ENN summarizes the week's most compelling environmental news stories. This week: Toxic whales, a Great Lakes pact, pollution inequities, a breeding breakthrough, and more.
The Week's Top Ten Stories
In the news December 12th - 16th: Toxic whales, a Great Lakes pact, pollution inequities, a breeding breakthrough, and more.
1. Study Pinpoints Species Facing Extinction Threat
The Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) this week released a study listing nearly 800 wildlife species teetering on the brink of extinction. The good news appears to be that with some habitat conservation measures, many of them could be saved. According to an AZE statement, "Safeguarding 595 sites around the world would help stave off an imminent global extinction crisis."
2. Collapsed Portion of Reservoir Made of 'Rubble Material'
Missouri reservoir inspectors called to the site where a mountaintop reservoir collapsed this week, critically injuring three children, made a shocking discovery: The breached portion was composed, not of granite, but of soil and small rock. Asked whether prior knowledge of the reservoir's structure would have affected management of the area, James Alexander of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' Dam and Reservoir Safety Program, said, "If I would have known that, yeah, that would be more of a concern."
3. EPA Goes Ahead with Plan To Test Apartments for World Trade Center Dust
More than three years later, many fear that dust from the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center lingers. The EPA will proceed with plans to find out, testing selected private homes and businesses in lower Manhattan. Critics of the plan contend that it amounts to too little, too late. Catherine McVay-Hughes, a community liaison to the EPA's technical review panel, said "The plan excludes entire neighborhoods known to have been impacted by the dust cloud, the fires that burned for months and the barge waste transfer operations."
4. Study Reveals Arctic Killer Whales High in Toxins
With a hefty appetite for fatty fish, killer whales have the dubious distinction as the most toxic mammals in the Arctic, a study shows. That's bad news for the rest of the area's marine ecosystem, suggests researcher Hans Wolkers of the Norwegian Polar Institute. "Killer whales can be regarded as indicators of the health of our marine environment," he said. Further, the high levels of toxins "show that the Arctic seas are not as clean as they should be, which, in particular, affects animals at the top of the food chain."
5. Environmental Rules Get Benched in Gulf Coast
It appears that in the chaotic scramble to mitigate the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina, many environmental laws fell by the wayside. From asbestos-removal laws to open-burning regulations, rules were set aside as companies requested and received waivers for the purpose of rebuilding. Adam Babich of Tulane University's Environmental Law Clinic, says that the situation comes with a potential price tag. "What these waivers represent is the government waiving protections of the public's health," he said. "A lot of this seems to be happening under the radar without any public participation."
6. U.S., Canadian Officials Sign Great Lakes Water Pact
On Tuesday, governors of eight states and two Canadian provinces signed a pact designed to "improve and protect the health and economic vitality of the Great Lakes region and allow future generations to share the same benefits," according to Ohio's Republican Gov. Bob Taft, who heads the Council of Great Lakes Governors. Containing 20 percent of the fresh surface water in the world, the Great Lakes only replace one percent per year, making it especially crucial to have sound conservation standards in place.
7. Research Project Reveals Industrial Pollution Inequities
A new study shows that air pollution affects a disproportionate number of people living in poorer communities in the United States. "If you look at where our industrialized facilities tend to be located, they're not in the upper middle class neighborhoods," summarized former EPA head Carol Browner. "Poor communities, frequently communities of color but not exclusively, suffer disproportionately," she said.
8. Bush Promises New Orleans Bigger, Better Levees
On Thursday President Bush addressed the need to reinforce New Orleans' levee system, which failed tragically under the strain imposed by Hurricane Katrina in August. The President's request for an additional $1.6 billion to bolster the system with stone and concrete pleased New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. "These levees will be as high as 17 feet in some areas. We've never had that," he said. "These levees will be fortified with rock and concrete. We've never had that before."
9. U.S. SeaWorld Claims Dolphin Breeding Breakthrough
A sperm-sorting process resulted in a successful gender-selection experiment, as evidenced by the October birth of a female bottlenose dolphin at SeaWorld San Diego. Touting the success as "a real breakthrough," Tom Gilligan of XY Inc., the company that helped develop the technology, suggested that future implications include diminishing the need for acquiring new mammals to diversify the gene pool of captive marine animals.
10. Christmas is Damaging the Environment, Report Says
The season of giving takes a bite out of the environment, according to a report released this week by the Australian Conservation Foundation. Entitled, "The Hidden Cost of Christmas," the report looks at the environmental impact of seasonal spending. "If your bank account is straining under the pressure of Christmas shopping, spare a thought for our environment," said Don Henry, the foundation's executive director. "We can all tread more lightly on the earth this Christmas by eating, drinking and giving gifts in moderation, and by giving gifts with a low environmental cost, such as vouchers for services, tickets to entertainment, memberships to gyms, museums or sports clubs, and donations to charities."
Guest Commentary: Kicking the Oil Habit and Creating Jobs
By Robert Walker, Get America Working!
Addiction is a terrible thing. It clouds the judgment, often causing the addict to engage in self-destructive behavior. Addicts know all the reasons why they should quit; they just can’t seem to act on them. That certainly applies to America’s oil addiction.
Americans are hooked on oil and they’re still not interested in breaking the dependency, even when gas prices soar over $3 a gallon. They’ve heard all the arguments. They know that an increasing percentage of the oil we import comes from countries controlled by unfriendly or potentially hostile regimes. They know that our oil dollars could be subsidizing terrorists. They know that a significant portion of our defense budget goes to securing our oil supplies. They know that the carbon emissions that come from oil consumption could be feeding global warming. They know that oil prices will rise even higher in years to come. They heard all those arguments before, but they’re still not prepared to quit.
Most Americans probably understand by now that our dependence on oil and other scare natural resources is endangering our economic future. Unless we do something to curb our consumption of oil and other scarce natural resources, millions of Americans could lose their jobs when oil prices take an even larger and sustained jump. Indeed, our future prosperity may well depend on whether we are able to break our dependence on oil and other scarce resources.
What most Americans don’t understand is that we can sharply reduce our dependence on foreign oil without causing major economic disruption. In fact, curbing our consumption of oil—depending on how we do it—might be the best thing that’s happened to the American economy since the invention of the silicon chip. Here’s why.
The fastest and most reliable way of reducing our dependence on oil (and other natural resources) is to tax our consumption of those scarce resources. If we taxed oil and other natural resources and used the revenues to promote alternative energy sources and reduce payroll taxes, we could actually expand employment.
Call it the “lean and green” solution. Shifting taxes off of “people” and on to “things” would radically change the direction and future of our economy. Phased in over time, it would alter the price signals that guide businesses, encouraging them to adopt production processes that are less energy or resource-intensive and far more labor intensive. That would reduce the nation’s consumption of oil and other scarce resources, while providing a powerful boost to employment.
Reducing payroll taxes could dramatically boost job creation. Daniel Hamermesh, a leading labor economist at the University of Texas, has estimated that a reduction of 10 percentage points in payroll tax rates (Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes currently claim 15.3 percent of most paychecks) would generate a 3 percent jump in employment in the short-run and as much as 10 percent in the long-term. That alone would be an enormous step forward, but if taxes on natural resources were substituted for all payroll taxes, which currently consumer about 17 percent of wages, the impact could be even larger.
Full replacement of the payroll tax with natural resource taxes would result in a shift of more than 30 percent in the relative price of “people” to “things,” giving a powerful incentive for businesses to curb their consumption of materials and increase the number of workers. In the long run, tens of millions of new jobs might be created.
There are plenty of potential natural resources taxes to choose from; they range from energy taxes on oil and gasoline, to a carbon tax on fossil fuel emissions, to a non-labor, value-added tax (VAT) that would tax consumption of all natural resources.
The benefits of taxing oil are obvious to most economists. Most obviously, it would help us recover the costs or “externalities” associated with our consumption of oil. Those costs are far more than the commercial price of a barrel of crude. We should factor in what oil consumption does to the environment and what it costs the U.S. to secure our oil supply lines. And then we need to add in what it costs to build and maintain roads and what we pay in lost time because of traffic congestion. Estimates vary, but some experts believe that these “external costs” add as much as $3 a gallon to the real price of gasoline. And that doesn’t include the contribution that oil consumption adds to global warming.
But focusing on the “externalities” associated with our consumption of oil is not likely to cure our oil addiction. Americans don’t want to be punished for their oil addiction by higher taxes. But if Americans can be persuaded that oil and other energy taxes, combined with offsetting reduction in payroll taxes, could lead to a healthier economy and greater prosperity, public opposition to energy taxes could evaporate.
Robert Walker is president of the nonpartisan fuller employment policy group, Get America Working!
Photo: A girl walks down a bamboo suspension bridge on Bohol Island in the Philippines. Credit: ©2005 Eric Thompson, Courtesy of Photoshare.