FBI Investigates 11 Optic Cable Cut Incidents Around San Francisco
We all experience frustrating Internet outages at home and work, but they're not usually caused by a total connectivity blackout. Over the last year, though, different parts of the broader San Francisco Bay Area have lost Internet service because someone cut vital fiber optic cables. And now the FBI is on it.
Reuters reports that the latest incident occurred on Tuesday in the suburbs of Sacramento, where one or more perpetrators clipped three important cables. Wave Broadband spokesman Mark Peterson told Reuters that the fiber was cut at 4:20 a.m. local time, and that the company is working on repairs to restore connectivity. Wave is a customer of Level 3 Communications and Zayo Group Holdings Inc., which own the cables.
FBI Special Agent Greg Wuthrich told USA Today that this rash of attacks started on July 6, 2014, if not earlier. "When it affects multiple companies and cities, it does become disturbing," he said.
The incidents show how easy it is to compromise Internet infrastructure, leaving whole regions without connectivity. Sometimes cable cuts happen innocuously, like the rig accident in Denver, Colorado, that caused a Comcast outage in May. But malicious cuts have been happening, too. In February, a large swath of Arizona lost CenturyLink Internet, land-line, and cell phone service for several hours because of "vandals," according to CBS News.
Cord-cutting, alas, isn't just for cable TV defectors anymore.
Netizen Report: Scholars in Colombia, Kazakhstan Face Legal Woes for Sharing Research
The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Lisa Ferguson, Hae-in Lim, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.
In October, a Colombian graduate student will go on trial for sharing an academic paper online.* The paper’s author pressed copyright violation charges against Diego Gomez for posting his research on the document-sharing website Scribd, despite the fact that Gomez was trying only to share the paper’s findings with his classmates and that he earned no profit in doing so. The 27-year-old could face a maximum sentence of eight years in prison.
The case has hit a nerve among digital rights advocates across the Americas, where the United States has a disproportionately broad influence over regional copyright policy. Colombia's free trade agreement with the United States, originally signed in 2006, required that the country adopt copyright policies that closely mirror the U.S. copyright regime. Laws passed over the past three years have expanded criminal penalties for copyright infringement to include possible prison sentences and monetary fines. To make matters worse, Colombia lacks important countermeasures to these restrictions, such as exceptions for fair use.
Gomez, who has since moved to Costa Rica to complete his degree in wildlife preservation, demonstrates how Colombia’s newly tightened copyright regime may stifle academic freedom and innovation. Gomez is working actively with Bogotá digital rights group Fundación Karisma to call attention to the case. In a recent appeal for support, he wrote (as translated by Global Voices):
If open access were the rule and not the exception when it comes to the publication of scientific research, its impact would be greater and cases like mine wouldn’t exist. There would be no doubt that that what’s right is for this knowledge to circulate in order to benefit the rest of the world. Meanwhile in Europe, academic publisher Elsevier is suing Kazakh science researcher Alexandra Elbakyan over Sci-Hub, an online platform she launched in an effort to collect and share research papers free of charge. She began the project in 2011 in a simple effort to increase access to scientific and medical research in Kazakhstan and other countries where universities often do not have access to large Western-owned research databases. In an interview with TorrentFreak, Elbakyan explained SciHub’s role among researchers in Russia and Central Asia:
The software immediately became popular among Russian researchers. There was no big idea behind the project, like “make all information free” or something like that. We just needed to read all these papers to do our research. Despite the fact that Sci-Hub is a free platform with no commercial gains for its operators, academic publisher Elsevier is suing for millions of dollars in damages. But Elbakyan has no plans to back down. “At this time I either have to prove we have the full right to do this or risk being executed like other ‘pirates,’ ” she says, referencing Aaron Swartz, the open-knowledge advocate and former MIT student who took his own life while facing possible incarceration for allegedly downloading articles from an academic database without authorization. “If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge.”
Media attacks and spotty mobile service in Ecuador
Ecuadorians in the cities of Quito and Guayaquil experienced lapses in mobile connectivity during recent protests over proposed increases on inheritance and capital gains taxes. The cause of the connectivity problems remains unclear. Some users speculated they might have been due to network saturations, while others suspected the possible use of signal jammers. In addition, some Ecuadorian media, including Ecuavisa.com, LaRepublica, and Teleamazonas, suffered distributed denial-of-service attacks that forced their websites offline.
Vietnamese human rights lawyer released from prison
Vietnamese human rights lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan was released from prison June 27 after serving a 30-month prison sentence for charges of tax evasion. Quan has been arbitrarily detained multiple times by Vietnamese authorities for continuing his human rights work, leading the United Nations to condemn the violation of his right to free expression and a fair trial.
Citing weakened privacy laws, tech industry says cheerio to the U.K.
A growing number of companies are leaving the United Kingdom in favor of the Netherlands over concerns about the government’s plans to weaken privacy laws and require backdoors in technology products and services. In particular, company leaders have cited the planned abolition of the Human Rights Act and the revival of the Snooper’s Charter—which would expand the already-broad surveillance powers of GCHQ, the U.K. intelligence agency—as threats to their business interests.
Australia is no safe haven for the humble torrent freak
Australia passed a new law that would make it easier for copyright holders to obtain court orders to block websites that either have the primary purpose of infringing copyright or “facilitate” its infringement. The Senate rejected a series of safeguards that would have provided affected parties with a right of appeal and protected virtual private networks, which now could be blocked if they face claims their services are designed to make infringing on copyright easier.
Dutch court asks Facebook to bare all
A Dutch court ordered Facebook to provide access to its servers for an external expert to verify it has no information that could help a young woman determine who published a sex video of her without her consent. Facebook argued whoever posted the video used a fake account that was deleted before the company received any request for user data. “Facebook has a legal obligation to provide the information because the unknown person acted illegally and the information cannot be obtained elsewhere,” the court ruled.
“Who Has Your Back? Protecting Your Data From Government Requests”—Electronic Frontier Foundation
*Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally misstated that Diego Gomez would go on trial July 7. His trial was previously scheduled for June 30 but has been postponed until October.
You Absolutely Should Not Donate to the Greece-Bailout Crowdfunding Campaign
Tuesday night, the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo took to Twitter to announce that an active campaign was so popular, it had overwhelmed the site’s servers. The project in question was a self-described “Greek Bailout Fund,” an attempt to “sort” Greece’s massive debt through the independent generosity of the European Union’s 503 million private citizens. As of Wednesday morning the campaign was back online and had raised a little more than $1 million. That’s an impressive amount, albeit one that falls far short of the campaign’s goal of almost $1.8 billion. Should you help it go the distance? Absolutely not.
Crowdfunding can be a powerful tool. It’s terrific, for example, if you want to fund a retro video game. And it’s great if you have a seductive gadget that you can’t produce through traditional means. The most successful projects have raised tens of millions of dollars, unsettling—if not fully upending—more traditional investment systems. So far, however, none have come close to the ambitious target set by the “Greek Bailout Fund.” This campaign is unlikely to change that.
“Greek Bailout Fund” was initiated by Thom Feeney, a 29-year-old who works for a London shoe store. Though he’s unaffiliated with Indiegogo, the company has enthusiastically embraced his venture, probably because, as Gizmodo’s Matt Novak observes, it’s great publicity for the company. Feeney claims on the project’s campaign page that users will have their money refunded if the campaign doesn’t meet its goal, which means that making a pledge should be relatively safe.
But it’s not clear that what would happen in the unlikely event that it does surpass the $1.7 billion Greece failed to pay to the International Money Fund on Tuesday. Feeney freely claims that he has “never been involved in Greek politics” and has “not yet been in touch with any European leaders” about how the money would be distributed. He likewise offers little indication as to how he would provide users with the perks—postcards from Greece, salads delivered to your door, and so on—promised to users who hit various pledge tiers.
More generally, and more importantly, Feeney’s campaign is unlikely to have a meaningful impact on Greece’s real debt, which is fast approaching $400 billion. As Slate’s Jordan Weissmann points out, there’s no conceivable way a crowdfunding site “will ever raise enough money to make even a quark-sized difference in the country’s obligations.” Those hoping to make a real difference might consider supporting an underfunded Greek charity. Or maybe just ordering a gyro at their neighborhood deli.
Meet the Converted Smart Car That Thinks It’s a Train
If you thought Smart cars were goofy before, wait until you see one that thinks it’s a train.
In what it calls “a light-hearted, one-off experiment,” Smart worked with train engineering outfit Interfleet to adapt a Forfour model for life on the rails. That meant ditching the wheels and tires in favor of 22-inch steel wheels that weigh 176 pounds apiece. Riding the rails eliminates the need to steer, so the team disconnected the steering and welded aluminum supports between the axles to lock everything in position.
The end result is the “Forrail,” which zipped along the privately operated Bluebell Railway in Sussex, England, during a model train show last weekend. After running the “fully certified mini-train” on 10 miles of track, the team converted the car back to its original, road-going state.
As silly as this may seem, the idea isn’t new. Road-rail vehicles, which use small steel wheels in addition to conventional tires, usually are used for things like track maintenance (and exploring Mexico’s rusting railroads)—not the kind of work a Smart excels at.
Smart says the experiment was designed to explore whether the convenience of rail travel—no congestion, a clear path to your destination—could be combined with the upsides of the car. It’s more PR stunt than serious idea. There’s no indication Smart is serious, and specifically says it does “not encourage any individual to carry out similar modifications. It’s incredibly difficult.”
But this unusual project has less in common with road-rail vehicles than it does with “personalized rapid transit,” which combines public transit with small, private pods. “There’s this dream of having the right of way to yourself,” says Sarah Kaufman, adjunct assistant professor of planning at New York University, “because cars on the road have to battle congestion caused by other cars.”
The idea’s been around for decades. The ULTra (Urban Light Transit) system at London Heathrow Airport is a rare example of a working system. Since 2011, it’s shuttled hundreds of thousands of passengers between one terminal and a parking lot. Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit is another example; it moves people between five West Virginia University campuses. Far more have failed however, including projects in Paris, Germany, Japan, and Illinois.
Last year, the Mineta Transportation Institute wrote in a report that PRT “does not appear ‘on the radar’ of urban planners, transit professionals, or policy makers when it comes to designing solutions for current transit problems in urban areas for a variety of technological, financial, and political reasons.” Namely, they’re complicated and costly to build.
So no, hacking Smart cars to run on rails is not something to be taken seriously. First off, the idea of and asking drivers to swap between regular wheels and nearly 200-pound steel substitutes is amusingly unworkable. Also, it would be a waste of useful track infrastructure, says Paul Supawanich, a transportation planner at Remix, a startup that works with transit agencies.
The benefit of rail is that it allows huge, enormously heavy vehicles to move around, without congestion. Putting a Smart car—which is both light and carries at most four people—on tracks is “using this very cost-intensive, heavy-duty infrastructure for a very low return,” Supawanich says. The infrastructure is better used for trains.
What’s funny about this project—and let’s be clear, Smart isn’t talking about doing this seriously—is it’s an unexpectedly anachronistic idea from a brand that’s part of Daimler, which is working hard on autonomous technology for tractor trailers and Mercedes-Benz passenger cars. Because the advantages of PRT are coming, just not in pods that run on tracks. They’re coming in self-driving cars.
“There is a burgeoning movement towards personalized transit. And I think that will go hand in hand with automated vehicles,” Kaufman says. And they give us the upsides of a PRT system, what Supawanich calls the “magical win-win.”
There are downsides, naturally: These cars enable sprawl, Supawanich points out, and don’t answer the carbon emissions question (though they could easily be electric). If your key metric is moving people efficiently, getting everyone their own robo-lounge isn’t the answer. The technology will also save lives and give us more time to work, talk to loved ones, or, more likely, get stinking good at Minecraft.
But we get the upsides of a PRT system, without major infrastructure development. Forget rails: Autonomous cars will work very much like a train, following one another, reducing congestion, and then peeling off individually and taking us straight to our homes. No steel wheels required.
Also in Wired:
The Odd Ways We Twist Our Speech to Make Computers Understand Us
In Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, a super-Siri-like technology allows artificial intelligences called CASE and TARS to conduct seamless conversations with humans. The contrast between their hulking box shapes and agreeable verbal dispositions is charming; they speak with the cadence, diction, and emotion of the human astronauts who engage them.
When it comes to speaking to technology, the present is more complicated than the futuristic fiction of Interstellar. Contemporary speech-activated devices—like Amazon Echo, Ford’s Sync 3, Google Now, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana—are uneven and finicky. With Siri, it’s better to take a conversational approach (“How do I know if I have strep throat?”). For Google Now, speak in search terms (“symptoms of strep throat”). Neither works flawlessly. However, if the proliferation of voice-activated devices is any indication of mass appeal and market competition, consumers have a real interest in talking to and hearing from computers. How well do these devices listen, and what are they listening to or for? Here’s an average voice-query:
There is nothing conversational about this particular way of talking to computers—it’s drained of intonation and cadence. Users speak more Google-y when addressing a formal query to a voice-activated system. We strain to enunciate every syllable while holding our phones at (what we hope is) the optimal angle for it to hear us. Humans speak like computers so that they might better talk to their computers—which are designed to communicate more like humans.
In the video of a man asking Siri to find restaurants, it seems that when people speak to voice-activated systems that mimic human speech, they mirror the systems’ constraints, becoming less conversational. So are voice-activated technologies changing how humans speak?
Consider the following examples of speaking English to computers, which should seem eerily familiar:
And, here, the Scottish sketch comedy show Burnistoun lampoons the inability of speech recognition technologies to understand accents:
When you speak to your car, your phone, or your home as if there's a good chance it won't understand you, it alters your perception of speech. Ford Sync 3, Cortana, Siri—each offers consumers the appearance of a level of interactivity that imposes some limitations (no mumbling!) even as they release us from others (no more fussing with printed-out directions!).
The limitations, even demands, of voice recognition systems have a profound impact on how we communicate with machines. Since the 19th century, writers, scientists, and technologists have imagined machines that respond to conversational speech. But they have always paid much more attention to the ways that machines accommodate people, not the other way around.
Some of the most transformative human-computer interactive technologies in our time speak with crisp monotones. Currently, voice recognition systems do not translate human speech into machine-readable forms any more than keyboards translate human writing into data. Just as you have to learn how to type, you have to get a feeling for how to coax our desired response from a listening computer.
Companies may advertise “natural speech” to appeal to our want of conversational ease, but there is no single “natural speech.” Cadence, intonation, pronunciation, or other factors change depending on social class, geographic differences, speech community, etc. Contextual, social, and linguistic factors change over time and vary across the globe. People who live not too far away from each other may pronounce and use words differently. Even the Burnistoun sketch contains a transcript, in the description, “[f]or those having trouble with the accent.” There is no “natural” speech, because there is no universal speech.
Just as dialects within human languages emerge from a complex interplay of social, cultural, and historical factors, the way we speak to computers is fast becoming a dialect of our technological present.
When Can You Take Down Your Rainbow Profile Picture Without Being a Jerk?
Before profile pictures, there were bumper stickers. You could load your car up with "Good Planets Are Hard to Find" or "I Believe in the Second Ammendment to Protect the Other 26," and everywhere you went, people would know something about your beliefs. The difference, though, is that cars have a lot of bumper sticker real estate. You don't have to choose just one message, and the ones you do choose are out there for years at a time.
Profile pictures are sort of about beliefs, but they're more about presenting a carefully crafted public image. A rainbow mat is all right for awhile, but eventually you're going to want to feature your new girlfriend or impressive rock climbing skills. As one Slate colleague said, it's "such an existential crisis." So if you used Facebook's Pride filter to show your support for same-sex marriage after the Supreme Court decision, when and how should you take it down?
If you participated in other Facebook profile picture trends, like Kony 2012 or the red equal sign (another marriage equality campaign), you might be familiar with brute force approach: that is to say changing your picture whenever you frickin' want and not worrying about it. It's a totally valid position. You supported the movement at its peak, there's proof of your support in your profile picture album, time to move on.
Alternatively you might have adopted the one-day tack. You show your support for a day, but then decisively return to your old picture (or add a new one) as a way of making the statement while still setting boundaries. No awkward trail-off, no switching at 3 a.m. so your friends don't see.
But if you're a little more neurotic (or just thoughtful!), you might worry about what it means and what message you send when you switch from showing support for and spreading awareness of a major social movement to repping your face on a particularly good hair day.
My personal approach is not to adopt advocacy profile pictures in the first place. My beliefs are constant, and I don't hold them to be socially acceptable. The downside to this is that I'm missing an opportunity to publicly stand in solidarity with causes I support, and I'm potentially stopping discourse with those who disagree with me before it can even start. All of that just so I don't have to decide when to remove a profile picture?
The best we can do is probably just to be deliberate about decisions to post or not post a rainbow profile picture and then eventually take it down. Social media and activism have a shared goal of engagement, so it's only fair to give as much thought to a political statement as we do to an image of ourselves (even if we don't like to admit that any thought went into the latter at all).
Advocacy trends on Facebook, their rise and especially their fall, tend to have a particular trajectory that's already been identified in grass-roots organizing. For example, in reflecting on his work during the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins in 1960, Franklin McCain said:
What people won’t talk (about), what people don’t like to remember is that the success of that movement in Greensboro is probably attributed to no more than eight or 10 people. I can say this: when the television cameras stopped rolling, the folk left. I mean, there were just a very faithful few. [Joseph] McNeil and I can’t count the nights and evenings that we literally cried because we couldn’t get people to help us staff a picket line.
Showing up for television cameras is certainly better than nothing, but it doesn't form the core of a movement. And every profile picture that goes up will someday come down. Probably the next time you go on vacation.
Today’s Leap Second Won’t Break the Internet. Probably.
It’s not your imagination, for once. Tuesday really will be longer than Monday this week.
The long-anticipated leap second arrives today, bringing with it a score of apocalyptic headlines about the havoc that this innocuous little addition could wreck on the world. A leap second is put in place whenever the world’s atomic clocks begin to get slightly out of sync with the Earth’s not-completely-regular rotation. Over time, the tiny misalignment of several milliseconds a day needs to be accounted for—and that adjustment comes in the form of an extra second added to Universal Coordinated Time every once in a while. The timekeepers of the world declared in January that the next leap second would come June 30.
So just before midnight Tuesday, an extra second will be tacked onto the day. That means the last minute of the day will have 61 seconds. Adjustments like these to the atomic clock are not uncommon: In 1972, 10 extra seconds were added all at once, and 25 extra seconds have been added in the decades between then and now.
But they do have the potential to cause headaches, if not disasters. Leap seconds can’t be regularly scheduled into the calendar year the way that leap years are, since scientists can’t always predict irregularities in the Earth’s wobble. Because of this, when leap seconds are announced, the engineers behind time-dependent entities such as computer systems and financial markets get only a few months’ notice to make the proper preparations. Sometimes their adjustments go awry. When a leap second was added in 2012, all kinds of trouble broke loose: Websites crashed, airline ticketing services went down and caused the grounding of several hundred flights, and Europe’s satellite navigation system risked facing almost several days of down time. (In the end it didn’t need to, but engineers were still worried.)
What momentary chaos will today’s leap second bring? With Greece poised to default on its bailout loan to the International Monetary Fund today, global financial markets might see major shake-ups, making it a very bad time for time to get messed up. To make matters more complicated, stock exchanges and computing systems aren’t all going to deal with the leap second in the same way—some clocks will pause for a second, some will take a tick backward, and others will dilute the leap second into milliseconds throughout the year—so interactions between different systems could easily fly out of sync. Some big companies like Google and Amazon are trying to avoid this extra wackiness by “smearing” the leap second, or exchanging it for unnoticeable extra milliseconds here and there after June 30. Stock exchanges in Australia, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan plan to do something similar. But systems across the world still vary.
The good news is that whatever drama the leap second causes will only be temporary. Engineers will sort out all the technical problems in due time, and companies that struggle today will hopefully learn their lesson and plan ahead more carefully next time. Still, a certain amount of mayhem should be expected tonight no matter what.
As a side note: June 30 has also been declared Asteroid Day by a team of prominent scientists and astronomers attempting to raise awareness about rocks close to Earth that are in danger of flinging themselves out of the sky and destroying parts of the planet. So, take your pick of apocalyptic anxieties today, and hope that we can all make it through to Wednesday.
Google Scrambles After Software IDs Photo of Two Black People as “Gorillas”
Image recognition software is still in its infancy. Sometimes that means it’s a little silly, as when Wolfram Alpha’s algorithms confuses cats with sharks or goats with dogs. Sometimes it’s a little creepy, as it was when Facebook announced that it can identify you even if your face isn’t showing. And sometimes it’s just really, really icky.
When Brooklyn-based computer programmer Jacky Alciné looked over a set of images that he had uploaded to Google Photos on Sunday, he found that the service had attempted to classify them according to their contents. Google offers this capability as a selling point of its service, boasting that it lets you “search by what you remember about a photo, no description needed.” In Alciné’s case, many of those labels were basically accurate: A photograph of an airplane wing had been filed under “Airplanes,” one of two tall buildings under “Skyscrapers,” and so on.
Then there was a picture of Alciné and a friend. They’re both black. And Google had labeled the photo “Gorillas.” On investigation, Alciné found that many more photographs of the pair—and nothing else—had been placed under this literally dehumanizing rubric.
Google Photos, y'all fucked up. My friend's not a gorilla. pic.twitter.com/SMkMCsNVX4— diri noir avec banan (@jackyalcine) June 29, 2015
“Google,” Alciné tweeted, “y’all fucked up.” To their credit, Google employees responded quickly. Yonatan Zunger, who works as the company’s chief architect of social, responded to Alciné’s tweet, writing, “This is 100% Not OK.” In subsequent tweets, Zunger explained that he had reached out to the Photos team and that it was working on a fix that evening.
According to Alciné’s Twitter feed, the problem remained in place even after the supposed fix had been implemented. Ultimately, Google applied a secondary solution, reworking the system so that it wouldn’t tie photos to the “Gorilla” tag at all. Zunger writes that it is also working to develop a number of “longer-term fixes,” including identifying “words to be careful about in photos of people” and “better recognition of dark skinned faces.”
While Google’s efforts to solve this problem are admirable, it’s still troubling that it happened at all. As Alciné wrote on Twitter, “I understand HOW this happens; the problem is moreso on the WHY.”
Maybe Don’t Shoot Down Your Neighbor’s Drone When It’s Not Even Over Your Property
If there's one thing we know about Americans, it's that many of them own guns. So it was pretty inevitable that with more and more small drones zipping around, some would get shot out of the sky. But now a court has ruled that if you shoot a drone out of the sky, you're liable for damages.
Ars Technica reports that Eric Joe was visiting his parents in Modesto, California, in November 2014, and was flying a hexacopter drone (which he’d built) over their property. After about three and a half minutes, a shot from a 12-gauge shotgun took the drone down. When he went to investigate, Joe saw his parents' neighbor Brett McBay coming toward him. “I asked: ‘Did you shoot that thing?’ He said, ‘Yeah, did we get it?’ ” Joe said.
McBay said he thought the device was a CIA surveillance drone. When Joe emailed him an itemized list of parts that needed to be replaced on the hexacopter, totalling $700, McBay said he would split the cost. But Joe said he wanted McBay to pay for the damages, and pointed out that the drone’s GPS log showed that it was over Joe’s parents’ property when McBay shot it down.
Eventually Joe filed a case in small claims court in Stanislaus County, and last month the court awarded him $850 in damages. Ars reports that McBay hasn’t paid yet, though, and that Joe is considering further action.
The court decision isn’t unprecedented, but it is part of the current nascent era of drone law. In October 2014, a New Jersey man was arrested after shooting down a neighbor’s drone while it was flying over his property. Ryan Calo, a robotics and cyberlaw scholar at the University of Washington, told Gigaom at the time, “Generally speaking, tort law frowns on self-help and that includes drones. ... You would probably have to be threatened physically, or another person or maybe your property, for you to be able to destroy someone else’s drone without fear of a counterclaim.”
And when Rand Paul told CNN in January that people flying drones over his house should “beware” because he owns a shotgun, Eric Cheng, the director of aerial imaging at drone maker DJI, told VentureBeat, “The law is pretty clear about fining or imprisoning people who shoot at aircraft.”
Laws and law enforcement will evolve as more and more of these specific cases come up, but for now shooting down drones is probably not the most constructive way of expressing opposition.
Bad News: Supreme Court Blocked Power Plant Rules. Good News: The Era of Coal Is Over.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled against one of the Obama administration’s primary battle victories in the so-called war on coal. The court decided that the government hadn’t appropriately considered the economic cost to the coal industry of new rules designed to limit toxic mercury emissions. But buck up, environmentalists. The defeat for the Environmental Protection Agency probably won’t make much of a difference.
At the heart of the court’s decision was a dispute about the benefits of cracking down on mercury pollution from coal burning. From USA Today:
While the estimated annual cost of $9.6 billion is not widely disputed, the cost-benefit ratio is. Opponents said the benefits are as low as $4 million a year. Proponents said when all secondary pollutants are considered, they're as high as $90 billion.
Under the Clean Air Act, regulations like this must be “appropriate and necessary.” The Supreme Court took the side of the opponents and ruled that the rules did not fit that mandate. "One would not say that it is even rational, never mind 'appropriate,' to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia, in the majority opinion. "No regulation is 'appropriate' if it does significantly more harm than good."
The ruling has been widely interpreted as a setback for Obama’s second-term focus on the environment, but a close reading of the ruling shows that not a whole lot will actually change. My Slate colleague Mark Stern has the main takeaway:
This ruling does not invalidate the mercury regulations altogether. Rather, it simply requires the EPA to reconsider costs to power plants before deciding whether the regulations are "appropriate and necessary." Presuming it considers these costs and decides that the regulations remain necessary, the EPA may again impose the new emissions standards.
Today’s ruling is essentially just a delay in what is likely to be an inevitable crackdown on coal emissions. “It is very likely that the mercury rule will ultimately be upheld, and that it will remain in place as the legal process continues,” Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity and dean emeritus of NYU Law School, said in a press release.
Long after it was first discovered that there’s a lot of energy stored in those dirty black rocks, coal remains one of the world’s leading power sources.* Regardless of Monday’s Supreme Court decision, that is changing.
Coal use in America is dying a long, slow death as cheaper and cleaner sources of energy emerge. This historic shift has been led by a boom in domestic natural gas, quickly expanding sources of cheap renewable energy, and awareness of coal’s damaging effects on public health and the environment. Earlier this year, a study concluded that, in order to preserve a safe and stable climate, the vast majority of the world’s coal reserves must stay in the ground. The Obama administration’s proposed rules, now delayed, essentially just sped up a process that’s taking place anyway.
Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of our transition away from coal. Coal use has already peaked in the U.S. and may have also peaked in places like China, years earlier than expected. China burns about as much coal as the rest of the world combined, and Chinese citizens are rightly fed up with how dirty the air there has become—estimates suggest that it contributes to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year. Since its release a few months ago, a documentary called Under the Dome has garnered hundreds of millions of views in China. (The Chinese government initially celebrated the film but then censored it.) It seems China, too, now has its own war on coal. Expect other major emitters, like India, to follow.
For a bit, it seemed like America would just send overseas all the coal it wasn’t using at home, but that too looks like a dead end for the industry. U.S. coal exports declined a whopping 17 percent just between 2013 and 2014. Beyond mercury and smog, coal is the most carbon-intensive source of energy, and a huge contributor to climate change. That means the shift away from coal needs to happen as quickly as possible.
After the Supreme Court ruling was released, coal stocks spiked with the prospect of perhaps a few more years delay before the mercury emissions rules go into effect. The stock of Peabody Coal, America’s biggest coal company, closed up more than 9 percent on Monday. But—get this—it is down a whopping 67 percent so far this year. That’s a pretty good indication that Monday’s Supreme Court ruling is a mere blip in a long-term market-driven shift away from coal.
What’s more, Monday’s ruling actually strengthens the government’s case in defending legal challenges to the Obama administration’s plan to reduce power plant emissions. The quirk here is that, according to Clear Air Act scholars, the order of the regulations matters: Coal companies didn’t want to navigate a mandate to reduce carbon emissions after a separate rule to limit mercury was already on the books. If the carbon dioxide rule can be finalized first—which is more likely with Monday’s delay to the mercury rule—it may pave the way for tougher emissions standards to happen sooner. And that just might be the death knell for coal.
*Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally suggested that coal was discovered 165 years ago. It was discovered long before that; there is archaeological evidence of its use nearly 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome and among the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest more than 700 years ago.