Combined UCS Blogs

A Shameful Act: President Trump’s Likely Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

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There have been strong indications for a while now that the Trump administration intends to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement. Yesterday President Trump tweeted that he would announce his decision this afternoon.

At a time when the threat posed by unchecked climate change has never been clearer, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement would be a shameful act and painfully hard to comprehend. Even at this late juncture, one hopes that better sense will prevail—else it will be a sad day for the global community.

No matter what the president decides, there is no question that the rest of the world is determined to forge ahead and fulfill their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

A hard-won historic agreement

Much has been written about the historic Paris Agreement, but one thing bears repeating. It is no small feat to get 195+ nations to agree on anything, climate or otherwise, and so clearly there were some compelling reasons why they did so.

Simply put, it’s this: Nations clearly saw that it was in their best interests to limit the harmful and costly impacts of climate change and embrace the opportunities of a clean energy economy.

International geopolitics being what they are, even those compelling reasons may not have been enough if not for the leadership that some countries showed—including the US, China, and the small island nations most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

US leadership in particular was crucial in laying the groundwork for, and securing, the Paris Agreement. If President Trump chooses to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, we will cede that leadership to others; and along with it the ability to shape the global community’s response to one of the most pressing challenges of our time.

The Paris Agreement will survive

What’s clear is that other countries are determined to move ahead on climate action, regardless of what the Trump administration chooses to do. The rest of the G7 nations made that clear after their summit last week. Tomorrow the EU and China are expected to announce an alliance with renewed commitment to strong climate action. India has also reaffirmed its commitment to the agreement.

In a speech earlier this year, President Xi of China clearly emphasized the importance of upholding the commitments of the Paris Agreement and has underscored his country’s intention to stay the course, saying:

“The Paris Agreement is a milestone in the history of climate governance. We must ensure this endeavor is not derailed. All parties should work together to implement the Paris Agreement. China will continue to take steps to tackle climate change and fully honor its obligations.”

And the biggest reason why the Paris Agreement will survive? It embodies the hopes of millions of people around the world and right here in the US. Faith groups, labor groups, business leaders, environmental justice groups, health professionals, scientists, youth groups… you name it, they all came out in force to make sure their political leaders signed on to the agreement.

Just last month hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in the Peoples Climate March.

The vast majority of the global community that wants climate action will ultimately have the last say.

US clean energy progress will continue

Market trends such as the plummeting costs of renewable energy, renewable electricity and energy efficiency policies at the state level, local and business clean energy commitments, and the federal renewable energy tax credits will continue to drive progress on reducing the carbon emissions that cause climate change.

The fact is that the costs of wind and solar energy are falling dramatically, and these power sources are becoming more and more attractive in the market place. That’s why new renewable energy deployment has outpaced additions of all other new energy sources, including natural gas, in recent years.

Nationwide the clean energy momentum in states is palpable. Many US cities  and businesses have also made significant commitments to clean energy.

CO2 emissions from the power sector in 2016 were nearly 25 percent below 2005 levels. Based on the latest (2017) GHG inventory, US net GHG emissions in 2015 were 5827.7 MMT CO2e. This is approximately 11.5 percent below the 2005 net GHG emissions of 6582.3 MMT CO2e, and about 40 percent of the way toward meeting the 2025 US NDC of a 26-28 percent cut relative to 2005 emissions.

But there’s no denying that we need new and strengthened national policies to accelerate this clean energy momentum and drive down global warming emissions to bring them in line with climate goals.

Now is the time to double down on clean energy and climate progress.

But for now America loses

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement would leave the US at a disadvantage in joining the global clean energy revolution, and all the public health and economic benefits that would bring. It could also have implications for US engagement with other countries on global priorities like trade and security.

Americans are already feeling the impacts of climate change, including drought, heat waves, wildfires, and worsening flood risks from sea level rise and heavy rainfall. While we have to work with the global community to help limit the potential damages from our rising carbon emissions, communities also need help preparing for and protecting themselves from the costly and harmful impacts of climate change.

Congress and the administration need to show some leadership and take action.

New Numbers Are In and EVs Are Cleaner Than Ever

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One of the most common questions I’m asked about electric cars is, “how clean are they?”

Five years ago, UCS answered this question, publishing its first look at the global warming emissions from electric vehicles (EVs) in our ‘State of Charge’ report.  In early 2017, the US EPA updated their data on emissions from electricity generation, now capturing power plant emissions through the end of 2014. How does this new data change our assessment of EVs?

For over 70 percent of Americans, driving an EV results in fewer emissions than even a 50 MPG gasoline vehicle.

We now find the overall global warming emissions from using an EV is significantly lower for most of the US. Several regions of the country showed significant decreases in emissions, as compared to our first EV emissions assessment.

When compared to our initial report on EV global warming emissions, the changes are impressive. That report used 2009 power plant data (the most current available in 2012) and placed only 9 of 26 regions in the ‘best’ category. Now 19 regions are in the best category with only 2 in ‘good’ regions. For example, the Northern Midwest region that includes Minnesota and Iowa improved from 39 MPG equivalent to 54 MPG and Eastern Wisconsin also jumped from ‘good’ at 40 MPG to our ‘best’ rating with emissions equal to 52 MPG gasoline cars.

Global warming emissions from electricity generation have fallen in since 2009 in many parts of the US, making EVs even cleaner. Check out the changes by region in the slider above. 

Based on where EVs have been bought to-date, the average EV in the US now produces emissions equivalent to a hypothetical gasoline car achieving 73 MPG.

Nearly half of the EVs sold to date have gone to California, where the average EV produces global warming emissions equal to a 95 MPG gasoline car. The next 5 states for EV sales (Georgia, Washington, New York, Florida, and Texas) account for 20 percent of US EV sales and are regions that have emissions ratings of 50 MPG or better.

Manufacturing emissions are important, but much less of a factor than fuel emissions.

The emissions estimates presented above compare the use of an EV compared to using a gasoline vehicle. However, there are also emissions associated with the production of these cars, and in general making EVs produces more emissions than a comparable gasoline car. We studied this issue in our “Cleaner Cars From Cradle to Grave” report in 2015 and found that the extra emissions from making an 80-mile range EV (compared to a similar gasoline car) are about 15% higher. However, this extra emissions ‘debt’ is quickly recovered by the savings that accrue while using the electric vehicle.

How quickly the emissions are recovered depends on where the car is charged, but for an EV the size of the Nissan LEAF, we found that break-even point occurs after 6 to 13 months of use (depending on electric grid region), well shorter than the likely lifespan of the car.

Choosing an electric car over an inefficient gasoline model is one of the most influential decisions a household can make to reduce emissions

For the average American, transportation makes up about a third of all household global warming emissions. And compared to some other sources of emissions, we have a great deal of control over how efficient a vehicle we choose. The average new gasoline vehicle in the US is rated at 25 MPG. On average, driving an EV (at 73 MPG equivalent emissions) would produce global warming emissions at less than half of the rate of the average new vehicle.

If you’re curious about how clean specific EVs would be where you live, check out our EV tool here. It’s recently been updated with our newest estimates of EV emissions, and we’ve also added many new EV models. If you are interested in the most efficient (and lowest emission) EV models, check out the Hyundai Ioniq BEV, Chevy Bolt, and BMW i3 BEV models.

Changes since our last report include generation, fuel production, and transmission efficiency.

Our initial assessment comparing gasoline vehicle emissions to those from electric vehicles were detailed in our 2012 State of Charge report. That report relied on the best data available at the time. This included estimates of power plant emissions and transmission losses from 2009 and also included the most recent estimates of ‘upstream’ emissions (such as coal mining and oil refining).

While we used the same analysis method as both the State of Charge and Cleaner Cars From Cradle to Grave  reports to generate these new emission estimates, the input data has changed.

The EPA estimates of power plant emissions in their eGRID database have been updated from 2009 data to 2014 data. In many cases, the emissions from power plants decreased, often due to reductions in coal-fired power and increases in renewable generation. However, some regions did show an increase. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, hydroelectric power output was reduced and fossil fuel plants supplied additional power.

The eGRID data also includes an updated method for calculating the losses attributed to the transmission and distribution of electric power from generators to the end user. This loss estimate is significantly lower than previous estimates, and therefore lowers the emissions attributed to EVs.

Finally, we also updated the estimates of emissions from ‘upstream’ sources like fuel extraction and refining. We used the most recent version of the GREET model from Argonne National Laboratory to estimate these emissions.

Most regions showed a decrease in emissions from electricity generation and distribution from 2009 to 2014. Red triangles indicate the total change in global warming emissions due to changes in generation sources, upstream emissions from fuel production, and losses in transmission and distribution of electricity from power plants to the end user.


We All Benefit from Foreign Nations’ Food Crop Diversity—But Do Our Politics Reflect This Interdependence?

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Earlier this spring, the United States became the newest member of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a global agreement on sharing and caring for seeds. It’s a remarkable moment for an agreement whose central tenet is that all countries need one another, especially since it’s really hard to measure just how much they do.

Here’s the argument: genetic diversity in food plants is an essential resource needed to keep crops productive, nutritious, resistant to pests and diseases, and tolerant to drought, heat, and other climatic challenges. Farmers need these traits to produce good yields, and plant breeders provide them by mixing and matching the genetic diversity found within the seeds of modern cultivars, ancient heirlooms, and even wild relatives to produce vigorous new crop varieties.

So where do plant breeders find these seeds? Here’s where we get to international collaboration. Crop genetic diversity increases with time: the places where food crops have been continuously cultivated for hundreds to thousands of years, and especially where they were initially domesticated many thousands of years ago, tend to be extraordinarily diverse.

Origins and primary regions of diversity of major agricultural crops. From Khoury et al. 2016. Proc. R. Soc. B 283(1832): 20160792.

Wheat, corn, rice, and every other one of the crops that feed us originated and diversified in distinct regions around the world. Now they are grown just about everywhere they can be. From Canada to Argentina, Mexico to Mongolia, varieties of these crops have been introduced and adapted to different climates and soils, pests and diseases. This work never ends—it’s a continuous process of breeding and adaptation to maintain agricultural productivity. To support this most important of endeavors, we all have a stake in the open exchange of seeds.

But just how interdependent are countries with regard to seeds?

In its 15 years of existence, the Seed Treaty has made some progress toward its goals. Its 143 member countries have negotiated a way by which crop seeds in the public domain can more easily be shared across borders. They have also started to keep track of these seeds, better ensuring that they remain public, and have built a benefit-sharing fund that has disbursed $20 million in support of crop diversity conservation and capacity building worldwide. Related initiatives focus on providing long-term financial support to the world’s most diverse and vulnerable public genebanks, where substantial crop genetic diversity is maintained, and offer a global safety backup for seeds in the Arctic.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault- the global safety backup for seeds. Photo: Crop Trust.

But much remains to be done to adequately share and care for the world’s seeds. A number of countries have yet to join the Treaty, and implementation of its procedures by many members has been slow. Essential components such as the affirmation of the rights of farmers to continue their traditional seed exchange practices, and the contributions to the conservation fund, need strengthening.

Surely it’s partly a matter of time; big political processes move at glacial speed. But I suspect that roadblocks persist because of a deeper problem: the central argument that we all benefit from one another’s seeds hasn’t had enough teeth to motivate comprehensive political action.

Unfortunately, complete data on the extent to which countries give and receive seeds aren’t available. Tracking these exchanges was mandated only recently, and we won’t know the results until some years in the future. By then we’ll be even further behind on the urgent work needed to adapt crops to climate change.

How about an estimate of interdependence among countries?

Returning to the roots of the argument for the creation of the Seed Treaty, our research team has estimated the degree to which countries depend on one another’s seeds. The calculation was based on the proportion of each country’s national agricultural production, and its food supply, that is composed of crops whose origins, or “primary regions of diversity” are found elsewhere around the world.

We found that countries indeed produce and consume crops from many different primary regions of diversity. The US, for example, grows crops like corn and cotton that originated in Central America, wheat and alfalfa from West Asia, soybeans and citrus from East Asia, and other crops originating in the Mediterranean, Europe, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Andean South America, East Africa, and other regions. A bit of what we grow originated in North America itself, but not a lot. It’s very much the same story for the food we eat.

Estimated potential contribution of different primary regions of diversity of crops grown in the U.S., measured in value ($USD per year). As crops may have more than one primary region of diversity, total percent contribution is more than 100%. From Khoury et al. 2016. Proc. R. Soc. B 283(1832): 20160792.

To put simpler numbers on the trend, we estimated the degree to which each country cultivates or eats “foreign” crops, defined as plants whose primary regions of diversity do not overlap at all with the region where the country is located. For the US, we found that more than 95% of American agricultural production is of foreign crops, as is at least 90% of its food supply.

Averaging across all countries, about 70% of crops grown, and 69% of plants consumed, are immigrants. No country produces or consumes only native foods. Countries are increasingly cultivating and eating foreign crops as economic development proceeds and as food systems become more globalized.

Interdependence and the state of the Seed Treaty

Even with a lack of comprehensive data on consumption and production and crop diversity regions, it is clear that people in all countries grow and eat food crops whose genetic diversity is largely concentrated outside their borders, and would therefore benefit from the facilitated exchange of agricultural seeds. The very likely trend is for increasing needs for seeds, as markets adapt to changing consumer preferences and as producers adapt to increasingly challenging environmental conditions.

The evidence on countries’ predominant use of foreign crops bolsters the rationale for strengthening international collaboration on conservation of crop diversity and for making the exchange of all agricultural seeds as easy and affordable as possible. Our interdependence also boosts the argument for considering the genetic diversity of globally important food crops as public goods which should be openly available to all, and for respecting the rights of farmers to practice their traditional methods of conservation and exchange, not only in recognition of their historical contributions to the diversity in our food, but also in active support of its further evolution.

The Seed Treaty has already done a lot to formalize the understanding that it is prudent for countries to collaborate on sharing and caring for seeds. As one of the world’s agricultural powerhouses, and still the single largest public provider of crop diversity, the US ratification of the Treaty is exciting. Hopefully this is a key moment in the progress toward a truly global agreement where countries work together to conserve and share the diversity of the crops that nourish us all.


Colin Khoury studies diversity in the crops people grow and eat worldwide, and the implications of change in this diversity on human health and environmental sustainability. He is particularly interested in the wild relatives of food crops. Colin is a research scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia, and at the USDA National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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.

Experts Call For Shareholder Action on Climate Ahead of ExxonMobil and Chevron Annual Meetings

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It’s been quite a week in Texas. Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of making opening remarks at an expert panel discussion on climate change and fossil fuel company responsibilities in front of a packed house at Rice University in Houston. The event was held a week ahead of the ExxonMobil and Chevron annual shareholders’ meetings tomorrow in Dallas and Midland, respectively—timed to inform investors about key climate-related proposals to be voted on by shareholders at both companies. Tomorrow, I’ll be inside ExxonMobil’s annual meeting for the second year in a row.

All eyes are focused on a proposal calling for annual reporting by ExxonMobil on the resilience of its portfolio of reserves and resources in a range of climate scenarios—including at least one in which global temperature increase is kept well below 2°C, as agreed by the nations of the world. This resolution could receive the support of a majority of ExxonMobil’s shareholders, despite opposition by the company’s Board. Influential proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) has recommended a “yes” vote, and recent news reports suggest that Vanguard and Blackrock (ExxonMobil’s two largest shareowners) and Fidelity may vote in favor of the resolution.

A shareholder proposal requesting annual reporting on direct and indirect lobbying activities and expenditures by ExxonMobil received the support of more than 25% of shareowners in 2016 and will be voted on again tomorrow. This resolution highlights ExxonMobil’s membership in trade associations and industry groups that spread disinformation on climate science or misrepresent the possible effects of climate policies, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the American Petroleum Institute (API), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA).

View and Share the Panel Discussion

For background on why these shareholder proposals matter, you can now view a recording of the expert panel “Climate Change and Climate Risk: Critical Challenges for Fossil Fuel Companies and their Investors.” Moderated by Dr. Neal Lane, former science advisor to President Bill Clinton and a Senior Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, the panel featured:

  • André Droxler, Professor of Earth Science and Scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute;
  • Yvette Arellano, Policy and Research Liaison, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS);
  • Susan E. Pacheco, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Texas McGovern Medical School;
  • Robert Bullard, Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy, Texas Southern University;
  • Robert Litterman, Investment Risk Expert, Senior Partner at Kepos Capital (formerly with Goldman Sachs).

Those attending in person and online kept the #ClimateRisk conversation going on social media; you can view our recap here.

ExxonMobil’s New Leadership

Tomorrow’s annual meeting of ExxonMobil shareholders will be the first presided over by new Chair and CEO Darren Woods, who took over at the beginning of the year from Rex Tillerson (now US Secretary of State).

When he took the helm at ExxonMobil more than a decade ago, Tillerson pledged no longer to fund groups that engage in climate denial and stated his support for a carbon tax. However, ExxonMobil’s reality did not match Tillerson’s rhetoric. In UCS’s inaugural Climate Accountability Scorecard released last October, ExxonMobil scored “egregious” on renouncing disinformation on climate science and policy.

As for Tillerson’s stated position in favor a carbon tax, UCS’s Scorecard found some skepticism about whether the company had backed up its CEO’s words with consistent action. For example, ExxonMobil’s hand-picked External Citizenship Advisory Panel called for “more specificity about the company’s support for a carbon tax, as well as its engagement on other policy issues in the United States and internationally.” (Earlier this year, a member of this panel actually resigned in protest over the company’s attacks on civil society organizations, including UCS).

Like his predecessor, Woods seems to be attempting to reposition ExxonMobil on climate. In his first blog in his new role, Woods noted that “the pledges made at last year’s Paris Accord create an effective framework for all countries to address rising emissions,” and that ExxonMobil “forecasts carbon reductions consistent with the results of the Paris accord commitments.” ExxonMobil has publicly urged the Trump administration to keep the United States in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Woods’s blog also echoed Tillerson’s stated support for a carbon tax: “A uniform price of carbon applied consistently across the economy is a sensible approach to emissions reduction.” While Woods affirms that “climate risks warrant action,” his proposed energy solutions revolve around natural gas and unproven future technologies. And Woods presents a false choice between energy access and economic development.

In Woods’s first month on the job, ExxonMobil added climate scientist Dr. Susan Avery to its board. The company didn’t take this action voluntarily—shareholders have been pressing ExxonMobil to improve its corporate governance on climate issues for years. A 2016 resolution calling for the appointment of a climate expert to ExxonMobil’s board received support from more than 20% of shareholders, while a resolution calling on the company to open up its procedures for nominating directors (known as “proxy access”) was approved by more than 60% of shareholders last May. The company amended its bylaws accordingly five months later, and appointed Avery three months after that.

The appointment of Avery, who has said “Clearly climate science is telling us get off fossil fuels as much as possible,” is a positive step. But as director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Avery made controversial decisions to accept major funding from oil and gas companies. In addition, ExxonMobil has a (widely criticized) policy of preventing its board members from speaking directly with shareholders. Further pressure will undoubtedly be needed to improve ExxonMobil’s positions and actions on climate change.

At tomorrow’s annual meeting, shareholders should send a definitive message to ExxonMobil that it is past time to get serious about planning for a low-carbon future.

American Chemistry Council: Obstructing Formaldehyde Safeguards Then and Now

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Photo: DeAntre Bryant/UCS

The chemical industry has once again staved off federal action that would protect public health, as the EPA announced last week that it would be delaying compliance dates for the long-awaited formaldehyde emission standards for composite wood products—standards that were finalized in December 2016. This is the latest move brought to you by an industry with a long history of attacking science and an administration willing to do its bidding.

It’s no surprise that industry employs tactics like manufacturing doubt, attacking scientists, and influencing policymakers in a calculated effort to delay or halt science-based safeguards. Under the Trump administration, we have already seen a host of important policies rooted in strong science rolled back or delayed, including stronger beryllium, silica, ozone, and methane standards, stream protection requirements for mining operations, vehicle fuel economy standards, coal plant wastewater standards, risk management program amendments, and mercury and air toxics standards.

Last week, The New York Times reported on the way in which Administrator Scott Pruitt’s EPA has loosened its regulatory grip on the business community, and especially the oil and gas industry with which Pruitt has longstanding financial ties. The President of the Western Energy Alliance, an association of oil and gas companies, told the NYT, “We are so used to not being able to move an agenda forward that it has been very surprising how quickly things have changed.”

But what does it mean for us when industry moves its agenda forward—especially when that agenda involves stopping the creation of evidence-based limits for chemicals, proven unsafe, that will make their way into our homes or drinking water?

Formaldehyde health risks and why emission standards matter

The binders used to glue together wood fibers in particleboard, plywood, and other building materials often contain formaldehyde. Photo: Rotor_DB/Creative Commons (Wikimedia).

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable chemical widely used in building materials, medicinal and personal care products, and furnishings. Fumes from these products can be harmful to human health, especially when they accumulate indoors at high concentrations. Acute exposure can lead to nausea, headaches, and eye, nose, throat and skin irritation, even asthma exacerbation. Chronic exposure has been linked to cancers in humans, including cancers of the nose and throat, lymphomas, and leukemia. In 2004, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that formaldehyde is a human carcinogen, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services listed it is as a known human carcinogen in 2011.

Health impacts have been understood since the 1980s, and yet over thirty years later, there are no federal restrictions on formaldehyde emissions in the home. Without standards in place, public health is at risk. Back in 2005, the cheaply constructed emergency trailers that housed Hurricane Katrina refugees were found to have unsafe levels of formaldehyde, earning them the “toxic trailers” nickname, while inhabitants already dealing with displacement in the midst of an environmental disaster suffered from respiratory problems, burning eyes, and other ailments. Without controls on formaldehyde emissions, these trailers have been resold and some were even used as temporary housing for workers cleaning up the BP oil spill in the gulf in 2010. Wood products used to build and remodel homes across the country can still contain formaldehyde at potentially unsafe levels.

Chemical industry continues to sow doubt about established formaldehyde risks


The trade organization representing chemical companies including the makers of formaldehyde, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), worked to downplay the risks of the chemical and to delay and otherwise thwart the formaldehyde emissions rule as it was first being proposed and finalized by the EPA. The ACC created a website that touts the environmental benefits of formaldehyde, casts doubt on established health studies linking exposure to a range of ailments, and assures consumers that voluntary industry standards were strong enough to protect them. The ACC also persuaded Congress to commission the National Academies of Science to reevaluate EPA science on formaldehyde, resulting in a delay in the process lasting 3 years and reaching the same conclusion that formaldehyde should be listed as “known to be a human carcinogen.”

The ACC even got involved with White House-level review. In 2012, the White House Office of Management and Budget meeting record shows that it had at least five meetings with industry executives, their lobbyists, and ACC-financed lawmakers (like Senator Vitter), asking them to halt the EPA proposal, which apparently worked. After OMB-review, the EPA deleted from its cost-benefit analysis the benefits of reduced health ailments like asthma and fertility issues that a formaldehyde standard would have prevented, dropping the benefits from $278 million to $48 million annually.


The formaldehyde emissions rule was issued by the EPA in December 2016, and the ACC has continued to deny the science used by the EPA and to lobby the EPA and Congress on the issue. The ACC spent nearly $1.5 million lobbying agencies and Congress on a host of issues in just the first quarter of 2017 (January to March), including on formaldehyde, hexavalent chromium, the nomination of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, EPA’s Science Advisory Board, the HONEST Act, the Regulatory Accountability Act, Risk Management Program amendments, and even FY 2018 appropriations for the EPA.

Just this month, a study was issued that was funded by the Foundation for Chemistry Research and Initiatives (FCRI), a nonprofit organization established by the ACC. According to its financial filings the nonprofit works to “address uncertainties and answer questions on health and environmental issues,” taking on projects that “will furnish crucial information, peer-reviewed scientific research, expert panels, and workshops” to inform policy. FCRI granted a total of $425,294 of its revenue (which comes entirely from ACC) to study formaldehyde in 2012 and $425,114 to Environ International Corporation (now Ramboll Environ) and other consulting firms and research institutions to reevaluate formaldehyde data in 2014. Environ International has been called a “hired gun” by former OSHA administrator David Michaels, and the firm has been commissioned by several corporations to contribute to the scientific literature, including notorious tobacco company R.J. Reynolds (now Reynolds American Incorporated Services Company) and the Industrial Health Foundation (a former trade organization for industrial facilities), conducting studies with conclusions that downplayed the risks of menthol cigarettes and hexavalent chromium.

This FCRI issued grants led to several studies that helped to sow uncertainty about the potential of long-term exposure to formaldehyde to cause myeloid leukemia. A 2013 study by Environ authors funded by the FCRI and Momentive Special Chemicals Inc. (now Hexion Specialty Chemicals, Inc.), a formaldehyde-producing chemical company, used FOIA-obtained data to refute findings suggesting a link between formaldehyde exposure and leukemia. Earlier this month, the ACC touted another FCRI-funded study with the headline “new study challenges formaldehyde cancer findings,” after the study built upon its 2013 work and concluded that there was no causal association between formaldehyde and leukemia, of course not mentioning the very clear conflict of interest at hand. The ACC has used this study to urge the EPA not to characterize formaldehyde as linked to leukemia development.

For years now, no matter how strong the scientific consensus around an issue is, the ACC has continuously worked to obscure scientific findings and obstruct policies that are designed to protect public health and safety, all to save chemical companies time and money.

Photo: FEMA

Lives depend on science-based protections

For people like Becky Gillette, this rule’s enforcement cannot come soon enough. She told the New York Times, “People think that just because Congress passed the legislation five years ago, the problem has been fixed,” said Becky Gillette, a Mississippi resident affected by Hurricane Katrina who was one of the first people to notice that the FEMA trailers were causing health problems. “Real people’s faces and names come up in front of me when I think of the thousands of people who could get sick if this rule is not done right.”

The EPA’s final formaldehyde emissions rule estimates that 132 million individuals will be living in housing units where composite wood products have been installed within the past 11 years. Considering that population, the implementation of this rule will help prevent 26 to 64 nasopharyngeal cancer cases and 92,218 to 604,155 cases of eye irritation annually. These counts don’t even take into consideration other health ailments and types of cancer. A delay of just three months in implementation could mean the difference between cancer diagnoses and clean bills of health for at least eight Americans with faces and names.

There’s still a chance to tell EPA to leave the compliance dates alone and move forward with the rule. The EPA is accepting comments on its decision until June 8.

For more on the American Chemistry Council’s history of fighting policies that regulate chemicals produced by its member companies (think BPA, silica, and flame retardants), even when scientific evidence points to adverse health or environmental impacts, check out our 2015 report Bad Chemistry: How the Chemical Industry’s Trade Association Undermines the Policies that Protect Us.


Affordable Solar Power is Coming to Low-Income Minority Neighborhoods

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In the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Broadway Heights in San Diego, nearly half of the 192 homes have rooftop solar panels. Neighbor after neighbor talks about what they could now afford. They were paying $200 and $300 a month in electric bills. Now they’re paying zero to $50.

“Now I can get my air conditioner!” said Thresia Route, 62, an information technology administrator.

In Southern Homes and Gardens, an affordable townhouse cooperative in predominantly African-American Southeast Washington, 55 of 90 residences have rooftop solar panels. On-site manager Telana Felder calls solar “my best friend” to escape her former monthly bills of $150 to $200.

“Last month the bill was $4, then this month it was $14,” Felder said. “It was so low I said something was wrong, so I called. They said it was because I had credits from the solar.”

These are among the thousands of moderate- to low-income families and fixed-income retired seniors who are the vanguard in communities of color that are now enjoying solar power. Under a wide variety of state and federal policies and funding mechanisms, and under both nonprofit and for-profit business models, such families are changing the face of renewable energy, broadening the diversity of solar customers with respect to race and income.

For most families I interviewed on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the original attraction was less about getting away from fossil fuels than getting away from the high-energy bills associated with those dirty fuels. According to a 2016 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency for All, households under $25,000 in median income have an “energy burden” more than triple that of households of at least $90,000 in median income. Energy burden is the percentage of income a family spends on energy.

The potential savings from solar are significant enough that improvements in quality of life are abundant and instantly come to mind in home after home, from funding college for children to creature comforts and consumer goods that wealthier families take for granted. In their own way, these residents appreciate solar with all the verve of eco-celebrities Johnny Depp, Julia Roberts and Leonardo DiCaprio.

In the affordable Latino and Hmong home-owner development of Little Long Cheng in Fresno, California, 35 of 42 homes have solar. Construction truck driver Jose Rodriguez, 52, and homemaker wife Arcelei, 50, said their $1,000 a year in savings from their 2009 rooftop system helped pay for a son’s education at Fresno State.

“I got my solar at a perfect time,” Jose Rodriguez said. “With the recession, my boss told me I could only work part time. I could keep putting my money toward education instead of the bills.”

In the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Eric Pritchard, 64, said he was in his third month of solar power atop his home in the historic Nehemiah Houses. About 155 homes have contracted for solar in the affordable development, which was built in the 1980s. A collaboration of churches, community groups and the city worked out an unprecedented plan to sell homes for $43,000 with donated city land, tax abatements and below-market-rate mortgages.

A former Wall Street back-office official who physically received and delivered millions of dollars of bonds to clients, Pritchard said, “I wanted to [go solar] 20, 30 years ago. I remember seeing the small panels on U.S. bases. I have a friend who is an engineer, and we’d talk about wind turbines out in the country. Solar you can have in your own backyard. It’s special that it’s in these homes. We’re actually pioneers for the second time in the same place.”

The likely current per capita champion of affordable solar is the New Orleans area, where post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction has it atop an estimated 7,500 to 8,000 homes. In St. Bernard Parish, auto mechanic Vien Tran, 35, and wife Quynh Le, 29, a server at the famous Café DuMonde beignet coffee shop, said solar power and weatherizing of his home have sliced old bills of up to $300 a month down to about $200. The $100 a month in savings is big money in a household with an annual dual income of about $30,000.

“It goes to toys for the kids,” Tran said, holding one of his small boys. “Each one has their own iPad. I’m pretty sure he can use an iPad better than you.”

In Jefferson Parish, Diane LePree-Williams, a 66-year-old retired passport agency manager, said last December, “I love my little power plant. It’s the first Christmas in a long time where I actually spend on gifts for relatives.”

She rattled off things such as a Crock-Pot, a bubble-bath beauty set and a virtual reality game. “I couldn’t afford any of these things before.”

There are yet no national figures for the number of solar homes owned by working-class and other moderate white-collar and low-income residents. But there is growing evidence of a major class shift in states that now target renewable energy policies toward less affluent families. In Fresno, in the premier solar state of California, 70 percent of installations were in ZIP codes where the average household income is below $55,000, according to a study by Kevala Analytics.

Kevala said the trends indicate that “the market for solar is strongest among people where a 10 to 20 percent savings in their electricity costs is meaningful enough to drive investment in alternative electricity supplies.”

The potential of serving this market is immense. According to a 2015 report by George Washington University’s Solar Institute, rooftop solar on all low-income households could save those families up to a collective $23 billion a year, and its installation could spark nearly $19 billion in local economic activity. The institute said such activity could create 138,000 jobs, most of which could easily employ residents. The solar industry hit a new record of 260,000 jobs last year, according to the Solar Foundation, surpassing the 187,000 jobs that the Department of Energy says are in the oil and gas industry.

Various models have emerged to get solar panels atop homes where owners can’t shell out $10,000 or more for a typical home solar array. In Broadway Heights, Fresno and many other neighborhoods in California, the nonprofit GRID Alternatives is the program manager for the state’s Single-family Affordable Solar Homes program (SASH). Beginning in 2009, with a commitment of $108 million set aside from utility ratepayer funds, philanthropic gifts and in-kind donations from the solar industry, GRID has been identifying homes in communities largely under 80 percent of area median income to install rooftop solar at little or no cost.

A major component of GRID’s program is job training and community volunteering. At one installation site in San Diego, five Latino high school students carried panels across a backyard to hoist up to the technicians. Student Jason Olvera said, “My first choice is to join the military, but I may do this. It’s fun, and you get to help people out.”

In New Orleans and Brownsville, for-profit models are generating power and satisfaction. Both PosiGen in New Orleans and Level Solar in Brownsville bank on private investment, bolstered by either favorable state incentives or state green banks funded by utility bill fees. That allows for mass-purchased solar equipment to be installed on homes regardless of income and without credit checks. The homeowner pays back the cost of the installation through monthly lease payments, with money from savings on the utility bill.

The Southern Homes and Gardens townhouse community benefits from city-driven policies and programs. Washington, D.C., has some of the most aggressive renewable electricity goals in the country and a sustainable energy department funded by a surcharge on energy bills. Some of that money has been used to contract for more than 500 no-cost solar installations in the city’s poorest wards over the past four years.

In the process, solar is changing lives well beyond the pocketbook. In D.C., 21-year-old solar technician Ramo Herbert never considered college because of its cost. He went to a city office looking for a summer job two years ago, and the two choices were a sandwich shop or WDC Solar, an installation firm owned by former professional basketball player Mark Davis.

WDC Solar’s office was just four blocks from Herbert’s house. It opened a world to him that he has come to love — despite summer days of standing on black rooftops in the humid Washington summers.

“As a kid, I didn’t get on too many roller coasters or look over bridges,” Herbert said. “But on the roof, I felt like I was on top of the world. When I tell people what I do, they say, ‘For real? You really do that, lifting all those panels?’

“I remember one day in training, Mr. Davis said, ‘For anyone who is serious, I have a job for you.’ Then one day he told me, ‘You toughed it out. I have a job for you.’ I feel proud of what I’ve done.”

And residents are proud of what they have, with the help of organizations and companies like GRID Alternatives, PosiGen, Level Solar and WDC Solar, as well as the widening array of city and state policies along with federal tax credits that Congress, in a rare bipartisan move, extended through 2022.

In San Diego’s Broadway Heights, Robert Robinson, 68, the community council president and longtime city activist who helped prisoners readjust to society and organized gun buy-backs, led the effort to urge neighbors to take advantage of GRID Alternatives’ program. With 26 panels atop his ranch-style house and many other homes visibly adorned, Robinson said he wants Broadway Heights to be a public face of the solar revolution.

San Diego is the largest city in the United States that has committed to all renewable energy by 2035, and it has begun to designate some neighborhoods as “eco-districts” for their sustainability efforts. Robinson said he wants Broadway Heights to earn such a designation.

But in neighborhoods like his, the real attraction of solar is the lowering of the energy burden. Asked the most important thing that solar has done for him, he exclaimed, “I feel like I gave myself a raise!”

This post originally appeared on ESPN’s The Undefeated

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

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

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

Critically overdrafted basins in California in purple (for more information see the Department of Water Resources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Upcoming GMD Missile Defense Test: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if the test fails?

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

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

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

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

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

What if it’s a success?

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

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

Upcoming GMD Missile Defense Test: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig. 1

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

Fig. 2

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

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

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

Table 1.

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

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

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

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

Scientific integrity at federal agencies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The EPA Annual Stakeholder Meeting on Scientific Integrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2017 Stakeholder Meeting

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

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

Overreactions and underappreciations

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

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

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

Renewable Energy Surges Globally with China and India in the Lead

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

The global big picture on renewable energy

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

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

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

China leads the charge on renewable energy

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

Here are some recent facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A clean energy future that the Trump administration cannot stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad Rising costs in warhead life extension programs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disappearing Dismantlement

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

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

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

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


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

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

Here are four ways the Trump budget hurts disaster preparedness:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congress should reject cuts to the FEMA and HUD budgets

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

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

Automakers Seek to Shirk Environmental Responsibilities, and Senators Oblige

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retroactive off-cycle credits—the everlasting gobstopper of handouts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good Ending MOX (Or Trying To, Again)

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

The Battle between Congress and the Obama Administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Trump win the battle with Congress?

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

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

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

No News is Good News

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

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






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

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

There is reason for both hope and concern.

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

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

An unrelated policy rider, premised on incorrect science

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

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

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

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

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

A false assertion of carbon neutrality

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

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

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

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

A cautionary tale for the next budget fight

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

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


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

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

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

Making America less great, one budget cut at a time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Would JFK Have Said About Clean Energy?

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

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

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

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

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

JFK harnessing wind power (Source: JFK Library)

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

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

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

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

Sure sounds simpler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday, Mr. President. And thanks.

Trump’s Proposed Budget: A Wrecking Ball to Science

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

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

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

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

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

Eviscerating Science at the EPA

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

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

Slashing renewable energy research at DOE

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

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

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

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

Weakening emergency preparedness at NOAA

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

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

Canceling vital earth monitoring at NASA

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

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

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

Starving agricultural research and conservation at USDA

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

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

Scientists must step up!

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

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

Now is the time to make our voices heard.

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


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