Union of Concerned ScientistsUnion of Concerned Scientists http://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Thu, 23 Feb 2017 20:03:00 +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 Marginalizing Transgender Students Weakens Science and Diminishes America http://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/marginalizing-transgender-students-weakens-science-and-diminishes-america http://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/marginalizing-transgender-students-weakens-science-and-diminishes-america#respond Thu, 23 Feb 2017 18:16:57 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=48954 Yesterday, the Trump administration turned back the clock on civil rights by giving schools more rights to discriminate against and bully transgender kids, some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The New York Times reports that the withdrawal of protections for transgender students comes at the behest of Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the objections of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

A student celebrates after the Supreme Court struck down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. Photo: Michael Halpern

The move comes amid recent research demonstrating that suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth decreased in the wake of state court decisions that formalized marriage rights for all Americans. It makes intuitive sense: actions that give an individual the opportunity to live a full life make it more likely that the individual will stay invested in that life. Legitimacy matters.

Science, like any creative endeavor, works best when people of different backgrounds are at the table. But LGBT people still face significant barriers to participation in the scientific enterprise. A recent American Physical Society report found that thirty percent of transgender scientists “characterized the overall climate of their department or division as ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘very uncomfortable.'”

The action hurts and marginalizes transgender kids. It also undermines the promise of our public education system, which should welcome, not exclude, and give everyone an opportunity to learn and thrive. We all suffer when kids are prevented from reaching their full potential because they feel unsafe.

The most memorable part of the attorney general’s confirmation process involved the silencing of Elizabeth Warren, who was attempting to read a letter Coretta Scott King wrote in 1984 when Sessions was up for a federal judgeship. “It is only when the poor and disadvantaged are empowered that they are able to participate actively in solutions to their own problems,” King wrote, in reference to her concerns about Sessions’ willingness to defend the voting rights of black Americans.

I fear that this action is the first of many at the Department of Justice with the potential to weaken science and diminish America. The guidance makes some of the most bullied kids in America less safe.

The United States does not have a good history of leaving the protection of civil rights to the states. But for now, it is up to state and local governments and school boards to guarantee the ability of all students to pursue an education so that our country can continue to benefit from the contributions of all.

Philadelphia has already indicated that it will continue to protect its transgender students; it’s time for more states and municipalities to follow. Please take a moment today to weigh in with your local education officials and let them know that you want them to secure basic protections for all students so that every kid has the chance to thrive.

Photo: WatchTheFlash_Photography
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Governor Dayton Must Step Up to Protect Energy Consumers http://blog.ucsusa.org/jessica-collingsworth/governor-dayton-minnesota-energy-consumers http://blog.ucsusa.org/jessica-collingsworth/governor-dayton-minnesota-energy-consumers#comments Wed, 22 Feb 2017 21:43:44 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=48958 Two bills are making their way through the Minnesota legislature that would hack away at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (MPUC) authority to protect consumers. Given the unnerving level of bipartisan support these bills are receiving in the legislature, it’s time for Governor Dayton to step up and protect consumers, as well as Minnesota’s long legacy of clean energy achievements.

Setting a dangerous precedent in Minnesota’s oversight of utility monopolies

Perhaps the most dangerous bill in the bunch (HF113/SF85) would legislatively approve Xcel’s proposed natural gas plant to replace two retiring units at the Sherco coal-fired power plant in Becker, Minnesota. The bill would strip the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (MPUC) traditional role of reviewing plans to ensure investments are in the best interest of consumers.

While Xcel included the proposed natural gas plant in its latest integrated resource plan, the MPUC declined to approve it, expressing concern that other alternatives might be more beneficial to ratepayers over the long term. Significant doubt remains whether the investment makes sense, but that debate will be silenced if this bill becomes law. The House voted to pass the bill on February 9, and last week the Senate voted to pass a similar bill as well.

The House will now take up the bill to reach a compromise. Governor Dayton has signaled his support for the bill despite the risks to ratepayers, but he should reconsider.

Despite the Governor’s good intentions to help protect the local Becker economy,  this bill sets a dangerous precedent for future utility investment decisions. What happens next time the MPUC declines to approve a proposed billion dollar (or more) investment by Xcel? Do they come back to the legislature for another blank check? Protecting ratepayers from paying for bad investments is a core function of the MPUC. If this bill becomes law, Minnesota ratepayers face an uncertain and potentially costly energy future.

Closing the door on rural ratepayers

Another legislative proposal, HF234/SF141, would remove the MPUC’s authority to resolve disputes between Minnesota’s rural electricity cooperative utilities and their members. The weak rationale for this proposal suggests that somehow cooperative members don’t need this dispute resolution venue because they have local control over their utilities.

In reality, disputes do occur between electric cooperatives and their members, and without an objective arbitrator to resolve them, the co-op holds all the cards. This bill is particularly directed at disputes that have arisen over the exorbitant fees that cooperatives are charging members to connect solar PV systems to the grid.

These fees are an attempt by cooperative managers to maintain the status quo and only serve to slow Minnesota’s transition to cleaner, lower-risk energy sources. Maintaining the MPUC’s role as arbitrator of these disputes provides protections for cooperative ratepayers as well as Minnesota as a whole.

Commission’s role

The MPUC’s role is to protect and promote the public’s best interest in safe, adequate, and reliable utility service at fair and reasonable rates. This is done by providing much needed independent and comprehensive oversight and regulation of utilities. Unfortunately, these bills seek to erode the MPUC’s mission, and authority.

Governor Dayton can’t have it both ways. He must stand by his word not to accept any bill that limits or weakens the Commission’s authority to protect the interests of Minnesota’s energy consumers.

Creative Commons/Mulad (Flickr)
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Why You Can’t Buy a Tesla in Connecticut (and 5 Other States) http://blog.ucsusa.org/daniel-gatti/why-you-cant-buy-a-tesla-in-connecticut-and-5-other-states http://blog.ucsusa.org/daniel-gatti/why-you-cant-buy-a-tesla-in-connecticut-and-5-other-states#comments Wed, 22 Feb 2017 17:05:31 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=48939 The state of Connecticut is a progressive state, with a strong track record of support for laws and policies that will reduce global warming emissions and a goal of putting over 150,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025.

Given the policy commitments of the state of Connecticut, one might assume that Connecticut would be a place that would welcome an innovative, important business like Tesla, the largest manufacturer of electric vehicles in the United States. And given the significant fiscal challenges that Connecticut faces, one might think that Connecticut would be excited to see Tesla operate new stores within the state, bringing jobs and tax revenue.

But in fact, Tesla is legally prohibited from operating its Tesla stores in Connecticut.

Under Connecticut’s dealer franchise law, and under the law of many states throughout the country, automobiles may only be purchased through independent car dealerships. Tesla’s cars are sold directly from the manufacturer, which mean that Tesla stores are not welcome in Connecticut.

The problems that Tesla has faced with automotive dealers and state dealer franchise laws represent a combination of unintended consequences, special interest influence, and the challenges of developing new technologies in marketplaces dominated by entrenched interests and outdated laws. The Tesla wars are also a part of a broader story of how changes in technology are impacting laws and regulations governing transportation in the United States.

In this blog post, I want to explore some of the key questions raised by the battle over Tesla. In particular:

  • Why do we have dealer franchise laws?
  • Why doesn’t Tesla sell their cars through franchised dealers?
  • Why do some states allow Tesla stores and others do not? (Hint: it depends on the meaning of ‘its’).

In part 2 of this post, I will look at some of the policy arguments that have been made by auto dealers, by Tesla and by economists on dealer franchise laws.

  • What is the justification for laws banning Tesla stores?
  • What does the evidence suggest about dealer franchise laws?
  • What are the consequences of Connecticut’s ban on Tesla stores?

Why do we have dealer franchise laws?

The car dealership model as we know it today arose in the 1920s and 1930s, as first General Motors, and then eventually all of the “Big Three” American automakers chose to license the rights to sell their cars to independent dealers, rather than selling the cars directly to consumers.

The independent dealership model worked because it allowed both parties to focus on core competencies: the manufacturers could focus on making the best cars possible, while independent dealers made the inroads into local communities that allowed them to most efficiently sell the cars directly to consumers.

From the beginning, one challenge in the independent dealership model is the obvious power imbalance between the “Big Three” automakers who dominated automobile manufacturing, and the thousands of independent dealerships that were licensed to sell their vehicles. Stories abounded of auto manufacturers exploiting their superior market position to gain unfair advantages on independent dealers. For example, manufacturers could force independent dealers to purchase cars that they didn’t want as a condition of maintaining their relationship, or terminate the franchise relationship at will without cause, or coerce profitable dealerships into selling their business at below-market rates.

Beginning in the 1930s and accelerating greatly in the 1950s, legislatures in all 50 states passed a series of laws, known collectively as dealer franchise laws, which were intended to protect independent dealers from abusive practices at the hands of vehicle manufacturers. Among other things, these laws prohibited the Big Three from owning licensed dealerships themselves, or selling cars directly to consumers.

The prohibition on direct manufacturer sales was intended to protect independent auto dealers from unfair competition from their own manufacturers. The classic concern addressed by the ban on direct sales from manufacturers is the independent car dealer who spends money, time and effort building a market for, say, Ford vehicles in a certain town, only to have Ford Motor company jump in and open up a rival direct from manufacturer store that undercuts the independent dealer on price and takes his market share.

By the 1950s when most of these laws were passed, the independent dealer model was so entrenched in the American car market that it was simply presumed that all auto manufacturers would have independent dealerships selling their cars, and that any direct manufacturer sales would necessarily be in competition with an independent dealership. Dealer franchise laws therefore did not contemplate the challenge posed by a company like Tesla, a company that refuses to sell its cars to independent dealerships at all and instead insists that all sales must be direct from the manufacturer itself.

Why doesn’t Tesla distribute through franchised dealers?

Tesla has adopted this policy because they believe that the traditional independent dealership model does not work for electric vehicles. According to Tesla CEO Elon Musk:

Existing franchise dealers have a fundamental conflict of interest between selling gasoline cars, which constitute the vast majority of their business, and selling the new technology of electric cars. It is impossible for them to explain the advantages of going electric without simultaneously undermining their traditional business. This would leave the electric car without a fair opportunity to make its case to an unfamiliar public.

Tesla points to the failure of Fisker and Coda as examples of electric vehicle start-up companies that failed because of their reliance on independent dealerships to sell a new technology. In addition, Tesla argues that because electric vehicles have lower maintenance costs than traditional cars, independent dealerships that make money off of service will always have an incentive to steer consumers away from electric vehicles. Tesla offers service for all of their vehicles for free.

Recent studies confirm that, with a few exceptions, most auto dealers in the Northeast are not making enough of an effort to sell electric vehicles. Between January and June of 2016, dealers in the Bridgeport to New York City metro area had 90 percent fewer EVs listed for sale than Oakland, when adjusted for relative car ownership. A recent report by the Sierra Club found that Tesla stores provide EV customers with far superior service, as Tesla was more likely to have EVs available to test drive, more likely to be knowledgeable about state and local incentives, and more likely to be able to correctly answer technical questions about charging EVs, than traditional car dealerships.

A Tesla store looks and feels more like an Apple store than a car dealership. They are placed in high volume, high traffic areas such as shopping malls. They have almost no inventory, as Tesla cars must be ordered individually from the manufacturer rather than sold on site. There is no haggling over price. And Tesla stores sell only Tesla products, including cars and batteries; with the recent merger with SolarCity, Tesla stores will soon sell solar panels as well.

Why do some states allow Tesla stores and others do not?

Over the past few years, courts and legislatures across the country have struggled with the question of whether and how to apply dealer franchise laws to Tesla stores. Some state courts, including Massachusetts and New York, have found that dealer franchise laws are only intended to apply to manufacturers that have licensed independent dealers, and do not provide a cause of action against Tesla stores. Other states, including New Hampshire and Maryland, have recently changed its law to permit Tesla stores through legislation.

States that currently ban Tesla stores include Texas, West Virginia, Utah and Arizona, in addition to Connecticut. Some states, including Virginia and Indiana, allow a limited number of Tesla stores. New Jersey proposed a regulation that would have banned Tesla stores in 2015, but then relented last year, amending the regulation to allow 4 stores in New Jersey.

Often the difference between a jurisdiction that permits Tesla stores and a jurisdiction that bans Tesla stores comes down to minute differences in statutory language. For example, until 2014 Michigan’s dealer franchise law prohibited auto manufacturers from “[selling] any new motor vehicle directly to a retail customer other than through its franchised dealer.”

The word “its” in the statute arguably suggests that the law only applies to manufacturers that have franchised dealers, and thus does not prohibit Tesla stores. But then a legislator allied to the auto industry slipped a provision into an unrelated piece of legislation removing the word “its” from the statute, and just like that, Tesla stores were banned in Michigan.

Beyond narrow questions of statutory interpretation, judges and legislators wrestling with these questions need to consider the purpose of dealer franchise laws. Are these laws meant to regulate a relationship that arose within the context of the independent dealer system? Or are these laws intended to mandate that the independent dealer system must be the only way automobiles are sold in the United States forever? If it is the latter, then the dealer franchise laws represent not only a ban on Tesla, but a ban on all innovation in distribution methods.

Can such a ban be justified? In part 2 of this post, I’ll explore some of the policy consequences of dealer franchise laws and the Tesla ban, for consumers, and for Connecticut.

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Will New Mexico Join the Next Generation of Clean Energy Leaders? http://blog.ucsusa.org/jeff-deyette/will-new-mexico-next-generation-clean-energy-leaders http://blog.ucsusa.org/jeff-deyette/will-new-mexico-next-generation-clean-energy-leaders#comments Tue, 21 Feb 2017 15:53:59 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=48925 More and more states across the country are redefining what it means to be a clean energy leader by doubling down on their commitments to deploy solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. Now the New Mexico legislature wants to add their state to the growing list. Recently introduced legislation would increase New Mexico’s successful renewable electricity standard (RES) from its current level of 20 percent by 2020 to 80 percent by 2040. Adopting the measure would capitalize on the state’s tremendous renewable energy resources and deliver substantial economic, health, and environmental benefits to all New Mexicans.

A renewable energy economy is achievable and affordable for New Mexico

The New Mexico Wind Energy Center, located in the southeast part of the state, generates clean, renewable power for energy consumers. Photo Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Introduced as SB312, the legislation builds on New Mexico’s current RES (also referred to as a renewables portfolio standard or RPS) and would require investor-owned utilities like PNM, Southwestern Public Service, and El Paso Electric to increase their supply of electricity from renewable energy sources to 80 percent by 2040.

Rural co-ops would have to achieve a slightly lower target (70 percent renewables by 2040).

While this newly proposed commitment is substantial, transitioning New Mexico’s economy to one powered primarily by renewable energy is certainly achievable. That’s because New Mexico is home to some of the best and most diverse renewable energy potential in the country, including vast untapped wind, solar, and geothermal resources.

A 2016 National Renewable Energy Laboratory analysis found that New Mexico’s economic renewable energy resource potential, which accounts for the renewables’ cost as compared with the typical regional cost of electricity, is more than 2.6 times total state electricity sales in 2015 (see figure). That means there is more than enough cost-competitive renewable energy resources available today to comply with the proposed targets that utilities have more than two decades to achieve.

Of course, New Mexico’s technical renewable energy resource potential far exceeds these economic potential estimates. As technology costs continue to decline, more and more of the untapped technical resource potential will also become cost-effective over time.

New Mexico’s Renewable Energy Economic Potential vs. Electricity Sales.
New Mexico has more than enough cost-effective renewable energy potential to achieve an 80 percent RES. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates the state’s economic potential at more than 260 percent of total electricity sales in 2015.
Sources: Economic Potential from Primary Case 3a in NREL’s Estimating Renewable Energy Economic Potential in the United StatesElectricity Sales from U.S. Energy Information Administration’s New Mexico State Electricity Profile 2015.

 

Wind and solar costs, in particular, are falling rapidly. The most recent comparison of costs by the energy consulting firm, Lazard, shows new wind and solar to be cheaper than new fossil fuel generation, even without subsidies.

This trend is reflected in recent power purchase contracts for wind and solar projects in the region. For example, Southwestern Public Service signed a contract for a 140 megawatt (MW) solar project near Roswell for about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour (c/kWh). Similarly, reported costs for recent wind projects in the Southwest have been as low as 2.3 to 3.8 c/kWh.

For context, Lazard estimates the cost of power from a typical new natural gas combined cycle plant ranges from 4.8 to 7.8 c/kWh.

The proposed 80 percent by 2040 RES expansion ramps up gradually over time, with interim targets for public utilities of 35 percent in 2025, 50 percent in 2030, and 65 percent in 2035. That level of increasing targets affords utilities plenty of time to plan for new renewable energy development as older fossil fuel generators retire. What’s more, the legislation builds in consumer protections should compliance costs prove to be higher than anticipated.

New Mexico’s renewable energy transition is already delivering benefits

New Mexico’s current RES is already successfully driving new renewable energy deployment and delivering economic and environmental benefits throughout the state. Today, more than 1,500 MW of wind and solar power capacity is cranking out clean power for New Mexico’s energy consumers. The wind power development alone represent more than $1.8 billion in investments and provide up to $5 million annually in land lease payments for local residents.

Another 1,500 MW of wind and nearly 1,400 MW of solar are either under construction or in various stages of development in the state. When completed, these projects combined with those already operational will exceed the state’s current renewable energy targets. Further diversifying New Mexico’s power supply with additional renewable energy can provide much needed investment and tax dollars to local economies and the state government’s struggling budget coffers.

Combined, the wind and solar industries are supporting 4,000 to 5,000 good paying jobs in the state, and that number continues to grow. Earlier this month, Albuquerque-based solar manufacturer SolAero Technologies announced plans for a $10 million expansion that will add more than 100 jobs. New Mexico’s excellent and affordable solar energy resource is also an important reason that Facebook decided to build a new data center in the state. An investment of $45 million will fund three new solar facilities that will fully power the new facility and create hundreds of new jobs.

Photo Source: U.S. Department of Interior

In addition to jobs and local economic benefits, New Mexico’s existing renewable energy development is helping to curb power sector carbon emissions—the principal contributor to global warming— and other air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and particulates that harm state residents. These toxic pollutants are responsible for numerous health problems including aggravated asthma attacks, breathing problems, heart attacks, and premature deaths, especially in vulnerable and disadvantaged communities closest to the sources.

In strong contrast to fossil fuel generation, wind and solar power generation also use virtually no water, an incredibly valuable benefit in a water-constrained state like New Mexico. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that in 2015, the state’s wind projects avoided the consumption of 264 million gallons of water.

All of these economic and environmental benefits are poised to grow substantially if SB 312 is adopted and New Mexico accelerates its shift away from a heavy dependence on coal for power generation.

Joining the 50 percent (plus) club

New Mexico is not alone in its pursuit of a cleaner, safer, and more affordable energy system. Several states—including California, Oregon, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Hawaii—have already expanded their RES targets to at least 50 percent (100 percent, in Hawaii’s case), and are implementing effective solutions to reliably integrate significant amounts of renewable energy on their power systems. Nevada is considering similar RES expansion legislation this year as well.

With a new federal administration seemingly determined to stay stuck in the fossil fuel age, this kind of state leadership is needed now more than ever. New Mexico should adopt SB 312 and set a course to fully embrace its renewable energy future. Doing so will deliver significant rewards for the state’s residents and set an example for other states to follow.

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The Man Who Sued the EPA is Now Running It. What Does That Mean for the Environment? http://blog.ucsusa.org/ken-kimmell/scott-pruitt-epa-administrator-confirmation http://blog.ucsusa.org/ken-kimmell/scott-pruitt-epa-administrator-confirmation#comments Fri, 17 Feb 2017 18:23:46 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=48915 Voting largely along party lines, Congress just confirmed Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—an attorney who has spent his professional career suing the EPA to stop the agency from performing its fundamental mission of ensuring clean air and water for all Americans. This confirmation marks a sharp break with precedent; most EPA Administrators from both parties have come to the office with a demonstrated commitment to the EPA’s mission.

One might even say that this vote signals the end of an era of bipartisan congressional support for a strong federal role in protecting our environment, as this newly confirmed Administrator is likely to dismantle the safeguards that both parties have supported since the 1970s.

What that means for all of us who care about clean air and water and the protection of our environment is this: It is up to us to monitor carefully what happens next, and to be prepared to spring into action as needed.

Here are some of the key developments I’m watching for:

Will Scott Pruitt recuse himself?

As repeatedly noted in his nomination hearing, Pruitt has represented the State of Oklahoma in numerous lawsuits against EPA. Many of these cases are still active today, directed at major EPA regulations, including the Clean Power Plan (which limits carbon emissions from power plants); national air quality standards; mercury emissions from coal plants; methane limits for the oil and natural gas excavation; and a Clean Water Act rule that clarifies federal jurisdiction over bodies of water.

During the nomination hearing, Pruitt did not commit to recusing himself from these cases, but he did say he would rely on advice from the EPA ethics counsel. Common sense tells us that he cannot possibly be impartial on these issues, and conflicts of interest abound. For example, the state attorneys general who joined him in the suit against the Clean Power Plan have written a letter to the Trump Administration, asking the President to issue an executive order declaring that the rule is unlawful. Responding to this request would, in the normal course of business, require EPA input, since it is an EPA regulation. How can Scott Pruitt possibly participate in any review of that request given that, just a few weeks ago, he himself was one of the attorneys general making this claim?

He must recuse himself, as thirty senators have made clear in a recent letter.

Will Scott Pruitt cut federal law enforcement?

As a candidate, Mr. Trump pledged to dismantle the EPA. He lacks a filibuster-proof majority to change the laws that created the EPA, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Act. But he could cripple the EPA with budget cuts, which are much harder for a minority to stop.

By wide margins, most Americans favor enforcement of laws that protect our air and water. Cutting EPA enforcement will therefore be unpopular—but Scott Pruitt is likely to argue that we can rely on states to enforce environmental laws, so cutting the EPA’s budget won’t do any real harm.

This is a dangerous myth.

Having served as a state environmental commissioner, I know from personal experience that state environmental agencies are already strapped. They typically lack the technical experts employed at the EPA, and stand in no position to take on additional enforcement responsibilities shed by the EPA.

In Massachusetts where I served, for example, my former agency’s staff was cut nearly in half between 2002 and 2012 due to budget cuts, even as the agency’s responsibilities grew. That occurred in a state well known for its strong commitment to environmental protection. As a result, my agency was forced to cut back on important and effective programs, such as water sampling to locate sources of bacteria that pollute rivers. If the EPA’s budget is cut, it will mean even fewer resources for states, because states now receive a significant share of the EPA’s budget to cover enforcement activities.

Second, state environmental agencies sometimes experience political pressure against enforcement that might harm a large employer or impose significant costs on residents. We saw some of this in play in Flint, Michigan, where a state agency did not enforce a law requiring corrosion treatment of pipes to reduce lead contamination; it took an EPA staffer and outside scientists, as well as the residents themselves, to blow the whistle on lax state enforcement.

Third, states are not equipped to deal with the widespread problem of interstate pollution. To cite one of the most egregious examples, the state of Maryland could shut down virtually all in-state sources of air pollution and yet still not be in compliance with health-based air quality standards due to pollution from neighboring “upwind” states. A strong federal law enforcement presence is needed to address the simple fact that air and water pollutants do not honor state boundary lines.

We and others stand prepared to fight crippling budget cuts at the EPA, and explain that the protection of our air and water requires both federal and state environmental law enforcement.

Scott Pruitt will likely gut the Clean Power Plan; what will he replace it with?

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

During the campaign, President Trump called for abolishing the Clean Power Plan, the EPA regulations that limit carbon emissions from power plants. And as noted, Administrator Pruitt sued to block it. It now seems nearly inevitable that he will move to drastically undermine the plan.

The question is, what will he propose to replace it? The EPA does not have the option of doing nothing. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has a duty to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act if it makes a determination that such gases endanger public health and the environment. In 2009, EPA made such a finding (which Mr. Pruitt fought, though unsuccessfully).

Thus, EPA remains obligated to regulate carbon dioxide emissions in general, and in particular with respect to power plants, which are among the nation’s largest source of these emissions.

One predictable approach would be a revised regulation that reduces emissions, but by a much smaller percentage. The current litigation over the Clean Power Plan could serve as a roadmap for a diminished rule. The Clean Power Plan relies on three strategies to reduce emissions—improving efficiency of coal plants, switching from coal to gas, and switching to renewables. During the litigation, Scott Pruitt conceded that the EPA had the authority to require improvements to coal plant efficiency, but claimed that the other two strategies, which go “beyond the fenceline” of an individual source, were unlawful.

Thus, one might expect that a revised rule will mirror what Mr. Pruitt called for in court. If so, rather than cutting carbon emissions by approximately 32 percent by 2030, the rule would result in barely noticeable emission reductions.

If this happens, litigation will be necessary. The court that mandated the EPA to address greenhouse gas emissions should not be satisfied with a rule that does little to cut one of the nation’s largest sources of CO2 emissions.

How about vehicles?

The second biggest carbon cutting program of the Obama Administration is the UCS-backed fuel economy standards for cars which, it is estimated, will roughly double fuel economy between 2012 and 2025. Those standards were agreed to by the automakers at the time. They are projected to cut billions of tons of CO2, reduce oil use by billions of barrels, and save consumers an average of $8000 over the lifetime of a vehicle.

When the standards were put in place, they included a “mid-term review” provision in which the EPA would assess whether changes in technology, costs, or factors might warrant a change to the standards. The review was to be completed by April 2018, but the Obama administration in its closing days completed the review and determined, based on a thorough review, that there was no reason to change the standards, since automakers are ahead of schedule in meeting these standards, and at a lower cost than originally predicted.

Some automakers are calling for this determination to be re-opened, presumably so that the rules can be modified and perhaps weakened. And one can justifiably be anxious that they could offer something that the Trump administration is keen to secure—a commitment to increased manufacturing in the United States—in exchange for relaxing these standards.

It would be a disaster for these historic standards to be rolled back, and we’ll fight any such rollback along with many allies.

How about science?

As I wrote recently, Mr. Pruitt’s record shows little evidence of deference to scientists. After all, he sued the EPA for relying upon the world’s most prominent climate scientists, including many employed by the federal government, in finding that greenhouse gases endangered the environment. And he claimed that the question of climate change and the role of human causes of it are still an open question for debate.

As EPA Administrator, he will hear from EPA scientists whose expert judgment will not align with his deregulatory agenda in some cases. Will these scientists’ findings be suppressed or disregarded?

We call on Mr. Pruitt to declare that scientific integrity is a core guiding principal for the EPA, that he will abide by the existing EPA scientific integrity policy, and even look for ways to improve it, as recommended by UCS.

Vigilance required

Scott Pruitt comes to his new position with the heavy baggage of having devoted a good part of his career to opposing EPA, not to mention the apparent antipathy of his boss towards the agency. The Trump transition team, composed of career ideologues, further fueled anxiety over the EPA’s fate, with threats of gag orders on agency scientists, deletion of climate data from the website, and draconian budget cuts. This is why we see, for example, hundreds of career civil servants risking their jobs by publicly protesting Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation.

Scott Pruitt has a chance now to push the reset button, and position himself as an open-minded and principled conservative, rather than a deregulatory ideologue. Most helpful to him will be to invest significant time in hearing from the agency’s talented scientists, engineers, policy analysts and attorneys.

No matter what, we will be watching his actions vigilantly and stand prepared to fight to retain key protections of Americans’ health and safety at the agency he now oversees.

Photo: justice.gov
Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr)
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Learning from Oroville Dam Disaster: State Water Board Proposes Climate Change Resolution http://blog.ucsusa.org/juliet-christian-smith/learning-from-oroville-dam-disaster-state-water-board-proposes-climate-change-resolution http://blog.ucsusa.org/juliet-christian-smith/learning-from-oroville-dam-disaster-state-water-board-proposes-climate-change-resolution#comments Wed, 15 Feb 2017 20:38:35 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=48875 Earlier this week, while areas downstream of Oroville Dam were still under an evacuation order, California’s State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) released a draft resolution for a comprehensive response to climate change. It resolves that the agency will embed climate science into all of its existing work, both to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and to build resilience to the impacts of climate change. In doing so, the State Water Board demonstrates how public agencies can respond more proactively to the very real challenges that global warming is bringing our way.

A failure to plan is a plan to fail

After five years of record drought conditions, in just a couple months, California has received more rain than reservoirs can store. This may seem strange but it is exactly what climate scientists have predicted for the state since the 1980s: prolonged warm and dry conditions punctuated by intense wet spells, with more rain and less snow, causing both drought and floods.

Despite having a wealth of science at our fingertips describing how our water system is changing due to global warming, too often we have not put this information to use. During the federal relicensing of the Oroville Dam, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) chose not to assess how climate change might affect the dam’s operation. In response to this “foundational error,” Butte County and Plumas County sued DWR. Their suit argues that the environmental analysis associated with the dam relicensing should be rejected as unscientific:

“Rather than rigorously assessing climate change, DWR’s Oroville FEIR [Final Environmental Impact Report] presumes that hydrologic variability from the previous century ‘is expected to continue in the foreseeable future’ and that it would be ‘speculative’ to further analyze other climate change scenarios…Due to this error, the FEIR is predicated upon a hypothetical future that DWR knows to be dangerously false.”

While we know that the past is no longer a predictor of the future, we continue to plan for the past. It’s easier, it seems less expensive, but it has huge, hidden costs. Costs now being borne by the nearly 200,000 residents who were evacuated, affected counties, and, eventually, taxpayers who will pay to repair the damage.

This is why it is incredibly important to plan for the future, and particularly more “extreme” climate conditions. We are on the precipice of giving away almost $3 billion of public money for new water infrastructure without requiring these new water projects use climate science and existing modeling results to assess how the proposed projects would fare under more “extreme” climate conditions. We have repeatedly encouraged the California Water Commission to require that new water projects provide a quantitative assessment of the impact of climate “extremes” on project operations. However, in December 2016, the California Water Commission approved regulations without this requirement.

State Water Board commits to using climate science

Mistakes are an inevitable part of life, but we need to learn from our mistakes. The State Water Board has taken an important step forward by drafting this resolution, which requires that the State and Regional Water Boards rely on sound modeling and analyses that incorporate relevant climate change data and model outputs to account for and address impacts of climate change in permits, plans, policies, and decisions.

There are many lessons from the Oroville Dam crisis, including the critical importance of using science to prepare for a future that will be different from the past due to global warming. We applaud the State Water Board for their leadership and hope other agencies will soon follow and commit to making better decisions using climate science.

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Solar vs Nuclear: The Tale of Two Energy Sources http://blog.ucsusa.org/mike-jacobs/solar-vs-nuclear http://blog.ucsusa.org/mike-jacobs/solar-vs-nuclear#comments Wed, 15 Feb 2017 18:02:19 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=48890 Last year’s solar deployment numbers just came in, and they are, in a word, phenomenal. Utilities bought more new solar capacity than they did natural gas capacity: an astounding 22 states added more than 100 MW of solar each.

At the same time, there is grim news about delays in construction and associated cost over-runs  for nuclear plant construction projects in Georgia and South Carolina. SCANA—owner of South Carolina Electric & Gas and sponsor of the VC Summer Nuclear Project—has just reported new delays in the in-service dates of its new reactors to 2020. Construction started more than 7 years ago, with energy deliveries promised to begin in 2016.

Neighbors with solar. Courtesy of Grid Alternatives.

Past hopes for a “renaissance” in nuclear power in the United States, with five new nuclear reactors at three existing plants projected to come online in America between 2016 and 2020, have been overwhelmed by competition. UCS predicted this trend in costs many times.

Great solar news

Meanwhile, there is much to say about the solar boom. Just ask one of your 1,300,000 neighbors who have solar on their property.

To put these achievements in perspective, let’s talk about solar jobs and productivity. The solar industry employs more than 260,000 people in the United States. The continuous improvement in know-how in construction techniques and in manufacturing drives down solar deployment costs every 3 months. The pricing for new solar projects is coming in the range of 4 cents (Texas) to 5 cents (California) per kilowatthour.

In comparison with nuclear, the amount of solar power built in 2016, taking into account how many hours each can operate each day, is the equivalent of more than 3 new nuclear plants.

To dive in a little deeper: let’s use a 25 percent capacity factor for new solar, making the 14,626 MW installed equivalent to 3,650 MW of theoretically perfectly running nuclear plants. The Westinghouse AP 1000 units under construction for the last 7-10+ years produce about 1,100 MW.  So, in one year, solar additions were equal to what takes more than 7 years to build. The difference in speed of deployment is why UCS is clear that nuclear power isn’t a near-term climate solution.

Continued challenges for nuclear

Despite the handful of new reactors under construction, US nuclear generation is on the decline. Struggles to keep existing plants open in competitive markets are roiling the electricity markets. But the recent news about the very few manufacturing firms supplying nuclear construction illustrates how very different the nuclear industry is from solar.

Cost over-runs in the US plants are so large that when state regulators finally put a cap on what South Carolina and Georgia consumers would pay, manufacturer Toshiba (owner of Westinghouse) found itself with $6 Billion in losses and the likely end of its business in nuclear power plant construction.

The concentration of nuclear component manufacturing in so few companies has shown how a problem with quality led to a “single point of failure” plaguing the fleet of French nuclear plants. Policy in the US has been to shield the utility companies from the risks of their business decisions to construct nuclear plants, continuing with the Vogtle plant in Georgia.

Would we ever go 100% solar?

Would we ever build only solar? Maybe, but that’s not the right question. “What can we do with lots of solar?” is a better one.

We can keep absorbing the solar pattern of production with the tools we have. We can plan to adjust to cheap energy in the middle of the day with time-varying rates. And if we can get energy storage further along, we can get to the end of this debate.

Public Source
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One Way You Can Help Fight Against Political Interference in Science: Tell Us About It http://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/one-way-you-can-help-fight-against-political-interference-in-science-tell-us-about-it http://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/one-way-you-can-help-fight-against-political-interference-in-science-tell-us-about-it#comments Tue, 14 Feb 2017 22:08:48 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=48852 Since Election Day and into the first weeks of the Trump presidency, we’ve heard a lot about “alternative facts” and clampdowns on the ability of scientists to present scientific evidence or speak to the press. Congress last week signaled its intent to neutralize the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments by cutting science out of the way they make policy.

Truth and science cartoon

Federal employees can help create an accountable government by reporting political interference in science (even anonymously). More info: ucsusa.org/secureshare.

But together, we can raise the political price of manipulating science or censoring scientists by exposing these actions and publicly communicating their consequences for public health and the environment. Sometimes, this requires people within government or who are funded by government to speak up and share challenges that they experience or perceive.

Learn how to securely and/or anonymously communicate with UCS here. The shortlink is www.ucsusa.org/secureshare.

UCS has many years of experience working with government employees, journalists, and members of Congress to get stories out in a way that protects those with information to share. We want to hear about actions that compromise the ability of science to fully inform the policymaking process—and the consequences of those actions. We also want to hear your stories that describe how government data and government experts protect public health and safety.

Just as there are many steps in the policymaking process, so too are there many ways to attack and politicize science. People often think of the muzzling of scientists, or the censorship of documents. This happens, of course. But there are other, more subtle ways of inappropriately influencing how science is used to make decisions. A partial list is at the end of this post.

Political interference in science can be difficult to assess. It’s often not clear whether a person’s actions are normal or crossing the line—especially within an administration where some don’t want to leave a paper trail. To that end, feel free to share what you’ve heard or what you’ve been told verbally. Our staff are ready and willing to help you figure out the best course of action.

CensorMatic CartoonYou should also consider approaching the official who is responsible for implementing your agency’s scientific integrity policy for advice. Outside of government, in addition to UCS Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Government Accountability Project, and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund are all good resources for learning more about your rights and responsibilities.

Now that partial list of subtle and overt ways that vested interests have used to undermine or politicize science, in no particular order:

  1. Prevent scientists from publishing research, or delay publication of research (see: former EPA clearance process)
  2. Prevent scientists from presenting at or attending scientific meetings that are relevant to their work (see: airborne bacteria)
  3. Diminish or destroy agency scientific libraries and library content or similar resources (See EPA, Department of Fisheries Canada)
  4. Allow agencies with conflicts of interest to second-guess or undermine the work of agency scientists through the inter-agency review process (see: the chemical perchlorate)
  5. Require scientists to manipulate scientific methods (See: lead in children’s lunch boxes)
  6. Restrict the types of information and methods that experts can use (See: attempts to prevent climate scientists from using scientific models)
  7. Manipulate or censor scientific information in testimony before Congress (see: CDC testimony on climate change and public health)
  8. Place misinformation on official government websites (see: breast cancer)
  9. Redefine terms to prevent the successful application of science to policymaking (see: OMB peer review guidelines, critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act)
  10. Promote scientifically inaccurate educational curricula (see: abstinence-only sex education)
  11. Refuse to comply with court-mandated analysis (see: endangerment finding)
  12. Waste scientists’ time with baseless subpoenas or open records requests
  13. Manipulate agency scientific documents before release to create false uncertainty or otherwise change the scientific meaning (see: endangered species)
  14. Limit or prevent scientists from communicating with the media, the public, or Congress, including social media, or through requiring minders that sit in on interviews with agency scientists (see: numerous reports from journalists)
  15. Prevent scientists from speaking to the press, or have “minders” present to ensure that scientists say the “right” thing
  16. Selectively route interviews away from scientists with inconvenient scientific analysis (see climate change and hurricanes)
  17. Remove or decrease accessibility to government data sets, tools, models, and other scientific information, or stop collecting data altogether (see Canada’s Harper Government)
  18. Appoint technically unqualified people or people with clear conflicts of interest to federal science advisory committees (see childhood lead poisoning)
  19. Use political litmus tests for federal advisory committee membership (see workplace safety panel)
  20. Threaten, demote, or defund scientists who refuse to change information (see Vioxx)
  21. Create a hostile work environment that causes scientists to self-censor (see FDA surveillance)
  22. Disregard the law by not making decisions solely on best available science when statutorily required to do so (see air pollution limits)

Threats to science-based policymaking and public access to scientific information— essential components of democracy—have never been more real. But scientists are also ever more committed to defending the integrity of science in the policy making process. We depend on sources with knowledge of what’s happening within government to help us prevent a weakening of the federal scientific enterprise and the public protections that science informs.

Once again, that link for reporting what you see: www.ucsusa.org/secureshare.

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UCS Founder Kurt Gottfried Wins AAAS Award http://blog.ucsusa.org/david-wright/kurt-gottfried-aaas-award http://blog.ucsusa.org/david-wright/kurt-gottfried-aaas-award#respond Tue, 14 Feb 2017 13:19:28 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=48841 Kurt Gottfried, a founder of UCS in 1969 and a guiding spirit and intellect since then, has won the prestigious 2017 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award given by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science.

I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award, which recognizes Kurt’s lifetime of dedication and achievements. AAAS said it is to recognize Kurt’s “long and distinguished career as a ‘civic scientist,’ through his advocacy for arms control, human rights, and integrity in the use of science in public policy making.”

Source: UCS

Kurt receiving this award also means a lot to me personally, since he has been one of the biggest influences on my professional life. I first met him in 1978 when I took his quantum mechanics course as a physics grad student at Cornell. He was a wonderful teacher and communicator, and generations of students have learned the subject from his classic text book (now in its second edition).

But I actually got to know him a couple years later—early in the Reagan presidency—when we were part of a group at Cornell that brought high-level speakers to campus to talk about the nuclear arms race, which was heating up. I’ve been privileged to have continued to work with him since that time. Kurt’s way of thinking about the world and approaching the problems he worked on have helped shaped my own.

Kurt’s history

I would guess that even the people who know him may not be aware of the range of activities Kurt has taken on over the years.

Kurt was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1929. He has had a long and distinguished career as a theoretical physicist. He received his PhD from MIT, became a Junior Fellow at Harvard, and has been a physics professor (now emeritus) at Cornell since 1964.

At the same time, he has dedicated boundless energy to improving the world, in areas including international security and nuclear arms control, human rights, and preventing political intervention in scientific input in policymaking. For example:

Science, International Security, and Arms Control

On leave at MIT in 1968-9, Kurt helped draft a statement encouraging scientists to consider society’s use of technical knowledge, and calling on scientists and engineers across the country to join a national effort to discuss these issues in university classes on March 4, 1969.

Following the success of that effort, Kurt co-founded UCS that same year. His goal was to help scientists bring their expertise to bear on public policy issues that had an important technical component. From the beginning, the vision was to build a research and advocacy organization that combined technical experts with experts in policy analysis, media engagement, and outreach and education for the public and policy makers, while keeping issues of science and technology at the core of its work.

Today, UCS has grown to more than 180 staff members and has an annual budget of more than $27 million. More than 45 years after UCS’ founding, Kurt remains a valuable member of the Board of Directors.

Over the years, UCS not only helped inform debates and shape policy on a wide range of issues, it also helped legitimize the active role of scientists in these debates and created staff positions allowing scientists to work on these issues full time. And it helped engage a broad set of scientists in part-time policy work, educating them about the issues and training them in writing and speaking for policy makers.

Working with UCS, Kurt was among the first people to raise concerns about the development of missile defenses, co-authoring a report on the topic in 1969. Kurt and UCS were particularly active in the debate in the 1980s and 1990s following President Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech. Kurt weighed in with articles and op-eds in Scientific American, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and co-authored the influential books The Fallacy of Star Wars (1984) and Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Planned U.S. National Missile Defense System (2000).

Kurt at a 2000 press conference in Washington. Source: UCS

Kurt also worked to prevent the development of anti-satellite weapons and weapons based in space. He wrote and spoke widely about this issue and worked with Dick Garwin to develop a draft treaty banning anti-satellite weapons, which he presented to the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees in 1983 and 1984.

In addition, he authored or co-authored articles on nuclear weapons, command and control systems and crisis stability, and cooperative security in Nature, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. He edited two books on these issues—Crisis Stability and Nuclear War (1988), and Reforging European Security: From Confrontation to Cooperation (1990)—and contributed chapters to several others.

Scientists and Human Rights

Kurt was also very active in human rights issues for many years—activities he undertook outside his work with UCS. During the 1980s he traveled to the Soviet Union to meet with and support refuseniks, and he urged others in the scientific community to actively support these dissidents.

Kurt was a major figure in the American Physical Society (APS) Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), which helped oppressed scientists in the Soviet Union and other countries. CIFS described its goal as:

The Committee was formed to deal with those matters of an international nature that endanger the abilities of scientists to function as scientists. The Committee is to be particularly concerned with acts of governments or organizations, which through violation of generally recognized human rights, restrict or destroy the ability of scientists to function as such.

Kurt served as CIFS’ first chair in 1980 and 1981. One of CIFS’ innovations was its use of “small committees,” typically consisting of three or four people, who would pick a persecuted scientist and regularly write to the scientist and his/her family, friends, and local officials.

Even when these letters were intercepted by the authorities, they raised the profile of the scientist and made clear that international attention was focused on this person. By 1983, these committees were writing to 63 scientists, and the number continued to increase through the mid-1980s.

Kurt also helped found the organization Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, and Sharansky (SOS) to focus attention on three of the most prominent Soviet refuseniks. He served on the SOS Executive Committee from 1978-90. SOS’s call for a moratorium on scientific cooperation with the Soviet Union to highlight concern about the treatment of scientists was joined by nearly 8,000 scientists and engineers from 44 countries, and gained international attention.

Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov was jailed for a decade in the Soviet Union after forming Moscow Helsinki Watch to monitor Soviet actions on human rights after it signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Kurt’s involvement in his case led to Orlov coming to Cornell after his release in 1986 and joining the physics faculty.

Kurt was also instrumental in winning the release in 1978 of the physicist Elena Sevilla, who was imprisoned in Argentina because of political activities by her husband, a newspaper reporter. On her release, Kurt arranged for her to come to Cornell to finish her graduate studies in physics.

Kurt’s work not only helped the refuseniks and other oppressed scientists. His actions over the years have helped inspire others in the scientific community to recognize and act on their ability and responsibility to help scientists who were denied basic human rights.

For his work on these issues, Kurt was awarded the APS Leo Szilard Award in 1992.

Scientific Integrity/Science and Democracy

In the wake of growing evidence that some officials in the George W. Bush Administration were distorting scientific knowledge and the scientific advisory process to an unprecedented degree, Kurt recruited 62 preeminent scientists to sign a statement titled Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making, which was released in February 2004.

The statement charged the Bush Administration with widespread “manipulation of the process through which science enters into its decisions” and called out the administration’s misrepresentation of scientific evidence, appointment of unqualified members of scientific advisory committees, and silencing of federal government scientists—actions that threatened the integrity of science in policy making.

The statement drew wide public attention to these issues. It was signed on-line by more than 12,000 scientists.

Subsequently, Kurt led the effort to create a new program at UCS to work on this issue, which researched examples of abuse, engaged the scientific community on this issue, and worked with administration agencies to reform their practices, including writing draft rules on scientific integrity for these agencies. Kurt was also the force behind evolving that program into the UCS Center for Science and Democracy in 2012, arguing there was a need to address a broader set of issues related to the role of science and evidence-based analysis in democratic society.

* * *

Kurt, Hans Bethe, Dick Garwin, and Henry Kendall at a press conference on missile defense, March 22, 1984 (Source: James J. MacKenzie)

For half a century, Kurt has engaged the scientific community, policy makers, and the general public on important issues related to international security, human rights, and the role of science in democratic society. Moreover, he has encouraged his colleagues to become involved, mentored younger scientists in these issues, and created an organization that has magnified his efforts and will continue this work well beyond his lifetime.

Kurt has been an inspiration to me and other scientists who decided to make a career of applying our technical backgrounds to important policy issues, and helped break the ground to make a career of this kind more possible.

Kurt receiving the award on Feb. 17 from AAAS CEO Rush Holt and AAAS President Barbara Schaal. (Source: UCS)

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Love Local Food? Here’s a Promising Way to Protect the Local Land that Grows It http://blog.ucsusa.org/andrea-basche/love-local-food-heres-a-promising-way-to-protect-the-local-land-that-grows-it http://blog.ucsusa.org/andrea-basche/love-local-food-heres-a-promising-way-to-protect-the-local-land-that-grows-it#respond Mon, 13 Feb 2017 22:52:36 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=48825 Does your heart beet for farmer’s markets? Do you carrot all about protecting the soil? This Valentine’s Day, lettuce dive deeper into a promising solution for simultaneously protecting land for local food production, ensuring more sustainable agriculture, and creating opportunities for beginning farmers: land trusts.

If you heart local food, it is important to remember that farmland for the food needs protecting, and land trusts are one part of the solution.

Agriculture puns aside, land trusts are nonprofit organizations designed to protect land in perpetuity. Essentially, landowners donate or sell the long-term rights on their property to a land trust—an outside organization that ensures that in the future land is only used for specific purposes, such as for wildlife habitat or agriculture.

There are several reasons why agricultural land trusts can be beneficial. The American Farmland Trust estimates that 40 acres of farmland (roughly the size of 36 football fields) are lost every hour to urban sprawl and development in the United States (that’s over 350,000 acres per year). And there is also no shortage of concerns around existing agricultural lands, including water pollution, soil degradation, and a recent dramatic drop-off in farm incomes. Agricultural land loss and degradation necessitate conservation options such as trusts.

Protecting land for beginner farmers and sustainable agriculture

Land trusts, such as the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT), are non-profit organizations that work with landowners to facilitate different arrangements, such as long-term leases or land donations that legally protect or ensure particular uses of land in the future. Land trusts fill an important need in facilitating the major transfer of land that is anticipated in agriculture because the average farmer’s age is 58, combined with growing competition for land use from urbanization and energy development. Suzan Erem, SILT’s Board President, pointedly reminded me that “the history of the U.S. is that we haven’t seen cities shrink”. Photo: SILT.

One example of an organization with a dedicated focus on sustainable agriculture is the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT). SILT launched in 2015 with a mission to permanently protect land to grow healthy food, and this is the major distinction between SILT and other non-profit land trusts: the requirement for sustainable food production on their farms. While most land trust agreements include prohibitive language to prevent development-related activities, SILT also adds affirmative language requiring sustainable farming (defined by several different sustainability certifications).

SILT also hopes that more and more landowners will donate or participate in long-term leases through their model to institutionalize affordable land access. This will help make land—particularly land for sustainable food production—available so that it is not just about “where you’re born or sheer dumb luck,” according to Suzan Erem, SILT’s Board President. SILT is proud of its relationships with both national organizations such as the National Young Farmer’s Coalition and statewide programs including Lutheran Services, which assists refugee populations in finding land to launch farm businesses.

That’s another crucial benefit of SILT’s approach: landowners who hope to preserve the integrity of their land are paired with beginner farmers looking for an affordable way to get started. Erem explains that the popularity of programs like SILT is related to the excitement of seeing it “giving people a place and a purpose,” and because they provide opportunity to “redefine what you can do with your legacy.”

Local food demand and supporting midsize farms are further reasons to protect agricultural land near cities

Another important piece of this puzzle is strong consumer demand for local food. Late last year, USDA released the results of their first-ever survey of direct marketing (food products sold by farmers directly to consumers, retailers, institutions or other local food intermediaries), and reported that total sales across the country generated this way were an estimated $8.7 billion. The survey estimated that 67% of these sales were from farms located in metropolitan counties and that the 38% of producers responsible for these sales were women (a greater proportion of women than in the general farming population), and 14% were veterans. As I’ve noted previously, women and veterans are groups that have plenty of room to expand in the agricultural sector.

One component of the most profitable farms—regardless of size—is direct marketing, as Dr. Dawn Thilmany McFadden, a member of our Science Network, explained in a blog post last year. This form of sales is particularly important to protect “agriculture of the middle” or midsize farms and ranches, which have been declining for many decades (a trend likely to worsen under the present tightening agricultural economy). Growing Economies, our 2016 report, similarly noted that more direct sales from institutional food purchasers could be a multi-billion dollar boon for the state of Iowa.

Despite the benefits of protecting local farms and food, it’s important to recognize that local food is certainly not a panacea for all environmental concerns. Tradeoffs with impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions require careful consideration, as another Science Network colleague, Dr. David Cleveland, recently noted on our blog. Still, given the stimulus for local economies, and the need to protect farmland in general, how we protect land for local food deserves an important part of the conversation.

And remember for Valentine’s Day, let’s turnip attention to the idea that land trusts and local food make a great pear!

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