Category Archives: Air pollution

Emissions are way down. No, that’s not all good news for the environment.

Chaos in the oil sector could actually intensify climate change.

Mother Jones, by Rebecca Leber, April 21, 2020
Getty

As the coronavirus cripples world economies, greenhouse gas emissions are plummeting: This year, they could drop by as much as 5.5 percent—the largest decrease ever recorded. On Monday, the price of oil went negative, meaning storing oil now costs more than the oil itself. Since we’re burning less gas and fuel, air pollution has dropped 30 percent in northeastern cities, and Los Angeles’ notorious smoggy skyline has cleared.

You might be thinking all this is great news for the environment. It’s a nice idea—but the real story is more complicated. “You don’t want companies collapsing like this,” says Andrew Logan, oil and gas director of Ceres, a think tank focused on sustainable investment. “Even the most ardent climate advocate shouldn’t wish for a chaotic transition in this sector. A chaotic transition brings all sort of pain to workers and also the environment.”

It helps to think of COVID-19 as a test run—a very painful one—of what an industry in decline will look like. “We’re seeing, as is case the now, what the cliff looks like if everyone shuts down at the same time,” Logan says.

With a glut of supply, North America producers Exxon, Shell, Devon Energy, and Cenovus Energy have already collectively announced spending cuts this year totaling $50 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. In North Dakota, Trump donor Harold Hamm’s Continental Resources drilling company has cut output by 30 percent the next two months. In Canada, the famously destructive tar sands are too expensive to mine and refine on oil prices this cheap. Even the Southwest’s Permian Basin, the most productive region for oil and gas in the United States, is expected to see dramatic closures.

Environmentalists are worried about what comes next, because of the many unintended consequences of market chaos. For starters, when gas prices tank, Americans will likely start buying more cars and taking more road trips, driving up demand all over again.

Other environmental problems aren’t quite so obvious. Lorne Stockman, a senior research analyst with the climate advocacy group Oil Change International, worries that the coming bankruptcies this year “are an environmental nightmare in the making,” with “wells left to rot as bankruptcy proceedings are going through.”

As the industry contracts, some drilling operations will simply leave their wells, and many don’t have the funding set aside to take proper precautions to make sure greenhouse gases and other pollutants don’t leak out. Environmental advocates are especially worried about leaks of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

Abandoned wells are already a big problem. Even in relatively good times, oil and gas wells still dry up. When they do, they might be sold to smaller, sometimes less scrupulous operators to tap what’s left in the well. Then those operators eventually abandon the well or go bankrupt. They can’t afford to clean up the site, which involves plugging the well with cement to avoid leaks into groundwater.

We don’t know for sure how many of these wells exist around the country, though the EPA estimates there are more than 1.5 million of them that have accumulated over a century. Wyoming has had thousands it’s in the process of plugging, and Pennsylvania has 8,000. Taxpayers will eventually pay for both cleanup and environmental damages.

Drilling operations that don’t shutter will have to find ways to cut costs. In boom times, methane is valuable to drillers because it can be captured and reused for fuel. But when oil and natural gas prices have crashed in the past, drillers have sought to get rid of excess methane in the cheapest way possible—by burning it (a process known as “flaring”) or simply letting it leak into the atmosphere (called “venting”). Both processes can contribute to climate change and contaminate surrounding communities. Flaring and venting worry many environmental advocates. The International Energy Agency notes that “low natural gas prices may lead to increases in flaring or venting, and regulatory oversight of oil and gas operations could be scaled back.”

Methane emissions hit a 20-year high last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although scientists don’t fully understand why, they believe that fracking operations may dramatically underestimate the methane they release. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, operations typically lose 15 times the rate that producers report because of malfunctions and intentional venting. The COVID-19 crisis could lead to more leaks, because companies won’t have any incentive to capture methane to use for fuel.

Amid the turbulence in the oil sector, the Trump administration has continued to roll back environmental regulations, and it has already undone Obama-era rules targeting methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

Nathalie Eddy, a field advocate for the environmental watchdog Earthworks, is worried that environmental contamination will be made worse as the administration weakens rules. “When the market falls like this one of the first things that will go is the limited capacity for inspection,” she says. The EPA, Department of the Interior, and Department of Transportation have already announced they will suspend some routine inspections and monitoring, including pipeline reporting and field inspections, and waive civil penalties if violators say COVID-19 was a factor.

Climate advocates have urged the EPA and Department of the Interior to require companies to monitor methane leaks and set aside money for their cleanup. To help the sector recoup the lost revenue, they propose a job stimulus program aimed at reclaiming these sites for the double-duty benefit of a clean environment and keeping workers employed.

But so far, those pleas are going unanswered. The Trump administration has floated several schemes for helping the oil sector: During the first round of stimulus, congressional Democrats managed to shoot down the oil industry’s bailout request. Now, the administration is considering paying producers to leave crude in the ground until the global glut shrinks. Meanwhile, the major banks want some collateral for the $200 billion they are owed from oil companies: According to Reuters, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Citigroup could even seize the industry’s assets, which could pose an enormous conflict of interest for a financial sector that just months ago was signaling a move away from the oil sector.

So far, it looks like the short-term emissions drop won’t result in any lasting policy improvements, Stockman says. “We have seen the wrong kind of stimulus that isn’t aimed at changing our relationship to fossil fuels.”

What Just Happened to the Mercury Rule?

Energy Institute Blog, by Meredith Fowlie, April 20, 2020

Last week’s EPA decision adds insult to injury for our already vulnerable communities.

Perhaps you missed it. There’s a lot going on right now. But amidst all the COVID-19 headlines last week, the EPA decided that it is not “appropriate and necessary” for the government to limit emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from power plants.

coal
Source: Pixabay

This is not a roll-back of a regulation. It’s more nuanced than that. It’s a high-stakes procedural move with two important implications:

First, it scraps the legal basis for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) which limit hazardous air pollution from coal and oil-fired power plants. Having knocked the legal foundations out from under this important regulation, I think there’s a real risk that power plants will find ways to dial back on compliance in the future.

Second, it sets a dangerous precedent for how the benefits and costs of federal environmental regulations are assessed. The ruling removes significant health benefits from cost-benefit consideration on the grounds that they are not directly targeted by MATS.

This announcement comes at a time when the country is reeling from the global coronavirus pandemic. Protecting public health is top of mind. We’ve all become keenly aware of how actions we take can indirectly protect the health of the most vulnerable among us. With these benefits in mind, we are taking action.

Meanwhile, the EPA has decided that the indirect health benefits of pollution reductions should not be considered in regulatory cost-benefit analysis. This decision departs recklessly from standard practices for responsible public decision-making.

Some colleagues and I recently published this paper (based on our longer report) which points out deep flaws in this EPA decision. The agency’s own Science Advisory Board released a report calling for a “do-over”. Hundreds of thousands of public comments raise concerns. Even the electricity sector stands in opposition. The Trump EPA response: To hell with it. We are pushing ahead.

To understand what this means, we need to remember how we got here.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards limits the emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) from power plants. To justify the rule, the EPA must demonstrate that it is appropriate and necessary. Back in 2011, the EPA supported this argument with a detailed analysis that projected big public health benefits from the power plant emissions reductions expected under the regulation. The table below, taken from the 2011 analysis, shows monetized benefits far exceeding the costs.

table
Summary of the quantified benefits and costs in the 2011 RIA for the MATS rule. These are projected for the year 2016. The data reported in this table are from Table ES-1 of EPA (2011).

There were some serious bumps on the road to implementation. But power plants began complying in 2016. The industry has since invested billions to install pollution abatement equipment in order to meet MATS requirements.

Last year, the Trump EPA started working to reverse the appropriate and necessary finding. The agency issued this six-page memo that re-interprets the 2011 cost-benefit analysis. There’s no new information here. The big change is that the “co-benefits” – health benefits that result indirectly from MATS compliance—have been wiped off the cost-benefit board. If we ignore these benefits (row 3 in the table above), MATS appears to fail the cost-benefit test.

There are many reasons to be concerned about this maneuver.  Let me unpack three:

  1. Co-benefits are real benefits

When power plants reduce mercury emissions, they also reduce emissions of precursors to harmful particulate matter (PM). Reducing exposure to small particulates saves lives. These benefits are referred to as “co-benefits” because they are caused by – but not directly targeted by – the regulation.

If a policy will generate big health benefits, directly or indirectly, these should be counted. Federal agencies are under Executive Order to weigh the available evidence on all significant costs and benefits in their regulatory assessments. This is also required under the EPA’s own guidelines for economic analysis.

An official decision that eliminates or reduces consideration of co-benefits sets a troubling precedent for future regulatory decisions. If this approach becomes standard, it becomes much more difficult for the EPA to justify socially beneficial regulations. Greenhouse gas emissions regulations- which can deliver significant reductions in local air pollution- are one important example.

  1. Direct benefits estimates are outdated and incomplete

The 2011 direct benefit projections that serve as a basis for last week’s decision reflect only one health benefit from reducing mercury emissions: improvements in the IQs of children whose families catch and eat freshwater fish. This narrow focus explains why those 2011 direct benefits estimates are so small.

A decade later, we know a lot more about how power-plant mercury accumulates in commercial seafood consumed by many Americans. In addition, recent research suggests that mercury exposure could cause cardiovascular problems. If these additional health impacts were accounted for, the direct benefits of HAP reductions would look quite different. But the 2020 EPA decision is still referencing outdated and incomplete 2011 benefits numbers.

  1. Costs are largely in the past

To comply with MATS, billions have been invested in equipment that scrubs harmful pollution out of power plant emissions. In other words, the investment costs that comprise the majority of the 2011 cost projections have already been incurred. Going forward, the costs we need to consider are the costs of operating this pollution abatement equipment. Estimates I’ve seen range from  $1.80/MWh to as high as $7.92/MWh (a non-trivial increase in coal-fired electricity generation costs).

FGD
Flue gas desulfurization is one of the technologies used to comply with MATS (Source)

By dismissing the legal basis for the rule, MATS is left wide open to the challenge that the pollution controls are no longer legally required. If I were a coal plant operator, I might read between the lines of this decision and conclude that the EPA is not so concerned about enforcing MATS going forward.

Coal plants across the U.S. are struggling to compete with natural gas and renewables. If MATS requirements are not there to keep pollution controls switched on, plants in competitive electricity markets will have an incentive to turn this equipment off to save a few dollars/MWh. If this happens, downwind communities will pay a hefty health price.

Adding insult to injury

You would think that a high-stakes regulatory decision like this would merit an analysis update given that almost a decade has passed since the original assessment was done. The reams of data and scientific evidence that have accumulated since 2011 could provide a much more accurate evaluation of the rule’s benefits and costs, in addition to a more informed basis for re-evaluating the appropriate and necessary finding.  Instead, this EPA has dusted off a stale 2011 analysis, deleted the co-benefits, and declared the rule unnecessary and/or inappropriate.

The timing of this decision feels particularly callous because the communities that have historically been most exposed to high levels of air pollution are the ones being hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis. This recent study suggests that even small increases in long-term exposure to particulate matter significantly increase COVID-19 fatality risk.

The Trump administration assures us it is putting “safety first” during this COVID-19 epidemic. But in the background, Trump appointees have been doing quite the opposite with decision after decision after decision. This MATS reversal has the potential to do real damage. But if there is good news to be found in this story, it’s that it will take time to play out. One more reason to work hard to course correct in November.

Keep up with Energy Institute blogs, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas

Suggested citation: Fowlie, Meredith. “What Just Happened to the Mercury Rule?” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, April 20, 2020, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2020/04/20/what-just-happened-to-the-mercury-rule/

E.P.A. Plans to Get Thousands of Deaths Off the Books by Changing Its Math

By Lisa Friedman, New York Times, May 20, 2019
The Hunter power plant in Castle Dale, Utah, which burns an estimated 4.5 million tons of coal a year.  Credit: Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency plans to change the way it calculates the future health risks of air pollution, a shift that would predict thousands of fewer deaths and would help justify the planned rollback of a key climate change measure, according to five people with knowledge of the agency’s plans.

The proposed change would dramatically reduce the 1,400 additional premature deaths per year that the E.P.A. had initially forecast as a result of eliminating the old climate change regulation — the Clean Power Plan, which was President Barack Obama’s signature climate change measure. It would also make it easier for the administration to defend its replacement, known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule.

It has been a constant struggle for the E.P.A. to demonstrate, as it is normally expected to do, that society will see more benefits than costs from major regulatory changes. The new modeling method, which experts said has never been peer-reviewed and is not scientifically sound, would most likely be used by the Trump administration to defend further rollbacks of air pollution rules.

It is not uncommon for a presidential administration to use accounting changes to make its regulatory decisions look better than the rules of its predecessors. But the proposed new modeling method is unusual because it relies on unfounded medical assumptions and discards more than a decade of peer-reviewed E.P.A. methods for understanding the health hazards linked to the fine particulate matter produced by burning fossil fuels.

Fine particulate matter — the tiny, deadly particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream — is linked heart attacks, strokes and respiratory disease.

The five people familiar with the plan, who are all current or former E.P.A. officials, said the new modeling method would be used in the agency’s analysis of the final version of the ACE rule, which is expected to be made public in June. William L. Wehrum, the E.P.A. air quality chief, acknowledged in an interview the new method would be included in the agency’s final analysis of the rule.

The new methodology would assume there is little or no health benefit to making the air any cleaner than what the law requires. On paper, that would translate into far fewer premature deaths from air pollution, even if it increased. The problem is, scientists say, in the real world there are no safe levels of fine particulate pollution in the air.

“Particulate matter is extremely harmful and it leads to a large number of premature deaths,” said Richard L. Revesz, an expert in environmental law at New York University. He called the expected change a “monumental departure” from the approach both Republican and Democratic E.P.A. leaders have used over the past several decades and predicted that it would lay the groundwork for weakening more environmental regulations.

“It could be an enormously significant impact,” Mr. Revesz said.

The Obama administration had sought to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Power Plan by pushing utilities to switch away from coal and instead use natural gas or renewable energy to generate electricity. The Obama plan would also have what’s known as a co-benefit: levels of fine particulate matter would fall.

The Trump administration has moved to repeal the Obama-era plan and replace it with the ACE rule, which would slightly improve the efficiency of coal plants. It would also allow older coal plants to remain in operation longer and result in an increase of particulate matter.

Particulate matter comes in various sizes. The greatest health risk comes from what is known as PM 2.5, the range of fine particles that are less than 2.5 microns in diameter. That is about one-thirtieth the width of a human hair.

The E.P.A. has set the safety threshold for PM 2.5 at a yearly average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. While individual days vary, with some higher, an annual average at or below that level, known as the particulate matter standard, is considered safe. However, the agency still weighs health hazards that occur in the safe range when it analyzes new regulations.

Industry has long questioned that system. After all, fossil fuel advocates ask, why should the E.P.A. search for health dangers, and, ultimately, impose costs on industry, in situations where air is officially considered safe?

Mr. Wehrum, who worked as a lawyer and lobbyist for chemical manufacturers and fossil fuel businesses before moving to the E.P.A., echoed that position in the interview. He noted that, in some regulations, the benefits of reduced particulate matter have been estimated to total in the range of $40 billion.

“How in the world can you get $30 or $40 billion of benefit to public health when most of that is attributable to reductions in areas that already meet a health-based standard,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

William L. Wehrum, the E.P.A. assistant administrator for air and radiation. Credit: Ron Sachs/CNP/MediaPunch

Mr. Wehrum confirmed that he had asked his staff to study the issue and that the final version of the ACE rule would include a variety of analyses, including one that does not take into consideration health effects below the particulate matter standard. He acknowledged that doing so would reduce the 1,400 premature deaths the agency had initially predicted as a result of the measure.

He called the attention given to that initial forecast “unfortunate” and said the agency had included the figure in its analysis to show the varied results that can be achieved based on different assumptions.

Mr. Wehrum said the analyses the agency is conducting “illuminate the issue” of particulate matter and the question of what level is acceptable for the purposes of policymaking. He said new approaches would allow for public debate to move ahead and that any new methods would be subject to peer review if they became the agency’s primary tool for measuring health risks.

“This isn’t just something I’m cooking up here in my fifth-floor office in Washington,” Mr. Wehrum said.

Roger O. McClellan, who has served on E.P.A. advisory boards and as president of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology, an industry-financed research center, said the data for health risks below the particulate matter standard was weak and that he did not accept the argument that agencies must calculate risk “down to the first molecule of exposure.”

“These kinds of approaches — that every molecule, every ionization, carries with it an associated calculable health risk — are just misleading,” Mr. McClellan said.

To put the matter in perspective, most scientists say particulate matter standards are like speed limits. On many highways, a limit of 65 miles per hour is considered reasonable to protect public safety. But that doesn’t mean the risk of an accident disappears at 55 m.p.h., or even 25.

Jonathan M. Samet, a pulmonary disease specialist who is dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said the most recent studies showed negative health effects well below the 12-microgram standard. “It’s not a hard stop where we can say ‘below that, air is safe.’ That would not be supported by the scientific evidence,” Dr. Samet said. “It would be very nice for public health if things worked that way, but they don’t seem to.”

Daniel S. Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit research organization that is funded by the E.P.A. and industry groups, acknowledged there was uncertainty around the effects of fine particulate matter exposure below the standard.

He said it was reasonable of the Trump administration to study the issue, but he questioned moving ahead with a new system before those studies are in. “To move away from the way this has been done without the benefit of this full scientific peer review is unfortunate,” he said.


For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.
Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered nine international climate talks. @LFFriedman

Valero Says It Faces $342,000 in Penalties Over Benicia Refinery Pollution Incident

By Ted Goldberg, May 14, 2019
KQED NEWS – California Report
The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Valero says it’s facing $342,000 or more in fines from county and regional agencies after a major air pollution incident earlier this year at its Benicia refinery.

In a filing last week with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, the company says it expects to face $242,840 in proposed penalties from the Solano County Department of Resource Management and at least another $100,000 in fines to settle a dozen notices of violation from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

The reported penalty amount is about 1/100th of 1% of the San Antonio, Texas-based company’s reported adjusted net profit for 2018 — $3.2 billion.

“While it is not possible to predict the outcome of the following environmental proceedings, if any one or more of them were decided against us, we believe that there would be no material effect on our financial position, results of operators, or liquidity,” the company said in its filing.

The SEC document also reported a much larger penalty, $1.3 million, that Valero believes it faces in connection with an incident in the Texas city of Corpus Christi, where contaminated backflow from a company asphalt plant contaminated the area’s water supply for several days.

A local environmentalist who has followed the Benicia refinery’s recent problems said the penalties barely amount to a drop in the bucket.

“These fines don’t mean much to a giant oil company worth tens of billions of dollars,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an Oakland-based lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“It’s likely only a matter of time before we see another incident, so the communities near these dangerous refineries deserve better protection from toxic air pollution,” Kretzmann said.

Lillian Riojas, a Valero spokeswoman, said the company would not comment beyond its public filing.

Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the BAAQMD, emphasized that the Valero fines were not settled yet.

The district tends to spend several years negotiating settlements with local refineries, bringing together a handful of violations into a package long after they are the subject of media coverage.

For instance, the district announced in March that Shell had agreed to pay $165,000 to settle violations at its Martinez refinery that took place in 2015 and 2016.

Solano County’s investigation into Valero’s most recent incident is ongoing, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, the county’s assistant director of resource management, who emphasized that the agency has yet to produce or negotiate any final violations in connection with Valero’s March releases.

But Schmidtbauer said it was typical for his department to discuss tentative findings and potential penalties with companies it’s investigating, talks he said would be preliminary.

Two refinery components — a processing unit called a fluid coker, which heats up and “cracks” the thickest and heaviest components of crude oil, and a flue gas scrubber, which is supposed to remove fine particles before they’re released from the facility’s smokestacks — are under scrutiny in Solano County’s probe.

They began malfunctioning on March 11, resulting in the release of sooty smoke from the refinery. The releases intensified two weeks later when the facility belched out a large amount of black soot, leading to elevated levels of particulate matter.

The smoke prompted county officials to issue a health advisory for those with respiratory problems. Refinery managers shut down the facility.

Valero’s SEC filing came as the Benicia refinery began a gradual process of restarting after being off line for more than 40 days.

The resumption of operations at the facility coincided with a slow and very small drop in gas prices, after two months of increases. On March 24, the day Valero shutdown, the average cost of a gallon of unleaded gasoline in California was $3.49, according to AAA.

On May 7, as the Benicia refinery gradually got back on-line, the the average price was $4.10. On Tuesday, it had dipped slightly to $4.07

Energy experts have said Valero’s shutdown coupled with other refinery problems in California and the high cost of crude oil globally led to the state’s recent gas price hikes, which are currently the subject of a state Energy Commission investigation.