Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Clean Power Plan and Pennsylvania

In August 2015, the Obama Administration announced the Clean Power Plan (CPP) that established the first carbon pollution standards in existing power plants, requiring a 32% reduction in carbon pollution below 2005 levels by 2030. States are required to submit a plan or request an extension by September 6, 2016.

Here in our home state of Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection has solicited for feedback from stakeholders and held 14 public hearings recently. I attended the final hearing last evening in Williamsport, PA, and below is the testimony I gave:

My name is Melinda Hughes, and I live in DuBois, PA. I want to thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts on Pennsylvania’s role in reducing carbon emissions.  

In addition to being a citizen concerned about the health of our environment, I am also the President and cofounder of the national nonprofit Nature Abounds which has supporters and volunteers across all 50 states. I also hold a Masters Degree in Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School, and I have been working on climate change and effects since about 2005.

At Nature Abounds, we have a significant focus on the effects of climate change from which the world is already experiencing and our children and grandchildren will be far into the future. We can’t have success combating the effects of climate change without reducing carbon emissions as well as other greenhouse gases such as methane.

I strongly support the Clean Power Plan, although I only see reducing carbon emissions as a first step. We need stronger protections to ensure a healthy future for all living creatures. Many flora and fauna species are already having to adapt to the warmer world. Continuing to allow noxious gases and power plants business-as-usual only worsens the problem and our future.

Looking specifically at carbon emissions, a Stanford University study has detailed how for each increase of 1 degree Celsius caused by carbon dioxide, the resulting air pollution would lead annually to about a thousand additional deaths and many more cases of respiratory illness and asthma in the United States. As a result, more than 20,000 air-pollution-related deaths worldwide per year per degree Celsius may be due to this greenhouse gas.

Moving beyond carbon emissions, it is already known that methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, and in fact, 86 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over a 20 year time-frame. Methane is a powerful contributor to climate change and in 2013 alone, the oil and gas sources emitted over 7.3 million metric tons of methane. This is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from over 160 coal-burning power plants, and in this one year of 2013, methane accounted for about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, according to the EPA website.

With less methane in the atmosphere we also reduce risk. According to the US Department of Energy, the most significant health hazard associated with methane is that it is highly combustible and mixtures of just 5 to 15 percent of methane in air can be explosive. Large concentrations of methane in enclosed areas can lead to suffocation as large amounts of methane will decrease the amount of available oxygen in the air. The effects of oxygen deficiency are nausea, headaches, dizziness, and unconsciousness. These are the effects on normal people, but the risks are even greater for those with health problems, especially respiratory.

This leads me to my next point. Even without a federal rule, Pennsylvania should already have been regulating emissions from power plants and other sources such as fracking operations. Air pollution is known to get trapped between the valleys. In fact, our area is known for having some of the worst air pollution in the country due to air becoming trapped. Likewise, we are also known for some of the highest rates of respiratory issues like lung cancer and COPD. As an example, just walk around a Walmart in the Ebensburg or Johnstown areas and you’ll be shocked at how many customers are wearing oxygen tanks. Adding more air pollution only exacerbates the problem, while reducing toxic emissions will only help.

It makes sense that power plants should reduce their emissions. In fact, according to the EPA, the electric power sector accounted for 32% of U.S. total greenhouse gas emissions in 2012, and greenhouse gas emissions from electricity have increased by about 11% since 1990 as electricity demand has grown and fossil fuels have remained the dominant source for generation. It’s time for the power plants to take responsibility for their pollution, rather than asking the public and our environment to bear the burden. Too often is profit privatized while the effects and clean-up are socialized.  

From an economic standpoint, the move makes sense as well. The Commonwealth’s clean energy industry already employs 57,000 people – more than in the coal industry. By reducing carbon emissions, even the most conservative estimates suggest that Pennsylvania will add more than 5,000 jobs by reducing its carbon emissions.

In closing, I hope that Pennsylvania will take action on carbon emissions, but I’m hoping even more that you will go above and beyond the basic minimum and also reduce methane emissions from other industries such as fracking, and maybe even use that methane as an energy sources. It’s being done in several other states, including California and Vermont, just to name a couple.

The time is now as our children and grandchildren can’t afford to inherit more pollution.  Thank you, again, for allowing me to share my thoughts. 


                                          Homer City, PA power plant, photo from Reuters

Monday, September 28, 2015

Methane Emissions and the Oil and Gas Industry

Recently, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced proposed rules for methane emissions for new sources in the oil and gas industry. Last week, the agency held hearings in Dallas and Denver on the proposed regulations and today they had the final hearing in Pittsburgh. Below is the testimony I gave:

My name is Melinda Hughes, and I live in DuBois, PA. I want to thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts on the proposed methane emissions regulations.

In addition to being a citizen concerned about the health of our environment and having a Masters Degree in Environmental Law and Policy from the Vermont Law School, I am also the President and co-founder of the national nonprofit Nature Abounds which has supporters and volunteers across all 50 states. Among our focuses is natural resources extraction, which we experience in our own backyard with coal mining, conventional gas and oil drilling, as well as fracking. We have a significant focus on the effects of climate change from which the world is already experiencing and our children and grandchildren will be far into the future. As you know, we can’t work on fracking or climate change without also looking at the effects of methane emissions.

I strongly support EPA’s recently proposed methane pollution standards for the oil and gas industry, although I only see this as a first step. We really need stronger protections to ensure a healthy future for all living creatures. Many flora and fauna species are already having to adapt to the warmer world. Continuing to allow greenhouse gases continue with industry going about business-as-usual only worsens the problem.

It is already known that methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, and in fact, 86 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over a 20 year time-frame. Methane is a powerful contributor to climate change and in 2013 alone, the oil and gas sources emitted over 7.3 million metric tons of methane. This is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from over 160 coal-burning power plants, and in this one year of 2013, methane accounted for about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, according to the EPA website.

With less methane in the atmosphere we also reduce risk. According to the US Department of Energy, the most significant health hazard associated with methane is that it is highly combustible and mixtures of just 5 to 15 percent of methane in air can be explosive. Large concentrations of methane in enclosed areas can lead to suffocation as large amounts of methane will decrease the amount of available oxygen in the air. The effects of oxygen deficiency are nausea, headaches, dizziness, and unconsciousness. These are the effects on normal people, but the risks are even greater for those with health problems, especially respiratory.

This leads me to my next point. Many fracking sites are around the country are located in mountainous areas like Pennsylvania and Colorado, where air is known to get trapped between the valleys. In fact, our area is known for having some of the worst air pollution in the country due to air becoming trapped. We are also known for some of the highest rates of respiratory issues like lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Adding more air pollution only exacerbates the problem, while reducing methane emissions will help.

The air pollution that does escape the valleys can travel far. A recent study by researchers at the University of Maryland looked at hourly measurements between 2010 and 2013 in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. areas of ethane and methane, both gases found in natural gas.  While there wasn’t much information on methane sources at the time, they found that ethane measurements increased by 30 percent in that time period. Ironically, fracking operations aren’t found in Maryland and DC, but they are in the neighboring upwind states of West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania where fracking was booming during this period. Note that researchers ruled out other potential sources of pollution. They also compared their findings with cities that aren’t downwind from fracking operations such as Atlanta, and these areas did not show changes in their ethane and methane emissions.

In closing, the oil and gas industry must take responsibility for their pollution, rather than asking the public and our environment to bear the burden. Too often is the profit privatized while the effects and clean-up costs are socialized. The proposed standards will not only help with methane, but will also help to curb other hazardous air pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are released from oil and gas sources alongside methane. As I mentioned earlier, these proposed rules are an important first step towards reducing the harm of this industry. I hope that the EPA will strengthen and finalize these rules and then move swiftly to issue standards covering existing sources, within the oil and gas industry as well as other contributing sources from other industries. Thank you, again, for allowing me to share my thoughts. 




Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why Cecil the Lion's Death Matters

Cecil the lion - Photo credit to Bryan Orford/YouTube
By now, most people know about Cecil the Zimbabwean lion who met his demise due to scrupulous tactics of local poachers and a wealthy dentist from Minnesota named Walter Palmer. All of these men are now facing poaching charges in the African nation, and the dentist may face other charges here in United States. Furthermore, the dentist has actually temporarily closed his dentistry due to the outpouring of public outrage and his family has received death threats. Some people are also outraged at the pressure the dentist and his family are facing.

While Cecil and the dentist may be the celebrities of this tale, the story is so much bigger than either of them. Poaching situations like this happen every day across the globe and even here in the United States. While some countries take poaching seriously, here in the United State, poachers like Walter Palmer rarely see jail time and usually do not pay a hefty fine. Palmer admitted in 2008 to lying to a federal agent about the area he shot a Wisconsin black bear. He had a hunting license for a specific area but illegally hunted forty miles away from the area and claimed he shot and killed the bear in the authorized zone. For this episode, he was facing a maximum penalty of five years in prison. He was sentenced to one year probation and fined nearly $3,000. In 2003, he was caught fishing without a license in Minnesota and paid a minimum fine. With such little consequence, it is no wonder Palmer and others like him continue to have illegal hobbies that wreak havoc on wildlife and the ecosystem.

Palmer, now known as the notorious dentist, has already established himself as a big trophy hunter. As a member of the Safari Club International, he is listed as having 43 big trophy kills on record, and these other kills include a polar bear, a walrus, a mountain lion, moose, dear, buffalo, a wolf, rhinoceros, and California Bighorn sheep. The Safari Club International is notorious for killing animals for sport, and in a rare move by them, Wednesday night, they suspended Palmer's membership as well as the guide he used in Zimbabwe in light of the investigation into "unethical hunting practices".

While several African species are considered endangered, it does not stop them from being hunted to near extinction, and what they do is actually legal. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, over 600 African lions are estimated to be legally hunted for sport each year. With only about 30,000 lions remaining in Africa, this means that 2% of the total lion population is wiped out every year.

Most hunters also aim to shoot a healthy male lion which also affects populations, not only from removing reproducing males, but when a pride's leader is killed, the rising male of the pride usually kills any male cubs that were produced by the previous pride leader that was killed. Since Cecil was killed, it's predicted that rising pride male Jericho will kill off all of Cecil's male offspring. Not only does this wreak havoc on the lion's pride but on the entire ecosystem, removing natural predators for absolutely no reason beyond someone's "thrill of the kill".

Sadly, wealthy American tourists, are making the largest takes in Africa and a 2011 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare claims that 64% of all African lions killed for sport between 1999 and 2008 were killed by American tourists. Unfortunately, the number of lion trophies imported into the US is rising, and in 2008 the number of lion trophies imported was more than twice in 1999.

Hunting wildlife for sport must be stopped across the United State and abroad. With the public outrage over Cecil's death, we need to use this momentum to make changes for wildlife. Below are just a few ways we can make a difference:

  • stiffer fines for unethical hunters like Palmer and for guides that commit illegal acts,
  • ban big game trophy mounts from being imported into the United State, especially those that are considered threatened or endangered species, 
  • teach future generations respect for wildlife and that they shoot trophy animals with a camera instead of a weapon, and 
  • bring stories like Cecil to light in order to bring more awareness of poaching and endangered species.

Hopefully, the media continues to share stories like Cecil's and people continue to be outraged at people like Walter Palmer. These heartbreaking stories need to heard and are much more important than stories about deflated footballs and what Hollywood starlets are wearing. While this may be shocking to some, these stories are even more important than Donald Trump.

While I could write much more on wildlife and poaching, I will stop here and save more thoughts for a future post. While Cecil's death is sad, it can also be a catalyst for significant change for wildlife. In closing, I ask that you talk to others about poaching and respect for wildlife. Likewise, please support Nature Abounds and other organizations that are working on wildlife and other environmental issues. With your support, we can make a difference for the other Cecil's out there.