Combined UCS Blogs

A Good Move from Chairman Smith and the House Science Committee: Tackling Sexual Harassment in Science

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The government may not be operating this week and Congress has been an ongoing part of the many attacks on science in the past year but last week Congress did something good. A bipartisan effort in the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will look at sexual harassment in science and ways to crack down on it. This is big and I’m ecstatic. In a rare bipartisan moment, Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson have come together to work on a pressing problem in science.

Despite a bumpy recent history on supporting science, the House Science Committee last week took a bipartisan step forward to address sexual harassment in science. Photo: Gretchen Goldman

Last week, the House Science Committee sent a letter asking the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) for an investigation into what federal science funding agencies, like the National Science Foundation and NASA, are doing to address sexual harassment in the scientific community (building on a bipartisan letter the committee sent in October investigating sexual harassment claims against a Boston University professor).

Under Title IX, institutions receiving federal money are required to take steps to ensure they are complying—i.e, that the institutions are “providing all students, regardless of sex, equal access to educational programs and activities.” However, it is less clear how much federal agencies are currently implementing this requirement with the academic institutions they fund. That’s why the committee is trying to get answers about how federal agencies are handling this issue, especially when it comes to individual cases.

A tide of reckoning: #MeToo and beyond

This is an important step to help the scientific community think about how to address this large (and now more visible) problem. Here’s why this is big. As the #MeToo movement has grown, we’ve seen more and more survivors of sexual harassment and abuse come forward and their abusers face consequences. A tide of reckoning has come and doesn’t look like it will stop any time soon.

The scientific community is no exception when it comes to problems of sexual harassment and abuse. Problems of sexual harassment, particularly where the offenders—often professors or other senior researchers—are in positions of power over their accuser—often a student—are far too common. Several elements of the scientific community make these issues a bigger challenge. One is prevalence of field research, where small teams of researchers are far removed from academic institutions and (potentially) societal norms. An alarming number of women report harassment happening when they were early career researchers working in the field. Another challenge is the fact that junior researchers are often very dependent upon their advisor and the small circles of niche fields for future jobs and collaborators. Burning relationships can have professional costs and that makes coming forward with an accusation potential career suicide.

For this and other reasons, many choose not to report such instances to proper authorities. And perhaps more alarmingly, when instances are reported, universities have often failed to take action and allowed such instances to continue for years. As the committee’s letter states, “this raises a question of whether the current systems and protections in place to address harassment are ineffective, inadequate, or inaccessible to those who need them.”

Accountability and consequences for sexual harassers

Several high-profile cases and events in recent years have laid the groundwork for the scientific community to join other spheres in holding individuals accountable for their actions. Thus far, it has been a challenge to ensure that abusers face appropriate consequences and aren’t just shuffled somewhere else within the scientific community where they can continue their inappropriate behavior.

For example, on several occasions, professors accused of sexual harassment have been asked to leave their university only to get a similar position at a different institution where their record is clean and they are free to continue their behavior at only a minor inconvenience to their career. This isn’t exactly a strong incentive against the behavior. That’s why this Congressional inquiry stands to have an impact.

Focusing on the role of granting agencies could create consequences for abusers and importantly it would hold to account universities that have long found it easier to avoid addressing such issues upfront. Granting agencies tying public funding to behavior and withholding funding from harassers would hit ’em where it hurts—grant money, aka, the currency of major universities and their professors. If anything will get universities to take seriously issues of sexual harassment, it’s the threat of losing grant money.

The House Science Committee: an inconsistent history on science

Another way this move by the House Science Committee is remarkable is because of the politics. This is a bipartisan effort to benefit science coming out of Chairman Smith’s House Science Committee. Despite a long history of bipartisanship to support science, the science committee under Chairman Smith has been a different story. From inserting politics into grant selection, to targeting scientists with invasive subpoenas, to legislative efforts to dismantle the EPA’s use of science, Lamar Smith has been leading the effort to attack science before the Trump Administration brought more attention to the issue. It is encouraging to see Chairman Smith use his position to help scientists, especially women scientists, who have been adversely affected by this issue. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a new era on the Science Committee where we can once again see bipartisan support for advancing our nation’s scientific enterprise.

Standing Ground: The State of Voting Rights in Year One of the Trump Administration

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Flickr/Michael Fleshman

On January 20th, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of these United States.  By the time the president-elect had actually taken office, he had already put into motion his intent to see through a radical transformation of the nation’s electoral laws.  Mr. Trump’s nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, his collaboration with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to establish an “electoral integrity” commission, and his nomination of a series of controversial judicial appointees soon after inauguration, all reflected an extension of his campaign’s attacks on the integrity of U.S. elections.

Fears of non-citizens voting and election rigging emerged as a major pillar of candidate Trump’s nativist agenda, and its emphasis on the contamination of our institutions by outsiders.  Having already established his legitimacy-bashing credentials as a leader of the conspiracy to question President Obama’s citizenship, Mr. Trump regularly attacked electoral institutions, once tweeting “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day.”  He even went so far as to declare at a rally, “I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election – if I win!”  Not more than a few weeks after his Electoral College victory, Mr. Trump re-initiated his attack, claiming, as usual without any evidence, that he would have won the popular vote, were it not for “millions of people who voted illegally.”

Total retaliation

Hunter S. Thompson once referred to the sort of vengeful resentment that characterizes Trumpist politics as an “ethic of total retaliation.” That sounds like an accurate account of this administration’s attempts to dismantle voting rights this year.

First came President Trump’s appointment of Alabama Senator Jefferson Sessions as Attorney General. Sessions, who applauded the 5-4, 2013 Supreme Court decision overturning the preclearance formula of the Voting Rights Act, had previously been called “a disgrace to the Justice Department” by Senator Ted Kennedy during a failed appointment for a federal judgeship.

Under Sessions, the Department of Justice has reversed position in several major voting rights cases. It has urged that a Texas voter identification law that it previously deemed racially discriminatory remain in effect.  Sessions has similarly reversed the Department’s interpretation of the National Voter Registration Act, and is now defending an Ohio voter list purge case where thousands of eligible voters were removed from the polls.

Next, and after the Trump team legally acknowledged that “all available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake,” came the “election integrity” commission lead by Kobach and Vice President Mike Pence.  Kobach had previously pushed illegal citizenship and identification requirements on voters in Kansas, but was successfully sued multiple times by the American Civil Liberties Union for violating federal voting rights.  In his new role, he sought to dismantle those protections.

Instead of recruiting actual election experts, the commission looked like the S-Men of voter suppression, with members like Hans von Spakovsky, J. Christian Adams, and Ken Blackwell.  The first substantive act of the commission was to try to collect sensitive voter list information from states, an act that the Election Privacy Information Center referred to as “without precedent and crazy.”  The mere threat of the Kobach commission acquiring control over private electoral data initiated a never-before-seen voter deregistration, at the same time that election administrators wasted precious resources addressing commission concerns.

Finally, judicial appointments have initiated a more subtle but certain erosion of voting rights. President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, has already provided a 5th vote to protect a racial gerrymander in Texas.  Lower level nominees like Thomas Farr, referred to as the “legal architect of North Carolina’s voter suppression” who built a career defending the state against voting rights claims, has been nominated, rejected, and renominated to a district court there.  Mark Norris, a Tennessee legislator who has similarly promoted “proof of citizenship” requirements at voting precincts, was nominated to the Western Tennessee district court.  The list goes on, demonstrating the president’s intent to use the judiciary as a stronghold, from which to beat down and destroy the legacy of voting rights that has been built over the last half century.

This year also saw the House Administration Committee try to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission, the only federal agency charged with improving electoral integrity.  Similarly, the Federal Election Commission, which is supposed to investigate violations of the (Watergate-inspired) Federal Election Campaign Act, has been rendered so dysfunctional from stalled appointments and partisan stalemate that it will never investigate potential violations of the 2016 Trump campaign.

Standing ground

Nevertheless, the story of voting rights in 2017 is one of mobilized resistance and cautious optimism. From its inception, civic journalism and organized resistance have kept public attention focused on both the Justice Department and the Kobach commission.  Excellent reporting by ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman revealed that von Spakovsky had authored a memo received by the Attorney General before he was even on the commission, arguing for the exclusion of any Democrats, academics or moderate Republicans from the commission.  A White House official recently acknowledged that the commission was a “shit show” after it was dissolved, in part because a federal court had ordered that Kobach release internal communications from which one of its Democratic members, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, had been excluded.

Voting rights groups ranging from Hip Hop Caucus’s Respect My Vote! campaign, to the A.C.L.U., Common Cause, and Democracy Initiative rallied to protest the commission at the few public meetings that it held.  Nearly every state refused to hand over at least some of the sensitive data that Kobach had requested, and multiple lawsuits were filed by voting rights litigators to protect voter information.  News organizations also analyzed the numerous problems with flawed data being presented at commission meetings.

Also leading by example, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine established its own Committee on the Future of Voting, which has so far held four easily accessible, public meetings, bringing together the nation’s top election law experts, political and computer scientists, security advisors and administrators to address very real challenges to free and fair elections.  They have shown what a real electoral integrity commission looks like.

Moreover, there is hope that the Supreme Court, having heard its first partisan gerrymandering case in a decade last year, will establish a constitutional standard for identifying redistricting plans that violate political equality.  The Supreme Court is set to hear a similar case against a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland this Spring, and there are a host of other cases from Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas that could result in stronger redistricting and voter eligibility requirements across the country.  These and related cases highlight the advances that social scientists have made in the measurement and estimation of constitutional standards.  None of these cases would have moved forward last year without the commitment of mobilized citizens, the research of impartial social scientists, and the legal assistance of voting rights advocates fighting on their behalf.

Looking back, the state of voting rights one year into Donald Trump’s presidency has inspired fear, as intended, but also confidence in the use of evidence-based arguments to hold government accountable.  That’s good, because 2018 is going to be a voting rights battle, given the November opportunity to replace Congressional leadership with actors who will bring the president to heel.  Citizens must be ever more vigilant in protecting their electoral institutions, and demand that integrity, rather than ideology, be the guiding principle of election law.

Michael Fleshman

3 Reasons Why the Trump USDA’s School Nutrition Rollbacks Should Worry You—and What You Can Do About It

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Photo: USDA

In May of 2017, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue moved to make school meals great again by issuing a proclamation in support of more lenient school nutrition standards. Specifically, the proposed rule permits the continued use of whole grain waivers, which exempt certain products from meeting whole grain standards; freezes current sodium limits through 2020, rather than moving forward with progressive sodium targets; and allows schools to serve low-fat flavored milk, which is currently disallowed due to its added sugar and fat content.

The nutrition standards in jeopardy are among those established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a landmark piece of legislation championed by former first lady Michelle Obama that marked the first overhaul of child nutrition regulations in decades.

And although May of last year might seem like a lifetime ago (a few things have happened since then), the USDA is now inviting public comments on the proposed rule, with a deadline of January 29, 2018.

Here are the top three reasons we should all be worried about this rule—and what’s driving us to take action to oppose it. You can submit a comment on behalf of yourself or your organization here.

1. We can’t afford to let children’s health become a second-tier priority.

Let’s get this out of the way: the most worrisome thing about the administration rolling back child nutrition standards is that the administration is rolling back child nutrition standards. Childhood obesity rates tripled between the early 1970s and 2005, prompting public health researchers to predict that, for the first time in centuries, children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents. Childhood obesity rates have since plateaued at around 17 percent—progress that has undoubtedly been propelled by nutrition and physical activity policies like the HHFKA—but we have a long way to go to change the trajectory of US population health. Half of all American adults currently live with one or more diet-related chronic diseases, and about two thirds are overweight or obese. The medical costs associated with obesity now account for an estimated 21 percent of all national health expenditures. Our kids deserve better.

2. We can’t afford to let industry interests become our top priority.

The proposed rule cites several justifications for altering school nutrition standards, including helping school food service authorities overcome procurement and menu planning challenges, and ensuring that students receive palatable meals that won’t go to waste. But according to the USDA, more than 99 percent of schools nationwide are already successfully meeting the nutrition standards put in place by the HHFKA. With full recognition of the tremendous amount of work it takes for schools and school food service staff to make these changes, the proof remains in the pudding: they did it. Meanwhile, the USDA reported higher school lunch revenue, greater fruit and vegetable consumption among kids, and no increase in food waste in the years following adoption of the new nutrition standards. So if this proposed rule isn’t for schools, and it isn’t for kids… who is it for? Hmm.

3. This rule could be a harbinger of more harmful regulatory rollbacks to come.

A multitude of other evidence-based health and nutrition standards were established with the passage of HHFKA, including required minimum servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables in school meals, availability of free water where meals are served, and limits on total calories, sodium, sugar, and fats in snacks sold in schools. These nutrition standards are rooted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the cornerstone scientific report that guides federal nutrition policy and dietary recommendations for the general public; as such, they were adopted with the explicit aim of curbing childhood obesity and improving health outcomes for future generations. Just as a step toward these guidelines brings us closer to a healthier future, a step (or more) away takes us further, and lays bare a pointed preference for profit over people. If the “flexibility” granted to schools by this proposed rule is any indication of changes to come, we may be in some trouble.

 

 

From National Parks to the EPA, Trump Administration Stiff-Arms Science Advisers

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to meet with National Park System Advisory Board members last year, prompting most of them to quit. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The Trump administration’s testy relationship with science reminds me of that old saying: Advice is least heeded when most needed.

Earlier this week, three-quarters of the members of the National Park System Advisory Board resigned because Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to hold a meeting with them last year. The board was established more than 80 years ago so scientists and former elected officials could advise the Department of the Interior on a variety of national park and monument issues, including the designation of national historic and natural landmarks.

With zero input from the 12-member board, Zinke dramatically reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah to open them up to grazing and mining; arbitrarily increased park visitor fees; and reversed a ban on plastic water bottles in the park system.

Their resignation should not come as a surprise. Zinke’s cavalier treatment of the National Park System Advisory Board is just the most recent example of an administration-wide rejection of independent scientific expertise, according to a report released Thursday by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

After reviewing the status of 73 science advisory boards at six federal agencies and interviewing 33 current and former board members, UCS researchers found that last year the boards met less often than in any year since the government started keeping records in 1997. They also found that nearly two-thirds of the boards met fewer times than their charters recommend, and board membership dropped 14 percent from the previous year, twice as much as during the first year of the Obama administration.

Some of the meetings that did take place, meanwhile, could hardly be designated as such. Panel members told UCS researchers that several in-person meetings were replaced by perfunctory telephone conference calls, some lasting for as little as 15 minutes.

The boards UCS included in its analysis advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration, and provide a good representative sample of the 218 scientific and technical panels currently serving the federal government. Generally comprised of volunteer experts from academia, industry, nonprofit organizations, and state and local governments, these committees keep federal agencies abreast of the latest, cutting-edge research and make recommendations on short-term challenges, such as epidemic outbreaks, and ongoing issues, such as nuclear safety.

Besides Interior, one of the biggest offenders is the EPA under Administrator Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who sued the agency 14 times on behalf of his campaign contributors to try to block air and water protections. Last October, Pruitt issued new rules barring anyone who receives EPA grants from serving on agency advisory panels. Remarkably, he maintained that those scientists have a conflict of interest, regardless of the fact that the EPA does not dictate the outcome of its grantees’ research. He then packed the agency’s Science Advisory Board with industry scientists with clear conflicts of interest.

Perhaps most emblematic of the Trump administration’s contempt for science is the fact that the president has yet to appoint his science adviser, who directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Last October, The Washington Post reported that Trump has taken longer than any president in modern times to name his science adviser. That was three months ago, and the position is still open, as are the posts of deputy director and four congressionally mandated associate directors. In the meantime, the president has made a string of “unadvised,” ill-advised science-related decisions, most notably pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and appointing Pruitt, a climate-science-denying attorney, to run the EPA.

When the nine National Park System Advisory Board members quit last Monday, former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, the head of the board, explained their rationale. “We resigned because we were deeply disappointed with the [Interior] Department and we were concerned,” he said. “[Zinke] appears to have no interest in continuing the agenda of science, the effect of climate change, [or] pursuing the protection of the ecosystem.”

The same holds true for the entire Trump administration, and that doesn’t bode well for public health or the environment.

New Report Reveals Trump Administration Is Abandoning Science Advice

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Photo: sharply_done/iStockphoto

Unease. Frustration. Indignation. Experts serving as members of federal advisory committees are being frozen out of the very avenues that were designed to encourage external input on scientific issues to the federal government.

A new Center for Science and Democracy report released today, Abandoning Science Advice: One Year In, the Trump Administration is Sidelining Science Advisory Committees, reveals the Trump Administration’s widespread under-utilization of science advice in its first year.

In an effort to cut science out of the equation, this sidelining has taken different forms: Meetings have been postponed, cancelled, or abbreviated. Experienced experts have been dismissed. Rules governing committee membership have been altered to ease the stacking of committees with industry-affiliated scientists, and to crowd out independent experts. In some cases, committees have been disbanded entirely, or placed in limbo for agency-wide “review.”

What we found

In this report, we analyzed the membership and meeting schedules of 73 science advisory committees across 24 departments, agencies, and sub-agencies at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Interior (DOI), Food & Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Department of Commerce (DOC). We also interviewed more than 30 current and former advisory board members.

We found that last year, the DOE, EPA, and DOI met less often than in any year since the government started tracking in 1997. At the DOE, DOC, and EPA, fewer experts are serving on advisory committees than at any time since 1997. And nearly two-thirds of the 73 committees surveyed are meeting less than they are directed to in their own charters.

And this decrease in activity isn’t just as a result of it being the first year of a new administration. Membership on advisory committees decreased 14 percent from 2016, while membership only decreased 7 percent in the first year of the Obama administration and less than 1 percent in the first year of the Bush administration.

Neglect, disregard, and egregious politicization

This blatant neglect of committees at the DOI made headlines this week when 10 out of 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board at the Department of Interior resigned due to frustration that the Secretary had failed to meet with them or schedule a single meeting for the committee in 2017. Its members were not consulted when making important decisions about our national parks, just as DOI’s resource advisory councils, including one in Utah, were not consulted when deciding to shrink monuments in those jurisdictions.

The disregard of science advice has gone well beyond neglect. The Food and Drug Administration completely disbanded the 25-year-old Food Advisory Committee that examined issues like nutrition and food safety and was the agency’s only committee dedicated solely to food issues. And members of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board report no contact at all from the administration over the past year, with “no plans to reconstitute it.”

And in the most egregious politicization of science advisory boards, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has pushed a new policy banning any scientist who currently receives a research grant from the EPA from serving on advisory committees. Pruitt’s directive has radically reshaped the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Board of Scientifically Counselors (BOSC), and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), breaking precedent by refusing to renew terms of committee members and tripling the representation of industry-affiliated scientists on the EPA SAB.

Experts are clamoring to be heard

Advisory committees operate differently across agencies and for good reason. They have different missions and require expertise spanning disciplines and fields. The one thing that all of these committees have in common is that they are composed of highly distinguished experts that are eager to get to work. In over 30 interviews held with members of a range of advisory committees, there was a resounding interest in resuming advisory activities and discussing the pressing issues under the relevant agencies’ authority that require their attention. Why waste the time of these individuals unless their time and potential science-based recommendations aren’t of any interest?

This suppression of information at this level makes it easier for Trump and his political appointees to make progress at deconstructing the administrative state, removes a vital check on the work being done at agencies, and prevents the best available science from being considered in the first place.

Policy decisions are based on a variety of factors, but if independence scientific analysis isn’t included as a consideration, then we’re flying blind—which might in fact be the actual goal for this administration. Why else would you neglect your own science advice infrastructure? Imagine a high school basketball coach unwilling to listen to 20 Steph Currys waiting eagerly on the sidelines with a slate of play options that would easily win his team the game. Why not listen unless your plan was to lose all along?

We can’t afford to let the Trump administration continue to make regulatory decisions without taking the time to analyze impacts. And, no, evaluating just the costs to oil companies, chemical companies, and developers is not sufficient. Experts are clamoring to be heard and members of the public would prefer that policymakers make fully-informed decisions that protect our health, rather than half-baked decisions informed by politics alone.

We must all fight to raise the political price of sidelining science and scientists. Because when policymakers don’t have access to the best independent scientific input, they can’t effectively protect all of us.

Scientists serving on federal advisory committees or working in the government who perceive that their work is being sidelined should get in touch with the UCS Science Protection Project to get confidential advice on strategic action. And we should all continue to call on our elected officials to further investigate the ways in which this administration is disregarding the government’s own scientists and external advisors, and what its squandering of this resource means for public health and safety.

Five Lessons Our Science Network Watchdogging Teams Have Taught Us

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It is one year since the Presidential inauguration, though to many of us it now seems like time is measured in dog years—each approximates seven in our own lifetimes. The election really energized the science community and many others to push back against the hateful rhetoric and frightening agenda of the president and his administration.

That rhetoric too often embodies racism, misogyny, homophobia, and divisiveness. And the agenda has valued big business interests over the public interest across the board, withdrawing public health, safety and environmental protections to boost corporate profits.

Here at UCS, we called on our Science Network to help us respond to a broad range of attacks on science as part of the new Administration’s agenda. The response has been wonderful and we have a lot to show for it. Not everyone has the time or inclination to take on the challenges of advocating for science on a regular and sustained basis, but over 1,000 of our Science Network members have so far stepped up for this higher level of engagement. I don’t mean to say they are the only ones fighting back, but these individuals have agreed to be on “watchdogging” teams around the country to speak out at a local level, engage their elected representatives, and serve as focal points for bringing science into the debates over public policy.  These teams have become partners in the fight, and from them we have learned many important lessons. Here are my top five:

Constituency and local knowledge matter

Our watchdogging team members speak to their elected officials, and to their communities, as neighbors and constituent voters. And despite all the concerns that people may have about our political culture, constituency still matters to elected officials. That doesn’t mean that an official will always do what you ask, but you will at least be heard.

Team members also understand local issues and challenges, as well as local politics, that it would be hard for a national organization like UCS to gather in any other way. That local and regional perspective helps everyone in the science community to build our knowledge and our story-bank of the impacts of attacks on science on people all across the country.

Our neighbors, too, are often more receptive to information over the back fence or on the front steps from someone who lives nearby than from the expert from far away. Letters to the editor in a local paper can have as much or more impact than pieces published in national press. More than 80 of our watchdogging Science Network members have published letters or op-eds, and that is building more recognition of key science issues at a local level. Letters to elected officials in various states (Maine, Montana, Missouri, Nevada, and North Dakota) and nationally have had over 5,000 signatories. And hundreds of personal calls have been made to Senate and House members offices.

UCS Legislative Associate Amy Gutierrez and Campaign Manager Danielle Fox guiding summit participants in finding connections between local issues and federal policy (Missoula, MT), August 25, 2017.

So, when our watchdogging team members meet with their representatives—dozens of times now over the last six months—they have a chance to get up close and personal. With a little support from us, they are delivering strong messages to fight those attacks on science that might seem obscure, but when brought into a local setting can really take on new importance. Like the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would so bog down the regulatory process that even if new threats to the public are identified, it would be almost impossible to develop new protections. Or defeating really terrible nominations to science positions in key agencies, like Sam Clovis and Michael Dourson. Letters and emails from more than 4,000 scientists and calls from hundreds more helped turn the tide against these appointments.

Scientists have a lot to say

In our training as scientists we tend to focus on gaining fundamental skills in our discipline, but along the way, we all build our knowledge of how science itself works.  That means, as a marine scientist, I can certainly talk about my area of expertise, but I can also talk about the process by which science informs policy broadly across many science disciplines. And I can explain what the scientific method means, how peer review and other quality control and feedback mechanisms work, and why scientific evidence is so very different from a political opinion. More than that, it is pretty easy for me to look at data, graphs and evidence in a variety of fields and understand the basic messages even if I am not deeply engaged in that field of research.

All of that can be helpful in talking to officials and fellow residents, and in writing for a broader audience. The point is, scientists can speak out knowledgeably on issues beyond our own fields of study and have a lot to bring into a discussion of public policy. Many scientists are learning for themselves how helpful their voices can be in the public debate. For example, when Sen. Blunt (R. MO) introduced a bill to roll back progress on vehicle fuel economy standards, scientists and other concerned citizens went to meet with Sen. Donnelly’s staff (D. IN) to voice their opposition. They weren’t all automotive engineers or air pollution scientists, but they could talk about the bills misguided approach to fuel economy.

A little training goes a long way

For many experts, skills such as communicating with non-scientists, the media and a broader public don’t come naturally. We are trained to communicate to scientific audiences in our own fields. But in a public or political setting, the challenge is to be clear about the major lines of scientific evidence and their broader meaning or implication. That’s a skill we can learn, much as we have learned the other skills that make for good scientists.

So too is learning how to engage with elected officials, or journalists or media editors, or community organizations. We have been offering training and mentoring in all of these topics, and Science Network members have responded. Our 12 training workshops have reached 1184 members this past year. Our monthly calls regularly have 50 or more participating. Our state scientists’ summits in Montana, Nevada, Maine and Missouri, collectively had more than 100 participants.

Outreach Coordinator Jessica Thomas explaining the UCS Watchdog campaign with summit participants (Reno, NV), September 23, 2017.

While the summits included training in political advocacy, these workshops primarily served as opportunities for participants to learn from each other and plan actions to take on the state level. With that beginning, the sky’s the limit. Science Network members have co-authored compelling op-eds on the importance of science in our democracy, and held effective meetings with their Congressional delegations, despite doing it for the first time.

To find the best recruiters, look in the mirror

Having 1,000 scientists watchdogging is great, but the network needs to grow with a substantial capacity to self-organize to take action. That’s because to have a sustained impact on our democracy, scientists need to be active and engaged in the public discourse in as many places, in as many communities and issues as possible, not just while Trump is in office but going forward too. We are here to provide resources on issues where we can, as well as financial support through our Science for the Public Good small grants, and our Science and Democracy Fellowships (coming soon).

But it is Science Network members themselves that can help recruit more colleagues, in their states, to Stand Up for Science. They are best placed to know who has the passion and the commitment to be involved in this work, and they have made connections with wonderful local advocates we might never have known. They know how to reach the people in their states who make the decisions that affect their communities. And since the election, 4500 new members have come into our network looking for ways to get involved. We need everyone to get involved and to learn from each other. It’s about the role of science in democracy—and that impacts every person in the country.

Advocating for science feels good too

I hope we are past the old debates about whether advocating for what you believe compromises your ability to do science. It doesn’t. A friend of mine, a scientist deeply involved in the fight for environmental justice, once said, “You need to feed that other part of your brain too. The part that cares about the world, your neighbors, and the legacy we leave. That part that makes you want to advocate for what’s right.” We can still do our work as scientists and at the same time stand up for science. Everyone’s action may not look the same, but everyone needs to speak up.

We’ve heard from Science Network members how exciting it was to speak up for their community’s best interests in the public realm—and that it was easier than they had thought. And we have to admit that during a sometimes frustrating year, our watchdogging members consistently reminded us that this country is made up of its people, not just its politics.

So to our Science Network partners in watchdogging, thank you for all you do. Please stay involved, engaged and keep teaching us every day. Not signed up to watchdog with UCS? Join now.

Why Engineers Should Refuse to Work on Trump’s Wall

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When it comes to President Trump’s proposal to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico (never mind the fact that many such physical barriers already exist), many people have focused on two questions: Shouldn’t there be comprehensive immigration reform instead? And who’s going to pay for it?

But there’s another question we should ask. Who is going to build it?

I’m referring to the engineering companies that will actually design and construct “the wall.” Whatever form it takes (a monolith or a mishmash), hundreds of companies are lining up to build it—and that reflects the willingness of many companies to profit from divisive politics. Unfortunately, engineering education, practice, and ethical codes provide engineers almost no guidance on the broad political implications of their work.

The presidential administration has only just begun the lengthy process of building the wall. First, on Feb. 24, the Customs and Border Protection office issued a pre-solicitation to gauge interest from companies. (The response was overwhelming, with more than 600 companies submitting proposals, of which, according to a CNBC analysis, “[a]t least 133 companies were listed as owned by minorities—including 39 by Hispanics.”) Then, on March 17, CBP issued two detailed solicitations—one for designing and building a concrete wall and another using other structures. These solicitations will really set in motion the engineering process.

Before any concrete is poured, within companies, there will be spirited discussion and debate among engineers and managers about design and costs. Memos will be written, and company leaders will be briefed. The administrative work of contracting will take shape. If a company doesn’t have the expertise or skills to do a particular task, it may join forces with another company or group of engineers who do. In short, the wall will be a product of engineering decision-making.

But how much of the decision-making process will discuss the ethics of being involved with building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico?

When big contracts are on the table, there can be very little incentive for a company to refrain from doing the work in the name of good moral behavior or the public welfare. For instance, leading engineering companies are involved in designing and building pipelines to bring more tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S., in spite of the negative social and ecological impacts.

Social justice advocates see the wall within a broader discussion about immigration, and engineers should, too. Engineers have a moral responsibility to understand the context of their work. The federal judge who recently blocked the Trump administration’s second immigration-related executive order put it in the context of language used by the president over the past several months. Similarly, engineers cannot and should not view the wall as a singular engineering project. Instead, they should think of the social and political implications of the barriers that already exist between the U.S. and Mexico, and they should evaluate the social, political, and humanitarian implications in the context of another wall born of divisive politics—the one between Israel and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Among a host of humanitarian and human rights issues, the wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories has created incredible animosity. The wall has become a symbol of conflict for so long that both Israeli and Palestinian children “grow up feeling that they are destined for conflict with their neighbors,” according to Laurel Holliday, author of Children of Israel, Children of Palestine. But for companies bidding on the U.S.-Mexico wall, the politics of the project have been stripped away and translated into technical specifications.

In today’s political climate, engineers cannot remain passive and allow legislators and politicians to decide what the “public good” is. All members of a community must be engaged and responsible in deciding what the public good is and how to create it—and that goes especially for engineers and the companies they work for, because they can have a disproportionate and lasting impact on a community.

But the engineering community’s response thus far has been divorced from these important issues. Here’s what representatives of three bidding companies have said:

  • “We’re not into politics. We’re not left or right. We’re a construction company and that’s how we survive. … We don’t see it as politics. We just see it as work,” Jorge Diaz, who manages De la Fuente Construction Inc. in California, told the Guardian.
  • “We’re focused on the work, we’re not a political body, left or right or what have you. We go after the job and provide high-paying jobs for our workforce and great opportunities for our company,” Ralph Hicks, vice president of governmental affairs for R.E. Staite Engineering in California, said to KPBS.
  • “There could be a political backlash, but we are in business to make money and put people to work and provide a good service, whether it’s a wall or substation or airport or prison. We don’t want to approach it from a political standpoint, only from a business standpoint,” George Ishee, national sales manager for Cast Lighting, based in Hawthorne, New Jersey, told a local newspaper.

Another engineering company owner, Patrick Balcazar, who owns San Diego Project Management in Puerto Rico, went even further, suggesting that building a wall will provide a future economic opportunity to employ engineers to tear it down: “My goal is to build a wall so I can make enough money so we can turn this thing around and tear down the wall again.”

Not every company bidding for the wall will share these points of view, but they highlight a particular problem with how many engineers and companies see their role in the world and how their work is valued. As it stands, much of engineering is focused more on financial incentives than social impact and human welfare.

Further, the reality is that engineers and companies always work with or for someone with particular political motives, and so their work is always political. By saying building a wall is “just work,” engineers and companies shift the moral burden from themselves—those who actually design and build these projects—to those who order and pay for them. But people, politicians, and governments can talk all they want about doing something; they do not have the skills to actually do it.

The fundamental canon of the Code of Ethics by the National Society of Professional Engineers states, “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Unfortunately, there is only vague guidance given to engineers on how to implement this canon, with emphasis more on client relationships rather than social good. The American Society of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics does a better job here. It says: “Engineers shall recognize that the lives, safety, health and welfare of the general public are dependent upon engineering judgments, decisions and practices incorporated into structures, machines, products, processes and devices,” thus pointing to the political implications of engineering work.

For engineers working on politically charged projects, there can be friction between their professional obligations and their moral obligations, dilemmas they are untrained to grapple with. While an engineer may raise concerns about the safety of a project (to make sure, for example, the wall won’t collapse and hurt a border patrol officer), there tends to be little to no support for engineers who question the morality of the project they work on.

But just because a project is politically and professionally justified and economically feasible does not make it ethically or morally justified. That’s why it’s frustrating that most engineering education programs across the country provide only scant ethical training, particularly in the context of social good; there are few resources, examples, and role models for ethically conflicted engineers to turn to. Engineers have incredible power, but if they aren’t managers or company leaders, it can be difficult to speak up about the ethics of particular projects. Historically, engineers have been routinely ostracized and silenced when questioning leadership decisions. For example, engineers predicted the failure of the O-rings on the Challenger space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters yet NASA proceeded with launch. We all know what happened next.

Look through most engineering programs at colleges and universities in the U.S. and you’ll see very few courses dedicated to ethical training. Frequently, those that are offered aren’t required, or ethics forms a two- or three-week component of other classes, either at the beginning or the tail end of an undergraduate career. Efforts to infuse ethical training deeply in engineering education struggle against already packed course schedules, and ethical issues are rarely discussed at engineering conferences. So those of us who are engineers have to take it upon ourselves to deeply engage with the ethical challenges and dilemmas we face. Engineers should constantly ask themselves (adapted from the founding document of Science for the People): Why are we engineers? Who do we work for? What is the full measure of our moral and social responsibility?

If engineering is only about making money, then let’s not call it engineering; profiteering would be a more appropriate description. But if engineering is “rooted in a goal to improve our societies by producing structures that render them more just, more equitable, and more beautiful,” as the Architecture Lobby writes, we—engineers—need to do a better job at thinking about who and what is affected by the choices we make. If engineering is about working on technical projects that “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” then a thoughtful, compassionate, and contextual reading of this fundamental canon cannot justify engineers giving their expertise, time, and resources to a border wall that will embolden and embody divisive politics.

“We’re just doing our job” just does not cut it with morally challenging, hot-button issues. It never has, and it never should.

Originally appeared on Slate.com.

Darshan Karwat is an assistant professor in Arizona State University’s Polytechnic School and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and a former AAAS fellow in Washington.

Benny Hill Explains the NRC Approach to Nuclear Safety

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safety regulations require that nuclear reactors be designed to protect the public from postulated accidents, such as the rupture of pipes that would limit the flow of cooling water to the reactor. These regulations include General Design Criteria 34 and 35 in Appendix A to 10 CFR Part 50.

Emergency diesel generators (EDGs) are important safety systems since they provide electricity to emergency equipment if outside power is cut off to the plant—another postulated accident. This electricity, for example, would allow pumps to continue to send cooling water to the reactor vessel to prevent overheating damage to the core. So the NRC has requirements that limit how long a reactor can continue operating without one of its two EDGs under different conditions. The shortest period is 3 days while the longest period is 14 days.

An All Things Nuclear commentary in July 2017 described how the NRC allowed the Unit 3 reactor at the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona to operate for up to 62 days with one of its EDGs broken, but had denied the Unit 1 reactor at the DC Cook nuclear plant in Michigan permission to operate for up to 65 days with one of its two EDGs broken. It was easy to understand why the NRC denied the request for DC Cook Unit 1 (i.e., 65 days is more than the 14-day safety limit). It was not easy to understand why the NRC granted the request for Palo Verde Unit 3 (i.e., 62 days is also more than the 14-day safety limit).

The NRC also granted a request on November 26, 2017, for the Unit 1 and 2 reactors at the Brunswick nuclear plant in North Carolina to operate for up to 30 days with one EDG broken.

NRC Inspection Findings and Sanctions 2001-2016

UCS examined times between 2001 and 2016 when NRC inspectors identified violations of federal safety regulations and the sanctions imposed by the agency for these safety violations. The purpose of this exercise was to understand the NRC’s position on EDGs and the safety implications of an EDG being inoperable.

As shown in Figure 1, NRC inspectors recorded 12,610 findings over this 16-year period, an average of 788 findings each year. The NRC characterized the safety significance of its findings using a green, white, yellow and red color-code with green representing findings having low safety significance and red assigned to findings with high safety significance. The NRC determined that fewer than 2% of its findings (242 in all) warranted a white, yellow, or red finding (“greater-than-green”).

Fig. 1 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

NRC Greater-than-Green Inspection Findings and Sanctions 2001-2016

UCS reviewed ALL the greater-than-green findings issued by the NRC between 2001 and 2016 to determine what safety problems most concerned the agency over those years. Figure 2 shows the greater-than-green findings issued by the NRC binned by the applicable safety system or process. Emergency planning violations accounted for 22% of the greater-than-green findings over this period—the greatest single category. Other categories are shown in increasing percentages clockwise around the pie chart.

The 32 EDG greater-than-green findings between 2001 and 2016 constituted the second highest tally of such findings over this 16-year period—an average of two greater-than-green EDG findings per year. The NRC issued one Yellow and 31 White findings for EDG violations.

Fig. 2 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

NRC Greater-than-Green EDG Inspection Findings and Sanctions 2001-2016

UCS reviewed all enforcement letters issued by the NRC for all 32 EDG greater-than-green findings to determine what parameters—particularly the length of time the EDG was unavailable—factored into the NRC concluding the findings had elevated safety implications. Several of the greater-than-green findings issued by the NRC involved EDGs being unavailable for less than the 62 days that the NRC permitted Palo Verde Unit 3 to continue operating with an EDG broken. For example:

  • The NRC issued a Yellow finding on August 3. 2007, because Kewuanee (WI) operated for 50 days with one EDG impaired by a fuel oil leak.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on September 19, 2013, because HB Robinson (SC) operated for 36 days with inadequate engine cooling for an EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on June 2, 2004, because Brunswick (NC) operated for 30 days with an impaired jacket water cooling system for one EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on April 15, 2005, because Fort Calhoun (NE) operated for 29 days for approximately 29 days with an inoperable EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on December 7, 2010, because HB Robinson (SC) operated for 26 days with an impaired output breaker on one EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on March 28, 2014, because Waterford (LA) operated for 25 days with inadequate ventilation for one EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on December 18, 2013, because Duane Arnold (IA) operated for 22 days with inadequate lubricating oil cooling for one EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on February 29, 2008, because Comanche Peak (TX) operated for 20 days with one EDG inoperable.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on December 7, 2007, because Fort Calhoun (NE) operated for 14 days with one EDG inoperable.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on April 20, 2007, because Brunswick (NC) operated for 9 days with an impaired lubricating oil system for one EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on August 17, 2007, because Cooper (NE) operated for 5 days with a defective circuit card in the control system for one EDG.

NRC’s Cognitive Dissonance

The NRC issued 32 greater-than-green findings between 2001 and 2016 because inoperable or impaired EDGs increased the chances that an accident could endanger the public and the environment. As the list above illustrates, many of the NRC’s findings involved EDGs being disabled for 29 days or less.

Yet in 2017, the NRC intentionally permitted Palo Verde and Brunswick to continue operating for up to 62 and 30 days respectively.

If operating a nuclear reactor for 5, 9, 14, 20, 22, 26, or 29 days with an impaired EDG constitutes a violation of federal safety regulations warranting a rare greater-than-green finding based on the associated elevated risk to public health and safety, how can operating a reactor for 30 or 62 days NOT expose the public to elevated, and undue, risk?

Benny Hill to the Rescue

Fig. 3 (Source: www.alchetron.com)

Benny Hill was a British comedian who hosted a long-running television show between 1969 and 1989. On one of his shows, Benny observed that: “The odds against there being a bomb on a plane are a million to one, and against two bombs a million times a million to one.” Hence, Benny suggested that to be protected against being blown out of the sky: “Next time you fly, cut the odds and take a bomb” with you.

NRC’s allowing Palo Verde and Brunswick to operate for over 29 days with a broken EDG essentially takes Benny’s advice to take a bomb on board an airplane. Deliberately taking a risk significantly reduces the random risk.

But Benny’s suggestion was intended as a joke, not as prudent (or even imprudent) public policy.

So, while I’ll posthumously (him, not me) thank Benny Hill for much amusing entertainment, I’ll thank the NRC not to follow his advice and to refrain from exposing more communities to undue, elevated risk from nuclear power reactors operating for extended periods with broken EDGs.

Lost in Space? The Zuma Satellite

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Many people awaited last Sunday’s Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral of a highly classified US payload. The launch had been delayed for weeks, speculation as to the satellite’s purpose was rampant, and successfully delivering national security satellites to orbit is an important part of SpaceX’s business.

The launch, however, remains shrouded in mystery.

Shortly after the launch, Bloomberg reported that the satellite was lost, due to US Strategic Command saying they were not tracking any objects. The Wall Street Journal suggested that Congress was being briefed on a failure, and that it was due to a failure of the satellite to separate from the final stage, and so both were deorbited together.

A Verge story notes that neither SpaceX (the launcher) nor Northrup Grumman (the contractor who built the satellite) declared that the mission was a success after launch. SpaceX’s president said that the Falcon 9 “did everything correctly” and that they did not have a failure that requires investigation. Northrup Grumman stated that it does not comment on classified missions. Northrup Grumman provided the equipment that connects the satellite to the final rocket stage and that is eventually meant to separate them. So SpaceX’s claim that nothing went wrong with its end could be still be consistent with an overall failed mission.

What could the Zuma satellite be?

The Zuma satellite (USA280) is curious. It’s a classified satellite and so there’s no public description of its purpose. Satellite watchers usually pick up some clues about the purpose of a classified satellite by who made it and what orbit it is put in. For example, spy satellites that are imaging the ground in visible light often use sun synchronous orbits (close to a polar orbit) so that they can see the earth at a constant sun angle, which is helpful in detecting changes. Signals intelligence satellites tend to be at around 63 degrees inclination (the angle the orbit makes with respect to the equator).

Because there was no pre-launch announcement of orbital parameters, nor does the Space Track catalog provide them (it never does for such classified missions), we don’t know what orbit it was meant to go in exactly, but you can tell the approximate inclination by where the hazard zones are from its launch.

Marco Langbroek created this image of the Zuma launch hazard zone (in red in Fig. 1) for his blog:

Fig. 1 (Source: Marco Langbroek

This indicates that the satellite was launched in an orbit that was inclined around 50 degrees to the equator, similar to the International Space Station. Not many satellites use low earth orbits with 50 degree inclinations, except for satellites that were launched from the space station and so end up there. (See for yourself by sorting the satellites in the UCS Satellite Database.)

One other recent classified satellite, USA 276, was launched in that type of orbit, and it was launched in a similar direction as Zuma. That satellite was launched not only in the same orbital inclination as the ISS but also the same orbital plane. It was subsequently observed by the amateur observing community as having made a close approach to the ISS when it was performing docking maneuvers. Marco has a fascinating analysis in The Space Review about it.

What happened to it?

Zuma (USA 280) is still listed as a payload on orbit by the US space surveillance system (Fig. 2), as of this writing (January 12). So something made it into orbit and went around at least once. The object is listed as a payload and not as launch debris, indicating it is the satellite.

Fig. 2 (Source: Screen capture from Space Track)

Marco’s blog also reports sighting of the re-entry of an object that seems to square with the predicted time for the (intentional) de-orbit of the Falcon 9’s final stage, so that appears to no longer be in space. This is consistent with the successful placing into orbit of the satellite and the disposal of the last stage. (That’s good space “hygiene.”)

So there are a few possibilities:

  1. The Zuma satellite failed to separate from the final stage, and returned to earth along with the final stage and no satellite is in orbit. If this is the case, eventually the Space Track catalog will be updated and USA 280 will be removed. But this seems unlikely, since the satellite is still catalogued as being in orbit four days after launch.
  2. The satellite is in orbit. Indications this is the case would be that it remains in the catalog, and that amateur observers on the ground get a view of it. These observers use binoculars and telescopes to see satellites in reflected sunlight, and they are quite skilled at hunting satellites. However, they won’t get a chance to weigh in for a couple of weeks as the satellite won’t be optically visible in the regions of the northern hemisphere where most of them are. It’s possible that in the interim, the satellite will maneuver to another orbit, so finding it after a couple of weeks will be difficult.

Whether the satellite is functioning as intended would be difficult to tell, at least at first. If satellite watchers manage to see it and determine its orbital parameters over a period of time, they may be able to see whether it performs any maneuvers. An on-orbit maneuver is a positive sign that the satellite is at least alive, although doesn’t say whether it’s performing as designed. The lack of such maneuvers, especially if the satellite is in a relatively low orbit and would ordinarily need to compensate for atmospheric drag, can indicate that it is not functioning. Radars should be able to track the satellite, so presumably countries with space surveillance-capable radars, such as China and Russia, know quite a bit more about this already.

  1. While there is some precedent for using a launch failure as a cover story for a stealthy satellite (Misty), it’s hard to keep a satellite reliably hidden. (Note that the US has much more invested in space surveillance than other actors, so this would be even more difficult for countries other than the US.)

There are things that you can do to make it harder to see a satellite. You can minimize its radar reflectivity so that Russian and Chinese radars would have a harder time seeing it. You can minimize how reflective it is in the sunlight so that ground-based optical observers would have a hard time seeing it, too. Or you might make the satellite’s orbit unpredictable by maneuvering, so trackers must perform a time-consuming search for it each time they want to see it.

You’d probably need to do all these things at the same time to have hope of being stealthy for a significant period of time, and these techniques put a lot of constraints on the satellite itself. And one cannot credibly hope to stay stealthy indefinitely.

What’s curious about Zuma is that the bits of information don’t yet add up to a coherent story. There’s more information to come which may help—stay tuned!

The Trump’s Adminstration’s Dangerous New Nuclear Policy

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Last night the Huffington Post released a draft version of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, a deeply dangerous document that makes nuclear war more likely. UCS has a press statement on the draft, and below is a compilation of some additional quick thoughts on the draft, with more to come.

+ + + + +

The Trident II D5 missile

The Trump NPR calls for a new, low-yield warhead for the Trident submarine-launched missile. The NPR premises the need for that warhead on the idea that the following systems will not be able to penetrate enemy air defenses to attack enemy targets:

  1. US dual-capable aircraft—including the new F35A stealthy fighter aircraft—armed with gravity bombs, including the new, high precision, low-yield B61-12;
  2. The dual-capable aircraft of allied countries in Europe that currently host US nuclear weapons;
  3. US B-2 stealth bombers armed gravity bombs, including the new B61-12;
  4. US B-52 bombers armed with air-launch cruise missiles and the future long-range standoff (LRSO) cruise missile, and
  5. the future B-21 “Raider” stealth bomber armed with gravity bombs and cruise missiles.

Seriously?

If that is the case, why are we spending hundreds of billions of dollars to deploy new stealthy nuclear-capable fighter aircraft and bombers, new gravity bombs, and new cruise missiles? The NPR calls for an unrealistic spending spree that is not justified by security needs.

+ + + + +

The Trump NPR significantly reduces the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons by explicitly listing a wide array of non-nuclear attacks on the United States that could constitute grounds for a US nuclear response, including attacks on civilians, infrastructure, nuclear forces, command and control, and early warning systems.

This is a dramatic change from the Obama administration’s nuclear policy, which explicitly sought to limit the roles and purposes of US nuclear weapons. It also reverses the trend of every administration since the end of the Cold War, Republican and Democratic alike. The Obama NPR set as a goal declaring that the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States, its military forces, and its allies. It wanted to make nuclear war less likely. This document explicitly rejects that goal and in doing so makes nuclear use more likely.

The NPR also calls for tighter integration of nuclear and conventional forces. That deliberately blurs the line between the two and eliminates a clear nuclear fire break.

+ + + + +

The Trump NPR reverses the plan to retire the B83, a gravity bomb with a massive 1.2 megaton yield—by far the largest in the current US stockpile. Because the military had little use for this Cold War behemoth, the Obama administration had pledged to retire the B83 as soon as confidence was gained in the new B61-12 bomb, as a way to build support in Congress the for new B61. This document says it will keep the B83 “until a suitable replacement is identified.” That could be the B61-12, but there is no commitment to it.

+ + + + +

This document returns to the tired and inaccurate concept of “gaps” in US capabilities that ostensibly require new weapons systems to fill. President Kennedy campaigned on the idea of a “missile gap” when in fact it was the United States that had many more missiles than the Soviet Union. The document points to the “gap” in low-yield options that drive the need for new systems. But there is no “gap.” The US has multiple systems on multiple platforms able to deliver low-yield weapons.

+ + + + +

The document argues that Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and the United States is not. That is utter hogwash. The United States has been modernizing its forces consistently for the last several decades, but it has done so without building new systems. It has upgraded and improved the systems it already has. For example, a decade ago the United States still had submarines armed with Trident C4 missiles, which were not very accurate. Now, not only does every submarine carry the D5 missile, accurate enough to attack hardened targets, but those missiles are being updated, with newly built motors and improved guidance systems making them even more accurate. The W76-1 warheads on those missiles have also been improved, further increasing the ability to hold hardened targets at risk. And that system comprises the bulk of the US nuclear stockpile.

It’s also important to recognize that China’s nuclear arsenal remains tiny in comparison to the US arsenal. The United States has more than 1500 strategic warheads on three types of delivery systems. China has well fewer than 100 warheads on missiles capable of reaching the United States, and the warheads are not even mated to the missiles. They are fully de-alerted. There is zero comparison to US forces.

NAACP’s MLK Day initiative makes solar more accessible

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Solar Energy Industries Association

The sun shines on everyone, and the benefits of solar energy can too.  Look at the synergies of community-supportive/community-supporting solar, how this can spread.  Solar can create jobs, clean the air, and replace fossil fuel.  As Dr. Martin Luther King said: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

Smiles in the sunshine. Credit: Solar Energy Industries Association

The NAACP is launching a civil rights economic and environmental justice initiative to connect 30+ communities of color and low income communities across the nation with solar energy infrastructure for homes and community centers, as well as skills training for solar jobs, all supported by strengthened solar equity policies. This will provide solar job skills training, install solar panels on households and community centers, and strengthen equity in solar access policies. Partners supporting this national initiative include GRID Alternatives, Solar Energy Industries Association, Sunrun, United Methodist Women, Vote Solar, and others. The Solar Equity Initiative will advance the aims of multiple NAACP civil rights initiatives: Environmental and Climate Justice, Economic Development, Labor, Education, Health and Criminal Justice.

Installing solar on community buildings will lower the energy bills and strengthen the budgets for those service-providers. Any non-profit can take this up, and the funds raised can be tax-deductible. Profit-minded owners of commercial buildings do this with tax credits, churches can do this with donations that are tax-deductible.

The NAACP kicking off this initiative at the Jenesse Center in Los Angeles will provide lifetime financial savings to that service organization estimated at $48,825. These savings will enable Jenesse to infuse more funds into its life-saving services.  Similar environmental and economic savings will be replicated with installations by this initiative, and others where communities combine social equity and clean energy.

Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution-emitting power plants, impacting health, education, incomes. Environmental justice can be served by using community-based solar to replace the fossil fuel burned at old power plants, and remove the plants entirely.

The NAACP has taken this direct action as part of its Environmental and Climate Justice Program.  There are toolkits, links to local efforts, full-length movies and videos and resources all available from the NAACP.

UCS is developing the science and tools to make the direct replacement of power plants with solar, efficiency and storage or demand response a common practice. We have been inspired by early work of Elaine Krieger  and real cases in California where power plants are to be closed, replaced, or never built as solar plus storage fill the need.  We have watched with hope as the solar solutions for Puerto Rico start to take shape, and as legislation in Illinois paves a path for solar for low-income folks.

To close with more words from Dr. King:

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

 

Solar Energy Industries Association

Latest EPA Automaker Reports Show Compliance with and Success of Standards

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

iStockphoto.com/mccaig

Today, EPA released its annual reports on new passenger vehicles. One report (Trends) highlights the historical trend in fuel economy for cars and trucks over time, while the other report (Compliance) discusses the progress of manufacturers towards meeting global warming emissions regulations now under attack by industry and this administration.

Fuel economy of the fleet has once again improved, from 24.6 mpg in 2015 to 24.7 miles per gallon (mpg) in 2016. Thanks to strong standards, every type of vehicle (car, truck, SUV) has gotten more efficient; however, consumers are choosing to purchase more SUVs, which is acting to diminish the levels of improvement we need to see to reduce global warming emissions in line with our long-term climate goals.

Taken together, the key findings from both reports are clear:  1) every type of vehicle is getting more efficient, driven by strong standards, and that’s great news for consumers; 2) despite a meager overall improvement in fuel economy, manufacturers continue to comply with the standards; and 3) there’s still a huge opportunity for future fuel economy improvements, as manufacturers continue to bring newly redesigned vehicles to market.

All types of vehicles are getting more efficient

Increasing sales of SUVs are making it more difficult to achieve our climate goals, but strong standards pushing all vehicle classes to be more efficient continue to be key to reducing our climate impacts.

The Trends report shows clearly that the regulations are doing what they were intended to do—every single class of vehicle is getting more efficient, including the fast-growing SUV segment.  In fact, every class of vehicles except vans/minivans achieved record levels of fuel economy in 2016.  This is critical both to provide consumers with fuel-efficient choices no matter what type of vehicle in which they might be interested and to diminish the negative impacts on the climate resulting from a more truck-centric vehicle mix.

The class of car-based SUVs that are so popular right now (including the Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue) actually showed the greatest year-over-year improvement.  This is not surprising—Ford CEO Jim Hackett acknowledged that fuel economy is one of the major reasons why crossover sales are doing so well.

Some automakers claim that selling more SUVs means consumers don’t care about fuel economy, but the numbers tell a different story.  Consumers continue to show that fuel economy is important, particularly when it comes to SUVs—the Consumer Federation of America showed that SUVs which saw a marked improvement in fuel economy (+10% mpg or better) outsold their competitors.

Automakers are complying with the standards

All large-volume manufacturers are entering the 2017 compliance year with a massive bank of credits to draw upon to aid with compliance during a lull in product turnover.

As I’ve reported in many years past, the industry as a whole has been ahead of the regulatory targets—this means that they have built up a bank of overcompliance credits, which many of them are now drawing upon.  Some in the media may seize on this and say that this means the automakers are not complying with the rules—however, that ignores the way the rules work or how vehicles are planned.

Manufacturers are measured on compliance over a 5-year period because that is the typical product cycle of a single vehicle.  Once every five years (give or take), a vehicle will undergo a “redesign” where major changes occur—this includes body shape and major crash safety structural elements as well as the size and efficiency of the engines, which set the performance characteristics and, importantly, fuel economy.  Once in the middle of a product cycle, a vehicle will receive a “refresh” where they may make cosmetic alterations, maybe make some minor changes to the powertrain (like a new transmission or maybe bringing over an additional engine that’s used in another vehicle built on the same platform), but largely the fuel economy and emissions of a vehicle are fairly constant over its five-year lifetime.

This means that manufacturers need to use a credit bank to compensate for the fact that a vehicle largely doesn’t improve much over the course of its lifetime—a vehicle will typically earn credits early on for overcompliance when the technology is new, and that overcompliance can then be used to compensate for any shortfalls that occur as the vehicle “ages” before its next major update.

From 2009 to 2014, manufacturers turned over new vehicles at an accelerated pace in the first few years of the regulation to introduce some new technologies, but that has declined now for 2015 through 2017.  This will correct itself for 2018 through 2020, when again these older vehicles are all redesigned.

Today, the fleet is older than usual, so while in a couple years there will be a large opportunity to add new technologies, the Compliance report shows manufacturers are dipping into their credit banks today as planned to compensate for the age of the vehicles.  And because of the early turnover in the first few years of the regulations, the industry was well-prepared by banking hundreds of millions of tons of credits, more than enough to help ensure compliance for years to come.

Manufacturers are investing in efficiency at different rates

Consumers are some of the biggest beneficiaries from these rules, having saved well over $50 BILLION since new standards went into effect thanks to rules designed to make every vehicle type more efficient over time.  And that will be even more important as these more efficient options make their way to the secondary market.  But not all manufacturers are investing equally in providing their consumers more efficient choices.

The Trends report shows that in terms of overall fuel efficiency, Mazda is at the head of the pack.  While some of this is related to its somewhat car-heavy fleet, it continues to focus on improving its conventional gas-powered engines, and deploying these engines broadly across all vehicles.  And they aren’t resting on their laurels, either, having announced the next generation of their engines, bringing diesel-like efficiency to a gas-powered engine.

Unfortunately, Toyota continues to fall behind the rest of the pack, seeing absolutely no improvement in fuel economy compared to last year, which fell short of the year prior—in 2013, Toyota had the 3rd most efficient fleet; for 2016, they have now dropped to 9th, ahead of only Mercedes and the Detroit Three.  While many associate Toyota with efficiency thanks to its Prius family of hybrids, this fall from grace is because Toyota has not made similar investments to improve its trucks and SUVs.  In fact, its Tundra pick-up and 4Runner SUV have been using the same engines since 2010 and 2009, respectively, with the 4Runner one of just three vehicles being sold today still using an outdated 5-speed automatic transmission!

The Compliance report makes clear that no major manufacturer is in danger of falling out of compliance (as I noted at the start), even if some of them are relying more heavily upon their credit bank.  But manufacturers like Hyundai and Honda are much better positioned than most not just because they have such a massive bank of credits, but because they have continued to deploy steady improvements across its entire fleet instead of banking on a single green “halo” vehicle like the Toyota Prius.

Manufacturers have a wide range of technologies available to reduce fuel use and emissions, but many “off the shelf” technologies have still not been widely deployed.

The technology assessments in the Trends report indicate clearly that while manufacturers are making progress introducing and improving technologies for conventional vehicles, they have on the whole been slow at deploying those technologies across the fleet.  This is why we continue to emphasize the ability for manufacturers to continue to comply with the regulations well into the future with continued advancement of conventional gasoline-powered vehicles.

Leaders show industry’s capabilities, while laggards exemplify industry’s past

Last month, we released a report documenting the auto industry’s well-established history of fighting automotive regulations. For better and worse, today’s Trends and Compliance reports encapsulate both where the industry could be headed and the historical pull towards resisting that change.

The indicators I’ve laid out above all show that the standards are achievable and important for both consumers and the climate. Every class of vehicles is getting more efficient, and many in the industry continue to invest in that progress, driven by these standards.  And, because SUVs and trucks represent a growing share of the market, these standards remain as important as ever to ensure continued fleetwide efficiency improvements—the fleet mix shift acts as a drag on achieving our climate goals, so weakening the standards could set us backwards, as occurred in the 1990s.

At the same time, manufacturers are trying to seize upon misinformation about how the standards work and their ability to comply to weaken the rules.  It’s critical that they stop this nonsense so we can continue the progress already set forth.

The Trends and Compliance reports released today indicate that automakers are well on a path to comply with regulations that will nearly double the efficiency of the passenger vehicle fleet by 2025—so instead of fighting it, let’s focus on achieving it and then figuring out what lies beyond so we can continue to meet our climate goals.

iStockphoto.com/mccaig

Japan’s Role in the North Korea Nuclear Crisis

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Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (second from left) consults with US President Barack Obama during a 2010 summit on nuclear security.

During a recent trip to Japan I had the opportunity to discuss Japan’s role in the current North Korean nuclear crisis with Yukio Hatoyama, a former prime minister. He led the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to victory in September 2009, becoming the only Japanese politician to defeat the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the polls since end of the Second World War. 

The DPJ campaigned on wresting political and economic power away from an unelected bureaucracy and returning it to Japan’s elected representatives. Mr. Hatoyama’s perceived inability to deliver on that promise led to a loss of public support and his resignation as the leader of the DPJ in June of 2010. His party held on to power until they were defeated in September 2012 by a chastened LDP led by the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Hatoyama is concerned about Abe’s approach to the North Korea nuclear crisis. He believes the current Japanese prime minister is providing unwise and provocative encouragement to US President Donald Trump’s threats to launch a pre-emptive military attack. Hatoyama is not alone in that assessment. Most of the Japanese I spoke with during my stay in Japan feel their government should be encouraging dialogue rather than cheerleading for pre-emptive US strikes that could ignite a wider war and invite North Korean retaliation against US military bases in Japan.

Yukio Hatoyama comes from a storied political family, and one of the wealthiest in the country. His father, Ichirō, served as foreign minister from 1976-77 under Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda. His grandfather, also named Ichirō, served three terms as prime minister from December 1954 through December 1956.

Although he retired from electoral politics in 2010, Mr. Hatoyama continues to promote what he believes may be his most important political legacy: the creation of an East Asian regional institution comparable to the European Union. His controversial efforts to advance the idea during his term in office troubled US Japan hands, who worried an Asian version of the EU would undermine the US-Japan relationship, especially since Hatoyama believes greater Japanese cooperation with China is an essential prerequisite for success.

UCS came to know Mr. Hatoyama through colleagues in the Japanese nuclear disarmament community. They were encouraged by his strong support for President Obama’s effort to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national security policy, including US security policy in Asia. Together with our non-governmental counterparts in Japan, UCS continues to work with Japanese legislators, the broad majority of whom, from all political parties, support responsible nuclear reductions.

We hope to bring more of their voices to the US debate about US nuclear weapons policy as President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review unfolds later this year.

Our interview with Mr. Hatoyama was conducted in his Tokyo office on November 21, 2017. An audio file of the interview is available upon request.

 

UCS: Today we have the honor of speaking with Yukio Hatoyama, the former Prime Minister of Japan and the current Director of the East Asia Community Institute. Mr. Prime Minister thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

I suppose we should start with the question of North Korea. How do you think about the way the United States and Japan are responding to what North Korea is doing?

Hatoyama: In regards to the North Korean development of nuclear missiles of course it is a reality that this is indeed a threat and in that sense countries around the world should be cooperating together and it may be necessary also to impose sanctions as is being done now. However, the final purpose for these sanctions should always be how to bring North Korea to the dialogue table.

Unfortunately, in Japan Prime Minister Abe has said that the time now for dialogue has finished, but I believe this is incorrect.

And, of course, when we consider why it is that North Korea has gone ahead to develop its missiles and nuclear weapons as well we need to recognize that fact that while there is a ceasefire agreement in place between the United States and North Korea, the war is not yet over, it’s still just in a state of ceasefire.

When we think about how North Korea is looking to create its own situation as well, it also sees the United States’ nuclear weapons and missiles – that are being maintained – being possessed – as well. And this is also leading it to seek its own nuclear and missile development program.

If we consider that North Korea is looking at its possession of these weapons as a tool for dialogue I think this really shows even more how the fact that dialogue now is more necessary than ever.

UCS: So, you think they are using it to start a dialogue with the United States?

Hatoyama: Yes, I do think so. And I believe it is necessary for us to recognize the fact that while North Korea knows that if they were to launch a nuclear weapon or missile towards the United States their own country, in turn, would be obliterated. They are aware of this. And, therefore, I don’t believe it’s likely they would actually make such an attack.

Therefore, I think instead we should understand their actions as looking at a way to try and seek negotiations with the United States which would allow them to have a more equal position between the two countries.

UCS: One of the things that members of Congress and the critics of the Trump administration’s policy towards North Korea have been discussing is the possibility of an accidental war… because of the rhetoric about the time for dialog being over… sending a signal to North Korea that military action is what happens when the time for dialogue is over.

Do you think Prime Minister Abe’s repeating that phrase about dialogue – the time for dialogue being over – is increasing the risk of an accidental miscalculation that could lead to a war with North Korea?

Hatoyama: Of course, from the part of President Trump, looking at how he mentioned having to consider all possibilities, including attacking through use of force. That is something which perhaps as a president should be considered.

However, this use of force cannot be the first option. That cannot be what is first gone to, whether it includes accidental use or not. Of course, if there were to be an accidental use of weapons by the United States on North Korea, North Korea would retaliate, in turn, against Seoul, against South Korea and against Japan. Of course, this would not be in the interest… not be good for Japan.

Now that Prime Minister Abe is repeatedly saying that the time for dialogue is over, the more he says this – the more he repeats this – the more the risk is increased as well. And this is also not in the interest of Japan.

UCS: A related issue in the United States is China’s role in this whole problem. A lot of American officials and the American media are highly critical of China because they don’t think they’re doing enough. What do you think about that?

Hatoyama: I believe that rather than looking at…criticizing China in terms of its role … or what role it is or is not playing … the fundamental issue at stake here is an issue between the United States and North Korea. China, Japan and South Korea are therefore not central players in this but have the role of looking at how they can cooperate together between these countries to create the conditions and space for negotiations between the United States and North Korea as the two key players in this issue.

Of course, China and these other countries they themselves do not desire a war to break out. While some may be criticizing China for being too generous or too kind towards North Korea, rather we should be looking at how to have more cooperation between China, Japan and South Korea in order to bring the United States and North Korea to the negotiations table.

UCS: Well the main issue is that people in the United States want them to cut off oil and food. Do you think that’s a good idea?

Hatoyama: I believe that cooperation in the direction of sanctions is to an extent necessary. However, we also need to recognize that if North Korea is pushed too far into a corner then it’s unclear what actions they might take, and what means they might take to do this.

When we also consider Japan’s history as having been on the receiving side of economic sanctions – which actually contributed to Japan’s path towards waging the wrong war in the past century as well, this is something that we need to learn from history and recognize that strict sanctions can… well, do not necessarily always lead to positive results. They can actually lead to such negative results as well.

China is saying it will to an extent cooperate as part of the international community on the increase or strengthening of sanctions. We also need to make sure that this is not done in order to, well, let the people of North Korea completely starve. On the contrary, we need to look at what the purpose of this is.

UCS: Well I know our time here today is limited so I have just one final related question, and we’ll just keep the focus on North Korea. And that is the domestic political aspects of the North Korea question in Japan. I was invited to listen from the gallery to Prime Minister Abe’s speech to the Diet last week. North Korea seemed to be a prominent part of the speech. He conveyed the idea that this was an important issue in the last election. Was it? And do you think there is anything that the opposition, in Japan, can do to sort of change the Japanese view of the North Korea question.

Hatoyama: Unfortunately, in the recent election Prime Minister Abe was re-elected by bringing this idea of the threat of North Korea to the fore, and saying this is why we need a stable government in place. This was used to convince the people to vote in favor for him in this past election.

I believe that whether it’s President Trump or any American president, the policy of Japan, which is now being put forward by Prime Minister Abe, following the United States administration fully in its policies is not going to be the way to resolve any kind of issue including the issue of North Korea as well.

When we look at the policy…or Prime Minister Abe stating that the time for dialogue is over.. we’re merely following US policy in regard to North Korea. This is not the way to be able to resolve this issue. Rather, Japan needs to be looking at how it can play a role in bringing the United States and North Korea to the negotiations table, and aim in this direction. This is the direction in which the government should be aiming and the opposition parties should also be pushing the government towards this and encouraging this as well.

The Science of Sovereignty: Two Cases Show How the Future of Voting Rights Depends on the Integrity of Data

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This week, two major court cases concerning the right to an equal and effective vote revealed how crucial scientific integrity in the courts is going to be if voting rights are to be secured for all Americans. On Tuesday, a federal court threw out North Carolina’s Congressional districting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, relying on extensive empirical models and statistical evidence that demonstrated both discriminatory intent and effect. On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments regarding Ohio’s “use-it-or-lose-it” voter list purging process, during which considerable time was dedicated to issues of data integrity and availability. Both cases illustrate the growing importance of our ability to measure equal justice under law, and the degree to which claims of voting rights violations are based on quantitative arguments.

Measuring intent and effect in gerrymandering

The North Carolina decision handed down Tuesday included an extended discussion of the courts’ “obligation to keep pace with the technological and methodological advances so it can effectively fulfill its constitutional role to police ever-more sophisticated modes of discrimination.” In their 205-page opinion, the court reprimanded defendants for arguing that claims should be dismissed simply because they “rely on new, sophisticated empirical methods that derive from academic research.”

The opinion explicitly relied on such methods for establishing the intent of the North Carolina legislative leaders to discriminate against voters of the opposing party. They did this through a combination of computer simulations that showed the near impossibility of the adopted plan being chosen without intending to discriminate, given the traits of that map compared to alternatives, and data visualizations that experts say illustrate the “signature” gerrymandering effect of partisan vote shares being non-linearly distributed across districts.

In finding a discriminatory impact, the court relied on both simulations and statistical tests of partisan asymmetry to demonstrate the near certainty that the governing party engineered itself at least one additional seat, and likely several additional seats, through the adopted plan.

Does a non-response “count” as a signal of any relevance?

In the Ohio voter list purge case, Justices repeatedly asked about available data from both sides that would provide an empirical context for the legal arguments. In particular, Justice Sotomayor asked about estimates of how many of those purged from voter lists had actually changed residence out of their districts, as the state assumes. Similarly, Justice Breyer stated that they were looking at “an empirical question” and inquired about the availability of “numbers, or surveys” of residential movement within the state, as well as estimates of what percentage of residents typically throw away mailed notifications, so as to get some grasp of what it means when a voter does not respond to a notification.

Indeed, a crucial challenge to the defense revolved around just what information was obtained from the notifications. Justice Alito pushed Plaintiff’s counsel to assess whether nothing additional was learned, such that the removal was based purely on non-voting, which is prohibited.  Alito suggested that the state learned something, non-response, from the unreturned notifications, but counsel countered that no information about residency was obtained.

Neither side claimed that they could provide accurate numbers of the total disenfranchised, even though the arguments critically turn on the extent of discrimination taking place, and how those who do not return notifications should be classified so as to estimate what percentage of non-respondents had actually moved. Plaintiff’s argument rested partly on the claim that, because the percentage of Americans who move every year is low relative to the share of non-respondent voters in Ohio who were purged, the Ohio process necessarily results in false-positives, and must “vastly over purge” voters from registration lists.

An arms race: the technology of discrimination v the technology of empowerment

The amount of time spent on such questions in the Ohio arguments reaffirms the extent to which the identification and measurement of voter behavior is going to be central to challenging voting rights as we move forward. Further, estimating the impact of administrative procedures and eligibility requirements, while statistically difficult, is going to be of even greater importance, if we need to untangle compound effects in order to assess their performance.

Together, this week’s cases show that scientists, the courts, and the public need to advocate for greater scientific integrity, not only in the domain of legislative policymaking, but throughout the policy making process, including litigation, where improved methods and models can “provide a new understanding of how to give effect to our long-established governing principles.”

Trump Political Appointees Interfere in Scientific Grants Process Take Two: The Department of Interior

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Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

The Department of Interior (DOI) has directed political appointees to begin reviewing discretionary grants to make sure that they align with the priorities of the Trump administration. The discretionary grants include any grants worth $50,000 or more that are intended to be distributed to “a non-profit organization that can legally advance advocacy” or “an institution of higher education.” The memo detailing the directive was sent by Scott J. Cameron, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget.

The directive is being strictly enforced. Cameron’s memo notes that “Instances circumventing the Secretarial priorities or the review process will cause greater scrutiny and will result in slowing down the approval process for all awards.” The sentence is not only bolded, it’s italicized as well. To explain why the new grants process was needed, Interior Spokeswoman Heather Swift said that “the new guidance continued the responsible stewardship of tax dollars.”

Remember when this happened at the EPA?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) basically instituted the same process of grant review last year. While it is not uncommon for political appointees to get involved in the grants process, their involvement is generally limited to broadening solicitations for grant proposals. The US Federal Government refers to these solicitations as “Funding Opportunity Announcements” or FOAs. These FOAs include information about what type of work the agency is expecting and whether or not the applicant would be eligible for funding. Thus, an FOA is extremely important for both the government and the applicant because it highlights the agency’s priorities for the funding, which also serves as a guideline for an applicant’s proposal. Political appointees have generally broadened FOA’s in the past so that they are more inclusive, not restrictive to an administration’s priorities as is being seen here with DOI’s new process.

Agencies have grant review systems already in place

DOI already had a grant review system in place before this new system came along that worked just fine. This begs the question: why they are changing it? Part of the grant review system is that discretionary grants are reviewed by independent experts who assess grant proposals using a uniform rating or scoring system established by the awarding agency. The proposals are evaluated based on criteria specific to the grant—for some programmatic grants these criteria are dictated by statutory authority (e.g., grants in the brownfields program at the EPA). Therefore, as former Secretary of Interior David J. Hayes noted, “Subjugating Congress’s priorities to 10 of the Secretary’s own priorities is arrogant, impractical and, in some cases, likely illegal.”

Based on expert criteria, or those set out by statutes, a panel of experts will assign a score to each reviewed proposal and then meet to discuss the merits of each. The proposals that receive higher scores are deemed more competitive relative to those with lower scores. Depending on the amount of funding available for a grant program, the panel will recommend a percentage of the top scoring grants to be funded.

A list of recommended grants for funding are then sent to the head of the program, who may or may not be a political appointee, for review. The amount of information on recommendations that the appointee might receive varies. Sometimes the appointee might receive abstracts of proposals or they might just receive a list of the institutions or researchers recommended for funding. However, what is common practice when a head of a program receives this list is that they generally agree with the expert’s recommendations. Former EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, Christine Todd Whitman, chimed in on this issue when it happened at EPA, “We didn’t do a political screening on every grant, because many of them were based on science, and political appointees don’t have that kind of background.”

Will DOI use this new process to delete science?

In the case of EPA political appointees reviewing grants, scientifically defensible language was removed from many descriptions of grant projects, and some grants were rescinded that were already recommended by a panel of experts. It was clear that the new process was specifically set up to undermine science and scientific experts at EPA, especially those working on climate change related issues.

DOI doesn’t have a good track record of supporting science lately, having halted two important studies by the National Academies of Science, and completely scrapping climate change work from its new strategic plan. It has yet to be seen if the new grant review process will result in scientifically defensible language being deleted from grant descriptions at DOI, or if the agency will rescind important scientific work like was done at EPA. However, the scientific community will be watching for such attacks on science and we’ll fight back against them if this administration continues this appalling tactic.

Cap-and-Invest: A Key Tool to Help Oregon Fight Climate Change

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With the Trump administration undermining federal action to address climate change, states like Oregon are stepping up to protect the planet for future generations.

For example, after President Trump announced that he will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, Oregon joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of states committed to the goal of reducing global warming pollution consistent with the Agreement. In joining the Alliance last year, Governor Kate Brown said, “it is our moral obligation to fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement. Oregon will continue to make meaningful strides, with the rest of the world, to ensure our communities and economies adapt to meet the challenge of climate change.”

Fortunately, Oregon lawmakers and Governor Brown have the opportunity this year to take a huge step in Oregon’s fight against climate change. Last year legislators debated the Clean Energy Jobs bill, which would establish a “cap-and-invest” program that cuts global warming emissions by requiring polluters to pay for pollution, and then use the proceeds to invest in clean energy solutions. A cap-and-invest program would be a major new tool in Oregon’s climate-change-fighting toolbox, and the Clean Energy Jobs bill is now poised to be the single-biggest issue before Oregon lawmakers in 2018.

Pricing Pollution and Funding Solutions  

Oregon is already experiencing the impacts of climate change, from higher temperatures, a warmer and more acidic ocean, increased wildfire activity, and reduced snowpack. Putting a price on global warming emissions through a cap-and-invest program helps integrate the risks of climate change into the cost of doing business because it forces the costs of climate impacts and the value of low-carbon technologies to be better reflected in decisions companies make about what to produce and how to produce it, and consumers make about what to buy. This leads to fewer emissions that heat our atmosphere.

In addition, because major polluters are required to pay for their pollution, a cap-and-invest policy also generates significant revenue. These proceeds can be used to fund investments that help reduce climate change emissions, like making renewable energy more affordable, improving the energy efficiency of homes and other buildings, increasing transportation options, and expanding clean energy job training programs.

The Clean Energy Jobs bill is modeled on similar programs in other states and Canadian provinces, which have seen impressive success in making clean energy investments. For example, through the end of 2017, California’s legislature appropriated more than $4.7 billion in proceeds from the sale of cap-and-invest pollution permits for investments in a range of useful programs, from supporting rooftop solar panels to water efficiency projects. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-invest program to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, has invested heavily in energy efficiency programs, helping 141,000 households and 5,700 businesses with investments in 2015 that will return $1.3 billion in energy bill savings. Oregon has the chance to build on these successful examples to create a program that reduces pollution and meets the unique needs of Oregonians, including its rural residents.

A Cap-and-Invest Program Will Complement Other Oregon Policies

While Oregon has already taken considerable steps to reign in global warming pollution from electricity production and cars and trucks, the state is not yet on track to meet its pollution reduction goals. Passing a cap-and-invest program is the single-biggest step state lawmakers can take to get Oregon on track.

Fortunately, a cap-and-invest program would nicely complement existing policies in Oregon to reduce global warming pollution, such as the Clean Fuels Program (CFP) and Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). The CFP requires a 10 percent reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels sold in Oregon by 2025 (compared to a 2015 baseline). The program creates a dependable market for cleaner fuels, which facilitates steady investment into research, development, and deployment of low-carbon fuels that are necessary to decarbonize the transportation sector in coming decades.

Meanwhile, the RPS requires that by 2050 half of electricity sold in Oregon is supplied by renewable sources, like wind and solar. Similar to the CFP, this policy creates a dependable market for renewable technologies, which is critical for facilitating investment in clean energy solutions necessary to decarbonize the electricity sector.

A cap-and-invest program would complement these policies by providing greater assurance that Oregon will meet its targets for reducing global warming emissions statewide. That is because the central design feature of a cap-and-invest program is a limited pool of pollution permits (i.e., the “cap”), which shrinks each year to ensure that emissions are staying in line with emission reduction targets. In addition, the revenue from the cap-and-invest program is important for helping overcome market barriers for clean technologies that performance standards—such as the CFP and RPS, but also others like energy efficiency standards—cannot solve on their own.

Finally, the programs complement each other because compliance with CFP or RPS eases compliance with the cap-and-invest program. This reduces the price of pollution permits, reducing compliance costs for all sources covered by the cap-and-invest program.

Clean Energy Jobs Bill is “Fully Baked”

The Oregon legislature has considered various forms of legislation like the Clean Energy Jobs bill for more than a decade, with a sustained push to develop a cap-and-invest policy since 2016. This past fall Senator Dembrow and Representative Helm chaired a work group process to make further refinements to the program’s design. While the Union of Concerned Scientists may not end up agreeing with every detail in the House and Senate bills that will be introduced in February, it is abundantly clear that legislators’ sustained engagement on this topic, along with extensive stakeholder input, has produced a thorough and well-vetted program design. In the parlance of the legislature, the policy proposal is “fully baked” and ready to be passed into law.

The daunting consequences of a changing climate require a swift response from governments around the world. In 2018 Oregon lawmakers have the chance to accomplish something big to maintain the Beaver State’s commitment to seriously addressing this crisis. Let’s hope—and work—to see a cap-and-invest program passed this year.

Department of Energy Coal Bailout Rejected: Told to Get the Facts First

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Florida Power & Light

The Trump Administration got a punch in the nose trying to overthrow energy markets and deprive consumers of the savings created by lower cost, competitive energy supplies. All five Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioners, four of them appointed by Donald Trump, rejected an open-ended bailout proposed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Not the end, a beginning

Hurricane Irma restoration in Fort Lauderdale, FL, on Sept. 11, 2017.

The unanimous Commission decision starts a fresh look at what can threaten the power grid, and what is already being done, this time within the legal system that applies to energy markets. Going forward, FERC will look for a common understanding of resilience, and will ask the organizations that operate the power pools through independent wholesale markets, not monopolies.

The Commission asks over 25 questions to the independent grid operators that serve two thirds of the US population (New England; New York; the PJM region from Northern Illinois across the Ohio Valley to the Mid-Atlantic states; as well as the California ISO, the Midcontinent ISO and the Southwest Power Pool that have operated with very high levels of renewable energy).  Not included in this inquiry are the power pools in the Pacific Northwest, Texas, or the mountain states and southeast region of the U.S., areas where grid operators have not formed an independent system operator subject to Commission market rules.

Time for questions and answers

The Commission poses questions about existing practices, and market-based services that already support resilience. There are questions about how the grid operators assess the resilience of the grids they operate. The Commission asks if there have been studies about resilience in the face of threats, what sorts of threats have been studied, and how these kinds of events are selected. The grid operators are asked to explain their criteria for events, the basic methods for understanding threatening events, and useful preparations or practices for withstanding such events.

This assignment for the grid operators continues, asking what attributes of the power system contribute to resilience, and what design standards are in place, as well as how different generation types perform in drought and other extreme weather, physical attack, or cyber threat. Then the public and UCS can comment on the grid operators’ answers.

What will we say?

First, FERC is right to start with the power pool operators, as these were set up to make the electricity supply better, cheaper, faster.  Grid reliability can be improved, coal plants can be retired. Let’s gather up-to-date information. Unlike the proposal from the Trump Administration to rush a multi-billion dollar cronyism scheme, this is something worth discussing. We depend on electricity, the grid has weaknesses and signs of aging, and the threats to reliability are real. So yes, let’s consider how we can improve what we have built.  Better to look for needs first, and then ask what is available to fill these needs.

Wind and Solar Offer Resilience

Image: Mike Jacobs

Grid support from offshore wind is real in New England. We will urge the grid operators to look West, and to the Plains, where higher levels of wind and solar have provided new ways to make the grid resilient.

Using renewable energy brings the opportunity to forecast the impacts of weather, in more complex and subtle ways. The California ISO was first to implement wind forecasting, beginning in 2004.  The regional grid operators of Texas, New York ISO, and the Midcontinent ISO implemented wind forecasting in 2008 and PJM did so in 2009.

Look now at the Southwest Power Pool, (serving western Plains from North Dakota to northern Texas) where wind has reached 50% of the energy supply in some hours. There, grid operators have learned to adjust the voltage controls when wind is forecasted to be a major supply on the wires. In Colorado, Xcel has learned that there are some predictable aspects to the variability of wind, and operations can be improved by using some simple logic to reduce the costs. California ISO  recently learned it can use solar farms for reliability services. The technology is already in place to meet the need, but the contracts need to be written to gain access to the flexibility.

Water can be a vulnerability

We will urge the Commission to look to the state regulators’ body (NARUC) which resolved to support water-smart energy choices.  UCS has emphasized the impacts of drought on conventional power plants. Knowing fossil and nuclear plants depend on cooling water to run in hot weather, UCS quantified the water withdrawal needed for older generators, and technologies that need little or no water. Renewable energy and energy efficiency came out at the top of that analysis.

Storms can strike suddenly. Credit: Shane Lear

Wires are the backbone of the Grid

Transmission lines are key to the reliability of the grid. Most power outages are traced to transmission for large areas, and local outages are due to problems with wires on the street level. Storms can cause large-spread outages, but so can the frailty of transmission.  Transmission is burdened by the expense of including redundancy for reliability. Look to the role of energy storage to free up more of what is already built, part of a “smart” or modern grid that can diagnose and respond to disturbances.

To be continued

FERC Commissioner Rich Glick wrote in a concurring opinion how more work is needed to clarify resilience issues, and the role of new supply technologies:

“The Department’s own staff Grid Study concluded that changes in the generation mix, including the retirement of coal and nuclear generators, have not diminished the grid’s reliability or otherwise posed a significant and immediate threat to the resilience of the electric grid. To the contrary, the addition of a diverse array of generation resources, including natural gas, solar, wind, and geothermal, as well as maturing technologies, such as energy storage, distributed generation, and demand response, have in many respects contributed to the resilience of the bulk power system.”

 

Florida Power & Light Florida Power & Light Mike Jacobs owner

One Year of Attacking Science: How the Trump Administration Measures Up

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Having collected evidence on the multiple ways that the Trump administration has been attacking science over the past year, it is becoming clear that this administration doesn’t just want to hide or ignore the facts. This administration is attempting to decimate the scientific process.

At the six-month mark of this administration holding office, we documented 44 attacks on science in our report, Sidelining Science Since Day One—that number has now jumped to 64. The implications are frightening.

An open letter to the Trump administration

Prior to the Trump administration taking office, more than 5,500 scientists signed an open letter asking then president-elect Trump and the 115th Congress to ensure that science continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being. There are now more than 6,000 signatories on the letter.

These scientists called on the Trump administration and Congress to take several actions to strengthen the role that science plays in policy making. So how has the Trump administration measured up against the demands of thousands of scientists?

Appointing unqualified agency heads

The scientific community called upon the Trump administration and Congress to ensure that science-based agencies be led by officials with a strong track record of respecting science as a critical component of decision making. Yet the Trump administration has often chosen leaders for science-based agencies that are unqualified, conflicted, and/or openly hostile to the mission of their agency.

For example, Kathleen Hartnett-White was just re-nominated to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the office in charge of overseeing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Hartnett-White’s anti-science views on climate change, air pollution and health, clean and renewable energy, and the role of science in public policy suggest she would do little but harm our environment and public health. She is unfit for the position.

Other government leaders now in charge of overseeing the regulation of industry have come directly from those industries – a clear conflict of interest. Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has financial interests that are not severable to the agency’s work on cancer detection and opioid addiction treatment. Therefore, the director of the CDC has had to recuse herself from discussions and decisions regarding this work even though they are important issues the US needs to address. Without leadership on these issues, will the CDC be able to properly address these health challenges?

Some leaders also have been openly hostile to scientists. For example, Administrator Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was recently entangled in a decision to hire Definers Public Affairs to handle the agency’s press coverage. However, there is evidence that Definers was also involved in targeting EPA staff who have expressed personal views not in line with those of the Trump administration by submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for their emails. This sends a chilling signal to staff to not speak out against any wrongdoing within the EPA.

Dismantling science-based policy-making

Scientists also called upon the Trump administration and Congress to ensure that our nation’s bedrock public health and environmental laws—such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act—retain a strong scientific foundation, and that agencies are able to freely collect and draw upon scientific data to effectively carry out statutory responsibilities established by these laws. They should also safeguard the independence of those outside the government who provide scientific advice.

Yet, we’ve not seen the Trump administration or Congress protect the scientific backbone of these bedrock laws. The 115th Congress introduced 63 separate pieces of legislation to undermine the Endangered Species Act. Additionally, we have seen Congress attempt to include harmful anti-science policy riders in negotiations around the federal budget, all aimed at gutting the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and more.

President Trump also began the process to rescind the US involvement in the Paris Agreement, which will have lasting effects on the planet’s atmosphere and air quality. Furthermore, this administration has made it more difficult for the public to access information and data that science-based agencies provide.

There are multiple other examples of how the Trump administration and the 115th Congress have and continue to undermine science…

Targeting government scientists

The scientific community called upon the Trump administration and Congress to allow federal agency scientists the freedom and responsibility to:

  • conduct their work without political or private-sector interference
  • candidly communicate their findings to Congress, the public, and their scientific peers
  • publish their work and participate meaningfully in the scientific community
  • disclose misrepresentation, censorship, and other abuses of science
  • ensure that scientific and technical information coming from the government is accurate

Since the Trump administration has taken office, we have seen federal scientists attacked. Federal scientists have been censored. They have been reassigned to undertake tasks not affiliated with their expertise. They have been prevented from attending conferences.

At the EPA, it is possible that some scientists may have been targeted for their personal views of the Trump administration. Additionally, the Trump administration is using various strategies to hollow out agencies by diminishing their scientific workforce.

Perhaps the most devastating impact of all, however, is that these actions create a hostile work environment for agency scientists that stokes fear, results in self-censorship, lowers staff morale, and sends a chilling message to scientists across the country that their work is not valued.

Slashing science funding

Lastly, the scientific community asked President Trump and Congress to provide adequate resources to enable scientists to conduct research in the public interest and effectively and transparently carry out their agencies’ missions.

Instead the Trump administration has proposed to cut a number of key research programs and slash substantial amounts of funding from science-based agencies. The administration has even withheld funding from research programs illegally. Congress also has attacked the funding of graduate students.

But when it comes to science funding, the true measure of the administration and Congress will be judged when a final decision on FY18 funding is made over the coming weeks, and a decision on FY19 funding is made over the coming months.

Scientists are keeping their word

The letter that scientists penned to President-elect Trump and the 115th Congress was an assurance that the scientific community would hold them accountable for the misuse of science in policy-making decisions.

Scientists have kept their word and are not taking these attacks on the scientific process lightly. They have successfully pushed back against and defeated anti-science nominees like Sam Clovis and Michael Dourson. Graduate students mobilized like we’ve never seen before to defeat a provision in the new tax reform law that would have prevented poor and middle-class Americans from pursuing scientific careers. And scientists are taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to march and let this administration know that they’re not scared to use the powers bestowed upon them in this country to fight back.

Science has saved many lives and provided our society with extraordinary benefits. We cannot afford to let this administration undermine it.

Clean Energy in 2018: Here’s What to Expect

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While the year 2017 is one I don’t mind seeing in the rear view mirror (and I’ve got colleagues that would agree), in the field of clean energy we made a whole lot o’ progress. A new year, if I’ve done my math right, means 12 more months to move the ball forward on clean energy. Here are a few things I’ll be keeping my eyes on as we traverse the length of 2018.

Solar – Sour or soar?

For solar power, February should be when we see the official tally for 2017 progress—how much, where, what price, what sizes. We already know, though, that last year was down from the record-breaking 2016.

One factor is that very record-breaking-ness: Developers and customers pushed to get lots of solar installed before an important investment tax credit was scheduled to expire. The tax credit got extended, but momentum carried many solar projects to completion in 2016. Not a bad thing, certainly, but it left 2017 as a bit of a cooling-off period.

Another really important factor: Right now, US solar companies don’t know what kind of environment they’re going to be operating in, which is something I’ll be watching this very month. We’ve got a president who seems gung-ho about tariffs (in this case, on solar cell/module imports) even when they don’t make sense, and a decision due from him on January 26 about whether to slap tariffs on.

In the meantime, we’re seeing, in the words of Solar Energy Industries Association CEO Abigail Ross Hopper, “what happens when policy uncertainty becomes a disruptive factor…” What we get: Shaky investors, as they try to read the tea leaves from an unstable teacup, and higher prices (temporary though they may be), as solar companies scramble to bring in what they can before any tariff hammer falls.

What that adds up to is that lower 2017, and a 2018 with potentially even fewer new solar installations, even if wisdom prevails on the tariff issue.

Still, the solar totals are and could still be impressive. The third quarter of 2017 saw more solar come online than in all of 2011, and the 2017 totals will show that it was the second-best year ever. And 2018 could bring considerably higher amounts of new solar than any year other than 2016 and 2017—and still enough new solar to power more than a million and a half typical US homes.

And then there’s the broader, and longer-term picture: Solar costs have kept impressively dropping as scale has ramped up, and solar has gotten harder and harder to ignore (even for smaller projects). Global totals for new solar are projected to have ended up much higher in 2017 than in 2016, and to be in that same high range in 2018.

Solar’s (mostly) steady climb (Source: GTM-SEIA)

Wind – Sigh or fly?

Wind power is another exciting technology to watch in 2018, including because the viewing can take you from coast to coast, and from the Great Plains to the waters off our shores. And, like solar, this technology has both headwinds and tailwinds.

  • For wind (and solar), the big holiday almost-spoiler was the federal tax bill. The house and senate versions each had provisions that would have undercut incentives, even for projects already up and running with those incentives in their calculations. That particular crisis was averted—a testament to the strong bipartisan support that wind has earned (and the volume of opposition to wrong-headedness).
  • Another big factor for land-based wind is the planned phase-out of one of those key incentives, the production tax credit (PTC). Wind projects that began construction before last year can get 100% of the tax credit. In 2017, 2018, and 2019, though, that credit is falling to 80%, 60%, and 40%, before going away entirely for projects started in 2020 and beyond. That gives a strong incentive to get projects built now.
  • Wind power also has going for it the incredible cost reductions it has achieved in recent years: In some parts of the country, it’s the lowest-cost thing out there. A utility in Colorado, for example, had projected last year that it could save its customers hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few decades by replacing some of its coal plants with renewable energy. When they asked for bids, though, the wind projects came in at even lower prices than they had assumed (more info here; subscription required).

Lots of tailwinds, and the numbers are bearing that out: The amount of wind capacity under construction as of the third quarter of 2017 was about as strong as ever (and all over the map, in a good way). And the fourth quarters are always the strongest for actually turning projects on. So I’ll be looking for those results in the next few weeks.

Wind power on the move (Source: AWEA)

Wind in the water – Time to buy

And then there’s offshore wind. Since the launch in late 2016 of the first offshore wind project in the country (and the hemisphere), off Rhode Island, this has been a technology on the move. And 2018 looks to bring more progress:

  • Utilities in Massachusetts will be deciding on the offshore wind proposals that got submitted last month by several high-powered collaborations. The timeline calls for the winners to be selected later this year, meaning at least 200-800 megawatts of offshore wind could be on the way, the first phase of the state’s planned 1,600 megawatts by 2030.
  • New York Andrew Cuomo just announced the next step toward realizing the state’s 2030 goal of 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind: a call for the state to get bids for at least 800 megawatts of offshore wind power over this year and next, enough power for some 400,000 Empire State households.
  • With the election last November, New Jersey now has a governor (Phil Murphy) with an even bolder 2030 goal than New York’s or Massachusetts’s: 3,500 megawatts. The Garden State certainly has the coastline, and the wind resource, to support ambitious plans.
  • Meanwhile, Maryland has two projects that were awarded state support last year and that add up to more than 360 megawatts, Connecticut is exploring a requirement that might result in a couple hundred megawatts of offshore wind, and several other East Coast states also have offshore wind areas already leased out. Don’t lose sight of the Great Lakes or the West Coast, either.
For a happy 2018

There’s plenty more to watch beyond wind and solar, of course. Other renewable energy technologies stand ready to contribute. Energy storage is growing (and getting cheaper) more quickly than just about anybody imagined. Energy efficiency keeps making things better, smarter, cheaper. And we could talk about electric vehicle progress for hours (or you could just look here).

States are figuring out, too, how to modernize electricity grids and policies—and upgrade transmission lines—to help us get off large old centralized power plants and take advantage of renewable energy in all its forms. All worth monitoring, and helping move along.

And we need to keep an eye on fossil fuels, too, to make sure bad decisions don’t get made to try to prop up failing coal plants via federal policy (even if they fail), or at the state level. To make sure our EPA works for us in cutting pollution from power plants, not for polluters.

And we need to make sure we don’t hamstring our economies with an overcommitment to natural gas.

But for energy progress in 2018—for our economy, for jobs, for our environment, for our kids—clean energy is what I’ll be watching.

DOE

Trump Administration Rescinds Fracking Rule for Public Lands: A Blow to Public Protection

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Photo: Tim Evanson/Wikimedia Commons

At the end of last month, we saw yet another casualty in the Trump administration’s war on science-based policy. The administration announced it would rescind a 2015 rule at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to address risks associated with unconventional oil and gas development on public land. Though not unexpected, this move was disheartening. The 2015 BLM fracking rule was an important step in protecting people from many unchecked risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. To understand what we lost, let me quickly review the national setting back in 2015 when the rule was issued.

The BLM fracking rule, rescinded by the Trump Administration, was the only major federal rule governing risks associated with unconventional oil and gas development. Photo: Shutterstock.com/krivenko

A Wild West of oil and gas drilling

Around 2008, the oil and gas industry refined methods of hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling that made the process of shale oil and gas drilling more economically viable. This led to a rapid expansion of oil and gas development across the country. Many of the new places seeing oil and gas development had never experienced drilling in close proximity before, and now it was happening around them—in some cases, literally in their backyards. The nation was caught off guard. Notably, the scientific community had to play catch-up to assess risks to air and water and from occupational chemical exposure. Reports began to surface from communities complaining of drinking water contamination or poor air quality causing health concerns. But scientific studies on these subjects were limited.

One major barrier to understanding the risks associated with the new boom in fracking was a lack of transparency from industry. Researchers studying air quality around facilities were only able to take measurements from facility fencelines without closer access to emission sources on site. Researchers studying water quality were forced to analyze samples without any baseline measurements of what water quality was like before drilling started. And physicians were forced to make medical decisions about patients without knowledge of the chemicals they were exposed to because companies refused to disclose chemicals used in fracking fluid.

As a result, the public was left in the dark. The federal government failed to take a large role in regulating this Wild West of oil and gas drilling, leaving regulation largely up to states—many of which were ill-equipped to manage a new and complex industry now ever-present in their state. In some ways the federal government was limited in what it could do. The infamous “Halliburton Loophole” in the Safe Drinking Water Act prevents the EPA from protecting people from fracking risks to drinking water using the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The BLM fracking rule: the federal government steps up

But one way the federal government could take action (or at least so they thought) was by creating a rule dictating how unconventional oil and gas drilling could happen on public lands. Thus, the BLM fracking rule was developed. While modest in scope, the BLM rule was an important step toward greater regulation and disclosure of an industry unaccustomed to playing under such constraints. The rule set standards for well construction, wastewater management, and chemical disclosure. The greater chemical disclosure requirement was huge. It meant companies couldn’t continue to hide behind trade secret claims and the public, scientists, landowners, medical personnel, workers, and first responders would now have greater access to information about chemicals involved and risks to health.

The rule’s requirements about well construction and wastewater management could also have gone a long way toward minimizing risks of groundwater contamination—perhaps the issue of greatest concern for communities based on several high-profile cases of large-scale drinking water contamination. This is an area where we also saw a high degree of industry misconduct. There were cases of dumping wastewater and many accidental spills and leaks. In other cases, water was contaminated by faulty well-casings or natural and manmade fissures in bedrock that allowed fracking chemicals or naturally occurring hazardous chemicals to reach water sources. All the while, industry often hid behind their narrow definition of fracking, despite a public understanding and concern about water contamination throughout the process—from initial drilling, to oil and gas production, to transportation from the site. Setting standards, even if only for public lands, could have encouraged companies to adopt such protocols industry-wide, guarding against future water contamination.

The rule also restricted where drilling could happen. It required companies to avoid endangered species habitats. This was important for species like the sage grouse which live in prime areas for development and need quiet spaces for mating. (Side note: This is actually one of three hits on the sage grouse by the Trump Administration. Earlier this year it reopened state management plans that were designed to ensure the species could stay off of the endangered species list. And last week, the administration rescinded an order for the BLM to prioritize oil and gas permit granting outside of sensitive sage grouse territory.)

Back to square one: leaving us in the dark

Though the rule was stayed by a court in 2016 and thus wasn’t in effect when the Trump Administration made this move, the rule did sent a signal to industry that they would soon have to accept a more transparent and safety-focused business model. Without such a rule on the books, we are now back to square one when it comes to federal protection of people against the risks of fracking. And that leaves us all in the dark.

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