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Censors Take On China's Silent Spring Moment

Chinese censors took down a hugely popular documentary on China’s air pollution crisis this past weekend, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Under the Dome, a polished, 104-minute report by Chinese broadcast journalist Chai Jing [embedded below], had gone viral after its release last week, attracting several hundred million views in China before censors restricted domestic access to the video and squelched news coverage of it. 

The film is a damning account of China’s declining air quality, the sources of its pollution, and the toothlessness of environmental agencies charged with controlling it. It’s a wide-ranging production that tries to explain the price China has paid for its industrialization and wealth generation, as well as a passionate call to action.

For me, the film’s visceral portrayal of contemporary life amidst smog—and the movie’s historic sweep—sparked flashbacks to my own discomfort breathing in Chinese air during visits in 1991, 2005, and 2006. 

In 1991, my eyes burned as the aging cruise liner I’d taken over from Japan motored up the Huangpu River, past the petrochemical plants then lining the river’s eastern banks, on its way into Shanghai. But the historic city across the river was clean. Aside from a few buses, it was a city that still moved on pollution-free pedal power, its streets a flood of bicycles. And as I traveled inland for several weeks, the pollution faded further, revealing China’s natural beauty. 

When I flew into Shanghai 14 years later to report on China’s rising tide of electric bicycles for IEEE Spectrum, Shanghai itself seemed still cleaner than I’d recalled. While cars and trucks were on the rise, the East-bank industry had been cleared to make way for gleaming skyscrapers. 

But China was clearly changing. I visited smaller cities where smog nearly blocked out the sun. Among these was Jinhua, a city of about 1 million people in Zhejiang Province, where I visited an electric bike factory. E-bike shop owners there told me that the e-bike’s lack of tailpipes was already an attractive selling feature for Jinhua residents who feared the ill-effects of the air they breathed. 

Like a child who seems to grow six inches overnight, the situation seemed far worse when I found myself back in China just 18 months later to cover the nation’s exploding consumption of coal for Technology Review magazine. Shanghai’s air was foul, and I encountered far worse as I traveled north towards Beijing. On one unforgettable stop in the fast-growing city of Zaozhuang in Shandong Province, I found myself momentarily trying not to breathe.   

Under the Dome is a well-documented and artfully executed exposé of what was choking Shandong and Shanghai then and would get worse in the years that followed: poorly-regulated combustion of coal and low-grade petroleum. 

Chai Jing’s self-financed film mixes gotcha reporting, data, graphics, and interviews with scientists and government officials to illuminate China’s air pollution problem from every imaginable angle. She identifies what smog is (chemically-laced particles of soot) and where it comes from (60 percent from burning coal and oil). And she peels back the layers of factors—including economic imperatives, weak environmental enforcement, and corruption—hindering efforts to clean it up. 

Her constant companions throughout the film are officials from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) who, time and again, appear helpless to enforce anti-pollution edicts from Beijing that have been on the books for over a decade. 

At a steel plant in Hebei Province, immediately south of Beijing, Chai and MEP inspectors witness smoke billowing around the mandated equipment that is supposed to be sucking it up and filtering out the soot. But MEP officials tell Chai, on camera, that they are powerless to enforce the law because they lack the political heft to make penalties stick. 

Xiong Yuehui, who runs the MEP’s Department of Science, Technology and Standards, explains that steel plants like the one she visited provide 100,000 jobs in Hebei and are therefore untouchable: 

“They act with utter recklessness. Their operations are completely unlicensed. The inspectors don’t even want to go or touch this industry in any way. It’s reached the point where no one can stop them.”

Off-camera another MEP officer confides that that he feels sometimes that he is “nothing more than a mascot.” 

The most chilling scene unfolds at a fueling station where inspectors ask for a sample of diesel fuel so they can analyze it for compliance with fuel quality standards. Rather than comply, the station owner brazenly takes the MEP inspector’s ID card, and rejects his power to conduct random inspections. “You have the obligation, but not the authority,” he tells the MEP officer. Chai shows that, thanks to vague wording of the nation’s anti-pollution laws, it appears the station owner may be right. 

The film closes with a call to action by “ordinary people.” Chai exhorts viewers to call the government’s environmental hotline, to photograph environmental abuses by polluters, and to otherwise demand change. “Even the world’s most powerful government can’t control pollution by itself,” says Chai. “It needs to rely on ordinary people like you and me—our choices and our determination.”

The film also sets China’s battle against pollution in the context of other global environmental battles. Rachel Carson, author of the epic anti-chemicals book “Silent Spring,” gets one of the last words, speaking knowledge to power about an impending “disaster” if chemical use is not controlled. 

Last week, China’s environmental protection minister, Chen Jining, compared Under the Dome to “Silent Spring,” according to the Guardian, a U.K. newspaper. Jining is quoted as saying that the film had, “an important role in promoting public awareness of environmental health issues.”

Some industrialists appear to agree; they have tried to undermine Chai’s credibility just as the chemical industry attacked Carson. Last week, Forbes covered online comments attributed to Wan Zhanxiang, an official at China National Petroleum Corporation, who wrote that Chai had no “insight” and posited that, “Maybe she doesn’t have enough brains.” 

For now, such commentary for and against the film and its maker is likely to die down within China—or at least go underground. According to the New York Times report, Chinese propaganda officials have ordered news organizations not to report on the film, and banned its distribution via video websites. A set of editorials for and against the documentary that was slated to run in the Global Times, a newspaper managed by the People’s Daily, was spiked.

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A meeting at the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) Washington headquarters yesterday lived up to expectations that it would be one of the most exciting sessions in the agency’s history. Buttoned up policy wonks, lobbyists, and power market experts showed up in droves—over 600 registered—to witness a discussion of what President Obama’s coal-cutting Clean Power Plan presaged for the U.S. power grid. The beltway crowd was joined by activists for and against fossil fuels—and extra security.

Inside proceedings, about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans’ impact on power grid reliability, protesters against fracking and liquid natural gas exports shouted “NATURAL GAS IS DIRTY” each time a speaker mentioned coal’s fossil fuel nemesis. Outside, the coal industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity distributed both free hand-warmers and dark warnings that dumping coal-fired power would leave Americans “cold in the dark.”

As expected, state regulators and utility executives from coal-reliant states such as Arizona and Michigan hammered home the ‘Cold in the Dark’ message in their exchanges with FERC’s commissioners. Gerry Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Detroit-based utility DTE Energy, called the Clean Power Plan “the most fundamental transformation of our bulk power system that we’ve ever undertaken.” 

EPA’s critics argue that the plan’s timing is unrealistic and its compliance options are inadequate. Anderson said Michigan will need to shut down, by 2020, roughly 40 percent of the coal-fired generation that currently provides half of the state’s power. That, he said, “borders on unachievable and would certainly be ill-advised from a reliability perspective.” 

EPA’s top air pollution official, Janet McCabe, defended her agency’s record and its respect for the grid. “Over EPA’s long history developing Clean Air Act standards, the agency has consistently treated electric system reliability as absolutely critical. In more than 40 years, at no time has compliance with the Clean Air Act resulted in reliability problems,” said McCabe. 

McCabe assured FERC that EPA had carefully crafted its plan to provide flexibility to states and utilities regarding how they cut emissions from coal-fired power generation, and how quickly they contribute to the rule’s overall goal of lowering power sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. (Michigan has state-verified energy conservation and renewable energy options to comply with EPA’s plans according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

McCabe said EPA is considering additional flexibility before it finalizes the rule, as early as June. EPA would consider, for example, specific proposals for a “reliability safety valve” to allow a coal plant to run longer than anticipated if delays in critical replacement projects—say, a natural gas pipeline or a transmission line delivering distant wind power—threatened grid security. 

As it turned out, language codifying a reliability safety valve was on offer at yesterday’s meeting from Craig Glazer, VP for federal government policy at PJM Interconnection, the independent transmission grid operator for the Mid-Atlantic region. The language represents a consensus reached by regional system operators from across the country—one that is narrowly written and therefore unlikely to give coal interests much relief. “It can’t be a free pass,” said Glazer.

A loosely-constrained valve, explained Glazer, would undermine investment in alternatives to coal-fired power, especially for developers of clean energy technologies. “Nobody’s going to make those investments because they won’t know when the crunch time really comes. It makes it very hard for these new technologies to jump in,” said Glazer.

Clean energy advocates at the meeting, and officials from states that, like California, are on the leading edge of renewable energy development, discounted the idea that additional flexibility would be needed to protect the grid. They pushed back against reports of impending blackouts from some grid operators and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Those reports, they say, ignored or discounted evidence that alternative energy sources can deliver the essential grid services currently provided by conventional power plants. 

NERC's initial assessment, issued in November, foresees rolling blackouts and increased potential for "wide-scale, uncontrolled outages,” and NERC CEO Gerald Cauley says a more detailed study due out in April will identify reliability “hotspots” caused by EPA’s plan. At the FERC meeting, Cauley acknowledged that “the technology is out there allowing solar and wind to be contributors to grid reliability,” but he complained that regulators were not requiring them to do so. Cauley called on FERC to help make that happen.

Cleantech supporters, however, are calling on the government to ensure that NERC recognizes and incorporates renewable energy’s full capabilities when it issues projections of future grid operations. They got a boost from FERC Commissioner Norman Bay. The former chief of enforcement at FERC and Obama’s designee to become FERC’s next chairman in April, Bay pressed Cauley on the issue yesterday. 

Bay asked Cauley how he was going to ensure that NERC is more transparent, and wondered whether NERC would make public the underlying assumptions and models it will use to craft future reports. Cauley responded by acknowledging that NERC relied on forecasts provided by utilities, and worked with utility experts to “get ideas on trends and conclusions” when crafting its reliability studies. 

Cauley also acknowledged that they were not “entirely open and consensus based” the way NERC’s standards-development process was. And he demurred on how much more open the process could be, telling Bay, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

The challenge from Bay follows criticism leveled at NERC in a report issued last week by the Brattle Group, an energy analytics firm based in Boston. Brattle found that compliance with EPA’s plan was “unlikely to materially affect reliability.” 

Brattle’s report concurred with renewables advocates who have argued that NERC got it wrong by focusing too much on the loss of coal-fired generation and too little on that which would replace it: “The changes required to comply with the CPP will not occur in a vacuum—rather, they will be met with careful consideration and a measured response by market regulators, operators, and participants. We find that in its review NERC fails to adequately account for the extent to which the potential reliability issues it raises are already being addressed or can be addressed through planning and operations processes as well as through technical advancements.” 

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