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September 30, 2007

Should Coal Have Standing?

Even Professor Christopher Stone would have some difficulty extending moral consideration to coal, oil, or gas (I think). Stone first posed an ethical question in the pages of the University of Southern California Law Review 45 (1972) that has remained a perennial favorite for nearly two generations of environmental philosophers, ethicists, law school professors and the like; Stone's question: "Should Trees Have Standing?"

Bad pun aside, Stone was able to hang his academic hat on that question. Although I don't really remember the exact logic of his argument, I don't think he successfully argued that trees should be extended moral (or legal) rights.

Everywhere it is occurring, the development of mineral resources for fuel (i.e. coal, gas, coalbed methane) presents a deluge of social and ecological challenges for policymakers and citizens alike. But I find it to be particularly troublesome when land use planning officials can successfully claim that coal has any sort of legal right. Unfortunately, it is also the case that in many mostly western U.S. states that, while the mineral itself does not have any inherent right, there's a good chance that someone or something has the legal right to get at it -- and that something is usually the federal government.

So-called "split estates" are legally binding mechanisms by which a land title is considered as completely separate from the title to the underlying minerals, including oil, gas and coal. According to the High Country News, forty-eight percent of Wyoming’s private land is split estate, and the Bureau of Land Management began leasing the minerals under tens of thousands of acres of this private land. Once the subsurface rights are leased, surface owners have little recourse against the traffic explosion on freshly bulldozed roads. Energy exploration and development (and most mining practices more broadly) threaten the quality of the air and water, they disrupt and fragment wildlife habitat, they have contributed to boom-and-busty cycles with often devastating economic consequences. And, as recent events in Utah and elsewhere have reminded us, energy development endangers the health and safety of the humans who live and work amongst it.

As miners and oil and gas industry workers toil away at their dangerous and pursuits, and as labor and environmental groups make efforts to make those jobs safer, western ranchers are fighting a different kind of fight altogether. For example, Shaun Andrikopoulos (pictured) and a group of his neighboring ranchers have been engaged in a battle to regain control use of their surface rights in Sublette County, Wyoming (photo: Justin Fantl, for Planet Jackson Hole).
Owners of the lands' surface have little they can do about the noxious fumes, flair-offs, noise from drill rigs, diesel generators and seismic exploration, add the addition of city-like skylines created by the illumination of drill rigs and their necessary outbuildings at night, and you've got some pretty disappointed landowners.

Thankfully, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition has publicized some of these problems in a powerful series of pictures of mountaintop removal mining and information as well as a collection of quotes from energy industry representatives, company execs and public officials. Below is one of the most memorable ones (and ultimately, the inspiration for this post):
"There's still coal underneath the land and sometime in the future, that coal has the right to be mined. What I am saying is there are areas where people will build and in the future they will have to un-build." -Campbell County (WY) Commissioner Alan Weakly and former mining engineer.

September 25, 2007

About Timothy B. Hurst

timothy b. hurst, tim hurst, ecopolitologyIf you made your way here looking for the latest information about me, this is not the best place to find it! First off, ecopolitology moved to its own hosted domain in 2008. And in 2009, joined the start-up green blog network, LiveOAK Media, where I have taken on the job as executive editor.

I suggest that you subscribe to the ecopolitology RSS feed to keep informed about all the lates developments in energy and environmental politics... well, at least some of them. You can also visit my Green Options archive, where a lot of my older work resides.

September 24, 2007

Michigan Bill Proposes First U.S. Renewable Energy Feed-in Law

State Representative Kathleen Law(D) of Michigan's 23rd district has introduced House Bill 5218 (the Michigan Renewable Energy Sources Act), which is the first comprehensive renewable energy "feed-in tariff" (FIT) introduced in any American legislature. By fixing a guaranteed price for small-scale electricity generation, the proposed legislation would help build the distributive infrastructure needed for dispersed electricity generation by "non-traditional" energy providers; in other words, FITs allow individual homeowners, farmers, electric cooperatives, businesses, and other associations sell to the energy grid for a potentially healthy profit.

As proposed, the tariffs rates proposed in the bill are on par with similar feed-in rate structures that I have alluded to in this blog before. The aggressive rate structure in Germany's Renewable Energy Sources Act has produced well documented growth in aggregate-level and micro-level generation of renewable energy. It has even been suggested that the proposed fee schedule would be the most aggressive and comprehensive tariff schedule in North America, surpassing Ontario's Standard Offer Program (For further reading, I highly recommend Paul Gipe's Wind-Works, a sort of cyber-clearinghouse for feed-in laws, renewable energy, everything you could want to know about wind and decentralizing the grid with renewable energy). The proposed legislation, if passed, would be more comprehensive in breadth (in terms of the greater diversity in renewable energy sources included), as well as depth (in terms of the newfound deep pockets in the pants of the small-scale electricity providers).

This legislation is a move that will most certainly invigorate small-scale renewable energy production in Michigan. However, I also see that it while it is diverse enough to include a fee schedule for a broad array of potential sources, it particularly favors some sources over others (i.e. mandating much higher rates per kWh for solar compared to other sources.)

Summary of Proposed HB 5218 Tariff Rates:

Hydro less than 500 kW..........................$0.10 kWh
Biogas less than 150 kW.........................$0.145 kWh
Geothermal less than 5 MW....................$0.19 kWh
Wind.........................................................$0.105 kWh
Small wind................................................$0.25 kWh
Rooftop solar less than 30 kW................$0.65 kWh
Solar fa├žade cladding less than 30 kW...$0.71 kWh

I am witholding too much judgment on this particular bill as of yet, but I applaud its creativity and will be following it as it progresses through the legislative process.

September 14, 2007

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, part 1

Perhaps you've recently seen or heard "environmentalist" Bjorn Lomborg discussing his new book,Cool it: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, in which he argues that global warming is real but not worth fussing about. Why not? Because the prognosis for environmental health is pretty good, according to Lomborg, and more "social good" could be purchased if societies would spend their money on AIDS or malaria treatment instead of on trying to control carbon emissions. Even if the rosey environmental scenarios Lomborg concocts out of creative statistical analysis were plausible (and there's good reason to believe that they're not, GRIST notes plenty of examples of Lomborg's "cherrypicking") there would be plenty of room left to raise an eyebrow at Lomborg's underlying premise: that doing environmental good is the equivalent of perpetrating humanitarian harm.

Lomborg has presented us with a false premise: that the way to solve the world's problems is simply to throw money at them--after doing a cost-benefit analysis. There is an inherent absurdity that comes along with trying to reduce social and environmental issues to quantifiable--in Dollars or Euros--terms such as "social good" (let's see, how about if we say that the loss of an island nation to sea-level rise has the same value as a 10% change in cancer incidence). It is equally silly to try and draw a dividing line between social and environmental issues, and then depict the two "separate causes" as competitors.

For instance, coal mining intensifies as the demand for energy rises to meet the needs of an expanding population; and burning that coal increases mercury pollution, which increases the incidence of developmental disabilities; of course, coal also contributes to global warming, which harms many communities in the form of drought, more intense hurricanes, and loss of coastline. Not to mention that working in a coal mine is extremely dangerous--in 2006 a BBC story reported that as many as 6,000 thousand coal miners die every year in mine accidents in China alone.

Socio-environmental problems can not be fixed by separating out their various components. In fact, separating "environmental" and "social" issues from one another virtually guarantees that more egregious eco-social problems will arise.

September 3, 2007

The Upshot to Global Warming?

With all of the news about the potentially devastating effects of climate change aside, it is refreshing to see that there may be a few things that we can look forward to. First, there is the potential for longer growing seasons (albeit with less total rainfall). Some can look forward to smaller heating bills (but larger cooling ones). And of course there will be more opportunities to surf the double overhead tsunami-waves created by chunks of breaking ice as they plunge into the Arctic. Do yourself a favor and watch this unbelievable video of surfer Kealii Mamala and his jet-skiing accomplice Garrett McNamara, as they enjoy some icy crumblers up north(thanks to Kingsley for sending me this).