Energy and the Environment: Global Issues, Local Actions

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

U.S. Capitol

Regulation and litigation, but little legislation.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

A newly assertive federal executive branch, push-back from the legislature and judicial system, unintended effects of social activism, unanticipated effects of leaking storage tanks and Arctic thaws, who’s using coal, reasons to “go green” that don’t involve tree-hugging — 2014 will have no shortage of news stories on energy and the environment, according to a panel of seven journalistic prognosticators.

 

On January 24, the panel gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of interested policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end.

 

Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, gave a fly-over review of some of the governmental issues coming to a head this year. Several EPA rule proposals, final rules, and standards revisions address the interstate transport of air pollutants generated by power plants and other sources, carbon and mercury emissions limits, renewable fuel additive standards, and water infrastructure projects. One proposed rule under the Clean Water Act modifies the definition of “waters of the United States” to give the EPA broader authority to enforce regulations farther from shore. EPA final rulings on coal ash management and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) definitions of “solid waste” are also due this year.

 

Land use regulations

EPA rules address airborne emissions.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Other agencies have important items on the agenda as well. The Bureau of Land Management is due to issue final rules updates on oil and gas exploration on federal lands, to address the issues posed by fracking operations. President Obama has been active in designating land as wilderness areas and national monuments in the western U.S., said Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, in response to a question from the audience. Obama will probably do more of this during the rest of his term, she added. This has angered the Republican party, because these lands have been placed off-limits for commercial production.

 

The panel agreed that most of the changes this year will be driven by regulation and litigation, not legislation. Several upcoming court cases will clarify and delineate the boundaries of the EPA’s authority, said Pearl, including the agency’s jurisdiction for regulating fracking. Congress might act on some specific issues, but by and large, change is being driven by public demand, private industry response to this demand, and pressure on and by local and regional legislatures, rather than from Capitol Hill. Pearl noted that the jury is still out on whether Congress will pass tax incentives for energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources.

 

Court cases

Court cases will clarify the EPA’s authority
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Major decisions on crude oil exports from the U.S. will probably be made through the Commerce Department, said Davenport. Gasoline prices inflame public debates on this issue, but “just the fact that this is even open for debate is new,” she said. Concrete action on this could take years, she said. Tax reform is unlikely to drive energy policy because “we’re so far from true tax reform,” she added.

 

“Where is the leadership from journalists in raising public awareness?” asked one audience member. The panel members agreed that many editors see environmental issues and legislation as “wonky”. Feature articles on these topics don’t get a lot of response from the readers. “There’s always a fight to get some space on [these stories]”, noted Cheryl Hogue, senior correspondent for Chemical and Engineering News. Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian, explained that big-picture approaches don’t work as well as talking about things that people can do in their homes.

 

For instance, the Department of Energy is expected to issue new standards on efficiency for appliances and consumer products this year. Douglas Fischer, editor of the Daily Climate and moderator of Friday’s panel, suggested that “smart appliances” might be a good story hook to pique readers’ interest. “More IPCC reports aren’t going to do it,” said Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”, referring to the International Panel on Climate Change.

 

Get That Chemical Out of My Product!

One environmental issue that hit home in an immediate way was the recent West Virginia incident, in which coal processing chemicals leaked into municipal water supplies (See this January 21 article in The Charleston Gazette). News reports of this incident may add momentum to reforming TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, said Pearl. On the other hand, the incident could divert energy away from TSCA reform and toward rules on storage tanks, said Hogue. TSCA reform efforts are driven by industry’s desire to reconcile conflicting state regulations, and this may help to keep the focus on the reform effort.

 

Local governments are out ahead of the federal government in many cases. Hogue referred to New York City’s recent ban on polystyrene foam food containers. (See this recent article in USA Today.)

 

Public sentiment is driving a push to “get that chemical out of my product,” said Hogue. Manufacturers are striving to do this, but the reasons these chemicals are in consumer products in the first place is to provide some benefit — structural stability, extended shelf life, and the like. Manufacturers must find suitable substitutes for the chemicals they remove from their products.

 

Often, these efforts are led by the companies themselves, and they use “new and improved” claims to market their products. Hogue described an effort by large chain stores, including WalMart and Whole Foods, to drive these efforts forward, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “retail regulation”.

 

This is the first in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Upcoming topics: Coal: Politics and Power Supplies, Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues, and A World of Slow Drips.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Last in a three-part series on unmanned vehicles
(see Part 1 and Part 2)

NASA parrot drone

The Parrot flying AR Drone can be flown using an iPhone or iPad. Photo: NASA/Sean Smith

At present, unmanned aerial vehicles — “drones” in the popular parlance — are used for military surveillance and strikes, civilian environmental and wildlife monitoring, and scientific research purposes. Private citizens use remotely operated toy airplanes and helicopters for entertainment, and sometimes to spy on their neighbors. (“So This Is How It Begins: Guy Refuses to Stop Drone-Spying on Seattle Woman” by Rebecca J. Rosen, The Atlantic, May 13 2013)

“What we don’t have now is tabloid paparazzi drones chasing celebrities, pizza delivery drones enticing packs of dogs Pied Piper-like down the street, or advertising drones cluttering the night sky. This could change after September 2015, the deadline given in the 2012 FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) Modernization and Reform Act for the full integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System — the common area that begins a few hundred feet above your back yard (the FAA has several definitions of just where this begins). The new FAA rules will apply only to drones flying below 400 feet (122 meters) and weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kg). (“Uncertainties remain as FAA integrates drones into American skies” by Josh Solomon, McClatchy, April 29, 2013)

Current privacy and public safety laws cover much of the mischief that weaponized or camera-bearing drones could do. However, any new technology enables new dangerous and annoying misuses that aren’t covered in existing laws, simply because they weren’t possible before.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) summarized some of the legislative and policy challenges facing expanded drone use at “The Drone Next Door“, a May 7 seminar in Washington, DC, put on by the Future Tense consortium: The New America Foundation, Arizona State University, and Slate (Twitter hashtag #FTdrones).  Gosar stated that he supports Second Amendment (right to bear arms) and individual privacy rights, but that the implications of new drone capabilities must be “fleshed out”.

Do we even have a Constitutional framework for something like this? “I think so,” he said. Legislators must “break the Constitution into simple parts, and address this as personal responsibility.” But do 2nd Amendment rights apply to remotely operated vehicles? “We’re having that conversation. It needs to be open to the public and make sense to the public,” Gosar said.

Still to be determined is who regulates this aspect of drones. Is it the FAA (whose mandate includes public safety, but not privacy rights)? Is this the domain of local police departments? Is it legal for me to shoot down my neighbor’s drone if it flies over my property? The consensus of several panel speakers at the Future Tense event was that privacy issues will probably be hashed out in the civil and criminal courts over a period of years as specific cases arise.

Drone Drivers

Determining the degree of human oversight is a safety issue, but it’s also a public support issue. People are naturally uncomfortable with a machine making the decision whether to pull the trigger on a weapon (autonomous lethality). But more benign applications must win the public’s trust as well before they can be adopted widely. Self-parking cars are on the market today, and Google tested a driverless car (with a human in the driver’s seat just in case) in Manhattan on April 2 of this year.

One driverless car running over a three-year-old could “shut down the industry” according to Missy Cummings, MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and a former Navy fighter pilot. “Google cars slipped in while we were stressing over UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], but they are more likely to hurt you,” she said. Personal air vehicles might be on the horizon, and this will bring up further safety issues.

Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, disagreed with this assessment, stating that government and industry leaders must emphasize how autonomous vehicles bring down the rate of auto accidents overall. Automated navigation takes human reaction time, emotional states, boredom, and distraction out of the equation. This will be especially important in dealing with cognitive decline as our population ages. He also noted that if your car drives itself, it doesn’t matter if its passengers can’t resist the urge to send text messages from the road. Safety and accountability are paramount when determining the necessary degree of human oversight, Toscano said.

Peeping Drones

At present, private citizens in the U.S. have more leeway to spy on each other than does the government because of regulatory restrictions, according to Daniel Rothenberg, a law professor at Arizona State University.

“Could the government do an end run around these restrictions by encouraging citizens to spy on each other?” asked ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, local authorities asked bystanders to provide cell phone photos to help identify suspects. How far could law enforcement agencies take their requests for citizens to monitor and report each other? Lawsuits will drive the development of legal guidelines and restrictions on citizen surveillance, Crump said.

Where drone surveillance differs from past incursions on personal privacy, Crump continued, is that the public is finding out about drones as the technology is rolling out. In contrast, the general public found out about the extent of personal data collection done by Google, FaceBook, and other online platforms only after their systems were fully in place and had been operational for some time.

Crump cites an “opportunity to get in on the ground level” with privacy protection regulations for drones. In the U.S., it’s typical for legislation to be implemented sector by sector, enabling the development of a drone-specific body of laws. This requires that law enforcement agencies have a specific purpose in cracking down on specific activities, and that they be able to demonstrate that such restrictions are beneficial to society overall.

Drawing the Lines

Unmanned aerial vehicles in the domestic airspace should be required to broadcast an ID signal and conform to traffic control and limitations on functionality, noted Matthew Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Fellow panelist Joseph Hall, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, cited a need to strike a balance between a chaotic patchwork of customized state and local regulations and an unworkable one-size-fits-all regime. Captain Don Roby of the Baltimore County Police Department urged engagement with communities to find out what citizens are willing to accept.

Roby predicted that as more and more businesses find application for unmanned vehicles, the price will start to come down, spurring even wider adoption. “It’s like the PC revolution,” he said. Hall cautioned that not everyone will have the skills to pilot the larger drones, which he referred to as “flying lawnmowers” because of their helicopter-like rotors.

How will regulators know where to draw the lines? Waite suggested that regulations should be relaxed somewhat before the full integration of commercial drones, in order to experiment and see how things work out. Hall proposed an open-source community of hobbyists posting their experiences and test results.

Overall, the panelists agreed that current laws cover many of the issues surrounding privacy, property rights, probable cause for persistent surveillance, and how long data may be retained. Crump and Rothenberg noted that recent court cases have tackled the limits of remote surveillance using, for example, GPS units surreptitiously affixed to a suspect’s car or heat sensors monitoring activity inside a suspect’s home. The “war on terrorism” has prompted extensive debate over the distinction between civilian law and the law of war. Drones could potentially collect information on “patterns of life” tracking people’s habits and routines 24 x 7, but the concerns this introduces has less to do with the actual drone technology than with the privacy issues arising from new surveillance capabilities.

“Technology is an equal-opportunity enabler,” write Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their bookThe New Digital Age. It empowers diplomats and terrorists alike. (“Turn on, log in, opt out?” by Lauren Kirchner, Columbia Journalism Review, May 1, 2013) The drone plane providing the dramatic aerial shots of your kid’s wedding could come back and peek through your bathroom window tomorrow. The main issue isn’t the technology itself, but how we choose to use it.