EPA Refuses to Control Pollution from Ships, Aircraft and Non-Road Engines
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would not take action to control global warming pollution from major mobile sources at this time. The agency’s decision not to regulate ships and other non-road engines, and its indefinite delay in regulating aircraft, comes in response to a 2010 lawsuit from an environmental coalition asking the EPA to address these types of pollution. The announcement, which presents a major setback to efforts to curb global warming emissions, came despite a recent court ruling that the EPA has a duty to address greenhouse pollution from aircraft.
Together, aircraft, ships and non-road vehicles and engines are responsible for 24 percent of U.S. mobile source greenhouse gas emissions and emit approximately 290,000 tons of soot every year. Pollution from these sources is projected to grow rapidly in the coming decades.
The coalition petitioned the EPA in late 2007 and early 2008 to determine whether greenhouse gas emissions from marine vessels, aircraft and non-road vehicles and engines respectively endanger public health and welfare and, if so, to issue regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions from these sources. In 2009 the EPA found that greenhouse gas emissions from cars do harm human health but the agency has yet to take action to control these same emissions from non-road sources.
“The shipping industry is a major contributor to global warming pollution, but it’s also one of the few sectors where climate solutions will actually save companies money. Annually U.S. ships release more carbon dioxide than 130 million cars and this is on track to triple over the next 20 years. It is time for EPA to issue common sense rules—like setting fuel efficient speed limits—to control pollution from this important sector, especially since it would be a ‘win-win’ proposition,” said Jackie Savitz, vice president for North American Oceans at Oceana.
“Now is the time for EPA to turn to these sources of pollution,” said Sarah Burt of Earthjustice, representing the coalition. “EPA has a clear moral obligation and legal duty under the Clean Air Act to act decisively to protect public health and the environment on which all Americans depend.”
“The Clean Air Act successfully reduces dangerous air pollution and saves lives,” said Kassie Siegel, director of Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “Cost-effective solutions to reduce greenhouse emissions from ships, airplanes and non-road engines are available now. The Obama administration’s decision to shelve these common-sense pollution-reduction measures is tragic and absurd.”
“The evidence of climate change is becoming clearer each and every day,” said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels project director for Friends of the Earth. “We can no longer afford the EPA’s refusal to address important and growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions.”
“EPA needs to shift into high gear and limit the impact that industrial non-road vehicles and engines impose on our common airshed,” said Dan Galpern, an environmental attorney representing the International Center of Technology Assessment, the Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth on the non-road petition. “The climate crisis will not be allayed without the maximum achievable reduction in GHG emissions. This requires reasonable restrictions on monster earth movers, heavy mining and logging equipment, agricultural pumps and other industrial machinery that presently spew climate pollution without end.”
The lawsuit at issue on June 19 was filed in federal district court in the District of Columbia by Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center on behalf of Oceana, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety and the International Center for Technology Assessment.
Independent U.S. scientists, having evaluated the paleoclimate and instrumental records, as well as increasingly sophisticated geophysical models, have determined with high confidence that global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossils fuel has begun to disrupt global and regional climate systems. They predict that, unless these emissions are reduced sharply within decades, natural and human systems on which species and civilization respectively depend will be disrupted irretrievably. In partial response, the U.S. EPA has begun to restrict such emissions from new cars and light trucks, but the government’s determination to act strongly to preserve a habitable climate system remains in question. Major sector sources of GHG emissions, including aircraft, vessels and other non-road vehicles and engines, must not be given a free ride.
Aviation and global warming
Aircraft emit 11 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. transportation sources and 3 percent of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. is responsible for nearly half of worldwide CO2 emissions from aircraft, and such emissions from aircraft are anticipated to increase substantially in the coming decades due to the projected growth in air transport. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, emissions from domestic aircraft will increase 60 percent by 2025. While some countries, such as the European Union, have already begun to respond to these challenges, the U.S. has failed to address this enormous pollution source.
Ships and global warming
In 2008 marine vessels entering U.S. ports accounted for 4.5 percent of domestic mobile source greenhouse gas emissions. The global fleet of marine vessels releases almost 3 percent of the world’s CO2, an amount comparable to the total greenhouse gas emissions of Canada. Because of their huge numbers and inefficient operating practices, marine vessels release a large volume of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and black carbon, or soot. If fuel use remains unchanged, shipping pollution will potentially double from 2002 levels by the year 2020 and triple by 2030. Despite their impact on the global climate, greenhouse gas emissions from ships are not currently regulated by the U.S. or the international community.
Non-road vehicles and engines and global warming
Non-road vehicles and engines are used in the agricultural, construction, commercial, industrial, mining and logging sectors. In 2008 such industrial non-road vehicles and engines were responsible for approximately 9 percent of U.S. mobile source CO2 emissions, as well as significant emissions of black carbon, or soot. Nearly one-third of these emissions are produced by the construction and mining sectors, while one-fifth are from agriculture. The EPA projects that CO2 emissions from the non-road sector will increase approximately 46 percent between 2006 and 2030.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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