Tag Archives: Environmental

Obama’s executive action rollouts increasing in pace

Obama’s executive action rollouts increasing in pace

Gregory Korte, USA TODAY

President Obama never used the words “executive action” until nearly three years into his presidency. Now announcements of executive actions have become a routine, almost daily occurrence.

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(Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — As President Obama stood in an Everglades swamp to speak on climate change Wednesday, the White House rolled out a package of eight executive actions, implemented by seven government agencies, to “protect the people and places that climate change puts at risk.”

The announcement contained no executive orders, sweeping directives, legislative proposals or bill signings.

Instead, the actions include smaller-bore staples of a “pen-and-phone” strategy that shows no sign of letting up: a report on the value of parks to the environment, a proclamation declaring National Parks Week, and conservation efforts in Florida, Hawaii, Puget Sound and the Great Lakes.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the actions were an effort to deal with the impacts of climate change “even in the face of pretty significant opposition from Republicans in Congress.”

Indeed, the actions have a political component, part of a White House strategy to work around Congress and force Republicans to respond to the president’s agenda.

“Since the election, the president has had a pretty explicit strategy,” said Brian Deese, a senior Obama adviser. “And it has consisted of trying to stay on offense, trying to push where he can to move the agenda through executive action. You’re going to keep seeing the president in that posture going forward.”

“Executive action” — a phrase Obama never uttered publicly in the first two and a half years of his presidency — has now become so routine that new announcements come several times a week.

The actions can take many forms, from formal executive orders and presidential memoranda to more routine reports, meetings and internal bureaucratic changes. That makes any definitive count of lower-level executive actions difficult.

But by one measure, such policy rollouts are actually increasing in pace. The White House often announces executive actions with a fact sheet from the press office, and those spiked last year during what Obama called the “Year of Action.” The White House issued 228 fact sheets in 2014, more than the first three years of his presidency combined.

This year, the White House has already issued three more fact sheets than last year at the same time.

The Obama strategy on executive actions closely parallels that of the Clinton White House. In Bill Clinton’s last two years in office, chief of staff John Podesta launched what would become known as “Project Podesta.” In an effort to flex presidential authority, Podesta canvassed executive agencies for actions Clinton could take without going to Congress.

Podesta came back to the Obama White House last year, and when he departed forHillary Clinton’s presidential campaign his responsibility for climate policy fell to Deese.

“One of the ways that the White House plays a role is to think forward and challenge the agencies to be proactive in saying, ‘What more can we do? And what more can we do that’s consistent with certain themes?’ ” Deese said.

This year, the major theme is “middle-class economics.” The Obama White House has also used executive action to lower mortgage insurance premiums and regulate retirement accounts. And coming soon: new overtime regulations from the Department of Labor, which Obama ordered in a presidential memorandum last year.

The actions often don’t originate in the White House. “Sometimes an agency has a particular initiative that they want to push that would benefit from getting a higher profile, or the president making a very concrete call to action,” Deese said.

Executive action wasn’t part of Obama’s strategy when he first came into office.

“I sort of see it as flowing from the failure of the grand bargain negotiations in 2011,” said Andrew Rudalevige, a presidency scholar at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. That’s when Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, tried to reach a permanent budget agreement but instead came up with a “Supercommittee” that failed to reach agreement, triggering across-the-board budget cuts.

“He gets shellacked in the midterm, and then sets up a position where he could actually cooperate — a triangulation strategy, channeling Bill Clinton,” Rudalevige said. “Instead of channeling Bill Clinton, he started channeling Harry Truman taking on the ‘Do Nothing’ Congress.”

In the fall of 2011, Obama went on a “We Can’t Wait” road tour, meant to put pressure on Congress leading up to the 2012 elections. It was during that tour that Obama used the words “executive action” in public for the first time as president.

“I’ve told my administration to keep looking every single day for actions we can take without Congress, steps that can save consumers money, make government more efficient and responsive, and help heal the economy,” Obama said in an October 2011 speech in Las Vegas. “And we’re going to be announcing these executive actions on a regular basis.”

In the 2014 congressional election cycle, that strategy was called the “Year of Action.” It brought often controversial executive actions on climate, immigration and Cuba.

“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone. And that’s all I need,” he said in 2014. “Because with a pen, I can take executive actions.”

Not all Obama’s executive actions get congressional attention, and many involve “soft” powers — like convening meetings, issuing reports or writing internal rules — that are clearly within the president’s authority. But for Republicans in Congress, executive action become synonymous with presidential overreach.

“One of the important roles of Congress is to serve as a check and a balance against the administration, and we’ve seen from this Obama administration many, many times where they’ve overstepped their legal authority,” House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said Wednesday. “In fact, 20 different times the Obama administration has had the Supreme Court rule unanimously against executive actions that they’ve taken, that they’ve actually gone before the Court on.”

As the Obama presidency heads into its final furlong, White House officials say their focus is increasingly on getting all those executive actions implemented.

“We will continue to announce more executive actions, but the president is also holding us to account to execute on the executive orders we’ve already announced,” said White House economic adviser Jeff Zients.

Follow @gregorykorte on Twitter.

Republicans warn world that Obama U.N. plan could be undone

Republicans warn world that Obama U.N. plan could be undone

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks to the media after a weekly Senate caucus luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington March 17, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration’s plan for U.N. climate change talks encountered swift opposition after its release Tuesday, with Republican leaders warning other countries to “proceed with caution” in negotiations with Washington because any deal could be later undone.

The White House is seeking to enshrine its pledge in a global climate agreement to be negotiated Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris. It calls for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by close to 28 percent from 2005 levels within a decade, using a host of existing laws and executive actions targeting power plants, vehicles, oil and gas production and buildings.

But Republican critics say the administration lacks the political and legal backing to commit the United States to an international agreement.

“Considering that two-thirds of the U.S. federal government hasn’t even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it, our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

U.S. officials stressed that their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, U.N. lingo for its official submission, stands on sound legal footing, with the measures drawing authority from legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Energy Independence and Security Act.

Todd Stern, the lead U.S. climate change negotiator, said he frequently tells foreign counterparts that “undoing the kind of regulation we are putting in place is very tough to do.”

But elements of the administration’s climate policy already face legal challenges. On April 16, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. will hear arguments from 13 states opposed to as-yet-unfinalized regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that target emissions in existing power plants.

And McConnell’s warnings echoed the tone of a March 9 “open letter” from 47 Republican senators to Iran, in which they warned a Republican president would not be bound to honor a nuclear agreement struck by Democrat Obama without congressional approval, calling it a “mere executive agreement.”

Some observers said that resistance to the administration’s climate policies leaves foreign governments questioning whether Obama’s commitments can last.

“By strenuously invoking EPA regulations, the Administration is trying to convince skeptical international audiences that the U.S. can actually deliver on its new climate goals, despite Republican resistance,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House official who is now with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“But major capitals are likely to remain nervous.”

The administration is clearly sensitive to the threat. Power plants are the biggest domestic source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the EPA is seeking to use its power to slash carbon levels from plants to 30 percent of their 2005 levels by 2020.

On Monday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency had designed power plant rules under the authority of the Clean Air Act – and insisted that they can withstand Supreme Court scrutiny.

“We don’t need a plan B if we are solid on our plan A,” she said.

But Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer representing utilities industries for Bracewell & Giuliani and former assistant administrator of the EPA under George W Bush, says even if the courts uphold the EPA proposal on power plants, a future Republican administration can reverse it.

“There are some EPA rules that are very difficult for a new administration to change but this is not one of those rules,” Holmstead said. He calculates that at least five high court justices are wary of the EPA’s regulatory leeway.

Environmental groups, on the other hand, were more confident that Obama’s measures cannot be reversed by the courts or politics.

“The Clean Air Act has proven to be quite durable,” said David Waskow, director of international initiatives for the World Resources Institute. “While elements may be slowed or modified by legal challenges, they are rarely overturned.”

(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Bruce Wallace and Grant McCool)

HOT AIR: Scientists Say NOAA/NASA Fudging The Facts On 2014 Record Warmth

HOT AIR: Scientists Say NOAA/NASA Fudging The Facts On 2014 Record Warmth

Some climate scientists are criticizing government climate agencies for declaring 2014 the warmest year ever recorded, despite reports that government scientists were only 38-48 percent sure that 2014 broke records, given the margin of error.

Global Warming environmental carbonScientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA said 2014 was the warmest year on record at about 0.69 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average temperature. Last year beat out the next warmest years of 2010 and 2005 by only about 0.04 degrees Celsius. But the four-hundredths of a degree difference between 2014 and previous records is within the margin of measurement error, meaning scientists can’t be 100 percent sure last year was actually the hottest ever recorded.

Scientists with NOAA said 2014 only had a 48 percent probability of actually being the warmest year on record, while NASA only gave last year a 38 percent chance of being the warmest. But government climate scientists, environmentalists and politicians sounded the alarm that global warming was getting worse, hiding the many uncertainties behind NOAA and NASA temperature measurements.

“The data from NASA and NOAA is the latest scientific evidence that climate change is real, and we must act now to protect our families and future generations,” said California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. “Deniers must stop ignoring these alarms if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

Some climate scientists have been critical of NOAA and NASA’s claims that 2014 was the warmest year on record despite it actually being a “statistical tie.”

“With 2014 essentially tied with 2005 and 2010 for hottest year, this implies that there has been essentially no trend in warming over the past decade,” said Judith Curry, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “This ‘almost’ record year does not help the growing discrepancy between the climate model projections and the surface temperature observations.”

“I am embarrassed by the scientific community’s behavior on the subject,” wrote Dr. Roy Spencer, a climate scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). “I went into science with the misguided belief that science provides answers. Too often, it doesn’t.”

Spencer and his colleague Dr. John Christy operate one of two primary satellite datasets for measuring global temperature. According to Spencer and Christy’s UAH satellite data, 2014 only ranked as the third-warmest on record. The other main satellite temperature dataset, the Remote Sensing Systems (RSS) dataset, found that 2014 was only the sixth warmest on record.

“Science as a methodology for getting closer to the truth has been all but abandoned. It is now just one more tool to achieve political ends,” Spencer opined. “Reports that 2014 was the ‘hottest’ year on record feed the insatiable appetite the public has for definitive, alarming headlines. It doesn’t matter that even in the thermometer record, 2014 wasn’t the warmest within the margin of error.”

“The satellite and balloon data of the deep atmosphere have 2014 in a cluster of warmish years well below the hottest two of 1998 and 2010,” echoed Christy. “With the government agencies reporting that the surface temperature as highest ever, we have a puzzle. The puzzle is even more puzzling because theory (i.e. models) indicate the opposite should be occurring– greater warmth in the deep atmosphere than the surface.”

But other climate scientists say it doesn’t matter if 2014 is the warmest year on record or not, because it’s not nearly as warm as the climate models have predicted.

“Whether or not a given year is a hundredth of a degree or so above a previous record is not the issue,” said Patrick Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science at the libertarian Cato Institute. ”What is the issue is how observed temperatures compare to what has been forecast to happen.”

Michaels noted that studies have shown that “the average warming predicted to have occurred since 1979 (when the satellite data starts) is approximately three times larger than what is being observed.”

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Oil Cleanup after “unfortunate incident” in Yellowstone

Oil Cleanup after “unfortunate incident” in Yellowstone

Keystone Pipeline
Oil pipeline

BILLINGS, Mont. — Montana officials said Sunday that an oil pipeline breach spilled up to 50,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana, but they said they are unaware of any threats to public safety or health.

The Bridger Pipeline Co. said the spill occurred about 10 a.m. Saturday. The initial estimate is that 300 to 1,200 barrels of oil spilled, the company said in a statement Sunday.

Some of the oil did get into the water, but the area where it spilled was frozen over and that could help reduce the impact, said Dave Parker, a spokesman for Gov. Steve Bullock.

“We think it was caught pretty quick, and it was shut down,” Parker said. “The governor is committed to making sure the river is cleaned up.”

Bridger Pipeline Co. said in the statement that it shut down the 12-inch-wide pipeline shortly before 11 a.m. Saturday. “Our primary concern is to minimize the environmental impact of the release and keep our responders safe as we clean up from this unfortunate incident,” said Tad True, vice president of Bridger.

The EPA and state Department of Environmental Quality have responded to the area about 9 miles upriver from Glendive, Parker said.

An Exxon Mobil Corp. pipeline broke near Laurel during flooding in July 2011, releasing 63,000 gallons of oil that washed up along an 85-mile stretch of riverbank.

Montana officials are trying to determine if oil could have been trapped by sediment and debris and settled into the riverbed.

Exxon Mobil is facing state and federal fines of up to $3.4 million from the spill. The company has said it spent $135 million on the cleanup and other work.

Montana and federal officials notified Exxon that they intend to seek damages for injuries to birds, fish and other natural resources from the 2011 spill. The company also is being asked to pay for long-term environmental studies and for lost opportunities for fishing and recreation during and since the cleanup.

DHS: 100 Million Americans Could Lose Power in Major Sun Storm

DHS: 100 Million Americans Could Lose Power in Major Sun Storm

Document says FEMA unsure of damage to grid from magnetic storm

Sun emits a mid-level flare - 04 Dec 2014

Millions of Americans face catastrophic loss of electrical power during a future magnetic space storm that will disrupt the electric grid and cause cascading infrastructure failures, according to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document.

DHS’ Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stated in an internal 2012 fact sheet outlining its response plan for severe “space weather” that the actual impact and damage from a future solar storm is not known.

“An analysis of the space weather impacts indicates that the greatest challenge will be to provide life-saving and life-sustaining resources for large numbers of people that experience long-term power outage from damage to the U.S. electrical grid,” the FEMA document, dated March 1, 2012, states.

The FEMA fact sheet noted the findings of a 2010 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that monitors sun storms, warning that an extreme solar storm could leave “130 million people without power for years,” and destroy or damage more than 300 hard-to-replace electrical grid transformers.

Major solar storms are rare. Two major solar disruption events took place in 1859 and 1921, times when electricity was less prevalent than today.

The study said a future solar storm like the great magnetic storm of May 1921 would black out most states east of the Mississippi River along with most states in the Pacific Northwest.

The long-term loss of electrical power likely would produce catastrophic loss of life.

However, the FEMA document disputed that worst-case scenario, noting that in 2011 DHS experts were “not convinced” about the dire consequences outlined in the earlier study.

Still, DHS scientists in 2011 warned that the U.S. electric grid remains vulnerable to damage from an extreme geomagnetic storm. The scientists said the extent of damage to high-voltage transformers from a space storm “are not well known” and the matter needs further study, the report says.

“Based on an analysis of many space weather studies, there does not appear to be specific agreement among space weather and electric industry experts regarding space weather impacts on the U.S. electric grid,” the document says, adding that there is “general agreement among the experts that extreme geomagnetic storms could have significantly damaging impacts on the U.S. electric grid.”

Space weather is defined as conditions on the Sun, in space, in the earth’s magnetic field, and upper atmosphere that impact space and ground technological systems and can “endanger human life on earth,” the report says.

The report outlines the scenario for a major “coronal mass ejection” from the Sun that will first be detected by U.S. satellites. The magnetic band reaches the earth within 24 to 72 hours, affecting up to 100 million people.

The largest such storms, called G-5s, would cause transformers and transmission lines to be “severely damaged.”

The storms last from hours to a day but can disrupt electric power grid operations, GPS satellites, aircraft operations, manned space flight, satellite operations, natural gas distribution pipelines, and undersea communications cables.

GPS satellites could be disrupted causing them to produce false positioning information.

“The extreme geomagnetic space weather event will cause widespread power outages to a large number of people (approximately 100 million people) in a multi-region, multi-state area of the U.S. due to geomagnetic induced currents damaging EHV transformers, especially along coastal regions,” the report says.

Power losses may cause spiraling failures that could lead to loss of systems that control water and wastewater systems, perishable foods and medications, lighting and air conditioning, computer, telephone and communications systems, public transportation, and fuel distribution.

After the magnetic storm passes in some 36 hours, power will be restarted and within 36 hours up to 65 million will regain electric power.

By two weeks, after damaged equipment is replaced or repaired, another 25 million people will have power restored.

However, the report indicates that it would take up to two months to repair or replace damaged electrical power equipment for the remaining 10 million people over six states.

Mark Sauter, an adviser to security companies and coauthor of the textbook Homeland Security: A Complete Guide, said severe space weather poses a major homeland security challenge.

“It occurs rarely, can’t be predicted, full protection is impossibly expensive and the potential impact ranges from inconvenient to cataclysmic,” said Sauter, who obtained the document under the Freedom of Information Act.

“The released documents indicate DHS/FEMA—with buy-in from the electrical industry and U.S. military—has now settled on a ‘plausible’ planning estimate that 25 million Americans could lose power for two weeks and 10 million could be without power for up to two months—and this estimate, the government admits, is 10 percent of one major outside study,” he said.

Sauter said FEMA’s more-than-200-page response plan for dealing with a solar storm was blacked out from the released documents.

“This makes one wonder why FEMA is refusing to release the government’s space weather response plan,” he said. “How would the government deal with 10 million, or many more, Americans without power for two months, or even longer?”

Sauter questioned whether the government is taking the threat of a major solar storm seriously, or is “just going through an obligatory bureaucratic exercise that in reality reflects DHS/FEMA crossing its fingers and hoping that such a plan will never need to be used.”

“Is FEMA simply worried about alarming the public?” Sauter asked. “For example, advice on the DHS Web site urges citizens to disconnect appliances and avoid using the phone during a space weather emergency, but doesn’t go into how people should survive for two months without electricity.”

Peter Pry, a former CIA official who now heads a group that has warned about the impact on the electric grid of a nuclear detonation-caused blackout from electromagnetic pulse, said a congressional EMP Commission warned several years ago of the threat posed by a geomagnetic super storm.

Such an event “could have catastrophic consequences for civilization,” Pry said.

A similar solar blast like the 1859 Carrington Event could collapse electric grids and life-sustaining critical infrastructures worldwide, putting the lives of billions at risk, he said.

U.S. utilities are unprepared for major solar storms such as the Carrington Event or the 1921 magnetic storm.

“We are running out of time to prepare,” Pry said, noting that NASA reported in July that Earth narrowly missed a second Carrington Event.

Pry said current legislation known as the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (CIPA) passed the House last week unanimously and would help protect against natural or manmade EMP.

FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre had no comment on the fact sheet and its outline of the potential damage from a major solar storm

“FEMA constantly monitors and plans for all hazards, and that includes the potential impact from a coronal mass ejection,” he said.

Taxpayers Paid 8 EPA Employees $1 Million to Do Nothing

Taxpayers Paid 8 EPA Employees $1 Million to Do Nothing

OIG: EPA employees on paid administrative leave ‘for years’

AP

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) kept employees on paid administrative leave for years, costing taxpayers more than $1 million.

An “Early Warning” report released by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Wednesday revealed that eight employees racked up 20,926 hours of paid administrative leave, including some employees who were paid not to work for four years.

The eight employees cost taxpayers $1,096,868 alone. The report is in response to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis released last month that found government-wide paid administrative leave cost $3.1 billion from 2011 and 2013.

The GAO report detailed that the EPA paid 69 employees to not work for 4,711 days between 2011 and 2013, costing $17,550,100.

The OIG analyzed paid leave for this year, focusing on eight employees who took the most paid leave. Half of the employees were on paid administrative leave for more than a year, including one EPA employee who was paid from May 2010 until September 2014, costing taxpayers $351,300.

The amount of paid leave taken by these employees may be higher, the OIG said, since several were missing timesheets during their period of paid leave.

The OIG report was categorized as addressing the goal of “Embracing EPA as a high-performing organization.”

The EPA allows for paid administrative leave for voting, funerals, donating blood, and bad weather. However, all eight employees were on paid administrative leave for at least four months.

The EPA’s leave manual offers no determination for what is considered an “acceptable amount of administrative leave.”

The OIG pointed out that employees could be placed on long-term paid leave for disciplinary reasons.

“The leave manual also provides that one authorized use of administrative leave is when an employee’s removal or indefinite suspension is proposed, and the employee’s continued presence at the work site during the notice period would constitute a threat to public property or the health and safety of coworkers or the public.”

The EPA has had to deal with employees who have threatened the work environment for their fellow workers before.

The OIG presented its findings to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Oct. 30, and the agency is currently reviewing background information on the employees in question.

Massive Mystery Crater at ‘End of the World’

Massive Mystery Crater at ‘End of the World’

Enormous hole draws urgent attention of scientists

by Joe Kovacs, wnd.com

crater-hole-siberia-600

A mysterious, gigantic crater that has appeared at a place in Siberia that literally means “end of the world” has captured the attention of scientists, who will try to determine its origin.

The enormous hole, located in northern Russia’s Yamal Peninsula  is said to be up to 262 feet wide.

“A scientific team has been sent to investigate the hole and is due to arrive at the scene on Wednesday,” reported the Siberian Times.

Two experts from the Center for the Study of the Arctic and one from Cryosphere Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences plan on sampling the soil, air and water from the location, as they’re accompanied by a specialist from Russia’s Emergencies Ministry.

“We can definitely say that it is not a meteorite,” a spokesman for the ministry’s Yamal branch told the Times, adding it was too early to say what caused the hole.

The paper notes a variety of theories as to its origin have been proffered, including a sinkhole caused by collapsing rock beneath the hole, the effects of so-called global warming, and even the arrival of a UFO.

crater-hole-distance-siberia-600

“Some observers believe water or dry soil is seen falling into the cavity,” the Times reports. “There is agreement that soil around the hole was thrown out of the crater, large enough for several Mi-8 helicopters to fly into it – not that they have.”

Anna Kurchatova of the Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Center suggests the hole is the result of a water, salt and gas mixture igniting an underground explosion, the result of global warming. She thinks gas possibly accumulated in ice mixed with sand beneath the surface, and this was mixed with salt, as the area was reportedly a sea in ancient times.

Kurchatova postulated an “alarming” melt in the permafrost released gas causing an effect like the popping of a Champagne bottle cork.

The Yamal Peninsula is a strategic oil and gas producing region of Russia.

It’s also famous for its reindeer herds and migratory birds, and the remains of ancient woolly mammoths have been unearthed there.

Reindeer run free on Russia's Yamal Peninsula in Siberia.

The discovery of the crater is getting worldwide publicity, with a wide variety of comments, including:

  • “I think its a meteorite crater. Myself and collegues watched a mysterious large white dot in the sky (during the day yesterday). We couldn’t work out what it was. I’m willing to bet it caused the crater. Interesting!” (Jane, Belfast, Northern Ireland)
  • “It looks like a sinkhole, plain and simple.” (Jon, Tuscaloosa, Alabama)
  • “Wow. What ISN’T global warming responsible for? I’m blaming my hemorrhoids on it. (Elmer Evans, Anaheim, California)
  • “Why couldn’t this have occurred under the White House? Oh man …what terrible luck!” (Power Engineer, Houston, Texas)

 

Dramatic NASA satellite images show our air getting cleaner

Dramatic NASA satellite images show our air getting cleaner

NASA clean air satellite photos
Satellite data show that New York City has seen a 32 percent decrease in nitrogen dioxide (shown in red on the map) between the periods of 2005-2007 (left) and 2009-2011 (right). 

If Americans are breathing easier than they were a decade ago, these new NASA satellite images may help explain why. They show — in vividly color-coded maps — that levels of nitrogen dioxide, an important air pollutant, have plummeted across the country over the last decade.

The data comes from a NASA satellite called Aura, which launched in 2004 with the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) to measure pollutants in columns of air. Goddard data visualizers then plotted the concentrations of various pollutants in each column over a map of the U.S., and in more detail over a number of cities, comparing data collected from 2005 to 2011.

Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide coded as yellow to red are considered unhealthy, explained Bryan Duncan, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

 

airpollutiondecreasenortheastus2005to2011.jpg
Nitrogen dioxide in the Northeastern U.S., 2005 (top) and 2011 (bottom).
 NASA GODDARD’S SCIENTIFIC VISUALIZATION STUDIO

 

Duncan told CBS News: “The Aura satellite happened to be collecting data at the right time to witness this huge reduction in air pollution in the U.S. — about 40 percent on average for nitrogen dioxide.”

Most nitrogen dioxide is generated by cars burning gasoline and power plants burning coal. Over the past decade, technologies for improving gas mileage and scrubbing nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants out of power plant exhaust towers have been implemented across the country.

 

denver-houston-la-sd.jpg
These images show how nitrogen dioxide has decreased from 2005-2007 (left) to 2009-2011 (right). Denver, down 22%; Houston, down 24%; LA, San Diego, down 40%; San Francisco Bay area, no percentage given.
 NASA GODDARD’S SCIENTIFIC VISUALIZATION STUDIO

 

Nitrogen dioxide can impact the respiratory system, and it also contributes to the formation of other pollutants including ground-level ozone and particulates.

“Ozone is nasty stuff,” says Duncan. “It is highly reactive. When you breathe it in, the ozone reacts with the lung tissue and burns it.” According to the EPA, ground-level ozone levels have also decreased over the same period.

America’s air quality still has room for improvement. According to the American Lung Association’s 2014 State of the Air report, “147.6 million people — 47 percent of the nation — live where pollution levels are too often dangerous to breathe, an increase from last year’s report.”

Duncan notes that lower levels of nitrogen dioxide and other air pollutants are detected over the weekends when fewer cars are on the road. And the EPA has reported a slight rise in ozone since 2011. Still, NASA notes on its Web site that overall “[a]ir pollution has decreased even though population and the number of cars on the roads have increased.”

Duncan thinks this is a rare opportunity to share good news. “Americans think our air quality is getting worse, but quite the opposite is true.”

Shaky stats fuel debate over power plants, carbon emissions

Shaky stats fuel debate over power plants, carbon emissions

cows grazing coal plant
Cows graze in the shadow of the coal fired Chalk Point Generating Station, on May 29, 2014 in Benedict, Maryland.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s new pollution limits for power plants have set off an avalanche of information about what the rules will cost, how they will affect your health and how far they will go toward curbing climate change.

There’s just one problem: Almost none of it is based in reality.

That’s because Obama’s proposed rules, which aim to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030, rely on states developing their own customized plans to meet their targets. Among the options are switching to cleaner fuel sources, boosting efficiency to reduce demand for electricity and trading pollution permits through cap-and-trade.

At the earliest, states won’t submit plans until mid-2016; some states could have until 2018. So the true impact won’t be known for years.

But that’s not stopping the White House, environmental groups and the energy industry from serving up speculation in heaping doses.

What we know and don’t know about the effects of the pollution rules:

ELECTRICITY PRICES

The Obama administration says: The proposal will shrink electricity bills about 8 percent.

Supporters of energy deregulation say: “Americans can expect to pay $200 more each year for their electricity.” — Institute for Energy Research, a group backed by the Koch brothers.

The reality: It depends how you crunch the numbers. The administration acknowledges that the price per kilowatt hour will go up a few percentage points. But the administration says your total power bill will be lower because the plan incentivizes efficiency and will drive down demand. In other words, you’ll pay more for the electricity you buy, but you’ll buy less of it.

THE ENVIRONMENT

Environmentalists say: “This is the biggest step we’ve ever taken for the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced.” — League of Conservation Voters

The coal industry says: “The proposal will have practically no effect on global climate change.” — American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity

The reality: The plan would prevent about 430 million tons of carbon from reaching the atmosphere. It’s a 30 percent cut over the next 15 years, but that’s compared with 2005 levels. Since 2005, power plans have cut those emissions nearly 13 percent, so they’re already about halfway toward the goal.

But U.S. fossil-fueled plants account for only 6 percent of global carbon emissions, and Obama’s plan doesn’t touch the rest of the world’s emissions. It won’t cut as big a chunk as Obama’s previous fuel economy rules for cars and trucks.

THE ECONOMY

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says: The plan will cost the economy more than $50 billion per year.

The administration says: By 2030, the rules will have an annual cost of up to $8.8 billion, but that cost will be far offset by annual climate and health benefits of up to $93 billion.

The reality: We won’t know until states decide how to meet their targets. Some states rely more heavily on coal, so different regions will be affected in different ways. Still, it’s a safe bet that companies that produce natural gas, solar panels or renewable technologies will get a boost, while coal will take a hit.

To calculate health care savings, the administration uses a somewhat morbid formula that puts a dollar amount on ailments averted — everything from heart attacks to bronchitis and asthma. It’s an inexact science, and there are plenty of caveats.

JOBS

jobs unemployment workThe conservative Heritage Foundation says: “Nearly 600,000 jobs would be lost.”

The United Mine Workers of America says: “We estimate that the total impact will be about 485,000 permanent jobs lost.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says: The rules could cost close to 80,000 jobs by 2030 at power plants and fossil fuel companies, but could create about 111,000 jobs in energy efficiency.

The reality: It’s tough to tell. Not every coal miner who loses a job will find work installing solar panels and windmills. On the other hand, the low cost of natural gas has already prompted a shift away from coal, meaning some of those jobs will disappear with or without new pollution limits.

PUBLIC HEALTH

prostate cancer health doctorThe EPA says: Up to 6,600 premature deaths, 150,000 asthma attacks in children and close to half a million sick days will be averted.

The American Lung Association says: “Cleaning up carbon pollution from power plants will save lives and have an immediate, positive impact on public health.”

The coal industry says: “The White House continues to perpetuate the nonexistent linkage between EPA’s new carbon regulations and public health.” — American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity

The reality: Even the EPA says that the quantitative health benefits of the new rule are “illustrative examples.” It’s true that carbon dioxide emissions aren’t directly linked to health problems like asthma. But because the rule will decrease the amount of electricity made from burning coal, it will help reduce other pollutants that coal-fired power plants release. Those pollutants create smog and soot, which do cause health problems.

Critics contend the administration is “double counting” those benefits.