If you care about water, you need to worry about energy production

lakeshore power plant
lakeshore power plant

FirstEnergy’s Lake Shore power plant, which is slated to close this fall, sits along the shore of Lake Erie on Cleveland’s east side. Thermal pollution from the plant has historically prevented the waters near the site from freezing over in winter (courtesy of WKSU.org).

This article is cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Saturday was World Water Day 2014. This year’s theme centered on the water-energy nexus, a topic which has become increasingly important in recent years.

According to the United Nations, energy production currently accounts for 15% of global water use, a number which is projected to grow to 20% within the next two decades. In the US, this number is significantly higher; the US Geological Survey estimates that electricity production alone makes up 49% of all water use.

Unfortunately, people tend too often to overlook the water-energy nexus until a catastrophic event happens. Water plays a vital role in the entire lifecycle of energy production, and it remains extremely vulnerable to the deleterious consequences that may arise from each step in the process – from extraction to refining to generation to distribution and beyond.

We know, for instance, than at least 20% of streams in West Virginia are heavily degraded due to mountaintop removal mining, an incredibly destructive form of coal extraction. In addition, we have seen several recent mishaps at other stages the process, whether it was the massive Freedom Industries chemical spill on the Elk River (refining), Saturday’s oil tanker spill outside of Houston (distribution), or the major coal ash spill on the Dan River.

Thermal pollution and water quality

But there exists another, less understood impact of energy production on freshwater resources – thermal pollution. The US gets 91% of its electricity from thermoelectric power plants; this category largely includes nuclear power plants and plants that run on fossil fuels. Thermoelectric plants generate massive amounts of heat during electricity generation process. This heat builds up within the plant and forces plant operators to draw in huge amounts of freshwater to cool the generators.

water withdrawals for power production

Daily water withdrawals for power production by state. As the map shows, water use is particularly high in the Great Lakes region (courtesy of the US Geological Survey).

Once-through cooling systems, which take in water once for cooling and then discharge it back into waterways, make up 31% of the US’s power plant fleet. These systems require 20,000-60,000 gallons of freshwater for cooling per megawatt hour (MWh) of energy produced. As a result, the Sierra Club estimates that power plants suck up more than 135 trillion gallons of water (PDF) each year for cooling alone.

This staggering total exacts a serious toll upon aquatic environments. Dicharged water temperatures are, on average, 8-12ºC warmer than the intake temperatures. As Madden, Lewis, and Davis noted in a 2013 study,

Aquatic organisms are highly dependent on specific thermal conditions in aquatic environments; water temperatures above or below optimal thermal regimes can cause stress or even death.

Such thermal pollution can negatively alter aquatic ecosystems in a number of ways. It can reduce the solubility of oxygen, stymie animal growth rates, change nutrient cycling processes, and increase the toxicity of chemicals like heavy metals and pesticides. Accordingly to Madden, Lewis, and Davis, increasing water temperatures by 7ºC has been shown to halve key biological processes, such as growth and reproduction. It’s no surprise, then, that power plants are responsible for the deaths of trillions of fish each year.

How water quality affects energy production

Interestingly enough, however, elevated water temperatures can also harm the efficiency of thermoelectric power plants. As water temperatures increase and stream levels drop, both the suitability and availability of cooling water decreases. During the severe heat wave that struck Western Europe in the summer of 2003, France saw its nuclear energy capacity fall by 7-15% for five consecutive weeks. This event marks a harbinger for our future in a warming world.

Climate change will reduce thermoelectric power production

According to a 2013 article in the journal Global Environmental Change (paywall), climate change will ensure that river temperatures increase significantly for a large swathe of the planet, while low river flows (lowest 10th percentile) will decrease for one-quarter of the global land surface area. Throughout much of the US, mean river temperatures are projected to increase by at least 2ºC, while high water temperatures will climb by 2.6-2.8ºC.

This spike in high water temperatures will be particularly critical for power plants, as they will occur during the period at which both water temperatures and energy demand are highest – the peak of summer. The Clean Water Act sets restrictions on the maximum temperature of water withdrawn and discharged by power plants; while the specific thresholds may vary by state, the temperature is commonly set between 27ºC and 32ºC. Research shows that more than half of all power plants with once-through cooling systems already exceed these numbers, demonstrating the vulnerability of the electricity system to global warming.

Using these numbers, van Vliet et al projected the impact that climate change will have on thermoelectric power plants (paywall) due to the combination of higher water temperatures and decreased river flows. They found that summer capacity for these plants will fall by 4.4-16% from 2031-2060. Moreover, these plants appear extremely sensitive to major reductions (greater than a 90% drop) in output as a result of global warming; the same study concludes that these events will increase nearly three-fold.

The Great Lakes region appears particularly vulnerable to falling electric output in a greenhouse world due to its heavy reliance on an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants. The National Climate Assessment notes that 95% of the Midwest’s electricity generating infrastructure (PDF) will likely see declines in output due to higher temperatures. As climate change increases stress simultaneously on aquatic ecosystems, drinking water supplies, and electricity production, potential conflicts over water uses will almost certainly increase among stakeholders.

Those of us who wish to protect our vital freshwater resources, like the Great Lakes, cannot afford to focus solely upon this sector, given its inextricable links to other areas. We need to worry as well about the stability of our climate and the makeup of our energy system. Renewable energy technologies use substantially less water than fossil fuel plants and will help shift us away from carbon-intensive energy sources. A 2012 study shows that if the US invests heavily in energy efficiency and renewable energy production, by 2050, water withdrawals and water consumption for energy production would fall by 97% and 85.2%, respectively. This shift would save 39.8 trillion gallons of water.

If we want to truly be stewards of our freshwater resources, we need to act as stewards for our climate.

The restoration of wetlands is a major victory for the Great Lakes

9 mile wetland restored
9 mile wetland restored

Restoration of the Nine Mile Wetland in the Euclid Creek watershed (Source: Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District)

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Given the spate of bad news for the Great Lakes recently – from declining lake levels to toxic algal blooms to microplastic pollution to the threat of an Asian carp invasion – it may be hard for people to find any good news on the health of these vital bodies of water.

Fear not. The US Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a census of the nation’s wetlands every five years, and the latest report includes great news for the Great Lakes region – total wetland extent in the region expanded by 13,600 acres. As Sarah Goodyear wrote at Next City:

[S]ome 13,610 acres of coastal wetlands were added to the eight-state Great Lakes region between from 2004 and 2009. Given that the total wetlands acreage in the Great Lakes watershed is 8.5 million, that may not seem like a lot. Plus, some of that acreage comes from receding water that has exposed land. But it nevertheless represents a positive trend that stands in contrast to the rest of the country. During the study period, 360,720 acres of such wetlands disappeared across the nation at large.

History of wetlands destruction

The recent effort to conserve wetlands has reversed a centuries-long trend. When Europeans reached North America in the early 1600s, approximately 221 million acres of wetlands covered much of what would become the United States. Due to rapid clearing of these ecosystems to make room for settlements and provide timber for the expanding country, Americans cleared 118 million acres (53.4% of the total wetland area) by the early 1980s.

Unfortunately, Ohio stood at the forefront of wetland destruction. From the 1780s to the 1980s, the state lost 90% of its total wetlands, trailing only California’s 91% loss. This number includes the astonishing destruction of the Black Swamp, which once spanned much of the northwestern corner of the state. In just 25 years (approximately 1860-1885), a wetland that covered an area roughly the size of Connecticut completely disappeared.

This wave of wetland degradation and destruction has its roots in our consistent tendency to undervalue the important services wetlands provide. As The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History notes, early settlers in the Western Reserve (present day Cleveland) viewed their initial settlement along the Cuyahoga River as “a miasmic, disease-ridden swamp.” This view of wetlands was eventually codified into law; from 1849-1860, Congress passed a series of Swamp Land Acts, which gave 15 states control over all wetlands in their territories – a total of 64.9 million acres – for reclamation projects.

Benefits of wetlands conservation

As time has passed and more research has been done, however, it is increasingly clear that wetlands are among the most important ecosystems on Earth.

Wetlands provide a myriad of benefits. They serve as crucial refuges for fish species; research suggests wetlands can have fish populations that are 4-10 times more abundant [PDF] than other ecosystems. They also improve water quality. The degradation of coastal wetlands significantly compromises the quality of water in the surrounding areas, creating $16 billion in losses from pollution every year. Additionally, wetlands act as important buffers against coastal storms and floods. The conservation of the wetlands along the Charles River near Boston prevents $40 million in flood-related costs annually. Overall, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the economic value of the world’s wetlands [PDF] at $17 trillion.

Clearly, the addition of 13,600 acres of wetlands to the Great Lakes region represents a major victory, particularly in light of their continued destruction worldwide. Since the 1980s, for instance, human activities have destroyed 35% of remaining mangroves, a form of tropical coastal wetlands.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Much of the success in this are stems from the work of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC) and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a federal initiative that President Obama established in 2009. The GLRI has provided more than $1 billion to enhance the Great Lakes region over the last five years. These funds have and continue to go to protecting wetlands throughout the area, including the restoration of wetlands along the Euclid Creek.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. recognizes the important services that our wetlands provide, particularly the role they play protecting the quality and quantity of our water resources. We celebrate the expansion of coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes region in recent years and support ongoing efforts to strengthen our coastal ecosystems through programs like GLRI, and we remain committed to educating people on the vital role that wetlands play in keeping our Great Lakes great.

Ohio can’t afford the GOP’s massive giveaway to the oil & gas industry

fracking well ohio
fracking well ohio

A hydraulic fracturing well looms large over the Ohio countryside (courtesy of Ideastream).

In March 2012, the Ohio House of Representatives introduced HB 487, a bill which included changes to the way that Ohio taxes oil and gas extraction in the state. Ohio’s current system of regulating oil and gas production was implemented in 1972. Almost everything about the energy sector in the United States has changed drastically in the last 40-plus years; I wish I could say these regulations were included.

Ohio’s existing severance tax

Ernst & Young analyzed Ohio’s existing severance tax and Governor Kasich’s proposed changes (PDF) in 2012. E&Y compared Ohio’s tax policy to that of seven other oil and gas producing states. Of the eight states, Ohio has by far the lowest effective tax rate (ETR). The state’s combined ETR of 1.8% is 80% lower than the average in the seven other states. Based on a 2011 analysis from Policy Matters Ohio, this tax rate has cost the state millions in foregone tax revenues. From 2001-2010, the  value of the oil and natural gas extracted within the state was $8.38 billion. But Ohio collected a mere $26,017,858 in taxes – equal to 0.31% of the market value. That’s not at typo. Using these numbers, Policy Matters projected the amount of severance taxes that Ohio would collect from shale gas production from 2012-2015, compared to five surrounding states. Of the $10.77 billion in estimated value, Ohio will capture just $39.8 million in taxes. Compare this number to West Virginia and Michigan, whose 5% tax would bring in $538.4 million.

The Kasich proposal

Clearly, Ohio’s current severance tax sucks. Governor Kasich’s plan was supposedly introduced to rectify this issue. The proposal would have doubled severance taxes on oil from conventional, vertical wells to $0.20 per barrel and altered the tax on natural gas from vertical wells to the lessor of 1% of the market value of the gas or $0.03 per thousand cubic feet (mcf). It would have also priced oil and gas from horizontal wells, which is produced using the controversial hydraulic fracturing method, separately. This oil would have been taxed at 1.5% of the market value for one year, then at 4% for the lifetime of the well. Natural gas from fracking wells would have been taxed at 1% across the board. E&Y’s analysis found that this proposal would have increased the effective severance tax rate from just 1.8% to 2.7% overall; however, Ohio would still have the lowest tax rate in the region. Under Kasich’s proposal, Ohio’s ETR for an average oil/gas well would be just 40% lower. What a relief.

Ohio Republicans strike back, introduce HB 375

And yet, Ohio Republicans balked at Kasich’s plan. During budget deliberations, the plan was completely stripped out of the bill. Recently, Ohio Republicans finally offered up their alternative to Kasich’s proposal. State Rep. Matt Hoffman (R-Lima) introduced HB 375 on December 5. Shockingly, the bill has overwhelming support from the oil & gas industry.

Thomas Stewart, head of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association, issued a statement saying the bill “includes a sensible modification of the severance tax based on actual well economics.”I’m not sure what energy economics textbook Mr. Stewart is reading from, but suffice it to say he’s just a tad off the mark. Headwaters Economics issued a report in 2012 that included a list of 12 recommendations for crafting fiscal policies for the oil and gas sector. HB 375 goes against every single recommendation. So let’s compare the bill to just three of these recommendations.

1. Maintain a high effective tax rate

Headwaters argues that it is essential for states to keep a high ETR on their mineral deposits, because it provides additional resources to mitigate the impacts of drilling and allows them to invest in long-term economic development.

kevin bacon dancing

Even 1980s Kevin Bacon knows that the oil & gas industry isn’t footloose (courtesy of People Magazine).

Contrary to fear-mongering from industry reps and the Ohio GOP, the oil & gas industry is not going to flee the state and give up concessions just because the state increases slightly its pathetically low severance tax. As Headwaters notes, Montana had an ETR of 4.6% for oil and gas in 2011. Neighboring North Dakota, in contrast, keeps its rate at 9.9%. Despite this, North Dakota has seen significantly more drilling activity, and Montana’s poorly-designed tax policy cost the state $60 million in foregone tax receipts in 2010 alone.

The minerals sector is not directly comparable to other economic activities, like the service sector. Oil and gas producers migrate to where the oil and gas deposits are, not where taxes are lowest. The industry is not, in economics parlance, particularly footloose. If it were, then Texas and Alaska, where tax rates are 8.2% and 25%, respectively, would not be leading producers. There is simply no valid evidence to suggest that slightly higher severance tax rates will keep companies from drilling here.

Yet, HB 375 institutes tax rates even lower than Kasich’s proposal. It would lower the tax on conventional gas from $0.025 per mcf to $0.015 per mcf. It also repeals the regulatory cost recovery assessment fee passed in 2010 to offset the costs of land reclamation. And, for horizontal wells, it introduces a severance tax of 1% of the value of net proceeds from oil/gas sales for 20 months; this tax then increases to 2%.

2.Remove “holiday” incentives

Several states have production tax “holidays” during the early days of oil and gas production. The logic behind these tax holidays is based on the fact that, for conventional wells, there is a lengthy gap between the drilling phase and the production phase (when the oil/gas is actually flowing). This gap can be upwards of two years for vertical wells.

But this model does not apply to horizontal wells. The drilling phase for a horizontal well is compressed, and the production phase typically jump starts thereafter. The majority of oil/gas from horizontal wells is extracted during the the first two years, after which production drops precipitously – by more than 60% in just one year in most cases.

shale gas production cycle

This image from the EIA charts the production cycles of shale wells across five different shale plays.

By providing a five-year tax holiday, HB 375 effectively ensures that Ohio will forfeit the overwhelming majority of tax revenues from its oil and gas deposits. By the time that the tax rate increased to 2% in year six, it’s entirely likely that drillers may have simply moved onto the next well.

3. Guarantee adequate local share in revenue collections

A central tenet of good oil/gas policy is to guarantee that the benefits of the fuels are adequately shared with communities on the front lines of extraction. As I’ve written before, the US isn’t somehow immune to the impacts of the natural resource curse. Far from it. One can find evidence of the resource curse from horrifically high mortality rates (PDF) in Appalachia to skyrocketing crime rates in North Dakota to groundwater pollution from fracking in multiple states to increased damage to infrastructure in Texas.

HB 375 does nothing to support front line communities. Ohio’s past two biennial budgets have taken a toll on local governments. Ohio Republicans balanced the state budget by holding onto tax revenues that should have been returned to local governments. The 2014-2015 budget reduces the amount of money local governments will receive by $1.4 billion. HB 375 simply exacerbates the issue further. Under the proposal, the funds raised would go to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to cover the costs regulating the industry, remediating abandoned wells, and conducting geological surveys for the industry. Any additional funds would go to reduce personal income taxes. This policy would disproportionately benefit the wealthy and leave those directly affected by drilling on the outside looking in.

HB 375: Great for the industry, terrible for Ohio

All told, Policy Matters Ohio found that HB 375 would cost the state $620-800 million over the next decade, compared to the Kasich proposal (which is far from ideal policy). The bill amounts to little more than a giant handout to the oil & gas industry. Ohio’s current oil/gas severance tax is a 40-year old relic of terrible policymaking. It would be a challenge to make a policy that’s worse.

Somehow, Ohio Republicans have crafted a bill so terrible that it gives existing law a run for its money. If you were looking to develop a policy that took the full advantage of our natural resource endowment and benefited ordinary Ohioans, you could hardly do worse than HB 375. But, on the other hand, if your goal was to benefit the wealthy, well-connected, and your political benefactors, you would be pressed to outdo HB 375.

This bill is egregiously bad policy. Naturally, I expect it will be on Kasich’s desk by the spring.

Recent court case could help address toxic algae issues in Lake Erie, around the country

dead fish algae bloom
satellite image algae lake erie

Satellite image of algal blooms on Lake Erie from October 30, 2013 (courtesy of NOAA).

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.:

The federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a decision (PDF) on Friday, September 20 that could have wide-reaching implications for waterways all across the United States. The case, which pitted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against a coalition of environmental groups, may change the way that surface runoff and nutrient pollution are regulated.

In effect, the district court ruled that EPA had acted improperly in 2011, when it refused to formally determine whether or not federal action was necessary to regulate the types of nutrient runoff and surface pollution that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, the court gave EPA 180 days – until Wednesday, March 19 – to determine whether or not the federal government should intervene to address the increasing threat that the algae blooms behind such dead zones pose to the health and well-being of humans, ecosystems, and coastal economies.

While the decision did not require EPA to begin regulating the sources of algal blooms – particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff and municipal wastewater – it does mandate the agency to determine whether the threat posed by these blooms necessitates action under the Clean Water Act. Accordingly, the ruling could force the agency’s hand, much like the US Supreme Court’s endangerment finding in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) has led to recent regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

It remains unclear whether or not EPA will decide to intervene to control nutrient pollution discharges. As I noted earlier, the agency balked on the same issue in 2011, due perhaps to aggressive lobbying from various industry groups. However, the substantial increase in the number and scale of algal blooms throughout the US in recent years could motivate the agency to act.

At least 21 states battled blooms of the toxic, blue-green algae this summer (though this number likely understates the impact of the phenomenon). According to reports collected by Resource Media, there were at least 156 different reports of algal blooms around the country from May 5-September 15. Of these, 10 occurred in Ohio, while 5 affected the Lake Erie watershed.

dead fish algae bloom

Algae blooms create anoxic environments in bodies of water, reducing the available oxygen for other aquatic life (courtesy of Tom Archer, University of Michigan).

Lake Erie is perhaps the most significant waterway in the country facing such an ongoing, acute threat from toxic algae. It is both the shallowest and most densely populated of the Great Lakes, helping to concentrate the levels of harmful nutrients. The western edge of the Lake Erie watershed is also home to a large number of industrial-scale corn farms, which rely heavily upon phosphate fertilizers. Because Lake Erie is a phosphorus-limited environment, when the rain washes over the surface of these fields, it delivers large loads of phosphate runoff into the Lake. These phosphates overcome the naturally-occurring phosphorus deficit in the Lake and provide the fuel needed for algae growth.

Communities in the Maumee River watershed, the largest tributary in the Western portion of Lake Erie, have suffered the effects. This summer, the 2,000 residents of Carroll Township were told not to drink their tap water when dangerous levels of microcystin, a liver toxin produced by the algae, was found in municipal water supplies. The city of Toledo, which is located in the Maumee watershed, has been forced to spend an additional $1 million to battle toxins in its water supply.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ is committed to protecting and enhancing the well-being of our Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie. While it is too early to tell how this court case will play out in the coming weeks and months, let alone to forecast its implications for waterways around the country, DLDT continues to encourage government agencies, non-profit organizations, businesses, and individuals to take proactive measures to ensure the health of our most precious natural resource.

DLDT supports measures to tackle the growing algae problem, including recent steps by the Ohio EPA to actively monitor nutrient pollution levels and work with farmers to develop comprehensive nutrient management plans. The organization also continues to work to address the myriad challenges facing Lake Erie, including minimizing both plastic and nutrient pollution through its beach cleanups.

On the shores of Lake Erie, where the children are above average & the sand is made of plastic

Over the weekend, I participated in a beach cleanup along Lake Erie at Perkins Beach in Edgewater State Park. The event was organized by Drink Local. Drink Tap., a local non-profit organization focusing on water issues in Northeast Ohio and globally.

Councilman Matt Zone (far right) and two volunteers flank me from the cleanup effort at Perkins Beach on Saturday, July 6 (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap.).

Councilman Matt Zone (far right) and two volunteers flank me from the cleanup effort at Perkins Beach on Saturday, July 6 (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap.).

Unsurprisingly – particularly given that the event took place just two days after the 4th of July – the beach was strewn with a variety of litter and debris. I lost count on the number of cigarette butts and cigar tips that I picked up after I reached triple digits. Overall, the organizers reported that the other volunteers and I cleaned up 357.9 pounds of trash and 134.9 pounds of recyclable materials. Unfortunately, this effort did not even begin to make a dent in the problem; by the end, it had begun to feel like a Sisyphean task.

But while most of the other volunteers focused on the large and unusual items we found – including two discarded tires – I was particularly discouraged by the prevalence of small pieces of plastic and styrofoam. These tiny particles of plastic pollution, known as microplastic, are the real threat to the health of Lake Erie’s ecosystem.

Last fall, the 5 Gyres Institute and the State University of New York released a study on the problem of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. The research provided the first comprehensive plastic pollution survey of the lakes, and it represents an important baseline against which we can measure progress or, God forbid, further regression.

According to the survey, the researchers primarily found high concentrations of this microplastic, which is a piece of plastic debris less than 5 millimeters in diameter. According to the researchers,

One sample drawn near the border of Lake Erie’s central and eastern basins yielded 600,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer — twice the number found in the most contaminated oceanic sample on record, Mason said.

A second sample in Lake Erie yielded 450,000 plastic pieces, while the average sample across the three lakes studied yielded about 8,000 plastic pieces.

Microplastic litter comes from a variety of sources, including the breaking down of larger pieces of plastic by the elements; this was the primary source of the plastic and styrofoam pieces that I found littering Perkins Beach. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say that, in some areas, these pieces of plastic had become almost as numerous as the grains of sand. They are clearly an integral part of the beach at this point.

Concentrations of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. As the map illustrates, concentrations are highest in Lake Erie, which is the shallowest of the five lakes (courtesy of 5 Gyres Institute).

Concentrations of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. As the map illustrates, concentrations are highest in Lake Erie, which is the shallowest of the five lakes (courtesy of 5 Gyres Institute).

However, another key source of microplastic are conventional cosmetics and personal cleaning supplies, many of which contain small, abrasive plastic pellets. These pellets serve as exfoliates, and they have become increasingly popular in recent years. Because these plastic pieces are frequently used in the presence of water, i.e. in the shower, they readily enter our watercourses and end up in the lake.

Microplastic pollution littering the shores of Lake Erie on Wendy Island on July 20, 2013.

Microplastic pollution littering the shores of Lake Erie on Wendy Island on July 20, 2013.

Because it is so small and can be easily ingested by aquatic life and waterfowl, microplastic poses a major threat to the health of aquatic ecosystems like Lake Erie. It can leach chemicals into the bodies of these aquatic organisms and clearly bioaccumulates overtime. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that, if and when people consume animals that have ingested microplastic, the chemicals contained in the particles can leach into our systems as well (Thank God I’m a vegetarian…).

It’s important to note that, because the plastic pollution in Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes is far smaller than that in ocean garbage patches, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and is therefore nowhere no as big of an issue by volume. Yet, the concentration of this plastic debris is, in many instances, far greater than the average concentration of plastic in ocean gyres.

Microplastic pollution is yet another major environmental challenge we have created that threatens the health of Northeast Ohio’s most important natural resource. All in the name of vanity. As Solomon said in the Book of Ecclesiastes,

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

Surely the Earth will abide and last far longer than humanity. But we are consciously and unconsciously altering it in countless ways, mostly for the worse.

Misconstruing environmental protest movements in authoritarian regimes

CCTV Tower

John Upton has a new post at Grist today about the rising number of protests in China over environmental issues, particularly air and water pollution. In the post, Upton writes:

The people of China are pissed. On the long list of injustices they endure, from internet censorship to having their homelands flooded by reservoirs, nothing is inspiring more uprisings than the abuse of their environment.

In general, he’s exactly right. There have been a significant number of protests and demonstrations over environmental issues in China in recent years. Serious environmental crises have continually nagged the Communist Party. The 2005 Songua River Spill and the government’s subsequent cover-up, for instance, created significant backlash. Several Chinese newspapers even criticized the government heavily for attempting to hide the severity of the benzene spill. Additionally, there are more official Chinese NGOs & civil society organizations focused on the environment than any other issue.

CCTV Towers Side by Side

Side-by-side images of the CCTV Towers in downtown Beijing. The image on the left is from January 12, when air quality index values exceeded 750. The image on the right is from August 2008 (photos courtesy of Marketplace).

However, these outcomes don’t stem from an overwhelming environmental ethic among Chinese citizens, per se. Rather, they are based on the fact that, in many authoritarian states, the environment is a relatively safe, depoliticized issue to organize around. Dr. Judy Shapiro, an expert in Chinese environmental issues (and professor at AU), has made this argument quite persuasively in her book China’s Environmental Challenges. As she points out in the book:

[T]here is a rich relationship between environmental activism and the development of civil society in general. Given that in China civic groups that focus on human rights and democracy are quickly suppressed, some activists have found the “space” for organizing around environmental issues to be greater. As a result some creative people who wish to engage in public participation have turned to that area.

This is not unique to China, however. Erika Weinthal, a scholar of environmental policy at Duke, has shown that a similar effect occurred during the latter days of the former Soviet Union. After Gorbachev’s glasnost policy opened space for dissidents to speak more freely about the many problems facing the USSR, a number of activists began organizing around environmental issues in Central Asia. On pages 107-108 of State Making and Environmental Cooperation: Linking Domestic and International Politics in Central Asia, Weinthal writes:

The topic of the environment enabled many Central Asian writers and intellectuals to promote national issues that had been festering for some time. [Uzbek writer Pirmat] Shermukhamedov and other Central Asian intellectuals rallied around the Aral Sea as a proxy for long-suppressed questions of cultural survival and regional self-determination…

These nationalist movements considered the cotton monoculture to be the manifestation of Soviet exploitation and the lack of control Central Asians had over their own destiny.

Clearly, much of the laudable and courageous environmental activism occurring in the developing world is not based purely in an environmental ethic. Activists in these states have drawn the connection between environmental exploitation and the denial of their basic human and political rights. But instead of pursuing the latter issues, they have, smartly and strategically, pushed for environmental causes because they perceived there to be more space in this field.

I don’t mean to  make this argument to suggest that people in developing countries are not concerned about the environment. I am just trying to help clarify the reality of environmental activism in the developing world. I think that the connection between environmentalism and social justice in much of the Global South demonstrates that the siloing of the environment as some singular sector or constituency, as has occurred too often in the US (see Candy Crowley’s embarrassing statement about “all you climate people”) is completely arbitrary and inappropriate. But, at the same time, we need to be precise with our arguments and not proscribe our own values and sensibilities on other people.