UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

The Trump Administration Word Ban Extends to Other Federal Agencies. Its Ongoing Assault on Science Is Much Worse.

A word ban extends beyond the CDC, the Washington Post reported last night, including at another, unnamed HHS agency that was told how to talk about the Affordable Care Act, presumably to discourage people from signing up for health care. The directive came from the White House Office of Management and Budget, which coordinates the president’s budget proposal and rule-making agenda.

On Friday, the Washington Post broke the news (and other outlets confirmed) that CDC officials were prevented from referring to seven words when putting together the agency’s budget: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based.

If only the banning of “science-based” and “diversity” was the worst thing the Trump administration has done to science.

Additional terminology guidance given to the State Department suggests that the administration intends to pull funding from science-based HIV/AIDS prevention initiatives that work to promote abstinence-only programs instead, even though peer-reviewed research consistently finds that abstinence-only programs do not delay sexual activity or change other sexual risk behaviors.

The CDC word ban was widely repudiated by scientists, senators, and public health advocates. The issue has attracted enormous attention (even from Cher!) as emblematic of a morally, scientifically, and ethically corrupt style of governing.

In an email to staff last night, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald said that the CDC “remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution…science is and will remain the foundation of our work.”

Yet recently, CDC scientists were banned from responding to basic data requests from reporters without political approval—a clear violation of the agency’s scientific integrity policy.

Sidelining science since day one

This starts with words and communication, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Just last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke summoned the head of Joshua Tree National Park to his office for a tongue lashing over tweets the park had sent out referencing climate change. That’s right: the park director flew across the country to be reprimanded for a couple of tweets, in order to send a message to all park directors: talking about climate change is verboten.

And oh, if only word choice was the worst action this administration has taken to undermine the use of science in policy-making. They’re not just trying to downplay the phrase “evidence-based.” They’re trying to ditch the whole idea of basing policy on evidence.

In July, we chronicled how the Trump administration has sidelined science since day one. And since then the abuses of evidence have continued to flow.

The Treasury Secretary claimed that economists were working “around the clock” to come up with analysis justifying the tax bill. They were not. The EPA banned scientists who receive EPA grants—the ones the agency has decided do the most promising environmental and public health research—from providing science advice to the agency. The Department of Interior is trying to defund and prevent public access to the US Geological Survey library system.

The White House has no science advisor, and the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is a ghost town. Numerous political appointees—including the CDC director and the nominee for NOAA administrator—have financial conflicts of interest that lead many to question their ability to do the jobs. The administration has shut down studies where it expects it won’t like the outcome: on climate change in the tropics, on teen pregnancy prevention, and on the health risks of surface coal mining in West Virginia. Science agencies are targeted across the board for severe budget cuts.

An exhaustive list is, quite frankly, impossible. President Trump’s attacks on science harm our environment and make all of us sicker and less safe. If the Trump administration won’t allow federal agencies to do their job, it’s time to ask Congress to step up its game, engage in meaningful oversight, and do its job.

Is CDC Banning the Use of Scientific Words? It’s Time for CDC Director Brenda Price to Speak Up

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been prohibited from using certain words (including diversity, science-based, and vulnerable) in any documents related to next year’s budget, the Washington Post reported late Friday. New CDC Director Dr. Brenda Price has the opportunity to clarify that no such restrictions exist and that staff are explicitly encouraged to make science the centerpiece of the CDC’s work.

The agency’s scientific integrity policy is unambiguous about this point: As the nation’s public health agency, CDC places primary emphasis on scientific evidence for developing policies, guidelines, and recommendations. But officials suggested in a meeting that instead of putting primary emphasis on science, staff should write that “the CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

It’s quite obvious that good public health policy is not based on wishes.

It is unclear whether the directive came from Trump administration officials or from career staff self-censoring to avoid falling into political traps. Career staff at government agencies often modify language to stop their work from being politicized.

Yet there’s a fine line between necessary self-preservation and needless self-censorship. For example, CDC staff took the unusual and unfortunate step of canceling a conference on climate change and public health even before the inauguration.

I have spoken to dozens of CDC staff and grantees in recent months, and so far, much of their valuable public health research and protection work has continued unabated despite the change in administration. Actions that divert the agency from its grounding in science could compromise the progress they are making in tracking opioid overdoses, reducing teen pregnancy, protecting the elderly from the flu, and slowing HIV transmission among transgender Americans.

At its best, CDC should not be a political agency. Its scientific integrity policy affirms this:

CDC has a responsibility to conduct the best science and is committed to disseminating scientific findings and results without being influenced by policy or political issues. Although CDC may conduct research in areas relevant for making policy decisions, the goal of such research is to provide the best evidence to drive policy in the right direction. CDC is committed to ensuring that all information products authored, published, and released by CDC for public use are of the highest quality and are scientifically sound, technically accurate, and useful to the intended audience.

Yet earlier in the year, Axios reported that the CDC now requires scientists to ask for permission before providing scientific information to reporters and the public. “This correspondence includes everything from formal interview requests to the most basic of data requests,” wrote a CDC official. The constraint on employee communication is another clear violation of the agency scientific integrity policy. It’s also time for the CDC to repudiate this kind of muzzling.

CDC research and initiatives have direct impact on public health and safety for all populations—including and especially those who are most vulnerable to public health threats. Effectively tackling public health challenges means being honest and open about risks and who faces these risks. To prevent the agency from losing its legitimacy, CDC Director Price must speak up now to reinforce the centrality of science to the agency’s work.

Conflicts of Interest Matter—Congress Needs to Stop This

With the election of Donald Trump, our government has apparently changed the way in which financial conflicts of interest are addressed by political appointees to his administration. The President himself has, of course, been unwilling to sever ties to his businesses even as his actions in office impact their financial performance. That has raised constitutional issues for some critics and is the subject of ongoing litigation.

But for appointees to the executive branch agencies, conflicts of interest no longer seem to be a major hurdle. My colleagues and I (e.g. here, here and here) have written about this before with regard to several prominent nominees. Of course, the concern is that appointed officials in executive branch agencies will make decisions that favor their own interests now or in the near future.

There is another concern though. Suppose that a high level appointee is scrupulous about following the ethics rules and recuses themselves from any decision that might have the appearance of impacting their own interests (or those of their family and close associates). That has always been my simple understanding of the rules when I served in government or on advisory panels. And in my experience recusal works pretty well because there are always a small number of issues where it becomes necessary for any decision-maker or advisor to step away from the discussion. It happens, but is not often necessary.

I recently noted that Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—a critical public health agency—has financial interests that are not severable related to cancer detection and opioid addiction treatment. She has recused herself from decisions concerning those issues at the CDC. But cancer and opioid use are two of the major public health crises facing our nation. Now the head of the CDC must stay out of the discussion on how to deal with these huge problems? Does that mean that the CDC will take less of a role in these battles because the director can’t participate?

Now take the nomination of Barry Myers to head my former agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As the CEO of Accuweather, which is essentially his family’s company, Mr. Myers will be affected by decisions about the National Weather Service, the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, three of the line offices of NOAA. And not for just a few isolated topics, but the broad scope of work of all of these offices has the potential to impact Accuweather’s business and finances. Since it is a family business (his brother is the founder and president), divestiture is not going to remove the appearance of a conflict of interest. So, properly, he should recuse himself from decisions that have the appearance of impacting his family. Does that mean the new head of NOAA should recuse himself from, say, two-thirds of the work of the agency? I think so, but how can that possibly work? Everyone subordinate to the NOAA Administrator will know that their work may impact him personally. So even recusal seems a weak tool.

Dr. Fitzgerald may be a good public health professional. Mr. Myers may be a good businessman. But that doesn’t mean they are appropriate choices to lead federal agencies if their conflicts of interest run so deep as to be unavoidable. This shouldn’t be the new standard for government officials, because we already have ethics laws on the books. We need Congress to step up and say no to conflicted appointees and ensure that no one is above the law.

¡La Lucha No Se Acaba!: La lucha Continúa por una Transición Justa de la Planta de Carbón de Crawford en La Villita

El 12 de agosto de 2017, nuestra organización, la Organización de Justicia Ambiental de La Villita (LVEJO por sus siglas en ingles, por sus siglas en inglés), celebró un encuentro en el parque La Villita en el vecindario de La Villita para celebrar el quinto aniversario del cierre de las plantas de carbón Crawford y Fisk en Chicago. Con miembros de la comunidad y líderes juveniles en asistencia, fue una oportunidad especial que tuvo LVEJO para recordar a muchos, todos los años de organización comunitaria y de formar coaliciones que tuvieron lugar, y para agradecer a viejos amigos y aliados del vecino vecindario de Pilsen quienes fueron esenciales en esta campaña. Con ritmos de cumbia comimos pastel, distribuimos literatura acerca de la Justicia Ambiental a los asistentes del parque(aprenda sobre los principios de justicia ambiental aquí), y disfrutamos viendo a nuestros niños romper una piñata y correr rápidamente por las golosinas que caían al suelo.

Líder juvenil de La Villita en el 5to aniversario del cierre de la planta de carbón Crawford (Crédito de la foto: Antonio López)

La conmemoración fue un momento agradable, pero también nos recordó que cinco años después La Villita sigue enfrentándose a serios desafíos de justicia ambiental, incluyendo una batalla difícil para reconstruir la planta de carbón de Crawford. De hecho, la comunidad es cada vez más vulnerable al aumento de las emisiones de diésel y muchos están preocupados por la gentrificación y el desplazamiento. A pesar de estas amenazas, los líderes de La Villita continúan luchando por una comunidad más sana y responsabilizar a los que tienen poder para que sigan principios de reconstrucción comunitaria equitativa. Como decimos en LVEJO, ¡la lucha no se acaba!

Una Transición Justa en la Planta de Crawford

Cinco años más tarde, la planta de carbón de Crawford sigue siendo un sitio poco acogedor en La Villita. A diferencia de muchas otras comunidades dependientes del carbón, La Villita no fue devastada económicamente por el cierre de la planta de carbón y la pérdida de puestos de trabajo. De hecho, Crawford contrató a muy pocos trabajadores de La Villita. Sin embargo, sabiendo que Crawford perjudicó la salud de la comunidad durante tanto tiempo y excluyó a la fuerza de trabajo local de empleos bien pagados, LVEJO está comprometida a ver llevar a cabo una transición justa en el lugar.

Una transición justa de la vieja planta de carbón significa para nosotros que los miembros de la comunidad estén profundamente involucrados en el proceso de reconstrucción y que el sitio eventualmente se convierta en un catalizador de mejor salud, acceso a trabajo y otras actividades económicas que beneficien a los residentes de largo tiempo. Situado en 72 acres de terreno creemos que hay una oportunidad significativa para transformar el sitio en un lugar que satisfaga múltiples necesidades identificadas por la comunidad, y sea una fuente de orgullo. Hemos escuchado claramente que nuestra comunidad quiere más espacios verdes, oportunidades de capacitación laboral, agricultura urbana y pequeñas empresas que sean culturalmente relevantes como Los Mangos. Puede parecer un sueño inalcanzable – y ciertamente hay muchos obstáculos – pero con un profundo apoyo de la comunidad realmente creemos que la transición justa de Crawford es posible.

Líderes juveniles de LVEJO continúan resaltando los daños a la salud comunitaria causados por Crawford (Crédito de la foto: LVEJO)

Desafíos para el Desarrollo

Entendemos que la reconstrucción de una vieja planta de carbón toma muchos años y no es fácil. Desafortunadamente, desde el cierre de Crawford, LVEJO ha tenido conocimiento de proyectos recientemente propuestos y planes de uso de terrenos que amenazan con quebrantar los avances en la calidad del aire por los que tanto luchamos.

Como La Villita tiene una ubicación centrada en Chicago y está muy cerca de las principales arterias de transporte, planificadores urbanos han designado a La Villita como un área para nuevos centros de transporte y de logística. Sin considerar el impacto en la salud de las emisiones de diésel en la comunidad alrededor, planificadores urbanos y concejales locales están rezonificando espacios industriales, aprobando proyectos de reurbanización y llevando a cabo planes de uso de terrenos que no toman en cuenta la incorporación de la justicia ambiental. En lugar de aprovechar las fortalezas y el sólido historial de ambientalismo en la comunidad, los responsables de tomar decisiones amenazan con hacer de La Villita una zona de sacrificio una vez más. Un ejemplo importante es el Proyecto de Expansión de Unilever.

Amenazas de Diésel/Unilever

La planta cercana de Unilever ha estado en el vecindario desde 1918, un testimonio del legado industrial heredado en el vecindario. En febrero de 2015, la planta de Unilever que produce la Mayonesa Hellman’s, anunció que aumentará la producción y generará 50 empleos locales adicionales en la fábrica. Pero estos trabajos tienen un costo. Hoy en día, las leyes de zonificación actuales permiten que una fábrica industrial tan grande como Unilever se expanda justo al lado de una escuela primaria de más de 1,000 niños e innumerables familias. Todos los días más de 100 camiones de diésel fluyen dentro y fuera de esta área. Basado en el estudio de tráfico de Unilever, habrá un aumento de hasta 500 camiones diésel que estarán fluyendo dentro y fuera del vecindario diariamente. Los camiones de motores diésel producen una gran cantidad de contaminantes de partículas finas que se han relacionado con el asma, las enfermedades respiratorias, y el daño general a los tejidos pulmonares. Los humos adicionales del diésel crearán peligros para la salud, aumentarán la incidencia de asma y de enfermedades relacionadas con el aire. Los niños son especialmente vulnerables. Debido a estas preocupaciones de salud, LVEJO ha lanzado una campaña de para educar a los miembros de la comunidad sobre los riesgos que el diésel plantea y hacer responsables tanto a las empresas como a quienes toman decisiones.

La Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro (Future Energy Jobs Act, o FEJA por us siglas en Inglés)

El fracaso de los planificadores de la ciudad y los funcionarios locales en aprovechar el cierre de la planta de Crawford para volver a desarrollar la comunidad de acuerdo con nuestras necesidades no ha detenido nuestros esfuerzos para organizar y defender una nueva economía libre de combustibles fósiles. LVEJO sigue luchando por la democracia energética y se opone vehementemente a las falsas soluciones al cambio climático.

LVEJO fue vital para la creación de una Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro (FEJA, por sus siglas en inglés) en Illinois que tuvo un amplio apoyo de coaliciones y de la comunidad. Críticamente, el liderazgo de LVEJO en la FEJA priorizó oportunidades de salud y justicia económica, incluyendo acceso a capacitación laboral y trabajos en energía limpia en las comunidades de bajos ingresos – una alta prioridad para todos los líderes comunitarios. FEJA incluye $33.25 millones en gastos anuales en programas de eficiencia energética para comunidades de bajos ingresos, el triple de niveles actuales de gasto en dichos programas en el estado de Illinois.

Esto sumado a millones de dólares comprometidos a aumentos en asistencia para cuentas de energía, ahorrarán dinero a las familias que luchan por pagar estas cuentas. LVEJO participó como arquitecto principal de políticas críticas en la legislación relacionadas con el servicio a comunidades de bajos ingresos, incluyendo la nueva Illinois Solar Para Todos (Illinois Solar for All), un programa de energía solar para comunidades de bajos ingresos con metas enfocadas en acceso para comunidades de justicia ambiental financiado con más de $400 millones.

El programa está emparejado con un canal de capacitación laboral que se centrará en el reclutamiento en estas mismas comunidades, con incentivos adicionales para contratar a 2.000 personas con antecedentes penales y egresados del sistema estatal de cuidado de crianza temporal.

Con la aprobación de la Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro, comunidades de bajos ingresos y comunidades racializadas y/o etnias minoritarias, como La Villita, tendrán oportunidades importantes de beneficiarse de los recursos comprometidos para construir una economía de energía limpia en el estado.

Kim Wasserman de LVEJO y Jerry Lucero de PERRO celebran el 5º aniversario del cierre de las plantas Fisk y Crawford en Pilsen y La Villita. Crawford está atrás de ellos. (Crédito de la foto: Antonio López)

¡No al Carbon! ¡Queremos Justicia Ambiental!

Además de asegurar que los programas de FEJA lleguen a comunidades de línea de frente y de bajos ingresos, la transición justa de la planta de carbón de Crawford es un objetivo principal de la Organización de Justicia Ambiental de La Villita. Creemos que el redesarrollo equitativo de la planta de Crawford puede destacarse como un modelo para otras comunidades de Justicia Ambiental que trabajan en iniciativas de transición justas.

De hecho, en todo el Medio Oeste de EE.UU. las comunidades de Justicia Ambiental están liderando la lucha para cerrar plantas de carbón, incineradores y otras fábricas contaminantes. La reconstrucción comunitario de la planta de Crawford no sólo beneficiará profundamente a La Villita, sino que también será un poderoso símbolo de justicia ambiental.

Major Job Losses in Renewable Energy if Current Tax Plan Passes

In March 2017, I testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on how federal tax credits for renewable energy have been a key driver for the recent growth in the US wind and solar industries, creating new jobs, income, and tax revenues for local communities.  They have also helped drive down the cost of wind and solar power by more than two-thirds since 2009, making renewable energy more affordable for consumers.

Originally enacted as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, Congress has extended the Production Tax Credit (PTC) seven times and has allowed it to expire on six occasions. This “on-again/off-again” status resulted in a boom-bust cycle of development in the wind industry. In the years following expiration, installations dropped between 76 and 93 percent, with corresponding job losses. Congress has also extended the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar several times.

Finally, after many years of this policy uncertainty, Congress passed a five-year extension and phase-down of the PTC and the ITC for wind and solar in December 2015. The legislation also removed the longstanding US oil export ban, as part of a compromise deal with the oil industry.

Unfortunately, the Senate and House tax bills would renege on this deal and change the rules midstream, resulting in major job losses across the US renewable energy industry. They would also jeopardize tens of billions in investments in renewable energy projects and manufacturing facilities in rural communities across America—many of which are in districts and states held by Republicans and that voted for President Trump.

Senate tax bill undermines renewable energy financing

The renewable energy industry initially praised an earlier version of the Senate tax bill, which honored the 2015 deal and did not make any direct changes to the PTC and ITC. However, the Senate made two last-minute changes to the bill to fill revenue gaps and build support from key Republicans that were concerned about the deficit that would have a significant impact on renewable energy projects.

Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): One of these last-minute changes was to restore the AMT to fill a $40 billion revenue gap. The proposal in both the Senate and House tax bills to reduce the corporate tax rate to 20 percent would likely move most US corporations from the regular corporate income tax rate to the AMT (which is also set at 20 percent on a broader tax base), according to tax experts.

However, not all tax credits count toward the AMT and depreciation must be calculated at a slower rate. While the ITC for solar projects can count toward the AMT, the PTC for wind projects (and geothermal, biomass, landfill gas and incremental hydro projects) can only count for the first 4 years out of the 10-year window that projects are eligible to receive the tax credits. Not only would this jeopardize investment in new projects, it would have a retroactive impact on existing projects placed in service after 2007 that are still receiving tax credits under the PTC.

Base-Erosion Anti-Abuse Tax (BEAT): The Senate also made a last-minute change to the BEAT provision that could greatly reduce tax equity financing for renewable energy projects. BEAT would impose a tax on large corporations that make cross-border payments by requiring them to add those payments to their taxable income. This amount is then multiplied by 10 percent to determine what they owe to the government (except for banks and security dealers, which the Senate raised to 11 percent). These corporations must also calculate their regular tax liability minus any tax credits they receive, including the PTC and the ITC. If their adjusted tax liability is less than the fraction of their taxable income with the cross-border payments, the company would have to pay the difference to the IRS as a tax.

The more tax credits a company has, the more a company is likely to pay, making banks and other large tax equity investors reluctant to finance renewable energy projects. And like the AMT, the BEAT provision would not only impact financing for new projects but could have a retroactive effect on most existing projects that received tax equity financing.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) claims that the Senate bill could threaten $12 billion in annual tax equity financing in 2017, up from $7.3 billion in 2013 (see Figure). They estimate that tax equity financing accounted for 21 percent of the $58.5 billion in total US renewable energy investment in 2016.

The Senate tax bill would have a big impact on companies like JPMorgan, Bank of America, GE, US Bank, and Citigroup that led tax equity financing in 2016 for both wind and solar projects, as shown in this BNEF chart.

The BEAT provision would also hurt other energy sources that currently receive tax credits such as refined coal facilities placed in service by December 2011. The coal industry is also speaking out against the AMT, which Bob Murray claims will cost his company $50-60 million in increased taxes and eliminate 65,000 jobs.

House bill puts 60,000 wind industry jobs and $50 billion in new investment at risk

While the House bill does not include the AMT or BEAT provisions, it makes several direct changes to the PTC and ITC that would undermine investments in new wind and solar projects and have a retroactive impact on existing projects. These changes include:

  • Eliminating the inflation adjustment for the PTC, reducing its value by 38 percent from 2.4 c/kWh under current law to 1.5 c/kWh.
  • Changing the commence construction provision, dropping safe harbor provision, and requiring projects to have “continuous construction” to be eligible, which would greatly accelerate the PTC phase-down schedule. When combined with the change to the inflation adjustment, AWEA estimates these two provisions could reduce the value of the PTC by more than half.
  • Allowing the permanent 10 percent solar ITC to sunset in 2027.
  • Extending the tax credits to “orphan” technologies like geothermal, biopower, landfill gas, and incremental hydro that were largely left out of the 2015 deal to extend the tax credits for wind and solar for 5 years. This is the only positive change in the House bill.

The House bill would cut new wind development by more than half by 2020, according to both Bloomberg and Goldman Sachs. AWEA estimates that the House bill would put 30,000 MW of new wind projects that are under development in the US worth $50 billion of new private investment at risk, along with 60,000 jobs, as shown in this map.

Source: AWEA, Protecting American wind workers during tax reform.

Making renewable energy a priority in conference committee

The provisions in the House bill that renege on Congress’ 2015 compromise deal with the oil industry and drastically cut the value of the PTC are completely unacceptable and should be dropped. The AMT and BEAT provisions in the Senate bill should either be dropped (they are not included in the House bill) or renewable energy tax credits should be excluded—similar to how R&D tax credits are currently excluded from the BEAT provision.

House and Senate conferees were named last week. They will meet over the next two weeks to resolve key differences, with the goal of delivering a final bill to President Trump by the end of the year.

It is an ominous sign that Senator Grassley (R-IA), a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, was left off the conference committee. As the father of the PTC, who represents a state that ranks second in installed wind capacity, he has been outspoken about honoring the 2015 deal and working to fix the problems in the Senate and House tax bills. “The wind energy production tax credit is already being phased out under a compromise brokered in 2015. It shouldn’t be re-opened,” Grassley said.

Pro-renewables Senators like Grassley and Susan Collins (R-ME) will have a tough vote to make on the Senate floor if these damaging provisions are not addressed in conference. Maine, for example, has over 900 MW of existing wind capacity and nearly 300 MW of new solar and wind under development that is potentially at risk.

But there are conferees who represent states with large renewable energy industries, and they are in unique position to make the changes necessary to keep that clean energy momentum going.

  • Conferees like Senator Thune and Representative Noem from South Dakota, where a wind turbine blade manufacturer from Aberdeen just announced they will be closing and laying off over 400 people, citing the federal tax bills as one of reasons for this decision. “It’s apparent that the new tax bill will cause some economic disruption and this is one of them,” according to Aberdeen Mayor Mike Levsen. “It’s what happens when government policies turn against industries. It discourages investment.” South Dakota also has 960 MW of wind projects currently under development, representing $1.6 billion in new investment, that is at risk.
  • Senator Murkowski (R-AK) has also said that fixing the BEAT and AMT provisions in the Senate bill will be “clear priorities” for lawmakers in conference
  • Senator Portman (R-OH) is from a state with a strong renewable energy supply chain, including 5,831 solar jobs at 189 companies and more than 2,000 jobs and 61 manufacturing facilities in the wind industry. Ohio also has 560 MW of new wind projects under development and $900 million in new investment that is at risk.
  • Other conferees from leading renewable energy states such as Texas, California, Illinois, Washington and Oregon would also experience significant job losses.

The US renewable energy industry has a proven track record of creating new jobs and making new investments in states and rural areas across America. Federal tax reform should encourage rather than discourage US investment in this rapidly growing global industry.

Make sure your members of congress know clean energy is important to you. Tell them to fix the AMT and BEAT provisions, and to leave the renewable energy tax credits alone.

A billion dollar policy for electric vehicles that you probably haven’t heard of

Combined, Pacific Gas and Electric (16 million people), Southern California Edison (15 million people), and San Diego Gas and Electric (3.6 million people) provide electricity to nearly 90 percent of California’s 39 million people.

Two years ago, California passed Senate Bill 350, requiring 50 percent of electricity to come from renewable energy by 2030. This was big news. Hawaii had just passed a similar bill requiring 40 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045. There was a lot of well-deserved excitement around these renewable portfolio standards.

One section of the California bill that didn’t get a lot of attention outside of policy circles, however, requires electric utilities in the state to come up with plans to “accelerate widespread transportation electrification.” The bill recognized the critical role electric cars, trucks, and buses must play to meet air quality, climate, and public health goals.

Fast forward two years and we’re in the middle of what could be the largest single investment in electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the United States to date. Over $1 billion of investments have been proposed over a five-year period by the three large, investor-owned utilities in California: Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E).* For comparison, the Volkswagen “dieselgate” settlement will result in $800 million of charging infrastructure in California over ten years.

The so-called “SB 350 transportation electrification” plans are currently being reviewed by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), and I’ve been representing UCS in this public process. Here’s a snapshot of the process, which has already spanned several months and several thousand pages of documents.

What’s going on?

In January, PG&E, SCE, and SDG&E submitted plans for advancing transportation electrification in their service territories. The plans mostly focus on providing charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. SCE and SDG&E also proposed new charging rates for electric vehicles to address “demand charges,” which increase bills for large draws of electricity at once, but depending on how they are structured, may discourage the use of electric vehicles.

The utilities submitted projects for “priority review” and “standard review.” Priority review projects were designed to speed up decisions on smaller, “non-controversial” projects. These projects were limited to one year in duration, costs of less than $4 million per project, and no more than $20 million in priority review projects per utility. The idea is that lessons learned from these short-term projects can guide future investments. Standard review projects are larger in scope and subject to the full evidentiary hearings typically associated with proceedings at public utility commissions.

Proposals from PG&E and SCE focus mostly on charging infrastructure for trucks, buses, and heavy-duty equipment, while SDG&E’s proposal focuses mostly on residential charging infrastructure. The CPUC made it clear from the onset that utilities’ proposals should not merely be an expansion of existing pilot projects, which focus on light-duty vehicles.

Senate Bill 350 also provided guidance that utilities’ proposals should benefit communities most impacted by air pollution. This also explains the focus on heavy-duty vehicles in proposals from PG&E and SCE. Heavy-duty vehicles disproportionately contribute to air pollution, making up just 7 percent of vehicles in California but 33 percent of NOx emissions (harmful alone but is also a precursor to smog) and emit more particulate matter than all of the state’s power plants combined.

What’s next?

The CPUC recently released a proposed decision on the priority review projects; a final decision is expected as early as the second week of January. The proposed decision would approve 15 of the 17 priority review projects totaling nearly $43 million. Projects proposed for approval include infrastructure for electric school buses, delivery trucks, airport ground equipment, transit buses, truck stops, and park-and-ride parking lots.

A decision on the standard review projects is expected in May 2018. SDG&E’s proposal would support 90,000 residential electric vehicle chargers. Proposals from SCE and PG&E would support charging infrastructure for up to 15,000 and 5,000 electric trucks and buses, respectively. Approval of these projects would be significant, but compared to the 25 million automobiles and 1.5 million trucks and buses operating in California, it would be just one step towards reducing global warming emissions and air pollution to safe amounts.

A major investment in electric vehicle infrastructure couldn’t come at a better time. Sales of passenger electric vehicles are growing. Manufacturers of heavy-duty vehicles are offering a wide array of electric vehicles, and fleets such as transit agencies and delivery companies are increasingly adopting electric buses and trucks. In all, availability of charging infrastructure and fair electricity rates is critical to the continued uptake of these clean vehicles.

*Note, publicly-owned utilities are not under the jurisdiction of the California Public Utilities Commission and thus were not required to submit plans, nor were Community Choice Aggregators (e.g., Marin Clean Energy) who don’t own infrastructure related to electricity generation or distribution. Small, electrical corporations were required to submit plans, which are being considered separately from those of the three large, investor-owned utilities.

Image: California Energy Commission

Arctic Report Card 2017: Ice Cover Is Shrinking Faster Compared With Prior 1500 Years

Osborne, Cronin, and Farmer, 2017, Arctic Report Card (NOAA)

Sea ice extent, temperature anomaly, CO2 concentrations. Temperature anomalies show the fluctuations in temperature around a long-term mean; positive anomalies indicate warmer than average temperatures within a time series. The vertical dashed black line marks the start of the Industrial Revolution and global impacts of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

The 2017 Arctic Report Card reflects contributions from 85 scientists representing 12 countries. The pace of Arctic sea ice area (hereafter extent) decrease is unprecedented over the past 1,500 years, according to Emily Osborne’s et al. 2017 contribution to the Arctic Report Card released today.

Osborne and team carefully relied upon 45 different archives with a variety of yearly records (i.e. ice cores, tree rings, and sediment cores) that provide information on air temperature, sea surface temperature, and Arctic sea ice extent.  Note that record ends at around 2,000.

To see the latest story with sea ice extent observations, Don Perovich et al. 2017 contribution to the Arctic Report Card demonstrate it is not rebounding or recovering.

It is critical to track such unprecedented pace of change.

Navy Rear Admiral (Ret.) Timothy Gallaudet, Acting NOAA Administrator, highlighted the national security and economic reasons for closely tracking changes in the Arctic.

Perovich et al., 2017, Arctic Report Card (NOAA)

Time series of ice extent anomalies in March (maximum ice extent) and September (minimum ice extent). The anomaly value for each year is the difference (in %) in ice extent relative to the mean values for the period 1981-2010. The black and red dashed lines are least squares linear regression lines. The slopes of these lines indicate ice losses of -2.7% and -13.2% per decade in March and September, respectively.

Gallaudet mentioned that NOAA is already taking action in terms of advancing our Earth system prediction and capability.  Various departments depend on this information including   Departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Defense.

The longer-term perspective sure gives the impression of precipitous decline in Arctic Sea ice extent. Accordingly, there are many consequences associated with such a rapid pace of change.

Jeremy Mathis, Director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program noted that ‘the Arctic is among the most under observed places on the planet. The imperative is clear whether we are dealing with open ocean navigation, refugees, or native hunters.’

Spanning a dozen years, NOAA, has consistently delivered a robust assessment of the Arctic. As we know, the world depends on this information because what happens in the Arctic influences coastlines around the world, extreme weather events in the Northern Hemisphere and more.

Osborne, Cronin, and Farmer, 2017, Arctic Report Card (NOAA) Perovich et al., 2017, Arctic Report Card (NOAA)

Dialogue About Risks of Environmental Exposure Begins with Taking Environmental Justice Concerns Seriously

“We must listen more to the people we serve, have uncomfortable conversations, and increase our push for social justice.” Georges C. Benjamin, MD, Executive Director, American Public Health Association

Public health officials are tasked with one of the most critical jobs in our modern risk society: to research, understand, educate, and help prevent the multiple and complex ways in which people are exposed to and suffer from disease. But when public health officials deflect attention away from significant sources of toxic pollutants that put people at risk (and instead blame the overexposed population’s race, lifestyle, or genetics), they do a disservice to the people they are supposed to protect.

Such tactics are expected from industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute, who recently engaged in a classic “diversion” disinformation play to baselessly argue there’s no link between elevated risk of cancer from air toxics and oil and natural gas industry emissions among African American populations, as a new NAACP, Clean Air Task Force, and National Medical Association report finds (see my colleague Charise Johnson’s blog takedown of API’s feeble attempt at refuting the report’s scientific claims). But to see the same sort of diversionary tactic in a worrisome op-ed by Dr. Karyl Rattay—director of the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH)—raises the question of whose interests the DPH is looking after.

The target of Dr. Rattay’s column was a report recently released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in which, together with our environmental justice (EJ) partners in Delaware, we reported on air toxics and associated cancer risks in selected EJ communities in the state. We utilized the EPA’s latest (2011) National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), an “ongoing comprehensive evaluation of air toxics in the United States”. These data represent the state-of-the-science in air quality modeling of air toxics. In our report, contra what Dr. Rattay argues, we have been careful not to overrepresent what the pollutant concentrations mean and have been consistent with EPA’s own statements about appropriate use of the data[1]:

  • We identify pollutants of greatest concern
  • We provide improved understanding of health risks posed by air toxics
  • Additionally, in our recommendations we are contributing to helping set priorities for the collection of additional information, improving emissions inventories, and informing community and local air toxics program in the context of both acute exposures that can be reduced through the Risk Management Program (RMP) rule, and chronic exposures that can be addressed through local toxics reductions programs.

Dr. Rattay claims that “the way [UCS] interpreted the data, and the conclusions they have drawn, artificially inflated a person’s risk of cancer from environmental air pollution”. In fact, we did not inflate (artificially or otherwise) a person’s risk of cancer from environmental air toxics pollution. On page 11 of the report, we carefully adhered to the EPA’s NATA disclaimers by noting that “the health estimates represent average risks and hazards affecting a community rather than exact risks or hazards for a particular person”. Furthermore, the DPH director’s claim that many of the health outcomes we report on can be explained by “lifestyle” choices individuals make is very perplexing. At best, Dr. Rattay is engaging in the ecological fallacy of extrapolating the putative unhealthy lifestyle choices of a few individuals (e.g., smoking) to a population that is demonstrably exposed to undue burdens of air toxics. At worst, Dr. Rattay is echoing the very offensive and debunked claims that low-income people of color make bad lifestyle choices like smoking and barbequing that account for higher cancer rates, and simultaneously downplay the role of the acute and chronic toxic exposures that we have documented.

The Delaware Department of Public Health does not think petrochemical facilities like the Delaware City Refinery are a big deal in terms of air toxics exposure and health risks, and instead thinks environmental justice communities in Delaware just need to quit smoking.

Public health professionals wield a comprehensive and holistic science-based understanding of the complex ways in which disease affects human health. As health, environmental justice, and scientific advocates, we could and should have an open dialogue to better understand the causality chain of various factors that influence cancer and other diseases, which should include individual or collective lifestyle practices, as well as indoor and outdoor environmental exposures to pollutants. But to that, we must include understanding of the structural socio-economic conditions that restrict the range of healthy lifestyle choices that individuals can make. Two examples spring to mind: we know that low-income populations’ access to healthy foods is a growing challenge in Delaware, and that tobacco companies aggressively market to low-income populations.

To be sure, establishing the epidemiological causality between specific health outcomes and pollutants is a difficult task and there’s often not much data to do this reliably and systematically. As a matter of scientific data and methods reliability and accuracy—and by their own admission—there is room for improvement in the EPA’s NATA dataset. But the DPH director chooses to “shoot the messenger” (UCS) instead of making the right call on the limitations of the data, which would be to urge the EPA to improve and increase air toxics data collection, air quality modeling, as well as fine-scale assessments of what these imply for cancer risks related to air toxics exposure.

But to entirely discredit the role of outdoor air toxics obscures the science-based knowledge that low-income communities of color are more exposed to these toxics and are thus at higher risks. This anti-scientific posture does not advance the dialogue that Dr. Rattay says should take place. As I have argued before, deflection away from social and scientific reality contributes to the “legacy of distrust” between low-income populations of color snd our scientific and health institutions, who have not always acted in the best interest of populations at the intersection of unfair environmental hazards burdens and political and socio-economic marginalization. The dialogue begins with taking their concerns seriously—not dismissing them outright.

[1] National Air Toxics Assessment: NATA Frequent Questions. Q3: How can NATA information be used?

Oil and Gaslighting: The American Petroleum Institute Misses the Mark on Environmental Justice

Last month, the American Petroleum Institute (API) made a feeble attempt at refuting the findings of the latest report from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Clean Air Task Force, “Fumes Across the Fence-Line: The Health Impacts of Air Pollution from Oil & Gas Facilities on African American Communities.” The report highlights the disproportionate risk of health problems facing Black communities in proximity to oil and gas facilities.

Specifically, the study found that more than one million Black people live within half a mile of natural gas facilities and in counties where the cancer risks from natural gas facilities emissions are higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s level of concern. The analysis considers risks associated with oil and gas facilities, while recognizing the various other sources of pollution with which Black communities are burdened. In a post on the API site, Uni Blake, a toxicologist by training and current scientific adviser to API, attempted to discredit the work of environmental justice groups and to diminish the environmental health issues facing communities of color.

Objectivity, that old chestnut

Ms. Blake used the age-old qualifier of “I am an objective scientist” to denigrate the very real problems facing Black communities. She claims that “…the paper fails to demonstrate a causal relationship between natural gas activity and the health disparities, reported or predicted [my emphasis], within the African American community.” In other words, objectivity for API means refusing to acknowledge the importance of traditional knowledge from local communities in developing research questions. “Objectivity” to API means instilling doubt about links between pollution from industry operations and negative health impacts. This is not new for API, which has for decades been in the business of spreading disinformation on science, but it is still appalling.

Racism in environmental health and scientific methodology

Racism in scientific research has always been an issue. Prejudices abound in research questions and methodology, and even the way results are interpreted. As the NAACP astutely captured in their report, “The nature of the vulnerability of African American and other person of color fence-line communities is intersectional—subject to connected systems of discrimination based on social categorizations such as race, gender, class, etc.”

Ms. Blake is clearly not coming from a place of understanding of the historical and current inequities placed on Black Americans, which is inexcusable since environmental injustices have long been documented. An extensive and expanding body of scientific evidence finds that people of color and those living in poverty are located more often in communities—termed environmental justice communities or overburdened communities—that are exposed to disproportionately higher levels of environmental pollution than Whites or people not living in poverty (See here, here, here, here, *pauses to take a breath* here, here, here, here, here, and even here).

Ms. Blake’s piece lacks actual evidence to back her claims.  Here are a couple of Ms. Blake’s arguments, followed by my comments:

  • “…attacking our industry is the wrong approach and detracts from the real work that should be done to reduce disparately high rates of disease among African Americans.”

Leslie Fleischman, a Clean Air Task Force analyst and study co-author, clarified the goal of the report: “The data in our report looks at the cancer risk and health impacts of ozone smog among the population and so, if that population is more vulnerable because of these factors, then it is even more important to address aggravating factors that are easily avoidable like controlling unnecessary leaks from oil and gas infrastructure.” It would seem that API is detracting from the purpose of the study, mischaracterizing what was demonstrated by the NAACP study.

  • “Rather, scholarly research attributes those health disparities to other factors that have nothing to do with natural gas and oil operations—such as genetics, indoor allergens and unequal access to preventative care.”

All I hear is: “Well, if you changed your lifestyle, had more money, and didn’t have such weak genes, you wouldn’t have health problems! Our operation has nothing to do with your inability to handle the hazardous air pollutants.”  The report she linked to maintains that “Asthma has a strong genetic component, although for this to be manifest interaction with environmental factors [emphasis mine] must occur.” Somehow, she interpreted this to mean “your house is too dusty and you have mold, these health problems are your fault alone,” thereby ignoring the contributions of oil and gas industry on health impacts to the substandard environment people are then forced to endure, as well as putting the onus on the very communities she recognizes as having “socio-economic factors that contribute to the disparities” (e.g. lower income, less access to health care).

As for preventative care, here’s a thought—oil and gas facilities need to quit finding loopholes and touting their successes meeting the bare minimum standards (not to mention constantly pushing for less stringent rules or delaying them). From that same study, “Exposure to airborne allergens and other irritants [emphasis mine] both triggers asthma attacks and is associated with the development of chronic asthma in infants.” Why not investigate some of those other irritants, API?

Same old stuff, different day

This tactic of diverting attention from the real issue is not new to us in environmental justice research and advocacy. We’ve even seen it recently with pushback from the Delaware Department of Health on our recent collaborative report. In October the Union of Concerned Scientists—working closely with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, Community Housing and Empowerment Connections Inc., and Coming Clean—released a report that demonstrated the potential link between environmental pollution and health impacts in Delaware’s industrial corridor. We analyzed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data for risk of cancer and respiratory illnesses stemming from toxic outdoor air pollution, as well as proximity of communities to industrial facilities that pose a high risk of a major chemical release or catastrophic incident.

In November, Karyl Rattay from the Delaware Division of Public Health wrote an op-ed personally attacking UCS and the report findings. She said, “The most common risk factors for cancers are related to lifestyle behaviors (e.g. tobacco use) and genetics.” So, lifestyle choices carry more weight than environmental factors when determining cancer risks? Not only is this argument a baseless racist victim-blaming line, but it shows that Dr. Rattay failed to even understand our study.  The study, like the NAACP study, focused solely on environmental risks to communities. Of course, we all know that our health is determined by a wide range of factors. That’s why it is so important to study the contribution of environmental exposures. Otherwise, such risks are often (and have historically been) overlooked.

I urge Ms. Blake and API to stop blaming the communities living in the danger zone. It’s time for the oil and gas industry to take accountability for their polluting ways and honor their commitment to protect the health and safety of the communities where they operate.

A Toxic Nomination Hangs in the Balance: Who Will Stand Up to Finally Topple Michael Dourson?

Photo: www.epw.senate.gov

Three weeks ago, North Carolina’s Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, announced their opposition to the nomination of Michael Dourson to run the office of chemical safety in the Environmental Protection Agency. Only one more vote is needed to doom his nomination, assuming unified opposition from all 48 Democrats and Independents.

The question is, who will have the courage to step forward next?

It should take no courage at all, if science and public health matter. Dourson is already in the EPA, serving as an adviser to Administrator Scott Pruitt. But, given Dourson’s outrageous record of working to undermine science-based standards for toxic chemicals on behalf of the chemical industry, he is clearly unfit to lead the office overseeing chemical safety at the federal level.

Belittling the health effects of dangerous chemicals

Dourson’s private research firm has represented companies such as Dow, Monsanto, and PPG Industries, and has had some research funded by Koch Industries.

Michael Dourson helped set a state safety standard for the chemical PFOA 2,000 times less strict than the level deemed safe by the EPA. Photo: pfoaprojectny

He and his firm have routinely judged chemicals to be safe at levels hundreds of times greater than the current standards issued by the EPA. Among those chemicals whose health effects he has tried to belittle is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is used in the manufacture of nonstick cookware such as Teflon and stain-resistant household products such as carpets. Dourson helped the state of West Virginia set a safety standard for the chemical 2,000 times less strict than the level deemed safe by the EPA.

That decision alone threatens the health of many Americans. In 2012, research by scientists at Emory University found workers at a West Virginia DuPont PFOA plant were at roughly three times the risk of dying from mesothelioma or chronic kidney disease as other DuPont workers, and faced similarly elevated risks for kidney cancer and other non-cancer kidney diseases. A more recent study, published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health linked reductions in exposure to PFOA across the country to a sharp decline in pregnancy-related problems including low-birth-weight babies.

In North Carolina, an as-yet-unregulated chemical meant to replace PFOA as a non-sticking agent, Gen X, has already been found at significant levels in the Cape Fear River. And the state is still reeling from nearly 1 million people being exposed to drinking water at Camp Lejeune that was contaminated with chemicals such as benzene, vinyl chloride, and trichloroethylene (TCE) from the 1950s through the 1980s. The Obama administration established a $2.2 billion disability compensation program for Camp Lejeune veterans suffering from cancer.

Serious concerns from North Carolina

Expecially troubling, if confirmed, Dourson would be responsible for oversight of the 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act. In its final months, the Obama administration selected the first 10 chemicals to be reviewed under the new act for their “potential for high hazard.” Of the 10, Dourson has claimed in research that several were safe at levels far exceeding the science-based standards currently established by the EPA. They include solvents linked to cancer such as 1,4 dioxane, 1-Bromopropane, and TCE, the latter of which has been found in the water contamination at Camp Lejeune.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced Dourson’s nomination to the full Senate in late October on a party-line 11-10 vote. But the candidate’s past was too biased for Burr and Tillis, despite the fact that both voted to confirm EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Burr said of Dourson in a statement, “With his record and our state’s history of contamination at Camp Lejeune as well as the current Gen X water issues in Wilmington, I am not confident he is the best choice for our country.”

Tillis’s office seconded that with a statement saying, “Senator Tillis still has serious concerns about his record and cannot support his nomination.”

Issues of great importance in Maine

In the immediate aftermath of Burr’s and Tillis’s rejection of Dourson, it seemed that Maine Senator Susan Collins might quickly follow suit. She said, “I certainly share the concerns that have been raised by Senator Burr and Senator Tillis. I think it’s safe to say that I am leaning against him.”

Collins has said nothing since then. Her office did not respond to repeated requests this week from the Union of Concerned Scientists on her latest position. And Dourson’s nomination stands in limbo, presumably as the Republican leadership worries that they may not have the votes in the full Senate to confirm him. In theory, Collins’ concerns should mirror those of Burr and Tillis because Maine has dealt with its share of water and soil pollution at military bases such as the former Brunswick Naval Station and Loring Air Force Base, both Superfund sites. She has also been active in bipartisan efforts to deal with cross-state air pollution.

Collins was the only Republican to vote against Pruitt’s nomination to run the EPA. Pruitt, who repeatedly sued the EPA on behalf of industry as attorney general of Oklahoma, is aggressively attempting to relax chemical regulations and reverse Obama-era rules such as the Clean Power Plan. The EPA has moved to remove products containing PFOA from being studied for lasting impact in the environment and refused to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, linked to damaging the developing brains of fetuses and young children.

When she announced her opposition to Pruitt, Collins said, “I have significant concerns that Mr. Pruitt has actively opposed and sued EPA on numerous issues that are of great importance to the state of Maine, including mercury controls for coal-fired power plants and efforts to reduce cross-state air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. His actions leave me with considerable doubts about whether his vision for the EPA is consistent with the Agency’s critical mission to protect human health and the environment.”

If Collins truly maintains those concerns, she surely would not want to augment the problems of Pruitt’s already disgraceful tenure by supporting Dourson. But even if she for some reason shies away from a no vote, there are many other Republican senators whose states also have military installations with rampant pollution affecting adjacent communities.

Many more Republican senators should be unnerved

With Camp Lejeune as a haunting example of military pollution of its own soldiers and adjacent communities, the US armed forces are in the midst of investigating potential water contamination at nearly 400 such active and shuttered sites. That fact should unnerve many more Republicans, even those who generally support Pruitt’s actions. According to a Politico report three weeks ago, Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Bob Corker of Tennessee were noncommittal about supporting Dourson’s nomination.

Toomey’s office released a statement also reported by the Bucks County Courier Times saying he “remains concerned about the PFOA issue” in towns next to closed military bases in the Philadelphia area, where compounds from firefighting foams may have leached into drinking water sources. Elevated levels of pancreatic cancer have been found in the area.

With so much concern about elevated levels of cancer around the nation linked to water pollution, this is not the time to put someone in charge who made a career out of downplaying the risks of chemicals. It is bad enough that Dourson is already at EPA, advising Pruitt. But that remains a long way from actually having his hand on the pen that can help sign away people’s safety.

He should never hold that pen.

Concerned? 

Call your senator today and ask him or her to oppose the confirmation of Michael Dourson!

The Future of Solar is in the President’s Hands. It *Should* Be an Easy Call

Installing solar panels in PA Photo: used with permission from publicsource.org

The saga of the would-be solar tariffs that just about nobody wants is continuing, and I can’t help but be struck by the disconnect between some of the possible outcomes and the administration’s purported interest in rational energy development for America. If President Trump believes what he says, deciding not to impose major tariffs shouldn’t be a tough decision.

Here’s the thing: in March 2017, the president issued an executive order about “undue burdens on energy development,” which said (emphasis added) that it was:

Solar’s future: Progress or pain? It’s his call.

…in the national interest to promote clean and safe development of our Nation’s vast energy resources, while at the same time avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation.

Encumbering, constraining, preventing. Remember those verbs as we go through some of the key facts of this case.

The players

The trade case, brought by two US solar panel manufacturers that are on the rocks, or whose foreign parents are, involves a little-used (and failure-prone) provision in the US tax code. And it has met with almost universal rejection, from a whole host of industry, political, security, and conservative and really conservative voices (Sean Hannity, anyone?).

Even the US International Trade Commission (USITC) tasked with making recommendations in response to the petition couldn’t agree, with the four commissioners coming up with three different proposals.

As we said at the time, on the one hand it was good that the USITC recommendations weren’t as drastic as what the petitioners had asked for. On the other hand, anything that slows down our solar progress is bad news for America.

The (pre-Trump) progress

Solar has been on an incredible trajectory for years now, producing energy, cutting pollution, increasing energy security, and helping homes and businesses. The first nine months of 2017, for example, saw solar producing 47% more electricity than in the same period of 2016, with the biggest gains among the top 10 states for solar generation being in Georgia, Texas, and Utah.

Solar has also been an incredible job-creating machine. Some 260,000 people worked in the solar industry by the end of 2016, almost 2.5 times 2011’s solar job count. One in every 50 new American jobs last year was created by the solar industry. And those have been in different pieces of the industry—R&D, manufacturing, sales, project development, finance, installation—and all across the country.

The problem and presaging

Credit: J. Rogers

Some of those gains have taken place during the Trump presidency, and maybe he can rationalize taking credit for them by pointing out the fact that he at least didn’t stop those good things from happening.

That benign neglect may be about to change, though, and we’re already seeing the effects of the uncertainty that the president’s rhetoric around issues of solar and trade has created.

The trade case has continued. While not part of the specified process for this type of proceeding, the White House invited the public to submit comments to the US trade representative, and recently held a public hearing.

The next deadline is January 26, the end of the period for President Trump to make up his mind about the USITC recommendations—accepting one of the sets of proposals, doing something else, or rejecting the idea of tariffs and quotas.

In the meantime, the effects are already hitting: Utility-scale solar costs had dropped below $1 per watt for the first time in history earlier this year. Now those costs have climbed back above that mark as developers have scrambled to get their hands on modules ahead of whatever’s coming.

Large-scale solar projects are faltering (as in Texas) because of the inability of developers and customers to absorb the risk of substantially higher solar costs. That’s investment in projects on American soil, on hold.

But those setbacks could be just a taste of what’s to come.

The point: Encumbering, constraining, preventing

That brings us back to the March executive order, which boldly professed an intention to do away with burdens holding back US industry, and was decided anti-interventionist (in the regulatory sense).

And yet here we are, a few short months later, talking about doing that exact thing—messing with the market, and going against our national interests. Encumbering energy production by driving up the costs of the cells and modules that have powered so much growth. Constraining economic growth by making it harder for American homes and businesses and utilities to say yes to solar. Preventing job creation—even causing job losses—by shrinking the market for what our nation’s vibrant solar industry has been offering so successfully.

Credit: J. Rogers

The pain

While provisions in the tax bill being worked out in congress would do no good for renewables, the president’s actions could have much more direct impacts on American pricing and competitiveness. A lot of smart people are pointing out that any bump-up in US solar module manufacturing jobs will be way more than offset by job losses elsewhere in the industry, including elsewhere in solar manufacturing.

If the president chooses to ignore the many voices clamoring for rational policy on this, if he chooses—and remember he alone can fix this—to impose major tariffs or quotas, he’s going to own their impacts.

Every net American job lost because of higher module prices will have his name on it.

Every US solar panel manufacturer that doesn’t magically take off behind his wall of protectionism will be evidence of the misguideness of his approach.

Every small or large US solar project cancelled—jobs, investments, and all—because of the speedbumps, roadblocks, and hairpin turns on his energy vision-to-nowhere will be a Trump-branded monument to his lack of foresight and unwillingness to accept the changing realities of energy, innovation, and ingenuity.

The path

The solar industry, though, has offered President Trump a way out. They’ve proposed an import licensing fee approach that would support expanded US manufacturing while letting solar continue to soar (all else being equal).

That’s fortunate for the president, and for just about all of the rest of us. Because if he’s truly about unencumbering energy production, about removing constraints to economic growth, and stopping the prevention of job creation, killing American solar jobs would be a funny way to show it.

Public Source

New Transmission Projects Will Unleash Midwestern Wind Power—And Save Billions

As we look ahead to our clean energy future, a key piece of the puzzle is building the transmission system that will carry utility-scale renewable energy from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed. A recent study from the Mid-Continent Independent System Operator (MISO) shows that, when done right, transmission projects integrated with renewable energy can pay huge dividends. They decarbonize our electricity supply, improve efficiency, and lower costs to the tune of billions of dollars in benefits to electricity customers.

A long journey to get it right

Transmission projects can cost-effectively accelerate our clean energy transition. But it must be done right with proper planning, stakeholder engagement, and diligent analytics.

Ensuring long-term investments in our transmission system provide benefits to customers is a lengthy process. Beginning in 2003, MISO—which operates the electricity transmission system and wholesale electricity markets across much of the central US—began to explore a regional planning process that would complement the local planning and activities of the utilities, states, and other stakeholders operating in its territory.

After several years of scoping, planning, analysis, and legal wrangling, a set of 17 “multi-value” transmission projects (MVPs) were approved in 2011 based on their projected ability to (1) provide benefits in excess of costs, (2) improve system reliability, and (3) provide access to renewable energy to help meet state renewable energy standards.

Even six-plus years after being approved, most of these projects are currently under construction since transmission projects typically take several years to move through the approval process, permitting, siting, and construction. But even as these projects are being developed, MISO has continued to evaluate them based on the most recent information available—making sure that they are still expected to deliver the benefits originally projected.

The most recent review, fortunately, shows that they are truly living up to their “multi-value” moniker. And like a fine wine, they seem to be getting better with time.

Latest review shows benefits increasing compared to original projections

Overall, the latest review shows a benefit to cost ratio ranging from 2.2 to 3.4—meaning these projects are expected to deliver economic benefits on the order of $2.20 to $3.40 for every dollar in cost. This is an increase over the original projection of a cost benefits ratio of 1.8 to 3.0. The latest cost/benefit analysis equates to total net economic benefits between $12.1 and $52.6 billion over the next 20 to 40 years. The figure below shows how the multiple values projected from these projects add up.

The chart above shows the categories – and projected value – of benefits (columns one through 6) that MISO considers in identifying and approving projects. When stacked up, the total benefits range from $22.1 to $74.8 billion. When total costs are also considered, net benefits (the last column on the right) to the MISO System and customers that rely on it drop to between $12 and $52.6 billion. Source: MISO

As shown in the figure, the bulk of economic benefits flowing from the MVPs are from relieving congestion and saving on fuel costs (shown in column 1). These are typically characterized as increasing “market efficiency” by opening up wholesale electricity markets to more robust competition and spreading the benefits of low-cost generation throughout the region—essentially allowing cheap energy to flow where there’s demand. Because renewable energy has zero fuel cost, enabling more of it onto the grid allows the overall system to operate more cheaply. These savings ultimately flow to ratepayers that are typically on the hook for fuel costs incurred by their utility.

And the amount of wind energy that is being brought onto the system because of these MVPs is significant. This latest review by MISO estimates that the portfolio of projects, once completed, will enable nearly 53 million megawatt-hours of renewable energy to access the system through 2031. To put that in perspective, a typical home uses about 10 megawatt-hours per year. So that’s enough energy to power 100,000 households for more than 50 years!

A lot more than just electricity

When put together, the combination of well-thought-out transmission investments and renewable energy development in the Midwest also provides a host of additional social benefits, including:

  • Enhancing the diversity of resources supplying electricity to the system
  • Improving the robustness of the transmission system that decreases the likelihood of blackouts
  • Increasing the geographic diversity of wind resources, thereby improving average wind output to the system at any given time
  • Supporting the creation of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in local investment
  • Reducing carbon emission by 13 to 21 million tons annually

Let’s think about this for one second more…

Through proper planning, stakeholder engagement, and diligent analytics, here in the Midwest we are building a portfolio of transmission projects that will significantly lower carbon emissions, enable billions of dollars in investment and thousands of new jobs, make our electricity supply more reliable, and provide billions in economic benefits to ratepayers.

Maybe we should think about it for one more second. Or maybe we should start thinking about what’s next?

Source: MISO

The Penn State Science Policy Society: Filling the Gap Between Science and Community

Graduate school. It’s where generations of scientists have been trained to become independent scientists. More than 60 hours per week spent in lab, countless group meetings, innumerable hours spent crunching data and writing manuscripts and proposals that are filled with scientific jargon.

Unfortunately, it’s this jargon that prevents scientists from effectively communicating their science to the non-technical audiences that need it. Penn State’s Science Policy Society aims to bridge this gap by helping current graduate students and post-doctoral fellows learn how to bring their research into the community.

We occupy an important niche at Penn State as we continue to educate members of the Penn State community about the connection between our research and public policy, with a dedicated focus on science advocacy. We are helping our future scientists translate their stories and make connections with community members and policy makers.

Identifying a gap between science and community

Penn State researcher Dr. Michael Mann discussing the science behind climate change at Liberty Craft House in downtown State College.

Early on, we recognized a growing disconnect between the local State College community and the groundbreaking research occurring at Penn State. A growing desire within the Science Policy Society became apparent. Our members wanted to help our fellow community members, but we didn’t have the skills or the relationships within the community. We began to plan events to address this problem, looking to others who have fostered strong community ties as guides.

We began our relationship with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in March 2016 when Liz Schmitt and Dr. Jeremy Richardson came to Penn State to discuss UCS’s efforts to promote science-community partnerships. In May 2016, SPS members traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with UCS staff for science advocacy training. With the help of UCS, we have been able to begin to build our own community relationships. We started with Science on Tap, a monthly public outreach event designed to showcase Penn State science in a casual downtown bar setting. By having leaders in science-community partnerships to guide us, we have been able to begin our own journey into outreach.

Science & Community: A panel event

While our Science on Tap events were successful, we still felt there was still a gnawing gap between Penn State science and our local community. The local news was filled with science-related issues in State College and the surrounding central Pennsylvania region, but it wasn’t obvious how science was being used to help decision makers. We recognized an urgent need to learn how other scientists use their science to help, or even become, activists that fight for their local community.

The Science Policy Society panel discussion on Science & Community. From left to right: Dr. David Hughes, Dr. Maggie Douglas, and Dr. Thomas Beatty.

On September 14, 2017, the Science Policy Society partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists to organize an event called “Science & Community.” Taking place at the Schlow Centre Region Library, the event was a panel discussion focused on how scientists and community activists can work together. The event featured three Penn State researchers: Dr. Maggie Douglas and Dr. David Hughes from the Department of Entomology, and Dr. Thomas Beatty from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Dr. Douglas works closely with local beekeepers and farmers to promote pollinator success, while Dr. Hughes is a leading member of the Nittany Valley Water Coalition, an organization that aims to protect the water of State College and the farmland it flows under. Dr. Beatty is a member of Fair Districts PA and speaks across central Pennsylvania about gerrymandering.

All three of these scientists saw problems in their community and decided to take action. Even more remarkable, most of these issues are outside their areas of scientific expertise. Astronomers typically aren’t trained in political science, but that did not stop Dr. Thomas Beatty from applying his statistical toolset to impartial voter redistricting. Same with Drs. Hughes and Douglas, who took their expertise into the community to help farmers and beekeepers protect their livelihoods.

Lessons learned

Easily the most important lesson that we learned from this Science & Community panel event was how hard it is for scientists to move into the local community and begin these conversations and partnerships. There was an overwhelming sense that the majority of the scientists in attendance did not feel comfortable using their scientific expertise to engage on local community issues. The reasons were numerous, but seemed to focus on (1) not knowing how to translate their science so that it is useful for non-specialists and (2) not having enough room in their schedule.

Moving forward, the Science Policy Society is aiming to address these concerns as we work towards filling the void between Penn State science and the surrounding communities. For example, we will be hosting science communication workshops to train scientists on how to strip jargon from their story of scientific discovery. Additionally, a panel event currently being planned for Spring 2018 aims to discuss how science and religion are not mutually exclusive, and will show how scientists can work with religious organizations and leaders to promote evidence based decision-making.

Graduate students looking to help their community are not given the necessary tools needed to do so. Hours spent in lab and at conferences talking only in scientific jargon leaves many unable to talk about their science to the general public. The Science Policy Society is filling this need by providing an outlet for scientists to learn communication and advocacy skills and begin to build relationships with community members and policy makers. With help from scientists and science outreach professionals, we are fostering science and community partnerships in State College and throughout central Pennsylvania.

 

Jared Mondschein is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. He was born and raised near New York City and earned a B.S. in chemistry from Union College in 2014. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Penn State University, where he studies materials that convert sunlight into fuels and value-added chemical feedstocks. You can find him on Twitter @JSMondschein.

Theresa Kucinski is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. She was born and raised in northern New Jersey, earning her A.S. in chemistry at Sussex County Community College in 2014 and B.A. in chemistry from Drew University in 2016. She currently studies atmospheric chemistry at Penn State University as a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry.

Grayson Doucette is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He was born into a military family, growing up in a new part of the globe every few years. He earned his B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia Tech in 2014, continuing on to Penn State’s graduate program. At PSU, his research has focused on photovoltaic materials capable of pairing with current solar technologies to improve overall solar cell efficiency. You can find him on Twitter @GS_Doucette.

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.

 

Why You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About Recycling Old Appliances

Let’s face it: Deep down inside you, or maybe much closer to the surface, you’ve been wanting a new refrigerator, dishwasher, washer, or dryer. You’ve had your eye on that sweet little white/black/stainless beauty of a machine, and you’ve seen the holiday sales (pick a holiday, any holiday) come and go, with their “Save $200!… Free delivery!… Act now!” enticements… And yet you’ve stayed on the sidelines.

If what’s been holding you back is concern about what happens to old appliances, landfills and all, I’ve got great news for you: Chances are good that you’re better off if you upgrade, because energy efficiency progress means you can save plenty of money—and that all of us are also better off because that progress means your upgrade also cuts emissions, even when you take the bigger picture into account.

New appliances make financial sense

It should be really clear that new appliances can save you a bunch of money by saving energy (and more). Federal efficiency standards for fridges that came into place in 2014 meant electricity savings of 20-25% for most, and units qualified under the ENERGY STAR program offer at least another 9% savings.

For washing machines, ENERGY STAR-rated ones use 25% less energy and 45% less water than their conventional brethren, which means less money spent on both energy and water. Upgrading from a standard washing machine that’s 10 years old can actually save you more than $200 a year.

New appliances make environmental sense, too

So that’s the financial side of things. And we both know that’s important.

But we also both know that you’re about much more than that. You’re thinking about how that dishwasher doesn’t just magically appear, about how the old one doesn’t just vanish. You’re thinking about the implications from each stage of its life. So what about the carbon emissions, you say.

Thinking about what goes into producing and disposing of something makes a lot of sense, as long as you’re thinking about what goes into operating that same something during that long period between production and disposal (the life of the product).

And it makes even more sense to use data to help that thinking. (You’re a Union of Concerned Scientists type of person, after all; you just can’t help it.)

Fortunately, we’ve got that. Cooler Smarter, UCS’s book on where the carbon emissions come from in our lives—which of our consumer decisions have the most impact on how much CO2 we emit—has just the data you need. (In the appendices; we didn’t want to scare off other people.)

And what Cooler Smarter’s data tables show is that the emissions associated with producing and disposing of a range of appliances add up to less than the emissions associated with their use. A lot less actually: Using them can take 10-25 times as much energy as getting them there and getting rid of ‘em.

Getting Cooler Smarter about where the emissions come from, with data. Turns out that “Use Emissions” are usually the big piece. (Source: Cooler Smarter)

What that means is that if you can upgrade an appliance to one that’s more efficient, and particularly if your existing helper is more than a few years old, it’s probably really worth it not just from a financial perspective, but also in terms of carbon pollution.

That same principle, by the way, holds true for other energy users around your house: think lighting, for instance, where CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) or even newer LEDs (light-emitting diodes) in place of incandescent light bulbs can really quickly save you a bundle and pay back the emissions that went into make them. Or think vehicles, where recent years’ efficiency gains have been really impressive.

As it says in Cooler Smarter:

When there are highly efficient options for appliances, equipment, and vehicles, for instance, it almost always makes sense to junk energy hogs in favor of the most efficient models you can afford.

Four decades of progress in a box: Bigger fridges, more features, a lot less energy. (Source: ACEEE)

Old appliances can be reborn

For the disposal piece of the carbon equation, one key to making the math work for an appliance’s afterlife is to dispose of it the right way. While photos of piles of old appliances might be eye-catching—and disheartening—your old faithful dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, or fridge doesn’t have to suffer that ignominious end.

In fact, it’s a whole lot better if it doesn’t, and there are lots of ways to make it so. ENERGY STAR has a useful set of webpages on recycling old appliancesrefrigerators, clothes washers, other appliances, and more. It suggests, for example, that recycling can be through the store you’re buying the new appliance from, through your local utility, through your city or town, or via a scrap dealer.

How your old fridge gets new life (with the help of a Hammond B3 organ soundtrack) (Source: ENERGY STAR)

As for where the old appliance goes/how the materials find new life: Fridges are a useful, complex array of materials that provide useful insights (and fodder for graphics). ENERGY STAR has a handy video about all the pieces and how they get reborn. (The shredding part about two-thirds of the way through isn’t for the faint of heart, particularly the appliance-loving heart, but just remember that it’s all for the greater good.) And the efficiency program in top-ranked Massachusetts not only gives the lowdown on fridge recycling (and a cool infographic), but offers free removal and $50 to boot.

That new-life-for-old idea can work for other things, too. If it’s lights you’re swapping out, here are a few ideas on what to do with old incandescent light bulbs (sock-darning, for example). For vehicles, check out UCS’s cradle-to-grave analysis.

Don’t you deserve lower costs, more comfort, less pollution, more…?

A new washer and dryer set might not fit under the Christmas tree, but that shouldn’t keep you from upgrading. Neither should concerns about what happens to the old one, or where the new one comes from.

As Cooler Smarter‘s section on “stuff we buy” lays out, there’s a lot to be said for buying less, and buying smart. But efficiency gains change the equation for some things.

If you feel you deserve new appliances, you just might be right. And if you think that upgrading to much higher efficiency ones and recycling the old might be a good move, you’d definitely be right.

Energy efficiency truly is the gift that keeps on giving, for both the wallet and the planet.

So act now—retailers are standing by!

Automakers’ Long List of Fights Against Progress, and Why We Must Demand Better

Vehicle pollution is a major issue for human health and the environment.

Today, we are releasing a report documenting the long, sordid past of the auto industry, who has fought regulation tooth and nail at every turn. From pollution control to seatbelts and air bags to fuel economy, the industry has spent the vast majority of the past 7 decades doing whatever it can to wriggle out of government regulations, at the expense of the American public.

Cars have drastically improved, but not without a fight

Time for a U-turn looks at the tactics that automakers consistently deploy to fight against federal rules and standards that deliver better cars to the nation, tactics like exaggeration, misinformation, and influence. It also outlines concrete actions that automakers can take to leave behind their history of intransigence, and ensure that their industry rises to the challenges of the 21st century.

There is no doubt that the cars built today are significantly improved over the vehicles from the 1950s:

  • today’s safety standards require not just airbags and seatbelts but also features like crumple zones which help to minimize occupant injury;
  • tailpipe pollution standards have dramatically reduced the emissions of soot and smog-forming pollutants like volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides; and
  • fuel economy and global warming emissions standards have saved consumers about $4 TRILLION dollars in fuel, severely reducing both the demand for oil and impact on climate change.

It’s clear when put to the task, automotive engineers have been more than capable of meeting whatever challenge is laid in front of them, resulting in a tremendous positive impact for the public.

Unfortunately, the industry has a long history of putting its lobbyists to work instead, promoting misleading claims and interfering politically to weaken or delay the standards that protect the public.

Automotive Chicken Little and a “Can’t Do” Attitude

One of the most frustrating aspects of the volumes of research I did for this report was the sheer repetition of the arguments.  According to the auto industry, any type of regulation would force them out of business…and yet they are still here.  Here are a few examples:

“[I]f GM is forced to introduce catalytic converter systems across the board on 1975 models . . . it is conceivable that complete stoppage of the entire production could occur, with the obvious tremendous loss to the company, shareholders, employees, suppliers, and communities.” – Ernie Starkman (GM) in his push to weaken the 1975 tailpipe emissions standards put in place by the Clean Air Act.

Not only was Starkman wrong that catalytic converters would shut down GM, but they proved so popular that GM actually used them in its advertising in 1975!

“Many of the temporary standards are unreasonable, arbitrary, and technically infeasible. . . . [If] we can’t meet them when they are published we’ll have to close down.” – Henry Ford II (Ford), responding to the first motor vehicle safety standards.

Clearly, Ford did not have to close down.  In fact, Ford proved more than capable of meeting these “unreasonable” requirements by using features like safety glass and seat belts, which are commonplace today.

“We don’t even know how to reach [35 miles per gallon by 2020], not in a viable way.  [It] would break the industry.”  — Susan Cischke (Ford), discussing the requirements of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) that have led to the strong standards we have today.

Not only have strong fuel economy standards not broken the industry, but today it is thriving, with three consecutive years of sales over 17 million, an historic first for automakers.  And because of standards that drive improvements across all types of vehicles, we are not only on track to meet the requirements of EISA but doing so in spite of a growing share of SUVs and pick-ups.

Fighting the Science

Of course, even worse than the repetitive “sky is falling” attitude that has proven false at every turn is the assault on science that automakers have used in the past, seeking to eliminate policy action by diminishing either the solution or the problem:

“We believe that the potential impact of [fuel economy standards] on the global issue of planetary warming are [sic] difficult to demonstrate.” – Robert Liberatore (Chrysler)

Believe it or not, after James Hansen’s Congressional testimony in 1988, there was bipartisan support on the Hill to address climate change, including from transportation-related emissions.  Mr. Liberatore used an argument straight out of today’s Heritage Foundation claiming that fuel economy standards in the United States won’t have an impact on a global problem.  This flew in the face of science then, just as it does now.

“The effects of ozone are not that serious . . . what we’re talking about is a temporary loss in lung function of 20 to 30 percent.  That’s not really a health effect.” – Richard Klimisch (American Automobile Manufacturers Association).

In 1996, the EPA was moving forward to strengthen air quality standards for ozone (related to smog) and soot (particulate matter).  In order to push back on this solution, automakers campaigned against there even being a problem to address, claiming that a little loss in lung function wasn’t a big deal.  Needless to say, the EPA ignored this ridiculousness and implemented stronger standards. However, even these stronger standards did not fully address the problem, pushing the Obama administration to move forward on strengthening the standards further still.

Breaking the Cycle?

After the Great Recession, automakers seemed to turn over a new leaf, working closely with the Obama administration to craft stringent fuel economy and emissions standards that would drive efficiency improvements across all types of vehicles, including SUVs and pick-up trucks.

“[The industry has] had a change of heart, but it’s fairly recent. We had data about consumers’ preferences about fuel economy, but we chose to ignore it; we thought it was an anomaly. But it’s by having a bias against fuel economy that we’ve put ourselves in the pickle we’re in now.”  — Walter McManus (ex-GM), speaking about a shift in automaker thinking.

Unfortunately, this awakening seems to have been short-lived, as automakers are now urging the current administration to weaken the standards with the same types of tactics we’ve seen before:

  • Automakers are using direct political influence, sending a letter to the Trump administration to withdraw EPA’s determination that the strong 2025 standards remain appropriate.
  • Automakers are again exaggerating the facts, claiming widespread catastrophe if the EPA does not alter the standards based on a widely debunked study and ignoring the findings of a more thorough (albeit still conservative) report they themselves funded because it doesn’t fit their messaging.
  • Industry is pushing to expand the midterm review to include lowering the 2021 standards while acknowledging that lowering the 2021 standards would have no impact on their product offerings and simply is a form of regulatory relief “any way we can get it” (Chris Nevers, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers).

Despite talking a good game about being “absolutely committed to improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions for our customers” (Bill Ford, 2017), Ford and other automakers are engaging in the same intransigence we’ve seen over the past seven decades.

It’s time for automakers to end this multidecadal war against regulation and start siding with progress.  To build back trust and leave this history behind, automakers must seize this opportunity and:

  • support strong safety and emissions standards and keep the promises they made to the American people to build cleaner cars;
  • distance themselves from trade groups that seek to undermine today’s standards, and make it clear that these groups do not speak for all automakers on issues of safety and the environment; and
  • cease spreading disinformation about the standards and their impacts.

Supermoons, King Tides, and Global Warming

The moon rises behind the US Capitol. Photo by: Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA

Were you, like me, dazzled by the supermoon this weekend? Did you also stare in a state of wonder at the bright and shiny orb of color illuminating the night? Supermoons happen when a full or new moon is at its closest point to Earth. While we can’t see them during the new moon, supermoons that occur during a full moon are indeed something to behold. They bring thoughts of the universe, of space, stars and planets.

Flooding in Boston wharf.
Photo by: MyCoast, Christian Merfeld

But while we are turning our heads to the sky, we may not realize what’s happening at our feet. The moon might be out in space, but its movement has real impacts here on Earth, specifically on the oceans. I am talking about tides.

Tides are all about big masses of land and water pulling one another in a gravitational act. Tides are always higher at full and new moons — when the Moon, Earth, and Sun are aligned — and it follows that the gravitational pull is strongest when the masses are at their closest during a supermoon. That’s why we saw some unusually high tides, called king tides, across the country (and beyond) at the same time that we experienced the supermoon.

So, while we may not realize it when looking at the supersized moon, it is causing a great deal of disruption to people’s lives in the form of tidal flooding, also called “nuisance flooding.” As stated in one of my colleague’s earlier blogs, this localized tidal flooding has been steadily increasing due to sea level rise. And climate change is behind the sea level rise rates being observed.

The recently released Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) states with very high confidence that “global mean sea level (GMSL) has risen by about 7–8 inches (about 16–21 cm) since 1900, with about 3 of those inches (about 7 cm) occurring since 1993”, and rising will continue throughout the rest of the century at accelerated rates. Rates of sea level rise in many locations along the coast of the U.S. have been higher than the global average, and nuisance flooding is now 300% to more than 900% more frequent than it was 50 years ago in many of those locations.

Many cities have initiatives to track tides and some are specifically geared toward monitoring king tides. Volunteers with “Catch the King,” an initiative by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, can use a smartphone app to map flooded areas in Hampton Roads in real time. The group then uses the collected data to improve predictions and forecasts, and to better understand the risks from tidal flooding.

Similarly, the “My Coast” project asks Massachusetts residents to submit pictures of areas inundated by king tides to catalogue the effects of these events on the state’s coastal areas. Ultimately, these types of initiatives are geared towards improving resilience and preparedness, informing residents of impassable areas and floodwater reach.

The amount of emissions currently released into the atmosphere has already committed us to a certain amount of sea level rise through midcentury, simply because these warming gases remain in the atmosphere for a long time. However, decisions made in the next few years will determine how much the sea will rise in the second half of the century – reducing emissions can reduce the rates of rise and potentially save hundreds of coastal communities from tidal flooding.

So next time you look up at a supermoon (in January 2018), while still marveling at the incredible phenomenon you are witnessing, remember to also look down. It may just make you think about the moon in a completely different way – and how as a nation, we need to do more to reduce emissions and prepare for coastal flooding.

It’s World Soils Day: Celebrate Soil, Carbon, and the Opportunities Right Under Our Feet

These days, stories about soil health and regenerative farming seem to be catching on, so much so that it’s almost hard to keep up, at least for the avid soil geek.  The New York Times and the Huffington Post both featured op-eds just last week explaining why soil is worth getting excited about, while tales of soil health and science from North Dakota to New England were recently shared by other sources.  Yesterday, NPR hosted an hour-long panel on soil health. And that’s just a short list.

Maybe the rush of soil-slanted stories has something to do with today being World Soils Day. Or maybe it’s because soils and agriculture finally got some love at the latest climate convention.  Or perhaps it has to do with the growing list of states that are working towards healthy soils policies, or that the conversation surrounding the next Farm Bill has actually included soil health.

Or, just maybe, it’s because people are figuring out that the soils beneath our feet, and the farmers and ranchers that tend to them, need more of our attention.  After all, healthy soils are the living, breathing ecosystems that help grow our food, clean our water, store carbon, and reduce risks of droughts and floods.  Together, soils and their stewards can produce food while making agriculture part of the solution to several challenges (including climate change). Let me explain.

Soils stash carbon and deliver services

Some of the amazing features of soils that are finally being celebrated are not new. For some time, scientists have known that soils store a lot of carbon (about three times more than the atmosphere), and that carbon-rich soils tend to hold more water.  They have also known that soil varies a lot, even across small distances, that it changes over time, and that it is affected by management practices.  But we also know that there’s a lot we don’t know.  Thankfully, that’s starting to change.

Getting the numbers right on how soil can fight a changing climate (because we can’t afford not to)

Even just in the past year, soil science – including soil carbon science –  has advanced, pushed along by new tools, interests, and urgency.  A lot of the urgency has come as climate change picks up the pace. Today, scientists say that we can’t afford to choose between reducing emissions and sequestering carbon – we must do both.  That puts a spotlight (and pressure) on soils.

Fortunately, new science is rapidly uncovering more details about soils.  For example, pivotal papers have discussed how specific soil-based management practices could help mitigate climate change, and how soil carbon sequestration could be scaled up in the US and around the globe to achieve significant outcomes. Within the past months, key papers demonstrated that the majority (75%) of the organic carbon in the top meter of soil is directly impacted by management and that croplands may hold particular potential to be managed for carbon sequestration, but that soils continue to be at risk.

It’s important to note that while many studies have stressed opportunities in soils, others have questioned them.  For example, some research has suggested that soils may not be able to hold as much carbon as some scientists think, while other research has indicated that links between soil carbon and water are not as strong as previously thought.  Other research has questioned whether certain practices (e.g., abandoning cropland) can bring expected benefits.

In my opinion, all these studies just make more research more important.  Getting the numbers right will help us to find, and fine-tune, the best solutions for healthier, more resilient soil. But as we work out these details, we also need to act – and fast.

The role of farmers and ranchers in bringing out the best in soils, for better farms and futures

Fortunately, many farmers and ranchers already know how to build soil health (and carbon) on their land – and they are taking action (lucky for us, because the health of the soil is in their hands). Farmers and ranchers like Gabe Brown (ND), David Brandt (OH), Will Harris (GA), Ted Alexander (KS), and Seth Watkins (IA), just to name a few, have been experimenting for years with ways to build soil health for more resilient land.  New research from South Dakota shows that farmers are adopting cover crops and other practices in large part to build soil health.  And a growing list of companies and non-profits have supported a standardized definition of regenerative agriculture, suggesting that these healthy soils practices are gaining even more traction.

Recognizing the soils and stewardship beneath food “footprints”

As important as soil carbon, health, and stewardship are to ensuring farms are functioning at their best, it’s surprising that we think so little about them.  There is a larger discussion going on around sustainable diets and the notion that food has an environmental “footprint,” but the fact is that most of the studies that seek to quantify the carbon (or water, or land) footprints of food items haven’t accounted for the role of soil management and stewardship. Therefore, while the conversation about the impact of consumers’ food choices has been an important starting point, we also need to understand how the decisions made by farmers affect the world around us. That means bringing soil carbon to the table, and the sooner the better. With the growing appreciation for soil health science, practice, and story-telling, I think we might be getting somewhere.

P.S.  Prefer a little video inspiration? There’s plenty to choose from if you want to learn the basics of soil organic carbon, how “dead stuff” is key to the food chain, how healthy soils reduce flood risk, or more about the 4 per mille campaign, which puts soils at the forefront of climate change solutions.

Pruitt’s War on the Planet and the EPA—and What Congress Can Do About It

We have now endured almost a year with Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). His tenure is unprecedented—a full frontal assault on the agency he heads, and a retreat from the mission he is charged by law to advance. And thus far, Administrator Pruitt has not had to account for his actions.

But an accountability moment is nearing: for the first time since his nomination, Mr. Pruitt will appear before Congress to offer an update on the status of work at the agency—first before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on December 7, and next before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 31. These oversight hearings offer a critical opportunity for leaders on both sides of the aisle to ask tough questions, demand responsive information rather than platitudes, and voice their disapproval about how Administrator Pruitt has run the EPA.

Here are key topics for our elected representatives to focus on:

Mr. Pruitt’s empty “back to basics” promise

During his nomination hearing last January, Administrator Pruitt knew he would be questioned about his commitment to EPA’s mission and his repeated lawsuits against EPA when he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general. He came equipped with a clever counter-narrative. He claimed that he would make EPA a more effective agency by de-emphasizing “electives” such as climate change. He promised to steer the agency “back to basics” by focusing on core responsibilities such as enforcing clean air and water laws and cleaning hazardous waste sites.

Members of Congress should compare that promise to Administrator Pruitt’s actions over the past year. Almost immediately after taking office, he signed off on a budget that would cut EPA by 31 percent, despite the absence of any financial exigency requiring such draconian action. A few weeks later, he approved plans to lay off 25 percent of the agency’s employees and eliminate 56 programs. The proposed budget cuts target not only items Pruitt may think of as electives, but also basic bread-and-butter functions. For example, he proposed to strip $330 million from the $1.1 billion Superfund program and cut funding for the Justice Department to enforce cases.

And, in a clear contradiction of his testimony that he would work more cooperatively and effectively with state environmental protection agencies, he proposed to cut the grants that EPA gives to states for enforcement by 20 percent.

We are already starting to see the results of this effort to hollow EPA out from within. Experienced and talented career staff are leaving the agency in droves. The Chicago EPA office, for example, has already lost 61 employees “who account for more than 1,000 years of experience and represent nearly 6 percent of the EPA’s Region 5 staff, which coordinates the agency’s work in six states around the Great Lakes.” This means, among other things, a smaller number of inspectors and likely an increased number of businesses operating out of compliance with clean air and water laws.

With less staff and fewer experienced staff members, it is no surprise that EPA has seen a roughly 60 percent reduction in the penalties it has collected for environmental violations compared with the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations at comparable stages in their respective terms. And while the Obama administration cleaned up and de-listed 60 hazardous waste sites and added 142 sites over eight years, so far the EPA, under Mr. Pruitt, is far off that pace, deleting just two sites and adding only seven.

Perhaps most troubling, civil servants have been deeply demoralized by the combination of proposed cuts and constant statements by the president and Administrator Pruitt denigrating the agency as a job killer, which it is not. As one staffer said in a recent publication entitled EPA under Siege “I think there’s a general consensus among the career people that, at bottom, they’re basically trying to destroy the place.”

Said another: “Quite honestly, the core values of this administration are so divergent from my own, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity [for retirement]….I found it difficult to work for an agency with someone who is so disrespectful of what we do and why we do it.”

Members of Congress should question Mr. Pruitt about his “back to basics” promise. They should ask why he advocated for such deep budget cuts, layoffs, and buyouts, and demand that he explain with specificity how the agency can possibly do better with such drastically reduced resources. Congress should also require Mr. Pruitt to provide clear, apples-to-apples comparisons of the record of environmental enforcement during his tenure with that of his predecessors, as measured by inspections, notices of violation, corrective actions, fines and litigation.

Administrator Pruitt’s “Law and Order” charade

Administrator Pruitt put forth a second narrative during his confirmation hearing. He promised  to restore “law and order” to EPA, claiming that the EPA had strayed beyond its statutory authority during President Obama’s tenure.

The record tells a very different story. In less than a year, Mr. Pruitt’s actions have repeatedly been found by courts to be “unlawful,” “arbitrary,” and “capricious.”

One example is particularly instructive. At the end of the Obama administration, the EPA issued a final rule requiring operators of new oil and gas wells to install controls to capture methane, a highly potent contributor to global warming. The rule was set to go into effect in early 2017. Administrator Pruitt unilaterally put the rule on hold for two years to allow EPA to conduct a sweeping reconsideration. This, the court found, was blatantly illegal, because it attempted to change the compliance date of a rule without going through the necessary rulemaking process.

Unfortunately, this tactic has become a pattern, as Mr. Pruitt has sought to put on hold many other regulations he doesn’t care for, including rules intended to reduce asthma-causing ozone pollutiontoxic mercury contamination in water supplies, and a requirement that state transportation departments monitor greenhouse gas emission levels on national highways and set targets for reducing them. Environmental nonprofit organizations and state attorneys general have had to sue, or threaten to sue, to stop this illegal behavior.

The EPA’s lawlessness is not confined to official acts, but also concerns the administrator personally. In an obvious conflict of interest, Mr. Pruitt played a leading role in the EPA’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever limit on carbon dioxide pollution from power plants. Yet, just a few months before taking over at the EPA, Mr. Pruitt had led the legal fight against the rule as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

In effect, he played the role of advocate, then judge and jury, and ultimately executioner, all in a matter of a few months.

In addition, Administrator Pruitt is under investigation for misusing taxpayer dollars for $58,000 worth of private chartered flights, and has wasted $25,000 of taxpayer money to build himself a secret phone booth in his office.

Congress needs to ask Mr. Pruitt how he can be said to have restored respect for the law at the EPA, when the EPA (and perhaps Administrator Pruitt personally) have been flouting it. They need to ask him about what role he played in the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, and how he can square his conflicting loyalties to the state of Oklahoma (which he represented as an attorney) and to the American people (who he is supposed to represent as head of the EPA). Congress should also investigate his personal use of taxpayer funds and his penchant for cutting corners on legally mandated processes.

An “Alice in Wonderland” approach to science

The EPA’s five decades of success rest on its longstanding commitment to the best available science, and to its well-trained professional scientists who deploy that science. Administrator Pruitt has taken a wrecking ball to this scientific foundation.

First, he ignores staff scientists when their conclusions do not support his deregulation agenda. On the crucial scientific question of our time—climate change and what is causing it—Mr. Pruitt says he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary cause. Of course, this statement runs directly counter to the conclusions of EPA scientists (as well as those of the recently issued US Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report). And, in one of his first policy decisions, Administrator Pruitt overturned EPA scientists’ recommendation to ban a pesticide (chlorpyrifos) that presents a clear health risk to farmers, children, and rural families.

But Mr. Pruitt is not only ignoring staff scientists, he is also sidelining and suppressing advice from highly credentialed and respected scientists who advise the EPA. Last summer, he sacked most of the members of the Board of Scientific Counselors, a committee of leading scientific experts that advises the EPA about newly emerging environmental threats and the best use of federal research dollars. And he has used this as an excuse to suspend the board’s work indefinitely.

More recently, he issued a new policy which states that a key outside Science Advisory Board will no longer include academic scientists who have received EPA grants in the past, under the purported theory that the grants render them less objective. Yet, Administrator Pruitt will fill these posts with industry scientists who are paid exclusively by industry, and with scientists who work for state governments that receive grants from the EPA. This new policy has enabled Mr. Pruitt to fill these boards with scientists who are clearly aligned with industry, scientists such as Michael Honeycutt, who has railed against EPA limits on soot and even testified before Congress that “some studies even suggest PM [particulate matter] makes you live longer.”

Administrator Pruitt’s attack on science also includes the EPA deleting vital information from agency websites. For example, the EPA has deleted key information about the Clean Power Plan, even though the agency is in the middle of a public comment process on whether to repeal that rule, and what to replace it with. The EPA has also eliminated information on the “social cost of carbon” and the record of its finding that the emission of greenhouse gases endangers public health.

These deletions seem designed to make it more difficult for the scientific community, and members of the public, to access the scientific information that stands in the way of Mr. Pruitt’s agenda.

Congress needs to probe deeply on these multiple ways that Administrator Pruitt has diminished the role of science at EPA. Representatives and senators should make him explain why he thinks he knows more about climate science and the harms of pesticides than his scientists do. They should demand that he explain why it is a conflict of interest for academic scientists who receive EPA grants to advise the EPA, but not for state and tribal scientists who receive these grants, or industry-paid scientists. And Congress must find out why so much valuable information about climate science, the social cost of carbon, and other matters have vanished from EPA websites.

Making the world safe for polluters

In December 2015, more than 190 countries, including the United States, approved an agreement in Paris to finally tackle the greatest challenge of our time—runaway climate change. Donald Trump pledged to pull the United States out of this agreement when he ran for office, but for six months into his term, he did not act on the pledge, and there was an internal debate within his administration.

Mr. Pruitt led the charge for the US withdrawal from that agreement. He has followed up on this by going after almost every single rule the Obama administration had put in place to cut global warming emissions. This includes the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the “re-opening” of the current fuel economy standards that are now on target to roughly double cars’ fuel efficiency by 2025, the repeal of data gathering on methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, and tampering with how the EPA calculates the costs of carbon pollution, among many other actions.

But Administrator Pruitt’s rollback of safeguards is not limited to climate-related rules; it also includes cutting or undermining provisions that protect us all from more conventional pollutants. He has started the process of rescinding rules that limit power plants from discharging toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead into public waterways; regulate the disposal of coal ash in waste pits near waterways; and improve safety at facilities housing dangerous chemicals.

The breadth and ferocity of these rollbacks is unprecedented. Congress needs to push back hard. For starters, representatives and senators need to demand that Mr. Pruitt explain how it fits within his job duties to lobby the president against one of the most important environmental protection agreements ever reached. Similarly, they need to highlight the impacts on human health and the environment from all of the rollbacks that Administrator Pruitt has initiated, and force him to explain how the EPA can be advancing its mission by lowering environmental standards.

Congressional oversight is needed now more than ever

Many aspects of Mr. Pruitt’s tenure are truly unprecedented. However, he’s not the first EPA administrator to display fundamental disrespect for the agency’s mission. As one legal scholar has noted, during the Reagan administration there were “pervasive” congressional concerns that former Administrator Anne Gorsuch and other political appointees at the agency “were entering into ‘sweetheart deals’ with industry, manipulating programs for partisan political ends, and crippling the agency through requests for budget reductions.”

Congressional oversight back then was potent: among other things, Congress demanded that the EPA hand over documents about the apparently lax enforcement of the Superfund law requiring cleanups of hazardous waste sites. When the EPA head refused to comply with those demands, Congress held Administrator Gorsuch in contempt. Senators, including Republicans such as Robert Stafford and Lincoln Chaffee, publicly voiced their alarm. Eventually, President Reagan decided Ms. Gorsuch was a liability, and he replaced her with William Ruckelshaus, EPA’s first administrator under President Nixon, and a well-respected moderate who stabilized the agency.

These oversight efforts were “the decisive factor in causing Ms. Gorsuch, as well as most of the other political appointees at the agency, to resign.”

It may be too much to expect that the current, polarized Congress will exhibit the same level of tough, bipartisan oversight it did in the Reagan era. Yet, bipartisan support for vigorous environmental protection remains strong today and some Republican leaders have already called upon Administrator Pruitt to step down. It is high time for Congress to do what it can to ensure that Mr. Pruitt’s EPA does not continue to put the interests of a few industries ahead of the clean air, water, and lands that the agency is mandated to protect.

The EPA Knows Glider Trucks Are Dangerously Dirty: It’s Time to Keep Them Off the Road

That shiny new truck could have a 15-year-old engine that doesn’t meet today’s standards. Photo: Jeremy Rempel. CC-BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Today, I am speaking at a public hearing at EPA to push back on the agency reopening a “zombie truck” loophole. I wrote about the political motivations behind the attack on public health previously, but we now have even more information about exactly how dirty these trucks are from an interesting source: the EPA itself.

A reminder about what is at stake

Glider vehicles are brand new trucks that are powered by a re-manufactured engine.  While they look like every other new truck on the outside, on the inside they have engines which were manufactured under weaker pollution standards than other new trucks. Because they are resurrecting these older, more highly polluting engines from the dead, they are sometimes referred to as “zombie trucks.”

While initially glider trucks were used to replace vehicles whose bodies had been damaged, more recently a cottage industry has sprung up selling about 20 times more trucks than historic levels solely to bypass pollution restrictions.

In the “Phase II” heavy-duty vehicle regulations, the EPA closed the loophole that allowed these awful pollution spewers to be manufactured in the first place. However, Scott Pruitt’s EPA has proposed repealing this action, reopening the loophole primarily to benefit a company with political ties.

Dirty science for dirty trucks

In support of this repeal, Fitzgerald Trucks (the manufacturer requesting the loophole be reopened) submitted the results of a slapdash series of tests it claimed were from independent researchers.  However, the tests were paid for by Fitzgerald and conducted using Fitzgerald’s equipment in Fitzgerald’s facilities.  The results of the tests were incomplete and indicated that the work was sub-standard. However, we didn’t know just how unscientific the research was until EPA technical staff posted a memo detailing a meeting with the researchers.  Here are just a few of the absurd shortcomings in the tests:

  • Researchers did not use industry standard test procedure, so any numerical results could not be directly compared with regulatory requirements or literally any other research in the technical literature.
  • Researchers did not actually take samples of soot during testing, despite the fact that this is not just carcinogenic but one of the specific pollutants at issue with these engines which causes such detrimental health impacts.  Instead, they “visibly inspected” the test probe. Yes, you read that right–they just looked at it to see if it was dirty.
  • Researchers did not test under any “cold start” conditions. Like when you first turn on your car, this is when the engine emits elevated levels of pollution, which is why it is a standard part of regulatory tests for both cars and trucks.

Believe me when I tell you that I could not get my doctorate if my lab work were of that low quality.

Ignoring the EPA’s own technical data

While pointing to the subpar Fitzgerald / Tennessee Tech data, the EPA was actually aware of much higher quality data being done at its own facilities.  Instead of waiting for these tests to be completed, the politicos at EPA moved forward with the proposed repeal anyway.

Well, the results from those tests are in, and they are at least as bad as the EPA’s technical staff feared.  In fact, it may be even worse:

  • According to the test results, it appears that these engines actually exceed the legal limits they were initially designed for.  This means that the “special programming” of the engine Fitzgerald claims to do to the engines may result in greater fuel economy, but it means greater pollution, too.
  • The soot exhausted by these engines is so large that it caused a fault in the EPA’s equipment, after which the EPA had to adjust the throughput.  A good comparison to this is like when you have your volume adjusted for a TV program you like and then suddenly a really loud commercial comes on…except now imagine that commercial just blew out your speakers.

  • The two collectors on the left of this image are what happened when they first tried to collect the pollution from these vehicles; the two collectors on the right are what it looked like before the test.  Now imagine what that experience must be like for the lungs of a child with asthma.

The EPA had already projected that every year of production of glider vehicles at today’s levels would result in as many as 1600 premature deaths–this new data suggests that number could be even higher.

The science is clear, so closing this loophole should be the easy thing to do.

I am speaking today at the hearing against because I want to make sure EPA listens to its own scientists and closes this loophole, to abide by its mission statement and protect human health and the environment.  And today I will be among a chorus of dedicated citizens reminding the agency of its mission.

EPA

Vehicle Fuel Economy Standards—Under Fire?

Photo: Staff Sgt. Jason Colbert, US Air Force

Last year, transportation became the sector with the largest CO2 emissions in the United States. While the electricity industry has experienced a decline in CO2 emissions since 2008 because of a shift from coal to natural gas and renewables, an equivalent turnaround has not yet occurred in transportation. Reducing emissions in this sector is critical to avoiding the effects of extreme climate change, and the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions standards are an important mechanism to do so.

The most recent vehicle standards, which were issued in 2012, are currently undergoing a review. The Department of Transportation (DOT) is initiating a rulemaking process to set fuel economy standards for vehicle model years 2022-2025. At the same time, DOT is also taking comments on its entire policy roster to evaluate their continued necessity (including the CAFE standards).

A number of criticisms have been raised about fuel efficiency standards, some of which are based more in confusion and misinformation than fact. An intelligent debate about the policy depends on separating false criticisms from those that are uncertain and those that are justified.

In fact, as new research I did with Meredith Fowlie of UC Berkeley and Steven Skerlos of University of Michigan shows, the costs of the standards could actually be significantly lower than other policy analyses have found.

Costs and benefits of the regulations

What my co-authors and I have found is that automakers can respond to the standards in ways that lower the costs and increase the benefits.

Many policy analyses do not account for the tradeoffs that automakers can make between fuel economy and other aspects of vehicle performance, particularly acceleration. We studied the role that these tradeoffs play in automaker responses to the regulations and found that, once they are considered, the costs to consumers and producers were about 40% lower, and reductions in fuel use and GHG emissions were many times higher.

The study finds that the fact that automakers can tradeoff fuel economy and acceleration makes both consumers and producers better off. A large percentage of consumers care more about paying relatively lower prices for vehicles than having faster acceleration. Selling relatively cheaper, more fuel-efficient vehicles with slightly lower acceleration rates to those consumers allows manufacturers to meet the standards with significantly lower profit losses. Consumers that are willing to pay for better acceleration can still buy fast cars.

Debunking some common criticisms

One common criticism is that the regulations mandate fuel economy levels that far exceed any vehicles today. This misconception stems from the frequently quoted figure when the regulations were first issued that they would require 54.5 mpg by 2025. But, the regulations do not actually mandate any fixed level of fuel economy in any year. The fuel-economy standards depend on the types of vehicles that are produced each year. If demand for large vehicles is up, the standards become more lenient; if more small vehicles are sold, they become more strict. The 54.5 mpg number was originally estimated by EPA and DOT in 2012 when gas prices were high. EPA has since revised it to 51.4 mpg to reflect lower gas prices and higher sales of large vehicles. Taking into account flexibilities provided in the regulations and the fact that this number is based on EPA’s lab tests, which yield higher fuel economy than drivers experience on the road, the average target for 2025 is equivalent to approximately 36 mpg on the road. Fueleconomy.gov lists 20 different vehicle models that get at least this fuel economy today.

Another common but unjustified criticism of the standards is that they push consumers into small vehicles. The regulations were specifically designed to reduce any incentive for automakers to make vehicles smaller. The standards are set on a sliding scale of targets for fuel economy and GHG emissions that depend on the sizes of the vehicles. As a result, an automaker that sells larger vehicles has less stringent fuel economy and emissions targets than one that sells smaller vehicles. Research has shown that the policy likely creates an incentive for automakers to produce bigger vehicles, not smaller.

Two easy ways to strengthen the fuel economy standards

There are, of course, advantages and drawbacks to any policy, including today’s vehicle standards, which focus entirely on improving the efficiency of new vehicles.  Fortunately, there are improvements that can be made to the CAFE and GHG regulations to increase their effectiveness and lower costs.

The first is ensuring that automakers that violate the standards pay very high penalties. Companies who cheat steal market share from those that follow the standards, effectively raising the regulatory costs for the automakers that are playing fair.

The second improvement involves the way automakers are able to trade “credits” with each other.  These credits were created to equalize regulatory costs across companies. So, if one automaker finds it relatively easy to reduce emissions, it can reduce more than its share and sell credits to another automaker having trouble reducing emissions. This trading is currently negotiated individually by each pair of automakers, which raises the costs of the transaction. Creating a transparent market to trade these credits would help to achieve the target emission reductions at lower costs.

The Department of Transportation (DOT), which implements the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, is currently soliciting comments on regulations “that are good candidates for repeal, replacement, suspension, or modification.” The comment period ends December 1.

 

Dr. Kate Whitefoot is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. She is a member of the NextManufacturing Center for additive manufacturing research and a Faculty Affiliate at the Carnegie Mellon Scott Institute for Energy Innovation. Professor Whitefoot’s research bridges engineering design theory and analysis with that of economics to inform the design and manufacture of products and processes for improved adoption in the marketplace. Her research interests include sustainable transportation and manufacturing systems, the influence of innovation and technology policies on engineering design and production, product lifecycle systems optimization, and automation with human-machine teaming. Prior to her current position, she served as a Senior Program Officer and the Robert A. Pritzker fellow at the National Academy of Engineering where she directed the Academy’s Manufacturing, Design, and Innovation program.

 

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.

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