The Obama administration's announcement today that it plans to "root out regulations that conflict, that are not worth the cost, or that are just plain dumb" was, rather transparently, meant to appease business interests. It's not really clear the degree to which the administration will follow through on that directive, or whether the move is a rhetorical flourish meant to stave off gripes that they're ignoring the economy. But how dangerous is their repetition of talking points from the forces of deregulation—and with it the impression that federal agencies are sitting around making up rules just for the heck of it?

All this talk about getting rid of "dumb" rules certainly makes it sound as if there are a lot of them to go after. But many business and trade groups want us to believe that any and all regulations are baseless or harmful—often excluding in their talking points both the benefits of the rule to the public and the fact that stakeholders have numerous opportunities to weigh in on a rule before it is ever finalized.

Take a look at the example of rules on ozone pollution, better known as smog. In January 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency released tougher new rules that would lower the limit to between 60 and 70 parts per billion, reversing one of the Bush administration's most controversial environmental decisions to set the limit at 75 parts per billion in 2008 against the recommendations of the agency's own scientists. The weaker rules—and the delay of the more aggressive ones—have real implications for public health. Up to 186 million people in the United States are breathing unhealthy levels of smog every day under the weaker standard, according to the American Lung Association. According to the EPA's estimates, the tougher standard of 60 ppb would prevent 4,000 to 12,000 premature deaths a year by 2020, while setting the standard at 70 ppb would save between 1,500 and 4,300 lives per year.

Public health and environmental groups cheered the new proposed rule, but the agency faced a good deal of pressure from industry groups and some politicians to back off the more aggressive standard. Under pressure, the agency delayed the release of the final standard last August. And then last month, the agency again pushed back the due date for the final rule to July 2011. The ozone rule is atop the list of targets for industry groups and anti-regulation politicians. And it will likely remain so—especially if the administration does in fact make attempts to trim the regulatory agenda. And every day the new rule is delayed leaves open the possibility of more pollution-related deaths and illnesses. The implications of this are not abstract.

"All of these industries had the opportunity to participate fully in developing these rules," said Paul Billings, vice president for national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association. "They don't come out of thin air. They have deadlines, there are laws." But the ozone rule is atop the list of targets for industry groups and anti-regulation politicians. And it will likely remain so—especially if the administration does in fact make attempts to trim the regulatory agenda.

And it's not just in the internal agency commenting process that stakeholders get to weigh in; after the agency drafts a rule, it undergoes review in the Office of Management and Budget, where stakeholders again get to weigh in. We saw that in the example of the pending regulations on coal combustion waste. EPA proposed an aggressive new rule that emerged from OMB, after a good deal of lobbying from the industry, with a weaker alternative rule also up for consideration. That rule, too, has been long-delayed, thanks to a good deal of pressure from industry groups.

Tuesday's announcement also feeds the idea that these agencies have enough excess resources to not only continue to fulfill their current obligations, but to now also go back and revisit each and every rule that they've already promulgated.

"The misunderstanding is that somehow the government has oodles of people working on this stuff and the capacity to regulate the hell out of the American economy," said Sidney Shapiro, associate dean for research and development in the Wake Forest University School of Law and vice president of the Center for Progressive Reform. "They really don't."

The Center for Progressive Reform—among of the most pro-regulatory organizations you'll find in Washington—isn't pleased with Obama's announcement on Tuesday that the administration plans to overhaul existing regulations and evaluate pending rules with an eye toward being more business-friendly. The group takes particular issue with his pledge in Wall Street Journal ope-ed "to review outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive."

"By casting the discussion in those terms, the President swallows the GOP’s frame for the debate hook, line, and sinker," writes CPR president Rena Steinzor, a professor of law at the University of Maryland, in their blog. She argues that the president is moving "to the right" on regulation, as this executive order and the op-ed indicate. This move could have particular consequences for environmental and health rules from federal agencies, many of which are already under attack from foes of regulation.

In Obama's op-ed and in the administration's remarks, they point to saccharin, which though cleared by the Food and Drug Adminstration was considered a hazardous substance by the EPA until last December 2010, as an example of an unnecessary reg that they have already done away with. But as Steinzor notes, that rule wasn't costing jobs or burdening the economy; it's a rather trivial example that neither jibes with the stated reasons behind the administration's overhaul nor gets at the heart of the kind of rules that corporations and anti-regulatory politicians want to see thrown out. Steinzor argues that the adminstration's initiative could have insidious impacts:

Forcing beleaguered agencies to "look back" and find more saccharin examples will have real costs, though, because they are already pushed to their limits by funding shortfalls that give them, in many cases, the same budgets in real dollars as they had in the mid-1980's, when the White House also was hounding them to control themselves. Does the President really intend regulators to freeze-frame efforts to solve public health crises that abound all around them so that they can engage in a draining search to placate companies already rushing to Republicans in Congress with regulatory "hit lists"?

What the foes of regulation are gunning for are rules like those the EPA is currently undertaking on planet-warming emissions—much more complicated, far-reaching, and important than a sugar substitute. Perhaps it's heartening, then, that Obama explicitly lists the administrations work on greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles as a "victory," and heralds the Clean Air Act as "common sense rules of the road that strengthen our country without unduly interfering with the pursuit of progress and the growth of our economy."

It's clear, though, that the administration is going to be on defense on the new EPA regulations —and adopting the mantra of its adversaries isn't likely to help them on that front.

You'd think Marin County, California, famous for its tree huggers, would be all for "smart" household electricity and gas meters. Experts say that the devices, which allow utilities to calculate your energy rates in real time instead of once a month, are an important step toward greening our Rube-Goldberg-ish energy grid. But earlier this month, the Marin County board of supervisors voted unanimously to impose a moratorium on installation of the devices, primarily because of health concerns about the electromagnetic radiation the devices emit. As Jonathan Hiskes points out in his post on the subject, health worries are only part of the debate: Some worry that smart meters will broadcast consumers' private information to utilities and businesses. Still others believe that smart meters will actually increase users' power bills.

So is there reason to fear the new system, or are Bay Area folks just nuts? I polled a few experts. Herewith, their answers to some of the most pressing smart-meter questions.

Will my smart meter give me a brain tumor?

Here are a few interesting news stories I never got around to writing about this week that are worth a read:

A day after issuing a landmark decision on mountaintop removal coal mining, the EPA official in charge of water issues, Peter Silva, announced his departure, Politico reports.

A new study from a pair of Canadian climate researchers finds that dramatic climate changes may still be in store for the next 1,000 years even if humanity does take drastic actions to cut emissions. The good news is that they still think cutting emissions could reduce those impacts.

America 2050 released a new study on high-speed rail corridors in the United States that have the potential to attract the most ridership. The winners: New York-Washington, DC; Chicago-Milwaukee; Los Angeles-San Diego; Tampa (via Orlando) to Miami; Dallas-Houston; Atlanta-Birmingham; Portland-Seattle; and Denver-Pueblo.

The New York Times reports that, thanks to a provision signed into the military authorization law last week, the Pentagon will have to buy American solar panels—a move that the Chinese government isn't going to be too happy about.

Spencer Ackerman reports for Danger Room about how Afghanistan's "green Marines" have cut fuel consumption for generators by nearly 90 percent by using solar panels.

The student journalists at the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University launched a big package of stories this week on the implications of climate change.

The Food and Drug Administration recalled a candy bar named "Toxic Waste Nuclear Sludge" on Friday, citing potentially unsafe levels of lead. Apparently the name itself was not enough to put people off of eating the

And for a little levity this Friday, Fox News and Rasmussen fail at both climate science and math.

Experts worry that the world is facing a looming food crisis, one that we are currently not well prepared to deal with.

In his new book, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown looks at the state of the world's resources, warning that the outlook does not look good when it comes to feeding the world's population. Brown warns that the "food bubble" may be about to burst in both the book and a new piece in Foreign Policy this week, laying out why there is good reason to believe that the new year may be disasterous on this front:

But whereas in years past, it's been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it's trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and—due to climate change —crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future.

Already, there are reasons to be concerned: food riots in Algeria, soaring wheat prices in the United Kingdom, an 18 percent inflation rate on food prices in India, and the Mexican government trying desperately to fend off rising corn prices in order to prevent a recurrence of the so-called "tortilla riots" of 2007, among others.

Last week, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization reported that food prices hit an all-time high in December—higher than even the spike between 2007 and 2008, a rise that caused a global food crisis. There are many reasons for the spike, and unfortunately, two of the major ones aren't getting better any time soon. The first is population: We gain 219,000 fellow humans every day. Sometime in late 2011, we will number 7 billion as a global population. (See our population special for more.) The rate of population growth has slowed, but we're pretty much guaranteed to keep expanding.

The second reason is equally intractable: Many of the current environmental factors driving constraints on food resources, including heat waves, drought, and severe weather, are only going to get worse as the climate changes. This is on top of the water resource depletion and soil erosion that were already underway. And unlike previous rises in food prices, there is probably no turning back from this one. "We can no longer expect that things will soon return to normal, because in a world with a rapidly changing climate system there is no norm to return to," writes Brown. (See Tom Philpott and Geoffrey Lean for more on the subject.)

The rising food prices serve as a powerful reminder that we humans are inextricably linked to our environment, and when it suffers, we suffer. It's also a reminder that development and environment issues cannot and should not be treated as separate. As Gawain Kripke, policy director for Oxfam America noted last week, unless we address both the underlying issues of both climate and development, "we will find ourselves perpetually on the knife's edge of disaster."


Stories on health, the environment, and energy from our other blogs.

Public Enemy: Should mental health be considered a public safety issue?

Repeal Rerun: Chamber of Commerce decides it does want to kill health care reform after all.

School Daze: Even if Jared Lee Loughner sought mental health help in high school, he may not have gotten it.


Fish School

Lemon damselfish. Photo by David C. Cook, courtesy FishBaseLemon damselfish. Photo by David C. Cook, courtesy FishBase
In PLoS ONE, a wonderfully intimate study of just how it is baby fish learn to tell friend from foe. Most coral reef fishes spend their larval lives afloat in the deep blue home far from the reef. At the end of their larval stages, they recruit—that is, settle—onto a reef, where the cast of characters is significantly different from those they knew floating around in the open.
So how do these little guys learn to avoid the new predators fast? A team of researchers from Australia, the US, and Canada, conducted revealing experiments on lemon damselfish, Pomacentrus moluccensis:
Here we tested the ability of a juvenile marine fish to simultaneously learn the identity of multiple previously unknown predators. Individuals were conditioned with a 'cocktail' of novel odours (from two predators and two non-predators) paired with either a conspecific [from its own kind] alarm cue or a [meaningless] saltwater control and then tested for recognition of the four odours individually and two novel odours (one predator and one non-predator) the following day.
Photo by John E. Randall, courtesy FishBase.Photo by John E. Randall, courtesy FishBase.

Photo by Richard Field, courtesy FishBase.Photo by Richard Field, courtesy FishBase.Photo by John E. Randall, courtesy FishBase.Photo by John E. Randall, courtesy FishBase.

 The three damselfish predators whose scent was used in the research were, from top to bottom:

  1. Pseudochromis fuscus, brown dottyback
  2. Synodus dermatogenys, clearfin lizardfish
  3. Coris batuensis, batu coris
The experiments revealed that the fish conditioned with the cocktail odors plus an alarm cue made by their own species responded to the scent of a predator by reducing their foraging rate—an indicator of increasing vigilance.* Those fish conditioned to the saltwater controls didn't.
These results demonstrate that individuals acquire recognition of novel odours and that the responses were not due to innate recognition of predators or due to a generalised response to novel odours.

Lemon damselfish hiding in coral. Photo by Boogies with Fish at Flickr.Lemon damselfish hiding in coral. Photo by Boogies with Fish at Flickr. On the real reef, obviously, some baby fish won't learn fast enough and will get eaten. Others will learn false associations.

Studies on associative learning have demonstrated that any unknown stimulus can be recognised as a predation risk through associative learning. In natural environments, fishes are constantly exposed to multiple chemical odours. This study highlights the potential for ecologically irrelevant odours to be learned by association when present during a predation event. Responding to irrelevant cues will negatively impact an individual's fitness.
The lucky ones will live long enough to unlearn the false associations.
It may pay at first to be overly cautious and learn all odours associated with an alarm cue as a predation risk when entering a new environment and then slowly learn which of those actually do not represent a threat.
Sounds like growing up. The paper: 
♥ Mitchell MD, McCormick MI, Ferrari MCO, Chivers DP. Coral Reef Fish Rapidly Learn to Identify Multiple Unknown Predators upon Recruitment to the Reef. PLoS ONE. 2011. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0015764

(I ♥ open-access papers.)

*CORRECTION:Thanks to lead author Mat Mitchell who corrected me here in writing that the fish did not jump into their terracotta pots but instead reduced their foraging time in response to the alarm cues and novel odors.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Enviros and local activists are cheering the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to veto a permit for the Spruce mine in West Virginia, but the coal industry—and a number of coal-friendly legislators—aren't pleased.

National Mining Association president Hal Quinn released this statement:

EPA has taken this unprecedented action—never before contemplated in the nearly 40 years since the enactment of the Clean Water Act—at a time of great economic uncertainty. NMA urges the administration to step back from this unwarranted action and restore trust in the sanctity of lawfully granted and abided by permits and the jobs and economic activity they support.

The EPA's action is unprecedented, that much is true. This marks the first time since the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972 that a permit was rescinded following the agency's review. But the agency pretty clearly outlined the reasons it is pulling the permit. The agency was also careful to note that it made attempts to work with the coal company, Mingo Logan, to find an alternative dumping plan.

Members of West Virginia's congressional delegation are particularly aggrieved by the EPA's decision. Senior senator, Jay Rockefeller (D) sent a letter to President Obama expressing his "outrage" over the decision (via E2 Wire). "This action not only affects this specific permit, but needlessly throws other permits into a sea of uncertainty at a time of great economic distress," wrote Rockefeller. He expressed his hope, however, that the decision would be overturned in court in the future.

The state's new senator, Joe Manchin (D), called the decision "irresponsible and unprecedented."

"It goes without saying, such an irresponsible regulatory step is not only a shocking display of overreach, it will have a chilling effect on investments and our economic recovery," he said. "I plan to do everything in my power to fight this decision."

The state's Democratic House member, Nick Rahall, was also displeased. From his statement:

This veto reaches well beyond one coal mine; it threatens the economic security of every business that relies upon these Clean Water Act permits and that depends upon a fair and consistent permitting process. While this Administration claims that it will not take similar action on any other permit, there is nothing to prevent it, or any future EPA, from reaching back to veto a previously granted permit now that this line has been crossed.

The Environmental Protection Agency has dealt a death blow to a proposed plan to dump strip mining waste in West Virginia, making what could prove to be a landmark move against mountaintop removal coal mining. Agency officials said Thursday that has revoked a Clean Water Act permit for the controversial Spruce No. 1 coal mine, a focal point for years in the battle between environmentalists and the coal industry. The agency concluded that allowing the mine's owners to dump waste into a nearby waterway would cause "irreversible damage" to water and the environment in the surrounding region.

"The proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend," EPA's assistant administrator for water, Peter Silva, said in a statement. The agency said that, after more than a year of discussions with Mingo-Logan Coal Company, the company "failed to produce an agreement that would lead to a significant decrease in impacts to the environment and Appalachian communities."

Silva was sure to note, though, that the agency doesn't want this viewed as an overriding statement on coal. "Coal and coal mining are part of our nation's energy future and EPA has worked with companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation's waters," Silva said.

But environmentalists are calling the decision a "game-changer." The Spruce permit was first proposed in the 1990s, but it has been held up in the courts ever since, as local citizens sued the Army Corps of Engineers over the water permit. Over time, the fight became a top priority for both environmental groups and the coal industry. The mine, as it was first proposed, would have been the largest in history. The permits were scaled back a few years ago, but it still would have affected more than six miles of streams and 2,000 acres of land.

In rejecting the permit, the EPA recognized the litany of problems tied to this kind of waste disposal. Dumping the waste into the waterway would "eliminate all fish, small invertebrates, salamanders, and other wildlife," and the toxic chemicals included in the waste would "kill wildlife, impact birdlife, reduce habitat value, and increase susceptibility to toxic algal blooms," the EPA said in its statement Thursday. And dumping the waste laced with toxic chemicals into waterways also has human consequences, as studies have found lower birth weights and higher rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease in areas where strip mining is heaviest.

EPA's decision to deny the permit on these grounds is also significant; as the agency notes, it has only used this authority to veto a permit 12 times since the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972. This is the first time the agency has vetoed a permit that was already granted. Shortly after the Obama administration took over in 2009, the EPA, Council on Environmental Quality, and the Army Corps of Engineers announced their intentions to submit permits like this to a higher level of scrutiny. The EPA also issued new guidance last April intended to ensure that existing environmental laws are followed in the consideration of these permits.

Joan Mulhern, the senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice, notes that this is the first time the agency has rejected a Clean Water Act permit outright since the Obama administration updated its guidance on this issue. More than 80 similar permits are still under consideration, and environmentalists are heartened that this decision sets a good precedent.

While enviros are cheering the decision, they also point out that they are still hoping that Congress will take action to permanently end mountaintop removal mining. "Regulatory decisions like today's can be overturned by the next Administration, which is why it is critical now more than ever that Congress follow the bold leadership of the EPA by passing a law to make these protections permanent," say Kate Rooth, national field coordinator at Appalachian Voices. The group has been lobbying Congress to pass the Clean Water Protection Act, which would make dumping mine waste in streams illegal.

Spruce, though, was as much a symbolic victory as it was substantive, says Earthjustice's Mulhern. "If they had let this one go, all hope would have been lost," she said. "It keeps hope alive for communities in Appalachia that there might some day be an end in sight for this abominable practice."

Yesterday, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark posted this interview he did with Fiji Water co-owner Lynda Resnick on the Huffington Post. (Picture of Newmark and Resnick at left.) Newmark wrote he was looking for some storytelling advice. He went to the right person. Resnick told him: 

We have so much competition in the marketplace that if you don't have a real, truthful story behind your product or service, it simply won't be sustainable... Brands that are transparent, authentic and honest rise above their competition... Consumers want to feel good about the products and services they are buying and using.

Resnick's "authentic and honest" is a bit rich, given that Mother Jones and many other media outlets have repeatedly criticized Fiji Water for rampant greenwashing and supporting Fiji's military junta. Just last month, the company was sued for false advertising: Though Fiji Water is touted as "carbon-negative" on billboards, it uses a "forward crediting" model to take credit now for offsets that won't happen until 2037, if ever.

Resnick explained to Newmark that telling a story is "one of the best ways to establish a sense of trust with your consumers...but remember, you can't make it up it has to be real." Resnick can keep telling stories. Here at Mother Jones, we'll keep it real. For more truthtelling on Fiji Water, see Anna Lenzer's excellent 2009 investigative feature on the company here.