Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Tropical forests help cool the whole planet

AP Photo/Kent Gilbert

Today is Thursday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here.

Global loss in tropical forests is accelerating climate change, leading to an increase in hot, dry summers far beyond the tropics themselves, according to a recent study.   

Forest canopies keep the ground below from absorbing solar heat, while the clouds they release do the same for entire regions, the researchers found.  

Altogether, they calculated that without tropical forests, the Earth would already be past the key 1.5 Celsius degrees (2.7 Fahrenheit) of warming beyond which the worst climate impacts are anticipated. 

“If we lose these forests, we will get there 10 years faster,” said lead author Deborah Lawrence of the University of Virginia. 

“If we protect these forests, they will shield us from extreme climate disasters, droughts and impacts on our food and agriculture. We are benefiting now from the tropics keeping us cooler; they are keeping us from feeling these extremes already.”    

Today we’ll examine California’s recent moves to regulate the dangerous “forever chemical” made famous by activist Erin Brockovich — and why she says it isn’t sufficient. Then we’ll look at why the U.S. will have to ramp up its dependence on foreign trading partners to meet Biden’s electric vehicle goals. 
 
For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com.

Let’s get to it.

 

California moves to regulate ‘forever chemicals’   

Three decades after Erin Brockovich discovered that hexavalent chromium was sickening residents of a small Mojave Desert community, California’s State Water Board has proposed a long-awaited regulatory standard that would limit the toxin’s presence in drinking water.  

But according to Brockovich, the proposed regulation is insufficient and amounts to no more than “lip service” and “politics.”  

Nothing’s changed: “I’m frustrated that nothing’s changed in 30 years,” Brockovich told Equilibrium. “From the moment I began this 30 years ago, it was dodge, hide, conceal and never about the health and welfare of people, of animals, livestock or the land — but of your coveted money and making sure somebody didn’t get sued.” 

What are California officials proposing? The proposal, issued by the state board on Monday, would set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 micrograms — or 10 parts per billion — of hexavalent chromium per liter of drinking water.

The MCL is expected to take effect in 2024, if adopted by state officials following an extended public comment period. 

What is this chemical again?: Hexavalent chromium — known more commonly as chromium-6 or “the Erin Brockovich chemical” — gained international notoriety in the 1990s, after Brockovich discovered that the chemical was contaminating drinking water and making people sick in the San Bernardino town of Hinkley, Calif.  

While working in Hinkley she came across medical records that led her to discover the contamination, which was coming from a PG&E natural gas compressor in the community.  

Ultimately, PG&E settled with residents for $333 million, but the state of California has yet to regulate the compound’s presence in drinking water. 

What’s the problem with this max contaminant level? “California is making an effort to create an MCL for hexavalent chromium, in drinking water, where no other states are willing to do that,” Brockovich said. 

She noted, however, that the MCL is nowhere near the state’s own public health goal. 

The California Water Board acknowledged this discrepancy in its own proposal on Monday, explaining that the cancer risk associated with a 10 parts billion threshold “is 500 times greater” than the level set in state targets. 

What was the public health goal? The public health goal, set in 2011 by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, indicated that chromium-6 levels should be below 0.02 parts per billion — an exposure level that represents a “one in one million” lifetime cancer risk level.

 

‘MAJOR MILESTONE’ OR ‘LIP SERVICE’?

The Water Board characterized the proposal as “a major milestone,” in a news release accompanying the report.   

This isn’t the first time that California has tried to set a specific level for chromium-6. In 2013, the state’s Department of Public Health proposed the same 10 parts per billion level, which ended up going into effect in July 2014.  

But the Superior Court of Sacramento struck down the MCL’s validity less than three years later due to technical and economic feasibility issues.  

Starting from scratch: “We restarted the MCL analysis process from scratch, using updated data, and conducted a rigorous economic feasibility analysis, paying special attention to the range of possible impacts on water systems,” Darrin Polhemus, deputy director of the Board’s Division of Drinking Water, said in a statement.  

Inadequate for protecting health: Both Brockovich and other California environmentalists argued that this MCL would be inadequate to protecting human health. 

“We urge the state to do better and take immediate steps to adopt a level that more closely reflects the state’s public health goal,” Bill Allayaud, California director of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement

Just last month, the Environmental Working Group updated an interactive map showing that chromium-6 is found in the tap water of 251 million people across the U.S., surpassing levels that scientists have deemed safe.  

Disappointment, but not the end of the road: While Brockovich stressed her disappointment in the proposed MCL of 10 parts per billion, she said that she won’t let this low bar stop her from further activism. 

“I assure you, there’s a whole lot of places that way exceed that,” she added. “So I’m going to be watching closely.”   

To read the full story, please click here

 

US won’t get to EV goals without imports 

The Biden administration’s push for more production of electric vehicles is shining a spotlight on the resources needed to make EVs. 

The U.S. heavily depends on foreign trading partners for many of the materials that go into electric car batteries — including lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese.   

In order to reach its goal of having 50 percent of all new cars be electric by 2030, the U.S. will need to import more materials from countries like Norway, Chile, South Africa and Australia.   

That raises concerns about supply chain and greater dependency on foreign resources. 

For example: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told an International Energy Agency meeting on Wednesday that he was very much concerned about the supply chain” around EVs, as our colleague Rachel Frazin reported. 

“I am very much concerned about … relying on China to supply the necessary resources we need to have that transition happen.” 

A quick refresher: While technological approaches vary and other technologies are under development, most electric vehicle batteries require four principal minerals: lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel, according to Nature. 

The U.S. is dependent on imports for all these. There is only one domestic lithium mine in the country — and proposed ones nearby have aroused substantial controversy, Changing America reports. 

In 2021, the U.S. used 9 times as much cobalt as it produced; 11 times as much nickel; and imported all of its manganese, according to the United States Geological Survey.

 

WHERE DO US BATTERY MATERIALS COME FROM? 

According to the USGS, in 2021, most U.S. cobalt imports came from Norway, Canada, Japan and Finland. 

Most U.S. manganese came from Gabon, South Africa, Norway, Korea and Australia. 

What about China? The U.S. does get about 5 percent of its lithium from China, along with 3 percent from Russia. 

That number is dwarfed by the combined 91 percent of its imports that came from Argentina and Chile.   

And U.S. nickel largely comes from U.S. allies Canada, Norway, Finland and Australia. 

What’s China’s rank for the rest? In 2021, China produced about 14 percent of global lithium; 1 percent of global cobalt; 6 percent of global manganese and 4 percent of global nickel, USGS reported.. 

But isn’t China dominant in renewables? Yes — when it comes to finished goods. China produces nearly 80 percent of world electric vehicle batteries, with the U.S. in a distant second with 6 percent, according to a study by Scotch Creek Ventures. 

That’s largely because of heavy Chinese investment in their battery industry — as well as in the domestic production of solar panels. 

A bright spot on closing the manufacturing gap: In a meeting at the International Energy Agency, Manchin liked the idea of expanding tax credits for clean energy manufacturing — to which the Biden administration has proposed adding another $10 billion in funding, according to a review by law firm Vinson & Elkins LLP. 

Manchin is in favor of an alternative to EVs: The West Virginia senator has been vocal in support of Toyota, which has a major factory in his state and which doesn’t yet produce any EVs. 

Instead, Toyota sunk the past decade into developing hydrogen fuel cell cars. 

Is hydrogen a green fuel? It can be — but it would likely require the kind of investment in renewable energy that the U.S. policymakers, including Manchin, have thus far been reluctant to make. 

China is a useful counterexample: The country announced this week they were investing in a massive scaleup in their “green hydrogen” industry. 

This method generates the fuel from water using wind or solar energy, Reuters reported. 

Last words: In a February speech in favor of creating a West Virginia “hydrogen hub,” Manchin instead proposed generating hydrogen fuels from fossil sources, saying such a facility would “create good jobs and allow us to leverage our existing natural gas and coal resources.”

 

Thursday Threats

Putin walks a risky line on payments; biodiversity loss a menace to banks and forever chemicals lurk throughout food packaging.  

Putin demands Europe pay for gas in rubles

  • Russia’s president — whose country still supplies 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas —  has said he will no longer accept payments in dollars or euros, which he called “risks speeding the E.U.’s departure from Russian gas altogether, the Wall Street Journal reported.   

Banking system is neglecting dangers from biodiversity loss 

  • The banking system has neglected the financial risks posed by the global loss of biodiversity, which could “pose significant risks to economic, financial and social stability,” Ravi Menon, head of the Network for Greening the Financial System, told Reuters.

Forever chemicals lurk in U.S. food wrappers 

  • A survey by Consumer Reports of more than 100 food wrappers has found “forever chemicals” in paper plates, salad bowls, fast food packaging, and a wide range of other offerings from retailers from Burger King to Trader Joe’s, The Guardian reported

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Friday.

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