Combined UCS Blogs

California’s Water Well Bill Will Tell Us Who’s Tapping Depleted Groundwater Basins

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Groundwater is a shared resource between communities and landowners, much like a joint bank account is a shared resource between individuals. Except in one key way: groundwater users often don’t know who they are sharing water with or how much others are saving or spending.

This might not be a problem when there is plenty of water, but such loose accounting can become very problematic when water is scarce. A new report shows that California’s Central Valley farmers created a groundwater deficit large enough to fill an empty Shasta Lake seven times over during California’s epic five-year drought. This report follows a Sacramento Bee investigation last year that found San Joaquin Valley farmers dug about 2,500 new wells in 2015 alone in “critically overdrafted basins.”

Critically overdrafted basins in California in purple (for more information see the Department of Water Resources: http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/sgm/cod.cfm)

Critically overdrafted basins are already suffering from dramatically declining groundwater levels.

The way it works now, if you live in one of these groundwater basins or if you are in charge of managing one of these basins, you often have no way to know who is sticking new straws into your shared groundwater resource. This affects your ability to achieve sustainability by 2040 as required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014.

In other words, groundwater users and managers today lack the basic information necessary to make good decisions. They are set up for failure.

That’s why Senator Bill Dodd introduced Senate Bill 252 to create transparency around new wells being drilled in critically overdrafted basins.

Transparency is a foundational principle of both science and democracy. This bill would provide basic information about proposed new wells to neighboring landowners and newly formed Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, exactly the type of information necessary to achieve sustainable groundwater management that California requires, if it’s going to meet its future water needs. This week, the bill will be voted on by the California Senate.

Critics argue that SB 252 is not needed because of SGMA, but the law won’t be fully implemented for another 23 years! And the data show we are digging the groundwater hole ever deeper while full implementation of SGMA is still years away. This bill would provide better information about what is happening right now and sunsets upon the approval of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (required by SGMA).

The Union of Concerned Scientists is proud to support SB 252. It is a simple and common sense measure that ensures SGMA is successfully implemented. If you are interested in adding your name as a supporter of SB 252, please let us know.

 

Upcoming GMD Missile Defense Test: Part 2

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

The upcoming missile defense test will also be the first intercept test of a new kill vehicle and will use an upgraded booster for the interceptor.

The GMD system currently has 36 deployed interceptors. A majority of the interceptors use a type of kill vehicle, the CE-I variant, that has had only two successful intercept tests in four tries. Its last successful intercept test was in 2008; the most recent test failed.

The other interceptors are equipped with the CE-II kill vehicle, which has had only a single successful intercept test in three tries. The Director of Operational Test and Evaluation’s 2014 report stated: “The reliability of the interceptors is low, and the [Missile Defense Agency (MDA)] continues discovering new failure modes during testing.”

The upcoming test will be the first intercept test of the new CE-II Block 1 kill vehicle. It uses newly designed divert thrusters meant to fix persistent problems guiding the kill vehicle. The divert thrusters are the small motors that make course adjustments when the kill vehicle is homing on its target. They make the fine adjustments in direction that make the difference between a hit and a miss.

The kill vehicle is the heart of the homeland missile defense system. Yet it has been dogged by a persistent problem called the track gate anomaly, which has appeared in tests for more than a decade, and which led to a failed intercept in 2010. The MDA has tried software and hardware fixes, essentially to compensate for vibrations caused by the rough combustion of the small divert motors. The CE-II Block 1 kill vehicle uses a new set of those motors to try to solve this problem. It was flight tested in January 2016, without complete success. In that case, one of the four motors stopped working and the kill vehicle flew off course—way off course.

The improved interceptor booster has upgraded avionics, and addresses obsolescence and reliability issues.

What if the test fails?

The MDA has been committed to increasing the number of interceptors to 44 before the end of 2017. To do so, it will be emplacing 10 new interceptors with CE-II Block 1 kill vehicles on them (eight CE-II Block 1 interceptors to complete the fleet and two to replace older interceptors equipped with the CE-I kill vehicle.) The MDA Director stated in testimony that he is waiting for the (presumably) successful intercept test before delivering these.

While that may seem an obvious criterion, that’s not the way GMD business has been done in the past. All (or nearly all) other currently-fielded GBI were fielded before they had completed a successful intercept test, as is shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. This shows the number of deployed interceptors with the CE-I and CE-II kill vehicles (vertical axis) and the tests of those kill vehicles. (Source: “Shielded from Oversight”)

So, should this test fail, a consequence may be that the interceptor fielding would be put on hold until the test was repeated successfully. Because GMD tests take a significant amount of time to plan and organize, this is unlikely to happen quickly. For example, the January FTG-06 2010 intercept test failed and was repeated in December of that year.

Will political pressure to field these interceptors win out even if the test fails?

What if it’s a success?

Even if the test is successful, it is very important to look wholistically at the capabilities of the system and what has actually been demonstrated. While this test may demonstrate that the MDA is on the right track with the fixes to the kill vehicle, overall it is not even close to demonstrating that the system works in a real-world setting. The system has not yet been tested in the range of conditions under which it is expected to operate—for example, it hasn’t been successfully tested at night or against complex countermeasures that a determined adversary would surely try to include. The Pentagon’s Director for Operational Test and Evaluation assessment in 2014 is that the tests to date are “insufficient to demonstrate that an operationally useful defense capability exists.”

A successful test this week is the basis for better understanding the capabilities of the system, but it is not the basis for expanding the system.

Upcoming GMD Missile Defense Test: Part 1

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Scheduled for later this week is the 18th intercept test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system since 1999, and the 10th since the system was declared operational in 2004. What do we know about the test, and what’s riding on it?

The GMD system is, after more than 15 years on an accelerated deployment schedule and on order of $40 billion spent, still essentially an advanced prototype. It has serious reliability issues. In 9 of the 17 intercept tests since 1999, the kill vehicle failed to destroy the target. The test record has not been getting better over time as you would expect for a system that is maturing. And the tests have still not been done under realistic conditions.

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has said the upcoming test will be the first test against an ICBM-range target missile. Defending against long-range missile is, of course, what the whole system is about.

MDA classifies targets for the GMD system as intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) (3,000-4,500 km) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) (>5,500 km). This test will apparently use a three-stage ICBM-range target.

That leads to an important issue: what do we know about the target and how representative is it of what the US might face?

I was able to get the hazard zones for the test from the published Notices to Mariners for May 31-June 1, which are plotted in white in Google Earth. Figure 1 shows the zones where the stages will land from the launch of the target missile from Kwajalein and the interceptor from Vandenberg. These zones indicate the direction those missiles were launched. The large white region in the center is where debris from the intercept would land.

These zones allow us to determine that the target and interceptor will meet essentially head-on, and allow us to estimate the range of the target missile.

Fig. 1

A straight flight out of Kwajalein (thin white line in Fig. 2) would send the target north of the intercept zone, so the target missile apparently maneuvers during boost phase to follow the light blue line and make the collision with the GMD interceptor (yellow line) more head-on.

Fig. 2

The hard limit of the range of the target is about 5,800 km. If its range were any longer, it would land east of the hazard zone. So the target appears to be just slightly longer than the minimum range (5,500 km) considered to be an ICBM.

One important factor in a missile defense intercept is the closing speed of the engagement, how fast the distance between the target and interceptor disappears. This depends on the speeds of both the target and interceptor and the angle at which they approach. The angle of attack is significant: a head-on collision maximizes closing speed and a tail chase minimizes it.

Faster closing speeds give the interceptor less time to make course corrections, and are therefore more stressing for the interceptor. Table 1 shows the burnout speeds of missiles of various ranges on standard trajectories.

Table 1.

The conclusion I make from this is that the upcoming missile defense test is likely to be against an ICBM-range target that is marginally longer range than an IRBM, but significantly shorter range than missiles North Korea would need to target the United States. However, the closing velocity is likely to be larger than in many of the previous tests, which have been at significant crossing angles or with slower targets.

In Part 2 of this post, I look at what else is new in this test, and what the implications are.

On EPA Scientific Integrity, Wall Street Journal is Short of Facts

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An opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal misrepresents the facts about an annual meeting on scientific integrity at the EPA and the role of the EPA scientific integrity officer. Here are some details about what that meeting is and the role of federal agency scientific integrity officers. 

Scientific integrity at federal agencies

Let’s start with the basics. Scientific integrity policies were created at federal agencies in response to cases of political interference in science and the need for policies and practices that protect the role of science and scientists in the government. Now, 28 federal agencies have scientific integrity policies in place and many have scientific integrity officers that oversee the policy.

For example, the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy affirms these commonsense and noncontroversial expectations of all agency employees:

  • Ensure that the Agency’s scientific work is of the highest quality, free from political interference or personal motivations.
  • Represent his/her own work fairly and accurately.
  • Appropriately characterize, convey, and acknowledge the intellectual contributions of others.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest and ensure impartiality.
  • Be cognizant of and understand the specific programmatic statutes that guide their work.
  • Welcome differing views and opinions on scientific and technical matters as a legitimate and necessary part of the scientific process.

At EPA, the scientific integrity officer oversees a committee comprised of federal agency scientists. This committee is empowered to investigate allegations of political interference; these allegations can come from anyone. For example, if a coal company thought that Obama administration officials were misrepresenting science in developing power plant rules, they could file a complaint and it would be investigated. If an environmental group thinks that scientific analysis was suppressed to justify an industry-friendly decision, they could file a complaint and it would be investigated.

Importantly and intentionally, the scientific integrity officer is a civil servant not a political appointee so that they can properly investigate inappropriate political influence over the use of science at the agency.

Importantly, the role of the scientific integrity policy (and officer) isn’t about policy at all. The scientific integrity officer does not have authority over the Clean Power Plan, or air pollution standards, or whether or not to protect the public from a toxic pesticide. Rather, the scientific integrity policy is in place to ensure that the science that goes into policy decisions is not suppressed, distorted, or manipulated, and that scientists who work for EPA are able to do their work free from political interference. With these policies in place and fully implemented, it is more likely that scientific information can effectively inform policy decisions. Again, that is just common sense.

And to be clear, ensuring scientific integrity is important no matter what political party is in charge. All modern presidents have politicized science in some way. Here, for example, is a sampling of scientific integrity criticisms I and my colleagues had of the Obama administration. The problems span agencies and issue areas—from drug approvals to endangered species to media access to government scientists.

The EPA Annual Stakeholder Meeting on Scientific Integrity

The Environmental Protection Agency has taken scientific integrity seriously and devoted resources to approaching it in a transparent and thoughtful way. Part of that approach has been to have an annual stakeholder meeting led by the agency scientific integrity officer after the annual report is published.

The meeting, which I’ve attended in the past, is designed to provide an opportunity for stakeholders to air any concerns and ask questions about scientific integrity. Here, stakeholders include industry, civil society groups, scientific societies, or anyone else with an interest and stake in scientific integrity.

The meetings started in 2013 as listening session for agency scientific integrity staff to hear from voices both internal and external to the agency. In 2014 and 2015, the agency had separate meetings for civil society groups and industry.

In 2016, at the request of the American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical manufacturing industry, the meetings were combined. Everyone was in the same room. Nobody complained. There was no controversy. There were no objections from industry.

The EPA has relied on the ACC to invite other industry stakeholders to the meeting and planned to do the same this year. We asked the scientific integrity officer for a list of invitees to last year’s meeting; it includes more than 50 industry affiliates, including representatives from Monsanto, Dow, CropLife America, ExxonMobil, and the American Beverage Association, just to name a few.

It is not a closed meeting and the meeting’s agenda is no secret. So to help demonstrate how non-controversial this meeting really is, my colleague Michael Halpern will be live-tweeting this year’s meeting. In the past, the meetings have centered around the findings of EPA’s annual scientific integrity report—a publicly available document that details scientific integrity cases and progress made at the agency each year. This year the agenda is as follows:

The 2017 Stakeholder Meeting

  • The Meeting Agenda:
    • Overview of the year’s Scientific Integrity challenges and accomplishments presented by the Scientific Integrity Official
    • Open Q & A

The EPA Scientific Integrity Officer, Francesca Grifo, has for several years been overseeing scientific integrity at the EPA. Dr Grifo, a scientist with a PhD in botany from Cornell University, previously led the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. You can read more about her position and high qualifications for this job here.

Overreactions and underappreciations

The EPA should be lauded for choosing to provide an open and accessible way for those of us outside the agency who care about decision makers having high-quality science and technical data inform decisions to learn more and ask questions. A meeting of stakeholders in business and nonprofits  to inform agency work should be a welcomed cornerstone of effective government.

For some reason, since a new administration has come into power, some want to suggest that the meeting is controversial. Notably, nobody from industry has complained about the meeting or the policy. Instead, complaints are coming from one House representative and a Wall Street Journal editorial writer.

Any reader who wants to be more informed about the EPA’s scientific integrity work should read the policy and the annual reports from 2013, 2014, and 2015. I look forward to the meeting and to reporting back on the results.

Renewable Energy Surges Globally with China and India in the Lead

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If the Trump administration’s anti-climate shenanigans have you down, maybe it’s time to take a break for some good news: the incredible progress on renewable energy in the US and world-wide. Clean energy momentum in US states and cities, as well as businesses support, is building rapidly. This blogpost is about the latest global developments—focusing on China and India, two large and growing economies that many experts think will play a decisive role in the future of global carbon emissions.

The global big picture on renewable energy

There’s so much amazing news on renewable energy globally it’s hard to know where to start. Here are a few highlights from the 2016 data:

  • Steep cost declines in the cost of renewable energy continued, as documented by a UNEP-BNEF report. The average capital costs of new solar PV projects in 2016 were 13 percent lower than in 2015, onshore wind costs saw a drop of 11.5 percent and the drop for offshore wind was 10 percent.
  • Solar costs hit record lows, continuing a year-on-year downward trend. In August 2016, Chile set a record at 2.91 cents/kilowatt hour (kWh), which was quickly beaten by a 42 cents/kWh solar power tariff bid in the UAE. Morocco set an onshore wind record of 3 cents/kWh for bids for large scale wind projects.
  • For the second year in a row, a majority of the new electricity generation capacity installed globally was (non-hydro) renewable energy, according to the UNEP-BNEF report. At 138.5 gigawatts (GW), the total 2016 non-hydro RE capacity share amounted to just over 55 percent of all new installed capacity. Solar installations led, accounting for 75 GW. Renewable energy, excluding large hydro, provided 11.3 percent of the world’s electricity in 2016.
  • 9.8 million people were employed in renewable energy worldwide, according to IRENA’s 2017 report on Renewable Energy and Jobs, up 1.1% from 2015. Solar PV with 3.1 million jobs (up 12% from 2015) and wind with 1.2 million (up 7% from 2015) led the jobs numbers.

China and India are leading players in this global clean energy revolution—a fact that was underscored in a recent report that ranked them at the top of Ernst and Young’s renewable energy country attractiveness index, outperforming the US.

China leads the charge on renewable energy

While there are impressive gains happening everywhere in the world, China is a dominating force on the renewable energy front. Moreover, the country has made important strides in beginning a historic shift away from coal. There’s obviously a long way to go to make the deep cuts in CO2 emissions in line with the long term goals of the Paris Agreement but this is a promising start.

Here are some recent facts:

India’s RE ambitions matched by real action on the ground

Meanwhile, in India, a recent study points out that a historic transformation of the power sector is already underway. While coal still dominates India’s power supply and much more will be needed to drive down carbon emissions across the economy, here are some reasons for optimism:

  • India’s 2016 Draft Energy Plan includes a goal of 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2021-22, up from about 43 GW currently.
  • India’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission aims to install 100 GW of solar capacity by 2022. Equally important, through a combination of policies, this initiative’s goal is also to aggressively bring down the costs of solar power to achieve grid parity in that same timeframe. If that goal is met, it has huge implications for the affordability and ramp up rate of solar power not just in India but world-wide.
  • India’s solar market is heating up (some would even say over heating). Solar capacity installations are expected to reach nearly 10 GW this year. Solar power tariffs in India have reached record lows recently, dropping 25 percent in just three months to reach 1¢/kWh to 5.6¢/kWh in recent auctions. While these rock-bottom prices may not be sustainable in the near term (or desirable), they are a clear indication of which way the market is headed.
  • The Draft Energy Plan also concluded that no new coal-fired power plants would be needed through 2027, beyond the 50 GW currently under construction. In fact, just last month India cancelled nearly 14 GW of proposed coal-fired power plants, and found that 8.6 GW of existing coal-fired power plants may no longer be economically viable.
  • India is also keenly interested in electric vehicles, exploring options to fully electrify vehicles by 2032. It’s a radical idea, with a lot of challenges, and is not an official government goal (yet). But the excitement and interest in clean innovation is palpable.
  • Analysis from the Climate Action Tracker also shows that India is on track to exceed its current Paris Agreement commitments, with room to raise ambition if it chooses.
Showing leadership and defending the Paris Agreement

The amazing progress in China and India on renewable energy, combined with the steps they are taking to begin their shift away from coal, is very good news for the health of their citizens—and for the health of the planet. Additional policies to help accelerate their clean energy transition and drive down emissions are certainly needed but the trends are very encouraging. A big reason for optimism: Both countries have demonstrated strong political will to join global efforts to limit climate change.

At a recent gathering of the Vienna Energy Forum, India’s Energy Minister Piyush Goyal said:

“Everything changed in 2015 with the Paris climate agreement. We must decouple economic growth from environmental impacts and leave a better world.… Every moment counts.”

President Xi of China has repeatedly pledged to defend and uphold the Paris Agreement, most recently in a call with the incoming French President Macron. At the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year he said:

“We should honor promises and abide by rules. One should not select or bend rules as he sees fit. The Paris Agreement is a hard-won achievement which is in keeping with the underlying trend of global development. All signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.”

A clean energy future that the Trump administration cannot stop

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to waffle on its commitment to the Paris Agreement, and seems to be doing its utmost to hold back progress on clean energy domestically. This retrograde attitude is so at odds with the global zeitgeist—and indeed the strong support for clean energy amongst Americans of all political stripes.

The reality is market forces and public health considerations will continue to drive clean energy progress at home and abroad. Forward-looking policymakers and businesses know that it’s in our best interests to make the transition to clean energy economy as quickly as possible—both to take advantage of the tremendous economic opportunities and to limit the costly impacts of climate change. Everywhere, countries need to enact policies to accelerate this transition if the world is to live up to the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Yes, there are a lot of ways the Trump administration can try to slow progress especially at the federal level. But we at UCS, along with many others, will be fighting them every step of the way. Join us!

Here’s to the future: a clean energy future that small-minded short-term political considerations cannot hold back. The clean energy juggernaut cannot, must not, be stopped.

Th Bad: Post #2 on the NNSA’s FY2018 Budget Request

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On Tuesday, May 23, the Trump administration released its Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) budget request. I am doing a three-part analysis of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget. That agency, a part of the Department of Energy, is responsible for developing and maintaining US nuclear weapons. Yesterday we focused on The Good, today we have The Bad, and The Ugly is still to come.

The Bad Rising costs in warhead life extension programs

The NNSA’s most important task is to ensure that the weapons in the US nuclear arsenal are safe, secure and effective. As part of that work, the NNSA is simultaneously undertaking four different programs to extend the lives of four different warheads in the US stockpile: the W76 warhead deployed on submarines, the B61 bomb deployed on aircraft, the W88 warhead deployed on submarines and the W80 warhead for the proposed new air-launched cruise missile. The NNSA has not had such a confluence of work in decades.

That leads many observers to worry about how well the NNSA will manage such a heavy workload, especially when it is also trying to build one major new facility for uranium metal work and ramp up the new approach to dispose of excess plutonium.

Those concerns are only increased when a new president comes in talking about the need to “greatly strengthen and expand” the US nuclear capability. As described in The Good, this budget does not hint at any such effort.

Trump’s budget does, however, reveal rising costs for the existing warhead life extension programs initiated under the Obama administration. For the B61 and the W88, the Trump budget requests significantly more than what the Obama administration projected would be required for FY2018. For the B61, the Obama administration projected in the FY2017 budget that $728 million would be required in FY2018, an already large 15 percent increase above the FY2017 request. But the Trump administration’s request is $789 million, a 22 percent increase above FY2017. For the W88, a planned decrease of $30 million to $255 million (a 9 percent cut) became a $50 million–or 15 percent–increase, to $332 million.

The FY18 budget request offers relatively mundane explanations for these rising costs, including unexplained “increases.” They are particularly troubling, however, when considered in tandem with a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the life extension programs.

That report cites internal NNSA cost estimates showing the B61 will cost $10 billion, or $2.6 billion more than the NNSA currently predicts, and take an extra two years to produce the first new B61-12. Another internal NNSA estimate found that the W88 update could cost $1 billion more than previously expected. The GAO report also cites yet another internal NNSA estimate that the W80-4 warhead, being developed for the proposed new nuclear-armed cruise missile, may be underfunded by $1 billion, while a proposal to update the warhead’s secondary could add another $250-300 million to the total cost. That could bring the W88 program to over $10 billion as well.

Cost increases like that will mean increasing trouble for the NNSA. The “Weapons Activities” budget line, which funds all work on nuclear warheads, has already benefited from eight straight years of rising budgets averaging over 5% annually. The Trump budget seeks a 10% increase above the final level of funding Congress approved in the FY17 omnibus appropriations bill. If the numbers the GAO cites are correct, even larger increases will be needed in the future.

Another complicating factor is very tight timelines. The GAO notes the W80-4 is operating on an “accelerated, compressed schedule,” while officials have said the B61 may no longer meet certification requirements if there are any further delays producing new bombs. It looks more and more like the intersection of multiple warhead life extension programs, rising costs, and rushed production schedules could lead to a train wreck for NNSA.

And that is before the NNSA even starts work on its most far-reaching plan to develop a suite of new warheads to replace the existing ballistic missile warheads (but more on that in The Ugly).

Disappearing Dismantlement

In its final budget, the Obama administration proposed a modest increase in funding—from $52 million in FY2016 to $69 million in FY2017—for dismantling warheads that have been retired from the US nuclear stockpile. The result would be that the long line of weapons already in the queue for dismantlement would be taken apart more quickly, thus allowing the warheads retired under the New START agreement with Russia to be dismantled sooner as well.

Those in Congress who supported the Obama administration proposal pointed out that increasing dismantlement in the near term actually benefits life extension programs in the mid-term. Bringing on new employees and training them to dismantle warheads will help prepare them for the coming work on the B61 and the W88, which will entail dismantling the warheads, replacing aged components and reassembling them.

Led by the House Armed Services Committee, however, Congress ended up rejecting most of the increase, allowing only an additional $4 million in FY2017. For the House, anything proposed by the Obama administration that smacked of disarmament was too much, even if it was only taking apart weapons that have already been retired.

And now the Trump administration has dumped any thought of dismantling weapons sooner, noting in the FY18 budget that it is “eliminating the planned acceleration stated in the FY 2017 budget request.”

 

4 Ways President Trump’s Budget Takes Aim at FEMA and Disaster Preparedness

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In a recent post I explained how cuts to FEMA’s budget would make disasters more costly and harmful. The Trump administration’s full budget proposal, released earlier this week, details its plans for cuts to the agency’s funding. The damaging cuts proposed make clear that the administration is willing to put Americans at risk by shortchanging investments in disaster preparedness. Ultimately, this approach could also cost taxpayers more in the aftermath of a disaster.

Here are four ways the Trump budget hurts disaster preparedness:

1. Steep cuts to the Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) Grant Program

The PDM program, authorized by the Stafford Act, aims to help states, local governments, and communities implement long-term measures to reduce risks and losses from disasters. In FY17, the PDM program was allocated $100 million; this FY18 budget requests only $39 million, a reduction of nearly 61 percent. Overall, the president’s budget proposes cutting FEMA state and local grants by $767 million relative to the levels established by the omnibus FY17 spending bill, including cuts to the PDM grant program.

This program is vital to help ensure that communities are better prepared before disaster strikes, instead of just picking up the pieces afterwards. It is already seriously underfunded relative to the real need in communities (and the growing climate-driven threat of disasters). Investments in pre-disaster hazard mitigation present an opportunity to target federal aid to the highest risk areas in a cost-effective and well-thought out way.

2. Zeroing out the flood hazard mapping and risk analysis program

Our nation’s flood risk maps are in many cases seriously outdated and/or just plain unavailable and we need to invest in fixing that.

With sea levels rising and more extreme precipitation falling, and with more and more people and property located in floodplains, this information is vital to help communities, local planners, policy makers, and others be aware of flood risks and take protective actions.

This is also a wise use of taxpayer money because it can help plan for and limit the costs of future flooding disasters. A Technical Mapping Advisory Council established by Congress has provided recommendations to FEMA on how to improve flood mapping. However, Congress now needs to follow through and appropriately fund these efforts.

3. Inadequate attention to National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) reform

The budget assumptions related to the NFIP are short on details and far-fetched in magnitude. The current authorization for the NFIP is set to expire on September 30, 2017. As the reauthorization process for this valuable program moves forward, it is important for the administration to work with Congress to reform the program in a thoughtful, comprehensive way that takes account of the latest science, provides robust incentives for flood mitigation and other protective measures, and ensures equity provisions.

4. Harmful cuts to the US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) disaster relief budget

The president’s budget zeroes out the HUD Community Development Block Grant (CBDG) program, a cut of approximately $3 billion.

HUD’s role in disaster response is less well-known than FEMA’s, but it plays a very important role in helping communities get back on their feet. In particular, the CBDG-DR program is a vital source of funding to help low-income communities recover from disasters.

Recently, Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina expressed “shock and disappointment” when the state was denied a significant portion of the federal funding it had requested for Hurricane Mathew recovery. The bulk of that request was for CBDG-DR funding, which took a major hit in the 2017 omnibus budget passed by Congress. Going forward, Congress and the Trump administration must ensure that all communities have equitable access to the funds they need to recover from disasters and be better prepared.

Cuts to other agency budgets proposed by the Trump administration, including to the NOAA budget, also contribute to hurting our nation’s efforts to prepare for disasters and respond in robust ways that limit harm to people and property.

Congress should reject cuts to the FEMA and HUD budgets

The Trump administration’s harmful cuts to the FEMA and HUD budgets would seriously undermine our nation’s ability to prepare for and recover from disasters, and put the safety of Americans at risk. What’s more, it’s a classic case of a “penny wise pound foolish” strategy that will actually end up costing taxpayers more in disaster assistance over the long haul.

As the appropriations process gets underway—there’s a hearing today in the Senate subcommittee on Homeland Security to review the FY18 budget request—members of Congress should keep the well-being of their constituents firmly in mind and reject the budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration.

Automakers Seek to Shirk Environmental Responsibilities, and Senators Oblige

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Today, automakers yearning to weaken environmental regulations found an ear on Capitol Hill—Senator Blunt (R-MO) introduced a bill with support of a few auto-state senators which would undermine the federal fuel economy regulations in three ways:  1) it extends the life for credits, some of which have already expired, creating so-called “zombie credits”; 2) it awards windfall credits for vehicles already sold by pulling forward a flexibility which regulators explicitly said they were not granting when setting the stringency of the program; and 3) it allows for manufacturers to focus all their efforts on just one segment of their fleet, undermining the promise to consumers that all types of vehicles—cars, trucks, and SUVs—would become more efficient over time.

Taken in total, the impact of this legislation would result in 350 million barrels of additional oil consumption, which means $34 billion taken from consumers in new fuel costs and handed over to oil companies (corporate handouts aren’t just for the automakers with this bill!).

It also puts the industry on a course for dismal technology investment, as they continue to pay lobbyists to weaken regulations instead of engineers to deploy the very technologies which have shown such promise in their labs—this, of course, is just another attempt to undermine the mid-term evaluation of the standards and further the industry’s “Yes We Can’t” agenda at the expense of consumers.

Zombie credits—a windfall for exceeding a 30-year-old standard

Back in 2010, fuel economy regulations for cars were still stuck at the same value they’d been set at back in 1985.  The industry as a whole well exceeded these meager fuel economy targets, which were no longer serving their purpose to reduce oil consumption.

Even though the CAFE fuel economy regulations have been significantly improved, moving to a size-based standard and finally resulting in nearly doubling the efficiency of vehicles out to 2025, credits earned under the original, long stagnant CAFE program were still available to manufacturers.

These credits were given a five-year lifetime—this helps give manufacturers some flexibility as they introduce improvements to models or invest in new vehicles, since a typical product cycle is about five years.  However, the legislation proposed today gives these credits (most of which have already expired) new life by extending their use out to 2021.  In doing so, it assures manufacturers that rather than having to invest in new technology improvements, they can rest on their laurels thanks to exceeding standards first set THIRTY years ago.

This provision is designed to stifle investment, while manufacturers like Toyota sit back and withdraw from a huge bank of hundreds of millions of early credits.

Retroactive off-cycle credits—the everlasting gobstopper of handouts

When the 2012-2016 fuel economy regulations were set, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was quite clear—they did not believe they could give credit to technologies which did not have a measurable improvement on the test cycle and therefore must exclude such improvements from consideration.  Had they been able to include them, they further noted, the standards would have been set more stringently.

The legislation undercuts the standards by awarding credits for these technologies anyway, ignoring the agency’s carefully-crafted justification for its standards.  EPA did later include the credits in their program, however, and we are seeing that these credits aren’t being given to incentivize technology development—they’re being given as a windfall credit for vehicles that have already been sold!  And worse still, manufacturers have come back on multiple occasions to continue to ask for additional credits for those old vehicles—it’s a never-ending source of give-me credits!

With the zombie credit provision acting to extend the lifetime of credits, this provision acts to multiply its impacts by creating even more bogus credits.

Lifting the transfer credit cap—stifling consumer choice just got a whole lot easier

The size-based vehicle efficiency standards are designed to ensure that consumers have more efficient vehicle choices available year after year, whether they’re looking at cars, trucks, or SUVs.

When first directing NHTSA to move to an attribute-based standard, Congress also set a limit on how relatively inefficient a car or truck fleet could be: While manufacturers could use a small amount of credits by making one fleet more efficient than the standard to offset a shortfall in the other fleet, Congress set a limit to that number to ensure that a manufacturer couldn’t focus all their resources on improving just one segment.

The reasons for the transfer cap are clear—if manufacturers can focus development all in one segment, consumers looking at the other vehicle segment are going to get short shrift and not see continued improvement in fuel economy.  However, this legislation effectively says “bye-bye” to the transfer cap by instating a level so ridiculously high that, for example, a manufacturer could flatline improvements to their truck fleet for the length of the program:  i.e., the average truck in 2022 could be the same efficiency as the average truck in 2016.

Because of the exorbitant credits created under the first two provisions of the legislation, it is actually conceivable for a manufacturer to do just that, hurting consumers in the process.

This isn’t “harmonization”—it’s a credit bonanza

Manufacturers have claimed that these provisions are necessary in order to “harmonize” the EPA and NHTSA standards, but it is quite clear that this bill goes well beyond any such thing.  In fact, the mountain of credits earned in 2010 and 2011 before the National Program put forth by EPA and NHTSA went into effect are completely unnecessary to meet EPA’s standards, but that hasn’t stopped the Senators sponsoring this bill from giving away the store anyway.

The projection of CAFE credits for cars and trucks under the proposed legislation shows how manufacturers will be able to use credits given away under this bill to shirk their responsibilities out through 2021, continuing to fall well below the standards (hence, negative credits).  In fact, this bill is so egregious in its handouts that manufacturers don’t even need a huge chunk of the credits to comply (indicated as hashed bars).

Giving these credits away, however, allows automakers to continue to pit the unique aspects of each agency’s authority against each other as they winnow away at the overall program under the false guise of “harmonization”.  And of course, Congress is not the only venue for this action—they’ve also petitioned EPA and NHTSA for actions which would continue to weaken the standards, including the zombie credits and transfer cap provisions in this bill.

By continuing to eat away at the standard in every venue, automakers are showing that they have no interest in meeting their obligations to their consumers or to the environment—it’s critical that we don’t let our elected representatives give them a way out.

UCS in Science: The NRC Must Act to Reduce the Dangers of Spent Fuel Pool Fires at Nuclear Plants

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In a Policy Forum article published in this week’s Science magazine, I argue, along with my co-authors Frank von Hippel and Michael Schoeppner, that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) needs to take prompt action to reduce the alarmingly high potential for fires in spent fuel pools at U.S. nuclear plants.

The NRC allows nuclear plant owners to pack spent fuel into cooling pools at much higher densities than they were originally designed to handle. This has greatly increased the risk to the public should a large earthquake or terrorist attack breach the liner of a spent fuel pool, causing the pool to rapidly lose its cooling water. In such a scenario the spent fuel could heat up and catch fire within hours, releasing a large fraction of its highly radioactive contents. Since spent fuel pools are not enclosed in high-strength, leak-tight containment buildings, unlike the reactors themselves, much of this radioactive material could be readily discharged into the environment.

The consequences of a fire could be truly disastrous at densely packed pools, which typically contains much more cesium-137—a long-lived, extremely hazardous radioactive isotope—than is present in reactor cores. My Princeton University co-authors have calculated, using sophisticated computer models, that a spent fuel pool fire at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania could heavily contaminate over 30,000 square miles with long-lived radioactivity and require the long-term relocation of nearly 20 million people, for average weather conditions. Depending on the wind direction and other factors, the plume could reach anywhere from Maine to Georgia. My co-authors estimate the financial impact on the American economy of such contamination could reach $2 trillion: ten times the estimated $200 billion in damages caused by the release of radioactivity from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The danger could be greatly reduced if plant owners thinned out the pools by transferring their older fuel to dry storage casks. But despite the relatively modest cost of this common-sense step—about $50 million per reactor—owners won’t do it voluntarily because they care more about their bottom line.

The NRC could require plant owners to expedite transfer of spent fuel to dry casks. But it refuses to do so, basing its decision on quantitative risk analyses that, as discussed in our Science article, underestimate the benefits of such a transfer by making numerous unrealistic and faulty assumptions. For example, its estimate of the economic damages of a fire in a densely packed spent fuel pool was $125 billion; nearly 20 times lower than the independent estimate of my Princeton co-authors.

In light of our findings, our article calls on the NRC to strengthen the technical basis of its risk analysis methodology by basing it on sound science and sensible policy judgments. We are confident that such an analysis will reveal that the substantial benefits of expedited transfer would more than justify the cost.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: NNSA’s FY18 Budget Request

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On Tuesday, May 23, the Trump administration released its Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) budget request. In an overall federal budget where many, many programs faced severe budget cuts, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is on the receiving end of a proposed 11 percent budget increase (at least by the Trump administration’s accounting – more on that in a following post).

The NNSA is responsible for maintaining US nuclear weapons, controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, and producing, handling and disposing of fissile materials as needed.  Much of the agency’s increase is under “Weapons Activities” – the programs designed to maintain US nuclear weapons and related efforts – while funding for efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons face budget cuts. That continues a trend that began in the Obama administration: more funding for weapons, less funding for nonproliferation.

In this post and the following two (The Bad and The Ugly), I take a closer look at NNSA’s budget. Let’s start with the good news.

The Good Ending MOX (Or Trying To, Again)

Perhaps the best news concerns the fate of the problematic “MOX” program to dispose of excess US plutonium. The Trump administration is wisely proposing to “terminate the MOX project and pursue the dilute & dispose (D&D) option as an alternative.” Under this project, excess plutonium, mostly from dismantled US nuclear weapons, would be turned into MOX—or “mixed oxide” nuclear fuel and burned in commercial US nuclear reactors. UCS has long opposed the MOX program because of its high cost and security risks.  Under the dilute and dispose option, the plutonium would instead be diluted with non-radioactive materials and disposed of in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, which is a geologic repository for military materials, including plutonium.

The Battle between Congress and the Obama Administration

The MOX fuel fabrication facility is in South Carolina, and the program only survives because of the support of state politicians who benefit from the program’s spending excesses.

For many years, Congress has provided enough funding to keep the MOX program alive, but not enough for major progress to be made on completing the enormous facility required to produce the plutonium-laced nuclear fuel.  Frustrated with the lack of progress, the Obama administration proposed in FY2015 to put the program on “cold standby,” halting construction while other options were considered. Congress refused to allow it, insisting that construction continue.

But Congress also again refused to provide sufficient funding to allow substantial progress in construction of the MOX plant. An independent study of the MOX program, requested by NNSA, found that if the level of funding Congress had been supporting—around $375 million annually—was all that could be provided, the MOX plant would not start operating until fiscal year 2100 and the life-cycle cost to finish the project would amount to a whopping $110.4 billion.

That study was part of a series of studies that all found the MOX program would cost far more than initially estimated, and take decades to complete. As a result, in FY2016 the Obama administration decided to cancel the MOX program outright, and to pursue the dilute and dispose option to get rid of the excess plutonium.

Unfortunately, largely because of the strong support for MOX from Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and other members of the South Carolina delegation, Congress again refused to comply, and insisted on continued construction of the MOX plant to the tune of $340 million in FY2016.

The exact same pattern was repeated in FY2017, with Congress ultimately appropriating $335 million for construction of the MOX plant, rejecting the Obama administration’s decision to cancel the project.

Will Trump win the battle with Congress?

Now we will see if the Trump administration has better luck convincing Congress to do the right thing. The path it has chosen is identical to what the Obama administration proposed: cancel MOX and pursue dilute and dispose. It requested $270 million in the FY2018 budget to begin the process of shutting down the program.

A key factor will be the role of Sen. Graham, the most influential voice in support of the MOX program. He sits on the two committees – Appropriations and Armed Services – that have oversight of the program. Last year, according to sources, the Appropriations committee punted the issue to Armed Services, which agreed to cancel the program. That is, until Sen. Graham heard of the decision, and called his good friend Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chair of the Armed Services Committee. The decision was reversed, and MOX lived another year.

But now it is the Trump administration canceling the program. Sen. Graham has never had a particularly good relationship with President Trump, nor does Sen. McCain. Will politics trump sanity again, or will we finally see the end of MOX?

No News is Good News

The other “good news” in the Trump administration’s NNSA budget request is the lack of anything particularly “new.” Despite rhetoric from President Trump that the United States needs to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” this budget request does not propose building additional warheads. It issues no call for new types of warheads, new military capabilities or new roles for nuclear weapons. And it makes no mention of resuming nuclear testing, something the United States wisely abandoned back in 1992, leading to an international moratorium on testing that only North Korea is violating. In most respects, this budget request simply continues the vision spelled out by the Obama administration in its final years in office (with some minor changes described in the upcoming piece, The Bad).

This does not mean, however, that significant changes are not possible in the future. The Trump administration is undertaking a comprehensive nuclear posture review, and military officials have testified that any major changes in US nuclear policy or posture—including a push for new weapons—will await the outcome of that study. Secretary of Defense Mattis ordered the effort to take no more than six months, which would allow any decisions to be incorporated into the Trump administration’s FY2019 request. That is where any new vision developed by President Trump and his team will come into play.

 

 

 

 

 

On Bioenergy, Budgets, and Why Legislating Scientific Facts Is Never a Good Idea

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We need members of Congress to resist the Trump administration’s call for deep cuts to federal science and science-based environmental and public health protections in its proposed FY18 budget. We also need to keep them from adding anti-science special provisions, or ‘policy riders,’ in the budget bill they ultimately pass.

There is reason for both hope and concern.

Earlier this month, Congress passed an omnibus FY17 spending bill that rejected the administration’s proposed draconian cuts and protected funding for key programs across federal agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The final budget was a real—albeit short-term—win for science and evidence-based policy making.

An unrelated policy rider, premised on incorrect science

But Congress also included in the bill a completely unrelated bioenergy policy rider, premised on incorrect science, with potentially damaging impacts on both US forests and on carbon emissions for years to come.

This hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, so let’s unpack it a bit.

Buried on page 902 in the appropriations bill, the bioenergy policy rider instructs the Departments of Agriculture and Energy to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to establish policies that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy.”

The biomass industry has been lobbying Congress to incorporate such language in legislation for years. Today, the US industry is fairly small, with wood energy-fueled power plants struggling to compete with lower-cost power from natural gas, wind, and solar.

But once comprehensive federal policies designed to reduce carbon pollution are enacted, the assumption of wood energy as “carbon neutral” would help make these power plants more cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

A false assertion of carbon neutrality

The problem is, burning forest biomass to make electricity is not inherently carbon-neutral. In fact, under some conditions burning woody biomass releases as much or more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as does burning coal.

Last year, when the Senate was considering similar language in a piece of energy legislation, I joined more than 60 other forest and climate experts on a letter reminding Senators that “[r]emoving the carbon dioxide released from burning wood through new tree growth requires many decades to a century, and not all trees reach maturity because of drought, fire, insects or land use conversion. All the while the added carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere trapping heat.”

Establishing forest bioenergy polices based on the false assertion of carbon neutrality, we wrote, “puts forest carbon in the atmosphere contributing to climate change instead of keeping it in living, productive forests that provide multiple benefits of water and wetland protection, flood control, soils protection, wildlife habitat, improved air quality and recreational benefits for hunters and all who enjoy being in the great out-of-doors.”

Bioenergy policies must be based on an accurate assessment of potential net carbon emissions from forest biomass. Mandating that there are no net carbon emissions from burning forest biomass to produce energy does not make it so in fact.

A cautionary tale for the next budget fight

President Trump and the Republican-led Congress may have temporarily slowed federal policies to limit carbon emissions. But such limits will come. And while the FY17 omnibus spending bill only funds the federal government for five months, there is a serious risk is that this rider could pose harmful impacts on forests and climate policy that could persist until undone by future legislation.

As my colleague Rob Cowin writes, this is also “a cautionary tale for the FY18 budget fight. Special interest amendments…..have the ability to make a reasonable budget an unsavory bill. The biomass rider got in because it had bipartisan support. Constituents will…need to hold their members of congress accountable if they don’t want government funding bills to become delivery devices for bad, long-lived policy.”

 

The Trump Budget Is an Affront to Farmers (and All of Us)

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I’m starting to feel like a broken record. Last month, I listed five ways President Trump had failed rural America in just his first 100 days. A few weeks prior, I’d documented evidence that his administration’s initial (so-called “skinny”) FY18 budget proposal would cut technical assistance for farmers and nutrition assistance used by rural households at higher rates than urban ones.

So now that the White House has released its full budget proposal—almost laughably titled “A New Foundation For American Greatness”—I’m not sure why I’m surprised by it. I guess it’s just hard to fathom the brazenness of the president’s 180 on policy issues and taxpayer investments that really matter to farmers and rural residents.

Making America less great, one budget cut at a time

Early reporting and commentary have characterized this week’s budget proposal as cruel, draconian, and a con. Its combined social safety net cuts would reportedly affect up to one-fifth of Americans, and many of President Trump’s own voters in red states and rural communities would be hit hardest. The proposal’s architects have made rosy assumptions about future economic growth that economists on both sides of the aisle have called into question, and they apparently employed some faulty math to boot. If enacted, the budget would decimate publicly-funded science across many agencies, though Congress will almost certainly reject it, probably forcefully.

In short, there is nothing great about this budget proposal, and frankly nothing American. But its effects on key programs administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are particularly troubling. Let’s review:

Taking food from people’s plates won’t make America great (just hungrier). The proposed cuts to social programs that help our neighbors in need are mean-spirited and just plain senseless. The White House is proposing to cut the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) by nearly $200 billion over 10 years. This highly cost-effective program has a demonstrated record of success in alleviating hunger and poverty in rural and urban communities alike. In fact, research has shown that rural households use SNAP at higher rates than urban and suburban households.

(UCS Food Systems & Health Analyst Sarah Reinhardt digs deeper on the SNAP program and the implications of these cuts, which would lead to poorer nutrition and needless suffering for millions of Americans.)

And what about USDA programs that specifically serve farmers? That’s not a pretty picture either.

Cutting agricultural research won’t make America great (just less informed). In a blatant attack on science (yes, another one), the president’s budget proposes deep cuts to scientific and medical research across many agencies, including the National Science Foundation (cut 11 percent), the National Institutes of Health (cut 18 percent), and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development (cut a whopping 50 percent). At the USDA, these are mirrored by large cuts to already-small research budgets, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (cut 20 percent) and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (cut 30 percent). These programs have funded research on, for example, how cover crops can reduce fertilizer needs and maximize profits, and how different combinations of crops can affect weeds, pests, and drought resilience (see this February post from UCS Senior Scientist Marcia DeLonge for more). UCS has advocated for more agricultural research, not less, and nearly 500 experts have joined us in calling for increased investments in agroecology to help farmers and our environment.

Slashing farm conservation programs won’t make America great (just more polluted). To complete the trifecta of not-greatness, the White House is proposing cuts to USDA programs and technical staff that farmers rely on for help implementing soil, water, and biodiversity conservation practices on their land. For example, the perennially popular (with Republicans, Democrats, and farmers of all stripes) Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides direct financial assistance to farmers, would take an 8 percent hit, and the budget proposes eliminating new enrollments.

And then there’s a proposed 10 percent reduction in “conservation operations,” the pot of USDA money that funds technical assistance to farmers in the field. The stated justification for this last cut (on page 9 of this document) made me sit up and take notice:

Agricultural conservation planning is not an inherently governmental function. The private sector can provide this service, given uniform planning standards that are established by the Government. Currently the private sector offers planning assistance to farmers to implement precision pesticide and nutrient application, which is evidence that the private sector could also provide technical assistance for conservation planning. Farmers and other agricultural interest groups argue that the need for conservation planning is much greater than the funding resources currently available through the Government. When the Government funds technical assistance, it crowds out private sector competition. In the absence of Government funding, the private sector could increase farmers’ access to technical assistance beyond what the Government currently offers.

Hold on…does the Trump administration really imagine that corporate America is just waiting to help farmers implement the most sustainable farming practices? It’s clear that taxpayers, water drinkers, and all of us who enjoy clean lakes and streams have a vested interest in the benefits of conservation practices, but the private sector largely doesn’t. It exists to sell stuff, and the beauty of ecological farm practices is that they require less stuffless pesticides, fertilizers, and the like. So what would be the private sector’s motivation to step into the breach here? I don’t see it.

And finally, a missed opportunity to make farmers more resilient for the long term

There is one thing in this USDA budget I almost agree with, and that is its proposed limits on crop insurance and other subsidies for the wealthiest farm operators. The budget proposal would limit crop insurance eligibility to farmers making less than $500,000 annually and cap insurance premium subsidies at $40,000. That sounds reasonable, and in fact, our 2016 report Subsidizing Waste called for a reduction in taxpayer-funded crop insurance premium subsidies because they drive planting decisions that tend to lead to more pollution. But (and this is important) we think the savings from crop insurance reforms should be invested in programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program, where they can incentivize better outcomes for farmers and the environment.

So even here, the White House misses an opportunity to do something right, maintaining an effective safety net for farmers while facilitating a shift to practices that build real resilience—to pests, weather, and price fluctuations in any one crop—and making them less reliant on crop insurance in the long run. And while is a debate we hope Congress will have in the upcoming farm bill, it’s not likely to get past appropriators in this form.

But I believe that’s true of this whole mess of a budget. And thankfully so.

What Would JFK Have Said About Clean Energy?

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Maybe it’s because I first started working on clean energy while serving in the Peace Corps he founded, or maybe it’s my years of working on these issues from his home state. But I can’t help thinking about the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth, and connecting his stirring rhetoric to the energy challenges of our times.

Here’s what our 35th president might have said about the challenges of energy transition and the opportunities in clean energy.

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

This tidbit of wisdom from the Sage of Hyannis needs no updating to make it applicable to clean energy. Our electricity sector has gone through a lot of changes since Thomas Edison set up the world’s first electrical grid on the Lower East Side in 1882. But we’re clearly in a time of unparalleled transformation.

Yeah, that means over time we have to figure out new business models to make it all hold together. But a clean energy future is one we want to make certain not to miss, so it’s worth figuring out.

JFK harnessing wind power (Source: JFK Library)

“We choose to [do clean energy]… not because [it is hard], but because [it is easy].”

This one required just a bit of tweaking. In his famous 1962 “moon” speech at Rice University, Pres. Kennedy suggested that “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

In our case, though, in a lot of ways, clean energy is actually the easier route. Yes, there are (again) issues of financial engineering—who gets compensated, and how, when part of the power is coming from my own roof, for example. And there are some technical issues (though fewer than opponents would have you think) as more solar and wind power add variability to the electricity supply-demand picture, for example.

But think about power plants like solar and wind ones that require no fuel delivery. How about not having to worry about air or water pollution, or water use, or catastrophic failures? How about being able to spend more energy dollars on people, and less on million-year-old rock? How about meeting energy demand with less energy, not more, with efficient lighting, motors, and appliances?

Sure sounds simpler.

Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy, 1961 (Credit: U. S. Army Signal Corps, JFK Library, Boston)

“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.”

Here again, JFK was right on the first time around. People from across the political spectrum find plenty to love in clean energy.

Clean energy means jobs, in manufacturing, installation, servicing, and so much more. It can mean revenues for communities and landowners who host renewable energy. For farmers and ranchers, for example, as a dairy farmer in upstate New York put it to me recently, wind farms can be “a godsend”.

Similarly, on pollution: Whatever box they check on voter registration forms, people want healthy air and clean water for their communities and their kids.

Clean energy’s broad appeal means that we can find leadership and support in a range of places (and colors). In our recent analysis of state leadership on clean energy momentum, six of the top states overall are headed by Democrats, and four by Republicans. And a solid majority of Americans across the country support action on renewable energy, including funding research (more than four out of five) and even requiring utilities to get at least 20% of their electricity from renewables (two out of three).

Clean energy is so often the right answer, regardless of what politics are flavoring the question.

Estimated portion of adults who support requiring utilities to produce 20% electricity from renewable sources. Americans in every single congressional district (you listening, Washington?) want more renewables. (Source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication)

“Ask not what your [grid] can do for you… ask what you can do for your [grid].”

What is arguably JFK’s most famous quote, from his inaugural address, invited us to rethink our relationship to our country, to reposition ourselves not just as recipients, but as contributors. In the energy world, distributed energy technologies have dramatically improved our chances of doing that in recent years.

What you can do for your grid. (Credit: John Rogers)

In our recent clean energy momentum state ranking, one of our metrics had to do with that changing relationship, via solar. “The arrival of affordable rooftop solar,” we suggested, “represents a major shift in the connections between households and their electricity supplies.”

Harnessing the power of sunbeams and silicon, we can turn our roofs into mini power plants, and generate electricity not just to meet our own needs but to help utilities and the local electricity grids meet peak power demands on hot, sunny days. Actually, a range of new technologies (energy storage, anyone?) and approaches are letting us be much more active participants in making the electricity grid work for all.

So go ahead, ask what you can do for your grid. The answer is plenty.

“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”

Right again. So we move to clean energy, with purpose and direction (we hope), because we can, and because we must. In his moon speech, after the part about “easy” and “hard”, JFK went on to say this about aiming high:

…because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

Unwilling to postpone, and intending to win. Words to live by.

Happy birthday, Mr. President. And thanks.

Trump’s Proposed Budget: A Wrecking Ball to Science

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Joe Biden once said, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

President Trump has just shown us his budget. Here is what he values: large tax cuts—mostly for the wealthy—and a buildup of the military and homeland security.

Here is what he does not value: the Medicaid program that allows our poorest citizens to get basic health care; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), a highly cost-effective program with a demonstrated record of success in alleviating hunger and poverty in rural and urban communities alike; and student loans and grants, that allow for some upward mobility.

He also does not value science. His budget not only eviscerates funding for basic research (e.g., an $86 billion cut to the National Institute of Health), but also funding for the science that government scientists conduct, or government agencies fund, to inform and improve public policy. Just look at this pattern:

Eviscerating Science at the EPA

The proposed budget cuts the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by more than 30 percent overall, returning the agency to staffing levels not seen since the Ford administration. The budget takes particular aim at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), and its many national laboratories. ORD is the science research arm of the EPA, responsible for advising EPA policymakers on safe levels of air and water pollutants, the fate and transport of hazardous waste once it is released into the environment, safe disposal of chemicals, and many other critical matters.

This program also responds to emergencies. ORD was called in recently, for example, to help Toledo, Ohio cope with massive algae blooms in Lake Erie. Trump proposes to cut ORD by over 50 percent. This will simply eviscerate the EPA’s ability to use the best science to protect public health and the environment.

Slashing renewable energy research at DOE

Some of the deepest cuts in Trump’s proposed budget at the Department of Energy (DOE) take aim at clean energy research and development. For example, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would be slashed by 69 percent, including cutting more than half the budget of the renewable energy technology offices that have played a critical role in the precipitous drop in costs of renewable energy such as wind and solar.

The budget also eliminates one of DOE’s crown jewels: the ARPA-E program, which fills a crucial void by providing start-up funding for transformative,= but high-risk technologies. This is particularly important as private venture capital has “all but stopped funding ‘deep technology’ companies,” according to recent Brookings Institution study.

Not surprisingly, ARPA-E has bipartisan support, and corporate luminaries such as Bill Gates and Jeffrey Immelt have called for doubling its funding to $1 billion per year as a key way to develop low cost solutions for greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a clean energy economy.

Zeroing out ARPA-E and cutting other clean energy research and development programs will stall vital progress in developing new technologies to lower global warming emissions and will further erode our economic leadership in clean energy.

Weakening emergency preparedness at NOAA

The budget proposes to eliminate funding for several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant and education programs, including Sea Grant, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, Coastal Zone Management Grants, the Office of Education, and the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. These programs are critical in helping us adapt to a changing environment.

Their elimination will cripple scientific research as well as emergency preparedness, disaster risk reduction, and national security. Programs like Sea Grant, for example, enable universities to conduct research that helps states prepare for coastal flooding.

Canceling vital earth monitoring at NASA

The budget proposes to terminate five Earth Science Mission programs that have furthered knowledge of biological, physical, chemical and extraterrestrial processes: Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments, and CLARREO Pathfinder.

These five NASA Missions are vital tools for improving our ability to predict everything from agricultural commodity yields to water management and infrastructure management. They have furthered knowledge of biological, physical, chemical and extraterrestrial processes. They have resulted in safeguards that protect our waters and prevent people from eating toxic shellfish, improved aviation safety, and provided essential information about unhealthy air quality.

They have also tested equipment essential for successful satellite launches and provided information about climate measures that inform decision-making with broad economic impacts, including vegetation changes and have provided precise measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Starving agricultural research and conservation at USDA

The US Department of Agriculture would take a 21 percent hit overall. With deep cuts to key research and conservation programs, the budget would undermine the ability of farmers to sustain their land and their livelihoods for the future. The budget slashes tens of millions of dollars from cutting-edge agricultural research programs, effectively denying farmers the science they need to be productive and profitable and to adapt to the harsh realities of a changing climate.

Significant changes to programs that encourage conservation on farmlands would similarly put farmers at a disadvantage and leave the nation’s waters and other critical natural resources more at risk from farm pollution.

Scientists must step up!

Fortunately, Congress, not the President, will ultimately decide what to fund and at what levels. If recent history is any guide, Congress will not attach much weight to President Trump’s misguided budget proposal.

But we must not take anything for granted. This summer, activists from all across the country will likely attend town hall meetings with their congressional representatives. I expect we will hear powerful, heart-rending testimony against the Trump budget’s cynical and vicious attempt to shred the social safety net. But the proposed cuts to science also demand a rallying cry in response, from scientists and from all who value our ability to make public decisions based on the best available evidence.

Now is the time to make our voices heard.

To learn more about how you can effectively stand up for science and influence congress on the budget, check out our recently posted toolkit.

Hearing from the Scientists Who Rely on Sea Grant

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I can pinpoint my passion for marine conservation to a childhood full of opportunities to experience the wonders of nature and grounded in a deep appreciation for the ocean and fishing culture. This is why I have chosen to devote my life to ensuring these natural resources are around to inspire future generations.

However, the budget proposal released by the White House this week has made it clear that supporting scientists like me is not a priority. Governmental agencies that employ my respected colleagues, fellowships that helped me get through graduate school, and research programs that I rely on to do my job are lined up for the cutting block.

Among the worst of the proposed budget cuts is the complete elimination of Sea Grant. Sea Grant excels as a conduit between the scientists and the stakeholders in coastal areas who have real problems to solve. Integral to Sea Grant’s mission to promote integrated and applicable research is its commitment to the next generation of scientists. Sea Grant is a major source of fellowships for coastal science graduate students. While I personally was not funded through Sea Grant (I had EPA funding, which is also eliminated under the proposed budget), I have many colleagues and friends who benefitted from Sea Grant support as they began their careers. I interviewed a few for this post about the value of Sea Grant to their careers, to the environment, and to science in general.

Training the next generation of scientists

Tidal pools in Newport, OR.

For many young scientists, opportunities through Sea Grant are a path to a career in science that can really make a difference. Theresa Davenport, a marine scientist and a recent graduate of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, was part of Sea Grant’s incredibly successful Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship program.

“The Knauss Fellowship’s hallmark is to take subject matter experts and provide them with experience and training to become globally engaged knowledge experts and leaders working at the intersection of academia, private citizens, industry and government,” said Theresa.

Knauss fellows are placed in federal legislative and executive offices in Washington D.C. In many cases, these interns are the only sources of science expertise in their offices, and the value of these young scientists to the American public is incalculable. For example, Theresa helped develop a restoration monitoring and adaptive management plan for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill recovery. In fact, she mentioned that her team on this important and crucial project was made up of mostly Sea Grant fellows or folks that had previously been involved in the Knauss fellowship program. She said this is not out of the ordinary.

“It would be interesting to compile the number of Sea Grant fellows involved in the two largest US environmental disaster responses in the last 10 years.” She is referring to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Sandy, and she expects Sea Grant fellows played a large role in both cases.

Science informing policy

The benefits of funding early career scientists continue long after the fellowship ends. Introducing scientists directly to problems that can benefit from their unique gifts and knowledge ensures that they will be problem solvers. For Dr. Allison Colden, another graduate of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a Sea Grant fellowship was an important step to a career in conservation.

“As a former Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellow, I gained valuable experience in interpreting cutting-edge science into public policy, a skill that I now use daily at a leading environmental non-profit,” she said.

She sees Sea Grant playing an important role in solving many of the problems facing the world today.

“Sea Grant is vital to ensuring the continued prosperity and resilience of our nation’s coastal communities by connecting managers and stakeholders with innovative science to create viable solutions for the future,” said Allison. “Cuts to Sea Grant sever a critical link in the science-policy chain, undermining the social, economic, and ecological resilience of coastal communities in a time when it is needed most.”

Scientists are increasingly facing the burden to make the connection between research and impacts, and Sea Grant has been making that connection for nearly 50 years. We should be expanding, not gutting programs that bring together academia, private citizens, industry and government, and programs that inspire young scientists to build solutions to the challenges we face. This is the best way for society to achieve a healthier, safer, more sustainable future for all people.

 

Dr. Cassandra Glaspie is a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University in the Fisheries and Wildlife Department. Originally from Waterford, Michigan, Cassandra received her B.S. in Zoology from Michigan State University and her PhD in Marine Science from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Cassandra is passionate about the environment and the ocean, and her research involves marine food webs and predator-prey interactions, especially as they relate to changes in the environment. In Oregon, she studies climate-related changes in ocean habitat quality for ecologically and economically important fish such as Chinook salmon and albacore tuna. A resident of Corvallis, Cassandra is an advocate for local climate action and works with the Corvallis chapter of the Sierra Club to educate the community on issues related to climate change and sustainability initiatives.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

As the White House Fixates on Coal, Renewable Energy Goes Local

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The Trump Administration’s energy communications sound increasingly tone deaf these days.

The Department of Energy released a graphic last week that highlights six facts we may not know about coal, as if cheerleading the coal industry will minimize the fact that coal-fired electricity is the largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions and a significant contributor to air pollution that makes us sick.

Compared to where many states and cities across this country are headed, the focus on coal is at best nostalgic and misguided, and at worst desperate and dangerous. There is no question; coal is on the decline.

Contrast that silly graphic with a new report also released last week indicating that the transition to clean energy is picking up speed across the country. The 2017 Clean Tech Leadership Index report by Clean Edge ranks activities and investments in the clean-tech space (think electric vehicle adoption and investments in energy efficiency and renewables). For the second year in a row, wind and solar comprised almost 17 gigawatts of new power sources in 2016, representing more than half (61 percent to be exact) of all new electricity generation capacity installed in the US.

Three states, Iowa, South Dakota, and Kansas, generate at least 30 percent of their electricity from renewables and another three states, Oklahoma, California, and South Dakota, get at least 20 percent.

Perhaps most surprising and exciting is the number of cities across the country that are investing in clean electricity and transportation, and benefiting from the jobs and capital that come with it. The California cities of San Francisco, San Jose San Diego, and Los Angeles were standouts in the reports’ top-ten metro rankings. Others making it into the overall top-ten were Washington D.C., Portland, Boston, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Austin.

But just looking at the map below shows that clean energy leadership is not confined to the coasts nor to blue states.

Source: Clean Edge, Inc.

Evidence of California’s clean energy leadership was on full display last week when it broke two new renewable energy generation records. On Tuesday, May 16, renewable energy supplied an all-time high of 41 percent of total electricity demand for the day, and on Saturday, May 13th, more than two-thirds of demand were satisfied by renewables during the 2pm hour.

The graph below from the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) shows how much of the state’s electricity came from renewables for each hour of the day on the 16th.

Hourly production in CAISO footprint for May 16, 2017. Source: CAISO Renewables Watch

The Clean Edge report is just the latest proof that cities and states around the country are setting their sights on clean energy, despite the Trump Administration’s misguided affection for coal. Our recent analysis Clean Energy Momentum: Ranking State Progress is further confirmation of that (encouraging) trend. California continues to blaze ahead and break new records, but many other areas in the country are picking up speed.

Photo: Black Rock Solar/CC BY 2.0, Flickr

Lamar Smith and Selective Transparency: Why I’ll Be Livetweeting the EPA Scientific Integrity Stakeholder Meeting

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For the past few years, the Environmental Protection Agency has held a meeting with outside groups to discuss its annual scientific integrity report. All kinds of organizations have attended in the past, from the American Chemistry Council (which represents chemical companies) to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which represents scientists) to the American Lung Association (which represents people who breathe). They’re all invited again to this year’s meeting on June 14.

The EPA-produced report describes the actions the agency has taken under the EPA scientific integrity policy over the previous year. The meeting is an opportunity for organizations to ask questions about the report, to give feedback to the agency, and to identify new or emerging challenges. It’s not a perfect process, and the agency gets criticism from all sides (including UCS). But it’s an impressive attempt to reach out to the agency’s stakeholders. To my knowledge, no other agency or department does this.

Transparency is important to holding government accountable. It just shouldn’t be selective.

Yesterday, House Science Committee Chairman Smith sent a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt expressing concern about this meeting. As rat smellers go, he doesn’t exactly have the best nose, but he smells a rat. Chairman Smith seems to be trying to drum up controversy about the meeting, as he explicitly objects to some of the invitees (including me), and is calling for the agency to make it open to the public.

I wholeheartedly agree. So on June 14th at 3:00pm, I’ll begin livetweeting the EPA scientific integrity meeting. You can follow along at @halpsci. It’s usually a fairly humdrum affair, so I can’t promise everything will be interesting (although these days, let’s face it, everything at the EPA has some fireworks). But I can promise it will be transparent, and I will make at least a couple of attempts to be funny.

Better yet, I’d encourage the agency to put it on Periscope, or livestream it on Facebook, so the Chairman and his staff and anyone with an Internet connection can hear every question posed about an agency under siege by an administrator who is hostile to the science that it creates and communicates. That is, if the EPA still has the budget to pay for enough Internet bandwidth by the time the meeting happens.

Real talk about transparency

Chairman Smith claims to care about transparency. So let’s talk about that. Here is the type of transparency we deserve:

I’d like to know whether anyone from the Obama administration or the oil and gas industry influenced language in the EPA’s press release and executive summary about the impact of fracking on drinking water. Unfortunately, our FOIAs to help answer that question came back heavily redacted.

I’d like to know who from the chemical industry met or communicated with the EPA in advance of Administrator Pruitt’s decision to reject scientific advice and keep a dangerous pesticide on the market that has been shown to hurt endangered species and harm human brain development. Perhaps any such meetings or phone calls, too, should have been open to the public. They should at least have transcripts and recordings. While we’re at it, maybe these meetings should include representatives from groups like the American Public Health Association. Maybe they should even include some independent scientists with expertise in the impact of the chemicals on developing brains!

I’ll be livetweeting the EPA’s scientific integrity stakeholder meeting on June 14 at 3pm. Follow me @halpsci.

I’d like many more EPA meetings to be made open to the public. Every time they meet with lobbyists from an industry trade group or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, I want it broadcast, live. I want to see Snapchat stories about industry input. I’d like to know, for example, exactly what was discussed at two consecutive days of meetings in North Carolina between EPA officials and representatives from the American Petroleum Institute on April 19 and 20. It could be completely innocuous, but I want to know.

So where the deuce are the chairman’s letters for any of that? Selective transparency does not suggest good faith.

Of course Chairman Smith’s letter to Pruitt is absurd, even by the ever-downward-spiraling standards of the House Science Committee. It is a clear attempt to cast doubt on the work of the agency’s scientific integrity office and thereby weaken its credibility and investigative authority. This attempt should be roundly rejected.

I know Dr. Francesca Grifo, the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Official, quite well. And I know that she travels all around the country talking about scientific integrity with anyone who will listen. She has given scores of presentations about the agency’s scientific integrity policy. She meets with environmental groups. She meets with industry organizations. She will fully investigate scientific integrity complaints from anyone who files them.

So I’m looking forward to June 14th, and can’t wait to share all of the details. It could possibly be the most interesting meeting yet.

If It Ain’t Broke, Defund It: Trump’s Budget Writes Off SNAP—and With It His Supporters

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Today, the Trump administration released a budget proposal for FY 2018 that would drastically reduce funding for SNAP—the largest nutrition assistance program in the federal safety net—by a full 28 percent over the course of the next ten years. This amounts to a $193 billion dollar cut from a program with a yearly budget of less than $75 billion.

Despite statements just last week from Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who claimed no knowledge of proposed changes to SNAP, the budget proposal states that the drastic reductions in SNAP funding will be achieved through measures that expand work requirements, narrow eligibility, and establish a matching component for states to cover a portion of benefits—a potential first step toward block granting the program.

The preliminary “skinny budget” released by the administration in March, which called for a 21 percent reduction in USDA funding for discretionary programs, hinted at the direction, but not the magnitude of cuts to come for means-tested programs like SNAP. Now, with dollar signs and decimal points to demarcate the damage, the final budget proposal confirms a caustic indifference to the needs of millions of rural and urban families served by the agency’s cornerstone programs—and with it, a callous betrayal of a key segment of President Trump’s own voter base. The consequences of slashing funding for SNAP, compounded by equally significant cuts for programs like Medicaid to the tune of over $800 billion over 10 years, pose a very real and significant threat not only to the core function of our federal safety net, but to the backbone of our nation itself.

We can’t afford cuts to SNAP funding

SNAP provides support to 21 million American households in both urban and rural areas, lifting families out of poverty, reducing food insecurity, and improving long-term health outcomes. Put simply, SNAP works. It is one of the most effective federal assistance programs we have, and it operates with one of the lowest fraud rates. In 2014, the benefits provided by SNAP lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty—including 2.1 million children. In fact, nearly half of all SNAP recipients (about four in ten) are children.

Research is clear about the devastating consequences facing kids who don’t get enough to eat: they experience poorer health, incur higher medical expenses, and achieve less in the classroom and beyond. Reducing the amount of funding available to SNAP recipients by 25 percent is equivalent to removing a critical source of support for the growth and development of over half a million kids. How does the master plan to make America great (there is one… right?) compensate for the lost potential of a half million of its youth?

And kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from SNAP. Data shows that the program reduces food insecurity rates by 30 percent among participating households, which means fewer serious health complications and hospitalizations for adults living with diabetes. SNAP-Ed also plays an important role in promoting health and helping low-income families achieve healthy diets: evidence-based nutrition education programs funded through SNAP have yielded increases in fruit and vegetable consumption and greater physical activity levels among adults, with estimates of $10 saved in overall long-term health care costs for every dollar invested.

Research also suggests that SNAP expenditures act as economic stimuli, with every five dollars in new benefits generating as much as nine dollars in economic activity. This function is particularly important during times of economic downturn, as benefits redeemed contribute to both the economic stability of participating households and their broader communities.

Cultural elitism, institutional racism, and a dash of alternative facts

If you remember only two things from this post, let it be these brief and breathtakingly true facts: SNAP already has work requirements in place. And most SNAP participants who can work, do work. To be eligible for SNAP benefits, program regulations require that able-bodied adults without dependents must either work or participate in a work program for at least twenty hours per week. SNAP users may also be required to attend state-assigned employment and training programs. If they don’t meet work requirements within three months of enrolling, benefits are terminated and can’t be reinstated for a 36-month period.

Which brings us back to extraordinarily accurate fact number two: Most SNAP participants who can work, do work. USDA data shows that approximately 64 percent of SNAP participants are children, elderly, or disabled; 22 percent work full time, are caretakers, or participate in a training program; and only 14 percent are working less than 30 hours per week, are unemployed, or are registered for work. Moreover, among households with adults who are able to work, over three quarters of adults held a job in the year before or after receiving SNAP—meaning the program is effectively helping families fill temporary gaps in employment.

So if work requirements already exist, and most able-bodied adults are working…why are we still talking about stronger work requirements? We can attribute this in part to a dangerous and deeply rooted political narrative that has for decades cast a light of suspicion and mistrust on welfare recipients—particularly those of color—by painting them as lazy and deceitful in the public eye. And if you believe that we no longer suffer the aftershocks of the mythical Reagan-era welfare queens, recall that just three short years ago, current House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered a radio interview in which he raised concerns about a perceived “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Ryan’s own constituents were quick to point out that his comments amounted to thinly veiled code language for “black men.”

Is there good news? Tell me there’s good news

There’s good news. Here it is: Trump doesn’t have the final say on the budget. Congress does, and there are strong indications that bipartisan opposition to proposed agency and program funding cuts has only gained momentum since the release of the preliminary budget. House Agriculture committee chair Mike Conaway has called the proposed budget wrongheaded, while ranking member Collin Peterson confidently stated that the preliminary budget would be ignored, “as it should be.

But it is critical not to mistake broad dissatisfaction with the president’s budget priorities for a commitment to protecting public assistance programs—particularly SNAP. As the farm bill program with the largest price tag, SNAP is, and will remain, a glaring target for those seeking areas to cut federal spending. At UCS, we will continue our work to provide sound scientific evidence demonstrating the long-term health impacts and cost savings generated by investments in SNAP, while countering political narratives that propagate harmful stereotypes about program participants and diminish public support for critical federal assistance programs. We can’t let allow politics and ideology to seal the fate of the federal safety net—the stakes are simply too high.

Photo: wisley/CC BY SA (Flickr)

Department of Interior Censors USGS Press Release on Climate Change, Flooding, and Sea Level Rise

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Late yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the United States Geological Survey deleted a sentence acknowledging the link between climate change and sea level rise from an official agency press release. The USGS describes itself as the sole science agency for the Department of Interior. UCS will today formally ask the department to investigate the deletion as a violation of departmental policy.

It’s not the first time that an administration has removed scientific information it doesn’t like from agency communications. What’s different now is that scientists are not taking it quietly. “It’s a crime against the American people,” study co-author Neil Frazer told the Post.

The press release announced a new scientific paper in Nature co-authored by two USGS scientists which finds that coastal flooding frequency could double in the tropics by mid-century because of global warming. The paper’s abstract leads with the link between climate change and sea level rise. “Global climate change drives sea-level rise, increasing the frequency of coastal flooding” reads its first sentence.  The science was already clear: global warming is the primary cause of current sea level rise.

The press release, however, intentionally omitted this fact–a demand for deletion that reportedly came from the Department of Interior, in which USGS is housed. “I disagree with the decision from the upper administration to delete it, not with the scientists who deleted it at the administration’s request,” said study co-author Chip Fletcher.

Censorship violates multiple policies

The changes may violate multiple government policies (emphasis added):

  1. The USGS Scientific Integrity Policy states that the agency “will not tolerate loss of integrity in the performance, use, or communication of scientific activities and their results” (my emphasis added).
  2. The DOI Communications Policy requires the office of communications to ensure the accuracy of press releases and other public communications by providing the materials “for review prior to release by scientists, scholars, engineers and other subject matter experts.” Public affairs officials may not “alter the substance of scientific, scholarly and technical information.”
  3. The DOI Scientific Integrity Policy prohibits agency decision makers from “engag[ing] in dishonesty, fraud, misrepresentation, coercive manipulation, censorship, or other misconduct that alters the content, veracity, or meaning or that may affect the planning, conduct, reporting, or use of scientific activities.”

 These policies were developed and strengthened by the Department of Interior after repeated scandals where science was censored or rewritten by political appointees. USGS is not a regulatory agency, however, and has traditionally enjoyed much more independence than other agencies within Interior.

Holding the Trump administration accountable

It has become clear that when they can, scientists will speak up when they see political interference in science. But it’s a lot easier for a university researcher like Dr. Fletcher or Dr. Frazer to do so.

Government scientists can file complaints under their agency scientific integrity policies when they witness political interference in the conduct or communication of science. Those who don’t feel comfortable doing so can securely share information with UCS, and we will work with reporters, Congress, inspectors general, and others to investigate and expose any wrongdoing. Together, we can raise the political price for the manipulation or suppression of science.

TVA’s Nuclear Allegators

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) receives reports about potential safety problems from plant workers, the public, members of the news media, and elected officials. The NRC calls these potential safety problems allegations, making the sources allegators. In the five years between 2012 and 2016, the NRC received 450 to 600 allegations each year. The majority of the allegations involve the nuclear power reactors licensed by the NRC.

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

While the allegations received by the NRC about nuclear power reactors cover a wide range of issues, nearly half involve chilled work environments where workers don’t feel free to raise concerns and discrimination by management for having raised concerns.

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

In 2016, the NRC received more allegations about conditions at the Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee than about any other facility in America. Watts Bar’s 31 allegations exceeded the allegations from the second highest site (the Sequoyah nuclear plant, also in Tennessee, at 17) and third highest site (the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, at 12) combined.  The Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama and the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusetts tied for fourth place with 10 allegations each. In other words, Watts Bar tops the list with a very comfortable margin.

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

In 2016, the NRC received double-digit numbers of allegations about five nuclear plants. Watts Bar, Sequoyah and Browns Ferry are owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Why did three TVA nuclear plants place among the top five sources of allegations to the NRC?

Because TVA only operates three nuclear plants.

The NRC received zero allegations about ten nuclear plants during 2016. In the five year period between 2012 and 2016, the NRC only received a total of three allegations each about the Clinton nuclear plant in Illinois and the Three Mile Island Unit 1 reactor in Pennsylvania (the unit that didn’t melt down). By comparison, the NRC received 110 allegations about Watts Bar, 55 allegations about Sequoyah, and 58 allegations about Browns Ferry.

TVA President Bill Johnson told Chattanooga Time Free Press Business Editor Dave Flessner that TVA is working on its safety culture problems and “there should be no public concern about the safety of our nuclear plants.” The NRC received 30 of the 31 allegations last year from workers at Watts Bar, all 17 allegations last year from workers at Sequoyah, and all 10 allegations last year from workers at Browns Ferry.

So President Johnson is somewhat right— the public has no concerns about the safety of TVA’s nuclear plants. But when so many TVA nuclear plant workers have so many nuclear safety concerns, the public has every reason to be very, very concerned.

Nuclear plant workers are somewhat like canaries in coal mines. Each is likely to be the first to sense danger. And when nuclear canaries morph into nuclear allegators in such large numbers, that sense of ominous danger cannot be downplayed.

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