Combined UCS Blogs

Japan’s Nuclear Hawks Could Block US-North Korean Agreement on Denuclearization

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Momentum has been building for a productive meeting between President Trump and Kim Jung-un that could lead to an agreement on North Korean denuclearization. But after speaking with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump warned the world that he might cancel or walk out of the meeting if “it is not going to be fruitful.”

US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands at a press conference concluding two days of talks.

What did Mr. Abe tell Mr. Trump that precipitated the warning?  The prime minister may have reminded the president that his Nuclear Posture Review, which the Japanese Foreign Ministry strongly endorsed, included US promises to increase the role of US nuclear weapons in Asia. The ministry could be trying to prevent any weakening of those promises from becoming part of an agreement with North Korea on denuclearization.

Defining Denuclearization

US and foreign observers have disagreed about the meaning of the term. But North Korea has made it clear that it considers denuclearization a mutual responsibility. The United States has acknowledged reciprocal denuclearization obligations in the past, but they were limited to the Korean land mass.

US negotiators should be aware that North Korean conditions for a credible security guarantee may include a slightly broader definition of US denuclearization obligations and some additional US relaxation of its nuclear posture in Asia. In July 2016 Pyongyang stated that denuclearization means “denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula and this includes the dismantlement of nukes in South Korea and its vicinity.”

This would not be an unreasonable request. Nuclear-capable US aircraft and submarines patrolling in the region are just as threatening to North Korea as US nuclear weapons stationed on the peninsula itself. The United States has used displays of regional nuclear capabilities, such as nuclear-capable bombers deployed to Guam, to threaten North Korea in the past. North Korean threats to attack Guam with medium range missiles were a response to those displays, and a prominent part of the tense fall run-up to this spring’s negotiations.

If North Korea were to ask for a broadening of reciprocal US obligations to denuclearize the region as a condition for relinquishing its nuclear capabilities, the United States may have to walk back some aspects of the extended nuclear deterrence commitments it made to Japan during the Obama administration and cancel plans to further enhance those commitments—plans included in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.

Japanese Nuclear Preferences

On 25 February 2009 Minister Takeo Akiba, who headed the political section of Japan’s embassy in Washington, presented a document to a US congressional commission stating President Obama assured Prime Minister Aso, at a meeting in Washington the day before, that the United States would honor the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s request to make nuclear deterrence “the core of Japan–US security arrangements.” The document contained a list of US nuclear weapons capabilities the ministry believed were needed to make that assurance credible.

The list included US nuclear weapons that could be deployed in the region, including nuclear-capable cruise missiles on US attack submarines that patrol in Asia and nuclear-capable aircraft on the island of Guam. A conversation about the list between Mr. Akiba and commission co-chair James Schlesinger included consideration of deploying US nuclear weapons on US military bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Mr. Akiba, who is now Japan’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, explained that domestic political conditions in Japan made deployment in Okinawa problematic. But he also noted that there is a constituency within Japan’s Foreign Ministry that supports deployment and he appeared to agree to construct storage facilities for US nuclear weapons in Okinawa in anticipation of eventual deployment when political conditions in Japan change.

The Obama administration permanently retired the nuclear-capable cruise missile the United States once deployed on US attack submarines patrolling in Asia. US President George H.W. Bush removed them from service in 1992. But Obama reportedly agreed to compensate for the loss of this capability by making US nuclear weapons available for deployment in Asia aboard dual-capable aircraft. The Trump administration, noting the importance of the capability to deploy US nuclear weapons in Asia, plans to build a new submarine-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile to replace the one his predecessors removed from service and retired.

Reciprocal Verification

The United States expects North Korea to agree to verifiable measures to halt the development of new nuclear weapons, eliminate its existing nuclear weapons and dismantle its ability to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program in the future. It is only reasonable to expect that North Korea would require credible assurances that the United States will not introduce or threaten to introduce US nuclear weapons into the region in the future.

The United States could agree to such a request without diminishing its ability to provide extended nuclear deterrence to its Asian allies with its strategic nuclear forces, which do not need to enter the region to be effective. But it would have to forgo whatever psychological advantages it presumes to obtain by maintaining the ability and expressing the will to deploy US tactical nuclear weapons in Asia if deemed necessary.

South Korea seems to be prepared to make this concession in the interest of avoiding a war with the North. But Trump’s unexpected threat to cancel or walk out of a summit meeting with Kim Jung-un, announced while standing next to Japan’s prime minister after two days of meetings, suggests Abe may have told the US president that exchanging the option to deploy US tactical nuclear weapons in Asia for a deal on denuclearization with North Korea would not be “fruitful.”

Here are the “Transparency” Policy Documents the EPA Does Not Want You to See

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Photo: US Department of Defense

On April 17th, the Union of Concerned Scientists obtained EPA records through three separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests demonstrating that a proposed Trojan horse “transparency” policy that would restrict the agency’s ability to use the best available science in decision-making is driven by politics, not science. The records also embarrassingly showed EPA officials were more concerned about the release of industry trade secrets than they were about sensitive private medical information.

Three days later, EPA officials removed the records from an online portal where anyone could review them.

Today, UCS restored public access by posting almost all of the responsive documents (more than 100 out of the 124 responsive records) related to the so-called “secret science” policy.

The documents obtained by UCS provide insight into how political appointees and industry interests, not science, are driving EPA's pursuit of administratively implementing failed anti-science legislation.

The documents obtained by UCS provide insight into how political appointees and industry interests, not science, are driving EPA’s pursuit of administratively implementing failed anti-science legislation.

EPA removed the documents after extensive reporting on the contents, including by reporters at POLITICO, The Hill, E&E News, Reuters, and Mother Jones. In each of those stories, which I encourage you to read, journalists highlighted how EPA officials are attempting to administratively implement failed anti-science legislation advanced by House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, to benefit industries the agency is in charge of regulating and at the public’s expense.

The documents provided a window into the considerations of many agency officials, and showed that a policy that would be a fundamental shift in the way EPA uses science, was driven exclusively by political appointees, not scientists.

There were a number of documents on other topics that were also included in the records that were responsive to our public records request, that we are still reviewing. However, as a result of EPA’s actions, public access was denied.

My colleague and I spent much of our Friday afternoon trying to figure out why the documents were taken down. We repeatedly reached out to the agency, and were informed that the records were removed because of concerns about “privacy information” and “attorney-client communication.” Before posting the documents online, we spent some time going through all of the records and removed any documents that could be considered as private in nature (i.e. family pictures, etc.) or represent such privileged communication.

The irony here is not lost on me, as EPA tries to hide records that are critical to understanding the policy development process while officials try to develop a policy about “transparency” in the agency’s use of science.

The agency on Thursday sent a proposed policy to the White House for review. This means that a policy to restrict independent science can be announced any day now. These documents are critical to reporting around the motivation for the policy and to evaluate EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s claims of improving transparency in policymaking at the agency.

So, in the spirt of the presumption of openness doctrine under FOIA, we believe that it is our responsibility to restore public access to these documents. It is up to us, the public, to watchdog EPA and hold agency officials accountable.

You can find the documents here.

Science on Wheels: Meeting a Scientist Right in Your Hometown

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

I moved to Columbia, Missouri, home of the University of Missouri (Mizzou), five years ago, and I was impressed with the amount of science engagement activities available to the public. Any time of any day of the week there appeared to be something going on: Saturday Morning Science, Science Café on Monday nights, and Science on Tap on Tuesday evenings. An incredible variety of settings to pick and choose from, from auditoriums to cafés to breweries. Topics to satisfy all interests, from chemistry to astronomy to biology. Professors, grad students, undergrads—they were all involved in outreach. I couldn’t believe what a big role science played in the state.

Except, it isn’t in the state, it’s confined to the city. And you don’t have to go very far out of it to realize that it is a thin bubble. Drive 30 minutes south of Columbia to Hartsburg, population 101, home of the renowned Pumpkin Festival, and things look quite different. Science is a distant high school memory. There are no outreach programs readily available in town, and no one is going into Columbia to seek them out. Access is indeed a big challenge in science outreach.

As a land-grant university, the mission of the University of Missouri is to serve all the citizens of the state. Those living in college towns already have access to science, whereas those living in rural areas do not. Hence rural communities are the ones where science outreach could be more impactful. Hartsburg is not that far away from Columbia, but there are thousands of communities just like it that are over two hours away from the closest city. And after a long work day chances are you don’t feel like driving two hours to get to a science talk. So for a change I decided to be the one to drive those two hours, to bring the science to people—right where they are.

As humans we distrust things we don’t know, and often people don’t know science. In rural areas there are typically no opportunities to meet scientists. People living there don’t necessarily know what we actually look like or what we do. I set out to change that to show that science isn’t just something that happens in the Ivory Tower’s labs—it’s used in everyday life. I decided to focus my outreach program on the relevance of research rather than on the research itself. Every scientific pursuit has the potential to transform our lives, and we need to communicate that clearly.

Part of the problem is that after K-12 science disappears altogether from the picture. Ask most adults about the last time they thought about science—“What do you mean? Like in high school?” is the probable reaction. Adults are often left behind in the science outreach effort. Programs often focus on K-12 (the science pipeline!), but we forget about lifelong learning. That is a glaring omission given that over 3 in 4 US citizens are over the age of 18, and it motivated me to focus on this age group.

Science on Wheels members

Over the past summer I developed a program that would meet the needs I had identified. Science on Wheels travels to rural areas in any county of the state that requests it. Four to six graduate students give a five-minute overview of the relevance of their research to everyday life, and then mingle with the adult audience to chat more about science. So far we have reached seven counties, mainly in the central and southeastern parts of the State.

Our crowds are small: we have had audiences as little as one person, and only as big as 30 people. But we don’t consider that to be a failure. It takes more time and capacity than hosting an event in Columbia, but the people we are reaching in rural areas are exactly the ones we need to be reaching. They are the ones who are not typically engaged with science.

Here’s an example of our experience: it was 5:50 pm on a Thursday evening last spring. We had driven over an hour to hold an event, but no one had come in yet. 10 minutes from the official start, things weren’t looking up. There was a passerby, and we were quite forward in trying to convince him to join in. He wasn’t having it: science was not his thing, and besides his wife was expecting him for dinner. Finally, we somehow convinced him, and we ran the program with only him in the audience. It was transformative. Over the space of an evening, he relaxed, started asking questions, and eagerly discussed science. That night we changed someone’s perception of science, and that is most definitely worth our time and effort.

The relationship that adults have with science is often reflected in their voting choices. Therefore, nurturing that relationship is key to ensuring that research may thrive in our country. Someone who understands the value of science may be more likely to vote for legislators who do as well. The tangible outcome? Increased science funding, attention to issues such as climate change and conservation of endangered species, data-driven policy decisions—for the benefit of society at large.

Where to next? This summer I will work on expanding Science on Wheels at the state level. I plan to involve the other three University of Missouri campuses, in order to be able to cover a larger territory and hold more events. A few years down the road, I would like to see other institutions nationwide, especially land-grant universities, take the Science on Wheels model and tailor it to their needs. 90% of Americans can’t name a living scientist. My vision for Science on Wheels is for every resident of the state of Missouri—and one day of the U.S.—to have met with one.

 

Arianna is a Ph.D. Candidate in Volcanology at Mizzou. When she is not sampling molten lava in the field, she is making her own lava in the lab by melting rock samples. She is also passionate about science communication and outreach, and never misses an opportunity to chat about her life as a scientist. Find her on Twitter at @AriannaSoldati 

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

Internal EPA Emails Confirm that Scott Pruitt’s Secret Science Proposal Is Entirely Driven By Politics

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Newly released documents obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists under three separate Freedom of Information Act requests and first reported on by POLITICO demonstrate that the Trojan horse “secret science” proposal being floated by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is entirely driven by politics.

POLITICO writes:

“Since Pruitt announced plans for the new policy last month, researchers and public health proponents have raised alarms that it could restrict the agency’s ability to consider a broad swath of data about the effects of pollution on human health. But documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that top EPA officials are more worried the new restrictions would prevent the agency from considering industry studies that frequently support their efforts to justify less stringent regulations.”

Limiting the EPA’s ability to use vital public health studies

The documents also confirm that the anti-science chairman of the House Science Committee, Representative Lamar Smith, initiated a conversation with Administrator Pruitt about implementing his long-failed “secret science” legislation through administrative means on January 9, 2018. (See email below).

POLITICO continues:

“But Smith found an ally in Pruitt. The emails indicate that Smith met with Pruitt in early January and show that Pruitt’s staff quickly began working on a directive to “internally implement” the legislation.”

Chairman Smith also argued for and previously introduced legislation to limit the ability of independent scientists who received agency grants to provide EPA advice on its decisions. While the legislation never passed Congress, EPA implemented a similar directive last fall.

While EPA has argued on a partisan website that the policy would be about transparency in science-based decisions, the documents obtained by UCS confirm that this is not the case. The resurrection of Chairman Smith’s misguided proposal is nothing but a political attempt to restrict the ability of EPA to use the best available science to fulfill its mission of protecting public health and the environment.

What the documents show

In the documents released by the EPA, there are no concerns raised about the policy’s impacts on public health protections, or any suggestion to receive feedback from the broader scientific community, which has slammed this distorted effort previously.

However, emails between several EPA political appointees, including Nancy Beck, a former staffer for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the chemical industry’s trade association; and Richard Yamada, a former staffer for House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, show that the small group was grappling with how to incorporate loopholes and exemptions to limit the impact of the directive on industry data. (See below).

The emails also show that the concerns around confidential business information raised by Beck in her current job as the Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (which is in charge of protecting the public from risks from toxic chemicals) are eerily similar to concerns she raised about data transparency last year in front of a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee, on behalf of her previous employer at the time and ardent supporter of Chairman Smith’s ill-conceived legislative proposal, the ACC.

Ultimately, what is crystal clear is that the EPA is still finding ways to abandon the tools that the agency needs to do its job. The proposal, if it is ever released, is not scientifically driven, and is simply a political ploy to undermine EPA’s ability to use independent scientific analysis. You can go through all the documents that were released to UCS here, here, and here.

Email from a staffer for Chairman Smith and an EPA official discussing a meeting between Administrator Pruitt and Chairman Smith in January 2018 to discuss how best to implement “secret science” internally.

Nancy Beck shares ideas with other EPA colleagues on why a company’s scientific studies should be protected because of confidential business information and potentially exempt from EPA’s secret science directive. Her comments are remarkably similar to language she used in testimony (below) before a Senate subcommittee while representing the American Chemistry Council just last year.

Competitive Enterprise Institute Counts Costs But Not Benefits of Safeguards—and Hopes You Won’t Notice

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

A shell game Photo: emilykbecker/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Today, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) released another misleading “study” about the “costs” of regulation (read: science-based safeguards, public protections) while virtually ignoring the benefits. They do this every year because some reporters fall for it and it confirms what some elected officials and editorial boards want to believe. Policymakers and the public would be best served by ignoring the latest edition of this report that is nothing more than propaganda to promote the rolling back of science-based safeguards that protect public health, safety, and environment.

CEI trots out an outrageous (and bogus) number about the cost of federal regulations. And of course, the report conveniently fails to look at the benefits. Instead, the anti-government think tank exaggerates numbers, takes data out of context, and tries to have the information they present fit a predetermined anti-regulatory narrative.

CEI's report is in denial about benefits of science-based safeguards and public protections.

CEI’s report is in denial about benefits of science-based safeguards and public protections.

The Washington Post’s factcheckers found “serious methodological problems” in the 2015 version of the report.  The latest version is just more of the same.

The author of the latest CEI analysis suggests that federal regulations in 2017 cost Americans nearly $2 trillion dollars. However, the report fails to take into consideration the many quantitative and qualitative benefits of regulations. In the minimal amount of time it does spend on the benefits of public protections, the paper casually dismisses a congressionally mandated draft report recently released by the Office of Management and Budget, which found that the benefits of major federal regulations from 2006-2016 was somewhere between $287 and $911 billion, and the costs were somewhere between $78 and $115 billion.

As the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards described, this distorted valuation of the cost of regulations is as if a couple deciding to have a baby considered only the estimated cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 but failed to consider the priceless benefits of parenthood. Without the context and inclusion of a thorough conversation about benefits, it would be as if ESPN reported that the San Antonio Spurs won on Monday night by just saying ‘Spurs 101,’ without mentioning that the Golden State Warriors scored 116 points.

The author also argues that science-based safeguards are a “hidden tax.” However, it all comes down to who pays for environmental and public health problems: taxpayers or the companies that create these problems? Responsible businesses comply with common sense public protections because that makes the most business sense—they don’t want to hurt their customers. If they do, who will consume their product? They understand that regulations help create a fair and predictable playing field for all. And when irresponsible businesses don’t comply with regulations, or if there are no regulations on the books (see Facebook), taxpayers are left with the bill, whether that’s for cleanup of toxic rivers and dirty air, increased healthcare costs, or figuring  out how to handle the release of personal information.

Further, what CEI and other opponents of regulation also fail to acknowledge is that the regulatory process is transparent. It’s not ideal, but it’s not a black box (at least historically). Under laws that govern rulemaking and the development of public protections, public input is frequent, and industry groups engage at every step of the process. And public comments are just that—public.

When developing rules, agencies are required to show their work and justify their conclusions with evidence and the best available science. Rules that are arbitrary and capricious are thrown out by the courts. (I think some members of this administration may want to re-read the last couple lines, because that applies to deregulatory actions as well).

CEI’s approach to this study is fundamentally flawed. What the report does tell us is that cost-benefit analysis is not the most useful tool to understanding the impacts of science-based safeguards. Cost-benefit analysis consistently fails to adequately account for the benefits of public protections, many of which are unquantifiable. For example, how can we put a monetary value on a clean bill of health, or that of a life? It’s the result of regulations that we have better public health outcomes in the United States (and yet there is much room for improvement, as the better public health outcomes are not always equitable).

What CEI is advocating for through this report would likely mean less science-based safeguards, and less use of evidence in policymaking. Their approach to regulation is to make all decisions political, which has shown itself not to work very well when it comes to protecting public health, consumers, worker safety, and the environment.

Photo: emilykbecker/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

A Graduate Researcher’s (Brief) Guide to: Creating a Student Science Policy Group

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Panel of speakers at the Opioid Epidemic Forum.

Research, telescopes, and computer models may consume the thoughts of many STEM graduate students, but do you ever find yourself distracted by current events? Are you ever caught up in conversations about how to fix problems in society? Have you ever “geeked out” about research that influences laws or policy? If you’re a graduate student and this sounds familiar, you have options: 1) ignore your burning desire to do something or 2) start a science policy group.

Assuming you’re considering option 2, the first and most common question you will have to tackle personally and externally is “What is science policy?”

Defining science policy

In short, it refers to the rules and regulations that govern the scientific workforce or the use of science to inform rules and regulations. After starting a science policy group in graduate school, myself and other graduate student members began to realize the nebulousness of this definition. Meeting with many policy professionals, we realized saying “I want to be involved in science policy” is as specific as saying “I want to be involved in science”.

You should determine what ways and which topics you would like to focus on for your science policy engagement. There is advocacy (addressing legislators), diplomacy (international policy efforts), education (science communication & awareness initiatives), and of course policy (informing or crafting rules and regulations). Using these approaches, there are many challenges you could address (e.g. scientific workforce issues, specific issues such as climate change or infectious diseases, STEM education, etc). As federal agencies, scientific societies and not-for profit organizations commonly focus significant portions of their resources on science policy efforts, it signals the scale of the issues, and shows it may take more than one motivated person to make a significant impact (even within your community).

Gathering a team

SPADE team

Creating a science policy group with driven members will allow you to help more people, as well as share the credit (and workload) for grand initiatives. Seek out like-minded graduate students with an interest in creating change but also appreciate that promising students can and should be found across a variety of academic fields. This provides your group with expertise and awareness to explore a wide range of issues. For my group, we found holding introductory meetings and sending recruitment emails through our graduate student government and graduate program coordinators was an effective strategy. However, you can also rely on forming collaborations with other groups on or off campus to expand your reach for members.

When you have a core group of students, create an executive board with titles (e.g. President, Treasurer, Commander Pikachu, etc.). Not only do they sound “fancy”, but they also help in establishing an expectation of duties, which saves time when planning initiatives. Another important task is to find a faculty advisor that has experience or an academic focus within science policy. This serves to address club rules on certain campuses (which could allow your group access to funds). It also helps you tap into your advisor’s experience and network (which is particularly helpful when searching for a guest speaker for an event).

Now what do you do?

So you’ve got your group and an advisor, what do you all do now?

As many topics related to science policy are national matters, it can be difficult to figure out how your rag-tag group of students will fit into the science policy landscape. Fortunately, there are many ways to address science policy topics and your group may find some original ways to address them. Based on my experiences, these are some common approaches student groups use to address issues:

Guest speaker events—Inviting a policy expert or professional to an event your group is hosting or to a panel being held on campus is a good way to get your group’s feet wet and establish yourselves as “active”. If there is not a big presence on your campus for science policy, your initial speaking events may be more effective (and better attended) if they are geared towards a general or profiled Careers in Science Policy discussion.

Forums—Similar to guest speaker events, forums will allow your group to invite policy experts for one event to explain to the public or other experts about research, concerns, and proactive actions to address an issue. For example, the opioid epidemic is a pervasive problem within in our local community. To address this, our group planned an Opioid Epidemic Forum. We hosted a physician, a policy expert, a police officer and two New York state senators to inform and empower the Long Island community.

Consider offering additional initiatives at your event to enhance your public service. For example, at the forum we also offered a Narcan training session for participants and an excess opioid drop off box (overseen by the Suffolk County Health Department and Suffolk County Police Department, respectively).

Advocacy—Your group could also go to Washington, DC, or local in-district meetings to discuss with legislators how an issue is affecting your community and/or how it may impact the scientific workforce. Contact your university’s government relations office and ask about opportunities to talk with local or federal legislators. They are a useful resource as they often have a line of contact to legislators. Additionally, your group could fundraise to subsidize fees for members in your community to participate or travel to local initiatives or marches related to science policy.

Science outreach events—Astound and inform your local community by hosting science events for the public, or joining events to discuss (in accessible ways) about the latest research you or fellow students and professors have been working on and how it may impact the public (or why it’s important to know). You could also work with local groups to create campaigns for important unspoken issues within your community that the public could help to address.

Moving forward

If you are still driven to do more after hosting a few events and being active within your community, there are several steps you can take. You can use these initiatives as a template during your journey into academia to help start initiatives to improve the lives of others alongside your research.

If you are driven to make this a career, there are fellowships that can help (and in some ways are integral) with your transition into the federal government or elsewhere as a science policy expert. Some fellowships such as the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship and the President Management Fellowship are for recent (or soon-to-be) graduates. However, others including the Christine Mirzayan Fellowship are also open to students (domestic and international) who are currently in graduate school and provide them with unique experiences in the world of policy. However, there are many others—here is a full list of those offered.

Although this was only a brief summary, I hope this was helpful in informing your journey into the world of science policy.

 

Lyl Tomlinson is a Brooklyn, New York native who recently obtained his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. As a post-doctoral researcher, his major investigative focus relates to the effects of aerobic exercise on important support-like brain cells (oligodendrocytes). He is also a science communication professional who often asks: “Would my grandma understand this?” Using this question as a guiding principle, he competed against roughly 100 scientists and won the 2014 National NASA FameLab science communication competition, which asks researchers to explain science topics accessibly in 3 minutes. He is also a longtime associate of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and has been recognized as an “Alda All-Star”. While in graduate school, he was a co-creator and acting president of a graduate student lead science policy group, Scientists for Policy, Advocacy, Diplomacy and Education (SPADE). His work through this group gave rise to an action oriented local Opioid Epidemic Forum, an official graduate level Introduction to Science Policy course and several other initiatives. Lyl also meets with government representatives to advocate for science issues and regularly develops programs at Stony Brook to tackle problems related to scientific workforce matters. Find Lyl on Twitter at @LylT88

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

For a Moment, 50+ Percent of CA’s Energy Came From Solar

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Photo: Recurrent Energy

On March 4, 2018, solar in California broke a record. Then, on the 5th, it broke another one.

In fact, virtually every day brings new headlines about solar energy’s progress in California and around the world, and solar records are being broken with laudable frequency. Record installation levels, record levels of electricity generation, record investment in solar….

For solar, a whole lot of signs are pointing up.

California: Another solar record (and another, and…)

Spring is a great time for solar, and a great time for solar records. The sun is high and temperatures aren’t yet at summer levels (and solar panels actually like the cooler temps). That makes for excellent solar electricity generation.

The milder temperatures also mean that spring (and fall) are when electricity demand is generally lowest. A stronger numerator (solar production) and lower denominator (energy demand) can make a record-breaking combination.

And, yup, those factors combined to knock it out of the park in California yet again in March, when at one point in time large-scale solar alone met 49.95% of the bulk electricity needs in the territory of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO, which covers 80% of California). Add in what rooftop solar took care of, and that 49.95% figure grows to well over half of electricity needs being met by solar.

An impressive tally—without even taking rooftop solar into account

But wait, there’s more: The very next day, all that solar added up to the largest solar peak to date in the CAISO territory, reaching 10,411 megawatts (10 million kilowatts) for large-scale solar (and a few thousand more megawatts for rooftop).

If that were all on rooftops (it’s not) and composed of typical rooftop residential systems, we’d be talking the equivalent of almost 2 million solar home systems worth of solar capacity.

Both of those records were for just a moment, but both are also a testament to the incredible growth solar has experienced in California, the number one state for installed solar capacity. (They also underscore the wisdom of strengthening the electric connections between California and its neighbors so that all of that solar can be put to good use.)

US: Record solar growth in official 2017 results

At the level of the country as a whole, the newly released official 2017 government stats on electricity from the US Energy Information Administration said a lot about solar’s progress, and the records it keeps shattering:

  • Electricity generation from solar, large and small, hit a new record, leaping 41% from 2016’s tally.
  • Solar accounted for a record 1.9% of electricity generation last year—almost double the percentage in 2015.
  • Solar in 2017 generated the equivalent of the electricity use of more than 8.5 million typical US homes.

Another way to look at it, with the longtime fossil fuel king in mind: With coal’s declining piece of the US electricity mix (from almost half in 2008 to less than 30% in 2017), the ratio of coal to solar has fallen from more than 2000:1 to less than 16:1 (Yup, another record). Not there yet, but that sure looks like progress.

Credit: Dennis Schroeder/NREL

World: Solar grows to record levels—and grows more than coal, gas, and nuclear… combined

And then there’s the global picture, and records broken in terms of new solar capacity and new investment. A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme and Bloomberg New Energy Finance looks at renewable energy investments across the world, and finds a whole lot good happening in solar.

The opening lines of the whole document capture the solar-centric excitement that the numbers provoke (emphasis added):

Solar power rose to record prominence in 2017, as the world installed 98 gigawatts of new solar power projects, more than the net additions of coal, gas and nuclear plants put together. The solar build-out represented 38% of all the net new generating capacity added (renewable, fossil fuel and nuclear) last year.

Think about that for a moment: Once you take retirements into account, as you should, we got more new solar last year than new coal + new gas + new nuclear.

All told, non-hydro renewables accounted for 61 percent of net power generation capacity added in 2017 worldwide, a record, and a consistently growing (and record-breaking) portion of both global power capacity and global power generation.

Source: Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment Report 2018

For solar, UNDP/BNEF found, China was a big piece of 2017’s progress, “…with some 53GW installed (more than the whole world market as recently as 2014), and solar investment of $86.5 billion, up 58%…” Solar investment, though, grew in both developed (17%) and developing (41%) countries.

And more…

Recent tidings have also brought news of record numbers for solar purchases by US corporations, a new US solar panel manufacturing facility in the works in Florida, and a proposal for a record-breaking battery as part of a hefty proposed solar farm in California.

There are caveats with each of those tidbits, or uncertainties, or, for the US, ways that the current administration or state policies could mess things up.

But taken together these stories paint a picture of a sector continuing to do what we need it to. Solar is on the move, across the country and across the world.

It’s clearly a technology that feels that records were meant to be broken.

Will Congress Give Farmers the Farm Bill They Want?

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U.S. Marine Corps veteran Calvin Riggleman holds an oregano seedling and soil on Bigg Riggs farm in Hampshire County, WV Photo courtesy Flickr/Lance Cheung, USDA

Last week, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee made headlines by unveiling a truly terrible farm bill proposal, one that dramatically undercuts the nation’s most successful nutrition assistance program and threatens to throw the entire farm bill process into chaos. His committee is set to vote out the measure this morning, though Democrats have rejected it out of hand.

Beyond this highly partisan bill’s cynical slap at millions of low-income people and their communities, there’s also very little for farmers to like. Deep cuts to incentive programs that help them protect water quality, conserve soil, and build resilience to floods and droughts are among the bill’s many disappointing aspects, along with a failure to invest in connecting farmers with new local customers. In stark contrast, a poll released today shows that farmers across the political spectrum are eager for precisely the kind of tools and incentives House Republicans have firmly turned their backs on. And soon they may be looking for political candidates who will give it to them.

Survey says: Farmers want more support for local, sustainable agriculture

The new poll was conducted in March by Iowa-based RABA Research on behalf of UCS. Using telephone interviews supplemented by an online questionnaire, the researchers queried more than 2,800 farmers in seven states—Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—to better understand how they are thinking about farm policy and sustainable agriculture.

You might expect that farmers would regard the farm bill as an important piece of legislation, and the poll shows that they do. Fully three-quarters of them said the farm bill is “somewhat” or “very important” to their personal livelihoods. In an era of deep cynicism about the ability of Congress to helpfully affect the lives of everyday Americans, it’s a striking number, and it particularly contradicts recent news reports suggesting that rural America “doesn’t have time” for the farm bill.

Digging a little deeper, the researchers uncovered even more surprising results:

  • Three-quarters of farmers surveyed said it’s important to the future of farming for farm policies to offer incentives for farmers to take steps to reduce runoff and soil loss, improve water quality, and increase resilience to floods and droughts. That number was even higher in some states—76 percent in Ohio, 78 percent in Kansas, and a whopping 84 percent in Iowa. The finding indicates that farmers are keenly aware of the negative impacts of agriculture on our water and soil resources—and, with extreme weather becoming more common, they are concerned about their ability to cope. Farmers urgently want tools to minimize these impacts.
  • Furthermore, 74 percent said that strengthening the hand of farmers in dealings with companies that control the production chain is important. This view directly contradicts the recent action by the Trump administration and Secretary Sonny Perdue to end the USDA’s Farmer Fair Practices Rules, which would have leveled the playing field for poultry and livestock farmers in contracts with the giant corporations that control meat production and processing and made it easier for those farmers to sue the companies for unfair treatment.
  • Similarly, 74 percent of farmers said farm policies should support research on ways to increase farm profitability by decreasing the need for costly chemical inputs. They might not call it agroecology, but that’s what it is and what it does, and farmers want farm policy to fund more of it.
  • And 69 percent of farmers said policies should help connect farmers with new buyers through marketing arrangements like food hubs and farm-to-school programs. These are the kinds of arrangements UCS and other groups have advocated for in the bipartisan Local FARMS Act.
  • Most astonishingly, these results hold across the partisan divide. Poll respondents spanned the political spectrum but leaned heavily Republican. Across the seven states, 55 percent of respondents were Republican, 20 percent Democratic, and 25 percent other.

 

Graph showing results from farmer surveyQUESTION: I’m going to read a list of ways that US farm policy can shape agriculture in the years ahead.  Answer yes or no to indicate which you think are important to the future of farming.

It’s election season, and farmer-voters are looking for change

Perhaps the most striking finding in the poll is this: Farmers are looking to back political candidates who will deliver innovation and sustainability for agriculture.

A surprising 72 percent of farmers across the seven states said they would be more likely to support a candidate for public office who seemed to favor farm success through sustainable agriculture priorities instead of business as usual. That number was even higher in some states—74 percent in both Michigan and Pennsylvania. (Swing states, anyone?)

And remarkably, that high level of support wasn’t dependent upon party affiliation, but was held by 76 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of Republicans, and 67 percent of those who identified politically as “something else” across the seven states.

QUESTION: If a candidate for public office seemed to favor farm success through sustainable ag priorities instead of business as usual, would you be more or less likely to support that candidate? 

This finding shows that an overwhelming majority of farmers are seeking change in the federal government’s priorities for supporting US agriculture. And why should we be surprised? The poll was conducted just before tensions over trade with China threatened to erupt into a full-scale trade war—in which farmers would be early casualties. But those trade tensions are merely compounding the trouble farmers have faced in recent years as prices of leading US farm commodities have plunged. Farm income is projected to hit a 12-year low this year, leaving many farmers uneasy about the status quo and looking for new solutions.

House farm bill offers less—not more—of what farmers want (and farm groups call BS)

The bill the House agriculture committee will vote on today neglects or actively undercuts precisely the programs that our poll shows farmers want. Existing working land conservation programs provide incentives and technical support for farmers to adopt science-based practices—like planting cover crops and more diverse crop rotations—that reduce erosion and water-polluting runoff, lessen the need for expensive chemical inputs, and build healthy soil to buffer farmers from the impact of floods and droughts. The bill on the table today cuts nearly $5 billion from these programs over 10 years, and completely eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program—a program so popular with farmers and already so underfunded that in recent years it has had to turn away as many as 75 percent of qualified applicants.

At the same time, the House farm bill as written also largely fails to take on provisions of the Local FARMS Act, a bipartisan proposal meant to expand the customer base for small and midsize farmers while improving access to healthy food (which is inadequate for 15.6 million US households). By overlooking the Local FARMS Act—which includes provisions to strengthen farm to school programs, promote farmers markets, and otherwise build connections between farmers and local consumers, especially low-income individuals and families—the authors of today’s bill are bypassing an opportunity to create jobs and establish reliable revenue streams for struggling farmers while also increasing access to healthy and affordable food for more of our neighbors.

Congress can do better—and we need to tell them

All this has led farm and conservation groups to join health and anti-hunger groups in panning the House farm bill proposal. The National Farmers Union—while attempting to be positive—similarly expressed frustration with its failure to give farmers what they need:

“[C]ongressional leadership has severely hamstrung the committee’s ability to address the six-year, 50 percent decline in the farm economy. While they’ve shown little regard for spending and deficits this Congress, they’ve failed to provide adequate resources for food and agriculture at a time of grave financial strain on family farmers and ranchers. This is irresponsible and harmful.  

The draft bill that the House Agriculture Committee will vote on today is so fundamentally flawed, we don’t expect many opportunities to strengthen it through the amendment process. But here are two areas—the Local FARMS Act and the SNAP program—where we may be able to make the bill more responsive to the needs of farmers and the public interest.

Tell Congress to fight for farmers and healthy food in the farm bill today.

Photo: Lance Cheung, USDA

Colorado Communities Sue ExxonMobil and Suncor for Climate Damages

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Suncor Energy owns the only oil refinery in Colorado. Photo: Max and Dee Bernt. CC-BY-2.0 (Flickr)

Two Colorado counties and the city of Boulder are suing ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy, Canada’s largest oil company, to hold them responsible for climate change-related damage to their communities.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in a state district court by Boulder, Boulder County and San Miguel County, is seeking compensation for damage and adaptation costs resulting from extreme weather events.

New York City and eight coastal California cities and counties, including San Francisco and Oakland, have filed similar lawsuits against ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies, charging that they have injured their communities under common law. The Colorado suit is the first by an inland county or municipality.

“Climate change is not just about sea level rise. It affects all of us in the middle of the country as well,” said Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones. “In fact, Colorado is one of the fastest warming states in the nation.”

Oil Industry Knew About Threat 50 Years Ago

The 1,300-square-mile San Miguel County sits in the southwest corner of the state on the Utah border. About a third of the county’s 8,000 residents live in Telluride, a well-known ski resort town. Boulder, 25 miles northwest of Denver, is the county seat of the 740-square-mile Boulder County and home to nearly a third of the county’s 319,000 residents. The three communities have been ravaged by costly climate-related extreme weather events, including wildfires and flash floods, according to the 100-page complaint. Likewise, each community has launched initiatives to curb carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate.

The Colorado communities contend that ExxonMobil and Suncor were aware that their products caused global warming as early as 1968, when a report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the US oil and gas industry’s premier trade association, warned of the threat burning fossil fuels posed to the climate. Subsequent reports and memos prepared for API and its member companies came to similar conclusions. Regardless, ExxonMobil and Suncor not only continued to produce and market fossil fuel products without disclosing their risks, the complaint charges, they also engaged in a decades-long disinformation campaign to manufacture public doubt and confusion about the reality and seriousness of climate change.

The plaintiffs want the two oil giants to “pay their share of the damage” caused by their “intentional, reckless and negligent conduct.” That share could amount to tens of millions, if not billions, of dollars to help cover the cost of more heat waves, wildfires, droughts, intense precipitation, and floods.

“Our communities and our taxpayers should not shoulder the cost of climate change adaptation alone,” said Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones. “These oil companies need to pay their fair share.”

Higher Temperatures Hurt Ski Industry, Agriculture

Over the last four decades, wildfires in the Rockies have been happening with greater frequency. According to a 2014 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO), the region experienced nearly four times as many wildfires larger than 1,000 acres between 1987 and 2003 than between 1970 and 1986.

Rocky Mountain trees also are being ravaged by bark beetles. Over the last 25 years, the UCS-RMCO report found, beetles have killed trees on regional forest land nearly equal in acreage to the size of Colorado itself. Heat and drought are taking a toll, too, exacerbating tree mortality. If global warming continues unabated, the region likely will become even hotter and drier, and the consequences for its forests will be even more severe.

The average temperatures in Colorado have increased more than 2 degrees F since 1983, according to a 2014 University of Colorado Boulder study, and are projected to jump another 2.5 to 5 degrees F by mid-century. That would have a devastating effect on the Colorado economy, which relies heavily on snow, water and cool weather. A 2017 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters found that low-snow winters and shorter seasons are already having a negative impact on the state’s $5-billion ski industry, the largest in the country. Rising temperatures and drought, meanwhile, threaten the state’s $41 billion agricultural sector.

ExxonMobil and Suncor are Major Carbon Emitters

Both ExxonMobil and Suncor have substantial operations in Colorado. Since 1999, ExxonMobil has produced more than 1 million barrels of oil and 656 million metric cubic feet of natural gas from Colorado deposits, according to the complaint, and ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy currently produces 130 million cubic feet of natural gas per day from more than 864 square miles across three Colorado counties. There are also at least 20 Exxon and Mobil gas stations in the state. All told, the company’s production and transportation activities in Colorado were responsible for more than 420,000 metric tons of global warming emissions between 2011 and 2015, according to the complaint.

Suncor gas stations, which sell Shell, Exxon and Mobil brand products, supply about 35 percent of Colorado’s gasoline and diesel demand. Suncor, whose U.S. headquarters is located in Denver, also owns the only oil refinery in the state, which produces 100,000 barrels of refined oil per day. According to the complaint, Suncor’s Colorado operations were responsible for 900,000 metric tons of carbon emissions in 2016 alone.

Besides their Colorado facilities, the two companies are partners in Syncrude Canada, the largest tar sands oil developer in Canada. Tar sands oil—a combination of clay, sand, water and bitumen—produces roughly 20 percent more carbon dioxide emissions per barrel than regular crude oil.

ExxonMobil and Suncor are among the 90 fossil fuel producers responsible for approximately 75 percent of the world’s global warming emissions from fossil fuels and cement between 1988 and 2015, according to the Climate Accountability Institute. Over that time frame, the two companies’ operations and products emitted 20.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide and methane.

“Based on the latest scientific studies, the plaintiffs in Colorado, as well as in California and New York City, can now show the direct connection between carbon emissions and climate-related damages,” said Kathryn Mulvey, climate accountability campaign director at UCS. “Given these companies’ significant contribution to climate change—and their decades of deception about climate science—it is long past time that they should be held accountable for the damage they have caused.”

Clean Energy is Happening, With or Without the Trump Administration

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Photo: First Solar

Folks waiting for leadership at the federal level to drive our ongoing clean energy transition better get comfortable. It might be a while. Fortunately, one only has to turn one’s eyes outward from D.C.—in just about any direction—to find utilities, corporations, cities, and states taking the reins of our transition to clean energy.

The rationale for clean energy takes many forms

Whether it’s a sense of moral obligation to tackle the threat of climate change, the benefits of being perceived as “green”, or just economic good sense, there’s a strong argument to be made that clean energy is the right way to go. Wind and solar, increasingly being paired with battery storage, continue to impress with low costs and reliable performance. Energy efficiency continues to be our cheapest and most readily available resource out there.

And as utilities and large corporate purchasers of energy navigate our ongoing and historic transition away from coal, these clean energy resources are proving to be a cost-effective, low risk, and clean option for meeting energy needs.

Utility commitments show a desire to diversify away from fossil fuels

There’s a powerful recent wave of utility announcements to cut carbon emissions and invest in clean energy (see here or here, for example). Just in the Midwest for example, we’ve seen significant commitments from utility powerhouses such as Xcel, Ameren, Consumers Energy, and MidAmerican, just to name a few.

The great news is that the new wave isn’t limited to one region of the country. It’s not about red states or blue states. It isn’t driven by political ideology or, in most cases, regulatory or policy requirements. It’s driven by economics and a growing awareness—by utilities and their customers—of the urgent need to reduce carbon emission and avoid the most damaging effects of climate change.

Of course, these commitments aren’t necessarily binding, and there’s legitimate concerns that utilities are promising clean energy later to bolster arguments for natural gas investments now (as we’ve noted in DTE Energy’s pursuit of a large natural gas plant in Michigan). But the overall trend is unmistakable and promising for our ongoing clean energy transition. More work lies ahead to hold utilities accountable to these commitments and ensure clean energy investments are prioritized in the near term.

Corporate purchasers choosing renewables to power our economic growth

Another area where key players in our energy future are taking clean energy matters into their own hands is in the world of corporate purchasers. These large energy users are increasingly looking beyond their local utility to procure low-cost renewable energy to meet sustainability goals and ensure long-term price stability.

Unlike fuel-fired energy sources, renewable energy prices can be locked in for 20 years or more because the cost of that energy is not dependent on sometimes volatile prices for fuels like natural gas and coal.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s 2018 Sustainable Energy Report, corporate purchases of renewable energy took off in 2014 and have been a significant player in the renewable energy development growth ever since. Forty US-based companies have signed on to the RE100 Initiative and pledged to source 100 percent of their energy consumption from renewable energy.

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance 2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook

While current corporate commitments still make up a small share of overall energy use in the United States, the trend, once again, is unmistakable and a strong signal that our clean energy transition continues to advance despite what happens in Washington DC.

Cities and states continue to take climate change seriously—and demand clean energy solutions

I started this blog by saying that you only had to look outward from D.C. to find progress on clean energy, but yes—even the District is onboard with a clean energy future. In 2016, it strengthened its renewable portfolio to achieve 50 percent renewable energy by 2032. The new law also included provisions to ensure that everyone would have access to clean energy by funding provisions that would increase access for lower-income households.

The District’s progress on clean energy is just one example of state and local government forging their own clean energy future. At the end of 2016 we saw Illinois and Michigan strengthen their clean energy standards. California is now considering joining the ranks of Hawaii in pursuit of 100 percent clean energy. And just last week, New Jersey strengthened its renewable energy standard to 50 percent by 2030.

We’ve also witnessed direct action against President Trump’s stated intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreements. States and cities across the US have pledged that they’re “still in” on meeting the goals of the international Paris agreement, despite President Trump’s intention to withdraw the US from this landmark agreement.

State members of the US Climate Alliance and city members of the Climate Mayors

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance 2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook. Sixteen states have committed to reducing carbon emissions, covering more than 40 percent of the US population.

As utilities, corporations, states, and cities step in to fill the leadership void left by President Trump and his administration, clean energy’s future remains bright. Economics and the moral imperative to address climate change continue to be driving forces behind our ongoing transition.

As our collective commitment to clean energy continues to grow, the federal government will have a harder and harder time turning a blind eye.

SNAP Work Requirements Provoke Broad Opposition to House Farm Bill

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House Agriculture Committee chair Mike Conaway speaks at a hearing.House Committee on Agriculture Chair Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) opens the hearing with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue in Washington, D.C., May 17, 2017. (Photo: USDA/public domain)

The nutrition title of the draft farm bill released by the House last Thursday is an affront to millions of individuals and families across the country—many of whom are part of the electorate that put our current political leaders in office. Despite an outcry of opposition from advocacy groups, the public, and Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee, it appears that Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) is prepared to push through a bill that would be devastating to rural and urban communities alike.

What is it, exactly, that makes this proposal so devastating?

Under the guise of new work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the bill would cut billions of dollars currently protecting people nationwide from the consequences of food insecurity and economic instability. The draft language expands the population subject to work requirements to include caretakers of children over six and people between the ages of 50 to 59, establishes tighter time frames for participants to find work or job training programs, and imposes more severe penalties for those who are unable to do so. The proposed policies would allow participants only a month to secure work or job training for at least twenty hours per week; the first “violation” of these requirements would result in removal from the program for one year, and subsequent violations would result in removal for a period of three years.

Under current legislation, those who are subject to work requirements include only childless adults without disabilities between the ages of 18 to 49 (often called able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs); current penalties for failing to secure work or job training placement for at least 80 hours per month are removal from the program for a period of three years. Though the total number of hours required per month remains unchanged, the move from a monthly to a weekly minimum means that participants must also find work that offers steady and consistent hours. This can create additional barriers to program participation, particularly among those facing primarily low-wage employment options.

A Trojan Horse with dire consequences Family shopping for vegetables at grocery store.

Research shows that SNAP works, alleviating food insecurity and improving the health of families. However, the reauthorization of the farm bill could threaten the program’s effectiveness.

At best, these additional requirements are empty solutions to problems that don’t exist. At worst, they create new ones. Per House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, “The GOP’s ‘workforce requirements’ are nothing but a cynical Trojan Horse to take away SNAP from millions of hungry families.”

As we wrote last week, data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) counters the notion that working-age adults have become dependent upon SNAP. The populations who might depend on the program for longer periods of time include children, the elderly, and those with disabilities; together, these groups make up about two thirds of all SNAP participants. The population of ABAWDs makes up just a small fraction—only two percent—of all those who stay on SNAP for a period of eight years or longer.

Furthermore, more stringent work requirements won’t do anything to address poverty—on the contrary, they may well exacerbate conditions of food insecurity and economic instability among communities already challenged by a persistent lack of access to resources and opportunities. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that even for those in the general population, securing a job within three months is an unattainable goal: last year, nearly 40 percent of those able to work and looking for jobs were unable to find work within 15 weeks, while nearly 25 percent were unable to find work within 27 weeks. To expect that adults who have recently enrolled in SNAP—for reasons ranging from unexpected unemployment to family crisis to natural disaster—should accomplish this task within one month is to set them up for failure.

Of course, House majority leaders have touted employment and training (E&T) programs as the answer to unemployment and underemployment among SNAP beneficiaries. According to Chairman Conaway, SNAP participants will have “guaranteed access” to E&T programs by way of government investment in training and case management. But effective programs come with a price tag, and the $1 billion pledged in the draft bill won’t come close to cutting it. According to the Center for Budget Policies and Priorities (CBPP), that investment amounts to only $28 per person per month for a caseload of 3 million SNAP participants—far less than the typical cost of effective employment programs, and less even than the cost of existing employment services provided by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. It’s also worth noting that the bill counters the USDA’s own findings on best practices in E&T programs. A 2016 review of over 160 studies on SNAP E&T and workforce development programs found that the most effective programs serve those who volunteer to participate, rather than following a mandate as a condition of eligibility.

Entire communities will feel the fallout from SNAP cuts

Mechanic working on tractor in garageThe Committee anticipates that the new work requirements would impact between 5 and 7 million recipients, and that the proposed bill would cause about 1 million people to leave SNAP over the course of a decade. Meanwhile, the CBPP estimates that changes would cause either a reduction or total loss of benefits for more than 1 million low-income households, impacting about 2 million people.

But the economic implications of such severe cuts would extend far beyond program participants, due to the economic multiplier associated with SNAP benefits. A USDA model has estimated that each dollar in SNAP benefits generates about $1.80 in economic activity, particularly in times of economic downturn. This means that the $64.7 billion in benefits administered in FY 2017 could have generated $114 billion in economic activity, with the potential to create and support an estimated 567,000 to 624,000 jobs—including 48,700 to 59,800 in the agricultural sector.

And these benefits aren’t limited to food production, distribution, and retail sectors. With each additional SNAP dollar received, program participants can not only spend more on food, but can also afford to spend more on other necessities, such as utilities, car payments, or medical expenses, as some of the income once allocated to their food budget is displaced by SNAP dollars. This means that a wide range of industries end up getting a boost from SNAP benefits—and that many would be adversely affected by dramatic cuts.

An uncertain future for a hyper-partisan House bill

Of course, none of the policy changes contained in the House bill are set in stone—not by a long shot. This week, the Committee will markup their draft farm bill, the next step in developing a draft that would go to the House floor for further consideration and, eventually, a final vote.

Regardless of the immediate outcome, the draft text that was presented to the public last week must be recognized for what it is: a bold-faced attempt to undermine a program that effectively and efficiently serves some of our most vulnerable populations, and a blatant disregard for how these populations will actually fare. And though it was put forth with seemingly little concern for political fallout or blowback, this is a program that reaches communities—and voters—in every corner of our country, and won’t be easily forgotten.

Photo: USDA Photo: Plush Studios/Blend Photo: Flavio/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Commendable Nuclear Safety Catch at the Susquehanna Nuclear Plant

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The owner of the two boiling water reactors (BWRs) at the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station in northeastern Pennsylvania notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on April 2, 2018, that workers’ mistakes rendered an emergency core cooling system on Unit 1 vulnerable to being disabled by an earthquake at the same time that another emergency core cooling system was out of service for work on its power supply system. This is good news—not in having two safety systems impaired while the reactor operated, but in how quickly the problem was detected and corrected.

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The Emergency Core Cooling Systems

Susquehanna Unit 1 is a model BWR/4 reactor with a Mark II containment design that was placed into commercial operation in June 1983. In case of an accident that drains cooling water from the reactor vessel, Unit 1 is equipped with an array of emergency core cooling system (ECCS) pumps that will automatically start and provide makeup water. The ECCS include one steam-driven high pressure coolant injection (HPCI) pump, four motor-driven low pressure coolant injection (LPCI) pumps, and more motor-driven core spray (CS) pumps. The LPCI and CS pumps are split into two divisions of two LPCI pumps and two CS pumps each. Each division is powered from separate electrical buses, backed by separate emergency diesel generators, to increase the chances that enough pumps survive whatever challenge is experienced to provide adequate makeup cooling water flow for the reactor core.

The Situation

During the early afternoon of December 1, 2017, workers moved pipe sections into the room housing the Division II core spray pumps and staged this material on the floor as close as six inches from one of the two air conditioning units for the room.

At 7:48 am on December 2, the power supply to the Division II low pressure coolant injection pumps was removed from service to enable its voltage regulator to be replaced.

The Problem

At 10:30 am on December 3, an operator noticed that the materials staged in the core spray pump room were not seismically restrained and were close to one of the room’s air conditioning unit. The Operations department conservatively assumed that an earthquake could case the pipe sections to move into and damage the air conditioning unit. If that occurred, the heat from the running core spray pump motors could warm the room above the temperature that electrical equipment was qualified to endure. The Operations department declared the Division II core spray pumps inoperable due to their potential loss in event of an earthquake.

The Unit 1 operation license allowed the Division II low pressure coolant injection pumps to be out of service for up to 7 days while the reactor continued operating. This allowed outage time relied on other ECCS pumps being available in case an accident happened. The discovery that the Division II core spray pumps were also inoperable undermined that reliance. The operating license for Unit 1 required the reactor to be shut down within 7 hours with both the Division II low pressure coolant injection and core spray pumps inoperable.

The Solution

At 1:35 pm on December 3, the Division II low pressure coolant injection pumps were restored to operable following replacement of the voltage regulator on their power supply. Their restoration ended the need for the reactor to be shut down and returned the unit to the need to restore the Division II core spray pumps to service within 5 days (the 7-day clock started on December 1).

Around 4:00 pm on December 3, workers completed the removal of the pipe sections from the Division II core spray pump room. Doing so ended the need to shut down the reactor as all ECCS pumps were restored to service.

The Armchair Viewpoint

The Engineering department analyzed the temperature in the Division II core spray pump room with both motor-driven core spray pumps running and only one of two air conditioning units in the room operating. The second air conditioning unit was assumed not to be running due to damage from the pipe sections hitting it during an earthquake. The engineering analysis concluded that the room temperature would have remained below the temperatures used to qualify safety components in the room and that the core spray pumps would have performed their safety function successfully.

UCS Perspective

The staging of the replacement pipe sections without seismic restraints in the Division II core spray pump rooms near its air conditioning unit could have resulted in an air conditioning unit becoming damaged during an earthquake. That potential vulnerability was not recognized the next day when the Division II low pressure coolant injection pumps were taken out of service for maintenance to their power supply. The defense-in-depth approach to nuclear safety gets undermined when multiple layers are missing and/or impaired concurrently.

It would have been better had the pipe sections not been staged improperly or had that mistake been identified before it was compounded by the intentional disabling of additional ECCS pumps the next day. But dozens of activities are ongoing each and every day at a nuclear power plant. And materials temporary stored in the core spray pump room—a confined area infrequently accessed by workers on a daily basis—made detection of their improper configuration less than readily evident.

The mistake was identified by the Operations department less than two days after it was made and a day after it was compounded by taking other ECCS pumps out of service. It would have been easy not to have discovered the subtle mistake, but it was found. Once found, it would have been easy to presume that the core spray pumps would have functioned despite the potential loss of one of two air conditioning units in the room. But the Operations department lacked an analysis to support that presumption and declared the pumps inoperable. That conservative call accelerated the solution to the problem. Within about 185 minutes, the low pressure coolant injection pumps were restored to service. And within 330 minutes, the pipe sections were removed to eliminate the potential hazard to the air conditioning unit in the core spray pump room. The Operations department handled this matter very well. The Operations department handled this matter very well.

Defense-in-depth is frequently discussed in terms of equipment—two redundant pumps provided when only one needs to run for the necessary safety function to be fulfilled. This case illustrates how defense-in-depth also has an important role to play in human performance reliability. The Maintenance department placed the pipe sections in the core spray pump room. They should have stored the material properly, but failed to do so. The Operations department caught the mistake and caused it to be promptly remedied. And the Engineering department reviewed the mistake to determine its safety significance.

This event also reveals an unintended consequence from defense-in-depth applied to human performance reliability—when the first defense-in-depth layer succeeds, backup layers are not tested. Here, the first layer failed but the second and third layers came through. The next best thing to perfection is having a highly reliable first layer backed by a highly reliable second layer backed by a highly reliable third layer and so on.

Peter Wright’s Nomination Means Superfund Conflicts of Interest in Almost All 50 States

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Last month, the Trump administration nominated Peter Wright from DowDuPont to serve as Assistant Administrator at the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM). This office plays a critical role in protecting public health by enforcing the Superfund program (the government’s effort to clean up sites that are contaminated with hazardous waste and posing a health risk). They also implement programs to help communities from chemical disasters, and deal broadly with regulations on hazardous waste disposal to best protect public health and hold polluters accountable.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has identified the Superfund program as a priority area, which so far has meant taking sites off of the National Priorities List, but not necessarily making sure those sites are adequately cleaned up.

According to his Linkedin page, Wright has spent 19 years as Managing Counsel at the Dow Chemical Company, which since merging with DuPont in 2017 is known as DowDuPont. According to the White House, while there, he has provided counsel to the company’s leaders and led the company’s “legal strategies regarding Superfund sites and other federal and state-led remediation matters,” and provided counsel on mergers, acquisitions, and significant real estate transactions for the company.

One of the main functions of OLEM is to hold companies accountable for polluting peoples’ water, land, and air which is why it is a huge conflict that someone who has long represented the interests of a company that is a currently liable major historic polluter would be at its helm. Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, or its subsidiaries are listed as the parent company for over 200 Superfund sites, 50 Risk Management Plan (RMP) facilities and over 50 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) facilities with corrective actions.

As the potential future head of OLEM, can we really trust that Wright would be making objective decisions regarding DowDuPont Superfund sites, ensuring its facilities with RCRA permits are cleaning up current problems with mismanagement of hazardous waste, and overseeing implementation of the RMP Rule at DowDuPont sites? According to Dow, Wright was “directly involved” with at least 14 cleanup agreements with the EPA, but which sites and whether he advised or was involved less formally in other cases is still unclear.

Wright’s Superfund conflicts from coast to coast

A 2013 EPA document lists 167 Superfund sites (both NPL and non-NPL) where either or both Dow Chemical Company or E.I DuPont de Nemours and Company were a listed responsible party. An additional 71 sites had Dow Chemical Company subsidiaries listed as a responsible party. An identifiably DuPont-linked site listed in 2014, the US Smelter and Lead Refinery site in East Chicago, has been added to this map as well (Source: EPA).

To get a better sense of exactly how many Superfund conflicts would arise if Wright were to be confirmed as head of OLEM, we mapped the locations of Superfund sites (those both on the National Priority List and not on the list) at which DuPont, Dow, or a subsidiary company were named as a responsible party according to a 2013 EPA list. While parent companies aren’t always financially responsible for cleaning up a subsidiary’s Superfund sites, these locations still pose a potential conflict of interest as Wright would not be wholly independent of these sites.

In total, using the 2013 list but eliminating any sites that have since been deleted by EPA, we found 180 still active, proposed or partial National Priority List (NPL) sites and 57 non-NPL sites equating to 238 sites tied to DowDuPont in 44 different states. There is one additional Superfund site, the US Smelter and Lead Refinery site in East Chicago, that was listed as a Superfund site after 2013—so was not included in our count—but that is publicly linked to DuPont.

As Dow and DuPont’s 2014 through 2017 10-K forms (here, here, here, and here) indicate that more Superfund sites were added than deleted for the companies every year, there are likely many more Superfund sites than those listed here that are not included on this map. And it’s important to remember that there is a strong financial incentive for companies to evade responsibility and avoid paying for expensive remediation efforts, so they employ several different strategies to do so including name changes, mergers, and bankruptcies.

DowDuPont has over $200 million in payment obligations for Superfund sites alone, according to its own financial statements. Were Wright to be confirmed, decisions made about the timely cleanup of DowDuPont sites across the country will be made by a man who spent two decades on the payroll of that same company. And judging by the way the EPA’s ethics office has so far allowed conflicted appointees to participate in policy issues related to their former employers, it seems likely that Wright will be weighing in on issues in which he has a vested interest on day one.

When conflicts of interest hit close to home

There are over 30 DowDupont or subsidiary Superfund sites in New Jersey alone. One of the country’s most polluted waterways, Berry’s Creek, is located in the Hackensack Meadowlands and is represented on the map by the large orange dot (Souce: EPA).

A little-known fact about my home state of New Jersey is that it is home to the highest number of Superfund sites in the country, with 114 sites on the National Priority List alone.

Who knew such a small state could pack in so much hazardous waste! No wonder the one superhero hailing from our state is named the Toxic Avenger

The consideration of what to do with the remediation of one DowDupont site in New Jersey, Berry’s Creek, will occur in the next few months, and because it comes with a large price tag ($80 million according to DowDuPont), its fate could be decided by Administrator Pruitt himself, who we know has already been swayed by Dow’s influence at least once before, with the counsel of Wright.

For me, Berry’s Creek is not a faraway place. I’ve been there. I grew up nearby. My parents now live a mile downstream. During college, I spent my summers as a chemistry intern, running water and sediment samples from the Hackensack River and other locations in the surrounding Meadowlands, extracting and measuring contaminants ranging from heavy metals to PCBs to pesticides.

These chemicals have contaminated the water and land surrounding the Meadowlands for decades, since the thoroughfare has been home to landfills, power plants, and other industrial sites that had been free to pollute without penalty until the Clean Water Act was signed in 1972. On one of many water sampling boat trips on the river, we approached a tributary of the Hackensack river, Berry’s Creek, and my environmental scientist colleague explained a little bit about its history and why we might not want to fall off the boat if we valued our health.

Hackensack Meadowlands, New Jersey. (Photo: Flickr/samenstelling)

A mercury processing plant was operated by Ventron/Velsicol adjacent to the creek between 1927 and 1974 and was named a national priority site for the EPA’s Superfund program in 1984. The site was acquired by a long list of companies, but its liability has fallen to Rohm & Haas, a wholly owned subsidiary of DowDupont. According to NOAA, which is working with EPA to evaluate remediation efforts at the site, the mercury levels in Berry’s Creek are among the highest found in any freshwater ecosystem in the United States. The creek is hydrologically connected to wetlands that surround it and because it’s a tidal estuary, contamination has flowed both up and downstream of the original site. In 2005, EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USEPA) found dissolved mercury concentrations as high as 4,100 µg/L, 2,000 times the New Jersey groundwater quality standard of 2 ug/L! Mercury concentrations in the sediment at Berry’s Creek has been recorded as far deep as six feet below the sediment surface.

The area is also contaminated with cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, other heavy metals, and PCBs at levels exceeding New Jersey standards and will be until action is taken by DowDupont to finally clean it up. It’s only a matter of time before contamination issues are worsened by flood risks resulting from climate change, since the site is low-lying and the NJ towns surrounding the Meadowlands are in a high-risk area.

Wright is a great fit for Pruitt’s EPA (and that’s not a compliment)

My colleague, Andy Rosenberg, detailed why many of Pruitt’s team members and leadership at the EPA are incapable of protecting public health and safety. Wright fits the bill as well.

Wright’s confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled by the Senate, but I look forward to seeing members of the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ask him how exactly he expects to protect us from harmful chemicals and hold companies accountable for pollution prevention when he has direct financial conflicts of interest from haunting him from his previous employer in nearly every state. I’d like them to get some clarity on which DowDuPont Superfund sites, RMP, or RCRA facilities he has directly worked on or been involved with in any capacity and whether he will be recusing himself from all decisions made about those sites.

I agree with the Trenton Times editorial board that Wright’s nomination is “horrible, horrible news” not just for the state of New Jersey’s long list of contaminated sites and my friends and family living downstream, but for the rest of the country and for the integrity of the agency and its ability to protect public health over industry profits. I’d love to be proven wrong by Pruitt and Wright and to see Berry’s Creek and other NJ Superfund sites be the cleanup success stories we’ve been waiting for as long as we’ve been the NY metropolitan area’s dumping grounds.

But New Jersey and other states with Superfund sites (including Dow Chemical Company’s home state of Michigan) have been burned too many times by responsible parties and developers. We can’t afford to have another industry apologist making the calls about whether sites and communities are cleaned up and that responsible parties are held accountable.

I would like to acknowledge and thank my colleagues Emily Berman, Juan Declet-Barreto, and Yogin Kothari for their invaluable input. 

Flickr: Steven Reynolds/samenstelling

DOI Caught Lying About a Staff Purge. Congress Has Questions

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Department of the Interior. Photo: Matthew G. Bisanz. CC-BY-2.0 Wikimedia.

Last week, the Interior Department Inspector General’s office released its report on Secretary Ryan Zinke’s controversial mass reassignment of senior executives last summer, requested by alarmed Senators shortly after the reassignments took place. 

Secretary Zinke does not like what they found.  

The report painted a picture of incompetence, discrimination, and political retaliation. It described how the board that made the reassignment decisions was politicized, how they covered their tracks by keeping no records, and how they failed to “remember” anything about their instructions or motivations. The report described a sham of a process that was clearly intended as a purge. 

As if intent on demonstrating just how Zinke would be leading the agency, his team checked every box for poor workplace management. It was so damning that House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raul Grijalva, immediately smelled a rat and has requested that Chairman Rob Bishop hold a hearing immediately “on the disturbing findings.” This story is not yet over. 

As one of the reassigned executives, I had a front row seat to this debacle last summer. Now, to be clear, every new administration moves a few senior executives around for various reasons when they take over, but no agency from any administration has come in and reassigned dozens of career senior executives at one time, and certainly not with such apparent intent to dislodge us from the civil service entirely.  

To do this they moved people into jobs unrelated to their area of expertise, many were moved across the country, they were reassigned without any prior consultation, many of them were retirement age, most had families, and a very disproportionate number of them were American Indians.  

So for starters, this was just horrible workplace management.  

But then Secretary Ryan Zinke, the only Senate-confirmed employee at DOI at the time, testified to Congress the following week that he would use such reassignments, along with attrition and other means, to trim the DOI workforce by 4,000 people.  

As any thoughtful individual would surmise, reassignments only trim the workforce if they cause employees to quit, and while senior executives can certainly be moved, even involuntarily, it’s unlawful to use reassignments to get employees to quit. Zinke admitted his unlawful strategy directly to Congress that day. 

We work for the American people. We are not there to play politics for any president or cabinet member. Yet Secretary Zinke last year demanded loyalty to President Trump and effectively pledged to get rid of employees who wouldn’t play along.   

Knowing all that, I was still stunned by what the IG found. 

The Executive Resources Board (ERB), the body making the reassignment decisions, is meant to consist of an equal number of political appointees and civil servants. The IG found that the Zinke ERB consisted only of recent political appointees.  The board did not document any sort of plan or reasons for selecting executives to reassign; it did not review executive qualifications or gather other information necessary to make such decisions; and it did not communicate with either the executives or their managers before make the reassignments.

There was a complete absence of a paper trail for the reassignment actions – a remarkable and reckless approach to governing that can only suggest that they did not want their reasons known.  

The IG even caught them in a lie. ERB members claimed that they had three criteria for moving executives – moving people that had been in their jobs for a long time, moving people out of Washington DC, and moving people to new functional areas. The IG found no evidence at all to show that they evaluated the reassignments against those stated criteria, and the ERB members were unable to recall the criteria that they ultimately used instead. 

While the IG certainly found the ERB members to be incompetent and unable to remember even the broadest details of their efforts, it would be naïve to think that this was simply a matter of incompetence. If they had legitimate reasons for moving us around, you can bet they would have recorded them. Instead, these actions can only be interpreted as malicious, retaliatory, and discriminatory. 

But when the IG asked the executives themselves, the criteria became quite clear. Seventeen of us indicated that the reassignment was likely political retaliation or punishment, and 12 of us felt that that it was probably related to former work on issues such as climate change, energy, and conservation. This ERB was not even subtle about its objectives – they moved me, the climate policy advisor, to the office that collects and disperses oil and gas royalty income. 

Behind this keystone cops display lurks a dogged determination to reward supporters and purge the agency of senior executives who might not salute the Secretary’s flag. To accomplish this they assembled their ERB hit squad of six political appointees who could be relied upon to sign off on whatever the political leadership decided. It’s hard to imagine a scenario that would more clearly demonstrate a politicization of the civil service workforce. 

This is a long-established no-no; there are important reasons to keep the civil service partitioned from the political winds and whims of each new administration. The mission of the agency depends on operational consistency in administering programs and services. While every incoming administration would love to bend the career ranks to their every wish, they generally know better than to try, and there are laws and regulations to prevent it. 

The Trump Administration just doesn’t know better, and the consequences are serious.  

In addition to muzzling science and stifling important climate change efforts on behalf of Americans, this purge adds up to political retaliation, discrimination, wasted taxpayer dollars, and a callous disregard for the career staff at the agency. Thankfully, some good folks in Congress have taken notice and I hope to see a deeper examination of these issues in the near future. Each of the ERB members should be forced to testify, on the record, that they just don’t remember how or why they reassigned us. This precedent can’t stand. 

I’ve left federal service for now, but my thoughts go out to all of the career folks who still have to endure this type of work environment, keeping their heads down and wondering who’s next. I hope our institutions can stand up to these abuses of power so they can get back to work serving the American people. 

Scott Pruitt’s Regulatory Rollback Recipe  

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

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to stack the deck in favor of industry interests. At least two members appointed by Pruitt to the EPA Science Advisory Board received funding to conduct misleading research that EPA used to justify reexamining vehicle fuel efficiency standards – a regulation forecast to save consumers over $1 trillion, cut global warming emissions by billions of metric tons, and advance 21st century vehicle technology.

This shameless attempt to use shoddy research that was funded by the oil industry and used by automaker trade groups to overturn a regulation that is based on sound science and widespread public support is a perfect example of how Pruitt intends to rollback regulations at the behest of his industry-tied former donors.

Pruitt’s plan is a simple (though perhaps illegal) five-step recipe. Here’s exactly how he has been cooking up a regulatory repeal (or re-peel) soup of equal parts corruption, paranoia, and apathy.

Step 1: Separate independent science from the record, then discard

Make it exceedingly difficult for academic scientists to join the advisory committees that help your agency set pollution thresholds, compliance deadlines, and cost estimates.  These committees are supposed to represent the viewpoints of both independent scientific experts and industry stakeholders, but you can argue that the composition of these committees is solely at your discretion. So go ahead and kick those academic nerds off the advisory committees and replace them with industry-funded friends.

Step 2: Liberally add industry-funded junk science to your liking

Promote the “studies” of your new industry-funded advisory committee friends. Bonus points if they use junk science to show that health benefits from reducing smog “may not occur,” rising carbon dioxide levels are beneficial to humanity, or that people don’t want more fuel efficient cars and trucks. At the same time, give your employees new talking points on climate change to ensure any public facing communications either cast doubt on the science your agency has previously relied on or doesn’t mention it at all. Ruthlessly reassign or fire any employee who fails to comply.

Step 3: Bake junk science into the record

This step is important. Copy the text from industry-funded studies into your official justification to reevaluate, suspend, or rollback rules that science has already shown to be effective. The fastest and easiest way to do this is to just copy the text verbatim. Don’t worry that the administrative record supporting the original enactment of these regulations is chockfull of academic, peer-reviewed studies and thousands of public comments that demonstrate why these regulations are reasonable, achievable, and necessary. Also ignore trepidation from agency career staff who think you are opening the agency to legal challenges or failing to use sound science to justify your agenda.

Step 4: Set legality setting to uncertain, and wait until lawsuits have settled

Use the vast legal resources at your disposal to make any legal challenges to your efforts take as long as possible, which, in the federal court system, can be a very long time indeed. While the courts struggle with whether you have overstepped your authority, your rollback will remain in place – effectively stymying the impact of the regulation on industry for potentially years.

Step 5: Clean your workspace to eliminate traces of corruption and outrageously bad ethics

Make sure you have the support of your boss as you engage in some light to medium graft and corruption. You will probably need a soundproof “privacy booth” that costs taxpayers close to $43,000, a security detail that costs $3 million and protects against non-existent death threats, and a cheap condo rented from the wife of corporate lobbyist for the fossil fuel and auto industries. Keep public leaks of your missteps to a minimum and refrain from using social media to say anything of value.

Overall, this recipe is a disaster for both independent science, and public health. Help UCS push back against Pruitt’s effort to cook this regulatory rollback soup by checking out our new nationwide mobilization effort called Science Rising. This effort isn’t a one-day march—it is a series of local activities, events, and actions organized by many different groups. Our shared goal is to ensure that science is front-and-center in the decision-making processes that affect us all—and to fight back against efforts that sideline science from its crucial role in our democracy.

Will you join us to keep #ScienceRising?

 

The White House Clearly Does Not Like the EPA’s “Secret Science” Plan

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The EPA’s plan to limit the types of science that the  EPA can use to make decisions may run into an unusual roadblock: the White House itself. In a Senate hearing yesterday, New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan questioned White House official Neomi Rao about the EPA plan (watch here, beginning at 59:02), and the answers suggest that the EPA and the White House are not on the same page.

Ms. Rao heads the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. The office is responsible for overseeing the administration’s regulatory agenda. Agencies submit rules for OIRA review before they can be finalized.

The White House tends to enthusiastically support federal agency initiatives. But in a hearing Thursday, the administration’s representative, Neomi Rao was pretty lukewarm about the EPA’s proposal to limit the use of science at the agency. Archival photo via C-SPAN.

Some speculate that OIRA is not keen on the EPA’s proposal because it could make it more difficult for the EPA to weaken clean air and clean water protections. A court can strike down agency actions that are not grounded in evidence—both decisions that improve public protections and decisions that erode them. So in a perverse way, their desire to go back to 1950s regulatory standards could be hampered by the EPA’s proposed science restrictions.

Senator Hassan began buy questioning Administrator Rao about a proposal to give restaurants owners more control over service workers’ tip money. The Department of Labor purposely hid analysis showing the proposal would take billions of dollars out of the pockets of food servers, baristas, and many other hardworking people. OIRA allowed the department to move forward with the proposal, even though it lacked sufficient data to do so (Senators Heitkamp and Senator Harris asked great follow-up questions later in the hearing).

Then Senator Hassan moved on to the EPA (my emphasis added):

Senator Hassan: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is reportedly considering a proposal that would prevent the EPA from using a scientific study unless it is perfectly replicable and all the underlying raw data is released to the public. That is problematic for a whole host of reasons. For example, it could require the release of confidential medical information, which in turn may reduce participation in studies, but it would also prevent the EPA from considering some of the best evidence we have available to us when making regulatory and deregulatory decisions. Have you and your office provided any input to Administrator Pruitt on this proposal?

Administrator Rao: The questions about information quality are very important to us, and that is something that my staff has been working with the EPA on to develop best practices in that area.

Senator Hassan: Do you think such a proposal as the one I just described, the one that is from the EPA that would limit the information agencies can use by preventing them from considering best available evidence makes sense?

Administrator Rao: Well I think we want to make sure that we do have the best available evidence. I think it’s also important for the public to have notice and information about the types of studies which are being used by agencies for decision making, so I think that there is a balance to be struck there, and I think that’s something that the EPA is working towards.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, and some evidence that the friction between the White House and EPA extends beyond numerous ethical scandals to the agency’s style of policymaking as well.

“Scientific evaluation and data and analysis is an ongoing process,” continued Senator Hassan. “As you know, we’ve talked about one of my priorities is the response to the opioid crisis in my state and across this country. If we wait for so-called perfect science, we’re not going to have evidence-based practices out there that are saving lives. And so I think it is critically important that we continue to honor scientific process and make sure that we are using best available data when we make policy.”

At one point, Senator Hassan posed this direct question: “Would you generally support agencies changing their procedures in ways that prevent them from using the best available evidence when making these decisions?”

“No, I would not,” replied Administrator Rao.

On that, they could agree.

Brace Yourself for Unhealthy Air: The Trump Administration Weakens Clean Air Protections

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Yesterday the Trump administration started chipping away at one of the strongest science-based public health protections we have in the country. In a laundry list of industry wishes, President Trump has ordered the EPA to make several sweeping changes to how it implements ambient air pollution standards.

I’m saddened at the potential for this to weaken the clean air protections we enjoy every day because of our nation’s long history of strong science-based policies. Other countries have strict air pollution laws but not all of them come with teeth. In the US, we are lucky to have air pollution laws at work. They work because they require decisions be made based on what’s protective of public health not on what’s convenient for regulated industries. And importantly, the Clean Air Act includes consequences for failure to meet air pollution standards, ensuring strong incentives for states and industries to comply.

I’ve been proud to live in a country where these protections save thousands of lives and prevent thousands more respiratory illnesses, cardiac illnesses, and missed work and school days every year. But now it’s less clear if my family and yours will enjoy the same.

Here are four ways the new executive order will undermine our science-based air pollution protections.

1. Requiring science advisors to consider non-scientific information in their advice to EPA

This is one of the most concerning changes in the executive order. The EPA relies on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) for independent scientific advice on where the agency should set air pollution standards in order to protect of public health. Comprised of air pollution and health experts from universities and other entities outside of the EPA, the committee dives deep on exactly what the science says about the relationship between air pollutants and the health of Americans. This system has worked remarkably well to ensure the EPA is making decisions consistent with the current science and holding the agency accountable when it doesn’t. (See more on the important role of CASAC and the independent science that feeds into the EPA process here and here).

In a striking reversal of precedence, the president’s order asks the committee to also consider “adverse public health or other effects that may result from implementation of revised air quality standards.” This is scientifically problematic and likely illegal.

The Clean Air Act mandates that ambient air pollution standards be determined by what is protective of public health with an adequate margin of safety—and that’s it. Economic impacts, costs to industry, etc. cannot be considered. The Supreme Court affirmed this in 2001 in its Whitman v. American Trucking Association decision. Ordering the EPA’s science advisers to consider information outside of the health impacts of pollutants shoves a wrench into a functional science-based process for protecting the nation’s health.

This move builds on other administration efforts to weaken the technical chops of CASAC and other government science advisory committees, by allowing them to sit idle and replacing qualified independent scientists with conflicted or unqualified individuals.

The order’s section on science advisers also signals that the agency will explore ways to “ensure transparency in … scientific evidence” considered by the committee, in what is likely a nod to the Trump administration’s expected move on addressing “secret science.” (Learn more on the many reasons this proposal is flawed.)

2. Restricting the science that can be used to protect public health

Many more people could now be living in areas that evade air pollution protections, thanks to a provision that limits what scientific information the agency can use to determine who is breathing bad air.

The Trump administration just moved to weaken our nation’s strong ambient air pollution protections, paving the road for increased pollution across the country.

The order includes an innocuous-seeming provision declaring that the agency should “rely on data from EPA-approved air quality monitors” to decide which areas need to improve their air. The EPA, of course, already relies heavily on monitoring data to make decisions about where air pollution standards are being met. But it can’t do this everywhere. Not every county or jurisdiction will have a monitor (accurate long-term monitoring isn’t cheap), so in areas without monitors for specific pollutants the EPA uses modeling or satellite information to determine air quality.

This can be a cost-effective way to determine where air is unhealthy and for some pollutants it can be impressively accurate. For example, for pollutants like ozone that form in the atmosphere, scientists know that ozone levels are very consistent over large distances, i.e. if a monitor tells me ozone levels are high, I’m confident that ozone levels are also high five miles down the road.

For other pollutants, modeling can be crucial for ensuring that people are protected from industrial emissions. Sulfur dioxide, for example, is emitted from coal-fired power plants and its concentrations can vary a lot over space, i.e. a place directly downwind of a power plant could get hit hard with sulfur dioxide pollution, while an area five miles away could have clean air. In these cases, modeling air pollution concentrations can allow the EPA to protect people from pollution that might otherwise be harder to characterize through a few monitors. (If you want to know more on this point, I know a good dissertation.)

Preventing the EPA from fully using available tools for scientific assessments means many areas, especially suburban or rural areas, could have unhealthy air that goes unnoticed and won’t be cleaned up.

3. Increasing demands without increasing resources for the EPA and states

Several provisions of the executive order focus on expediting permitting and implementation processes. In theory, this is a good idea. We would all benefit from more time-efficient government processes. However, it cannot be done in a vacuum. The EPA has been asked to do more with less over the years. Expecting the agency to expedite processes without providing additional resources could mean cutting corners or less rigorous analysis. This wouldn’t help the agency meet its mission of protecting people from air pollution; it would make it easier for lapses in implementation to happen.

This is especially true when we look at permitting processes, which are largely handled by the states. States won’t have additional resources to conduct air pollution modeling, analyze measurements, and evaluate permit applications for new industrial sources. Asking them to expedite this process could make it easier for industrial sources to be built in already polluted areas.

4. Allowing for more pollution in already hard-hit areas

In several ways, the order stands to increase pollution in areas that already face disproportionate impacts from air pollution. In addition to the expedited permitting discussed above, the rule also allows for interstate trading of pollutant emissions. Such schemes have worked well in the past (e.g. we’ve been remarkably successful at reducing acid rain), but in this case, it will be important to watch closely how this is implemented. For the ambient air pollutants that fall under this order and some of their precursors, there are acute health effects. Thus, in a trading scheme, someone will get the short end of the stick in terms of breathing bad air.

In other words, trading emissions might allow one state to breathe cleaner air and emissions could be reduced overall, but that means another area will see an increase in emissions. When the pollutant in question has adverse health impacts, that’s a big problem for anyone living downwind of a plant that bought those emissions credits. Similarly, states that depend on interstate cooperation to reduce pollution in their borders are also likely to get a sore deal here, as Senator Tom Carper of Delaware rightfully pointed out yesterday in a statement.

Already, the Clean Air Act doesn’t do a great job of improving air quality in hotspots where pollutant levels may be uncharacteristically high compared to the surrounding areas. This executive order could make that problem worse. As Alex Kauffman discussed on the Huffington Post yesterday, the people most affected by this are likely to be communities of color, which are already burdened with disproportionately high levels of air pollution across the country. This of course adds to many other steps the administration has taken that worsen inequities in pollution exposure.

Brace yourself for bad air

The bottom line is that the president’s order is bad news for anyone that breathes air in this country. It represents a chipping away at the strong air pollution protections we’ve enjoyed for decades. It doesn’t serve the public interest and it certainly doesn’t advance the EPA’s mission of protecting public health. It serves only those who wish to pollute, exposing more American to unhealthy air. And this will come with consequences for our health. The fate of this new order will likely play out in the courts, but in the meantime, I wish we could all just hold our breath.

 

 

Stories, Improv, and What Science Can Learn From Comedy

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Can you name a scientist? If your response was no, you are not alone. Eighty one percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist, according to a 2017 poll that was conducted by Research America. As scientists, it is our responsibility to reach out to the public and talk to people about what we do, why it is important, and how it connects to their lives. We are not trained to make those connections and do public outreach, but luckily there are increasingly more opportunities to learn.

We are graduate students and members of Science in Action, a science communication and policy advocacy group at Colorado State University. Our goal is to encourage other scientists on campus to learn about and practice sharing their science. With financial support from the Union of Concerned Scientists, we were able to take advantage of unique opportunities to do just that.

Acting for science: using improv techniques to communicate

Scientists are trained to methodically approach problems and rigorously analyze solutions, but not taught how to communicate the findings. We may be doing vitally important work that benefits humanity, but what if we cannot communicate its importance to the public?

Actors, on the other hand, are expert storytellers. They use specific techniques to connect with their audience—techniques that scientists can and should learn to use.

Members practicing “acting tools” with Sarah Zwick-Tapley.

To help aspiring scientists learn these tricks of the trade, we partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists to host a science communication workshop. Sarah Zwick-Tapley, a local theater director and science communication consultant, introduced us to the “actor’s toolkit,” a set of physical and vocal techniques for audience engagement.

These tips were simple enough (land eye contact, change the tone, volume, and speed of your voice) but incorporating them all together while also describing the importance of your science? That is a challenge.

Another critical piece of the storytelling approach is using the “And, But, Therefore” sequence. We practiced this technique with an outlandish example. First, you start with what we know (“we know cancer is a deadly disease AND that it has many causes”). Next, you build suspense with what we have yet to discover (“BUT, we don’t know whether eating old books causes cancer”). Then, you finish with your contribution (“THEREFORE, I am eating Shakespeare’s entire body of work to see if I develop cancer”). Using this technique turns a simple list of facts into a powerful story.

The next step: put our new acting skills into action.

Why science matters for Colorado

Colorado is home to multiple national laboratories and major research universities.

Standing in front of the Colorado State Capitol after sharing our science with legislators and staffers.

Researchers at these organizations do important science and bring the best and brightest minds to the state. To help share these discoveries with our state legislators, we joined Project Bridge, from the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, for a poster day at the capitol. Speaking with non-scientists can be a challenge, but we used our new acting tools to tell a story, both in our poster design and our presentation.

We also took this opportunity to meet one-on-one with our state representatives. Because they represent a college town, they recognize the value of research for our city, state, and country. We were encouraged to hear that they regularly rely on experts at CSU for advice on pending legislation. This is science policy in action.

Communicating for the future

As a scientist, you may recognize that communicating science is important, but are unsure how to learn these skills. Luckily, there are numerous organizations across the country that are dedicated to training scientists to communicate clearly and effectively. Many scientific organizations (the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Society for Cell Biology, among others) hold science communication and science policy trainings and provide small grants for local groups. COMPASS is an international organization that hosts trainings and provides one-on-one coaching for aspiring science communicators. Many universities have also started in-house communication trainings and programs (Stony Brook University is home to the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science).

These resources illustrate the fact that there are people and organizations dedicated to providing scientists with the tools they need to share their science with everyone.

 

Rod Lammers and Michael Somers are graduate students at Colorado State University. They are both officers in Science in Action, a science communication and policy group. Science in Action is a student-led organization at Colorado State University started in 2016 to engage campus scientists and provide opportunities for outreach to the public and policymakers. More information can be found on the organization’s website and Facebook page.

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

Nuclear Regulatory Commission SAGging?

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is part of a labor union that represents nearly 160,000 actors and others in America. I don’t know how many NRC senior managers are SAG members, but with more and more individuals acting as senior managers for longer and longer periods, SAG may need to open an office in Rockville, Maryland where NRC is headquartered.

Figure 1 shows the NRC’s organization chart as of March 1, 2018. At the top are the five Commissioners, or rather the three Commissioners because two Commission positions have been vacant for over a year. Below the Commissioners are the 29 senior NRC managers. Of those 29 senior managers, the seven managers circled in red are only acting in those roles. Some have been acting at it for a long time. Fred Brown has been acting as the Director of the Office of New Reactors for over a year while Brian Holian has been acting as the Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation since July 1, 2017. And Victor McCree, the NRC’s Executive Director for Operations (EDO), announced he will be retiring on June 30, 2018. The casting calls for an EDO actor have not yet been announced.

Fig. 1  Red boxes indicate acting or missing managers. (Source: NRC annotated by UCS)

Why Does it Matter?

Who commands more respect:

  • A full-time teacher or a substitute?
  • A real doctor or someone who stayed at Holiday Inn Express last night?
  • A parent or a babysitter?
  • A sheriff or a mall cop (Paul Blart excepted)?
  • A bona fide manager or an acting manager?

An acting manager can tackle the job as if it is a permanent one. But will she or he truly expend as much effort on long term tasks as someone who will be in that same job when those tasks are conducted?

Even if the acting manager performs the job as fully and capably as someone in the position for real, will her or his subordinates really raise longer term matters or will they simply wait until the real boss takes over?

A non-acting manager “owns” the job and can devote all her or his skills and attention to every aspect of that job. And staff can follow non-acting leaders without being distracted by the temptation to tolerate supervision until the real boss reports for duty.

What Does It Take to Stop the Acting?

The President nominates and the Senate confirms NRC Commissioners. So, the two empty Commissioner seats are up to the President and Senate to fill—you know, the folks unable to pass real budgets and who rely instead on serial “acting” budgetary measures. The other 29 positions on Figure 1 can be filled by the NRC itself without Presidential or Congressional involvement.

The Commission, or a majority thereof, fill the positions explicitly defined in the Atomic Energy Act. These positions include the EDO and the Directors of the Office of New Reactors and Nuclear Reactor Regulation. The EDO fills the remaining positions. For example, the NRC announced on January 2, 2018, that K. Steven West had been appointed Regional Administrator for Region III, replacing Cynthia D. Pederson who retired on December 30, 2017 (three days earlier).

Mr. West had been the Acting Director of the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response since July 2017 when Brian Holian became the Acting Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. After Mr. West got his permanent assignment, Brian McDermott was named to become the new Acting Director of NSIR. Since Mr. McDermott filled in for Acting Director West who was filling in for real Director Holian, perhaps Mr. McDermott is Acting Acting Director of NSIR.

UCS Perspective

Despite how many NRC senior managers have been acting at their positions for so long, they should probably not become SAG members. SAG represents actors and others in the entertainment industry. The NRC’s musical chairs is neither entertaining to play nor to watch.

The NRC filled Ms. Pederson’s position as Regional Administrator within three days of her retirement with a permanent, not Acting, Regional Administrator. So, the NRC can fill senior management positions expeditiously without needing actors. Despite this proven ability, 24 percent of the NRC’s top 29 management positions are filled by actors. So, the NRC can do better but has chosen—for reasons unknown—not to do so.

The NRC needs to stop acting so much, Otherwise, will the last non-actor please turn out the lights on the way out the door.

Trump Onboard for Offshore Wind?

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Workers dwarfed by offshore wind blade tips and towers at Siemens deployment dock in Hull. Offshore wind is part of the revival of many port cities in Europe. Photo: Derrick Z. Jackson

The Trump administration’s quiet embrace of offshore wind became a shout heard around the industry last week. At an offshore wind conference, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said, “We think there’s an enormous opportunity for wind because of our God-given resources off the coast. We’re pretty good at innovating. I’m pretty confident that the wind industry is going to have that kind of enthusiasm.”

Sec. Zinke stoked that enthusiasm by announcing the opening of the bidding process for the final 390,000 acres of federal waters far south of Martha’s Vineyard. Those parcels went unclaimed in a 2015 auction held in the despairing wake of the collapse of Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound, leaving many advocates wondering if offshore wind, which has become an important source of energy in northern Europe, would ever take off in the United States. The prospects came even more into question with the 2016 election of President Trump, who routinely claimed that offshore wind was too expensive.

But the dramatically dropping costs of offshore wind, which is now cheaper than nuclear power and closing in on parity with fossil fuels in Europe, have sparked an explosion of renewed interest in the US. The bidding for those once-orphaned waters off Massachusetts likely will be fierce as they have already received unsolicited bids from the German wind company PNE and the Norwegian energy giant Equinor, the former Statoil.

The Interior Department made two other significant announcements last week to further brighten offshore wind’s prospects. It announced that it was soliciting industry interest and public input on the possibility of establishing offshore wind farms in 1.7 million acres of waters off the New York Bight that curls up from New Jersey to Long Island. It also is soliciting input on an assessment of all Atlantic offshore waters for wind farm development. Zinke’s energy policy counselor, Vincent DeVito, said in a press release, “We are taking the next step to ensure a domestic offshore wind industry.”

This is the surest sign yet that an administration that has pulled out of global climate change agreements and is rolling back environmental protections at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, nonetheless does not want to miss out on the economic potential of a renewable energy industry that has revived many ailing port cities in northern Europe.

Worker gives scale to offshore wind blades nearly a football field long at a Siemens facility in Denmark. Photo: Derrick Z. Jackson

It surely must help politically that onshore wind is now a bedrock of American energy, with rock-solid bipartisan support in an oft-divided America. Rural turbines have dramatically changed the energy landscape in the Republican-dominated states of the Midwest and Great Plains, with Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas being the top wind electricity generating states and with the nation’s fastest growing occupation paying more than $50,000 a year being wind turbine service technician.

A similar bipartisan picture is rapidly developing for offshore wind along the Eastern Seaboard. Democratic and Republican governors alike are staking claims in the offshore industry, from Massachusetts’s game-changing 1,600 megawatt mandate to Clemson University in South Carolina being chosen to test the world’s most powerful turbine to date, a 9.5 megawatt machine from Mitsubishi/Vestas.

Both states happen to have Republican governors who have joined their Democratic counterparts in opposing Zinke’s proposal to also exploit the Atlantic continental shelf for oil and gas. In the same Princeton speech that he praised the possibilities of offshore wind, Zinke acknowledged that offshore fossil-fuel drilling was opposed by governors in every East Coast and West Coast state except Maine and Georgia. “If the state doesn’t want it, the state has a lot of leverage,” he said.

In contrast, offshore wind’s leverage has become almost undeniable. The last two offshore wind lease auctions in New York and North Carolina added a respective $42 million and $9 million to federal coffers. With Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey leading the way, there are now more than 8,000 megawatts of legislative mandates and pledges by current governors. That could meet the needs of between 4.5 million and 5 million homes, based on the proposals made for 800 MW farms in Massachusetts.

An 8,000 megawatt, or 8 gigawatt (GW) market could alone create between 16,700 and 36,300 jobs by 2030, depending on how much of the industry, currently centered in Europe, is enticed to come here, according to a joint report by the clean energy agencies of Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island. But the potential is much greater.

A 2016 report from the US Departments of Energy and Interior estimated that there was enough technical potential in US offshore wind to power the nation twice over. The US, despite being two and a half decades behind Europe in constructing its first offshore wind farm, a five-turbine project off Block Island, Rhode Island, is still in a position to ultimately catch up to Europe, where there are currently nearly 16 gigawatts installed, supporting 75,000 jobs. The 2016 DOE/DOI report said that a robust offshore wind industry that hits 86 GW by 2050 could generate 160,000 jobs.

One can hope that it is this picture that Sec. Zinke and the Trump administration are looking at in their support of offshore wind. Sec. Zinke continues to say that offshore wind is part of the White House’s “all-of-the-above” strategy for “American energy dominance.” Given how little interest there is for any new oil and gas drilling off the coasts of America, offshore wind is becoming the new source of energy that stands above all.

Service boat cruising in the Anholt offshore wind farm in Denmark. Photo: Derrick Z. Jackson

Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

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