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Hurricane Sandy relief bill passes Senate. Provides important aid but House R’s efforts to strip out $ for planning to rebuild survive.

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Tonight the Hurricane Sandy emergency funding bill from the House of Representatives H.R.152 : Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, 2013, was taken up in the Senate with limited debate – quite limited. The bill passed the Senate with 62 votes, a bipartisan rare success in DC, with nine Republicans joining 53 Democrats.

NASA image of Hurricane Sandy

NASA satellite image of Hurricane Sandy which resulted in massive damage to coastal communities

The $50.5 billion aid package to help the region recover is now on its way to President Obama’s desk, but like much legislation that is drafted in DC, it isn’t perfect. Unlike some errors that appear in legislation which are the result of late night drafting under tight deadlines or simple inability to predict a changing set of future circumstances which result in unintended consequences, some problems with legislation are quite intentional, and the bill that passed today contains a very intentional problem.

Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas’s 14th district (Waco, College Park and nearby areas) has been adamant about defunding anything that comes through the House with connections to a wide-reaching set of plans to make government more efficient and improve the planning in our coastal and ocean waters. Those plans, crafted over a number of years by multiple bi-partisan commissions, were combined and announced during President Obama’s first year in office through an Executive Order which established the nation’s first National Ocean Policy.

Rep. Flores’ efforts to object to the President’s plans have thus far aimed at removing the funding for efforts to have more sensible planning occur in the U.S. coastal zone and ocean waters, and he’s been fairly successful in getting provisions added to House spending bills.  In the 112th Congress efforts to oppose the National Ocean Policy in the House were successful, but those successes met a quick end when Senate bills which lack such provisions run into the differing House language in Conference Committee. Ultimately the House language drops out…or it did in the 112th Congress.

To expedite the relief for victims of the Hurricane Sandy disaster Senate leadership fought to bring the House bill up for consideration with the minimum amendments possible. In fact only one Republican – Senator Mike Lee of Utah – had an amendment which was considered. That amendment proposed to fully offset the relief aid costs with cuts to discretionary funding, an amendment popular with Tea Party groups, but which fell well below the necessary 60 votes and failed 35-62.  That meant the Senate was voting on the House version of the bill as-is, including the provision from Rep. Flores to cut $150M in grant support for Regional Planning Bodies.

image of flooded taxis

Flooding resulted in economic losses and also damage to transportation infrastructure communities depend upon. Will we plan better for the next flooding event?

On the surface for those not immersed in governance issues for a living, the Flores amendment looks reasonable as it saves money by eliminating funds for NOAA pass-through funds which look to some to be unrelated to the disaster recovery. But to the informed the cuts which save $150M endanger the effectiveness of the $50.5B in federal dollars slated to flow to the region. The Regional Planning Bodies are structured with a membership that includes federal agencies, states and tribes, with input from a range of groups representing the private sector.  It is precisely that sort of broad membership which would be well positioned to discuss not simply how to rebuild what was lost, but how to make it better and most importantly in the context of disaster response, how to make what is rebuilt more resilient.

Whether Rep. Flores’ efforts are simply naive penny wise pound foolish, or whether they are a calculated effort to frustrate President Obama’s efforts to govern at every available turn is unclear. But what is clear is that $50.5B is a major federal investment, and we can only hope the federal agencies, states, tribes and localities can find ways not prohibited by the legislation to collaborate and rebuild in a coordinated way that is mindful of our changing climatic conditions. We need policies and practices that mitigate a changing climate with a systematic approach to adaptation, not a piecemeal approach that leaves some communities much better planned while others are left unnecessarily in harm’s way. The $150M that was cut from the $50.5B package made just such a well crafted response a bit harder.

The author of this blog is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy, government relations and strategic communications firm in Washington, DC.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

You can follow Will Nuckols on Twitter at @enviroxpert and on Pinterest at http://pinterest.com/willnuckols/

Non-partisan and Optimistic: Oceans bring out the best in Congress

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On Tuesday September 13, 2011, a non-partisan and optimistic group of senators came together to kick off the establishment of the Senate Oceans Caucus in the United States Senate. With remarks centered around bragging about who has more coastline or whose state borders not just one but two oceans, the mood was refreshingly friendly and full of optimism. With remarks about the common ground (water?) that brings them together these group of Senators seemed, well, positively senatorial. Acting with a sense of leadership and a commitment to protect those things that Americans hold dear, tonight there not only was an absence of the partisan bickering that has caused the Capitol to come to a virtual screeching halt but there was also actual friendly optimism indicating that we can work together in D.C.

Kicked off by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and followed up by co-chair Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) the remarks by all tonight centered around what we can do together rather than what we can do to do to undermine each other.

And if bi-partisan wasn’t enough, Representative Sam Farr, chair of the House Coastal Caucus, stopped by expressing his enthusiasm for the formation of an ocean-minder coalition in the Senate making oceans a bicameral effort.

As Senator Whitehouse remarked “this is day one.” The real test of the effectiveness of the caucus begins now.

The remarks of Senators Whitehouse and Murkowski from the Senate Oceans Caucus reception are available as MP3 files for download below.

microphone   http://whnuckolsconsulting.com/audio/whitehouse.MP3


photo of Senators kicking off the Senate Oceans Caucus

Senators Whitehouse and Murkowski will co-chair the bi-partisan Senate Oceans Caucus that was formed on September 13, 2011.

The members of the Caucus are: Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Mark Begich (D-AK), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Scott Brown (R-MA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tom Carper (D-DE), Chris Coons (D-DE), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), John Kerry (D-MA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Also in attendance were a number of Obama Administration officials including Dr. John Holdren from OSTP, Nancy Sutley from CEQ and Jane Lubchenco from NOAA.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com
You can follow Will Nuckols on Twitter at @enviroxpert

With the Omnibus process looking all but hopeless, a series of Continuing Resolutions seems likely

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photo of Seantor Harry Reid who failed to find the votes to close debate on the 2011 federal spending bill. A serioes of Continuing Resolutions (CR's) are expedted to keep the federal government limping along through FY2011.

Senator Harry Reid fails to find the votes to close debate on the 2011 federal spending bill. A series of Continuing Resolutions (CR's) are expected to keep the federal government limping along through FY2011.

Senator Inouye’s Omnibus spending bill failed last week, leaving Congress to pass a short Continuing Resolution that runs through today.  With the likely outcome of today’s negotiations resulting in yet another CR for FY2011 extending the federal budget for but just a few more months, the mayhem that having an uncertain federal budget for FY2011 causes in the agencies will continue, with major inefficiencies and little work being accomplished by federal agencies this year as a result.

Chairman Inouye’s statement on the failure of the omnibus spending bill, due to a threat by Republicans to filibuster the bill and a failure of Senator Harry Reid to secure 60 votes for cloture, is a worthwhile read.

Federal environmental agencies, once optimistic due to pro-environment statements by both the Administration and the Hill, now must question how they will operate with a reduced, and potentially significantly reduced, budget in the future.

With the CR that would extend FY2010 levels through March likely to pass today, much work will need to be done to determine what, if any, progress in improving our nation’s environment will be practical or possible in 2011.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.  
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

Written by Will Nuckols

December 21, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Senate Omnibus spending bill was dropped on Tuesday

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 With 3/4 of FY2011 still before us, the question of how much funding the federal agencies will have to address ocean issues is still in doubt.  With the House already passing a year-long Continuing Resolution (CR), the decision on the FY2011 federal budget has been passed to the hands of the Senate.  Senator Inouye, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has indicated his strong support for an Omnibus spending bill rather than a CR, noting that rubber stamping last year’s budget isn’t the best policy.

Senator Daniel Inouye, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman

Senator Daniel Inouye, Appropriations Committee Chairman, dropped his 1924 page spending bill on Tuesday in the Senate. Vote to suspend further debate may occur as early as this weekend.

“While I appreciate the work that the House has done in producing a full year Continuing Resolution, I do not believe that putting the government on autopilot for a full year is in the best interest of the American people,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii).

For too many years Congress has, in my opinion, shirked one of their most important duties – to provide a federal budget the reflects the policy priorities of the nation.  While a jumbo-sized bill that conbines 12 individual spending bills, each themselves a huge chunk of the federal budget, is far from ideal policy, as it is indeed hard to get your head around a 1,924 page piece of legislation, but it beats the alternative of saying….uh, lets just do what we did last year (as if FY2010’s budget was optimized for that year’s needs, much less the policy realities of FY2011).

 “The substitute amendment I introduce today represents the bipartisan work of the Committee.  The twelve bills included in this package fulfill the Congress’ most basic responsibility, to exercise the power of the purse.  As an example, who among us believes we should base our spending recommendations for defense, homeland security and veterans on whatever level was needed last year.” Senator Daniel Inouye.

The larger public policy question of whether it is better to pass a new budget with the input of Congress each year or whether the best we can do is “ditto” to prior year’s efforts aside, Is the Omnibus bill better at providing more funding, or more appropriately targeted funding, for FY2011 than the House’s CR?  Further analysis remains to be done on the Omnibus bill to answer that question, but one thing is clear: if there is a reason to push for, or against, the Senate’s Omnibus process, the environmental community had better act fast if they hope to have any relevancy in that discussion.  With a vote for cloture on the bill believed to be targeting Sunday for a vote, there is but a scant few days to get organized and make a difference.  Inouye will need 60 votes to move his bill to a vote. It’s time for the ocean community to dig through the Omnibus language and determine if and how they will support the Appropriation Chairman’s efforts.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.  
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com




Our Transportation Future is Linked to our Plans for Offshore Energy Development

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Senator Dorgan at the Energy Committee

Today’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing reviewed policies to reduce oil consumption through the promotion of accelerated deployment of electric-drive vehicles, as proposed in S. 3495, the Promoting Electric Vehicles Act of 2010. Senator Dorgan, pictured above, is the bill’s author.

Today’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing centered on the future of electric vehicles and Senator Dorgan’s bill S. 3495. The mood in the room indicated that we are definitely moving toward the electrification of our transportation system, and the questions centered around how to get there and how fast to move in that direction.

If this is indeed our future, there will be a need for electricity to power the coming fleet of vehicles, and those in the green energy sector have been saying for some time that offshore electricity production is an area ripe for exploitation.

But like the development of electric vehicles themselves, there is a delay in the development of offshore electricity generation systems, be they wind or hydrokinetic, based on the simple construction of these systems. But it isn’t the engineering constraints that have left the U.S. behind other countries thus far in offshore green energy development – it is the regulatory process. Yes, we are all celebrating the approval of the Cape Wind project in New England, but while we also congratulate ourselves for allowing that project to move forward we need to also be mindful to be critical of the time it took to get to this point.

Some have cited the necessity of slow, often times painfully slow, processes that need to occur when we cite green energy infrastructure, as it is the very slow building of consensus in communities that results in the best outcome of a public policy process. While I agree that some siting processes, particularly the locating of restricted use zones – a.k.a. marine protected areas, must proceed at a measured rate. Indeed, a wide public buy-in is crucial for several of the goals which are often included in marine protected area management plans.

However when looking at the catastrophic petroleum spills off of Louisiana, Australia and Mexico that occurred during the development of deep water oilfields, or at the seemingly endless series of climate change studies that indicate that older models have yet again underestimated just how bad climate change may affect the developed and undeveloped world, it becomes quickly clear that we do not have the luxury of time on our side.

To save our economy, to protect our national security and to save the very planet we rely on for our very existence, we need to move faster – even when faster will mean a more contentious process. We are at a time when we need to look at these issues not on a monthly basis when groups gather for meetings, or even weekly. The discussion needs to be a daily dialogue, bolstered by a bold national energy policy which would dovetail with a national ocean policy and a timeline containing milestones set for progress.

This video shows the Cape Wind project approval announcement by Secretary Salazar April 28, 2010

How fast we can react and how thoroughly we evaluate various proposals for various offshore energy generation projects from this point forward will be a key component of policies that will ultimately promote or push back on green energy development in the United States. The electrification of our transportation system could become a major driver for electricity generation in portions of the U.S.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.

Past delays in a unified energy policy mean: 1) continued offshore petroleum development 2) a need to immediately move forward with alternative transportation technologies as a catalyst for change

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Saldalow testifies at the Senate Energy Hearing

David Sandalow, Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs, U.S. Department of Energy, clearly stated that “electric vehicles are the future. The only question is how soon.”

This morning the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing centering around the future of electric vehicles.  David Sandalow, Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs, U.S. Department of Energy, clearly stated that “electric vehicles are the future. The only question is how soon.” The morning’s hearing was in part to examine provisions in Senator Dorgan’s bill S. 3495, the Promoting Electric Vehicles Act of 2010, which proposes a variety of mechanisms to stimulate the development of electric vehicles in the United States. Senator Dorgan reminded the Committee that 70% of the oil we consume is used in the transportation sector, and that the electrification of the transportation fleet is important for our economy and our national security.

When will we begin to move in the direction of the electrification of our vehicle fleets, and how fast we move, is of crucial importance to the overall U.S. energy development plans, and accordingly, how we plan to utilize our oceans.

The BP oil spill resulting from the Transocean Deepwater Horizon accident continues to highlight just one of the dangers of a dependence on an oil based transportation system – the warming of our planet is a less immediately visible, but likely more devastating impact.

Although Dorgan’s bill proposed large funds to stimulate research and development of emerging electric technologies, Senator Murkowski was quick to note that a) this is a large amount of money and b) the bill, if passed, would only allow for an authorization for funding. The process of providing appropriations to align with the goals in the bill would need to come even later.

Let’s assume that Durban’s bill S. 3495 passes, and that the Department of Energy builds a funding request into its next budget proposal– the federal fiscal year 2012 budget request from the President. At best speed, if the Congress reacts positively and supports an Administration funding request funds to jump start the development of the electrification of transportation would hit the street in calendar year 2012. Resulting research and incentives will result in a yet undetermined further lag until on the ground results begin to be seen.

Two fairly obvious conclusions result: 1. We are stuck in the existing oil dominated economy in the short run – especially if we see the short run as election cycles, and 2. We need to move forward with alternative technologies for our transportation systems immediately, as the delay will be there whether we start now or years from now. The fact that we did not move more robustly in this direction years ago should be a part of the motivation now.

A further conclusion that results from the realities of delays in changes in our transportation system is that we must still find ways to locate and develop petroleum in safe and also economically viable ways. And while we do this, particularly if we do seriously commit to the electrification of our transportation system, we need to address the regulatory reform and siting considerations for offshore energy technologies that directly produce electricity. We must multitask.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.

With the label of “independent”, comes the freedom to return to moderate policies for Governor Crist in Florida.

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shredded yard waste

A Florida bill that would reverse a longtime prohibition on yard waste from being dumped into landfills was vetoed by Governor Crist

Long time moderate Charlie Crist made his way to the Governor’s office in Florida as a Republican who often shunned radical republican politics in favor of a moderate stance more in tune with the majority of those in Florida. That was until the run-up for the republican primary race for the open senate seat being vacated by Senator LeMieux. In a battle to see who can appeal more to the more extreme parts of the Republican Party, Crist’s once moderate positions seemed to becoming increasing extreme. Relying on the far right’s call for small government and cost containment, Crist denied any Florida state representatives to attend the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting in Washington DC in February. He did so, and maintained the ban on out of state travel, even though the costs of the travel would have been billed to the federal government and allowed the State of Florida to voice its concerns at the meeting at no cost to the Florida taxpayers. But when running to be “out-conservative” others in the race for the Republican primary, common sense seemed to have been sacrificed for political expediency.

But perhaps with Crist’s new moniker of independent, he is able to move back to policies that were more typical of his governing style. Yesterday Crist bucked the Florida legislature and vetoed a bill that would have allowed yard trash to be buried in landfills rather than recycled.

 While supporters of the bill stated that dumping ever increasing amounts of organic materials into Florida’s landfills would result in increased amounts of methane – a greenhouse gas that operators proposed to capture and make into energy, the more astute people following this debate were quick to point out that it was really the increased tipping fees that would result from dumping yard trash into landfills. Especially in tight economic times, what does a landfill operator need? More trash.

pile of mulch

Florida waste site operators lobbied to allow yard waste to be dumped into landfills, arguing that some of the methane could be captured and turned into electricity. Skeptics charged that landfills just wanted in the increases in tipping fees to line their pockets.

But Crist isn’t buying the quasi-science cited by those arguing for HB 569, and on June 1st he signed a letter outlining reasons for vetoing the bill. In Crist’s list of reasons there is one that I believe to be oddly omitted: any increase in greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane which has much more of punch than CO2 in terms of warming the planet, is a really bad idea when you live in a very flat state which is very close to the current sea level, much less the height oceans may reach of sea level rise models are correct.

How will these more moderate policies fare in the race for the U.S. Senate this fall? With as close as elections in Florida often are, even when the balloting machines are working correctly, it’s going to be an interesting race.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm. 

Written by Will Nuckols

June 2, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Transocean moves $1 billion to stockholders. Senate Committee questions liability provisions in the law.

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Thomas Perrelli, DOJ, at the May 25, 2010 Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing

Mr. Thomas Perrelli, Esq. - Associate Attorney General, testifies at the May 25, 2010 Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on a number of issues, including what can be done about Transocean’s moves which seem to be aimed at ensuring that their liability is at a maximum $26 million.

Today at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, responding to questions from Senator Widen, DOJ representatives, Mr. Thomas Perrelli, Esq., Associate Attorney General, said “We will be saying in the strongest way that what Transocean is trying to do [in Admiralty court to limit its liability to some 26 million under provisions of an admiralty court] is improper.” This references an early move in court in Texas, which has now been followed up by a move at a closed door meeting in Switzerland in which Transocean leadership decided to move $1 billion in Transocean corporate assets to their shareholders. How much of this was to stop a drop in stock price, and how much was to limit Transocean’s appeal as a target for lawsuits is unclear.

It was noted a few times at the beginning of the hearing that while there may be federal limits on liability that can be assessed to companies responsible to the spill, there are possibly no limits on claims based on lawsuits brought through state courts. Perhaps the threat to corporate profits from non-federal lawsuits are real. But then again maybe when Senator Murkowski (R-AK) suggested that state laws would be able to pick up any shortfalls in a federal legal system she was off base, for lawsuits, whether likely to be ultimately legitimate and successful in courts or not, at times follow a route to those entities with cash on hand. Transocean’s recent moves might not be supporting Murkowski’s statement, even though on the surface it does seem that they fear claims coming from some source. Is Transocean reducing its cash holdings to make them less appealing to legitimate, or only to spurious lawsuits?

While there is no clear smoking gun, no corporate strategy memo that has been uncovered that explains their motivation, one would not need to be a conspiracy theorist to reasonably assume that Transocean has a tangible fear that they are likely to be found to be at fault in at least some portion of the Deepwater Horizon spill. If legislation passes that retroactively alters or eliminates the $75 million liability cap, and that law is upheld in the courts as DOJ believes it would be, Transocean’s recent moves may prove to be prudent by a company who is clearly working to avoid liability or at least to avoid paying claims. Whether prudent moves are also ethical corporate behavior remains to be determined.

Senator Murkowski’s rationale for blocking the Senate bill to raise oil spill liability to $10 billion is severely flawed

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On May 4, 2010 Senator Menendez (D-NJ), backed by 14 cosponsors, introduced Senate bill S.3305, the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Liability Act of 2010 – an incredibly streamlined bill that has one significant line of policy:    

“Section 1004(a)(3) of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (33 U.S.C. 2704(a)(3)) is amended by striking `$75,000,000′ and inserting `$10,000,000,000′ ”    

Senator Murkowski's opening remarks at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ranking Member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, clearly stated in her own remarks in a Senate hearing that “production of energy will never be without risk or environmental consequence"


 By stopping a voice vote on the floor yesterday, Senator Murkowski (R-AK) blocked the quick passage of the short bill. As rationale for the procedural move, Senator Murkowski said raising the liability limit for oil producers from 75 would unfairly advantage large oil companies by pricing the small companies out of the market. But the goal of keeping in the small companies who cannot withstand the cost burden of oil spills means that the taxpayer will end up footing the bill of a large cleanup.    

In some sense we are lucky that the accident in the Gulf of Mexico happened to one of the oil majors and not a small producer. BP has the financial ability to step up and make the promises that have been made publically – to pay all legitimate claims for damages resulting from the spill. BP is self-insured and will take a hit in terms of the global company’s profits, but they can withstand the losses. If this happened to a small company with significantly less assets, would they volunteer to pay beyond the current $75 million cap allowed in current legislation? It is quite likely that they would not. And who picks up that bill? Obviously the public does.    

So given that on May 11, 2010 Senator Lisa Murkowski, ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, clearly stated in her own remarks in a Senate hearing that “production of energy will never be without risk or environmental consequence,” one can only conclude that another spill will occur one day.    

The question at hand then is who will pay to clean up the spill and address its environmental damages. If small producers are unable to guarantee that they will fix and harm they cause at levels above $75 million, we need to seriously consider whether we want those companies who are marginal to be allowed to drill in U.S. waters.    

Competition in the marketplace is great, but it is important in any well-functioning market to have a level playing field. And in this case, a level playing field should mean those companies who want access to the public’s offshore oil assets must be able to guarantee that they can address a mess if one comes up.    

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.

At today’s Senate EPW hearing on the EPA budget, Inhofe goes off of the deep end.

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I would like to say something more eloquent than this about Senator Inhofe’s opening remarks at the EPA budget hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee but at this moment of shock I am only left with the following:

Is he nuts, or does he just have his head in the sand?  Denying that anthropogenic climate change isn’t real won’t stop it. Finding flaws in some of the climate change studies won’t refute the rest of the overwhelming evidence.  And this generation’s greedy use of climate emitting gases that steals the hope for a healthy planet from future generations is nothing but irresponsible.

And don’t get me started on how Senators citing snow on the ground in DC is not evidence that anthropogenic climate change isn’t real.  Are these elected officials really that simple, or more realistically are they just hoping that the public is that easily misinformed?

Written by Will Nuckols

February 23, 2010 at 9:38 am