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Jan Lee headshot

10 Ways Politics Shaped the Environment in 2014

Words by Jan Lee

The environment and the effects of climate change were at the center of legislative debate in many countries this year. The release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 draft treatise on global warming helped center legislators’ attention on the task at hand, but some countries still opted for the wait-and-see approach over regulatory fixes.

Here in the U.S., the response was equally inconsistent, thanks in part to a hearty push-back from the oil and gas sector and the gold-rush boom of the fracking industry in several states. But in those areas where climate change, dwindling resources or water issues were a concern, legislative options often took center stage.

The Keystone XL pipeline dilemma

The Senate’s narrow rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline in November followed years of debate over the merits and follies of the well-publicized TransCanada project. Its journey through the U.S. legal system has been just as circuitous as the proposed 1,200-mile map of pipes and junctures that was, at one time, due to cross watersheds, wheat fields and some of the country’s most environmentally sensitive areas.

Although the House bill to approve the Keystone Pipeline was defeated, Republicans supporting the project have vowed to unearth the issue next year when the party gains control of the Senate.

Minnesota heads back to the books

Few legal rulings would better sum up the bizarre quandaries we seem to face these days when it comes to climate change than the U.S. district court’s say on Minnesota’s New Generation Energy Act. The act, which has been in force since 2007, prohibited power companies from purchasing energy from coal-fired plants unless the carbon emissions were offset.

After North Dakota and several power companies sued the state, the district court ruled that the state’s requirement was a “classic example of extraterritorial regulation” that effectively conflicted with the U.S. Constitution because it impeded the federal regulation of commerce.

It was Michael Noble, executive director of the Minnesota nonprofit Fresh Energy, however, who put the outcome into current perspective.

“They won their litigation, but the world is moving on from coal.”

Goodbye coal, hello biomass

In the Canadian province of Ontario, a decade-long plan to rid the province of coal power is coming to a close. In April, it announced that its Thunder Bay plant, which is being transitioned to a biomass-fueled facility, had burned the last of its coal resources. So far, Ontario is the first province or state to phase out coal-burning plants.

In other parts of Canada, however, environmental accomplishments weren’t nearly as notable. The federal Office of the Auditor General published a report this fall politely lambasting the government for its lack of progress on either finalizing or publishing updated regulations that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To ban or not to ban?

This month, New York state joined the growing list of states and communities that have turned down fracking because of health or environmental concerns. Its lengthy investigations determined that the health effects of fracking were undetermined -- and a bad risk for the state populace.

In Texas, where oil companies have had almost unfettered access to the state’s abundant shale resources, one small burg is attempting to do the same. The city of Denton's ban has pitted it against the state’s  Railroad Commission, which issues fracking permits to oil and gas companies. According to the town’s attorney, fracking is a “public nuisance” and the city has the right to regulate “noise, increased heavy truck traffic, liquid spills, vibrations and other offensive results.” Other Texas cities are considering similar bylaws.

The U.S. Clean Power Plan

The Obama administration waded into contentious waters this year when it proposed an emissions reduction plan that would allow states to have a say in how and to what extent they reduced carbon emissions. The program encourages states to adopt GHG limits based on their “pollution to power ratio.” Many states have surged ahead of the proposed limits; some are steadfastly holding their ground as the EPA calls for more focus on clean energy.

California’s environmental bounty

California set a new bar this year for regulations that underscored environmental protection. Three of our favorite picks:

  • In March, the Department of Toxic Substances Control implemented a new program that reviews substances commonly found in household products. The review process, which is directed at heightening consumer awareness, allows the agency to ban the substances it feels pose a danger to the public.

  • The state also implemented the first stage of its revised flammability standard, which now allows furniture, carpet and upholstery manufacturers to drop chemical flame retardants from their products. The new standard relies upon smolder test results rather than the use of toxic chemicals. The changes recognize the efforts of both local and national organizations, including Kaiser Permanente, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families and the Center for Environmental Health in lobbying for changes to California’s regulatory standards.

  • The Southern California city of Oxnard's unusual moratorium got headlines last July when it blocked efforts by the Mandalay Bay power plant to upgrade its facility by building a new one. The improved structure received a thumbs-down after environmental organizations were able to show that planners didn’t take rising tides and climate change into account.  The city hasn’t said how the ban would protect the power company’s aging facilities, but one thing is clear: The city of Oxnard, once known largely for its smoggy neighborhoods, has climate change, rising risks and future impacts clearly in its sights.
Image of Silver Lake RPU, Minnesota: Jonathunder

Image of President Obama speaking: Office of the President

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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