Union of Concerned ScientistsScience and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists http://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Tue, 21 Nov 2017 22:26:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Science and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists http://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 New Tax on Graduate Students Would Harm the US http://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/new-tax-on-graduate-students-would-harm-the-us http://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/new-tax-on-graduate-students-would-harm-the-us#comments Tue, 21 Nov 2017 22:01:02 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55078
A graduate student demonstrates how her tax burden would increase by nearly $10,000 if the House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act became law. Photo: Amanda Rose

On November 16, the House of Representatives and the Senate Finance committee voted to advance tax reform legislation. These bills, both of which are named the “Tax Cut and Jobs Act,” propose to disproportionately and negatively impact the middle class, threaten to leave millions of Americans without health coverage, would add as much as $1.5 trillion to the deficit, and could burden graduate students with a giant tax hike.

Many graduate students have taken to social media to demonstrate how their tax burden would change if the House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act became law. This picture and calculation were made publicly available via the Facebook page of Amanda Rose, a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City, NY.

The version passed by the House of Representatives includes a new tax provision that would require students to pay tax on the value of the tuition that is waived for graduate student research and teaching assistants. Given the low pay of such positions, this would make it nearly impossible to pay cost of living expenses while attending graduate school. As a former graduate student myself, and having been a teaching and research assistant, I understand how critical every dollar of a stipend is to purchase groceries, pay rent, and maybe even take care of your own health (if you can afford it).

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act is an attack on higher education in more ways than one. It also proposes to repeal the student loan interest reduction, graduate student tuition waivers, the Hope Scholarship Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, and other educational assistance programs. But it isn’t just graduate students who will feel the consequences; such moves stand to affect us all.

Science is linked to economic prosperity

Investment in science is investment in our nation. Many international comparisons still place the US as a leader in applying research and innovation to improve the country’s economic performance. A prior review by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded that since World War II, United States leadership in science and engineering has driven its dominant strategic position, economic advantages, and quality of life. Indeed, researchers have long understood that there is a link between economic prosperity and investment in science and technology.

The leadership of the United States in science explains, in part, why the country is ranked as one of the most economically competitive nations in the world. Across a number of metrics, the United States is still the undisputed leader in basic and applied research.

Researchers in the United States lead the world in the volume of research articles published, as well as the number of times these articles are cited by others. The United States is not just producing a lot of raw science, it also is applying this research and innovation, as other metrics show.

The United States has a substantial and sustainable research program, as evidenced by the number of Ph.D. students trained; it invests heavily in research, as shown by the country’s gross domestic expenditure on research and development; and it is a leader at turning science into technology, as evidenced by the high number of patents issued.

Graduate students are critical to US science and innovation

If the production of science has helped the United States economy remain competitive, graduate students are largely to thank. They are pivotal to the production of novel science and innovation in the US, and they are also the professors, inventors, and innovators of the future that our economy depends on.

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act would make it difficult, if not impossible, for many of the brightest minds in America to enter into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, ultimately decreasing America’s international competitiveness in science and technology.

A provision in the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passed by the House of Representatives would tax graduate students on their tuition costs. This would reform the Internal Revenue Service tax code, section 115(d), which allows universities to waive the cost and taxation of tuition for graduate students who conduct research or teach undergraduate classes at approved universities.

An estimated 145,000 graduate students benefit from this reduction with 60 percent of these students in STEM fields. Thank goodness such provisions exist for tuition waivers and scholarships as even some of our senators likely wouldn’t be where they are today without this benefit in our tax code.

If graduate students were taxed on waived tuition, many who serve as research or teaching assistants would find it more difficult to cover basic living expenses with the stipend they receive. For example, a graduate student at Columbia University might receive $38,000 for a stipend and a tuition waiver for $51,000. Currently, they pay $3,726 in taxes, but that could go up to $13,413 under the House’s proposed legislation reducing their monthly take home pay for food, rent, and health from $2885 to $2078.

Some students have reported that they would see their stipends cut from $27,000 to $19,000, or from $13,000 to $8,000 for the year if the House’s tax reform bill became law. While some students may be able to depend on their families to defray the costs of these taxes, many graduate students who come from poor and middle class backgrounds could not. As the majority of Americans who come from poorer backgrounds are also minorities, this would deter diversity in higher education, where we already know it is sorely needed.

Some universities could cover tuition and the tax on that tuition for some students, but they wouldn’t be able to do it for all. Taxation of tuition waivers also would likely make the US less attractive to international students, many of whom are graduate students in STEM. Ultimately, this regressive tax legislation means fewer graduate students at universities and, therefore, decreased research in the United States.

An anti-science message is in the air

If you are surprised that graduate students are being targeted, you are not alone. Many organizations who support the higher education community have signed on to letters and published statements expressing concerns for graduate students, including the American Council on Education, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It is unclear if a final version of a tax reform bill will include provisions that burden graduate students with enormous tax hikes. While the Senate’s version of a tax reform bill would retain many of the tax benefits for undergraduate and graduate students (including a non-taxable tuition waiver), it still includes many provisions opposed by organizations supporting higher education.

Regardless of what tax reform bill is pushed through, there is still the question of why the House targeted graduate students in the first place? Is it because they are an easy target having little representation on the hill? Is it because this would be one way to dismantle the pipeline of those pesky academics?

These are Americans who work hard to teach and produce transformative research that greatly benefits the United States economy–and they already do this for very little pay. Furthermore, the amount of money that the government would gain from these taxes has been said to be “miniscule” compared to trillions of dollars in national debt. It is absurd that graduate students are being targeted.

Speak up for all scientists now and in the future!

I’m a former graduate student and I would not have been able to afford graduate school if I had to pay tax on my graduate student tuition and certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without this benefit in our tax code. That’s why I’m speaking up for all the early career scientists now and in the future–everybody deserves the same opportunities that I had, and the United States deserves the continued prosperity that science affords it.

Call your senators today at 1-833-216-1727 and urge them to vote ‘no’ to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act.

The full Senate will vote on this bill after Thanksgiving. Learn more about the current tax reform legislation and how you can push back.

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Giving Thanks to Climate Researchers of the Federal Agencies http://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/giving-thanks-to-climate-researchers-of-the-federal-agencies http://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/giving-thanks-to-climate-researchers-of-the-federal-agencies#respond Thu, 16 Nov 2017 21:54:16 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55015

Most of my science career I worked for the Department of Energy as a climate modeler and numerical expert at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since my retirement in 2010 I have written a text on computational climate modeling and taught graduate level engineering classes on climate science at the University of Tennessee. I had the privilege of working with many talented and dedicated scientists and hate to see their work go unappreciated because climate has become such a politicized issue. In particular, the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) Special Science report is the culmination of many years, even decades of scientific focus that the Congress and the nation should study with an open mind and use to reset the climate discussion in the United States.

In the early 1990’s I was one of the principals organizing an “Inter-agency agreement’’ between the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Our researchers were called the CHAMMPions (a long acronym worth remembering as Computer Hardware, Advanced Mathematics, Model Physics, Inter-agency Organization for Numerical Simulation). Most of us were new to climate research with my own background in applied mathematics. The congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment of 1990 had not found any U.S. based modeling groups producing a high-quality climate model. They borrowed the Canadian and Hadley Center models to complete the first US NCA in 2000. A little bit of national pride and the opportunity to one up the rest of the international community by using U.S. developed high performance computers was a timely motivation for our group. The models we developed and continued to improve through the 1990s and 2000s contributed to many national and international studies, in particular the CMIP (Climate Model Inter-comparison Project) study series sponsored by the DOE. We faithfully followed through on giving policy makers better tools for making informed decisions. Focusing on the science and not the politics supported our DOE sponsors through a variety of administrations.

As a DOE funded climate researcher for 20 years, I had a privileged view of the motivations behind DOE climate research. It all started with the first Secretary of Energy, James R. Schlesinger. He read a report from the Russian scientist, Mikhail Budyko, suggesting the link between earth’s climate and CO2 levels in the atmosphere, a physical theory of climatology. Knowing that the department could not ignore this connection, he asked his department heads what they were going to do about it. This was the start of DOE’s exemplary Carbon Dioxide Effects and Assessment Program in 1977.

The model that the inter-agency agreement developed is now one of the worlds most respected models. It is open source meaning that anyone can see what is in it and even new groups are welcome to contribute new physics or chemistry or ecology to the earth system modeling effort. The Climate Science Special Report, Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I is the first to provide regionally specific results. The global temperature is not the only climate parameter that can now be discussed with confidence. For example, one of the findings pertains to extreme events from heavy rainfall to heatwaves that can impact human safety, infrastructure and agriculture.

This kind of detail would not have been possible without the new capabilities that the U.S. modeling effort provided. Indeed, the report draws from the results of many modeling groups by measuring the skill of different models compared to the observational record.

The scientists I have worked with through the years in these inter-agency projects have performed a service to the nation with their dedicated focus on staying true to the science and providing usable information for policy makers. I for one am grateful for their effort and support continuing to invest in our federal scientists to help move forward on research for solutions to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. This Thanksgiving, I give thanks to the research capabilities and resources of the National Lab system and my colleagues who always put science first.


Dr. John. B. Drake was a researcher and group leader at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 30 years and lead the climate modeling efforts at ORNL from 1990 to 2010.  Since his retirement from ORNL, he has taught graduate courses on climate modeling in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Tennessee and conducted research into the impacts of climate change. 

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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4 Ways to Discuss Congressional Budget Riders at the Dinner Table this Thanksgiving http://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/4-ways-to-discuss-congressional-budget-riders-at-the-dinner-table-this-thanksgiving http://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/4-ways-to-discuss-congressional-budget-riders-at-the-dinner-table-this-thanksgiving#comments Thu, 16 Nov 2017 16:38:17 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54976

Holiday gatherings with the family can be awkward, especially if you aren’t prepared for the inevitable table talk. Feeling like you don’t have enough fodder to sustain a conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table this month?

Fret not! Every year around this time, my colleagues write about the budget process as the clock ticks for Congress to pass a clean budget – that is, a budget free from “poison pill” policy provisions and seemingly innocuous regulatory process riders that would hamper agencies from utilizing the best available science in rulemaking. These anti-science riders are extraneous special interest policies tacked onto a must-pass spending bill, a sort of parasitic mutualism, if you will.

This year, I have a gift for our readers ahead of the holidays: a brief list of harmful anti-science riders that would weaken science-based safeguards, potentially putting the health and safety of families at risk, repurposed as a guide to navigating uncomfortable silence and forced interactions with your family at Thanksgiving.

1. Start with an icebreaker

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen your least favorite Uncle Stewart, or your cousin Meg has brought a new date, you might consider starting with an icebreaker to relieve tension. Try this one:  A rider to “legislate” that the burning of trees for energy is positive for climate change has been proposed. This language encourages burning trees to generate electricity and ignores scientific evidence on impacts of carbon emissions. Who needs an icebreaker if the sea ice continues melting at record levels?

2. Share a story from your past

Take a stroll down memory lane and regale your guests with tales from the days of yore. Here’s a crowd favorite: In 1996, following the release of a study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found keeping guns in the home increases the risk of homicides in the home, the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied former Congressman Jay Dickey to target the CDC’s funding. Congressman Dickey introduced the provision that he would later come to regret, sneaking it into a must-pass spending bill. Now, over 20 years later, the CDC is still unable to research gun violence as a public health issue, though current events (including the recent tragedies in Las Vegas,  Sutherland, Texas, and Rancho Tehama, California) and statistics show the need is there.

3. Talk about the weather

A tried and true small-talk starter, who can resist commiserating about the sweltering heat we endured this year, even as the temperatures have finally dropped? Now is the time to casually mention the proposal that would delay implementation of science-based standards, like the EPA’s most recent update to ground-level ozone, which is solely based on public health. If this passes, companies would be allowed to pollute at levels currently deemed unsafe, which would contribute to an increase in days with unhealthy ozone levels and increase risk of respiratory illnesses – risks that are exacerbated by an increase in heat waves caused by climate change (see: icebreaker).

4. Give thanks

There are many things to be thankful for, but often the most important ones go unnoticed. This year, remember to lift your glass in thanks – to clean water. Give a toast to the Clean Water Rule, which extends protections of waters under the Clean Water Act to include the streams and wetlands that feed drinking water sources for over 117 million people nationwide. Don’t forget to mention the rider that would permit the administration to ignore scientific and public input as Scott Pruitt’s EPA attempts to withdraw the Clean Water Rule. The rule was borne out of extensive public engagement and rigorous scientific analysis that the EPA administrator has chosen to set aside.

And as your mother stands poised to carve the golden turkey, remember to give thanks to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 for offering protections to the fowl’s cousin, the greater sage grouse. A rider would allow policymakers to overrule biologists and wildlife managers when it comes to protecting threatened and endangered wildlife, such as the gray wolf and the oft-fought-over sage grouse.

While this list of “poison pill” riders is by no means exhaustive, there are some great dinner-table conversation starters that are sure to keep the family engaged in a riveting discussion they’ll be talking about for years to come. The anti-science riders above have all been introduced this year and negotiations over which ones to include in a final spending deal are happening right now (and remember, none of them should be included, because we want a clean budget free from “poison pill” riders).

If you didn’t manage to invite your representatives to dinner this Thanksgiving, be sure to take the time to tell them to pass a clean budget with no anti-science “poison pill” riders this holiday.

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Trump Nominee Kathleen Hartnett White Ignores Climate Change In Her Own Backyard http://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/kathleen-hartnett-white-climate-change http://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/kathleen-hartnett-white-climate-change#comments Thu, 09 Nov 2017 14:30:35 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54938

Kathleen Hartnett White, President Trump’s pick to chair the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), testified at her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday and, like many Trump nominees to date, showed herself to be an unqualified, polluter-friendly ideologue who rejects mainstream climate science.

“Your positions are so far out of the mainstream, they are not just outliers, they are outrageous,” Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey exclaimed at one point in clear exasperation. “You have a fringe voice that denies science, economics, and reality.”

What Markey failed to note, however, is that White has personally experienced climate change-related extreme weather events in her home state of Texas, and scientists say they are only going to get worse.

Unqualified from the start

White, who Trump previously considered for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, is a cattle rancher and dog breeder who chaired the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — the Lone Star State’s version of the EPA — from 2001 to 2007 and was a member of the Environmental Flows Study Commission, the Texas Water Development Board, and the Texas Wildlife Association board.

Her qualifications for those positions? None.

White earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in Humanities and Religion at Stanford, attended Princeton’s comparative religion doctoral program, and completed a year of law school at Texas Tech. It’s not quite the background one would expect for someone serving on environmentally related boards, let alone running the TCEQ. But in Texas, as in Florida and Wisconsin, ideology trumps science credentials, and White holds a politically correct pro-fossil fuels viewpoint.

That bias serves her well in her current job with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a libertarian think tank funded by what Texans for Public Justice characterized as a “Who’s Who of Texas polluters, giant utilities and big insurance companies.” Among TPPF’s benefactors are Chevron, Devon Energy, and ExxonMobil; Koch Industries and its family foundations; and Luminant, the largest electric utility in Texas. White, who joined TPPF in January 2008, runs the nonprofit’s energy and environment program and co-heads its Fueling Freedom Project, whose mission is to “push back against the EPA’s onerous regulatory agenda that threatens America’s economy, prosperity, and well-being.”

Climate paranoia strikes deep

Recent media coverage of White’s nomination for the CEQ post has shined a light on her lack of scientific understanding — and her paranoia about the rationale for addressing climate change. She falsely claims that climate science is “highly uncertain,” characterizes it as the “dark side of a kind of paganism, the secular elite’s religion,” and argues that the “climate crusade,” if unchecked, would essentially destroy democracy.

That’s right. White believes the United Nations and climate scientists are bent on establishing a “one-world state ruled by planetary managers.” Further, she routinely trumpets the benefits of carbon emissions, insisting that carbon dioxide “has none of the characteristics of a pollutant that could harm human health.” Carbon is a good thing, she says, because “the increased atmospheric concentration of man-made CO2 has enhanced plant growth and thus the world’s food supply.” Never mind that farmers and ranchers in her own state have been whipsawed in recent years by devastating heat waves, drought, and floods, all linked to climate change.

At her confirmation hearing on Wednesday, White cited reducing ground-level ozone in Houston and Galveston when she chaired the TCEQ as her greatest accomplishment. But according to a recent editorial in the Dallas Morning News, she pushed for weaker ozone standards while she was at the helm of the agency.

“Her record is abominable,” the October 17 editorial stated. “White consistently sided with business interests at the expense of public health as chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. She lobbied for lax ozone standards and, at a time when all but the most ardent fossil fuel apologists understood that coal isn’t the nation’s future, White signed a permit for a lignite-fired power plant, ignoring evidence that emissions from the lignite plant could thwart North Texas’ efforts to meet air quality standards.”

Predictably, White also disparages renewable energy. “In spite of the billions of dollars in subsidies, retail prices for renewables are still far higher than prices for fossil fuels,” she wrote in her 2014 tractFossil Fuels: The Moral Case. “At any cost, renewable energy from wind, solar, and biomass remains diffuse, unreliable, and parasitic….”

In fact, fossil fuels have received significantly more in federal tax breaks and subsidies for a much longer time than renewables; new wind power is now cheaper than coal, nuclear, and natural gas; and the Department of Energy projects that renewable technologies available today have the potential to meet 80 percent of US electricity demand by 2050.

Ignoring the evidence

Most of Trump’s nominees for other key science-based positions — notably EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — agree with White’s twisted take on climate science and renewables. What sets her apart, besides her penchant for calling advocates for combating climate change “pagans,” “Marxists” and “communists,” is her up-close-and-personal experience with climate change-related extreme weather events.

White and her husband, Beau Brite White, live in Bastrop County, an outlying Austin bedroom community, and own a vast cattle ranch of 118,567 acres — more than 185 square miles — in Presidio County, which sits on the state’s southwest border with Mexico.

Bastrop and Presidio counties are both struggling with drought due to low precipitation and high temperatures and, like the rest of Texas, suffered from an especially extreme drought in 2011. Part of a prolonged period of drought stretching from 2010 to 2015, the one in 2011 was the hottest and driest on record, and climate change likely played a significant role. A 2012 study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found that the high temperatures that contribute to droughts such the one that struck Texas in 2011 are 20 times more probable now than they were 40 to 50 years ago due to human-caused climate change.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment report, released on November 3, agreed. “The absence of moisture during the 2011 Texas/Oklahoma drought and heat wave was found to be an event whose likelihood was enhanced by the La Niña state of the ocean,” the report, authored by scientists at 13 federal agencies, concluded, “but the human interference in the climate system still doubled the chances of reaching such high temperatures [emphasis added].”

The 2011 heat wave was particularly intense in Presidio County. According to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, a meteorology professor at Texas A&M University, the county “achieved the triple-triple: at least 100 days reaching at least 100 degrees.”

Bastrop County, meanwhile, has become a tinderbox. Wildfires are happening there with greater frequency and intensity for a variety of reasons, including rising temperatures and worsening drought as well as population growth and development. In 2011, the county experienced the worst wildfire in Texas history, which destroyed more than 1,600 homes and caused $325 million in damage. Two years ago, in October 2015, the Hidden Pines Fire torched 7 square miles in the county and burned down 64 buildings.

White’s neighbors know better

White may refuse to acknowledge what is happening in her own back yard, but most of her neighbors realize that human-caused climate change is indeed a problem, according to polling data released last March by the Yale Program on Climate Communication. The survey, conducted in 2016 in every county nationwide, found that a majority of residents in Bastrop and Presidio counties — 67 percent and 78 percent respectively — understand that global warming is happening, while more than half of the respondents in both counties (52 percent in Bastrop and 62 percent in Presidio) know it is mainly caused by human activity.

Majorities in both counties also want something done about it. More than 70 percent want carbon dioxide regulated as a pollutant and at least 65 percent in both counties want states to require utilities to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewables.

Given their responses, White’s neighbors in Bastrop and Presidio counties make it clear that if they were polled on whether she should become the next chair of a little-known but powerful White House office that oversees federal environmental and energy policies, a majority would likely say no — and with good reason: Unlike White, for them, seeing is believing.

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Scientists, Please Don’t Listen to Scott Pruitt http://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/scientists-please-dont-listen-to-scott-pruitt http://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/scientists-please-dont-listen-to-scott-pruitt#comments Wed, 08 Nov 2017 23:43:02 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54930

Everything about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s directive to change the agency’s science advisory boards was damaging to the way that science informs policy at our nation’s premier public health agency. Mr. Pruitt based his action on a set of false premises. The logic of the action is fundamentally flawed and turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head. The specific appointments made are of people with deep conflicts of interest who have long espoused views concerning threats to public health divergent with the weight of scientific evidence on many issues.  In fact, in a slip of the tongue at the start of the press conference Mr Pruitt said, “We are here to change the facts [FACs]…I mean the FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act committees).” He had it right the first time.

But in some sense the most disturbing statement Mr. Pruitt made was that scientists had to make a choice—either to pursue research grants or to engage in public service by serving on an advisory committee. This is a false choice of the first order. I hope scientists everywhere categorically reject the idea of a choice between doing research and serving as advisors to public agencies. In fact, I believe that it is scientists who have been and perhaps still are active researchers—on the cutting edge of knowledge—who should be providing scientific advice to government. Obtaining a government research grant never buys one’s loyalty to any particular policy position. That may be a convenient political talking point for Mr. Pruitt and his supporters like Cong. Smith (R-TX) or Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) who joined him for the announcement of his new directive, but it is still nonsense.

I believe that serving on a government advisory committee is public service and something that every scientist who has the opportunity and inclination should seriously consider. Many universities have public service as part of their core mission right alongside teaching and research. Serving on an advisory committee is one way that broader service to the public grows out of the day to day work of science. And it is exactly because one does outstanding research that your voice is so important as an independent source of scientific information in the process of making public policy.

So please don’t choose between public service and grant-funded research. I for one hope that more scientists will try to do both. Just because Scott Pruitt is hostile to scientists in public life doesn’t mean you should stay out—beyond serving in advisory committees, here are other ways you can put science to work for people. Don’t make the false choice Scott Pruitt called for.


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Would Chemical Safety Measures Under Dourson Protect Military Families? Probably Not. http://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/would-chemical-safety-measures-under-dourson-protect-military-families-probably-not http://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/would-chemical-safety-measures-under-dourson-protect-military-families-probably-not#respond Wed, 08 Nov 2017 15:35:07 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54916

Dr. Michael Dourson, a toxicologist with a history of providing consultation to the chemical industry, could become the head of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dourson has consistently defended the use of several chemicals found to pose major adverse health effects, manipulating his research in favor of industry interests. This could spell trouble for public health and safety, particularly in low-income communities and communities where residents are predominately people of color—which often includes military bases.

Over this past summer, ProPublica released a series of articles on the excessive toxic pollution problems at military bases. This immediately caught my attention: I work on chemical safety issues at UCS and spent my formative years living on army bases around the country. Although I had passing knowledge of the dangerous chemical agents at storage sites on a base in Aberdeen, Maryland (including nerve and blistering agents like mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and lewisite), I never once considered the impact exposure to toxics might pose to military personnel and their families, let alone the potential for exposure from burning of munitions, toxic releases, and proximity to Superfund sites. I naively assumed we were safe from harm, and didn’t give a second thought to the acrid odors wafting in the air. Who would knowingly put the people who fight for our country at risk in their own homes?

Can we trust Dourson to keep military families safe?

Judging from his track record of downplaying the health risks posed by several EPA-regulated compounds, including 1,4-dioxane, 1-bromoproane, trichloroethylene (TCE), and chlorpyrifos (which are currently under review), I don’t believe Dourson has the best interests of military families in mind. I worry that exposure to toxics on military bases may only worsen under his industry-partial leadership. I am not alone in my sentiments: retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and current U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) has been critical of Dourson, calling his work on toxic chemicals “reckless”. She is acutely aware of the contamination and associated health effects at military bases like Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where drinking water is highly contaminated by Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Interestingly, Dourson researched PFOA—a chemical linked to prostate, kidney and testicular cancer—and came to the convenient conclusion that a weaker safety standard than what EPA recommends would be just fine.

That is why this potential appointment is personal. If past administrations have done a substandard job of handling chemical concerns, putting an industry shill in charge of limiting and preventing exposure to toxic chemicals may result in even less protection for the public.

“[The sentiment is that] what we don’t know can’t hurt us. We don’t know [what is going on], we’re on a mission! But when you get out, you’re on your own. How do you know what’s going on in your system after 20 years [of service]?” – my dad, former Army drill sergeant, Airborne ranger, and Air Assault instructor on the lack of information given military personnel and families. He hates taking photos.

Conflict of interest is an understatement

It’s obvious Pruitt and his team intend to dismantle regulatory protections in favor of industry based on their actions to date, as well as the nominations and appointments of chemical industry advocates, including Dr. Nancy Beck (former representative of the American Chemistry Council) and Michael Dourson.

Dourson’s past work includes giving the green light on several chemicals that have been shown to have serious adverse health effects. He has even weighed in on TCE, a toxic chemical that is prominent on military bases, to ask to weaken the safety standards. See a list of locations where chemicals he has “blessed” have been found at alarming levels here. Of the states, towns, counties, and cities listed, I have lived in four at various stages of my life. Nearly two decades later, and I’m just now uncovering this. I’ll let that sink in.

We must defend the defenders

Veterans Day is approaching, which means food, retail, and recreation discounts for military veterans and active-duty personnel.  This is a nice (if not cursory) gesture to show our gratitude, but it’s still superficial at best considering the challenges our veterans and military families  face. Our country’s leaders profess to have the utmost respect for our military, even tearing the nation into a frenzy over a peaceful protest by claiming that kneeling for the national anthem disrespects those who have fought for our freedom. Is this the brownfield we want to die on? Our military need more than lip service and deserve better than Dourson.

Charise Johnson
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While We Aren’t Paying Attention, the Trump Administration is Making Products Less Safe http://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/while-we-arent-paying-attention-the-trump-administration-is-making-products-less-safe http://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/while-we-arent-paying-attention-the-trump-administration-is-making-products-less-safe#respond Tue, 07 Nov 2017 21:54:07 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54906

Have you ever checked to see if a product has been recalled because of a safety concern? As a parent of a young child, I am deeply familiar with this task. Babies are expensive and buying used products cuts costs, but it’s crucial to check if products have been recalled because baby products can often be recalled for safety concerns. When you have a little one, you want to protect them as best you can. But now, the Trump administration is putting my family and yours at risk.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission: Keeping our families safe

To our nation’s benefit, there’s the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The little-known federal agency plays a crucial role in making sure that the products we bring into our homes and trust with our families’ lives are safe. I depend on this every day when I put my child down for a nap, put him in a car seat, or give him a toy. Because of the CPSC, I trust that the crib won’t injure him, the car seat is built properly, and that his toys don’t have parts he can choke on.

You might only hear about these kinds of recalls when they’re high-profile like those scooters that everyone got for Christmas one year that had a tendency to catch fire or the exploding Android phone debacle. But the reason you don’t hear more about these issues is because the CPSC is doing its job. Scientists at the CPSC monitor product injuries and deaths, issue recalls and work with companies to help prevent unsafe products from ever reaching the market.

Dana Baiocco: A dangerous pick for CPSC commissioner

Now, the Trump Administration is threatening the CPSC’s ability to keep us safe. President Trump’s nominee for CPSC commissioner Dana Baiocco—who will be voted out of committee tomorrow on the hill—has spent her career defending companies whose products have harmed people (Check out this reporting from Sharon Lerner at the Intercept). When people fought for justice because their loved ones had mesothelioma from asbestos exposure because of the negligent company, Baiocco was making sure widows wouldn’t get their money. When Yamaha knowingly kept on the market unsafe ATVs that caused injuries and deaths of several people, including children, Baiocco worked to make sure the families didn’t get compensation. When Volkswagen was caught cheating on their emissions testing, Baiocco was there to defend them. And when the tobacco conglomerate R.J. Reynolds needed help defending harms caused by smoking, Baiocco was there too, defending the tobacco giant from cancer victims.

Clearly, Baiocco is the wrong choice for the CPSC. Nothing about this past gives me confidence that she’ll use science to make decisions in the public interest if she is appointed a CPSC commissioner.

Would Baiocco keep us safe from harmful flame retardants?

This year the CPSC is slated to work on organohalogen flame retardants. As my colleague Genna Reed reported last month, the CPSC made the science-based decision to phase out the harmful class of flame retardants from products, despite chemical industry opposition. This was a huge victory for science and for public health. I celebrated this move. No longer would I have to spend hours reading labels, pouring over scientific studies and buying costly foreign baby products to avoid exposing my child to these unsafe flame retardants.

Now the CPSC will be implementing that rule. Baiocco’s nomination will have a huge impact on how that implementation happens. Commissioners have a lot of power when it comes to implementation, timing, and overall agency priorities. Will harmful flame retardants be phased out under a proper timeline and sufficiently eliminated from products? If Baiocco becomes commissioner, this flame-retardant rule could be delayed or weakened in its implementation, and that won’t be a victory for anyone other than the companies that produce them.

The dangers of a politicized CPSC: The case of the lead lunch boxes

We don’t have to look too far to see the devastating consequences of a CPSC where science is compromised. In 2005, under the George W. Bush administration, the agency tested children’s lunchboxes and found unsafe levels of lead. In the case of one test on a Spiderman lunchbox, the agency found 16 times the federal standard for lead. Rather than immediately announce this finding and recall a potentially unsafe product, the CPSC changed their lead testing technique and employed an averaging scheme that scientists said underestimated the level of lead in the lunch boxes. With the backing of the vinyl industry, the CPSC continued to defend this testing method while allowing the product to stay on the market, potentially exposing children to lead poisoning.

The Senate Commerce Committee should vote no on Dana Baiocco for CPSC commissioner

As a mom, I worry a lot about the safety of my son. There is nothing more important to me than making sure he can grow up in a safe environment. I know I can’t keep him safe from every danger in the world, but I can make sure he’s surrounded by safe cribs, strollers, car seats, and toys. In order to do that though, I depend on a CPSC that uses science and works in the public interest.

And so I ask the members of the Senate Commerce Committee, do you trust that Baiocco will keep your family safe? Do you have confidence that she will make sure that my child and yours are protected from unsafe baby products? If a recall would be inconvenient to a company’s bottom line, would she still prioritize public safety over corporate profits? How will Americans know if products are safe to use in our homes? This isn’t just a policy preference. This could cost American lives, and Baiocco is not on our side. As a parent and a scientist, I urge you to vote no tomorrow for the safety of all Americans.


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EPA Chief Pruitt’s Recent Halloween Trick Will Scare the Health Out of You http://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/epa-chief-pruitts-recent-halloween-trick-will-scare-the-health-out-of-you http://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/epa-chief-pruitts-recent-halloween-trick-will-scare-the-health-out-of-you#comments Tue, 07 Nov 2017 19:44:30 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54896

On Halloween, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt gave Americans the equivalent of an apple filled with razor blades.

Instead of picking the best experts for his agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) to protect public health, Pruitt appointed candidates who oppose the very laws the EPA is supposed to enforce.

To make matters worse, Pruitt did not renew terms for a number of respected members and even dismissed several independent scientists before their terms were up. All told, Pruitt shrunk the SAB from 47 to 42 participants and more than doubled the number of its polluter-friendly members.

Undermining the SAB’s integrity might make sense to a former Oklahoma attorney general who openly promotes the interests of the fossil fuel industry. But doing so jeopardizes the independent science the agency needs to protect American health and safety.

Pruitt’s ill-advised appointments

The Science Advisory Board was established by Congress nearly 40 years ago as an impartial reality check. As my colleague Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), recently explained, the board “doesn’t make policy recommendations or decisions. It holds no veto power. It should exist as a check on anyone with an agenda, from environmentalists to oil companies. If the science is on your side, the board validates it. If you make unsupportable claims, the board calls you out.”

The SAB’s role as “arbiter of scientific fact” has proven to be invaluable. Over the last five years, for instance, the board provided the EPA recommendations for integrating science more effectively into its decisionmaking process; advised the agency on the best model to use when evaluating the health threats posed by perchlorate, a likely carcinogen; and determined that the EPA’s preliminary finding that the hydraulic fracturing drilling process has not led to “widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water resources was not supported by the best available science. The final version of the fracking study, released in December 2016, correctly concluded that the technique has indeed contaminated some drinking water supplies across the country.

As reconstituted by Pruitt, however, the SAB is more likely to come down in favor of industrial polluters than public health.

Take the new board chairman, Michael Honeycutt, who directs the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s toxicology division. Over the last decade, Honeycutt rolled back the state’s protections for 45 toxic chemicals, including arsenic, benzene and formaldehyde. He also attacked EPA rules for ground-level ozone (smog), which aggravates lung diseases, and particulate matter (PM) (soot), which has been linked to lung cancer, cardiovascular damage, reproductive problems and premature death. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence linking fine soot particles to premature death, Honeycutt testified before Congress that “some studies even suggest PM makes you live longer.”

Many of Pruitt’s other appointees to three-year terms on the SAB share a similar disregard for established science.

  • Robert Phalen, who founded an air pollution laboratory at the University of California at Irvine, maintains that children need to breathe dirty air for their bodies to learn how to ward off irritants. “Modern air,” he said during a July 2012 interview, “is a little too clean for optimum health.” His October 2004 study, “The Particulate Air Pollution Controversy,” minimized the threat posed by fine soot particles. “Although reproducible and statistically significant, the relative risks associated with modern PM are very small and confounded by many factors.”
  • Kimberly White is senior director of chemical products at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the country’s largest chemical manufacturing trade association. Representing the interests of 155 corporate members, including BP, Dow, DuPont and ExxonMobil, the ACC has delayed, weakened and blocked science-based health, environmental and workplace protections at the state, national and even international levels.
  • Samuel Cohen, a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, produces industry-friendly papers and testimony for chemical companies and trade groups, including the American Chemistry Council. He has downplayed the risks of monosodium methanearsonate (MSMA) for the arsenic-based weed killer’s manufacturers and testified on behalf of Dupont during a kidney cancer trial involving perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the main ingredient in Teflon.
  • Economist John D. Graham, who ran the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for five years during the George W. Bush administration, has a long history of emphasizing industry’s costs to reduce pollution, while discounting scientific evidence of exposure risks and ignoring the benefits of a cleaner environment.
  • Anne Smith, a senior vice president at NERA Consulting, is another economist with a pronounced corporate bias. Over the past few years, NERA has written reports for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and other industry trade groups arguing that the EPA underestimates the cost of its rules, including ones designed to lower mercury emissions and reduce ground-level ozone. In February 2015, Smith testified before Congress against the Clean Power Plan to curb coal-fired power plant carbon emissions.
  • Donald Van der Vaart, former secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, was the agency’s point man against federal air quality rules, including a cap on nitrogen oxide emissions, a major component of ground-level ozone. Last November, he sent a letter to President-elect Trump denouncing “federal overreach” and asking him to all but eliminate the EPA. “By returning responsibility for implementing these laws to the states,” Van der Vaart wrote, “your administration can avoid the agenda-driven federal regulatory process that has stifled our country’s competitiveness.”

Pruitt also enlisted Richard Smith and S. Stanley Young to serve on the board. The two statisticians co-authored an August 2017 study claiming there is “little evidence” of a connection between fine particulate pollution and premature death, ignoring established scientific understanding of air pollution and health risks. Three other appointees, meanwhile, directly represent the energy industry: Merlin Lindstrom is vice president of technology at Phillips 66, Robert Merritt was a geology manager at Total, and Larry Monroe was the chief environmental officer at Southern Company.

Independent scientists shut out

Perhaps most shocking, Pruitt upended four decades of precedent by banning scientists who have received EPA grants from serving on the SAB or any other agency advisory panel. Why? In Pruitt’s estimation, they have a conflict of interest. He followed through by kicking at least a half-dozen EPA-funded scientists off the SAB before their terms were over.

Pruitt’s attack on EPA grantees particularly rankled Center for Science and Democracy Director Andrew Rosenberg, a former regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“The suggestion that federal research grants would conflict with advisory board work is frankly dishonest,” Rosenberg said. “Pruitt is turning the idea of ‘conflict of interest’ on its head by claiming that federal research grants should exclude a scientist from an EPA advisory board while industry funding shouldn’t. The truth is: EPA grants don’t come with strings. They’re meant to help promote the best independent science.

“Independent science is absolutely critical to making good policies that keep our air and water clean and our communities safe,” he added. “But this administration — particularly Administrator Pruitt — seems to have taken every opportunity to cut science out. Pruitt’s Halloween announcement is a blatant effort to stack the board and put narrow industry interests ahead of public health and safety. We will pursue all legal options available to us to prevent any scientist ban from remaining in place.”

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USDA Secretary Sidelines Science, Sells Out Farmers, Workers, and Eaters http://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/usda-secretary-sidelines-science-sells-out-farmers-workers-and-eaters http://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/usda-secretary-sidelines-science-sells-out-farmers-workers-and-eaters#comments Mon, 06 Nov 2017 21:59:52 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54866

Lest you think the Trump administration’s headlong rush toward rejecting science in favor of industry deregulation is mostly a problem in Scott Pruitt’s EPA, recent less-reported developments at the US Department of Agriculture demonstrate otherwise. Over the past few weeks, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has taken a variety of steps to sideline science and betray farmers, food chain workers, and eaters. Let’s review…

Secretary Sonny’s approach to science and policy takes shape (and it doesn’t look good)

Don’t be fooled by his folksy moniker and down-home anecdotes. Secretary Sonny is a big agribiz guy through and through, with a long history of ethics run-ins and rewarding his friends and business associates. And though he likes to talk about science-based decision-making and serving farmers and taxpayers as customers, so far it doesn’t appear that he’s walking the walk.

Since he took up the reins at the USDA last April, we’ve seen Secretary Sonny take steps to reorganize the department in ways that don’t bode well for rural development, conservation, nutrition, and other essential programs. His steadfast support of the troubling (and now-withdrawn) nomination of non-scientist Sam Clovis should be another big red flag.

For a big-picture look at the Trump administration’s USDA, read Moneyball author Michael Lewis’s in-depth (and disturbing) new Vanity Fair article on the topic. Meanwhile, I’ll pull out three recent moves that give us a clear indication of who stands to gain (and who is likely to lose) under Secretary Perdue’s watch.

Poultry workers: Unsafe at any speed?

First, Perdue’s Food Safety and Inspection Service quietly opened a comment period on a petition from the National Chicken Council (NCC) to speed up the process of processing chickens. Plants operated by the NCC’s member companies—which include giants Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms (no relation to the Secretary)—slaughter, cut up, and debone billions of chickens every year. The industry and at least one of its allies in Congress, looking to capitalize on the Trump administration’s zeal for deregulation, are lobbying Perdue’s USDA to let them process chickens even faster than the current speed of 140 birds per minute.

Civil Eats has a devastating account of the dangerous conditions already faced by workers in those plants. And under President Obama, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) determined that allowing plants to operate at higher speeds could result in more injuries among workers deboning chickens. NBC News reports:

“USDA wanted to raise the maximum line speed, but OSHA was very concerned that it would result in more workers being injured,” said David Michaels, Obama’s former head of OSHA. “We had support (from White House officials) who agreed that we didn’t want thousands of workers to have their arms destroyed by having to cut up chickens at 175 birds per minute.”

USDA maintained the speed at 140. But now Secretary Sonny seems poised to reverse that decision.

Citing research on the danger to workers and consumers, our allies at the Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Council submitted a public comment urging the USDA to “follow the law and the agency’s own findings” and reject the NCC’s petition. The comment period closes December 13.

Farewell, Farmer Fair Practices

And the Secretary also had another gift for Big Meat and Poultry last month. As Politico reported, he rolled back a pair of rules known collectively as the Farmer Fair Practices Rules:

Perdue withdrew an interim final rule that would have lowered the bar for producers of poultry and other livestock to sue the meatpacking or processing companies with which they have contracts. And USDA also will take no further action on a proposed rule to shield contract growers from unfair practices.

The rollback of these two rules administered by the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) means that contract farmers lose their newly-gained protection from exploitation by the corporate giants who control nearly every step of the meat and poultry production chain. The National Farmers Union, which represents family farmers across the country, called the move “deeply disappointing,” noting in a statement:

With this decision, USDA has given the green light to the few multinational meatpackers that dominate the market to discriminate against family farmers. As the administration has signaled its intent to side with the meat and poultry giants, NFU will pursue congressional action that addresses competition issues and protects family farmers and ranchers.

Do right and feed…well, maybe not everyone

In addition to turning his back on small farmers and underpaid food workers, Secretary Sonny also appears to be taking aim at low-income consumers. Since being confirmed as agriculture secretary in April 2017, Perdue has often repeated his “new motto” for the USDA:

“Do right and feed everyone” is a fine motto, but now it seems the Secretary didn’t really mean everyone. He recently went on record suggesting that enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would fall if individuals who are able to work are restricted from using it.

Perdue’s suggestion that the working poor should be barred from receiving nutrition benefits via SNAP is confounding. Data show that most SNAP recipients who can work do so—though usually for low or inconsistent pay that isn’t enough to feed their families. As Perdue’s home-state newspaper points out:

[I]n a state hostile to unions and with a minimum wage of only $5.15 an hour, also barring those who receive paychecks from receiving food stamps would have tremendous impact. An estimated 546,000 working Georgians live in households that receive the help, according to one study.

Even so, members of Congress have increasingly called for strengthening work requirements for SNAP participants. So, which is it—should SNAP beneficiaries work or not?

Mr. Secretary, we’re keeping our eye on you

Secretary Perdue has now been in office just over six months. Of his department’s 13 other leadership positions requiring Senate confirmation, only three are in place, and seven positions don’t even have a nominee yet. And the Secretary’s proposed departmental reorganization is still taking shape. But with early signs already troubling, we’ll be tracking further developments to paint a fuller picture of his intentions for science-based policy making for the nation’s food and farm system.

Stay tuned…

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Kathleen Hartnett White Nomination Spells Trouble for the Magna Carta of Environmental Law: NEPA http://blog.ucsusa.org/kathleen-rest/kathleen-hartnett-white-nomination-spells-trouble-for-the-magna-carta-of-environmental-law-nepa http://blog.ucsusa.org/kathleen-rest/kathleen-hartnett-white-nomination-spells-trouble-for-the-magna-carta-of-environmental-law-nepa#respond Mon, 06 Nov 2017 20:05:01 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54857
NEPA is a landmark law that is crucial for identifying and considering environmental impacts on people, communities, and our shared environment. Photo: Bill Hughes, FracTracker Alliance

President Trump’s nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to lead the nation’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) comes as no big surprise. She will be just the latest addition to a Trump team determined to slow, stem, stymie, and roll back environmental and public health protections with reckless disregard for the well-being of all Americans. 

Despite the up to $180 billion in devastation caused by a climate change fueled-hurricane in Houston, Hartnett White, the former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, does not believe that climate change is a danger to society. Ever a friend to the oil and gas industry, she sees efforts to address climate change as simply an attack on the fossil fuel industry.

I could go on (and on and on) to express my dismay and alarm about this impending appointment, and others have—see here, here, and here—but that’s not where I’m headed with this post.  Instead, I want to tell you why you should care about two acronyms most Americans have never heard of: CEQ and NEPA.

CEQ does what exactly?

The national Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is a small but important office within the Executive Office of the President. Established by a 1969 law (more on NEPA in a second), the council essentially functions as the president’s chief advisor on environmental quality within the White House.

CEQ was created to gather information on environmental quality; develop and recommend to the president national policies to foster and promote the improvement of environmental quality; set regulations that guide agency compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA; and be a source of information for the public.

In other words, CEQ is meant to play a critical role in protecting and promoting the quality of our environment, and the head of CEQ will be a primary source of advice and information for President Trump on the issue of environmental quality. 

NEPA: The Magna Carta of environmental law  

First, a bit of history. While environmental protection is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Richard Nixon, his administration ushered in some sweeping changes and had singular environmental achievements. NEPA is a case in point.

President Nixon signed the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on January 1, 1970. This landmark law charges the federal government and its agencies with a responsibility to promote environmental protection, preservation, and restoration, and notes the responsibility each generation has to act as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.

NEPA has inspired the adoption of similar requirements in 16 US states, and over 130 nations around the world have enacted national environmental policies modeled after it. NEPA has been called the Magna Carta of Environmental Law, a reflection of just how important and valuable it is considered around the world.

NEPA is important for three main reasons

1) Identifying and considering impacts on people, communities, and our shared environment

NEPA established the requirement, with certain exemptions, that all federal agencies undertake an environmental impact statement (EIS) when they propose legislation and any other major federal action that significantly affects the quality of the human environment.

Such actions include but are not limited to specific projects (such as road construction), plans or proposals to manage and develop federal land (such as national parks), and federal permitting or funding of private sector projects (such as granting an easement for a power lines or a permit for use of a waterway).

This is critical in order to ensure that federal agencies identify and consider environmental impacts on the people, communities, places, and environmental resources (i.e., air, water, land) that will be affected by their proposed actions.

2) Explaining the environmental impacts of different alternatives 

In formulating an environmental impact statement, agencies must explain the purpose and need for action, and importantly the different reasonable alternatives for addressing the need so that decision makers are fully aware of the environmental consequences of their choices. The document must explain the environmental impacts of these alternatives, and possible measures to reduce adverse impacts.

The EIS always includes as part of its analysis a “no action” alternative, that is, what would happen if the action was not taken at all. (For more, check out the Wiki page on EIS; it’s good. For a more detailed look at NEPA, check out chapter 5 in this book.)

Per Executive Order #12898, agencies are also required to consider issues of environmental justice in the NEPA process–including environmental effects on human health, and economic and social effects, specifically within communities of color and low-income communities, which are disproportionately impacted by environmental risks and harms.

3) Allowing the public to have a say in decisions (a.k.a. democracy)

NEPA also advances two essential features of our democracy—transparency and public participation. Federal projects and actions can have profound effects on our surrounding environments and thus on our daily lives—from the air we breathe and the food and water we consume to the roads we travel and the places we love.

We, the people who may be impacted by a project for years to come, should have the right to know what the agencies are planning; what alternatives they are considering; and have an opportunity to comment, question, and suggest different alternatives. Indeed, in 2007 the CEQ itself published A Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA: Having Your Voice Heard.  (I suggest you you read it now; it could easily disappear.)

So, for example, the public—not just business interests—would get to weigh in when the federal Department of Transportation proposes to build or extend the interstate highway system that might cut through communities or nearby farmlands. Or when the US Forest Services plans logging activity on federal lands, which could potentially impact tourism and local water quality. Or when the Army Corps of Engineers develops plans for flood control or river transportation on the nation’s waterways. Or when an oil and gas company needs a permit for a new drilling operation. Or for a pipeline. NEPA provides a critical opportunity for the public to comment on the proposed actions and alternatives.

Flexibility and recourse

While the process provides opportunity for public engagement and is meant to ensure that decision-makers consider different alternatives and their environmental impacts, agencies have flexibility to make the final decision they deem most appropriate.

Specifically, agencies are not bound to select the least burdensome alternative. However, agency decisions are appealable and open to judicial review. And the EIS, along with the record of public comment, provides information that can be used to fight an agency decision in court. Without getting into the legal weeds, the courts generally tend to review decisions if 1) the proper process was followed, 2) there was appropriate public participation, and 3) the alternatives considered and decisions made were not “arbitrary and capricious.”

In other words, the agency must have a logical basis for its decisions following public input. As a standard, that’s not bad!

Hartnett White: Here’s the rub

The White House Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) oversees the implementation of NEPA. It issues and interprets NEPA rules and regulations and reviews and approves NEPA procedures in agencies. So it matters who is running the show. Is it someone who will put public health and environmental protection first, or someone who will sideline science in favor of industry? Is it someone who truly believes in the public process and the opportunity for different perspectives and interests to be at the table, or only the most deep-pocketed players?  Is it someone who will staff the office with people who understand and support the statutory missions of the agencies or people from regulated industries who have been vocal critics of NEPA, regulatory protections, and the agencies they will oversee?

Do we want the chief environmental quality advisor in the White House to be someone who views carbon dioxide as a harmless and beneficial gas rather than a proven climate pollutant? Who sees “global warming” as a “kind of paganism” for “secular elites.”  Who has tight and profitable connections with the fossil fuel industry? If yes, then Kathleen Hartnett White is the person for the job.  President Trump certainly thinks so.

With federal promises to address our aging infrastructure in the offing, you may find yourself with a newfound interest in this somewhat arcane, often lengthy, and sometimes contentious process. As well as exceedingly grateful for a functioning NEPA and a CEQ that puts public interest first.

My worry is that powerful private interests will persuade their friends in the administration to “streamline” (read: WEAKEN) NEPA protections and processes. And a willing CEQ with Hartnett White at the helm will be instrumental in the process.

If you’re worried too, call on your senator (you can reach him or her via the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121) to oppose the confirmation of Kathleen Hartnett White!

Scientists, take action!

Join an open letter to the Senate, signed by scientists opposed to Kathleen Hartnett White.

Help call national attention to this dangerous nominee. Add your name to the letter today.

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