Heading into the New Year, EarthFix takes a look at the major issues in the world of environmental law and policy for 2012. The Vermont Law School’s Top 10 Environmental Watch List brings together the big issues of 2011 and provides a sneak peak at what kind of movement to expect on those issues in the coming year.
EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn talks with Pat Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School.
EnviroLaw2012AA by Ashley Ahearn
Ashley Ahearn: OK, so I’ve got the list in front of me but I’m going to jump around a bit here to sort of tailor this conversation for the Northwest and I want to start with number 3 and number 4 – the Powder River coal and Keystone pipeline issues. Even though these aren’t issues that are playing out directly in our backyard there are some pretty real connections to the Northwest that EarthFix has been following. Could you give me a bit of an overview on those issues?
Pat Parenteau: Yes well the Powder River Basin is the main focus for coal development in the U.S. It’s the so-called Saudi Arabia of coal. The idea here is to export the coal to China and Asia. The concern here is that the United States and the West and the Powder River basin in Wyoming and Montana are going to become energy colonies for the rapid development of the economies in Asia.
The direct impacts of all the mining they’re talking about are going to be significant. The coal’s going to have to be transported of course, out of the Powder River by rail and they’re going to need export terminals on the West Coast so you’re going to have all of this shipment and movement of coal and then of course the ultimate destination of coal means it’s going to be combusted and all that carbon dioxide is going into the atmosphere driving climate change.
So from cradle to grave the impacts from all this coal development in the Powder River basin are going to be quite significant.
Ashley Ahearn: Now let’s talk about Keystone.
Pat Parenteau: Keystone so that’s this roughly 1700 mile pipeline connecting the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in the Gulf Coast. It turns out from what I can gather that most of the oil to be refined the product is actually destined for export, very little of it is going to be consumed in the United States. The ultimate impact of this, again, is it’s going to enable the full development of these tar sands and their lifecycle impacts of CO2 emissions are much greater than conventional crude oil and so the carbon footprint of this particular energy source is actually much worse even than coal.
Ashley Ahearn: The Northwest really kind of stands in the way of both of these power sources – coal and oil – reaching the Asian markets so I’m wondering from your perspective on the national level, what would you advise looking in the Northwest as the legal issues to follow in this region in the coming year.
Pat Parenteau: Certainly the question for coal exports, whether a terminal at Longview, Washington is going to be approved and built or not is going to be a huge issue. My guess is that Washington state and the region more generally would be concerned about becoming an export terminal for what amounts to a massive amount of coal coming out of the Powder River.
“My guess is that Washington state and the region more generally would be concerned about becoming an export terminal for what amounts to a massive amount of coal coming out of the Powder River.”
This is not going to be a short term thing. We’re talking about decades of development and export and I can’t begin to imagine what kinds of ripple effects that kind of activity might have.
One of the things that we’ve been looking at here at the law school with some of our students is this issue of coal dust because you get these massive coal trains and they’re uncovered and the dust, the coal in the cars, literally blows off the train as it moves through communities and these are fine particles. They contain heavy metals and pollutants with a variety of health effects and there’s no regulation of this, we’ve discovered, really at all. That’s just one more question mark about the life cycle of this kind of energy source.
Ashley Ahearn: Do you think we’ll see any movement on regulating greenhouse gases in 2012? States like Washington are starting to make moves to regulate refineries on the state level do you think we’ll see more of that?
Pat Parenteau: You know I think we might. The Clean Air Act allows states to set standards that are stricter than the federal government. They allow the states to regulate things the federal government decides not to regulate in terms of volume for example. They could set up their own cap and trade programs the way that California has done. They could approach these issues creatively. They could think about a tax or a fee approach to levelize the costs of fossil versus low carbon sources of energy for example. Lots of different ways for the states to play a very important role, given the fact that the federal government is not inclined to do that right now I think that’s our only hope for addressing climate change is what the states are able to do.
“There are lots of different ways for the states to play a very important role, given the fact that the federal government is not inclined to do that right now. I think that’s our only hope for addressing climate change is what the states are able to do.”
Ashley Ahearn: Overall are you an optimist or a pessimist going into 2012?
Pat Parenteau: Well there’s no reason to be optimistic but I have to be because there’s no point in living your life as a pessimist. I think we’re in a very difficult time. I’m constantly reminded of how when I started out in this business in the ‘70s we used to go to Congress and negotiate bills across the aisle all the time. They were always bipartisan. There were some great republican members of congress who were the prime sponsors of some of these bills. So now I don’t know quite how to explain where we’ve got to but I do think that environmental law right now is being dictated by politics. It’s hard to predict how long it’s going to take for the parties in power to get back to a place where they can really negotiate and reach agreements based on science, based on facts.
“Environmental law right now is being dictated by politics. It’s hard to predict how long it’s going to take for the parties in power to get back to a place where they can really negotiate and reach agreements based on science, based on facts.”
It’s really hard to get past the noise, the disinformation, the anger, the resentment and until that changes my optimism is going to be severely tempered by the reality that it’s hard to make progress right now. Maybe it will improve in a year or so, but right now it’s not the time to be thinking we’re going to make a lot of progress.
Pat Parenteau is a professor at the Vermont Law School.
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