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The Clean Power Plan and Environmental Justice: Part Three

On Thursday and Friday of last week, I blogged about environmental justice and the Clean Power Plan. My first post considered how stringent targets and the right incentives could lead to significant aggregate reductions that will indirectly lead to reductions in co-pollutants that have a disproportionate impact on of-color and low-income communities. Friday, I examined the plan’s distributional effects and its provisions requiring community engagement. Today, I’ll examine provisions intended to help overburdened communities benefit from a transition to genuinely clean energy, and then I’ll draw some conclusions based on the issues discussed in all three blog posts.

Co-pollutant impacts are not the only environmental justice issue. Rising energy costs are a serious concern for poor families who spend a disproportionate share of their income on energy necessary to stay warm in winter and, increasingly, to stay cool in summer. In addition, justice questions arise as we consider who will benefit from the lower costs and jobs created by clean energy and demand-side energy efficiency.

The Clean Power Plan addresses concerns about rising costs and about the distribution of energy-efficiency benefits. The Clean Energy Incentive Program, which will provide matching federal allowances for investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, targets the energy efficiency incentives exclusively to investments in low-income communities. By helping households reduce energy use through energy efficiency programs, poor households’ energy bills can stay the same or be reduced, notwithstanding potentially higher energy rates.

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The Clean Power Plan and Environmental Justice: Part Two

Yesterday in this space, I discussed how stringent Clean Power Plan targets are critical to achieving significant aggregate co-pollutant reductions that will indirectly benefit many overburdened communities. Today, I turn to classic environmental justice issues: the distributional effects of the plan and its community engagement provisions.

As I explained in my short essay in CPR’s policy paper, The Clean Power Plan: Issues to Watch, it is difficult for EPA to directly control the plan’s distributional effects given the realities of an interconnected grid and the states’ important implementation role. Environmental justice groups had suggested that EPA require states to do an environmental justice assessment of their state implementation plans. The Plan acknowledges the importance of localized co-pollutant impacts on communities of color and low-income communities and “encourages” states to evaluate the impact of their plans of vulnerable communities and ensure that they benefit from the rule’s implementation. It did not, however, require such an assessment.

Nonetheless, the preamble suggests EPA’s strong support for considering co-pollutant impacts in developing state implementation plans. EPA notes that states are required to engage in long-term planning to reduce criteria pollutants, and observes that: “Multi-pollutant strategies that incorporate criteria pollutant reductions … jointly with strategies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from affected EGUs needed to meet Clean Power Plan requirements … may accomplish greater environmental results with lower long-term costs.” The agency states that the Clean Power Plan implementation process creates an opportunity “to consider the most effective means of meeting … obligations while limiting or eliminating localized emission increases that would otherwise affect overburdened communities.” 

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Farm Bureau Loses Another Clean Water Case

This week provided another important legal decision in the fight to regulate polluted runoff from agriculture.  A California lower court on Tuesday ordered the State Water Quality Control Board to reconsider its ineffective regulations on agricultural operations in the Central Coast region.  Judge Timothy Frawley of the Sacramento Superior Court ruled in favor of the Monterey Coastkeeper, the Otter Project, and other environmental and commercial and recreational groups, as well as a resident who could no longer drink her tap water because it was so polluted from runoff.  This decision represents another farm bureau loss and another crack in the wall that has long protected agricultural interests from having to comply with clean water rules.

Like most other states and regions, agricultural operators in central California have long been allowed to pollute surface and ground waters, enjoying special status granted to agricultural operations and other contributors of nonpoint source pollution.  In 2004, the Central Coast Water Quality Control Board took baby steps toward solving the problem with the creation of a conditional waiver that agricultural operations could sign on to.  Much like a general permit, the conditional waiver at least recognized the problem and established a framework for regulation. 

After the first conditional waiver expired in 2009, staff for the board found that nearly all beneficial uses of waters in the region were affected by agricultural pollution, that the problem was “well documented, severe, and widespread,” and that there was “no direct evidence” of improvement in water quality under the conditional waiver.  As the name suggests, the conditional waiver essentially allowed business as usual during its five-year term. 

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The Clean Power Plan and Environmental Justice: Part One

Though directed at greenhouse gases, the Clean Power Plan, by controlling existing fossil-fuel power plants, will have important implications for associated co-pollutants, many of which continue to be emitted at unhealthy levels notwithstanding decades of control.  The degree to which the Clean Power Plan will lead to reductions in traditional pollutants – the extent  of its “co-pollutant benefits” – is an especially important issue for communities experiencing the highest pollution levels, communities that are disproportionately of-color and low-income.  Hence, the Clean Power Plan presents an opportunity for the federal government and the states to further environmental justice.  So, how does the Plan measure up? And how should the states maximize the opportunity to achieve environmental justice?

In The Clean Power Plan: Issues to Watch,  I wrote a short essay identifying and explaining a number of environmental justice issues raised by the proposal. The final Clean Power Plan’s preamble recognizes the importance of this issue, devoting a major section to “Community and Environmental Justice Considerations.”  EPA has also created a Clean Power Plan Community Page devoted to addressing the impacts of the rule on overburdened communities. 

A first key issue is the degree to which the plan achieves large aggregate reductions in co-pollutants, a function of the plan’s stringency.  A second key issue concerns classic environmental justice: the degree to which the plan distributes reductions where they are most needed and provides vulnerable communities with meaningful participatory opportunities.  A third key issue is the degree to which low-income and disadvantaged communities avoid the costs and reap the benefits from a clean energy transition. In this post, I’ll take a look at the first of these issues, and tackle the other two and draw some conclusions in subsequent posts tomorrow and Monday.

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Fairness and Equity Are Also American Values

The New Push to Protect American Workers from the Conditions of the Marketplace 

In 1873, when Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published their book, The Gilded Age, they satirized the greed, political corruption, and skewed distribution of wealth that pervaded the United States at the time. As during Twain’s time, most of the wealth generated in this country in recent decades has gone only to the very wealthiest among us. For Americans who work for a minimum wage, there has not been a raise for decades, even though inflation has worn away their buying power. Recently we have seen a national movement to raise the minimum wage, but it is not the only issue that the nation must face if it is to address the plight of workers in this economy.  

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Criminally Negligent Construction Company Owner and Project Manager Sentenced Two Years in Prison for Fatal Trench Collapse

Raul Zapata Mercado, a husband and father of three, was killed on January 28, 2012 when a 12-foot trench collapsed on him while he was working at a U.S. Sino Investments Inc. construction site in Milpitas, California.

More than three years after the fatal collapse, in May 2015, the construction company owner, Richard Liu, and the project manager, Dan Luo, were convicted of involuntary manslaughter—in other words, even though they didn’t act maliciously to kill Mercado, they are responsible for unintentionally killing him because their complete disregard for worker safety was so negligent that it rose to the level of a criminal act. Luo was also convicted of three counts of felony labor code violations for violating a safety order and causing a workers death. And on Friday, July 31, both men were sentenced to two years in prison as punishment for committing involuntary manslaughter. This is big news. Criminal charges are far too rare for company owners and executives whose misconduct causes workers to be seriously injured or killed on the job.


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New Research Affirms That Corporate Interest Lobbying at OIRA Holds Sway

When asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton is said to have responded, “Because that’s where the money is.”  For decades, the accepted conventional wisdom held that a similar dynamic motivated legions of industry lobbyists to parade through the front door at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).  Why—one might ask—does industry spend so much time complaining to OIRA’s political appointees and staff-level economists about rules they find inconvenient to their bottom line?  Because, like CPR has been saying for many years in reports, apparently that’s where the regulatory relief is to be had.

In 2011, we released a ground-breaking report that sought to move beyond mere intuition and confirm with actual data the degree to which industry was able to wield its outsized influence to secure favorable deregulatory changes to agencies’ pending rulemakings.  

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How Does the Clean Power Plan Measure Up?

Against intense pressure from the coal industry to tie Americans to dirty fuels forever, the Obama administration has surged forward in the battle to fight climate change. The Clean Power Plan rule, released today by the EPA, promises serious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, while giving states the flexibility and incentives they need to reduce pollution, keep the grid humming, and save consumers money. The challenge, as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy put it, was “wicked hard.”  But polls show Americans want action on climate change.

Last week, CPR Scholars released a white paper on a number of key issues to watch on the Plan, offering insights on what to look for and on how states could implement it. Some of the key questions the report raises are included below with my reactions after reading the final rule for the first time. This is the beginning of an on-going discussion. CPR Scholars will continue to monitor the implementation of this rule and will closely examine the final rule’s implications for both states and citizens alike.

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After 25 Years, is the Americans with Disabilities Act Protecting Workers?

July 26 marked the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal civil rights legislation that protects the rights of people with disabilities to participate in and contribute to society, including the right to join the workforce.

Over the past quarter-century, the law has undoubtedly improved the lives of many Americans, but challenges remain, most notably with respect to equal employment opportunities. As U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez aptly wrote in his statement on the anniversary, “While we celebrate the courage of the trailblazers who made the ADA possible and mark the momentous progress of the last 25 years, we must also be resolute about meeting the challenges that remain. Employment remains the unfinished business of the ADA.”


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Farm Bureau Effort to Thwart Bay Cleanup Progress Rejected by Third Circuit

Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the 2013 decision of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania that EPA did not exceed its Clean Water Act (CWA) authority in issuing the total maximum daily load (TMDL), or pollution diet, for the Chesapeake Bay.  The ruling affirmed the legality of the nation’s most ambitious TMDL and, more broadly, it also rejected the plaintiffs’ exceedingly narrow view of TMDLs.

As presented in a recent case brief, CPR Member Scholars Emily Hammond, Dave Owen, and Rena Steinzor and I argue that this decision is a good example of how judicial deference can protect important agency efforts to protect the environment.  According to brief co-author Rena Steinzor, “The Third Circuit provided resounding support for ongoing efforts to restore the Chesapeake and for EPA’s authority to work with states to adopt broad and protective TMDLs for impaired waters across the country.” Nonpoint sources of pollution – particularly from agriculture – are the primary cause of impairment in the Chesapeake Bay and in many water bodies across the country.  And TMDLs can be the perfect tool to address the problem – if EPA and the states embody the spirit of “cooperative federalism.”  

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