Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Gateway Pacific Terminal and Ocean Acidity

World Bank, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided,
November 2012, at 11.

Surely I was not alone in being walloped in the face with a great big dose of irony when I unfolded this morning’s Bellingham Herald. 

Above the fold:  “Support for coal exports.”   The article features a big picture of some determined-looking men carrying boxes of petitions in support of the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal. 

(At least they aren't pretending that it isn't a coal export terminal any more.)

Below the fold:  “State panel presses for action on threat from ocean acidity.” 

As the article states, "[r]ising acidity levels in the oceans pose a serious threat to shellfish and other marine life, and tackling that problem in Washington state will require reducing carbon dioxide emissions. . ."

Read more here:

The “action” to be taken will involve the overstretched Department of Ecology and a little bit of funding for projects.

You know what?  I’m getting sick of being the chump – the dutiful taxpayer who pays to clean the house, only to find that the Very Important Men of Business (maybe I was thinking about the Herald picture when that phrase came to mind) are throwing a giant frat party at the same time. 

In accordance with Get Whatcom Planning’s time-honored role as a bastion of fiscal conservatism, let me save the state some money.  Here’s the bottom line for ocean acidification, in three logical steps:

1.      Ocean acidification is caused by increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

That’s what the picture above demonstrates.  It’s from a November 2012 World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided, which you can read here.
It’s not happy reading.  It isn’t intended to be.  As the President of the World Bank Group, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, stated in his introduction, “It is my hope that this report shocks us into action. Even for those of us already committed to fighting climate change, I hope it causes us to work with much more urgency.”

Here’s what the report says about the significance of ocean acidification (at page xv):
Apart from a warming of the climate system, one of the most serious consequences of rising carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere occurs when it dissolves in the ocean and results in acidification. A substantial increase in ocean acidity has been observed since preindustrial times. A warming of 4°C or more by 2100 would correspond to . . . an increase of about 150 percent in acidity of the ocean. The observed and projected rates of change in ocean acidity over the next century appear to be unparalleled in Earth’s history. Evidence is already emerging of the adverse consequences of acidification for marine organisms and ecosystems, combined with the effects of warming, overfishing, and habitat destruction.

2.      To stop, much less reverse, ocean acidification, we have to stop increasing the sources of carbon dioxide emissions.  Soon.  Not in the year 2020, or 2050, or 2100.

The World Bank report emphasized that we do not have time to putter about when it comes to ocean acidification.  Here’s why:
Based on an estimate of the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and surface ocean acidity, only very low emission scenarios are able to halt and ultimately reverse ocean acidification.  If mitigation measures are not implemented soon to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, then ocean acidification can be expected to extend into the deep ocean. . . .[S]lowing and reversing this will be much more difficult. This would further add significant stress to marine ecosystems already under pressure from human influences, such as overfishing and pollution.  (World Bank report at 25, citations omitted.)

If we need more evidence about what needs to be done, the United Nations Environment Program came out with its own report, which looks at the “gap” between our current plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the emissions reductions that we need in order to keep the global temperature increase below 2° Celsius.  That’s the standard benchmark for maintaining a planet that more or less resembles our current planet.  We might call that the livable planet scenario – well, aside from sacrificing some island countries, which won't be livable because they'll be under water. 

It is not an optimistic report.  If we don’t assume that we can reach “negative” carbon dioxide emissions in the not-too-distant future, the odds of a livable planet go way down.  "Negative carbon dioxide emissions" means that we need to take more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than we add -- through massive planting efforts, or some technical means that isn't at hand yet.  Of course, the more CO2 we put into the air now, the more we'll have to take out in the future.  If we want a livable planet, that is.

3.      If Washington State provides for coal export, to feed more coal-burning power plants, it is ensuring continued ocean acidification. No need for a panel or for projects or for further studies – we can put a fork in it right now.

The Gateway Pacific terminal proposes to export “thermal coal.” That’s coal that is burned in power plants.  

Fossil fuel use is the most significant source of carbon dioxide.     To be more specific, coal- fired power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide.   

In a study released on November 20, the World Resources Institute estimated that more than a thousand coal-fired power plants have been proposed around the world.  Three quarters of these plants are proposed in China and India.   

More power plants.  What would that do to the oceans?  Acidify them beyond anything that Taylor Shellfish has seen to date.  All of our messing around the edges won’t change that.   


“But all the other kids are doing it!” you may say.  Look at Australia!  On the one hand, Australia knows that climate change is the greatest long-term threat to the Great Barrier Reef.     On the other hand, Australia is one of the biggest coal exporters in the world – with proposals to double, triple, quadruple its output in the next few years.

And sure, there’s no question that Australia needs to get its house in order.  As an Australian author recently observed about that country’s irreconcilable policies towards coal,

"It’s really not that dissimilar to the son-in-law who everyone pretends is not that bad to keep up appearances, despite the alcoholic outbursts and odd bout of domestic violence.  So long as when Christmas rolls round presents are a-plenty."

Sophie Trevitt, “Coal, It’s a Love Story,” Nov. 25th, 2012.

As  much as I enjoy this metaphor, it occurs to me that drunken sons-in-law rarely threaten the survival of the entire Earth.  The family story that the Bellingham Herald brought to my mind was Cain and Abel.

The one where one brother kills the other.

Let’s say that coal export is Cain and the oceans are Abel.  Washington wants to love both of them, and is digging around the medicine chest to come up with an aspirin for Abel.  But Cain is Cain, and adding a feel-good moment wouldn't change the end of the story.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Science and County Government: The Perfect Storm

When I talk to students about our country’s environmental laws, I tell them that most of these laws were adopted under “our environmental president, Richard Nixon.”  This line always gets a laugh –even though it’s a fact, not a joke. Pollution control and the protection of nature used to be bipartisan, but college students are too young to remember those bygone days.
I recently read an article called Why Conservatives Turned Against Science.”   The article notes that, while support for Richard Nixon was robust among scientists back in the 1970s, a very small percentage of scientists currently self-identify as conservative or Republican.

Rather than concluding that scientists are all socialists who hate freedom, as some Whatcom County readers of this blog will undoubtedly claim, the article traces the reasons that science became the enemy of political conservatism.

In a nutshell,

“Climate scientists came under attack not just because their research threatened the oil industry (although it certainly did that), but also because they had exposed significant market failures.

Pollution is a market failure because, in general, polluters do not pay a price for environmental damage (and this includes not just polluting industries, like electrical utilities, but also anyone who uses a product—like gasoline—that takes up a portion of the planetary sink without paying for it). Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, has declared climate change "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

Accepting the need to correct market failures required one to concede the need to reform capitalism—in short, to concede the reality of market failure and limits. This became increasingly difficult for Republicans during the 1990s and 2000s. . .

And so it was that during the decades that scientists began documenting how humans affect the natural world, the Republican Party committed itself to denying that impact, or at least denying that it required governmental response. . .

It's hardly surprising, then, that natural scientists have fled the GOP. Scientific research, with its basis in observation and experience of the natural world, is rooted in the fundamental premise that when the results of our investigations tell us something, we pay heed.”

We pay heed.

Or we don’t. 

Here in Whatcom County, we have a very conservative County Council.  And it includes some folks who are not prone to pay heed to observations and experience of the natural world.   

At a time when we are facing three extraordinarily significant and difficult environmental issues in Whatcom County, each demanding a scientific approach, this means that our local government may be at an all-time low in its ability (or desire) to address these problems.  

With a big storm poised to pour rain – well, OK, even more rain than usual -- on the Pacific Northwest, I can’t resist saying that this situation creates the perfect storm. 

Issue 1:  Continued development around Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for half of Whatcom County.

Our drinking water reservoir.  Yum yum.

Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for half of the County, was listed as an “impaired” (polluted) water body 14 years ago.  What’s happening now?  Whatcom County is mired down in months, maybe years, of study.  These studies are intended to provide justification to allow the owners of some 700 small properties to build on those properties without following the stricter regulations that the County has not yet adopted.

Where is the science of the Lake in all this?   By exposing market failure – the external impacts of development on the Lake – science has made itself an unwelcome presence at the table.

Issue 2:  The Gateway Pacific Terminal application, which proposes to build North America’s largest coal export terminal on the shore of a marine aquatic reserve.
Coal pile at the Westshore terminal.  Photograph by Paul K. Anderson.

The proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal would be enormous -- the largest coal terminal in North America.  It is globally significant.  And it will plow new scientific ground.  Nowhere else on earth, for example, has there ever been such a large quantity of extraordinarily combustible Powder River Basin coal piled in one export terminal.  We’re the guinea pigs, here in our obscure corner of the world.

In addition to spontaneously-combusting coal, a huge range of science-based issues will have to be examined:  the effects of locating 48 million metric tonnes of coal, in uncovered piles, on the adjacent marine protected area; the effects of destroying more than 140 acres of wetlands; the air pollution, noise, and potential spill effects of the largest, dirtiest marine vessels in the world; climate change, of course; and on, and on, and on. 

It is difficult to imagine a project that has to externalize more of its impacts than a coal export terminal.  Its feasibility depends on subsidized coal, subsidized transport, and the externalization of pollution costs.   

And the question is whether local decision-makers have the desire and ability to understand these issues, or whether the mantra of “economic freedom” will trump science’s exposure of the many market failures that must stay in place in order to keep this project afloat.

Issue 3:  The Swift Creek  naturally occurring asbestos problem.

The sign says that the asbestos is natural, so it must be all right!  Right?  Photograph by Doug Naftz.

Finally, Whatcom County has Swift Creek. 

Many areas of the world have naturally-occurring asbestos in their soils.  For example, I’ve been told that there’s a wide swath running across San Francisco, which may be the only thing that rural Whatcom County has in common with San Francisco. 

But Whatcom County appears to be unique in the world for its asbestos delivery system.  For the next 400 to 600 years, or even longer – who knows – a landslide on Sumas Mountain will deposit asbestos-containing soils into Swift Creek, which runs into the Sumas River, which runs north to the Canadian border. 

The asbestos in this soil is “real” asbestos, contrary to what a lot of folks want to believe.  When Swift Creek and the Sumas River flood, the flood waters carry asbestos.  During the last flood, in 2009, sampling near the Canadian border – as far away from Sumas Mountain as you can get and still stay on the U.S. – showed overs 20% asbestos in some of the samples of soils that were left behind when the flood water receded.  Some people's yards and basements contained these soils.

This is an issue where government inaction – disbelief, inability to conceive of the nature of the problem – will lead to a market result, and it won’t be pretty for some of our neighbors in Whatcom County.  Washington law requires the disclosure of asbestos on your property, and it doesn’t distinguish between Swift Creek asbestos and the asbestos in old attic insulation.  The market of homebuyers for affected properties will ultimately be limited to those who don't mind asbestos.

Whatcom County has the ability to decrease exposure to these asbestos-bearing soils.  Land use planning and the Critical Areas Ordinance both provide tools that can be used to help. 

Or, County Council members can continue to be “comfortable” in their denial of the significance of this issue, based on their “opinions” that asbestos isn’t really a problem.  Unfortunately, the scope of the problem depends in part on their action (or inaction).  The health effects of asbestos depend on exposure.  Planning could help to reduce exposure.

Everybody likes happy endings.  If only we could throw some rainbow-dust (preferably asbestos-free) over all of these problems.  Or perhaps we are counting on a magical unicorn to gallop to our rescue.

I’ve been banging the drum about all of these issues over the last few years.  I wrote a law review article about Swift Creek  and will be speaking at a national conference on naturally-occurring asbestos in December.  I brought a lawsuit raising Whatcom County’s continuing failure to adopt regulations to protect Lake Whatcom.  (See pages 147 through 155, where the Growth Management Hearings Board says, among other things, that “The record in this case provides overwhelming evidence that the primary threat to Lake Whatcom water quality is caused by phosphorus-laden runoff resulting from development in the watershed.”)  And I’ve written here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and a lot more blogs, about the Gateway Pacific coal terminal.

Unfortunately, all of this research has not uncovered any rainbows or unicorns.

What I do see is an enormous, and ultimately tragic, mismatch between our science-based problems and our market-failure-supporting governing bodies. 

But I can’t end there, because everybody likes a happy ending.  So.  Here’s the best I can do:

Whether they self-identify as liberal, conservative, Republican, or Democrat, we need local  leaders who are willing to follow Richard Nixon’s lead.  Er, when it comes to protecting the environment, that is. 

And the end of the rainbow is the fact that we live in a democracy, which has elections.  The next one is in 2013.