The absurd Supreme Court case that could gut the EPA

“Now the West Virginia plaintiffs raise several different legal arguments against the nonexistent Clean Power Plan, several of which could permanently hobble the federal government’s power to regulate if adopted by the Court.

A brief filed by several senior red-state officials, for example, rests heavily on the “major questions” doctrine, a legal doctrine that is currently fashionable among Republican judges but that was also invented entirely by judges and has no basis in any statute or provision of the Constitution.

The major questions doctrine claims that there are fairly strict limits on federal agencies’ power to hand down particularly impactful regulations. As the Court most recently stated in NFIB v. OSHA (2022), “we expect Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of vast economic and political significance.” And several of the plaintiffs in West Virginia argue that the Clean Air Act isn’t sufficiently clear to justify a regulation like the Clean Power Plan.

One problem with this major questions doctrine is that it is vague. The Court has never explained what constitutes a matter of “vast economic and political significance,” or just how “clearly” Congress must “speak” to permit an agency to issue significant regulations. So, in practice, the major questions doctrine largely just functions as a veto power, allowing judges to justify blocking nearly any regulation they do not like. If a judge doesn’t like a particular regulation, they can just claim that it is too big.”

“Other briefs in the West Virginia case suggest that the Clean Power Plan violates the “nondelegation doctrine,” another judge-created doctrine that limits Congress’s power to delegate the power to issue binding regulations to federal agencies. This doctrine is even more vague than the major questions doctrine, and even more capable of being applied selectively to strike down regulations that a particular panel of judges do not like.

As Justice Neil Gorsuch described nondelegation in 2019, a federal law authorizing an agency to regulate must be “‘sufficiently definite and precise to enable Congress, the courts, and the public to ascertain whether Congress’s guidance has been followed.” How “precise” must the law be? That’s up to judges to decide.

Notably because this doctrine outright forbids Congress from delegating certain powers to an agency, a Supreme Court decision that struck down the Clean Power Plan on nondelegation grounds could permanently strip Congress of its power to authorize the EPA to issue major regulations in the future. Indeed, depending on how broadly the Supreme Court worded such a decision, it could impose drastic new limits on every single federal agency.”

“the issues at stake in West Virginia can be summarized fairly concisely. It is a case about a regulation that does not exist, that never took effect, and that would have imposed obligations on the energy industry that it would have met anyway. It also involves two legal doctrines that are mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, and that have no basis in any federal statute.

And yet, West Virginia could wind up permanently hobbling the government’s ability to fight climate change.”

America can’t solve its gas price problem (or its Russia problem) with drilling

“Biden has done nothing to halt oil leasing. In fact, the Biden administration has outpaced Trump in issuing drilling permits on public lands and water in its first year, according to federal data analyzed by the Center for Biological Diversity. His administration set a record for the largest offshore lease sale ever in the Gulf of Mexico last year, before a federal court blocked the lease sale for not considering climate impacts.

There was a temporary pause on new federal leases in the first few months of Biden’s administration when he placed a moratorium on them while the administration reviewed how to better integrate climate costs in lease sales. Meanwhile, the president has done nothing to prevent the vast amount of gas production that occurs on private lands or halt existing oil leases on federal lands. The moratorium is now irrelevant, anyway, because a Louisiana federal judge ruled against it last June. (There’s a second, temporary pause on new lease sales because another court invalidated the administration’s use of a social cost of carbon.) The US also became the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG) for the first time in 2021.

Clark Williams-Derry, an energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, offered a reality check to those complaining that climate regulations have changed the fate of oil and gas. “The idea that the tiny marginal changes in US policy have anything to do with the big shifts we’ve seen in prices is just preposterous,” he told Vox. The marginal Biden measures — like reversing Trump-era environmental rollbacks — haven’t made any kind of dent in the global oil market.”

“oil companies have made it clear in earnings calls with shareholders that they don’t plan to produce much more, anyway. Remember that just two years ago the industry was in a complete free fall when demand crashed because of the pandemic. Banks sought government bailouts for oil investments that went under, and oil prices actually hit negative levels as producers grew desperate for oil to be taken off their hands.”

““If the president wants us to grow, I just don’t think the industry can grow anyway.’’ The largest US fracking companies reiterated in earnings calls in February that they intend to keep output roughly flat, according to reporting from the Wall Street Journal.

In other words, now that companies are making handsome profits, they’re using that extra cash to reward investors and pay down debts, not invest in new production.”

“LNG exports don’t solve Europe’s or America’s energy challenges. In some ways, they exacerbate them.

To export gas to Europe, a facility first needs to convert it to liquified natural gas, which cools and pressurizes the methane so it can be shipped across continents. On the other end of the ocean, another facility must turn it back into gas for shipment via pipeline.

That’s a lot of infrastructure, which is impossible to scale up in enough time to make an impact on current prices. There’s one new LNG terminal that opened this year in Louisiana. On the European side, the LNG terminals are already at capacity. This isn’t going to help make up Russia’s supply of 40 percent of Europe’s gas either.

So it’s not particularly helpful or possible to boost exports to Europe, but it also wouldn’t help prices in the US.

Williams-Derry says that US exports of liquified natural gas have been the primary reason for climbing prices. In 2016, the US completed its first LNG export terminal in decades, which the gas industry hoped would alleviate a glut of natural gas that was keeping US gas prices too low for the industry’s liking.

“The reason we’re experiencing higher natural gas prices right now is we’re exporting more,” Williams-Derry said last week. “It’s not that we’re consuming more. It’s not that we’re producing less. It’s that we’re exporting.””

“LNG will always be the more expensive option because of its processing and transport. “By locking yourself into a gas-powered future, you’re locking in higher costs for the long haul,” Williams-Derry said. “There’s not a good alternative to Russian gas if you want to have inexpensive gas in Europe.”

“If you’re going to double down on gas, essentially, you’re doubling down on Russia,” Williams-Derry added.”

“The biggest risk is if the US and Europe respond to this crisis by over-investing in the future of fossil fuels. Actions like building LNG terminals and approving new leasing don’t help in the short term when people are struggling to pay high bills. It doesn’t achieve energy independence. But it would lock the world onto a dangerous path for climate change.”

How to clear the air in the most polluted cities on Earth

“While the 2008 Games were marked by some of the worst air quality in Olympic history, China’s “war against pollution” has advanced so much since that Olympians this month could glimpse the previously smog-enshrouded mountains surrounding the city. Air pollution in the capital has decreased by 50 percent since the 2008 Olympics, which if maintained will lead to four years of additional life for the average Beijing resident.”

“Thousands of miles away in Delhi, air pollution has remained at pervasively high levels for the past few months. The Indian capital’s winter air pollution spike is coming to an end, but the annual cycle — driven by cooler air, cooking and heating fires, seasonal agricultural burning, and the Diwali festival — will persist without further action.
Winter in Delhi is accompanied by a pervasive smell of toxic smoke, by coughing and nausea indoors and outdoors, and by increased hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiac-related illnesses. This past November, Delhi even instituted a partial lockdown for non-Covid reasons, shutting down schools and construction for several days and imposing a work-from-home order for government employees in an effort to reduce air pollution. Throughout the winter into January, Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted the city’s bad air pollution levels every day, raising awareness about the issue.

Air pollution in Delhi comes from nearly every source possible: power plants, vehicle emissions, construction dust, agriculture, and the burning of coal for home cooking and heating. All of these activities create particulate matter — minuscule air pollution particles that contribute to cancer, lung and cardiovascular disease, and even cognitive decline.”

“Millions of deaths per year are attributed to air pollution, and it reduces average global life expectancy by 2.2 years. Air pollution is one of the most pressing public health problems in the world, and one of the most neglected, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews has written. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, poverty, malaria, pneumonia, and diarrheal disease deaths were on the decline, along with maternal and child mortality rates; air pollution, on the other hand, was getting worse in many places.”

“For decades, public health officials have known that bad air quality can increase the risk of conditions like heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), dementia, mental illness, premature births, and more. But the true extent of the problem — such as the fact that air pollution can be worse for health than heavy smoking, for example — is only now becoming clear, as is the full extent of the threat.”

“Since the fuel sources that produce air pollution also provide necessities such as electricity, vehicles, factory-made goods, and heating, policymakers face tough decisions on how to deal with air pollution-related health concerns while not eroding well-being in other ways.”

How Manchin used politics to protect his family coal company

“As governor, Joe Manchin supported an unusual detail in a clean energy bill that was moving through the West Virginia Legislature in 2009.
The provision classified waste coal as an alternative energy.

The muddy mix of discarded coal and rocks is one of the most carbon-intensive fuels in America. And Manchin’s family business stood to benefit financially when it was reclassified as something akin to solar, wind and hydropower.

Selling the scrap coal has earned Manchin millions of dollars over three decades, and he has used his political positions to protect the fuel — and a single power plant in West Virginia that burns it — from laws and regulations that also threatened his family business.

It continues today.

Only now Manchin has enormous influence over federal climate policy. He is using his chair role of the energy committee — and role as maverick Democrat – to shape environmental policy across the states.”

“By 2006, when Manchin was governor, the plant’s owners went before the West Virginia Public Service Commission and claimed it was on the verge of shutting down.

The commission, then chaired by Jon McKinney, a Manchin appointee, raised the rate that Grant Town could charge for its electricity from $27.25 per megawatt to $34.25. They also gave the plant a way to stay in business longer, by extending its power purchase agreement with FirstEnergy by eight years to 2036.

Those changes still reverberate today. West Virginia has seen some of the highest electricity rate increases in the nation. Its loyalty to coal is one reason for that.

The price of residential power in a dozen other states that share the PJM grid with West Virginia has declined, according to a report released last month from the West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

“Over the past 10 years, West Virginia’s residential prices have risen, while PJM’s average price has come down considerably,” the report found.

Between 2010 and 2019, utility bills in West Virginia rose at five times the national average, according to calculations by James Van Nostrand, a West Virginia University professor who spent 22 years as a lawyer representing energy clients in state regulatory proceedings.

Power prices are higher in West Virginia in part because coal is more expensive than natural gas and renewables. In other states, aging coal plants that can’t compete economically are allowed to shut down.”

“Manchin’s business interests reflect long-standing ethical questions in Congress, said Shaub, the former government ethics official. Lawmakers have the power to prevent obvious conflicts of interest. But neither party has changed its rule to stop members from making money off their votes in the Capitol, he said.”

Nearly half the world’s kids are exposed to dangerous levels of lead

“As scandalous as the Flint lead crisis is, it’s sobering to know that it may be just the tip of the iceberg globally.

A recent systematic evidence review, widely cited and respected in the field, pooled lead screenings from 34 countries representing two-thirds of the world’s population. The study estimated that 48.5 percent of children in the countries surveyed have blood lead levels above 5 µg/dL.

Let me repeat that: Flint became the symbol of catastrophic lead exposure in the United States. The breakdown of a long-neglected system was so terrible that it led to headlines for months and even became an issue in the 2016 presidential election. Yet children in low- and middle-income countries are, per this estimate, 10 times likelier to have high blood lead levels than children in Flint were at the height of the city’s crisis.

The lead problem is global. It’s catastrophic in scope and hurting children’s ability to learn, earn a living when they grow up, and function in society.”

Germany Shuts Down Three Perfectly Good Nuclear Power Plants

“Electricity prices tripled in many European countries this winter, including in Germany, as renewable power supplies faltered and Russia seized the opportunity to boost the price of its natural gas exports. So, of course, the German government thought this was a fine time to permanently shutter three perfectly good nuclear power plants.
The closures are part of Germany’s famous energy transition, widely known as the Energiewende, to a low-carbon, nuclear-free economy. Germany aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2045 chiefly by switching entirely to renewable energy generation to supply electricity to residences, factories, and transport. That goal would be much more easily achieved if the country not only kept running its carbon-free nuclear power plants, but also built more of them.”

“How will Germany make up for the power lost from shutting down the three nuclear power plants? A new analysis by the admittedly pro-nuclear Environmental Progress activist group argues that the expected addition of solar and wind capacity will not be sufficient to make up for the loss of the German nuclear plants. Consequently, the group observes, “Next year, the share of German electricity generation coming from fossil fuels could be as high as 44 percent, compared to 39 percent in 2021 and 37 percent in 2020.”

In contrast, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged in November that France will build more nuclear power plants. The new plants, he said, are meant “to guarantee France’s energy independence, to guarantee our country’s electricity supply and achieve our objectives, in particular carbon neutrality in 2050.””

How humans could live two years longer

“A recent study on the mortality cost of climate change found that every 4,434 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted — about the combined lifetime emissions of 3.5 Americans, the study estimates — will cause a heat-related death this century.

But the situation is even worse than that number suggests. Danny Bressler, the environmental economist who authored the paper, notes his estimate leaves out some other potential climate-related deaths, like those from flooding and reduced food supply. He’s just estimating what higher temperatures alone will do, writing that he “does not consider likely mortality co-benefits of stricter climate policies, such as decreases in particulate matter pollution.”

That’s a technical way of putting it. Here’s a simpler way: When we burn fossil fuels, not all the resulting pollution goes up high into the atmosphere. Some of it accumulates in the air that we breathe every day.

And it kills us. A lot of us. The Global Burden of Disease study, a common benchmark for public health work, estimates that 3.4 million people die prematurely every year due to air pollution. More recent research puts the total even higher, at 10 million a year. A recent paper suggested that 90 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with air pollution higher than World Health Organization guidelines (guidelines that the organization itself is toughening).

The particles in question here are invisible to the naked eye — but their effects are anything but.”