Background on Environment
Environment and Energy
Energy issues have so dominated the 2016 election that all other environmental issues have fallen aside.
In fact, the term "environmental issues" in this election cycle has come to mean "energy issues."
In this section, we stick to non-energy environmental issues -- see our Energy & Oil section for the energy-based issues.
Some hot topics in the 2016 election cycle:
- In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan, switched their water supply from using Detroit's system from Lake Huron, to their own system from the Flint River.
- In 2015, residents saw discoloration, and thousands of children were exposed to lead contamination.
- In early 2016, Gov. Rick Snyder and Pres. Obama both declared emergencies, and provided $58 million for cleanup.
- As of April 2016, four city, state, and federal officials had resigned, and criminal charges were filed against three others.
- Animal rights is a growing issue in the environmental movement, underlying issues ranging from vegetarianism to closure of dog tracks. The core concept is to apply some rights to animals that apply to humans, at some cutoff level of animal intelligence. Most people agree on ending whale hunting, for example, because whales are intelligent; a majority of people agree that animal abuse should be prosecuted; some people apply those rules to all animals and would ban hunting or eating meat. The counterpoint considers the entire animal rights movement to be "political correctness."
- Endangered Species Act (ESA): 1973 law prohibiting activities that harm endangered plants or animals or their habitats. Which species are threatened & endangered are listed or ‘delisted’ by the Secretaries of Interior & Commerce. The controversy comes from limitations on private property to protect one species.
Eminent domain is the government's power to force landowners to give up private property "for public use," [traditionally for roadways or public buildings like schools], while receiving "just compensation," as the Fifth Amendment puts it. In other words, when the government builds a highway through your land, it has to pay you the market value for that property.
- Kelo: In its landmark 2005 Kelo decision, the Supreme Court, with a 5-to-4 majority, extended eminent domain to the seizure of property for the use of business. In that particular case, Susette Kelo was being forced from her modest New London, Conn., home so that an urban village of hotels and stores could be built near a massive pharmaceutical research center. Local government strongly supported and assisted the project; local homeowners did not.
- Takings: The federal government is allowed to take private property when it serves the public interest (via ‘eminent domain’) but must pay fair market value.
For example, when the Endangered Species Act regulates private property use (such as disallowing development), the value is decreased even though the property is not fully taken.
The ‘takings’ controversy concerns how much the government should pay to property owners when their property is only partially taken.
Federal farm policy in the United States is based heavily on politics, rather than being based on the free market. For example, see our description of the subsidized and regulated milk market in our book review of Milk Money. Progressives generally push for the subsidies and regulations to favor small farmers over large agribusiness. Democratic moderates generally push for more farm exports and more programs that favor domestic production over imports (such as ethanol in gasoline, which is made from corn crops). Republicans are often conflicted about farm policy because they feature the conservative-favored goal of helping businesses and the economy, while they use conservative-opposed methods of government subsidies and regulations. Hence the ethanol subsidy is controversial among Republicans, but generally favored by all Democrats.
Some older topics rom previous election cycles:
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and breached the levies surrounding the city.
Much of New Orleans was flooded, resulting in over 700 deaths and thousands of permanently lost homes.
At issue politically is who was responsible for ignoring the warnings about levy breaches.
Democrats blame President George W. Bush, who infamously claimed about FEMA director Michael Brown, while visiting New Orleans, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
Republicans blame Louisiana's Democratic governor and New Orleans' Democratic mayor.
Lessons learned focus on more preparedness; in later hurricanes, the federal and state governments have both been much more cautious, some say over-cautious.
Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, just south of New York City, on October 29, 2012.
Much of the NYC metropolitan area was flooded, resulting in about 150 deaths and about $100 billion in damages.
President Obama declared a state of emergency prior to landfall, part of the cautiousness resulting from Hurricane Katrina.
Questions persist about whether global warming caused the intensity of Hurricane Sandy, and hence will cause future hurricanes of similar intensity.
Some hot topics persisting from the 2012 election cycle:
A federally-owned mountain in Nevada which the federal government has proposed as a long-term repository for nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain was selected because, in theory, it is geologically stable enough to survive intact for the tens of thousands of years until the nuclear waste becomes harmless. The site was first proposed under President Reagan in 1985-1987; Congress approved it under President Bush in 2002; and then Congress canceled the program under President Obama in April 2011.
The "Big Dig" refers to Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel Project, conducted in large part while Mitt ROmney was governor of Massachusetts.
The Big Dig converted an elevated highway, I-93, into a 3.5 mile tunnel through central Boston, and added a third tunnel under Boston Harbor to Logan Airport. The original cost of the project in 1998 was proposed at $3 billion; it grew into a $22 billion project by the latest 2012 estimate. In addition to several construction deaths, a motorist was killed when a section of ceiling collapsed in 2006, attributed to inappropriate glue to hold up the concrete ceiling. The project was also plagued by water leaks for several years, attributed to failure to meet contract specifications.
Refers to land deeds which restrict future usage of the parcel of land to protect habitat, ban hunting or logging, or otherwise meet conservation goals.
Also known as "Land Trusts," they have been tremendously successful in preserving open space and wildlife habitat.
To assure that open space and habitat will be there for future generations, Congress provided targeted income tax relief to small farmers and ranchers who wish to make a charitable contribution of a qualified conservation easement.
"Green Jobs" refers to subsidizing environmentally-friendly industries, usually alternative energy.
Every recent president, including Obama, has promised "green jobs" in their State of the Union speeches; but the only action so far has been to mention it again in the subsequent year's State of the Union message.
"Solyndra" has become shorthand for "cronyism in the name of green jobs." Solyndra declared bankruptcy in Sept. 2011 after receiving a $527 million federal loan to support commercial-scale manufacturing for its solar photovoltaic panels. Romney visited the abandoned Solyndra factory in May 2012 to criticize Obama's policy.
Pollution Control vs. Cost Control
- The Clean Air Act: (CAA) regulates industrial smokestacks and other sources of smog, acid rain, and other air pollutants. The CAA uses numerous market incentives, including ‘pollution permits’ that are traded on open markets, to minimize costs.
- The Clean Water Act: (CWA) regulates ‘point-source’ (sewage pipes) and ‘non-point-source’ (land and road runoff) water pollution. The EPA’s approach since the early 1990s is ‘watershed-based,’ which means cooperating across political boundaries.
- CAFE standard: The ‘Corporate Average Fuel Economy’ requires that all automobile manufacturers maintain an average of 28 miles per gallon (mpg) for all vehicles sold.
- Command-and-control: Standardized regulations with central enforcement (usually by EPA), as opposed to market-based incentives.
The federal government owns 27% of all US land (more than the combined area of Alaska, Texas, & California).
- BLM: The Bureau of Land Management owns 270 million acres of cattle grazing land.
- USFS: The US Forest Service owns 185 million acres of timber land.
- FWS: The Fish & Wildlife Service owns 90 million acres of waterways and surrounding lands.
- NPS: The National Park Service owns 75 million acres of national parks and national rivers.
- States: State and local governments own 200 million acres of land (another 9% of total US land area).
Land Use Buzzwords
- Devolution: Some candidates believe that land use decisions should ‘devolve’ from the federal government to state or local government, to encourage community involvement.
- Wise Use: A code word which means ‘stop federal land use restrictions.’ It comes from the Forest Service’s founding doctrines, which say that wise land use includes commercial use plus recreational use.
- Land Trusts: Privately-held land which has restrictions on development (e.g., wildlife sanctuaries).
- Suburban Sprawl: Uncontrolled development that fosters automobile usage rather than mass transit.
- Urban Redevelopment: Restoring inner-city ‘blighted’ communities via ‘empowerment zones,’ etc.
- Brownfields: Locating industrial development on former waste sites (versus wide-open ‘greenfields’).
- Superfund: EPA cleanup of toxic waste sites.
Amendment V to the US Constitution
...nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.(1791)