The Weekly Carboholic: EPA Office of the Inspector General recommends EPA enforce Clean Water Act



Last week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the EPA’s internal monitoring organization, the Office of the Inspector General, found that the EPA’s current approach to controlling excess nutrient deposition into the Gulf of Mexico by the Mississippi River was not working.

The OIG report described an EPA process that, after 10 years of recommending a set of procedures to the Mississippi drainage states, had resulted in the following:

the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico had become the second largest on record and the second largest dead zone in the world.

Further, the report found that, “[i]n the 11 years since EPA issued its strategy, half the States still had no numeric nutrient standards at the end of 2008.”

The states involved have claimed that the costs of creating their own numerical nutrient limits are onerous, and while the states could adopt the EPA standards, “many States viewed EPA’s criteria as overly protective.” And given that the largest sources of nutrients are agricultural states, the OIG report claimed that the political ramifications and costs to agribusiness were likely significant.

In 2001, the EPA published rules in the Federal Register which said that the EPA would force all states in the Mississippi River watershed would be forced to adhere to EPA standards if the states didn’t come up with their own standards by 2004. The OIG report found that “about one-third of the States did not have a nutrient criteria development plan or were not in the administrative phase of adopting standards.” Further, the report found that “States knew that EPA would not use its promulgation powers so the States were not pressured to accelerate progress” and that “EPA had not established measures to hold itself accountable for achieving the goals of its 1998 strategy” by a 2007 audit.

As a result of the findings of the report, the OIG recommended first and foremost that the EPA determine what waterways needed numeric nutritional standards to protect clean water downstream and that the nutritional standards be set according to the authority granted the EPA by the Clean Water Act. The EPA disagreed with these primary recommendations, claiming that:

“a strategic approach to leverage resources and existing authorities” for “waters of regional, local and multi-State value” is the best way to establish effective standards.

In response, the OIG report said “[h]istorically, EPA has said it would use its authority to set standards as a motivator and then failed to set standards…. These States have not yet set nutrient standards for themselves; consequently, it is EPA’s responsibility to act.”


Climate change lobbyists grow by 31% leading up to ACES vote

According to a new article in the Center for Public Integrity’s “The Climate Change Lobby” series, there are now 1150 companies and organizations registered to lobby Congress on climate disruption legislation. This represented an increase of 31% in the total number of organizations lobbying Congress on this single issue.

The article guessed that at least $27 million was spent lobbying Congress leading up to the House vote on the American Climate and Energy Security Act (ACES).


New information suggests climate change accelerating glacial erosion

What do you think erodes land faster – glaciers, rivers, or human farming? According to new data from various glaciated regions around the world, this is a trick question. Specifically, a paper recently published in the journal Nature Geoscience shows that all three erode land at approximately the same rate.

Previously, glaciers were believed to erode landscape at a rate faster than rivers. New information presented in the paper shows that this is not the case. In fact, the rate of erosion appears to change in proportion with the stability of the land that the river or glacier is eroding – in highly tectonically active areas like the Himalayas, glaciers and rivers both erode the land faster than in tectonically stable areas like Australia or the Oregon coast. In addition, erosion from glaciers and rivers appears to roughly match the rate of tectonic change – areas that are uplifting at a rate of 10 mm per year tend to see glacial and river erosion cut through the terrain at roughly the same rate.

There are a couple of other interesting observations described in the paper as well. For example, glacial erosion appears to increase as glaciers are retreating. The paper describes a number of possible mechanisms for this (namely increased flow of meltwater washing away sediment from the base of the glacier and glacial acceleration scraping off more terrain).

the time-dependent variability in glacial erosion rates we are seeing instead suggests that the erosional impact of glaciers is far greater during periods of warming at the end of a glacial cycle than when averaged over a full glaciation (~105 – 106 yrs). Several studies have recently documented a synchronous increase in retreat, ice loss and acceleration of many of the outlet glaciers in Greenland and Patagonia. Such synchronous ice loss and flow suggests that, contrary to previous conclusions, sediment yields and thus calculated erosion rates are more rapid during glacial retreat…

This suggests that glacial melt as a result of climate disruption will cause a significant amount of additional erosion to those areas that are presently deglaciating, namely Greenland, Alaska, Patagonia, and similar regions of the world.

In addition, the authors point out that lowland erosion from agriculture is approximately the same as the fastest glacial and river erosion, and much faster than river erosion in the tectonically stable lowlands would normally be.

[I]f we compare these erosion rates with rates from overland flow associated with conventional agricultural practices, as compiled previously, we see that farming erodes lowland agricultural fields at rates comparable to glaciers and rivers in the most tectonically active mountain belts (Fig. 3). In other words, the relatively recent advent of farming practices has accelerated erosion of many lowland basins at rates on a par with alpine erosion, rates that far exceed long-term rates not only of uplift but also of weathering and soil formation.

The image below is the aforementioned Figure 3.

Thanks to lead author Dr. Koppes for a copy of her paper for my review.


Wind turbines mistaken for tornadoes

According to an Associate Press article, wind farms can be mistaken by Doppler radar as tornadoes. Specifically, the spinning blades at the top of a 200 foot tower look like the rapidly rotating winds of a powerful thunderstorm or a tornado. And in places like Texas, where there are lots of both wind turbines and tornadoes, turbines have generated erroneous tornado warnings.

As with all plans, the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme.


First deep water tethered wind turbine now operational

The BBC reports that the first tethered deep water wind turbine is now operational in the North Sea off the coast of Norway. The Carboholic first covered the Hywind deep water wind project back in June, when it had been installed but was still undergoing testing. But now the turbine is adding 2.3 MW to the Norwegian electric grid when it’s windy out 10 km in the North Sea.

According to the BBC article, part of the reason that the turbine was placed in the North Sea was because of the severity of winter storms. The idea was to test how well the turbine withstood potentially damaging winds and seas over a two year test period. In the video that accompanies the BBC article, Hywind asset manager Sjur Bratland estimates that it’ll be at least another 10 years until deep water floating wind turbine technologies are advanced enough to deploy widely. According to the BBC article, part of that would be the development of turbines that are smaller, lower to the water surface, and that produce more electricity per turbine, up to 6 MW.


rareearthCAmineRare earth metals and renewable energy

Two new articles in Reuters last week pointed to a known but little publicized problem with hybrid vehicles and wind turbines – the large scale use of rare earth metals in the motors, batteries, and generators used in hybrid vehicles and turbines.

The first article points out that the Prius uses 1 kg of the rare earth metal neodymium, 10-15 kg of lanthanum, and trace amounts of terbium and dysprosium. These are used in the electric motor as a lightweight alternative to iron magnets and in the high capacity nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. The problem is that the largest source of these elements is China, and the Chinese government is limiting exports specifically to ensure a supply of the rare earth metals to Chinese industry. As a result, Toyota and wind turbine manufacturers are looking to rare earth deposits in Canada, Vietnam, and a previously worked mine in California.

The second article is about the California mine. The mine used to be the largest source of rare earth metals in the world until Chinese mine production drove the price down so far that mining in California stopped being economical. According to the article, the mine not only has the largest known deposit of rare earth metals in the world, the ore has very little uranium or thorium, two elements that make extracting the rare earth metals more expensive. And with the development of a new extraction technology, the mining company expects to be able to start extracting 1,000 tons of refined rare earth metals from the mine per day by 2012. Just in time for the mine to fill in the expected gap left by Chinese export restrictions.

Given that the U.S. could possibly be trading a dependency on Middle East oil for a dependency on Chinese rare earth metals, a domestic source of elements critical to renewable energy would be a good thing to have.

Image credits:
Science Education Resource Center
Nature Geoscience
REUTERS/David Becker

4 replies »

  1. it’ll be at least another 10 years until deep water floating wind turbine technologies are advanced enough to deploy widely

    Still a tremendously encouraging development. I saw it on TV: kind of mind-boggling.

  2. In August the UW placed some tidal turbines in Admiralty inlet. I think the project is in conjunction with our Public Utility District and the Bonneville Power Administration. There are very mixed feelings about the turbines placed at the narrow points in the Sound would impede oxygen exchange and nutrient turnover in the inlet area.

    I can’t say if it’s true, but I’ve heard bridges already have this sort of effect (like on the Hood Canal).

  3. Climate change lobbyists grow by 31% leading up to ACES vote

    It’s astonishing how much this can impact the debate. I’ve been reviewing the energy industry recently, and the US is now looking at cheap natural gas for a number of years, largely as a result of horizontal drilling technologies in shale areas. I mean, not just cheap in relative terms–cheap in absolute terms. There’s been a significant drop in the cost at which drillers can generate a reasonable return. And still the coal lobby is able to get a version of the cap and trade bill that they want–or at least, one that’s not as punitive to coal and favorable to gas as would be expected purely on carbon and supply criteria.

  4. Climate change lobbyists grow by 31% leading up to ACES vote

    This is pretty astonishing, but not a surprise. I’ve been looking at the natural gas situation in the US right now–it now looks like there’s going to be a much larger available supply (largely from new drilling technologies), and that gas is going to remain cheap–not just on a relative basis, but on an absolute basis. The cost of generating a reasonable return for the drillers keeps dropping. Which means that natural gas should be the fuel of choice for a transition fuel, obviously–you can put combined-cycle generation plants pretty much anywhere. And yet the coal lobby is still able to exert enough pressure to have the cap and trade legislation still pretty favorable to the industry, largely at the expens of gas producers. Amazing.