Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen discusses Earthjustice's approach to tackling the vast and complex issue of climate change.
Recorded: January 29, 2013
Trip describes how Earthjustice is uniquely positioned to create change by leveraging the power of the law to realize a sustainable future. He elaborates on our three-pronged approach to tackling climate change—ending our reliance on fossil fuels, building ecosystem resilience, and promoting a clean energy future.
The conversation was held on January 29, 2013 and moderated by National Press Secretary Kari Birdseye.
Kari Birdseye: Hello. Thank you all for joining us today. I'm Kari Birdseye, National Press Secretary for Earthjustice, here to moderate a discussion with Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen. Today, we will be discussing our strategies and casework addressing climate change. In the wake of superstorm Sandy and after a year with record-setting droughts and Arctic sea ice at its lowest levels in history, the demand for action on climate change is greater than ever.
Just how does Earthjustice tackle climate change? We can start by outlining our strategies, giving highlights of some of our casework, and then we'll open up the lines to take your questions. When you are ready to ask a question, press 1 on your touch tone phone. We'll get your question right in the queue. Let's start things off with an overview. Trip, obviously climate change is a vast and complex issue. What is Earthjustice's overarching strategy for taking on climate change?
Trip Van Noppen: Thanks, Kari, and hello, everybody. Thank you for joining us today. Earthjustice is using the full power of the law to execute on a three-part strategy to address the biggest environmental issue of our time, climate change.
First of all, we're doing all that we can to end our reliance on burning fossil fuels, which are the biggest drivers of climate change, and as we'll talk about, that involves us working on coal, on oil, and on gas. Second, we're working in the courts and in the utility commissions around the country to push forward the transition to a non-fossil fuel clean energy future. And third, because climate change is already affecting the web of life, we're using the law to fortify the resilience of natural systems to give us the best chance for our forests, our rivers, and our oceans to survive in a healthy way as the climate does change. So as you can tell, we're really busy.
Kari: So let's dive a bit deeper into each one of these areas, beginning with moving away from fossil fuels. Can you describe our work in this area?
Trip: I'd be happy to. I mentioned coal, oil, and gas, so let me just take those three in that order.
First, coal. As people on the call are probably most familiar, we are engaged in a comprehensive attack on coal, working with partners around the country. Our cases on coal are putting new pollution safeguards in place that are ending investment in new coal plants in the United States and are rapidly retiring many of the dirty old ones. The more we can do to force coal to pay its full cost through environmental safeguards, the quicker we'll get off coal, and our lawyers are going after how coal is mined, how it's burned, what happens to the waste from the coal plants, and even are bringing cases to prevent U.S. coal from being shipped to China, where burning it there would make climate change even worse. Our lawyers have just achieved great victories and shutdowns of major coal plants in places like Kentucky and in New York.
Turning to oil for a minute, we have to transition away from oil like we have to transition away from coal. One big thing we don't need to do as we make that transition is open up the fragile, pristine Arctic Ocean to new oil development. The impacts of all development on the Arctic and on the people in the Arctic include climate impacts from the oil that is burned and from the industrial activities of extracting the oil itself. They would be terrible for the Arctic, and our lawyers in Alaska have succeeded for years in court preventing oil development in the Arctic.
We're also defending in court the fuel economy standards that the Obama administration put in place that are the biggest single step the administration has taken on climate so far because they are dramatically reducing oil demand in our country.
That brings me to gas. Gas development, using fracking, is booming in many parts of the United States, with many new areas opened up every month, including new proposals right now here in California. Our lawyers are working in the Northeast and across the Rockies and in California and at the federal level to keep gas development out of places where it shouldn't happen and to reduce the climate and health and habitat impacts where it does occur.
And I just should mention I think that some folks on the phone may be thinking, 'You know, well, isn't gas a good step for the climate?' There are several reasons why gas is a major climate concern. First of all, it is a carbon fuel. The more we burn of it, the more carbon we put in the atmosphere and the more climate we continue to disrupt. Second, the gas itself leaks in the production process, and it is a potent climate driver, even before it's burned. So we're working to clean up the process as gas is developed and to minimize our use of gas where we can. So as I say, Kari, we are working all-out on all three of these fossil fuels.
Kari: Well, we hear a lot of lip service given to transitioning to a green energy future, but what steps are we, as an organization, taking to get us there?
Trip: Well, Kari, I have to say it's not lip service. It's a profound and rapid transformation of our electric energy system that's going on. In Iowa and South Dakota, for example, more than twenty percent of their energy was from renewable sources last year, and California's blowing right past its thirty-three percent renewable goal as we speak. So rooftop solar is exploding, and we're working hard to make that happen.
Our lawyers are helping drive that transformation in the public utility commissions, where the rules of the road are made about how renewables will actually work on the grid. Hawaiʻi is a great example. We've been representing the Hawaiʻi Solar Energy Association in a series of cases in their utilities commission that have been tearing down the barriers to rooftop solar, and Hawaiʻi is helping set the pace for new solar development in the country. In California, we've been working on how the whole new grid will operate with renewables, and our lawyers are very engaged there.
We work at the federal level to strengthen energy efficiency standards, which reduce the demand for power, and we're defending clean energy laws and rules where they've been adopted and are being challenged by the industry. We're going to court to help defend them.
Kari: So why is it important to build resilience to the effects of climate change, and what type of work are we doing on that front?
Trip: We all know that the climate is already changing and that no matter what pace we can succeed at getting off fossil fuels, the climate will continue to change—and it's beginning to tear at the web of life, as we've all seen with changing temperatures, extreme heat, extreme drought, extreme storms, changing water flows, even changing acidity of the ocean.
All of these trends are adding stress to the living systems that we all depend on and that we all love, so it's only common sense that as we do what we can to fight the causes of climate change that we also strengthen the web of life so it's better able to endure and adapt to climate changes that we are going to experience.
That really means using the law to reduce other stresses. We want to protect large habitat areas. We want to protect and create migration corridors because animals and plants are going to have to move to be able to adapt, to protect watersheds because water supplies will be changing. We want to create the possibility of migration and of resilience in the ocean and on land, and we use all of the legal tools to do that, where you're bringing cases under the wildlife and endangered species laws, under land protection laws, under the Clean Water Act.
We're bringing big cases to require agencies to take climate risks into account when they decide how lands and fisheries and rivers are going to be managed. An example is the case that we've successfully challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service efforts to take the grizzly bear in the Northern Rockies off the endangered species list. They ignored what was going on in the climate. They ignored the fact that climate was decimating the food supply of the grizzly bears, and they said, "Well, we don't need to worry about that. We'll take them off the endangered species list and they'll be fine." We challenged that in court, saying you cannot ignore the signs of climate change and the obvious impact that's happening on the food sources of the grizzly bears. We won that case. The bears are back on the list.
We're doing a lot of work to protect the habitat that they depend upon. This has also been something we worked on in cases involving salmon in the Western rivers, and internationally on the acidification of our oceans. So like everyone, I'm deeply concerned about where we're headed globally on climate change, but I couldn't be prouder of what we're doing on it today.
Kari: Great, Trip, thank you. If you have a question for Trip and you'd like to submit it, press 1 on your touch tone phone now. I'll give you another question here, Trip. Lots of other groups are working on this issue. How does our strategy fit into what other organizations may be doing?
Trip: That's a great question, Kari, thank you. As you know, everything we do, we do with others, so all this work I've talked about, we're doing with clients and allies, so it fits in very closely with the sound climate action priorities of many of the other leading environmental groups and with local land protection, river and forest protection groups, with wildlife organizations, with clean energy groups.
Across this wide spectrum that we're talking about, we work closely with others. We strengthen their efforts through bringing the issues into the court system, and the most critical part of that, perhaps, is that so much of this work is combating the political power of the fossil fuel industry—the richest, most powerful industry in the history of the world. They've had their way in Congress for a long time. We've been stymied from getting climate change legislation through the federal Congress, and we still are stymied in getting that to happen. So the place that the playing field can be leveled is the courts, and that's where we've brought these issues for action.
Kari: Great. President Obama surprised many last week by devoting more time to climate change than any other single issue during his inaugural address. What kind of progress on climate change do you expect to see in the next four years from this administration?
Trip: Well, like I just said, Kari, the Congress is a roadblock to significant action, that it does depend on the Congress, so the President now is pretty much limited to what the administration can do without Congress. That really means a number of things at the Environmental Protection Agency, where work is being done on safeguards that would reduce carbon emissions from new and existing power plants. That's a major item that needs to be done. It's not done yet. It's been worked on during the past term and is still incomplete, so all of us need to do all that we can to keep moving forward on that.
Second, there are greenhouse gas safeguards or standards that need to be put in place on other major sources besides power plants, and we're working on cases that help force that forward. That includes oil refineries and cement kilns, which are huge fossil fuel consumers in the United States. It also means aviation and shipping, which are rapidly growing sources. The administration's done a lot and will likely do more on fuel economy for cars and light trucks, but there's a lot yet to be done on aviation and shipping.
Then there's the realm that's within the authority of the Department of Energy, which is continuing to push forward on energy efficiency. That agency is the subject of cases that we're involved in, driving forward more efficient technologies of many kinds, and that's also getting into work on the efficiency of buildings. We want to keep working on that with the energy efficiency. The administration ought to take steps that it has been unwilling to take so far to stop developing new fossil fuels. That means Arctic drilling. There's no reason to be doing that. That means the Keystone [XL] Pipeline, which is the Canadian tar sands development, pumping that oil down into the United States. That means other places where we could start doing more to limit the production of fossil fuels in the United States as we try to get off of them.
It just makes no sense to keep expanding our investment in fossil fuels when we all know we have to be actually reducing our investment in fossil fuels.
Kari: We have a question from Carol: "What can citizens do in the courts to protect public lands and species from public agencies who are delisting species and driving them to extinction?"
Trip: Thank you, Carol. We bring a lot of cases in the courts on behalf of citizens' groups to do exactly what you're saying. For all the reasons that we cherish the public lands and wildlife, climate reasons and others, we're working hard with many of our clients to do that. So what citizens can do is to support the advocacy groups that work on those issues and that are willing to go to court and to support Earthjustice to help represent those groups. Keep calling on your decision-makers not to take species that are still in jeopardy off the endangered species list. Keep calling on them not to open up those federal lands for more energy development, and support the groups that work on those things.
Kari: Ok, this question is from Rick in California: "What is Earthjustice doing around utilities that are attacking net metering laws?"
Trip: Thank you, Rick. It's a real challenge to get into these public utilities commissions and start to fight these battles. We've begun to do that as I've described, and we want to do more of it. Some of that work can be legal work where we challenge what a utilities commission has done as being inconsistent with state law. Sometimes it's getting involved in the proceedings that helped establish those policies, so our work in Hawaiʻi is a great example of where we've been able to push past utility objections to the development of rooftop solar. Those objections haven't been just net metering. It's included sort of phony objections around what was going to happen with the operation of the grid and that sort of thing, and so it requires persistence by us as the lawyers and a close relationship with local partners who are really active in that particular PUC—Public Utilities Commission—and we want to keep doing more of that.
Kari: This question is from Bill in Alaska: "Can we set the goal for the future to build the future around renewables instead of focusing on getting them into the grid? So more development of renewable energy."
Trip: I guess, Bill, thank you for the question. I'm not entirely sure how to address it. The grid means the transmission system of power that we have and that we'll have in the future. We'll continue to need to move energy around on an electric grid as we build more decentralized or distributed power generation. We'll be less dependent on bringing in power from far-away sources, so we do want to continue the push that I've just described in Hawaiʻi and California to develop more local and rooftop type of power generation and reduce our dependence on long-distance transmission.
But at the same time, a smarter grid enables power to be moving around from where it's being produced to where it's needed on a more second-by-second basis because the renewables that we're talking about produce their power intermittently. They're not always turned on. The sun isn't always on. The wind isn't always blowing, so we have to have some form of grid that helps distribute that, and we want to build up the renewables and make the grid operate in a smarter way.
Kari: Can you describe our work on the international front that we're doing addressing climate change
Trip: We've got a number of things going on in the international arena regarding climate change. Earthjustice has an international program and then lawyers in our various U.S. offices also work in some of the international arenas.
One of the most important areas that we're working internationally is trying to reduce the emissions of what's called "black carbon" or soot. It is one of the principal drivers of climate change, the one that's not as frequently mentioned but is really important in terms of accelerating short-term climate change—and it's particularly important in the Arctic.
The soot is emitted by burning carbon fuels, diesel fuel, and many other kinds of carbon fuels. It settles onto the ice and snow of the Arctic and of the Antarctic and absorbs the heat of the sun more rapidly than the white snow and ice would have reflected it and therefore accelerates local melting, which gets into a vicious cycle of accelerated melting and contributes to the impacts of climate change on places like the Arctic.
So we're doing a lot internationally to bring attention to the importance of reducing black carbon and to work with the Arctic nations all around the circle of the top of the globe who are thinking about what they can do as an international community responsible for the health of the Arctic Ocean and responsible for climate. What can they do to reduce black carbon? We're a leader in pushing that issue and representing groups and working with groups in the U.S. and indigenous groups in the Arctic countries, so that's one example.
Another is I mentioned the increasing emissions from aviation. We've been involved internationally in helping support Europe's effort to help reduce aviation emissions, which has run into a lot of political challenge in the United States, so we represented groups in court in Europe, helping to defend that system against attacks by U.S. airlines in the courts in Europe and continue to advocate for international action on aviation and shipping emissions.
We're also working with nations that are on the frontline of sea level rise and ocean acidification affecting their very survival because both they're losing territory to sea level rise and they're losing the fish that they depend on through ocean acidification. Those nations are usually small island nations. A lot of them are in the Pacific, and we're working with them through climate negotiations and through the UN processes to bring greater attention to the need to deal with carbon emissions for reasons of preventing the acidifying of the ocean and the rising of the sea levels because the very survival of these nations is at stake, so we've got a strong working relationship now with these small island nations who really have a great deal of moral authority on this issue because they're really on the frontlines of the impacts.
Kari: Ok, this question is from David: "What is the importance of the role of carbon offsets? Is it helpful? Is it part of the solution?"
Trip: That's a great question, David, thank you. Carbon offsets have been controversial, as probably some people on the phone are aware, because of the question of, if you are allowing pollution to continue in one place by the promise of reducing it somewhere else, are you really going to get the reductions?
So there have been a lot of problems in questions about a carbon offset concept when it was taking place within a system that's not transparent and tightly regulated and enforceable by citizens. We've expressed concerns about that at times, but we are in some instances, and California's an example, moving closer to a regulated market where you have a tighter control over the offsets.
You can stimulate efficient means of reduction through trading credits or offsets, but you have to be very, very careful that you're actually getting the gains that you seek. You're not overestimating the kind of gains from an offset, and that's an inherent tendency in the system. A lot of the offsets that are claimed are ones that are very difficult to measure or rely upon, so we have concerns about it, but we, at least as an organization, haven't taken a blanket, across the board, position, pro or con.
Kari: Great, thank you. This question's from Steven: "How is Earthjustice working more proactively in creating a foundation of political force in the populace, rather than depending on reactive work in the courts?"
Trip: Well, Steven, thank you for that question. I'll take it in two ways. First, I'll talk about some of our public engagement to help change the political dynamics, but I also want to come back to what our work in the courts is like because I don't consider it all reactive.
So first part on the politics, we work closely with other groups that are trying to drive these changes forward at the federal level in some states to do public campaigns that supplement the legal work. There's a lot of that going on to keep the pressure on the EPA to finish the job on greenhouse gas standards from power plants. There has to be a lot of that kind of work to defend EPA's actions when it comes under attack in Congress. That kind of defense work in Congress requires a lot of public outreach. It's been successful over the last two years of a very hostile House of Representatives, but that fight will need to continue. So we do work closely on trying to change the public perceptions of the climate issue, highlight why we need to take action and what kinds of actions make sense to take.
But just back to the court work for a second, an awful lot of our work is proactive in the sense that it is trying to open up the possibility of strong policy changes. Sometimes it's, I think inaccurately, characterized as only saying "No" to things or only trying to stop things from happening, when in fact a great deal of our work is trying to push forward the possibility of a clean energy future by moving us past the dirty sources and opening up the avenues that need to be opened in the market and in the regulatory system for better, cleaner solutions.
Kari: Great. Okay, this question is from Barbara: "How can a state that's undergoing the undermining of the renewable energy standard by the energy commission help defend this assault? We have an energy standard that is being undermined. What is Earthjustice doing about it?"
Trip: Ok. It's hard to generalize entirely about this, Barbara. I appreciate the question, so in a general sense, the energy commissions depend a lot on the governors and the legislatures that appoint them, so partly this depends on what kind of pressure can be brought on the commission not to undermine an important renewable energy standard. I don't know in particular instance that you're asking about, but it may be that the action the commission is looking at would violate state law, and there might be some way to bring a case to enforce existing state law. I don't know that in your particular instance, but it's something that should be investigated. There may be a group in the state that's worked long and hard in that commission and is very engaged in fighting that one. It's hard for me to answer that in a generic way, but certainly those are some of the avenues to look at.
Kari: This question is from Ron: "How can Earthjustice work with utility stockholders to influence and help move away from coal?"
Trip: Thank you, Ron. Earthjustice's work, being focused primarily on the courts, has not really been involved directly in many of the efforts to influence shareholders, to influence lenders in particular to disinvest potentially in fossil fuel companies.
What we have done is made the case in the courts that the fossil fuel companies shouldn't be allowed to continue their free ride and pollute without consequence—to put in place pollution control laws that will force those companies to bear the full cost of what they are doing. And that has changed investor behavior.
So what we've seen now, today, that pretty much nobody is investing in the United States in new coal burning power plants. Why? Because they know that to build that plant they'd have to meet all of the up-to-date pollution control standards that have been put in place through our litigation and that you can foresee based on greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
So we've been changing investor behavior by changing the economics of the industry rather than going directly and advocating, say, at the annual meetings. We have clients and allies who do some of that, but our role is to change the investment climate by having that industry have to bear its full cost.
Kari: Thank you. This question is from Patty. She says, "I live in Maryland, and our neighboring states are being invaded by the fracking industry. I'm afraid it might move into our state. What can we and Earthjustice do to hold corporations accountable for the destruction they are wreaking?"
Trip: Well, Patty, geographically, you've got good reason for concern because fracking has indeed been spreading in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and I know it should become an issue in Maryland, and I think Maryland's one of those states that's taking a look at what safeguards need to be put in place. And so participating in the advocacy for a moratorium or for very strong rules is really important.
The State of New York is an example where the state is undergoing a very long and detailed study process before allowing a fracking boom to explode in the state, and the State of Pennsylvania is the state not to model yourself on, which was to deregulate and allow fracking to go wherever it wanted to go and then to start having to deal with cleaning up the huge mess. So I think it's really important that you follow our work on fracking and, you know, we often have action alerts and links to others in the fracking community and then to plug in with what specifically is going on in Maryland.
Kari: Great, thank you. This question's from Kenneth: "How do you help attract investment to renewable energy, and what is the government doing to promote renewable energy?"
Trip: Thank you, Kenneth. Attracting investment in renewable energy basically means having a market that is going to be able to function well and not be erratic. So one thing that's been a disincentive for investment is that we've had some favorable tax credits and federal policies that were designed to promote renewables that we keep having political problems having them stay in place. So the wind industry we see going through kind of boom and bust cycles depending on whether the tax credits are looking like they're stable or they're looking like they're going to get eliminated, and that's a problem.
The same sort of need to stabilize the market and keep the incentives for more development in place happens through the policies that are set in the state legislatures and the public utilities commissions. The majority of states have adopted statewide requirements that a certain percentage of the power produced in their state be from renewable sources by a certain date, like twenty-five percent by 2025 is an example, and those create a huge market driver for renewable energy. So states that have those, sometimes they're under attack and we need to help defend them. States that have them but are looking at strengthening, need to be pushed to strengthen them. States that don't have them need to be pushed to have them, and the federal government has considered, I mean, by this Congress, has considered but repeatedly failed to adopt a national standard.
It remains an agenda item for potential energy action in Congress if we can ever get something productive through Congress, so bottom line: it needs the fossil fuel industry to have to pay its full freight. That'll increase the cost of fossil fuels and make the competitively disadvantageous. Stop their free ride, and have some consistent incentives in place for development of renewables—and the market will take off.
Kari: Thank you, Trip. This question's from Rebecca: "Does Earthjustice feel like groups like 350.org are having an impact, and would you recommend working with them?"
Trip: So I think the question was about 350.org, which is the group inspired by Bill McKibben, and it is active building a global grassroots movement on climate change, and they're doing a great job at getting a passionate cadre of climate activists built that's global in nature, and that's a powerful and important thing that's going on.
They're also doing some powerful messaging with what they call 'the simple math of climate change,' which is basically that if we're going to get off fossil fuels in time to prevent the most catastrophic changes in our climate, we have to leave most of the fossil fuels that we already know about in the ground rather than burn them. And they're pointing that out in a very graphic and logically simple way through this current campaign that they've got called "Do the Math", and I think it's a powerful contribution to the overall effort to bring about an end to using fossil fuels and slow down climate change. So they're easy to find on the web and easy to sign up and get their alerts, and I have no problem recommending them.
Kari: Great. This question's from Gordon: "Despite the setbacks Shell is having, what do you see as the prospect for further drilling in the Chukchi Sea?"
Trip: Thank you, Gordon. So just so everybody knows what we're talking about, the Chukchi Sea is part of the Arctic Ocean off of Alaska where drilling was attempted by Shell last year, in 2012, after years of preparation, and we've been involved legally, trying to slow down and prevent that until the science is there to support any sort of drilling plan. We're nowhere close to that. We don't know how to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic, and we shouldn't be drilling until somebody can show that they do know how to do that.
Shell, at the moment, is saying that they're interested in going back into the Chukchi in the summer of 2013, and another oil company, Conoco, is saying they want to potentially go up into that region in 2014 or beyond. Although Shell hasn't achieved its goal of striking oil and starting to produce it up there, this issue hasn't gone away. The U.S. Department of Interior is currently conducting what they call a searching review of what's gone on with Shell's operations and what actions to take for the future as a result of the various problems and mishaps that Shell has had.
Our concern about this isn't, you know, whether Shell as a single company is up to the task. Our concern is that the task is greater than the capacity of any company. The Arctic weather and conditions are just not compatible with producing oil in the foreseeable future. Our ability to clean up an oil spill is not compatible with Arctic conditions in the foreseeable future, so we foresee a continuing fight over this.
We and our allies on this issue are pressing for a more searching and longer investigation by the Department of Interior because the problems have been very significant, and they're not just the fact that, you know, there's been mishaps with this company. This is one of the biggest, richest, most sophisticated companies on the planet, and what I think we're seeing is that this can't be done, not that this company happens to be a bumbling idiot. That's not the point. The point is this is too challenging to undertake.
Kari: Can you describe our casework regarding Arctic drilling?
Trip: We've got a whole program of casework on Arctic drilling off of Alaska. It goes from the first step in the process, which is the decision of the Department of Interior about whether to lease areas for potential exploration. We're still litigating over the leasing of these places in the Chukchi Sea. That remains an important case. Then there are permissions, all sorts of federal approvals, that have to be given to start the drilling process and that we're in court on. That includes air pollution permits for the drill ships and the other equipment that are necessary. That includes approval of the company's proposed spill response plan, which I was just referring to and which is clearly inadequate. It involves permissions to have an impact on the endangered species or the marine mammals that are there, which includes whales, polar bear, walruses. The impacts there have to be assessed and approved of, and we have problems with how that's happened. We have a coalition of conservation groups and indigenous rights groups that work together on these issues, and it's been a practically all-consuming docket for our folks in Alaska for quite a number of years, and so far no oil's been drilled in the Artic.
Kari: We have a current action that our supporters can take on our website right now. We've nearly reached our goal. About fifty-nine thousand people have written to the White House and to Secretary Salazar to ask for this sixty-day review to seriously consider stop drilling in the Artic for all of the reasons that Trip has just outlined.
Can we switch gears for a bit and talk about our work in the Pacific Northwest on coal exports?
Trip: Absolutely. If you think about it, we can do all this work to get ourselves off coal in the United States, but if then we turn around and let our coal be mined and exported to be burned somewhere else, we might have saved ourselves some of our local impacts, from the mining and burning of the coal but from the climate perspective, it's just as bad as if we burned it here.
The carbon dioxide that's produced, that's a driver of climate change, affects the climate whether you burn it here or anywhere else, so the big threat in terms of coal exports in the United States is that we would build export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, the area on the coasts of Washington and Oregon, and export that coal that would be shipped there by rail primarily from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, which is our biggest producing coal area now. It would be shipped to those Western ports and exported to Asia, primarily China.
If we can't export the coal from the West Coast of the United States, it's much less economical to get it to Asia. If you're going out of the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean, it's much, much less economical because of the transportation costs. And there are no coal export facilities already built on the West Coast, so this is about taking on, with a very strong coalition effort in which we're doing the legal work, all of the proposed terminal facilities in the Pacific Northwest, which are about six or seven locations in Oregon and Washington, to prevent the opening up of this huge market to U.S. coal exports, and so far we've been successful.
We had a round of litigation over the first one of these proposals that was out of the gates, which was on the Columbia River in Southern Washington, near Portland, Oregon, and the company had to withdraw the proposal where they were caught deceiving the decisionmakers because of the documents revealed in our litigation, and they had to go back to square one, and we won round one. It's not over. That will probably be back.
Meanwhile, with our client's support, we're pushing for a region-wide analysis of this issue, not just a port-by-port, project-by-project way of handling it. So that's something that's still in the works that would involve federal agencies in the two states and tribal interests and so forth; so it's a big fight for us and for our allies in the Northwest, and a major factor in how we lock down the success of getting off coal here.
Kari: Thank you, Trip. This question's from Lori: "How does Earthjustice prioritize what we are going to take on and how much energy and resources we can put towards different cases?"
Trip: Well, that's a great question, Lori. We look at it from a lot of different perspectives. One perspective is we are working in regional offices around the country and doing things that are important in those regions, for example the coal export work that we just talked about, which has been done in our Seattle office.
We're also looking from the organization-wide perspective at where can we have the biggest impact with the scarce resources that we have by bringing legal strategies to bear and the biggest impact on the biggest problem. So we've been talking all along this call about climate change and energy, and that has emerged for us as this huge commitment because of what's at stake, and we'd look at the ways that we can have, together with our clients, using the litigation that we bring, the biggest impact. We've settled on, you know, getting off coal as a huge priority, and we share that priority with many other groups. We're making significant progress on that, but you can't make progress on climate change if you're not dealing with the other fossil fuels, so we have to look at oil and gas as well, as we've talked about.
So we put together the insights and priorities of our clients, the work that is regionally important around the country in the different places that we work and what we see as the organization-wide perspectives are the kind of biggest bang for the buck, biggest leverage points for us to get involved.
Kari: Thank you, Trip. This question's from Alison: "What is Earthjustice's involvement in fighting fracking in New York? There are impact assessments that have not been done, and the Governor doesn't seem to be contributing to the fight. What can Earthjustice do in this fight?"
Trip: Thank you, Alison. We're very, very involved in that New York fracking fight and in those state environmental review processes that you mentioned. We have an office in New York, and it's very deeply involved in both the New York and Pennsylvania fracking circumstances. On the New York front, our managing attorney in that office, Deborah Goldberg, is one of the leaders of the effort to make sure that environmental review is thorough and has helped the push to keep it going to look harder at the human health impact questions, which were originally not so much the focus of the analysis.
We're also working with towns in the state of New York who are using their local zoning authorities or other local land use authorities to limit or ban fracking within their jurisdiction. So the small town of Dryden, New York, for example, used its zoning authority to say 'no' fracking in our town. They've been challenged by a billion dollar gas industry that wants to frack in Dryden, and that's not a level playing field when you've got a billion dollar gas company on one side and a very small township on the other in terms of being able to afford and fight that fight in a sophisticated lawsuit.
So we've stepped in and, without charge to the town of Dryden, are representing it in this fight. Round one has been successful, and the industry group has now appealed that, but we're trying to work hard to uphold the ability of New York towns and counties to chart their own future regarding fracking.
Kari: Thank you, Trip. This next question is from Ed: "Could you elaborate on the importance of energy efficiency and its impact on climate change?"
Trip: Yes, thank you, Ed. Very often, the cheapest and simplest thing we can do in reducing our energy demand is improving the efficiency of the ways that we use energy: electricity, gas, oil. And the more we can do that, the easier it is for us to make this transition away from fossil fuels. We can shut down coal plants without having to replace them with another fossil fuel plant, for example. So we do a lot of work to drive the federal nationwide standards toward energy efficient appliances and equipment that are already on the market. They're already available at the Home Depot. They're already cost-effective, but the standards have been lax and let us use energy hog appliances instead, so what I'm talking about when I say there are things that people have in their homes that are a major portion of our energy use: refrigerators, furnaces, air conditioners, dishwashers, etc.
The better we can do it, making those more efficient, the less demand we have for fossil fuel energy and the quicker we can make a transition. And the beauty of it is usually it saves the consumer money, or saves the business money, that's purchasing that more efficient equipment. It's often equipment that's made in the United States. These are not nearly as contested as some of the fossil fuel issues are directly, so there's support in Congress and in the administration for moving forward on this—so it's a scenario where we're kind of swimming with the river rather than swimming against the river on getting things done.
Kari: Thank you. This next question's from Steven: "What is Earthjustice's relationship to NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council], and what can I, as a citizen of New York, do to promote justice for the environment?"
Trip: Well, thank you, Steven. NRDC is a very close ally and partner with Earthjustice on all the issues we've been talking about. We represent them in court in many of the cases that we've talked about, or we co-counsel and partner with them in many of the cases and issues that we've talked about.
We and they are involved in everything from Arctic drilling to New York fracking, and they're headquartered in New York and are active in the New York fracking issue, as we are through our New York regional office. Our legal experts and their policy experts work very closely together in the coalition that's working on New York fracking, and that's true with our work with them on many other issues. They're close allies and partners with us on a great deal of our work, and we are honored to represent them when we do or co-counsel with them when we work together on our cases.
What you can do in New York is plug into our website to see the work that we're doing there. Support that work. You'll see activity in the New York alerts and so forth that go about our communications with the governor and the legislators there and the environmental regulators there trying to make sure this environmental review that's going on is probing and doesn't cut any corners, and you'll likely see the litigation that we're doing there, for example, with the town of Dryden as I was talking about, and there's a broad coalition that you can hook up with that supports the work on fracking in New York.
Kari: Okay, to continue on that issues, this question is from Gary: "Are there effective ways to do fracking that do not interfere with the environment?"
Trip: Well, that's a question that we really don't know the answer to, Gary, in some respects, and we're really clear about in other respects, Gary. So on the climate issue, if we produce gas and burn it, we're still driving more climate change, so we want to reduce and get off of gas, like oil and coal. You know, that's the part you can't avoid. We could do better than we're doing in terms of some of the other impacts from fracking, so fracking produces a lot of wastewater. In some places, it's just been dumped onto the land behind the drill site or it's been dumped into the nearby creek or river. Those practices, in some places, our cases have helped stopped them, and more needs to be done there.
This gas development produces air pollution, and there's a lot to be done to control the air pollution better than we have. We've made progress on that with some of our cases at the federal level, but again, more needs to be done. Some of the places with the worst air pollution in the country today are the places where intense gas development is going on, even though they're very, very far from the urban areas that you usually think of as the most polluted. And so that needs to change.
But fracking, in some ways, is a huge experiment we won't know the answer to for a long time because nobody can claim to know whether long term, as we fracture miles and miles and miles and hundreds of square miles of underground shale formations and pump toxic chemicals in there what's going to happen over time. We know it's unstable. We see in places where fracking's taking place intensively and where underground injection wells are being used to handle the waste intensively, we're seeing earthquakes: earthquakes in Ohio, earthquakes in Arkansas. So we know that things are unstable and unsettled and that we don't know what's going to happen over time. We're running, in a way, a grand experiment, and we can't fully answer your question today. That's why we're sending so many notes of caution about when and how we do this.
Kari: Okay, thank you. Our next question's from Naomi: "In California, they are monitoring carbon for the purpose of a carbon tax. Is a carbon tax more effective than cap-and-trade?"
Trip: There's a lot of debate about a carbon tax. It's come up federally as well as to whether there should be a national carbon tax, and it has happened in some other countries in the world. There are many economists who like the idea of a carbon tax because it sounds kind of simple and, you know, behavior will change by the simple market signal of increasing the cost of this thing, of this carbon, therefore people will seek to avoid it.
The problem with a carbon tax, as a nice and tidy solution for climate change, is that some things we tax we still use. We've got really, really high cigarette taxes, and people still smoke. It doesn't necessarily guarantee the reductions that you'd need to have to prevent climate change. So in other words, we wouldn't know whether the tax would be at a sufficient level to change behavior at the pace we'd need to change behavior, and we have a real political obstacle to making the tax high enough to really change behavior. So the sort of simplicity and elegance that people have attributed to a carbon tax really ignores the fact that we don't really know how much the market would respond and at what level a tax would we have to have. Those are the concerns about a carbon tax.
Kari: Well, thank you, Trip, and thank all of you for joining us today, and thanks for all the great questions.
Earthjustice remains committed to protecting citizens' right to enforce environmental law through the courts, and climate change, as you can tell from our discussion today, is a priority for Earthjustice in 2013.
We invite you to take action on this issue by visiting our website at earthjustice.org. Go to the "Take Action" page where we make it easy for your voice to be heard in Washington, D.C. on such issues as Arctic offshore drilling, mountaintop removal, fracking, coal ash, and protecting clean air and water from polluters.
We will continue to use the courtrooms and advocate for less reliance on fossil fuels and help advance a smart transition to a clean energy future. With you by our side, we will succeed. Thank you and goodbye.
Trip Van Noppen is the president of Earthjustice.
This phone teleconference was held on January 29, 2013.
Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen interviews New York Times columnist and bestselling author Thomas L. Friedman on environmental issues and his thoughts on the "Green New Deal."