Combined UCS Blogs

In New Mexico, Facing the Question of What Comes After Coal

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Photo: WildEarth Guardians/Creative Commons (Flickr)

Change is coming to New Mexico.

As recently as 2011, coal accounted for more than 70 percent of in-state electricity generation; now it’s under 60 percent, and falling fast. Coal simply cannot compete in the face of cleaner, cheaper resources coming online.

But with this change comes opportunity. New Mexico has a chance now, before its coal plants and coal mining operations have closed, and before jobs have been lost, to chart an intentional path toward a clean energy future that is considerate of both the benefits and challenges that such a transition will bring. By committing to an energy plan dominated by renewables, policymakers in the state can secure good jobs, significant capital investment, and a brighter, cleaner, and healthier world for all New Mexicans.

And as highlighted in our new analysis, Committing to Renewables in New Mexico: Boosting the State’s Economy, Generating Dividends for All, this can all be achieved while keeping costs for consumers affordable, and electricity service reliable.

Recognizing the imminent transition ahead

In New Mexico, it is no longer a question of whether the state’s coal plants will retire, but when. This past summer, the state’s largest utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), concluded that its most cost-effective portfolio of resources was the one that was entirely coal free. From a company that had been just a year prior staunchly defending its need to keep coal plants running, this announcement marked a stunning turn.

The question that follows, though, is what gets built to fill the gaps?

New Mexico has a nearly unparalleled array of renewable resource potential available to it, from strong and steady winds, to countless days of uninterrupted sun, to ready access to geothermal. These incredible resources mean that for the state, developing clean energy is particularly cost-competitive. And project developers have been flocking to New Mexico in response—right now, more than 1,800 MW of wind are under construction or in advanced stages of development.

The trouble is, a number of these clean energy projects and the ones that have preceded them have been built to serve out-of-state customers, not New Mexicans. Slowly the state’s utilities have been awakening to the cost-saving potential of investing in these resources themselves. But that interest is threatened to be overshadowed by some utility calls for a much larger buildout of natural gas.

Critically, our analysis shows that a growing dependence on natural gas would be short-sighted, and not in the best interest of consumers.

Studying the horizon, and finding all signs point to renewables

We set out to understand the different electricity pathways the state could take as coal plants retire and new resources are brought online to replace them. We found that no matter how you slice it, the least-cost future is one characterized by a high level of renewables. Indeed, with or without a strengthened renewable policy in place, our research found that renewables—and not natural gas—provided the best deal for consumers and the New Mexican economy.

So why the need for a policy, when the market suggests either way leads to green?

Because these market-based findings run counter to some utility plans in the state, which propose to keep building out natural gas over time. A policy commitment to a high-renewables future, on the other hand, makes sure that these clean energy opportunities are diligently considered and pursued.

And what incredible opportunities they are.

When we modeled steadily strengthening the state’s existing renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from its current target of 20 percent by 2020 to 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040, we found that the policy could ensure the achievement of widespread benefits for New Mexicans, including:

  • Photo: Ozturk/iStock.

    Significant capital investment, on the order of $6 billion between 2016 and 2030 and $7.2 billion between 2017 and 2040, funding the development of 2,200 megawatts (MW) of wind and 870 MW of solar by 2030, and total on-the-ground capacity reaching 3,650 MW of wind and 3,900 MW of solar in 2040.

  • Investments in wind and solar driving the creation of nearly 2,400 new direct, indirect, and induced jobs in construction, operations, maintenance and other related fields by 2030, as well as the annual potential for $9.5 million in land-lease payments by that time.
  • The affordability of electricity costs for consumers, with typical monthly electric bills for households in most years lower than they were in 2016.
  • Cleaner air leading to improved health—savings from the reduction in SO2 and NOx health effects alone could total approximately $305 million by 2030—and reduced water consumption on the order of 90 percent from coal plant retirements.

It’s clear that when the state commits to a clean energy future, the benefits and opportunities are significant, and long-lasting.

Good policy is needed to point the way

In New Mexico, when it comes to strengthening the state’s existing RPS, the goal is not to pick winners—it’s to ensure that winners will be picked. It’s also about defending against the alternative, where a growing dependence on natural gas risks saddling ratepayers long into the future with the costs of stranded assets, or infrastructure that would be abandoned before it had been paid off due to the country’s inevitable shift away from fossil fuels.

Last legislative session, SB 312 was introduced to strengthen the RPS, as modeled in this analysis. The effort ultimately stalled, but it’s expected to be revisited in future sessions. Policymakers would do well to take the time between to strongly consider how such a policy can leverage the investment benefits of regulatory certainty, and how that can help keep utilities pushing forward with clean energy progress.

Photo: Mr.TinDC/Creative Commons (Flickr).

At the same time, achieving a clean energy future in New Mexico requires more than any single policy can deliver. For example, the simultaneous strengthening of the state’s energy efficiency resource standard would bring down costs across the board.

An increased focus on demand-side solutions, such as broader implementation of time-varying electricity rates and targeted guidance to shift loads like through the electrification of hot water heaters, can similarly ease the integration of high levels of renewables.

So too can energy storage, as well as a proactive planning process to ensure that necessary transmission expansions are supported. Participation in broader energy markets can help balance loads, and save customers money. Finally, focused attention must be devoted to worker retraining, and developing viable and vibrant economic futures for communities currently dependent on coal.

Opportunity awaits. Policymakers have the chance to be proactive and actualize that positive potential now, and they should—not just for the benefit of New Mexicans today, but also for decades to come.

USDA Reorganization Sidelines Dietary Guidelines

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Photo: Cristie Guevara/public domain (BY CC0)

Last month, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a number of proposed changes to the organization of the vast federal department he oversees. With its 29 agencies and offices and nearly 100,000 employees, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with a wide-ranging mission, from helping farmers to be profitable and environmentally sustainable to ensuring the nutritional well-being of all Americans. And while some of the organizational changes Secretary Perdue is pursuing (which all stem from a March executive order from President Trump) may seem arcane, they will have real impacts on all of us. The proposed merger of two key nutrition programs is a case in point.

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Public domain (Flickr)

The plan involves relocating the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) into the department’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). While FNS is well-known in anti-hunger and agricultural communities for its role in administering nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), CNPP is less so—though not for lack of impact or importance.

Established in 1994, CNPP is the agency responsible for reviewing and compiling the best available scientific literature on human nutrition, developing measures of dietary quality such as the Healthy Eating Index, and (jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services) issuing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. At a time when more than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, the role that CNPP plays in protecting public health has never been more critical.

Reorganization compromises health without achieving efficiency

In the words of Perdue himself, the proposed reorganizations are aimed at making the USDA “the most effective, most efficient, and best managed department in the federal government.”

To be clear, reorganization (or “realignment”) is not an inherently bad thing. Proposals that could successfully increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies without compromising mission or purpose would be laudable. But merging CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither—and follows a dangerous pattern of this administration pushing back on science with its policy agenda. Furthermore, the merger poses serious threats to the scientific integrity of the agency charged with developing evidence-based dietary guidelines for the entire country, for several key reasons:

  1. FNS and CNPP serve distinctly different purposes. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each.
  2. The CNPP administrator will lack appropriate credentials to oversee the development of evidence-based national nutrition guidelines. Following the reorganization, CNPP would no longer be headed by a politically-appointed administrator, but instead by a career associate administrator. This individual is highly unlikely to possess the education and level of expertise required by this position.
  3. Merging CNPP into FNS introduces a conflict of interest. Nutrition programs administered by FNS must adhere to dietary recommendations established by CNPP, introducing a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations.

The USDA received public comments on this issue between September 12 and October 10. The full comment authored by the UCS Food and Environment Program, outlining the risks to scientific integrity and population health posed by the proposed reorganization, follows.

UCS Comments on USDA Notice, “Improving Customer Service”

October 10, 2017

Dear Secretary Perdue and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Bice,

On behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), we are compelled to respond to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notice, “Improving Customer Service,” with concerns regarding the proposed merging of the Center for Nutrition and Policy Promotion (CNPP) into the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). This proposed action would threaten the scientific integrity of CNPP and compromise public health, while providing zero demonstrable financial or public benefit.

UCS, a science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world, combines independent scientific research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices. The Food and Environment Program at UCS makes evidence-based policy recommendations to shift our nation’s food and agriculture system to produce healthier, more sustainable and just outcomes for all Americans.

CNPP evidence-based recommendations play a critical role in protecting population health.
The current state of US population health poses enormous costs both to quality of life and health care systems. More than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are now living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, overweight/obesity, and certain types of cancer. Recent research shows that dietary factors may now play a role in nearly half of all deaths resulting from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. In 2012, the direct medical expenses and lost productivity due to cardiovascular disease alone averaged $316 billion, while those due to diagnosed diabetes totaled $245 billion. In total, chronic diseases account for approximately 86 percent of all US health care expenditures.

However, just as diet is a key factor driving these trends, it also offers great potential to reverse them. The federal government has a critical role to play in promoting health and reducing the burden of chronic disease by supporting evidence-based policies and programs that improve the dietary patterns of Americans. For more than twenty years, CNPP has filled this role. The Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) at CNPP applies rigorous scientific standards to conduct systematic reviews of current nutrition research, and informs a range of federal nutrition programs, including the National School Breakfast Program, National School Lunch Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Working jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), CNPP is also responsible for overseeing the development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nutrition recommendations that are a cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. As an autonomous agency, CNPP is well positioned to deliver unbiased and scientifically sound recommendations to other federal agencies and to the general public.

The proposed merger is unlikely to result in increased efficiency.
As stated in USDA-2017-05399, Executive Order 13781, “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch,” was intended to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability through agency reorganization. However, there is no duplication of function between CNPP and FNS. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each. Changes in allocation of resources from restructuring would also threaten the ability of CNPP to conduct its mission.

The proposed merger threatens the scientific integrity of CNPP, compromising its core function.
Merging CNPP into FNS will weaken the ability of the USDA to provide the most current evidence-based nutrition guidance to federal food and nutrition programs. The change would also jeopardize the ability of CNPP to comply with Congressional mandates, chiefly the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990, which requires the establishment of dietary guidelines at least once every five years and the promotion of these guidelines by any federal agency carrying out a federal food, nutrition, or health program.

The proposed reorganization would degrade the scientific integrity and core function of CNPP, particularly if:

  1. The CNPP administrator lacks appropriate credentials to guide the development of science based recommendations, including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
    The CNPP administrator has previously been appointed by the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services program. With the proposed reorganization, this position would be filled by a career official lacking necessary technical expertise. In its recent review of the DGA process, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) stated that it is of critical importance that “the DGA be viewed as valid, evidence-based, and free of bias or conflict of interest.” As the individual responsible for overseeing management of the NEL and development of DGAs and other science-based recommendations, the CNPP administrator must have strong credentials, including a background in dietetics, nutrition, medicine, and/or public health, with demonstrated experience relevant to nutrition science/research, population health, chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, economics, surveillance systems, and nutrition communications and marketing. This individual must also possess experience in advanced management and budget oversight; continuous quality improvement; program planning; implementation and evaluation; data analytics; information technology; and public policy.
  2. There is inadequate separation of agency function, diminishing the autonomy of CNPP.
    The application of dietary recommendations in programs administered by FNS introduces a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations. The development of the DGAs and the USDA Food Plans (e.g. Thrifty Food Plan) are of particular concern, as they inform programs administered by FNS.

The Union of Concerned Scientists appreciates the USDA’s efforts to increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies. However, the merging of CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither. The ability of CNPP to effectively and independently fulfill its mission of developing evidence-based dietary guidelines without undue influence may be compromised by: 1) the replacement of an appointed administrator with a career associated administrator who may not possess the qualifications needed to oversee the development of science-based federal nutrition recommendations; and 2) the inherent conflict of interest that occurs by way of FNS oversight over CNPP, as the latter develops guidelines that the former must adhere to in the implementation of various nutrition programs.

Given the alarming trajectory of diet and disease in the US, it is in the best interests of the public and the US healthcare system that CNPP continues to operate independently from FNS to produce evidence-based recommendations for population health. As the Director of the Office of Management and Budget considers proposed agency reorganizations to meet the directive of Executive Order 13781, “Improving Customer Service,” UCS is hopeful that the Director recognizes the magnitude of the potential risks associated with merging these agencies and rejects the proposed action.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Accelerates Politicization of Agency’s Science Advisory Board

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Earlier today, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt strongly suggested that the agency will not consider any candidate for EPA’s science advisory committees who has received a grant from agency. Such a gobsmackingly boneheaded move would further hamstring the ability of the EPA to accomplish its public health mission. The administrator is directly challenging the intent of Congress, which established the Science Advisory Board to provide independent scientific advice so that EPA can effectively protect our health and environment.

So why now? Administrator Pruitt’s schedule offers some clues. House Science Committee Chairman and serial scientist harasser Lamar Smith is a champion of the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, flawed legislation that would increase industry control over the Science Advisory Board and, yes, prevent EPA grant recipients from serving. UCS’s Yogin Kothari summed up the legislation for the New Republic:

“They’re basically saying that people who are experts in environmental science, who have spent their careers working on this and may have received EPA grants to do their work, are inherently conflicted, whereas people who are working in the industry, who would be impacted by the board’s advice, are not conflicted,” Kothari said. “I mean, that’s bananas, right?”

Congress has for years failed to pass this legislation, which was vehemently and repeatedly opposed by UCS and many other mainstream science organizations. So in April 2017, a presumably frustrated Chairman Smith got together with Administrator Pruitt to talk about the bill. Pretty persuasion from the congressman seems to have worked.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is taking more steps to politicize the EPA Science Advisory Board, defying Congress in the process. Photo: Wikimedia

Now keep in mind, Administrator Pruitt already has a parade of lobbyists and advisors providing him with the perspectives from oil, gas, and chemical companies. He already thinks he has all the right friends, but would be best served to hear from independent experts, too.

The Science Advisory Board, for now, can be a check on political influence and can help the agency determine whether the special interests are telling it straight. I can see why a man of his outlook would want to neutralize it.

There are plenty of extremely well-qualified, universally respected candidates who can provide scientific advice to an administrator who really needs it. Getting science advice from the EPA Science Advisory Board is like getting basketball tips from 40 Steph Currys. It’s the best in the business, volunteering their time in service of the public good.

Industry participation on the Science Advisory Board is not a problem. But candidates should be evaluated on their scientific expertise and ability to remain objective. So let’s recap: according to some, scientists who receive money from oil and chemical companies are perfectly qualified to provide the EPA with independent science advice, while those who receive federal grants are not. It’s a fundamental misrepresentation of how conflicts of interest work.

Soon, we’ll hear who the EPA will appoint after controversially dismissing qualified scientists earlier this year. Will the new appointees be Yes Men or responsible researchers? All signs point to the former.

If Administrator Pruitt continues to politicize the Science Advisory Board, he’ll be willfully setting himself up to fail at the job of protecting public health and the environment. It’s not something we should stand for.

How Science Can Help Us Better Prepare for Wildfires: Insights from a NASA Scientist

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Satellite view of California's wildfires and smoke. NASA's Aqua satellite collected this natural-color image on October 09, 2017. Photo: NASA

In the midst of the catastrophic wildfires of Northern California that have claimed 41 lives and either destroyed or damaged more than 5,700 buildings, I wanted to know where the cutting edge of science on this issue is today. What made the California wildfires so strong and unusually destructive? Regardless of what started the fires, what conditions allowed the fires to spread so quickly? Did climate change have anything to do with it? What are scientists currently working on that can help communities better prepare for wildfires?

I had the good luck to work through my questions with NASA Earth scientist and fire expert, Dr. Douglas Morton. I reached Dr. Morton by phone while he was attending SilviLaser 2017 – a conference that brings together scientists who use a powerful laser technology called LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to develop extremely high-resolution 3D maps of forests.

How has the amount of land burned by wildfires changed over time?

When it comes to wildfires, Dr. Morton let me know that NASA has been using satellites to measure changes in wildfire over time, globally and regionally. What they found is that globally, the amount of land burned by wildfires has declined over the past 18 years. This is because more and more land is being converted from natural landscapes, where fires naturally occur, to agriculture.

The Western U.S. is an exception to this – wildfires have increased in this region over time. In California alone, more than one million acres of land have been affected by wildfires this year, putting this year on track to be one of the most destructive on record in the state. More on what is causing those increases in wildfires later.

What made the California wildfires so strong?

When considering what fueled the California wildfires, Dr. Morton pointed to heat as a key factor, with these fires coming on the heels of an unprecedented heat wave in the region. In addition, high winds and drought conditions allowed the wildfires to strengthen and spread quickly. The hot, dry winds (known as Diablo winds) reached up to 79 mph.

Do we know whether climate change contributed to the California wildfires?

Attributing individual disasters to climate change is a complex and growing field. For an event like the wildfires of Northern California, Dr. Morton noted that what we can say at the moment is that the high temperatures in the area – one ingredient of wildfires – have been anomalous.

Beyond the Northern California wildfires, several studies show a link between the previously mentioned increase in wildfire activity in the Western United States and climate change as a result of increasingly warm and dry conditions in the region.  Looking forward, climate change is likely to increase the frequency of large, intense forests fires in the West.

What ability do scientists have to predict wildfires?

NASA scientists are using their understanding of the Earth system to figure out which places are likely to have wildfires as far as 3-6 months out from an event. Dr. Morton noted that some places are more predictable than others. For example, as a result of all of the hurricanes in the North Atlantic, Dr. Morton shared that there will likely be more fire activity in the Amazon next year.

How does that work? Hurricanes are a way that the Earth transfers heat away from the Equator. Warmer ocean waters are tugging a belt of rainfall known as the “Intertropical Convergence Zone” northward.  Warmer water fuels hurricanes, and these storms pull moisture with them.  As a result, there is less water available to the Amazon, and these drier conditions lead to more fire activity following years with more hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic.

However, not all places are conducive to such seasonal forecasts. Dr. Morton described how seasonal wildfire forecasts are currently possible in places (like the Amazon) where fire activity is affected by temperatures at the top of the ocean (also known as sea surface temperatures).

Dr. Morton explained that Northern California’s wildfire activity is not linked to such sea surface temperatures. Instead, it is a place that responds to smaller-scale and shorter-term factors. For example, a dry pocket of air might be enough to tip Northern California into a high wildfire risk situation.

What are the new frontiers for wildfire research?

When wrapping up our conversation, Dr. Morton pointed out that scientists like himself are trying to improve wildfire forecasts, and get forecasts down to shorter timescales that decision makers can use – that is where the cutting edge is right now. He noted that there is a conference at Columbia University coming down the pike where scientists will gather to share knowledge and exchange ideas on this very topic.

We may often think of NASA as the part of the government that sends rockets into space. However, NASA’s scientists and Earth observations are vital to helping make Americans safer here on Earth. Scientists like Doug Morton are pushing the envelope so that decision-makers at the federal, state, and community-level can ultimately have more accurate wildfire forecasts, more time to prepare, and a better chance of protecting lives, property, and ecosystems.

 

Climate Change Goes to Court

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Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his opus Democracy in America, “Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, in a judicial question.” De Tocqueville made the observation in 1835 but it remains equally true in modern times, as federal and state courts have taken the lead to resolve many vexing political problems, such as dismantling segregation-era laws and ensuring a rough equality of funding for public schools. Courts are particularly prone to step in when legislative and executive branches fail to act and that void creates a crisis.

In the United States today, the federal government has abdicated leadership on the central challenge of our time—global climate change. Congress has failed to enact a national climate change policy, and seems more divided on the issue than ever. The Trump administration refuses to even acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus that the planet is warming due to fossil fuel combustion. It has pledged to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, is now actively promoting the expansion of domestic fossil fuel production, and is working to roll back the modest steps the Obama Administration took to address the problem. Meanwhile, the costs of inaction mount and are increasingly obvious—witness Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Given this dereliction of duty, will courts now step in to fill this void?  Five recently filed suits—and some new work by climate scientists—suggest the answer could be yes.

Seeking redress for climate damages

The cities of San Francisco and Oakland recently filed suits against five major fossil fuel producers: ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, and Conoco Phillips. These two suits add upon suits filed in July by two California counties—San Mateo and Marin—and the City of Imperial Beach, which targeted 37 oil, gas and coal companies. These public plaintiffs, relying on cutting-edge work by the Union of Concerned ScientistsInside Climate News, and the Columbia School of Journalism/Los Angeles Times, tell a compelling story that fossil fuel companies have known for roughly 50 years that fossil fuel products are endangering the climate, yet many engaged in a concerted effort to conceal the dangers, sow doubt about the validity of emerging climate science and fight sensible policies to address the problem, all to increase the sales of their products. These plaintiffs also ruefully note that fossil fuel combustion has doubled since 1998, when James Hanson testified to congress about the danger of global warming, and the UN established the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), making it all but impossible to now stave off serious climate change impacts.

The plaintiffs in these cases allege that climate change impacts, such as sea level rise, will harm the infrastructure that these public authorities own and operate and public properties such as beaches and parks, and threaten to displace their residents and damage their properties. Plaintiffs seek damages for the costs they have already incurred, and those that they will incur in the future to address these threats. Several of the suits also seek disgorgement of the profits from fossil fuel production, and punitive damages to punish the alleged wrongdoing.

“Tort” lawsuits like this one have been tried before without success. In one case, a group of state attorneys general sued power plants to enjoin their emissions of carbon dioxide, and in another a group of native communities in Alaska sued fossil fuel companies for damages arising from sea level rise. Two federal courts (the US Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) dismissed these suits on the grounds that Congress placed authority for addressing climate change upon the EPA when it enacted the Clean Air Act, and there was no room for the federal courts to act upon the issue.

There are two key differences between this suit and those prior cases. First, the plaintiffs in this case are suing in state court, and alleging that the fossil fuel companies have violated state law. Thus, the question of whether federal authority to regulate climate change rests with EPA or the judiciary is not strictly relevant.

Second, the federal courts dismissed these two prior cases in 2011 and 2012, at a time when the president and federal agencies were exercising their legal authority to address climate change.  Now, the president and the EPA are abdicating their authority and rolling back the policies that were put in place, in order to promote fossil fuels. Thus, it seems unlikely that the California courts would rely upon these two federal decisions to dismiss the cases.

However, the fossil fuel companies will surely raise this and many other defenses. They will also claim that suits of this kind are beyond the competence of the court to manage, that the plaintiffs are singling them out for a problem caused by many other entities, that the extraction and sale of fossil fuels was expressly allowed under the laws and brought prosperity to millions, and that they possessed no unique knowledge about climate change and were therefore under no obligation to disclose the potential harms of burning fossil fuels.

A decision on these cases is many years away, and it is far too early to predict how it will unfold.  But it is not too early to note the extent to which this case—and the ongoing investigations into ExxonMobil by the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general—are already sparking an important and timely debate about who is responsible for climate change.

Until now, the focus of responsibility has been on nation states: the Paris climate agreement, for example, is based on nations committing to cut emissions and/or compensate countries that are particularly vulnerable to its impacts. This focus on nation states has elided a perhaps more fundamental question—what is the responsibility of the companies that placed fossil fuels into commerce and profited from them? One senses, even in the early stages of this litigation, that this question will eventually be answered in the courts.

 A new role for scientific evidence

Lawyers and judges are not the only actors bringing climate change into the courtroom. Scientists are also playing a key behind-the-scenes role.

One of the most difficult questions a court will face, if climate litigation unfolds, is how to apportion liability for a harm that has millions of sources. The rapidly emerging field of climate attribution science helps answer that question.

In 2014, scientist Rick Heede published a paper that painstakingly traced the volume of oil, gas and coal that excavated and place into commerce between 1854 and 2010 by the 83 major investor and state-owned producers of oil, natural gas, coal, and 7 cement manufacturers. This research concluded that nearly two-thirds of all industrial carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions can be traced to the products of just 90 companies. This relatively small number augers well for the ability of a court to address the question of responsibility.

While this work is a starting point for apportioning liability, it needs further development to be useful in court. A key fact to account for is that including the fact that, unlike pollutants such as mercury or particulates, greenhouse gases do not cause harm directly. Rather, the emissions cause global warming, which then causes specific harms, such as heat waves and sea level rise. Thus, an additional step is needed to connect the global warming emissions associated with these companies’ products to the harms suffered by actual plaintiffs.

A newly published paper by UCS scientists Brenda Ezwurkel and Peter Frumhoff among others, attempts to close this gap. The authors created a model to translate the emissions traceable to these 90 companies into two particular impacts: global increases in temperature, and sea level rise.

The paper appropriately recognizes that, while fossil fuel combustion is the primary cause of these impacts, it is not the only cause; hence the model excludes sources of global warming other than fossil fuel combustion. Next, the model isolates the contribution of these 90 companies, by differentiating between the temperature increase and sea level rise that occurred with the emissions of the 90 companies’ products, and what would have occurred without them.

The authors find that approximately 50 percent of the increase in global temperature, and approximately a third of sea level rise can be traced to these 90 companies. Using the same methodology, the authors find that the top 20 investor-owned companies products caused approximately 25 percent of temperature increase, and 13-16 percent of sea level rise.

This model and methodology has a clear potential application to lawsuits, such as the ones filed by the Californian counties. For example, the County of San Mateo alleges that its waterfront property and infrastructure will be damaged by sea level rise. The County claims that that it has incurred millions of dollars to prepare for this sea level rise, expects to incur over $900 million to maintain and repair infrastructure repairs on its ocean coastline, and faces the prospect of serious or permanent inundation of property valued at $23 billion.

Assuming, for the sake of the argument, that $24 billion worth of damages can be proven, a court could use this model to find that the top twenty fossil fuel companies are responsible for 13-16 percent of this damage, or roughly $360 million. Such a model could be adapted for many other applications, including attributing a portion of responsibility for major weather disasters, such as Tropical Storm Harvey’s severe flooding of Texas.

Lawsuits are successful when the litigants remove the underbrush to point courts to a clear and manageable way to answer the questions a case poses.  The work of these climate attribution scientists goes a long way towards answering the question of how to apportion liability, in the event it is determined that the fossil fuel companies have a legal responsibility for climate change.

A lawsuit on behalf of the next generation

These plaintiffs also allege that the government has violated the so-called “public trust doctrine”—an ancient principle originating in Roman law that a sovereign government must hold common natural resources in trust and must preserve them for future generations. Plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the government to implement an enforceable national plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions to stabilize the climate system.

Not surprisingly, the US government has vigorously fought back—and so, for a short while, did the fossil fuel industry through its trade associations, which joined the lawsuit as defendants but later exited when the case opened them up to the prospect of handing over internal documents).  The defendants claimed that the suit should be dismissed because it raises a “political question” only the executive and legislative branches can resolve; that plaintiffs lack legal standing because climate change does not affect them in any way different than the general public; and that the government has no legally enforceable duty under either the constitution or the public trust doctrine to ensure a stable climate.

Many legal observers, including me, thought this case was a long shot. But, in 2016, a federal district court rejected all of these defenses and ordered a trial to begin in February 2018.  In a breathtaking opinion, the court ruled that plaintiffs had alleged specific harm that gave them legal standing to bring the case and that there may well be a constitutional right to a stable climate system. Furthermore, the court ruled that the public doctrine does potentially require the government to at least act as a responsible steward of the oceans, if not the Earth’s atmosphere, and that the judicial branch does not have to sit on the sidelines in deference to the legislative and executive branches.

If one were looking for a stunning modern example of DeToqueville’s observation of how political disputes eventually enter the courtroom, one needn’t look beyond this opinion.   The suit exemplifies one of the hallmarks of our legal system–its ability to evolve in incremental ways to meet the perceived necessities of the time.  While neither the US constitution nor the public trust doctrine were developed to deal with climate change, here the court found that both could be adapted to address this problem.

Ironically, the plaintiff’s chances of prevailing are probably improved by the election. Had the defendants still been the Obama administration, or a successor Clinton administration, they would have argued that the government had acknowledged the harm of climate change and was doing what it could to address it within the confines of its legal authority.  This defense would put the court in the unenviable position of second-guessing the technical and policy expertise of agencies like the EPA and the DOE, a role that courts typically try to avoid.  The Trump administration, however, cannot make this argument given its decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, erase (literally) the Obama climate action plan, and begin the rollback of key regulations such as the Clean Power Plan and fuel economy standards for cars.

Nevertheless, there is a long way to go on this lawsuit. The Trump administration has attempted to short circuit the trial scheduled for February by filing a premature appeal, and that request is pending. Even if that gambit fails, at trial, the plaintiffs will be required to prove allegations that the court assumed to be true at this early stage in the litigation. And if the court does find for the plaintiffs, the court will have to grapple with the difficult issue of a remedy.

The plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the US government to ensure a stable climate system but climate change, of course, is a global problem caused by many foreign states and companies, and the court has no authority over any of them. Thus, the court will have to assign some proportional percentage of responsibility to the United States government. And, even if such a standard were established, the court would then need to be prepared to oversee the process by which the United States government met it.

The future of climate litigation

It is too early to gauge the impact of the climate lawsuits now underway. But these cases are already putting the fossil fuel industry  and the Trump administration on the defensive, raising an overdue debate about the legal responsibility of the fossil fuel industry, and likely heightening investor unease with fossil fuel investments.

It is well to remember that “impact” litigation is often successful even if there is never a final court order or jury verdict, and that it often takes years or even decades for success to emerge. If these cases survive early motions to dismiss them, and if similar cases are filed in other jurisdictions, these actions could conceivably create leverage for an overall settlement in which fossil fuel companies cease all climate science denial, make explicit and enforceable commitments to phase out fossil fuels over time and/or equip power plants with carbon collection mechanisms, and actively support a carbon tax, the proceeds of which can be used in part to fund preparedness and resilience for the most vulnerable communities.

So, at this moment, when the federal government has turned its back and abdicated its responsibility, we should take some encouragement from the fact that climate change lawyers and scientists are going to court. As DeToqueville pointed out long ago, this has long since been the American way.

Why NRC Nuclear Safety Inspections are Necessary: Columbia Generating Station

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) adopted its Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) in 2000. The ROP is far superior to the oversight processes previously employed by the NRC. Among its many virtues, the NRC treats the ROP as a work in progress, meaning that agency routinely re-assesses the ROP and makes necessary adjustments.

Earlier this year, the NRC initiated a formal review of its engineering inspections with the goal of making them more efficient and more effective. During a public meeting on October 11, 2017, the NRC working group conducting the review outlined some changes to the engineering inspections that would essentially cover the same ground but with an estimated 8 to 15 percent reduction in person-hours (the engineering inspections and suggested revisions are listed on slide 7 of the NRC’s presentation). Basically, the NRC working group suggested repackaging the inspections so as to be able to examine the same number of items, but in fewer inspection trips.

The nuclear industry sees a different way to accomplish the efficiency and effectiveness gains sought by the NRC’s review effort—they propose to eliminate the NRC’s engineering inspections and replace them with self-assessments. The industry would mail the results from the self-assessments to the NRC for their reading pleasure.

UCS is wary of self-assessments by industry in lieu of NRC inspections. On one hand, statistics might show that self-assessments increase safety just as a community firing all its law enforcement officers would see a statistical decrease in arrests, suggesting a lower crime rate. I have been researching the records publicly available in ADAMS to compare the industry’s track record for finding latent safety problems with the NRC’s track record to see whether replacing NRC’s inspections with industry self-assessments could cause nuclear safety to go off-track.

This commentary is the first in a series that convinces us that the NRC’s engineering inspections are necessary for nuclear safety and that public health and safety will be compromised by replacing them with self-assessments by industry.

Columbia Generating Station: Not so Cool Safety Moves

The Columbia Generating Station is a boiling water reactor owned by Energy Northwest and located 12 miles northwest of Richland, Washington. The Washington Public Power Supply System (the original name of the plant’s owner) submitted a Preliminary Safety Analysis Report (PSAR) for the Washington Nuclear Project Unit 2 (the original name for the reactor) to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, the original name of the nuclear regulator) in February 1973.

The PSAR described the proposed design of the plant and associated safety studies that demonstrated compliance with regulatory requirements. The PSAR described the two systems intended to cool the control room during normal operation and during postulated accidents. The control room heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) would use chillers within the Radwaste Building HVAC system during normal operation. Because the Radwaste Building HVAC system is not designed to withstand earthquake forces or remain running when offsite power is unavailable, it cannot be credited with performing this role during accident conditions. So, the Standby Service Water system was proposed to cool the control room during accidents. The Standby Service Water system features pumps, pipes, and valves that recirculate water between a large cooling pond and safety equipment within the plant. Two independent sets, called divisions in the figure, are used to enhance reliability of this safety function (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 (Source: Energy Northwest modified by UCS)

The PSAR indicated that for worst-case design conditions of 77°F cooling pond water temperature and 105°F outside air temperature, the Standby Service Water system would prevent the air temperature within the control room from exceeding 104°F. The AEC/NRC expressed concern that such warm control room temperatures could impair both human and equipment performance.

The owner resolved the regulator’s concerns by committing to installing two Seismic Category I emergency chillers for the control room HVAC system (Fig. 2). The emergency chillers were fully redundant such that one emergency chiller alone could maintain the air temperature inside the control room from exceeding 78°F during an accident. The NRC issued an operating license for the Columbia Generating Station on April 13, 1984, with License Condition 2.C.(21) that required the two emergency chillers to be operable by May 31, 1984. In November 1984, the owner revised the PSAR (now called the Final Safety Analysis Report or FSAR) to describe the emergency chillers and their role in keeping the control room air temperature from exceeding 78°F.

Fig. 2 (Source: Energy Northwest)

In September 1989, the owner revised the FSAR to change the control room air temperature limit to 85°F. The owner determined that this change did not require prior NRC review and approval. The NRC later disagreed with this self-imposed temperature relaxation.

In May 1998, the owner revised the FSAR to change the control room air temperature limit from 85°F to 85°F effective (see below). Once again, the owner determined that this change did not require prior NRC review and approval. And again, the NRC later disagreed with this self-imposed temperature limit relaxation.

“Effective temperature” is based on a combination of wet-bulb and dry-bulb temperatures. The original 75°F and initial 85°F limits were based solely on dry-bulb temperatures. The 85°F effective temperature allowed dry-bulb temperatures of up to 105°F—higher than the control room air temperature expressly rejected by the regulator. The owner made this change without seeking NRC’s approval because it was considered an editorial change. The NRC later determined that this temperature limit relaxation was not an editorial change.

Because the Standby Service Water system alone could maintain the dry-bulb temperature inside the control room at or below 104°F and the revised limit was now 105°F, the owner implemented another change—also unreviewed and unapproved by the NRC—eliminating the need for the emergency chillers to perform any safety role during postulated accidents. The NRC issued a Severity Level IV non-cited violation on April 23, 103, for the owner relaxing the control room air temperature limit without prior NRC approval.

The following month, the owner notified the NRC about deficiencies in the test periodically conducted to demonstrate the adequacy of the Standby Service Water system to cool the control room during accident conditions. When the test deficiencies were remedied and the corrected test performed, one of the two Standby Service Water system trains failed. Workers determined that the tubes within the control room cooler units had become degraded due to the buildup of scale on the inside tube surfaces and the collection of sediment in the lower region of the units. Routine testing of the control room cooler units had been discontinued 16 years earlier.

So, around the same time that the owner improperly decided that the emergency chillers were no longer needed to cool the control room during accidents, it discontinued proper testing of the Standby Service Water system that it thought would perform this role during accidents. Maybe it was another editorial change that discontinued the tests.

On November 12, 2015, the NRC issued a Green finding for a violation of Criterion III, “Design Control,” of Appendix B to 10 CFR Part 50. The NRC inspectors found that the emergency chillers, as designed and governed by operating procedures, would not maintain the air temperature inside the control room below 85°F under accident conditions. The vendor manual for the emergency chillers stated that the STOP-RESET pushbutton had to be depressed after a power interruption because the chillers would not automatically restart. But the operating procedures failed to have the operators perform this necessary step.

On December 22, 2015, Energy Northwest contested the NRC’s finding. The owner stated, in writing, that “There are no design basis requirements to maintain the control room temperature at less than or equal to 85°F at all times for all accident scenarios” [boldfacing in original]. The owner further requested that the NRC conduct a backfit analysis per 10 CFR 50.109 before imposing these “new” regulatory requirements.

By letter dated June 10, 2016, the NRC responded to the owner’s appeal. The NRC carefully considered the owner’s arguments and delineated why it was rejecting each one. The NRC concluded “…it cannot be concluded that the system function as described in the current design basis can be achieved.”

On May 3, 2016 (perhaps sensing that its appeal would not be successful), the owner met with the NRC to discuss a pending license amendment request that would resolve the concerns about the emergency chillers. As shown in the figure, the two emergency chillers sit side-by-side in the same room vulnerable to a common mode, like a fire, disabling them both (Fig. 3). But the chillers are seismically qualified and redundant, consistent with the original commitment to install them. The pending license amendment request would reconcile departures from two NRC General Design Criteria and justify the use of manual vice automatic actions to place the chillers in service.

Fig. 3 (Source: Energy Northwest)

UCS Perspective

Under the Atomic Energy Act as amended, the NRC is tasked with establishing and enforcing regulations to protect workers and the public from the inherent hazards from nuclear power reactor operation.

Owners are responsible for conforming with applicable regulatory requirements. In this case, the owner made a series of changes that resulted in the plant not conforming with applicable regulatory requirements for the air temperature within the control room. But there’s no evidence suggesting that the owner knew that the changes were illegal yet made them anyway hoping not to get caught. Nevertheless, ignorance of the law is still not a valid excuse. The public is not adequately protected when safety regulations are not met, regardless of whether the violations are intentional or inadvertent.

This case study illustrates the vital role that NRC’s enforcement efforts plays in nuclear safety. The soundest safety regulation in the world serves little use unless owners abide by it. The NRCs inspection efforts either verify that owners are abiding by safety regulations or identify shortfalls. Self-assessments by owners are more likely to sustain mis-interpretations and misunderstandings than to flush out safety problems.

The NRC’s ROP is the public’s best protection against hazards caused by aging nuclear power reactors, shrinking maintenance budgets, and emerging sabotage threats. Replacing the NRC’s engineering inspections with self-assessments by the owners would lessen the effectiveness of that protective shield.

The NRC must continue to protect the public to the best of its ability. Delegating safety checks to owners is inconsistent with that important mission.

No, Missile Defense Will Not Work 97% of the Time

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

In an October 11 interview on Fox News, President Trump claimed:

We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time. If you send two of them, they are going to get knocked down.

This is not true. At least not in any relevant way.

The only homeland missile defense system is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which I’ve written plenty about here in these pages, and have co-authored a recent report about. If you’ve been following along, you’ll know the president’s statement was clearly untrue.  I’ll explain why.

What does the actual test record show?

The GMD interceptors have succeeded in destroying the target in nine out of 18 tests since 1999 (50%).  They have destroyed their target in four out of 10 tries (40%) since the GMD system was nominally deployed in 2004. They have destroyed their target in two of the last five tests (40%).

So there is no basis to expect it to work any better than 40 to 50% of the time even under the most generous and easiest conditions—former Pentagon testing agency director Phil Coyle calls the test conditions so far as “scripted for success.”

While the test record says something about the GMD’s capabilities under scripted conditions, the real world will be more complex and challenging. The Pentagon’s highest testing official assessed in 2014 that the test program was “insufficient to demonstrate that an operationally useful capability exists.” More on this later.

But for sake of argument, say the “single shot kill probability” has been determined via tests to be 40 to 50% in those optimistic conditions. Because reliability is low, the US would fire multiple interceptors at the missile to try to boost the system’s effectiveness. Using four-on-one targeting, and a 40 to 50% chance that a given interceptor would work, this leads to a 6 to 13% chance that the warhead gets through.

Real-world conditions

But this isn’t the right question. If it came down to a nuclear attack, would North Korea send just a single missile, and choose the most convenient conditions? That seems unlikely. Let’s say the salvo is five incoming missiles. In that case, with an interceptor kill probability of 40 to 50%, using four interceptors on each missile, the probability that one warhead gets through is 28 to 50%. Uncomfortably high.

I could not stress more that this is a best-case scenario. It assumes that:

1) Failures are uncorrelated and not, e.g., a design flaw common to all interceptors, such as the guidance system issues that took nearly a decade to diagnose and fix,

2) The intercept attempts take place under simplified conditions and that the system is not being stressed as it would in a real-world situation, and

3) The system successfully identified the five real targets from among decoys. If the system cannot distinguish decoys from the real targets, it will have to engage them all, quickly depleting the interceptor inventory. These do not need to be the Ferraris of decoys to be an issue. Some of the GMD intercept tests have included decoys, but all of those have been designed to be easily distinguished from the target warhead.

In short, one can construct situations under which missile defense might destroy missiles: a small salvo of missiles sent without countermeasures and under the limited range of conditions under which the system has been tested. The problem is that these are not by any stretch the most *likely* situations. A potential adversary has every incentive to make the attack as difficult as possible to intercept if he is going to initiate World War Three.

Note that even if the president were instead talking about one of the missile defense systems that has a better and more complete test record, such as THAAD, the issues with not having been tested in operationally realistic conditions is the same. And because THAAD defends against shorter-range missiles from North Korea, which are cheaper and more plentiful, it has the additional issue that it may be overwhelmed even if it is able to discriminate between decoys and real targets. There just may be too many targets.

Why is this dangerous?

The best-case scenario is that President Trump is trying to avoid a confrontation by allowing himself to save face: he has declared that North Korea must not be able to threaten the US mainland with nuclear-armed missiles. Or that he hopes such statements would help dissuade North Korea from considering an attack.

Certainly worse than this is the possibility that Trump actually believes that strategic missile defense provides credible protection and he has not been advised correctly. One hopes he is provided accurate information by stewards of these programs, although at least in public, government official often describe the GMD system as much more capable than it has been demonstrated to be.

This is dangerous, because common sense would say that if we have spent $40 billion on a missile defense system that the US has claimed has been “operational” for going on fifteen years, it must “work.” But it doesn’t. Look at the test record.

The problem is that believing missile defense works when it doesn’t can lead you to take actions that make you need it, and then it can’t help you.

US Withdrawal from UNESCO Will Undermine Collaboration on Science and Culture

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The Trump Administration’s war on science has intensified with the announcement that the US is withdrawing from UNESCO, the international organization that works to promote peace & security through international cooperation on education, science and cultural programs. 

Founded in 1945, when nations were seeking ways to rebuild educational systems and cultural connections in the immediate aftermath of World War II, UNESCO today is a leading multi-lateral organization working on a range of issues crucial for achieving peace, equity and sustainability world-wide.

“Every day, countless Americans and American communities pour their time and their hearts into UNESCO-led international collaborations on science, on education and on culture” says Andrew Potts who practices cultural heritage law at Nixon Peabody LLP.  They work on preventing violent extremism via youth education, on literacy and educating women and girls, on science for development, and on free speech and journalist safety. And of course, they fight for cultural diversity and heritage through UNESCO projects like the World Heritage program, biosphere reserves and the Creative Cities initiative.

UNESCO recognition benefits US communities

Mission San Antonio de Valero “The Alamo”, in San Antonio, Texas. Photo: NPS

UNESCO recognition and connections can bring economic benefits to US communities. For example, according to a State Department news bulletin from August 2017, Tucson, Arizona, which was listed as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in 2015, has experienced an increase in tourism and restaurant revenues as a direct result, as well as millions of dollars of earned media coverage.

The US withdrawal announcement on October 12th came smack in the middle of Iowa City’s eight-day UNESCO City of Literature Book Festival. It also came right on the heels of San Antonio, Texas’ second World Heritage Festival, a new annual event that already attracts thousands of visitors to celebrate and learn about the San Antonio missions – including the Alamo – that were added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2015.

Although US World Heritage sites won’t lose their status when the US leaves UNESCO, there will likely be little or no federal support for collaboration and engagement with the international agency or its staff.

Relationship status: It’s complicated

The US has a complicated history with UNESCO. It helped to found the organization and has always been actively engaged, but it has also withdrawn once before.

At the height of the cold war in 1984, Ronald Reagan pulled the US out. At that time, a report on the implications for US science published by the National Research Council identified disruptions to international scientific collaborations, reduced confidence in US scientific leadership and forfeiture of the right to participate in governance of UNESCO-led scientific initiatives.

The US ultimately continued to provide an equivalent level of international financial support for science, culture and education, but the impacts of withdrawal were significant in the scientific community.

George W. Bush took the US back into UNESCO nearly 20 years later in 2002, and then in 2011, the Obama administration drastically cut back on financial support to UNESCO in response to Palestine being granted full membership.

The process for withdrawal takes some time, and the US will not formally cease to be a member of UNESCO until December 31st, 2018. The State Department has said the US remains committed to UNESCO’s important work and will seek observer status.

Secretary Tillerson could put action behind that talk by committing to put the equivalent of the US’s former UNESCO dues payments into other international collaborations in science, education and culture.

“Wars begin in the minds of men”

The opening words of UNESCO’s constitution carved in 10 languages in Toleration Square, Paris. Photo: UNESCO.

Meanwhile, it is the words of the American poet Archibald MacLeish that are enshrined in UNESCO’s constitution and etched in 10 languages on the Tolerance Square wall at the organization’s headquarters in Paris: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

According to outgoing UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, “[that] vision has never been more relevant” than it is today. In a moving and very personal statement in response to the news of the US withdrawal, Bokova said,

At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues.

Under Bokova’s leadership, with major involvement from the US, UNESCO has been at the forefront of efforts to protect heritage sites and museum collections in Iraq and Syria as ISIS forces have tried to destroy monuments and stamp out culture.

She has also spearheaded implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, in a world where journalists’ freedom to work and safety is constantly under threat.

Through its Science for Sustainable Development program which many US universities participate in, UNESCO has launched important initiatives to increase the number of women in science, to ensure science is at the heart of policy-making for sustainable development, to fully value Traditional Ecological Knowledge and to champion open access to scientific information.

Protecting World Heritage

UCS led the team that produced UNESCO’s 2016 report on climate change and World Heritage. Photo: UNESCO.

It is probably for its work on World Heritage that UNESCO is best known to most Americans. The World Heritage Convention was set up to help protect for future generations, natural and cultural heritage deemed to be of universal value for humankind.

There are 23 World Heritage sites in the US, amongst them, the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Yellowstone, Yosemite and Mesa Verde national parks. Many of America’s World Heritage sites and cultural sites are at risk from climate change impacts including worsening wildfires, more intense storms, sea level rise and coastal flooding.

The National Park Service, which is a global leader in researching and responding to the effects of climate change on protected areas, has historically been a major player in the World Heritage Convention under UNESCO’s leadership.

Indeed, just as the US is planning to withdraw from UNESCO, the international World Heritage Committee is preparing a major effort to step up its engagement with the implementation of the Paris Agreement (a global commitment to act to reduce global warming emissions to address climate change), and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and to update its policy on climate change for the first time in a decade.

UCS will be fully engaged in that process, building on the policy recommendations in our report on climate and world heritage, published with UNESCO and UNEP in 2016.

The Trump administration, however, is relegating federal scientists, experts and agencies to bystander status with one more pointlessly anti-science jab at the international community. In response Potts says,

Now more than ever, as with the Paris Agreement, it will be incumbent on US cities, universities and NGOs to pick up the reins of global education, science and cultural collaboration; to continue to make American contributions to all these critical endeavors and to make sure American communities benefit from their progress.

 

 

How Pruitt Listens: Removing Clean Power Plan Web Resources Undermines Public Engagement

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On Monday, Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced his long awaited formal proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the defining regulation in President Barack Obama’s battle against climate change. Talk of the repeal has made headlines for months, after President Donald Trump’s executive order addressing energy and climate policy and his announcement that he intended to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. News about a potential replacement for the rule has swirled for weeks.

Yet amid all of the discussion, the Web resources and information that the government has long provided to help inform us about climate change, the social cost of carbon, and the Clean Power Plan itself have been disappearing from federal websites. For members of the public looking to learn about the science and the policy analyses that underlie years of rulemaking and debate, the sources have become harder to find. We’ve found and reported on a number of examples of these types of removals through our work monitoring federal websites at the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative.

Web resources gone missing

After the EPA’s announcement on April 28 that it would be overhauling its website to “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt,” most of the sections of EPA.gov devoted to climate change and work to adapt to and mitigate its harms were removed. While most of these resources were archived, few have been returned or replaced on the official EPA website, where they can be most easily accessed. Certain portions, like “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change,” never even made it into an EPA Web archive, likely due to copying errors.

During the same set of EPA website removals, the website for the Clean Power Plan was itself removed and its URLs began redirecting to a new website about implementing President Trump’s executive order. While the previous website hosted resources for the public to understand the Clean Power Plan and for states to develop emissions plans, the new website links to the Federal Register, the order notice, and related news releases, but provides minimal informational resources directed at communicating the significance of the policy shifts to the public. The previous website linked to Spanish language Web resources, like Clean Power Plan facts sheets and community resources, which were also removed without being archived, likely as a result of the same errors mentioned above.

In Administrator Pruitt’s announcement and in the proposed repeal itself, Obama-era analyses of the potential health benefits of the rule and the overall social cost of carbon have been questioned and tossed aside. The information and resources that could provide the public insight into this debate have, once again, been removed: the EPA’s webpage on the social cost of carbon was part of the April 28 removals and the White House webpage on the topic, containing a wealth of relevant links, was removed and archived on inauguration day.

The legal basis for the requirement that EPA regulate greenhouse gas emissions, known as the endangerment finding, is another crucial resource in understanding the debate over the rule. But the EPA’s endangerment finding webpage, too, was swallowed up by the April 28 removals, and has since been either hard to access or, at times, simply not available.

The importance of well-informed public comment

Notice-and-comment rulemaking, used by the federal government whenever it puts new regulations in place or removes existing ones, relies on the ability of the public to provide informed input about the ways in which we will all be affected by a new regulation and how we weigh the costs and benefits. Public comment dockets today are often dominated by industry groups and civil society organizations. Making government-funded information harder to access simply serves to further the divide between those who have the capacity to craft a substantive public comment and those who do not.

A scientist or member of the public working on their own time to write a public comment, relying only on public information resources, can make an impact, as their comment has equivalent standing to any other submission and must be accounted for just the same. The public information that the government has historically made available about the Clean Power Plan’s projected air quality improvements, for example, would provide a way for people to weigh in on the debate over how to value the regulation’s predicted health benefits. But without access to public information, we’re allowing the idea of regulation with citizen input to become nothing more than a myth.

The likely replacement for the Clean Power Plan, if there is one, will be designed to masquerade as a sufficient regulation of emissions in order to evade litigation. Instead of a comprehensive rule like the Clean Power Plan, regulating pollution from coal power plants by considering wholescale how they use energy and produce emissions, it will likely focus only on reducing pollution through improvements in efficiency or fuel replacements at individual power plants. Past EPA studies have determined that these types of changes would result in only an approximate 4% increase in coal plant efficiency.

After approving the proposed repeal on Tuesday, Administrator Pruitt said, “Any replacement rule will be done carefully, properly, and with humility, by listening to all those affected by the rule.” It’s clear from his Administration’s removal of Web resources, however, that he has no intention of enabling that pledge by ensuring that public resources remain available to help citizens understand the proposed policy shifts.

When the health and well-being of the public are threatened so directly by the harms of climate change, we cannot allow our government to censor the information that facilitates the public’s crucial expression in forming new policy.

How you can make an impact

While an overturn of the proposed repeal is unlikely, it is still important that we, as members of the public, weigh in on the benefits that the Clean Power Plan would have to the climate and public health. What we have to say must be taken into account during the rulemaking process and will bolster any litigation that occurs after the repeal.

Once the Federal Register publishes the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the coming days, the public will have 60 days to submit comment. Find out how to submit a comment here.

Resources

Here are resources about the Clean Power Plan and its benefits, some mentioned above, that have been removed from federal websites and can be used to craft your comment:

 

Toly Rinberg is a Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation working on documenting and contextualizing changes to federal websites, and understanding how these changes affect public access to Web resources. He also helps lead the website monitoring working group at the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, working with a volunteer team to track and report on changes to environmental, climate, and energy websites. He is currently taking time off from his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University.

Andrew Bergman is a Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, where he is classifying changes to federal websites, and a member of the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, where he helps lead the website monitoring team. He is also working to monitor and coordinate response to environmental agency oversight issues with partners, like UCS. He is currently on leave from his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University.

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.

Pruitt Puts Coal Before Children

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Photo: Rushlan Dashinsky/iStockphoto

In announcing his abandonment of the Clean Power Plan, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt boasted, “The war on coal is over.”

That means the war on children has begun.

The irony is particularly cruel because a draft copy of Pruitt’s repeal order says with a straight face that it complies with President Clinton’s 1994 environmental justice executive order protecting vulnerable populations.  The order says it is “unlikely to have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations, low-income populations and/or indigenous peoples.” For further insult, the home page of EPA’s website has a banner at the bottom declaring that October is Children’s Health Month. “Children are often more likely at risk from environmental hazards,’ the banner read. “Find ways you can protect children from environmental risks.”

Pruitt is increasing the risks and making a mockery of the agency’s name in throwing out the CPP proposed by former President Obama to curb carbon emissions that harm both climate and health. Using Voodoo Economics 2.0, Pruitt claims repeal will save Americans $33 billion in needless industrial compliance.

The reality is that even without the CPP, which Pruitt helped hold up in the courts when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, renewable energy is a powerhouse that already dwarfs the supposed savings of CPP repeal. Its growth is being felt in red states, blue states, and purple states alike. Nationwide, the trade association Advanced Energy Economy estimates that the sectors of energy efficiency, solar and wind power add up to a $108 billion industry.

The $33 billion in total industrial savings boasted by Pruitt are obliterated by the annual benefits of up to $34 billion a year in better health from the cleaner air delivered by the CPP. The EPA projected 3,600 less premature deaths a year, along with 1,700 less heart attacks, 90,000 less asthma attacks and 300,000 less missed workdays and school days. An independent analysis two years ago by eight researchers, including scientists from Harvard, Syracuse and Boston universities published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found there would be about 3,500 fewer premature deaths with the cleaner air proposed by Obama. Their study concluded:

“Carbon standards to curb global climate change can also provide immediate local and regional health co-benefits.” The researchers found that in the scenario closest to the Clean Power Plan, most of the states with the highest health benefits are also those that burn the most coal to generate electricity. Some of those same researchers last year published a study on the financial benefits in the online science journal PLOS One. They found that the CPP would result in $38 billion in annual net health and social benefits. The study said, “The health co-benefits gained from air quality improvements associated with climate mitigation policies can be large, widespread, and occur nearly immediately once emissions reductions are realized.”

The health implications are so widespread it indeed constitutes an environmental justice issue. The Department of Health and Human Services says Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma attacks than white children. And among all racial groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African American children have the highest rate of asthma, one in six, and had the highest rise in asthma from 2001 to 2009, 50 percent.

The benefits are also economic for the parents of these children. For instance, Latino workers are particularly vulnerable to the hotter temperatures of climate change as, according to the Department of Labor, they constitute 42 percent of construction laborers up to 75 percent of farm field workers.

But make no mistake, Pruitt’s repeal has the potential to hurt everyone. In response to Pruitt’s repeal of the CPP, an editorial Tuesday in the Portland Press Herald, a leading newspaper in the very white state of Maine, said, “Maine children have some of the highest rates of asthma in the nation, partly as a result of our position downwind from the power plants in the Midwest and Great Lakes states, putting young lungs at the end of the nation’s tailpipe.”

Unfortunately, this is hardly the first decision Pruitt has made in his first half year running the EPA that puts children in harm’s way. He has reversed the ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide known to be associated with reduced brain function in children. He is reviewing or pledging to reverse other Obama-era rules designed to curb water pollution and toxic chemical spills.

In his press release Tuesday, Pruitt claimed he was “reinstating transparency into how we protect our environment.” All he actually did was clarify his role as a puppet of fossil fuel, at the utter expense of the health of the nation’s children. When the Obama administration proposed the Clean Power Plan, the health benefits to children were at its center.

The word “children” is not uttered once in Pruitt’s official announcement of repeal.

Conflicts of Interest? NOAA’s Nominees AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers, and Dr. Neil Jacobs of Panasonic

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The slow process by the Trump administration of selecting and nominating candidates for high level government positions to lead federal agencies is continuing to creep along now nearly ten months into his presidency.  

Why should we care? These agency leaders affect the lives of literally every person in this country. I recently reviewed some of the nominees for key science-based agencies.   There is a pattern of nominating people with conflicts of interest, or that have a history of opposing the very mission of the agencies they are appointed to lead.  And there are some nominees that just don’t hold the qualifications needed for the positions they are being appointed to.  While I didn’t do a comprehensive review, I found too many examples of these problems to ignore.

As a former NOAA scientist and manager, it was particularly troubling to me that two nominees this week to lead my former agency fit this disturbing pattern.  Last night, President Trump nominated Barry Myers to be the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, the Administrator of NOAA.  Earlier, he nominated Dr. Neil Jacobs to be the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction.  Adm. Timothy Gallaudet to be Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Conservation and Management.

To be fair, I believe that Admiral Gallaudet, former oceanographer of the Navy is an excellent choice for NOAA, as do others I respect.

Myers and Jacobs:  conflicted leaders?

A nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just been announced and follows the pattern of nominating conflicted business leaders to lead agencies.

The nominee, Barry Myers, is the CEO of AccuWeather. His company is highly successful and perhaps better known to many than NOAA itself. Basically, their business model is to take NOAA data and products on weather, developed with taxpayer dollars, and deliver them to the public in a proprietary form that customers want. He has been a strong advocate against NOAA having the capability to provide such products directly to the public, hence the rather boring form of NOAA forecasts which is interpreted and commoditized by companies like AccuWeather and many others.

AccuWeather has been active in efforts to undercut the role of NOAA. In 2005, AccuWeather, under the leadership of Myers’ brother Dr. Joel Myers, worked with Senator Rick Santorum on a bill to severely restrict the National Weather Service’s ability to provide weather forecasts to the public. The company donated to Santorum’s then Senate campaign and has been vocal about their interest in downsizing NOAA in the interest of privatizing weather forecasting.

Compounding these concerns, Dr. Neil Jacobs, Chief Atmospheric Scientist for Panasonic Weather Solutions has also advocated for a greater role for private weather data.  His company sells their data and model outputs to NOAA as input to weather forecasts.  He has advocated for a greater role for the private sector much as Mr. Myers has. Testifying before the House Science Committee in July Dr. Jacobs advocated for the proprietary model his company developed as “better” than the NOAA forecasting models.  According to a report from the hearing Dr. Jacobs stated that, “… that a private company like Panasonic can move more quickly than NOAA in improving its models and processes, because it does not have to go through the years of quality and reliability testing that NOAA requires when implementing major model upgrades.”  That is probably true but far from comforting for a service vital to public safety.  Will Dr. Jacobs carry that approach, shortcutting reliability testing in order to get a product to market, into NOAA?  I hope not.

If appointed, Myers and Jacobs will now be in a position to make such decisions about NOAA’s work. It is easy to see how private weather companies like AccuWeather or Panasonic could directly benefit from decisions made by Myers and Jacobs; and the likely incentivizes to make decisions that benefit Myer’s family’s business and the business Jacobs worked with and advocated for for years.

Will Myers cut all financial ties to AccuWeather before accepting such an appointment?  How about Jacobs? I won’t hold my breath, given the current industry ties still held many members of this administration starting at the top.

Do people have a right to accessible weather information that they pay for with their tax dollars? Myers and AccuWeather, as well as Jacobs and Panasonic appear to think not. I happen to think Americans deserve access to the life-saving forecasts and other weather information provided to the public by NOAA scientists.

NOAA’s mission is to protect people and property

Most of the public may only know of NOAA because their logo appears on hurricane or tornado forecasts. Others because they follow weather forecasting closely and many forecasts refer to NOAA.

For those of us who spend a lot of time on the ocean, we certainly know that NOAA is responsible for producing nautical charts. In fact the part of the agency that produces nautical charts critical to shipping, boating, and naval operations is the oldest physical science department in the government dating to 1807. The National Weather Service (NWS) in NOAA was formed in 1870, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which studies and manages living marine resources, dates to 1871. I am a proud former scientist and manager of NMFS, first as a student trainee and ultimately as the deputy director of the agency.

Ok, that’s all ancient history (including my time at NOAA), so what does the agency do? Simply put, NOAA does a wide range of basic and applied scientific research to better understand our oceans and atmosphere, from deep sea exploration to space weather. (If you can’t imagine why we care about weather in space, you can find out how it can affect everything from satellites to cellphones!)

NOAA’s research provides information to the public, policy makers, and other scientists in the US and around the world. NOAA scientists partner with a huge number of scientists in academia, industry, and private institutions in collaborative research in addition to providing critical long-term data series that no one else has the resources nor the mandate to collect and share with the public.

So NOAA is a science agency, but its science is applied to create weather forecasts, manage fisheries, protect whales and other marine mammals, help states manage coastal areas, create charts, inform international negotiations on addressing the challenges of management of shared resources in the oceans and atmosphere, forecast tsunami risks, measure and monitor the ongoing process of climate change, and more.

The leadership of the agency can impact all of us in one way or another. Care about severe weather and risks to your life and property? Better thank NOAA. Care about your favorite beach and whether it is eroding or will it be clean and safe? Better thank NOAA. Care about your farm and the coming growing season’s weather? Better thank NOAA. Or the fish you enjoy to catch or eat? Better thank NOAA.

A lack of respect for science

Mr. Myers is not a scientist but a businessman. That is in the same vein as many other Trump appointees. Some say that bringing a business approach to government is essential. I am not one of them. I have been a senior manager in government and have also run a small business. Totally different perspectives. But of course even these different perspectives can inform one another.

But NOAA is truly a science agency. The leader of the organization doesn’t have to be a scientist but needs to be deeply engaged in the process and perspective of science and scientists in order to be successful with regard to the public interest.

Mr. Myers was interviewed about his leadership of Accuweather by the Wall Street Journal in 2014. This Q & A jumped out at me:

“Did you ever think about going into meteorology?

I did actually. I was originally enrolled in meteorology as an undergraduate. I then dropped out of school because I was a horrible student. I was never interested in learning, which I look at now as sort of funny.

Well, not that funny really. There is always a lot to learn at NOAA. I found that out to my continuous joy. I hope the next leader of the agency is deeply steeped in its scientific work and embraces the chance to learn how that science is critical to the nation.

The EPA’s Crucial and Unsung Role in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands

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After a major hurricane there is an urgent need to rebuild the infrastructure needed for clean water and sewers. The EPA has a critical role to play in that effort. Here flooding is shown in Carolina, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria. Photo: Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos/USDA (Flickr)

The recent hurricanes have spotlighted the federal government’s crucial role in response and recovery. But much of the coverage has focused on FEMA, funding, and the US military. Rarely in the news—and yet critical to response and recovery efforts—is the work of the Environmental Protection Agency.

During the Trump administration, the EPA has seen cutbacks in staff, major funding reduction proposals, and a real change in culture. And while much of the public discussion about the EPA has focused on its regulatory role, there is far more to the agency than just regulation—and all of its functions are being affected by recent changes.

To understand why we need a strong and capable EPA to respond to disaster like Hurricane Maria (and Irma and Harvey) I spoke with two former leaders of EPA, Thomas Burke and Stan Meiburg. Dr. Burke served as the EPA Science Advisor and Assistant Administrator for Research and Development until the end of the Obama Administration. Now on the faculty of Johns Hopkins, he is widely recognized for his work in public health and risk assessment.

As he emphasized, “EPA has a very important role because Maria is, unfortunately, first and foremost an environmental disaster… the biggest challenge is that there is a fundamental change in risks to the populations in island communities and coastal areas.”

Before the storm

Stan Meiburg served as the Deputy Administrator of the EPA from 2014-2017. In his 39 years with the agency he worked in both regional offices and headquarters. He is now on the faculty of Wake Forest University directing their sustainability program.

Dr. Meiburg explained that the EPA’s role begins before a storm like Maria hits. Hurricane forecasting, by NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, has come a long way over the last few decades, so EPA officials watch closely as a hurricane intensifies. At the EPA, the job of preparing for the storm means activating the incident command center at the EPA Regional Office (Region 2 in New York for Puerto Rico and the USVI), Dr. Meiburg explained. The regional office of EPA includes about 40 permanent staff in Puerto Rico itself and has experience with the communities at risk from the oncoming storm. To the extent possible, the agency also pre-deploys mobile labs and other equipment—a task that naturally presented a special challenge for the islands.

As the regional office begins this work, Dr. Burke noted that the EPA also must mobilize on a broader scale. “EPA should be at the table for the national effort coordinated at the highest level with the National Security Council with FEMA, Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Center for Disease Control. It’s a team approach,” he said, adding that “the military is great because they have the capabilities to do the heavy lifting, but they constantly need scientific guidance. They constantly need analytical capability and risk assessment. That’s the role for the EPA at all levels.”

Recovery

After Hurricane Maria passed, its devastation became apparent as island officials described the enormity of the humanitarian crisis. Dr. Burke explained that, for the EPA, the focus must be “all about exposure and getting back the necessities of life.” As he put it, “you need the folks who know the water systems—who can be out there to assess water quality, damage to infrastructure for waste water treatment or the drinking water system to make sure people aren’t exposed to waterborne diseases and contaminants. That’s EPA.”

Dr. Meiburg agreed. He stressed that electricity is the dominant concern because, without that, it is difficult to deal with anything else. He noted that the decision to put the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of rebuilding the electric grid makes a lot of sense. But the next urgent need is to rebuild the infrastructure needed for clean water and sewers, as well as waste disposal (including for the debris from the storm). In that effort, he says, the EPA has a critical role to play. Dr. Burke pointed out that with water, sewer, and disposal systems down, the risks from both waterborne and vector-borne (e.g., mosquitoes, rats) disease can very quickly rise. And the EPA is the agency with expertise with pesticides and other control methods.

Dr. Meiburg also pointed out several other high-priority efforts for the recovery that EPA must staff. The integrity of Superfund hazardous waste sites must be checked as soon as possible, he said.  Industrial facilities need attention for leaks, spills, and in their restart operations. And hazardous waste from both commercial and household sources are a difficult and dangerous problem in wake of the storm.  All of these require staff and other resources. And the problems are urgent.

The long road

Given the scale of the disaster in Puerto Rico and the USVI, indeed throughout much of the Greater Antilles, the recovery road is a long one—even with a massive effort. Both Drs. Burke and Meiburg emphasized the need for EPA to have a sustained presence on the islands, as well as in the other areas impacted by hurricanes over the last month or so. That means that the agency will have extraordinary responsibilities that will require the staff and resources to provide the help that’s urgently needed.

Rebuilding critical infrastructure means constant attention from scientists and engineers in the agency. It also means deep and sustained coordination with the Commonwealth’s government as well as in the USVI.  As Dr. Burke noted, “it is all about human health.” That means the EPA regional office, the EPA national laboratories and headquarters staff must take on huge additional responsibilities.

The Environmental Protection Agency is a crucial national asset, every bit as important as the military in responding to humanitarian crises. Its staff needs our appreciation, but more than that, they need adequate resources and support to effectively do their vital work.

The Trump Administration Fakes Science to Justify Restrictions on Birth Control Access

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The Trump administration is using bogus science to justify restrictions on birth control access, building on a legacy of Presidential administrations' politicization of science around contraceptives. Photo: www.quotecatalog.com

Birth control access is now the latest casualty in the Trump administration’s attacks on science. Last Friday, the administration issued rules that roll back the birth control mandate of the Affordable Care Act, i.e. the guarantee that insurance companies cover birth control whether they like it or not.

This means that companies can now more easily refuse to cover birth control costs for their employees. The administration claimed that scientific evidence supported their decision, but like many things with this administration, they got the science all wrong.

Here is a sampling of the actual science that the administration questioned or misrepresented

1) Birth control works and access to it reduces unwanted pregnancy. The administration’s rules question this long understood science. Since the introduction of the pill decades ago, medical professionals have documented the effectiveness of contraceptives in preventing pregnancy.

At the community scale, scientists also observe that access to birth control reduces rates of unwanted pregnancies, births, and abortions. One important study known as the Choice Project gave free contraceptives to teenagers in St Louis. The results showed that pregnancies, births, and abortions reported were half compared to the national average.

2) Contraceptives have many health benefits. The administration misrepresented the science on the benefits and risks of birth control, claiming that use of contraceptives may lead to riskier sexual behavior. But scientific evidence doesn’t support this.

Studies have not found increases in riskier sexual behavior following access to free birth control. In the Choice study mentioned above, participants reported no change in their sexual activities after receiving contraceptives. It is also worth mentioning the myriad reasons that women are on birth control. In addition to the benefit of having control over family planning, contraceptives are also used to treat other medical conditions, such as excessive menstrual bleeding and pre-menstrual syndrome symptoms.

3) Health risk from contraceptive use is extraordinarily low. The Trump administration emphasized risks and downplayed benefits of birth control, a key tactic often used by those who want to disparage scientific evidence. For example, the administration’s rules emphasized the risk of blood clots from birth control use. This risk does exist (on the order of 5-12 cases per 10,000 births) but scientists point out that your risk of blood clots during pregnancy is higher. And of course, this risk is far lower than risks involved in other things people regularly engage in, like riding in a car, taking a flight, and living with a city with air pollution. Emphasizing this risk as a justification for restricting access to the birth control is disingenuous.

A history of politicization of the science on birth control

Unfortunately, the Trump administration isn’t the first to politicize birth control. In the modern era, several presidential administrations have inserted politics into what should have been science-based decisions on birth control access.

Under the George W Bush Administration, political officials went against the scientific community and restricted access to the emergency contraceptive Plan B One-Step. While the product was shown to be safe and FDA scientific advisory committee members overwhelmingly recommended (23 to 4) that the drug be available over the counter, FDA officials, with involvement of the Bush White House, failed to take the scientific advice and kept access to the drug restricted.

Despite public outcry and legal challenges, the administration continued to delay making a science-based decision, ultimately resulting in the resignation of the FDA director of the Office of Women’s Health Susan Wood. In a resignation email, Wood wrote “I can no longer serve as staff when scientific and clinical evidence, fully evaluated and recommended for approval by the professional staff here, has been overruled.”

Under the Obama Administration, too, we again saw political interference in contraceptive science. President Obama’s Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius failed to make Plan B emergency contraceptive available over-the-counter for all ages despite science demonstrating it was safe. The FDA’s own scientists made clear the drug was safe and FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg agreed. But in a bold and unprecedented move, the HHS secretary publicly overruled the FDA commissioner. Shockingly, Secretary Sebelius and the administration claimed that it was uncertainty in the science showing how safe the drug was that caused the political move.

President Obama was quoted, “As I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old … should be able to buy a medication that potentially … could end up having an adverse effect.” This of course is out of context, as medications with far worse potential side effects are already widely available over the counter in drug stores across the country. Court battles ensued and Plan B One-Step was made available over the counter for all ages in 2013.

Dismissing the science, harming public health

In many ways, it’s strange that birth control has long been a victim of politicization. It is not only widely popular but the science is very clear. This is something we know very well. The health effects are minimal and the benefits are tremendous. This is a no-brainer.

If we’d like to improve public health outcomes, evidence tells us that we should make birth control widely available. Indeed, this is what many countries have chosen to do. Yet the Trump administration has chosen to sideline science at nearly every turn. Unfortunately, birth control is now joining the ranks.

Setting the Record Straight on EVs and Biofuels

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Biofuel research in San Diego. Photo: Steve Jurvetson, CC-BY-2.0 (Flickr)

Late last week I submitted a response to an article critical of UCS analysis on electric vehicles that appeared in Biofuels Digest on October 2nd.  The editor graciously printed my response in full on Monday, and I am reposting it here.   

Cutting oil use and transportation emissions is a big job, that will require both electric vehicles and biofuels

Last week, Biofuels Digest ran a piece claiming that biofuels beat electric vehicles on cost and emissions.  The piece specifically took issue with a report my colleagues wrote, Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave, which found that battery electric vehicles (EVs) are less polluting than gasoline powered cars, even when the additional emissions associated with producing the cars, particularly the batteries, are considered.

I’m not interested in stoking an argument between supporters of electric vehicles and biofuels. Cutting oil use and global warming pollution from transportation is a big job, and we need rapid progress on both electric vehicles and biofuels, as I described at length in a recent report on Fueling a Clean Transportation Future.  But my colleagues and I at the Union of Concerned Scientists believe that solving big problems depends on careful analysis, so I feel compelled to set the record straight on a few key points.

The Biofuels Digest piece has significant errors in its calculations on emissions:
  • Biofuels Digest suggests it makes sense to consider only the first owner’s emissions in calculating emissions benefits.  We disagree.  Cars pollute over their whole lives, regardless of how many times they change hands, so it makes sense to calculate emissions benefits over the car’s lifetime. Choosing an arbitrarily low lifetime (less than 7 years) biases the calculation in favor of conventional vehicles.
  • Our calculations for EV emissions were based on the average grid where the cars are being charged.  The Biofuels Digest comparison is a very optimistic scenario of a car running on advanced biofuel with a 50% GHG reduction.  Very few cars run on 100% biofuel, the closest they come is Flex-Fuel vehicles (FFVs) that run on E85 (which is a mix of 51-85% ethanol and gasoline).   Very few FFVs run on E85 most of the time, and the ethanol in E85 is mostly corn ethanol, not an advanced biofuel that meets a 50% GHG reduction as Biofuels Digest assumes.  So, despite claiming that the 50% GHG reduction is conservative, the 50% GHG savings is very much an optimistic case.  To fairly compare optimistic scenarios, we should consider that many EV drivers have also installed solar panels, and an EV charged on solar power virtually eliminates operating emissions.

The emissions associated with driving an EV are coming steadily down, and depend upon where you get your power.  Here is our latest update.

The Biofuels Digest piece also has errors in calculations of the relative cost of driving and owning an EV versus an FFV running on E85:
  • The savings of driving a Chevy Cruze using E85 at current prices does not take into consideration the reduced MPGe while driving on E85.  The E85 prices cited are about 23% lower than E10, which is about the same as the reduction of MPGe compared to E10.  This means it costs about the same to drive a mile on E85 as E10, not 10% less as Biofuels Digest claims.
  • The manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) for the Nissan Leaf bears little relationship to the actual purchase price, once State and Federal tax credits and other incentives are applied.

The cost of fueling an EV is much lower than a gasoline powered car or a FFV, and the price has been remarkably stable compared to volatile oil and ethanol prices.  My colleague David Reichmuth will have much more to say on this topic in the next month.  We are aware that the MSRP of EVs is higher than gasoline cars or FFVs, which is why tax credits and rebates for EVs are so important.  Lest biofuels advocates claim it’s unfair to include these tax credits in the comparison, recall that the scale-up of ethanol and biodiesel was supported with substantial tax credits, and substantial policy support for biofuels remains in the form of the Renewable Fuel Standard (at least for now).

Moving forward together

But while I stand by our analysis of the benefits of EVs, I have no interest in belittling advanced biofuels.  In fact, I spend most of my time defending advanced biofuels, including defending the Renewable Fuels Standard, which is under attack, as I explained in my recent blog, EPA Administrator Pruitt is undermining cellulosic biofuels, the RFS and transparency in government.

It is counterproductive for biofuels advocates to belittle the benefits and growing importance of electric vehicles.  It’s also not a good idea to focus hopes for the future of biofuels on FFVs burning E85.

The large number of FFVs on the road today are mostly the result of a misguided loophole in fuel economy regulations that gave car manufacturers credit for selling FFVs based on the assumption that these cars would use E85 frequently.  This strategy did not work.  FFVs are rarely fueled with E85, and the loophole ultimately did much more to increase gasoline use by making cars less efficient than it did to expand ethanol use.

Instead of FFVs, biofuel advocates should focus on a future that includes using ethanol to maximize efficiency as part of a high octane gasoline blend and in sectors like aviation where electrification is more challenging.  The bioeconomy also has a key role to play in biomaterials, and as part of carbon removal strategies, as I described in a recent article on the bioeconomy in a world without carbon pollution.

Biofuels and the broader bioeconomy have enormous opportunities in a low carbon future, but with GM, European countries, China and California looking beyond internal combustion engines for light duty transport, doubling down on FFVs and E85 is a road to nowhere.

Cutting oil use and transportation emissions is a big job and a major opportunity for both renewable fuels, renewable electricity and electric vehicles.  The hostility of EPA Administrator Pruitt and his friends in the oil industry make this job harder and more important than ever before. Advocates of renewable fuels and electric vehicles need to work together to keep us on track to a clean transportation future.

What’s the Real Story on the Future of Coal?

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With everything going on in the world, and our current political environment here in the United States, doesn’t it feel like we’re all talking past each other these days? It feels particularly poignant to me as the brother, son, and grandson of West Virginia coal miners—and as a scientist working on clean energy policy, and I’m not alone. If you’ve been following news around energy and climate change, or last year’s presidential election, you’ve probably heard a lot about coal and coal miners. Here I’ll try to cut through some of the rhetoric and offer some clear fact-based insights, drawing on a new analysis (and podcast) that the Union of Concerned Scientists just released called, A Dwindling Role for Coal: Tracking the Electricity Sector Transition and What It Means for the Nation. It’s a national analysis of the economic viability of coal-fired power plants in the United States, along with a series of four community snapshots to illustrate a few aspects of how that complex transition (which simultaneously benefits people through improved public health and potentially threatens people’s livelihoods) has played out or may play out on the ground.

It’s all about economics

The analysis tracks the changes in the nation’s fleet of 1,256 coal-fired electric generating units from 2008 to 2016, and, building on previous UCS work, identifies which of the 706 currently operating units are more expensive to run than cleaner alternatives. We conclude that 57 GW of coal capacity are uneconomic compared to existing natural gas, on top of another 51 GW of coal capacity that are already slated for retirement or conversion to another fuel (mostly natural gas). All told, that amount of capacity (108 GW) represents 38 percent of the nation’s coal generating capacity that was operating at the end of 2016.

Read that again: more than one-third of the nation’s coal-fired electricity is either already slated to go offline or is more expensive to operate than existing natural gas plants.

What’s driving this fundamental shift in the electricity sector since 2008? In a word: economics. Market forces are the main driver—in the form of low natural gas prices, flattening electricity demand, and rapidly declining costs of renewable energy. All those environmental regulations you hear politicians talk about? They’re playing a minor role compared to market trends in the power sector. In fact, our determination of uneconomic coal units didn’t even consider the cost of installing missing pollution control equipment.

Check out the interactive map below that shows the operating coal fleet in 2016 and what might happen to it in the future. The results are summarized in a short fact sheet, and our methodology and assumptions are detailed in a technical appendix.

Wait, how much?

More than a third of the coal fleet sounds like a lot, right? Looking at the slider map above, two things jump out at you: there are a lot of green dots (units that are uneconomic compared to existing natural gas) and many of those green dots are in the Southeast.

The first thing to know is that there’s no danger of the lights going out any time soon. The planned retirements will occur over a number of years, and the people whose job it is to think about this stuff don’t foresee any issues with reliable electricity at least through 2021, even in light of these planned retirements. And secondly, for those units that we find to be uneconomic, decisions about their ultimate fate will be made by states and utilities—hopefully in consultation with affected communities and workers—and any decisions to close down plants would occur over years and be done in such a way as to avoid blackouts. How do we know that? Because 452 coal generating units—totaling almost 60 GW—closed from 2008 to 2016 without any risk to reliability.

So, what are the cleaner, cheaper options to replace coal?

Coal is one of the most polluting ways to generate electricity, so a shift away from coal is a tremendous benefit to public health. What comes online to replace the lost coal generation really matters for our health and our climate.

Given the widespread availability of cheap natural gas, it’s no surprise that we found the highest number of coal units to be uneconomic compared to existing natural gas facilities. But even though it produces much less air pollution and somewhat lower global warming emissions than coal, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and a complete shift from coal to natural gas would make it nearly impossible to meet our long-term carbon emissions reduction goals to address the very real threat of climate change (to say nothing of the very real impacts happening today with very real implications for people). That’s why at UCS we have frequently raised concerns about a risk of an overreliance on natural gas for electricity.

Our analysis therefore also identifies which coal units are uneconomic compared to new wind and solar facilities (see Figure A3 from the technical appendix). As the cost of these renewable resources continues its dramatic decline, we can expect many more coal units to face increasing competition from renewables. Our colleagues at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy took a look at our numbers and found that there is a compelling case to be made for renewables to replace some uneconomic coal plants in the Southeast.

What about the impacts on people living near and downwind from these coal plants?

As part of our national analysis, we gathered information on the population and demographics of people living within a three-mile radius of each coal-fired generating unit that we identified as operating in 2008.  What we found was striking: this transition away from coal has led to a dramatic reduction in the total number of people living near an operating coal plant. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of people living within three miles of an operating coal plant fell from about 8.5 million to about 3.3 million. That number could fall further to around 1.5 million if all the uneconomic units we identified plus the units that are already slated for retirement or conversion also stop burning coal.

It’s important to emphasize that this transition away from coal dramatically improves public health and well-being. The people living closest to coal plants experience the most harmful effects from pollution—and they are often minority and low-income communities. Our snapshot from Chicago highlights how one community fought back and won—but continues to fight for environmental justice.

We have made available a downloadable spreadsheet containing plant-level data, the results of our economic stress test, and information on the number of low-income and minority residents living nearby each plant. This demographic screening can help guide community engagement and identify analysis needs that can help with transition planning.

The benefits of reducing pollution from coal extend well beyond that three-mile radius. We calculated that the reduction in air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide from the coal units studied here has already led to $250 billion (yes, with a “b”) in national public health benefits from reduced air pollution and global warming impacts from 2008 to 2016. As a result, millions of Americans are now breathing cleaner air and hundreds of thousands fewer are dying or becoming sick from coal-related ailments.

Finally, the negative impacts of coal often continue even after the plant shuts down—and this legacy must be considered in planning for a plant closure. Our snapshot from North Carolina illustrates one community’s struggle with coal ash—from a plant that’s still operating.

What about the people working at those coal plants?

This analysis did not look at the jobs implications of plant closures, for a simple reason—there’s no national database of the number of people working at individual coal plants. But if you’re one of those utility workers, you certainly don’t see this as good news. And these large facilities are also large sources of local tax revenue, meaning that while a community might be suffering from health impacts due to air pollution, it may simultaneously rely on that plant for jobs and money for schools and services.

My point is, the transition is complex—and collectively we must solve all aspects of it, not just reducing carbon emissions and air pollution, but also finding new jobs and opportunities for affected workers and investing in economic development in struggling communities.

The voices of local leaders from the communities highlighted in our community snapshots illustrate different aspects of what transition means—and offer insights into what can be done to help ensure that the shift away from coal is well-planned and more equitable, taking into account local needs and concerns. One positive story can be found in our snapshot from Lansing, which transformed a former coal plant into a LEED-certified office building.

Finally, although our analysis focuses on coal-fired power plants, the implication of the transition away from coal in the electricity sector is lower coal production, meaning that mining communities are also impacted by the transition. But alternative energy jobs have reached coal country, and our snapshot from West Virginia highlights an innovative solution to creating new jobs.

Where’s the political leadership?

Despite the economic writing on the wall, and the urgent need to limit global warming emissions and other harmful pollutants, the Trump administration continues to roll back as many environmental regulations as it can get its hands on. Its campaign promise to bring back coal jobs rings hollow and is ultimately a cynical strategy to protect the profits of coal companies rather than protect the interests of coal workers. But the economic reality is that, even without modern pollution controls, many coal units are simply more expensive to run than the alternatives, with market forces decidedly driving the electricity sector away from coal.

Yet the assault on those environmental protections continues. Today EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will announce a revised proposal for the Clean Power Plan—our nation’s first-ever limits on global warming emissions—in an effort to roll back progress despite widespread public support nationally.

Coming from a coal mining family, I fear that folks back home are buying into a false promise. If the administration were serious about helping coal mining communities, it would be championing federal programs that invest in those communities, instead of proposing to eliminate them altogether. It would be looking at innovative ways to spur economic development and diversify local economies that are dependent on coal.

Instead, in perhaps the administration’s most egregious idea yet, Energy Secretary Perry proposed new rules to bail out economically struggling coal and nuclear power plants that would leave electricity ratepayers on the hook to subsidize those costs, to the tune of billions dollars annually.

It starts with truth telling

We need to be honest about the complexity of transitioning away from coal and we must demand thoughtful solutions, not cheap political rhetoric. There are no easy answers. We must create policies to ensure a just transition away from coal, both to reduce the heavy toll on the health of those who live downwind from coal-fired power plants and to address the climate crisis. And we must build on the significant economic opportunities of renewable energy and work to ensure these lead to family-sustaining jobs, especially in the places where coal jobs are being lost.

For me, the biggest takeaway of this research is the need for policymakers and utility planners to engage early with affected stakeholders: coal-dependent communities, affected coal plant workers, coal miners, and low-income and minority residents living near coal plants who have long suffered a disproportionate burden of health impacts from pollution. With adequate time and resources, plans can be developed to remediate and redevelop former sites, to address lost tax revenues, and to help diversify local economies and create new well-paying jobs. It won’t be easy, but it’s what’s necessary.

We call on Congress and the administration to grapple with these complex issues and put forth real solutions. Let’s get to work.

This Is What It’s Like to Live Near a Coal Plant in North Carolina

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Photo: Sanjay Suchak (used with permission)

As one of the community snapshots highlighted in A Dwindling Role for Coal, I’m handing over my blog to my colleague J.C. Kibbey, Midwest outreach and policy advocate, who interviewed Linda Jamison, a local community activist from North Carolina. Linda gives us her own perspective of living near a coal-fired power plant—Duke Energy’s Roxboro Power Plant—and she highlights some of the community’s concerns about the safety of their water supply.

Some quick background information: when coal is burned, it produces ash—just like burning wood for a campfire—except that coal ash contains highly toxic metals and other pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed standards on the disposal of this industrial waste, known as Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR).

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

J.C. Kibbey: How long have you been in Semora?

Linda Jamison: I’ve been in Semora on and off since 1963.

JCK: The Roxboro Power Plant now has four coal-fired electricity generating units—all of which are identified in our analysis as uneconomic compared to natural gas. The total capacity of the plant is more than 2,400 MW. When did the first units begin operating?

LJ: 1966.

JCK: So you lived there before the coal plant? What changed in Semora after it was built?

LJ: First there was lots of heavy truck traffic and a lot of dust; we had a dirt road at first, and [when the plant was built] they paved it.

The plant let off steam with ash in it that would get all over your house, your garden, your farm. Before, we would eat right out of the garden – we would pick fruit right off the tree. After the plant, we had to start washing everything off.

When it let off steam, it made so much noise it would wake you up when you were asleep and you didn’t know when it was going to happen. It would happen during the day, happen at night, happen early in the morning.

Semora was a majority black community—we had one Caucasian family, before the plant. Everybody farmed, everybody knew each other, everybody gardened. My mom gardened and canned and froze food. All we bought from the store was sugar and salt and pepper and we grew everything else, but that all had to stop when the plant was built.

There was a picnic area near the plant they used to rent out for picnics and parties and family reunions, until suddenly they closed it and never told us why. Not long after that, they put a notice about fishing in the water near the plant and put a limit on how many fish you could eat.

Early on, we didn’t know everything was contaminated. My father used to cut grass at the plant. In 1984 at Thanksgiving, he got a cold and went to the doctor. The doctor told him he had cancer. Forty-five days later he was dead.

When my father got sick, I spoke up because I always felt that the plant had something to do with the people that were getting strange diseases and the kids getting cancer. I thought the plant was a contributing factor. But it was hard to get people interested. People were not educated about the effects these plants could have. Some people didn’t want to make waves. Some people had jobs there.

We were led to believe there wasn’t anything harmful being released from that plant. People would have stopped using the water then, if they had known.

I moved away in 1979 for a job and eventually moved back in 2012.

JCK: What were things like when you came back?

LJ: When I came back, I began noticing changes with the water in my parents’ home. It smelled bad, you couldn’t drink it or anything. I just installed a filtration system in our house because of the smell, but no one said anything about the well water being contaminated.

After the Dan River spill in early 2014, people started asking more questions about coal ash and there was concern about what was happening to drinking water wells.

JCK: You’re referring to the spill of more than 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of ash pond water from Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station in February 2014. According to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, within two weeks the plume of waste had reached 70 miles downstream. The spill led to increased awareness of unlined coal ash sites, particularly the 14 sites in North Carolina owned by Duke Energy, like the one at Roxboro.

LJ: But it wasn’t until more than a year later that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) made it to Roxboro and started testing a few of our wells and found that they were contaminated. They didn’t even test everyone’s wells. They said not to cook with the water or drink it. But I thought, the skin is the largest organ – what makes them think it won’t go through your skin?

JCK: What has it been like on a day-to-day basis in terms of living with contaminated water?

LJ: They started giving us bottled water to drink and cook with, but I’m so sick of bottled water I could scream. I’m disabled and I have to lift big cases of water just to cook a meal. I can’t even explain what you have to go through just to cook a meal. I’m by myself—I don’t know how families with kids do it. You have to deal with empty bottles—it’s just a mess.

The law [North Carolina House Bill 630, which became law on July 14, 2016] says that Duke Energy has to replace our wells with either public water systems or filtration systems. But I’m still paying for our last filtration system, and now they’re trying to offer me another one—but those systems don’t get rid of hexavalent chromium or some of the other metals they found in our wells. The standards they [NC DEQ] came up with this month for the filtration systems are basically nothing. They would allow a higher dose of hexavalent chromium in the water than what we have now.

JCK: How have you tried to address these problems? What has that process been like?

LJ: Our community, along with the Southern Environmental Law Center, Appalachian Voices, Clean Water for North Carolina, and the Sierra Club have all been working on this coal ash issue. Erin Brockovich has come to North Carolina and talked about this issue—it’s the same chemicals as in her famous case.

It’s not just our community that has been affected. Many communities in North Carolina where they have coal ash have had their wells and water contaminated. We are all fighting Duke Energy to give us public water and give us compensation for the lost value of our homes [because of the contaminated water].

We asked the County Commissioners to support hooking us up to the public water system, but one of the board members works for Duke Energy. The board has five members and voted 3-2 against it, with the Duke employee cast the deciding “no” vote. We have been struggling against Duke’s money and political power. The company also had ties to the previous governor, Pat McCrory. He worked for them for almost 30 years and he met frequently with representatives from Duke.

JCK: Yes, Governor McCrory’s ties to Duke Energy have certainly been a campaign issue.

LJ: Gov. McCrory’s administration pressured toxicologists and health officials to write misleading letters to the community about our water. Health officials sent a letter saying not to drink the water, and then the McCrory Administration tried to get them to send another letter saying that the water was OK to drink—but nothing had changed with the water.

At least one public health official ultimately left over this issue: Megan Davies, an epidemiologist and section chief in the state Division of Public Health resigned; and Kenneth Rudo, a toxicologist who had served nearly 30 years with the Department of Heath and Human Services, retired.

Duke has big money and we don’t, but we’re still fighting and we’re not going to give up. We’ve had press conferences, we’ve had news reports—I’ve personally done several news reports. I feel better about the fact that my whole community has come together and other organizations are fighting with us. I feel better knowing that we are not alone and that there are other communities with water contamination and we are all fighting for the same thing.

Duke is claiming that there were no medical problems [because of the coal ash], even though their own statistics and reports show there is a risk of health issues. They are asking people to sign paperwork saying that they will not sue for medical problems—that if you agree to accept their $5,000 payment for a new water filtration system, that the paperwork stipulates that you will never file a medical lawsuit and no one in your family will either.  No one is taking that deal. If Duke believes their ash hasn’t affected our health, then they shouldn’t need a release of medical claims.

JCK: The plant is still operating. Are there air issues in addition to the water issues from the coal ash?

LJ: You still see ash on your windowsill. They still release the steam, ash and dust—not as much as they used to. They mostly release it at night now. Most people in this community don’t plant gardens or farm anymore. People talk about what’s in the air.

JCK: Has there been any talk about the plant closing? It appears that the North Carolina Utilities Commission has directed Duke to study retrofitting the Roxboro power plant.

LJ: They’re not closing it. They’re trying to change it to burn natural gas.

JCK: What has fighting these battles  been like for you personally?

LJ: Sometimes it feels like we’re doing something and other times it feels like it’s not working. You get your hopes up thinking the state will listen or the courts will rule in favor of our community, but then it doesn’t happen.

It’s just been constant let-downs by people in our government who are supposed to be fighting for us, supposed to be looking out for our health and well-being. They go wherever the money is.

Even when Duke was fined for this, the McCrory Administration stepped in. They said that a fine that was supposed to be just for one coal ash site counted for all the coal ash sites in the state. The Southern Environmental Law Center is suing DEQ and Duke over some of these issues.

JCK: Some of the damage has already been done, but going forward, what do you want to see happen? How should we address the problem long-term?

LJ: First, we want to be on a public water system and for Duke to foot the bill for it. Second, we want to protect our right to file medical claims.

Finally, we want Duke to clean up its coal ash. Some plants with coal ash sites are being required to remove it, and at others Duke is trying to “cap in place” [which means placing a cover over an unlined pit]. But we’re seeing now that they are not always using the right materials for that, and that the pools where the coal ash is stored aren’t lined like they are supposed to be.

But even as we are dealing with this, the state is shipping in coal ash from China, India, and Poland to make concrete rather than finding ways to get rid of the coal ash that’s already here. They’ll end up poisoning all of North Carolina.

JCK: Linda, thanks for sharing your story with us.

Photo: Sanjay Suchak (used with permission)

New Economic Opportunities in the Heart of Coal Country

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Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

America is awakening to the reality that our country’s energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables—while cutting pollution and creating new jobs in many places—is painful for Appalachian families.

For generations, our communities have depended on coal-mining jobs and the businesses supported by the coal industry. Nationally, coal-mining employment fell from just over 91,000 in 2011 to under 66,000 in 2015, with West Virginia and Kentucky among the largest declines. This transition won’t be a just and fair one until our communities are made whole.

But in this challenging time there is real opportunity, if we have the courage to seize it. This can be the moment when we finally start not just talking about our potential as a region, but actually realizing it.

Our story

I founded Coalfield with much love from West Virginians for West Virginians. I was born and raised in the state. While I was fortunate to have a solid, middle-class upbringing, I was always aware of the pain going on around me. In college, I became a committed member of a Presbyterian Church, which fostered in me a deep commitment to social justice. We learned from and were inspired by people making a way forward in tough places all over the world: migrant workers in apple orchards, communities of color, low-income communities, and native people on reservations. I even had the chance to travel to Botswana and Nepal on behalf of the church.

But everywhere I went, I had the nagging sense that these were amazing places and amazing people, but they weren’t my place. I felt I could have a big impact back home, where the need was great and growing greater. So in 2011, joined by my best friend from high school, I decided to try and do things differently for our state to show that we could be more than just one industry and just one trade.

Since then, I’ve had the honor of seeing a former mine-industry worker go from being homeless, to joining our construction work-crew, to becoming a homeowner. I’ve seen people walk across the stage and become the first in their family to earn a college degree. We’ve installed the first solar systems many of our small towns have seen. We employ former strip miners who now reclaim and rejuvenate the soil through our agriculture work on former mountaintop-removal sites.

At Coalfield Development, we support a family of social enterprises that work in community-based real-estate, green-collar construction, mine-land reclamation, artisan trades, sustainable agriculture, and solar installation. These are real business enterprises that have real economic potential in central Appalachia. These are enterprises that are beginning to diversify the local economy in a tangible way.

Each enterprise has sustainable revenue models, including earned revenue (contracts, sales, service fees, etc.) and, thus, long-term sustainability. They are unified by an innovative model for workforce development and training that we at Coalfield developed.

We recognized that job training programs are insufficient—people need jobs to support themselves and their families. Our model puts people to work while developing new skills.  Under the 33-6-3 model, each of the enterprises hires unemployed people to work the following weekly schedule: 33 hours a week are spent doing paid labor for these enterprises on projects which tangibly improve the community; 6 hours a week are devoted to core community college classes for an Applied Science degree; and 3 hours are committed to life skills coaching, such as parenting, financial management, time management, physical health, teamwork, communication, and goal setting. Some of the 33 hours of manual labor even count as on-the-job credits applied towards the academic degree (according to curriculum agreements in place with the community colleges).

So yes, we are feeling great pain in the face of the coal industry’s decline, but we’re not just dying towns. We are also hard at work ensuring that great things, very creative endeavors, are afoot. We’re persistent problem-solving communities, who love our home and are steadfastly committed to it.

National attention

An exciting policy development in 2015 was the creation of the POWER Initiative (Partnerships and Opportunities in Workforce and Economic Revitalization), a federal initiative to support community efforts to diversify our local economy. This provided the Appalachian Regional Commission with its largest budget since the 1970’s, which led to major support for innovative efforts like ours.

This is an appropriate role for the government to play: funding research and development for early stage, pre-market business concepts that lead to real economic growth in communities that need it.

As we work to adapt, to diversify our economy, and to shape a better future, we need the country to believe in and support us. The country should not blame us for climate change—miners only ever mined coal because there was demand for it. Anyone who has turned on a light switch is just as much to blame for climate change as a coal miner, if not more so.

What’s needed now is local solutions driven by local people. And then we need national and global investments to support our strategies. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is doing just that. Incredibly, he announced $3 million in grant funding to support coal communities in conjunction with the premiere of the National Geographic documentary From the Ashes, which tells our story along with the stories of many other coal-impacted communities. We’re honored to be a grantee, and we hope others around the world will follow suit by investing in our region. One way to do this is by checking out our Crowdrise campaign page to donate.

What you can do

We really do need the donations, and we’ll steward them well. But even better would be if folks from around the country will do business with us. Buy furniture from our Saw’s Edge Woodshop or produce from Refresh Appalachia. Contract with Rewire Appalachia and Solar Holler, LLC to install a solar system on your roof, or with Revitalize Appalachia to renovate your property.

Even better yet: move here, start a company, and put our smart, talented, loyal miners back to work.

Brandon Dennison is the founder and CEO of Coalfield Development Corporation, a family of social enterprises working throughout coal country to help build a new economy in the wake of the coal industry’s rapid decline.

Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

How A Coal Plant in Michigan Became an Insurance HQ

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The former Ottawa Street coal-fired power station now serves downtown Lansing, Michigan, as a LEED-certified office building. Photo: JC Kibbey/UCS

For one of the community snapshots highlighted in A Dwindling Role for Coal, I’m handing over my blog to my colleague J.C. Kibbey, Midwest outreach and policy advocate, who interviewed Karl Dorshimer, director of business development with the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), about his experience on the team leading the redevelopment of the of a decommissioned coal-fired power plant in downtown Lansing.

The Ottawa Street Power Station provided coal-fired electric power and steam to downtown Lansing from 1939 until it was decommissioned in 1992. Karl shares the challenges and successes of the subsequent redevelopment project, which led to a revitalization of downtown Lansing, and retained or created more than 1,000 jobs in the city. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

J.C. Kibbey: Tell me a little about yourself.

Karl Dorshimer: I studied resource and economic development at Michigan State University, and earned a master’s degree in resource economics at the University of Alaska. After graduate school, I moved back to Lansing and worked on economic development and planning for the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission before moving to the Lansing Economic Development Corporation. My career was taking off right around the time brownfield development was taking off, and for 20 years Lansing EDC has done over 50 of these projects, from big projects like the Ottawa Station and work with General Motors to those for small businesses. For the last several years, I have been working for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), which in turn contracts with the Lansing Economic Development Corporation—so I’m doing essentially the same job but under a different organizational umbrella.

JCK: The successful redevelopment of the old coal-fired Ottawa Power Station into the sustainably designed headquarters of the Accident Fund (now named the AF Group) created or preserved hundreds of jobs in Lansing and helped remake Lansing’s downtown. The refurbished building achieved the second highest certification by the US Green Building Council, “gold” status for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). You were an integral part of that redevelopment and it’s a success story today, but it was a rocky road to get there. I understand that the city had been working to find a buyer for the site for years and that there were a couple interested parties but the deals fell through. What were the obstacles there?

KD: During the years it was vacant, we occasionally were approached by people who wanted to develop the site, but they were never able to make the finances work. Prospective buyers couldn’t convince investors or lenders to get involved. The city of Lansing and the Board of Water did an analysis at one point to see what could be done with the site, but it never got past that stage.

There were a lot of challenges: liability issues, costs of remediation and infrastructure upgrades, tearing out the existing equipment on the site, and challenges locating public financial incentives.

The incentives that were available were based on job creation—not just any jobs but quality jobs, high-paying jobs with benefits. That’s the measuring stick for a lot of public investment in economic development. A lot of the uses people were proposing for the site just weren’t going to generate a lot of tax revenue or jobs.

For the redevelopment to make sense, you need a tenant who is either willing to pay a lot of money to renovate the property themselves, or pay a high lease rate to someone who renovates the site for them. Otherwise the numbers just don’t work out.

JCK: Given all that, how were you finally able to catalyze the redevelopment?

KD: Lansing Mayor Virg Benero saw the site as a huge, visible symbol of decay and blight, and when he came into office, he wanted to do something about it—either redevelop it or tear it down.

The reason it finally worked is we had an end user that was large enough and committed enough to take on the project. We were soliciting requests for proposals to redevelop the site, and near the end of that process we were approached by representatives of The Accident Fund—an insurance company owned by Blue Cross Blue Shield. We showed them the property and after a long due diligence process, they made a proposal for the site.

JCK: You said the Accident Fund was “committed” to the site—why, and was that important to making this work?

KD: They were. The building itself has some pizazz—it’s a really cool building for a power plant. The architect designed it to look like a flame, with darker colors representing coal on the bottom and lighter colors representing fire as it goes up.

The user wanted an urban location, it’s on the river, and it’s beautiful. It’s really a great symbol of urban renewal, which is good for the community, and for Accident Fund as a tenant.

JCK: But even with that commitment and Accident Fund coming on board, there were still financial challenges to work through. A project this size requires large investments, suggesting the need for a public-private partnership—a contract between a public agency and a private sector entity to deliver a public good. Can you tell me about the incentives that made it work here?

KD: This was a huge, seemingly impossible project and it required public-private partnerships to work.

Our team put together a package of several different incentives that was worth about $59 million in total. That included $12.6 million in property tax abatements, $11 million in historic tax credits, $10 million in Brownfield tax credits, $9 million in Michigan Economic Growth Authority tax credits (for job creation and retention), a $3.2 million investment in a public riverfront near the site, and a $600,000 grant for environmental assessment and clean-up from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

We were able to do all that in large part because the cost-benefit analysis made sense for the city. The total cost of the project was $182 million, and those incentives made it economical for the developer.

JCK: The cost-benefit issue is often problematic for municipalities looking to repurpose coal plants—some of them still running—especially in terms of maintaining the local tax base. Can you tell me about how this project impacted Lansing’s tax base and how the city viewed that?

KD: First, we retained about 600 employees, who pay city income tax, plus another 500 jobs that were to be added later. That’s a future increase in revenue. The site itself was not paying any property taxes before the redevelopment. It won’t generate taxes for a while because of the tax abatements, but a few more years down the road it will. There’s also a significant positive economic impact of having those 1,100 employees downtown.

There are a lot of benefits—from the city’s standpoint, we found these factors together to be a strong argument for investing in this project.

JCK: This building was a former coal plant and now it’s LEED Gold certified. That’s a great story, going from a coal plant to a building that’s recognized for its sustainability. Was that an intentional choice you made when you undertook the project?

KD: A lot of this was driven by sustainability being important to the Accident Fund, and there were challenges: the building was originally designed to dissipate heat. They’ve turned that around and by replacing the windows and some other things, got the building to be efficient for both heating and cooling..

But also, a coal-fired power plant is not conducive to a modern downtown. People are looking at environmental issues and looking to clean power. The Board of Water and Light, which used to operate the Ottawa coal plant, put up a solar array nearby the site—it wasn’t related to this project, just happened to be a good site for solar—which is helping them hit their goals for renewable energy.

JCK: You went through a lengthy process of redeveloping this old coal plant in an urban area and putting it to a productive and sustainable use. What advice would you have for other communities that are looking to do similar projects?

KD: Unless you’re blessed with a great location and a strong local economy where real estate values are high, it will be difficult to get the private sector to redevelop that site and take on all those challenges on their own. You need public participation. That can include incentives, tax breaks, tax refunds, Brownfield programs: somehow you have to reduce the cost for the developer while sharing in the benefits generated.

The user of the site also plays a part in this. They need to be able to create the revenue, the rents, or the sale price to make it work. We found that a lot of less intense uses—like a movie theater, which was one of the ideas someone had for the Ottawa site—just don’t generate enough revenue to make it work.

You will also run into barriers. Fortunately, we had a team that represents all the different stakeholders and found a way to work through the whole series of hurdles. It took years between the time we started the project and when construction started.

JCK: You mentioned that for a redevelopment like this to make financial sense, the site needs to be put to an economically “intense” use. What are other uses that have the necessary intensity?

KD: I think residential is one, apartments and condos. It depends somewhat on the building. I think they did a good job of leaving some of that industrial feel, those exposed beams and so on—that has character and provides value. You want to take advantage of the inherent assets that are already in the building.

Another city-owned facility, the Eckert Power Plant, is planned to be decommissioned in 2021, and we are looking at a renovation there as well. It has three large and tall smokestacks, and we were looking at those and thinking it will cost a ton of money to take them down. But the first developer to look at it seriously said—“leave them up, I like them, I can use them.”

JCK: Karl, thanks for taking the time to discuss your experience with us. Your story offers insights into the challenges of redeveloping coal plant sites and the importance of public-private partnerships in achieving successful outcomes. As the nation continues to move toward cleaner and cheaper sources of electricity, these insights can help inform other communities facing the closure of a coal-fired power plant.

Photo: JC Kibbey/UCS

The Struggle for a Just Transition of the Crawford Coal Plant in Little Village Continues

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On August 12, 2017, our organization, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), held a gathering at La Villita Park in the Little Village neighborhood to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the closing of the Crawford and Fisk coal plants in Chicago. With community members and youth leaders in attendance, it was a special opportunity for LVEJO to remind everyone of the many years of community organizing and coalition building that took place, and to thank long-time friends and allies from neighboring Pilsen, who were pivotal to the campaign.

Little Village youth leader at 5 year Crawford anniversary. Photo: Antonio Lopez

To cumbia rhythms we ate cake, passed out environmental justice literature to park goers (learn about the principles of environmental justice here), and enjoyed watching our children break open a piñata and swiftly race for the goodies that crashed to the ground.

The commemoration was a sweet time, but it was also a reminder for us that five years later Little Village continues to face serious environmental justice challenges, including an uphill battle to redevelop the Crawford plant. Indeed, the community is vulnerable to increased diesel emissions and many are concerned about gentrification and displacement. Despite these threats, La Villita leaders continue to fight for a healthier community and to hold those with power to principles of equitable community development.

As we say at LVEJO, la lucha no se acaba—the struggle doesn’t end!

A just transition of the Crawford site

Five years later, the Crawford coal plant continues to be an unwelcoming site in Little Village. Unlike many other coal-dependent communities, however, Little Village was not devastated economically by the closure of the coal plant and the loss of jobs. In fact, Crawford hired few workers from Little Village. Still, knowing that Crawford harmed the community’s health for so long and excluded the local workforce from good paying jobs, LVEJO is committed to seeing through a just transition of the site.

A just transition of the former coal plant means for us that community members are deeply involved in the redevelopment process, and that the site eventually becomes a catalyst of improved health, job access, and other economic activities that benefit long-time residents. Sitting on 72 acres of land, we believe there is a significant opportunity to transform the site into a campus that meets multiple needs identified by the community, and is a source of pride.

We have heard loud and clear that our community wants more green space, workforce training opportunities, urban agriculture, and culturally relevant small businesses like Los Mangos. It may seem like an unattainable dream—and there are certainly many obstacles—but with deep community support we truly believe that the just transition of Crawford is possible.

LVEJO youth leaders continue to highlight the harms to community health caused by Crawford. Photo: LVEJO

Challenges to redevelopment

We understand that the redevelopment of an old coal plant takes many years and is not easy. Unfortunately, since the closure of Crawford, LVEJO has learned about newly proposed projects and land-use plans that threaten to undermine the gains in air quality that we fought so hard for.

As Little Village is centrally located in Chicago and is in close proximity to major transportation arteries, city planners have designated Little Village as an area for new transportation and logistics centers. Without considering the health impact of diesel emissions to the surrounding community, city planners and local alderman are re-zoning industrial spaces, approving redevelopment projects, and leading land-use plans that neglect to incorporate environmental justice.

Instead of building upon the strengths and strong track record of environmentalism in the community, decision makers are threatening to make Little Village a sacrifice zone once again. An important example is the Unilever Expansion Project.

Diesel threats/Unilever

The nearby Unilever plant has been in the neighborhood since 1918, a testament to the industrial legacy the neighborhood has inherited. In February 2015, the Unilever plant, which produces Hellman’s Mayonnaise, announced it will increase production and bring on an additional 50 local jobs in the factory.

But these jobs come at a cost. Today, current zoning laws allow a major industrial factory like Unilever to expand right next to an elementary school of over 1,000 children and countless families. Every day, over 100 diesel trucks flow in and out of this area. Based on Unilever’s own traffic study, there will be an increase of up to 500 diesel trucks per day flowing in and out of the neighborhood.

Diesel engine trucks produce a lot of fine-particle pollutants that have been linked to asthma, respiratory disease, and overall damage to lung tissues. The additional diesel fumes will create health hazards, and increase the incidence of asthma and airborne related illnesses. Children are especially vulnerable. Due to these health concerns, LVEJO has launched a campaign to educate community members on the risks diesel poses, and to hold companies and decision makers accountable (see this and this).

Future energy jobs act

The failure of city planners and local officials to leverage the closure of the Crawford plant to redevelop the community in line with our needs has not stopped our efforts to organize and advocate for a new economy free of fossil fuels. Undaunted, LVEJO continues to fight for energy democracy and vehemently opposes false solutions to climate change.

LVEJO was vital to creating the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) in Illinois that passed in December 2016 and had broad coalition and community support. Critically, LVEJO’s leadership on FEJA prioritized health and economic justice opportunities, including access to job training and clean energy jobs in low-income communities—a high priority to all community leaders. FEJA includes $33.25 million in annual spending on low-income energy efficiency programs, triple current spending levels on such programs in the state of Illinois.

This, coupled with millions of dollars committed to increases in bill assistance, will save money for families struggling to pay their energy bills. LVEJO participated as a lead architect of critical policies in the legislation related to serving low-income communities, including the new Illinois Solar for All—a nation-leading, low-income solar program with targeted goals for solar access in environmental justice communities funded at over $400 million.

The program is paired with a job training pipeline that will target recruitment in these same communities, with additional incentives to hire 2,000 individuals with criminal records and alumni of the foster care system.

With the passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act, low-income communities and communities of color, such as Little Village, will have significant opportunities to benefit from the resources committed to building a clean energy economy in the state.

Kim Wasserman of LVEJO and Jerry Lucero of Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) celebrate the 5 year anniversary of the closure of the Fisk and Crawford plants in Pilsen and Little Village. Crawford is in the background. Photo: Antonio Lopez

No al Carbon! Queremos Justicia Ambiental!

In addition to ensuring that FEJA programs reach low-income and frontline communities, the just transition of the Crawford coal plant is a major goal of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. We believe the equitable redevelopment of the Crawford site can stand out as a model for other environmental justice communities working on just transition initiatives.

Indeed, across the Midwest environmental justice communities are leading the fight to close coal plants, incinerators, and other polluting factories. Community-led redevelopment of the Crawford plant would not only profoundly benefit Little Village, but also stand as a powerful symbol of environmental justice.

Dr. Antonio Lopez holds a doctorate in Borderlands History from the University of Texas at El Paso and has written extensively on anti-poverty and anti-racist social movements in Chicago. He currently serves as a senior advisor to the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. This blog was coauthored with Executive Director Kim Wasserman and Policy Director Juiana Pino of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO).

Scott Pruitt’s Cynical Move to Rescind the Clean Power Plan

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Tomorrow, the EPA is expected to take a first formal step in repealing the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), a regulation designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by approximately 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This is a terribly irresponsible decision. Recent ferocious storms, intensified by warming oceans and air, remind us of the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is a sensible, flexible, cost-effective rule addressing one of one of the biggest sources of US carbon emissions, and one of the least expensive sources to control.

The action comes as no surprise: candidate Trump promised to do this during the campaign, and as President he signed an executive order reiterating that commitment earlier this year. But the manner in which the EPA is gutting CPP is astonishing, marking one of the most tainted and cynical moves to date by the Trump administration.

Notably, it appears from a leaked draft that the EPA does not base its proposed repeal on a change in policy goals, or on any of the usual considerations such as the rule’s costs, feasibility, or impacts.  Rather, the EPA hangs its repeal hat entirely on a legal hook—the EPA now claims that the Clean Power Plan violated the law because it regulates “beyond the fenceline” of individual power plants—a claim that is directly contrary to what the EPA and the Department of Justice argued in court just last fall. With this legal sleight of hand, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt once again forsakes the mission of the agency he heads—to safeguard human health and the environment—to pander to fossil fuel interests.

A Cynical Ploy

Let’s unpack the EPA’s argument a bit. Often, when the EPA limits pollution from a stationary source, it sets a limit based on technology that an individual source can deploy, such as a so-called “scrubber” to trap soot before it leaves the stack. The Obama administration didn’t use this approach when it issued the Clean Power Plan for this compelling reason: while it is possible to cut carbon dioxide emissions using “inside the fenceline” technology, it is far more expensive and technically risky than what the electric industry actually does now to cut carbon pollution—switching electric generation from coal to gas and to renewables, such as wind turbines and solar panels. In this case, EPA was required to base the pollution limit on the “best system of emission reduction;” EPA determined that the best system was switching from dirtier sources of generation (coal) to cleaner sources (gas and renewables), and making improvements in the efficiency of coal plants.

EPA’s interpretation of the phrase “best system of emission reduction” law was challenged in court by a number of states, coal companies and others. In the court case, EPA was represented by a team of elite attorneys in the United States Department of Justice, who specialize in litigating questions of this kind. This team wrote a 175 page legal brief explaining , convincingly, why EPA’s interpretation was lawful.

But now, EPA has scrapped the legal argument of its own lawyers, dismissing the expertise of the Justice Department just as it has dismissed the expertise of government scientists.  And it has substituted the Department of Justice’s legal analysis with—can you guess?—the legal analysis of none other than Scott Pruitt, back when he was the Oklahoma Attorney general actively suing the EPA over this very rule. As a litigant in the case, Scott Pruitt and other attorneys argued that EPA could not go beyond the fenceline.  The EPA decision today is lifted from the brief that Pruitt and his allies in the fossil fuel industry filed. So, in a span of a year and half, Scott Pruitt has participated in this important legal dispute over the Clean Power Plan first as a lawyer on one side, then as judge and jury at the EPA, and now as the plan’s executioner. Do the words “conflict of interest” mean nothing to this administration?

But the cynical nature of this gambit goes even further. As I noted, the issue of whether the EPA could use a “beyond the fenceline” approach is currently before the court of appeals for the District of Columbia. That court has reviewed thousands of pages of legal briefs on this issue, and spent an entire day hearing legal arguments about it. The court seemed poised to decide the case last fall, and then the Trump administration came in. Almost immediately, Scott Pruitt’s EPA implored the court to put the case on hold, claiming that EPA needed time to do its own evaluation of the rule. It is now clear that this ploy was simply a stalling tactic: the Pruitt EPA feared that the court would uphold the legality of the rule and make it harder for EPA to repeal it. So, the EPA bought time for itself, then jumped the gun to declare the rule illegal before the court could rule otherwise.

Why did the EPA go this route? It had no good alternatives. If the EPA were to repeal the Clean Power Plan on policy grounds, it would have a hard time defending a decision to do nothing on carbon pollution from power plants. If the EPA were to rescind only parts of the Clean Power Plan and leave other parts in place, or even propose an alternative regulation, it would disappoint its allies in the coal industry who want no federal regulation.

So, the EPA decided to use a legal argument to escape the dilemma–one intended to short-circuit the judicial process, and one that is irrevocably tainted by a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, coal and gas plants continue to enjoy the extraordinary right to emit unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, unregulated by any federal law.

Lest there be any doubt, the EPA’s right and obligation to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act—an act of Congress—stands on firm scientific and legal ground. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling, followed by EPA’s Endangerment finding and Cause or Contribute finding clearly establish that the agency must act to curtail carbon emissions from major sources. The obligation to curtail power plant carbon emissions was further reaffirmed in a 2011 Supreme Court ruling. Administrator Pruitt knows this. Yet, even as the latest climate science indicates increasing urgency to act to limit costly and harmful impacts of climate change, Mr. Pruitt, in a gross dereliction of duty, is using every possible machination to delay action.

What now? The EPA’s announcement is the start, not the end of the process.  We must continue to make the case for lowering carbon pollution from power plants and accelerating the transition to clean energy, and put Pruitt’s EPA through the wringer for abandoning this key tool.  At the same time, we must push for actions by states, cities, businesses, and others to accelerate the transition to clean energy, regardless of what EPA ultimately does. And finally, one hopes that the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, which still has jurisdiction over this case, sees through this gambit and does its job—decide this legal dispute once and for all, the sooner, the better.

Photo: justice.gov

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