While America recently elected a new and possibly anti-environmental Congress, we are still ending 2014 on a high note with two environmental victories. Both originated in the executive branch of government--one in our national government and the other in the New York state government. Over the past week: 1) EPA took a small but significant step to begin regulating coal ash, the stuff that remains after coal is burned; and 2) New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to continue New York's ban on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
Regulating Coal Ash
According to the New York Times' Emmarie Huetteman:
The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday announced the first federal guidelines for disposing of coal ash, instructing power plants to implement safeguards against contaminating nearby water supplies. But the agency did not require many of the restrictions that had been urged by environmentalists and other advocates, who point to studies showing coal ash... contains a significant amount of carcinogens... The E.P.A. declined to designate coal ash a hazardous material, but said power plants would have to meet certain minimum structural standards for landfills and disposal ponds, and monitor them for leaks. If a breach is discovered, it will be the utility company's responsibility to reinforce or close the pond. New ponds and landfills will have to be lined to provide a barrier against leaks. Controls must be used to prevent people from breathing in coal ash dust.
A great deal of coal ash is recycled for use as a building material, but a lot if it is dumped into landfills and waste ponds. We have been living with a variety of forms of pollution from coal for a very long time. America's environmental regulators have spent nearly half a century playing catch up to this source of pollution. If this is the "war on coal", I think coal has demonstrated a lot of staying power. Nevertheless, regulating coal ash can help ensure that people and ecosystems are protected from a potential source of toxics largely transported via water.
Banning Fracking in New York State
While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, extracting gas from the earth is far from pollution free. In order to produce gas through fracking, a liquid is pumped deep underground to release the gas. While most of that liquid remains deep underground, about a third of it comes back up to the surface. Fracking fluid is polluted and must be stored locally in ponds or transported off site.
New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo based his decision to continue New York's ban on fracking on scientific uncertainty. New York's Health and Environmental Commissioners told the governor that the scientific impact of fracking on ecosystems and human health was not fully understood. His decision to ban fracking was based on this incomplete knowledge of its impact.
In contrast to the federal government's regulation of coal ash, New York's decision makers applied the precautionary principle to the practice of fracking for natural gas. The precautionary principle requires that we test the potential impact of a new technology before we implement it. It is the way we regulate the introduction of new drugs. Before we allow a drug company to sell a new drug, we test it on animals and then on people to ensure that we fully understand the side effects of the drug, and to be more certain that it is safe for use. For other technologies, such as fracking or the use of chemicals in agriculture, we introduce the new technologies first and only regulate them once we are sure they cause harm. This might be called the reactionary principle. Instead of taking precautions to prevent harm, we only react once damage is proven. We assume that the economic benefits of new technologies are typically greater than any costs. We don't want to slow down innovation and possible economic growth by being careful and taking precautions.
Our approach to regulation is sometimes compared to the "canary in the coalmine". At one time, before we allowed coal miners to descend into certain coalmines, we tested for poisonous gas by lowering a canary in a cage suspended by a rope into the mine. If the canary came back dead, the miners didn't go into the mine. In a sense, we are all the canaries in the toxic cave we have created from modern technology. If we can prove a technology makes us sick, we regulate and sometimes ban it. But unlike Governor Cuomo's fracking policy, we almost never regulate based on uncertain but possible risk. Cuomo's application of the precautionary principle to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is a significant step forward in the history of American environmental policy.
Fossil Fuels are a Dirty, Outmoded Technology
Fossil fuels get us coming and going. They damage ecosystems when they are extracted from the planet and they pollute the air with toxics and greenhouse gases when they are burned for energy. They are a dirty and dangerous technology, but one that we are all totally dependent on for many aspects of modern life. We are deeply addicted to fossil fuels and pretending we can do without them is a fantasy.
But our addiction to fossil fuels does not make the use of these fuels a good thing. We need to figure out a cleaner and more sustainable way to power our way of life. We need an energy source that is less toxic and possibly even nontoxic. While we are making progress in developing these new technologies, they are still not as inexpensive and reliable as fossil fuels. For the time being, we will need to continue our life as fossil fuel junkies.
Until we develop the cheap and convenient alternatives to fossil fuels that will drive that outmoded technology from the marketplace, we need government to regulate fossil fuel extraction and use. That is why the events of this past week are so important.
Economic Growth Requires Innovation
Nearly all of the economic growth we have enjoyed over the past several centuries has been the result of the development of new technologies or new ways of organizing and managing human enterprises. Innovation is spurred by human ingenuity and human ingenuity is inspired by human need. Our need for food, water, air, clothing and shelter has led to the development of a complex, interconnected global economy. Our desire for intellectual and emotional stimulation, social interaction, and spiritual fulfillment has led to the creation of an international system of communication and information. Our economic, information and communication systems are all connected to each other and all require energy to function.
Right now most of the energy we use to power modern life comes from fossil fuels; a dirty, outmoded technology. These polluting, expensive and capital-intensive technologies are ripe for the plucking. The market for energy is boundless; its uses are nearly endless. An energy technology that pollutes less, costs less, and can be controlled by people in their homes would be transformative. It would transform our economic, political and social life. The motivation to develop such a technology could not be greater. Based on the past several centuries of economic and technological history, it is not too risky to assume that somewhere, someone is working on the creative breakthrough that will make this happen. When it does, it will spur a new era of economic growth, similar to the one we experienced through much of the 20th century.
Environmental Regulation Spurs Technological Innovation
Environmental regulation stimulates and does not impede economic growth and employment. These are not "job-killing" regulations, but "job-creating" regulations. It is true that some businesses may be harmed by regulation. These businesses are unable or unwilling to modify their operations to comply with new rules. More often, businesses respond to environmental rules by changing technologies and production methods. Often, these new technologies and methods have non-environmental benefits and make the business more efficient and competitive. As long as the rules of the game are not arbitrary and capricious, regulation is not inherently harmful to business. Environmental regulation also has the added social benefit of reducing illnesses caused by environmental poisons and therefore reducing the costs of health care.
Preventing toxic releases from coal ash and from fracking fluid will save more money than it will cost. It will also have a small positive impact on the search for a new source of energy that will replace fossil fuels. All in all, these two decisions are a good way to end the old year and start a new one.