Dispatch from Québec, Land of Hydropower

Posted on March 27th, 2017 by Justin Gundlach

by Justin Gundlach

Hydro generating facilities (blue dots) and transmission lines (green lines)

Three weeks ago, at the invitation of the Canadian Consulate and Hydro Québec, I traveled to see two enormous hydropower facilities. One of them, La Grande 2-A, is part of the La Grande Complex of dams, turbines, and electricity substations located in the James Bay region (see map at right). Getting there required a two-hour northward flight from Montreal (the road trip would take about 15 hours). The other facility, the Beauharnois Generating Station, is located just outside Montreal. I was one of a number of academics, economists, and attorneys that Hydro Québec and the Canadian government thought would be interested to know more about Canadian hydropower—in particular, its potential to meet demand in the New York and New England regions for large volumes of reliable, low-emissions electricity.

Even those who don’t want to see more imported Canadian electricity would have to concede that electricity policy and operations in Québec, New England, and New York are compatible. First, all three regions assign prices to the greenhouse gas emissions from their electricity sectors. Second, there is excess supply in Québec and robust demand for new low-emitting capacity in New York and New England. That demand is the result of  some of the highest electricity prices in North America, ambitious state-level greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, and growing numbers of nuclear power plant closures throughout the region. Furthermore, whereas Québec experiences peak electricity demand in the winter (most heating there is electric), New England and New York experience peaks in the summer (cooling here is electric), meaning that the regions would seldom compete for the output of Hydro Québec’s reservoirs.

The only missing piece of the puzzle—or circuit, if you like—is transmission capacity. Existing interconnections allow Hydro Québec to send about 30 terawatt hours (TWh) of hydroelectricity south each year. The company would like to supply twice that amount (it won’t reveal specifics about its maximum current or future potential capacity). Read on below the jump for more background about Canadian hydropower, how state laws in the U.S. are driving demand for such resources, the status of transmission line plans, the players and arguments involved, and a short description of how federal law bears upon the development of cross-border transmission capacity.

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Site of the first oil well drilled by Edwin Drake in 1859

Around this time of year, back in 1859, the first oil well was drilled by Edwin Drake in north-west Pennsylvania. After a slow start – drilling initially progressed at a rate of just three feet per day – Drake struck it lucky and hit oil at a depth of 69.5 feet. The oil was brought to
the surface with a primitive hand pump and collected in a bathtub while the associated natural gas escaped into the atmosphere.

A lot has changed in the subsequent 150 years. The oil and gas industry has developed into one of the country’s most technologically advanced, able to drill deeper and access reserves that Drake never would have foreseen. Despite these advances, however, some things have remained the same. To this day, oil drillers still often allow natural gas to escape into the atmosphere, rather than capturing it. Releases also occur during gas production due to accidental leaks, intentional venting, and incomplete flaring at well sites, storage facilities, and transport systems. The Obama Administration had tried to change that, adopting various regulations to reduce gas leaks, venting, and flaring. These regulations are unlikely to survive under President Trump, however. That’s bad news for anyone concerned about climate change. Or the environment and public health more generally.

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New: Adaptation Resource Database

Posted on March 23rd, 2017 by Jessica Wentz

The Sabin Center has introduced a new item to our collection of legal resources – a compilation of Legal Resources for Climate Change Adaptation.

The new page includes information about specific legal provisions that could be interpreted as requiring consideration of climate change-related risks, articles discussing the nature of legal obligations to adapt, and resources to facilitate adaptation planning efforts undertaken by government and private actors. It is intended as a complement to our Handbook of Adaptation Advocacy Strategies and other publications on the topic of adaptation. Some of the topics covered include:

•  Federal laws that can be interpreted as requiring the federal government or private actors to prepare for and mitigate risks related to climate change

•  Common law doctrines that can be used to compel government actors to prepare for and mitigate risks related to climate change

•  The role of local land use and planning laws in climate change adaptation

•  The role of building codes in climate change adaptation

•  The extent to which contractual, fiduciary and professional obligations entail obligations related to the disclosure and/or mitigation of climate change-related risks

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Want to Join Our Team? The Sabin Center is Hiring a Staff Attorney

Posted on March 22nd, 2017 by Romany Webb

The Sabin Center is looking to hire a staff attorney to work with us from September 2017 to September 2018. The attorney will develop and implement strategic research concerning climate change mitigation and adaptation, contribute to advocacy-oriented programs and projects, assist with the research administration of the Center, and supervisor interns and volunteers.

Applicants must have received a J.D. or equivalent degree, and should have 3 years of work experience in environmental, energy or natural resources law and policy. Ability to exercise independent judgment, work under pressure, supervise multiple research and support staff, work with students from the law school and other graduate and undergraduate programs, and prioritize and carry out multiple tasks with minimal supervision is a must.

For more information about the position and instructions on how to apply, visit academicjobs.columbia.edu/applicants/Central?quickFind=64347


Tiffany joined the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law in February 2017. She graduated in 2015 with a Master’s Degree in Sustainability Science and Education from the Graduate Center at CUNY. During her studies, she conducted fieldwork on climate change adaptation and sustainable food production practices, and performed community outreach in the small island developing state of Barbuda, West Indies. Tiffany also interned at the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Initiative, supporting communications efforts and developing case studies. She has also worked as a Communications Consultant at UNDP for the Environmental Governance Programme. She is thrilled to be on board and to support the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law team with strategic communications.

Contact information

Phone: 212-854-0594

Email: tc2868@columbia.edu


By Jessica Wentz and Tim Wang

Shortly after President Trump took office, the White House issued a memorandum imposing a freeze on new and pending regulations. The memorandum directed agencies to delay the effective date of rules that had already been published in the Federal Register and to withdraw regulations that had been submitted to the Office of the Federal Register but not yet published. The purpose of the freeze is to ensure that Trump and his appointees will have the opportunity to review these regulations before they are finalized and take effect.

One significant problem with the regulatory freeze is the lack of transparency with respect to the withdrawn rules. The delayed rules are relatively easy to identify because they were published in the Federal Register – as reported on our Climate Deregulation Tracker, they included energy efficiency and renewable fuel standards. But this is not the case for the withdrawn rules. These so called “ghost rules” were withdrawn from the rulemaking process without any public notice or explanation. Some of them had gone all the way through the rulemaking process – the proposed rule was published, public input was accepted, and the rule was finalized – before being withdrawn. Others were at the proposal stage, which meant that there was no prior proposal published in the Federal Register and no way for the public to view these rules before they were withdrawn.

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By Michael Burger and Romany Webb

Less than a month after being sworn in as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt has already begun dismantling years of work to curb greenhouse gas emissions. In one of his first official actions, last Thursday, Administrator Pruitt withdrew a request that oil and gas companies provide certain information needed to develop new methane regulations for the industry. The request, which was issued last November, included an operator survey seeking information on the number and types of equipment used at onshore oil and gas facilities and a more detailed facility survey which sought data on methane emissions from equipment leaks and other sources. The operator survey was to be completed by 15,000 companies, while the facility survey was sent to a representative sample of 4,650. Most hadn’t yet responded and now, thanks to the withdrawal, won’t have to. As a result, EPA will remain largely unaware of the companies’ methane emissions, making appropriate regulation of them all but impossible. That’s bad news for anyone concerned about climate change.

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The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law has partnered with StateAG.org to develop a database of actions undertaken by state attorneys general as they seek to advance environmental law and policy objectives within their jurisdictions.

The State AG Environmental Action Database is intended as an easy-to-use and organized legal resource for state attorneys general as they grapple with how to advance the ball on environmental law and policy in the absence of federal support.

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March 2017 Updates to the Climate Case Charts

Posted on March 6th, 2017 by Jessica Wentz
 1 comment  

Each month, Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law collect and summarize developments in climate-related litigation, which we also add to our U.S. and non-U.S. climate litigation charts.  If you know of any cases we have missed, please email us at columbiaclimate at gmail dot com.



Lawsuit Filed Seeking Temperature TMDL for Rivers in Pacific Northwest

Environmental and conservation groups and a trade association for commercial fishermen filed a lawsuit in the federal district court the Western District of Washington seeking a declaratory judgment that EPA violated the Clean Water Act by failing to issue a total maximum daily load (TMDL) for temperature pollution in the Columbia and Snake Rivers in Oregon and Washington. The plaintiffs also asked the court to order EPA to promptly prepare a temperature TMDL. The complaint alleged that multiple segments of the rivers were on Oregon’s and Washington’s Section 303(d) lists of impaired waters because they failed to meet temperature water quality criteria intended to protect salmon and steelhead spawning, rearing, and migration. The complaint also alleged that the high water temperatures—for which dams were largely responsible—were expected to worsen due to continuing climate change. The complaint asserted that EPA had agreed to issued a temperature TMDL in a 2000 agreement with Oregon and Washington but had subsequently failed to issue a final TMDL. The plaintiffs alleged that the states had “clearly and unambiguously expressed their intent not to prepare or submit” TMDLs, thereby triggering EPA’s duty to issue the TMDL. The plaintiffs also said that failure to issue the temperature TMDL constituted unreasonable delay under the Administrative Procedure Act. Columbia Riverkeeper v. Pruitt, No. 2:17-cv-00289 (W.D. Wash., filed Feb. 23, 2017).

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by Romany Webb and Justin Gundlach

There has been much talk in recent weeks about pricing carbon to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Earlier this month, a group of former Republican cabinet members proposed adoption of a nationwide carbon price, starting at $40 per ton. That seems unlikely, however. Even the proposal’s main architect, former Secretary of State James Baker, acknowledged that he faces an “uphill slog” in convincing the federal government to act. In the absence of federal action, many states are stepping in. Here in New York, for example, we already have three forms of more or less direct carbon pricing. The most direct of these is imposed on certain fossil fuel power plants by requiring them to purchase carbon dioxide emissions allowances as part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The others, established through New York’s Clean Energy Standard, compensate renewable generators and nuclear plants for their low-carbon attributes.

Prompted in part by these policies, New York’s electric transmission grid operator (the “New York Independent System Operator” or “NYISO”) recently commenced a review to assess possible means of incorporating the cost of carbon emissions into wholesale electricity market prices. To inform that review, the Sabin Center is today publishing a white paper, exploring two approaches to carbon pricing. Under the first, NYISO would adopt a carbon price of its own initiative, with a view to improving the operation of wholesale electricity markets. The second would involve adoption of a carbon price designed to reflect and harmonize state level policies.

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