One-Minute Summaries About the Environment

Washington Post Staff Writer David A. Fahrenthold provides explanations to easily digest climate change issues, how it impacts the region and what the government is doing about it. If you'd like to suggest updates or changes to these summaries -- or if you'd like to suggest another topic that deserves its own one-minute summary -- email David A. Fahrenthold.

Topics: The Chesapeake Bay | Mountaintop Mining | Obama's Environmental Team | Climate Change | Climate Legislation | Climate and Wildlife


THE CHESAPEAKE BAY

The Chesapeake Bay is the D.C. region's best-known natural treasure, and its most famous environmental problem. Regional and federal governments have now spent 25 years and $6 billion trying to fix it, but -- at best -- they have only managed to stop its problems from getting worse.

The latest news about the Chesapeake came on Tuesday, May 12, when President Obama announced plans to give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a much stronger hand to oversee the cleanup. The effort had traditionally been run by a loose coalition of state and federal officials, which missed their first deadline for success in 2000, and are on pace to miss another in 2010.

Now, according to Obama's orders, the EPA will be empowered to set more demanding deadlines for improvement, and punish states that don't meet them.

The Chesapeake is about 200 miles long, stretching from Havre de Grace, Md., in the north to Virginia Beach in the south, where it spills into the Atlantic Ocean. The bay passes about 35 miles east of Washington, and its tributaries include all the region's rivers, including the Anacostia, the Potomac, the Patuxent, and the Severn.

Its biggest problem comes from farm-animal manure, treated sewage, leaky septic tanks, and fertilized lawns all over the Chesapeake’s 64,000 square-mile watershed. Rainwater that falls on them washes down nitrogen and phosphorus: fertilizer, the same in the water as they are on land.

Downstream in the bay, these pollutants lead to algae blooms, which help create low-oxygen "dead zones." These, as well as decades of overfishing, have led to declines in oysters and crabs, and the communities of watermen who fish for them.

Last year, a Washington Post report found that leaders of the cleanup had sought to exaggerate their progress in past years, in hope of maintaining their funding.

MOUNTAINTOP MINING

Mountaintop mining -- also called "mountaintop removal" mining — is one of the most controversial practices in coal mining, where companies blast and scrape the tops off Appalachian peaks to reach coal seams inside.

The most recent news on the topic has been several moves by the Obama Administration that seemed to crack down on mining companies. In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency OpenDocument said it would be reviewing the permits for dozens of these mines, to see if they cause too much damage by filling stream valleys with excess rock.

Then, in late April, the Administration asked a court to throw out a Bush-era law that environmental groups said made the practice of "valley fills" easier.

Now, those environmental groups, coal-mining companies, and communities in mining-dependent regions are waiting to see how tightly the Administration intends to squeeze.

Mountaintop mining is most common in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, but it also occurs in Tennessee, Ohio, and southwest Virginia. Coal companies use the technique in spots where the seams are too close to the surface, or too thin, for a tunnelling mine.

Instead, they use dynamite and earth-moving equipment to remove several hundred feet of mountaintop. In some sites, the mountain is rebuilt. In others, it is left flat. Satellite images of the area show a pattern like a giant's footsteps.

At most mines, excess rock is used to fill nearby valleys, which scientists say (pdf) can kill off native insects, and harm water quality downstream.

At the EPA's last count (pdf), in 2001, 724 miles of stream valleys had been buried, about 1.2 percent of the total in southern Appalachia.

A Washington Post report in 2008 found that 32 percent of the coal purchased by power plants in the Washington area came from "surface" mines in the area most affected by mountaintop mines.

OBAMA'S ENVIRONMENTAL TEAM

The Obama Administration is one of the most environmentally ambitious in recent U.S. history, and its task is bigger because it follows one of the least.

The four most important officials on environmental topics include a big thinker, two bureaucrats with experience at state agencies, and a former Clinton Administration hand.

The best-known of the four might be Steven Chu, Obama's Secretary of Energy. Chu is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and the former head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, an arm of the Energy Department that he focused on finding new sources of energy.

Chu has spoken repeatedly about the need for federal action on climate change: he once compared the problem to a fault in a house's electrical wiring -- wait too long, and the place burns down.

The new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is Lisa P. Jackson, who previosly ran New Jersey's environmental agency. Already, her EPA has made several bold strokes.

One was taking a new look at the environmental damage from "mountaintop caol mines. The other was issuing a finding (pdf) that greenhouse gases endanger human health -- the bureaucratic trigger for a process that could end with the EPA regulating these emissions.

Obama appointed Carol M. Browner, who was EPA administrator under President Clinton, to a newly created post as climate and energy czar. She has been guiding a behind-the-scenes effort to craft the administration's climate policy, presiding over regular meetings of cabinet secretaries.

The new chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality -- traditionally, a referee in disputes between federal agencies — is Nancy Sutley, a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles. Sutley also worked for the EPA, for the California state government, and for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Climate change seems certain to be the dominant environmental issue of President Obama's Administration -- an unprecedented kind of pollution problem, which U.S. legislators and regulators have only begun to put their hands around.

The most recent news about climate change has been a House bill that would create a "cap-and-trade" system in the U.S.

The bill, called "Waxman-Markey" (pdf) after its two chief sponsors, would require a 17 percent drop in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, compared to 2005 levels, by 2020. It would require an 83 percent reduction by 2050. The legislation would allow polluters who have trouble reducing their emissions to pay others, who would reduce them instead.

Scientists say that the old debate about climate change is over -- or ought to be.

The world's scientists are now largely in agreement that climate change is happening, that humans are causing at least some of it, and that it is likely to get worse in coming decades.

"Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations," a United Nations panel said (pdf) in 2007. "Anthropogenic" means man-made.

The emissions that cause warming come from a variety of sources, most related to burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gasoline. Other sources include the methane-imbued flatulence of farm animals.

These act like a blanket in the earth's atmosphere, holding in the sun's heat. In time, scientists say that could significantly alter ecosystems, and raise sea levels by heating the sea and melting polar ice.

Despite powerful interest in this problem, neither the U.S. nor the rest of the world have had success cutting their emissions. At last count -- before the current recession, which may have brought significant cuts — both the American and world totals were still going up.

CLIMATE LEGISLATION

House Democrats have proposed a bill that would accomplish what a string of failed legislation has not: limit U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. It recently passed a key House committee, but now the bill must get through the full House and Senate.

"The most recent news on this issue was the bill's passage through the House Energy and Commerce committee. The bill, called "Waxman-Markey" (pdf) after its two chief sponsors, Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), was watered down somewhat to win over moderate Democrats on the committee. Afterward, Greenpeace and a few other environmental groups said the bill had become too weak for them to support.

The new bill would require a 17 percent drop in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, compared to 2005 levels, by 2020. That's down from 20 percent. It would also give away many pollution credits for free to electric utilites and other manufacturers, instead of auctioning them off.

To accomplish this reduction, the bill would use an approach called "cap and trade." It would set a cap on the emissions that certain polluters can emit. They could meet this limit either by cutting their emissions, or by purchasing emissions credits (this is the "trade" portion) from the government, or from other polluters who cut more than they needed to.

Its supporters say that the money generated by government auctions of credits could be used for energy-efficiency programs or a tax cut.

But some Democrats, from states reliant on fossil-fuel energy, say that it would pose an undue burden on power plants, and heavy industry. They say that this burden could be lessened by giving these polluters some emissions credits for free, instead of auctioning all of them.

Also, many Republicans have called the bill an "energy tax," saying it will raise the costs of gasoline and heat.

If Congress does not act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pursuing a plan to regulate greenhouse-gases by itself.

CLIMATE AND WILDLIFE

Rising temperatures are already having a profound impact on the world's animals, scientists say changing their habitats underneath them, or suddenly knocking ancient relationships with prey or allies out of sync.

Making things worse: evolution moves too slowly for animals to change with the climate, and man often blocks the door to migration.

The latest news on this subject was the Obama Administration's decision May 8 that the federal Endangered Species Act would not work to protect Alaskan polar bears from their chief problem: climate change. The question will come up again, since the government must decide what to do about two coral species and one mountain mammal also harmed by rising temperatures.

Polar bears rely on shrinking sheets of sea ice as hunting grounds. Already, populations have fallen, and scientists have reported cannibalism among Alaskan bears -- something never seen before 2004. Scientists say (pdf) that, by mid-century, two-thirds of the global population might die out.

A less-known victim: the American pika, a chipmunk-like creature of western peaks. It cannot stand temperatures above 77.9 degrees, and has been retreating up the mountainside.

Already, two species of amphibian may have gone extinct because of climate changes in Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest. Scientists there have not seen the golden toad and the Monteverde harlequin frog since the 1980s.

And in the Caribbean, climate change is also afflicting two threatened species of coral, the elkhorn and staghorn. Both rely on a symbiotic relationship with tiny plants to make food. But, when the ocean gets too warm, the corals spit out their allies.

There are winners in all this. On Michigan's Isle Royale, warmer temperatures have brought a renaissance for the moose tick -- which is good news for them, but bad news for the moose and the wolves that eat the moose.

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