Each week, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
How can government efforts to manage wildfires ensure that resources are distributed equitably among communities?
California has grappled with devastating wildfires in recent years, and survivors suffer economic and health consequences long after the blazes are controlled. But relief from both the private and public sectors has increasingly proven hard to access. Energy company PG&E, which has established a trust to compensate survivors of the 2018 Camp Fire as part of its bankruptcy settlement, has only just begun to distribute money to victims, and it could be years before all the tens of thousands of Californians who are entitled to payouts can access the money. And while California is slated to receive $1.3 billion in federal funds to pay for recovery measures following the fires that happened in 2017 and 2018, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development only recently approved the state’s recovery plans, meaning that the many Californians reliant on the government to rebuild their fire-ravaged houses will have to wait. These episodes reflect the vulnerability of lower-income communities to the consequences of wildfires, especially when bureaucratic delays complicate relief efforts.
Two new working papers from RFF Fellow Matthew Wibbenmeyer and coauthors look at management responses to wildfires and find that responses are not equal across communities. In one paper, which was featured in a recent New York Times article, Wibbenmeyer and coauthors find that government agencies responding to nearby wildfire events are more likely to increase rates of fuels treatment in affected communities that are wealthier, whiter, and more educated. In the other paper, the coauthors find that fires are more likely to stop spreading as they approach areas with higher-value homes (even when those areas contain fewer homes than lower-income communities), which suggests that wealthier communities are benefiting more from fire suppression efforts. “Wildfire management activities can benefit communities unequally,” Wibbenmeyer contends in an accompanying blog post. “Differences in wildfire management may be one factor that affects discrepancies across groups.”
Related research and commentary:
- Blog: Evidence from Wildfire Events in the Western United States Reveals Inequalities in Wildfire Management
- Working paper: Inequality in Agency Responsiveness: Evidence from Salient Wildfire Events
- Working paper: Priorities and Effectiveness in Wildfire Management: Evidence from Fire Spread in the Western US
Can Congress agree on a bipartisan package that would boost clean energy and fund advanced energy technology research?
House and Senate leaders have reached agreement on a long-delayed energy innovation package. After debate about regulating hydrofluorocarbons thwarted the bill earlier this year, the package—which draws from the American Energy Innovation Act and a similar bill that has already passed the House—could now be included in a year-end spending bill. The draft legislation funds new research and investments in advanced energy technologies, such as nuclear power and carbon capture, while also extending existing standards for energy efficiency in federal buildings and requiring at least 25 gigawatts of renewable power on federal lands by 2025. Not all environmentalists are satisfied with the agreement, though, given that it does not include specific emissions reduction targets and could omit extensions of tax credits for solar and wind energy. But if the many energy provisions included in the current draft become law, the package would nevertheless represent “the most comprehensive update to US energy law in more than a decade.”
The energy package garnering renewed attention in the Senate was a subject of discussion at an RFF event this week about the future of energy innovation policy, the sixth convening in RFF’s Advanced Energy Technologies Series. After RFF President and CEO Richard G. Newell emphasized the need for well-funded R&D efforts and vibrant private sector competition, panelists discussed how policymakers and industry leaders can work together to spur the deployment of transformative technologies. “Energy innovation is a very important and valuable part of dealing with the climate challenge; we can’t afford to do without it,” said Spencer Nelson, a staffer on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and a key architect of the bipartisan energy package. For more on how advanced energy can play a crucial role in decarbonizing the US economy, read two new RFF working papers, which assess the societal benefits of reducing the costs of various technologies that impact the power sector and direct air capture technologies specifically.
Related research and commentary:
How much does the Trump administration’s rule, which delineates protected bodies of water under the Clean Water Act, rely on sound science and best practices for benefit-cost analysis?
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sought to clarify which bodies of water are protected under the Clean Water Act, after years of legal battles over an expansive Obama-era rule. But the Trump administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule has prompted its own flurry of lawsuits, in part because it strips protections from isolated wetlands and intermittent streams, with disproportionate impact on the western United States. Colorado—where an estimated 70 percent of waterways would lose protection and where the rule has been put on hold—is one of many states that have questioned whether repealing the Obama-era guidance creates more problems than it solves. To compound these concerns, new research suggests that the Navigable Waters Protection Rule relies on faulty economic reasoning: the report from the External Environmental Economics Advisory Committee, an independent group formed after the current administration disbanded an internal EPA committee that had a similar mandate, concludes that the administration “may have underestimated the forgone benefits of repeal and replacement.”
On a new episode of the Resources Radio podcast, Sheila Olmstead—an RFF university fellow and a coauthor of the new report—reviews the history of the Clean Water Act and explains why she takes issue with the administration’s economic justifications for its new rule. Olmstead and her coauthors ultimately conclude that EPA’s economic analysis fails to adhere to agency standards for benefit-cost analysis and relies on several faulty assumptions—including the agency’s prediction that dozens of states might implement their own ambitious standards to protect isolated wetlands and intermittent streams if federal authority becomes more lax. Still, Olmstead suggests that legal debates will persist over which bodies of water are protected by the Clean Water Act, unless Congress takes action. “If Congress decided that it wanted to really clarify the language in the Clean Water Act, it could do that,” Olmstead says. “That seems unlikely, but I’m going to put that out there as the best solution.”
Related research and commentary: