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Forensics, Justice, and the Case for Science-Based Decision Making

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Forensic science—and the language forensic scientists use to talk about their findings–has real-world impacts, sometimes life-or-death impacts, for real people. If the criminal justice system is going to really serve the cause of justice, it needs to be informed by the best available science. Unfortunately, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) is ignoring scientific best practices, reversing progress toward improving forensic science in the U.S.

At the end of July 2018, the DOJ announced the release of eight new Uniform Language for Testimony and Reporting documents (ULTRs) at the annual meeting of the International Association for Identification. An ULTR is a document meant to ensure that all forensic practitioners from the same discipline in DOJ forensic science laboratories use the same language in reporting the results of their analyses to police, lawyers, judges, and juries. While an ULTR is only binding on DOJ laboratories, state and local laboratories often follow DOJ’s lead.

The Deputy Attorney General said at the meeting that these documents “meet the highest scientific and ethical standards.” But do they?
All nine of the ULTRs use what is sometimes described as a “categorical” reporting framework. This framework sorts all reports into a small number of categories. For example, the categorical framework for firearms evidence is:

  1. Source identification (i.e., identified)
  2. Source exclusion (i.e., excluded)
  3. Inconclusive

Categorical reporting has long been widely criticized because the artificial boundaries between the categories render the system prone to perverse cliff effects. A better way would be what might be called “continuous” reporting, in which the weight of the evidence is reported as it is, rather than by reference to its place in a relatively crude three-category framework.

Another criticism of categorical reporting is that it implies certainty, as for example in the firearm example above in which the analyst would tell the jury “that two toolmarks originated from the same source.” Science doesn’t deal in certainties, and these ULTRs violate basic probabilistic reasoning. They are neither logical, nor scientific. That very point was made in the public comments on the draft ULTRs by several commentators and in a recent report on latent print analysis by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

A discouraging omen

In April 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions shut down the National Commission on Forensic Science, a roughly 30-member advisory panel of scientists, forensic and non-forensic, and legal and law enforcement professionals. The Commission had been launched in 2013 after a 2009 report by the National Research Council, the official science advisor to the US Congress, found “serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system” and called “for major reforms.” With the closing of the Commission, the DOJ turned its forensic reform effort over to the Forensic Science Working Group, the current publisher of the ULTRs.

Given that the ULTRs are the first official documents produced by the Forensic Science Working Group as part of its “plans to advance forensic science,” these documents are a discouraging sign for a future in which forensic reform is driven by the DOJ. Since the ULTRs were supposed to “serve as a model for demonstrating” the DOJ’s “commitment to strengthening forensic science, now and in the future,” their flaws don’t portend well.

Not making sense

After stating that the forensic experts should report that they know the source of a forensic trace, the ULTRs go on to make a number of statements that sound more uncertain. It might seem like the ULTRs are trying to tone down their claims of certainty, but the result is that the ULTRs try to support reports of certainty with statements of uncertainty. That doesn’t make any sense.

It also seems like the ULTRs are suggesting that small probabilities can be rounded down to zero for the “consumer” of the evidence. But it is unclear why that would be a scientific, or a just, thing to do.

It is helpful that the ULTRs contain lists of statements that should not be said, such as “zero error rate” and “100% certain.” These statements were made for years, including by DOJ forensic analysts, and they have now been largely discredited. However, a lot of the “banned” statements are what I call “false concessions.” It appears that the DOJ is conceding something important, but in fact they are conceding little or nothing because analysts are still permitted to make statements that are logically equivalent to the banned statements.

Scientists, not just forensic scientists, can weigh in to protect the role of evidence

In recent years, some progress has been made toward recognizing the inherently probabilistic nature of all scientific evidence and seeking ways of communicating those probabilities to lay audiences. The ULTRs signal that the DOJ is not yet ready to join that effort. This is unfortunate, given the DOJ’s power and influence.

Scientists don’t need to know anything about forensic science to understand that categorical statements of certainty are not plausible. Any scientist can help by letting the DOJ know that their statements are not scientifically credible and that the opinions of individual scientists and scientific institutions should be taken seriously by the nation’s most important purveyor of justice.

Overstating the certainty of forensic evidence has been implicated in many miscarriages of justice. And it is scientifically wrong. The people who are the ultimate consumers of forensic evidence deserve better.


Simon A. Cole is a Professor at University of California, Irvine’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society. 

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.

Senate Should Reject Trump’s Coal-Friendly Energy Commission Nominee

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Photo courtesy of Sen. Martin Heinrich


The steady parade of unqualified, ideologically driven appointees for key Trump administration positions has resumed now that things in Washington have settled down after the mid-term elections. Last week, Trump tapped Matthew G. Whitaker to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This Thursday, the Senate will hold a hearing to confirm attorney Bernard McNamee to fill a vacancy at the five-member, presidentially appointed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a relatively obscure—but critically important—independent agency that oversees interstate power lines and pipelines.

Trump presumably picked McNamee to put the administration’s pro-fossil-fuel spin on a number of key decisions FERC will make in the coming months, especially one that would bail out uneconomic coal plants. If that happens, Americans will be saddled with higher electric bills, more toxic air pollution, and more heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change. The commission also will be considering rules that would encourage energy storage, rooftop solar installations, and remotely located renewable sources.

McNamee would replace Robert Powelson, a former utility executive and Pennsylvania utility regulator who left the commission in August after less than a year. One of the three Republicans on the commission, Powelson maintains that FERC should be insulated from political pressure. “I don’t make any decision based on the fact that I’m a lifelong Republican,” he told Energywire. “I have a mean independent streak in me.”

McNamee, who has no utility sector experience, is all about partisan politics. He worked for Republican attorneys general in Virginia and Texas and advised Republican Sens. George Allen and Ted Cruz before joining the Department of Energy (DOE) in May 2017 as deputy general counsel for energy policy.

Last February, he left DOE to work for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a libertarian think tank funded by a rogues gallery of polluters, including Chevron, Devon Energy, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and Luminant, the largest electric utility in Texas. It’s the same outfit that produced Trump’s unqualified—and rejected—nominee to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White.

While at TPPF, McNamee penned a paean to his favorite energy source for The Hill, a political trade publication, titled “This Earth Day, let’s accept the critical role that fossil fuel plays in energy needs.” “We have been told that fossil fuels are wrecking the environment and our health,” his April 17 column read. “The facts are that life expectancy, population and economic growth all began to increase dramatically when fossil fuels were harnessed….” Renewable energy sources, he added, cannot replace fossil fuels, but not to worry, “America is blessed with an abundant supply of affordable natural gas, oil and coal.”

McNamee rejoined DOE in June as the executive director of the agency’s policy office. Before and after his brief stint at TPPF, he promoted Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposal to require regional transmission operators to buy electricity from power plants that can store a 90-day fuel supply on site, ostensibly to strengthen electricity-grid resiliency. The plan, which would prop up coal and nuclear plants that have been struggling to compete on the open market with cheaper natural gas and renewables, would cost ratepayers an estimated $17 billion to $35 billion annually.

At Trump’s behest, Perry asked FERC in September 2017 to issue grid resiliency rules to protect failing coal and nuclear plants. FERC rejected the request, concluding that DOE did not provide any evidence that coal and nuclear plant retirements would undermine grid reliability. An analysis by Mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM of the impact of closing at-risk plants in its region also found no threat to the grid.

Besides trying to reverse FERC’s coal- and nuclear-power bailout decision, McNamee could do lasting damage in other ways. For example, the commission is currently not required to consider the impact of climate change when making electricity policy decisions, but the two Democratic commissioners think the “social cost of carbon”—the financial damage caused by carbon pollution—should be incorporated in environmental reviews for gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Likewise, the commission will be deliberating over whether it should eliminate barriers to electric energy storage, make it easier for solar panel owners to sell their excess power back to electric utilities, and recommend federal incentives for more transmission-line construction, which would enable remotely sited wind and solar projects to compete with natural gas. Given McNamee’s biases, it is unlikely he would support any of those initiatives.

This week’s confirmation hearing, hosted by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, will be chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is no stranger to the FERC confirmation drill and quite knowledgeable about the commission’s mandate. In her opening statement during a FERC commissioner confirmation hearing in 2013, Murkowski made a case for rejecting an Obama nominee that could be easily applied to McNamee.

“FERC is independent by law and by design. It is clearly distinct from executive agencies that carry out policy directives from the White House…,” she explained. “It is critically important for us to enable the agency—and its professional nonpartisan employees who report to the chairman as their CEO—to maintain its strong culture as an expert agency free of undue political influence.”

Murkowski should hew to that line on Thursday—and the Senate should reject the McNamee nomination.

Automakers propose loopholes, not rollbacks of cleaner car standards—both are terrible

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Since word first leaked that the Administration was planning to freeze fuel economy and global warming emissions standards for passenger cars and trucks, automakers and their trade associations have been adamant about “not wanting a rollback.”  Now that the public comment period on the agencies’ proposed freeze has closed, we have an opportunity to see just exactly what it is that the manufacturers want instead of a rollback—the answer is, in some cases, actually even worse:

  • Honda proposes keeping the curves the same but asks for a number of changes that would erode the benefits of the standards we have today. Lost Emissions Benefits: ~20-40%
  • The Association of Global Automakers not only asks for all those same flexibilities, but they have also requested further revisions downward “to account for today’s market realities.” Lost Emissions Benefits: ~50-70+%
  • General Motors has proposed scrapping the greenhouse gas emissions program entirely, replacing it with a weak National Zero Emissions Vehicle (NZEV) program that will not drive electric vehicle (EV) adoption beyond the status quo, and their proposal does little to drive down emissions from the 95 percent of the vehicle market that will still be powered by gasoline. Lost Emissions Benefits: ~75-90%
  • The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers asks for every loophole under the sun and then some—so much so that even if the year-over-year improvements remained unchanged from the rules we have today, progress on emissions could actually be even worse than the proposed rollback. Lost Emissions Benefits: ~70-130+%

Even the most aggressive positions by major automakers would represent a step backwards from the standards we have today. Our analysis shows that GM’s so-called “visionary” proposal is anything but, representing only a marginal improvement on the rollback and locking that lack of progress in through 2030. And proposals from its trade group, the Auto Alliance, are actually WORSE than a rollback due to the countless flexibilities requested. The hashed boxes indicate uncertainty around the year-over-year improvement requested by the organization, while the ranges reflect uncertainty about technology adoption. Arrows indicate additional, unquantified changes which would further shift the benefits of the proposal.

“Flexibilities” are at the heart of all automaker comments

While there are rhetorical flourishes from automakers about “meaningful year-over-year improvements” and insistence on being “committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” every single automaker indicated that they believe there are changes needed to the standards that are on the books, standards which have successfully driven investment in fuel efficiency across all vehicles classes, saving consumers over $70 billion at the pump.

The standards on the books today have roughly comparable year-over-year requirements for every type of vehicle but are adjusted so that bigger vehicles and light trucks have lower targets.  There are two ways to dampen the progress from these standards:  the first approach is to adjust the year-over-year requirements of the standards, the “curves” underpinning the rules—this is what the administration has done by freezing the standards at 2020 levels; the second approach is much sneakier, which is to ask for “extra credit” for specific applications of technology that give more credit for emissions and fuel reductions than will actually result in the real world—this is the approach favored by automakers (though some have deployed a combination of both strategies).

The agencies have already included some incentives in the current standards, which the industry refers to as “flexibilities” and others may refer to as “loopholes” (for example, EV emissions are currently credited without acknowledging emissions from upstream electricity production).  However, many of these incentives were designed to be temporary to drive early adoption and are now phasing out.  Manufacturers are now requesting that these incentives be extended, in some cases indefinitely, and additionally that these flexibilities be broadened well beyond the original intent of the incentive—while promoting sustainable technologies like EVs in the near-term is important, it shouldn’t be done at the expense of encouraging a less efficient fleet overall.  This can have a profound impact on the overall benefits of the rule—by crediting manufacturers with more reductions than would actually appear in the real world, those benefits are simply “lost.”

Tallying up the impact of automaker proposals

The impact of many of these requested flexibilities are uncertain because they depend upon exactly how many vehicles are sold with a given technology.  Furthermore, not all requests have been explicitly quantified, and in the case of requests for credits for safety technologies, the data is uncertain not just about how many vehicles would adopt this technology, but whether there is even any benefit at all.

However, I’ve put together an assessment of the four most clearly-defined proposals below, assessing their impact relative to the standards that we currently have on the books:

Honda:  Honda has specifically proposed a stringency of “approximately 5 percent per year annual improvement,” making it essentially the same as the rules we have on the books right now.  The catch, however, is that they’ve requested added incentives, asking for EV incentives to be extended and for hybrid incentives to be available for all light trucks, including the hybrid Honda CR-V going on sale in some parts of the globe in 2019.

Global Automakers:  The Association of Global Automakers represents the major Asian manufacturers as well as a handful of small luxury car companies.  Unlike Honda, they have only hinted at what level of stringency they believe would be appropriate, including and citing a study by Novation Analytics claiming that gasoline-powered cars and trucks could only achieve standards of 49 mpg and 35 mpg in 2025, respectively (compared to 55 mpg and 40 mpg according to the current standards).  Additionally, they asked for even more flexibilities than Honda, including giving credits for hybrid cars like the Prius, which has been on sale for two decades.  They have also requested credits for safety technology like adaptive cruise control, despite little evidence suggesting it will result in net emissions reductions—we have not considered the impact of these additional “off-cycle” credit requests.

GM:  In lieu of the program now on the books, General Motors proposed a completely different scheme—gasoline-powered vehicles would be required to improve by about 1 percent per year, but in addition there would be put in place a National Zero Emission Vehicle (NZEV) program to encourage sale of electric vehicles.  The problem, as my colleague has already written, is that the NZEV proposed by GM is quite weak, leading to just 8 percent EV sales by 2030.  On top of this, the proposal on conventional vehicles is flimsy and includes credit giveaways, but it would be in effect for the vast majority of vehicles because conventional vehicles will be 95 percent of vehicles sold 2020-2030, even under GM’s proposal.

Auto Alliance:  The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers ramps nearly every requested loophole to 11.  Not only do they request permanently excluding the impact of the electricity powering EVs, but it requests that the multipliers be more than doubled, from 2 to 4.5 for battery-electric vehicles and from 1.6 to 4.8 for plug-in hybrid vehicles—yes, they are actually requesting more credit for vehicles with worse emissions.  They are also seeking to change the definition of a truck so that all utility vehicles fall under significantly weaker standards, even while acknowledging that consumers are cross-shopping sedans and crossovers.  Importantly, the Alliance does not propose a specific change to the year-over-year stringency of the program, only a general call for “adjustment”—our analysis of flexibilities thus assumes that the standard curves remain in place, clearly a very, very conservative assumption given the rest of the Alliance proposal.

A rollback by another name

The future impacts of these proposals are uncertain—the adverse effects on emissions from giving extra credit for hybrid or plug-in electric vehicles depends on the number of those vehicles sold.  Our modeling spans a number of scenarios of technology penetration, ranging from the agencies’ 2016 analysis and compliance with state ZEV standards to the agencies’ 2018 analysis and its ludicrously high assessment of technology needed to comply with regulations.  No matter how you cut it, it is clear from this analysis just how severely these automaker asks would erode the standards.

The asks from the Alliance in particular are so egregious one wonders whether they were accompanied by maniacal laughter and moustache twirling.  Without even reducing on paper the requirements of the standards on the books today, the Alliance asks are equivalent to a rollback under even the most moderate assumptions, and at the level of technology adoption that they and their members claim is necessary, the giveaways would actually be worse than the administration’s proposal.

An incredibly myopic “vision”

The GM NZEV plan has been heavily covered in the media, with some mistakenly calling it a vision for the future.  But the numbers speak for themselves—the GM proposal disregards significant improvements in the vast majority vehicles through 2030 and provides not much better than status quo adoption of EVs in return.  Additionally, they call for increased credit for hybrid light trucks and reclassification of more of the fleet as light trucks, which would fall under weaker standards.

The result is predictable and amounts to an average improvement of about 1.4 percent per year, well short of the nearly 5 percent improvement on the books right now.  It also serves to undermine state and EPA authority under the Clean Air Act, escalates giveaways for unproven technologies that (coincidentally) GM is planning on selling anyway, and doesn’t even provide a guarantee for the benefits under its piddly NZEV because it has an escape clause which would nullify the proposal and any meager attempt at progress if things get too hard—not unlike the eject button they’re trying to push as a part of this mid-term review.

Is anyone not calling for a rollback?

Maybe the clearest outcome of the mid-term review has been to show the viability of the current standards—as time has gone on, more opportunities to reduce fuel use and emissions have been put to market, and even some of the most obvious, low-cost solutions are still only gradually making their way across the fleet.  We and many others continued to press this point to the agencies in the public comment period, pushing back on the administration’s rollback.

Unfortunately, apart from Tesla (who called for even stronger standards), the closest any automaker got to calling for standards equivalent to what we already have right now is Honda.  While they distanced themselves from some flexibilities requested by their trade group like the Prius loophole, Honda still mirrored a number of the same requests.  That means that while on paper the rules would remain as stringent as they are right now, Honda’s proposal would still cut 20-40 percent of the benefits of the rules on the books today, leading to an increase of 175 to 350 million metric tons over the lifetime of vehicles sold through 2025.

While compared to the rest of the industry that may be about as good as it gets, even Honda’s proposal is a significant step backwards, slowing down near-term progress with a wink and a nod that the industry is committed to a sustainable future.  That, of course, is a tactic we’ve seen before.

Promises today, pollution tomorrow

The history of the auto industry is rife with examples of automakers undermining progress not out of technological infeasibility but out of profit and disregard for public outcomes.  When it came to tailpipe pollution, the Alliance spent years undermining the science. When California pushed for action, the companies pushed back, claiming that voluntary action that would prove woefully inadequate to the problem was the right path. After California’s successful regulatory push to move tailpipe control devices to market led to federal regulations, automakers again stalled, winning a reprieve again on the claims that what is really needed is fleet turnover—a claim which, of course, proved false and led to untold adverse health consequences as a result.

There are positive statements in the positions of Global Automakers and Honda that recognize the need for continued progress, and while the proposals represent a short-term setback, it is possible that this is merely strategic positioning as the companies look to negotiate a truly sustainable path forward.  But when looking at the proposal from General Motors looking to codify the status quo and the harmful, cartoonish nonsense out of the Alliance that would actually make the country worse off than the administration’s proposal, it’s hard not to see these proposals together as just another example of an industry doing what it can to avoid responsibility for its products, consequences be damned.

The Voters have Spoken: Time for Checks and Balances to Make a Comeback

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Photo: PeopleImages/iStockphoto

The election is all but over, and the result is a divided Congress.

Take a deep breath, scientists, and remember that divided government in these United States is what our Constitution was designed for.  A guiding principle was one of checks and balances – a check on dominance of one point of view and balance in the resulting policies for the people.  Something that, in my view, has been sorely missing for the last two years because adherence to party has superseded service to constituents and country.

So now what?  In Washington-speak, there will be an increased appetite for serious “oversight” of the Executive branch by the House of Representatives.  That means that Congress is likely to focus on how the Trump Administration is implementing the laws and mandates put in place to serve the public’s interest.  This is literally one of the “checks and balances” the framers of the Constitution created.

How does that happen?  Congress can hold hearings to question agency officials as well as solicit views from the affected public, experts, and other stakeholders about impacts of agency actions.  Also, as appropriators of federal dollars, Congress determines funding levels for each agency and can set the terms of use for those funds.  And Congress can demand information in writing, investigate problems through the Government Accountability Office (GAO) or Inspectors General’s (IG) offices in each federal agency, and hold agency officials accountable both in the court of public opinion, along with referring cases to the courts as needed.   These are powerful tools that have been semi-dormant for a couple of years.  Time for a change.

I like to think of Congressional efforts toward checks and balances coming from three sources:

  1. Pursuing specific constituent concerns
  2. Ensuring the intent of Congress is carried out
  3. Highlighting controversial issues
Constituent services

Every member of Congress is elected to serve both their constituents and the Nation as a whole.  And every member is attentive to issues raised by their constituents, whose welfare (and votes) matter to them.  When a member of Congress hears similar concerns from multiple constituents, he/she can and should see what can be done to address the issue writ large from DC.  Your calls, your letters, your visits to local state or district offices matter.  Every scientist is also a constituent; communicating with your elected representatives can often be more important and effective than the voice of a famous expert speaking broadly from elsewhere about a policy.  So, scientist/constituents can be the impetus for congressional oversight.

Let’s consider a few ways this could happen right away.  Without notifying the public, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this past year made a legal interpretation that the rules for industrial facilities that emit hazardous air pollutants will change — with the potential to dramatically increase emissions of these toxic and sometimes cancer-causing substances.  Suppose one of those facilities is in your neighborhood (and we have mapped them all by congressional district)?  You and your neighbors could ask your member of Congress to demand more information from the EPA or even to call for reconsideration of that policy change.  Tell your elected representative you expect them to hold the EPA accountable for public health impacts in your community.

Or perhaps you live near a military base, and your water supply has been contaminated by toxic per- or polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), endangering the health of your family and your neighbors.  We mapped many of these sites too.  The EPA has taken little to no action to clean up these hazardous pollutants despite overwhelming scientific evidence, and the Department of Defense (DoD) is moving slowly.  Your elected officials need to know that this isn’t acceptable.  It’s up to you to tell your member of Congress that you want them to hold the EPA and DoD to account for cleaning up the pollution.  That’s their job – to serve the public interest, not the interest of companies like Dow, Dupont, or 3M that made these compounds and are pushing back on improving the safety standards.  Your members of Congress can insist on better information, a timeline for cleanup, funds to make the water safe, and clear commitments to action by the agencies and the Administration, if they think it matters to you.

Intent of Congress

Another important part of oversight is to monitor and constantly question whether agency actions are meeting congressional intent.  In other words, ensuring that the agencies are doing their jobs on behalf of the public. Every law passed and perhaps periodically reauthorized and updated by Congress has specific goals in mind.  The Clean Water Act aims to make the nation’s waters fishable and swimmable.  The Clean Air Act seeks to ensure that the existing and future sources of air pollution are curtailed to protect public health and welfare.  The Endangered Species Act is designed to prevent the extinction of species.

Executive branch agencies implement those laws through policies and regulations specifically designed to meet the intent of Congress as written in the statute and interpreted by the courts.

Again, consider some examples.  Congress intended the Clean Air Act to clean up the air and to use the best available science to determine threats to public health and safety and then enact safeguards to protect the public against them.  Recently, the EPA has taken actions that fly in the face of this statutory mandate.  They intend to restrict the science that EPA can consider in implementing public health and safety regulations; they have dismissed the expert panels to advise on the scientific evidence for major air pollutants; and they have reshaped the agency’s science advisory boards to give industry and states a greater role than independent academic scientists.  Is this what Congress intended when it told the agency to use the best available science?  We should ask our elected officials to question these actions and demand justification from the agency. Scientist/constituents can call on Congress to withhold such that they can not be used to implement agency policies that sideline science.  And, of course, we can advocate for stronger laws that the agency can’t easily wriggle out of that ensure the use of science.

Controversial issues

There has seldom been lack of controversy in how our governments decides to deal with particular issues, but lately concerns about climate change, for example, have reached fever pitch.  These will continue, as different stakeholders have different priorities, preferences, and even values.  But our policies will not get better under any circumstances by ignoring the scientific evidence.  At the Department of Interior there have been across the board actions to remove consideration of climate change from agency planning and actions.  That includes virtually hiding reports that describe global warming impacts.

In addition, there are controversies related to conflicts of interest of political appointees and the culture of corruption in agencies and to advisory committees, as well as clear indications of political interference in agency science.

This is not just politics as usual; there are serious challenges we face as a nation.  Questions Congress could and should address in hearings, investigations and demands for information include:  Is our government and our governmental agencies putting the public’s interest first and foremost when it acts?    How should we be using public resources?  When are we going to get serious about addressing climate change — one of the greatest challenges we face globally and as a nation?

Our role as constituent scientists

There are many issues of concern that are a combination of sidelining of scientific evidence and impacts on people in our communities directly.  So, lets speak about the science, but also local impacts when contacting our representatives and asking them to pursue a strong oversight agenda.  Let’s bring the facts forward, demand information and look for solutions.  These are not esoteric or theoretical problems.  We need to speak as both scientists and constituents.

The checks and balances of Congressional oversight that I am talking about are often motivated by constituent concern, when it is voiced directly, clearly and productively.  As scientists, we are constituents but with a particular knowledge set and training on how we approach problems that is particularly valuable in shaping the oversight discussion.  As community members, we have a strong role to play in ensuring these health and safety issues get the attention they deserve, and responsible action from our federal government.

Voting in the midterms was incredibly important.  Now we need to follow up on the opportunity created by a new Congress by speaking truth to power, calling on our representatives to do the crucial job we gave them of checking and balancing the Trump Administration.  Let us know if you want to join us, and we’ll be in touch!



Photo: PeopleImages/iStockphoto

Ørsted, Deepwater Wind: Are Offshore Wind Mergers Good for Us?

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Kim Hansen/Flickr (

Last week saw offshore wind giant Ørsted complete its acquisition of local star Deepwater Wind. Is that a good thing?

The players and the scorecard

The $510-million deal brings together two important players in the offshore wind space. Rhode Island-based Deepwater holds the distinction of being the developer of the first offshore wind project in the Americas, the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island waters. Since no successor projects have gotten that far, it also holds the distinction of being the owner of the only offshore wind project in the Americas.

Ørsted, formerly the Danish Oil and Natural Gas company, developed the very first offshore wind farm, in Denmark in 1991, and is the largest developer of offshore wind in the world, including the new world recordholder for largest offshore wind farm. In this country, it holds an offshore wind lease in federal waters off the Jersey coast, and a half share of another off Massachusetts. It’s also involved in a pilot project under development off Virginia.

For Deepwater’s investors, the acquisition by Ørsted, originally announced last month, likely represents a successful exit on the bet they took with the company, established in 2007.

For Ørsted, acquiring Deepwater gives it an even more solid footing in the US market. Along with the Block Island project, Deepwater holds two of the four federal offshore wind leases off Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and half of another off Maryland. It won bids early this year to supply Rhode Island with 400 MW of offshore wind and Connecticut with 200 MW. And its proposed 90 MW wind farm east of Long Island looks like a good bet to be one of the next places for steel in the water.

Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson

What about us?

The Ørsted press release announcing the Deepwater acquisition said that they expected it “to deliver a healthy value creation spread on top of our cost of capital, with additional significant strategic upside.” It’s not entirely obvious what that business-speak means, but it’s clear they think it’s a good idea for them.

But what does this merger mean for us—consumers, policy makers, or just interested observers?

On the one hand, competition is good, and a merger like this arguably reduces competition—in the case of bid opportunities like the ones from Rhode Island and Connecticut (and Massachusetts), for example. Some might also feel some regret having an American company get acquired from abroad.

On the other hand, it’s easy to view this as a strong vote of confidence by a company that knows more than a thing or two about the offshore wind space. If Ørsted is willing to put a half a billion dollars into increasing its presence in these parts—not to mention the investment that its new portfolio of projects will require—that’s a pretty strong sign that we (the public, the states, the federal government) must be doing something right in working to create an attractive climate for investment in offshore wind.

There’s also clearly a lot of value in achieving economies of scale in this industry. European offshore wind project keep getting larger and cheaper, and now we’ve seen dramatic drops in the price of power from offshore wind on this side of the Atlantic, in Massachusetts’s recent long-term contracting.

And, while Deepwater was no shrinking violet, financially (its owner was a hedge fund with tens of billions of dollars under management), Ørsted brings plenty of capital to bear plus its 27-year experience in the offshore wind space.

Given the incredible challenge of climate change, our need to do offshore wind power not just quickly but correctly, and the tremendous potential off our shores/near our cities, most anything that accelerates the ramp-up of offshore wind in this country is probably a good thing for us as consumers, and for us as citizens of a world in need of decarbonization.

Because ultimately, that’s where our focus needs to be: faster, cheaper, right-er. We’ll be watching the industry to make sure that’s where their focus stays too.

Photo: Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons

Forget the Trump Bailout—Here’s a Real Solution for Nuclear and the Climate

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The Trump Administration’s proposal to bail out uneconomic coal and nuclear power plants is a bad idea predicated on a made-up problem. The real crisis we face is the climate crisis, as the recent IPCC report highlighted in stark terms last month. We must steeply reduce CO2 emissions over the next decade and beyond or we will lock in warming that will have disastrous consequences for people around the word.

We’ve dwindled away our most precious commodity in the climate fight… time. Now there are no easy options; no easy pathways. We are in a world of trade-offs. We must reconcile the science and the clock with the reality of where we are in our transition to a clean energy economy.

For the electricity sector, that means building a lot (a lot a lot) more renewables and increasing energy efficiency. It means modernizing our grid, ramping up energy storage, and phasing out coal and natural gas without carbon capture and storage (CCS). And it also means scratching and clawing for every metric ton of CO2 we can avoid, including guarding against the risk of existing nuclear power plants retiring abruptly and being replaced by natural gas.

UCS’ new report, “The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions” analyzes the economics of the existing nuclear fleet and concludes that a well-designed carbon price or a low-carbon electricity standard will help keep existing nuclear plants that meet high safety standards online.

The Trump coal and nuclear bailout is not a real solution

Earlier this year, the administration issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to the federal electricity regulatory commission (FERC), which would use executive authority to force consumers to buy more expensive electricity produced from coal and nuclear plants.

This is a bailout. Not only would it cost rate-payers (or taxpayers, depending on how the bailout is paid for), but the additional use of coal would hurt public health and increase the heat-trapping emissions that drive climate change.

The administration said they needed to take this unprecedented action because the prospect of coal and nuclear plant closures would jeopardize electricity reliability—keeping the lights on—and make the grid less resilient. This justification has been widely disproved by grid experts and was unanimously rejected by FERC. The administration’s actions appear to be based more on politics than on substance.

Even if this administration abandoned the current architecture of the proposal, jettisoning the coal bailouts and focusing only on nuclear, it would still be a poor approach. Dumping a bunch of rate-payer or taxpayer money into the coffers of private interests without big public benefits, transparency, and accountability is wrong.

Likewise, temporary bailouts for nuclear don’t address the systemic market failure which is a significant part of why nuclear plants are losing money in the first place: zero-carbon benefits are not rewarded in the marketplace in most states. Nuclear is competing with natural gas on an uneven playing field, and it’s losing. A temporary nuclear bailout would do nothing to address the underlying issue; applying a Band-Aid on a deep, gaping wound is not a real solution. Throwing good money after bad is not a responsible use of the public trust; these plants would be right back in the red the minute that money runs out.

What nuclear and other low-carbon technologies need is durable policy support that corrects this systemic market failure.

Real policy solutions that help existing nuclear and the climate

Our new report found that even a very modest carbon price ($25 per ton in 2020, increasing 5 percent per year) would solidify the economic position of the existing nuclear fleet, helping to avoid an over-reliance on natural gas and significant emissions increases. It would also incentivize the development and deployment of renewables, as well as other low- or zero-carbon energy technologies.

One policy option that hasn’t received as much attention and can also deliver similar benefits as a carbon price is a National Low-Carbon Electricity standard (LCES), or “Clean” Energy Standard.  UCS has supported this approach in the past, but as i will explore in a subsequent blog, the policy design matters.  For example, the last federal iteration of this policy was the Bingaman Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012, which gave partial credit to natural gas generation without CCS, which we would not support today, given the country’s growing over-reliance on natural gas, and the significant associated carbon emissions.

UCS modeled two policy scenarios: a modest carbon price case ($25 per ton) and a modest low-carbon electricity standard (60% by 2030/ 80% by 2050). The figure below compares the modeling results for our nation’s electricity generation mix under the policy scenarios to the 2017 generation mix, a reference case in 2035 (which includes the 5 nuclear plants slated to retire by 2025) and to three ‘early nuclear retirement scenarios’ that assume an additional 13-26 percent of the current nuclear fleet retires by 2026 because of economic reasons (before their current 60-year operating licenses expire). The early nuclear retirement scenarios are based on our analysis of the profitability of the existing fleet.

Both the carbon price and the LCES help maintain existing nuclear generation at reference case levels through 2035. In the case of the LCES, we see additional reductions in natural gas and additional development of wind and solar. How much the generation mix shifts to low-carbon resources is a function of the stringency of the policy; a higher carbon price or a more ambitious LCES target would show even more renewables.

The figure below shows the emissions trajectory of the different scenarios, including a carbon price and an LCES. Note that our early nuclear retirement scenarios show a 6 percent increase in emissions at a time when we need to be on track to achieve a 90 percent reduction by 2040 (shown here as the National Research Council Carbon Budget) to stay on track with our climate goals. The figure also shows that a 60 percent by 2030 LCES provides similar emissions reductions as the $25 per ton electricity sector carbon price, but note that those policies only get us a little more than half way to our emission reductions target by 2035. More stringent policies or additional complementary polices are required.

A national LCES is good for red states

UCS has been a leading advocate of renewable electricity standards (RES) around the country for many years, and supported the last federal iteration back in 2015, the Udall 30 by 2030 bill. We continue to believe that Congress should pass a strong national RES to help incentivize more renewables development, reduce our nation’s growing over-reliance on natural gas, and aggressively bring down carbon emissions. But, a properly designed national LCES can provide similar benefits, while also solidifying the economic position of existing nuclear plants that meet strict safety standards (preventing abrupt closures). And while we did not analyze this in our modeling, an LCES could also provide an incentive for developing new low and zero carbon energy technologies, including potentially new nuclear reactors and carbon capture and sequestration technologies (CCS), giving us more tools for the climate fight.

A national LCES can broaden the tent of support for low-carbon electricity in parts of the country that are not as far along in their transition to a clean energy economy. This policy helps mitigate some of the imbalances to states with less renewable development relative to a national RES. And it gives many red state congressional delegations a clean energy policy that may be a better fit for their state, freeing up badly needed support from conservatives.

For example, a strong national LCES would provide a lot of benefit to states like South Carolina and Tennessee, for which nuclear power makes the biggest contribution to their electricity mix, with very little coming from renewables. These states could be in position to benefit economically from this policy, while an LCES would also incentivize additional renewables and/or low-carbon development in those states as they prepare to eventually replace those nuclear plants when their useful life expires.

A strong national LCES would also benefit states like Iowa and Kansas, which have enormous wind power as well as nuclear, but also have a lot of coal in their electricity mix. A national LCES would help that existing nuclear stay online, as well as retire some of that expensive and harmful coal generation, while also building on the amazing 36-37% wind energy in their mix. Iowa and Kansas could also easily comply with an LCES and will benefit economically.  All of the states below would realize significant public health benefits that come with trading off coal for renewable energy development.

Electricity Generation Share by Sources, 2017 (source: The Nuclear Power Dilemma)

STATE Nuclear Coal Nat. Gas Hydro Wind Solar Biomass Other SC 58% 19% 17% 3% 0% 0% 3% 0% TN 40% 35% 13% 10% 0% 0% 1% 0% IA 9% 45% 6% 2% 37% 0% 0% 1% KS 21% 38% 5% 0% 36% 0% 0% 0%

We need to create incentives for states to reduce investments in coal and natural gas, maintain the low-carbon generation they already have, and substantially increase investments in new low or zero carbon technologies. Complementary policies to boost energy efficiency will also be needed. With a national LCES, several years from now the table above could show a significant reduction in generation from coal (and natural gas), while holding nuclear generation steady, and substantially increasing the contribution from renewables.

Absent a national LCES or some other policy that incentivizes and protects low carbon generation, the electricity mix in states like South Carolina and Tennessee is likely to go in the wrong direction for the climate.

We need real solutions, not bailouts

Our new analysis of the economics of the existing nuclear fleet clearly show there’s a risk of abrupt retirements, and that the generation would be replaced primarily by fossil fuels. That’s a climate problem, but it’s also a public health problem, it’s a jobs concern, there are tax revenue implications for communities, and much more. States like Illinois, New York and New Jersey avoided abrupt nuclear retirements by working with stakeholders to reach agreements that spawned real policy solutions. Pricing carbon and creating national standards for low emissions electricity are real policy solutions that would protect existing nuclear that can be implemented at the state or the federal level.

These policies don’t cost taxpayer money, and the modeling we’ve done on the electricity price impacts has shown no significant increases.

Juxtapose these real policy solutions with the coal and nuclear bailout proposed by the Trump administration that will cost substantial rate-payer or tax payer money, will NOT protect nuclear in the long-term, and will assuredly exacerbate the climate crisis while increasing threats to public health.

The choice is clear. We need real policy solutions, not bailouts for political supporters.

Fossil Fuel Giants Are Pumping Out Greenwashing—Their Tricks Won’t Work

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Exxon refinery in Baytown, Texas.

In recent months, we’ve seen fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil leave the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), pledge $1 million to support a carbon tax, announce measures to reduce methane emissions, and join the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI). Is the company finally getting serious about addressing climate change? Um, no. ExxonMobil is finally responding to mounting pressure from shareholders, law enforcement, and the public to clean up its climate act. So are other major fossil fuel companies. That was one of the key findings of the 2018 update to UCS’s Climate Accountability Scorecard, an in-depth analysis of eight major oil, gas, and coal companies’ climate-related positions and actions. But unfortunately, we also found that these companies still appear to be trying to trick us with greenwashing. (Read my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel’s blog breaking down the ways that many of these companies continue to distort climate science here.)

Here are six tricks by ExxonMobil and some of its key competitors that we’re countering with our public exposure and organizing.

Trick 1: Look over there—squirrel!

Each of ExxonMobil’s announcements followed news about the severity of the climate crisis and the outsize role of major fossil fuel producers in creating it: Baltimore and Rhode Island suing to recover the costs of climate damages and preparedness, the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the dangerous consequences of global temperature increase of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the New York state attorney general filing a lawsuit against ExxonMobil for defrauding its shareholders by downplaying expected climate risks to its business. In this context, it’s hard not to see the company’s moves as public relations distractions.

Trick 2: Putting their money where their mouths aren’t

This election season, major fossil fuel companies fueled the opposition to I-1631—the ballot initiative in Washington state for a carbon fee that went down to defeat despite heroic organizing by a broad grassroots coalition. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), which counts BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil among its leaders and ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell among its members, was the sponsor of “No on I-1631” leading the charge. BP spent a staggering $13 million to fight the carbon fee, directly contradicting its claim that “carbon pricing provides the right incentives for everyone—energy producers and consumers alike—to play their part in reducing emissions.”

Trick 3: Putting their mouths where their money isn’t

ExxonMobil’s pledge of $1 million to lobby for a carbon tax is dwarfed by the $36 million the company has donated over the past 20 years to groups that spread climate disinformation.

Similarly, the $100 million pledges by ExxonMobil and Chevron to the OGCI Climate Investments fund might sound like a lot… that is, until you compare them with the companies’ planned spending on oil and gas exploration and infrastructure in 2018: $28 billion for ExxonMobil, $15.8 billion for Chevron. And while “climate investments” might evoke renewable energy resources like wind and solar, the OGCI fund focuses instead on reducing methane leakage, promoting energy efficiency, and developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to sequester global warming emissions from fossil fuels by storing them underground. The pot of funding pledged to date by the 13 OGCI members seems little more than a token—particularly when you consider that Shell’s scenario for limiting global temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels relies on a 200-fold increase in deployment of CCS by 2070. Meanwhile, when it comes to renewables, ExxonMobil seems content with supplying lubricants for wind turbines.

Trick 4: Empty promises

Like BP, ExxonMobil and Shell have long professed to support a price on carbon. And like BP, these companies have yet to back up their stated support with consistent policy advocacy.

BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell have also publicly committed to uphold five “guiding principles” to reduce methane emissions—including to support “sound” and “effective” methane policies and regulations. Yet as the Trump administration proposes to weaken and even eliminate methane regulations, these companies have failed to step up to defend them. In fact, all four of these companies maintain leadership roles in the American Petroleum Institute (API), which is pushing for the rollback of methane rules.

Trick 5: Hiding behind front groups

Major fossil energy companies have a long history of funding campaigns to sow doubt about climate change. Much of this disinformation has been disseminated by third-party groups, including trade associations, think tanks, and other nonprofits.

This trick remains in the fossil fuel industry’s playbook. A recent investigative piece by ProPublica found that Big Oil and other industries are getting around Facebook’s new ad transparency rules—in some cases with “a digital form of what is known as ‘astroturfing,’ or hiding behind the mirage of a spontaneous grassroots movement.”

UCS’s 2018 scorecard found that all eight companies in our sample maintain membership in trade associations and other industry-affiliated groups that spread disinformation about climate science and seek to block climate action. Each company holds at least one leadership position in groups such as ALEC, API, and WSPA.

The influence of industry groups is a major obstacle to achieving the “rapid and far-reaching” transitions across major sectors of the global economy that the IPCC special report says are now needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C. While the report acknowledges that industry group lobbying was a factor in reducing political space for some major emitting nations to maneuver, the IPCC has faced criticism for ignoring academic research into fossil fuel-funded climate science denial campaigns.

Trick 6: Mum’s the word

More than a dozen coastal and inland communities in the US have now filed lawsuits to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate damages and the ongoing costs of mitigation and preparedness. Last week, New York City appealed to overturn the dismissal of its lawsuit by a federal district court. Although such lawsuits generate substantial media visibility, require significant legal efforts, and expose companies to the possibility of enormous payouts, BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil failed to disclose their potential climate litigation liability to shareholders in their securities filings.

The Climate Risk Disclosure Act aims to end such incomplete and uneven disclosures. Introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren and seven co-sponsors and supported by UCS and dozens of other organizations, the bill would require public companies to disclose critical information about their exposure to climate-related risks. In the face of stricter transparency rules, silence will no longer be golden for fossil fuel companies.

We’ve got the major fossil fuel companies right where we want them—starting to say some of the right words. They have only come this far thanks to public, investor, and legal pressure. Now we need to ramp up the pressure to turn those words into meaningful actions. The IPCC 1.5°C report is a stark reminder that there’s no (more) time to lose.

On Veterans Day, Why Aren’t Congress and the USDA Looking Out for Those Who Served?

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Navy-veteran Lenny Evans Miles, Jr. operates Bluestem Farms LLC, in Chestertown, MD. USDA Photo by Preston Keres

This Veterans Day is particularly significant, marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Though US veterans from that long-ago war are gone, some 20 million of their brethren are with us today. Our culture honors them at sporting events and other public venues, but we also have an ugly history of mistreating those who served—from returning Vietnam vets being spat upon to mismanaged healthcare programs and corruption at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And right now, misguided decisions by the Secretary of Agriculture and members of Congress threaten to reverse progress for service members and veterans who want to work the land and feed their neighbors.

In 2014, Congress recognized the ways that military veterans are particularly suited to growing food, and how farming can help former soldiers cope with the effects of war. That year’s farm bill called out veterans as a distinct group eligible for support under the US Department of Agriculture’s beginning farmers programs, opening access to grants and low-interest-rate loans to get started and to innovate.

(For more on how vets-turned-farmers are continuing to serve their communities and reduce hunger, see this 2016 post by former UCS Kendall Science Fellow Andrea Basche, now an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska.)

Fast forward to 2018, and both the Trump administration and its allies in the House of Representatives are pursuing farm bill changes that would hurt those same veterans, along with active-duty military personnel.

The two principal actors—Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX) and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue—should know better. Conaway, who chairs the House agriculture committee, is an Army veteran and senior member of the House Armed Services Committee; his biography page is emblazoned with an image of him with service members in fatigues. Over at the USDA, Perdue is a former captain in the Air Force, and just last week he professed his gratitude to the nation’s veterans.

But as usual, actions speak louder than words.

The Perdue/Conaway attack on SNAP hurts military personnel and veterans

Take the positions Conaway and Perdue have pushed on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). We’ve written extensively about the punitive SNAP program changes the Trump administration and Rep. Conaway have pursued this year. The farm bill Conaway wrote and passed through the House in June would add unnecessary and burdensome new work requirements to the program. And that would effectively reduce or eliminate benefits for millions of people.

Now, Conaway and his caucus would have you believe that SNAP is plagued with participants who would rather collect benefits than work, but in fact, most SNAP beneficiaries who can work, do. Another fact? The SNAP rolls include many active-duty military personnel and veterans. A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office found that about 23,000 active-duty troops used SNAP in 2013, then the most recent year for which data were available.

Moreover, analysis of Census Bureau data by the independent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that nearly 1.4 million veterans live in households that participate in SNAP, including 97,000 vets in Conaway’s own state of Texas. CBPP analysts have detailed the ways these veterans would be particularly vulnerable to the ill-conceived new work requirements Conaway and Perdue (and President Trump himself) have aggressively pushed.

A needless farm bill fight has left veteran-farmers without resources

As a result of their intransigence, other programs that benefit veterans (and the rest of us) have been left in the lurch. The congressional standoff on SNAP, which persisted all summer and into the fall, led to the expiration of the existing farm bill, without a replacement, on September 30. My colleagues have written about the effect of the lapsed legislation on agricultural research and local food programs. But the 39 programs stranded without funding when the farm bill expired also included the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides education, mentoring, and technical assistance grants new farmers—and which mandates that at least 5 percent of funds support programs and services that address the needs of veteran farmers and ranchers.

Now, Rep. Conaway has reportedly scheduled a Veterans Day meeting with his counterpart on the House ag committee, at which they will presumably discuss the fate of the farm bill. Perhaps the timing will keep veteran top-of-mind as he decides whether to move toward a farm bill that will help them—or continue to promote policy changes that will hurt them.

No, Natural Gas Power Plants Are Not Clean

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You may have heard that natural gas is “clean.” Compared to coal, natural gas produces less global warming emissions and air pollution. But coal is just about the dirtiest way to produce electricity, so almost anything will seem cleaner in comparison. The fact of the matter is that natural gas power plants still produce a significant amount of air pollution, and that’s a problem.

NOx is not your friend

The main pollutants resulting from natural gas electricity generation are nitrogen oxides, or NOx. Not only does NOx cause respiratory problems, but NOx also reacts with other substances in the air to produce particulate matter and ozoneParticulate matter and ozone cause the extensive list of adverse health outcomes you hear at the end of a prescription drug commercial – shortness of breath, heart attacks, premature death; the list goes on. In short, NOx is bad news for human health.

Natural gas power plants have an impact on air quality

At this point you might be wondering, “So how bad is it? How much NOx is coming from natural gas power plants?” That is where things get complicated. According to projections from the California Air Resources Board, stationary sources account for roughly 21% of NOx emissions, while mobile sources account for a whopping 74% of NOx emission in the state. However, emissions from natural gas power plants are only a fraction of the emissions from stationary sources, so NOx emissions from natural gas power plants end up being roughly 1% of total NOx emissions in California.

Displays “grown and controlled” oxide of nitrogen projected emissions for 2019, excluding emissions from ocean-going vessels further than three nautical miles from the coast. Data from California Air Resources Board Emissions Projection Analysis.

Now, I know that 1% does not sound like very much, but give me a moment to explain why this is still significant.

First, natural gas power plants do not move – they just sit there and emit NOx when they are operating. Those NOx emissions may linger in nearby communities, leading to serious health problems for the people living near plants. And since half of California’s natural gas power plants are concentrated in some of the most socioeconomically and environmentally disadvantaged communities in the state, these emissions harm communities that are already overburdened with pollution.

Second, just because the electric sector is cleaner than the transportation sector does not mean the electric sector is not dirty.  Some of the highest-polluting natural gas power plants emit over 100 tons of NOx per year, which is roughly equivalent to the NOx emissions from traveling 11 million miles (assuming an emissions rate of 8.18 grams of NOx per mile) in a diesel school bus, one of the most-polluting types of vehicles. Furthermore, when studying a proposed natural gas power plant, a California Energy Commission analysis found that local one-hour concentrations of NO2 (one form of NOx) would nearly double from their background levels.  These emissions really can affect local air quality, and that is why this is a problem.

The air pollution problem may get worse

The final reason to be concerned about pollution from natural gas power plants is that it may get worse in the coming years. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that natural gas power plants in California will start and stop much more frequently in the future, and this increase in natural gas plant start-ups may increase NOx emissions. Natural gas power plants emit more NOx when they are starting up; on average, they emit anywhere between three and seven times as much NOx during start-up than during one hour of full-load operation. As paradoxical as it may sound, California may continue to achieve its global warming emissions reduction goals and increase air pollution from natural gas power plants at the same time.

Let’s make sure that does not happen. Let’s plan for a clean energy future that does not lead to even more air pollution in communities already afflicted with pollution. Let’s make sure we bring everyone along in the transition to clean electricity. UCS recently co-sponsored a bill in the California legislature that was designed to shed light on pollution from natural gas power plants and require better planning for pollution reductions from plants. Though UCS’s legislative effort did not succeed this year, UCS is committed to finding solutions that allow us to transition away from natural gas in a way that is not only economical, but also equitable.

public domain

The Dinner Table is the Latest Battleground for Trump’s Attacks on Immigrant Families

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Photo: USDA

From an ill-conceived campaign promise to build a border wall to the recent deployment of thousands of US troops to confront a non-existent “invasion,” radical immigration policy has been a hallmark of the Trump presidency. The administration has introduced a baseless Muslim travel ban; ordered a separation of families at the southern border that landed more than 2,600 children in government shelters; and suggested that children born in the US to noncitizen parents should not be granted citizenship.

Now, the administration is working to target immigrant families closer to home—at the dinner table.

The Department of Homeland Security recently requested public comments on a proposal to change longstanding immigration policy by dramatically expanding the types of public benefits that—if immigrants use them, or even if they’re deemed likely to use them in the future—would weight against their visa or green card applications. Among them are benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), which acts as the first line of defense against hunger and financial instability for millions of families in the United States. The end result? Many immigrant families—including those who work and pay taxes (which is most) and those with children born in the US—will be forced to choose between maintaining a path to citizenship and putting food on the table during hard times.

Like many of the attacks that preceded it, the proposed policy is fundamentally at odds with the values we stand for as a nation: we do not discriminate based on religion or national origin, nor do we turn our backs on those in need. Furthermore, it threatens to dramatically worsen hunger and health disparities among some of our most vulnerable populations—including children who are themselves citizens.

UCS joins thousands of organizations in strongly opposing the Trump administration’s so-called “public charge” rule. Below is the letter we submitted to the Department of Homeland Security, outlining the potential damage that could be wrought by the policy.

The deadline for public comments is December 10. You can submit your own comment here, or visit the UCS website to add your name to our petition opposing the rule.



UCS Submits Public Comment to DHS on Proposed Public Charge Rule, “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds; Notice of Proposed Rulemaking”

November 9, 2018

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is a science-based nonprofit seeking solutions to our planet’s most pressing problems—from combating global warming and developing sustainable ways to feed, power, and transport ourselves, to fighting misinformation, advancing racial equity, and reducing the threat of nuclear war. Immigration has always been and remains a critical source of America’s unparalleled scientific leadership; the diversity it brings is central to creating effective and meaningful solutions to our nation’s problems.  It also enriches our lives in innumerable ways. We therefore submit this comment to express strong opposition to proposed sweeping changes by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to US immigration law and the definition of a “public charge.” This proposed rule defies evidence and would prove devastating to many immigrant families—including those whose children are citizens of the United States—who could be forced in hard times to choose between meeting their daily needs and maintaining a path to citizenship.

Our opposition to the aforementioned policy and programmatic changes is grounded in the following:

  • Data refute the notion that immigrant families rely disproportionately on all forms of public assistance. In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine examined the economic implications of immigration. Among other findings, the resulting report revealed that just 4.2 percent of immigrant households with children utilize housing assistance—which would be newly considered in determining public charge under the proposed rule—compared with 5.3 percent of US-born households.[1],[2] Data based on individual, rather than household participation shows that US-born populations use programs like SNAP and Medicare at higher rates than either naturalized citizens or noncitizen immigrants after adjusting for poverty and age.[3],[4] The proposed rule would unjustifiably bring harm to working families who are eligible for these programs—with potential lasting consequences for the long-term health and economic vitality of their communities.
  • The proposed rule would deter participation in programs such as Medicaid, which returns proven benefits for the long-term health, achievement, and economic success of children. The future of our country depends in part on the wellbeing and economic success of its children—about one in four of whom lives with at least one immigrant parent.[5] Research shows that participation in Medicaid not only helps children become healthy adults, but also leads to greater academic achievement and later economic success. Children with access to Medicaid have lower rates of high blood pressure, hospitalizations and emergency room visits as adults; are less likely to drop out of high school; and have higher incomes later in life—contributing a strong return on investment in the Medicaid program.[6] One study reviewing Medicaid expansion during the 1980s and 1990s estimated that, based on children’s future earnings and tax contributions alone, the government would recoup 56 cents of each dollar spent on childhood Medicaid by the time the children turned 60.[7]
  • The proposed rule penalizes working families whose most accessible employment opportunities are often low-wage and lack benefits, such as health insurance. Research shows that the majority of children of immigrants live in households in which both parents are working yet are employed in lower-paying jobs without employer-sponsored health insurance.[8],[9] The food industry is among those that relies heavily on immigrant labor to fill low-wage jobs, from agricultural production to food distribution and service. Food workers make up about 14 percent of the nation’s workforce, and approximately one-fifth are foreign born.[10] The proposed rule would compromise workers’ abilities to feed and care for their own families—even while many work in roles that uphold our food system as we know it.
  • The proposed rule risks worsening hunger and health disparities among vulnerable populations—including children—by deterring participation in effective nutrition programs. Already, social service providers have noted decreases in immigrant participation in major safety net programs stemming from fears of risking green cards or eventual citizenship. Representatives from WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) agencies in states across the country reported reduced program participation following the first release of the draft rule.[11] Though WIC has since been removed from the proposed rule, SNAP remains. Lingering fears are likely to deter immigrant families’ participation in both of these critical programs that prevent hunger and maintain health while families work toward regaining financial stability. Children of immigrant parents, already more likely to experience food insecurity than children of US-born parents, would face greater risk of hunger and poor health without assistance from these programs.[12] Young children’s participation in SNAP is linked to lower rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome in adulthood, as well as higher rates of high school completion.[13]
  • The proposed rule would undermine the core function of the social support programs that comprise the federal safety net, which protects us all from the unexpected. The safety net is designed to protect children and adults from the devastating consequences of food insecurity, lack of healthcare, and financial instability in the face of unpredictable events such as job loss, family illness, or other crisis. These are circumstances that can befall any family unexpectedly. The proposed consequential changes to long-standing immigration policy based on a subjective evaluation of factors such as age, health, financial status, and education would have the negative side effect of preventing immigrants’ use of major safety net programs altogether. Such changes run counter to the purpose of the safety net and would undermine its effectiveness at safeguarding individual families, entire communities and the nation as a whole. When people in our country are poorer and sicker, we all lose.
  • The apparent rationale of the proposed rule flies in the face of core American values. Effectively requiring immigrants to demonstrate they have the resources to meet any current or even future need for assistance as a precondition to legal immigration and citizenship is contrary to America’s founding core as a refuge, as well to our nation’s ideals of equality, justice, and self-determination. Furthermore, in institutionalizing policies with consequences that will be overwhelmingly borne by people of color, the proposed rule threatens to reinforce racist and anti-immigrant sentiments that degrade our country and cause immeasurable harm to citizens and non-citizens alike.

UCS appreciates the opportunity to comment on this proposed rule. In expressing our strong opposition to the proposal, we join the thousands of organizations across the country who have voiced similar objections. The sweeping changes to immigration policy proposed in this rule would exacerbate hunger and health disparities, particularly among children of immigrants; cause harm to all our communities; deny our country the benefits that immigrants bring; and signal to the rest of the world that our society has abandoned our core American values of decency, hard work, and opportunity for all.

Thank you for your consideration.



[1] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[2] Immigrant households are based on the head of household’s immigrant status (where the head of household is considered immigrant if they are not a citizen or are a naturalized citizen).

[3] Nowrasteh, A. and R. Orr. 2018. Immigration and the welfare state: Immigrant and native use rates and benefit levels for means-tested welfare and entitlement programs. Washington, DC: Cato Institute.

[4] Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

[5] The Annie E. Casey Foundation. 2018. Children in immigrant families. Baltimore, MD. Online at, accessed October 19, 2018.

[6] Chester, A. and J. Alker. 2015. Medicaid at 50: A look at the long-term benefits of childhood Medicaid. Washington, DC: Center for Children and Families. Online at, accessed October 19, 2018.

[7] Brown, D.W., A.E. Kowalski, I.Z. Lurie. 2015. Medicaid as an investment in children: What is the long-term impact on tax receipts? NBER Working Paper Series. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

[8] The Annie E. Casey Foundation. 2018. Children with all available parents in the labor force by family nativity. Baltimore, MD. Online at,573,869,36,868,867,133,38,35/78,79/11478,11479, accessed October 19, 2018.

[9] Earle, A., P. Joshi, K. Geronimo, et al. 2014. Job Characteristics Among Working Parents: Differences by Race, Ethnicity, and Nativity. Monthly Labor Review. Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[10] Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative (FCWA/SRC). 2016. No piece of the pie: US food workers in 2016. Los Angeles, CA: Food Chain Workers Alliance.

[11] Baumgaertner, E. 2018. Spooked by Trump Proposals, Immigrants Abandon Public Nutrition Services. The New York Times, March 6.

[12] Chilton, M. et al. 2009. Food insecurity and risk of poor health among US-born children of immigrants. American Journal of Public Health 99(3): 556-562.

[13] Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). 2015. Long-term benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President of the United States.

Photo: USDA

Can the EPA Protect Us from Ozone and Particulate Pollution Without Its Experts? What to Watch

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This week, the EPA announced that its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) alone would be reviewing upcoming ozone and particulate matter reviews. On October 10, the EPA nixed its ozone and particulate matter review panels—breaking with EPA’s use of expert science advisers for ambient air quality decisions since the 1970s and consistent with this administration’s trend of abandoning science advice. That same day, the EPA replaced the independent scientists on CASAC, leaving a committee of mostly state and local regulators. On December 12, the EPA will bring together the new CASAC for the first time in person to discuss the state of the science on particulate pollution. Will the EPA be able to assess the science and make science-based decisions to protect public health? Here’s what to watch for.

A history of independent science advice

Using science to set ambient air pollution standards has worked remarkably well in the US. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, our nation has been able to follow a science-based process to set air pollution standards that protect public health. Not to say there has never been political interference (see examples under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama), but the process by which EPA gets science advice on pollution standards has remained intact, even under tremendous pressure from industries and political actors to compromise the process.

Here’s how it works (at least up until now):

For major ambient air pollutants, the EPA assesses the state of the science on a pollutant and its health effects every five years or so, gathering all relevant peer-reviewed science into what’s called the Integrated Science Assessment (ISA). The exhaustively comprehensive ISA looks at all the relevant scientific literature that sheds light on the relationship between a pollutant and human health and welfare. (Fun Fact: The current particulate matter ISA includes extensive discussion of my own academic research on air pollution measurement and exposure error.)

The scientific teeth of the ISA are found in its causality findings—these summarize the weight of the evidence for linkages between the pollutant and different health effects. They range from “not causal” to “inadequate evidence” to “likely causal” to “causal.” It is important to note there is tremendous scientific backing behind each of these statements. A finding that the association between particulate matter exposure and mortality is causal, for example, is backed by science from multiple lines of evidence—epidemiologic studies, toxicology studies, controlled human exposure studies, and biological plausibility knowledge. The robust causal determination framework used by EPA has been vetted and endorsed broadly by experts in the scientific community. These causal findings inform EPA decisionmakers on how to best protect people from harmful pollutants.

To ensure that EPA scientists get the science right, they get help from the independent scientists on CASAC. In addition, since the 1970s the agency has relied on pollutant review panels to get input from experts on specific pollutants. CASAC, too of course, is comprised of air pollution experts, but it is only seven people. It is not possible for this small committee to capture the breadth and depth of the ISA and properly assess all aspects of the science. For example, to assess particulate pollution’s health impact, you’d want experts in epidemiology, toxicology, exposure assessment, instrumentation, modeling, and a host of other specialties. As a result, the EPA has always relied on larger groups of experts like the particulate matter review panel to peer-review its ISA and ensure it gets the science right.

An ill-equipped EPA

But now, EPA is going through the PM and ozone review processes with far less scientific expertise. The Trump administration dismissed the particulate matter review panel entirely, failed to constitute an ozone panel, and removed the independent scientists serving on CASAC. Now the agency is left with a seven-member committee of mostly air pollution regulators. This leaves very little subject matter expertise on air pollutant science and health.

In one striking example, our scientific understanding of particulate matter’s health effects is based in no small part on epidemiologic studies. And yet, not a single epidemiologist will be at the table when EPA assesses the ISA. (The EPA even admits this glaring omission in its recent announcement.) To say that the EPA is ill-equipped to have a scientific discussion on particulate matter in December is an understatement.

This lack of preparedness is exacerbated by the remarkable speed at which EPA is moving. The agency plans to set new ozone and PM standards by 2020—markedly faster than reviews have typically happened given the necessary steps required to gather scientific information, incorporate reviews from CASAC and the pollutant review panels, solicit public impact, analyze policy implications before making a policy decision. To meet this arbitrary deadline, EPA intends to streamline the process, combining analyses that used to be separate documents and likely cutting down on the number of meetings and draft documents. Such measures are almost certain to mean less public input and less scientific assessment feeding into the process.

How should we protect people from particulate matter?

So how should the administration protect people from the harms of particulate matter? The science suggests the EPA should be doing more. The draft ISA finds causal links between PM2.5 (that is, particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers) and premature death and cardiovascular disease, and likely causal relationships between particulate matter and respiratory and nervous system effects and cancer. The scientific assessment also finds a likely causal link between ultrafine particles (PM less than 0.1 micrometers) and nervous system effects. This is the draft—prior to scientific review and public input—so the linkages are subject to change. But if these scientific findings hold, we should expect EPA to take action, in order to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety—as the Clean Air Act requires. Historically, when a pollutant is linked to a serious health impact, a standard is set to curb pollution. These linkages to health impacts suggest that EPA could consider tightening the PM2.5 standard in order to protect public health and that the agency could potentially propose a new standard for ultrafine particles. Historically, these are the kinds of considerations that CASAC and the PM review panel would vigorously debate at public meetings and calls, with opportunities for public input. But it is difficult now to see how the agency could do the same this time.

A need for science advice

Will this EPA take the further actions required to protect people from these health impacts? One thing is for sure, they are likely to get less science-based input on the decision. With a weakened CASAC and no pollutant review panels, EPA won’t get the direct and robust feedback it needs from the scientific community. Without that scientific input, it is easier for the administration to make a decision that’s politically convenient rather than scientifically backed.

To compensate for the lack of science advice formally being provided to the EPA, it will be especially important that the EPA hear from scientific experts at the December meeting on PM and the November 29 CASAC call to discuss the ozone review process. It is also crucial for the EPA to hear from the public at these meetings because the compressed timeline will mean fewer meetings and thus fewer opportunities for the public to provide comment. Both air pollution experts and members of the public can (and should!) provide comment for the ozone call (November 29) and PM in-person meeting (comments in writing by December 11) and in person (sign up by Dec 5) at the meeting in Washington DC December 12-13. Join me there. I’ll be asking the EPA to listen to the scientists and you can too.

After Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks, Will New Congress Push for Gun Safety Research?

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Photo: M&R Glasgow/Flickr

The night after mid-term elections, our nation suffered another gruesome tragedy at the hands of an armed gunman, and I’m still ready for Congress to demand a science-based conversation on gun violence. Last night in Thousand Oaks, California, 12 people- including the gunman and an officer- were left dead and at least 10 others injured at a popular college bar. It is believed that several survivors of last year’s mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival were present.

Between the antisemitic attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27th where 11 people were killed and last night’s shooting in Thousand Oaks that left 12 people dead…there have been 11 other mass shooting incidents resulting in 10 deaths and 46 injuries. That is less than two weeks’ time.

My colleagues and I have written extensively in the past on gun violence and need to remove barriers for federal research (find them here). We have seen some progress, with Congress clarifying this past spring that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may pursue research on gun violence prevention. Previously, legislative language in spending bills (known as the Dickey Amendment) had effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence since 1996. Gun violence is a public health issue, and as with all public health issues, it requires scientific evidence to build the most effective policies to protect people. But is that research actually happening now? We need to ensure that it is.

Just yesterday afternoon, the National Rifle Association (NRA) railed against the medical community for its peer-reviewed firearms studies. Shockingly, the NRA questioned whether doctors should weigh in on gun violence prevention, focusing their ire on a position paper written by the American College of Physicians (ACP) that was recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Someone should tell self-important  anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control. Most upsetting, however, the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves.

— NRA (@NRA) November 7, 2018

Ironically, the NRA itself steps out of its lane, weighing in on the details of a scientific paper by medical professionals.

Congress can change this. Legislators should provide researchers specific funding and explicit instructions to study gun violence. Perhaps, then our nation can rely on even more conclusive evidence on the causes of gun violence and develop solutions to prevent it—instead of relying on a powerful gun lobby to sway the decision-making with their dollars and nonsense.

We have a new Congress. The new leadership in the House must prioritize oversight of gun violence research at the CDC and take this opportunity to appropriate more dollars to help solve this crisis.

Thousands of people in America lose their lives to gun violence every year. Just this year, there have been 12,477 firearm casualties. It is unfair to the people who have lost their lives to gun violence that we care only after a mass shooting, and that’s only while it’s in the news’s short issue-attention cycle. It is unfair and unacceptable that, despite the tireless work of advocates and activists, the nation has made little progress on gun violence reform.

Photo: M&R Glasgow

Will Japan Try to Save the INF Treaty?

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US President Ronald Reagan and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone meet at Camp David in 1986.

President Trump said he plans to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. US National Security Advisor John Bolton implied the government of Japan already agreed.

Not long after Bolton’s statement, Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters the Abe government needed to discuss the fate of the treaty with US officials before commenting. Six days later US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Tom DiNanno and Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia Marc Knapper arrived in Tokyo for a three-day dialog on US extended deterrence guarantees for Japan. The fate of the INF treaty was on their agenda. What did Japanese officials tell the Trump administration?

Japanese advocates for nuclear arms control and disarmament should be concerned about the consequences of INF withdrawal. So should anyone worried about the risk of nuclear and conventional missile strikes against Japan.

If the United States abrogates the INF treaty it may deploy ground-based intermediate range missiles in Japan. Russia and China may take measures to counter those deployments. This would weaken Japanese security, and Japanese citizens could find themselves at the center of a new arms race in East Asia.

Concerned US and Japanese citizens deserve to know if the Japanese foreign ministry is doing anything to save the INF Treaty before Trump makes an official announcement.

Little Cause for Hope

The Abe government has been notably pro-nuclear. Japanese foreign ministry officials applauded the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which called for re-deploying low-yield nuclear weapons in Asia. They successfully lobbied the Obama administration to make US nuclear weapons available in Asia aboard dual-capable aircraft.

Moreover, Takeo Akiba, the current Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, told a US congressional commission on the US nuclear posture that “some quarters” in Japan want to revise the three non-nuclear principles to allow for the transit and storage of US nuclear weapons in Japan. In response to a direct question from former US Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Akiba replied that he thought building a nuclear weapons storage site in Okinawa “sounds persuasive.”

These statements and the Foreign Ministry’s long record of attempts to obscure discussion on the transit of US nuclear weapons through Japanese territory provide little reason to hope Mr. Akiba or Mr. Kono will oppose Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty.

Moreover, they will most likely insist that their dialog with US officials on the subject remain confidential, making it difficult to learn what they told US officials during the extended deterrence dialog. That’s unfortunate. Greater transparency could promote a more informed public debate on the treaty. Prime Minister Abe’s passive role in the fate of the INF Treaty stands in sharp contrast to the active efforts of former Prime Minister Yusuhiro Nakasone to influence the decisions of President Ronald Reagan throughout the negotiations that led to the treaty.

Nakasone’s Concern

The push for the INF treaty emerged in the late 1970s in response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, a new road-mobile missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers that could carry three nuclear warheads. US and NATO negotiators were exclusively focused on the threat to Western Europe. Nakasone personally intervened to remind Reagan that the new Soviet SS-20 deployments were also a threat to Japan. If the United States abrogates the INF Treaty it will free Russia to deploy new nuclear-capable nuclear missiles that can strike US military bases in Japan.

US analysts and officials pushing to scrap the treaty want to deploy new conventionally armed ground-based missiles in Asia with ranges that are currently prohibited by the INF. They claim it is necessary to increase US conventional superiority over China even though Chinese military professionals already recognize US nuclear and conventional superiority. Regardless of the merits of that argument, Russia may feel the need to deploy new nuclear-armed missiles to counter the new US deployments in Japan.

The combination of the Abe government’s support for redeploying US nuclear weapons in Asia, Mr. Akiba’s willingness to allow the construction of nuclear weapons storage sites in Okinawa and the Foreign Ministry’s unwillingness to discuss its recent dialog with the United States provide ample reason for Russian military planners to wonder if the new US intermediate-range missiles deployed in Japan could be armed with nuclear warheads.

China’s Reaction

The relatively small size of China’s nuclear arsenal, especially when compared to the nuclear arsenal of the United States, suggests Chinese military planners are unlikely to significantly alter China’s nuclear weapons modernization program in response to a US abrogation of the INF Treaty. China’s primary concern is the survivability of their nuclear arsenal. Ground-based intermediate-range missiles based in Japan might be able to reach father into China’s interior than the conventional air- and sea-based options currently available, but the impact of that extended reach is unlikely to be great enough to convince Chinese strategists that a rational US president would risk Chinese nuclear retaliation by attempting to wipe out China’s nuclear forces in a pre-emptive strike.

While there may be no significant impact on Chinese thinking about nuclear weapons or its nuclear modernization program, US-controlled conventionally armed ground-based intermediate-range missiles deployed in Japan would become targets for conventional Chinese missile strikes in any major military confrontation with the United States. This could draw Japan into armed conflicts not directly connected to its defense. And Japanese consent to those deployments would undermine the strategic intent of Abe’s recent outreach to China.

US abrogation of the INF Treaty would weaken Japan’s national security, especially if Japan agrees to deploy US ground-based intermediate-range missiles on its territory.

Given the questionable benefits and probable costs, concerned US and Japanese citizens deserve to know more about the current discussions between the Foreign Ministry and the Trump administration before a final decision is made.

How to Make Professional Conferences More Accessible for Disabled People: Guidance from Actual Disabled Scientists

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Photo by Yomex Owo/Unsplash.

Attending professional conferences is a key part of life as a scientist. It’s where we present our research, network, and reconnect with colleagues. But for disabled scientists like me, conferences can be inaccessible and frustrating. I talked to several other scientists with a wide range of disabilities about how conferences could be better, and put their advice together in this short summary (also available in a video, if you prefer that).

You should think of this as an introduction to conference accessibility, at best. There are many disabled consultants you can hire to improve your conference, and I highly recommend you do that! They will be able to help you on a much deeper, professional level, and deserve compensation for their time. I’ve also included links to more in-depth resources at the bottom of this page.

Thank you to my friends who helped with this piece: Dr. Alexandra Schober, Dr. Arielle Silverman, Dr. Caroline Solomon, Dawn Fallik, Susanna Harris, and several anonymous contributors. This is part of my Science + Disability series, which is supported by Two Photon Art.


If there’s one thing to remember about etiquette, it’s this:

Talk to disabled scientists about their research. We want to be seen as scientists, not just as disabled people. Avoid saying things like ‘That’s such a cool sign for molecule,’ or, ‘It must be so hard to find signs for all those science words.’”

— Dr. Caroline Solomon

Remember that being an ally can start by just striking up a conversation. You don’t have to go up to a stranger and say, “Wow, you’re the only scientist I’ve ever seen with a medical alert dog. That must be really tough. Can he go in the lab with you? Wow!” Instead, you can just be friendly, the same way you would with anyone else at the conference. I know that I’m far more likely to ask someone for support if I already have a personal relationship with them.

If you think a disabled person needs help, you should always ask them before stepping in. There’s a good chance that they can manage just fine on their own. You can simply ask, “Would you like some help?” and allow them to indicate their preference.

Tell fellow attendees and organizers about these accessibility suggestions! It is exhausting to always have to speak up and ask for accommodations or point out where the problems are. You can lessen that burden by giving your peers gentle reminders to do a better job with accessibility.

Physical Space

What can I say, we like seating options!

Several people had great recommendations around seating. A few of the ideas:

  • Arrange the chairs with plenty of aisles, so that people can easily exit the row to reduce anxiety and/or panic or to allow people with mobility aids enough room to get by.
  • Make chairs available for all speakers, preferably without arms to better accommodate people of all sizes.

Reserve seats at the front of the room for deaf and hard of hearing audience members, or leave some spaces open for wheelchair users.

In a large conference center, provide clear signage and places to rest when trying to get from one room to another. Some conference centers span multiple city blocks and can be exhausting for anyone to navigate, but this becomes even more of a challenge for physically disabled or chronically ill people.

Provide a quiet room where people can go to relax or have some privacy. There should be guidelines that specify that the quiet room is not a place for phone conversations. Quiet rooms are helpful for everyone who needs a break from the busy conference environment, but are also an important space for neurodivergent attendees.

Ask speakers and participants to be scent-free, meaning that (at a minimum) they don’t wear perfume or cologne or use any other scented products. Strong smells can be migraine triggers or distractions for neurodivergent people.


Prepare both digital and printed versions of conference material. Digital materials are more accessible to blind and low vision attendees (for use with screen readers), and printed materials can help people with ADHD or learning disabilities follow along more easily.

Indicate (preferably before the conference starts) whether food and drinks will be present. This helps people with health conditions and/or food allergies plan how much food to bring. Also, make sure you clearly label food with relevant allergens. Food allergies can be life threatening and can be a barrier to full participation if attendees aren’t sure what is in the food.

Presentations and Panels

Always use a microphone, even if you think you don’t need it, you have a loud voice, or it’s a small crowd. You don’t want to put someone who is hard of hearing or deaf in the position of having to publicly request that you use a microphone. Instead, it’s your responsibility to make your program accessible. If you are organizing a conference, make sure to provide the necessary AV equipment in each room and tell all speakers that they must use microphones.

Poster Sessions

Make sure there are volunteer or staff guides available to give directions and/or read posters to blind and low vision attendees. Poster halls are often giant and difficult to navigate, so this is a great example of a disability-related accommodation that would benefit everyone.


Buffets are inaccessible to people who are blind, have low vision, use mobility aids, have arm weakness, can’t stand for long, and many other people. That said, they’re often the fastest and easiest way to feed large groups of people. If a buffet is your only option, have volunteers and/or staff members available to provide assistance.

Create opportunities to socialize without alcohol. People with mental illness may avoid alcohol because of medication interactions, history of trauma, addiction, or a simple preference.

If the reception is being held outside of the convention center/main conference location, tell attendees how far away the event is and whether the venue is accessible. It’s always better to be honest than to hope there’s no problem. For example, if there’s one step to get into the restaurant, just make sure the attendees know that beforehand. Of course, it would be better to choose a fully accessible space for the reception!

Other Resources

There are so many resources available to help you make your events and physical spaces more accessible to disabled people. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Please add a comment below with other resources I should add!


Gabi Serrato Marks is a 4th year PhD candidate in marine geology in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program. Her primary research focuses on ancient climate records. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @gserratomarks

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.

Photo by Yomex Owo/Unsplash. Photo by Matthias Wagner/Unsplash

Even in a Carbon-Constrained World, FirstEnergy’s Nuclear Bailout Proposal in Ohio Must Be Rejected

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The 908 MW Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, owned by FirstEnergy and located 21 miles east of Toledo, Ohio on Lake Erie. Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

A new report, The Nuclear Power Dilemma, released today by my UCS colleagues, finds that more than one-third of the nation’s nuclear power fleet – that provides more than 20 percent of the country’s nuclear power – are uneconomic or slated to retire over the next decade primarily due to economic, safety, and performance reasons. Two of the uneconomic plants—Davis-Besse and Perry—are in Ohio and owned by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. Like the analysis’s other unprofitable nuclear plants, Davis-Besse and Perry can’t compete in today’s power markets with the cheap natural gas and renewable energy that is transforming our nation’s electricity sector. That’s why FirstEnergy is now seeking a bailout from the Ohio legislature to keep these facilities open.

In a world where the threat of climate change is increasingly dire and the need to dramatically cut carbon emissions is even more urgent, every source of zero-carbon energy is important. But make no mistake: FirstEnergy’s bailout proposals for its struggling nuclear plants are poorly conceived and must be rejected. Here’s why.

FirstEnergy isn’t interested in advancing clean energy or reducing carbon emissions

After doubling down on coal and nuclear despite the rise of cheap natural gas and renewables, FirstEnergy has spent years trying to get support for a bailout of all of its uneconomic power plants, including its fleet of old, inefficient, and dirty coal-fired plants.  First, it appealed to the Ohio utility commission for a bailout of its coal plants, then it went to President Trump and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission predicated on debunked claims that coal plant retirements would impact the reliability of the electricity sector. Both plans have fortunately failed thus far. But that hasn’t stopped FirstEnergy, and if they get their way, ratepayers will be subsidizing uneconomic, carbon-intensive coal plants to the detriment of our public health, environment, and climate.

Furthermore, FirstEnergy is actively trying to stall Ohio’s clean energy momentum. They have spent years at the Ohio legislature trying to gut the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy standards that have helped spur Ohio’s nascent clean energy industries. Wanting to subsidize uneconomic coal on one hand and trying to kill clean energy progress on the other leaves no room for negotiation in supporting its nuclear facilities.

Of the 30 states with nuclear power plants, 17 states–including Ohio–have nuclear capacity that is unprofitable or scheduled to close.
Source: UCS

FirstEnergy’s newest proposal fails our conditions for support on all accounts

FirstEnergy’s latest attempt to bail out its Ohio nuclear plants is a “zero-emissions nuclear” (ZEN) proposal (HB 381 in the Ohio Legislature) that would generate ZEN credits for every megawatt-hour (MWh) of power produced from their nuclear plants and then require Ohio’s electric utilities to buy the credits for $17 dollars each (adjusted annually for inflation) through 2030. The legislature’s fiscal analysis reveals the proposal would cost Ohio ratepayers $180 million or more per year.

UCS’ new report argues that we must consider the impacts of potential abrupt nuclear plant retirements in achieving the carbon reductions necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. While the potential retirement of Davis-Besse and Perry poses no threat to the reliability of the region’s power supply, the analysis does show that in the absence of strong policies such as a price on carbon or robust low-carbon electricity standards, coal and natural gas would largely replace their lost generation, thereby raising near-term carbon emissions at exactly the time when those emissions need to be going down. As a result, exploring some means to ensure that these and other unprofitable plants continue operating warrants discussion.

Importantly, the UCS report lays out five conditions that must be met before any consideration should be given by policymakers to providing economic support exclusively to struggling nuclear plants. FirstEnergy’s nuclear bailout proposal fails all of them:

  • Safety: any plant qualifying for economic support must meet or exceed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s highest safety standards. The Davis-Besse plant fails this test with one of the worst safety records in the nation’s nuclear fleet.
  • Transparency: nuclear plant owners should open their financial books for regulators and the public to protect ratepayers by demonstrating the need for economic support. FirstEnergy’s proposal far exceeds our estimate of what these plants would need to survive, and they’ve offered no proof that this level of support is necessary.
  • Flexibility: To further protect consumers, financial support should be temporary and adjustable to account for changing economic or policy conditions. FirstEnergy’s proposal appears to lock in significant ratepayer expense through 2030 with no meaningful review or provisions for adjustment.
  • Strengthened renewable energy and energy efficiency standards: FirstEnergy’s proposal does nothing to stimulate the rapid growth in clean energy resources needed to meet our deep carbon reduction goals. As discussed above, FirstEnergy has spent considerable effort to stop Ohio’s momentum in advancing renewables and efficiency. In contrast, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey significantly or strengthened their renewable electricity and energy efficiency standards as part of legislation that provided financial support for distressed nuclear plants.
  • A commitment to impacted communities: Transition plans for affected workers and communities – to attract new investment, replace lost jobs, and rebuild the tax base once nuclear plants eventually do retire – must be included in any economic support proposal. FirstEnergy’s proposed legislation does not put forth anything meaningful in this respect.

So, there you have it: zero out of five conditions met. Because FirstEnergy has shown no commitment to seriously addressing the threat of climate change and because its proposal for bailing out its unprofitable nuclear power plants meets none of the above criteria, it’s clear that Ohio legislators should say no to FirstEnergy’s bailout proposal and instead move forward with a clean energy plan that builds on Ohio’s abundant potential for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Let’s be clear: UCS does not prefer a piecemeal approach to achieving necessary carbon reductions in our electricity sector. We strongly recommend state and federal policies such as a price on carbon emissions or a low-carbon electricity standard that provides a level playing field for all low-carbon technologies. Our analysis shows these policies would cost-effectively achieve much greater carbon reductions. Unfortunately, there’s currently a leadership void in Washington, DC. Given the urgency of climate change, we must therefore explore alternatives. But we must also ensure that the alternatives stand up to scrutiny and ultimately move us toward a truly clean economy fueled primarily by renewable energy resources. FirstEnergy’s current proposal simply doesn’t pass muster.

NOTE: UCS Sr. Analyst Sam Gomberg contributed in the drafting of this blog.

Carbon Pricing is Key to Economic Viability of Xcel’s Nuclear Power Plants in Minnesota

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The 671 MW Monticello Nuclear Generating Station is located along the Mississippi River 40 miles northwest of the Twin Cities and provides about 10 percent of Xcel’s electricity in the Upper Midwest. Photo: Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr

A new UCS report released today found that more than one-third of U.S. nuclear plants–representing 22 percent of total US nuclear capacity–are uneconomic or slated to retire over the next decade under current market conditions. The UCS study, The Nuclear Power Dilemma, shows that the economic viability of the nation’s nuclear plants is threatened by low natural gas prices, the declining cost of renewable energy, investments in energy efficiency, and the costs of upgrading aging plants to ensure safe operation.

The uneconomic plants include Xcel’s Monticello and Prairie Island nuclear power plants, which provided 23 percent of Minnesota’s electricity generation in 2017 and about half of the state’s low carbon electricity. A key reason why these plants appear to be uneconomic compared to cheaper alternatives is because current market prices do not include the costs and damages inflicted on the climate and society from burning fossil fuels.

Without strong policies such as a meaningful economy-wide cap or price on carbon emissions, the study found that natural gas and coal would largely replace the lost generation from closing at-risk nuclear plants before their operating licenses expire, resulting in an increase in US power sector carbon emissions over the next two decades. In stark contrast, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a sobering report last month showing that to limit global average temperature increases to 1.5o Celsius (2.7o Fahrenheit) and avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change, the US and other countries will need to achieve net zero global warming emissions by 2050, with half of those reductions coming by 2030.

US nuclear power plants at risk of early closure or slated for early retirement

More than one-third of existing plants, representing 22 percent of US nuclear capacity, are unprofitable or scheduled to close.

What does this mean for Minnesota?

The UCS study analyzes the economic viability of the nation’s nuclear plants based on how much revenue they could earn from selling electricity into the wholesale market and from providing capacity to the electricity system during times of peak demand compared to how much it costs to operate them. The study’s methodology and results are consistent with several recent studies by MIT, Bloomberg and others, that also showed Monticello and Prairie Island are more expensive than cheaper energy alternatives available in market.

The risk of closing of these plants early is lower than nuclear plants owned by “merchant” generators that sell their power in states and regions with competitive markets. This is because regulated utilities like Xcel are typically allowed to recover the costs of operating their plants from customers, along with a return on investment, subject to approval from state Public Utilities Commissions (PUCs).

While the risk might be lower, regulated utilities are not completely immune from the market pressures of lower cost alternatives. For example, the fact that regulated utilities have also historically received cost recovery for coal plants hasn’t stopped Xcel and other regulated utilities across the country from retiring and replacing them with lower cost alternatives such as natural gas, wind, solar and efficiency. And like many utilities that needed to make investments in pollution control equipment to reduce public health impacts from coal plants, Xcel and many other utilities are planning on making major capital investments to upgrade their aging nuclear plants.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota legislature rejected a bill that would have pre-approved $1.4 billion in new upgrades over the next 17 years to keep Xcel’s nuclear plants running until their operating licenses expire. UCS and many Minnesota groups opposed this legislation because it would have circumvented the state PUC, which provides important oversight to make sure any new utility investments are prudent for ratepayers compared to other alternatives. Retaining the PUC’s authority to oversee these investments is especially important given the over $400 million in cost overruns and delays Xcel experienced when they made the last major upgrades to Monticello in 2013.

A meaningful value for low-carbon generation makes Xcel’s nuclear plants profitable

Today, the price of coal and natural gas does not reflect the costs inflicted on society from climate change that results from burning fossil fuels. The UCS report recommends national or state policies that put a cap or price on carbon emissions as the best approach to address this market failure and level the playing field for all low carbon technologies.

Our analysis shows that a national price on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that starts at $25 per metric ton in 2020 and increases 5 percent per year would be enough to make Monticello, Prairie Island, and all of the other uneconomic nuclear plants in the country profitable. While Minnesota currently does not have a carbon price, the Minnesota PUC has required Xcel and other utilities to include a range of CO2 prices in their Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) modeling since 2008. Working with other clean energy groups in Minnesota, UCS played an important role in advocating for this.

The PUC updated these values earlier this year, requiring utilities to model scenarios that include a range of $5-$25 per ton of CO2 starting in 2025 to reflect the likelihood of future CO2 regulatory costs. The PUC also requires utilities to include in their modeling a range of environmental externality costs of $8.44-$39.76 per ton of CO2 in 2017, increasing to $15.20-$69.48 per ton of CO2 in 2050, based on the federal social cost of carbon.

Xcel is counting on nuclear to meet its 2030 carbon-free vision

Xcel is in the process of conducting modeling for its next IRP to determine the mix of electric generating technologies they will invest in between 2019 and 2034 to meet electricity demand, while maintaining reliability and minimizing costs to customers. The plan is due February 1, 2019, but Xcel recently requested a five-month extension to July 1.

Xcel is counting on running both of its nuclear plants until their 60-year operating licenses expire (in 2030 for Monticello, and in 2033 and 2034 for the two reactors at Prairie Island) to meet the utility’s goal of 85 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030 across its system in the Upper Midwest. To achieve this goal, Xcel is retiring and replacing most of their coal plants in Minnesota with energy efficiency, major new investments in wind and solar power that would increase renewables to 60 percent of their electricity sales by 2030, and a new natural gas plant that was recently approved by the legislature. At the same time, Xcel is projecting an increase in electrification of vehicles and buildings that will result in greater electricity demand and the need for more low carbon generation.

Source: Xcel CEO Ben Fowke presentation to Minnesota PUC, October 17, 2017

Replacing an additional 1,770 MW of capacity from Xcel’s nuclear plants in the next decade would be challenging to do, without increasing natural gas use and carbon emissions. In addition to making it difficult for Xcel to achieve its emission reduction targets, an overreliance on natural gas would pose economic risks to consumers. But with more time and continued cost reductions for clean energy, it’s more likely that Xcel could replace its nuclear plants with renewables, efficiency and other low carbon technologies when their licenses expire.

Xcel is required to consider these tradeoffs as part of its IRP. The IRP process at the PUC is the appropriate venue to evaluate these complicated tradeoffs—including whether the $1.4 billion Xcel wants to invest in upgrades for its nuclear plants is the best way to spend ratepayer money compared to other low carbon alternatives. The legislature is not the place to address these complex issues.

Time for the next generation of climate and clean energy policies in Minnesota 

It has been more than a decade since Minnesota has passed major climate and clean energy legislation. The Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 required Minnesota utilities to meet a renewable electricity standard of 25 percent by 2025 (and 30 percent for Xcel), achieve energy efficiency savings targets to reduce electricity and natural gas usage by 1.5 percent per year, and adopt a statewide goal of reducing global warming emissions at least 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and at least 80 percent by 2050.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, these policies have made Xcel and Minnesota national clean energy leaders. But since 2007, six states have adopted higher renewable standards of 50 percent or more by 2030 and other leading states have adopted stronger energy efficiency standards that reduce electricity use by 2-3 percent per year. In addition, the cost of deploying wind, solar, and battery storage has fallen dramatically over the past decade, while many energy efficient technologies, such as LED lighting, have also improved.

Despite progress, Minnesota still has a long way to go to meet its statewide emission reduction targets. Reducing emissions 80 percent by 2050 will likely require increased electrification of vehicles and buildings with zero carbon electricity sources to achieve reductions in other sectors. Stronger climate and clean energy policies will be needed to meet these targets and to ensure that when Xcel’s nuclear plants are eventually retired, they are replaced with low carbon technologies.

Photo: Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr

Why We’re Taking a Hard Look at Nuclear Power Plant Closures

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Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California. Photo: Mayra/wikimedia

Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a sobering report. Based on the most up-to-date scientific evidence, the report warns that we are rapidly losing any appreciable chance of meeting the Paris climate agreement goal of keeping temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The report also makes clear that if we fail to meet this goal, the consequences will not only be severe, but they will be experienced sooner than expected. (For more information on the IPCC report, see our blog series)

In stark defiance of science, here in the United States the federal government has abdicated its leadership role and is now taking a wrecking ball to the pillars of progress—the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s first limits on CO2 from power plants; fuel economy/greenhouse gas emission limits for cars and trucks; and rules to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

While a number of states, cities, businesses, universities and others have stepped up admirably, many observers have concluded that there is a high degree of uncertainty about whether we will meet or even get close to the pledge we made as part the Paris Agreement—a 26 to 28 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2025. This graph, adapted from a study performed by the Rhodium Group, depicts this:

US projected emissions compared to the US Paris pledge. Source adapted from Taking Stock 2018, Rhodium Group

These sobering realities dictate that we keep an open mind about all of the tools in the emissions reduction toolbox—even ones that are not our personal favorites. And that includes existing nuclear power plants in the United States, which currently supply about 20 percent of our total electricity needs and more than half of our low-carbon electricity supply.

A new UCS report, The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions, indicates that more than 22 percent of total US nuclear capacity is unprofitable or scheduled to close over the next five to 10 years. The report also indicates that without new policies, the electricity generated by these and other marginally economic nuclear plants is likely to be replaced in large part with natural gas-fired generation (although this will vary from plant to plant). If this occurs, cumulative carbon emissions in the electric sector could increase by up to 6 percent between 2018 and 2035.

While a 6 percent increase in emissions doesn’t sound that sizable, emissions from the electric sector must decrease, rapidly and substantially. The National Research Council has found, for example, that power plant emissions must decrease by 90 percent by 2040 to meet US climate goals.

Most of that reduction will be achieved by using electricity more efficiently, expanding increasingly cheap solar, wind, and energy storage, modernizing our grid, and building more transmission lines to connect these renewable sources to load centers. We are counting on these approaches to replace capacity as coal plants close; cut down on an overreliance on natural gas in the short term and displace it over time; and increase overall electricity supply to pave the way for the electrification of transportation, space and water heating, and industrial processes.

But if nuclear power plants close prematurely, we add a fourth task—replacing lost nuclear capacity. While efficiency, renewables, transmission and storage may be up to the task, governments must adopt policies that assure that we will decarbonize even if these resources fall short of our expectations.

Factoring all of these considerations in, our new report calls for proactive policy to preserve nuclear power from existing plants that are operating safely but are at risk of premature closures for economic reasons or to ensure that lost nuclear capacity is replaced with carbon-free sources.

The best policy is an across-the-board national carbon price, which UCS has been advocating for years. Another policy solution that hasn’t received as much attention is a national low carbon electricity standard. This policy builds on the success of state renewable electricity standards but would include other low or zero carbon energy technologies. Either option would help the existing nuclear fleet, substantially boost solar and wind energy, and substantially decrease natural gas and coal use, while reducing US power sector carbon emissions by up to 28 percent cumulatively by 2035. These are durable policy solutions. Rather than a temporary fix that throws money at the problem, these policies address a systemic market failure that will help level the playing field for nuclear and other low carbon technologies in the long-run.

In the absence of national carbon price or low carbon electricity standard, the report calls upon states—which have plenary authority over the electric sector—to take proactive measures of their own. For example, California’s strong renewable energy and energy efficiency standards and climate policies mean that it can likely replace the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility by 2025 with clean energy and continue to drive down emissions. New York, Illinois and New Jersey have all adopted policies to provide financial support for distressed nuclear power plants that value their carbon-free power attributes. At the same time, these states have boosted renewables and efficiency, and sought to ensure that preserving existing nuclear power does not in any way undermine expansion of renewables.

The UCS report does not argue for subsidies for any specific plants. That case will have to be made in state-specific forums. Should states decide to support nuclear power plant subsidies, our report calls for them to be temporary and subject to periodic reassessment. And companies seeking subsidies must open their books and allow the public and regulators to make sure that the subsidies are needed and cost-effective, and that the same level of carbon free power cannot be provided during the relevant time period with less costly options.

Finally, our report makes clear that we would never support financial assistance that is tied to also subsidizing fossil-based energy sources, such as the rumored Trump administration proposal to bailout coal and nuclear plants based on spurious national security grounds.

Our report also factors in the critical issue of nuclear safety. Since its founding, UCS has been deeply concerned about the risks posed by nuclear power. An accident or terrorist attack at a US nuclear reactor could severely harm public health, the environment, and the economy. For this reason, UCS has worked as a nuclear power safety and security watchdog for more than 40 years. Consistent with our longstanding advocacy for nuclear safety, subsidies should be considered only for plants that at a minimum earn the highest safety rating from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This ensures that subsidies are not used to correct safety problems caused by bad management and gives under-performing plants an incentive to improve to be eligible for subsidies. And our report in no way backtracks from our longstanding insistence that there be strict oversight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and that nuclear power plant operators continue to make their plants safer by expediting the transfer of spent fuel to dry casks, bolstering emergency management procedures, increasing emergency planning zone sizes, and other measures outlined in numerous UCS reports, including Preventing an American Fukushima.

Nuclear power plants are controversial, for legitimate reasons. But the IPCC report reminds us that we are running out of time and will have to make hard choices. Preserving the capacity of safely operated nuclear plants or ensuring that this capacity is replaced with zero carbon alternatives is an imperative that cannot be ignored.

Natural Gas is Undermining Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants—And That’s Bad News for the Climate

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Beaver Valley nuclear in PA. Photo: United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Today the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report that assesses the economic viability and safety records of nuclear power plants in the United States. The report asks what happens to carbon emissions if a significant number of those plants were to retire abruptly—given their high risk of being replaced by natural gas and coal—and seeks to inform both state and federal policy makers about how to address the issue. Ultimately, it argues that policymakers at the national and state level should implement climate-smart policies that value all types of low-carbon electricity generation and include stringent safety standards for all nuclear plants.

Why did we write this report, and what are the implications for Pennsylvania, which has five nuclear power plants that in total provide the second highest nuclear operating capacity of any state?

We must correct market failures to decarbonize the US economy

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently drove home the point that we collectively need to reduce emissions as much as possible—and quickly. The IPCC special report underscores the urgency of the climate crisis: keeping global temperature increase to below 1.5 degrees C requires global net CO2 emissions to decline by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero around midcentury. The US must lead this effort, meaning it must go further, achieving net negative emissions by 2050.

One major obstacle in achieving this result is the market failure currently facing low-carbon sources of electricity like nuclear and renewables—specifically, the fact that in most of the country, it’s free to emit unlimited amounts of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere, even though these emissions are the primary driver of climate change and its impacts on people and ecosystems everywhere.

To overcome that obstacle, we recommend a well-designed carbon cap or price, or low-carbon electricity standard. Our new report also provides information and recommendations for states that may be considering policy actions to address this problem on their own because the federal government is unable or unwilling to act on climate. Although a national carbon price would be most effective in addressing the market failure, we also recommend that states consider implementing a carbon price, similar to leading states like California and the nine states that participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) have done. A carbon cap (such as that imposed by RGGI) can help reduce emissions and send a market signal favoring low-carbon resources.

Pennsylvania is one of those states evaluating policy options. Policymakers there are actively considering how to respond to calls from some stakeholders for financial support for the state’s uneconomic nuclear power plants. But as our report details, we do not support blanket financial support for any nuclear operator that comes looking for it—we detail specific conditions that must be met. And as my colleague writes, not all proposals are good ones: FirstEnergy’s proposal in Ohio, for example, is deeply flawed and they’ll be looking for something similar in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s electricity mix

In 2017, nuclear provided 39 percent of Pennsylvania’s electricity—more than any other fuel source—but natural gas was not far behind at 34 percent, and almost all the rest of the state’s electricity (22 percent) came from coal, with non-hydro renewables remaining a tiny portion of Pennsylvania’s generation at less than 3 percent. That represents a huge transition over the past decade—natural gas increased from 15 percent in 2010, and coal fell from 48 percent in 2010, while nuclear increased only slightly from 34 percent. Given the dramatic growth of the natural gas industry in the state over the past decade with the development of the Marcellus shale (and with more gas plants under development in Pennsylvania and the surrounding region) and the state’s relatively weak policies to support renewable energy and energy efficiency, under current conditions, any decline in nuclear power in Pennsylvania would be made up by an increase in natural gas and coal power—without thoughtful and strong policies. And that would mean that carbon emissions would go up if nuclear plants retire, posing a threat to our climate goals.

Part of the reason gas prices are so low is the lack of a price on carbon; the growth in gas is in part a response to that market failure.

Our report lends credence to this assumption. At the national level, we modeled a set of early retirements of nuclear power plants and found that in the aggregate, most of the loss in nuclear generation was made up by existing power plants powered by natural gas and coal.

Evaluating profitability

To assess the economics of nuclear power plants, we looked at the projected average annual operating margin over the period 2018—2022. That sounds like a mouthful, but it just means projected revenues minus projected costs over the next five years. The net result, calculated in dollars per megawatt-hour, is how we assessed the economic viability of each plant. Plants with negative operating margins were deemed unprofitable. To get a sense of which plants might be at risk of becoming unprofitable, we identified which plants had operating margins between $0 and $5 per MWh, which we label marginal. Plants above $5 per MWh are classified as profitable.

Nationally, we found 16.3 GW of unprofitable nuclear capacity. Not surprisingly, the results are very sensitive to the assumption about future natural gas prices.

Using the insights from assessing the profitability of the entire set of nuclear power plants, we then evaluated which ones might be at risk of abrupt retirement over the next eight years. We then modeled the impact to the electricity system through 2035 of the closure of those plants, which represent between 14 and 27 GW of nuclear capacity. We found that at the national level, cumulative CO2 emissions would be about 6 percent higher in 2035 compared to the reference case.

That might not sound like a lot, but keep in mind that abruptly losing a significant portion of low-carbon generation: 1) takes us in the wrong direction at a time when we need to be rapidly reducing CO2 emissions, and 2) would be magnified greatly in Pennsylvania, which relies heavily on nuclear power and does not currently produce very much electricity from renewables.

Meeting stringent safety standards

An accident or terrorist attack at a US nuclear reactor could severely harm public health, the environment, and the economy—and it would also jeopardize the prospects for US nuclear energy for decades and limit available options to meet near-term carbon reduction targets. It is thus essential that policymakers and other stakeholders consider financial support only for nuclear reactors that meet or exceed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s highest safety standards.

The Keystone State’s nuclear plants

The results of our profitability analysis for Pennsylvania’s nuclear plants are shown below in the table. According to our analysis, Three Mile Island is unprofitable, while Beaver Valley and Susquehanna are marginally profitable. Exelon plans to shut down the remaining reactor at Three Mile Island in 2019, and FirstEnergy plans to shut down the Beaver Valley plant in 2021, along with two other plants in Ohio. For our early retirement cases, we assume that these plants are retired in those years, along with Susquehanna.

Pennsylvania’s five nuclear power plants provide almost 10 GW of capacity.

Plant Name Number of Reactors 2018 Operating Capacity (MW) Deactivation Notice UCS Assessment Beaver Valley 2 1,867 2021 Marginally Profitable Limerick 2 2,386 Profitable Peach Bottom 2 2,584 Profitable Susquehanna 2 2,593 Marginally Profitable Three Mile Island 1 827 2019 Unprofitable

Although all of Pennsylvania’s nuclear power plants are currently meeting or exceeding the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s highest standards, there are other reasons it may not make sense to keep every nuclear plant online, such as high operating costs or major safety problems. Or as Exelon’s CEO recently said:

“I will be the first one to tell you that some of the nuclear plants are small, uneconomic and they won’t make it and they probably should not make it. Let’s not save every one.” –Chris Crane, Exelon CEO

Policies matter

Exelon is already receiving financial support for five nuclear plants in Illinois and New York. FirstEnergy has similarly submitted deactivation notices for its Davis-Besse nuclear plant in 2020 and its Perry plant in 2021, both of which are in Ohio. Following the bankruptcy of one of its subsidiaries, FirstEnergy continues to search high and low for a handout to make up for its bad financial decisions, including to the federal government and to the Ohio legislature.

PJM and other grid operators have shown that retiring these plants does not threaten electricity reliability and resilience:

“Our analysis of the recently announced planned deactivations of certain nuclear plants has determined that there is no immediate threat to system reliability. Markets have helped to establish a reliable grid with historically low prices. Any federal intervention in the market to order customers to buy electricity from specific power plants would be damaging to the markets and therefore costly to consumers.”

The possibility that these plants will be replaced with natural gas and coal rather than low-carbon sources raises serious concerns about our ability to achieve the deep cuts in carbon emissions needed to limit the worst impacts of climate change.

Recommendations for Pennsylvania policymakers

Three states—Illinois, New York, and New Jersey—have taken policy actions to value the low-carbon attributes of nuclear power. As part of legislation providing financial support for some nuclear plants, each state simultaneously strengthened policies to support renewable energy and energy efficiency. New York and New Jersey both increased their Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) to 50 percent by 2030, and Illinois fixed problems with its RPS that will allow the state to reach 25 percent by 2025. All three states also set higher energy efficiency targets as part of the legislation.

While a few of the Keystone State’s nuclear power plants may be facing economic headwinds in the immediate future, policymakers should carefully weigh the evidence and consider the big picture before simply writing a check on behalf of ratepayers—since many residents face economic hardship and high energy burdens.

UCS offers the following recommendations based on our analysis:

  • Require transparency: Companies should open their books and demonstrate need. Our analysis is based on the best available cost data, but it cannot replace a thorough examination of a given plant’s financials, because this information is proprietary. Transparency ensures that impact to ratepayers is limited.
  • Limit and adjust support: Any financial support to struggling plants should be limited and adjusted over time, as market conditions change.
  • Ensure safe operation: Any plant receiving financial support should be required to meet strong safety guidelines. The need for low-carbon electricity absolutely does not trump safety.
  • Strengthen support for renewables and efficiency: If policy support for nuclear power is done based on its low-carbon attributes, policymakers should simultaneously invest in renewables and efficiency in order to transition to a low carbon future. Pennsylvania’s Advanced Energy Resource Portfolio (AEPS) is relatively weak and has not been updated since 2008. The state’s energy efficiency standard is not achieving cost savings realized by leading states. Policymakers must include actions to strengthen standards to drive greater deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency.
  • Plan for the transition: Nuclear power plants will close eventually as they reach the end of their safe operating lives. Companies should be required to develop transition plans for communities and workers that will be negatively impacted by the closure. With adequate time, adverse economic impacts can be mitigated.

What the New UCS Report on Nuclear Plants Means for Illinois

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Photo: Montgomery County Planning Commission

Today UCS released a new report entitled The Nuclear Power Dilemma that examines the economic viability and performance of most of the 60 nuclear power plants operating in the United States as of July 2018.

The report also analyzes what electric generating resources are likely to replace these nuclear plants if some of them were to abruptly retire from service.

So what did the report find and what does it mean for a state with so much nuclear power like Illinois?

Illinois’ nuclear fleet is in sound financial shape

The economic viability of power plants is typically defined by how much revenue they earn compared to how much it costs to operate them. Our analysis defines “profitable” as making more than $5 per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity and “marginally profitable” as making somewhere between $0 (breaking even) and $5 per MWh.

Illinois is host to six nuclear plants (Braidwood, Byron, Clinton, Dresden, LaSalle, and Quad Cities) that total 11.6 gigawatts (GW) of electric generating capacity, the most nuclear capacity of any state. The plants provided 53 percent of Illinois’ electricity generation in 2017.

Our analysis found that Byron and Dresden—accounting for just over 4 GW combined—fell into the marginally profitable category. The rest of Illinois’ nuclear power plants were determined to be profitable. In the case of the Quad Cities and Clinton facilities, financial support they receive from the Illinois Zero Emission Credit program, established as part of Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) of 2016, pushed the plants up to profitable status. Without this support, Quad Cities and Clinton would have been listed as marginal and unprofitable, respectively.

Nuclear Capacity at Risk of Early Closure, by State

From The Nuclear Power Dilemma (UCS 2018)

Even though our analysis found that all Illinois nuclear plants are currently making money, low natural gas prices are one of the primary factors squeezing the economics of nuclear plants and could pose a long-term threat to the profitability of Illinois plants if prices stay at current levels.

Indeed, low natural gas prices are a major factor in the analysis’ finding that 22 percent of total U.S. nuclear capacity is slated to close or is unprofitable and at risk of closing prior to expiration of their operating licenses, including many plants across the Midwest.

Without new policies, and with continued low natural gas prices, our analysis found that early nuclear plant retirements are likely to be replaced primarily with output from natural gas and coal plants—and that means increased carbon emissions and the wrong way to go for addressing climate change.

Our report recommends that federal and state governments should enact a price on carbon or a low-carbon electricity standard, which would help level the financial playing field for carbon-free power generation like nuclear and renewables. Today these resources must compete with fossil fuel plants who are allowed to spew greenhouse gas pollution into our atmosphere for free—a carbon price or low-carbon electricity standard would help fix that.

The next generation of Illinois clean energy policies

The Clinton Nuclear Generating Station

As mentioned above, Illinois is no stranger to the debate over nuclear plant profitability. In late 2016 Illinois passed FEJA, which created a program to compensate the struggling Clinton and Quad Cities plants for the carbon-free attributes of their power generation.

UCS supported FEJA because it also included measures for significantly increasing investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. But the debate over including the nuclear subsidy and providing electric ratepayers’ money to Exelon, the private corporation who owns those plants, was contentious and difficult to say the least.

The Nuclear Power Dilemma report shows that the Byron and Dresden plants are earning a small profit. And Exelon says the facilities are not at risk of early retirement right now. That’s good news.

Even better news is that the policies enacted in FEJA are spurring new clean energy development and expansion of efficiency programs that save consumers money and reduce emissions.

As these additional resources continue to grow, it’s time to develop the next set of policies to continue the momentum and keep Illinois and the Midwest moving toward a clean energy future. In addition to the carbon policies recommended above, Illinois should adopt stronger measures to accelerate investments in clean energy technologies like wind, solar, energy efficiency, and battery storage. These are exactly the kinds of policy conversations that the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition is having right now through its Listen. Lead. Share. initiative.

The severity of the climate crisis demands that we consider all zero carbon energy sources—including nuclear power. But should any of Illinois’ existing nuclear plants be forced into an early retirement, let’s be ready to replace them with clean energy technologies, not dirty coal or gas plants.

Photo: Montgomery County Planning Commission Photo: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons

The Elections, and What They Mean for Climate, Energy, and Science

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If you are like me, you arrived a bit blurry-eyed to the office this morning after staying up watching election results last night. You’ve undoubtedly already heard and read commentary on what this election means for the country, but may be wondering what the outcome means for climate, security, energy, and science policy. I sat down with my colleague, Alden Meyer, UCS Director of Strategy and Policy, and put our usual water-cooler deconstruction on paper.

Alden: So the Democrats have taken control of the House, but the Republicans expanded their control of the Senate. What’s your take on the overall meaning of the election results? Did environmental issues have any resonance in this election?

Ken: Rahm Emanuel’s prediction of about a week ago seems to have been true—a blue wave, with an equally-strong red undertow. The blue wave is the new majority in the House and several new governors, many in swing states; the red undertow is the gains Republicans made in the Senate.

That being said, a clear overall message is that voters want to see checks and balances. One-party rule has had a corrosive effect on democracy. Major pieces of legislation (e.g., the $1.7 trillion tax cut and Affordable Care Act repeal proposal) have been crafted in backrooms, with very limited public input and opportunities for the opposing party to offer their ideas, and then enacted with little debate or even knowledge of what our representatives were voting for. That’s a problem. The voters are saying no to this, and as an organization that promotes public decision-making based on science, facts, and the competition of ideas, from my perspective at UCS, this is very positive.

I also must add, though, that the President’s fear-mongering in the final days may have worked to energize his base in some of the states with close Senate and Governors’ races; if so, this is not a healthy sign for our democracy and for government based on reason.

I also think that environmental issues, long considered second tier ones, played a role in this election. In several of the Rust Belt states, for example, water quality in both urban and rural areas was a major issue, and in the state of Nevada, voters championed clean energy ballot initiatives. Perhaps most impressively, voters elected new governors in Nevada, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and New Mexico who acknowledged the need to address climate change and showed interest in making their states clean energy champions.

One major disappointment was the defeat of the carbon fee ballot initiative in Washington state. Unfortunately, the big oil companies, many of whom claim they support carbon pricing as a climate solution, spent about $30 million to defeat this initiative, arguing cynically that the initiative did not go far enough. This hypocrisy needs to be strongly called out.

Alden: Indeed. It’s also notable that climate change was raised as an issue in a number of Senate debates. In 2016, we had to work intensively with the Republican mayor of Miami and others to get a single question asked on climate change in the Republican presidential candidate debate in Florida. This year, questions on climate change—many of them citing the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the devastating impacts of further increases in global temperature—were asked by moderators in at least seven Senate candidate debates (in Arizona, Indiana, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, and Texas). The increased prominence of the issue, especially in so many red states, demonstrates that increasing voter awareness and concern about the costly impacts of climate-related extreme weather events is making it more difficult for politicians to say that climate change isn’t a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

Ken: Looking out over the next two years, I think the election gives us three important new opportunities. Congressional oversight, or even the threat of it, is a key way to keep the executive branch operating within the bounds of law and reason; it has been sorely lacking in the last two years. UCS will work with new leadership in key House committees to ensure that there is oversight and accountability, particularly in the many instances in which science has been suppressed, maligned, or ignored.

Second, there are opportunities for bi-partisan progress on issues we care about, and we can and will try to cobble together majorities for centrist legislation that can move the country forward.

Third, we can help craft and push in the House more ambitious legislation that can lay the groundwork for a healthy debate in the 2020 election and potentially get enacted thereafter.

Alden: Congressional oversight is really important. We’ve been working closely with quite a few House members who care deeply about facts and evidence over the last two years to shine a spotlight on the Trump administration’s attacks on science-based safeguards across a wide range of federal agencies. While this has helped to raise the visibility of these abuses in the media and has provided grist for activists to use in their interactions with their members of Congress in town hall meetings and other venues, it has not produced a meaningful change in the administration’s behavior.

But with control of the House, these pro-science legislators will have a lot more tools at their disposal to address Trump administration officials’ blatant conflicts of interest, their lack of enforcement of laws and regulations to protect public health and worker safety, or their efforts to undermine the independent science advisory process, restrict the use of scientific research in policymaking, and to sharply cut back the scientific staff capacity of their agencies to carry out their missions. Through a combination of information requests, staff investigations, and hearings, House committees and subcommittees can shine a spotlight on policies and activities they believe are against the public interest or that fail to execute laws according to the intent of Congress.

They can compel testimony and response to follow-up questions from Cabinet and sub-cabinet officials, can request agency Inspector General investigations where appropriate, and can draw on analysis by the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the General Accountability Office. They can also use a combination of expert witnesses and everyday citizens to put a human face on the impacts of executive branch actions, such as the rollback of regulations to protect public health and safety.

Ken: Great point. Our staff has been working with these incoming committee chairs and their staff on their oversight strategies for next year, on issues ranging from scientific integrity in policymaking to ineffective and destabilizing missile defense programs and new nuclear weapons systems, from political interference in climate and energy technology research to harmful changes in federal dietary guidelines for all Americans. Needless to say, it’s a target-rich environment!

Alden: As far as new legislative opportunities, there are a few areas where it may be possible to garner bipartisan support for legislative action in the next Congress: targeted incentives for electric vehicles, energy storage, and other clean energy technologies, or the limited but still useful energy bill introduced by Senators Murkowski (R-AK) and Cantwell (D-WA) that would boost energy efficiency in buildings, increase energy system cybersecurity, spur investments in power grid modernization, among other things. House Democrats have made clear that a federal infrastructure bill addressing not just investments in transportation, but in the water, electricity, natural gas distribution system, and other sectors as well, will be among their top priorities; it seems unlikely that Senate Republicans and the White House would be willing to reach an acceptable deal on such a bill, but it’s not out of the question.

There are a much broader set of issues where we expect House Democrats to move positive legislation forward to floor passage, despite low prospects that it would be approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Trump; the goal would be to raise public awareness and support and to help shape the debate going into the 2020 elections. We will be working to promote the scientific integrity legislation that Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) introduced in the House and that has 156 cosponsors, as well as opportunities to support science-based safeguards and public health protections. We will also work with Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), incoming chair of the House Armed Services Committee, to move forward his bill establishing a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.

Climate change and energy will also be a priority for several incoming committee chairs, such as Frank Pallone (D-NJ) of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) of the Natural Resources Committee, and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) of the Science Committee. It is also a priority for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who just last week indicated her interest in creating a select committee on climate change, modeled on the one chaired by now-Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) from 2007 to 2010. We are discussing legislative options with these and other House Democrats, as well as with our allies in the environmental, clean energy, labor, and climate justice communities, ranging from comprehensive climate policy to more targeted bills focusing on the electricity or transportation sector, or on ramping up assistance to local communities that are struggling to cope with the mounting impacts of climate change.

But yesterday’s elections also resulted in a number of new governors. What do you see as the opportunities for progress at the state and regional level?

Ken: I’m particularly excited about the new governors in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. UCS and others have been working for years on a project to modernize the electric grid in the heartland of the country to fully unleash the power of clean and cheap wind and solar, and we believe that many of these new governors can help champion this transformation.

UCS is also busy working in the Northeast on a regional plan to reduce transportation emissions. Key governors who are supportive of the idea (Cuomo in New York, Baker in Massachusetts) won their races, and some promising newcomers, such as Governor-elect Mills in Maine and Lamont in Connecticut, can add to the critical mass.

In Illinois, with governor-elect Pritzker in office, we will now have increased opportunities for passage of comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation; while in Michigan, with governor-elect Whitmer in office, we will now have new opportunities to advance modern grid policies that can deliver greater quantities of clean electricity to communities, support electric vehicles, and increase the resilience of the electricity grid to the impacts of climate change. In addition, we have new governors in Kansas, New Mexico, and Nevada, and we will look to help these states become clean energy champions.

I know you warned me last week that the 2020 election kicks off today (ugh!). So I’m curious what you think last night’s results might mean for the 2020 elections.

Alden: I think the new governors who ran on a clean energy platform and won their elections will add a lot to the national conversation over the next two years. Not only will they work to push through strong policies, but they will be strong messengers on how these solutions are good for their states’ economies and job creation, bring strong public health benefits by cutting conventional pollutants, and reduce their energy consumers’ vulnerability to fossil fuel supply disruptions and price shocks. Their advocacy and visibility on clean energy and the need to address the mounting impacts of climate change will help make clear that these are priorities for states in the heartland, not just on the coasts.

Put these new governors together with the active agenda we expect to see in the House on climate and clean energy issues next year, as well as the growing public support for climate action that’s demonstrated in recent opinion polls, and it’s safe to say that these issues will be front and center going into the 2020 elections. Of course, health care, immigration, the economy, national security, and terrorism will continue to be top-tier issues, but it will be more difficult than ever for candidates for federal office to deny the reality of climate change.

And, as long as we’re talking about 2020, can you say a little about the work we’re doing with other groups to lay the groundwork for ambitious climate action in 2021?

Ken: Absolutely. UCS, along with many other partners, such as labor, science groups, environmental advocates and so many others are already focusing our sights on a prize—comprehensive, federal climate change legislation by 2021. We can’t let another opportunity slip, we need to get ready for it, and that means starting now. Among other things, we have to learn a key lesson from the Obama era—relying exclusively on regulations doesn’t work, as a successor administration or a hostile court can undo them. We need to lay the groundwork for a durable solution that is set in law, and that means bringing in Republicans to offer their best ideas and ensuring that they too have skin in this all-important game. This is also true for our work on nuclear weapons and sustainable and healthy farms—we need to set our sights on bi-partisan legislation and get to work on it now.

Alden: As we’ve discussed, there are some opportunities to make progress on our issues at the federal level over the next two years, and even more opportunities at the state and regional level. But let’s be honest, we still face tremendous challenges, central among them a president who has no respect for science, makes up his own facts, and continues to take a wrecking ball to the capability of the EPA and other federal agencies to protect public health and the environment. As you rightly note, solutions to all the issues UCS works on need to be worked out on a bipartisan basis to be durable. The good news is that more and more Republicans privately acknowledge the need for action on climate change and other issues; the bad news is that their willingness to stand up to President Trump remains extremely limited. Creating incentives for them to do so—in coordination with allies in the business, faith, security, and conservation communities—is one of the key challenges we need to meet to be successful.

Ken: It is good to remember that politics in America resemble a pendulum. The pendulum swung far in one direction in 2016. The election of a new majority in the House, new governors in key swing states and many young, diverse and exciting new leaders shows that the pendulum is starting to swing back. Our job, as I see it, is to help push the pendulum back in favor of leaders from both parties that support science-based policies. And to be ready when the pendulum swings back far enough to make progress again.


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