As of this week, a single violation of prohibitions on watering your lawn in California can cost $500. I recently picked up a tourist brochure for Sierra County California which cautioned me that a medical emergency in the mountainous, rural county was likely to require air evacuation, that my insurance probably wouldn't cover it and that the bill would begin at $15,000. I’ve also read that the rescue price tag for a climber who needs evacuation by air from Yosemite's cliff's can easily run $85,000. But that's fair—we ought to pay for the costs we create.
So how much did the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fine Freedom Industries, the company whose sloppy handling of the toxic chemical MCHM caused 10,000 gallons to spill into the Elk River, poisoning the water supply of hundreds of thousands of Charleston, West Virginia residents? Pathetically, a measly $11,000, less than the cost of a single burst appendix helicopter ambulanced in Sierra County. This when 300,000 people had to find alternative water supplies for ten days.
Clearly Freedom Industries isn't even beginning to pay the cost of what they created. In fact, this fine is probably smaller than what it would have cost them to run their facility correctly and avoid the spill in the first place, since one of the problems that OSHA fined them for was a leaky wall that needed to be replaced.
Freedom Industries is not alone in facing regulatory incentives that make short-cuts and safety violations economically attractive. Even giant BP, after running its refinery in Texas City for six years with repeated releases of lethal gasses, and then knowingly running for 40 days with its pollution control system out of operation and no notification of pollution control officials or the neighbors, got away with a $50 million fine, $22,000/day, that almost certainly made running the refinery and releasing hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic air pollutant the profitable decision.
It’s not like we don’t know how to encourage most people to play by the rules without intrusive inspections or a police state. Many bus and tram systems in Europe don’t check your ticket—except once every ten rides. But the fine for riding without a ticket is, say, 25 times the fare—so even passengers who might be inclined to cheat quickly see that it doesn’t pay—and buy a ticket. But if a bus system checked every ten rides, and the fine was five times the fare—well, do that math. You get a different answer. Lots of free riders.
But we seem to lose track of what we know about human behavior when it comes to those artificial human beings we call corporations. It’s almost as if we take what we know would be an appropriate penalty to make sure you didn’t damage your neighbors and divide it by the size of the corporation—the bigger the company, the weaker the incentive we create for following the rules.
Statute after statute sets penalty limits too small to make compliance the right call for profits. The maximum fine for an auto company that fails to report a safety defect and implement a required recall is only $35 million—that might have gotten Freedom Industries to repair its wall, but it is a tiny fraction of what a timely recall would have cost GM in its current lethal ignition switch scandal. (And remember, many of the vehicles with the defect are no longer on the road, so the current recall is actually costing GM less than a timely one would have.)
And if low penalties aren’t enough, business allies in Congress are busily making it harder to collect penalties once levied—the House Appropriations Committee just voted to block U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from garnishing wages to collect fines from recalcitrant violators.
Do we have some reason to believe that corporations are somehow MORE virtuous than individuals? Not really. Indeed, many of our most prominent business voices argue that a corporation’s only duty is to make money. How does this play out when it comes to following the rules? Early in my work as an environmentalist, I was slipped an internal oil company memo, discussing whether to inform the federal government that a portion of one of its natural fields in the Gulf of Mexico was in federal waters and subject to federal price controls. The memo boasted a complex decision tree complete with % estimates of how likely the feds were to discover the liability on their own, what the oil company’s chances of winning in court were (less than half) and finally what were the odds of jail terms for company employees. Each of these had a dollar value attached, and the final conclusion was—don’t report. I shared the leaked document with federal energy regulators. The oil company observed the price controls.
No company executives went to jail, and at least on the public record, no fine was paid.
Some companies, it seem, are just too big to punish.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
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By Emily Grubert
What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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