The front page of today’s New York Times reports on rules being proposed by the US Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining that will make it easier for coal companies to engage in mountaintop removal mining techniques.
The rules–to be published in tomorrow’s Federal Register for public comment–will essentially abolish prohibitions of mining activities in close proximity to stream beds. From the Administration’s perspective, this will clarify the legal obstacles to mountaintop removal.
Mountaintop removal is one of the most environmentally-destructive forms of mining for coal. It involves the wholesale destruction of a mountain to get to the coal underneath and then proceeding to dump the waste into stream beds. This results in severe changes to hyrdological patterns and contamination of water supplies. Furthermore, this type of mining requires less labor than traditional forms of mining. Communities, in turn, see high levels of unemployment and environmental destruction.
Mountaintop removal has been all the rage in the coal fields of the southern Appalachians. Communities in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee will bear the brunt of these new regulations.
There has been significant public outcry against these techniques–but it has been rather localized. Given the fact that much of the electricity in the US is produced in coal-burning plants situated far from coal’s sorces makes it difficult for widespread, national concern to develop against this type of mining.
It will be interesting to see how this issue is dealt with in upcoming electoral races. In Kentucky, where Governor Ernie Fletcher is running for re-election, it could emerge as an important issue. Fletcher is trying to avoid the issue by focusing on an opposition to a state-wide gambling referendum.
It will also be interesting to see if any of the Democratic presidential candidates are queried on their views. In particular, Barack Obama has significant support from the coal industry. How he balances this support with environmentalists’ concern with the expansion of mountaintop removal will be interesting.
The front page of the New York Times today features an article on how the contours of the debates relating to federal highway financing may be impacted by last week’s bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
The process of “earmarking”–whereby legislators insert into bills financing for specific pet projects in their districts–has come under increased scrutiny. The article indicates how earmarking tends to result in financing high-profile projects like road openings, new rail lines, etc… rather than the less attractive, but essential, aspects of infrastructure maintenance. Furthermore, something akin to national priorities list is absent, making the spending of federal funds contingent on a representative’s influence in Congress as opposed to objective measurements of need.
While the earmarking process is rather inefficient, there was a more problematic invocation of large transit projects as being “pork” and, hence, something that could be cut. As the debates over how to deal with crumbling infrastructure develop, it is likely that rail critics will point to public transit as a “waste” given low levels of ridership and the high up-front, capital costs required to develop adequate systems.
It would be unfortunate if these voices dominate these impending debates. One of the “problems” with transit’s viability stems from the fact that land use is locally-controlled and that federal infrastructure financing has not been tied to sensible land use strategies. A rethinking of how the federal government deals with infrastructure might focus first on tying infrastructure money to “smart growth” strategies. This could be done by requiring states to prioritize growth regions and funding capital projects that reinforce multiple forms of mobility. In the long run, maintenance costs will be lower and related problems such as climate change and energy use could be minimized.
This is unlikely to happen in the absence of a political leadership that strives to think creatively about the integrated nature of these varied domestic problems. But, oftentimes, dramatic and tragic events like the one experienced last week in Minneapolis can spur alternative ways of thinking.
On the heels of my post last week providing context to the Minnesota bridge disaster, there is an interesting controversy brewing in Pennsylvania relating to highways, maintenance, and multi-modal transportation policy. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports on the efforts of Pennsylvania’s Republican Congressmen John Peterson and Phil English who want to prohibit the state from implementing a plan passed last month in the state legislature to put tolls on Interstate 80 and use the financing for mass transit and road maintenance.
Peterson and English are trying to amend a large federal financing bill that Congress will take up later in the Autumn to prohibit the tolling. There is little chance that the Peterson/English amendment will be successful given Democratic control of Congress, but it is interesting to note that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell threatened to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private company to raise part of the $950 million needed to fund the state bill.
This is a further example of the bind that states like Pennsylvania are in to both adequately maintain their crumbling highway systems and plan for more integrated transportation systems that are more cost-effective than simply relying on the expensive highway system for regional mobility.
It appears like there are already Pennsylvanians other than Gov. Rendell who are thinking creatively about alternatives to the automobile. The Post-Gazette’s lead story today focuses on people who kayak to work in the river-rich city of Pittsburgh! Waterways are horribly under-utilized for mobility in most urban regions of the US. It is especially surprising given that river transit could be an important component of urban redevelopment. Here in Chicago, for instance, the Chicago River is popular with tourists; but the size of its tributaries and their proximity to spaces of population density could make them viable parts of the transportation network. Countless other cities in the Midwest likely have the same potential.
The Pittsburgh kayakers not only have a small carbon footprint; but they don’t have to worry about tolls!
The US House of Representatives joined the Senate in passing comprehensive energy legislation this past weekend. Some of the key highlights:
1) Requires privately-owned utilities to obtain 15% of their energy from renewable [including hydroelectric] sources–although utilities can meet up to 4% of this threashold by introducing certain efficiency measures.
2) Cancelled a series of tax breaks to oil and gas companies approved by the previous Congress
3) Offered funding for grants and research relating to ethanol production and distribution
The Senate passed its energy legislation in June. Once Congress returns from its summer recess the bills will be reconciled in conference and then sent to Bush, who has indicated that he will veto the bill.
Key differences between the Senate and House versions include strong fuel efficiency standards for automobiles and SUVs present in the Senate bill. However, the Senate legislation did not have the requirement for private utilities to generate renewable energy. Nor does the Senate version have the tax break repeal.
It will be likely that these differences seem likely to be reconciled this Autumn. It will be interesting to see how Bush responds to the legislation. Given his low standing in opinion polls–and if Congress is able to time its passage to coincide with Bush’s climate change summit in late September–there may be ample political pressure to make a veto difficult for the President.
A couple of things have happened this week that merit mention in the long, slow, slog towards developing a policy relating to climate change in the US. On Thursday, conservative senators Joe Lieberman and John Warner introduced the outline for “America’s Climate Security Act” [.pdf]. Some key provisions include:
1) Establishment of an EU-style cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions
2) The bill will use 2005 emissions levels as the cap beginning in 2012 and will decrease the number of allowances roughly every ten years until 2050 when emissions would be 70% below the 2005 level.
3) Heavy industry, utilities, and gas and oil refining will be the sectors covered.
4) A Federal agency would be set up to regulate emissions trading
5) A certain percentage of emissions credits will be given free to affected industries each year, with around 20-25% auctioned off.
As far as it goes, its main significance is that it mandates a cap-and-trade system for major US producers. However, it doesn’t appear to match levels of emissions reduction that are currently being discussed in the international community. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has a bill with more internationally-mainstream aspirations. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s environment blog has more reaction to the Lieberman/Warner bill.
Speaking of the international front to address climate change, the week’s other news was that Bush set a date for his unilaterally-declared international conference. Ignoring the fact that world leaders have been meeting regularly under the auspices of the UN, Bush set his conference for September 27-28–just two days after the UN has scheduled a major meeting on the subject in New York. While the UN meeting is expected to be attended by over 100 heads of state, Bush is keeping his conference small by inviting only the 15 largest polluting countries along with representatives from the EU and the UN. It seems problematic that countries with large populations, currently bearing negative impacts from climate change are not part of Bush’s conference.
It will be interesting to see how China and India’s stance towards the post-Kyoto climate change regime will evolve over the course of the next couple of months. Bush’s has always explained his resistance to Kyoto as being about “fairness” given the fact that India and China are not required to reduce their emissions. Just this week, however, the finance ministers at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Australia agreed that their countries (which includes China) need to “go beyond” the Kyoto Protocol in a UN-brokered agreement.
The tragedy of Minnesota’s most-travelled bridge, resulting in the death of at least five people, has put much-needed scruitny on the state of the country’s highway system. Various media outlets have reported that the specific bridge was rated “structurally deficient” [along with about 70,000 other bridges in the country] by the US Department of Transportation and that there have been concerns about its safety for at least 17 years.
This is not surprising, given the fact that a) highways are extremely expensive to maintain and b) federal and state funding over the past three decades has not even come close to being sufficient enough to meet important levels of maintenance.
What is more troubling is the fact that the primary mechanism for funding federal highways–the Highway Trust Fund–is projected to continue its downward trend in receipts, while higher disbursements are forecast for the next four years. [See this .pdf from the General Accounting Office for a good background on the HTF].
This impending crisis has been well-known. In spite of this, there has been little concern at the federal level. During the prolonged effort to reauthorize the major transportation financing bill during the last, Republican-controlled Congress, Bush told his Republican colleagues to hold down spending and vowed to veto any bill that had a tax increase for transportation. The result was a reauthorization bill that will be insufficient for raising essential funds.
The Democratic-contrlled Congress has been more concerned, but there has been little action on substantively addressing the impending shortfall. This morning on Democracy Now, Amy Goodman had James Ridgeway on as a guest. Ridgeway has written on the current trend towards privatizing public roads and sees the Minnesota tragedy as a possible opportunity for Wall Street capital and large, multinational construction firms to advocate more privatization. Here in Chicago, for instance, Mayor Daley leased the Chicago Skyway to a foreign investment firm for 99 years [and he is currently planning on selling Midway Airport]. It resulted in a short-term influx of cash, but the long-term impacts of such privatization are unclear.
What should be clear is that the idea that there is not enough public money to support the requisite infrastructure for an advanced industrialized country is suspect. Given that the country has spent half a billion dollars on a needless war, there really is no excuse for seriously assessing the state of infrastructure and what this means for the health of the country’s economy and citizenry.