WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s plans to curb the gases blamed for global warming are heading to their first test, a House hearing in which administration officials make their case before skeptical lawmakers.
The energy panel meeting Wednesday comes just days before a deadline for the Environmental Protection Agency to release a revised proposal setting the first-ever limits on carbon dioxide from newly built power plants.
The rule, which will ultimately force the EPA to tackle emissions from existing power plants as well, is a key component of Obama’s strategy to tackle climate change. It is also one of the most controversial, since addressing the largest uncontrolled source of carbon pollution will have ramifications for the power sector and everyone who flips on a light switch.
“Like the president has said, we have a moral obligation to act on climate change and we are using the tools at our disposal to get it done,” Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Zichal referred specific questions about the power plant proposal to the EPA, which declined to comment.
The coal industry and its allies in Congress have been quick to criticize the regulation in advance of its release, even though some of the details have yet to be disclosed, saying it will raise electricity prices and the cost of producing power, particularly from coal.
Coal, which supplies nearly 40 percent of U.S. electricity, has been struggling to compete with natural gas, which has seen historic low prices in recent years thanks to a boom brought on by hydraulic fracturing.
“We will not turn a blind eye to efforts to impose back-door climate regulations with no input from Congress,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, both Alaska Republicans, wrote in a letter to Obama on Tuesday. They asked Obama to seek input from Congress before pressing ahead.
The proposal has been in the works for more than a year and stems from a 1970 law passed by Congress to control air pollution. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that that law, the Clean Air Act, could be applied to heat-trapping pollution.
The latest version of the power plant proposal, which updates one released in March 2012, is likely to be more lenient on coal-burning plants than it was initially, but it will still make it very difficult for energy companies to build new coal-fired plants in the U.S. New natural gas power plants will also be covered, but since gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal, they will be able to meet the emissions standard more easily.
For coal-fired power plants, the new proposal will eventually require the installation of technology to capture carbon and bury it underground. Not a single power plant in the U.S. has done that, largely because it has not been available commercially and, if it were, it would be expensive.
The administration has $8 billion to dole out in loans to mitigate the cost of developing the technology. But even Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has said that “it’s not going to happen tomorrow,” but sometime in this decade.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., the chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and power, said in an interview that he was already crafting legislation that would restrict what the EPA could require of new power plants. Congress could also hinder the EPA by slashing its budget.
“We have the oversight responsibility, and we intend to find out from this administration what they are doing,” said Whitfield, who said the hearing will examine all the administration’s actions.
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and Moniz will represent the administration’s case. The two officials were among 13 invited.
In prepared testimony, McCarthy said the U.S. “must embrace cutting carbon pollution as a spark for business innovation, job creation, clean energy and broad economic growth.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council, meanwhile, said the proposal was a step toward ending an era when power plants were allowed to dump limitless amounts of carbon pollution into the air. The group had threatened to sue the EPA when it failed to finalize the March 2012 proposal within a year but decided against pursuing litigation when Obama vowed to take action on climate.
Obama has given the EPA until next summer to propose a rule controlling heat-trapping pollution at existing power plants.
For some two million years our hominin ancestors enjoyed a long-term relationship with Mother Nature. Up until about 10,000 years ago — a mere hiccup in evolutionary terms — our survival completely depended upon successfully negotiating her ups and downs. Though we grew apart, man still harbors a meaningful affinity for nature, an adaptive holdover, some scientists say, from prehistoric times.
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Though it’s been centuries since we began substituting environmental reliance with human wit, researchers believe that nature left a deep evolutionary mark on our psyches. A growing body of scientific evidence links nature with health benefits, including a reduction in stress and disease and a heightened sense of overall wellbeing.
Until now, however, how nature affects our experience of immediate, in-the-moment happiness remained a more elusive question. “Most people would agree that natural environments are happier places than other places,” says George MacKerron, Ph.D., a lecturer in economics at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. “We know they’re lovely, but ultimately, we wanted to know: How lovely are they?”
In other words, can you measure nature’s immediate effect on happiness — right this second?
To quantify the mood boost (or lack thereof) of being in nature, MacKerron built an iPhone app called Mappiness that randomly checks in with users twice a day to see what they’re up to and how they’re doing. Users report whether they’re with friends, at the movies, at work, getting ready for bed or doing any of the other countless activities that consume our waking hours. They also share how they feel at the moment by ranking their happiness on a sliding scale, ranging from “not at all” (i.e. hating the world) at one end to “extremely” (utter karmic bliss) at the other.
Around 20,000 people installed the app and provided more than 1.1 million data points over a period of six months. The app automatically paired responses with local weather data and GPS coordinates. A computer program classified those coordinates’ corresponding nature-y-ness using images taken from Google Earth. “The happiness measure is subjective, but everything else — the satellite classifiers, the data — was highly objective,” MacKerron says.
Nature did not disappoint. Even after controlling for variables like weather, day of the week, activities and company, natural environments provided significantly more moments of happiness than urban ones, MacKerron and his co-author report in the journal Global Environmental Change. On a scale of zero (least happy) to 100 (most happy), being in nature tended to add an extra three to six points to the baseline average of 66 — a boost equivalent to the difference between doing housework and going to a museum. Coastal environments ranked highest of the natural settings, especially among women — along with woodlands and farms. Other activities that prompted a happiness boost of a similar magnitude included hanging out with a partner or friend, and exercising or playing sports. “The best thing is to be in trees with your friends,” MacKerron says.
Aside from evolutionary throwbacks, he explains, our affinity with nature may also have something to do with natural environments’ relative purity. Navigating amidst honking horns and the reek of rotting garbage on a crowded New York City street is no doubt more stressful an experience than breathing in the sweet air of a forest or meadow. “It’s quieter and more peaceful in nature, and also lower in various bad characteristics — particularly noise and pollution,” MacKerron says. “Perhaps we’re evolved to like natural environments because they’re good for us.”
The study does leave some unanswered questions. One of its drawbacks is its geographic fuzziness — a single tree would not register as nature, for example — so the researchers cannot say what the minimum green area is that a person needs to feel happier. Nor can they tell how long you have to spend among the trees to reap the benefits. Still, there is hope for urbanites who have access to parks and gardens. Though squarely in the middle of the city, Hyde Park in London registers as a mix of grasslands, trees and water. And lo and behold, people were happier when they were in it.
Since most of the people who participated in the study live in urban environments, it’s hard to say whether those who live or work in the country get as much of a thrill from basking in the great outdoors as green-starved city dwellers who normally spend their time trapped in a cubicle. Generally speaking, research finds that country folk have higher levels of life satisfaction than city folk, but there are too many factors involved to understand the relationship.
The lesson should not be “Green is great, cities are bad,” warns Mirko Moro, Ph.D., a lecturer in economics at the University of Stirling in Scotland who was not involved in the research. “Most people still want to live in big cities,” he points out. “Cities offer the most opportunities to exchange ideas and experience culture.”
Rather than ditch your successful career and city friends in favor of a life of bliss in the country, he says, “Whenever you have some time off, just try to go outside in a green space and you’ll probably feel much better.” While a trek to the Catskills or Yosemite would be ideal, an afternoon jogging along the Hudson River or reading in Golden Gate Park should also do the trick. Even the busiest urbanite can still pen a happiness boost into her schedule by taking her next coffee break in the park.
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