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In Praise of Forest Service Fire Tactics

The U.S. Forest Service is not the same Smokey Bear Forest Service of the past. Originally, the agency sought to preserve sustainable timber harvests by preventing all fires. Wildfire experts have shown that decades of fire suppression helped create forests unnaturally dense with fuel. Today, the Forest Service is much smarter with its fuel management choices.

In the wake of the 2012 Colorado fires, which destroyed hundreds of homes and will cost an estimated $450 million in damage, PERC President and Hoover Institution fellow Terry Anderson and PERC associate Sarah Anderson take a look at the motivating forces behind Forest Service fuel management policy. While most people think of fire suppression when considering wildlife management, Terry and Sarah focus their research on fire prevention strategies.

The duo’s ongoing research at PERC looks at how the internal organizational changes and external political, economic, and ecological environments have translated into changes in the actions of Forest Service personnel. Despite the negative attention the Forest Service receives when a large fire rages, Terry and Sarah find that the Forest Service deserves some praise for their fire tactics.

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The D.C. Circuit’s Greenhouse Gas Decision

Today’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA is quite significant for environmental law. The court turned away the state and industry challenges to the EPA’s decision to begin regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The only element of the decision that is at all surprising is the court’s dismissal of the challenges to the EPA’s “tailoring rule” due to a lack of standing.

On the merits, the court rejected challenges to the EPA’s determination that the emission of greenhouse gases causes or contributes to air pollution that which may be reasonably anticipated to endanger public health or welfare (the “endangerment finding”) and rejected claims that the EPA’s new standards for GHG emissions from mobile sources were arbitrary and capricious. This was to be expected. As I’ve noted before, judicial review of these sorts of decisions is highly deferential, and the EPA did not have to do much to support its decision. Even if the industry challengers had been able to convince the court that climate change is not that big of a deal, this would not have been enough to overturn the endangerment finding, provided the EPA gave a sufficient explanation of its conclusions — which it did.

The more interesting parts of the opinion concern whether the petitioners could challenge the EPA’s decision to regulate stationary source GHG emissions generally, and the EPA’s adoption of the tailoring rule in particular. On the former question, the court concluded that industry petitioners could challenge a decades-old EPA determination that the regulation of a pollutant from mobile sources under Section 202 of the Act triggers stationary source regulations. This was because there were some plaintiffs who had never-before been subject to stationary source regulation under the Clean Air Act because it was not until carbon dioxide was treated as a pollutant that these plantiffs emitted enough of a regulated substance to fall within the Act’s controls.

This small victory on ripeness was but a prelude to a loss on a larger question: Whether large emitters of greenhouse gases could challenge the EPA’s decision to forego regulation of smaller sources. No, the court concluded, because the industry petitioners did not satisfy the requirements for Article III standing to challenge the EPA’s failure to regulate someone else. However great the injury some industry groups may suffer from GHG regulation, the court reasoned, forcing the EPA to regulate additional sources would provide no meaningful redress. It does not matter that the EPA’s tailoring rule flatly contradicts the plain text of the Clean Air Act and represents a dramatic assertion of agency discretion over a detailed, legislatively crafted scheme. If there’s no standing, the suit cannot proceed.

This decision will be the last stop for most, if not all, of the industry challenges to the GHG rules. En banc and cert petitions may get filed, but I can’t see either the full D.C. Circuit or the Supreme Court having much interest in the endangerment finding or the EPA’s mobile source rules. If any claim has a chance to go on, it would be the standing argument. If there’s an issue in this case that could catch the Supreme Court’s attention, this would be it. Among other things, it could giver the Supreme Court the opportunity to address how recent standing decisions affect standing claims based upon alleged competitive harm (i.e. the harm suffered by company A due to the government’s favorable treatment of company B). Still, I would not bet on it. In all likelihood those who oppose GHG regulation under the Clean Air Act will have to direct their attention to Congress. They’re done in the courts.

Cross-posted at the Volokh Conspiracy.

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EPA to Release More Greenhouse Gas Regulations

The Washington Post reports the Environmental Protection Agency will release proposed regulations governing the emissions of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants this week, perhaps as early as today.  As described by the Post, this New Source Performance Standard regulation could put a halt to the construction of new coal-fired power plants unless and until carbon sequestration or some other GHG-emission-reducing technology becomes economically viable.

The proposed rule — years in the making and approved by the White House after months of review — will require any new power plant to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity produced. The average U.S. natural gas plant, which emits 800 to 850 pounds of CO2 per megawatt, meets that standard; coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt.

Industry officials and environmentalists said in interviews that the rule, which comes on the heels of tough new requirements that the Obama administration imposed on mercury emissions and cross-state pollution from utilities within the past year, dooms any proposal to build a coal-fired plant that does not have costly carbon controls.

“This standard effectively bans new coal plants,” said Joseph Stanko, who heads government relations at the law firm Hunton and Williams and represents several utility companies. “So I don’t see how that is an ‘all of the above’ energy policy.”

The rule provides an exception for coal plants that are already permitted and beginning construction within a year. There are about 20 coal plants now pursuing permits; two of them are federally subsidized and would meet the new standard with advanced pollution controls.

These new regulations are but one piece of the surge in GHG regulations the EPA is adopting under the Clean Air Act as a consequence of Massachusetts v. EPA.

Originally posted at The Volokh Conspiracy.

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Climate Change in the D.C. Circuit

Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will begin two days of oral arguments in a set of challenges to the EPA’s various rules applying the Clean Air Act to greenhouse gas regulations. These rules are the inevitable outgrowth of the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, as I explain here and here. For this reason, most of the industry challenges face tough sledding. For instance, given Mass v. EPA, it is difficult to argue that the EPA Administrator was wrong to conclude that the emission of greenhouse gases cause or contribute to air pollution that could be reasonably anticipated to threaten health or welfare. Yet this is one of the claims the industry groups have to make if they are to succeed. Similarly, it will be difficult to challenge the substance of the EPA’s rules governing GHG emissions from motor vehicles.

The more serious challenge to the EPA comes from the challenges to the so-called “tailoring rule” which is the EPA’s effort to apply some of the Clean Air Act’s stationary source provisions to greenhouse gases. The reason this challenge is more serious is because the EPA looked at the statutory requirements of these provisions and realized that implementation of the Act, as written, was impossible. The statutory thresholds that determine what facilities are covered are low enough that, when applied to GHGs, they increase the number of regulated facilities over 140-fold, according to EPA. The administrative costs of trying to process this many permits threatens to grind the EPA’s air office – and state air permitting authorities — to a halt. So, the EPA is trying to rewrite the relevant Clean Air Act provisions by administrative fiat. In the alternative, the EPA has argued, regulatory agencies would have to hire hundreds of thousands of new regulators to handle the permit applications. The problem for EPA is that the relevant emission thresholds are expressly written into the Clean Air Act, and there is no provision giving the EPA authority to modify these limits. So, what the EPA is asking for authority to do, is rewrite the law by administrative fiat — something no federal agency has the authority to do. This puts the D.C. Circuit in a tough place: either let EPA rewrite the law, or enforce a statutory provision that threatens to shut down the agency. Further evidence the Supreme Court was wrong in Mass. v. EPA, particularly when it suggested that applying the Clean Air Act to GHGs would pose no problems.

Here are additional previews of the litigation from Richard Frank and Brad Plumer.

UPDATE: Here’s an additional preview from Greenwire noting the magnitude of this litigation.

Originally posted on The Volokh Conspiracy.

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Q&A with Steven Medema on the Coase Theorem and Environmental Economics

There has been plenty of confusion surrounding the work of Ronald Coase since his article “The Problem of Social Cost” appeared in 1960 – so much, in fact, that two scholars wrote in 1992 that the so-called Coase theorem has “generated a negative externality for economists.” To clear up some of the confusion, we talked with Steven Medema for the next installment of PERC’s Q&A series.

Few know more about the legendary economist and his impact on economic thought than Steven Medema. He is the author of many books and scholarly articles on the history of twentieth-century economics, with an emphasis on the work of Ronald Coase. His latest book, The Hesitant Hand: Taming Self-Interest in the History of Economic Ideas, was awarded the 2010 Book Prize by the European Society for the History of Economic Thought.

Medema is a professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver and a 2011 PERC Lone Mountain fellow. For more of PERC’s Q&As, see the series archive.

Q: Ronald Coase’s 1960 article on “The Problem of Social Cost” had a tremendous impact on economics, including PERC’s work on free market environmentalism. What is the “Coase theorem” and how has it evolved in economic thought?

A: The Coase theorem tells us that if property rights over the relevant resources are well-defined and the costs of transacting are zero, parties who disagree over the use of those resources will negotiate to an efficient solution, regardless of to whom the property rights are assigned. The upshot of the theorem is that private negotiations or other market-like processes can efficiently resolve social cost (“externality”) problems such as those associated with air and water pollution. Of course, transaction costs are never zero, and much of the discussion of the theorem over the years has attempted to work out the possibilities and limitations of negotiated solutions when transaction costs are positive. Though much of the early reaction to the theorem was negative, the discussion has evolved into one that focuses somewhat less on the theorem per se (that is, with its highly restrictive assumptions) and somewhat more on departures from these conditions and how Coase-theorem-like processes may be operative under more realistic conditions.

Q: Over the years, people have come to refer to a hypothetical world of zero transaction costs as a “Coasian world.” Is this view accurate?

A: Those who refer to such a world haven’t read Coase very closely. The world of zero transaction costs is a fiction—but a sometimes useful fiction, not unlike a vacuum in physics. It was also a bedrock assumption of mainstream economics for ages, including of the economics against which Coase was reacting in “The Problem of Social Cost.” What Coase showed was that, in the world of neoclassical economics, government regulation was unnecessary for an efficient resolution of social cost problems. If property rights are assigned over the resources in question and there are no costs of transacting, the parties will efficiently resolve the problem through negotiation. So, Pigovian remedies are unnecessary in a Pigovian (costless transacting) world. But Coase’s emphasis was on the fact that the costs of transacting are not zero, and nor are the costs associated with government action to deal with social cost problems. The evaluation of how society should deal with such problems thus involves a comparison of the benefits and costs of alternative courses of action—including the possibility of allowing the problem to persist if the costs of “curing” it are worse than the disease itself.

Q: We hear a lot about the Coase theorem in environmental economics. How has the Coase theorem impacted discussions of environmental economics and environmental policy?

A: I think that its central impact has been in the way of making scholars—and later policy makers—aware of the possibility of using the exchange process to deal with social cost issues. Of course, the Coase theorem is an idealized construct that does not reflect the world in which we live. But by showing how property-rights-based solutions can generate private, efficiency-enhancing moves, the theorem opened the door to the subsequent analysis of exchange solutions in the real world, and thus to both theories and policies that employ such a framework.

Q: You suggest that the Coase theorem is widely recognized among environmental economists and taught in most textbooks, yet its relevance is often viewed as extremely limited. Why is this so? Why then are so many environmental economists interested in Coase?

A:  My sense is that most environmental economists see Coase as important because he emphasized that social cost problems are ultimately problems related to incomplete property rights. This makes Coase’s analysis the natural starting point for the analysis of social cost issues. The rub comes in where one goes from there. Some continue to hew to what we might call a “Pigovian” line—emphasizing that regulatory mechanisms or taxes are necessary to correct the problem—while others are more interested in exploring whether markets or market-like mechanisms can be utilized to resolve the problem. But there is broad general agreement that social cost problems have their roots on the property rights side, and this viewpoint owes to Coase.

Q: Discussions of environmental economics often center around externalities. Coase avoids this term. How has Coase’s work influenced the way we think about external costs?

A: My sense is that, at a minimum, he impressed upon some that social cost problems, or externalities, are reciprocal in nature. One can view this in two ways. First, it takes two to tango. That is, if A is generating smoke that harms B, B may be said to be as much the “cause” of the harm as A, since B could mitigate damages by, e.g., moving away. Second, A may be imposing harm on B, but to restrain A’s activity in favor of B is to impose harm on A. Some see this as a “right-wing” sort of point, but it is not. It actually has a long history in jurisprudence and was held by none other than J.R. Commons, a prominent Institutionalist economist and Progressive in who worked during the first half of the twentieth century. But value judgments often get in the way of sound reasoning when it comes to things like externalities, so not everyone has gotten on board with Coase’s notion of reciprocity.

Q: Critics of Coase often contend that transaction costs in markets are too high for Coasian-type bargaining to occur: negotiations can be costly, multiple parties can be affected, and information is diffuse. This is no doubt often the case, yet transaction costs are also present in the political process. How do these costs affect the way we understand Coase’s relevancy to environmental policy?

A: If one adopts an efficiency-based perspective on these things, the point to be taken is that there is no such thing as a determinate optimal solution to social cost problems. One can only come to grips with these things on a case-by-case basis, weighing the benefits and costs associated with alternative courses of action and recognizing that both markets/exchange and government activity have associated with them certain costs—often substantial. Coase is not about the Coase theorem; he was a strong advocate of comparative institutional analysis and that, at a minimum, economic benefits and costs have an important role to play in evaluating policy options. With this came a great concern about the costs associated with government action—costs that he (rightly) believed had been underplayed or ignored in the theory and practice of social cost policy.

Q: Why are concerns about equity so prominent in environmental discussions of Coase?

A: Probably because Coase focused so heavily on efficiency. But there was good reason for this—it was the language in which the welfare economics of social cost issues had been discussed for a half-century. And as we all know, there are plenty of occasions when the dictates of efficiency collide with some people’s sense of what is “right.” The very possibility that the “victims” of pollution should bribe the factory owners to reduce their pollution levels is anathema to many. Interestingly, though, Coase talks about larger concerns (“aesthetics and morals”) toward the end of “The Problem of Social Cost.” But since most readers failed to pay attention to his arguments beyond the Coase theorem material (the first 15 pages of a 44-page article), they didn’t seem to notice this.

Q: What can we take away from Coase’s work and apply to the area of free market environmentalism?

A: I believe that there are two key insights. The first is that markets/exchange can work to resolve certain social cost issues. The question is which ones, and this can only emerge from careful and patient study. The second is that neither markets nor government are panaceas. Both generate imperfect solutions, and the question is that of which of these imperfect solutions is best for dealing with the problem at hand. This, too, can only be determined from careful and patient study. Unfortunately, too many economists and policy makers do not want to hear such things. But “create markets” or “we need government to solve the problem” takes us nowhere. These are difficult problems, and we seldom find that difficult problems have easy solutions.

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Recycle the Intermountain West

Since 1997, more than 40 million acres of forests across the West have been devastated by pine beetle. The beetle is a natural predator, but historic timber management and climatic conditions have given advantage to the species in current times. The end result is tinderbox forests across the Intermountain region.

Fire is another natural predator in the forest. The increasing kindling in the forest — such as the bug-killed trees — together with growing development in the wildland-urban interface are a dire mix.

Recycling dead and dying trees through harvest and re-use is one method to reduce the problem. Though the timber value of small-diameter wood is low, there are beneficial uses. The wood can be used for firewood, fence posts, and poles, even garden mulch, but these are small players. The real potential is in biomass but existing uncertainties are making investment tenuous.

The inability of the Forest Service to provide a continuous supply of material is troublesome. It is not a lack of biomass material available on National Forest land, nor a question of the benefits from removing the material, rather it is the process of contracting for timber removal that is costly and time consuming. The Forest Service expenditure on procedure to allow timber harvest, even for restoration, is excessive and slow.

Another barrier to investment in biomass is forthcoming regulation on emissions. In spring of last year, the EPA instigated, then suspended, the tailoring rule. The rule would tax emissions from biomass energy production at a rate equal to fossil fuel emissions. The tax would marginalize the profitability of biomass production.

There is a significant difference in the carbon cycle between wood and fossil fuel energies. Wood sequesters carbon from the atmosphere in its living, tree form, then emits it back into the atmosphere when burned for energy. Put simply, it has net zero atmospheric emissions. Fossil fuel moves carbon that is held in the earth and releases it into the atmosphere when burned, causing a net increase in atmospheric carbon.

Recycling small diameter forest products is one answer that could help reduce the risk, and therefore the costs, of catastrophic wildfire in wildland-urban interface, while providing renewable energy. The fight to get there, however, is a battle between enviropreneurs, who see good environmental results from profitable economic activity, and environmental advocacy groups that see profit as evil and exploitive.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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A Tale of Two Cases

The Yale Law Journal’s new “Summary Judgment” online series features a set of essays on the Supreme Court’s decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, in which the Court held unanimously that suits against utilities alleging their emissions of greenhouse gases contribute to the “public nuisance” of global warming under federal common law were displaced by the Clean Air Act.  Contributors to the online symposium include Hari Osofsky, Daniel Farber, James May, Maxine Burkett, Michael Gerrard, and yours truly. My contribution, “A Tale of Two Cases” (PDF), discusses how the outcome in AEP was predetermined by the Court’s prior holding in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases were pollutants subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.  The essay is based on a longer article forthcoming in the Cato Supreme Court Review that I will discuss at the Cato Constitution Day event on Thursday.

Originally posted at The Volokh Conspiracy.
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A Sad Day

The editor of a scientific journal resigns, apologizing for publishing a paper that questions the conventional thinking about global warming.

So, we are having show trials, now? Or just re-education?

Roy Spencer’s response is here.

Scientific truth will not be determined by how many people agree with a particular viewpoint but by the testing of one hypothesis against another. That process seems to be being curtailed.

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Q&A with Matthew Kahn on Climate Change Adaptation

This week’s Q&A is with Matthew Kahn, a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment in the Departments of Economics and Public Policy, and the author of the recent book Climatopolis. Kahn is a 2011 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow and co-director of PERC’s recent workshop on climate change adaptation. He blogs at Environmental and Urban Economics.

We sat down with Kahn last week for a short video interview on how free markets can help us adapt to climate change. For more PERC Q&As, visit the Q&A archives.

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Considering the Costs of Climate Adaptation

Yesterday afternoon I attended a lecture by Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics and former chief economist of the Council of Economic Advisers during the first year of the Obama Administration, addressing the question, “Will Adaptation Save Us from Climate Change?” This lecture was the keynote address at a PERC workshop on “Human Adaptation to Climate Change” I’ve been attending this week.

Greenstone set the stage by observing that there are three possible approaches to the threat of climate change: 1) mitigation — reducing emissions of greenhouse gases; 2) adaptation — responding to climate change by seeking to ameliorate its negative effects, and 3) geoengineering — attempting to modify the climate in some way to offset the effects of increased greenhouse gas concentrations. The first of these is unlikely to happen in the near term, as the United States and other nations have shown themselves to be quite resistant to adopting meaningful mitigation measures. The third, whether or not it is viable or desirable, is generally not considered an acceptable approach geo-politically. As a consequence, he suggested, in all likelihood we will have to engage in some degree of adaptation to climate change.

In Greenstone’s view, the question is not whether or not human civilization will survive. It almost certainly will. Nonetheless, climate change could have substantial negative conseuqences. Rather, the relevant questions are how adaptation will occur over various time frames, the cost of such adaptation, and how effective adaptive responses will be. There is some research that has investigated the costs and potential of near-term response to some degree of climate change, but not nearly enough on longer term responses to climate change and its consequent environmental effects. Insights can be drawn, however, from other research that documents individual responses to changes in environmental conditions. For example, Greenstone co-authored a paper showing that some individuals respond to local air pollution levels by, among other things, purchasing medications that relieve some of the respiratory effects of higher pollution levels. Such adaptation may reduce the negative effects of pollution, but it still comes at a cost.

Adaptation takes many forms. Some adaptation to climate change would involve changes in infrastructure and the like, but much adaptation is likely to occur at the individual level. To take a simple example Greenstone used in his talk (based on this paper): on hotter days, people use more air conditioning. This matters because high temperatures tend to correlate with increased mortality. Therefore, were it not for air conditioning (and other means of adaptation), an increase in temperature would cause a greater increase in mortality. With air conditioning, the mortality increase is less, though energy use is greater.  This illustrates how individuals can alter their behavior to compensate for some of the consequences of higher temperatures, albeit at some cost.

In poorer, less-developed nations, such as India, on the other hand, the results are somewhat different. As Greenstone explained, compared to the United States, India has less adaptive capacity, so the mortality effects of warming would be greater – far greater. There is a lot of adaptive capacity in wealthy, industrialized nations, but not so much in poorer, less-developed nations. Moreover, the United States’ adaptive capacity has improved dramatically over the course of the past century. That is, the relationship between high temperatures and increased mortality in the United States has weakened over time as the nation has become wealthier and more technologically advanced, making it easier for individuals to adapt to temperature changes.

One possible response to Greenstone’s analysis is that if wealthier nations can adapt to climatic changes more readily than poorer nations, as much attention should be paid to making poorer nations wealthier – and improving their adaptive capacity – as to figuring out how to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions so as to mitigate the threat of climate change. From an economic standpoint, the costs of mitigation could be compared to the costs of adaptation, and if the costs of mitigation are greater, this would provide an economic justification for focusing on adaptation instead of mitigation – and some would certainly endorse this view. Indeed, many in developing nations embrace this view. In any event, even if mitigation policies are eventually adopted, there will need to be some degree of adaptation, some of which will be undertaken at the individual level.

Originally posted at the Volokh Conspiracy.

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What If DeChristopher Could Bid?

Cross-posted at Grist.

Photo: 350.Before

By now you’ve probably heard the story of Tim DeChristopher, the 27-year-old activist who single-handedly shut down an entire Bureau of Land Management auction back in December 2008. DeChristopher, then a student at the University of Utah, snuck into the oil and gas leasing sale, posed as a bidder, and outbid developers on 22,500 acres of federal lands in southern Utah.

Almost overnight, he became an environmental folk hero, an eco-saboteur straight from an Edward Abbey novel. Although he was arrested, convicted for making false statements, and sentenced on Tuesday to 2 years in prison, his monkey wrenching worked. The incoming Obama administration cancelled the auction’s results and refused to reschedule the sale.

So, mission accomplished, right? DeChristopher stood up to a last-ditch effort by the Bush administration to open federal lands for drilling. Where others stood by, DeChristopher took action. And although it will land him in prison, it saved 150,000 acres of public land from fossil fuel development.

But how long will it remain protected? The incoming Obama administration, far less eager than its predecessor to open sensitive federal lands to drilling, was the crucial element in DeChristopher’s success. The lands could easily be reopened for drilling under future administrations. If monkey-wrench activism relies on fortunate shifts in political control, its long-term effectiveness is limited.

Here’s another idea: What if instead of landing him in jail, DeChristopher’s bidding was welcomed and encouraged? What if his bids were a real threat to energy developers that currently receive public lands at a discount? What if environmentalists were allowed to bid for federal land leases, win them, and protect them from development?

It’s a question no one is asking, but it’s an important one. BLM leases are often sold with little competition. What competition exists comes from other oil companies and reflects only the commodity — not the environmental — value of the land. While environmentalists can formally protest proposed lease sales, these rarely prevent drilling from occurring.

So why aren’t environmentalists bidding for leases? Part of the answer is that they can’t. The government requires leaseholders to develop their parcels, and if drilling does not occur within a certain timeframe, the lease can be cancelled by the BLM. This effectively prohibits environmentalists from holding and retiring important swaths of public land, even if they are the highest bidders.

The other part of the answer is that the political process, rather than a competitive market process, occasionally pays off for traditional environmentalism. The 1970s environmental regulatory era, for instance, was the product of a political climate favorable to environmental sentiment. Given the proper alliances, politics can be a close friend to environmentalists.

But, of course, politics can also be the environment’s biggest enemy. The very auction DeChristopher thwarted was a rushed political maneuver by the Bush administration and bypassed the usual environmental review procedure. It’s an all-too-common reminder of the limitations of political environmentalism — its success ebbs and flows with each passing administration.

Opening lease auctions to environmental groups has an important advantage over politics or monkey wrenching: Lands can be protected regardless of the political winds in Washington. Leases are held for a decade or more and constitute a formal right to the resource — out of reach from future political whims.

But could environmental groups afford to compete? Consider some of the allotments DeChristopher won. One of the first was a parcel near Moab that went for $2.25 per acre, or $500 total. While others were considerably higher, the average price was $80 per acre, totaling 22,500 acres at $1.8 million. This is a substantial amount, but hardly out of the reach of major environmental groups.

When word got out about DeChristopher’s “winnings,” donations poured in. Within a few days, supporters had raised enough for the $45,000 down payment on the land. But when it came time to submit the payment for the land, the BLM refused to accept it.

Since then, DeChristopher has focused his efforts more on climate justice than open auctions. He founded Peaceful Uprising, a group dedicated to pursuing climate action through civil disobedience. The message is inspiring, but it relies on politics to exact change. Open and fair lease auctions, by contrast, could turn passionate rhetoric into real results for climate action, independent of the political reality.

If you think such competition between environmentalists and industry is far-fetched, consider state-owned lands. States such as Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico have allowed environmental groups to bid for leases, and win them, on state trusts lands, which are often developed to provide revenue for schools. Instead of developing their leases, however, these groups hold them for non-consumptive, conservation purposes.

After pressure from local environmental groups and a federal court ruling, Idaho amended its rules in 2009 to allow conservationists to lease state grazing lands. Under the new rules, ranchers—who often pay as little as $250 annually to lease a 400-acre parcel—are no longer able to obtain below-market leases in no-competition bids. Competition from environmental groups forces ranchers to consider the environmental values of their leases.

On federal lands, oil companies have little reason to consider such values, a fact that DeChristopher recognized. The morning before he bid in the auction, he took a final exam in an economics class. One question asked whether the auction taking place in Utah would reflect the true value of the land if the only bidders were from the oil and gas industry. It was a question that motivated him to act later that day.

It’s not too late to act to change the way our federal lands are leased. The action taken by Tim DeChristopher should be legal and encouraged, but it isn’t. Federal leasing rules need to change to allow environmentalists to participate and to hold leases without developing them. While open auctions are not a silver bullet, they can be an effective and secure means of protecting important federal lands.

Let’s not stand by while the status quo continues on federal lands. Let’s free up the auctions and prevent oil and gas developers from doing our bidding for us.

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Forests and Wildfires: A Carbon Source or Sink?

Forests are a valuable part of the global carbon cycle. They hold the largest stock of terrestrial carbon on earth, mostly stored in living trees. Forests absorb, or sequester, carbon during photosynthesis. More carbon is absorbed in younger trees during faster growth phases. Carbon is emitted in decomposition and when wood is burned.

Net carbon refers to the difference between carbon absorbed and emitted. A forest is a source of carbon when emissions exceed sequestration. A forest is a carbon sink when absorption is greater than emissions. Net carbon from a forest is sensitive to natural conditions, forest disturbance, and forest management activities. Wildfire, for example, contributes about 5 percent as much emissions as does the nation’s coal production each year.

Wildfire can turn a forest that is a carbon sink at one time into a carbon source for many years that follow. Because wildfire is a major carbon source, reducing wildfire can help to control carbon emissions from the forest.

There are proposals to remove fuels in the forest to reduce fire severity. The 80/80 rule proposes to decrease woody debris in American forests by 40 to 50 percent which, in turn, would allow about 80 percent of the existing trees to sustain a fire. This can reduce wildfire carbon emissions by as much as 50 percent. But that is a lot of wood removal.

The last several decades have proven difficult for public land managers to remove timber. As wildfire and insect infestation become more prevalent, public forest management may see political tides begin to revert back toward increased timber removal.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.