UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

US Withdrawal from UNESCO Will Undermine Collaboration on Science and Culture

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

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

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

UNESCO recognition benefits US communities

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

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

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

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

Relationship status: It’s complicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wars begin in the minds of men”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting World Heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Web resources gone missing

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

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

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

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

The importance of well-informed public comment

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

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

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

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

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

How you can make an impact

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

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

Resources

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

 

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

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

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

Pruitt Puts Coal Before Children

Photo: Rushlan Dashinsky/iStockphoto

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

That means the war on children has begun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myers and Jacobs:  conflicted leaders?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOAA’s mission is to protect people and property

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lack of respect for science

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

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

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

“Did you ever think about going into meteorology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before the storm

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

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

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

Recovery

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

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

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

The long road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A history of politicization of the science on birth control

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

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

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

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

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

Dismissing the science, harming public health

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

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

Setting the Record Straight on EVs and Biofuels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving forward together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all about economics

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

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

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

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

Wait, how much?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the people working at those coal plants?

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

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

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

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

Where’s the political leadership?

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

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

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

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

It starts with truth telling

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

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

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

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

Photo: Sanjay Suchak (used with permission)

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

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

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

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

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

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

LJ: 1966.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JCK: What were things like when you came back?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Sanjay Suchak (used with permission)

New Economic Opportunities in the Heart of Coal Country

Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

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

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

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

Our story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National attention

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

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

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

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

What you can do

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

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

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

Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

How A Coal Plant in Michigan Became an Insurance HQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: JC Kibbey/UCS

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

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

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

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

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

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

A just transition of the Crawford site

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

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

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

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

Challenges to redevelopment

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

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

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

Diesel threats/Unilever

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

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

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

Future energy jobs act

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

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

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

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

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

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

No al Carbon! Queremos Justicia Ambiental!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Cynical Ploy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: justice.gov

Would Jim Bridenstine Be a Down to Earth NASA Administrator?

Credits: NASA-JPL/Caltech/GSFC/University of Montana SMAP website

Let’s get right to it. Understanding the dynamics of our Earth, including disasters like hurricanes and droughts, has never seemed more important. As if on cue, we have a confirmation hearing for the NASA Administrator nominee coming down the pike. Is President Trump’s nominee, Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), the right fit?

There are a number of things that members of Congress should be looking for as they go into the confirmation hearing. If members of Congress want a NASA that will be able to advance understanding of the formation and impacts of disasters like Hurricane Irma, Harvey, and Maria or droughts in the Upper Midwest, they need a NASA Administrator who will prioritize Earth science research, including that of climate change and land use/land cover change. Accomplishing this in an administration that has politicized – and at times obfuscated – climate science will not be easy.

The job will require a NASA Administrator who can tell science from politics, and whose main objective is to advance the former.

Critical Attribute #1 – A NASA administrator who will not drop NASA’s Earth science research

Bridenstine would come into the NASA Administrator position, most often held by a scientist or a space professional, with no formal science or engineering training.

His main qualifications include his service as a pilot in the U.S. Navy, his service on the House Science, Space, and Technology and Armed Services Committees, and his leadership of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium.

In 2016, Bridenstine introduced a piece of legislation that should have anyone who wants NASA to better understand natural disasters worried. In H.R. 4945, Bridenstine recommends significantly altering NASA’s mission by stripping out all Earth science related work from Congress’ declared policy and purpose for NASA:

Bridenstine’s recommended changes to Congress’s policy and purpose statement for NASA, as specified in his 2016 proposed legislation, “The American Space Renaissance Act”.

As Administrator, would Bridenstine seek to extract Earth science research from NASA’s work, or would he commit at the confirmation hearing to supporting this critical arm of the institution?

Critical Attribute #2 – A NASA administrator who understands and will promote climate science

Bridenstine made a number of public remarks that both question the well-accepted human cause of climate change and are incorrect. Members of Congress need to hold him accountable to these woefully inaccurate statements, such as:

“I would say that climate is changing. It is always changing. There were periods of time long before the internal combustion engine when the Earth was much warmer than it is today. Going back to the 1600s, we have had mini Ice Ages from then to now.”

Reality: We are living in between two ice ages – one that ended roughly 11,500 years ago, and one that is yet to come. Ice ages happen because of changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. If people weren’t emitting so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the Earth would be slowly beginning to cool right now.

But that’s not the case.

Instead, the Earth’s average surface temperature is the warmest it has been in the past 1,400 years in the Northern Hemisphere (where it is possible to make this kind of measurement). Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are the highest in at least 800,000 years.  Sure, there was a period of cooling in some portions of the world between ~1400 and 1900 (not an actual ice age, but a period that is affectionately known as the Little Ice Age). However, by using both basic physics (more heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere = more heat trapped) and sophisticated computer models, scientists know that the warming they have seen since the mid twentieth century is the result of human-caused global warming emissions.

Members of Congress also need to inquire about this false statement:

“Here’s what I would tell you. That if you look at the Chinese and the Russian and the Indian production of carbon emissions, it is overwhelmingly massive compared to the carbon footprint of the United States of America.”

Reality: Currently, the United States is the second largest producer of global warming emissions in the world, behind China and ahead of Russia and India, and has produced more global warming emissions than any other country since preindustrial times.

And this one:

“Again, I am not opposed to studying it [climate change.] What you’ll find, though, is that the space-based assets that are studying climate change are not in agreement with the terrestrial assets that are studying climate change. In fact, the space-based assets are not corroborating some of the data.”

Reality: Scientists have examined trends in the Earth’s average surface temperature using satellite observations of the troposphere (the lower atmosphere), weather balloon and ocean buoy measurements, information from weather stations, and more – and they all show that the Earth’s surface temperature has increased significantly since the 19th century. Furthermore, the latter part of Bridenstine’s statement is a claim made by skeptics of climate science that has been debunked many times.

Can Bridenstine explain these statements and demonstrate an accurate understanding of climate science?

Measurements of Earth’s changing climate. Each colored line represents an independent measurement of an aspect of the Earth’s climate. IPCC AR5

Critical Attribute #3 – A NASA administrator who will be able to differentiate science from politics

Bridestine’s public remarks suggest that his current understanding of Earth science is largely informed by politically-charged skeptics of climate change research.

Given that Bridenstine would enter into the Administrator position with no formal science education, it is particularly important that members of Congress test his ability to differentiate science from politics.

Members of Congress should not underestimate the quandary they will find themselves in if NASA does not continue these critical Earth science research activities. The products of these endeavors form the basis of our nation’s weather forecasts, lead to new technologies that drive our economy forward, and help protect American lives, infrastructure, and investments. Doing away with or demoting these activities is a risk they should not be willing to take.

Anyone who does not support Earth science research at NASA should not be confirmed as Administrator.

 

 

Original document created by Rachel Licker using the text of H.R. 4945 IPCC Working Group I, Fifth Assessment Report, Frequently Asked Questions

Much to Grouse About: Interior Department Calls for Changes That Could Threaten Sage Grouse Protection

The sage grouse's survival is entirely dependent on sagebrush. Photo: Jennifer Strickland, USFWS

That the current administration places very little value on the merit of robust scientific evidence when considering its actions (or inactions) is no longer shocking, but it remains an intolerable practice. In this week’s episode of “How is the Trump Administration Dismantling Science-Based Protections?”, we visit the Interior Department’s decision to formally reconsider a widely heralded Obama-era agreement for protections of the greater sage grouse in the West.

On Thursday, the Interior Department published a formal notice of intent to rework 98 sage grouse management plans across the quirky bird’s 11 state range. This change comes after a mere 60 days deliberation by the Interior Department’s internal Sage-Grouse Review Team (appointed by Secretary Ryan Zinke) and Sage-Grouse Task Force (representatives of Governors of the eleven Western States) – and much to the chagrin of the many stakeholders who worked for several years to craft a cooperative land use agreement in an effort to protect the sage grouse and its habitat.

What’s the deal with the sage grouse?

The sage grouse is the chicken of the “Sagebrush Sea” — an ecosystem which is “suffering death by a thousand cuts”, as former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell put it. Habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and wildfires in the sagebrush have all contributed to the decline of this magnificent bird.

Importantly Secretary Jewell worked to put in place federal-state partnerships in order to protect the sage grouse. In 2010 the FWS proposed listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species because of the threats its survival faced. After much input from stakeholders and the public, the agency in 2015 chose NOT to list the species and instead put efforts into state management plans, assuring us all that states could put programs in place to ensure the bird’s protection.  With Secretary Zinke’s moves, we’re now paving over (perhaps literally) those state protection plans, leaving the sage grouse at least as vulnerable as it was when the FWS proposed listing it under the Endangered Species Act.

The sage grouse has long been caught in the crosshairs of political controversy, especially when it comes to undermining the science behind conservation efforts. For example, in 2004, Julie MacDonald, a political appointee at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), altered scientific content in a report examining the vulnerability of the greater sage grouse, which was subsequently presented to a panel of experts that recommended against listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)(read my colleagues’ thoughts on political interference in sage grouse conservation efforts here and here).

Ignoring the science

The Sage-Grouse Review Team (SGRT) recommendations include potentially removing or modifying the boundaries of critical habitat called sagebrush focal areas (SFAs), as well as setting population targets and captive breeding, and modifying or issuing new policy on fluid mineral leasing and development. Also worth noting is that an Obama-era moratorium on mining claims in six Western states recently expired, with no indication of renewal from Secretary Zinke.

The problem with the Interior changing the conservation plans is twofold: 1) the motivation for reviewing the sage grouse management plans was to “ease the burden on local economies” by opening protected lands to development, which could have negative impacts on already rapidly-dwindling sage grouse populations, and 2) reopening the plans could spell more trouble for recovery efforts and potentially force FWS to list the sage grouse under the ESA in the future, which is precisely what states wanted to avoid. The conservation plan is critical, but it only works with the agreed upon protections in place.

The decision to undo years of collaboration and compromise between federal, state, local, and tribal governments, NGO’s, scientists, industry, landowners, ranchers, and hunters in a matter of two months sends a loud message to the public that economic considerations prevail over scientific evidence, even at the cost of an entire ecosystem and the species dependent upon it.

The SGRT recommendations ignore the science and put the entire sagebrush landscape at risk, much to the detriment of the sage grouse. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead is critical of the new plan, concerned that it ignores scientific consensus. “We’ve got to have good science lead the way, and that trumps politics,” Mead said. “Let’s look at what the states have done, and what biologists, folks who know this, are telling us.”

Sage advice

We cannot allow our government to irresponsibly cater to oil and gas industry at the expense of our wildlife and public lands. Instead, we must urge the Department of Interior to focus their efforts on collaborative, science-informed management of the sage grouse and its habitat.

Jennifer Strickland, USFWS Wikimedia Commons

Why Are So Many Car Companies Making Big EV Announcements?

If you’ve been reading the news lately you might have noticed a trend in the automotive news: Major car brands are announcing their transition plans to go electric.

This is quite a string of announcements in the last few months from some major players in the automotive industry! Why is this happening now and what does it mean for the industry and the environment?

International and domestic pressure to clean up cars and trucks

To answer the question of why now, let’s look at another list of headlines from this year:

These countries (and state) are in different stages of enacting limits on gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, but the trend is clear: if you want to be part of the future in the biggest automotive markets you need to have a transition plan from petroleum to electric vehicles.

Even beyond these limits on internal combustion engines altogether, many jurisdictions are strengthening the emissions standards for vehicles, meaning auto companies need to produce cleaner and more efficient cars and trucks. Electric vehicles can of course be a part of automakers’ efforts to comply with air pollution and global warming regulations.

Cleaner vehicles, fuels needed to reduce emissions

Transportation has recently eclipsed electricity generation as the largest source of global warming emissions in the US.  Governments around the world are concerned not only with the carbon emissions from petroleum-powered vehicles, but also with the Volkswagen emissions scandal, which has heightened awareness of the air pollution from vehicle tailpipes. Electric vehicles, when paired with cleaner electricity, are an excellent solution to reduce pollution and global warming emissions from transportation.

In our most recent analysis, the average electric vehicle in the US only produces global warming emissions equivalent to what a 73 MPG gasoline car would produce. And the trend in the US has been towards cleaner electricity, meaning these electric cars will likely get even cleaner over time. So these plans by General Motors and others to vastly increase their EV offerings could mark a significant transition to much cleaner transportation.

 

 

Excitement tempered by automakers’ work to weaken regulations

Looking only at the headlines about large automakers’ EV plans, it would seem as though they have embraced the need for cleaner vehicles and fuels wholeheartedly. However, this is not the case.

The automakers’ lobbying groups, led by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, convinced the US EPA to re-review its recently finalized 2022-2025 global warming emission standards for cars and light trucks. Even as their trade groups work to weaken the fuel economy and global warming pollution standards, individual manufacturers have recently announced moves to increase their number of EV models, including General Motors, Ford, and BMW.  But as they tout their plans for cleaner cars (and get good press), they are actively opposing US efficiency standards already in place. And they are also opposing international regulations, such as GM’s CEO Mary Barra’s  pointed push back at China’s efforts to require electric vehicles.

The increasing number of electric vehicles being announced by automakers around the world is good news and certainly a step in the right direction. But these intentions aren’t enough. We need the automakers to make sure these vehicles are a success, putting them at the center of their showrooms and marketing efforts as they do with gasoline-powered cars and trucks today. And they certainly need to stop actively opposing the efforts of policymakers and regulators to clean up transportation and reduce emissions.

Who Would Lose with New Suniva/SolarWorld Solar Tariffs? Just About Everybody

A recent decision by the US International Trade Commission (USITC) in favor of two solar manufacturers means that new tariffs on solar cells and panels could be coming. As the reactions from companies and organizations across the economy—and across the political spectrum—make clear, that’s bad news for just about everyone, including you and me.

The solar tariff case

Solar means jobs. As long as we don’t mess things up. (Credit: John Rogers)

The case was brought by Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, two foreign-owned US manufacturing operations that had hit rocky patches in recent years. The companies applied to the USITC under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974, which basically says that “domestic industries seriously injured or threatened with serious injury by increased imports” can ask the USITC for “import relief.”

That might seem like a pretty low bar—competition is never easy, whether it’s domestic or foreign, and some of that competition could indeed be serious—but Section 201 has been used only once in the 21st century (in 2002, in a short-lived attempt to protect the steel industry, but one that would have harmed consumers and destroyed more jobs than it created because of the impact of the higher steel prices).

It’s not lost on anybody, though, that this latest petition comes at a time when we have a president who is no friend of trade, and is hungry for tariffs.

The relief that the two petitioners are asking for—sizeable new tariffs on both solar modules, and the cells that manufacturers (yes, US manufacturers) might assemble into modules—would put a definite dent in solar’s incredible momentum in recent years. More importantly, for a president who professes to be about jobs, it would be very likely, as with the 2002 case, kill more jobs than it saved or created.

Even so, on September 22, the bipartisan USITC voted 4-0 in favor of the petition, determining:

…that increased imports of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells (whether or not partially or fully assembled into other products) are being imported into the United States in such increased quantities as to be a substantial cause of serious injury to the domestic industry producing an article like or directly competitive with the imported article.

How do I love thee not? Let me count the ways…

The reaction to both the original petition and the recent USITC decision has been notable in the breadth of organizations and people reacting negatively, the near unanimity in condemning these moves. Here’s a sampling of reactors and reactions.

The solar industry – Those opposed to Suniva-SolarWorld include just about the whole rest of the US solar industry. Manufacturing jobs account for only 15% of the industry’s 260,000 jobs. For solar project developers, sales forces, installers, and even other manufacturers, new tariffs means increased costs and, likely, diminished prospects for success. As SEIA (the Solar Energy Industries Association) put it:

The ITC’s decision is disappointing for nearly 9,000 U.S. solar companies and the 260,000 Americans they employ… An improper remedy will devastate the burgeoning American solar economy and ultimately harm America’s manufacturers…

Indeed, SEIA has claimed that, if the petitioners are successful in their appeal to the USITC, “88,000 jobs will be lost nationwide, including 6,300 jobs in Texas, 4,700 in North Carolina and a whopping 7,000 jobs in South Carolina.”

The US solar industry is about manufacturing, and a whole lot more. (Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016)

Bipartisan voices — Before the recent vote, a bipartisan group of governors of leading solar states—Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, and North Carolina—sounded the alarm in a letter to the commission:

The requested tariff could inflict a devastating blow on our states’ solar industries and lead to unprecedented job loss, at steep cost to our states’ economies. According to a study conducted by GTM Research, if granted, the tariff and price floors would cause module prices to double, leading solar installations—both utility-scale and consumer-installed—to drop by more than 50 percent in 2019. At a time when our citizens are demanding more clean energy, the tariff could cause America to lose out on 47 gigawatts of solar installations, representing billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in our states.

Conservative groups – From the “strange bedfellows” department came the news that opponents also include conservative groups who don’t like the idea of mucking with trade, and particularly not in defense of two relatively minor companies. The Heritage Foundation, for example, spoke against what it said was “a case that could undermine the entire U.S. solar energy industry.”

Solar jobs; red dots indicate “manufacturer/supplier”. It’s about a lot more than modules. (Source: SEIA National Solar Database)

Likewise, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), not usually on the same side of arguments as renewable energy companies or advocates, cited the broader solar industry’s impressive job tally and job progress in recent years, and the risks to even the manufacturing piece of that:

Many of those [260,000] workers are employed by other solar companies that have successfully figured out how to prosper in this growing industry. Over 38,000 solar workers are employed in manufacturing positions at firms domestically making solar components like inverters, racking systems and more…

Those 38,000 manufacturing jobs might disappear if artificially high input costs price the entire industry out of existence.

Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016

A broad coalition – The Energy Trade Action Coalition formed by SEIA, solar companies, ALEC, Heritage, plus utilities, retailers, and others in response to this Section 201 threat reacted to the recent decision by going after the petitioners themselves:

The ITC decision to find injury is disappointing because the facts presented made it clear that the two companies who brought this trade case were injured by their own history of poor business decisions rather than global competition, and that the petition is an attempt to recover lost funds for their own financial gain at the expense of the rest of the solar industry.

Security experts – For security types, the risks have to do with our military preparedness, resilience, and assurance; more than a dozen former members of the US military, including a lieutenant general and a rear admiral, weighed in with the USITC on the fact that “[t]his dramatic cost increase could potentially jeopardize the financial viability of planned and future solar investments on or near domestic military bases.” This could put at risk bases, missions, and critical services.

And the list goes on.

Not everyone is opposed, of course. Along with the petitioners themselves, a coalition of labor, manufacturing and agricultural interests, the Coalition for a Prosperous America, has spoken out in support of the Suniva-SolarWorld move, saying that the coalition “strongly believes that relief is needed in the face of an Asian import surge to prevent the complete collapse of a critical industry, the manufacture of solar panels”:

Thousands of workers have lost good paying U.S. jobs as a result [of overproduction by international module manufacturers]. That these severe effects occurred during a period of booming U.S. [solar] demand, and despite two successful solar trade cases, is all the more troubling.

But national opinion is overwhelmingly on the other side. Even Suniva’s majority owner, Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy, is purportedly against Suniva’s crusade.

Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior

What’s next

With the September 22 commission decision that the petitioners were indeed seriously hurt by imports, the next step is the “remedy” phase, which starts with various parties weighing in to say what they think the fix should be.

Flush with (and surprised by?) the success of their ITC petitions, Suniva and SolarWorld have backed down a little in their demands… but only a little. Others are pushing for a “cure” much closer to a placebo, in the hopes of minimizing the damage to (other) US companies, US consumers, and American jobs.

The USITC then needs to make a recommendation to President Trump, by mid-November. And then the president needs to decide where this goes.

Meanwhile, SolarWorld has said it’s planning to ramp up production given the recent decision. The president of SolarWorld Americas is quoted as saying:

With relief from surging imports in sight, we believe we can rev up our manufacturing engine and increase our economic impact… [W]e at SolarWorld are prepared to scale up our world-class manufacturing operations to produce leading solar products made by more American workers.

That commitment to leaping right back in is a little hard to believe, given the uncertainties that remain while this plays out. The 2002 Section 201 case around steel tariffs ended in failure the following year, after a purported loss of 200,000 American jobs.

It’s the president’s call

What’s clear, though, is that this is potentially a pivotal moment in solar’s trajectory in this country. The US solar industry is about much more than manufacturing, and even the manufacturing sector is about more than cells and modules.

President Trump could take a tariff sledgehammer to the shining solar piece of our nation’s impressive clean energy momentum, favoring a small piece of the industry regardless of the damage to the rest. That would mean harming a sector that has been arguably the best story of job creation and economic growth over the last 10 years. Destroying US jobs while pretending he’s all about creating them.

Or our president could take minimal or no action, send out a victorious tweet or two, and let the US solar industry—in all its dimensions—continue to do its thing. Creating American jobs, not killing them. Strengthening our energy security, not weakening it. And benefiting millions of US customers with greater affordability and access to solar.

Let’s go with option B.

What’s Tax “Reform” Got to Do with Science and Public Well-being?

Photo: USCapitol/Flickr

In the days since the “Big Six” group of Congressional leaders and Trump administration officials unveiled the outlines of their tax “reform” proposal, there’s been a fierce debate—and rightly so—over who stands to win and who lose. Will the average working American get anything significant from this tax plan, or are most of the benefits skewed towards the wealthy and profitable corporations?  More on this in a minute.

What’s gotten less attention is the impact of this plan on the public science enterprise and the well-being of all Americans.

An unprecedented assault

Federal government investments in science research and innovation have led to discoveries that have produced major benefits for our health, safety, economic competitiveness, and quality of life.  This includes MRI technology, vaccines and new medical treatments, the internet and GPS, earth-monitoring satellites that allow us to predict the path of major hurricanes, clean energy technologies such as LED lighting, advanced wind turbines and photovoltaic cells, and so much more. The work of numerous federal agencies to develop and implement public and worker health and safety protections against exposure to toxic chemicals, air and water pollution, workplace injuries, and many other dangers has also produced real benefits.

These essential programs are already under unprecedented assault. UCS president Ken Kimmell has called President Trump’s proposed FY18 budget “a wrecking ball to science.” Others at UCS have detailed the devastating impacts of Trump’s proposed budget cuts on the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, worker health and safety, the Forest Service, and early career scientists.

UCS and our allies are pushing back hard on these proposed budget cuts, and we remain vigilant to ensure that when Congress takes final action on the FY18 appropriations bills in December, these irresponsible cuts will be rejected.

All these programs (along with veterans’ care, homeland security, transportation and other infrastructure, law enforcement, education, and many other core government programs) fall within the non-defense discretionary (or NDD) portion of federal spending, which has been disproportionately targeted for spending cuts over the last decade. As an analysis by Paul Van de Water of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out, “NDD spending in 2017 will be about 13 percent below the comparable 2010 level after adjusting for inflation (nearly $100 billion lower in 2017 dollars).”

Even if the draconian Trump budget cuts are beaten back, the very real need to increase spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, along with a push by many in Congress to maintain (or increase) defense spending, will continue to squeeze NDD expenditures in the years ahead.

Creating long-term pressure on essential programs

Here’s where the Republican tax plan comes in, as it will almost certainly reduce government revenues substantially and add to the national debt. While Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told ABC News that the tax plan would generate higher economic growth rates and “will cut the deficit by $1 trillion,” few independent economists agree with that rosy outlook.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates the plan could increase the deficit by $2.2 trillion over the next decade; CRFB president Maya MacGuineas cautioned that “tax cuts shouldn’t be handed out like Halloween candy,” and said they “certainly don’t pay for themselves.”

Senate Republicans openly acknowledge that the tax plan will increase the deficit; the Budget Committee resolution that they plan to put before the full Senate for a vote later this month contains reconciliation instructions to the Finance Committee that would allow the deficit to increase “by not more than $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.”

Deficit spending is sometimes justified, such as for investments in infrastructure, education, public health, and other forms of physical and human capital that more than pay back over time, or to kick-start the economy when unemployment is high. But that’s not the case here; as discussed below, the bulk of the benefits from this plan would flow to the wealthiest Americans, with low- and middle-income Americans receiving only modest direct benefits, if any.

Moreover, the resulting increase in the federal deficit would lead to louder calls for cuts in programs that benefit low- and middle-income Americans, including food assistance programs, student loans, unemployment insurance, economic development, and worker retraining.  As another analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities put it, “the majority of Americans could ultimately lose more from the program cuts than they would gain from the tax cuts.”

The government needs more revenue, not less

Looking down the road, it’s clear that the aging of the American population, continued increases in health care costs, the need to replace crumbling infrastructure, and other factors are creating pressure for federal spending to increase substantially over the next few decades.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that to accommodate these factors, federal spending will need to grow from 20.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 23.5 percent of GDP by 2035. This is largely driven by increased costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; CBPP projects that defense and non-defense discretionary spending will decrease somewhat as a share of GDP over the next couple of decades. As the CBPP report observes, the need to increase federal spending is “hardly a controversial notion. Budget plans from such diverse organizations as the National Academy of Sciences, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and the American Enterprise Institute have reached the same conclusion.”

To keep the national debt from growing faster than the overall economy, CBPP estimates that annual budget deficits need to be held to an average of 3 percent of GDP; this in turn means that federal revenues should increase from some 17.8 percent of GDP in 2016 to at least 20.5 percent in 2035. There are any number of ways to do this, from closing special interest loopholes in the tax code to putting a tax on carbon dioxide emissions or other forms of pollution. Of course, given the current political realities in Washington, no one expects a serious discussion of this issue anytime soon; the current challenge is just to avoid making the situation worse.

Tax fairness: the rhetoric and the reality

President Trump and Republican leaders insist that their aim is to provide tax relief for the middle class, and that taxes won’t be cut for wealthy Americans; President Trump even asserted that this tax plan is “not good for me. Believe me.”

But a preliminary analysis of the framework by the Tax Policy Center found otherwise. While acknowledging that several details remain to be filled in, TPC estimates that in 2018 under the “Big Six” plan, “taxpayer groups in the bottom 95 percent of the income distribution would see modest tax cuts, averaging 1.2 percent of after-tax income or less. The benefit would be largest for taxpayers in the top 1 percent (those making more than $730,000), who would see their after-tax income increase 8.5 percent.”

Over half of the total benefit of the tax cuts would accrue to taxpayers in the top 1 percent, increasing to nearly 80 percent of the benefits by 2027. Others have examined how the elimination of the alternative minimum tax, the abolition of the estate tax, and several other provisions of the plan would personally benefit President Trump—and his heirs.

Private interests vs. the public good

It’s clear that the stakes in the tax debate now under way in Washington are not just about the critical issue of whose tax bills go down (or up) and by how much. The outcome will also have an impact on our ability to maintain America’s global leadership on scientific and medical research and technology innovation, improve air and water quality, avert the worst impacts of climate change (and cope with the impacts we can’t avoid), upgrade our transportation, energy, and communications infrastructure, and many other important issues.

It’s hard to dispute the need for real tax reform—a plan that clears away the dense thicket of special interest loopholes and simplifies the tax code, in a way that’s equitable to all Americans. But that’s not what’s on offer right now—instead we’re seeing a drive to give trillions of dollars in handouts to profitable corporations and the wealthiest Americans, while laying the groundwork for deep cuts in a broad range of important federal programs down the road.

Our elected officials can – and should – do much better than this; if they’re unwilling to, they should observe the Hippocratic oath, and “first do no harm.”

 

 

Is Your Representative Setting Us Up for Another Dieselgate?

Remember dieselgate? The Volkswagen scandal that led to huge emissions of harmful air pollution from their cars, criminal charges, and a $30 billion mea culpa? Well, dieselgate may be small compared to the new emissions scandal that is playing out across the country. This time, however, the emissions cheating would be explicitly allowed by Congress.

As with the VW scandal, it involves so-called emission defeat devices – equipment that shuts off a vehicle’s emissions control system, allowing the car to spew hazardous pollution into the air. These defeat devices are marketed to amateur racers (and sometimes the general public who think it’s fun to “roll coal” and blow black smoke at Priuses). Manufacturers of these defeat devices are pushing Congress to let them off the hook for selling products that are used illegally in our communities, and so far many in Congress are siding against clean air.

What do defeat devices do and who wants them?

All vehicles on public roads must have pollution control systems to remove dangerous air pollutants such as particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and smog precursors (carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons) from vehicle exhaust. And this is a really good thing. The EPA estimates that current pollution control systems will prevent up to 2,000 premature deaths, avoid 2,200 hospital admissions, and eliminate 19,000 asthma attacks annually because some of these pollutants cause lung cancer, heart disease, and respiratory harm.

These emission control systems can, however, be turned off by defeat devices which are frequently marketed as “tuners”, “oxygen sensor simulators” or “exhaust gas recirculation delete kits”.

Why would someone want to turn off their vehicle pollution controls? One popular reason is for amateur car racing. We’re not talking NASCAR here, as purpose-built race cars are already exempt from this requirement. Instead these are local races where people “convert” their regular cars into race cars to use at tracks.  And if people want to modify a car that they use just for racing so that it goes a little faster on the track, it’s probably not that big of a deal.

Out of the millions of vehicles on the road, only a tiny fraction of them are modified to be used in racing competitions. However, if people bypass the emission controls on cars they use on our streets on a regular basis, that’s a different story: it imposes unnecessary pollution on the drivers’ neighbors and it’s against the law. So if device manufacturers are knowingly selling defeat devices for off-track use, they should be prosecuted.

How big of a deal could this be?  Big. One settlement that the EPA made with H&S Performance states that they sold over 100,000 devices and that the pollution from those devices would be nearly TWICE the NOx pollution put out by VW diesel cars from 2008 until they were caught in 2015.[i] 

One company, double dieselgate.  It’s staggering.

It turns out that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of companies who are willing to sell people defeat devices that they can put on their own cars.  We don’t have a complete handle on the number of devices sold, or how much extra pollution they are spewing out into our communities. But based on the emissions from just H&S Performance, it has the potential to be HUGE. And if manufacturers and retailers of these devices are marketing these defeat devices to the general public for use on our roads, the emissions, and therefore health, impacts could be enormous.

So, what does this have to do with Congress?

Manufacturers of defeat devices have a vested interest in making it difficult for regulators to stymie the illegal use of these defeat devices since the more they sell, the bigger their profits. There are bills in the House (H. 350 ) and Senate (S. 203) called the “RPM Act” that would make it very difficult for the EPA to go after manufacturers of these defeat devices who are clearly selling to people who are using these on their everyday vehicles. It is critical that the EPA maintains the ability to stop manufacturers who aren’t playing by the rules.

In a recent hearing about the RPM Act in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Alexandra Teitz, a consultant for the Sierra Club, dubbed this “DIY Dieselgate”, which is incredibly apt.

There are a lot of Senators and Representatives supporting this bill because the trade association for the manufacturers who make these devices (and other aftermarket parts) is putting in a lot of effort on Capitol Hill. The manufacturers see a challenge to their business model and profitability. And they have put a lot of effort into convincing amateur racers, wrongly, that the EPA intends to stop all amateur racing or take their race cars.

The manufacturers are selling this bill as a clarification of existing law, when in actuality it will make it very hard, if not impossible, for the EPA to do their job and ensure that all Americans have access to clean air – and one way they will do it is to prosecute manufacturers who are clearly selling these defeat devices to individuals who are not using them solely for racing. We need to make sure Congress is aware they are voting for legislation that will put the health of their constituents at risk.

Allowing amateur racers to modify a small number of vehicles that are solely used at the track is one thing – but sanctioning mass marketing of emissions defeat devices that are resulting in deadly air pollution in communities across the country is another. Check out the list of cosponsors for the House and Senate bills to see if your representative is on the bill. If so, please call your representative and ask that they withdraw their support for the RPM Act.

[i] The settlement agreement notes 71,669 short tons (or 65,017 metric tons) of NOx emissions over the lifetime of vehicles with H&S Performance defeat devices installed.  An analysis by MIT researchers estimate excess NOX emissions of 36,700 metric tons between 2008 and 2015 from non-compliant 2.0L VW vehicles.

 

 

Sociological Gobbledygook or Scientific Standard? Why Judging Gerrymandering is Hard

In Tuesday’s historic Supreme Court case, the question asked was how to identify and remedy unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering, where electoral district boundaries are drawn so as to benefit one political party’s voters over others.  The phrase uttered during oral argument that is getting the most attention is Chief Justice Roberts’ assessment of the various techniques that have been proposed to measure it: “sociological gobbledygook.”  It’s a funny way to describe Roberts’ apparent distaste for mathematical, as opposed to legal, explanations, but it also reveals a serious problem for the use of scientific evidence in the court.

Let’s look at the evidence.

One of the core issues in these cases, as I’ve previously discussed, involves the discovery of “workable standards.”  To be workable, a standard must identify a constitutional (fundamental) harm, as opposed to a de minimus (minor) harm, so as not to inundate the court with cases.  Further, the standard must be capable of being practically applied by justices who are not themselves scientists.

Whether or not tests for the standard of partisan symmetry, the equal treatment of voters regardless of which party they support, are workable, was the primary point of contention when Justice Roberts made his remark.

In describing his concern about judicial overreach into the political process, Roberts proclaimed that “you’re taking these issues away from democracy and you’re throwing them into the courts pursuant to, and it may be simply my educational background, but I can only describe as sociological gobbledygook.”

On the one hand, Roberts is identifying a serious problem that needs to be addressed by scientists in the courtroom.  Statistics can be manipulated and are open to interpretation in ways that other forms of legal evidence are often not.

In many cases, both parties trot out potentially motivated “experts” to exchange criticisms in specialized language, leaving judges to make decisions based on evidence that their educational background does not train them for.  Consider two examples taken directly from yesterday’s argument.

The term “false positives” was used by the defense (the state of Wisconsin) to refer to the inaccuracy of one way to measure symmetry, the efficiency gap.  “False positive” refers to a Type I error, when the test for something (like pregnancy, using a urine test that measures levels of the hormone chorionic gonadotropin) turns up positive, but has not actually occurred (no fertilized egg embedded in the uterus, which produces the hormone).  Pregnancy tests have about a 3% false positive rate.  But back to gerrymandering.

In this case, the claim of “false positive” was misapplied, and expanded to describe any state with a significant efficiency gap, where the plan was not drawn by the state legislature.  That is, the defense implied that districting plans not drawn by parties (those drawn by courts through litigation or by commissions, etc.) could not be biased.  But the efficiency gap is not a test of who draws a districting map, it is a measure of bias.

Even randomly drawn maps using computer simulations can result in quite biased plans, depending on the underlying geographic distribution of voters.  None of the justices seemed to pick this up.  Justice Alito, responding to such claims, expressed grave concern about “the dozens of uncertainties about this whole process.”

Worse still was Chief Justice Roberts’ mistaking of symmetry for “proportional representation, which has never been accepted as a political principle in the history of this country.”

Partisan symmetry is explicitly not a test of proportionality in election results (where a party receives the same percentage of seats as its percentage of votes).  In fact, symmetry was intentionally designed as an alternative standard of testing the principle of political equality in U.S. elections, because proportionality is a higher standard than what the Constitution demands.

These mistakes might have been avoided through a more thorough reading of the many scientific briefs offered to the court for review (or the video above).  Nevertheless, the burden is on scientists to communicate our work clearly and concisely to non-experts, otherwise this problem will only persist.

On the other hand, several of the Justices had a strong grasp of how scientific standards operate within the voting rights framework.  Justice Kagen, for example, correctly noted that both partisan symmetry and the one-person, one-vote standard (prohibiting unequally populated districts) address the dilution of voting strength for individual voters as a function of statewide plans, not single electoral districts.

Moreover, Justice Sotomayor, responding to the defense’s claims about inaccuracies in estimating the impact of Wisconsin’s plan, pointed out that “every single social science metric points in the same direction.”  That is the sort of understanding about probabilistic estimates that scientists need to convey to judicial authorities.  It is how scientists forecast everything from economic growth to health epidemics and weather patterns.  The Justice continued, noting that the same types of statistical estimates were used to create Wisconsin’s maps in the first place, and that “it worked.  It worked better than they even expected, so the estimate wasn’t wrong.  It was pretty right.”

Judges have their work cut out for them if the Supreme Court finally provides a means by which political parties can be restrained from advancing their partisan interests at the expense of voters’ fundamental right to an equally weighted vote.  But it is up to the scientific community to work with the judiciary in the appropriate application of statistical evidence.  The consequences, which feedback through the entire policy making process, make it well worth the effort.

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