State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

MPA Students Showcase Research Results at Midterm Presentations

MPA in Environmental Science and Policy student Annlyn McPhie presents her group’s initial findings for the Water Infrastructure Sustainability and Resilience Act of 2011 (U.S. House Resolution 2738).

On Wednesday, October 10, students in the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program presented their midterm Workshop briefings for fellow students, staff, and invited guests at the School of International and Public Affairs. This fall’s Workshop projects, intended for ESP students to gain experience tackling tough environmental problems by working with real-world clients, dealt with topics ranging from the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay to harmful algal blooms.

“This is my first semester acting as an advisor to the ESP Capstone Workshop course and I could not be more delighted with the students in my group,” said Shadan Azali, faculty advisor to the Waste-to-Energy Workshop team. “The midterm briefings are a chance for these students to examine an actual environmental legislation while improving their communication and collaborative skills.”

The Workshop course is just one component of the program that is designed to give students a more complete understanding of sustainability issues while gaining valuable professional experience. Students in the program conduct research and analysis in the Workshop course for each of the three semesters they spend in the program. By shifting the focus of their research each semester, students are able to gain a variety of skills and experiences addressing such issues as management, funding and legislative initiatives.

“It has been an amazing experience to work with my team over the past few months,” stated Karl Wasmuth, the presenter for the “New York State Senate Bill S 6892: April 4, 2012: The High-volume Hydraulic Fracturing Waste Tracking Program” group. “We have developed such a strong understanding of our topic and have also had the opportunity to learn about all the other issues being worked on by our peers. The midterm briefing illustrated our abilities as students to take the broad scientific research that we have been doing and use it to create focused programs to implement our policies.”

The students will present the rest of their findings at their final briefings on November 28. If you are interested in attending the briefings, please contact Sarah Tweedie, Assistant Director, at

You can read more about this semester’s Workshop projects below.


H.R. 258: The Chesapeake Bay Accountability and Recovery Act of 2011

Faculty Advisor: Lloyd Kass

The Chesapeake Bay Accountability and Recovery Act of 2011 (H.R. 258) requires the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in consultation with the Chesapeake Executive Council, the chief executive of each Chesapeake Bay state, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, to submit to Congress a financial report. H.R. 258 also requires the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop and update every two years an adaptive management plan for restoration activities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and sets forth reporting requirements that require the Administrator to: (1) report annually to Congress on the Plan; and (2) ensure that the Annual Action Plan and Annual Progress Report required by the Executive Order 13508 includes the adaptive management plan. H.R. 258 requires an Independent Evaluator for restoration activities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, who shall review and report to Congress every two years on restoration activities and the use of adaptive management in such activities. The Evaluator is to be appointed by the Administrator from among nominees submitted by the Chesapeake Executive Council.

Oil Pollution Environmental Review Act (US House Resolution 52)

Faculty Advisor:  Kathy Callahan

On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded. The Macondo Prospect in the Gulf of Mexico, where the drilling was occurring, was estimated to contain 50 million barrels of oil in place. The Deepwater explosion unleashed an oil spill of 4.9 million barrels of oil. After the Deepwater Horizon disaster and spill, President Obama established the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Among its findings, the Commission identified weaknesses in the government’s regulatory and oversight programs.

The Oil Pollution Environmental Review Act (HR 52) is proposed to address one critical aspect of the regulatory programs addressing evaluating offshore oil leasing, development and drilling. This bill would address one controversial aspect of the environmental authorization process of the Deepwater Horizon drilling of Macando prospect; that is, that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review was concluded with a categorical exclusion, not a full environmental impact assessment. By analyzing and studying this bill, the Workshop team will offer the opportunity to understand NEPA as it applies to offshore drilling and examine the science, technology and policy challenges of tapping deep offshore oil.

New York State Senate Bill S 6892: April 4, 2012: “The High-volume Hydraulic Fracturing Waste Tracking Program”

Faculty Advisor: Steve Cohen

Hydrofracking, a method of injecting water, sand and chemicals into rock formations 8,000 feet deep in order to extract natural gas, is becoming a major environmental issue in New York State. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. EPA are currently studying the costs and benefits of hydrofracking. Hydrofracking is a high-tech way of extracting fossil fuels that can be done without damaging the local environment, but if done incorrectly could easily have a devastating impact on surrounding ecosystems.

There are a number of important issues that must be addressed in New York as we move toward mining gas through hydraulic fracturing. According to the NY Senate’s website, “The solid and liquid wastes associated with high-volume hydraulic fracturing present a potential threat to the environment and public safety should they be discharged or disposed of improperly. Strict oversight by the Department of Environmental Conservation as well as public transparency is necessary to ensure that these materials are accounted for and properly transported from “cradle to grave.” The department has proposed New York State Senate Bill S 6892, which would implement a tracking system for high-volume hydraulic fracturing liquid and solid wastes. This bill would require the department to use a more robust tracking system similar to that which is used for hazardous waste.” This fall, the group will study the overall impact and management issues associated with this form of gas mining with a specific focus on the disposal of the “fracking fluid.”

Title: Water Infrastructure Sustainability and Resilience Act of 2011 (U. S. House Resolution 2738)

Faculty Advisor: Irene Nielson

Our nation’s water infrastructure supplies clean drinking water and treats wastewater for hundreds of millions of Americans. Irrigation, water conveyance systems, and floodwater management structures amount to hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines and earthworks across the U.S. Yet this aging water system suffers from chronic lack of reinvestment and is vulnerable to changes caused by development and climate change. In recent years, extreme weather events, floods, prolonged drought periods and extraction rates that exceed replenishment are threatening the quantity, quality and reliability of our nation’s water resources. The Water Infrastructure Sustainability and Resilience Act (H.R. 2738) would establish a grant program to fund responses to ongoing and projected changes in hydrologic conditions and raises key questions. How will sea level rise and changes in precipitation patterns affect our nation’s water resources? Which regions of the country are projected to face significant climate impacts? What strategies can reduce the risk of climate change and development to protect or more efficiently use water resources? Where are the water systems with the greatest and most immediate risk? Over the course of the fall semester, this project will address the risks to the nation’s water infrastructure from climate. Students will learn about ongoing and projected climate impacts as well as the resulting shifts in hydrologic conditions, and identify the suite of water management strategies available to our nation’s resource managers faced with addressing this environmental challenge.

Title: Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2011

Faculty Advisor: Matthew Palmer

Harmful algal blooms and hypoxic events, periods of severe oxygen depletion, threaten coastal environments throughout the United States. These events cause threats to human health, fish kills, degradation of critical coastal habitats, economic damage to shellfish industries and tourism, and mortality of protected marine animals. To study and manage this growing threat, Congress authorized the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to coordinate scientific activity related to detection, monitoring, assessment, and prediction of harmful algal bloom (HAB) and hypoxia events. The Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Act (HABHRCA) established several research programs on harmful algal blooms and hypoxic events, all of which involve Federal, state, and academic partners to address these issues in an ecosystem context. Amendments to HABHRCA have been proposed and would reauthorize the Act for 2011-2015. The proposed amendments outline a set of requirements for an Interagency Task Force on Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia. This task force would develop a national strategy, evaluate past and continuing research programs, and promote the development of new technologies for predicting, monitoring, and mitigating HABs and hypoxia conditions.

Title: An Act Concerning the Reclassification of Trash-To-Energy Facilities as Class I Renewable Energy Sources (CT Raised Bill No. 5118)

Faculty Advisor: Shadan Azali

Waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities can offer waste management solutions to local governments that face space concerns and other environmental challenges in handling industrial and municipal solid waste. Despite achievements in waste reduction, households in the United States produce some 250 million tons of trash per day, according to Environmental Protection Agency, which also expects that the demand for raw materials will continue to increase. Raised Bill No. 5118 of the State of Connecticut would classify energy from waste-to-energy facilities as a “Class I renewable energy source.” This classification currently applies to solar, wind, ocean thermal, and wave and tidal power, as well as to energy generated by fuel cells, methane gas from landfills, and small hydropower dams.

Students will study the environmental performance of WTE facilities, especially in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, to evaluate the classification of waste-to-energy as a renewable source of energy on par with energy sources such as wind and solar. In doing so, students will consider the actual greenhouse gas emissions of WTE facilities, as well as any avoided emissions associated with disposing waste in landfills and using conventional energy sources to generate electricity. Because incineration of waste often raises air pollution concerns, especially in the communities where waste-to-energy facilities are sited, students will also examine the air pollution impacts of these facilities.


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