Union of Concerned ScientistsUnion of Concerned Scientists http://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Fri, 20 Oct 2017 18:59:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Union of Concerned Scientists http://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 Michael Dourson: A Toxic Choice for Our Health and Safety http://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/michael-dourson-a-toxic-choice-for-our-health-and-safety http://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/michael-dourson-a-toxic-choice-for-our-health-and-safety#comments Thu, 19 Oct 2017 16:09:20 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54436

When it comes to conflicts of interest, few nominations can top that of Michael Dourson to lead the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Time after time, Dourson has worked for industries and against the public interest, actively downplaying the risks of a series of chemicals and pushing for less stringent policies that threaten our safety.

In short, Dourson pushes counterfeit science, is unfit to protect us from dangerous chemicals, and is a toxic choice for our health and safety.

A litany of toxic decisions

Consider the 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia, which contaminated drinking water supplies for 300,000 people with MCHM and PPH—two chemicals used to clean coal.

After the spill, Dourson’s company, TERA, was hired by the state to put together a health effects panel; Dourson was the chair. He did not disclose the fact, however, that he had been hired to work for the very same companies that manufactured those chemicals, a fact that only later came out while he was being questioned by a reporter.

Dourson was also involved in helping set West Virginia’s “safe” level in drinking water for a chemical used to manufacture Teflon (Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), or “C8”). It was 2,000 times higher than the standard set by the EPA.

In 2015, Dourson provided testimony for DuPont in the case of a woman who alleged that her kidney cancer was linked to drinking PFOA-contaminated water from the company’s Parkersburg, WV plant. Just this year, DuPont settled with plaintiffs from the Ohio Valley who had been exposed to PFOA from the same plant for $670 million after an independent C8 Science Panel made up of independent epidemiologists found “probable links” between PFOA and kidney and testicular cancer, as well as high blood pressure, thyroid disease, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

From 2007 to 2014, Dourson and TERA also worked closely with Michael Honeycutt and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to loosen two-thirds of the already weak protections for 45 different chemicals.

The list of toxic decisions made by Dourson and his team goes on and clearly makes him an unacceptable choice for a leadership role at the agency charged with protecting public health and the environment.

A worst-case choice

During Dourson’s hearing before the Senate Committion on Environment and Public Works (EPW), his answers to questions about recusing himself from decisions regarding former chemicals on which TERA has worked closely with industry were cagey at best. It appears that because much of his work was through the University of Cincinnati, he will not be expected to recuse himself from decisions about chemicals that his research team was paid by industry to assess in the past. His ethics agreement confirms this. So much for the Trump administration’s draining of the swamp.

If Dourson is confirmed, I have no doubt that his appointment will be repeatedly cited as a worst-case-scenario of the revolving door between industry representatives and the government.

His work over the past few decades has been destructive enough, even from a position with little power to help the chemical industry directly skirt tough regulations. While Dourson has apparently already been working at the agency as “adviser to the Administrator,” putting him in charge of the office that is supposed to protect the public from toxins would be a grave mistake with national ramifications.

In the coming years, Dourson’s office will be making decisions about safety thresholds and key regulatory actions on chlorpyrifos, neonicotinoids, flame retardants, asbestos, and the other priority chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act. There is no room for error, and unfortunately, error is likely with someone like Dourson in charge.

We join with many other members of the scientific community to oppose Michael Dourson for Assistant Administrator of OCSPP and to ask senators to vote no in upcoming committee and confirmation votes.

Last updated October 19, 4:07 PM EDT. 

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Pruitt Steps Up His Attack on Biofuel Policies http://blog.ucsusa.org/jeremy-martin/pruitt-steps-up-his-attack-on-biofuel-policies http://blog.ucsusa.org/jeremy-martin/pruitt-steps-up-his-attack-on-biofuel-policies#comments Thu, 19 Oct 2017 14:48:51 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54402
Molecular biologist Z. Lewis Liu (foreground) and technician Scott Weber add a new yeast strain to a corncob mix to test the yeast’s effectiveness in fermenting ethanol from plant sugars. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) CC-BY-2.0 (Flickr)

It was just 6 weeks ago I last posted on how Pruitt’s EPA Undermines Cellulosic Biofuels and Transparency in Government, and I hoped to shift my attention to other topics.  But in late September, the EPA Administrator Pruitt stunned the biofuels world by releasing a rulemaking document (called a Notice of Data Availability or NODA) suggesting he planned to cut more deeply into the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) 2018 targets for advanced biofuels and biodiesel than had been previously indicated.

The NODA linked the changes to tariffs recently imposed on imports on soy-based biodiesel from Argentina and palm oil biodiesel from Indonesia, but citations in the NODA make it plain that this request comes directly from the oil refiners.

There are also rumors that EPA may count ethanol that is already being exported toward compliance with the standard, which would also reduce the obligations for refineries to blend ethanol or other biofuels into the fuel they sell.  Overall, these changes upend the basic understanding of the goals and requirements of the RFS and seem intended primarily to reduce costs for refineries.

UCS does not support the approach the NODA suggests.  This might seem odd, since we have been arguing against the increased use of both corn ethanol and vegetable oil based biodiesel for many years.  But while there are plenty of problems with food-based biofuels, ignoring the law and considering only how to reduce costs for oil refiners is not the way to fix them.

UCS has opposed discretionary enlargement of biodiesel mandates beyond statutory levels

Some parts of the RFS offer more benefits than others.  Cellulosic biofuels can expand biofuel production with greater climate benefits and lower environmental costs than food-based biofuels like corn ethanol and vegetable oil biodiesel.  But cellulosic biofuels have not scaled up nearly as fast as the RFS envisioned, which left the EPA to decide whether to backfill the shortfall of cellulosic biofuels with other biofuels, especially biodiesel.

Since 2012 we have argued that the EPA should not make discretionary enlargements to the advanced biofuel mandate to replace the shortfall of cellulosic fuels without careful consideration of potential unintended consequences.

Even without a discretionary enlargement, the minimum statutory levels of advanced biofuels that Congress specified in the RFS are ambitious, and are drawing heavily on available sources of vegetable oil and waste oils (called feedstocks) to make biodiesel and renewable diesel, which, as Scott Irwin and Darrel Good at FarmDocDaily have explained,  have for several years been provided the marginal gallon of biofuel to meet the mandates for conventional and advanced biofuel under the RFS.

Analysis we commissioned in 2015 and more recent analysis from the International Council on Clean Transportation suggest there are not sufficient feedstocks to support higher levels of production.  As I have explained in previous posts and a technical paper, the indirect effect of large expansion of biodiesel is to expand demand for palm oil, which has environmental harms that outweigh the benefits of offsetting diesel use in the U.S.

But we don’t support Pruitt’s effort to cut mandates below statutory levels

It might seem logical that if expanding mandates is a bad idea, then cutting them must be a good idea.  One can certainly make a logical argument that cutting the RFS advanced biofuel mandate will reduce demand for vegetable oil which could result in lower overall demand for palm oil and hence reduce deforestation in Southeast Asia. But there are two big problems with this approach.

First, what Pruitt is proposing is clearly inconsistent with the law.  Despite repeated claims that he will follow the law, the administrator’s actions are subverting the basic goal of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which is to expand the market for biofuels.

Until Congress updates it, the Renewable Fuel Standard is the law, and UCS’ input to the EPA has always focused on how EPA can maximize climate benefits consistent with the law.  We explained why exceeding the minimum statutory levels for food-based biofuels would have unintended consequences, but have not argued that EPA should go below these levels because this is clearly inconsistent with the law.

When corn prices spiked back in 2012, we supported a temporary RFS waiver, which was both consistent with the waiver provisions of the law and supported by the circumstances.  But today we are not facing a crisis in grain, vegetable oil or fuel markets.  Jonathan Coppess and Scott Irwin at FarmDocDaily have evaluated legal and economic grounds to waive the standard, and found no compelling case. Rather, we have a crisis in leadership – in the White House and at the EPA, where Administrator Pruitt is hostile to the basic goals of the agency he leads.  In that context, Pruitt’s proposed actions seem less like an opportunity to reduce the harms of food-based biofuels than a clear subversion of the basic goals of the law in the service of oil industry profits.

Second, political games are risky, and in the present context, climate advocates have a lot more to lose than to gain.  President Trump made repeated promises to protect ethanol, which stands in stark contrast to his position on protecting the United States from climate change.

Pruitt has been not very subtly hinting at a deal whereby the Trump administration promotes ethanol exports and treats ethanol favorably in upcoming fuel economy standards in exchange for their acquiescence to weakening the RFS.  Trading the RFS for loopholes in fuel economy standards would be a bad deal for the future of the biofuels industry and a terrible deal for the environment.

A previous loophole added to fuel economy regulations to promote ethanol sales was a failure, which ultimately did much more to increase gasoline use by making cars less efficient than to expand ethanol use.  A long-term future for the biofuels industry depends on avoiding counterproductive outcomes and helping to cut oil use, and Pruitt is clearly not headed in this direction.  While there is some similarity between UCS’s specific guidance on biodiesel targets and Pruitt’s latest pivot on the RFS, we strongly object to his approach to cellulosic biofuels, his narrow vision for the RFS that focuses solely on current fuel prices, and the direction Pruitt is taking the EPA.

Blowing up current biofuels policy is not much of a plan

Some who support climate policy espouse the idea that the RFS is a failed policy, and that it is mostly just a giveaway to agricultural interests, so letting it collapse it not much of a loss.  I disagree. The RFS is certainly shaped by the political power struggle between the oil industry and the biofuels industry/agriculture, but it also includes important environmental protections.  For example, the RFS requires that future biofuel expansion comes from advanced fuels that cut emissions at least 50% compared to gasoline.  But with the environmental goals of the policy sidelined by the hostile takeover of the EPA by Administrator Pruitt, the current battle comes down to a stark choice between working with the oil industry to undermine the basic structure of the RFS, or keeping that framework intact until we have an opportunity to meaningfully improve it

New laws generally build upon existing legal frameworks, and, if it survives, the RFS is likely to be the foundation on which future fuels policies are built.  If the RFS dies under the knife of the Pruitt EPA, the concessions the Trump administration offers the ethanol industry will not include the environmental protections in the RFS, however imperfect.  Moreover, the RFS and state fuel policies support one another, and if the RFS is weakened it will make the California and Oregon clean fuel policies more challenging and expensive.

UCS is not lending our support to Pruitt’s lawless approach to rewriting our vehicle and fuel policies.  Instead we will defend existing laws and build upon them once we have an administrator who understands that the core mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect the environment rather than doing the bidding of the oil industry and other polluters.

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New UCS Report Finds High Health Risks in Delaware Communities from Toxic Pollution http://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/new-ucs-report-finds-high-health-risks-in-delaware-communities-from-toxic-pollution http://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/new-ucs-report-finds-high-health-risks-in-delaware-communities-from-toxic-pollution#respond Thu, 19 Oct 2017 13:57:51 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54408
Refineries, such as the Delaware City Refinery shown here, can emit toxic chemicals that can increase risks for cancer and respiratory disease.

For decades residents of communities in Wilmington, Delaware’s industrial corridor have dealt with high levels of pollution. People in these communities, which have higher percentages of people of color and/or higher poverty levels than the Delaware average, are also grappling with health challenges that are linked to, or worsened by, exposure to pollution, such as strokes, heart diseases, sudden infant death syndrome, and chronic childhood illnesses such as asthma, learning disabilities, and neurological diseases. These are some of Delaware’s environmental justice communities.

To assess the potential link between environmental pollution and health impacts in these communities, the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS collaborated with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, Community Housing and Empowerment Connections, Inc. and Coming Clean, Inc. Analysis of the following health and safety issues using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data were conducted:  the risk of cancer and potential for respiratory illnesses that stem from toxic outdoor air pollution; proximity of communities to industrial facilities that use large quantities of toxic, flammable, or explosive chemicals and pose a high risk of a major chemical release or catastrophic incident; proximity of communities to industrial facilities with major pollution emissions; and proximity of communities to contaminated waste sites listed in EPA’s Brownfield and Superfund programs.

The seven communities analyzed—Belvedere, Cedar Heights, Dunleith, Marshallton, Newport, Oakmont, and Southbridge—were compared to Greenville, a predominantly White and affluent community located outside the industrial corridor, and to the population of Delaware overall. The findings from this analysis have been published in a new report titled Environmental Justice for Delaware: Mitigating Toxic Pollution in New Castle County Communities.

Proximity to major pollution sources and dangerous chemical facilities

TABLE 5. Sources of Chemical Hazards and Pollution in Environmental Justice Communities Compared with
Greenville and Delaware Overall. Note: All facilities are located within 1 mile of communities.
SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). No date (i). EPA state combined CSV download files. Online at www.epa.gov/enviro/epastate-combined-csv-download-files, accessed May 18, 2017.

Dunleith and Oakmont have several Brownfield sites and are in close proximity to facilities releasing significant quantities of toxic chemicals into the air. Southbridge has, within its boundaries or within a one-mile radius around it, two high-risk chemical facilities, 13 large pollution-emitting industrial facilities, four Superfund sites, and 48 Brownfield sites. Southbridge is home to more than half of all Brownfields in Delaware. Cedar Heights and Newport also have several large pollution-emitting facilities within one mile as well as being close to two EPA Superfund contaminated waste sites.

Effects of toxic air pollution on cancer risks and the potential for respiratory illnesses

TABLE 2. Cancer Risks for Environmental Justice Communities Compared with Greenville and Delaware Overall
Note: Cancer risk is expressed as the incidences of cancer per million people. For the respiratory hazard index, an index value of 1 or less indicates a level of studied pollutants equal to a level the EPA has determined not to be a health concern, while a value greater than 1 indicates the potential for adverse respiratory health impacts, with increasing concern as the value increases. SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2015. 2015 National Air Toxics Assessment. Washington, DC. Online at www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment, accessed May 18, 2017.

Of the seven environmental justice communities studied, people in Marshallton face the highest cancer and respiratory health risks. Cancer and respiratory health risks there are 33 and 71 percent higher, respectively, than for the comparison community Greenville, and are 28 and 55 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

The communities of Dunleith, Oakmont, and Southbridge, whose residents are predominantly people of color and have a poverty rate approximately twice that of Delaware overall, have cancer risks 19 to 23 percent higher than for Greenville and 14 to 18 percent higher than for Delaware overall. Respiratory hazard in these three communities is 32 to 43 percent higher than for Greenville and 20 to 30 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

For Newport, Belvedere, and Cedar Heights, which have a substantial proportion of people of color and poverty rates above the Delaware average, cancer risks are 21, 15, and 12 percent higher than for Greenville, respectively, and are 16, 10, and 7 percent higher than for Delaware overall. Respiratory hazard in Newport, Belvedere, and Cedar Heights is 44, 30, and 24 percent higher than for Greenville, respectively, and 31, 18, and 13 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

Children at risk

Kenneth Dryden of the Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice and a former Southbridge resident leads a tour of toxic facilities to teach scientists and community members about the dangers of local air pollution.

Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of toxic air pollution. Particularly concerning is that seven schools within one mile of Southbridge, with a total of more than 2,200 students, are in locations with substantially higher cancer risks and potential respiratory hazards than schools in all other communities in this study.

In addition to having daily exposure to toxic pollution in the air, children in these communities are at risk of being exposed to toxic chemicals accidentally released from hazardous chemical facilities in or near their communities. For example, the John G. Leach School and Harry O. Eisenberg Elementary School near Dunleith, with a total of 661 students, are located within one mile of a high-risk chemical facility.

Achieving environmental justice for vulnerable communities

Using multiple EPA data bases, the findings of this study indicate that people in the seven communities along the Wilmington industrial corridor face a substantial potential cumulative health risk from (1) exposure to toxic air pollution, (2) their proximity to polluting industrial facilities and hazardous chemical facilities, and (3) proximity to contaminated waste sites. These health risks are substantially greater than those for residents of a wealthier and predominantly White Delaware community and for Delaware as a whole.

This research provides scientific support for what neighbors in these communities already know—that they’re unfairly facing higher health risks. We need to listen to communities and the facts and enact and enforce the rules to protect their health and safety. Environmental justice has to be a priority for these and other communities that face disproportionately high health risks from toxic pollution.

Ron White is an independent consultant providing services in the field of environmental health sciences. Mr. White currently is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and also holds a part-time faculty appointment in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He earned his Master of Science in Teaching degree in environmental studies from Antioch University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in environmental science from Clark University.  

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

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Why Cap and Invest Is the Right Solution for Massachusetts Transportation http://blog.ucsusa.org/daniel-gatti/why-cap-and-invest-is-the-right-solution-for-massachusetts-transportation http://blog.ucsusa.org/daniel-gatti/why-cap-and-invest-is-the-right-solution-for-massachusetts-transportation#comments Thu, 19 Oct 2017 13:30:34 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54416
Boston Traffic. Photo: Sarah Nichols CC-BY-2.0 (Flickr)

Over the past decade, Massachusetts has helped lead the nation towards clean and renewable sources of electricity.

Under the Global Warming Solutions Act, Massachusetts established the strongest legally binding limits on global warming pollution in the country. Massachusetts leadership helped establish the first regional limits on pollution from power plants through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. We have the most efficient economy in the country, saving consumers millions on our energy bills. We have abolished the use of coal, we have created over 100,000 clean energy jobs, and last year Massachusetts made an investment in offshore wind that will make us a national leader in that technology.

But most of the progress that we have made is in the electricity sector. When it comes to transportation, we have tried but struggled to make overall progress.

Our cars and trucks, rather than our power plants, are now the largest sources of pollution in Massachusetts. Every year, pollution from transportation causes over 3,000 asthma attacks, 500 preventable deaths and $1.3 billion in combined health costs in the state. While emissions from electricity are overall down by 58%, in transportation emissions are about the same as they were in 1990.

To their credit, the Baker administration has recognized that meeting our long-term climate mandates requires more ambitious action to control transportation emissions. The Baker administration has announced four listening sessions to solicit ideas for how to address pollution from transportation. According to Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton, “Our next target for new policies that will lead to further reductions is the transportation sector and we’re looking forward to rolling up our sleeves and finding solutions.”

Massachusetts needs a better, cleaner transportation system

Of course, pollution is one of many challenges facing Massachusetts’ transportation system these days.

You can’t pick up a newspaper today without reading about some of the challenges affecting transportation in the state: our public transportation services are underfunded and overcrowded, our roads are among the most congested in the country, our transportation agencies are broke, low income communities are poorly served by transit, communities near public transportation are increasingly unaffordable.

Here are just a few articles that have been written about some of the challenges affecting transportation and housing in Massachusetts over the past month:

What these stories have in common is that they all show the critical role that the inter-related issues of transportation, housing and climate change will play in the future of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts needs a public transportation system that businesses and workers can rely on to connect people to jobs and opportunities. We need to be able to provide enough affordable housing near transit to retain talented young professionals and protect low-income residents from displacement and gentrification. As recent storms have demonstrated, we need to protect our transportation system from the impacts of a changing climate by keeping our infrastructure in good repair. And to achieve our climate goals, we need to transition virtually our entire vehicle fleet to cars and trucks that do not pollute.

We need, in short, dramatic and transformative change in our transportation system.

We can do better

The good news is that today we have more tools at our disposal to address transportation challenges than ever before. Exciting technologies such as electric vehicles offer the promise of cars and trucks and buses that can operate without tailpipe emissions and that can be powered by clean energy. Thanks to our relatively clean grid, in Massachusetts EVs can get the emissions equivalent of a 100 mpg vehicle.

New transportation modes such as ride-sharing and automated vehicles open up new possibilities for greater system efficiency – as well as potential new challenges that will need to be addressed through smart policy. Transit ridership is growing faster in Boston than any other major transit system. And a younger generation is coming of age that shows ever greater interest in transit, cycling, and urban living.

Together, these present-day technologies and trends point towards a possible future still on the horizon, if we make the right investments today in clean transportation.  A transportation system that does more but costs less and pollutes less. Where a network of shared, electric vehicles, working in concert with a first-class public transportation system, gets everybody where they need to go without burning a gallon of gasoline or getting stuck for an hour in traffic.

So how do we get there from here?

Obviously no single policy has the ability to address all the challenges facing our transportation sector. Creating a better, cleaner transportation system will require multiple policies and coordination between state and local government and key stakeholders in the private sector.

But one great place to start would be to join with the other states in the Northeast in launching a cap and invest program modeled after the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) covering transportation emissions.

RGGI is a program with a track record of success in reducing emissions while growing the economy and saving consumers money. Under RGGI, the Northeast region has established limits on emissions from power plants, limits that must decline every year. These limits are enforced through a requirement that power generators purchase allowances from within a limited pool. The funds generated by these allowance sales are then invested in clean energy and efficiency programs.

RGGI is a funding source for a variety of programs that have saved money and improved lives in Massachusetts.

Funding from RGGI is used to support the MassSave program, which has provided home energy audits and rebates for home retrofits and energy efficient appliances for thousands of households across the Commonwealth. Through the Green Communities Act, RGGI helps engage local government and local grassroots activists around concrete local energy projects in 155 communities across Massachusetts, such as upgrading the boiler at the local school or putting in LED streetlights.

By investing in efficiency, RGGI has saved consumers over $600 million on their energy bills – with billions in additional savings expected in years to come. Overall, RGGI has helped cut emissions in the Northeast region by over 37 percent, while expanding the Northeast economy by $2.9 billion. In Massachusetts, RGGI has produced over $1 billion in health benefits and created over 2,000 jobs.

What would cap and invest mean for Massachusetts?

The biggest limitation of the RGGI program is that it only applies to power plants. But other jurisdictions, including California, Ontario and Quebec, have successfully expanded the cap and invest program model to include transportation fuels, and the result has been billions of dollars in new investments in clean transportation.

California, for example, is projected to spend over $2 billion on clean transportation and affordable housing investments over the next year. These investments will go to a variety of programs designed to increase access to clean mobility solutions for California residents, including:

  • Expansion of light rail service in every major metropolitan area.
  • Improved bus service, including zero-emission bus service, in dozens of cities, towns and rural counties.
  • Aggressive incentive programs to make it easier for low-income residents to trade in inefficient vehicles for hybrids or electric vehicles.
  • Investments in affordable housing near public transportation.

A cap and invest program covering transportation emissions could potentially raise up to $4.7 billion in funding for similar programs in the Northeast. For Massachusetts, that could mean over $120 million per year in dedicated funding for clean vehicle incentives, $120 million in affordable housing initiatives, and $225 million to improve public transportation.

Lets make it happen

We can have a cleaner and more efficient transportation system in Massachusetts and other Northeast states – and with policy leaders looking closely at bringing cap and invest into transportation, now is the time to engage in this effort.

Massachusetts will conduct four listening sessions over the next few weeks to generate feedback from the public on clean transportation. These sessions will be held:

  • Tuesday, October 31, 9:00am, State Transportation Building, 10 Park Plaza, Boston, MA
  • Thursday, November 2, 6:00pm, MassDEP Central Region Office, 8 New Bond Street, Worcester, MA
  • Monday, November 6, 11:00am, UMass-Amherst, Student Union – Cape Cod Lounge, 280 Hicks Way, Amherst, MA
  • Thursday, November 9, 6:00pm, West Middle School, 271 West Street, Brockton, MA

Advocates will also be hosting a webinar to talk in more detail about the proposed policy.

We encourage everyone with a stake in a better transportation system in Massachusetts – which is to say, everyone in Massachusetts – to come to these events and make their voices heard.




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In New Mexico, Facing the Question of What Comes After Coal http://blog.ucsusa.org/julie-mcnamara/in-new-mexico-facing-the-question-of-what-comes-after-coal http://blog.ucsusa.org/julie-mcnamara/in-new-mexico-facing-the-question-of-what-comes-after-coal#respond Wed, 18 Oct 2017 14:03:33 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54345
Photo: WildEarth Guardians/Creative Commons (Flickr)

Change is coming to New Mexico.

As recently as 2011, coal accounted for more than 70 percent of in-state electricity generation; now it’s under 60 percent, and falling fast. Coal simply cannot compete in the face of cleaner, cheaper resources coming online.

But with this change comes opportunity. New Mexico has a chance now, before its coal plants and coal mining operations have closed, and before jobs have been lost, to chart an intentional path toward a clean energy future that is considerate of both the benefits and challenges that such a transition will bring. By committing to an energy plan dominated by renewables, policymakers in the state can secure good jobs, significant capital investment, and a brighter, cleaner, and healthier world for all New Mexicans.

And as highlighted in our new analysis, Committing to Renewables in New Mexico: Boosting the State’s Economy, Generating Dividends for All, this can all be achieved while keeping costs for consumers affordable, and electricity service reliable.

Recognizing the imminent transition ahead

In New Mexico, it is no longer a question of whether the state’s coal plants will retire, but when. This past summer, the state’s largest utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), concluded that its most cost-effective portfolio of resources was the one that was entirely coal free. From a company that had been just a year prior staunchly defending its need to keep coal plants running, this announcement marked a stunning turn.

The question that follows, though, is what gets built to fill the gaps?

New Mexico has a nearly unparalleled array of renewable resource potential available to it, from strong and steady winds, to countless days of uninterrupted sun, to ready access to geothermal. These incredible resources mean that for the state, developing clean energy is particularly cost-competitive. And project developers have been flocking to New Mexico in response—right now, more than 1,800 MW of wind are under construction or in advanced stages of development.

The trouble is, a number of these clean energy projects and the ones that have preceded them have been built to serve out-of-state customers, not New Mexicans. Slowly the state’s utilities have been awakening to the cost-saving potential of investing in these resources themselves. But that interest is threatened to be overshadowed by some utility calls for a much larger buildout of natural gas.

Critically, our analysis shows that a growing dependence on natural gas would be short-sighted, and not in the best interest of consumers.

Studying the horizon, and finding all signs point to renewables

We set out to understand the different electricity pathways the state could take as coal plants retire and new resources are brought online to replace them. We found that no matter how you slice it, the least-cost future is one characterized by a high level of renewables. Indeed, our research found that renewables—and not natural gas—provided the best deal for consumers and the New Mexican economy.

So why the need for a policy, when the market suggests green all the way?

Because these market-based findings run counter to some utility plans in the state, which propose to keep building out natural gas over time. A policy commitment to a high-renewables future, on the other hand, makes sure that these clean energy opportunities are diligently considered and pursued.

And what incredible opportunities they are.

When we modeled steadily strengthening the state’s existing renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from its current target of 20 percent by 2020 to 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040, we found that the policy could ensure the achievement of widespread benefits for New Mexicans, including:

  • Photo: Ozturk/iStock.

    Significant capital investment, on the order of $6 billion between 2016 and 2030 and $7.2 billion between 2017 and 2040, funding the development of 2,200 megawatts (MW) of wind and 870 MW of solar by 2030, and total on-the-ground capacity reaching 3,650 MW of wind and 3,900 MW of solar in 2040.

  • Investments in wind and solar driving the creation of nearly 2,400 new direct, indirect, and induced jobs in construction, operations, maintenance and other related fields by 2030, as well as the annual potential for $9.5 million in land-lease payments by that time.
  • The affordability of electricity costs for consumers, with typical monthly electric bills for households in most years lower than they were in 2016.
  • Cleaner air leading to improved health—savings from the reduction in SO2 and NOx health effects alone could total approximately $305 million by 2030—and reduced water consumption on the order of 90 percent from coal plant retirements.

It’s clear that when the state commits to a clean energy future, the benefits and opportunities are significant, and long-lasting.

Good policy is needed to point the way

In New Mexico, when it comes to strengthening the state’s existing RPS, the goal is not to pick winners—it’s to ensure that winners will be picked. It’s also about defending against the alternative, where a growing dependence on natural gas risks saddling ratepayers long into the future with the costs of stranded assets, or infrastructure that would be abandoned before it had been paid off due to the country’s inevitable shift away from fossil fuels.

Last legislative session, SB 312 was introduced to strengthen the RPS, as modeled in this analysis. The effort ultimately stalled, but it’s expected to be revisited in future sessions. Policymakers would do well to take the time between to strongly consider how such a policy can leverage the investment benefits of regulatory certainty, and how that can help keep utilities pushing forward with clean energy progress.

Photo: Mr.TinDC/Creative Commons (Flickr).

At the same time, achieving a clean energy future in New Mexico requires more than any single policy can deliver. For example, the simultaneous strengthening of the state’s energy efficiency resource standard would bring down costs across the board.

An increased focus on demand-side solutions, such as broader implementation of time-varying electricity rates and targeted guidance to shift loads like through the electrification of hot water heaters, can similarly ease the integration of high levels of renewables.

So too can energy storage, as well as a proactive planning process to ensure that necessary transmission expansions are supported. Participation in broader energy markets can help balance loads, and save customers money. Finally, focused attention must be devoted to worker retraining, and developing viable and vibrant economic futures for communities currently dependent on coal.

Opportunity awaits. Policymakers have the chance to be proactive and actualize that positive potential now, and they should—not just for the benefit of New Mexicans today, but also for decades to come.

Update 10/20/2017 12:52pm: Minor updates to the text were added to further clarify the importance of strong renewable energy policy in the state.

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USDA Reorganization Sidelines Dietary Guidelines http://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/usda-reorganization-sidelines-dietary-guidelines http://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/usda-reorganization-sidelines-dietary-guidelines#respond Tue, 17 Oct 2017 21:52:10 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54314
Photo: Cristie Guevara/public domain (BY CC0)

Last month, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a number of proposed changes to the organization of the vast federal department he oversees. With its 29 agencies and offices and nearly 100,000 employees, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with a wide-ranging mission, from helping farmers to be profitable and environmentally sustainable to ensuring the nutritional well-being of all Americans. And while some of the organizational changes Secretary Perdue is pursuing (which all stem from a March executive order from President Trump) may seem arcane, they will have real impacts on all of us. The proposed merger of two key nutrition programs is a case in point.

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Public domain (Flickr)

The plan involves relocating the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) into the department’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). While FNS is well-known in anti-hunger and agricultural communities for its role in administering nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), CNPP is less so—though not for lack of impact or importance.

Established in 1994, CNPP is the agency responsible for reviewing and compiling the best available scientific literature on human nutrition, developing measures of dietary quality such as the Healthy Eating Index, and (jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services) issuing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. At a time when more than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, the role that CNPP plays in protecting public health has never been more critical.

Reorganization compromises health without achieving efficiency

In the words of Perdue himself, the proposed reorganizations are aimed at making the USDA “the most effective, most efficient, and best managed department in the federal government.”

To be clear, reorganization (or “realignment”) is not an inherently bad thing. Proposals that could successfully increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies without compromising mission or purpose would be laudable. But merging CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither—and follows a dangerous pattern of this administration pushing back on science with its policy agenda. Furthermore, the merger poses serious threats to the scientific integrity of the agency charged with developing evidence-based dietary guidelines for the entire country, for several key reasons:

  1. FNS and CNPP serve distinctly different purposes. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each.
  2. The CNPP administrator will lack appropriate credentials to oversee the development of evidence-based national nutrition guidelines. Following the reorganization, CNPP would no longer be headed by a politically-appointed administrator, but instead by a career associate administrator. This individual is highly unlikely to possess the education and level of expertise required by this position.
  3. Merging CNPP into FNS introduces a conflict of interest. Nutrition programs administered by FNS must adhere to dietary recommendations established by CNPP, introducing a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations.

The USDA received public comments on this issue between September 12 and October 10. The full comment authored by the UCS Food and Environment Program, outlining the risks to scientific integrity and population health posed by the proposed reorganization, follows.

UCS Comments on USDA Notice, “Improving Customer Service”

October 10, 2017

Dear Secretary Perdue and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Bice,

On behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), we are compelled to respond to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notice, “Improving Customer Service,” with concerns regarding the proposed merging of the Center for Nutrition and Policy Promotion (CNPP) into the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). This proposed action would threaten the scientific integrity of CNPP and compromise public health, while providing zero demonstrable financial or public benefit.

UCS, a science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world, combines independent scientific research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices. The Food and Environment Program at UCS makes evidence-based policy recommendations to shift our nation’s food and agriculture system to produce healthier, more sustainable and just outcomes for all Americans.

CNPP evidence-based recommendations play a critical role in protecting population health.
The current state of US population health poses enormous costs both to quality of life and health care systems. More than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are now living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, overweight/obesity, and certain types of cancer. Recent research shows that dietary factors may now play a role in nearly half of all deaths resulting from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. In 2012, the direct medical expenses and lost productivity due to cardiovascular disease alone averaged $316 billion, while those due to diagnosed diabetes totaled $245 billion. In total, chronic diseases account for approximately 86 percent of all US health care expenditures.

However, just as diet is a key factor driving these trends, it also offers great potential to reverse them. The federal government has a critical role to play in promoting health and reducing the burden of chronic disease by supporting evidence-based policies and programs that improve the dietary patterns of Americans. For more than twenty years, CNPP has filled this role. The Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) at CNPP applies rigorous scientific standards to conduct systematic reviews of current nutrition research, and informs a range of federal nutrition programs, including the National School Breakfast Program, National School Lunch Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Working jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), CNPP is also responsible for overseeing the development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nutrition recommendations that are a cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. As an autonomous agency, CNPP is well positioned to deliver unbiased and scientifically sound recommendations to other federal agencies and to the general public.

The proposed merger is unlikely to result in increased efficiency.
As stated in USDA-2017-05399, Executive Order 13781, “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch,” was intended to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability through agency reorganization. However, there is no duplication of function between CNPP and FNS. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each. Changes in allocation of resources from restructuring would also threaten the ability of CNPP to conduct its mission.

The proposed merger threatens the scientific integrity of CNPP, compromising its core function.
Merging CNPP into FNS will weaken the ability of the USDA to provide the most current evidence-based nutrition guidance to federal food and nutrition programs. The change would also jeopardize the ability of CNPP to comply with Congressional mandates, chiefly the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990, which requires the establishment of dietary guidelines at least once every five years and the promotion of these guidelines by any federal agency carrying out a federal food, nutrition, or health program.

The proposed reorganization would degrade the scientific integrity and core function of CNPP, particularly if:

  1. The CNPP administrator lacks appropriate credentials to guide the development of science based recommendations, including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
    The CNPP administrator has previously been appointed by the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services program. With the proposed reorganization, this position would be filled by a career official lacking necessary technical expertise. In its recent review of the DGA process, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) stated that it is of critical importance that “the DGA be viewed as valid, evidence-based, and free of bias or conflict of interest.” As the individual responsible for overseeing management of the NEL and development of DGAs and other science-based recommendations, the CNPP administrator must have strong credentials, including a background in dietetics, nutrition, medicine, and/or public health, with demonstrated experience relevant to nutrition science/research, population health, chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, economics, surveillance systems, and nutrition communications and marketing. This individual must also possess experience in advanced management and budget oversight; continuous quality improvement; program planning; implementation and evaluation; data analytics; information technology; and public policy.
  2. There is inadequate separation of agency function, diminishing the autonomy of CNPP.
    The application of dietary recommendations in programs administered by FNS introduces a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations. The development of the DGAs and the USDA Food Plans (e.g. Thrifty Food Plan) are of particular concern, as they inform programs administered by FNS.

The Union of Concerned Scientists appreciates the USDA’s efforts to increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies. However, the merging of CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither. The ability of CNPP to effectively and independently fulfill its mission of developing evidence-based dietary guidelines without undue influence may be compromised by: 1) the replacement of an appointed administrator with a career associated administrator who may not possess the qualifications needed to oversee the development of science-based federal nutrition recommendations; and 2) the inherent conflict of interest that occurs by way of FNS oversight over CNPP, as the latter develops guidelines that the former must adhere to in the implementation of various nutrition programs.

Given the alarming trajectory of diet and disease in the US, it is in the best interests of the public and the US healthcare system that CNPP continues to operate independently from FNS to produce evidence-based recommendations for population health. As the Director of the Office of Management and Budget considers proposed agency reorganizations to meet the directive of Executive Order 13781, “Improving Customer Service,” UCS is hopeful that the Director recognizes the magnitude of the potential risks associated with merging these agencies and rejects the proposed action.

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EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Accelerates Politicization of Agency’s Science Advisory Board http://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/epa-administrator-scott-pruitt-accelerates-politicization-of-science-advisory-board http://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/epa-administrator-scott-pruitt-accelerates-politicization-of-science-advisory-board#respond Tue, 17 Oct 2017 21:45:04 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54371

Earlier today, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt strongly suggested that the agency will not consider any candidate for EPA’s science advisory committees who has received a grant from the agency. Such a gobsmackingly boneheaded move would further hamstring the ability of the EPA to accomplish its public health mission. The administrator is directly challenging the intent of Congress, which established the Science Advisory Board to provide independent scientific advice so that EPA can effectively protect our health and environment.

So why now? Administrator Pruitt’s schedule offers some clues. House Science Committee Chairman and serial scientist harasser Lamar Smith is a champion of the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, flawed legislation that would increase industry control over the Science Advisory Board and, yes, prevent EPA grant recipients from serving. UCS’s Yogin Kothari summed up the legislation for the New Republic:

“They’re basically saying that people who are experts in environmental science, who have spent their careers working on this and may have received EPA grants to do their work, are inherently conflicted, whereas people who are working in the industry, who would be impacted by the board’s advice, are not conflicted,” Kothari said. “I mean, that’s bananas, right?”

Congress has for years failed to pass this legislation, which was vehemently and repeatedly opposed by UCS and many other mainstream science organizations. So in April 2017, a presumably frustrated Chairman Smith got together with Administrator Pruitt to talk about the bill. Pretty persuasion from the congressman seems to have worked.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is taking more steps to politicize the EPA Science Advisory Board, defying Congress in the process. Photo: Wikimedia

Now keep in mind, Administrator Pruitt already has a parade of lobbyists and advisors providing him with the perspectives from oil, gas, and chemical companies. He already thinks he has all the right friends, but would be best served to hear from independent experts, too.

The Science Advisory Board, for now, can be a check on political influence and can help the agency determine whether the special interests are telling it straight. I can see why a man of his outlook would want to neutralize it.

There are plenty of extremely well-qualified, universally respected candidates who can provide scientific advice to an administrator who really needs it. Getting science advice from the EPA Science Advisory Board is like getting basketball tips from 40 Steph Currys. It’s the best in the business, volunteering their time in service of the public good.

Industry participation on the Science Advisory Board is not a problem. But candidates should be evaluated on their scientific expertise and ability to remain objective. So let’s recap: according to some, scientists who receive money from oil and chemical companies are perfectly qualified to provide the EPA with independent science advice, while those who receive federal grants are not. It’s a fundamental misrepresentation of how conflicts of interest work.

Soon, we’ll hear who the EPA will appoint after controversially dismissing qualified scientists earlier this year. Will the new appointees be Yes Men or responsible researchers? All signs point to the former.

If Administrator Pruitt continues to politicize the Science Advisory Board, he’ll be willfully setting himself up to fail at the job of protecting public health and the environment. It’s not something we should stand for.

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How Science Can Help Us Better Prepare for Wildfires: Insights from a NASA Scientist http://blog.ucsusa.org/rachel-licker/how-science-can-help-us-better-prepare-for-wildfires-insights-from-a-nasa-scientist http://blog.ucsusa.org/rachel-licker/how-science-can-help-us-better-prepare-for-wildfires-insights-from-a-nasa-scientist#comments Tue, 17 Oct 2017 19:56:33 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54354
Satellite view of California's wildfires and smoke. NASA's Aqua satellite collected this natural-color image on October 09, 2017. Photo: NASA

In the midst of the catastrophic wildfires of Northern California that have claimed 41 lives and either destroyed or damaged more than 5,700 buildings, I wanted to know where the cutting edge of science on this issue is today. What made the California wildfires so strong and unusually destructive? Regardless of what started the fires, what conditions allowed the fires to spread so quickly? Did climate change have anything to do with it? What are scientists currently working on that can help communities better prepare for wildfires?

I had the good luck to work through my questions with NASA Earth scientist and fire expert, Dr. Douglas Morton. I reached Dr. Morton by phone while he was attending SilviLaser 2017 – a conference that brings together scientists who use a powerful laser technology called LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to develop extremely high-resolution 3D maps of forests.

How has the amount of land burned by wildfires changed over time?

When it comes to wildfires, Dr. Morton let me know that NASA has been using satellites to measure changes in wildfire over time, globally and regionally. What they found is that globally, the amount of land burned by wildfires has declined over the past 18 years. This is because more and more land is being converted from natural landscapes, where fires naturally occur, to agriculture.

The Western U.S. is an exception to this – wildfires have increased in this region over time. In California alone, more than one million acres of land have been affected by wildfires this year, putting this year on track to be one of the most destructive on record in the state. More on what is causing those increases in wildfires later.

What made the California wildfires so strong?

When considering what fueled the California wildfires, Dr. Morton pointed to heat as a key factor, with these fires coming on the heels of an unprecedented heat wave in the region. In addition, high winds and drought conditions allowed the wildfires to strengthen and spread quickly. The hot, dry winds (known as Diablo winds) reached up to 79 mph.

Do we know whether climate change contributed to the California wildfires?

Attributing individual disasters to climate change is a complex and growing field. For an event like the wildfires of Northern California, Dr. Morton noted that what we can say at the moment is that the high temperatures in the area – one ingredient of wildfires – have been anomalous.

Beyond the Northern California wildfires, several studies show a link between the previously mentioned increase in wildfire activity in the Western United States and climate change as a result of increasingly warm and dry conditions in the region.  Looking forward, climate change is likely to increase the frequency of large, intense forests fires in the West.

What ability do scientists have to predict wildfires?

NASA scientists are using their understanding of the Earth system to figure out which places are likely to have wildfires as far as 3-6 months out from an event. Dr. Morton noted that some places are more predictable than others. For example, as a result of all of the hurricanes in the North Atlantic, Dr. Morton shared that there will likely be more fire activity in the Amazon next year.

How does that work? Hurricanes are a way that the Earth transfers heat away from the Equator. Warmer ocean waters are tugging a belt of rainfall known as the “Intertropical Convergence Zone” northward.  Warmer water fuels hurricanes, and these storms pull moisture with them.  As a result, there is less water available to the Amazon, and these drier conditions lead to more fire activity following years with more hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic.

However, not all places are conducive to such seasonal forecasts. Dr. Morton described how seasonal wildfire forecasts are currently possible in places (like the Amazon) where fire activity is affected by temperatures at the top of the ocean (also known as sea surface temperatures).

Dr. Morton explained that Northern California’s wildfire activity is not linked to such sea surface temperatures. Instead, it is a place that responds to smaller-scale and shorter-term factors. For example, a dry pocket of air might be enough to tip Northern California into a high wildfire risk situation.

What are the new frontiers for wildfire research?

When wrapping up our conversation, Dr. Morton pointed out that scientists like himself are trying to improve wildfire forecasts, and get forecasts down to shorter timescales that decision makers can use – that is where the cutting edge is right now. He noted that there is a conference at Columbia University coming down the pike where scientists will gather to share knowledge and exchange ideas on this very topic.

We may often think of NASA as the part of the government that sends rockets into space. However, NASA’s scientists and Earth observations are vital to helping make Americans safer here on Earth. Scientists like Doug Morton are pushing the envelope so that decision-makers at the federal, state, and community-level can ultimately have more accurate wildfire forecasts, more time to prepare, and a better chance of protecting lives, property, and ecosystems.


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Climate Change Goes to Court http://blog.ucsusa.org/ken-kimmell/climate-change-goes-to-court http://blog.ucsusa.org/ken-kimmell/climate-change-goes-to-court#comments Tue, 17 Oct 2017 13:11:17 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54348

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his opus Democracy in America, “Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, in a judicial question.” De Tocqueville made the observation in 1835 but it remains equally true in modern times, as federal and state courts have taken the lead to resolve many vexing political problems, such as dismantling segregation-era laws and ensuring a rough equality of funding for public schools. Courts are particularly prone to step in when legislative and executive branches fail to act and that void creates a crisis.

In the United States today, the federal government has abdicated leadership on the central challenge of our time—global climate change. Congress has failed to enact a national climate change policy, and seems more divided on the issue than ever. The Trump administration refuses to even acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus that the planet is warming due to fossil fuel combustion. It has pledged to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, is now actively promoting the expansion of domestic fossil fuel production, and is working to roll back the modest steps the Obama Administration took to address the problem. Meanwhile, the costs of inaction mount and are increasingly obvious—witness Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Given this dereliction of duty, will courts now step in to fill this void?  Five recently filed suits—and some new work by climate scientists—suggest the answer could be yes.

Seeking redress for climate damages

The cities of San Francisco and Oakland recently filed suits against five major fossil fuel producers: ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, and Conoco Phillips. These two suits add upon suits filed in July by two California counties—San Mateo and Marin—and the City of Imperial Beach, which targeted 37 oil, gas and coal companies. These public plaintiffs, relying on cutting-edge work by the Union of Concerned ScientistsInside Climate News, and the Columbia School of Journalism/Los Angeles Times, tell a compelling story that fossil fuel companies have known for roughly 50 years that fossil fuel products are endangering the climate, yet many engaged in a concerted effort to conceal the dangers, sow doubt about the validity of emerging climate science and fight sensible policies to address the problem, all to increase the sales of their products. These plaintiffs also ruefully note that fossil fuel combustion has doubled since 1988, when James Hansen testified to congress about the danger of global warming, and the UN established the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), making it all but impossible to now stave off serious climate change impacts.

The plaintiffs in these cases allege that climate change impacts, such as sea level rise, will harm the infrastructure that these public authorities own and operate and public properties such as beaches and parks, and threaten to displace their residents and damage their properties. Plaintiffs seek damages for the costs they have already incurred, and those that they will incur in the future to address these threats. Several of the suits also seek disgorgement of the profits from fossil fuel production, and punitive damages to punish the alleged wrongdoing.

“Tort” lawsuits like this one have been tried before without success. In one case, a group of state attorneys general sued power plants to enjoin their emissions of carbon dioxide, and in another a group of native communities in Alaska sued fossil fuel companies for damages arising from sea level rise. Two federal courts (the US Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) dismissed these suits on the grounds that Congress placed authority for addressing climate change upon the EPA when it enacted the Clean Air Act, and there was no room for the federal courts to act upon the issue.

There are two key differences between this suit and those prior cases. First, the plaintiffs in this case are suing in state court, and alleging that the fossil fuel companies have violated state law. Thus, the question of whether federal authority to regulate climate change rests with EPA or the judiciary is not strictly relevant.

Second, the federal courts dismissed these two prior cases in 2011 and 2012, at a time when the president and federal agencies were exercising their legal authority to address climate change.  Now, the president and the EPA are abdicating their authority and rolling back the policies that were put in place, in order to promote fossil fuels. Thus, it seems unlikely that the California courts would rely upon these two federal decisions to dismiss the cases.

However, the fossil fuel companies will surely raise this and many other defenses. They will also claim that suits of this kind are beyond the competence of the court to manage, that the plaintiffs are singling them out for a problem caused by many other entities, that the extraction and sale of fossil fuels was expressly allowed under the laws and brought prosperity to millions, and that they possessed no unique knowledge about climate change and were therefore under no obligation to disclose the potential harms of burning fossil fuels.

A decision on these cases is many years away, and it is far too early to predict how it will unfold.  But it is not too early to note the extent to which this case—and the ongoing investigations into ExxonMobil by the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general—are already sparking an important and timely debate about who is responsible for climate change.

Until now, the focus of responsibility has been on nation states: the Paris climate agreement, for example, is based on nations committing to cut emissions and/or compensate countries that are particularly vulnerable to its impacts. This focus on nation states has elided a perhaps more fundamental question—what is the responsibility of the companies that placed fossil fuels into commerce and profited from them? One senses, even in the early stages of this litigation, that this question will eventually be answered in the courts.

 A new role for scientific evidence

Lawyers and judges are not the only actors bringing climate change into the courtroom. Scientists are also playing a key behind-the-scenes role.

One of the most difficult questions a court will face, if climate litigation unfolds, is how to apportion liability for a harm that has millions of sources. The rapidly emerging field of climate attribution science helps answer that question.

In 2014, scientist Rick Heede published a paper that painstakingly traced the volume of oil, gas and coal that excavated and place into commerce between 1854 and 2010 by the 83 major investor and state-owned producers of oil, natural gas, coal, and 7 cement manufacturers. This research concluded that nearly two-thirds of all industrial carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions can be traced to the products of just 90 companies. This relatively small number augers well for the ability of a court to address the question of responsibility.

While this work is a starting point for apportioning liability, it needs further development to be useful in court. A key fact to account for is that including the fact that, unlike pollutants such as mercury or particulates, greenhouse gases do not cause harm directly. Rather, the emissions cause global warming, which then causes specific harms, such as heat waves and sea level rise. Thus, an additional step is needed to connect the global warming emissions associated with these companies’ products to the harms suffered by actual plaintiffs.

A newly published paper by UCS scientists Brenda Ezwurkel and Peter Frumhoff among others, attempts to close this gap. The authors created a model to translate the emissions traceable to these 90 companies into two particular impacts: global increases in temperature, and sea level rise.

The paper appropriately recognizes that, while fossil fuel combustion is the primary cause of these impacts, it is not the only cause; hence the model excludes sources of global warming other than fossil fuel combustion. Next, the model isolates the contribution of these 90 companies, by differentiating between the temperature increase and sea level rise that occurred with the emissions of the 90 companies’ products, and what would have occurred without them.

The authors find that approximately 50 percent of the increase in global temperature, and approximately a third of sea level rise can be traced to these 90 companies. Using the same methodology, the authors find that the top 20 investor-owned companies products caused approximately 25 percent of temperature increase, and 13-16 percent of sea level rise.

This model and methodology has a clear potential application to lawsuits, such as the ones filed by the Californian counties. For example, the County of San Mateo alleges that its waterfront property and infrastructure will be damaged by sea level rise. The County claims that that it has incurred millions of dollars to prepare for this sea level rise, expects to incur over $900 million to maintain and repair infrastructure repairs on its ocean coastline, and faces the prospect of serious or permanent inundation of property valued at $23 billion.

Assuming, for the sake of the argument, that $24 billion worth of damages can be proven, a court could use this model to find that the top twenty fossil fuel companies are responsible for 13-16 percent of this damage, or roughly $360 million. Such a model could be adapted for many other applications, including attributing a portion of responsibility for major weather disasters, such as Tropical Storm Harvey’s severe flooding of Texas.

Lawsuits are successful when the litigants remove the underbrush to point courts to a clear and manageable way to answer the questions a case poses.  The work of these climate attribution scientists goes a long way towards answering the question of how to apportion liability, in the event it is determined that the fossil fuel companies have a legal responsibility for climate change.

A lawsuit on behalf of the next generation

These plaintiffs also allege that the government has violated the so-called “public trust doctrine”—an ancient principle originating in Roman law that a sovereign government must hold common natural resources in trust and must preserve them for future generations. Plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the government to implement an enforceable national plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions to stabilize the climate system.

Not surprisingly, the US government has vigorously fought back—and so, for a short while, did the fossil fuel industry through its trade associations, which joined the lawsuit as defendants but later exited when the case opened them up to the prospect of handing over internal documents).  The defendants claimed that the suit should be dismissed because it raises a “political question” only the executive and legislative branches can resolve; that plaintiffs lack legal standing because climate change does not affect them in any way different than the general public; and that the government has no legally enforceable duty under either the constitution or the public trust doctrine to ensure a stable climate.

Many legal observers, including me, thought this case was a long shot. But, in 2016, a federal district court rejected all of these defenses and ordered a trial to begin in February 2018.  In a breathtaking opinion, the court ruled that plaintiffs had alleged specific harm that gave them legal standing to bring the case and that there may well be a constitutional right to a stable climate system. Furthermore, the court ruled that the public doctrine does potentially require the government to at least act as a responsible steward of the oceans, if not the Earth’s atmosphere, and that the judicial branch does not have to sit on the sidelines in deference to the legislative and executive branches.

If one were looking for a stunning modern example of DeToqueville’s observation of how political disputes eventually enter the courtroom, one needn’t look beyond this opinion.   The suit exemplifies one of the hallmarks of our legal system–its ability to evolve in incremental ways to meet the perceived necessities of the time.  While neither the US constitution nor the public trust doctrine were developed to deal with climate change, here the court found that both could be adapted to address this problem.

Ironically, the plaintiff’s chances of prevailing are probably improved by the election. Had the defendants still been the Obama administration, or a successor Clinton administration, they would have argued that the government had acknowledged the harm of climate change and was doing what it could to address it within the confines of its legal authority.  This defense would put the court in the unenviable position of second-guessing the technical and policy expertise of agencies like the EPA and the DOE, a role that courts typically try to avoid.  The Trump administration, however, cannot make this argument given its decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, erase (literally) the Obama climate action plan, and begin the rollback of key regulations such as the Clean Power Plan and fuel economy standards for cars.

Nevertheless, there is a long way to go on this lawsuit. The Trump administration has attempted to short circuit the trial scheduled for February by filing a premature appeal, and that request is pending. Even if that gambit fails, at trial, the plaintiffs will be required to prove allegations that the court assumed to be true at this early stage in the litigation. And if the court does find for the plaintiffs, the court will have to grapple with the difficult issue of a remedy.

The plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the US government to ensure a stable climate system but climate change, of course, is a global problem caused by many foreign states and companies, and the court has no authority over any of them. Thus, the court will have to assign some proportional percentage of responsibility to the United States government. And, even if such a standard were established, the court would then need to be prepared to oversee the process by which the United States government met it.

The future of climate litigation

It is too early to gauge the impact of the climate lawsuits now underway. But these cases are already putting the fossil fuel industry  and the Trump administration on the defensive, raising an overdue debate about the legal responsibility of the fossil fuel industry, and likely heightening investor unease with fossil fuel investments.

It is well to remember that “impact” litigation is often successful even if there is never a final court order or jury verdict, and that it often takes years or even decades for success to emerge. If these cases survive early motions to dismiss them, and if similar cases are filed in other jurisdictions, these actions could conceivably create leverage for an overall settlement in which fossil fuel companies cease all climate science denial, make explicit and enforceable commitments to phase out fossil fuels over time and/or equip power plants with carbon collection mechanisms, and actively support a carbon tax, the proceeds of which can be used in part to fund preparedness and resilience for the most vulnerable communities.

So, at this moment, when the federal government has turned its back and abdicated its responsibility, we should take some encouragement from the fact that climate change lawyers and scientists are going to court. As DeToqueville pointed out long ago, this has long since been the American way.


Correction, 10/17/17, 12:04pm: James Hansen testified to congress in 1988, not 1998 as previously stated. 

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US Withdrawal from UNESCO Will Undermine Collaboration on Science and Culture http://blog.ucsusa.org/adam-markham/us-withdrawal-from-unesco-will-undermine-collaboration-on-science-and-culture http://blog.ucsusa.org/adam-markham/us-withdrawal-from-unesco-will-undermine-collaboration-on-science-and-culture#respond Fri, 13 Oct 2017 19:24:43 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54328

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

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

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

UNESCO recognition benefits US communities

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

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

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

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

Relationship status: It’s complicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wars begin in the minds of men”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting World Heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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