Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforest—and the earth's climate.
The morning after I landed in the Brazilian state of Pará, I joined a pair of state government officials heading to an event in a municipality of Terra Alta, located 70 miles inland from the capital of Belém. It turned out they were honored guests, and as we approached we discovered that a parade was literally waiting for them on the side of the road before rolling into town. A man was shooting fireworks out the back of one truck, and a stack of concert speakers belted music out of another.
The occasion? Several dozen properties were formally being entered into the new "rural environmental registry," and the local government was using the occasion to persuade more landowners to register their land and protect their remaining forests. Terra Alta Environment Secretary João Batista do Nascimento told me that the municipality needs to get its environmental documents in order so its producers can remain competitive in a market that punishes environmental negligence.
"Our challenge is to bring this message to people who have to produce and respect the forest," Paulo says.
Business groups opposed to the Environmental Protection Agency's crackdown on carbon pollution want the Obama administration to stop paying so much attention to the "global" part of global warming.
The EPA has estimated that by reducing CO2 emissions by more than half a billion tons a year, its new rule would save the world tens of billions of dollars in avoided climate damage. The agency said the benefit of reduced warming would be several times more than any cost imposed by EPA's regulation, which would control emissions from existing power plants in the United States.
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the fossil fuel industry are taking the position that when considering whether regulations make economic sense, the government should consider only benefits that accrue directly to Americans—since they'll bear the cost of regulations.
At issue is an intensely controversial cost-benefit tool known to climate economists as the "social cost of carbon," or SCC. It is a calculation based on complex economic modeling that expresses a price in today's dollars for the damages to society that will be brought on by each ton of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere.
The EPA estimated that its rule, proposed on June 2, has an annual compliance cost of about $7.5 billion. That would produce a global climate benefit of about $31 billion in 2030, it said, by preventing intense heat, drought, storms, floods and so forth from getting worse in the years to follow. (There are additional health benefits from reductions of soot and smog, which the agency calculated separately.)
The world's most fuel-efficient car has just arrived on dealer lots in Germany and Austria, but don't expect it to be sold in America anytime soon.
The Volkswagen XL 1, a diesel-electric hybrid, gets about 260 miles per gallon—meaning, a New York-to-Washington run would guzzle just about a gallon of diesel. Chevrolet's all-electric Spark, America's fuel economy leader, gets half that many miles per gallon. The average U.S. car gets 36 mpg.
Monday's unveiling of the Obama administration's proposal to cut carbon emissions triggered a withering response from politicians and business groups tied to the coal industry—the most vocal of them proclaiming Obama's "war on coal" would decimate jobs and companies, create the next energy crisis and devastate the U.S. economy.
Wall Street must have missed the memo.
On the day the proposal was released, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Standard & Poor's 500—the stock indexes most closely associated with the nation's economic health—rose. Results in the coal sector were mixed. The stock price of the nation's largest coal producer, Peabody Energy Corp., closed down 15 cents, or 1 percent. Natural Resource Partners, Cloud Peak Energy Inc. and Walter Energy Inc. also saw their stocks fall on Monday, while shares of Alliance Resource Partners, Westmoreland Coal Co., and Rhino Resource Partners moved higher.
By the time U.S. stock exchanges closed on Thursday, the Dow and the S&P 500 had settled at new record highs. Traders had largely shrugged off dire warnings about the carbon-cutting plan and sent the share prices of Peabody Energy and three other coal companies above where they started on Monday morning.
At the core of Obama's plan to control greenhouse gas emissions from more than 1,000 power plants is a strategy resembling that of a presidential campaign in search of electoral votes.
The administration wants to get enough states on board to color the map mostly low-carbon green, instead of coal black.
To that end, it has designed a policy that seems intended to isolate the fiercest pockets of resistance, winning over as many fence-sitting states as possible.
That would make it harder for his opponents to paint this regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act as a heavy-handed federal intrusion.
"It is going to be important to have a critical mass of states being supportive," said Travis Madsen, a global warming campaigner at Environment America, a federation of state-based advocacy groups. "If too many states decide they will not cooperate, it's hard to say what might happen. The more states cooperate or act supportively, the more likely we will succeed."
Brandishing her pen on Monday morning to sign proposed rules that would significantly cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's electric power plants, Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy said: "This is the opening of our second round of engagement."
What lies ahead is a 120-day comment period, months of additional fine-tuning, discussions with other government agencies and interest groups, and more likely than not attempts to challenge the rule in Congress and the courts. A final rule will be issued in about a year. The states, meanwhile, will come up with their own implementation plans, subject to Washington's review. Only when all that is over will the rules take full effect.
The proposed standards are highly flexible guidelines for states to follow in limiting the emissions from existing power plants. They are designed to achieve a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030, compared to the amount fossil fuel power plants emitted in the benchmark year 2005.
That would amount, in the end, to some half a billion tons less carbon dioxide allowed into the atmosphere each year from the nation's existing power plants.
"That's like canceling out annual carbon pollution from two thirds of all cars and trucks in America," declared McCarthy in a feisty and confident speech before a large, supportive crowd in Washington.
But how ambitious is this, really?
On March 17, a Los Angeles-area oil pipeline spilled between 1,500 and 3,000 gallons of crude onto a neighborhood street, surprising residents and creating a noxious mess that took weeks to fully rectify.
The pipeline's owner, Phillips 66, must have been plenty shocked, too. It thought the pipe was empty.
Phillips 66 told state officials that it took ownership of the pipe through a 2001 acquisition, that it never used the line, and that it didn't know it still contained oil, according to Rep. Janice Hahn, whose Congressional district includes the spill site. The company and state oil pipeline regulators declined to confirm those statements or discuss other aspects of the case, citing an ongoing investigation into the spill.
In a statement, the Houston-based refiner and pipeline owner said the pipe involved was "out of service" and that it was being maintained "in compliance with [federal] requirements for this type of pipeline."
Between February 2010 and July 2011, Lisa and Bob Parr filed 13 complaints about air pollution from gas and oil operations near their ranch in Wise County, Texas. Sometimes they had trouble breathing, they told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). They also experienced nausea, nosebleeds, ringing ears and rashes.
Other families were also alarmed. Between 2008 and 2011, the TCEQ received 77 complaints from Wise County, in the Barnett Shale drilling area in North Texas. One said the odor was so powerful that the complainant "couldn't go outside," according to the TCEQ report.
Frustrated and angry, the Parrs decided to sue. Their attorney warned them that lawsuits against the oil and gas industry rarely, if ever, succeed. But the Parrs persisted and last month won what appears to be the first successful U.S. lawsuit alleging that toxic air emissions from oil and gas production sickened people living nearby. A Dallas County jury found that Aruba Petroleum, a privately owned company based in Plano, Texas, "intentionally created a private nuisance" that affected the family's health and awarded the Parrs almost $3 million in damages.
"When you don't have a strong regulatory system, a system to prevent what happened to this family, the only place left to turn for help is the courts," said Robert Percival, director of the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Program.
NEW DELHI, India—With great difficulty Ramesh Agrawal limped to the podium in San Francisco last month to receive the prestigious Goldman Prize for grassroots environmental activism. Still recovering from gunshot injuries inflicted by thugs allegedly on the payroll of a steel and power giant, Agrawal had to be helped up by his son Raman.
The shattered thigh bone he suffered in July 2012 was the price Agrawal, 60, paid for helping block a coal mine by the powerful Jindal Steel and Power Limited in his mineral-rich state of Chhattisgarh. Months after the mine was rejected assailants broke into the small Internet cafe Agrawal owned since 1999 and aimed guns at his chest. A mobil phone he hurled knocked the men off balance before they fired. Most of the bullets missed, but one entered his thigh and another his groin.
Agrawal's grit and determination have become an inspiration for environmental activists across India who have been fighting a losing battle against forces unleashed by the steady privatization of the country's vast mineral resources. That includes coal—India's most abundant energy resource, responsible for 68 percent of its electricity generation. India's inefficient coal-fired power plants are notorious smoke and pollution belchers. Coal mining is even dirtier.
The federal government said Tuesday it will study a critical question in the battle over oil pipelines carrying Canadian diluted bitumen: Are spills involving dilbit more dangerous to people and the environment than leaks of lighter traditional oil?
In recent years, dilbit spills in Michigan, Arkansas and elsewhere have provided convincing evidence on the subject, but researchers are still working on definitive scientific studies that would translate those examples into broader conclusions about the risks of dilbit.
The disastrous effects of those spills—and fear that future spills could foul aquifers and vital waterways—have inflamed opposition to dilbit pipelines across the country. It's one of the issues in the years-long debate over TransCanada's partly built Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would carry more than 800,000 barrels per day of dilbit from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. The controversial project still lacks the required presidential permit for the segment stretching from the U.S.-Canada border through Nebraska.
News of the study came during questioning at a Congressional hearing held Tuesday to review the progress by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) toward fulfilling mandates included in the 2011 pipeline safety act.