Climate Change: Believe Your Eyes

As summer closed, we took a family vacation to Oregon.  In addition to lingering in Powell’s Books, eating from food trucks, and drinking local brews and Stumptown Coffee during several days in Portland, we borrowed a friend’s car for excursions to Cannon Beach and the Columbia River Gorge.   As part of our family goal to someday visit all 50 states, we made sure to cross into Washington.  We grabbed that extra state with a dramatic pedestrian crossing over the Bridge of the Gods, which serves as the Columbia River crossing on the Pacific Crest Trail.

After a restful and restorative trip, I returned to work after Labor Day, as news of the Eagle Creek Fire along the Oregon/Washington border brought the reality of Western wildfires to a personal level.  With visions of our triumphal Columbia River crossing still fresh, it was harrowing to learn of the breadth and rapid spread of the Eagle Creek Fire, which allegedly was started with a discarded firework.  Careless fireworks are always a risk, but in the tinder box of the exceedingly dry Pacific Northwest forests this summer, this act of carelessness devastated over 50,000 acres.

As an East Coast person accustomed to living in densely populated areas, the scale of the Western wildfires was hard to fathom.  Though the Eagle Creek fire was dramatic for its impact on popular tourist areas like Multnomah Falls and relative proximity to Portland, there were far larger conflagrations this summer in British Columbia and Montana that dwarfed the Eagle Creek blaze.

In the past, lacking a good frame of reference, it was easy to dismiss the abstract impact of tens of thousands of scorched acres.  Having a better context to comprehend the devastation of wildfires, I now have a deeper appreciation for the areas impacted.  More recently, the fires in Sonoma and Napa counties provided front-page images of charred foundations and an alarming death toll, which focuses the danger from wildfire on a more immediate and personal level.

These searing images, coupled with reports of massive flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, and the ravages of wind, rain and storm surge throughout the Caribbean islands and Florida associated with Hurricanes Irma and then Maria, make it hard to ostrich on issues of regional planning, sustainability, and resilience to prepare for impacts from a changing climate.  While Massachusetts has not felt any direct impact from these recent events, many New Englanders have strong personal and business contacts in these areas, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.  These states and territories are our neighbors and we support action to ensure a swift and successful recovery.

American Exceptionalism

In the face of these overwhelming catastrophes, the federal government appears to be in retreat and denial.  Immediate disaster relief is only one narrow aspect of the commitment and resolve necessary to make lasting improvements to benefit these impacted regions and the nation as a whole.  When it comes to prudent forecasting and proper planning, Trump and his key cabinet secretaries at EPA, the Department of Energy (“DOE”), and the Department of the Interior, are not just out of touch, they deliberately favor policies which imperil our wilderness lands and hasten impacts from a changing global climate.

Among the many counter-productive actions on climate by the Trump administration, two recent proposed rulemaking announcements by EPA and the DOE are emblematic of the current administration’s hostility toward the impact of carbon emissions and the reality of climate change.  EPA issued a proposed rule-making indicating that it is “repealing” the Clean Power Plan, and DEO has laid out new incentives that will give coal-fired utilities a significant advantage in the energy markets.

The Clean Power Plan (“CPP”) was a key element of the Obama administration’s strategy for achieving the targets to reduce carbon emissions set in the Paris Climate Accord.  In Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), the Supreme Court established that EPA has the obligation to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act.  As former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stressed in her presentation to the Boston Bar Association in May 2017, she came to work in environmental protection from a background in public health and understood the agency’s promotion of public health as the core mission.  Under her tenure, EPA devoted significant time, energy, and scientific talent to assess the public health and environmental impacts from carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  Based on that extensive record, EPA adopted the CPP to wean the country off long-term dependency on electricity generation which contributed to greenhouse gas emissions.

With deliberate speed, Trump’s EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, has taken steps to reverse course.  In a press release issued on October 10, 2017, Pruitt proposed a repeal of the CPP.  Lacking the diligence and scientific data to justify the CPP, and facing the prospect of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issuing a ruling upholding the CPP, Pruitt requested a stay in the litigation and then, under its own power and outside of the reviewing court, issued a proposed rulemaking claiming to “appeal” the CPP.  Pruitt’s primary justification for abandoning the CPP was that it required regulating sources “outside the fence line” – beyond the structural controls on a generating facility.  Pruitt asserted that Clean Air Act regulations could not extend beyond the physical generation facilities and could not be imposed to influence market behavior in favor of lower or non-carbon emitting sources.  Though a sharp reversal from the legal position taken by the Obama DOJ, Pruitt’s analysis is consistent with arguments he made challenging the CPP when he was the Oklahoma Attorney General.  This approach does not even have the dignity of a fig leaf.  It is a naked abdication of EPA’s obligation to regulate carbon emissions, and any “replacement” regulation from the Pruitt EPA which focuses solely on “inside the fence line” measures, is unlikely to achieve meaningful reductions in carbon emissions.

Despite the Trump administration’s obstructionism to stymy progress in reducing carbon emissions, thankfully, market forces are already in motion that will help the U.S. meet most of the Paris targets anyway.  Indeed, a candid DOE assessment this summer noted reduced dependence upon high carbon emitting coal-fired electricity generation, due to improved markets for renewable energy and the low cost for natural gas.  While the CPP looks to reduce carbon emissions 32% below 2005 levels by 2030, the U.S. power sector is already at 28%.

Nevertheless, the current administration is taking great strides to bolster extractive industries, especially coal, through the Executive Order on Energy Independence. Many federal programs utilize carrots and sticks to shape economic activity.  A recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking from the DOE is a massive carrot designed to increase coal production.  The Proposed Rule gives perverse incentives for preserving coal-fired, base-load utility plants and increasing their consumption of coal by granting immense cost savings to utilities that maintain a 90-day supply of base-load material on-site.

Though conservatives favor market solutions, DOE’s Proposed Rule puts a fistful of thumbs on the scale to create incentives for utilities to maintain a storehouse of coal.  Hopefully, environmentalists and traditional free marketers will find a common voice to decry this monumentally shortsighted policy.  Though the administration has indicated a desire to have this rule proceed expeditiously, two out of five FERC seats remain vacant, and the current chair has stated that he would prefer to implement the measure with a full complement of commissioners.  The Senate confirmation hearings for the remaining FERC commissioners could provide a forum for addressing the merits of the rule, but that may only result in grandstanding by opponents, rather than a constructive dialogue on national energy policy.

Massachusetts Leads the Way

Thankfully, against the backdrop of a federal government turning its back on science and the global community’s desire to address climate change, Massachusetts continues to demonstrate resolve on these important challenges.  For many years, Massachusetts has engaged in meaningful review of regional planning, sustainability, and resilience readiness.  Under leadership from Democrats  and – it should be stressed  – under the current Republican administration, the Commonwealth’s commitment to addressing issues such as curbing greenhouse gases and preparing for impacts from climate change, has been strong.

Governor Baker and his team, particularly Secretary Matt Beaton and Commissioner Marty Suuberg, have demonstrated real leadership on these important issues.  In particular, the Baker administration is using the tools at its disposal to encourage carbon reduction while also assisting communities to prepare for the potential impacts from a changing climate.

One way the state has encouraged innovation is by providing funding for municipal drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities to reduce their energy use and carbon footprint.  With easier access to capital for energy efficiency and clean energy projects at municipal plants, Massachusetts communities are constructing critical infrastructure to prepare and plan for the future, while making meaningful impacts to reduce carbon.  The Baker administration has awarded $1.7 million to help fund 30 clean energy and efficiency projects at 21 water and wastewater facilities.  Many local communities have engaged in diligent, long-term planning, but funding these initiatives with only local support presents real challenges.  Rather than mandates from the State, the administration is stepping in with critical assistance which will get these projects from the drafting table to implementation.  With the State’s assistance, the projects reflect a $10.9 million investment in clean energy improvement projects at public works sites.  While the state contribution is meaningful, the financial assistance should be awarded annually to make broad improvement throughout the Commonwealth.

In addition to these initiatives to improve drinking and wastewater infrastructure, the Baker administration is leading on long-term planning for the impacts from climate change.  In September, the Baker administration celebrated the one-year anniversary of Executive Order 569 “Establishing an Integrated Climate Change Strategy for the Commonwealth.”  The anniversary highlighted the steps Massachusetts has taken to develop a comprehensive Climate Change Strategy.  While not producing headline grabbing heroic images, this critical planning and assessment work informs proper project development to mitigate or avoid catastrophic impacts from intense weather events.

The broad sweep of recent catastrophic events has sharpened the nation’s attentions on the impact of increased dry periods in the Pacific Northwest and the destructive capacity of hurricanes churning out of an ocean with sustained elevated temperatures.  Though New England has recently come out of an extended drought period, if projections hold, Massachusetts will experience higher rainfall from climate change.  As Vermont experienced with Tropical Storm Irene and Massachusetts experienced with the Mother’s Day storm in 2006, even without gale force winds, increased rainfall can pack a punch.  New England needs to be prepared to handle greater stormwater flows from wetter weather patterns.

One element of the Baker administrations’ initiative is the Massachusetts State Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan.   Work for the Plan includes Hydrologic Climate Projections with data from 28 watershed areas within the Commonwealth and projections for future variation in temperature and precipitation, to develop modeling for 15 regional climate projections to help inform planning and infrastructure resiliency.  Massachusetts deserves kudos for advancing this first-in-the-nation climate change strategy and planning effort.  Other states and the federal government would do well to make the investment in planning and adaptation, rather than just disaster relief.

A critical difference in the Massachusetts approach is that the state is going where the science leads it.  As David Johnston of MassDEP SERO stated at a recent EBC program moderated by John Shea, “When it comes to the impacts from climate change, you can believe your eyes.”  Facing the mounting evidence of climate impacts, Massachusetts is responding with prudent planning informed by data and technical expertise.  In contrast, the federal government is bent on muzzling scientific rigor.  The chilling depths to which the administration will go was shown when EPA Region I barred technical staff working on an environmental assessment for Narragansett Bay from speaking about climate change impacts during a conference in late October.  Once a beacon of forward thinking approaches to environmental problems, EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC has brought Region 1 to heel.  Thirty-seven staff members have left Region 1 since the inauguration.  The loss is being felt in the field and is a wound that will take a decade to heal.  The recent appointment of Alexandra Dapolito Dunn as Regional Administrator is a positive step, but it is unlikely that one appointment will get the office back on track given the headwinds from headquarters.

For meaningful responses to our pressing environmental issues, we need state and federal cooperation.  Hopefully, the constructive steps being taken in Massachusetts can help foster a cultural awareness of the importance of reducing carbon emissions while engaging in purposeful planning to mitigate climate changes already occurring.  While I hold out hope this effort can be replicated on the national stage, it will certainly require a regime change.  Perhaps our own Charlie Baker will consider challenging Trump in the 2020 presidential primaries.

By Peter Durning