Energy Issues: Large and Small

Abstract: From the Kyoto protocol to snowmobile numbers, controversies dog energy issues large and small.

Article: As oil prices wavered in their seemingly relentless climb toward $50 a barrel last week, two issues surfaced which seem to typify European and U.S. differences affecting energy: the environment, conservation, and reducing consumption.

One of the issues was a very big deal: Britain's Environment Minister, called for adherence to the Kyoto protocol and steps leading to a "low-carbon economy." He pointed out that the UK is moving well in this direction.

The other was seemingly not so important. In the U.S., a group of former U.S. National Park Service managers charged the Bush administration was preparing to relax rules limiting snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park – a step that would allow the number to double this upcoming winter. Though far narrower in scope than the UKs sweeping environmental goals, the Yellowstone snowmobile proposal is just as pointed in indicating differing attitudes toward emissions control, environmental questions and, ultimately limiting energy consumption and imports.

Looking for the Low Carbon Economy
Britain said it plans to use its influence as head of two major international bodies to combat climate change and pollution.

UK will chair the G8 group of nations next year and will soon take on Presidency of the European Union. UK Environment Minister Lord Whitty told the World Clean Air and Environmental Protection Congress UK will use these positions to push the climate change agenda at the highest level "in every way we can."

"Climate change is already happening due to the release of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide," Whitty said.

The UK is one of the strongest supporters of the Kyoto Protocol to cut emissions worldwide. Whitty said Britain is showing what can be done to meet Kyoto targets. Latest estimates suggest that UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2003 were about 14 per cent below 1990 levels, with carbon dioxide emissions for 2003 estimated about 7 per cent lower than in 1990.

Air quality generally in the UK has improved steadily in recent years. Latest figures cited by Whitty show that:

  • The average number of days of poor urban air quality in 2003 was about 18 per cent lower than in 1993.

  • Urban pollution from fine particles fell from 43 days in 1993 to 17 in 2003.

  • Sulphur dioxide pollution dropped from an average 20 days in 1993 to less than a day in 2003.

  • "We can be proud of our achievements but major challenges remain which will need a combination of local, national and international responses," Whitty said.

    "We are thinking long-term. The government's Energy White Paper sets a goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by around 60 per cent by 2050. Other developed countries must follow suit. We need a global shift in the way we produce energy. We need a low-carbon economy."

    Doubling The Snowmobiles at Yellowstone
    As Whitty was calling for aggressive support of the Kyoto protocol*, the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees (CCNPSR) issued an irate warning of a forthcoming Bush Administration proposal that would more than double snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park over last winter's levels.

    CCNPSR said it had learned from internal sources that the Bush Administration will "falsely claim" this week that its plan to dramatically boost snowmobile numbers would have no significant environmental or public health impacts.

    "In truth," according to CCNPSR, "the expected action by the National Park Service would require weakening of standards designed to protect park resources and contradict more than a decade of scientific analysis including the conclusion of the Bush Administration's own two-year Supplemental Environmental Impact Study completed just last year.

    CCNPSR said the administration's two-year study confirmed earlier scientific studies that found that continued snowmobile use would cause significantly more risk and harm to human health and park resources. The study determined that replacing snowmobile use in Yellowstone with visitor access on snowcoaches, "yields the lowest levels of impacts to air quality, water quality, natural soundscapes, and wildlife" while attaining "the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation and risk of health or safety."

    Michael Finley, a former superintendent of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Everglades National Parks, said: "If the Administration goes through with this, it will mark a new low in its pattern of ignoring science to benefit a special interest at the public's expense. Boxed in by its own first study, the Administration is now using a superficial process to sweep under the rug what 10 years of science have demonstrated conclusively is best for our nation's first national park and the health and safety of its visitors."

    The CCNPSR also said it has learned that monitoring of snowmobile use in Yellowstone last winter revealed greater than expected noise impacts even with an average of 262 snowmobiles per day. New standards established to assure visitor enjoyment of the park's natural sounds and natural quiet were frequently exceeded. The CCNPSR said it has learned that the Administration's intention, instead of enforcing the standards it has often highlighted as "strict limitations" on snowmobile use, will be to weaken the standards in order to accommodate more snowmobiles.

    Rick Smith, a former acting superintendent of Yellowstone and 31-year veteran of the National Park Service said: "We're seeing another example of the Administration's reassuring language hiding its damaging actions. The Administration promised 'adaptive management' and gave the impression that this meant it would apply new scientific findings to strengthen protection of Yellowstone's resources. Instead, its first move will apparently be to weaken its own standards on behalf of the snowmobile industry. That's certainly 'adaptive.' But it's not in the public interest."

    CCNPSR Spokesman Bill Wade, another former national park superintendent, said: "The full Environmental Impact Statement process was correctly used earlier because this is a significant and controversial federal action. By resorting now to more superficial process with an accompanying 'finding,' the Administration is thumbing its nose at the American public. The Yellowstone snowmobile issue is a matter of great concern to those of us who proudly served in the National Park Service. Laws, park policies, scientific studies, and the unprecedented outpouring of public opinion on this issue have all made abundantly clear that ending snowmobile use within the park offers the fullest protection and healthiest enjoyment of our first national park."

    What's Next for Kyoto/Snowmobile Issues?
    While the UK aggressively goes after Kyoto goals, the U.S. continues to ignore them. The Bush administration supports no serious steps toward emissions reduction or conservation. The climbing price of oil, in the long run, might lead to reduced consumption and lower emissions, but even doubling the price probably would not deter many snowmobile enthusiasts. We can be sure we will see some heat from the UK and the EU on Kyoto related emissions control in the year ahead. As to the snowmobiles, park visitors looking for "natural sounds and natural quiet" are already planning petitions and demanding action. Both issues bear close watching.

    *The protocol stems from a meeting of 160 nations in December 1997, in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate binding limitations on greenhouse gases for the developed nations. The resulting Kyoto Protocol, which came out of the meeting, set limits to greenhouse gas emissions relative to the levels in 1990. The United States was slated to reduce emissions from 1990 levels by 7 percent during the period 2008 to 2012, but has not agreed to the protocol.