State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

MPA Students Tackle Environmental Problems

The Oil Pollution Environmental Review Act (US House Resolution 52) Workshop team with their faculty advisor, Kathy Callahan.

On Wednesday, November 28, students in the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program presented their final Workshop briefings for fellow students, staff, and invited guests at the School of International and Public Affairs. This fall’s Workshop projects allowed ESP students to gain experience tackling tough environmental problems by working with real-world clients, dealing with topics ranging from the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay to harmful algal blooms.

“It was great to see how each of the 6 workshop sections rapidly plunged into the transition from science and policy analysis to program design and deployment,” said Lloyd Kass, the advisor to the Chesapeake Bay Accountability and Recovery Act of 2011 Workshop team. “This year’s MPA-ESP class is clearly taking this management simulation exercise very seriously and each of the 6 presenters did a great job conveying the final outcomes of their work!”

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 practical experience while addressing critical management and funding issues associated with legislative initiatives.

“Organizing the design of a waste tracking program for the Workshop course was especially interesting for me,” stated Fernando Arias, a member of the High-volume Hydraulic Fracturing Waste Tracking Program Workshop team. “This project gave me an opportunity to draw upon my military background as an Army mechanic in order to convey the logic of how accidents on work sites can occur and spills can leak into the ground, which are the primary environmental risks of unregulated fracking waste.”

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) utilizes a three-pronged approach to streamline and improve the transparency of current restoration work underway in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  It requires the development of a comprehensive financial report, to be submitted annually, and the creation of an adaptive management plan to utilize more science-based research to drive future successful restoration efforts.  Additionally, an Independent Evaluator will be appointed by the EPA and will be responsible for reviewing and providing reports to Congress every two years on restoration activities and the use of adaptive management in those activities.

The workshop developed a first year program design for implementing this bill based on the priorities of aggregating data for a financial report and developing an adaptive management approach to restoration.  Students examined the many NGOs, educational institutions, and different levels of government that are already actively participating in research and restoration efforts, and developed a plan to apply these efforts on a more comprehensive, watershed-wide scale.

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 was better able 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 studied 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 addressed the risks to the nation’s water infrastructure from climate. Students learned about ongoing and projected climate impacts as well as the resulting shifts in hydrologic conditions, and identified 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

The coastal communities and environments of the United States are threatened by harmful algal blooms, and hypoxia. Health hazards from toxic shellfish poisoning, disruption to local fishing and tourism economies, marine mammal mortality, fish kills, and ecosystem productivity losses are among the top concerns. The Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Act (HABHRCA), first enacted in 1998, authorized the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to coordinate scientific research on the ecology of harmful algal blooms, and hypoxia, as well as the development of technology to forecast, monitor, and control them. The 2011 Amendments, if passes, would formally establish a national program within NOAA to develop a national action strategy, continue funding scientific research, and increases the regional focus of research, and mitigation efforts.

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 studied 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 considered 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 also examined the air pollution impacts of these facilities.


Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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