reducing emissions of methane and other short-term GHGs is one of the most cost-effective measures we can take to combat climate change. Let’s make sure we do all we can to eliminate methane emissions.

Sustainable Development Goals

The Pope’s visit to the U.S., which begins today, has garnered much publicity, but the main event for which he is coming, the Sustainable Development Summit 2015, has not received much attention here. The purpose of what’s billed as the largest-ever gathering of heads of state is to extend the Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 1990, which were an important factor in substantially reducing worldwide hunger and poverty over the last 25 years by adopting new Sustainable Development Goals.

The environment takes a much more prominent position in the new goals. The 1990 goals included only one goal directly bearing on the environment: “Ensure Environmental Sustainability.” The new goals include several that are primarily environmental:

  • Affordable and Clean Energy: Clean energy is the main solution to the global-warming problem.
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities: Cities are part of the environment, too, especially since half the world’s population lives in cities, causing an enormous environmental impact.
  • Sustainable Consumption and Production: Consumption multiplied by population is the root environmental problem, causing humanity to consume Earth’s resources at an unsustainably high rate.
  • Climate Action: A call for “urgent action” on the highest-profile environmental issue.
  • Life Below Water: Environmental issues in the oceans.
  • Life On Land: Forests, desertification, and species loss.

The elephant in the room is population. For the last decade or two it’s been non-PC in environmental circles to target population, but the Earth can’t sustain the current population of 7, let alone the approximately 11 million souls the U.N. estimates the Earth will harbor in 2100.

We need to get together and manage the Earth as our home, the way a homeowner maintains a house. This is Practical Ecology. Right now, our common home is very badly maintained. It’s falling apart, the roof is leaking, too many people live there, it’s in danger of flooding and collapse. The Sustainable Development Goals seek to reverse this. The Pope’s recent call to action in Laudato Si’ is remarkably consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals, a point I expect him to make when he speaks at the U.N. on Friday.


We environmentalists know the environment is the most important public issue of our time, in this age of climate disruption. But it fails to rise to the top of the issues list in opinion polls—it’s way below the economy, and below terrorism.

I’m therefore calling for environmentalists to declare that the environment is their number one issue in the 2016 elections. I’ll take the pledge—will you?

If enough of us will publicly pledge to vote primarily on the basis of the candidates’ environmental positions, we will have a voting bloc large enough to influence the election. We will be able to ask candidates to declare that they, too, support #EnvironmentFirst.

2 – Rachel Carson

Today is the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. Pollution was front and center on the original Earth Day, and Rachel Carson was the prototype activist for this second phase of the U.S. environmental movement.

I’m very disappointed to have found no obvious reference to Earth Day in today’s Los Angeles Times. The LA-based events are paltry and insignificant, though I’m planning on attending the Sierra Club’s event in Griffith Park. Earth Day clearly has faded in significance.

The initial Earth Day celebration in New York in 1970 had a million participants. That is a huge number. We got 400,000 participants for the New York People’s Climate March in September 2014, the largest recent U.S. environmental event. This disparity is startling in light of the 57% population increase in this country since 1970.

Pollution still polls much more strongly than climate change. (See the Cheap and Clean book by Ansolabehere and Konisky.) Americans are still very concerned about drinking, eating and breathing poisons, direct threats to their personal health. They are much less concerned about climate disruption, feeling that its effects are to distant in time and space to have much effect on them personally.

The Cheap and Clean book has a suggestion U.S. climate activists: focus on the harms (mostly from pollution) from dirty energy (especially coal) rather than dirty energy’s climate-disruptive effects.

Earth Day should be a big deal, because the environment—especially climate change—is the most significant problem of our age.




1 – John Muir

John Muir’s birthday is today. This is the first of three days corresponding to the three phases of the environmental movement.

Muir is the arch-activist for this “conservation” phase. “Saving” Yosemite is the arch-typical action.

The three phases, with their arch-activists are:

  1. Conservation, John Muir (birthday April 21), starting around 1890
  2. Pollution, Rachel Carson (Earth Day April 22), starting around 1970
  3. Climate Change, Bill McKibben (April 23), starting around 2005

Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben were, like Elizabeth Kolbert, who just won a Pulitzer Prize for The Sixth Extinction, writers for the New Yorker whose activism expanded beyond writing.


Investment in Renewables is Key for Curbing Climate Change

A new study from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) shows that, for the first time, in 2013, more electrical new generation capacity came from renewables than from new fossil-fuel generation plants. And clean-energy investment rose in 2014, following a three-year slump caused by low natural-gas prices.

The Sierra Club has had tremendous success in shutting down existing coal-fired power plants and blocking new ones. The 2014 People’s Climate March showed that large segments of the U.S. population are fired up about dealing with climate disruption. But popular pressure and government action alone cannot solve the problem.

Investment in renewable power plants is the key to converting the electric-power sector in the U.S. to clean energy. Government can and should make such investment attractive, for example by eliminating fossil-fuel subsidies and regulating and increasing taxes on the fossil-fuel industry. It can require utilities to purchase more renewable energy via renewable portfolio standards. But there’s only so much the government can do to help increase investments in renewables.

Unfortunately, the BNEF study shows that investment in new renewable generating capacity, though it’s growing again, is not growing fast enough to allow renewables to replace fossil-fuel power generation quickly enough to avoid increasing average global temperature by more than 2 degrees Celsius.

This situation is new for us environmentalists. We’re accustomed to getting our way by pressuring the government. Don’t build dams in the Grand Canyon. Ban DDT. Preserve Yosemite as a national park. In this case, government can’t give us what we want because they aren’t the decision-makers. Investors are the decision-makers who can give us what we want.

What we need to do is use every means possible to increase the attractiveness of investing in clean energy, and to decrease the attractiveness of investing in building fossil-fuel (natural gas) power plants. We can steer our own investment dollars. We can buy green power when our utilities make it available. And we can pressure government to do what it can to make investment in renewables more attractive. Let’s just hope it’s enough.

Second Round of GMO Crops and Herbicides

Where will it end? First Monsanto developed sterile GMO seeds for crops such as corn and soybeans. The genetic modifications made them resistant to Roundup, a glyphosate weed killer, so weeds on fields planted with those seeds could be kept in check by spraying the fields with Roundup. The seeds were patented, and farmers were required by the seed licensing terms to buy new seeds every year from Monsanto.

Now, according to a Reuters article published today, weeds have developed resistance to Roundup, much as bacteria develop resistance to overused antibiotics. 84 million acres of U.S. farmland are infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds. So now comes Dow with its “Enlist Duo” herbicide and Enlist-Duo-resistant GMO seeds. This new combination will solve the problem of Roundup resistance, but only for a while. Weeds developed resistance to Roundup by natural selection — the few weeds with a mutation protecting them from Roundup survived applications of Roundup, flourished and spread. The same thing will happen with Enlist Duo, and then the big chemical companies will develop another GMO crop/insecticide pair.

This cycle will not end until farmers see that this approach is only a short-term fix. Organic farming and natural means of pest control will solve the problem in the long run.

Hispanic Climate Warriors

On Cesar Chavez day, environmental activists should recognize the importance of Hispanics to our climate cause. A recent poll by Stanford University and Resources for the Future conducted for the New York Times shows that Hispanics are much more likely than non-Hispanic whites [why did they limit the survey to whites?] to feel that climate change affects them personally.

That is key – a substantial majority of Americans agree that the climate is heating up and a majority agrees that the warming is caused by humans. (See this poll, for example.) But the majority of Americans does not think global warming will matter to them personally to any great degree. According to the Stanford poll, a significantly larger number of Hispanics believe that global warming will matter to them personally.

Cesar Chavez exemplifies the Hispanic tradition of social activism. His birthday today should remind us in the environmental community to work together with Hispanics on issues we share.