Climate change makes storms like Ian more common

Read the full story at NPR.

Heat is the fuel that makes hurricanes big, powerful and rainy. As humans burn fossil fuels and release huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, the amount of heat trapped on Earth rises steadily. The air gets hotter, and the ocean water gets hotter. When a baby hurricane forms in the Atlantic, all that heat is available to help the storm grow.

That’s what happened to Ian. When the storm first formed, it was relatively weak. But as it moved over very hot water in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, it grew very quickly.

Biden-Harris administration launches rapid response team to support Illinois Basin energy communities

The Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization (Energy Communities IWG), today announced the creation and launch of a new Illinois Basin Rapid Response Team (RRT), bringing together 11 federal agencies to partner with local officials and community leaders in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky to support the region’s transition to a clean energy economy.

“Energy workers and their communities in the Illinois Basin face enormous challenges as local oil, gas and coal facilities close down as part of the nation transitions to a clean energy economy. The Biden-Harris Administration made billions of dollars available for energy communities across America to spur economic diversification, advance workforce development, clean up environmentally damaged sites and more.”

Energy Communities IWG Director Brian Anderson, PhD

The new RRT will align federal resources, including regional staff on the ground in the Illinois Basin area, toward key communities experiencing recent or imminent economic downturns from coal mine and power plant closures. Federal agencies serving on the RRT will partner with these workers, communities, and public officials to support them with mapping their current assets and opportunities, navigating and accessing federal funding and technical assistance, and leveraging significant new funding opportunities available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.

“The Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to equity in Rural America begins by ensuring that people in rural places receive the same opportunities people in cities receive to build-up their local economies and create jobs, improve their infrastructure, and strengthen their communities with federal resources,” said USDA Rural Development Deputy Under Secretary Farah Ahmad. “Today’s announcement is the beginning of an effort that will provide critical on-the-ground technical assistance and lay the framework for better and more diverse economic opportunities for the people living in America’s energy communities in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. Under the leadership of President Biden, Vice President Harris and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, USDA is a strong partner to people in rural towns because we know when rural America prospers, all of America prospers.”

Stakeholders interested in partnering with and providing input to the RRT can send an email to Contact@EnergyCommunities.gov.  The RRT will reach back out to stakeholders with a compilation of meeting notes, points of contact, and next steps soon.

Today’s announcement comes on the second day of a two-day visit by federal leaders to Carbondale. On Wednesday, federal officials toured energy and manufacturing facilities in the area, including the John A. Logan Solar Project, Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale’s Airport & Automotive Program and the university’s iFERM (Illinois Food, Entrepreneurship, Research, and Manufacturing) Hub. Energy Communities IWG also hosted a public workshop today at SIU engaging community leaders, highlighting relevant federal funding, and identifying opportunities for regional economic diversification and growth in response to coal mine and power plant closures.

Background:

Historical investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act present energy communities with a multitude of opportunities to revitalize communities, diversify workforces, and support energy workers.

The Illinois Basin RRT is modeled after similar efforts piloted in Wyoming and the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. The IWG will announce additional regional RRTs in the upcoming months. The RRT effort is part of the IWG’s core goal of creating a national network of assistance for energy communities that is community-driven, in partnership with federal, state, tribal, local, and non-governmental organizations and leaders.

USDA touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. In the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production, fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate-smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean-energy capabilities in rural America, and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America. To learn more, visit www.usda.gov.

Under the Biden-Harris Administration, Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities, create jobs and improve the quality of life for millions of Americans in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural, tribal and high-poverty areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.

Which wetlands should receive federal protection? The Supreme Court revisits a question it has struggled in the past to answer

Wetlands like this one in California’s Morro Bay Estuary shelter fish, animals and plants and help control flooding. Citizen of the Planet/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

by Albert C. Lin, University of California, Davis

The U.S. Supreme Court opens its new session on Oct. 3, 2022, with a high-profile case that could fundamentally alter the federal government’s ability to address water pollution. Sackett v. EPA turns on a question that courts and regulators have struggled to answer for several decades: Which wetlands and bodies of water can the federal government regulate under the 1972 Clean Water Act?

Under this keystone environmental law, federal agencies take the lead in regulating water pollution, while state and local governments regulate land use. Wetlands are areas where land is wet for all or part of the year, so they straddle this division of authority.

Swamps, bogs, marshes and other wetlands provide valuable ecological services, such as filtering pollutants and soaking up floodwaters. Landowners must obtain permits to discharge dredged or fill material, such as dirt, sand or rock, in a protected wetland. This can be time-consuming and expensive, which is why the case is of keen interest to developers, farmers and ranchers, along with conservationists and the agencies that administer the Clean Water Act – the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Supreme Court has already shown a willingness to curb federal regulatory power on environmental issues. From my work as an environmental law scholar, I expect the court’s decision in this case to cut back on the types of wetlands that qualify for federal protection.

The U.S. has already lost more than half of its original wetlands, mainly because of development and pollution.

The Sackett case

Idaho residents Chantell and Mike Sackett own a parcel of land located 300 feet from Priest Lake, one of the state’s largest lakes. The parcel once was part of a large wetland complex. Today, even after the Sacketts cleared the lot, it still has some wetland characteristics, such as saturation and ponding in areas where soil was removed. Indeed, it is still hydrologically connected to the lake and neighboring wetlands by water that flows at a shallow depth underground.

In preparation to build a house, the Sacketts had fill material placed on the site without obtaining a Clean Water Act permit. The EPA issued an order in 2007 stating that the land contained wetlands subject to the law and requiring the Sacketts to restore the site. The Sacketts sued, arguing that their property was not a wetland.

In 2012, the Supreme Court held that the Sacketts had the right to challenge EPA’s order and sent the case back to the lower courts. Now, after losing below on the merits, they are back before the Supreme Court. The current issue is whether the Sacketts’ property is federally protected, which in turn raises a broader question: What is the scope of federal regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act?

Graphic showing how far U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over wetlands extends
This graphic shows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ jurisdiction over discharging dredged or fill material into wetlands under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Coverage of isolated wetlands without a surface connection to rivers, lakes or harbors is less clear. USACE

What are ‘waters of the United States’?

The Clean Water Act regulates discharges of pollutants into “waters of the United States.” Lawful discharges may occur if a pollution source obtains a permit under either Section 404 of the Act for dredged or fill material, or Section 402 for other pollutants.

The Supreme Court has previously recognized that the “waters of the United States” include not only navigable rivers and lakes, but also wetlands and waterways that are connected to navigable bodies of water. However, many wetlands are not wet year-round, or are not connected at the surface to larger water systems, but can still have important ecological connections to larger water bodies.

In 2006, when the court last took up this issue, no majority was able to agree on how to define “waters of the United States.” Writing for a plurality of four justices in U.S. v. Rapanos, Justice Antonin Scalia defined the term narrowly to include only relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water such as streams, oceans, rivers and lakes. Waters of the U.S., he contended, should not include “ordinarily dry channels through which water occasionally or intermittently flows.”

Acknowledging that wetlands present a tricky line-drawing problem, Scalia proposed that the Clean Water Act should reach “only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States in their own right.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy took a very different approach. “Waters of the U.S.,” he wrote, should be interpreted in light of the Clean Water Act’s objective of “restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

Accordingly, Kennedy argued, the Clean Water Act should cover wetlands that have a “significant nexus” with navigable waters – “if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as ‘navigable.’”

Neither Scalia’s nor Kennedy’s opinion attracted a majority, so lower courts have been left to sort out which approach to follow. Most have applied Kennedy’s significant nexus standard, while a few have held that the Clean Water Act applies if either Kennedy’s standard or Scalia’s is satisfied.

Regulators have also struggled with this question. The Obama administration incorporated Kennedy’s “significant nexus” approach into a 2015 rule that followed an extensive rulemaking process and a comprehensive peer-reviewed scientific assessment. The Trump administration then replaced the 2015 rule with a rule of its own that largely adopted the Scalia approach. The Biden administration has proposed a new rule that would deem waters of the United States present if either a significant nexus or continuous surface connection is present.

What’s at stake

The court’s ultimate ruling in Sackett could offer lower courts, regulatory agencies and landowners clear direction on the meaning of “waters of the United States.” And it will likely affect the government’s ability to protect the nation’s waters.

A broad interpretation could include many agricultural ditches and canals, which might obligate some farmers and ranchers to apply for Section 404 permits. It could also ensure oversight of polluters who discharge pollutants upstream of federally protected waters.

The Sacketts assert that the permitting process imposes significant costs, delays and potential restrictions on property use. In response, the Biden administration contends that most landowners can proceed under general permits that impose relatively modest costs and burdens.

In my view, this court’s anti-regulatory bent – and the fact that no other justices joined Kennedy’s concurring Rapanos opinion – suggest that this case will produce a narrow reading of “waters of the United States.” Such an interpretation would undercut clean water protections across the country.

If the court requires a continuous surface connection, federal protection would no longer apply to many areas that critically affect the water quality of U.S. rivers, lakes and oceans – including seasonal streams and wetlands that are near or intermittently connected to larger water bodies. It might also mean that building a road, levee or other barrier separating a wetland from other nearby waters may be enough to remove an area from federal protection.

Congress could clarify what the Clean Water Act means by “waters of the United States,” but past efforts to legislate a definition have fizzled. And today’s closely divided Congress is unlikely to fare any better. The court’s ruling in Sackett could offer the final word on this issue for the foreseeable future.

Albert C. Lin, Professor of Law, University of California, Davis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Chicago passes updated building energy code to support decarbonization

Read the full story at Utility Dive.

The Chicago City Council last week passed the 2022 Chicago Energy Transformation Code, which requires that new buildings are constructed in alignment with stronger energy efficiency and electrification standards to advance decarbonization. Most changes will apply to new building permit applications starting Nov. 1.

Some portions of the new code are based on the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code, while others are Chicago-specific revisions.

Changes include requirements related to energy-efficient lighting; designing certain commercial building roofs to support future solar panel installations; constructing residential buildings with infrastructure that enables a future switch to electric-powered appliances; and incentives for smart HVAC and water appliances that integrate with the power grid to reduce demand during peak use.

In Utah, drying Great Salt Lake leads to air pollution

Read the full story at The Hill.

Cars and wildfires contribute to Utah’s air pollution, but the Great Salt Lake is a less obvious but important contributor. Sitting just northwest of Salt Lake City, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere is drying up because of water use and drought amid a changing climate, sending dust with toxic metals — including arsenic — in the air of a metro area with approximately 1.2 million people. 

Particle pollution in the air has been linked to asthma, heart attacks, worsened lung function and premature death.  

Is your gas stove bad for your health?

A growing body of research suggests that gas stoves can pose health risks, especially for people with respiratory ailments. Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

by Jonathan Levy, Boston University

Cooks love their gadgets, from countertop slow cookers to instant-read thermometers. Now, there’s increasing interest in magnetic induction cooktops – surfaces that cook much faster than conventional stoves, without igniting a flame or heating an electric coil.

Some of this attention is overdue: Induction has long been popular in Europe and Asia, and it is more energy-efficient than standard stoves. But recent studies have also raised concerns about indoor air emissions from gas stoves.

Academic researchers and agencies such as the California Air Resources Board have reported that gas stoves can release hazardous air pollutants while they’re operating, and even when they’re turned off.

As an environmental health researcher who does work on housing and indoor air, I have participated in studies that measured air pollution in homes and built models to predict how indoor sources would contribute to air pollution in different home types. Here is some perspective on how gas stoves can contribute to indoor air pollution, and whether you should consider shifting away from gas.

Natural gas has long been marketed as a clean fuel, but research on its health and environmental effects is calling that idea into question.

Respiratory effects

One of the main air pollutants commonly associated with using gas stoves is nitrogen dioxide, or NO₂, which is a byproduct of fuel combustion. Nitrogen dioxide exposures in homes have been associated with more severe asthma and increased use of rescue inhalers in children. This gas can also affect asthmatic adults, and it contributes to both the development and exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Nitrogen dioxide in homes comes both from outdoor air that infiltrates indoors and from indoor sources. Road traffic is the most significant outdoor source; unsurprisingly, levels are higher close to major roadways. Gas stoves often are the most substantial indoor source, with a greater contribution from large burners that run longer.

The gas industry’s position is that gas stoves are a minor source of indoor air pollutants. This is true in some homes, especially with respect to exposures averaged over months or years.

But there are many homes in which gas stoves contribute more to indoor nitrogen dioxide levels than pollution from outdoor sources does, especially for short-term “peak” exposures during cooking time. For example, a study in Southern California showed that around half of homes exceeded a health standard based on the highest hour of nitrogen dioxide concentrations, almost entirely because of indoor emissions.

How can one gas stove contribute more to your exposure than an entire highway full of vehicles? The answer is that outdoor pollution disperses over a large area, while indoor pollution concentrates in a small space.

How much indoor pollution you get from a gas stove is affected by the structure of your home, which means that indoor environmental exposures to NO₂ are higher for some people than for others. People who live in larger homes, have working range hoods that vent to the outdoors and have well-ventilated homes in general will be less exposed than those in smaller homes with poorer ventilation.

But even larger homes can be affected by gas stove usage, especially since the air in the kitchen does not immediately mix with cleaner air elsewhere in the home. Using a range hood when cooking, or other ventilation strategies such as opening kitchen windows, can bring down concentrations dramatically.

Ventilation is an essential tool for improving indoor air quality in homes.

Methane and hazardous air pollutants

Nitrogen dioxide is not the only pollutant of concern from gas stoves. Some pollution with potential impacts on human health and Earth’s climate occurs when stoves aren’t even running.

A 2022 study estimated that U.S. gas stoves not in use emit methane – a colorless, odorless gas that is the main component of natural gas – at a level that traps as much heat in the atmosphere as about 400,000 cars.

Some of these leaks can go undetected. Although gas distributors add an odorant to natural gas to ensure that people will smell leaks before there is an explosion risk, the smell may not be strong enough for residents to notice small leaks.

Some people also have a much stronger sense of smell than others. In particular, those who have lost their sense of smell – whether from COVID-19 or other causes – may not smell even large leaks. One recent study found that 5% of homes had leaks that owners had not detected that were large enough to require repair.

This same study showed that leaking natural gas contained multiple hazardous air pollutants, including benzene, a cancer-causing agent. While measured concentrations of benzene did not reach health thresholds of concern, the presence of these hazardous air pollutants could be problematic in homes with substantial leaks and poor ventilation.

Reasons to switch: Health and climate

So, if you live in a home with a gas stove, what should you do and when should you worry? First, do what you can to improve ventilation, such as running a range hood that vents to the outdoors and opening kitchen windows while cooking. This will help, but it won’t eliminate exposures, especially for household members who are in the kitchen while cooking takes place.

If you live in a smaller home or one with a smaller closed kitchen, and if someone in your home has a respiratory disease like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, exposures may still be concerning even with good ventilation. Swapping out a gas stove for one that uses magnetic induction would eliminate this exposure while also providing climate benefits.

There are multiple incentive programs to support gas stove changeovers, given their importance for slowing climate change. For example, the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which includes many provisions to address climate change, offers rebates for the purchase of high-efficiency electric appliances such as stoves.

Dozens of U.S. cities have adopted or are considering regulations that bar natural gas hookups in new-construction homes after specified dates to speed a transition away from fossil fuels. At the same time, at least 20 states have adopted laws or regulations that prohibit bans on natural gas.

Moving away from gas stoves is especially important if you are investing in home energy efficiency measures, whether you are doing it to take advantage of incentives, reduce energy costs or shrink your carbon footprint. Some weatherization steps can reduce air leakage to the outdoors, which in turn can increase indoor air pollution concentrations if residents don’t also improve kitchen ventilation.

In my view, even if you’re not driven to reduce your carbon footprint – or you’re just seeking ways to cook pasta faster – the opportunity to have cleaner air inside your home may be a strong motivator to make the switch.

Jonathan Levy, Professor and Chair, Department of Environmental Health, Boston University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

At 75, the father of environmental justice meets the moment

Read the full story in the New York Times.

The White House has pledged $60 billion to a cause Robert Bullard has championed since the late seventies. He wants guarantees that the money will end up in the right hands.

Community science draws on the power of the crowd

Read the full story in Nature.

Participatory-science projects bring amateurs and experts together to collect and crunch data, and even design research.

Inspiration from nature: New ways to make flying more efficient and renewable

Read the full story at Aerotime Hub.

Right from the very first days of flying, when Otto Lilienthal studied the flight of birds to design his first gliders, the world of aviation has taken inspiration from nature.  

Now with an increasing focus on ways to make flying more efficient to reduce emissions, manufacturers and designers are copying tricks from the natural world. 

Big data in agriculture: Land O’Lakes’ Teddy Bekele

Read the transcript and listen to the podcast episode from MIT Sloan Management Review.

You might have seen Land O’Lakes’ dairy products on store shelves without giving much thought to how they got there, but that’s something CTO Teddy Bekele thinks about every day. While the farmers and agricultural retailers of Land O’Lakes work to produce the cooperative’s products, starting from the seeds used to grow animal feed, Teddy Bekele is focused on supporting agriculture’s “fourth revolution” — one that’s embracing technologies like artificial intelligence. On this episode of the Me, Myself, and AI podcast, Teddy explains how Land O’Lakes uses predictive analytics and AI to help farmers and other agricultural producers be more productive and make better decisions about the business of farming.