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Septic System Pollution and the Unheralded Value of Maryland's Environmental Funds

The Bay Journal published another interesting story this week by Rona Kobell about the perseverance it took by some residents and officials of rural Caroline County, Maryland, to finally address the failing septic systems plaguing their community.  The story even highlights how some local officials, after decades of trying to find a resolution, died waiting for it.  In addition to the residents of Goldsboro, Greensboro, and other towns near the headwaters of the Choptank River, another long-suffering character in the story is Lake Bonnie.  The article shares the fond memories of one older resident who used to swim in the lake as a child, which was closed decades ago due in large part to the problems caused by nearby septic systems.  

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From Energy Consumerism to Democratic Energy Participation

The essence of the argument that a new energy and environmental politics is needed is based on the idea that our traditional energy path (as well as its underlying assumptions) has outlived its useful life; the traditional energy narrative is stale. Cheap, but dirty, fossil fuel energy has played a significant role in contributing to economic growth and to the political authority of the United States for most of the 20th century.  By the end of the century, however, the fundamental economic assumption of traditional energy policy has proven to be seriously flawed. Fortunately, a new narrative about a more democratic energy and environmental future can be constructed that can empower us to critically assess traditional policies as well as re-evaluate existing legal and political structures.

How, though, does a politics of a clean power future connect with democracy?  The central democratic principle is to promote greater participation and voices in institutions both political and economic. With that quick definition, a new, more democratic energy and environmental paradigm affects the production and delivery of energy; its consumption and control; its regulation and enforcement; and, its governance and legal institutions. 

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CPR Submits Comments on Labor Department Guidance for Ensuring Federal Contractors are Complying with Labor Laws

Every year, the federal government awards private firms billions of dollars in federal contracts. The contracts are supposed to go to “responsible” companies, but that isn’t always the case. According to the Government Accountability Office, between 2005 and 2009, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division issued 25 of its 50 largest fines against 20 federal contractors who later received over $9 billion in contracts in 2009. Over the same period, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued 8 of its top 50 fines against 7 federal contractors who went on to receive almost $180 million in contracts in 2009. 

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Extreme Weather and Climate Disruption Since Katrina

CPR’s Unnatural Disaster report pointed out that current energy policies favoring fossil fuels made it “more likely that there will be disasters like Katrina in the future.” It explained that global climate disruption increases temperatures thereby causing sea level rise, a big threat to the Gulf Coast, and that climate disruption models suggest a shift toward extreme weather events.

Since Katrina, we have certainly seen lots of extreme weather. Perhaps most reminiscent of Katrina, on October 30, 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit much of the east coast, causing widespread flooding, especially in New York and New Jersey.[1] On February 5-6, 2010, an unusually severe snowstorm, labeled “smowmaggedon” buried Washington, D.C. Looking beyond our shores, super-typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest typhoons on record, devastated the Philippines in November of 2013.



[1] See Adam Sobel, Storm Surge:  Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future (2014).

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Katrina and the Democratization of Energy

Natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina,[1] Superstorm Sandy,[2] and the typhoon that devastated Fukushima,[3] as well as technical weaknesses that caused the Northeast blackout in October 2003,[4] and regulatory failures that ended California electric industry restructuring efforts[5] share two commonalities.  First, they all affect the energy system at enormous costs in economic losses and in disrupted lives.[6] Indeed, severe weather events are the leading source of electricity grid disturbances in the US with 679 widespread power outages between 2003 in 2012. Those outages have been estimated to cost the US economy between $18 and $33 billion each year during that decade.[7] Second, the economic and social costs of such disasters are so significant because the centralized structure of electricity generation and distribution guarantees concentrated losses upon such occurrences. 

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Ignored Facts, Distorted Law, and Today's WOTUS Injunction

Earlier today, a federal district court judge in North Dakota enjoined implementation of the new Clean Water Rule (also known as the Waters of the United States rule).  And if ever there was a judicial opinion begging for prompt reversal, this is it.  EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers put years of effort into that rule, and drew upon an extraordinary number of studies to arrive at their position.  The court pretended—among other errors—that all that effort and evidentiary support simply did not exist.

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Ten Years After Katrina: Government Can Save Lives and Money

With the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina upon us, looking back on CPR’s landmark report on the disaster reveals two essential public policy insights. One is that a series of government policy failures resulted in a far worse disaster than would have occurred if government had been more pro-active.  The second is that more effective government requires addressing and resolving what are often difficult policy issues, something that requires an ongoing dialogue and attention to what experts know and do not know about our options.  Today, ten years after Katrina, the country has retreated even further from having pro-active government. Many elected leaders refuse even to discuss what are the appropriate functions of government, let alone what is the preferable governmental policy option. For them, there is simply no justification for expanding the government or even for adequately funding the government that we have. 

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Hurricane Katrina and the Perversity Thesis

In Albert O. Hirschman’s brilliant analysis of conservative responses to progressive social programs entitled The Rhetoric of Reaction, he identifies and critiques three reactionary narratives that conservatives use to critique governmental programs -- the futility thesis; the jeopardy thesis; and the perversity thesis.

The futility thesis posits that governmental attempts to cure social ills or to correct alleged market imperfections are doomed to fail because the government cannot possibly identify the problem with sufficient clarity, predict the future with sufficient accuracy, and devote resources sufficient to “make a dent” in the problem.

The jeopardy thesis argues that “the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.” The jeopardy thesis thus subjects governmental interventions to a cost-benefit analysis and finds them wanting because the gains to the beneficiaries never exceed the costs to society of putting existing social arrangements at risk.

According to the perversity thesis, “any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.”

The perversity thesis is pervasive in conservative critiques of government programs. On any given day, the reader of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is likely to find one or more applications of that thesis. Perhaps the most common target of the perversity thesis is the perennial call for an increase in the minimum wage. As the Journal’s editorial page told us on August 11 in an editorial entitled “Another Minimum Wage Backfire,” minimum wage increases inevitably harm the very low income workers that their supporters foolishly mean to help by providing an incentive to employers to replace low-wage employees with computers or machines.

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New Video from CPR: Scholars Reflect on Lessons Learned (and not) from Katrina, 10 Years Later

Recently, six CPR Member Scholars sat down for an hour-long conversation about the lessons that policymakers have—and have not—learned in the years since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast and stretched our flawed flood-protection infrastructure past its limits. As explained in our groundbreaking report, Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, published just weeks after the New Orleans levees broke, the catastrophic consequences of the storm were the product of decades-long failures to protect our most vulnerable neighbors.

In the video below, CPR Member Scholars Alyson Flournoy, Robin Craig, Sheila Foster, Tom McGarity, Sid Shapiro, and Rob Verchick discuss some of the issues raised in our 2005 report, but add new insights building on a decade of research, advocacy, and efforts to promote stronger disaster preparedness and response. They touch on issues of social vulnerability, public health, and political gridlock, but also note important successes and opportunities.

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Bay Experts Debate Effectiveness of Nutrient Management

As readers of this blog and watchers of the Bay restoration process understand, states are under increasing scrutiny regarding their progress, or lack thereof, implementing the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) as we approach the 2017 midpoint assessment. But behind the scenes, a federal-state partnership known as the Chesapeake Bay Program is also tasked with working on the framework for tracking implementation of the Bay TMDL. This framework consists of establishing and improving many guidelines and protocols used to assess the performance of states, sectors, and even the many different best management practices (BMPs) used to reduce pollution. All of the data collected and assessed under this framework is then fed through the Bay Program’s Watershed Model to provide the public and policymakers with the best guess as to how much pollution-reduction has actually been achieved so far. Given the importance of this framework and Model, an increasing level of scrutiny is now also being given to what exactly is going on behind the curtain.

The Bay Program’s experts are housed within six “goal implementation teams” or GITs. The Water Quality GIT is further divided into 14 work groups that focus on different sectors, pollutants, or other subject matter of interest. While many of these groups have been active for years, there has been a recent surge of interest in their work as a number of important decisions are coming up that will affect the way that future progress is measured. And given that the agriculture sector is the largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution to the Bay watershed, the work of the Agricultural Work Group is of particular interest to clean water advocates right now.

The Nutrient Management Panel is about to make final recommendations to the Bay Program’s Agricultural and Watershed Technical work groups. These recommendations include the amount of credit that will be assigned by the Model for agricultural operations that submit a nutrient management plan. Unlike many actions and BMPs that a state can claim pollution reduction credit for (such as a wastewater treatment plant upgrade, a stream buffer installation, or the creation of a rain garden), a nutrient management plan is merely a piece of paper, unable by itself to prevent any pollution. The question is how much credit should the submission of that paper be worth within the Watershed Model?

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