Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Safe Air and Water

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part IV: A right to safe air and water, by Bill.

Protecting the environment is not an abstract concept about saving rainforests or polar bears, although these are important in their own way. Environmentalism is fundamentally about people. Whether or not environmental safety is maintained has a tangible, daily effect on millions of lives. Poisoned air and water is responsible for the premature deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year. The air we breathe and the water we drink must be free from contaminants. That is an inalienable human right.

Sadly, too often, our society has allowed dangerous pollution to be released into our air and water, with enormous health consequences. Disproportionately, those impacts have fallen on low-income and minority individuals and communities. Justice for these crimes has been intermittent at best.

We need to ensure — swiftly and fairly — the elimination of pollution, meaningful and substantial compensation for those affected, and punishment for those responsible.

Environmental public safety should not be taken lightly or be treated as an afterthought corrected by an occasional minor fine. Just as we have taken seriously the public health threat from smoking, so too must we take seriously the daily public health consequences of poor regulation and poor enforcement of environmental public safety.

According to the American Lung Association, the human and financial costs to our society are clear:

Particle pollution also diminishes lung function, causes greater use of asthma medications and increased rates of school absenteeism, emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Other adverse effects can be coughing, wheezing, cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks. According to the findings from some of the latest studies, short-term increases in particle pollution have been linked to:

– death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes, including strokes;
– increased mortality in infants and young children;
– increased numbers of heart attacks, especially among the elderly and in people with heart conditions;
– inflammation of lung tissue in young, healthy adults;
– increased hospitalization for cardiovascular disease, including strokes and congestive heart failure;
– increased emergency room visits for patients suffering from acute respiratory ailments;
– increased hospitalization for asthma among children; and
-increased severity of asthma attacks in children.

 
By contrast, taking action pays huge dividends:

– Looking at air quality in 545 counties in the U.S. between 2000 and 2007, researchers found that people had approximately four months added to their life expectancy on average due to cleaner air. Women and people who lived in urban and densely populated counties benefited the most.
– Another long-term study of six U.S. cities tracked from 1974 to 2009 added more evidence of the benefits. Their findings suggest that cleaning up particle pollution had almost immediate health benefits. They estimated that the U.S. could prevent approximately 34,000 premature deaths a year if the nation could lower annual levels of particle pollution by 1 µg/m^3

 
Our federal, state, and local governments must guarantee and secure the people’s right to a habitable world, at present and in future, via enforceable law and regulation. In doing so, particularly by transforming our energy and transportation sectors to cleaner modes, we will ensure safe and clean air and water.

Our nation’s constitution ought to enshrine this common-sense governing principle as an amendment. That might read something like this:

“Every person has the right to safe and clean air and water. Congress and the states shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents. The federal executive and judiciary and the governments of the states shall implement and enforce these provisions by appropriate action.”

Fencing in Chinese nomads (to get the coal under them?)

You have to read this New York Times article pretty closely to catch that China’s destruction of its Inner Mongolian nomad cultures is probably about getting to the coal under their grazing lands:

In Xilinhot, a coal-rich swath of Inner Mongolia, resettled nomads, many illiterate, say they were deceived into signing contracts they barely understood. Among them is Tsokhochir, 63, whose wife and three daughters were among the first 100 families to move into Xin Kang village, a collection of forlorn brick houses in the shadow of two power plants and a belching steel factory that blankets them in soot.
[…]
Not everyone is dissatisfied. Bater, 34, a sheep merchant raised on the grasslands, lives in one of the new high-rises that line downtown Xilinhot’s broad avenues. Every month or so he drives 380 miles to see customers in Beijing, on smooth highways that have replaced pitted roads. “It used to take a day to travel between my hometown and Xilinhot, and you might get stuck in a ditch,” he said. “Now it takes 40 minutes.” Talkative, college-educated and fluent in Mandarin, Bater criticized neighbors who he said want government subsidies but refuse to embrace the new economy, much of it centered on open-pit coal mines.

 
Here’s the cultural cost:

In what amounts to one of the most ambitious attempts made at social engineering, the Chinese government is in the final stages of a 15-year-old campaign to settle the millions of pastoralists who once roamed China’s vast borderlands. By year’s end, Beijing claims it will have moved the remaining 1.2 million herders into towns that provide access to schools, electricity and modern health care.
[…]
But the policies, based partly on the official view that grazing harms grasslands, are increasingly contentious. Ecologists in China and abroad say the scientific foundations of nomad resettlement are dubious. Anthropologists who have studied government-built relocation centers have documented chronic unemployment, alcoholism and the fraying of millenniums-old traditions.
[…]
Nicholas Bequelin, the director of the East Asia division of Amnesty International, said the struggle between farmers and pastoralists is not new, but that the Chinese government had taken it to a new level. “These relocation campaigns are almost Stalinist in their range and ambition, without any regard for what the people in these communities want,” he said. “In a matter of years, the government is wiping out entire indigenous cultures.”

 

Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China (Credit: Wikimedia)

Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China (Credit: Wikimedia)


Similar Topics from Arsenal For Democracy:

“The Battle for Xinjiang (and its energy riches)”

The Battle for Xinjiang (and its energy riches)

One of areas of China bordering central Asia (including a small border with northern Afghanistan, which became important by accident during the U.S. invasion of that country in 2001) is China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Over the past year, there have been a rising number of terrorist attacks on civilian targets in this region, and in other areas of China, performed by separatists from that Xinjiang Region.

Xinjiang, or the “New Frontier” from eastern China’s perspective sometimes, is formerly known as Chinese or East Turkestan in most maps from the Western World. It is China’s largest administrative area and is located in northwest China, north of the Tibet region. Very strategically, it shares borders with several former Soviet Republics, plus Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

Map of the de facto territory of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China. (Credit: TUBS - Wikimedia)

Map of the de facto territory of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China. (Credit: TUBS – Wikimedia)

Xinjiang is nearly evenly split between China’s overall majority ethnic group the Han and the ethnic minority Uighurs (also spelled Uyghurs) — who are the largest ethnicity in the Xinjian region, a situation which is highly unusual for Chinese minority ethnic groups nationwide and which has fueled a lot of tension.

Uighurs argue (probably correctly) that they are an oppressed minority in China. The Communist Party, in return, doesn’t trust them, both because they are dissimilar from the rest of the country and because they actively waged an Islamic insurgency during the 1950s against the People’s Republic of China. This rebellion was nominally in support of their Nationalist allies, who had fled to Taiwan after the end of the Chinese Civil War at the end of the 1940s, but was of course largely motivated by a desire for self-rule after many generations of outside domination.

In fact, Uighur support for the Nationalists was a rare exception to their historic trend of generally resisting all outsiders, including a Soviet invasion in 1934, the Russian Empire in the 19th century, and various Chinese dynasties that attempted to assert control over the area throughout history.

They are, essentially, another of the many small and diverse warrior cultures of Central Asia, which we’ve seen in action in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and the past decade — except that they (now) happen to fall within China, on the map, as opposed to one of the “Stans.” And indeed they are more closely related to the ethnic groups in those areas than to the rest of China, which is one of the exacerbating sources of conflict.

The population, as is true of much of the Western half of China (outside of Tibet), is heavily Muslim. As a result — and due to its borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan — they have been somewhat accidentally caught up in the Global War on Terror.

But beyond the War on Terror, according to a report in The New York Times, there is also an almost mind-blowingly huge potential for energy production and distribution, which is being developed as fast as possible now. And that potential is probably the real reason the People’s Republic of China has been so determined since the 1950s — when the first very major oil field was definitively identified — to hold onto and dominate the Xinjiang region, especially now that the rest of China has such a large need for fuel and power.

At this point, Xinjiang’s strategic energy value is so high to the rest of China and the national government, that probably no amount of separatist unrest will shake them or slow down their energy economy development of the area. Here, from the Times report, is what they are working with …

Oil and gas production:

The foundation of Xinjiang’s energy economy is oil. Xinjiang has an estimated 21 billion tons of oil reserves, a fifth of China’s total, and major new deposits are still being found. This month, a state-owned oil company announced its greatest discovery of the year here, a deposit estimated to have more than one billion tons of oil on the northwestern edge of the Dzungarian Basin, not far from Karamay’s fields. Xinjiang is expected to produce 35 million tons of crude oil by 2020, a 23 percent increase over 2012, according to the Ministry of Land Resources.

 
Coal mining:

Xinjiang also has the country’s largest coal reserves, an estimated 40 percent of the national total, and the largest natural gas reserves. Those three components form an energy hat trick that China is capitalizing on to power its cities and industries.

 
Electricity exports:

The main state-owned electric utility, the State Grid Corporation of China, is investing $2.3 billion over the next year to build high-voltage lines, according to People’s Daily, the main party newspaper. Xinjiang will export electricity to more populated parts of China and perhaps to Central Asia.

 
Energy transit infrastructure:

“Xinjiang is where all the growth in oil, gas and coal is going to be coming from,” said Lin Boqiang, an energy scholar at Xiamen University and adviser at PetroChina, China’s biggest oil producer. “Second, all the imported resources from Central Asia, oil and gas, go through Xinjiang and then get distributed from there.”

Xinjiang produced 25 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2012, and it aims to increase that to 44 billion cubic meters next year.

Pipelines already transport natural gas from Central Asia and Xinjiang to central and eastern China. A new pipeline from Western Siberia is expected to transport 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year through the Altai Mountains to central Xinjiang, where it would connect with domestic east-west pipelines.

 
In that light, probably the best the Uighurs of Xinjiang can hope for is additional autonomy (including religious and cultural identity autonomy, as well as freedom from ethnic and religious discrimination in government policy) and more importantly a new revenue-sharing deal to give them more of the export profits and a higher standard of living. Independence or maintaining a Uighur plurality in the region’s demographic breakdown (i.e. keeping out more Han Chinese residents and workers) are just probably not on the table anymore.

Wyoming anti-Solyndra brigade begs for help on local boondoggle

Big props to the Casper Star-Tribune for their excellent reporting on a poorly-conceived Wyoming energy project that has been enthusiastically backed by Republicans who claim to oppose government “interventions” in private energy sector innovation.

Even after loudly blasting the Obama Administration’s Dept. of Energy for giving money to the ill-fated Solyndra solar company, Wyoming Republicans (including both Senators and the state’s Congresswoman) have been lobbying for $1.75 billion Federal loan guarantees for a proposed coal liquefaction plant by DKRW Advanced Fuels in Wyoming.

In comparison, Solyndra — which collapsed when silicon prices fell rapidly and made their non-silicon solar panels uncompetitive against regular, silicon-based panels — defaulted on a Federal loan of only $535 million, a substantially smaller amount than DKRW wants.

As the Star-Tribune notes:

Wyoming’s congressional representatives were enthusiastic backers of the project, writing letters on the project’s behalf to the Energy Department, sending representatives from their offices to speak in favor of it at public meetings and touting its progress in news releases.

“It uses Wyoming coal, Wyoming workers. It helps our economy in terms of around the state,” [U.S. Sen. John] Barrasso said in a recent interview. “If you’re using Wyoming coal, that’s going to be tax revenue from the state.”

 
The technology, which turns coal into liquid for use like other fossil fuels based on petroleum, is borderline non-feasible and the project in question has never found any private financing after a decade of delays. Congresswoman Lummis seemed to blame this on red tape “holding our nation back.” There is, of course, a much more likely explanation:

Michael E. Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, said coal-to-liquids’ history offers a clue about its economic feasibility.

The Nazis employed the technology during World War II, as did South Africa’s apartheid government. Both had limited access to oil supplies. The lesson: Coal-to-liquids is possible but usually makes sense only as a necessity.

He said DKRW’s proposal and Solyndra’s are “basically identical.”

 
H/T @RL_Miller on Twitter for flagging the Star-Tribune article.

wyoming-flag

Carbon pricing and “economic uncertainty”

American Conservatives these days spend a lot of time insisting in the media that policy-induced economic “uncertainty” — i.e. being uncertain as to whether Congress plans to raise or lower taxes in the long run, which is inherently unknowable* but is used to argue for “permanent” cuts — but the solution to this “uncertainty” from the corporate perspective has always been obvious.

Companies can plan for scenarios with higher fees & taxes and go forward accordingly. If Congress does raise the taxes, then they’re already prepared. If Congress doesn’t raise the taxes after all, then there’s no real harm done to the companies (and they might even find savings while hunting for ways to cut costs to keep profits up).

We are seeing this in action now according to a New York Times article about how several dozen major U.S. corporations are preparing for scenarios where Congress imposes some kind of industry-scale carbon pricing or tax system. Although not currently being seriously considered in the immediate future, given the makeup of Congress at this particular moment, this pricing would eventually likely be put into place to discourage high carbon footprints on a wide scale and probably to pay for some of the damage caused by unmitigated carbon outputs in the past.

More than two dozen of the nation’s biggest corporations, including the five major oil companies, are planning their future growth on the expectation that the government will force them to pay a price for carbon pollution as a way to control global warming.

[…]

A new report by the environmental data company CDP has found that at least 29 companies, some with close ties to Republicans, including ExxonMobil, Walmart and American Electric Power, are incorporating a price on carbon into their long-term financial plans.

Without carbon pricing, dirty fuel and power sources like oil, coal, and natural gas are essentially given a big cost break compared to cleaner renewables by forcing everyone else to pay for their environmental damage (and health consequences) — a practice known as “externalizing” the cost. Carbon pricing aims to end the harmful externalities and force dirty fuel sources to compete fairly against cleaner competitors. It also forces companies to find ways of becoming more energy efficient to save money and reduce their tax burden.

So rather than dithering around being “uncertain” as to when or how exactly Congress will get its act together and establish carbon pricing schemes, major U.S. firms are solving the problem by preparing for the more expensive scenarios now, so they aren’t taken by surprise later. Poof! No more policy-driven uncertainty harms! And that’s why it’s never a valid argument that policy decisions should be undertaken solely to reduce uncertainty in the markets and business world.

Well, that and the simple reality that uncertainty is a basic fact of capitalism, so that’s understood to be part of the rules and risk of going into business.

 

*It’s “inherently unknowable” whether Congress will do anything “in the long run” because the Constitution prohibits any one cycle of Congress from passing a law that cannot be undone at any time by a future Congress. Thus it is impossible to pass a “permanent” tax cut that is truly permanent. So such measures, while enthusiastically received by their advocates, are of limited real benefit for ending alleged “uncertainty.”

Edison Rising: The Return of Direct Current

For all the complaining about what a burden the German government’s energiewende policy (total denuclearization of the country’s power generation) is, we’re already seeing long-term benefits of forcing the power industry’s hand. Without having been pressed into getting creative, German engineers might have indefinitely put off critical research in power grid transmission upgrades, which are needed all over the world. This research & testing is already showing some of the improvement theories work in practice — and expand total grid capacity dramatically. Everyone stands to gain from this R&D.

 

Related News Clipping (Economist.com):

The decision, taken in 2011, to close down Germany’s nuclear power stations risks leaving parts of the country with insufficient electricity. This will have to be brought in from elsewhere. But to do that seems, on the face of things, to require the building of new transmission lines, which will be unpopular with those they pass by. One alternative is to make better use of existing lines.

Read the rest.

AFD 57 – Gratuity Not Included

Latest Episode:
“AFD 57 – Gratuity Not Included”
Posted: Tues, 17 September 2013

Bill and guest host Sarah discuss tipping and restaurant minimum wage laws. Then we look at science education in Kentucky and the EPA’s impending new coal power regulations.

Additional Link:
http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/09/11/2606001/carbon-regulations-industry-push/