Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Updates on smog, soot, global warming, and a whole lot more

With Labor Day already a distant memory, it is time for working stiffs like us at Clean Air Watch to put the noses back to the old grindstone.

And so here are a few items to monitor in the coming weeks. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it does include possible stories worth keeping in mind.


Frank O’Donnell
Clean Air Watch

Revolutionary reductions: By now, you may have had a chance to review the truly revolutionary move by the state of California to reduce global warming pollution. The next step is the official signature of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on the new California law, but do not be surprised if some other states start talking about emulating the Golden State. California’s landmark action has huge implications for the future – and it may even eventually move the bar in a post-election D.C.

Coming up later this year, of course, is the Supreme Court case on global warming. The various “friend of the court” filings are in, and there are a few interesting developments. Among those siding with environmental and state groups are at least two big power companies – Entergy and Calpine. Entergy noted that the case made for “strange bedfellows.” (Other members of the coalition include former EPA administrators, church groups and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.)

Soot saga: In just three weeks, the U.S. EPA will make it official – its final national health standards for particle soot. We are regrettably betting that the agency will pay more attention to political science than real science when it makes its announcement September 27. (See our forecast at http://www.tompaine.com/print/dont_bet_your_lungs_on_this.php )

To give you a sense of the grotesque public health implications of a pro-polluter decision, our friends at the American Lung Association plan to release a report next week. This report should provide the grist for some local stories on this issue. Please check in with me early next week.

Smog stunner: You will recall that EPA’s particle soot proposal was sharply criticized by EPA’s outside science advisers. Well, get ready for what Yogi Berra once called “Déjà vu all over again.”

In this case, the science advisers are about to send EPA a letter noting that recent science unequivocally requires EPA to set tougher national health standards for ozone, or smog. This is a tougher line than the draft strategy set forth by EPA’s own staff scientists who, anticipating political pressure from on high, hedged their bets on this issue. The science advisers reached this conclusion late last month in a little-noticed meeting in North Carolina.

As with the global warming item above, this recommendation carries enormous implications. Please contact us if you want to delve into this more deeply. I promise you it will not be the last you hear about this.

Smog survey: Our Clean Air Watch volunteers continue their impressive efforts to keep tabs on air pollution monitors around the nation. They have found that smog problems were generally less severe in August than a year ago. Current (now known to be inadequate) public health standards were breached about 550 times in August compared to about 750 times a year ago. Please let us know if you want details for your state or community.

Diesel D-Day: A truly landmark development will take place next month. Barring some unforeseen glitch, on Oct. 15, ultra-clean diesel fuel will be available at retail pumps around the nation. This will be one of the great, great clean-air success stories—right up there with the removal of lead from gasoline.

You may recall that in the year 2000, President Clinton’s EPA called on oil companies to make and sell this cleaner fuel so that new diesel trucks and buses could use modern pollution controls that wouldn’t work with dirtier fuel. Almost six years later, the fuel will finally be on the market – and this will revolutionize the diesel engine as we know it. That black puff of smoke will be history.

As usual, California was ahead of the curve: it required that the cleaner fuel be available starting last week.

Ethanol emissions? Speaking of California, the state learned last month (in a little-noticed report) that reformulated gasoline with ethanol appears to be leaking out higher-than-expected smog-forming emissions. (The study is at http://www.crcao.com/default.htm )

This isn’t the final word on the subject, to be sure. But it does raise an issue and does call into question the short-sighted decision by congressional appropriators to cut the budget for the US EPA to study the environmental effects of ethanol in gasoline. Perhaps they are worried about what EPA might find.

Koch connection: One final note (for now) on the interesting connection between the Bush administration’s environmental policies and Koch Industries, which underwrites various right-wing causes including the notoriously anti-environmental Mercatus Center. You will recall that the President has nominated Mercatus hatchet Susan Dudley to become the White House Regulatory Czarina (where she’ll have the best seat in the house to kill any plan by EPA to make current smog standards tougher; see item above).

In another little-noticed move, the President has tapped Koch Charitable Foundation alumnus Alex Beehler to become EPA’s new Inspector General. You will recall the former IG, Nikki Tinsley, was a real whistle-blower and a thorn in the side of the Bush crowd.

Not so with Beehler, who has worked behind the scenes in recent years to seek Pentagon exemptions from the nation’s environmental laws. Beehler’s nomination is a radical departure from the traditional role of the EPA Inspector General, which has long been a voice of independence and candor on behalf of EPA’s mission.

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