Combined UCS Blogs

The EPA Withdraws Claim that Fracking has no “Widespread Systemic Impacts” on Drinking Water

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

The EPA removed language claiming that hydraulic fracturing has no “widespread systemic impacts” on drinking water from its final report on the subject. The move follows criticism from its Science Advisory Board and revelations by Marketplace that the report’s executive summary and press release may have been edited by non-scientists.

“No widespread systemic impacts” Hydraulic fracturing activities have adversely affected drinking water quality in several locations in the US, a new EPA report shows despite misleading information in communication of its draft report last year.

Hydraulic fracturing activities have adversely affected drinking water quality in several locations in the US, a new EPA report shows despite misleading information in communication of its draft report last year.

In May 2015, EPA released its draft report and there were inconsistencies. The report itself covered the risks of fracking accurately: It found specific instances where well integrity and wastewater management related to hydraulic fracturing activities impacted drinking water resources and it identified several pathways through which the risk of water contamination exists, including spills, improper well construction, and improper disposal of wastewater. None of this was surprising for someone who was following the issue.

What was surprising was the way that the agency communicated those findings in the executive summary and press release of the draft.  Inexplicably, these more public-facing report accompaniments downplayed the risks of fracking to drinking water, claiming “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread systemic impacts to drinking water resources,” as if this was the fundamental question. But the EPA wasn’t charged with assessing whether impacts were “widespread and systemic,” it was charged with assessing the risks. This raised questions about who wrote the press release and executive summary and why such a discrepancy existed between these materials and the final report.

I noticed this oddity immediately. The EPA Science Advisory Board took up the issue.  In its final report to the EPA Administrator, the group concluded that the agency needed more clarity and support for major findings. In particular, they noted,

The SAB finds that the EPA did not support quantitatively its conclusion about lack of evidence for widespread, systemic impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, and did not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water), the scale of impacts (i.e., local or regional), nor the definitions of “systemic” and “widespread.”

Communications that didn’t reflect the science

We tried to learn more about how and why these changes occurred by filing a Freedom of Information Act request. While the documents we received came back heavily redacted, we do know that there was a flurry of emails regarding the press release in the days and hours leading up to the release. We also learned that White House officials were potentially involved in developing messaging around the draft report. Last month, Marketplace was able to confirm that the EPA  downplayed scientists’ concerns about the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water in the press release and executive summary:

“Documents obtained by APM Reports and Marketplace show that in the six weeks before the study’s public release, officials inserted a key phrase into the executive summary that said researchers did not find evidence of “widespread systemic impacts” of fracking by the oil and gas industry on the nation’s drinking water.

Earlier draft versions emphasized more directly that fracking has contaminated drinking water in some places.

The documents also show that the news release accompanying the scientific study was changed on June 3, 2015, the day before it was made public. A draft displayed a conclusion that the EPA had identified “potential vulnerabilities” to drinking water. But the final release dated June 4, concluded: “Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”

Correcting the record: Fracking presents risks to drinking water

The final report has removed this language and replaced it with more accurate language that communicates the drinking water risks that the agency found. In fact, they even included an FAQ about the fact that they removed the language, noting that the claim “could not be quantitatively supported” and “did not clearly communicate the findings of the report”.  It is unfortunate that the original headlines after the draft report was released left the public with the impression that the EPA found that fracking carries no risks.

The agency listened to its Science Advisory Board and the public. But this isn’t the final word. This particular study had a lot of limitations, including a refusal by industry to provide data that would have allowed EPA to do a more thorough and comprehensive analysis. It’s important for the federal government to continue to have a strong role in providing information that states can use to protect residents from the risks of fracking.

Science wins for now…

The whole incident provides a cautionary tale for what we might expect in the next administration. If Obama’s EPA was watering down the science on fracking risks, imagine what a Trump administration might do?  President-elect Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is certainly a friend of the oil and gas industry and has a history of failing to respect EPA’s use of science.  As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt repeated defended the oil and gas industry at the expense of public health and the environment and he is currently involved in suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan (My colleague Angela Anderson has a fuller report here).

Disturbingly, Pruitt’s close association with Harold Hamm also raise questions about his ability to support the use of science on fracking. Oil tycoon Harold Hamm told a University of Oklahoma dean last year that he wanted fired certain scientists who were studying links between oil and gas activity and the state’s nearly 400-fold increase in earthquakes, according to the dean’s e-mail recounting the conversation. As my colleague Angela wrote, it’s hard to imagine that Hamm, who was Pruitt’s campaign chair and longtime associate, won’t be whispering in Pruitt’s ear to disregard or even penalize the scientists for inconvenient findings.

In this case, the EPA Science Advisory Board was able to do its job of advising the EPA (without industry or political interference), and for the agency to respond to that advice. This is how science advisory boards are supposed to work. Unfortunately, this may not be the case with Pruitt at the helm. Moreover, some members of Congress want to stack the science panel with industry representatives. Members of Congress must oppose legislation like the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, because stacking the panel with industry representatives who have clear financial conflicts of interest would undermine the agency’s science-based mission, and hinder its ability to appropriately protect the public.

Shedding light on fracking

Moving forward, we must be mindful of both bold and subtle attempts to sideline science. The EPA and other federal agencies in the next administration will be under tremendous pressure to compromise science in some cases—both the usual pressure from the industries they regulate and pressure from their own political appointees that came from those same industries.

But for now, I’m glad to see the EPA correct the record on hydraulic fracturing risks to drinking water. It’s a small victory but I’ll take it.

Arctic Breaks Many Records – Arctic Report Card 2016

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Since 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued an annual peer-reviewed assessment of the Arctic. The tenth assessment was released on December 13, 2016.  Arctic Report Card 2016 is remarkable for two reasons.


recordbreakingarcticreportcard2016_tablebybrendaekwurzelFirst, so many records were broken or ranked second in each respective observational period (see Table).  The second reason is that change is happening so fast and with such great magnitude that NOAA included an addendum to log changes leading up to the report release.  Typically the Arctic Report Card covers a year of observations from October through September – the latter being the month when the summer sea ice extent minimum occurs.  The addendum included information about October and November 2016, such as the lowest ice extent observed over the satellite record for mid-October through late-November 2016. Likely contributing factors were unusually warm air brought up from mid-latitudes and sea surface temperatures near the ice margins that were far above normal for this time of year.  All of the jaw dropping (at least to this scientist) charts and statistics in this report add up to multiple lines of evidence – ‘vital signs’ – that point to a diagnosis.  As stated in the report: “Persistent warming trend and loss of sea ice are triggering extensive Arctic changes.”  We know what the primary cause of the persistent warming trend globally is – burning coal, oil, gas and deforestation.  The Paris Climate Agreement aims to put the breaks on that global trend.

Check out this brief video showing changes in Arctic sea ice, air and sea surface temperatures, Greenland ice sheet mass, parasites from lower latitudes reaching small mammals (e.g. shrews) and ocean waters becoming more corrosive to the base of the marine food web.

Beyond the charts: Yupik word for type of sea ice that is extremely rare to observe today

The report card includes a story recounted by Brendan Kelly, Executive Director of the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) that gets to the heart of the jaw-dropping charts of plummeting sea ice age for greater proportions of the Arctic.  Sea ice thickness, in general, increases with ice age (i.e. how many years the sea ice persists).

Fig 4.3 Arctic Report Card 2016

Figure from Arctic Report Card 2016 recording the changes in sea ice age from March 1985 to March 2016 (http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/Portals/7/EasyGalleryImages/8/63/fig4.3-perovich.png).

He learned dozens of Yupik words for sea ice from Conrad Oozeva, who is from St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.  The Yupik word for thick, dark, weathered ice – tagneghneq – refers to a type of sea ice that is extremely rare to observe today.  Passing on a language to the next generation involves context; it could be difficult to explain the meaning of a word that can’t be easily seen.  This poses a risk to cultural heritage.  While many are taking steps to preserve endangered Alaskan languages, over a hundred countries or parties have already ratified the Paris Climate Agreement.  A significant reduction in emissions behind the global warming trend could mean less warming in the Arctic, and less impact on sea ice. There may still be hope for tagneghneq.

Arctic Research Includes Traditional Knowledge Exchange

Photo from the Arctic Report Card 2016 of Brendan Kelly and Conrad Oozeva in 1979 conducting research aboard the USCGC Polar Sea (http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/Portals/7/EasyGalleryImages/8/68/fig12.1-kelly.jpg).

Table created by Brenda Ekwurzel based on findings in Arctic Report Card 2016 Arctic Report Card 2016 Fig 4.3 Arctic Report Card 2016 Figure 12.1

Protecting Against Fatigued Nuclear Plant Workers

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Disaster by Design/ Safety by Intent #62

Safety by Intent

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) revised its regulations requiring nuclear plant workers to be fit for duty on March 31, 2008, to include measures intended to protect against mistakes made by workers impaired by fatigue. Specifically, Subpart I, “Managing Fatigue,” was added to 10 CFR Part 26, “Fitness for Duty Programs.”

The NRC issued its fitness for duty requirements in the late 1980s in response to Congressional concerns about reports of illegal drug use by nuclear plant workers. The original requirements instituted initial, random, and for-cause drug and alcohol testing of all workers granted access inside nuclear power plants.

On September 28, 1999, Barry Quigley, a worker at a nuclear power plant in Illinois, petitioned the NRC to revise its fitness for duty regulation to impose limits on the number of hours worked by nuclear plant staffers. Quigley proposed that the NRC revise its regulations to limit workers to 60 hours per week and 108 hours over al-two-week periods during normal operation with some relaxation of these limits when the plant is shut down.

The NRC convened a series of public meetings to discuss the working hour limits petition. I participated in many of the meetings on behalf of UCS. The matter interested a lot of groups and individuals with a range of viewpoints. Some, like the Professional Reactor Operator Society (PROS) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), expressed concern that limits on working hours could reduce the amount of overtime pay earned by their members. They pointed out potential consequences from the working hour limits being sought—workers might obtain second jobs to replace the lost overtime wages.

The NRC invited specialists to the meetings to inform the discussions. For example, Dr. Gregory Belenky from the Division of Neuropsychiatry at the Walter Reed institute of Research presented insights from research on sleep and human performance.

Fig. 1 (

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The differing perspectives by various stakeholders shaped by the insights from the specialists led to changes in the working hour limits proposed in Quigley’s petition. For example, the petition would impose working hour limits on all persons subject to the drug and alcohol provisions in Part 26. Industry representatives pointed out that many workers performed tasks that were very unlikely to contribute to a nuclear plant accident even if a worker was impaired by fatigue during their performance. An engineer calculating the power supply loads to be met by an emergency diesel generator could make a mistake due to fatigue. But that engineer’s work must be independently checked by another engineer and approved by a third individual, providing opportunities for any mistakes to be corrected. The scope of the fatigue management rule was therefore narrowed to only those workers with “hands on” tasks whose mistakes might more immediately and directly have adverse consequences—operators, maintenance personnel, and (after 9/11) security force personnel.

The Outcome

The final rule limits individuals to working no more than 16 hours during any 24-hour period, 26 hours during any 48-hour period, and 72 hours during any 7-day period.

The final rule also contained measures intended to address the situation where individuals are within the working hour limits but feel fatigued. For example, a worker may not have gotten a full night’s rest due to caring for an ill child. Under the final rule, that individual has the right to self-declare feeling fatigued without fear of reprisals. This provision explicitly addressed a problem that NRC identified in 2002 with some workers being compelled to work when impaired by fatigue or being fired for refusing to work.

The final rule contains another provision that had not been in Quigley’s petition that was added as a result of the insights provided by the specialists—the need for break periods. The specialists agreed that it was vitally important for individuals to have periodic opportunities for rest and relaxation. The final rule therefore requires that workers receive a 10-hour break between work periods and a 34-hour break every nine days. Individuals working 8-hour shifts must be given at least one day off per week, persons working 10-hour shifts must be given at least two days off per week, and individuals working 12-hour shifts must be given at least 2.5 days off per week when averaged over a shift cycle of six weeks or less.

The final rule recognized that situations could arise that required individuals to exceed the working hour limits. The rule contains a provision describing when management can authorize individuals to exceed the limits. The final rule also requires owners to submit annual reports to the NRC on the number of times when individuals exceeded the working hour limits.

The final rule adopted by the NRC was more compromise than consensus. No stakeholder got everything he or she wanted included in the final rule. I am not a fan of the provision allowing individuals to work longer hours when a reactor is shut down, particularly when that reactor is at a plant with multiple reactors and at least one other reactor is operating. But the NRC’s rulemaking process considered my viewpoints equally with the viewpoints of Barry Quigley, PROS, IBEW, the nuclear industry, and all other stakeholders. The NRC’s regulatory analysis supporting the final rule explained why some aspects were included in the final rule while others were not.

Many NRC staffers were involved in the multi-year process leading to the final rule. Among them, Dr. David Desaulniers played a key role as the efforts’ technical lead. In addition to the considerable education and experience he brought to the table, Dr. Desaulniers served as a calming influence when stakeholders passionate about their viewpoints disagreed on the problem and its solution. He effectively enabled open discussions while discouraging non-productive debates.

The final rule does not provide absolute protection against mistakes made by fatigued nuclear plant workers. But it provides significantly better protection than had existed.

Disaster by Design

The problem that happened yesterday is much easier to solve than the problem that might occur tomorrow.

Worker fatigue did not cause the Three Mile Island accident and did not contribute to the Davis-Besse near-miss. Worker fatigue was therefore a potential problem. Nevertheless, the NRC revised its regulations to better manage the risk from this potential problem.

No one can count the umber of accidents avoided by the NRC’s working hour limits rulemaking. But the NRC’s rulemaking makes it less likely for worker fatigue to account for one accident. That seems like a good deal.

—–

UCS’s Disaster by Design/ Safety by Intent series of blog posts is intended to help readers understand how a seemingly unrelated assortment of minor problems can coalesce to cause disaster and how effective defense-in-depth can lessen both the number of pre-existing problems and the chances they team up.

Lies Hurt. Facts Matter. And So Does Resistance.

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Any observer of truth will tell you that 2016 is a lie-soaked lost cause. Will 2017 see a pro-truth resistance? We’d better see to it.

We, the people, can be forgiven for some angst over the free-falling role of truth in our democracy.

We all took civics in school. We know democracy depends on reason and truth. So when your president-elect peddles conspiracy theories and continues to promote lies just weeks before his inauguration, you break a sweat. When he taps a climate denier to be the head of the agency tasked with solving climate change, you try not to panic. And when he taps the CEO of the world’s largest oil company to be our nation’s leading diplomat amidst the global climate crisis, you try not to break things.

But the truth, for all the abuse its taking, isn’t going anywhere soon.

Not only does reality function on facts, but a broad pushback against disinformation and outright lies is starting to take shape, driven by people from across American life who value reason and truth too much to put up with the foolishness. The madness, really.

It gives me hope that we can resist this descent and turn it around.

But to do so we need to collectively stay on it, push facts to the fore, and drive fact-free politics back to the wild-eyed fringes.

truth-duncam-ctr

Credit: Cause Collective, In Search Of The Truth.

There’s wrong and there’s wrong

One way of being “wrong” has to do with justice—the breach of law and of fairness across race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, and on. It’s a founding principle of this nation; we hold justice dear. But rhetoric during the presidential campaign and hateful actions in the weeks since the election show that this kind of wrong is now spreading.

Thankfully, a social movement is starting to take shape in the wake of the election. (So many early examples, like this and this and this.) It’s very formation is to resist this kind of wrong. As in, we see what you’re doing, it’s wrong, and we will work to stop you.

The other way of being “wrong” is simpler. It’s the loud gameshow-buzz “wrong.” It’s just: No. You are factually incorrect. This wrong just requires rejection. As in, we see what you’re doing, you’re wrong, and we call BS.

In a better world, all moral folks would show up to right the first wrong. And all thinking folks would instinctively reject the second. But “post-truth” became Oxford’s word of the year because of the pervasiveness of truth-distortion, outright lying, and wild fabrication in the 2016 election cycle, and the unwillingness of enough people to call BS.

This election cycle showed that you can be flat-out wrong and not face the consequences because others don’t know better or don’t care.

Take for example Trump’s nominee, as of last week, to head the Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. Pruitt has repeatedly distorted the truth about climate change—and now he’s nominated to lead the very agency most responsible for dealing with it.

Take also Trump’s pick, as of this weekend, to serve as Secretary of State: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Tillerson has played a central role at ExxonMobil for years, a corporation called out by groups like mine for a decades-long disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about sound climate science. And now he’s nominated to serve as our nation’s chief diplomat in a time of climate crisis.

Between false statements, distortions of truth, support of junk science, and questionable motives, these two deserve our rejection. And that of the Senate.

The facts aren’t going anywhere….

The president-elect has shown a confounding disregard for facts, and his surrogates have now famously spoken of facts simply not mattering anymore. But that is of course nonsense. Would you purchase a home without the key facts in hand? Can you pay your bills without verifiable funds in your account?

For that matter, is the Fed poised to raise interest rates in the absence of evidence of the need? Are our water resources managed by what’s measurably in the reservoir, or whether we feel that glass is half full or half empty? Did the US Department of Defense develop a climate change strategy based on whimsy, or on data and analysis?

Yes, bias can be introduced when values come in to play, and this can be a good thing (e.g., when society decides to recognize the intrinsic value of species or landscapes, or intangibles like well-being) or a bad thing (e.g., when we only value what certain messengers have to say and devalue all others).

But even when they are obscured, the facts, like the physics of climate change, are unchanged.

To paraphrase members of the climate community: belief in climate change is perfectly optional; participation is compulsory. The facts will eventually overwhelm all efforts to deny them.

john_adams_facts_are_stubborn_things

Credit: izquotes.com

… but they do need some tending.

Our challenge is to beat back a mindset that’s infusing American political discourse. Not because truth is dead. But because the worry is justified in this sense: democracy depends on objectivity, evidence, and truth to inform the political process, and in our current political discourse, those things are being actively abused. When they are abused, informed progress is thwarted. And from a climate change standpoint, as from a public health standpoint, an equity and justice standpoint, a nuclear security standpoint, a you-name-it standpoint, we have no time for going backwards or veering off in uninformed directions.

What’s more, lies hurt. At the moment, we see ordinary people speaking truth to power and being threatened and vilified. And we see the incoming administration seeking names of federal employees who have worked to develop climate policy. As George Orwell said “the further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it.” But as he also said “freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

I don’t see us becoming an Orwellian post-truth society. (I do a little, usually around 3 a.m.) But the place of truth in a society—its role in informing reasoned choice and thus shaping and sustaining a sane and livable world—can be eroded if we fail to uphold and safeguard its value.

So, the facts need us.

snopes-fake-news-sites

Credit: Freepress.net

And certain facts need us urgently

We should have no illusions. Based on available evidence, we should brace for a full-on assault against sound climate science and sensible clean energy policy. Climate deniers and their fossil fuel allies (and funders) are emboldened by Trump’s win.

The same people who peddled climate disinformation in the past—the chief reason we are decades behind in averting climate crisis—may draw on this playbook again. Defunding climate science, attacking climate scientists, and sowing confusion among the public—and this time, driving the country off of its clean energy path and back toward fossil-fuel dependence and massive corporate profits.

The millions of Americans who have, through reason and evidence, come to terms with the fact that the climate is changing, with real risks for people, and that human actions are largely to blame? Everybody needs to buckle up and hold tight to our powers of reason. The disinformation machine is roaring to life again.

climate-science-vs-fossil-fuel-fiction

Credit: UCS

A resistance is mustering

So, where the hell are the grownups? Starting to show up, I think. Today, actors from many walks of life seem to be awake to the post-truth threat—and many are pushing back. Here are just a few of my favorite recent examples from the science and climate change front.

  • In response to a range of signals about the role of established science in the next administration, more than 2,300 scientists signed an open letter to President-elect Trump, calling on him to ensure that science “continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being.”
  • Subsequently, many hundreds of scientists have signed a letter pointedly calling on Trump to: “Publicly acknowledge that climate change is a real, human-caused, and urgent threat. If not, you will become the only government leader in the world to deny climate science. Your position will be at odds with virtually all climate scientists, most economists, military experts, fossil fuel companies and other business leaders, and the two-thirds of Americans worried about this issue.”
  • While Trump staffs up with climate deniers and proponents of US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, this pushback comes from the business world.
  • In response to the latest false Breitbart piece on global warming, the Weather Channel released this sharp video refutation with the title “Note to Breitbart: Earth Is Not Cooling, Climate Change Is Real and Please Stop Using Our Video to Mislead Americans.”
  • In response to the House Science Committee (which oversees vital agencies like the EPA and NOAA) tweeting Breitbart’s false story, many in the science community took to social media to reject both the original story and the misuse of what should be a trusted source for science—the Science Committee’s platform.
  • And in response to the nomination of Scott Pruitt, a “green and blue” coalition pushback is underway.

And this is just recently, nationally, in the climate arena. In response to the exploding practice of spreading lies and insisting they are true, world leaders, from President Obama, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to Pope Francis, have denounced those responsible. There are many other examples, large and small. Consider adding yours below—I’d love to hear.

occupy-philly-10-7-11-028

Photo: West Philly Photography

Ways to push back

To defend science, UCS will be working in the months ahead to organize our more than 17,000-member (and rapidly growing, join us!) science network to help with science watchdogging efforts. From exposing attacks in the media, communicating to policy makers, and informing the public, there will be a lot of opportunities to stand up for science. Other groups and coalitions are roaring into action too.

So, how does each of us get in on the resistance, whether in defense of scientific facts or just everyday truth? I don’t have THE answers, just some thoughts. Please add yours.

First, we stop the spread: We need to know fake news when we see it. There are suddenly lots of helpful resources to consult, like this one. Consult a list of fake news sites. Call out its disseminators. And be as kind as circumstances permit to the real people circulating this stuff: no one likes to be seen as foolish, and civility in general can use a boost.

Spot lies and fact check: If a claim seems dodgy, poke at it. These are odd times, it may be true, but it’s not too hard to check. Dozens of fact-checking organizations have signed on to an international code of fact-checking conduct. Here are just a few of the groups we can consult:

There is also a new, vetted resource for fact-checking climate change stories, specifically. Very excited about this entry.

Call BS: If we hear elected officials distort the truth, we need to find ways to call them on it. For now, we can call their office and complain; we can call their local paper; we can encourage others to on social media and give them the contact information they need.

When media outlets spread falsehoods (the egregious kind, not the inadvertent errors that can arise in the reporting process), we can call them out in similar ways. And we can help restore the truth in the public’s eye by, for example, writing a fact-based letter to the editor, or providing a fact-based comment on a fact-distorting post. (And if this gets uncivil, as it too often does, we must walk away from said comments and not look back.) I’m not suggesting this will be pleasant. But if we value honesty and truth, we need to start demanding it.

Pick our fights: The ideological fringe from which fake news originated may never be convinced that, e.g., Hillary Clinton is not running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria. The facts, in their world view, are often just part of the cover up. It’s important for us to save our energy and let it go when someone is unreachable.

Support good journalism: Knowing the internet to be a firehose of information, let’s choose our sources of news and commentary with care. When we see brave work, demanding and ferreting out the truth, let’s praise it and share it. And when we know our sources are good, let’s subscribe, pay, and support their work. As one Senator recently lamented, “It’s the biggest crisis facing our democracy, the failing business model of real journalism.” May the fake news infection drive many of us back to the remaining bastions of quality reporting, and to new ones stepping up to fill the void, with cash in hand. As more of us do this, a reasoned, informed political discourse can be restored.

Speak our truth:  And each of us has watch the world closely, draw our best, reasoned conclusions about what’s right and true, and speak our truth to power.

To an honest New Year

Let’s let go the handwringing. In many ways, it was bound to come to this.

Long-standing and growing trends—the debasing of legitimate journalism, the rise of hyper-partisan cable news outlets, the success of a fake-news business model that thrives on the ever-expanding reach of social media—have now helped give us an unapologetically ill-informed and injudicious new opinion-leader in Donald Trump. The scenario is complete.

But now, we Americans who value evidence, trust in science, and want the truth,

who fear the undermining of social and environmental progress and reject the groundless, irrational, and shortsighted reasons given,

and who frankly, just don’t like being made the fool,

we need to stand and be counted for the objective truth and the cold hard facts on which it stands.

Endangered Science: Why Global Warming Emissions Are Covered by the Clean Air Act

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Signs are clear that climate science is going to come under attack in a Trump Administration—and scientists are ready and willing to fight back and speak up for the facts. One major cause for concern: the nomination of Scott Pruitt for EPA Administrator, despite his questioning of the facts about climate science. Mr. Pruitt should know that the agency he has been nominated to lead has in fact clearly articulated the scientific basis for climate change, and the role of carbon emissions from fossil fuels as a major driver.

The EPA’s Endangerment and Cause and Contribute Findings, signed by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson seven years ago, were a prerequisite to the regulation of global warming emissions under the Clean Air Act. (An important and astonishing piece of history: the finding that global warming emissions harmed human health was in fact reached in 2007 under the Bush Administration EPA, under Administrator Stephen Johnson, but the White House refused to open the email and read it! Talk about burying your head in the sand. Only after the Obama administration came to power was the EPA finally able to release a robust finding.)

Establishing the EPA’s authority to regulate global warming emissions under the Clean Air Act

In all the hyperbole about regulatory overreach, people tend to forget the slow, painstaking, science-based, stakeholder-informed, legal process it took to arrive at the Clean Power Plan, vehicle efficiency standards and other standards to limit global warming emissions.

In 1999, a number of private organizations filed a petition with the EPA asking that it move to regulate global warming emissions from vehicles under the Clean Air Act, based on the clear scientific evidence that those emissions were harmful to human health and welfare. The EPA denied the petition and the case was eventually appealed all the way to the Supreme Court—now with an expanded list of states, local governments and private organizations as petitioners, including my own organization the Union of Concerned Scientists.*

In 2007, the Supreme Court reached a landmark judgment in Massachusetts et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency et.al that mandated that, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must set standards to reduce global warming emissions if the agency found them to be harmful to human health and welfare.

In December 2009, the EPA concluded that a vast body of scientific evidence showed that such emissions do indeed harm our health and welfare. (The final Endangerment Finding was signed after the release of a proposal in April 2009, and an extensive public comment process.)

The agency also found that emissions from new vehicles were a contributor (the Cause and Contribute Finding) to global warming pollution and subsequently made similar determinations about other major sources of emissions including power plants.

These findings, together with the Supreme Court ruling, firmly establish the EPA’s obligation and authority to issue Clean Air Act standards for major sources of carbon pollution, including vehicles and power plants.

Revisiting the Endangerment Finding

There has been some talk about a Trump administration EPA revisiting the endangerment finding and overturning it, thus reversing the basis for any Clean Air Act regulation of global warming emissions.

If Mr. Pruitt were confirmed, and were he to revisit the Endangerment Finding in a fact-based manner, he will find that the scientific basis for climate change, its human-caused drivers, and its impacts on human health and welfare have only become stronger in the intervening years since the finding was issued in 2009.

Yes, the science has advanced and, yes, the message has become even more urgent: The steady trend of global average temperature increase is unequivocal (2016 is on track to be yet another record-breaking year). We must make deep cuts in carbon emissions to help limit some of the worst impacts of climate change.

What has also become clearer is that the impacts of climate change are already upon us in the form of droughts, wildfires, heat waves, rising sea levels and coastal flooding, increased heavy precipitation events and more. The risks of these types of events will only increase if our emissions continue unabated.

That’s why a majority of Americans are concerned about climate change, and they specifically support a shift to renewable energy which can help cut carbon emissions. Cutting emissions and fostering a shift to clean energy is what the Clean Power Plan and vehicle efficiency standards are designed to do.

Other policies may also be necessary and important. Congress should also step up and get engaged in addressing climate change. The point is that doing nothing is not an option.

The Senate should vote ‘no’ on Pruitt for the EPA

To be clear: the science of climate change is not an “unsettled debate.” Mr. Trump’s statement in a recent interview that “Nobody really knows” is patently untrue.

In fact, 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is real. Scientists and scientific bodies here in the US and around the world are overwhelmingly in agreement about what is happening (excess carbon emissions in the atmosphere are causing our planet to heat up at an alarming rate) and what the major causes are (primarily, our burning of fossil fuels and cutting down tropical forests).

By nominating Scott Pruitt for the position of EPA Administrator, President-Elect Trump is showing a dangerous dismissiveness of science and science-based policy making. Thankfully, our democracy is founded on a system of checks and balances. The Senate should now reject this completely inappropriate candidate and ask President-Elect Trump to put forward a more suitable choice.

Please add your voice and ask your Senators to vote no on Scott Pruitt.

*For the record, the full list of petitioners in the Massachusetts et al. v EPA et al. case included twelve states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) the District of Columbia, and local governments from American Samoa, New York City, and Baltimore. It also included 13 private organizations (Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental Advocates, Environmental Defense, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, International Center for Technology Assessment, National Environmental Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, and U. S. Public Interest Research Group. On the opposing side was the EPA, 10 states (Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah) and 6 trade associations (Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, National Automobile Dealers Association, Engine Manufacturers Association, Truck Manufacturers Association, CO2 Litigation Group, and Utility Air Regulatory Group.)

 

Cuts to the Fissile Materials Stockpile

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

The Final Countdown

The United States maintains stockpiles of weapons-usable fissile materials—plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU)—that are much larger than needed. This material is a security risk, and is also expensive to store safely. Some of this fissile material has already been declared “excess to military needs” and is awaiting disposition. Even after that excess material is disposed of, however, the United States will still have far more material than it needs for its current or future arsenal. President Obama should declare additional material excess and schedule it for disposition as soon as possible. If done correctly, this would reduce opportunities for nuclear terrorism. It would also be a step toward making nuclear reductions more difficult to reverse.

Plutonium

The United States currently has just over 95 metric tons of plutonium. Of the original 99.5 metric tons of plutonium in the 1994 U.S. inventory, it declared 61.5 metric tons as excess to military needs. About four metric tons of this has already been disposed of,  and the U.S. is examining methods for disposing of the  other 57.5 metric tons of plutonium that was declared excess. Of the remaining 33.5 metric tons that is reserved for weapons use, some is in deployed and hedge weapons, and some is in plutonium pits removed from weapons that have been retired and dismantled.

U.S. nuclear weapons contain less than four kilograms of plutonium in their pits, which means that the current U.S. nuclear arsenal of roughly 4,500 deployed and reserve weapons contains no more than 18 metric tons of plutonium. Thus, President Obama could declare up to an additional 15 metric tons of plutonium excess to military needs while still maintaining the U.S. arsenal and hedge at its current size. Earlier this week the Department of Energy issued a press release saying that the United States “commits to IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] monitoring for the verifiable disposition of six metric tons of surplus plutonium.” But lest there be any confusion, this is not a commitment to declare any additional plutonium excess, it simply means that of the plutonium it has already declared excess, six metric tons will be made subject to monitoring and verification by the IAEA. The president should declare as excess the additional 15 metric tons of plutonium mentioned above.

However, disposing of this plutonium will only reduce the terrorism risk if it is done right. Until recently, the United States was planning to convert the plutonium into “MOX” fuel for nuclear power reactors. (MOX is a mixture of plutonium and uranium oxides.) It has been building a large facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to produce the MOX fuel, but this project has run into cost and schedule problems and the Department of Energy is considering other options. At the top of its list is “dilute and dispose,” which involves mixing the plutonium with inert materials and placing small quantities of the mixture in waste drums, which would then be buried in a deep underground geologic repository—the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is currently closed due to a 2014 accident, but the Department of Energy says it plans to resume operations by the end of 2016.

You know it’s going through your head now anyway

You know it’s going through your head now anyway

Disposing of the plutonium through MOX fuel, on the other hand, would entail converting it into an oxidized form, then mixing it with low-enriched uranium. The mixture would then be made into fuel rods for use in commercial nuclear reactors, and after the fuel is irradiated, the plutonium would become protected by the high levels of radiation in spent fuel. However, unused MOX fuel is not highly radioactive, and separating plutonium from MOX fuel requires only a straightforward chemical process. In addition, the fuel would be used in commercial reactors that do not have the security levels required for weapons-usable material. This means that the manufacture, transport, and storage of MOX fuel creates a greater security risk than would the dilute and dispose option.

Apart from security concerns, cost estimates for construction of the facility to fabricate the MOX fuel have jumped from $7.7 billion to more than $17 billion, and it is now not predicted to be operational until 2048more than 40 years behind schedule.

For all of these reasons, the United States should abandon the MOX approach to disposing of its excess plutonium and focus on the dilute and dispose option. In fact, the Obama administration is already trying to kill the MOX program because of the enormous increase in its costs. However, powerful supporters—including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—have prevented its demise. In the meantime, the most important priority is safe and secure storage of this material until the dilute and dispose program, which has already begun at a low level at the Savannah River Site, can be fully implemented.

Highly Enriched Uranium

In addition to its use in nuclear weapons, HEU is also used as a fuel for the nuclear reactors that power all U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers, though there are efforts to end this reliance on weapons-usable material. A 2014 report to Congress from the Office of Naval Reactors states that “recent work has shown that the potential exists to develop an advanced fuel system that…might enable either a higher energy naval core using HEU fuel, or allow using LEU fuel with less impact on reactor lifetime, size, and ship costs.” It is used in some U.S. research reactors as well, but this number is declining as more switch to low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is highly impractical for use directly in nuclear weapons.

The International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) estimates that the U.S. stockpile of HEU is currently about 600 metric tons, with 253 tons of this in weapons or available for use in weapons. U.S. nuclear weapons contain about 15 kilograms of HEU in their secondaries, and some also contain another 10 kilograms of HEU in their primaries. If each weapon in the arsenal contains 15 to 25 kilograms of HEU, the current U.S. arsenal of 4,500 total weapons contains between 68 and 113 metric tons of HEU. This means that the president could declare an at least an additional 140 metric tons of HEU as excess while still maintaining the current arsenal and hedge size.

Over the last two decades, the United States has declared 374 metric tons of HEU to be excess to needs for nuclear weapons. Part of this—152 metric tons—has been set aside for use as fuel for naval nuclear reactors, and another 20 metric tons was reserved for space and research reactors. The remaining excess HEU is scheduled for disposal; most will be down-blended—mixed with natural or depleted uranium to turn it into LEU, which cannot be directly used in weapons but can be used to produce reactor fuel of the sort currently used. Another 22 metric tons that is in spent fuel will be disposed of in a geological repository.

According to the IPFM, by the end of December 2014 the United States had down-blended or shipped for down-blending 146.6 metric tons of HEU. The Department of Energy’s FY 2016 budget request indicates that all 186 metric tons of excess HEU that are scheduled for down-blending will be completed by the end of 2030. This is sooner than the previous target date of 2050, but still only requires down-blending about 2.5 metric tons of HEU per year to complete disposal of the 40 metric tons of HEU that is left, a much slower rate than in the past, when it was about 10 metric tons per year. The Department of Energy has said that this rate depends on “decisions regarding the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, the pace of warhead dismantlement and receipt of HEU from research reactors,” among other things. So far, speeding up the down-blending rate further does not seem to be a priority, but until all this excess HEU is down-blended, it remains a security risk.

 

Who is Rex Tillerson? Trump’s Egregious Choice for Secretary of State

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When the news broke that President-elect Donald Trump was considering nominating ExxonMobil Chair and CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, I refused to dignify the rumor with a response. The prospect of the leader of the nation’s largest fossil fuel company becoming our top diplomat was too preposterous—not just because ExxonMobil sells a product that is causing global warming—but because the company knew decades ago that its product was dangerously interfering with the climate and chose to mislead the public rather than be part of the solution.

rex-tillersonExxonMobil Chair and CEO Rex Tillerson is reportedly the leading contender to be nominated as secretary of state by President-elect Donald Trump.Making Tillerson our nation’s top diplomat would be pernicious—particularly in terms of US and global commitments to tackle climate change and transition to a low-carbon economy. And amid strong indications that Tillerson will be nominated, resistance is in order.

There are numerous reasons Tillerson would be an inappropriate and deeply troubling choice for the secretary of state post:

  • His close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs, particularly in light of concerns about Russian tampering in the US election process.
  • His deep vested interest in the continued expansion of the fossil fuel industry through his 40-year employment history and his extensive stock holdings with ExxonMobil. Tillerson’s nomination would be yet another indication of President-elect Trump’s cavalier attitude about conflicts of interest.
  • His lack of diplomacy or tact. Year after year at ExxonMobil’s annual meetings, Tillerson has been belligerent with shareholders and their designated proxies who have raised concerns about the company’s failure to take responsibility for climate change.

But in my role as the manager of UCS’s campaign to hold the fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in climate change, perhaps the most outrageous aspect of this nomination is Tillerson’s record of downplaying and disparaging climate science and attacking those who advocate climate action. As UCS President Ken Kimmell said in a statement on the nomination, it’s like nominating a tobacco CEO as surgeon general.

Downplaying and disparaging climate science

As I noted in a recent blog, ExxonMobil currently scores at the bottom of the scale—“egregious”—on nearly every metric of involvement with climate disinformation. And Tillerson, who rose through the ranks over 40 years, has been at the helm of ExxonMobil since 2006.

The company makes a clear statement acknowledging climate science and the risks of climate change on its website, and at a recent oil industry conference Tillerson commented that “the risks of climate change are real and require serious action.” Yet Tillerson has repeatedly misrepresented basic climate science in public statements by casting doubt on the accuracy and competency of climate models. At ExxonMobil’s annual meeting in 2015, Tillerson argued that the world should wait to improve its understanding of climate science before taking action, stating, “so that’s why we have always posed this question of what if everything we do, it turns out our models were really lousy and we achieved all our objectives, but it turned out the planet behaved differently because the models just weren’t good enough to predict?” At the annual meeting in 2016, Tillerson repeated his assertion that climate models are not accurate.

Tillerson should know that the largest source of uncertainty in climate models is that associated with human activities, and much of the range in climate models’ projections has to do with assumptions about society’s energy use—including the projections about the future share of our energy needs to be filled by fossil fuels. And under Tillerson’s leadership, ExxonMobil has sought to keep fossil fuels’ future share high.

At the same annual meeting, Tillerson claimed that “there is no space between us and the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], we see the science the same way.” Yet Tillerson dismisses IPCC findings that climate risks increase dramatically with rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions and that substantial near-term emissions reductions can help us avoid many harmful consequences. Tillerson argues that uncertainties over specific model projections justify inaction.

Last month, ExxonMobil issued a statement acknowledging the ambitious goals of the international climate agreement reached in Paris in 2015. Yet the company stopped short of saying it agreed with or would work toward these goals, and ExxonMobil maintains a business model that plans for emissions—and resulting temperature increases—that are far in excess of these international climate goals.

Threatening the survival and sovereignty of nations

Among investor- and state-owned fossil fuel companies, ExxonMobil trails only Chevron in terms of the historic heat-trapping emissions that can be traced to its products. ExxonMobil’s fossil fuel-dependent business model, its disinformation on climate science, and its efforts to block and delay climate policy threaten the very survival of some nations. For a small island nation like Kiribati, its culture and sovereignty are at stake due to sea level rise associated with climate change. Long-term impacts of climate change are leaving Ethiopia and other African countries vulnerable to devastating drought and food insecurity.

What message would it send to these countries to put Tillerson in charge of U.S. foreign policy?

Defying accountability

Tillerson has led ExxonMobil during a period when the attorneys general of at least two states have launched investigations into whether the company violated any laws by deceiving shareholders and the public about the climate risks and impacts of its products. The company has turned logic on its head and employed scorched-earth legal tactics in attempting to thwart these investigations. While claiming First Amendment protection for its role in spreading climate disinformation, ExxonMobil served UCS with a subpoena that violates our First Amendment rights to associate freely and petition our government. And in a particularly Orwellian move, following a virtually unprecedented ruling by a judge in a Texas federal court, the company is attempting to investigate Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey over her investigation of ExxonMobil.

How far our federal government has fallen in protecting consumers and shareholder against fraudulent business practices since the 2006 ruling by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler that tobacco companies had “engaged in and executed—and continue to engage in and execute—a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes, in violation of RICO [the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act].”

President-elect Trump’s nominations to date signal that fraud and corruption will go unpunished, conflicts of interest will be ignored, and wealth and privilege will be further concentrated under his administration. (For more evidence of the President-elect’s proposed governance by the oil industry, read my colleague Angela Anderson’s blog “The First Three Reasons Senators Should Oppose Scott Pruitt for EPA.”)

Rex Tillerson has made a handsome living expanding and defending ExxonMobil’s production of fossil fuels even after the company’s own scientists sounded the alarm about climate change. The U.S. and other countries are already paying a high price for ExxonMobil’s decades of deception and delay tactics—in increased storm surge and tides from rising seas, increased heat-related health hazards, drought, wildfires, and more. Tillerson has repeatedly put corporate profit before the health and safety of Americans and people across the globe. If President-elect Trump puts him forward as secretary of state, the Senate should not confirm his nomination. Photo: By William Munoz

A Huge Success in Illinois: Future Energy Jobs Bill Signed Into Law

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Last week the Illinois legislature passed the Future Energy Jobs Bill (SB 2814). This is no small feat. The bill is one of the most comprehensive state energy bills ever crafted and is the most important climate bill in Illinois history.

The Illinois General Assembly passed the bill with bipartisan support, and it was signed into law by Governor Rauner yesterday.

As I mentioned in my previous blog on the bill, the Union of Concerned Scientists is a member of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, which has been working on this energy bill for nearly two years.  We are thrilled to see this bill pass, and be signed into law.  Here’s what you need to know about the Future Energy Jobs Bill:

Clean energy successes

A Fix to the Renewable Portfolio Standard

 Wikimedia)

Community solar projects are becoming popular as a way to provide access to solar for everyone while being able to take advantage of the economies of scale for larger projects. (Source: Wikimedia)

The Future Energy Jobs Bill includes a meaningful fix to the state’s existing Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law by fixing flaws in the policy, thus ensuring stable and predictable funding for renewable development.

More than $200 million per year of the money we spend on electricity will now be spent on building new solar and wind facilities in Illinois. The bill requires a minimum of 3,000 megawatts (MW) of new solar power and 1,300 megawatts (MW) of new wind power to be built in the state by 2025.

Solar development

The bill also creates the state’s first community solar program, which allows those not able to build solar on their roof the opportunity to subscribe to a shared project in their community. The bill also creates the Illinois Solar for All program, a comprehensive low-income solar deployment and job training program that will open up access to the solar economy for millions of low-income families.

Net metering is preserved in the final bill. Net metering allows customers with solar to feed electricity they do not use back to the grid to offset the cost of their electric bills.  Net metering will continue in Illinois until deployment hits five percent of the load of the grid.  After that, rooftop solar owners will get an up-front value of solar rebate to account for their geographic, time, and performance-based values to the grid.

 Shutterstock.com/Kzenon)

Energy efficiency investments provide benefits to all ratepayers. (credit: Shutterstock.com/Kzenon)

Increased energy efficiency

The bill requires ComEd to achieve a 21.5% reduction and Ameren to achieve a 16% reduction in energy use by 2030, with a large focus on deep, long-lasting savings. The bill also requires $25 million per year to be spent on programs to help low-income homes become more efficient. Energy efficiency is one of the most cost-effective ways to combat climate change, create jobs, and lower electric bills for consumers.

It’s much more than a nuclear subsidy

As you can see, the bill includes a lot of great things for clean energy. A lot of the media, however, has focused on the nuclear subsidy portion of the bill. The bill creates a Zero Emission Standard (ZES) to subsidize two of Exelon’s nuclear plants (Clinton and Quad Cities) in Illinois. There is a cap on the total number of credits to provide, and a cap on the total program cost of $235 million per year.

This subsidy is based on the economic value of the avoided carbon emissions from these facilities using the federal social cost of carbon, which represents the avoided economic damages from climate change. This program will last for 10 years, and in return Exelon will keep the two plants open. The ZES ensures that any financial assistance to existing nuclear power plants will not dilute or otherwise come at the expense of the incentives for energy efficiency, grid modernization, or renewable resources.

Bad pieces blocked

The original version of the Future Energy Jobs Bill included a Fixed Resource Adequacy Plan (FRAP) that would have put the state in charge of procuring capacity in southern Illinois. The state would have to purchase power capacity downstate from power generators for four-year periods. This process would essentially prolong the life of old, uneconomic coal plants by providing hundreds of millions of dollars in market subsidies. Thankfully, this piece of the bill was taken out.

The original bill also included a change to the structure of residential electricity rates. The attempt to change the utility rate design is a trend occurring across the nation. The proposed change to the rate design would have greatly reduced the savings from investing in energy efficiency and distributed energy sources, such as rooftop solar. Thankfully, due to a lot of negative feedback on this provision from stakeholders and clean energy advocates, ComEd eliminated the demand-based rate provision.

A look ahead

By fixing Illinois’s broken renewable portfolio standard and by building on our record of success in energy efficiency, Illinois is now poised to become a leader in clean energy and to capture the jobs and investments that come with it.

This bipartisan victory for clean energy in the Midwest shines light on the theory that states can continue to lead on policies related to climate change and economic development, despite the uncertainty at the federal level.

The First Three Reasons Senators Should Oppose Scott Pruitt for EPA

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President-elect Trump has promised to return the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to its original mission to deliver clean air and ‘crystal clear’ water.  The EPA was established by President Nixon in 1970 because “Our national government today is not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food.” Those pollutants primarily come from the burning of fossil fuels in cars, trucks, and industrial sources like power plants and refineries.  We need an EPA Administrator that will take us forward, to tackle the pollution challenges of today, and not take us back by weakening existing standards.

Photos from the early 1970s showing the effects of industrial pollution in North Birmingham, AL (left) and Cleveland, OH (right).

Photos from the early 1970s showing the effects of industrial pollution in North Birmingham, AL (left) and Cleveland, OH (right).

We need an EPA Administrator who protects our environmental laws, is guided by science when crafting and implementing policy, puts public health ahead of dirty energy special interests, and has the qualifications necessary to safeguard the American public from climate change. The EPA must also continue to be a lead agency on addressing environmental justice issues, a critical concern for low income communities and communities of color that bear a disproportionate health burden of pollution from fossil fuels.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt meets none of those criteria and hails from the very industry whose pollution the EPA was created to oversee.

Numerous reasons for Senators to oppose Pruitt’s nomination will come to light over the next days and weeks.  And Senators would be wise to withhold their support until more is known. But here are three good reasons to consider:

  1. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt was no protector of public health and safety. He devoted his office to be the fossil fuel industry’s law firm.  He set up a legal defense fund that fossil fuel companies could donate to, he used the prestige and resources of his office to file multiple suits on their behalf to interfere with EPA doing its job, and even signed letters to public offices that were ghost written by them. He was their lawyer, not ours, and he cannot be trusted as the head of EPA.
  2. After a conference hosted by Pruitt’s office, the Republican AGs set a ‘strike force’ to block environmental protections. According to a Pulitzer Prize-winning expose by the New York Times, this handful of state officials worked to “detail major federal environmental action, like efforts to curb fish kills, reduce ozone pollution, slow climate change and tighten regulation of coal ash. Then they identified which attorney general’s office was best positioned to try to monitor it and, if necessary, attempt to block it.”
  1. Pruitt was one of the leading state AGs suing the EPA to block the Clean Power Plan, a policy that sets the first-ever limits on dangerous carbon pollution from power plants, a major driver of climate change, and encourages the development of clean, renewable energy. Pruitt is on record disputing the agency’s core legal authority, the Clean Air Act, and should be immediately disqualified from leading an agency he has fought tirelessly against. Pruitt even advised states to refuse to comply with the rules.
  2. Pruitt’s opposition to the Clean Power Plan reflects his cozy relationship with the oil and gas industry as well as his dismissal, denial, and attempts to deceive the public around the science of climate change.  According to an op-ed written by Scott Pruitt in Tulsa World, “Healthy debate is the lifeblood of American democracy, and global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time. That debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
  1. Pruitt’s close association with Howard Hamm threatens scientific integrity at the Agency. Oil tycoon Harold Hamm told a University of Oklahoma dean last year that he wanted certain scientists there dismissed who were studying links between oil and gas activity and the state’s nearly 400-fold increase in earthquakes, according to the dean’s e-mail recounting the conversation. The Clean Air Act requires scientists to regularly review the nation’s standards for specific pollutants, like ozone, and the EPA is required to strengthen those standards in line with those scientists’ recommendations. It’s hard to imagine that Hamm, who was Pruitt’s campaign chair and longtime associate, won’t be whispering in Pruitt’s ear to disregard or even penalize the scientists on those panels.

The bottom line is that Mr. Pruitt is a completely inappropriate choice to head up the EPA: it’s like going into the Super Bowl and discovering that your quarterback actually plays for the opposing team. As UCS President Ken Kimmell said in a statement yesterday, “Pruitt’s statements and actions are in direct conflict with the job to which he has been nominated.”

In the days to come, UCS scientists and experts will be blogging from a variety of perspectives on why the job of the EPA Administrator matters so critically for the health and well-being of all Americans and for safeguarding  the natural ecosystems that sustain our planet.  The stakes are high for this appointment and we want to explain why we think the Senate should vote “no” on this appointment.

Please make your voice heard: tell your Senator to vote “no” on Scott Pruitt for EPA Administrator. Photos by Leroy Woodson and Frank Aleksandrowicz, NARA

Cuts to the Hedge

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It’s Now or Never

One of the things President Obama could still do before leaving office is to cut the “hedge” force. These are nuclear weapons that the United States keeps in reserve for two reasons: technical and geopolitical. The argument for the technical hedge is that, if deployed weapons of one type experienced a problem, the U.S. could instead deploy weapons of another type from the hedge force. The geopolitical argument is that the international security situation could change, leading the United States to want to increase the number of deployed weapons.

In reality, both of these scenarios are extremely unlikely. The current nuclear stockpile is thoroughly understood and can be well maintained for decades to come by taking a sensible approach and minimizing warhead changes. It is also hard to imagine such a sudden change in the geopolitical situation that the United States would want to quickly deploy more nuclear forces. UCS and many others have long argued that the United States could reduce its arsenal to 1,000 warheads total, including hedge forces, and have more than enough warheads to ensure our security under any circumstance.

But setting that all that aside, let’s look at the current numbers in the hedge and how they could be reduced. The US keeps about 2,550 weapons (2,250 strategic and 320 tactical) in the hedge.

To comply with the New START treaty, the United States and Russia will each reduce their deployed accountable strategic weapons to 1,550 by 2018. For the United States, the actual number will likely be roughly 1,750. (This number is larger because of the way the treaty defines what counts as a weapon—bombers count as only one weapon even though they may carry multiple bombs or air-launched cruise missiles.) A study by my colleague Lisbeth Gronlund shows that the current U.S. hedge of 2,250 strategic warheads is almost twice the required technical hedge for an arsenal of that size with existing warhead types. Cutting the hedge would eliminate the costs of maintaining and storing these weapons, as well as reduce the overall U.S. arsenal and be a step toward eliminating nuclear weapons, as the United States is obligated to do under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. President Obama could use his authority to order an immediate reduction in the size of the hedge, thereby transferring these weapons to the dismantlement queue.

Immediately Cut the Existing Hedge Maybe Obama could use a little Elvis.

Maybe Obama could use a little Elvis.

A 2013 administration report to Congress states that the Departments of Defense and Energy have re-examined their approach to determining the size of the hedge needed and concluded that a new, more efficient, strategy would allow the United States to “maintain a robust hedge against technical or geopolitical risk with fewer nuclear weapons.” It goes on to say:

A non-deployed hedge that is sized and ready to address these technical risks will also provide the United States the capability to upload additional weapons in response to geopolitical developments that alter our assessment of U.S. deployed force requirements.

In other words, a hedge that is large enough for one scenario (the failure of all weapons of one type) is also large enough to cover another scenario (a U.S. desire to quickly deploy more weapons for political reasons). That is actually significant progress, though it hasn’t led to any changes in the hedge yet.

Looking further ahead, the FY 2016 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, which details plans for maintaining and upgrading U.S. nuclear warheads, states that the United States could eventually reduce the hedge by up to 50 percent. However, it specifies that this is only possible once the United States fully implements its ambitious “3+2” plan to replace its four types of ballistic missile warheads (two on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and two on submarine-launched ballistic missiles) with two sets of three newly-designed “interoperable” warheads—one set for use on ICBMs and the other on SLBMs. While the warheads themselves would not be interoperable (the ones for ICBMs would differ from those for SLBMs), the core of the weapon—the so-called nuclear explosive package—would be. Fully implementing the 3+2 plan will take decades, however, so this is irrelevant to current consideration of the hedge.

The same DOD document that talks about re-examining hedge requirements also discusses using “intra-leg hedging” to replace a failed weapon—in other words, replacing a failed SLBM warhead with another SLBM warhead, or a failed ICBM warhead with another ICBM warhead. Currently, it is not possible to do this with SLBM warhead types because while the arsenal includes two warheads for subs—the W76 and the W88—nearly all of the W88s are deployed, so none would be available as a backup if there were a problem with the W76. Instead, the United States would have to compensate for a problem with the W76 by deploying additional land- and air-based weapons, a strategy known as “inter-leg hedging.” While this would result in the same overall number of deployed weapons, fewer would be submarine-based. This has been the case with the U.S. arsenal for decades, and has not caused any problems. However, some DOD planners now see a chance to move toward their ideal “intra-leg” hedge force, and want to take it via the 3+2 program.

But there are a number of problems with building new warhead types to replace those in the existing arsenal. First, there are technical concerns. Using a nuclear explosive package that has not previously undergone nuclear explosive testing may reduce confidence in the reliability of the new warhead. This could lead some political and military leaders to push for renewed “proof testing” to demonstrate that the newly modified warheads will work as intended.

The unclassified executive summary of a study of the 3+2 plan by JASON, an independent group of scientists that advises the government, expresses skepticism about its benefits based partly on technical issues, noting that some of the program’s goals may compete with each other, and that some of the changes under consideration could “alter reliability or targeting accuracy.”

Second, on the political side, building new warheads could undermine U.S. nonproliferation goals by calling into question the U.S. commitment to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Finally, the 3+2 approach is almost certain to be more expensive than maintaining the existing stockpile through straightforward life extension programs. For example, the cost of the life extension program for the W76 warhead—the most common warhead in the U.S. stockpile—is around $4 billion. The cost estimate for the first warhead in the 3+2 plan is roughly twice that, and for far fewer warheads.

Moreover, as mentioned above, completing the 3+2 plan would take at least three decades. In short, the 3+2 plan is not the way to cut the hedge.

The good news is that the UCS study mentioned above finds that, for a New START-sized arsenal with existing warhead types, the hedge only needs to include 1,250 weapons to provide replacements in case of the technical failure of an entire class of weapon. And, as noted above, the DOD already concluded that there is no need for additional warheads beyond the technical hedge to meet its requirements.

In other words, rather than waiting decades to complete the 3+2 plan, the president could announce that the United States will immediately reduce the strategic hedge by 1,000 weapons—leaving 1,250.

In addition to strategic weapons, the hedge also contains 320 tactical weapons, all of which could be eliminated. These weapons are all B61 bombs, and would allow the US to add to the 180 tactical B61 bombs it currently deploys in Europe, or to deploy them elsewhere for “extended deterrence” purposes. The existing B61 bombs come in four versions, but are all in the process of being replaced with a single new variant—the B61-12—which will also serve as the U.S. strategic bomb. (The other existing U.S. strategic bomb, the B83, is planned for retirement.) Since there will no longer be a distinction between tactical and strategic bombs, there will no longer be a need for a separate tactical hedge.

Re-examine the Need for a Technical Hedge

More fundamentally, while immediately moving to cut the existing hedge, the United States should also reconsider the logic behind its decision to retain a technical hedge in the first place. Both Britain and France have significantly smaller and less diversified arsenals than the United States. Neither maintains a hedge in case of technical failures of their nuclear weapons. They also do not maintain multiple types of warheads for each delivery system. (France deploys one warhead type on submarines and another on aircraft. The UK deploys only one warhead type, on submarines.)

The failure of an entire class of weapons is highly unlikely, at least for existing weapon types, which have undergone nuclear explosive testing. The president should order a study to quantify the odds of such a failure and investigate whether it is necessary to maintain a technical hedge at all. Even if such a study finds that a technical hedge is advisable, it should not be necessary to employ three separate hedging strategies: keeping a technical hedge, deploying two types of warheads per delivery system, and deploying two types of ballistic missile delivery systems.

Trump’s Asia Advisors Want to Scrap the “Three Communiques” with China

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

My last post in this series ended with a video of President George W. Bush reiterating the U.S. commitment to a set of bilateral agreements known as “the three communiques.” Yesterday, two Asia experts advising the Trump transition, Randy Schriver and Dan Blumenthal, suggested the president-elect should scrap them. Both men are being considered for senior positions in the Trump administration. It now seems clear that Mr. Trump’s controversial outreach to Republic of China (ROC) President Tsai Ing-wen was not a simple “courtesy call,” but the first step in a coordinated effort by the Asia advisors on the Trump transition team to bring the Nixon-Kissinger era in US-China relations to a close. 

What are the “Three Communiques”?

The “three communiques” are a set of formal statements jointly issued by the the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The first communique, also known as the Shanghai Communique, was issued in February of 1972 during US President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. The second communique, also known as the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, was issued on December 15, 1978 and became effective on January 1, 1979. The third communique, also known as the Joint Communique on Arms Sales to Taiwan, was issued on August 17, 1982.

President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger meet with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai on the Shanghai Communiqué.

President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger meet with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai on the Shanghai Communique.

All three communiques addressed US and PRC views on the sovereign status of Taiwan and their respective relations with the ROC government. In the Shanghai Communique China stated that the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government of China, that Taiwan is part of China and that unification was an internal affair. The US acknowledged “that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China” and reaffirmed the US interest in “a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

In the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations the United States formally recognized that the government of the PRC is the sole legitimate government of China and that its continuing relations with Taiwan would be “unofficial” and conducted “within this context.” In The Joint Communique on Arms Sales to Taiwan, negotiated by President Ronald Reagan and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, the United States declared it would not pursue a policy of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.”

Schriver and Blumenthal questioned whether these three documents should still continue to govern US-China relations:

“There is, of course, a deeper and more complicated set of questions regarding the utility of communiqués drafted during the Cold War when an authoritarian Taiwan still claimed to rule “all of China.” A democratic Taiwan has long abandoned the claim that it represents “all Chinese across the Strait.” It is hard to think of another set of relationships still governed by joint communiqués from the Cold War era.”

The two prospective members of the Trump administration noted that the president-elect did not raise these questions during his call with ROC President Tsai. But should Mr. Schriver and Mr. Blumenthal be appointed to senior Asia-related positions in the US government, this “deeper and more complicated set of questions” is likely to be discussed.

Peter Navarro is another Asia expert advising the Trump transition who is being discussed as a nominee for a senior Asia-related position in the new administration. Like Schriver and Blumenthal, he also views the communiques pioneered by Nixon and Kissinger—and reinforced by every US president since—as a relic of the Cold War.  Moreover, he argues China is the now the most serious security challenge facing the United States, which must redefine its relationship with Taiwan in order to prevent the Chinese navy from gaining more open access to the Pacific Ocean.

Role for the Senate

The outlines of President-elect Trump’s China policy are taking shape under the direction of a new team of Asia experts who believe the United States needs a radical break with the past. The call to ROC President Tsai Ing-wen is just the first step in a series of significant changes these experts intend to make as senior officials in a new administration. Given the importance of the US-China relationship, and the potential consequences of a unilateral abrogation of official diplomatic agreements that have defined US-China relations for decades, Congress needs to exercise due diligence.

One of the most important powers Congress has over the conduct of US foreign and military policy is the power to examine, accept or reject executive appointments to key posts. Sub-cabinet nominations often move through the Senate on a voice vote. Congress needs to think seriously about the implications of the changes being proposed across a range of US interests, and must give President Trump’s nominees for Asia-related posts more careful scrutiny.

3 Ways Trump’s Department of Energy Appointee Can Create Jobs

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

More than 2.5 million Americans are now employed in clean energy or energy efficiency jobs, and the vast majority of new energy jobs being created are coming from the clean energy sector. If the new administration wants to create jobs and grow the economy, it needs to take a closer look at some of the great work the current Department of Energy (DOE) is doing in the clean energy space.

DOE programs are making a real contribution putting people to work. The next secretary of energy mustn’t ignore this, and should build on the outstanding work Secretary Moniz and his agency have done creating jobs through multi-stage research and development (R&D) programs, project financing, and workforce development.

Here are three ways the next secretary can keep the momentum going.

1. Support DOE loan programs

DOE Loan Programs have a 90% success rate, and have leveraged over $50 billion in investments in clean technologies that create jobs and grow economies.

The Advanced Technologies Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) loan program alone has directly created 35,000 jobs across eight states. And Title XVII loan projects (innovative clean energy technologies) produce enough clean energy to power over a million homes annually. These programs are also profitable—roughly $850 million in the black as of September.

doe-lpo-pv-launchingnewmarkets

2. Invest in DOE R&D programs

The DOE SunShot Initiative is a hugely successful R&D program that has made solar much more affordable, and is 70% of the way towards achieving its goal of making solar fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources by 2020.

Jobs in the solar industry are growing at a rate 12 times faster than the overall economy.

This program has contributed to a 22% increase in employment year over year for now more than 200,000 solar industry jobs. Jobs in the solar industry are growing at a rate 12 times faster than the overall economy. Given this kind of success, why not launch a SunShot-type program to help bring down the costs of energy storage?

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) makes early-stage investments in potentially transformative clean energy technologies, filling a large gap in private sector investment. Between 2009 and 2015 ARPA-E projects attracted over $850 million in private sector investment, creating new companies and new jobs, while growing new markets.

3. Build on workforce development programs

The Jobs Strategy Council is an initiative created to leverage DOE’s technical and economic expertise and resources to address workforce development needs and increase access to higher paying jobs. DOE has made the national labs more available to small businesses and entrepreneurs in order to help facilitate more commercial development of innovative clean energy technologies.

Programs like the Minorities in Energy Initiative address growing private sector employment gaps by increasing the participation of under-represented groups in energy and STEM careers. DOE has also launched the Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, which seeks to grow jobs by increasing US manufacturing competitiveness through analysis and modeling, stakeholder engagement, R&D, and technical assistance.

The opportunity

If the next secretary of energy is interested in bolstering the role the energy sector can play in growing our economy and creating jobs, he or she should be doubling down on R&D to innovate and grow new markets, while also improving the cost and performance of clean energy technologies.

He or she needs to increase credit support for clean energy project financing that puts steel in the ground, puts people to work, and cleanly powers American homes and businesses. And he or she needs to address shortfalls in technical education, job access, and industrial competitiveness that are deepening inequities in employment in the energy sector.

Building on the programs and initiatives mentioned above is just good common sense, no matter what the political environment. To keep the momentum going, President-elect Trump will have to pick a qualified candidate with a strong commitment to innovation, jobs, and economic development and a clear vision of how to strengthen our energy system for a solid, secure future.

Here’s to hoping the next secretary of energy is wise enough to support and build on what’s already working.

President Obama Can Still Reduce Stored Nuclear Weapons & Fissile Materials

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over

During the summer and fall, reports appeared that President Obama was considering actions he could take to make a major impact on U.S. nuclear weapons policy before leaving office in January. While the situation has clearly changed since Trump became the president-elect, this still does not mean that Obama’s hands are completely tied. It does mean that major changes, such as declaring a no-first-use policy or taking nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert, are unrealistic, as they would only serve to draw the ire of the incoming administration and likely be quickly reversed. However, most of these options were reportedly already off the table. There are other actions, less dramatic but still significant, that President Obama could take right now to improve the safety and security of all Americans.

Near the beginning of his term, the president gave a speech in Prague in which he pledged that “the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.” But despite initial success—the conclusion in 2010 of the New START arms agreement with Russia, in which each side agreed to limit its number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018—the Obama administration has made no further progress in this realm. In fact, of any Commander-in-Chief since the end of the Cold War, President Obama has so far presided over the smallest reduction in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

In a different world, if Clinton had won the presidency, Obama might still be considering moves to change this, by announcing further cuts to U.S. deployed nuclear forces. After all, the Department of Defense has already said that the United States could safely reduce its deployed strategic nuclear forces by an additional third from New START levels even if Russia does not make similar reductions. An arsenal of this size would be more than enough to ensure a strong, stable nuclear deterrent. It would also reduce costs, a major consideration when it will take an estimated $1 trillion in spending to deploy, maintain and replace the entire nuclear triad (strategic bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles) over the next 30 years. This is something Trump might want to keep in mind himself, since the Pentagon has already warned that it does not know where the money will come from to fund all the nuclear spending requirements that are on the books.

Lenny Kravitz, It Ain't Over 'til It's Over

This man knows.

Given the reality of the current situation, such a high-visibility and controversial cut has been ruled out. But President Obama could still make a difference by making some less controversial “housekeeping” type cuts in stocks that are not often thought about and would not adversely affect the U.S. deterrent: “hedge” weapons that are kept in reserve, and stockpiles of weapons-usable fissile materials (plutonium and highly-enriched uranium).

In addition to the roughly 1,950 nuclear weapons (1,750 strategic and 180 tactical) that the United States deploys, it also maintains a “hedge” force of about 2,550 weapons (2,250 strategic and 320 tactical). These are kept in reserve for two reasons: technical and geopolitical. The argument for the technical hedge is that, if deployed weapons of one type experienced a problem, the United States could instead deploy weapons of another type from the hedge force. The geopolitical argument is that the international security situation could change, leading the U.S. to want to increase the number of deployed weapons.

As I will discuss in detail in my next post, to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy, Obama could reduce the number of strategic weapons in the hedge, by almost half, to 1,250, and eliminate the existing hedge of 320 tactical weapons.

The United States also maintains stockpiles of weapons-usable fissile materials—plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU)—that are much larger than needed. Some of this fissile material has already been declared “excess to military needs” and is awaiting disposition. Even after that excess material is disposed of, however, the United States will still have far more material than it needs for its current or future arsenal. Obama could declare an additional 15 metric tons of plutonium and 140 metric tons of highly-enriched uranium as excess to military needs, which would be enough for more than 4,000 nuclear weapons. I will go into the details of these numbers in an upcoming post.

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