Backyard Talk

What Does Justice Scalia’s Death Mean for Environmental Justice?

By Dylan Lenzen

Nobody can deny that Justice Antonin Scalia was an immensely important figure asd most certainly left his mark on law in America. With his sudden death over a week ago now, I feel great sympathy for his family, friends, and colleagues mourning his loss. With that said, Scalia’s passing and the decision over his replacement will likely have enormous implications for the environment and, perhaps most immediately, climate justice.

While Scalia has offered positive opinions in regards to some cases with environmental justice implications in the past, his legacy towards the environment is most definitely a negative one. The justice regularly offered opinions in favor of property rights over the protection of human lives and the environment.

In multiple cases, he has voted against the EPA’s ability to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of power plants. Just this summer, he wrote the majority opinion in a case that prevented the EPA from enacting important protections against mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from power plants.

But perhaps most significant, just days before his passing, Scalia was a part of a 5-4 majority that issued a stay, preventing the implementation of the new Clean Power Plan for the time being. Under the plan states would be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030. This plan also played an important role in helping the U.S. achieve an agreement at the Paris climate talks. Without such a plan ensuring U.S. emission reductions, there is little reason to believe that other countries will achieve their own commitments.

With Scalia on the Supreme Court, it appeared highly doubtful the Clean Power Plan would ever be implemented. With his passing, this projection changes instantly, providing hope for achieving climate justice.

In the short-term, the decision on the future of this important plan will rest in the hands of the D.C. Circuit court, which is likely to uphold the plan. Next, it would require a majority vote from the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling of the D.C. Circuit court, but with the court now tied at 4-4, this appears unlikely. So, until a new justice is appointed, either by Obama or the next President, should Congressional Republicans get their way, the future of the Clean Power Plan appears secure.

Ultimately, the newest Supreme Court justice is will have serious implications for climate justice in the long-term. Given the recent Republicans in the Senate over Obama’s intention to appoint a new justice, the process could be a long one, and may rest in the hands of the next president.

Backyard Talk

Clean Power Plan, Community Engagement and Environmental Justice

In August, the EPA and President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon pollution from power plants as a means to stem the advance of climate change. The plan introduces the first national standards the U.S. has ever seen for carbon pollution, while customizing goals for each state. If the plan is successful it will not only greatly reduce carbon pollution emitted from U.S. plants; it will also contribute to incentivizing a clean energy transition in the United States, while improving air quality by reducing loads of soot and hazardous chemicals emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels.

According to the EPA, the construction of the plan has involved “years of unprecedented outreach and public engagement.” EPA plans to continue its discussions with communities now that the final plan is in place, and November is a particularly busy month for this initiative. During the next month, EPA will hold four two-day public hearings at locations across the country. Hearings will be held in Pittsburgh (November 12-13), Denver (November 16th-17th), Washington, DC (November 18th-19th), and Atlanta (November 19th-20th). These hearings will give community members and other stakeholders the chance to raise concerns or arguments relating to the power plan. Registration opened several days ago, and can be found at the EPA’s website. Following the meetings, the public comment period for the plan will remain open through January 16th.

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Many of the environmental justice provisions in the plan were added as a result of input from environmental justice advocates. This chart was featured in a article by Jalonne L. White-Newsome of "WE ACT for Environmental Justice"

According to the Clean Power Plan fact sheet, EPA will require states to document how they are actively enhancing community engagement during the implementation of the plan, particularly engagement with low-income communities, minority communities, and tribal communities. This requirement attempts to establish a channel of dialogue by which community members can learn about state activities to realize the goals of the plan, while providing their own input. The EPA will also monitor air quality impacts on vulnerable populations and provide easily accessible data on emissions via a community resource web page.

So far, the plan has drawn mixed praise and criticism from environmental and environmental justice organizations. The Sierra Club praised the plan’s inclusion of environmental justice provisions as well as community resources. However, they pointed out that the plan does not include a consideration of cumulative impacts; that the plan allows cap-and-trade programs to be used, which may exacerbate the existence of pollution hot spots in environmental justice communities; that waste-burning may increase as a result of the plan; and that the requirements for compliance with the Civil Rights Act during plan implementation are insufficient. The Energy Justice Network echoed concerns about cap-and-trade programs and Civil Rights Act compliance, and urged EPA to close loopholes related to nuclear power, natural gas, and biomass burning. WE ACT for Environmental Justice praised the plan as an ambitious “step in the right direction,” and assured that environmental justice advocates across the country would continue to speak up and impact the implementation process just as they shaped the original plan.

As the EPA and state agencies move forward with implementation, this involvement from EJ activists will be critical in ensuring that the plan’s provisions for environmental justice and community involvement are carried forth, and that the lingering inadequacies of the plan are addressed. Hopefully, the November meetings will be a continuation of this unprecedented process of community engagement and outreach.


Backyard Talk

Billions of Taxpayer Dollars a Year Spent in Support of Coal Industry

By Dylan Lenzen

Despite recent efforts by the federal government, such as the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, to phase out one of the dirtiest forms of energy generation in coal power plants, a new report shows the US government still provides ample financial support to the coal industry by spending billions of taxpayer dollars on subsidies.   According to this recent report, the US government subsidizes the coal industry to the tune of $2.9 billion a year in the Powder River Basin alone. These subsidies come in the form of direct spending, tax breaks and exemptions, discounted leases, government-funded infrastructure, and reduced funding for cleanup efforts after mining is complete.

This report comes as the climate change, public health, and environmental justice effects of coal energy generation are increasingly being realized. Coal power plants are responsible for roughly one-third of the America’s carbon dioxide emissions. On top of that, coal power plants have long been associated with adverse health effects as a result of toxic SO2, NOx , and particulate matter emissions that lead to billions of dollars in healthcare costs. In addition, according to a report by NAACP, the negative effects of coal power are more likely to be experienced by low-income and minority communities, as power plants are often located in such areas.  Also, NAACP found that the worst performing coal power plants disproportionately affect low-income people of color. So, not only are American citizens forced to bear significant costs of coal energy generation in the form of adverse health effects, but also through their tax dollars, which subsidize the industry and support its proliferation.

While efforts, such the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, are working to reduce coal power’s contribution to climate change and negative public health outcomes, authors of the study on coal subsidies argue that the elimination of this financial support would be the best route to take in order to phase out the dirty energy source. The authors of the study suggest that elimination of subsidies going to the Powder River Basin would result in CO2 emission reductions that are equivalent to closing 9 to 32 coal power plants.

The US and other governments also support other forms of fossil fuel energy generation through subsidies. The International Monetary Fund recently estimated that coal, oil, and gas were supported by $5.3 trillion in subsidies. This figure includes not only direct subsidies, such as tax breaks, but also indirect costs imposed on society that result from the adverse effects of pollution and climate change.

So, maybe the United States government deserves some credit for their work in enacting the Clean Power Plan, but efforts will not adequately address the issues of coal energy generation until the US eliminates opposing policies such as coal subsidies.