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This Week We Celebrate, Mourn and Continue to Forge Ahead, Climate Action Hotline 4.25.11


US Climate Action Network
Peter Bahouth, Executive Director

April 25, 2011

This Week We Celebrate, Mourn and Continue to Forge Ahead.

Celebrating its 41st birthday this year, Earth Day continues to inspire and mobilize people worldwide to show their support and take action to promote environmental protection and sustainability. With so many challenges facing climate advocates in the U.S. and across the globe, it is refreshing to take a day to commemorate the victories of the past and remember what we fight for as we plan ahead.

One year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a huge amount of effort continues in the Gulf as scientists, affected states, advocates and BP scour the region for data to record the ecological damage caused by the blowout. Much of the assessment is determined by the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA). There is no lack of challenges due to the unprecedented size of the spill: over 200 million gallons that continue to distress not only the coast, but also a complex deepwater ecosystem up to 5,000 feet below the surface. Doug Rader, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund explains how complicated the assessment is to quantify: “The unseen damage to tiny and subsurface creatures – perhaps even more important to the overall health of the Gulf – will be a real challenge,” Rader said. “All numbers may prove to be, at best, informed guesses, and contestable in court because they cannot be proven.” At the moment, scientists are still at the beginning phase of gathering information. Later, those figures will be used to create a comprehensive restoration plan. The sheer amount of data, the likelihood of government and BP scientists coming to differing conclusions, and the likely decades of bickering exasperate an already difficult process. A major hope is that the desire of every side to reach a settlement overcomes these challenges and expedites the process. Ultimately, the sooner there is a settlement, the sooner major restoration projects can begin.

Legal experts agree on what the basics of a settlement may look like, but many variables remain. One important component – close to the heart of many USCAN members dedicated to Gulf restoration – depends on whether Congress can pass legislation that directs penalties arising from Gulf-related Clean Water Act violations into a dedicated Gulf restoration fund. Advocates are keeping the pressure on Congress to ensure that BP pays to restore the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf communities and say the effort is worth it. Clean Water Act penalties alone could begin at $5.4 billion, based on a minimum $1,100-per-barrel fine, to as much as $21.1 billion, or $4,300-per-barrel fine, if the spill is deemed the result of “gross negligence.” But unless Congress intervenes, there is no guarantee that money will reach the Gulf; fines could be earmarked for restoration anywhere. To learn more or get involved in this campaign, check out this article or USCAN’s BP Gulf Coast Disaster page.

More than one million acres of Texas plains and forests went up in smoke this month as hundreds of fires blazed through the Lone Star State. Continued high winds, statewide drought and low humidity have combined to create dangerous conditions that state and federal firefighters struggle to control. With no significant rain forecasted in the immediate future, the Texas Forest Service expects the fire conditions to continue wreaking havoc throughout the state. Typically, Texas residents look forward to regular rain showers this time of year, but those rains have thus far failed to materialize this year, making this season the driest since the Texas Forest Service started keeping records in 1915. In contrast, last summer brought higher-than-average rainfalls, ironically exacerbating fire conditions by encouraging lush grass and shrubs to grow. said Schulte. The same vegetation, now dead, makes ideal kindling to supply wildfires as they spread across the state. “The fires aren’t due to climate change, but the changing climate, I think, has been a contributing factor. I can’t imagine that climate change hasn’t had a deleterious impact,” said Dave Cleaves, the climate change adviser for the U.S. Forest Service.

The American Security Project released 50 state-specific reports this week that analyzes and projects possible economic losses as a result of unmitigated climate change, compared to the opportunities that renewable, clean energy sources provide. “Pay Now, Pay Later” highlights the costs of inaction for each state if the U.S. fails to enact legislation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The report details costs to the economy, national security, competitiveness and public health and the price is a steep one. “Pay Now, Pay Later” concludes that inaction to mitigate climate change far outweighs the cost of transforming our energy sources and investing in energy efficiency. Click here to learn more and see the state-by-state figures.

This week, a majority of Supreme Court justices appeared unreceptive to the question of whether states can regulate greenhouse gases as a public nuisance under federal common law. In an 80-minute argument of American Electric Power v. Connecticut, plaintiffs representing six states, New York City and several land trusts argued that power companies contribute to a public nuisance by releasing greenhouse gases into the air. Therefore, the states say, they can turn to the courts to require the defendants to reduce emissions. Defendants in the case, including American Electric Power Co. Inc. and several other power companies, maintained that the Clean Air Act replaces federal common law when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

The court showed little sympathy to the plaintiffs’ argument and instead focused on major differences in this case versus the seminal 2007 case on carbon emissions, Massachusetts v. EPA. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that what the states were asking the courts to do seemed to be a role for the government, specifically the Environmental Protection Agency. “That just sounds to me what EPA does.” “Judges do not have “the resources or the expertise” to make the kind of decisions about cutting emissions, including what type of technology to use, that EPA does, Justice Ginsburg added. Justice Elena Kagan agreed saying that what the states wanted was “the type of thing administrative agencies do.”

The Obama administration maintains that EPA, through its recent efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, has “spoken directly to the question plaintiffs ask the courts to resolve.” The administration, which has the backing of 23 states, also asserts the plaintiffs lack standing to pursue the case.

Kellyn Eberhardt, Southeast Regional Coordinator

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