Each week, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
In the next stimulus bill, can lawmakers balance the needs of struggling fossil fuel companies with the health of the environment?
As lawmakers debate what should go into the next stimulus bill, calls for provisions to protect the environment are growing. While the United Nations secretary general contends that stimulus money should support “green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth” rather than fossil fuel companies, major investments in green energy haven’t materialized in stimulus packages across the globe. Addressing energy issues at all remains a challenge for American policymakers, with some Republican legislators seeing support for clean energy as a distraction from more pressing concerns, and a coalition of Democrats balking at the idea of aiding fossil fuel companies in any form. But amid the uncertainty, policymakers and industry groups are proposing a variety of creative policies to include in the next stimulus package—from extending clean energy tax credits to funding new EPA spending on toxic site cleanup, and even taking partial ownership of struggling oil companies and requiring them to produce less oil.
In two new blog posts, environmental researchers offer their own innovative solutions for prioritizing environmental issues. RFF’s Daniel Raimi and the Niskanen Center’s Joseph Majkut contend that policymakers can support the fossil fuel industry while also protecting the environment. Raimi and Majkut lay out possible solutions to reduce methane pollution, including funding efforts to plug “orphaned” oil and gas wells and expanding leak detection programs. “These options can help struggling oil and gas workers, companies, and communities by injecting capital into a cash-starved industry. They can position US producers and exporters to compete more effectively in a carbon-constrained future,” Raimi and Majkut write. Meanwhile, Mark Tercek—the former CEO of the Nature Conservancy—argues that forthcoming stimulus packages present opportunities for green infrastructure projects. Tercek points to mangrove restoration as a project that could “provide protection from sea level rise and extreme weather” and outlines how environmental groups can encourage the government to invest in sustainability projects.
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What are the environmental consequences of the Trump administration’s recent rule that redefines which bodies of water are protected under the Clean Water Act?
The Trump administration officially published its Navigable Waters Protection Rule last week, after repealing the Obama-era Clean Water Rule last year. The new regulation specifies that some wetlands and seasonal streams are no longer considered “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) and are not entitled to Clean Water Act (CWA) protections. While the rule was an attempt to fulfill a campaign promise Trump made to farmers, a ranchers’ group has filed a lawsuit on the grounds that the new rule is still overly strict. Lawsuits from groups concerned with the rule’s environmental impacts are expected, too, especially after the Supreme Court ruled against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week in a major water policy case. While that decision offered only the narrow guidance that the CWA forbids groundwater pollution without a permit, environmental lawyers think the case weakens the argument that “isolated wetlands and seasonal waters” do not merit federal protection.
This week on the Resources Radio podcast, Ellen Gilinsky—the former associate deputy assistant administrator for water at EPA—discusses the Trump administration’s push to redefine which bodies of water are protected under the CWA. As someone originally responsible for implementing the Clean Water Rule, Gilinsky reflects on why ambiguities in the CWA necessitated federal clarity, and why the previous administration pursued a more expansive definition of WOTUS. Drawing on data from the water conservation group Trout Unlimited, which suggests that six million miles of streams and 42 million acres of wetlands will no longer be protected, Gilinsky contends that the new rule is overly lax. Having worked as an environmental regulator in Virginia, Gilinsky also thinks that states without a statewide definition of waters are unlikely to take action now. “The budgets [states] have are not going to the environmental agencies—believe me—because there's so many other services that states are having to provide,” Gilinsky claims.
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Statewide coalitions to reduce emissions are facing renewed pushback amid a slowing economy. How can policies in these jurisdictions be developed now to account for future uncertainties?
Carbon pricing has always been a politically contentious proposition—and that was before the coronavirus pandemic imperiled fossil fuel companies and left millions of Americans jobless. In Pennsylvania, which boasts a sizable natural gas sector, and where unemployment claims are mounting, legislators are calling on the governor to delay plans for the state to enter the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). They fear that joining RGGI—a coalition of states implementing a cap-and-trade system for power plants—would impose unfair costs on consumers during a crisis and burden an already struggling industry. Elsewhere, many states collaborating under the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) are forging ahead with efforts to cap vehicle emissions and still plan to release a final memorandum of understanding in the coming months. But some governors have expressed doubts about whether their states will ultimately participate, due to concerns about how an overly high gas tax would impact consumers.
In a new blog post, RFF Research Assistant Maya Domeshek and Senior Fellow Dallas Burtraw encapsulate key findings from the recent issue brief they published with RFF’s Derek Wietelman and explore how one specific policy tool could stabilize revenues in TCI. As the coalition develops policies to minimize uncertainty before releasing the final memorandum of understanding, Domeshek and Burtraw contend that an “allowance supply staircase,” which would make allowances available at multiple price steps, could alleviate state leaders’ concerns. They point to RGGI and the Western Climate Initiative, two similar coalitions which use price steps “to increase program stringency when emissions reductions are inexpensive or to avoid prices that policymakers consider too high for households and businesses.” For more on how the coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the need for policies that account for future uncertainty, read the blog post.
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