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The year in environmental news

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Marian Lyman Kirst | Dec 15, 2011 06:00 AM

There are only a few weeks till 2012, which means you are probably trying to shovel your way through the flurries of "year-in-review" summaries that tend to accumulate around this time. One that stands out is Vermont Law School's Top 10 Environmental Watch List, the venerated law school's yearly synthesis of the country's most pressing and topical environmental issues and developments.

  Powder River Basin"This year’s Watch List is especially important given the continuing fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan," says Vermont Law President and Dean, Jeff Shields, on the watch list website. "We also saw unprecedented attacks on the EPA as well as the Obama administration’s mixed messages on environmental issues, which have been confusing to the public, conservationists, and industry alike. Our Watch List helps to clarify these issues and others that are so critical in the coming election year.”

The Watch List of issues includes the Keystone XL fight, America's nuclear future, and, at the top of the heap, Republicans continued attack on the EPA's regulatory authority.

High Country News has followed many of these issues over the years. Here are the ones from the Watchlist that we're highlighting for our Western readers, along with some links back to our coverage of the topics.

1) Additional Powder River Basin coal leasing by the Bureau of Land Management

Environmental groups have sued over BLM's failure to "adequately analyze" impacts of allowing more coal mining and coal burning in the area. And Arch Coal, a major producer of Powder River Basin coal, is planning to send its coal overseas, if U.S. markets don't work out, contributing editor Jonathan Thompson recently reported. Conflicts over Powder River Basin fossil fuel resources aren't new; High Country News covered the region's coalbed methane wars with a 2001 cover story by Hal Herring.

2) The 10th Circuit Federal Appeals Court upholds the Clinton-era Roadless Rule

The long-embattled 2001 Roadless Rule was upheld this October by 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. It may be the final court decision in what High Country News associate editor Sarah Gilman has called an "enviro-legal ping-pong match." Enviros have long rallied around the roadless issue (even when they stretch the truth.) Two states--Idaho and Colorado--have tried to come up with their own solutions; what will happen to those state-created roadlesss-rules-in-progress (in particular, Colorado's, which was close to being adopted when the 10th Circuit ruling came down) remains to be seen.

3) The EPA's fight with the White House, over stricter ozone standards.

This September, in a hotly debated political move, President Obama rejected EPA's proposed strengthening of ozone standards. Despite its common perception as an urban issue, ozone is a big problem in the West in gas fields as well as urban basins, and those suffering health problems as a result were hoping EPA administrator Lisa Jackson's rules would provide relief. We analyzed the proposed rules impacts on gas patches early this fall, but then Obama killed them.

4) The US Fish and Wildlife Service's landmark settlement with two litigious environmental groups over endangered species lawsuits and prioritization.

The federal wildlife management agency's spring and summer agreements to make final listing decisions on 251 species in return for legal relief from Wild Earth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity was a big deal for species languishing on the list of candidates for protection. The Safari Club, a wealthy hunters' group, threatened the deals. Now, Congress is making noise about Endangered Species Act reform, claiming the law is too costly and is inappropriately used by special interest groups. Stay tuned.

Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern at High Country News. Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor, provided research assistance.

Image of the Powder River Basin courtesy Flickr user Doc Searls

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