Federal Water Tap, August 15: U.S. Appeals Court Upholds Carbon Accounting Rules

The Rundown

A federal appeals court affirms the Obama administration’s social cost of carbon guidance. EPA science advisory panel criticizes the agency’s fracking study. A mining company agrees to pay $US 143 million to prevent water contamination from a closed molybdenum mine in New Mexico while Congressional Republicans question the EPA about mining regulations. NASA satellites see the historic rainfall in Louisiana in 3-D. The U.S. Geological Survey looks at climate change and biodiversity in the Southeast and quantifies a proposed Tennessee power plant’s effect on groundwater levels. The USGS also assesses fire risks in New Mexico.

“[Department of Energy] conducted a cost-benefit analysis that is within its statutory authority and is supported by substantial evidence. Its methodology and conclusions were not arbitrary or capricious. It also gave appropriate consideration to the rule’s effect on small businesses and the role of other agency regulations.” — A ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that upheld the Department of Energy’s use of the social cost of carbon to set energy efficiency regulations for commercial refrigerators.

By the Numbers

3.9 inches per hour: Rainfall at peak intensity during the cloudburst in southern Louisiana on August 11. The cloud columns were monumental, some reaching 9.9 miles (52,000 feet) in height. (NASA Goddard)

$US 143 million: Amount Chevron Mining Inc. will pay to clean up waste from a mining site near Questa, New Mexico. The agreement includes construction of a wastewater treatment facility, to prevent contamination of the Red River, and covering a tailings dump with at least two-feet of soil and vegetation. The tailings cover is to stop rain from leaching chemicals into groundwater. The agreement also requires a cluster of wells to extract polluted groundwater that drains from the site. The water will be sent to the treatment facility. The mine, formerly known as Molycorp mine, was a source of molybdenum, a metal used in steel alloys, for nearly a century before closing in 2014. (U.S. Justice Department)

7 feet: Decline in the aquifer level over 30 years at a proposed natural gas power plant near Memphis, Tennessee. The plant will use groundwater to cool the facility. The aquifer decline, limited to the vicinity of the plant, was estimated using computer models and is similar to declines near other high-volume groundwater users in the area. (U.S. Geological Survey)

News Briefs

Counting the Cost of Carbon
In the spring of 2014, the Obama administration published rules that required commercial refrigerators to use less energy. In writing the rules, the Department of Energy had to analyze the costs and benefits.

In doing so, it used a metric known as the “social cost of carbon,” which puts a price on the damage caused by an increase of carbon in the atmosphere. These damages include among other things: human health, increased risk of weather disaster, sea level rise, and changes in crop productivity attributable to an increase in carbon in the atmosphere. Calculating the cost, as you might imagine, is controversial and fraught with uncertainty.

The trade groups that filed the lawsuit argued that the law did not allow the Department of Energy to consider environmental benefits and that its analysis was flawed. The court, however, disagreed. The three-judge panel said that the department acted appropriately. The department responded to concerns raised by the Chamber of Commerce during the public comment period and its application of the social cost of carbon was “neither arbitrary nor capricious.” The court denied the challenge.

EPA Fracking Report Criticized
The EPA’s exceedingly slow assessment of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water — Congress requested the report in 2009 — reached another milestone. A panel convened by the EPA science advisory board submitted its final review of the agency’s draft report.

The panel criticized the EPA’s attempt to draw “national-level conclusions” about a process in which the worst consequences to water are inherently local. The panel noted flaws in the draft report’s most-cited statement: that hydraulic fracturing has not led to “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” The report does not support the statement with sufficient data, the panel claims. The statement is also deficient because the report does not describe the type of water system affected — groundwater or surface water — and it does not define the terms widespread or systemic.

The panel had numerous other criticisms of the study. Mostly, the panel wants the report to include more details: more data from high-profile studies of contamination in private wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania; Pavillion, Wyoming; and Parker County, Texas; more data on the toxicity of fracking chemicals; more data on spills; a better explanation of the risks; and clearer writing so that the general public can understand the findings.

Studies and Reports

Parsing “Waters of the United States”
The phrase “waters of the United States” is central to the Clean Water Act. It determines which streams and wetlands are subject to regulation. Court and agency decisions over the years, however, have modified its meaning. A Congressional Research Service report summarizes the turns of the phrase.

Fighting the Fire Before the Fire Happens
Big fires wreck watersheds. They scorch soil and queue up a plug of ash and debris. But which gullies and basins are most vulnerable? The U.S. Geological Survey analyzed New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains to find out. The results of their study can help land managers reduce fire risk and target restoration dollars for the greatest benefit. Researchers hope to apply the analytical method in other mountains.

Climate Change in the Southeast
The U.S. Geological Survey released a pair of reports on the effect of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems in the Southeast. The reports looked at vulnerabilities and potential adaptation strategies for 19 ecosystems from coastal wetlands and mangrove forests to remote mountaintop balds. Future research needs to consider effects not only on individual species but entire ecosystems.

On the Radar

Mining Regulations
The EPA, because of a court order, is developing new rules to ensure that mining companies have the financial capacity to clean up their waste. Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee want to know what the EPA is thinking about the “financial assurance” regulations. The committee leaders sent the agency a letter asking for documents and information about its process. The draft regulations are due by December 1, 2016. The committee wants a response by August 22.

Climate Change Regulations
In his weekly address, President Obama hinted at measures to reduce carbon pollution that his administration will announce in its final months. One measure will be to tighten fuel efficiency standards for industrial vehicles. A second is implementing the agreement signed earlier this year with Canada and Mexico that set a goal of 50 percent renewable energy in North America by 2025.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.