What Does the EPA Do Now and South American Palm Weevil Solutions

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by Adobestock/steheap
The Supreme Court’s ruling on the EPA’s regulation power means Congress must authorize all the agency’s major decisions about environmental protection.

What does the EPA do now? What are the ocean pollution effects on wildlife? Did Mexico ban GM corn? Get the latest environmental current events.

What Does the EPA Do Now?

As record-setting heat waves rolled across parts of the United States this summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA can no longer regulate carbon emissions from power plants. At the end of the 89 pages of court opinions, the vote came in at 6-3, right down the expected party lines. The ruling states that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can’t do anything major without running it by Congress first, because of the “major questions doctrine.” This Congressional-approval precedent may apply to other government agencies as well.

The Supreme Court made the decision while reviewing an Obama-era rule, the Clean Power Plan, that had already been revoked — blocked by the court and then later scrapped altogether by the Trump administration. Prior to this ruling, the Biden administration said it wouldn’t revive the Clean Power Plan, but the court still took it up.

Many conservatives are touting the ruling as a major victory for coal producers. However, it’s unclear what this will do for the ailing industry, which declined even after the Clean Power Plan was scrapped. Many analysts emphasize market forces, not regulation, playing the decisive role in coal’s decline. Even so, coal remains a potent political symbol in election after election.

The majority opinion of the court allows, “Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day.'” However, the opinion goes on, the Clean Air Act, which established the EPA, did not give the agency authority to do just that, because it would be a decision of “such magnitude and consequence.” The opinion, it seems, is that Congress, a body representative of “the people,” will make more democratic decisions regarding climate change. And whether or not that’s the case, after this ruling, the EPA’s authority to do as its name states and regulate environmental protection will be limited.

Mexico Battles Bayer and U.S. Government to Save its Corn

Mexico is trying to ban genetically modified (GM) corn imports and replace them with homegrown native corn varieties. With a presidential decree first signed in 2020 banning all GM corn consumption, the government is moving to totally phase out the imports by 2024, but it’s being tied up in the courts. As of this writing, GMO patent holder Bayer has been granted an injunction halting the decree. The presidential administration says it plans to fight the injunction.

Closeup of a variety of colorful ears of Mexican corn varieties.

Part of Mexico’s motivation for the decree is health concerns over glyphosate, an herbicide used to grow GM corn. Another motive is economic: protecting local farmers growing ancestral varieties of corn. Recently, the Mexican government passed another law protecting native corn and forcing GM corn to be labeled. Mexico News Daily quoted one of the sponsors of that bill, Sen. Ana Lilia Rivera Rivera, who said it was motivated in part by “… the debt that [Mexico] still has with Indigenous communities since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] in 1994.”

In early 2021, The Guardian found evidence that U.S. officials were pressuring the Mexican government to drop the ban. NAFTA’s replacement, the decidedly less-catchy United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), provides the leverage, with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative saying the ban raises concerns regarding compliance with the agreement. It remains to be seen how the Mexican government will respond.

Toxic Pollution for Some Is a Toxic Home for Others

New research published in Nature looks at life adrift in the middle of the ocean: coastal species that’ve made homes on plastic rafts swirling in the Pacific Ocean. Researchers have named the ecosystem the “neopelagic [new ocean] community.”

Plastic Garbage Washed onto Beach

Throughout time, coastal critters have made transoceanic journeys, but back in the day, they did it on all-natural flotsam, such as trees, carried out by good old-fashioned storm power. This is how many remote islands are thought to have been populated with coastal marine life. Those ancient wayward barnacles had to find solid land or else perish as the natural raft material broke down. Now, with these newfangled plastic rafts, which far outlast your grandparents’ flotsam, these coastal travelers might have a stable habitat they can “rent to own.”

One major surprise to the researchers: The middle of the ocean seems to have enough available nutrients for these neopelagic communities to survive. Until now, the middle of the ocean was thought to be a kind of nutrient desert, home to lean and highly mobile life forms. Now, the researchers are curious; how will these sedentary coastal types get along with the hardscrabble original residents of the middle ocean? And will the plastic rafts prove stable enough that these communities can self-replicate? While some animals choke and die on plastic debris, others seem to be turning into reluctant eco-invaders.

Can Anything Save This Non-Native Tree from This Non-Native Pest?

A South American weevil has been migrating farther and farther north and has now reached the shores of La Jolla in San Diego, California. The beetle burrows into the tops of palm trees, causing the fronds to droop, brown, and eventually fall, leaving the trees dead. Without natural predators, the weevils are devastating San Diego’s iconic palm trees. One of the methods for combating the infestation is spraying insecticides onto the crowns of the trees from the ground with a powerful hose. But even this is often too little too late to save the tree.

A young Canary Island date palm growing in a clearing.

The weevil so far has shown a preference for the Canary Island date palm, a rotund tree with a massive crown. The palms, not native to San Diego, were first planted by Spanish colonists in the 18th century for ornamental reasons. In fact, most of the palms in Southern California are not native to the area. The region became known for palms especially after a 1930s public works program used tree planting to reduce unemployment. Decorative palm has since become a multimillion-dollar industry. Now, to protect the industry and the iconic beauty of the city, and to stop people from spraying clouds of poison all over, the city of San Diego is investing heavily in pheromone-baited weevil traps — a program it’s calling “Fatal Attraction.” Time will tell if it’s enough to preserve the palms.

Scientists Still Struggle to Prove Gardening Is Good

Young woman gardening in urban garden

Researchers publishing in PLOS ONE recently set out to show whether gardening could benefit the mental health of already mentally healthy people. The researchers note that throughout human history, gardening has been associated with positive mental health, but, they say, there’s a lack of high-quality data to prove it.

So, they sent about 20 women to gardening classes and, as a control, about 20 other women to art classes. Their conclusion: The data did not show a significant difference in therapeutic benefit between gardening and art-making. But they did find that both art-making and gardening classes marked improved mental health. With high-quality data like that, maybe there will be a spike in enthusiasm for horticultural therapy. Or, maybe we don’t need any more data to know that good things are good.

Moving Food Emits More Carbon Than Anyone Thought

A new study from scientists at the University of Sydney, Australia, lobs another number into our CO2 emissions calculus: 6%, the share of total global emissions that comes from just food transportation. This number is significantly higher than previous estimates.

The researchers conclude, “To mitigate food system environmental impact … the strategy of dietary change to reduce animal product consumption and promote plant-based foods must at least be coupled with switching towards more local production.” Because it doesn’t do much good to opt for a veggie kabob when half the skewer came from another hemisphere.

The researchers particularly target high-income countries for action, because — like with other emissions sources — rich countries are responsible for a disproportionate amount of carbon emissions from food transportation. Embracing the locavore lifestyle could help lead to a better future for everyone.

More Money from More Sources for More Cover Crops

As more research has come out showing the benefits of cover crops in climates like that of the American Midwest, more farmers have been looking for ways to begin using them. That’s why a new program from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in partnership with the Archer-Daniels-Midland Company is offering grants to farmers getting started with cover crops. Other similar cover-crop grant programs are continually running out of money, which means there’s unmet demand for cover crop funding.

The stated goal from the organizations is to “enhance soil health, reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases, and improve water and wildlife resources.” More specifically, cover crops in this region — if they lead to less chemical fertilizer, less erosion, and less insecticides — could make the Mississippi River watershed healthier. This means cover crops in the Midwest could help shrink the infamous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Read here to learn more about the Midwest Cover Crop Initiative.

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