Combined UCS Blogs

Scott Pruitt and Anti-Science Activity at the EPA

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The first week of the Trump administration is underway and, suffice to say, it has been a bad week for science. Scientists at several federal agencies have been told they can no longer speak to the media or use social media; staff at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was notified that scientific work will be reviewed by political appointees, that climate web content was being removed, and that all contracts and grants by the agency were on hold.

It seems relevant to ask President Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator if he supports these actions. To that end, I sent the following letter to the Senate this afternoon.

Dear Senators,

As you review EPA Administrator nominee Scott Pruitt’s written answers to numerous questions for the record and consider whether or not to support his confirmation, you should be aware that over the past several days, the Trump administration has attempted to undermine science at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Specifically, the news media reported the administration ordered:

  • Removal of Web content on climate change
  • Vetting of scientific work by political staff before public release
  • A freeze on many grants and contracts

These actions are very concerning, and if Mr. Pruitt supports them, that should disqualify him as administrator. Each of these actions directly undermines the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment.

Orwellian demands to shut down informational websites and prevent the release of scientific findings don’t change the reality of climate change: seas will keep rising, more communities will be flooded more often, storms will be stronger, and wildfires will be more likely and more damaging when coupled with higher temperatures and more frequent droughts.

While it appears that exposure by the news media has prompted the administration to at least temporarily rescind its order to remove Web content on climate change, there is no guarantee that new orders will not emerge unless we have pledges from Mr. Pruitt to safeguard public access to scientific information about climate change and other issues. Indeed, several climate change–related Web pages and reports have been removed from the State Department website.

Public servants should be free to state simple scientific facts. Americans have the right to see and benefit from taxpayer-funded research, and scientists have the right to share their findings openly and honestly, without political pressure, manipulation, or suppression. Political staff should never be in charge of deciding what scientific conclusions the public is allowed to see.

Freezing grants and contracts would almost certainly increase health risks for children and other vulnerable people in our country. American taxpayers would not receive the science-based information we all invest in to protect public health and our environment. This freeze means, for example, that the community grant program for safe drinking water may be delayed, increasing health risks in those communities that need help the most. It also means that the EPA’s AirData website, which provides access to air quality data collected from outdoor air monitors around the nation, is no longer collecting and posting data, jeopardizing the health of children, the elderly, and people with respiratory illness. Parents, families, communities, and research institutions that rely on this information to make health-related decisions (everything from letting children play outside on a bad air day to developing municipal plans to improve air quality) would be in the dark. And it means student interns and young researchers may lose opportunities in the STEM education fields that are so critically important. These are just a few of the consequences of this reckless decision.

Without research and monitoring, it becomes harder for states and communities to hold polluters accountable, and unfairly penalizes the majority of businesses that play by the rules and care about the health of their communities.

The Senate needs a clear answer about whether Attorney General Pruitt was aware of these actions and approved of them—and whether he’ll actually enforce the EPA’s scientific integrity policy. To ensure that Mr. Pruitt is intent on upholding and advancing the mission of the EPA to protect Americans’ health, he must commit to preserving and honestly presenting scientific information and defending the right of government scientists to do their work unimpeded. If he is unwilling to do so, that is all the more reason to vote no on his nomination.

Sincerely,

Kenneth Kimmell

President, Union of Concerned Scientists

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

Science Must Trump Politics at the USDA, Especially During Turbulent Times

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It has been a rough week for scientists at federal agencies. As the administration has changed over and new leadership is beginning to find its footing, there has been a flurry of emails and directives coming down to agency staff. There are critical democracy concerns with some of the calls seen at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Human Services to halt communication with the media, suspension of social media accounts at the Department of Interior, and hiring and grant and contract freezes at EPA. But what is especially concerning for us here at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is the impact that these actions would have on scientists’ freedom to conduct their research and discuss their findings with the public.

On Tuesday morning, BuzzFeed reported that the chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA’s) research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), had sent out an email to department staff ordering ARS scientists not to communicate to the public: “Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents. This includes but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”

Here at UCS, we were immediately taken aback because of the directive’s contrast with the spirit of the department’s own strong scientific integrity policy, mandated under the Obama administration and revised this past December. The policy includes provisions to protect staff scientists from political interference, empower them to share their research with the public, and ensure their freedom to review documents based on their research before public release, as well as their ability to participate fully in the scientific community, even outside of agency capacity. There are now 24 executive-branch departments and agencies that have developed scientific integrity policies, including the USDA, which is one of the few departments that have a dedicated full-time staffer to ensure the policy’s implementation.

While UCS has in the past had certain concerns about the strength of the USDA’s policy, as well as its enforcement, the latest policy is significantly improved in the protections it provides for USDA scientists. A directive effectively suppressing the research of agency scientists would be completely opposed to the intent of the policy to “encourage, but not require, USDA scientists to participate in communications with the media regarding their scientific findings (data and results)” and to “facilitate the free flow of scientific and technological information.”

The Center for Science and Democracy’s director, Andrew Rosenberg, said, “Both the EPA and the USDA have developed scientific integrity policies that, among other things, protect scientists’ right to speak out about their work. The American people deserve to know the results of taxpayer-funded research.” And as UCS President Ken Kimmell stated, “It’s simple: public servants should be free to state scientific facts. Americans have the right to see and benefit from taxpayer-funded research, and scientists have the right to share their findings openly and honestly, without political pressure, manipulation or suppression. Political staff should never be in charge of deciding what scientific conclusions are acceptable for public consumption.”

After similar backlash from multiple news sources and the scientific community, ARS administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young sent an email hours after the aforementioned email that “hereby rescinded” the previous order and told researchers that it should never have been issued. Our own communications with USDA officials on Tuesday indicated that scientist communications will not be prohibited as the email suggested, but will instead go through an extra layer of review from top officials according to a USDA interim procedure.

To be clear, it is perhaps unsurprising that a new administration would be interested in managing communications on policy-related matters at federal agencies, but strictly scientific communications shouldn’t be subject to political vetting. The extent of this review and the fact that it will likely slow down communication of science is of concern, especially since political appointees should not have a say in whether the findings of taxpayer funded research are seen by the public. The USDA’s own scientific policy reads that “scientific findings and products must not be suppressed or altered for political purposes and must not be subject to inappropriate influence.”

Why the USDA’s research matters for us all

With all of the reporting on the process issues, it’s easy to forget about the real-life consequences of suppressing government science. The USDA and its thousands of scientists and other experts are central to the advancement of knowledge about the nation’s farming and food system. In particular, the long-term research conducted by USDA-ARS scientists and staff feeds into a network of public universities and agricultural extension agents working in every state to translate science for practical application and provide technical assistance to farmers and ranchers. On behalf of farmers, ARS scientists conduct research on issues such as animal diseases, soil erosion, and crop productivity.

ARS also plays a role in protecting the public’s health, with research projects to assess Americans’ food consumption, provide the scientific basis for federal dietary guidance, and keep the food supply safe. It is critical to the health of the nation that this work remains unrestricted and accessible.

While it appears that one individual at ARS made a sweeping statement that wasn’t consistent with the agency’s operating guidelines, Tuesday’s events revealed the USDA’s general lack of organization amidst a changing administration. But perhaps this is not a huge surprise, considering that President Trump’s nomination of his agriculture secretary, Governor Sonny Perdue, was the final cabinet position left unfilled, and that he will not likely have a confirmation hearing before until mid-to-late February. All signs point to the fact that the USDA is not the highest priority agency for the Trump administration, which is disheartening considering the importance and wide scope of the USDA’s authority, ranging from the lunch menu at a school in New York City to the crop insurance coverage received by farmers in Montana. And surprising, given that farmers and rural voters overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in November.

USDA must fully implement and uphold its shiny new SI policy

While the USDA adjusts under new leadership, it is incredibly important that it continue to abide by its own scientific integrity policy, which was just updated at the end of 2016. It has been substantially strengthened since my colleague Gretchen Goldman last wrote about the concerns we had with USDA’s 2013 scientific integrity policy. One of the major issues was that the USDA had not explicitly given its scientists the ability to express their personal views, whether or not they clarified they were not speaking on behalf of the USDA. We were pleased to see in their most recent policy, released late last year, the inclusion of a personal views exception, which states:

When communicating with the media or the public in their personal capacities, USDA scientists may express their personal views and opinions; however, they should not claim to officially represent the Department or its policies, or use the Department or other U.S. Government seals or logos.  Personal or private activities may not violate Federal ethics rules.

Overall, the new policy clarifies procedures in greater detail and offers more flexibility for scientists for whom the policy applies, and you can see the policy got a top grade in our new report, Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking. We hope the USDA continues to fully enforce its new policy and to look for ways to improve upon it, especially considering any findings from an ongoing audit by the USDA Office of the Inspector General on scientific integrity within the agency. In the meantime, we will continue to be vigilant and to hold the USDA accountable for its intent to foster a culture of scientific integrity within the agency, under all circumstances, no matter how chaotic. Because silencing science is never okay.

 

The Native Peoples of Standing Rock Haven’t Given Up, Nor Should We

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Last September, I wrote about the important role that science and scientists could play in supporting the battle of the Lakota Nations in North Dakota to protect their sacred land and water rights. The Dakota Access Pipeline project at that time appeared to be moving forward without a full analysis of the impacts on Native people, their cultural heritage, and the environment. I believed, then and now, that scientists should support the call for that full analysis because decisions on a matter that is so important should be made in light of the science, along with many other factors. The Obama Administration, in response to the coming together of tribes from all across the country, decided that indeed a deeper analysis of options was needed.

On January 18, the Army Corps of Engineers announced their intent to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement. That is the deeper analysis including consideration of alternatives as I discussed at length in my September blog. And right now, until February 20, the Corps are asking for comments on that notice of intent.  In other words, they are asking for input from the public in scoping out the environmental impact statement. To quote from the Corps:

“The proposed crossing of Corps property requires the granting of a right-of-way (easement) under the Mineral Leasing Act (MLA), 30 U.S.C. 185. To date, the Army has not made a final decision on whether to grant the easement pursuant to the MLA. The Army intends to prepare an EIS to consider any potential impacts to the human environment that the grant of an easement may cause.”

“Specifically, input is desired on the following three scoping concerns:

(1) Alternative locations for the pipeline crossing the Missouri River;

(2) Potential risks and impacts of an oil spill, and potential impacts to Lake Oahe, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s water intakes, and the Tribe’s water, treaty fishing, and hunting rights; and

(3) Information on the extent and location of the Tribe’s treaty rights in Lake Oahe.”

There are important science questions in at least the first two of these topics. So scientists with specific expertise might want to comment. And those scientists who are not necessarily specialists in this area or these topics still might want to comment on the importance of preparing a full analysis of the impacts of the proposed pipeline. Comments in response to the notice are in no way restricted to only these three concerns.

Underscoring all of this is the fact that the tribes who have been fighting long and hard to protect their lands and water are also asking for our support.

This call for support is all the more urgent given the Presidential Action this week by President Trump to expedite permitting for the pipeline. That doesn’t mean that an analysis of environmental impacts is off the table. And it is unclear in fact what will happen under the new order. At the least there is likely to be a court battle.

So it is more important than ever for scientists to speak up. I know, there are many, many issues that are confronting us all every day in this new political reality.  But now is not the time to be overwhelmed. Now is the time to be re-energized. Our democracy—and at Standing Rock the health and safety of native people—depend upon it.

Click here to email your comments to the Corps of Engineers before February 20, 2017.

Or go directly to the request for comments page on the Federal Register.

 

Communicating Science: Breaking Through Our Comfortable Silence to Form Meaningful Connections

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Those who knew me prior to age of 17 probably anticipated I’d become a scientist. I held all the stereotypical personality traits of being weird, antisocial, and a tad eccentric back then. With my hombre highlights and loud persona, few new people I casually encounter today at, say, the grocery store suspect I enjoy spending at least eight hours examining microbial sequence data, synthesizing predictive models, and writing grant applications. It’s meditative. And though I’ve become a go-to socialite in my circles, I still wouldn’t label myself as an extrovert. To me I’m simply doing my job, being open and approachable to promote information accessibility.

A festive spread of international dishes, paired with live music from visiting artists in the evening where everyone is welcome – a common event for our housemates.

A festive spread of international dishes, paired with live music from visiting artists in the evening where everyone is welcome – a common event for our housemates.

During the past few years, I’ve put a lot of self-reflection into why I’m viewed as an extrovert when I consider myself to be quite awkward and introverted. Need someone to lead a project? Ask Sabah. Need someone to pop in and get things organized? Ask Sabah. Upcoming dinner party or do-it-yourself concert? Sabah probably has something to do with it. More and more often, I find myself in these roles – why? As any good scientist would ask themselves, what was the reason for transforming from the kooky 17-year-old I once was to becoming the town socialite?

Listening to different perspectives is critical for communication

People don’t take much of a stance on an issue until it directly involves them. Take, dare I say it, climate change as an example. Many are unswayed by the evidence until experiencing the negative impacts of climate change firsthand. Perhaps that’s the reason why I’ve moved further away from my introvert core and closer towards a perceived extrovert—the realization that a disregard for others and their issues is, by default, a disregard for myself and my issues.

Being an academic is a luxury we often forget we have. I didn’t notice it until arriving at the University of California, Merced as a doctoral student where more than 60% of the students we serve are (much like myself) coming from low-income, first generation college families and/or first generation households. The town of Merced also reminds me a great deal of the neighborhood where I grew up. It is a privilege to be at a university still at a stage of being influenced by its surrounding community in contrast to the (more common) other way around. The ability to talk to and interact with people who face issues completely different from my own as an academic keeps me grounded in my perspective, especially in our presently polarized political climate.

One example of listening as a critical aspect of communication is when our house finally decided we’d bring in some experts to help clean our yard. We refuse to water our lawn with California being in a drought, so things were looking a bit wild. A local friend of ours brought two landscapers to the scene, both from the Merced area. I was home that day and it was hot outside. I asked them if they wanted to take a break from the sun and take a snack break together. Somewhat skeptical, the two walked in and expressed this was the first time someone had treated them “like a human” on the job. We started talking and their skepticism soon faded. I was not the naïve UC student they had presumed me to be and they were hard working people with valuable insight. These interactions remind me of where I come from; why my voice is an important microphone for others aiming to better connect higher education with their communities, and the value in being an extrovert.

Science communication for a more inclusive future?

Science communication has become a topic at the forefront of conducting research, and for good reason. Funding for research on national and global levels is under the threat of undergoing drastic cuts, but discussion of science being made available to all instead of limited to the narrow, Aristocratic few of yester-century is increasing. Having scientists who proportionally represent the demography of the surrounding population is not only logical in terms of equity, but also in terms of ensuring science itself continues to grow and thrive. We are limiting ourselves by telling instead of asking and communicating—fostering dialogue. The future is in communicating, rather than the one-dimensional dichotomy of lecturing or staying quiet.

 Going outside of her comfort zone and communicating with individuals different from herself since 1996.

Sabah Ul-Hasan: Going outside of her comfort zone and communicating with individuals different from herself since 1996.

If we truly care about inclusion of underrepresented anything in any realm, accessibility or funding or showing that our scientific evidence for issues such as climate change are indeed real and should be taken quite seriously by all of us, then we first must consider the communities we come from and the communities where we live. We can conduct our science in a way that’s mindful of all these communities. A good place to start is with our families. My family was skeptical of the value in studying marine systems for years, especially because pursuing school for too long (i.e., doctoral degrees) can culturally be viewed as an economic waste of time in first generation American families. These days, after much patience and constant non-condescending conversations on all sides, my family is quite proud of my work as a scientist. They understand and stick up for its significance, they take their Seafood Watch booklets with them everywhere and make it a point to recycle. In exchange I continuously improve the communication of my work, a win-win for all of us. Science communication isn’t another line on a resume, it’s us.

We will mess up, but just like with any experiment—we’ve got to be okay with troubleshooting and trying again. We need to persevere. That’s the difference between a scientist and a good scientist, right? I’m not sure, but maybe being an extrovert is worth a shot.

 

Bio: Sabah Ul-Hasan is a Quantitative & Systems Biology Eugene-Cota Robles Doctoral Fellow at the University of California, Merced co-advised by Dr. Mark Sistrom and Dr. Tanja Woyke. A first generation American born in Salt Lake City, Sabah holds B.S. degrees in Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental & Sustainability studies from the University of Utah and an M.S. in Biochemistry from the University of New Hampshire. Today, Sabah’s research interests lie with host-microbe symbioses in venomous animals. Sabah enjoys spending her free time on short films creatively promoting science knowledge accessibility, rock climbing, partaking in philosopher banter, and talking to strangers. You can find her on Twitter @Sabah_UlHasan

 

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.

President Trump’s Attacks on Immigrants Impoverish Science and Weaken America

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The severe and racist changes to immigration imposed on the United States by President Trump should be denounced and resisted by all who care about science and democracy.

Science thrives on diversity. Immigration is the foundation of America’s unparalleled scientific leadership. It also enriches our lives across the board, from culture and the arts to entrepreneurship to reducing the federal deficit.

All six of the American science Nobel Prize winners in 2016 are immigrants. The free flow of individuals and information is fundamental to both economic growth and our ability to respond to urgent public health and environmental challenges.

Further, research demonstrates that diverse groups are more innovative and creative than uniform groups. Being around people who are different from us stretches our minds and makes us work harder. I work with an increasingly diverse group of colleagues at UCS. Their perspectives make me a more effective advocate and a better person.

Data also show that refugees are less likely to be terrorists than natural-born citizens. Quoting my own post from 2015:

The United States became a great country because it embraced people from all over the world. We are a land of immigrants. Many of our nation’s greatest scientists were foreign-born. Before they came to our country, they were students, doctors, and pharmacists. With them came children and supportive spouses. They built their lives here, contributed their talents, settled into communities, and grew our nation…

It’s tragic and embarrassing to see so many American leaders heading in the opposite direction, with many governors, members of Congress, and presidential candidates scoring political points by declaring that Syrian refugees are not welcome in their states, or that Christians should be accepted but Muslims turned away. We don’t have to sacrifice security for doing our global duty.

The consequences are also personal. Dr. Kurt Gottfried, one of my heroes, is a founding member of UCS and former chair of our Board. He is not only an accomplished Cornell physicist, but is also largely responsible for the work that UCS did to strengthen our democracy by calling out political interference in science during the Bush administration. His work helped lay the groundwork for the ongoing, widespread efforts to defend the role of science in our democracy.

He is also an immigrant, one who fled Europe for Canada as the Nazi occupation grew.

Denying entry to people like Kurt is not who we are. We are better than this.

President Trump is targeting “sanctuary cities.” Being a sanctuary city is a choice local communities have the right to make, and scores of American communities have chosen to do so. Yet as is too often the case, the conservative principle of allowing local governments to determine their own destinies appears not to apply when their choices are deemed objectionable.

Yet just as many municipalities are moving forward on climate change regardless of what happens with the federal government, dozens of cities have already signaled their intent to resist the president’s actions on immigration. “We will defend everybody—every man, woman and child—who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state,” said California Governor Jerry Brown in his state of the state address (aquí en Español). 

Many scientists, too, are planning their own resistance to attacks on science and scientists. They are are organizing marches, preparing to run for office, and joining watchdog teams to monitor and respond to activity. If you’re a scientist and you haven’t signed our letter outlining expectations for the Trump administration, including the promotion of diversity, do so here.

Defending Science Is Not Only for Scientists—It’s for All Who Care About Clean Air, Water, and Soil

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The Union of Concerned Scientists is committed to watchdogging the Trump administration’s attacks on science and the safeguards that keep our water, soil, and air clean.  Since the inauguration of President Trump, we have seen how the administration has fired all cannons on deck to gut protections from the ravaging effects of climate change as well as from air, soil, and water contaminants. For example, a few minutes after the inauguration, all mentions of climate change from the White House’s website were taken down (but were archived here). This week, the Environmental Protection Agency has been effectively gagged and immobilized under orders to suspend all social media contacts, and freeze grants and not talk about it.

It’s critical that all members of society oppose this. I have many friends and family members who don’t consider themselves “political” and thus do not raise their voice to oppose these assaults. I understand why—many don’t want to open themselves to attacks or be labeled as “radicals”; others may think that this is the job of the political class or of people who do this for a living (like me!). Others may not think it is as bad as it looks. But let me be clear: it is as bad as it looks. Don’t take my word for it, though. The majority of scientists who work on climate agree that climate change is caused by humans and that it requires immediate action to avoid catastrophic consequences. More importantly, there’s nothing radical about wanting clean air and water to breathe and drink, is there? There’s nothing radical about our children’s right to live in a world without major weather disruptions due to climate change.

I know many people have concerns about the frontal assault of the administration on health and environments and the institutions that protect us. It’s important that your elected officials hear your voice directly about what’s at stake in your state or local community, especially since in a few days confirmation votes for cabinet positions will be coming up. Follow our guide below to get contact information for your Senators, and tips for a successful call with their staff members:

http://www.ucsusa.org/action/phone-calls.html

In general, this can help you be more effective when talking to congressional staff:

  • Make your message clear and concise—just a few sentences
  • Let them know that you’re a constituent—and share any affiliations with local institutions
  • Make a very concrete ask ( e.g. “vote no”)
  • Very briefly, let them know why you care and what the implications are for his/her state and constituency
  • Thank them for their time

Do you have any other tips or resources for people making calls to Congress? Share them in the comments section below.

You Can’t Delete Climate Change

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And so it continues… today brought news that the Trump administration had directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove its climate change web page and clamped down on any public communication from agency staff.

As of now, key EPA sites are still online and there is news that there is, at least temporarily, a ‘stand down’ of the order to scrub the web page. Is this a sign that scientists calling attention to this quickly caused a change of mind? (Meanwhile, another related update: a news story (paywall) and a google search of the Department of State’s website indicate that much of the climate-related information seems to have been removed.)

I am stunned that we Americans should even have to be concerned about these types of edicts: Are we in the Middle Ages again?

Why are President Trump and his administration afraid of science?

There’s no getting around the facts of climate change

Despite these Orwellian attempts to remove climate change from agency websites, prevent staff from speaking up, and generally slow or stop federal climate action, there’s no getting around the facts. Climate change is real, our carbon emissions are causing it, it’s already having a costly and harmful effect on our lives, and those risks will grow if we fail to act.

That’s why everyone from the US Department of Defense to the World Economic Forum is taking the risks of climate change seriously.

The president has previously called climate change a “hoax.” His cabinet nominees (including Rex Tillerson, Scott Pruitt, and Rick Perry) used talking points at their recent hearings that basically amount to a dangerous new type of climate denial. They acknowledged that climate change is real but continued to sow doubt about its human causes, setting up yet another reason to avoid taking serious action now to curtail our carbon emissions.

Lest there be any doubt, there is overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is happening AND that the primary cause is carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. America’s premier scientists at the National Academy of Sciences agree, and this is the near-universal consensus of scientists around the world.

We also know that if we make deep cuts in our carbon emissions, we can slow the pace of climate change and limit its harmful impacts. But we have to act quickly.

There’s only one reason for this dangerous censorship of science: Pandering to fossil fuel interests, and putting their profits ahead of the health and well-being of all Americans. And then there’s that padding of the cabinet with appointees with strong links to the industry.

Science is stubborn

As my colleague Alden Meyer put it:

“President Trump and his team are pursuing what I call a ‘control-alt-delete’ strategy: control the scientists in the federal agencies, alter science-based policies to fit their narrow ideological agenda, and delete scientific information from government websites.”

But science and facts have a way of coming out on top despite the best attempts of politicians to duck inconvenient truths and distort reality. As President John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Meanwhile these insidious attempts to undermine climate science are causing us to lose precious time in our response to it, slowing down our transition to a clean energy economy and impeding our efforts to protect communities from climate impacts.

The EPA and climate science 

So what’s at stake at the EPA? Along with other federal agencies like NOAA (part of the Department of Commerce), the EPA is on the front lines of our nation’s response to climate change. Some of the crucial work the EPA does includes, among other things:

Widespread support for tackling climate change

There is widespread support from businesses, labor, faith groups, health professionals, environmental justice groups, environmental groups, and scientists on the urgent need to tackle climate change.

Poll data repeatedly points to strong bipartisan support for renewable energy, including wind and solar power. Yet, ironically the new administration’s America First Energy Plan simply perpetuates our dependence on fossil fuels and completely avoids any mention of renewable energy. Hopefully, the administration’s big infrastructure package will include investments in grid modernization and renewable energy.

With the costs of wind and solar dropping dramatically, now is the time to double down on these clean, homegrown forms of affordable energy. Else we will cede leadership to China and other nations that are stepping up to act on climate.

Yes, we also have to ensure that our transition to a clean energy economy includes policies to help coal mining communities and other communities that depend on fossil fuels for their livelihoods. And clean energy and clean energy jobs should also be available in low-income communities and communities of color.

But we can’t avoid dealing with climate change.

Part of a larger trend of anti-science rhetoric from the Trump administration

The anti-science rhetoric from the new administration is dangerous and without precedent.

Scientists are alarmed. They are working together to preserve critical datasets and research that are at risk of censorship from the Trump administration. They’ve held protest rallies at scientific meetings and sent letters to the administration.

They are also concerned about budget and staffing cuts at key agencies charged with providing data critical for our economy (including weather and tide forecasts), and crucial for our understanding of how our climate is changing.

Amidst it all, Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross has emerged as a beacon of hope, asserting in his hearing and in a letter to Senator Bill Nelson that he would support the work of NOAA scientists.

The letter says:

I believe science should be left to scientists. If confirmed, I intend to see that the Department provides the public with as much factual and accurate data as we have available. It is public tax dollars that support the Department’s scientific research, and barring some national security concern, I see no valid reason to keep peer reviewed research from the public. To be clear, by peer review I mean scientific review and not a political filter.

President Trump and the other agency heads he appoints should take a similar approach. What’s at stake are core values—including freedom of speech, scientific integrity, and the importance of basing our policies on sound science. These are not partisan issues, and neither is climate change.

What’s your plan for climate change, President Trump?

The new administration should take the climate threat seriously and propose solutions, not pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. These solutions could look different from those of the Obama administration but simply overturning all our existing climate policies and undermining climate science at federal agencies is not a plan.

President Trump, what is your plan to protect us and our children and grandchildren from climate change?

California Floods Remind Us To Make Agricultural Water Conservation a Top Priority

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Yes, you’ve been reading the headlines correctly the last few weeks. There’s been so much rain in drought-stricken California that excess water has led to flooded homes, damaged roads, dangerous mudslides and tragically, several fatalities. To make matters worse, the abundant rainfall hasn’t even cured the state’s current woes: snowpack levels remain below normal, and rain might even exceed the capacity in many reservoirs—meaning that all this newly available water can’t even be stored for the future.

This is an important reminder that conditions can change rapidly, as is happening now in California. It can be hard to understand how the challenges can move so quickly from one extreme to the other, but droughts and floods are actually both symptoms of the same water problem: too much water when it is not needed and not enough when it is.

Creative, low-tech approaches to water management

Recent stories profiling managed flooding across California are encouraging, and offer strategies for better managing excess rainfall, whenever it comes. For example, researchers and farmers are working to understand how crops handle flooded conditions, experimenting whether it is possible to intentionally flood fields so that water can slowly “refill” storage underground. The challenge of managing water that is in excess at some times and absent at others is not new, but now more than ever we must continue to innovate rainwater conservation as much possible, given future projections of increased rainfall variability.

As I’ve written previously, my research is exploring precisely these questions around optimizing water management, and we’ve found very encouraging results. With intentional emphasis on conservation and ecological practices—such as cover crops, agroforestry and perennial crops—the sponge-like properties of soils to hold more water (while also letting more water drain through) can be significantly improved. This is good for farmers, it is good for crops, it is good for communities and it is good for all of us as taxpayers: floods are known to result in some of the costliest natural disasters, including four multi-billion dollar events in 2016 alone. And droughts, of course, have big price tags as well.

Water for agriculture 101: on rainfall and irrigation

We often hear much about the “water footprint” of agriculture. Agriculture is either “rainfed” or “irrigated” which is pretty self-explanatory. Rainfed regions, which make up approximately 80% of agricultural lands globally, are predominantly found the more humid areas of the planet (i.e. much of the eastern United States). Irrigated agriculture relies on additional water resources and is mainly located in the arid regions, which make up 20% of agricultural lands (and are said to result disproportionately in 40% of production). Some irrigation waters come from rivers or streams – the surface water that you can see above ground – while others come from underground aquifers that store water.

Agricultural management approaches that improve water storage in the soil can be valuable in all regions – arid or humid – as I previously noted about flooding last fall in Iowa (a region where drought is a concern, but excess water a more persistent problem). So whether the water for agriculture comes from above or below ground, getting more help from the soil to maintain and manage it is a holistic approach that can prevent extremes and reduce costly, damage impacts.

Another reminder of the climate challenges ahead for agriculture

A study out last week in the prestigious journal Nature serves as yet another reminder of how critical water management is for our future agricultural system. A group of scientists evaluated several crop models (a common method for assessing climate change impacts) and found that crop yields decline significantly for every day with temperatures over 86 degrees F during the growing season. This effect is somewhat offset in irrigated areas; however, the authors recognize that relying on irrigation as a sole solution is problematic as well, because water resources are declining around the world (including the Western United States). Given this decline, researchers suggest that by the end of the 21st century, there will be a need to shift agricultural lands predominantly reliant on irrigation to focus on rainwater. This is exactly the conversation that we can start having right now given how much proactive planning it requires to negate the impacts of floods and droughts.

Water expert Peter Gleick recently wrote a fantastic piece summarizing the complex problems associated with water management. He notes that asking if the California drought is over is the wrong question. What we ought to be asking are broader questions about the overall sustainability of water use. He refers to the situation in California aptly as “a bank account in perpetual overdraft” given how often groundwater removals exceed recharge levels.

Right now our agricultural system is dangerously susceptible to periods of either too much or too little water.  The drought-to-flood conditions in California are another reminder that we must continue envisioning a system of crop and soil management that supports the water we can sustainably use for agriculture, rather than running our water bank accounts dry. Farmers, ranchers and the broader food system will not transform to be more climate-resilient overnight, but with a common-sense look toward water woes of the future, we can start planning for that future now.

The Fox Who Will Guard the Nation’s Henhouses (And Five Questions the Senate Should Ask Him)

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On the final day before his inauguration last week, then-President-elect Trump finally chose a nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, the last cabinet post to be filled. The months-long selection process was circus-like, with as many as a dozen candidates floated. Early on there was the Democrat. Then there was the foul-mouthed rodeo cowboy. Along the way, there was the former university president and the strawberry-farmer-turned-politician (either of whom would have been the only Latino in the cabinet, but oh well). Late in the game, there was even a banker who threw his own hat into the ring. But in the end, the winner was the first guy interviewed, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue.

USDA—still the people’s department

Before we look at Perdue’s background and approach to agriculture, let’s review the mission of the department he has been nominated to run. The US Department of Agriculture was established in 1862 by an act of Congress that was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln later referred to the USDA as “the people’s department,” an apt moniker because at the time, about half of his countrymen and women lived on farms.

But even today, the USDA and the broad range of policies it administers touch every American. From crop subsidies that drive decisions about which foods farmers grow, to incentives and technical assistance to curb farm pollution, to the MyPlate dietary guidelines, to billions of dollars for food assistance programs and subsidized school lunches, the USDA affects us all.

And as the Trump administration gets under way, the state of our farm and food system is one of the most critical issues affecting all Americans. Our system is out of balance, with numerous USDA policies working at cross-purposes. Some policies attempt to increase Americans’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, while others subsidize crops largely fed to livestock or destined for processed foods.

Overall, a recent UCS policy brief shows that US food policy is failing many farmers, rural communities, and working people. Workers in the agriculture and food industries have less purchasing power; farmers’ and ranchers’ productivity and long-term resilience to pests, weather, and other challenges are diminished; the nation’s drinking water is threatened by farm runoff; and the health care sector is reeling from the costs of diet-related diseases.

Sonny Perdue knows ag (Big Ag, that is)

But back to Governor Perdue…whose real full name is George Ervin Perdue III, and who is no relation to the chicken company family. The tractor-patterned-tie-wearing former Peach State governor (2003-2011) grew up on a farm and was a practicing veterinarian before getting into politics. A registered Democrat before switching parties in 1998, the governor once led a public prayer for rain on the steps of the state capitol during a 2007 drought. He claims to have captured his new boss’s imagination at their first meeting last November, telling reporters President-elect Trump “lit up” to hear Perdue talk about his farming and business credentials.

I wrote recently that other Trump administration nominees seem likely to double down on corporate dominance of our food system, and Perdue appears to be no exception. Since leaving the governor’s mansion in 2011, Perdue has run a string of agriculture-related businesses in Georgia, including grain trading and fertilizer interests. In addition to this background in agricultural commodities and trade, he has indicated support for deregulating farming. And as my colleague Genna Reed pointed out last week, he has ties to The Coca-Cola Company, the world’s largest beverage company and an end-user of subsidized corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup.

In recent years, the USDA has launched a range of initiatives to elevate diversified farming, improved nutrition, and equitable access to healthy food. President Trump and Governor Perdue seem unlikely to champion such programs, and they may even roll back some important advances. A post-election news report summarized a list of talking points the Trump campaign had sent to its agricultural advisory committee (of which Perdue was a member), which indicated that the campaign had prioritized “a shift back to conventional agriculture…fighting the so-called good food movement and undoing Obama-era agricultural and environmental policies.” If he is confirmed by the Senate, Perdue will presumably be expected to carry out these campaign promises.

In a statement last week, my colleague Ricardo Salvador called Perdue “quintessential Big Ag,” and Big Ag seems to agree, based on effusive statements from industry lobby groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the National Grain and Feed Association. Reactions from groups that truly represent farmers, including the National Farmers Union and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, were more tepid.

Five questions the Senate should ask Governor Perdue

Perdue will have a confirmation hearing in the Senate Agriculture Committee (on which his first cousin, Republican Senator David Perdue, sits). That hasn’t been scheduled and probably won’t take place for weeks. But while we’re waiting, here are five questions I’d like to see Senators ask him, to probe his intentions for a farming and food system that serves all of us—including the struggling farmers, rural communities, and working people his new boss purports to champion:

  1. How would Perdue use federal agriculture policy to stimulate innovation, boost farmers’ livelihoods, and revitalize rural communities? The last 30 years have seen worrying trends in the demographics of farming and the economics of farm communities. Farmers are getting older—in 2012, the average age was 58.3 years—and high land prices mean that farmland is concentrated in ever fewer hands. Midsize family farms, historically the backbone of rural economies in the United States, have been disappearing for almost two decades. Nearly 56,000 midsize farms were lost nationally between 2007 and 2012, but UCS has proposed policies to bring them back, along with new jobs, by building local food systems and connecting farmers to them. Would Perdue support such policies?
  1. With America’s farmers increasingly facing the impacts of global warming, how would Perdue’s USDA help them cope? Just last week, a new study predicted that global warming will have a profoundly negative effect on US farmers, potentially slashing harvests of corn and other commodities by half due to heat and water stress. In already hot regions like the governor’s home state of Georgia, the distress of last year’s severe drought is still fresh, and we can expect more to come. According to my scientist colleagues Marcia DeLonge and Andrea Basche, farming systems that build soil organic matter and renew the nation’s grasslands are critical to helping farmers cope with future droughts…oh, and also floods. Will Governor Perdue seek to maintain and increase USDA’s investments in research, education, and technical assistance to help farmers become more resilient?
  1. Does Perdue support maintaining funding and standards for the nutrition programs administered by the USDA? The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) provides a critical safety net for low-income families. And 2010 legislation to upgrade federal school meal programs is already paying off in the form of improved nutrition for the nation’s children. Still, children born in the 2000s have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, thanks to spiking rates of obesity and diet-related diseases that occur at ever-younger ages. And children of color are disproportionately affected, as obesity rates have leveled off for white children but continue to climb for African American and Hispanic children. A recent UCS analysis revealed that living near fast food outlets and convenience stores is associated with higher diabetes rates—especially in counties with relatively large populations of color. Diet-related diseases also add many billions of dollars each year to our national health care bill: treating heart disease and stroke, for example, cost an estimated $94 billion in 2010, and this figure is projected to nearly triple by 2030. Will Perdue support important programs to combat this public health crisis, or roll them back?
  1. Would Perdue support recent efforts at USDA to increase funding for agricultural research? Robust agricultural research programs provide critical tools for farmers as they seek ways to profitably manage their operations and protect their soil and water resources. In the last Congress, House and Senate appropriations committees voted to boost funding for the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative by $25 million for fiscal year 2017. Such increased investments in research are key to helping farmers be productive, sustainable, and resilient to future challenges (see #2 above). Agroecological research, in particular, offers innovative solutions to farming’s environmental and other challenges, but this science is underfunded and understudied, as UCS has shown. More than 400 scientists have called for more public funding for agroecology. Will Perdue support such investments in farmers and our food system?
  1. Would Perdue respect science as a critical component of decision making at the USDA? It is imperative that the USDA and other federal agencies maintain high standards of scientific integrity in the new administration. More than 5,500 scientists have called on Congress and the Trump administration to ensure that federal agency actions remain strongly grounded in science to safeguard the public, that agencies and departments adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence, and that they provide adequate resources to enable federal scientists to do their vitally important jobs. Will Perdue commit to maintain such standards and uphold the department’s existing scientific integrity policy?

I hope the Senate will thoroughly vet Governor Perdue, and encourage him to re-think our current industrialized commodity agriculture and processed food system. Doubling down on this failed system will harm farmers, put consumers at risk, and create unnecessary costs for taxpayers. UCS will be watching his confirmation process, hoping to see signs that he seeks to promote a more innovative, healthy, and sustainable system—one that would benefit farmers as well as eaters and our shared environment.

Are Business’ Zero-Deforestation Palm Oil Pledges Being Kept? Here’s How We’ll Know

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One important development of the past decade is the large number of corporate commitments to eliminate deforestation and exploitation from their supply chains. In response to the demands of civil society, and recognizing the critical value of their brands’ images to their bottom lines, dozen of companies have pledged to become deforestation- and exploitation-free by specific dates—often 2020 or sooner. But how can we—the consumers who buy their products and insisted that they act—know whether they’re actually doing what they promised?

The key is a two-step process: Traceability and Transparency. First, corporations need to find out how their supply chains extend all the way back to the forest land from which they get the palm oil, wood, beef and soy that they use to make the products they sell us. But second, they need to make this information public, clearly and in detail. To borrow a phrase from a quite different issue, they need to Ask, but they also need to Tell.

This is what makes a new agreement among 18 NGOs (including UCS) on Reporting Guidance for Responsible Palm an important development. Palm oil—the most widely used vegetable oil worldwide, used in literally thousands of products from baked goods to shampoo to cooking oil to industrial lubricants—comes mostly from southeast Asia. Its production is associated with deforestation, the exploitation of workers and violations of the land rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the draining and burning of peat swamps that produces large-scale emissions of global warming pollution. Many companies have made commitments to end these practices, but till now there was no agreement on how they needed to report their progress in doing it.

The new guidelines, in whose development my UCS colleague Sharon Smith was deeply involved, are notable for their clarity and their comprehensiveness. As a veteran of negotiating processes for many documents, ranging from international treaties to political coalitions to the texts of multi-author scientific papers, I’ve seen lots of ways in which these processes can lead to weak outcomes, despite the best intentions of those involved. Two pitfalls are particularly common:

  • Complicated jargon. Particularly when working on scientific and technical issues, we can easily lapse into using words that have precise meanings to experts, but are incomprehensible to the outside world.
  • “Kitchen-sink” compromises. When one side thinks that point A is crucial, and another feels the same about point B—and others about C, D, E and F—the simplest way to reach agreement can seem to be: let’s just include them all.

The 18 organizations that created the Reporting Guidance have done an admirable job in avoiding these two traps. The text is written in plain English, e.g.

Describe the spatial monitoring methodology the company uses to evaluate both fires and deforestation.

Detail: For both fires and deforestation, describe:

  • the area monitored (e.g. 50 km mill sourcing radii, expansion areas, plantations);
  • the definitions of what is being monitored (e.g. rate of fire activity, rate of tree cover loss);
  • the data sources being used;
  • the time frame(s) used to measure change, including the baseline; and
  • the percent of total mills in the supply chain falling under this monitoring methodology.

Furthermore, the guidelines include important points for transparency—both environmental and social—but nothing superfluous. The document covers what’s needed in just 16 pages, which includes a set of definitions and a two-page quantitative assessment of how many companies are already following each of the guidelines in their reporting.

Although I wasn’t involved in the negotiations leading to the guidelines, I know well how hard and exhausting it can be to reach agreement on such a document. But of course documents change nothing unless they’re implemented. In this case, that means that companies that have moved in the direction of zero-deforestation supply chains need to report publicly on their progress using this Guidance. (A few immediately announced that they will do so; e.g. Marks and Spencer, which said that “This document guides companies towards reporting that is most meaningful and material to a wide range of stakeholders and contributes towards our collective goal of making palm oil production sustainable and deforestation free.”

We now need to see similar statements from those corporations that haven’t yet done adequate reporting on how they are complying with their announced policies—e.g. McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, ConAgra, Krispy Kreme, Tim Hortons and Yum! Brands. It’s time to be transparent about how you’re ending deforestation from what you sell us.

 

Gutting the EPA Hurts Real People

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News reports indicate that the Trump administration has big plans underway to undermine the work of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the lead agency working to protect our health and the environment from pollution. One troublesome development has already happened: last Friday the EPA was instructed to freeze all its grants and contracts, a move that could seriously impede the agency’s work the longer it is in place.

This is bad news for all Americans, especially our nation’s children.

Instead of blatantly attempting to put fossil fuel interests ahead of our clean air and clean water, the Trump administration must instead show us how it will protect our health and well-being.

Why we need the EPA

Clean air and clean water are not just “nice to have.”

Pollutants like smog, ozone, and mercury contribute to worsening asthma attacks (especially in young children), heart and lung ailments, and even premature death. What’s more, pollution imposes billions of dollars in costs to the economy in terms of hospital and other health costs, lost work days, lost school days, and other burdens, in addition to pain and suffering.

The EPA was established nearly 50 years ago, under President Nixon, with a mission to protect human health and the environment. Since then, across Republican and Democratic administrations, it has played an important role in responding to environmental disasters, from the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident to the catastrophic 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee.

Equally important, the EPA has worked to implement major environmental laws passed by Congress, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which have helped to significantly to drive down harmful pollution and improve the health of Americans.

We need only look to the air quality in Beijing or New Delhi to understand where our country would be without these fundamental protections. Americans need and depend on the EPA to be our watchdog and guardian.

Gutting the EPA hurts real people

Efforts to gut the EPA—via budget and staffing cuts, cuts in research grants and activities, or by stopping the implementation of key public health safeguards—will hurt real people. These actions would almost certainly mean more children getting sick and American taxpayers not getting the science-based protections and information we have invested in.

When big car companies like Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler evade our nation’s emissions laws, it is the EPA that takes the lead in bringing them into compliance (using science and methods that sometimes come from independent investigators such as the West Virginia University team that first discovered the so-called defeat device in VW vehicles).

The EPA works with Tribal communities to help with the cleanup of toxic waste sites, reduce pollution from fossil fuels, and expand access to information such as the toxic release inventory that helps all communities know their risks.

The EPA’s AirData website provides access to air quality data collected from outdoor air monitors around the nation, a vital source of information for communities and researchers.

The EPA’s Brownfields grant programs helps communities around the country to safely clean up and reuse properties contaminated by pollutants and hazardous wastes. These type of actions have helped revitalize neighborhoods and foster thriving communities in places once considered “blighted.”

These are just a few examples of the valuable work the EPA does. ­­­­­­­­­­­­There’s a lot more work to do to continue our progress on cleaning up our air and water, particularly in low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal communities—which bear a disproportionate burden of pollution from fossil fuels and industrial sources. There’s always room for improvement, including in beefing up enforcement of existing laws.

But there is no good reason to undertake drastic measures to undermine the fundamental work of the agency, except to pander to the interests of polluting industries that care more about their bottom line than the costs they are imposing on society at large.

Health vs. economic growth is a false choice

We shouldn’t have to choose between our health and a thriving economy—and past experience shows we don’t need to. For example, the data show that over a 20-year period from 1990 to 2010 the Clean Air Act helped drive down total emissions of the six major air pollutants by more than 40 percent while GDP grew more than 64 percent.

In fact, if we act in a short-sighted way and reduce commonsense safeguards, we will undermine future economic growth and have to divert more and more resources to dealing with health problems and cleaning up environmental harms.

We can and should reduce pollution in a fair way that integrates economic prosperity and a cleaner, healthier environment. Americans deserve no less.

Using science and economics to tackle pollution

The EPA’s work is informed by robust science. For example, in setting pollution standards the EPA must take into account what the latest medical studies show about the impacts of pollutants like ozone or mercury on human health. Regulations are also informed by the latest science on cost-effective pollution control technologies and practices.

And for many pollutants the EPA must also do a cost-benefit analysis to ensure that the standards are being set in a way that takes into account the costs of pollution controls relative to the public health benefits. These types of cost-benefit analyses have been a mainstay of regulatory policy dating back to the Reagan Administration, and use very standard mainstream economic methods.

Of course, for toxic pollutants that pose an acute risk to human health, such as mercury, standards are set based on public health criteria as the law requires.

Additionally, the EPA administrator regularly solicits expert opinions from independent scientists and experts, including through the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and the Science Advisory Board (SAB), both of which were created under direction from Congress in the late 1970s. The CASAC has weighed in on issues such as the appropriate setting of ozone standards and standards for nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. The SAB has been tapped to provide input on several key issues including the economy-wide modeling of the benefits and costs of environmental regulation and a review of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water.

What’s your plan for clean air and water, President Trump?

Setting smart cost-effective public health standards has helped improve our air and water, drive innovation in clean technologies, and allowed robust economic growth to continue alongside. Let’s not turn back the clock on progress, putting our kids at risk of breathing dirtier air or drinking unsafe water.

President Trump, what’s your plan to protect our children from pollution?

Nuclear Regulatory Crusader

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

To many, the acronym NRC stands for Nuclear Regulatory Commission. At times, NRC has been said to stand for Nobody Really Cares, Nuclear Rubberstamp Committee, and Nielsen Ratings Commission.

In regard to Larry Criscione, it may stand for Nuclear Regulatory Crusader.

(Source: NRC)

Larry is an engineer working for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Last year, Larry received the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage from The Safeek Nader Trust. Joe Callaway established the award in 1990 to recognize individuals who, with integrity and at some personal risk, take a public stance to advance truth and justice.

In March 2011, the three operating reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan melted down after a tsunami generated by a large earthquake flooded the site and disabled primary and backup power supplies to emergency equipment. In public, the NRC denied that reactors operating in the U.S. were vulnerable to such hazards.

In private, the NRC knew otherwise.

Flooding Risk at Oconee

In June 2010—nine months before Fukushima—the NRC issued a Confirmatory Action Letter to the owner of the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina requiring more than a dozen measures be taken. The measures were intended to lessen the chances that the Jocassee Dam fails and to increase the chances that the three operating reactors at Oconee survive should the dam fail anyway.

An evaluation showed that if the dam—located about 21 miles upriver from Oconee—failed, the site would be inundated with about 12.5 to 16.8 feet of flood water. The site was protected by a flood wall about seven feet tall, so it mattered little whether the actual depth was 12.5, 13, 14, 15, or 16.8 feet.

The NRC estimated that if the dam failed and flooded the site, there was a 100 percent chance that all three reactors would meltdown.

But the NRC issued the Confirmatory Action Letter secretly and did not tell the public about the hazard it required Oconee’s owner to lessen. After Fukushima tragically demonstrated the hazard posed by flooding, the NRC continued to cover-up measures taken and planned to lessen the flooding vulnerability at Oconee.

Larry and the OIG

So, Larry sent a 19-page letter dated September 18, 2002, to the NRC Chairman chronicling this history and asking four things:

  1. The NRC’s Office of General Counsel (OGC) should review the documents related to flooding at Oconee and the associated federal regulations to determine whether the documents could be made publicly available.
  1. The NRC’s Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response (NSIR) should review the information on flooding hazards redacted from documents released to the public in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to determine whether additional information could be made publicly available.
  1. Based on the OGC and NSIR reviews, ensure that all flooding hazard documents that can be made publicly available are publicly available.
  1. The NRC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) should investigate whether the agency has been inappropriately marking documents as containing “Security-Related Information.”

Exercising his rights under the Lloyd-La Follette Act of 1912, Larry copied U.S. Congressional staff members on the email transmitting his letter to the NRC Chairman.

Larry’s letter was obtained by a reporter and featured in a Huffington Post article dated October 19, 2012.

As Larry had requested, the NRC’s OIG investigated handling of documents about flooding hazards. But rather than investigate whether NRC had improperly withheld information as he contended, OIG investigated whether Larry had improperly released information. As detailed in our 2015 report on the NRC and nuclear power safety, OIG made Larry an offer—he could voluntarily resign from the NRC or they would turn over his case to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for prosecution.

Larry did not resign.

OIG did refer the case to DOJ.

DOJ did not prosecute.

Through FOIA, UCS obtained DOJ’s response to NRC declining to prosecute Criscione. Under the Primary Reasons for Declination section, DOJ checked one box—No Federal Offense Committed.

Fortunately for Larry, not breaking the law is not yet against the law.

Thanks to Larry’s selfless efforts, the flooding hazards at Oconee have been made public. Larry had been right about the NRC inappropriately withholding information from the public. When lawyers and investigators were all through, the information he sought to have publicly released was publicly released. The NRC lacked legal grounds to continue hiding it.

More importantly, NRC’s mangers may think twice—or at least once—before withholding dam safety information in the future.

Unfortunately for Larry, he experienced unnecessary stress and expense defending himself against baseless OIG investigations. The Callaway Award does not fully offset those unfortunate consequences. But it helps show Larry and others who have our backs that not everyone wants to twist a dagger in their backs.

A video of the award presentation and Larry’s acceptance speech has been posted to YouTube.

Bottom Line

Doing the right thing when it’s relatively easy fails to accurately measure courage.

Larry Criscione did the right thing when it was a very hard thing to do. He could have remained silent like so many of his co-workers opted to do. He faced a strenuous courage test and aced it.

Better Transportation Choices are Key to Meeting California’s 2030 Climate Goals

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California has set ambitious targets for reducing climate emissions by 2030 – a 40% reduction in emissions compared to 1990 levels.  And transportation is the largest source of emissions in the Golden State  – accounting for nearly half of the state’s emissions when you consider production and refining of oil as well as burning it in our cars, trucks, trains and ships. So no matter how you look at it, meeting the state’s 2030 climate target means dramatically cutting oil use.  How is California going to do that?

The short answer: Giving Californians more – and better – options for moving people and goods.

Opponents of cutting oil use and emissions love talking about all the things you’ll need to give up to meet climate goals. But there’s no way we are going to solve the climate crisis by taking things away from people – that’s a strategy sure to fail right from the start.  The only way to solve this is to give everyone more, and better, mobility options to choose from.  That is exactly what California’s clean transportation policies have been doing for years, and what we need more of.

In 2016, we released a report –  Half the Oil: Pathways  to Reduce Petroleum Use on the West Coast – looking at how California could cut its oil use in half byvehicles-m-ca-oil-graph_0 2030. The analysis illustrated the different strategies available to make deep oil and climate emission reductions in the transportation sector over the next decade or so.  And it’s all about choices – from more efficient vehicles, to cleaner fuels, and better, smarter transportation options.

 

Here’s a look at how California can meet its 2030 climate targets in the transportation sector.

More Efficient Car and Truck Choices

One of the most effective policies to date for reducing emissions and oil use has been standards for cars and trucks.  California implemented the first-ever greenhouse gas standards for cars and trucks. These, which extend through 2025, compel manufacturers to continue to innovate, and innovate they have. In 2015, more than 10 percent of vehicles sold in the US met or outperformed the emissions requirements for 2020 or later.  The standards have already saved Californians more than an estimated 650 million gallons of fuel amounting to savings of more than $160 per household.* By 2030 they will save as much as 4 billion gallons annually (CA consumed about 15 Billion gallons of gasoline in 2016 for comparison) as more and more vehicles are equipped with fuel savings technology like better transmissions, high-efficiency engines, improved aerodynamics, and other advances.  A recent assessment by EPA, DOT and CARB found that not only are automakers meeting the standards today and can meet 2025 standards largely with conventional gasoline technology, but that the technology can go even further.

So, setting vehicle greenhouse gas standards that go beyond 2025 is one important strategy to reduce transportation emissions, clean our air, and improve public health.  These standards, along with those for heavy-duty vehicles, ensure that consumers not only get more efficient choices – in everything from small sedans to heavy-duty pickups to big-rig tractor trailers – but save money too!

 More Electrification Options

California has the most electric vehicle options in the country.  And not surprisingly California also has the highest sales of EVs. This is great news considering the global warming emissions from driving an EV in California are lower than driving an 85 mile per gallon gasoline vehicle, given low carbon and renewable energy in our state’s electricity supply.

Vehicle electrification is a key strategy for achieving deep reductions by 2030 – which means EVs need to increasingly become the best vehicle choice for more and more consumers. Growing the market for EVs can be achieved through a suite of policies.  Most critical is maintaining and extending the Zero Emission Vehicle program, which ensures manufacturers are continuing to innovate and offer more, better, and lower-cost electric vehicles to Californians.  But the ZEV program alone is not enough to meet our 2030 targets, which will likely require EVs to make up about 30 percent or more of new vehicle sales.  To increase the uptake and sales of electric vehicles requires meeting consumers’ needs, including buildout of charging infrastructure at apartments and condos and along major travel corridors, hydrogen fueling infrastructure, incentives to offset the higher upfront costs of the vehicles at this early stage of the market, and more capable vehicles with faster refueling times and longer ranges.  There are positive signs we are on the right track – like the recently introduced Chevy Bolt with a more than 200-mile all-electric range – but California needs to keep the pedal to the metal.

Electrifying heavy-duty trucks and buses is another part of the transportation sector where we are seeing great innovation happening today.  There are now multiple manufacturers building electric trucks and buses in California and more than 15 public transit agencies are deploying electric buses. These vehicles can cut global warming pollution by 70 percent or more compared to their diesel and natural gas counterparts (see figure).  Delivery trucks are another opportunity for electrification along with the handling equipment at freight facilities from forklifts to off-road trucks.  Ambitious policies to promote heavy-duty vehicle electrification will have the benefit of cutting global warming emissions while reducing tailpipe emissions in freight impacted communities.  California’s recently adopted Sustainable Freight Action Plan, a plan developed jointly by multiple CA state agencies to promote greater freight efficiency and electrification is an encouraging sign, but commitments to electrification should be strengthened to deliver both carbon savings and health benefits to communities.

bus-ghg-comp

Comparison of life cycle global warming emissions from transit buses. UCS Delivering Opportunity.

More Clean Fuel Choices

Expanding low-carbon fuel choices is another critical strategy for reducing transportation emissions.   The Low Carbon Fuel Standard is the key policy that is driving cleaner fuel deployment in California.  Between 2011 and 2015, alternative fuel use – from sources like bio- and renewable diesel, electricity, and biomethane –   increased by 31 percent while the average carbon intensity of these fuels declined by 21 percent. But the low carbon fuel standard does not extend beyond 2020. Extending this programs through 2030 with more ambitious targets, and complementing it with continued investments in scaling up production and deploying fueling infrastructure is an important low-carbon transportation strategy. As with greater efficiency and lower oil consumption, the greater use of cleaner fuels also has the benefit of cleaning our air of pollutants that are harmful to our health.

Expanding Transportation Choices

Using cleaner fuels and vehicles is great, but being able to get to your destinations without a car at all is even better.  Pedestrian, bicycling, and public transit investments can make these low-carbon modes of transportation more attractive and more convenient to Californians.

And when you do need a car, sharing a ride in an Uber or Lyft or borrowing an efficient or electric car through a car-sharing program can be a more convenient choice AND a lower emissions option than owning your own.

portal

The Chrysler Portal concept vehicle shown at CES with some self-driving features.

Self-driving cars are a bit of a wild card here – they offer some exciting possibilities. The technology could help increase transportation choices and lower costs of ride-sharing – making transportation more affordable and accessible as well as safer. But it could also increase emissions.  Existing research of self-driving cars shows a wide range of possible futures, from more than a doubling of emissions to a reduction of emissions on the order of 90 percent. While there is a lot of speculation about the readiness and potential impact of self-driving cars, ensuring their deployment results in better safety and the lowest emissions possible must be a priority. California could lead the way by encouraging self-driving technology to be paired with vehicle electrification – especially for use in taxi and ride-sharing services.  But we also need to take precautions to avoid outcomes that could lead to increased sprawl or a proliferation of unoccupied self-driving cars clogging our roads.

On the road to 2030

California’s Air Resources Board is in the process of laying out a path to 2030 through the ARB 2030 Target Scoping Plan process and many of the strategies are the same as those outlined in our Half the Oil analysis.  As the scoping plan is finalized over the next couple of months, we will be looking for commitments in the plan, such as those that were outlined in our December 2016 comments to ARB:

  • Emissions and electric vehicle standards that are consistent with the level of deployment needed to meet the 2030 emissions target
  • Deployment goals for heavy-duty and off-road electrification that are ambitious to ensure carbon reductions and clean air improvements in communities that need it most.
  • Low Carbon Fuel Program targets for 2030 that continue to drive clean fuels innovation and production and
  • Proactive policies to promote climate benefits from self-driving cars and protect against possible increases in emissions.

Setting ambitious targets to reduce global warming pollution, like California’s 2030 goal, is important for focusing our collective attention on important issues and developing the innovative solutions we need to achieve these objectives. My UCS colleagues Laura Wisland and Adrienne Alvord are also writing blogs describing our vision for achieving California’s climate goals by 2030 through a clean electricity grid and a roadmap for deep decarbonization. California’s plan to tackle carbon pollution from the transportation sector needs to be ambitious – and it also needs to ensure that it delivers more clean transportation choices for Californians in order to succeed.

When I think about what our transportation system can look like in 2030, here are the changes that I am looking forward to: Safer bike lanes, sidewalks, and streets for everyone in my family to take short trips; more fuel efficient vehicles to choose from at the dealership that save money at the pump; more electric vehicle options with longer range and better charging  and fueling infrastructure; more car-sharing options providing easier access to the kind of vehicle I need,  when I need it, but avoiding the hassle and cost of owning it myself; better access to transit and shared-ride services when I don’t want to drive; and less traffic and congestion. Not to mention less oil consumption and all the benefits that brings –  from healthier air to breathe, a cleaner environment, and greater economic and national security.

 

* Savings estimates are based on a previous UCS and NRDC analysis, updated to reflect the most recent census data (US Census Bureau 2016) and latest projections of energy consumption (EIA 2015).

 

California Dreamin’ of a Clean Electricity Grid

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My daughter is almost a year old, so lately I’ve been reading a lot of books about farm animals. It’s been fun to practice animal noises, but it has also felt a little strange to teach my daughter about a lifestyle that fewer Americans experience. It’s gotten me thinking about what else in our daily lives might look different by the time my daughter is a teenager.  For instance, is everyone going to own their own car in the future? Or even drive their own car, for that matter?

I am an energy wonk, so inevitably my thoughts about the future turn to what the electricity grid will look like. The technologies that keep our lights on, heat and cool our homes, and run our appliances may look different in the next 15 to 20 years. Indeed, they will need to be different if California is going to do its part to rein in climate change and avert the catastrophic impacts of extreme heat, droughts, floods, fires, and sea level rise. Thankfully, our state passed a bill last year—Senate Bill (SB) 32—that established strong targets to dramatically cut carbon emissions: 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

 Sharon Danke

Source: Sharon Danke

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the next year, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) will map out a plan for how the state will achieve these critical carbon reduction targets. That plan, called the 2030 Target Scoping Plan, will identify on how the different economic sectors in the state, including the electricity sector, will need to evolve by 2030. Together with my climate, water, and clean vehicles colleagues at the UCS, in December 2016 we submitted details of our vision for how California can succeed in achieving the ambitious climate targets. Here are elements of my vision for the modern, upgraded, and clean energy grid:

  • Much more of our electricity will come from clean, renewable energy generation. At the end of 2015, California was satisfying about 27% of its electricity needs with renewables. By 2030, this will grow to at least 50%, thanks to SB 350, a law that California passed in 2015. The cost of renewables, especially solar PV, continues to drop, so it’s feasible that by 2030 we could rely on renewables for an even higher percentage of our electricity needs.
  • Many more buildings will host rooftop solar. There are more than 625,000 small-scale solar PV projects installed in the state, representing nearly 5 GW of generation capacity. There is no end in sight to the state’s appetite for rooftop solar, and I think it’s safe to say that by 2030, it will be hard not to spot rooftop solar panels in any city.
  • We will heat and cool many of our homes with electricity, not natural gas. A key strategy for reducing carbon emissions is reducing our reliance on natural gas. In addition to replacing gas-fired electricity generators with renewables, we need to be swapping our gas furnaces and water heaters for electric heat pumps and electric water heaters.
  • Batteries and other energy storage technologies to make the most of wind and solar power. Energy storage will help us to rely on electricity from wind and solar resources, even when the sun is shining or the wind not blowing. Tesla’s Gigafactory has begun to churn out lithium-ion batteries and there is no question that production at this scale will help to bring down the cost of this technology.
  • Appliances will be smarter about when, and when not, to run. Companies like Stem and OhmConnect are already tapping into the vast potential benefits of reducing electricity demand when the cost to generate is high, when the generation sources are dirty, or when slight adjustments in electricity demand can mimic grid reliability services traditionally provided by fossil fuels. Consumer tools, e.g. time-varying rates and programmable appliances, can help shift electricity demand towards times of the day when renewables are most plentiful (like the afternoon when solar power is at its peak).
  • Electric vehicles will be a much larger part of the vehicle fleet. Moving away from gasoline powered cars and light-duty trucks and buses and towards ones powered by clean electricity will make a dramatic dent in the carbon and air pollution that these vehicles emit today. If done the right way, EVs can actually help to integrate larger quantities of renewables.

California already has policies in place to achieve many of the carbon reduction measures I’ve described. The state has established goals for energy efficiency and at least 50% renewables through 2030, and has made increased vehicle electrification a priority. But other objectives such as installing more energy storage may need additional policy support to gain momentum so UCS is urging the CARB to pay greater attention to areas where the state still has work to do.

[Note: My UCS colleagues Adrienne Alvord and Don Anair with expertise in specific sectors are also writing blogs describing our vision for achieving California’s climate goals by 2030 through a deep decarbonization roadmap and better transportation choices.]

I’m grateful my daughter lives in a state that is leading the transition to an electricity system that provides clean, safe, and reliable power for all of its residents. I want her to be able to recognize a solar panel and electric car as quickly as she can spot a cow or a pig from her farm books today. Anyone know of a kid song about programmable smart thermostats?

A Climate Action Roadmap: California Steps Up in Uncertain Times:

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The New Year ushers in a new U.S. presidential administration and a lot of uncertainty and angst for people who care about taking decisive action on climate change ( polls indicate that’s most of us.)  It’s not clear whether the incoming administration is willing to fulfill U.S. commitments for the Paris Climate Accord and since the nominee to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has sued to overturn the Clean Power Plan, which dovetails with Trump campaign promises to kill the plan, it appears the signature federal policy actions of the last decade to tackle climate change are in grave danger.

Of course, UCS will fight hard any actions to reverse progress on climate change and we will also continue to work for further progress. But unfortunately, it looks like we’re heading into an era when climate action at the federal level will be on the defensive. Does this mean the end of U.S. climate action for the foreseeable future?

No way, would be my answer.  There’s a great deal that can be and is being done by states, regions, and cities to aggressively decarbonize our economy, notably our energy and transportation systems that are the source of the majority of emissions, and these actions can be very far-reaching indeed.

As has been true for well over the last decade, some of the most comprehensive and aggressive climate action is being taken by California, currently the world’s sixth largest economy.  California is not alone, as Oregon and Washington made impressive progress to address climate change last year and are poised to do more, and the three west coast states together could well be on the verge of creating a strong, prosperous regional bulwark in the national struggle to address climate change. I will address the actions and opportunities in the Pacific Northwest in future blogs.

A New Roadmap for Deep Decarbonization Image result for sb 32 signing

Governor Jerry Brown signs SB 32 and AB 197 into law, adopting the nation’s strongest carbon emissions reductions in the country, surrounded by SB 32 bill author state Senator Fran Pavley and AB 197 author Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia and other legislators.

In 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown created an executive order  to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and last year the State Legislature passed a pair of bills, SB 32 (Pavley) and AB 197 (E. Garcia) that Governor Brown signed in September 2016, giving those targets the force of law.  And now, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is about to publish the roadmap to guide California on how it will achieve and enforce those reductions.

This roadmap, called the 2030 Target Scoping Plan, covers the entire economy and includes specific sectors like energy, transportation, water, agriculture, and manufacturing.  The 2030 Target Scoping Plan is enormous in its range and ambition, building on the success of California’s previous law to reduce global warming pollution emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a goal that the state is currently on track to achieve.

The 2030 Scoping Plan lays out a future where the state is powered largely by clean renewable energy, transported by electric vehicles and fueled by low-carbon and non-fossil alternatives to oil-based fuels, and where energy efficiency and sustainable water management reduce greenhouse gas emissions while saving consumers money.  It ramps up requirements for the dirtiest emitters, and recommends a price on carbon (a continuation of the state’s cap-and-trade program) to help achieve some of the most difficult and expensive reductions at lower cost.  And it seeks to ensure that frontline communities that have already suffered a disproportionate burden from pollution get cleaner air and tools they need to meet the threats posed by climate change.

Reducing Emissions and Growing the Economy

These are the kinds of big-picture approaches the entire country and the world will need in order to tackle climate change. Having California – with a very large and complex economy and diverse population – demonstrate successful climate action is both timely and sorely needed.  Since passing its first economy-wide greenhouse gas reduction law in 2006, the state has already proven climate naysayers, who frequently oppose climate action with dire predictions of economic catastrophe, completely wrong by demonstrating that emissions can be reduced while growing the economy.

The last few years have seen disturbing signs of a dangerously changing climate, including record-breaking annual temperatures, wildfires destroying millions of acres of forests, extreme drought like the one in California, and increasingly rapid melting Arctic and Antarctic ice, which could trigger dangerous rates of sea level rise and other dire consequences for the planet.  Climate change is occurring faster than some had predicted, and it is already destroying lives and property, fueling wars and civil discord, and putting severe stress on local and national economies.  So the actions that California takes– bold, ambitious, and transformative– are necessary. The lessons we learn from paving the road to a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable, economy that lowers risk from climate change will have benefits far beyond the state’s borders.

Stay Tuned for Progress and Pushback

Of course, in such a large plan the devil is in the details, and with such a vast undertaking there are always improvements that can be made.  UCS has sent our comments on the 2030 Scoping Plan draft to the Air Resources Board in December describing ways the draft version of the plan could be strengthened to ensure California reduces emissions and builds resilience. My UCS colleagues Laura Wisland and Don Anair with expertise in specific sectors are also writing blogs describing our vision for achieving California’s climate goals by 2030 through a clean electricity grid and better transportation.

And, as usual, we will also need to work hard to thwart the inevitable pushback from opponents of climate action, especially those in the fossil fuel industry who are profiting from the status quo.  UCS will keep you apprised of when and where we need to stand up to those efforts.

We Must Seize the Moment to Achieve a Better Future

California’s climate goals present an opportunity to build a low-carbon economy that supports growth and innovation, enhances our health and quality of life, and lifts up disadvantaged communities that have suffered the most from the legacy of pollution. We now have a roadmap — it’s time to get moving. And we hope this roadmap can help inspire new journeys in other states, regions, and cities all over the nation for how we can make real and significant progress, regardless of what happens in Washington, DC.

Five Takeaways From Scott Pruitt’s Nomination Hearing That Should Worry Scientists

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Yesterday’s hearing on the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General (AG) Scott Pruitt to serve as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) generated controversy, media attention and perhaps some new information. As a scientist who has worked in both academia and government, including as a front-line regulator in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), I am very worried by Mr. Pruitt’s statements to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and what they portend for his leadership of   the EPA. Here are my top five concerns following the hearing:

#1: Recusal on issues under litigation—or not

Mr. Pruitt has made a name for himself by using his positions as AG for Oklahoma and head of the Republican Attorneys General Association to sue the very agency he is now nominated to lead. The legal arguments have been rather dubious, as noted in UCS President Ken Kimmell’s recent blog. Though they constitute a substantial portion of his record, AG Pruitt’s argument has prevailed in very few cases. The Senate, yesterday, probed that record in questions from Senators Carper, Whitehouse, Booker, Markey and others. From a scientist and regulator’s perspective the exchange with Senator Markey was most concerning. Effectively, Mr. Pruitt wouldn’t commit to recusing himself from court challenges to the EPA’s work on regulating greenhouse gases, mercury pollution, ozone, haze, cross-state pollution issues, clean water, and other issues, despite his clear conflicts in those cases.

Mr. Pruitt said he would be guided by the EPA ethics attorneys. The ethics office is part of the EPA General Counsel’s office, appointed by and reporting to Mr. Pruitt. They are not an independent outside counsel. Mr. Pruitt is, in effect, their client. Hopefully the office will advise him to avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts. As Senator Markey said, being plaintiff and defendant as well as judge and jury in these cases seems like a pretty clear conflict.

So suppose the attorneys convince the EPA Administrator to recuse himself. Then what happens?

I find it hard to imagine an EPA where the leader of the agency is recused from working on all these issues. After all, clean air, water, climate change, interstate pollution and more constitute a huge portion of the agency’s work. An administrator sitting on the sidelines while these decisions are made would significantly hobble work on these critical public health and safety issues by the federal agency tasked to protect us.

Suppose the Administrator does not recuse himself? The very basis for most of these suits is that EPA should take a backseat to the states and that the rules for reducing the risk of these public health and safety threats should be rolled back. Then the agency has to redo or discard years of work. Fundamental scientific analyses of the public health risks must be set aside and the agency has limited ability to adequately address many of the biggest environmental risks to the public that we know about.

Either way, the result seems unworkable.

csd-blog-pruitt-industry-ties#2: Mr. Pruitt has clear financial conflicts of interest

As a scientist, every time I publish an academic paper or serve on an advisory panel or perform a peer review of another scientist’s work, I have to report any financial conflicts of interest that may arise concerning the work in question. That’s a good thing, and I fully support more rigorous and understandable disclosure of potential conflicts. It is a hard thing to get right.

So when I hear Mr. Pruitt’s financial ties to major industry players with a real interest in the work of the EPA, it is hard to understand how these can be resolved.  Senator Whitehouse held up a chart of donors to Mr. Pruitt’s campaigns and organizations he led to battle with the EPA.  It is an impressive and frightening list of major industrial polluters. In response to questions about his financial connections with industry, Pruitt was evasive about his fundraising and donor network. He was also cagey about a well-documented case where he directly used a letter drafted by one of these companies, Devon Energy, submitting it to the federal government from the Attorney General’s office as if it was his own. Tellingly, Senator Booker asked if he had ever written a letter on behalf of children suffering from asthma in his state (Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of child asthma in the country). The answer was no.

These are real financial conflicts of interest. It is not just campaign donations, but funding groups expressly set up to fight the EPA. How can a lead and co-founder of one of these groups not have a conflict?

And to top it off, in response to Sen. Rounds, Mr. Pruitt stated (with no evidence) that the EPA Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Science Advisory Committee members had conflicts of interest that needed to be addressed. This fails a red-face test by any measure.

#3: Mr. Pruitt maintains that our role in global warming is uncertain.

I suppose there is some slight relief that Mr. Pruitt stated during his hearing that climate change is not a hoax. It is somewhat ironic given that he was nominated by Mr. Trump and introduced at the hearing by Sen. Inhofe.  Both are on record, and in the latter case wrote a book, firmly claiming all the science from around the world concerning global warming is a bizarre conspiracy. Sen. Inhofe even stated in the hearing that climate change is a lie and that he is a “one-man truth squad,” after touting his close ties and high regard for Mr. Pruitt.

However the EPA is the primary agency responsible for regulating the emissions of greenhouse gases in order to mitigate climate change, a responsibility Mr. Pruitt acknowledged during the hearing. And Mr. Pruitt said he has no opinion on the human role in our changing climate. What does this mean if he is confirmed as EPA Administrator? Will the EPA take no position on anthropogenic climate change? Or does he believe that we should study the issue more before taking action?

Furthermore, Mr. Pruitt said that the impacts of global warming are still uncertain. Well I guess they won’t be after they occur, but then any actions will be too late.  Is he suggesting that we only act after all impacts are known with a high degree of precision? That is a ridiculous position that no doctor, public health scientist nor anyone concerned with the public interest could possibly support.

#4: Mr. Pruitt’s lack of concern for environmental justice

There were several references to environmental justice during the hearing, some implied and some explicit. The higher-level of impacts of environmental problems and public health risks for low-income communities and communities of color is well documented and a long-standing challenge across the US. Flint, Michigan and lead in the water supply is but one example of the many justice and equity issues that the EPA must come to grips with. Several groups working for greater environmental justice recently wrote to the administration to highlight the importance of these issues.

While Mr. Pruitt generally acknowledged that environmental injustice is important, there were two parts to Mr. Pruitt’s statements in the hearing that are worrying. First, with regard to the well-documented situation in Flint, which is representative of many other communities around the country, he said he had not “looked at the scientific research” on lead in water and didn’t know what was safe. This situation has been so widely reported that it is hard to understand how anyone with a reasonable interest in public health and safety could not have the strong sense that lead in the water supply put the residents of Flint and other communities at grave risk.

Are we to presume that for any issue to be dealt with by the EPA under Pruitt, it would require the Administrator to review the scientific research himself to draw a conclusion about the problem? That seems absurd for someone leading a science-based agency with literally thousands of scientists on staff. I can’t wait for the well-worn out phrase, “I am not a scientist but…” to be trotted out.

Secondly, Mr. Pruitt consistently maintained throughout the hearing that in his view, the lead role for addressing public health concerns and in all the work the EPA is tasked to do should be the states. He maintains, including in his legal actions, that the EPA has exceeded authority and that he believes that a federalism model devolving power to the states is the right approach. This seems to leave aside that the major statutes like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as well as one of his favorite targets, the Clean Power Plan, do rely principally on state action in order to address public health and safety threats.

But in Flint, and for many other environmental justice issues, it is precisely because a given state has failed to act that many of these long standing issues have not been resolved. There is currently a federal executive order to address environmental justice, and a plan for the EPA to move forward more aggressively on these issues. Has Mr. Pruitt championed such a plan in Oklahoma or brought any cases on environmental justice issues?  If so, they are not on record. If the Administrator of the EPA believes the states should have the prerogative to act, or not act, on environmental issues, and many of the states have historically failed to act, where does that leave the communities?

#5: Mr. Pruitt is unclear on the role of a regulator

Finally, along with all of these issues, one general line of argument really worried me concerning Mr. Pruitt’s leadership of the EPA. He stated early in the hearing, “the role of a regulator is to make things regular.” Not only do I find the statement effectively meaningless, but it suggests that Mr. Pruitt believes that one of the nation’s premier agencies for protecting public health and safety should step back and let things be “regular”—whatever that means. I believe regulators must step forward and strive to improve the status quo to best serve the public interest.

Mr. Pruitt and some of the committee members repeatedly referred to the costs of environmental regulation, without even mentioning the benefits to the public. Sure, he acknowledged that energy and environment need not be in conflict. But if cost is the major consideration, Mr. Pruitt misses the point of the work of the EPA entirely.

The job of leading the EPA is serving the needs and threats to asthmatic children all around the country by reducing air pollution, rather than representing the interests of the industries that are creating that pollution.

This job is to rely on the scientists and scientific evidence to decide what, how and where to take action on the full range of issues the EPA is responsible for, rather than waiting for state action. And it requires recognizing that the EPA’s science and regulatory capability far outstrips that of any state in the union.

And the Administrator’s job is to address risks, not certainties, because there is too much at stake in communities in every state that are challenged by global warming, pollution, environmental degradation, and other threats to sit idly by.

From yesterday’s hearing, Attorney General Pruitt doesn’t seem to realize or accept any of these fundamental tasks and is therefore the wrong choice to lead the EPA in this administration. Photo: C-SPAN screenshot Photo: C-SPAN screenshot

What to Expect—and Ways to Respond—as the Trump Administration Assumes Power

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Tomorrow, Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States. We are entering a time of significant uncertainty; it will be many weeks before the administration is fully staffed with lower-level political appointees. But there are several conclusions we can draw from the events of the past two months, and a number of actions to watch out for.

A major strategy has been—and will likely continue to be—to institute radical proposals by overwhelming the public with an avalanche of activity and by attempting to distract us with the president’s cult of personality.

The stage is set. The transition team was filled with climate conspiracy theorists who have made careers of attacking scientists and undermining government efforts to respond to climate change. President-elect Trump has appointed an extreme, corporate cabinet whose members collectively possess a mind-boggling and unprecedented amount of wealth, and, by and large, have expressed antipathy towards the agencies and departments they are being asked to lead.

The Senate is intent on confirming these appointees with minimal debate. The House of Representatives passed new rules that expand its power to attack public servants and depose the public. Collectively, these actions enable significant industry influence over the role of science in government decisions.

What will likely happen

President Trump will take several immediate actions. President Obama issued several executive orders and other directives within the first 24 hours of his presidency, including one on government transparency. We don’t know what will be on Trump’s list, but it could include a few issues that impact the science community and the people we serve, from immigration to science-based public protections.

The Trump Administration will set its plans into motion before the President-elect finishes his Inaugural Address. The transition team has put in place “beachhead teams” comprised of temporary political appointees that are skipping the Inauguration to be at their desks the moment the president takes the oath of office. Sean Spicer, incoming press secretary for Trump, said to expect a “flurry of activity” on Monday, January 23.

Congress will continue to ram through radical legislation that would eviscerate the scientific foundation of our nation’s public health and environmental laws. Two bills that would substitute politics for scientific judgement passed the House in the first days of the new Congress, before new members even had their phone lines working. A third, the Regulatory Accountability Act, passed the House last week and would effectively paralyze the government, preventing it from adding, modifying, or removing any rules designed to protect the public (more on this below).

The Senate will try to confirm Trump’s appointees as quickly and with as little scrutiny as the public will allow. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a newfound sense of urgency, and his strategy is clear: ram the appointees through by holding multiple hearings in a single day (yesterday it was for the EPA, Department of Education, and Department of Commerce) so that senators and the public cannot sufficiently weigh in on their suitability before votes are held.

Websites will be altered and web pages taken off line. Inside EPA reported, and a transition team member confirmed, that the EPA and other government agencies will remove information related to climate change and efforts to mitigate it. Other issues will be targeted, too. There are a bunch of efforts to preserve data, websites, and tools that allow the public to use government data, including the End of Term Harvest and DataRefuge.

How you can respond

Persistent and energetic engagement will be necessary. Here are a few steps you can take today:

Urge your senators to get commitments from Trump’s nominees to meaningfully enforce existing scientific integrity policies. The Obama administration has put these policies in place to protect federal scientists from political interference in their work. EPA nominee Scott Pruitt, Commerce nominee Wilbur Ross, and Energy nominee Rick Perry all must promise to respect the independence of science by implementing the policies. The Senate switchboard number is 202.224.3121.

Urge your senators to oppose the Regulatory Accountability Act. We expect that bill to be considered by the Senate in coming weeks. Clean air, clean water, nuclear security, the food system, vehicle fuel efficiency, disease prevention—the bill would undermine the development of any kind of public protection. Even if you think one of your senators is hopeless or a solid vote, call them and let them know you are paying attention. Public pressure still matters. Again, the Senate switchboard is 202.224.3121.

Volunteer at a DataRefuge event. Over the next few days and weeks, citizens and scientists are teaming up to preserve government data and websites. Join them.

Pay attention and avoid distraction. Do not share articles on social media about a stupid tweet or inauguration sign. Instead, share media that explores the impact of the systemic changes that various interests are attempting to advance. Try this piece in The Atlantic or this piece in Politico.

Secure your communications. Government surveillance of citizens is certainly not expected to decrease, and Russian influence over the election demonstrated how vulnerable we all are to hacking. Here’s a guide to how you can better protect yourself with minimal effort.

Appreciate life and read some books. This guy makes sweaters of places and then takes pictures of himself wearing the sweaters at those places. Michael Mann and Tom Toles wrote and illustrated The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Making Us Crazy. Shawn Otto wrote The War on Science. And my friend John wrote the utterly delightful and depressing dystopian novel Splinterlands. All are worth your time. Joy is a form of resistance.

And finally, make sure you’re getting up-to-date information from UCS. If you’re an expert, sign up for the UCS Science Network. If you’re a concerned citizen, join our Action Network. We will need your sustained engagement in the coming months. (And feel free to throw a few dollars our way to keep our work going). Photo: Tim Brown, IIP Photo Archive/CC-BY-NC 2.0, Flickr

USDA Nominee Perdue’s Connection to Coca-Cola is Deeper Than Georgia Roots

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Agriculture secretary is the last Cabinet post to be filled by the Trump transition team. The delayed nomination of this position says a lot about the administration’s interest in the agency, which is incredibly important considering that the USDA is responsible for the production, distribution, and safety of the food we eat. Ultimately, after meeting with a few handfuls of potential candidates, President-elect Trump chose former two-term Georgia governor, Sonny Perdue, as the man who will lead the agriculture sector over the next several years. What’s his experience with agriculture, you might ask? Well, besides serving as governor to the highest chicken-producing state, he grew up on a family farm, studied to become a veterinarian, owned several small agricultural businesses including grain elevators and fertilizer companies, served on the agriculture committee as a Georgia state senator, and is now the co-founder of Perdue Partners, LLC which specializes in trading goods and services, including food and beverage products. It comes as no surprise that a man with extensive ties to agribusiness would be tapped to lead USDA, as other members of President-elect Trump’s corporate cabinet include a slew of proverbial foxes to guard (and maybe even destroy) the henhouse.

The soda-can-shaped elephant in the room

Coca-Cola and Sonny Perdue share a home state. Photo: flickr user psyberuser

Coming from Georgia, the question is not whether Sonny Perdue has a relationship with Atlanta-based beverage behemoth, Coca-Cola, but the extent to which they’re connected. Coca-Cola contributed the maximum amount ($50,000) to Perdue’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2003. Then, they remained close. First Lady Mary Perdue launched the Our Children Campaign in 2003, in defense of community resources to support children in state custody. At the plenary meeting, lunch was sponsored by Coca-Cola and Chick-fil-A, which are not exactly known for their healthy children’s options.

Perdue touted his interest in ensuring healthier lives for Georgians while in office. In 2005, Perdue hosted a breakfast launching the Healthy Georgia Diabetes and Obesity Project, coordinated by the Newt Gingrich-founded Center for Health Transformation. In 2005, Perdue also announced the “Live Healthy Georgia” Initiative focused on preventing chronic disease through being active, eating healthy, and quitting smoking. He said, “We want to set an example for the rest of the nation on how healthier living can dramatically improve the quality of life for Georgia citizens.” And while Coca-Cola sold millions of sugary beverages to children across the country, Perdue praised the company (paywall) at the grand opening of the New World of Coca-Cola Museum in 2007: “We’re here to celebrate the history of a great company, but also the future of a great company. It has never lost its way.” He continued, “You have helped us sell our state through your reputation.” Granted, that was 2007. Since then, Coca-Cola’s reputation has suffered, as revelations of its intentional influence of science and marketing sugary drinks to vulnerable children has come to light.

Perdue’s close relationship with Coca-Cola explains his interest in fighting childhood obesity with physical fitness rather than change in diet. Sonny Perdue issued an executive order in 2010 that established the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness, receiving staff support from the Department of Community Health, in order to incentivize physical education programs in schools aimed at reducing childhood obesity rates. But the focus on physical activity versus diet is concerning because that deflection is a known industry tactic used to distract lawmakers and the public from the negative health impacts of their products. It’s right out of Coca-Cola’s talking points.

Our children’s health on the line

It is essential that our next USDA secretary advocates for a safe, affordable, healthy and transparent food system and it is especially important for the next secretary to take a strong stand in support of food and nutrition programs that could be threatened by Congress in the first hundred days. Congress’ Freedom Caucus has already issued a wish list of over 200 rules that it would like to cut. Among that list of rules, are the revisions to the school lunch program standards, standards for all foods sold in schools, nutrition facts label revisions, the Child and Adult Food Care Program revisions, and calorie labeling of vending machines.

On the school lunch program, the Freedom Caucus writes, “The regulations have proven to be burdensome and unworkable for schools to implement. Schools are throwing food away that students are not eating.” This is a debunked argument. As for the nutrition facts label revisions to include an added sugar label, the Caucus cited extensive costs without acknowledging the potential health benefits that would come with helping consumers make informed decisions through accurate labeling.

One way that Perdue can lead on children’s health is by guiding USDA to write rules to revise the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food packages. Earlier this month, the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) released its final report on revisions to the WIC food packages based on aligning them to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. Many of their science-based and cost-neutral recommendations would allow parents more flexibility with feeding their children and would support their efforts to reduce or completely avoid added sugar in their children’s foods. In fact, they align very closely with the policy recommendations contained in my Hooked for Life report, including lowering upper limit for sugar in yogurt to 30 grams from 40 grams per 8 ounces, increasing flexibility in packages by raising the dollar value of the cash voucher and allowing substitution of the voucher instead of opting for the often sugary juice and jarred infant foods, and disallowing flavored milk from food packages.

Photo Credit: georgia.gov

Will Perdue choose health over profits?

The head of USDA must make science-based decisions in the face of overwhelming influence from a number of stakeholders. The new appointees must work to ensure that the hard-earned public health victories from the Obama administration are continually strengthened, not rolled back.

Former USDA secretary Tom Vilsack agrees. He recently told Politico (paywall), “I don’t think that any administration, coming in, following this administration, would be able to roll back everything that’s been done in the nutrition space. Because I think there is a consensus—and I believe it’s a bipartisan consensus—that we have had, and continue to have, a challenge with obesity. We have, and continue to have, concerns about the impact that’s going to have on our military, on our children’s futures, on medical expenses. So if anything happens in that space, it may be that industries are given more time to make adjustments. But I don’t think you’re going to see, ‘You know what? We’re going to go back to the day were we had more fat, more sugar, and sodium in our meals that we’re feeding our kids.'”

Vilsack may be right about the consensus on the challenge of obesity, but public health experts and industry representatives disagree on the best way to meet that challenge. The next administration needs to understand that making strides in improving children’s health involves more than just following industry talking points by increasing physical activity in schools. The integrity of The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the nutrition facts label and their place informing supplemental meal programs must not be sacrificed in a quest to cut regulations as they are critical tools used to educate consumers on how to achieve healthier diets.

It is critical that, if confirmed, Perdue fights hard at the helm of the USDA to make evidence-based policy decisions that support a strong food system instead of simply holding a service to pray for increased quality of and equitable access to food.

 

Is North Korea Planning a Missile Launch?

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

A press story from South Korea reports that the North may be preparing for a missile test launch, possibly in the next few days. Some suggest this could be intended as fireworks for Donald Trump’s inauguration.

While this story talks about the test being of a long-range missile (an “ICBM”) the few details that have been made public don’t seem to support that—although not much is known at this point.

The press story said that the South Korean military has reported seeing two missiles on mobile launchers. It reports that the missiles are less than 15 meters in length.

The KN-14 missile, which was seen in on October 2015 parade and is thought to be a prototype for a long-range missile, is estimated to be about 17 meters long—which would appear to rule it out.

Moreover, while there has been a ground test of an engine that might be used for this missile, it’s not clear how close this missile is to actual flight testing. Since the initial flight test of this new missile has a relatively low chance of success, Pyongyang may not want to risk a test failure if the timing is meant to send a message around the inauguration.

Musudan?

It seems more likely that what was seen are Musudan (Hwasong-10) missiles, which are also carried on mobile launchers and are about 12 meters long. This missile had a successful launch in June 2016, following a string of five failures. It may have suffered two additional failures in October. So another launch of this missile also carries risk of failure.

The Musudan has a range of about 3,000 km, based on the June test. This is far short of ICBM range, which technically is considered anything over 5,500 km, but would need to be 8,000-9,000 km for a North Korean missile to reach the US west coast.

However, one report quoted a military official as saying that the missile observed was “different from a conventional Musudan missile in its length and shape,” so until we get more information the jury is still out on what Pyongyang may be planning.

Not-so-Fabulous Five

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

To some, “Fabulous Five “ brings back memories of the 1991 recruits for the University of Michigan’s basketball team—Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson. The five powered Michigan to the NCAA Division I championship games in 1992 and 1993.

Others may recall the “Fab Five,” a made-for-TV movie about a 2006 cheerleader scandal at a high school in Texas.

No one hearing “Fabulous Five” thinks about the performance of the nuclear reactors owned and operated by Entergy between 2011 and 2015. The performance during those five years was anything but fabulous, unless fabulously bad counts.

Performance Reports

Every quarter, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) takes operating data submitted by plant owners and findings by the NRC’s inspectors to assign each reactor to one of five columns in the agency’s Action Matrix. When performance meets or exceeds NRC’s expectations, a reactor is placed in Column 1. If performance levels drop, a reactor gets placed into Columns 2, 3, or 4 depending on the depth and breadth of the performance decline. When performance drops so low that operation is not permissible until problems are corrected, a reactor falls into Column 5. The NRC began using this rating system in the fourth quarter of 2000.

Back in 2000, there were 105 reactors operating in the United States. Several reactors permanently shut down and one reactor commenced operating for a current total of slightly under 100 operating reactors. Entergy operated 11 reactors during much of that period, with one reactor permanently shutting down in recent years. Based on the average Action Matrix column placement, Entergy’s reactors generally outperformed the U.S. reactor fleet between 2000 and 2010 as shown in Figure 1. (Action Matrix column placement is like golf scores—low numbers win.) But the performance of Entergy’s reactors significantly declined beginning in 2011.

Fig. 1 (

Fig. 1 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

Performance Plunge

Figure 2 shows a closer look at this five-year period. For the first and second quarters of 2011, all eleven of Entergy’s reactors were placed by the NRC into Action Matrix Column 1. Those ratings reflect top performance—the NRC does not issue 1-plus scores. By fourth quarter 2014—just 14 quarters later—the average Entergy reactor was in Action Matrix Column 2. The performance difference between Entergy’s reactors and all U.S. reactors was wider than ever, and not in Entergy’s favor.

Fig. 2 (

Fig. 2 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

But 10 to 11 reactors is a smaller sample than 98 to 105 reactors. Perhaps one poorly performing reactor is dragging down the Entergy fleet. Figure 3 belies that notion. Only two of Entergy’s eleven reactors remained in Column 1 each and every quarter between 2011 and 2015: Indian Point Unit 2 and Vermont Yankee. The other nine reactors visited Columns 2, 3, and 4.

Fig. 3 (

Fig. 3 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

The individual Entergy reactor ratings are hard to discern. Only people who do extremely well on ink blot tests and those who can relax their minds to see prancing unicorns or frolicking grizzly bears emerge from squiggly line drawings can get much out of Figure 3. The rest of us can hopefully gain these insights from Figure 4. This figure shows the percentage of U.S. and Entergy reactors placed into Column 1 each quarter by the NRC from 2011 to 2015. For the first and second quarters of 2011, 100 percent of Entergy’s reactors resided in Column 1—a feat the U.S. reactor fleet has never achieved. But by the fourth quarter of 2014, only 30 percent of Entergy’s reactors remained in Column 1. It was clearly not a case of one bad apple spoiling the bushel, but a fleet with bushels of reactor performance problems.

Fig. 4 (

Fig. 4 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

Bottom Line

The NRC rates performance for each individual reactor. For example, the NRC has rated performance for Indian Point Unit 2 as being in an Action Matrix column while placing Indian Point Unit 3 in another column, despite the reactors being side-by-side at the same site under the same management. Such granularity has its advantages. Like snowflakes, no two reactors are identical and their differences can, and do, factor into performance differences.

The NRC does not connect these individual dots to see the bigger picture. Thirty percent of Entergy’s fleet rated outside of Column 1 cannot be explained by a faulty design, an incapable senior manager, or poor relationships between work force and management. Bad luck might explain an underperforming reactor or two. But bad luck does not cause performance to drop at 70 percent of the Entergy fleet. At times, individual snowflakes team up to cause blizzards.

When its performance assessments reveal broad underperformance by the owner of a fleet of nuclear reactors, the NRC must determine whether bad corporate behavior is spoiling the bushel of reactors. The NRC need not give aptitude tests to Chief Nuclear Officers or examine budget allocations. The NRC could simply issue a “Show Cause” order to the owner requiring a formal response as to why so many of its reactors have performance problems.

When many among a fleet of ships is listing, taking on water, or steaming off-course, it would be irresponsible to wait until a ship sinks before asking the Admiral of the Fleet “what’s up?” NRC cannot wait for a reactor to meltdown before asking Entergy to explain why so many of its reactors are experiencing so many problems.

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