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Ecosystem services

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11/15/2012 @ 10:46AM |340 views

The Fiscal Cliff And The Environment

Mother Nature Network Mother Nature Network, Contributor

By Russell McLendon, Mother Nature Network 

old growth forest in Coquille watershed, Orego...

Old growth forest in Coquille watershed, Oregon coast range (Photo credit: F.Eatherington)

Fresh off the re-election of President Obama, the U.S. is already embroiled in another bitter political fight. At issue is the so-called “fiscal cliff,” a metaphoric ledge created by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Because the BCA’s 12-member supercommittee failed to reach a compromise last year, a package of deep spending cuts and steep tax hikes is now slated to take effect at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Unless Obama and Congress agree on a Plan B, the fiscal cliff (aka sequester) will lead to dramatic cuts at the Defense Department and many domestic agencies, including several that handle environmental protection. At the same time, some alternatives to the budget cuts could actually be ecologically astute.

According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, for example, taxing $20 per metric ton of carbon emissions ”would generate approximately $88 billion in 2012, rising to $144 billion by 2020″ and “would reduce the 10-year budget deficit by 50%.” And by creating a financial incentive to phase out carbon-heavy fossil fuels, such a tax could also help slow the onset of global warming.

Obama and lawmakers are working to avoid the sequester, but they’ve also repeatedly let budget deals die in the past. As Congress begins its lame-duck session this week, here’s a look at some potential environmental victims of the fiscal cliff:

National parks and wildlife refuges
Under the sequester — which amounts to 8.2 percent cuts for “nondefense discretionary funding,” according to the White House — the National Park Service would likely have to close some national parks, campgrounds and visitor centers. Park ranger jobs would be on the chopping block, and as the Natural Resources Defense Council points out, “monitoring of endangered species and other scientific work would likely be delayed or dropped.” Meanwhile, the National Wildlife Refuge System could lose 200 science jobs and see law enforcement cut by 15 percent.

Some 300 million people visit U.S. national parks every year, according to the NRDC’s fiscal cliff report, supporting 258,000 jobs and $31 billion in economic activity. Another 45 million people visit national wildlife refuges, generating $4.2 billion and sustaining 35,000 jobs. Even wildlife research can be an economic boon, protecting species and ecosystems whose hidden services help fuel the U.S. economy. Federal scientists are currently fighting white-nose syndrome in bats, for example, which threatens an animal that saves U.S. farmers an estimated $3.7 billion per year by eating pests.

National forests and public lands
The National Forest System includes 193 million acres of wilderness, from temperate and tropical forests to wetlands, grasslands and tundra. On top of hosting $14.5 billion worth of recreation every year, national forest lands also supply 20 percent of U.S. drinking water, which the Forest Service values at $27 billion per year.

If sequestration occurs, the NRDC forecasts widespread rural job loss, weaker wildfire management, closure of trails and campgrounds, poor maintenance of forest roads, unprocessed recreational permits, and greater invasive species growth. The group projects similar effects from cuts to the Bureau of Land Management, which employs 2 million people and oversees more wildlife habitat than any other federal agency.

Another potential target is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps states and local governments obtain and develop outdoor public areas. It’s funded by offshore oil and gas royalties, not taxes, yet chunks of its funding are already often redirected to other purposes. Further cuts could lead to “the permanent loss of recreation access along with resource-damaging development in parks and other public lands across the country,” the NRDC warns.

Environmental research
The sequester would also mean cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency, potentially disrupting research on subjects such as asthma, autism, birth defects and cancer. The EPA studies environmental and public health, monitors air and water quality, enforces laws like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, and analyzes the safety of various chemicals, products and industrial processes, from plastics and pesticides to fracking and mountaintop removal.

EPA research is especially critical now, the NRDC argues, due to suspected risks from emerging and evolving technologies. The group cites nanotechnology as an example, noting that its side effects would be largely ignored if not for the EPA: “[I]ndustry has no requirement or incentives to provide or carry out research on the possible health and environmental impacts of most these new nanochemicals, including potential effects on reproduction, brain development and chronic diseases such as cancer. EPA will be unable to fill in the gaps with these proposed cuts.”

Oceans and coasts
U.S. coastlines face a variety of natural and manmade threats — pollution, invasive species, overdevelopment, sea-level rise, hurricanes — yet they remain vital economic hotspots. Coastal counties generate more than half of the U.S. gross domestic product, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and their 66 million jobs represent about a quarter of the national total.

Cuts at NOAA could thus lead to economic as well as ecological damage, the NRDC explains, by weakening the agency’s efforts to protect coastal areas’ overall vitality. The sequester would likely force NOAA’s Coastal Zone Management Program to lay off scientists, technicians and educators, and the NRDC warns of a ripple effect for tourism and other “local businesses that depend on healthy coastal resources.” Shrinking NOAA’s budget could also hinder its efforts to defend cities against storm surges like Hurricane Sandy’s, and undermine its work in sustaining U.S. fisheries.

Energy efficiency and production
Sequestration would take $148 million away from the U.S. Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, according to the White House report, which NRDC notes “would be equivalent to cutting the solar energy program at the Department of Energy in half, or equal to eliminating the entire wind and geothermal energy programs.” The DOE would also lose $400 million from its overall science budget, and nearly $500 million of its funding for environmental cleanups.

Reduced efficiency funding alone could cause economic harm, since future energy-use standards for appliances and equipment are projected to save consumers $170 billion and curb national energy consumption by 11.7 trillion kilowatt hours. But the fiscal cliff threatens energy development as well as energy use — the DOE would lose funding for its own research, plus grants and loans for energy innovation in the private sector, while the Bureau of Land Management would likely be less able to study the environmental impact of things like siting solar farms or leasing oil rights.


If the fiscal cliff isn’t averted, the Congressional Budget Office estimates U.S. economic output would shrink 3 percent in the first half of 2013, and unemployment could go back above 9 percent by 2014. And while the sequester would also slow deficit growth, the NRDC argues it’s not worth the environmental cost, since the U.S. budget’s natural-resources section is just 1.4 percent of all federal spending. The National Park Service is 1/14th of 1 percent of the national budget, for example, while all federal expenditures that relate to oceans and coasts make up less than 0.5 percent.

In a recent statement on the fiscal cliff, NRDC’s David Goldston expressed hope that Obama and Congress will find ways to balance the budget without jeopardizing environmental research and preservation. “Avoiding the fiscal cliff will require making tough choices,” Goldston said, adding that the budget “cannot be balanced by slashing programs that protect our air, water, lands and health.”









Why Louisiana’s Ecosystems Should Sue BP

By Bioneers on Jun 25, 2010 | Permalink

(and why it’s not as crazy as it might sound)

Submitted by: Thomas Linzey, Esq., Executive Director, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Inc.


For months, BP’s oil spill has dominated the news. The blame game between the government and the corporation began minutes after the explosion – the corporation blaming the regulators, the regulators blaming the corporation. (“Coast Guard: BP Steps Up Efforts to Contain Oil”, Shreveport Times, June 14, 2010).

Been there. Done that. The only exceptional thing about the finger-pointing is that it isn’t exceptional at all – the story of the regulation of large resource extraction corporations is always the same. Although it’s rarely said out loud, oil corporations write the regulations that ostensibly regulate them, and when the regulations become too expensive to comply with, the regulator exempts the corporations from them, or the corporations simply rewrite the regulations to eliminate the nuisance.

What gets missed in all of the blather is not only the recognition that we have absolutely no control over the state or federal regulatory process (and, in fact, aren’t even awake enough to understand that the regulatory system is used by corporations to legalize practices that would otherwise not be allowed at all), but that ecosystems and nature never even enter the mix.

Consider this – as far back as we’ve had written law, nature and ecosystems have been defined as property. What that means is that people (or corporations) can legally own parts of an ecosystem, or even an ecosystem itself. For example, your deed to a ten acre parcel of land confers upon you the legal right to use that parcel of land (which inevitably is part of a forest, bayou, or mountain ecosystem) for anything that you so choose – it even confers upon you the power to destroy the ecosystem. That’s been the law for so long that we never seem to question it.

Witness long-wall coal mining in Western Pennsylvania – coal corporations use vast machines to extract coal while pulling out surface supports for the ground above. Surface land sinks several feet, and when the mining occurs under a stream or river, the waterway simply disappears. Damages, if any, are then paid not to bring the stream back to its previous, undamaged state, but are instead, measured by the loss of use of that stream to fishermen and other people who use the stream.

And, of course, the practice is “permitted” by the environmental regulatory agency and by the state (which made changes in the law specifically to allow the undermining). Many times, that permit is then used as a legal defense by the corporation to claims brought against it.

In West Virginia, it’s much rawer and more blatant than that – coal companies simply blow off the tops of mountains to get at the coal, leaving a barren moonscape behind. It’s all perfectly legal, of course – again, permitted and encouraged by the regulatory agencies and by the state.

Parallels have been drawn between how our legal system treats ecosystems and nature, to how the legal system used to treat African-Americans and women. It was impossible to murder a slave, because a slave was property. If you killed a slave that wasn’t yours, you merely paid damages to the owner of the slave. Similarly, rape was not defined as a crime against a woman, because a woman was the property of her husband, and so property damages were paid to the husband.

It’s the difference between being a person under the law (with rights recognized for you), and being property. If you’re property, you have no rights of your own, and the only rights that are recognized are to the owner of the property – the value of which is determined by the extent of which the owner uses the property.

Flash forward to today – just like only the slave-owners and husbands were “seen” by the courts, rather than slaves and women; nature and ecosystems never appear in the courtrooms, because damages for destruction of those ecosystems are measured solely by the loss of use of those ecosystems to others. In the case of the BP spill, damages will be paid out to fishermen and others who have lost their ability to use the ecosystem, and they will be measured by the extent of their financial losses. BP is voluntarily paying those claims now, but only because they understand that the system of law will require it later and that they save money by compensating those claims immediately.

But that’s not enough to make the coast of Louisiana whole. It’s a well-settled edict of law that when someone causes an injury, that the payment of resulting damages must be equal to the injury that has been caused. That serves not only to make the injured party whole (back to where the party was originally), but also to disallow the assailant from benefiting from his act, and thus, to dissuade others from doing similar acts.

For that to happen, BP must be responsible for damages that make not only the bayou economy whole, but that make the ecosystem itself whole as well.

And that’s where the law, while determining that one must be paid (economic damages to those whose livelihood has been removed), does not require BP to compensate for the collapse of coast and ocean ecosystems.

While some would argue that punitive damages can actually serve that role, those damages are levied to punish the corporation, and their amount is measured by what an adequate punishment would be. They have no legal relation to the damage caused to the ecosystem. Second, those damages are routinely reduced, as they were under the Exxon Valdez litigation (from $5 billion to $500 million), because corporations have court-bestowed constitutional rights of their own, which they assert to eliminate or reduce punitive damage awards.

Making ecosystems whole, as well as compensation for economic loss caused to people, is not as crazy as it sounds. In 2009, the country of Ecuador wrote a new constitution recognizing that a new system of environmental protection is required to protect nature and ecosystems – one based on nature itself having the right to exist and flourish. Closer to home, over a dozen municipal governments in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Maine, and Virginia, have adopted local laws establishing the same premise – that ecosystems and nature must have independently enforceable rights of their own, to make sure that they are “seen” by courts and litigants. All of those laws enable any resident of those communities to “stand in the shoes” of the ecosystem to litigate in the best interest of those ecosystems to make them whole again.

Municipal governments in the coastal regions of Louisiana, Alabama, and soon-to-be Florida need to adopt similar laws, which would then enable their residents – as well as those governments themselves – to hold BP to a much higher standard. One which actually recognizes the true cost of the damage that has been done, and requires BP to truly come clean.

Without those laws, we will be resigned to watching the oil coat not only our beaches and destroy our livelihoods, but we’ll have to watch as it happens again and again.

Submitted by:

Thomas Linzey, Esq., Executive Director
Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund
675 Mower Road
Chambersburg, Pennsylvania 17202
(717) 977-6823 (cell)


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