Combined UCS Blogs

Three Times EPA Administrator Wheeler Failed His Science Advisors This Week

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Photo: Genna Reed

I told E&E News before this week’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) meeting that my concern was that Administrator Wheeler was using the board “as a box he needs to check off” on his path to deregulation. He called out my quote in his statement to the SAB on Tuesday morning and refuted the underlying assumption that he didn’t value his science advisors. I didn’t have to wait long before the proceedings of the meeting proved my very point and illustrated exactly how little Administrator Wheeler cares about the scientific underpinnings of regulations, the opinions of his own scientists and science advisors, or even in getting basic scientific facts correct. Here are just a few anecdotes from this week’s SAB meeting that made this clear:

“The devil’s in the details and we don’t have any of the details”

The very first matter of business for the SAB was to hear from the EPA about its restricted science rule. Remember, the SAB was not informed about this policy until it was proposed and went to public comment. At the last SAB meeting in May 2018, the committee voted in favor of asking former Administrator Pruitt to charge them with reviewing the policy. They sent an official letter in June 2018 and then waited for a response. EPA responded a whopping 10 months later in April. I mean, I had a baby in the amount of time it took for the EPA respond to its own science advisors. Not only was the response late, but Wheeler asked only for input on a very narrow piece of the rule–how the agency will deal with access to confidential business information and personally identifiable information).

Over forty members of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board deliberated this week to decide which EPA actions merit review. They voted to take a full look at the agency’s restricted science proposed rule, even though Administrator Wheeler only asked for their feedback on a narrow slice.

Now, as the agency intends to get this politically-hatched rule out the door by the end of 2019, the SAB still hasn’t responded to the SAB’s questions it sent last month. After much discussion about how the agency has given them no information about the rule and answered none of their questions, yet it has the potential to impact public health science in a major way. There was also much consternation from the committee about the fact that at this point, any contributions they make to the rule will come too late to meaningfully inform it. In the end the SAB almost unanimously voted to do a full review of the rule, which the chair Michael Honeycutt aims to get done before the fall. A quick side note on this is that the people that raised their hands when asked who had enough time to help write the first draft of a full review over the summer were mostly affiliated with industry and consulting firms, whose involvement in these matters demands scrutiny anyway.

In his opening statement, Administrator Wheeler defended the agency’s so-called transparency rule by pointing to the “safeguard” is that the Administrator could allow studies to be used even without making the data public on a case by case basis to  “ensure that studies beneficial to public health won’t be ignored.” But as we’ve explained before, the fact that this is even a part of the rule undermines its entire raison d’etre and shows exactly how arbitrary it is. Administrator Wheeler may say he wants SAB feedback on this rule, but it’s abundantly clear that he doesn’t really want scientific input because it would result in a grand takedown of this mess of a policy.

Attempt to fix SAB engagement process misses the mark

Administrator Wheeler told the SAB Wednesday morning, “Today we are beginning the transition to a new process. It’s no secret that the process was broken, and was not beneficial to the EPA, the board, or the public we all serve.” He harped on this theme quite a lot, later saying, “I’m glad to be here to lay out a new direction for how EPA interacts with and uses the SAB,” he said. “I will be the first to admit we have not utilized you the way that we should. We can and we will do better.”

After all of this lead-up, I expected something much better thought-out than what the agency presented the SAB with. It seems that the “interim process” would notify the SAB of agency actions “closer to” when they are published in the federal register. The agency then gave no further details on what “closer to” meant and whether it would be in the spirit of the law governing SAB. The lack of information in the presentation made it clear that Wheeler felt he needed to make SAB feel as if it was being included, even if the inclusion is all for show. A box checked.

Changing best practices of term lengths and conflicts of interest has done noticeable damage

If Wheeler truly believed that “science is the foundation for everything the agency does,” as he said in his statement, and wanted an independent, diverse, and expert SAB, he would have rolled back former Administrator Pruitt’s nonsensical directive that declared EPA grants a conflict of interest so egregious that it would disqualify scientists from serving on the board. UCS and more than 20 other organizations directly asked Wheeler to reverse this ridiculous ban, but he pressed onward. What this directive and changes to term lengths on this committee has done is reduce the institutional knowledge significantly so that only a few veterans know how SAB’s process works and everyone else is flying blind. By the time everyone figures out what to do it’ll be too late to get anything done, thus rendering the SAB nearly useless. This, of course, is exactly what this administration wants from its science advisors because if the science of many of the deregulatory and anti-science actions taken by this EPA was checked by independent scientists, it wouldn’t pass the sniff test.

What’s the path forward?

While it was encouraging to see the SAB members agree to take on many important scientific issues within the EPA’s deregulatory agenda, there’s nothing in Wheeler’s former actions to give me faith that that his rhetoric about weighing the SAB’s feedback and valuing science is anything more than talk. As he continues to further undermine the science advice process at the agency, the integrity of the SAB is at stake. To find out more about what happened at the meeting this week, check out my twitter threads from Wednesday and Thursday.

Bury Myers’ NOAA Nomination

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Photo: C-SPAN

We became scientists to make discoveries and explore the unknown, not to wonder why science is rife with sexual harassment and discrimination. But that is not how our paths have gone. One of us (Dr. Willenbring) survived severe sexual harassment at a remote field station in Antarctica, which only recently resulted in the firing of the perpetrator. The other (Dr. Freitag) is a NOAA contractor who has watched how handling of sexual harassment cases can make or break a career in science.

We knew from our own experience that sexual harassment in the scientific fields is all too common. And so we were appalled, but not surprised to learn that AccuWeather—led by the President’s pick to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Barry Myers—agreed to pay $290,000 to 35 women as part of a settlement after a federal oversight agency found the company subjected female employees to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. We also were not surprised that AccuWeather denied any knowledge of harassing activity, declined on-site access to investigators, and objected to any expansion of the investigation. And sadly, we were particularly unsurprised at the original 2016 complaint by a former AccuWeather employee alleged that she was, among other things, subjected to a hostile work environment and ultimately terminated due to her sexual orientation.

But despite our hard experience, we were surprised, shocked, and disgusted by the sheer extent of the harassment that occurred while Myers was CEO of AccuWeather, which was detailed in a federal report that became public earlier this month. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCCP) found, “Over two dozen witnesses spanning many different departments and in positions ranging from administrative support to senior management described unlawful sexual harassment that occurred at the company. This sexual harassment was so severe and pervasive, that some female employees resigned.” The investigation confirmed that AccuWeather was indeed aware of the sexual harassment but took no action to correct the unlawful activity.

At the same time that women at AccuWeather were being subjected to this pervasive harassment, so were women scientists, observers and contractors at NOAA. After several came forward to alert Congressional leaders to a system that had failed to protect them, Congress passed legislation to require the agency to develop a comprehensive policy on sexual assault and harassment prevention and response. NOAA complied with that requirement in February 2018.

NOAA’s reforms are working. We have seen them play out in practice and are cautiously optimistic that progress is being achieved. But those steps forward are still incremental enough to be undermined and will only be as strong as the leadership of the agency enforcing them. Myers claimed to be unaware of rampant and pervasive sexual harassment in a company of only about 500 office employees, How are we to have any confidence that he will have the capacity to ensure that an agency with 11,000 employees and contractors, many of whom are at sea and in remote locations, is aggressively enforcing an anti-harassment policy? As we both know all too well, serial harassers thrive in isolate environments where their victims have little recourse.

Myers has already made clear how he views such matters. When asked by the Senate during his confirmation process if “any business where he served as an officer had ever been involved as a party in an administrative proceeding, criminal proceeding, or civil litigation,” he responded that the company has been involved in “routine civil and administrative actions, such as (1) contracts disputes; (2) employee claims for unemployment compensation, EEOC matters, workers compensation, and OFCCP compliance; and (3) other personnel matters.” In other words, he views a settlement of pervasive sexual harassment in his own company, and financial payouts to at least 39 women who were subject to that harassment, as “routine.”

The women and men of NOAA, and of the ocean science community, deserve better than for gross sexual harassment and a hostile workplace to be considered routine. The nation’s premier ocean science agencies cannot and should not be led by anyone who does not understand that. The environmental threats facing our ocean today can only be addressed by the best scientists and subject matter experts in the world – and they should be led by someone committed to protect them. Barry Myers has shown he is not up to the task. We urge the Senate to reject his nomination.

 

Dr. Jane Willenbring is an Associate Professor at the Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, and Dr. Amy Freitag is a contract social scientist for NOAA.

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: C-SPAN

Wheeler’s Breathtaking Ignorance of Science, in One Comment

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EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at the EPA Science Advisory Board meeting on June 5, 2019 Photo: Gretchen Goldman

Yesterday at the EPA’s Science Advisory Board meeting, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler made comments on the agency’s proposed Restricting Science Rule that raised eyebrows for anyone who understands the basics of health studies. In his defense of the rule (which the scientific community agrees will severely hamstring the agency’s ability to rely on the best available science in its decision-making), Wheeler asserted that the EPA should be more like the FDA in its data transparency. The FDA uses double-blind studies and the EPA should be taking that approach, he suggested. Um, what?

To understand exactly how misguided this statement is, let’s take it from the top.

Dear Administrator Wheeler, this is what a double-blind study is

Double-blind studies involve study designs where both researchers and study subjects don’t know which subjects are given the placebo versus the treatment. These studies are a great way that researchers can reduce bias in scientific studies since those involved in reporting and collecting data won’t be influenced by knowledge of a potential effect. These study designs are especially useful in clinical trial research for new drugs, where scientists are interested in the efficacy of a drug, the presence of side effects, and other health outcomes.

The EPA and FDA study fundamentally different things

What would a double-blind study even mean in the EPA context? Your guess is as good as mine.

Here’s the problem: There is a fundamental reason that the EPA is different than the FDA. The EPA is studying environmental contaminants, i.e. pollutants that are out in the world. As a result, we have to rely on observational data of people living their lives in the world, with all the variability in pollution exposure that comes with that. We cannot control who is and isn’t exposed to pollution if we want to study populations. There are of course natural experiments that scientists can learn from but as I explain in a recent piece in Science, it is not possible or ethical for scientists to expose groups of people to harmful levels of pollution—something that would be required if we wanted to attempt a double-blind study. This is very different than the FDA context where researchers in clinical trials have a level of control over which study subjects are provided drugs.

Air pollution studies with Scuba gear?

But let’s entertain Administrator Wheeler’s idea, shall we? If we wanted to design a double-blind study on an EPA issue like air pollution, here’s what that would look like. You would need groups of people who are and aren’t exposed to harmful levels of air pollution. But to make it double-blind, both those people and the researchers conducting the study would need to not know whether they were breathing clean or dirty air (until after the data was collected). To do this, the participants can’t breath the ambient air because we wouldn’t be able to control the pollution level of the environment, i.e. it would mess up the study.

Thus, a double-blind EPA air pollution study would need to involve something like study subjects living their lives in scuba gear, where neither they nor the scientists studying them would know whether their scuba tank contained clean or contaminated air.

It is very easy to see how this is completely unworkable. Does Administrator Wheeler need a crash course in study design?

The FDA is not a poster child for the transparency Wheeler claims to want

Administrator Wheeler had complimentary remarks for FDA disclosure of scientific data in its decision-making. This is a head-scratcher for anyone who follows FDA decision-making.

The FDA is not always forthcoming in disclosing detailed information about its decisions on drug approvals, food additives, and other agency regulatory actions.While the FDA has made many improvements in process, leadership, and transparency, when it comes to drug review and decisions, information disclosure is still lacking. For other products like medical devices, the standard is less rigorous, and primary data is often not publicly available. Also of note, even FDA advisory committee members might only see summary reports from companies and FDA reviews, not the raw data itself. Finally, label changes and safety alerts may or may not be based on publicly available data.

Importantly, the FDA is certainly not following the extreme requirements in the EPA Restricting Science Rule. Like EPA, the FDA handles much confidential business information as well as personally identifying information. It is true that some studies involving this kind of information are released publicly in ways that protect the sensitive information. For example, by statute, large pivotal clinical trials are required for companies seeking approval for new drugs. When drugs are approved, the studies the FDA relied on are released publicly and more information is now becoming available through Clinicaltrials.gov. The FDA is not, however, releasing raw data in the way that the EPA Restricting Science Rule suggests.  This isn’t the model of disclosure that Administrator Wheeler claims to be aspiring toward.

Administrator Wheeler’s comments prove EPA desperately needs science advice

In conclusion, Administrator Wheeler’s comments suggesting that the EPA should mimic FDA’s use of double-blind studies makes zero sense.  Its almost as if he is in need of science advice from experts. The EPA Science Advisory Board could provide such expertise, if only the EPA will let them.

Thankfully, the SAB voted yesterday afternoon to fully consider the EPA Restricting Science Rule in addition to providing individual comments in a near-term consultation. If the administration makes good on its promise to release the final rule by the end of the calendar year, then the SAB advice would come later, but regardless of the timing these are issues where the EPA desperately needs science advice and the SAB must step up.

 

Photo: Gretchen Goldman

Will the Trump USDA Deliver on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans? Our New Report Shows What’s at Stake

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Sixty percent of adults the United States are now living with one or more chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. That’s 150 million people—not counting millions of children and young adults—whose daily lives are disrupted by poor health. These chronic conditions are the leading causes of death and disability, and they’re also the leading drivers of the $3.5 trillion we spend on health care each year.

I’m not quick to call something a “crisis,” but the current trajectory of population health renders possible a future in which the vast majority of us are simply too sick to thrive. If we don’t make some changes, that future may come sooner than we think.

Luckily, we’re far from exhausting our options. One of the most powerful pathways to better health is through better nutrition. A recent study estimated that nearly half of all deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes in the US could be attributed to poor diets. This and other research suggest that there is vast untapped potential to improve our health and wellbeing with the food we put on our plates.

That’s why, in a new report, we examined just how many lives might be saved and medical costs might be spared if adults in the US made key dietary changes to eat less processed meat, less added sugar, and more fruits and vegetables. We looked at these changes through the lens of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the leading set of science-based dietary recommendations in the US, currently in the process of being updated. The results make an overwhelming case for the federal government to take a fresh look at its food policy.

A menu with multi-billion dollar benefits

Our analysis considered three separate kinds of food and their respective relationships to common chronic diseases: processed meat and colorectal cancer, sugar-sweetened beverages and type 2 diabetes, and fruits and vegetables and cardiovascular disease. (For more on our research methods, including topic selection, tables and figures, and references, see the full report online.)

Processed meat

When it comes to processed meat (a category that includes foods like bacon, deli meat, hot dogs and sausage), there is strong evidence linking consumption to higher risk of colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the US, and although overall rates are declining, there has been an alarming increase in colorectal cancer among younger populations—which researchers believe may be partially related to diet. Experts have found that each additional 50 grams of processed meat (equal to two to four pieces of deli meat or bacon, or about one hot dog) eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 16 to 18 percent. As a result, most leading agencies—with one notable exception—recommend that people consume little to no processed meat. That exception, of course, is in the US Dietary Guidelines. Despite overwhelming scientific consensus, industry groups have successfully prevented federal agencies from issuing a limit on processed meat.

So what would it look like if adults in the US were following the science on processed meat, consuming the equivalent of no more than one hot dog every two weeks? According to our analysis, this might have saved nearly 3,900 lives and $1.5 billion in medical costs due to colorectal cancer in 2018, with an additional $1 billion recouped in productivity costs.

Added sugar

Adults and kids alike are getting too much added sugar in their diets. And a lot of it comes in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, including fruit drinks, soft drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened coffee and tea. Sugar-sweetened beverages make up almost half of all the added sugars consumed in the US, accounting for nearly 150 calories eaten by the average person each day. To put that into context, that means the average eight-year-old is getting one out of every 10 calories from sugar-sweetened beverages. And an ever-growing body of research shows that added sugar intake is harmful to our health in many ways—including increasing our risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Studies show that the risk of type 2 diabetes, a metabolic disorder affecting close to 30 million people in the US, increases by between 13 and 21 percent for each additional serving of sugar-sweetened beverages each day. And while the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines took a major step forward in recommending that we limit added sugar to less than 10 percent of total calories, research suggests that an even lower limit would provide greater protection against chronic disease.

What would it mean for our health if our diets were in better alignment with the science on added sugar? Our analysis found that, if adults in the US who drink sugar-sweetened beverages were consuming one fewer serving each day, this would have saved nearly 19,000 lives and decreased medical costs by $16 billion in 2018 from type 2 diabetes, and an additional $6 billion recouped in productivity costs.

Fruits and vegetables

Most of us are accustomed to hearing about the virtues of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, but we might be surprised to learn just how good they are for us. A strong body of research shows that eating more fruits and vegetables can protect us against cardiovascular disease—the leading cause of death for both men and women. Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke, is responsible for one in three deaths, or more than 800,000 deaths annually, in the US. The Dietary Guidelines have consistently recommended that adults and children in the US eat more fruits and vegetables. And—with equal consistency—we have fallen short. People may face any number of challenges to eating healthfully, from cost to convenience to culture, and for many populations, including low-income communities and people of color, these challenges are amplified by systemic barriers that can make foods like fruits and vegetables much harder to come by. This points to an urgent need for more than just the best science-based guidelines, but also for a coordinated strategy that will allow the federal government to implement them and the general public to apply them.

If the guidelines were implemented to their fullest—if the healthy choice could be the healthy choice the easy choice when it comes to fruits and vegetables—what would it mean for our health? Our analysis found that, if adults in the US were able to meet recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake, this could have saved almost 110,000 deaths and more than $32 billion in medical costs, with an additional $20 billion in recouped productivity costs, in 2018.

Delivering on the Dietary Guidelines

Though there are notable cases in which food companies have managed to influence the guidelines via Congress or agency secretaries, these have proven to be the exception, not the rule. By and large, the Dietary Guidelines is consistently undergirded by high-quality scientific evidence and expertise, and its content has changed relatively little over the last 35 years: recommendations typically call on us to consume more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains; to limit foods that contain high amounts of sugar or sodium; and to develop healthy eating habits based on moderation and variety.

That being said, the Trump administration has ushered in a new era. With a particularly friendly attitude toward industry and a demonstrated distaste for science and scientific expertise, it may prove more challenging under such an administration to protect the current scientific process for developing the guidelines. As the scientific advisory committee meets throughout the course of the next year to review current evidence, we are encouraging the public to get involved and hold the administration accountable. (Right now, and through early 2020, the best way to do that is to submit a public comment—check our website later this month for a helpful how-to guide.)

On the road to making a healthy diet accessible to everyone, the Dietary Guidelines will continue to be an invaluable tool for health professionals, federal nutrition program operators, and many families. But we are far from reaching our destination.

The bottom line is this: if it is important to ensure the guidelines are evidence-based, it is essential to recognize that even evidence-based guidelines are only as effective as their implementation. As the development of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines is underway, the federal government should be making a renewed commitment to public health by developing a strategy that will allow the benefits of a healthy diet to be realized by all communities, particularly those most vulnerable to the effects of chronic disease. With adequate resources supporting scientific recommendations, we could begin to deliver the full potential of the Dietary Guidelines.

“Big Food” Companies Spend Big Money in Hopes of Shaping the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

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Photo courtesy of 401kcalculator.org/Flickr

The maker of Snickers, M&Ms, and Skittles has built a global conglomerate on sugar. The privately held Mars Incorporated let it be known earlier this year that it hopes to double its $35 billion annual revenue over the next decade, reportedly through expansion in pet food and other areas. But for now, confectionery treats are a main business, which could be why the company spent more than $2 million, in 2018 and early 2019, lobbying Congress around the federal government’s nutrition advice, among other food policy issues. Of course, it’s also possible Mars has a more socially responsible motive, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Why the food industry cares about the Dietary Guidelines

In general, processed food and beverage companies have an intense interest in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nation’s leading set of science-based nutrition recommendations. This federal dietary advice is revised every five years to reflect the best available science, and it informs healthy eating decisions for consumers and, most significantly, guides federal nutrition programs that serve millions of children, parents, seniors, and veterans every day.

The process to develop the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is now underway. And while this is a rigorous process that tends to produce strong and relatively consistent guidelines (with some exceptions), that doesn’t stop the food industry from trying to influence them through various channels.

…and what companies hope the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines won’t say.

The disclosure forms lobbyists are legally required to file with the House and Senate every quarter provide a window into who is seeking to influence the Dietary Guidelines. But without being behind the closed doors of those meetings, we have to imagine what kinds of advice Big Food companies and their lobbyists would rather we didn’t hear from the federal government’s nutrition experts. Here’s some of the science-based recommendations I suspect many of Big Food’s lobbyists don’t want included in the next iteration of the Dietary Guidelines:

  • Eat processed meat rarely. According to new UCS analysis of processed meat intake and colorectal cancer risk, that could mean something like half a hot dog per week—or for those of us who don’t eat hot dogs in increments, no more than one every other week. But such moderation wouldn’t be good for big meat processors and their lobby groups, including the Livestock Marketing Association, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council, Smithfield Foods, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, and the United States Cattlemen’s Association. Those groups collectively spent $4.5 million lobbying Congress on issues including the Dietary Guidelines during the two-year process of updating them for 2015. So far this cycle, the main processed meat player appears to be Hormel Foods Corporation, maker of the inimitable Spam canned meat, which has already plunked down $740,000 on such lobbying between January 2018 and March 2019.
  • Drink less soda. By our analysis, the government should consider lowering the Dietary Guidelines added sugar limit to reflect adults’ average calorie needs, and provide age-specific recommendations for kids. One good way to help people cut back on sugar and reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes, among other conditions? Continue to recommend that people drink less soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. But soda makers Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, along with their industry lobby group (the American Beverage Association, or ABA), spent a combined $23.8 million on related lobbying in 2014-2015. Since the beginning of 2018, the ABA has shouldered the burden, racking up $1.68 million in lobbying expenses, joined by Red Bull North America at $320,000.
  • For infants, breastfeeding is best. For the first time, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines will include recommendations specifically for infants and toddlers. Clear, science-based advice to breastfeed whenever possible would be a problem for leading infant formula-maker Nestlé S.A. (also the world’s largest food company). Known for its long, troubling history pushing formula on new moms, the company reorganized its infant nutrition business in 2017, listing the area as a priority for growth. Since the beginning of 2018, Nestlé has spent $1.58 million, at least in part, presumably, to ensure that growth isn’t hampered by the Dietary Guidelines.
So why are they lobbying Congress?

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—and specifically, the secretaries of those federal departments—set the Dietary Guidelines, appointing a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) to review the science and present them evidence-based recommendations. (Here’s a backgrounder on the process.)

Yet as that process was ongoing five years ago, food and beverage companies and trade associations were lobbying Congress aggressively. Quarterly disclosure forms filed by such groups during 2014-2015 show more than $77 million in lobbying activities directed at Congress, on issues including the Dietary Guidelines. (Note that it’s impossible to say exactly how much of that lobbying effort was specific to the guidelines, as lobbyists lump various issues on each quarterly disclosure form filed with Congress. But it’s the best indicator we’ve got.)

There’s a reason companies and industry groups expend time and money lobbying Congress, even when legislators aren’t officially the decisionmakers—because once in a while it works. Take the Dietary Guidelines sustainability debate in 2015. Then, the DGAC took a forward-looking approach, spelling out the sizeable environmental side benefits that healthy, plant-based eating can have, and recommending that the final Dietary Guidelines include that advice. Of course, that didn’t sit well with the meat lobby, and after they gave Congress an earful…sure enough, those recommendations disappeared.

(An intriguing development: After Congress essentially barred the prior administration from considering sustainability issues as part of the Dietary Guidelines, the topic list the agencies prepared for its new expert DGAC doesn’t include those issues, and DGAC members have been instructed that it’s not part of their charge. Still, some Big Food companies—including Mars and Nestle—are, surprisingly, advocating for consideration of the environmental impacts of our dietary choices once again. UCS is all for that, of course, as we said back in 2015, and it will be interesting to see where it goes.)

Who else is Big Food lobbying?

Of course, the food industry’s lobbying surely isn’t limited to Congress. It’s just that their visits to Capitol Hill are the only ones we can document easily, with publicly available, if imperfect, data as indicated above. It’s a reasonable assumption that many of these companies are lobbying Trump administration officials directly about the Dietary Guidelines, even though we don’t have documents to prove it. And these industries surely have a ready ear in the USDA and HHS secretaries. I think it’s fair to say that big corporations and industry groups of all kinds have no bigger friend than the Trump administration. Whether coal companies, oil companies, big automakers, pesticide makers, or big poultry conglomerates, this administration has rewarded them all, giving each more or less exactly what it has asked for.

Now to be clear, past industry lobbying hasn’t been able to substantially subvert the Dietary Guidelines, which have mostly remained strong and science based. But with the current administration, I’m more concerned. After all, former food industry lobbyists are now staffing the USDA through a revolving door that only sped up with the Trump administration. As USDA staff geared up for the Dietary Guidelines update early in the administration, they were led by former snack food and corn syrup lobbyist Kailee Tkacz (now the chief of staff to the USDA deputy secretary).

For the record, Tkacz herself lobbied on the Dietary Guidelines on behalf of global snack foods trade association SNAC International back in 2014-15 (SNAC spent $340,000 then). Now, her successors are making the rounds in Congress—SNAC has invested $440,000 just since the beginning of 2018.

What happens now?

As of now, it isn’t clear whether food industry lobbying—whether in the halls of Congress or directly with the Trump administration—will undermine the next Dietary Guidelines. For the moment, the scientific review is in the hands of the 20 experts on the DGAC, which will hold a series of public meetings (the next one on July 11-12) before presenting its recommendations to the USDA and HHS secretaries around the middle of 2020. What the agencies choose to include—or leave out—when they translate these scientific recommendations to a set of final guidelines by the end of 2020 may tell us if and how industry made its mark.

In the intervening months, it will be up to us, as eaters and taxpayers, to tell the administration they must resist industry lobbying, publish guidelines that prioritize public health, and invest in strategies to address systemic barriers to healthier diets. For more information, see our new report, Delivering on the Dietary Guidelines, and stay tuned for a comment guide you can use to weigh in.

Understanding the New Restrictions on Fetal Tissue Research, and Attacks on the Scientists Who Use It

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An intern doing scientific research in a US Navy laboratory. Photo: John F. Williams, US Navy/CC BY 2.0, Flickr

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has announced new restrictions on the use of fetal tissue in research. Fetal tissue research has led to profound progress in understanding and treating countless diseases and public health threats, including chicken pox, HIV, Alzheimer’s, Zika, and Parkinson’s disease.

If you want to understand the consequences of these new restrictions, the toxic and skewed discussion around the use of fetal tissue in research, and the negative consequences for individual scientists and their work, here are some good places to start.

First, critical fetal tissue research can be and is done ethically.

“There is strong evidence that scientific benefits come from fetal tissue research, [which] can be done with [an] ethical framework,” evangelical Christian and NIH Director Francis Collins said in late 2018. There is no evidence that fetal tissue procurement has any impact on abortion frequency.

Second, there is currently no substitute for fetal tissue in research.

According to Science, Dr. Collins also told reporters that “[T]here are certain areas where it’s hard to imagine that we would know what we know without the access to fetal tissue,” such as work on how the Zika virus infects brain cells and causes microcephaly in utero.

Mice models created with fetal tissue implants are considered the “gold standard” model organism for studying the long-term effects of a drug or the progression of a disease. These model organisms are essential for studying how HIV affects human immune cells. According to NIH Associate Director for Science Policy Carrie Wolinetz, there are no good alternatives currently available for developing human immune systems in mice without using human fetal tissue.

“The consensus is that there are certain things about fetal tissue that make [it] unique,” UC Davis Professor Paul Knoepfler told StatNews. “Certain experiments can really only be done on actual fetal tissue.”

Although the NIH is currently funding efforts to find alternatives to fetal tissue, NIH officials told Time Magazine that “the intent was never to cause research to stop,” and an HHS spokesperson told STAT that “by no means was [the review] meant to halt or ban or cease research.”

Equity Forward also has a helpful backgrounder on the importance of fetal tissue for understanding and combating disease and the political context that is driving the new restrictions.

Third, fetal tissue researchers have been under threat for years. 

Many researchers will not speak publicly about their work because they have received threats or fear threats. Most universities and university associations refuse to speak openly about this type of research because they are justifiably concerned about safety. Some scientists have resorted to hiring guards for their labs.

We live in a world where misinformation easily proliferates on contentious issues. In 2015, doctored videos that erroneously suggested Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue were used as justification for a congressional Select Committee on Infant Lives, a 15-month McCarthy-style boondoggle led by then-Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who has since been elected to the US Senate.

Blackburn’s committee issued subpoenas to scientists around the country, including to medical doctor Eugene Gu. Dr. Gu’s fetal tissue research was designed to save the lives of infants who are born with non-functioning heart ventricles or missing kidneys. The committee sent armed US marshals to bang on his door to demand access to documents related to his work.

“I’m a very ordinary, small individual,” Dr. Gu told Science Friday. “I’m not a professor. I don’t have tenure at a university. When I was subpoenaed, I was an intern surgical resident basically making minimum wage. I couldn’t even afford an attorney.”

Dr. Gu was railroaded out of that surgical residency at Vanderbilt University (also in Tennessee) once he began speaking publicly about the harassment he faced. Dr. Gu told Science Friday that Vanderbilt attempted to cancel his appearance on the show.

Fourth, threats and restrictions slow down research.

As Emily Crockett wrote for Vox in 2016:

“Researchers have testified before the select panel that promising studies of diseases like multiple sclerosis have been delayed due to threats and political pressure.

That’s partly because those threats and political pressure are causing the supply of fetal tissue to dry up. Some abortion providers and tissue procurement companies have abandoned fetal tissue donation entirely — and not that many of them were even doing it in the first place.”

“The fetal tissue research subpoena, demanding the names of anyone remotely involved in the research not only in the procurement of the tissue, is a direct attack on the scientific enterprise,” wrote my former colleague Pallavi Phartiyal in 2016. “It interferes with the ability of scientists to advance research on debilitating diseases, utilizing the most useful methodologies and research materials. [It] has the potential of dissuading a whole generation of early career scientists from entering controversial [fields] if they feel that they’d need to defend their science every time there’s a member of Congress who doesn’t deem their scientific methods appropriate or finds their results disagreeable.”

Ultimately, a severely skewed representation of the ethics and benefits of fetal tissue research is depriving all of us from research that can literally save us and our loved ones from disease. This is both irresponsible and sad.

Photo: John F. Williams, US Navy/CC BY 2.0, Flickr

Scientists Advocating for Climate Action in Oregon: Why we are stepping up and speaking out

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Photo: BLM Oregon

We are two climate scientists, currently teaching about climate change at two universities in Portland, Oregon. We are also two concerned scientists who understand the severe threats that climate change is posing to human well-being, as well as two concerned parents (and one concerned grandfather) who are worried about the future of climate extremes that our children and grandchildren must bear. As members of the UCS Science Network, this year we have used our voices as scientists and experts to speak with Oregon state legislators and advocate for strong climate action in Oregon. Here are our stories.

Sharon Delcambre’s Story: Inspiring (and inspired by) frontline students

I am a climate scientist, teacher, mother, and North Portland resident for the past 6 years.  I am a physical scientist through and through, and worked hard to gain the credentials to call myself a scientist (MS in atmospheric science, PhD researching the impacts of global climate change on weather systems). I am currently a 2-year Visiting Instructor of Environmental Studies at the University of Portland. In my prior position at Portland Community College, I spearheaded development of a “Global Climate Change” course taught online and in-person that reaches hundreds of students each year.

Some of the science I teach is about how climate change is a real threat to our collective ability to live the good life we all desire.  Globally, carbon dioxide concentrations are higher than they have been during the past 800,000 years, primarily due to human emissions.  Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, we are witnessing less winter snowpack, leading to water shortages and increased risk of damaging summertime wildfires.  We see impacts to our fish and other marine life from changes in ocean and river temperature and chemistry.  We see the very personality of our region changing, as our abundant waters, forests, and farmlands irreversibly change.

Upon consideration of these depressing statistics, most of my students immediately ask for solutions.  And thus began my own journey of learning about the intersectional nature of climate change.  While solutions such as a decarbonized electrical grid and solar panels for everyone are powerful and worthy aspirational goals, any solution must address those most vulnerable populations in our society.  For instance, in the Pacific Northwest, just like in most regions globally, “frontline” communities are the first to experience harm due to our changing climate.  In the 2018 National Climate Assessment, Pacific Northwest frontline communities are defined as “tribes and indigenous peoples, those most dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, and the economically disadvantaged.”   People in these communities do not have as many resources with which to prepare or respond to climate changes and are thus inherently vulnerable.  In fact, climate change has been said to be a multiplier of injustice, compounding co-existing gender, racial, or economic injustices that exist in our communities.

I tell my students that whether they fight for gender, racial, or climate justice they are helping prevent climate change, and I truly believe this.

I tell my students that whether they fight for gender, racial, or climate justice they are helping prevent climate change, and I truly believe this.   As a white woman with economic and educational privilege, I see my role as more than just a scientist.  If I want to be an ally for those with less privilege, I need to infuse this social justice lens into my classroom, but also step outside of my classroom and work to affect change in our society. And as a mother of a young child, I want to advance solutions that will help to avoid some of the worst climate impacts my child may have to live with.

That is why I am finally stepping up to publicly ask my legislators for action on climate and to serve as a resource on the climate science I know so well.  That is why when Union of Concerned Scientists asked me to sign an expert letter in March, urging the Oregon legislature to take strong climate action in 2019, I did it.  Then, when they asked me to visit Salem to speak with my legislators in April 2019 and again in May 2019, I did it.

The Oregon Clean Energy Jobs Bill addresses climate change at the root cause by capping carbon emissions in the state of Oregon in order to reduce the state’s emissions to 80% below 1990 values by 2050.  But it does not forget about the frontline communities in our state and invests profits in low-income and rural communities, as well as communities of color, affected workers, and Oregon’s tribal communities.

While it was my own frontline students at Portland Community College who first alerted me to this bill in spring 2018, it is the Union of Concerned Scientists who has enabled me to make a difference as a scientist.  They have kept me abreast of updates from Salem and told me what I can do to support the work my legislators are doing.  They educated me on how the political process works and where I can play a role.

Frank Granshaw’s  Motivations for Climate Advocacy: Being a glacial geologist and a grandfather

Frank Granshaw delivers a letter from 71 Oregon scientists calling for strong climate action in 2019 to Logan Gilles, the Chief of staff to Oregon state senator Michael Denbrow, the co-chair of the Oregon Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction.

I’m a retired community college geology instructor now doing climate and sustainability work with Portland State University and several community organizations in Portland Oregon.  I have also done climate advocacy work with the UCS Science Network and have participated in several UN climate conferences as a citizen observer.  Being originally trained as a physicist and a Methodist minister, I eventually went on to become a geologist and geoscience educator. As a researcher my work has been in glacier monitoring, glacier/climate interactions, and the design and use of virtual reality in geoscience education.  During my 40+ years of teaching, much of my work has revolved around helping non-scientists understand, appreciate, and care for earth systems.

During a recent visit to the state capital with UCS, a legislative staffer asked me what brought me to the capital.  I explained that I was there delivering to individual legislators a letter signed by 71 Oregon scientists supporting the Clean Energy Jobs bill (or HB 2020).  She next asked what motivated me to do this.  I answered simply that I’m a glacial geologist and a grandfather.  At which point she simply smiled and said “that definitely explains it.”

In my work as a glacial geologist in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been part of a community monitoring the decline of the region’s numerous alpine glaciers.  Some of the recent work being done by this community indicates that at current rates we may see entire ranges like the Olympics and North Cascades rendered ice-free by the latter half of this century.  While concern about this trend may seem like a nostalgic luxury, there are a host of unsettling issues involving water resource management, forest and stream health, natural hazard mitigation, and rising sea levels that come along with it.

As an elder geoscientist, I am constantly seeking ways to create a better legacy for my grandchildren and their peers.

As a grandfather, I’m aware that what I’m seeing as a glacial geologist is part of a larger package of escalating climate changes that my twelve year old granddaughter and six year old grandson will have to contend with as they become adults.  Like many grandparents, it is hard to look into my grandchildren’s eyes and not feel a sense of sadness about the world they may inherit because of our inaction.  So as an elder geoscientist, I am constantly seeking ways to create a better legacy for my grandchildren and their peers.

For this reason I started visiting the Oregon legislature with the UCS Science Network about two years ago.  It was a very new and somewhat intimidating experience to talk with legislators and their staffers.  Like other science types who have engaged in advocacy, I can find it frustrating that I have to reduce complex issues and concerns to “elevator speeches.”  But at the same time, I’ve learned a lot about the legislative process and how to listen to the spectrum of different and often competing voices.  More than once I’ve been surprised by unexpected instances of genuine support and all the serendipitous windows into being able to “talk across the divide.”

During the past year much of my conversations with Oregon legislators have been about the Clean Energy Jobs bill (HB 2020).  I am a strong supporter of this legislation in large part because of my experience with the UN climate negotiation process.  Although process at the international level has slowed to a crawl, many stakeholders feel a sense of hopefulness about change coming from the subnational level.  I believe that the Oregon Clean Energy Jobs Bill is a critical example of such a movement.

Advocating for more scientists to step up and speak out

Through our advocacy as scientists, we have learned some lessons we hope will help our fellow scientists to step up and speak out for science-based solutions to climate change. On the practical level: wear comfortable shoes! Stepping up for advocacy means you do a lot of walking around the state capital.

Expect surprises and enjoy what those surprises can teach you. Spend some time looking at the photos and other memorabilia on the walls of legislators’ offices. These will tell you a lot about what they value and make for interesting casual conversation that you can connect to your issues and values.

As you speak out, you have to practice and get comfortable with short conversations, sharing your story authentically, and be capable of speaking to legislators’ real concerns quickly and succinctly. As scientists we are comfortable speaking in detail about methods, complexities, and uncertainties. UCS has resources to help you hone in on your message and share your expertise in simple and credible ways. [For example, see the resources in the Science Advocacy Toolkit, like “How to Give a One-Minute Pitch” to your elected official.]

Oregon’s Clean Energy Jobs bill has passed out of the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction and is being considered in the Joint Ways and Means Committee. We will continue to raise our voice as scientists and urge Oregon legislators to pass this bill and show the leadership that our country and the world needs to see: that solutions are within our reach if we work together.

We look forward to many more opportunities to create a peaceful, sustainable future by serving as a resource on climate science for UCS, for our communities, and for our legislators.

We encourage you to try it too – if not us, then who will?

 

Sharon Delcambre is an atmospheric scientist currently teaching Fluid Earth systems classes in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of Portland and Portland Community College.  She believes in the importance of hands-on learning, field trips, and community-based learning and loves watching students make the connection between the theory and application while in the field. In off hours, she is most often found in her garden, walking her extra-large dog, or exploring local parks with her family and friends.

Frank D. Granshaw PhD, is an adjunct professor of Geology and University Studies and Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University. He is retired Geology Faculty at Portland Community College, and active in the National Association for Geoscience Teachers, Geological Society of America, American Geophysical Union, and Northwest Glaciologists. He considers himself a fiercely proud Oregon native, an insufferably proud grandfather, and an occasional beekeeper, gardener, carpenter, hiker, and general wanderer.

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: BLM Oregon

Climate Change and Human Health – The Win-Win of Tackling Air Pollution

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Photo: Jonathan Johannes/Flickr

The World Health Organization estimates that an alarming 7 million people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution. To help tackle this issue, this year’s World Environment Day (June 5) is shining a spotlight on this environmental threat and the multiple benefits derived from tackling it. To learn more, I spoke with Sandra Cavalieri, the Coordinator of the Health Initiative of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Secretariat who is contributing to World Environment Day.

Short-lived climate pollutants: The other global warming gases

When I asked Sandra about the work of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, she let me know that it is the only global initiative focused solely on reducing “short-lived climate pollutants.” These are global warming gases that don’t stick around in the atmosphere as long as the infamous carbon dioxide, but which are big contributors to the problem. This includes things like black carbon (for example, the sooty matter produced by diesel engines and wood stoves), methane (a gas emitted due to human activities like livestock production and landfills as well as from natural sources; methane also leads to the formation of ground-level ozone, another important climate and air pollutant), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs, commonly used for refrigeration and air conditioning).

According to the recent 1.5˚C special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), keeping warming to this level will require significant cuts to the emissions of short-lived climate pollutants; it will require a reduction of methane and black carbon emissions of at least 35% by 2050 relative to 2010 levels.

Air pollution and human health

In addition to the adverse effects of climate change, short-lived climate pollutants also contribute to immediate health-risks to people around the world. For example, Sandra explained how black carbon is a component of a type of air pollution known as PM2.5, or, fine particulate matter that enhances haze. PM2.5 is the most problematic air pollutant for human health, causing a myriad of issues from contributing to premature deaths among people with cardiovascular or pulmonary disease to aggravating asthma. Sandra also pointed out the particularly damaging effects of air pollution on children’s health. According to a World Health Organization report that Sandra shared with me, approximately 93% of children around the world under the age of 5 are exposed to levels of PM2.5 that are higher than recommended air quality guidelines.

Here in the United States, air pollution is surprisingly getting worse in many locations. The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report for 2019 found that more than 141 million people live in U.S. counties that received at least one “F” in their unhealthy air report card. The report estimates that this is 7 million more people than their 2018 report.

As a result, reducing short-lived climate pollutant emissions can both help combat global warming and create healthier living conditions for people in the U.S. and around the world.

Action

To engage with World Environment Day this year, cities, regions and countries are making commitments to improve air quality through the WHO, UN Environment, World Bank and Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s BreatheLife campaign. You can get take their Mask Challenge and take an action to reduce your contribution to air pollution (#BeatAirPollution) – whether it be by turning off a car instead of letting it idle, avoiding driving altogether and getting around by using public transit, biking, or walking, or reducing your consumption of meat, and in turn, the release of methane associated with livestock production.

In the longer term, it is critical that decision makers take leadership without delay and enact policies to reduce short-lived climate pollutants – policies that will have benefits to our health today and will help prevent some of the most dangerous impacts of climate change in the future. If we don’t do it for ourselves, let’s do it for our kids whose futures we hold in our hands.

Photo: Jonathan Johannes/Flickr

Votes of No-Confidence in ExxonMobil’s Climate Leadership

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Photo: 350.org/Flickr

Before entering ExxonMobil’s annual meeting in Dallas last week, shareholders had to pass local activists holding a 100-foot-long banner with the message “Climate Crisis: #ExxonKnew—Make Them Pay.” I attended the meeting for the fourth year in a row and was not surprised that, once inside, shareholders wanted a voice in the company’s handling of climate change issues. ExxonMobil blocked them from voting on shareholder proposals specifically about climate change, so they used every opportunity to express their discontent with the company’s climate action. Despite the spin that shareholders “rejected” the climate-related proposals, the results are actually a vote of no-confidence in how ExxonMobil’s leadership is addressing climate change.

A barely passing grade

While shareholder proposals are framed by companies like ExxonMobil as akin to ballot initiatives (like the proposed carbon fee that Big Oil defeated in Washington state last year), a more appropriate analogy is a report card. ExxonMobil’s Board of Directors recommended that shareholders—the owners of the company—vote against all of these proposals, and yet more than one-quarter of them  rejected the recommendations of its leadership on all but one resolution.

If we look at the votes on a standard grading scale, and consider how many shareholders followed the recommendations of ExxonMobil’s Board, company leadership is barely passing. Nearly half of ExxonMobil’s shareholders want to make it easier to call special shareholder meetings and the same proportion believe that Chair and CEO Darren Woods should not continue to be his own boss.

Here’s a quick overview of how each of these proposals is climate-related.

Ability for shareholders to call special meetings

Although some of the resolutions were not obviously about climate change, all proponents made reference to the issue. Here’s a quick overview of how each of these proposals is climate-related.

This is a corporate governance issue. ExxonMobil currently retains tight control over shareholder meetings—as witnessed by its heavy-handed efforts to prevent shareholders from considering proposals about climate change. The ability to call special meetings (beyond the annual meeting) is all the more important at companies like ExxonMobil where there is not an independent chair (see below).

Separate chair from CEO

The New York State Common Retirement Fund and the Church Commissioners for England wanted shareholders to vote on whether ExxonMobil should set short-, medium- and long-term targets for reducing emissions from its operations and the use of its products, in line with the Paris climate agreement’s global temperature goals. However, ExxonMobil fought their proposal with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and blocked shareholders from voting on this question.

So New York State and the Church of England, who are the leads on engagement with ExxonMobil in the Climate Action 100+ initiative, focused instead on this governance proposal and urged other shareholders to vote in favor of it as well. An independent  chair would strengthen the Board’s oversight of company decisions regarding climate-related risks.

Report on lobbying

Support for this proposal, which called for ExxonMobil to report on direct and indirect lobbying, jumped significantly since last year. Increased transparency around climate-related advocacy by trade associations is fast becoming the norm among ExxonMobil’s competitors. BHP was the first, in 2017. In April, Shell published a review of the climate positions taken by its industry associations—and decided to leave the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers’ Association due to “material misalignment” between its positions and Shell’s. At its annual general meeting a week before ExxonMobil’s, BP pointed to a new guide to its participation in trade associations and reportedly pledged to conduct a review of its memberships. Equinor has made a similar commitment in response to demands by the Climate Action 100+.

Board matrix

Shareholders presenting this proposal linked ExxonMobil’s lagging on climate change issues with a lack of diversity on its Board. Supporters of the resolution argued that “diverse boards can better manage risk by avoiding ‘groupthink,’” and that “a Board matrix will give Exxon shareholders a ‘big-picture’ view of nominees’ attributes, both individually and collectively, and how they fit together.”

Report on political contributions

I presented this proposal as chair of the Socially Responsible Investing Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Unlike some of its industry peers, ExxonMobil fails to disclose substantial amounts of its election spending—including independent expenditures, support for (or opposition to) ballot measures, and payments to trade associations and other non-profit entities. The UUA and co-filers advocated more robust disclosure to mitigate reputational risks at a time of growing shareholder concern about misalignment between companies’ stated values and positions and their political activity—particularly on climate change issues.

Report on petrochemical resiliency risk

As You Sow, a nonprofit shareholder advocacy organization, asked ExxonMobil to issue a report assessing the public health risks of expanding their petrochemical operations and investments in areas increasingly prone to climate change-induced storms, flooding, and sea level risk. Proponents noted the impacts to ExxonMobil’s operations from Hurricane Harvey as an indicator of insufficient preparedness. (See this UCS map highlighting more than 650 energy and industrial facilities that may have been exposed to Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters).

During the question-and-answer portion of last week’s meeting, Dr. Rick Hammer of Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, an expert in local biodiversity, pointed out that Hurricane Harvey was made worse and more likely by warming ocean waters due to rising carbon emissions—and that more extreme weather is harming plant and wildlife biodiversity. (Look out for a guest blog from Rick soon.)

Climate change board committee

In presenting this proposal, Natasha Lamb of Arjuna Capital stressed that ExxonMobil faces “an existential threat that will not be assuaged by denial or simple lip service” and that it should be the Board’s responsibility “to pivot the [business] for success in a low carbon economy. Instead, proactive climate change strategy appears divergent to board priorities.”

While this proposal was supported by less than 10% of ExxonMobil’s shareholders, the strong votes in favor of other resolutions suggest that large institutional investors focused on supporting broader corporate governance reforms.

Top leadership on the defensive

ExxonMobil Chair and CEO Woods raised the specter of intermittency of wind and solar power, then touted his company’s ability to fill the gaps. Without saying “molecules of freedom,” Woods made it clear that he was promoting natural gas. Yet Oil Change International neatly debunked concerns about variable outputs from wind and solar in this new report, and my UCS colleague Mike Jacobs has explained how energy storage can provide reliability in a 100% renewable power grid.

Woods also highlighted ExxonMobil’s spending on low-carbon research and development. But as UCS shows in the below tweet, the company’s low-carbon R&D is dwarfed by its ongoing investments in new oil and gas exploration and infrastructure. Not to mention that ExxonMobil scored “poor” in our 2018 Climate Accountability Scorecard for its failure to disclose details of specific low-carbon investments.

Is @ExxonMobil committed to a low-carbon future? The numbers say no. That’s why investors at ExxonMobil's shareholder meeting are demanding that the company get serious about climate change. #ExxonAGM pic.twitter.com/qAzq64z93J

— Kathy Mulvey (@kathy_mulvey) May 29, 2019

At 11am, as he had done each of the past two years, Woods closed the annual shareholders’ meeting. It didn’t matter how many people were still waiting to speak—including Donald Tritt, a Gwich’in leader who had traveled for 12 hours to ask ExxonMobil not to drill in the Arctic Refuge. Woods had to start spinning the news.

After the meeting, ExxonMobil shareholders received their swag: umbrellas with the ExxonMobil logo on them. Painfully ironic, as Houston continues to recover from the 33 trillion gallons of rain dumped by Hurricane Harvey. But ExxonMobil’s leadership has shown before that it lives in its own virtual reality—and that’s why investors are losing confidence in Woods and his team.

Photo: 350.org/Flickr

Put Them In, Coach: Why Sidelining the EPA’s Science Advisory Board Is a Disservice to Us All

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Photo: sharply_done/iStockphoto

The EPA’s key scientific sounding board, the Science Advisory Board (SAB), will be holding its first full public meeting of 2019 this week. And as Administrator Wheeler’s EPA continues to roll back policies that were informed by science or devise new strategies to restrict the way that science is used in agency rulemakings, the committee formed to help review the agency’s science should have a very long to-do list.

But as we’ve noted before, the Trump administration has made it very clear across the board that incorporating independent science advice into its decisions isn’t a priority. This has been borne out in the agency failing to listen to its own scientists on regulatory decisions that affect public health, suspending or cancelling its own chemical assessments, and banning EPA-funded experts from advisory committees, which has significantly changed the composition of its advisors. While the SAB exists and has a full membership of over 40 individuals, Administrator Wheeler is now further attempting to strip the SAB of its responsibilities by narrowing its work to very specific pieces of problematic policy proposals (like restricted science) rather than charging its members with thorough reviews.

Why does this matter so much? Because the SAB serves an important role of checking the EPA’s science on a range of scientific issues—and that check can mean the difference between a policy that’s based on the best available science and one that’s based on the political whims of former coal and oil industry lobbyists now inhabiting powerful agency positions. Here are just a few examples of what could happen if this current SAB doesn’t have the chance to meaningfully weigh in on EPA’s policies on the table and political appointees continue to make decisions about the science that they have no business making.

  • Restricted Science: We already know the creation of this proposed rule, which would restrict the science used in public health policy, was a political maneuver first concocted by the tobacco industry and attempted many times legislatively in order to squash inconvenient science. If SAB continues to be cut out of this process, this policy could be issued without a single check on its scientific basis, on which a long list of scientific associations have come out in opposition. And this failure to charge SAB with reviewing the policy would set a concerning precedent that such policies don’t need to be rigorously reviewed by the scientific community. Allowing this rule to make its way as official agency policy would threaten public health science as we know it, erasing evidence of health harms caused by environmental pollutants because EPA isn’t allowed to use the science to protect us all.
  • Risk Assessment Guidelines: There have been several attempts to change the model used by EPA to evaluate risk of chemical exposure, including an interest from this administration (and industry) to remove the linear non-threshold model as the default assumption for contaminants. This model assumes that there’s no safe level of pollutants, whereas a threshold model assumes that there is a level below which exposure to a chemical is safe. The former is a more protective approach supported by the best available science and is the default assumption within the current cancer guidelines. If the SAB doesn’t have the opportunity to review changes to these guidelines, former American Chemistry Council employees now working inside EPA, like Nancy Beck, could write in industry’s wishlist of changes to these assessments to change the math used to analyze risks of chemicals, with the goal of making it more likely for the EPA to issue a finding that a chemical is safe, even when it’s not.
  • Cost Benefit Analysis: This administration has attempted to undermine the way in which EPA counts the ancillary benefits of regulations, including avoided particulate exposure in issuing clean air standards. Without SAB review, the agency could choose to ignore the science on the health benefits of avoiding pollutant exposure, changing the math so that the costs of creating important safeguards outweigh the benefits. This would be a great boon to the energy industry looking to continue business as usual, but would be a huge loss for anyone interested in breathing clean air. Alarmingly, such a move could have wide-ranging impacts on EPA’s ability to enact any new public health protection, since many EPA safeguards, from the mercury rule to the Clean Power Plan, rely on EPA’s ability to consider all relevant and quantifiable benefits in its rulemaking.
  • PFAS: The EPA’s PFAS action plan issued in February was light on the so-called action. Already, we are incredibly far behind in understanding the scope and scale of the contamination of these forever chemicals in our water, soil, and food. The agency needs to take swift action to protect us from further contamination and figure out how to clean up the mess made by manufacturers and users of this large class of chemicals. In order to act swiftly and in the best interest of the public, we need the smartest people in the room checking the agency’s decisions. Otherwise, we could be left with “action” determined appropriate and sufficient by people like David Dunlap, now leading the Office of Research and Development, who spent years working for Koch Industries, a parent company of PFAS-user companies like Georgia-Pacific.

While the aforementioned scenarios could play out even if SAB has the chance to review the policies in question, having a group of scientists publicly weigh in on these proposals is an accountability mechanism making it less likely that fringe scientific views find their way into final policy proposals. The bottom line is that the Science Advisory Board was created to serve as a check on the agency’s science. If there was ever a need for that check, it’s now.

I will be attending tomorrow’s meeting, providing a public comment, and tweeting the event from my handle, @gennareed.

Photo: sharply_done/iStockphoto

This Crazy Trick Could Help New Orleans Utility Customers Save Money

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Image courtesy of Alliance for Affordable Energy

Over the past year or so, a lot of states with renewable portfolio standards (RPS) have opted to double down on that policy mechanism to set a path to 100% clean electricity. However, most jurisdictions in the deep south have been reticent to pass such policies. That might change later this year, as the City of New Orleans considers passing an RPS. And that’s the crazy trick that could save customers money. Passing an RPS.

EQ Research, DSIRE Database

Map of Proposed new RPS/CES (left) and Maps of Current RPS (Right). Click to enlarge.

I’m not saying that an RPS will guarantee more affordable energy; but, by passing a 100% renewable portfolio standard, the city of New Orleans has the opportunity not only to help reduce carbon emission but also make electricity more affordable for its residents.

I had the privilege to work with the Alliance for Affordable Energy in drafting technical responses to questions posed by the city council—which also serves as the local utility regulator—about the cost complying with an RPS. A copy of the comments can be found here. There are two important takeaways I wanted to share:

Protecting New Orleans’s electricity consumers

While state-level RPS policies have proven to be an affordable driver of new renewable energy development, the best policies feature strong consumer protections to help ensure that people can still pay their electricity bills. Nationally, one in every three Americans struggle to pay their energy bills, and that burden is three-times greater on low-income households.

Income inequality plagues New Orleans. Any increase in energy bills could be devastating. As a result, the Alliance for Affordable Energy has suggested some sound strategies for protecting New Orleans’ most vulnerable power consumers as the city seeks to transition to a renewable energy economy. These recommendations include:

  • Exemption for all low-income households from any RPS rider;
  • A special carveout for renewable resources located at low- and moderate-income households;
  • A mandate that excess credits, or RECs, will be sold, and those revenues will be used to offset REC procurement costs or to fund energy efficiency and renewable procurement;
  • Requiring that utility investors (not ratepayers) will have to bear the costs if the utility doesn’t comply;
  • Recommending an increase in energy efficiency funding and targets, to ensure that reduced electricity consumption (and therefore reduces customers’ bills);
  • Allowing low-cost renewables (such as utility-scale wind and solar) from neighboring states to count towards a portion of the RPS goals; and,
  • A call for the utility to wean itself off above-market, affiliate-contracts.

That last one is important…

What is New Orleans’s utility up to with customer’s money?

New Orleans is served by Entergy New Orleans LLC (ENOL) which is owned by Entergy Corp. If you follow energy utilities like I do, you may recognize ENOL’s name from the infamous antics they pulled: pretending to be New Orleans community residents in an underhanded attempt to trick New Orleans City Council into building a new, unneeded gas-fired power plant. Entergy also owns other vertically integrated utilities (like Entergy Mississippi, Entergy Louisiana, and Entergy Arkansas) and independent power providers like System Energy Resources Inc (which owns the Grand Gulf Nuclear reactor in Mississippi). In 2018, ENOL spent over $100 million buying electricity from many of these companies that are affiliated with ENOL’s parent company.

UCS conducted analysis on coal and nuclear power plants and found many of Entergy’s assets are uneconomic compared to market prices. It appears that Entergy may be using bi-lateral contracts with affiliated companies to prop up otherwise uneconomic coal and nuclear power plants.

For example, ENOL buys electricity from Entergy Arkansas at an average price of $49/MWh in 2018, or roughly 64% higher than average Arkansas Hub market prices in 2018. Entergy Arkansas owns and operates the White Bluff and Independence coal plants, two coal-fired power plants in Arkansas that regularly operate when it is uneconomic to do so. One reason these coal plants might be doing this is that a bi-lateral contract could make them indifferent to market prices—they’re guaranteed money either way. As a result, ENOL customers in New Orleans would be subsidizing uneconomic coal plants in Arkansas.

For comparison, other utilities have signed contracts for solar plus storage at $45/MWh. Solar or wind (without storage) comes in even lower, with solar as low as $25/MWh and the average wind PPA last year coming in at $20/MWh.

ENOL also buys electricity from System Energy Resources Inc (another Entergy subsidiary) owner and operator of the Mississippi-based Grand Gulf nuclear power plant. UCS analysis found that the Grand Gulf plant operates at a cost around $40/MWh; if the power plant were reliant on market prices alone, it wouldn’t be economical to own and operate the reactor. ENOL buys electricity from System Energy Resources at an average price of $77 /MWh or over two times the Louisiana hub market average. Over the long run, rooftop solar in New Orleans today would likely cost about $70-$80/MWh.

Is it possible that ENOL customers are funding a nearly 50% profit margin to Entergy and subsidizing an otherwise uneconomic nuclear plant in Mississippi while simultaneously being deprived of rooftop solar?

Yes, it is entirely possible.

This isn’t the first time someone has accused Entergy of turning a blind eye to cheaper resources in favor of operating more expensive plants it owns. This past April, the state of Mississippi argued in court that Entergy Mississippi defrauded customers by not buying cheaper power off the market and demanding the utility repay up to $2 billion to its customers.

Enacting an RPS will force Entergy to wean itself off those above-market contracts and sign contracts for renewable energy, which as outlined above, are likely to come in at or below the costs of existing contracts for coal and nuclear. An RPS in NOLA is probably going to drive energy costs down.

RPS 101 on the 15th

Click to enlarge.

In mid-June, I’ll be heading to New Orleans to join a convening of community members and local leaders to discuss how well-designed RPS policies have helped other drive the US’s renewable energy growth—key to fighting back climate change—while offering local economic benefits, too. If you’ll be in the area, feel free to come on by and join us. Here is the latest flyer:

The event will take place at Tulane Law School 6329 Freret St, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118. For more information: https://www.facebook.com/events/2133373293620782/

Image courtesy of Alliance for Affordable Energy EQ Research, DSIRE Database

Let’s Stop Letting Minority Rule Give Us Science Fiction Abortion Laws

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Photo: Elizabeth Greenwald/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia)

Missouri is still set to become the first state in over 45 years to not offer abortion as a part of healthcare. Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi have recently joined other states in not only limiting access to abortion (relying on misinformation), but also challenging its constitutionality. This is the latest phase of an anti-abortion strategy based on pseudoscience, which began after 2010, when conservative forces swept into power in numerous state legislatures. Since then, hundreds of restrictions on abortion have been passed, ranging from extended waiting periods, insurance restrictions and restrictions on clinics and doctors, to these more recent bills that ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Our arrival at this point, where public policies opposed overwhelmingly by medical experts as well as the majority of Americans might soon become law, shows how biased political institutions give way to extreme ideological forces untethered to scientific reasoning or evidence. A properly functioning democracy restrains such forces by relying on widely accessible information and institutions that give equal weight to public judgment. Abortion policy would probably be much different in the U.S. under institutions that actually respected political equality and majority rule.

Such extreme policies are unpopular in part because advocates peddle junk science and major medical organizations have been vocal in their opposition. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists strongly opposes so-called fetal “heartbeat” (this language is medically inaccurate) legislation like that recently passed in Georgia and Alabama. They have also had to alert the public that “Claims regarding abortion ‘reversal’ treatment are not based on science and do not meet clinical standards” in response to bill language from states like Oklahoma, Arkansas, Idaho, South Dakota and Utah.

The science-defying bills don’t stop there. An Ohio bill including language about implanting ectopic pregnancies was “science fiction,” according to Daniel Grossman, OB/GYN and director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California at San Francisco. Gynecologist and women’s health advocate Dr. Jennifer Gunter refers to such bills as “medically illiterate.” Similarly, the American Medical Association has consistently opposed politicians trying to determine what is medically necessary treatment or shielding practitioners from withholding care for moral or religious objections. And as political scientist Alex Keena has argued, such “supply side” policies that seek to limit access to care are generally opposed by the medical community because they actually increase health risks for women and children.

And yet these bills pass. They pass, in part, because biased representation in these state legislatures amplifies the voting power of these extreme viewpoints. Consider the states that have passed the most restrictive legislation since 2011. The association between biased institutions and restrictive abortion policy can be evaluated using the partisan bias measure that indicates how gerrymandered state legislatures are. Negative values are biased in favor of Republicans, positive values biased in favor of Democrats. We don’t have adequate election data for state elections in Alabama and Mississippi to estimate partisan bias. However, their Congressional districts are among the most gerrymandered in the country. It is easy to see that most of the early abortion bans were passed in heavily gerrymandered legislatures.

Gerrymandering critic David Daley recently described how the early abortion bans in Georgia and Alabama would not have passed in their current form without the advantage of electoral bias. Both states have recently held elections that were basically tied statewide between the two major parties, but most state legislative seats are uncontested or uncompetitive, and Republicans hold large majorities in both legislatures. Those large majorities increase the legislative strength of the anti-abortion faction. Even in Louisiana, where an early abortion ban passed with overwhelming support that included a dozen Democrats, a less biased districting plan might have resulted in a slightly less extreme bill, with exceptions for rape or incest.

It’s also worth pointing out that the most disenfranchised groups stand to be the most affected by extreme anti-science reproductive health policies. Restrictive voting laws in Georgia, North Carolina and elsewhere systematically hurt Black voters both in practice and by design. And it is black women who may be affected the most by the abortion bans and other restrictions on reproductive healthcare. As journalist Samara Lynn points out, the facilities that provide abortions are also safe havens for women to receive prenatal care, sexual education, and pregnancy care. Closing of these facilities will disproportionately affect low-income black women and those in rural areas.

Women of color already face unacceptably high maternal mortality and infant death rates in the US, and barriers to voting don’t help. In addition to electoral bias in state legislatures and Congress, the Electoral College also contributed to this state of affairs. The latest wave of direct challenges to Roe v Wade, which secures the right to abortion into the 24th week of pregnancy, are aimed squarely at the two newest members of the Court, appointed by a president who lost the popular vote, justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Even if the first early abortion ban is overturned by the Court, there are many headed their way.

Imagine what the debate over abortion policy would sound like if it worked through electoral institutions that treated each voice equally? The cause of electoral reform is not only about securing equal voting rights, as important as that is. It is also a cause for sound public policy, policy that can receive full public scrutiny and equal consideration in a competitive electoral environment. Scientifically sound reforms, like those included in the For the People Act, would contribute to an upgrade in our electoral infrastructure that gives equal voice to all. Automatic voter registration, easy access to ballots and early voting, independent redistricting commissions, full financial disclosure for campaign donors, and similar measures would correct the bias that is currently amplifying such extreme, unscientific views on abortion.

Everybody deserves to be heard on this important medical and moral discourse. But what we have now reflects the distorted discourse of a minority view amplified through the bias of our political institutions. For the life of our democracy, we need to correct these inequalities and ensure that voters have an equal voice.

Photo: Elizabeth Greenwald/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia)

La Energía Eólica Marina – 5 Próximos Pasos

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Credit: Ad Meskens

El mundo de la energía eólica marina tiene bastante movida estos días.  Nueva legislación, nuevas propuestas para proyectos, nuevos mercados al punto de abrirse. El momento sigue creciendo.

Este viernes pasado, por ejemplo, el estado de Massachusetts se comprometió a aumentar un 100 porciento su meta de energía eólica marina. Ya era el primer estado con una fuerte meta, con un requerimiento de 1.600 MW establecido en el 2016. Luego pasó una ley en el 2018 pidiendo que la administración del Gobernador Charlie Baker evaluara “la necesidad, beneficios y costos” de un aumento de la meta hasta un total de 3.200 MW antes del 2035. Nosotros contribuimos con nuestros comentarios al estudio, y acaban de aprobar el aumento.

Y viene mucho más. Estas son cinco cosas que estoy esperando en el corto plazo.

1. Los primeros 800 megavatios de Nueva York

Un viaje de 9.000 megavatios (MW), se podría decir, empieza con los primeros 800. Gracias al Gob. Andrew Cuomo, Nueva York tiene la meta más ambiciosa de energía eólica marina en los EE.UU. Y el estado está buscando estar a la altura de esas circunstancias.

El progreso incluye una solicitud de propuestas (RFP, por sus siglas en inglés) para esos primeros 800 MW, publicada a finales del 2018, y las respuestas tienen que ser entregadas en febrero.

Los que actualmente desarrollan proyectos en otros países respondieron fuertemente, con cuatro respondientes proponiendo un total de 18 proyectos. Cualquiera de esos posibles participantes traería experiencia importante al mercado estadounidense.

Las decisiones sobre cual proyecto o cuales proyectos avanzarán se esperan tan pronto como esta semana. Así que estaré pendiente de ellas.

2. Una meta de 2.000 megavatios para Connecticut

Photo by Walt Musial / NREL

La cámara de diputados de Connecticut aprobó el mes pasado una propuesta de ley, con fuerte apoyo bipartidista, que obligaría al estado a contratar hasta 2.000 MW de energía eólica marina. Ahora le toca al senado, donde un voto se podría dar en los próximos días.

El Gob. Ned Lamont recientemente anunció un acuerdo público-privado de $93 millones en inversiones para mejorar el puerto de New London, para que sea apto para equipamiento eólico marino. Parece estar listo el gobernador para aprobar la propuesta de ley después de un voto en el senado. Merece nuestra atención.

3. Los primeros 1.100 megavatios de Nueva Jersey

Un poco más al sur, Nueva Jersey ha estado reactivando sus esfuerzos en cuanto a la eólica marina desde que tomó su puesto el Gobernador Phil Murphy en enero de 2018. Eso ha incluido un RFP en busca de los primeros 1.100 MW de la meta de 3.500 MW que ahora tiene el estado.

Igual que en Nueva York, el RFP de Nueva Jersey ha atraído fuerte interés de actores internacionales, con respuestas de tres de ellos. Y, como en Nueva York, se podría tener una decisión dentro de pocos días.

4. Los próximos 800 megavatios en Massachusetts

Mientras tanto en Massachusetts, los primeros 1.600 MW de la ley del 2016, tienen sus propios avances. El proyecto seleccionado para los primeros 800 MW, Vineyard Wind, ha logrado aprobación para sus contratos con las compañías de energía de Massachusetts, y para la línea de transmisión para conectarse con la red eléctrica del estado.

Y ahora se ha publicado el RFP para el resto de los primeros 1.600MW. Así que esperamos propuestas para proyectos de hasta 800 MW antes de la fecha tope en agosto, y la selección del proyecto o de los proyectos ganadores en noviembre.

5. Arrendamientos marítimos de California

Mientras mucha de la atención está sobre el noreste y medio-atlántico, otras partes del país también merecen atención. En California, por ejemplo, la agencia de manejo de energía oceánica (BOEM, por sus siglas en inglés) ha estado considerando tres áreas cerca de la costa. Catorce compañías han indicado interés en la posibilidad de arrendar una o más de esas áreas para desarrollar proyectos eólicos marinos.

De igual importancia, varios interesados se han involucrado para asegurar que el desarrollo de esta tecnología en la costa oeste se haga correctamente.

Y más

Estos son cinco posibles próximos pasos para la energía eólica marina. Pero este no es un listado completo. También vale la pena prestar atención a Maine, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Carolina del Norte y los Grandes Lagos, por ejemplo. Y también a los avances tecnológicos y a los acontecimientos en otros mercados.

Porque como sean y donde sean, los acontecimientos con la energía eólica marina sí merecen atención.

Photo: Ad Meskens Dennis Schroeder/NREL Credit: A. Kommareddi

The Billion-Dollar Coal Bailout Nobody Is Talking About: Self-Committing In Power Markets

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Xcel Energy's Sherco Generating Station Coal Power Plant Photo: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons

This interview was first published on May 21, 2019, in Forbes

Nearly two-thirds of the United States’ power plants operate in competitive wholesale markets.  Market rules typically prescribe that only the cheapest set of resources may run—nowadays, those are often renewable energy resources. Despite a growing trend of coal losing on cost to renewables and natural gas, coal generation remains a dominant player in many of these markets.

New research by Union of Concerned Scientists Senior Energy Analyst Joe Daniel uncovered the fact that coal plants in “competitive” wholesale electricity markets were being run uneconomically, meaning they accrued significant losses for months at a time. This behavior defied economic logic, but could be explained by regulation. These plants are owned and operated by vertically-integrated utilities (companies that own their generation sources and directly serve retail customers in an area without alternative suppliers), who receive cost recovery for expenses related to these coal plants under regulatory approval outside of the market.

To investigate the size of the problem, Joe analyzed wholesale electricity market data to better understand what drives investment in fossil fuel and clean energy power plants in those markets. Much of this market distortion was happening for plants owned and operated by vertically-integrated utilities which are permitted to “self-commit” their coal plants, forcing them to run at above-market costs. In this way, regulation functions as a subsidy to keep coal plants running, and customers are on the hook.

Energy Innovation’s Director of Electricity Policy Mike O’Boyle interviewed Joe to learn why this is happening, the risks of this practice, and what it means for consumers and clean energy’s future in these markets.

Mike O’Boyle: Can you explain what you mean by coal self-committing?

Joe Daniel: Most people think the system operators that coordinate competitive power markets are centralized decision-makers for the electricity grid. That’s true, in theory. In practice, it’s a bit more complicated. Market rules give participants like utilities and power plant owners a great deal of decision-making authority. For instance, power plant owners can decide when to make their resources available, then offer those resources into the market for others to purchase.

Some owners allow the market to “commit” their resource by specifying what price and output level they are willing to operate at. Market committed resources allow market forces to drive increases or decreases output, or turn off units entirely. In aggregate, these economic bids provide the system operator with enough information to choose the power plants that minimize overall system costs.

However, market participants can bypass this process by self-committing the unit, essentially superseding the market operator’s decision of whether to run that plant. Instead, power plant owners can tell the market that the unit must remain on, which requires that it operate at some minimum level of output. Barring an emergency, the operator can’t tell the unit to turn off even if there’s cheaper energy available on the market.

MO: Please explain how you figured out that self-committing is happening.

JD: A few years back, I was working on a utility proceeding within the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) organized market with a lawyer who noticed that the utility’s coal plant, which previously operated at a high capacity factor, suddenly stopped running. The lawyer and I eventually discovered that the utility-owner had changed its operational paradigm from “self-commitment” to “market-commitment.”

So, I began researching self-commitment, market rules, and hourly coal plant operations across the country to understand why coal plant operators were running at seemingly illogical times, based on the low prices for solar, wind, and other sources in these markets. Originally, my focus was on SPP, but I quickly expanded my analysis to the Midcontinent-ISO (MISO), PJM Interconnection, and Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) competitive energy markets, too.

MO: How many coal plants did you examine and where are they located?

JD: Most recently, I completed an analysis screening every coal-fired power plant that operates in PJM, MISO, ERCOT, or SPP, roughly two-thirds of all existing U.S. coal plants.

RTO/ISO markets in the United States

RTO/ISO markets in the United States

Roughly 100 gigawatts (GW) of coal, or nearly half of the coal in organized markets, received additional scrutiny that included analyzing hourly coal plant revenues. These coal plants operated at a loss for at least one month during the study periods; even worse, customers were footing those bills.

Compared to SPP and MISO, PJM and ERCOT had fewer, but still, some bad actors who engaged in self-committing to the detriment of their customer’s wallets.

MO: What has your research on self-committing shown?

JD: This opaque practice undertaken by coal plant owners hurts customers and contributes to climate change.  My analysis indicates that self-committing uneconomic coal costs consumers an estimated $1 billion dollars a year in the regions I evaluated. But I also found that not all coal plant owners engage in this inefficient practice. Rather, the worst offenders are vertically integrated utilities that can lose money in the competitive market and then recover those losses on the backs of retail customers, including those most economically vulnerable to higher electricity costs. Customers of vertically integrated utilities are “captive”—they have no choice but to accept these costs.

My research is ongoing, so it is hard to say with precision what the cumulative environmental impacts are of coal plants that operate like this, but it’s not good. Statistically, an uneconomic coal plant would be replaced by either (a) emissions-free wind energy; (b) a natural gas plant that, while not clean energy, has lower emissions rates than coal; or in a worst-case scenario, (c) a more efficient coal plant with marginally lower emissions rates.

MO: How does this practice affect renewables in wholesale electricity markets?

JD: Markets are supposed to ensure that all power plants are operated from lowest cost to most expensive. Self-committing allows expensive coal plants to cut in line, pushing out less expensive power generators such as wind, depriving those units from operating and generating revenue.

The practice of self-committing also reduces market revenues for all the generators that do get called. Wholesale electricity prices are set by the marginal cost of supplying one unit of energy – the most expensive power plant selected by the operator sets the price. In the absence of self-committing, this price for energy would increase, raising revenues for all selected power plants.

Coal plant self-committing reduces market revenue for all generators.

Coal plant self-committing reduces market revenue for all generators.

Properly functioning markets are predicated on properly functioning price signals. If the market prices are distorted, then what happens to the market? Nothing good.

MO: You’ve called self-committing coal a hidden coal bailout. What do you mean by this, and how does it compare to state subsidies for renewable energy?

JD: Self-committing is regressive, reducing the efficiency of our electricity grid, exploiting customers, and exacerbating emissions when coal plants run more. It also artificially distorts market prices to favor aging technology while limiting investments in low-priced renewables.

On the other hand, renewable subsidies are policy decisions that are proposed, scrutinized, and enacted by democratically-elected representatives. Consequently, the policies—whatever their strengths and weaknesses—are at least the product of a transparent, intentional process, and those who put them in place are accountable for the subsidies’ effects. But that’s not what we have with self-committing.

MO: Is self-committing coal happening in any states with clean energy goals?  If so, is it undermining the energy transition?

JD: Yes and yes. Minnesota, for instance, has set clean energy goals yet has uneconomic coal plants self-committing in the MISO market. This reduces grid flexibility and may force wind farms to curtail output because the electric grid is essentially zero-sum. If a coal plant is finagling the market to take the electricity it produces, it is preventing some other unit from providing that electricity. That might be a wind farm. It might be a gas plant. Regardless, it is hurting consumer pocketbooks and our health.

MO: What can be done about self-committing coal plants?

JD: Self-committing is a choice the utilities are proactively making. In some markets, this is as simple as selecting a different drop-down option. Power plant operators simply have to change their bidding behavior when offering their power plant into the market, which would allow the market operator to more efficiently run the whole system.

Alternatively, utilities could choose to seasonally operate the plants they own, similar to the strategy taken by owners of several coal plants in Texas and Louisiana. Just this past winter, Cleco and AEP subsidiary SWEPCO announced that Louisiana’s Dolet Hills coal facility will switch to operating only four months of the year. The utilities’ own estimations indicate this will save its customers $85 million by the end of 2020.

State regulators have tremendous influence over the utilities they oversee. They can’t assume the controls of power plants but can create incentives or penalties to ensure utilities behave better.  In some states like Washington, Oregon, and Montana, regulators have come up with a better mechanism to allow for cost/profit sharing that aligns price incentives. Alternately, a regulator can disallow the costs associated with running a power plant uneconomically, forcing investors to take a loss rather than forcing customers to bail out those plants.

Photo: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons Under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License SustainableFERC

My Testimony Before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis

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Photo: C-SPAN

Last week I had the opportunity to testify before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, at a hearing on Creating a Climate Resilient America. I focused my remarks on the impacts of climate change already unfolding and projected to worsen around our nation, as well as some vital steps we can take to limit harms and prepare for those we cannot avoid.

You can watch the full hearing here (my oral remarks start at the 31:10 minute mark). I also submitted a longer version as written testimony.

Chairwoman Kathy Castor’s opening remarks included these powerful words:

The millions of young people who are joining climate strikes tomorrow have never lived in a normal climate – and they know it. That’s why they’re demanding climate action now, because we need to start baking the climate crisis into every decision we make – on energy, on transportation, on agriculture, on infrastructure.

The witness panel also featured testimony from Noah Diffenbaugh, a Professor at Stanford University; Matt Russell, the executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light; and Keith Hodges, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates representing the 98th district.

Below is my oral testimony (with a few visuals added).

Good morning and thank you, Chairwoman Castor, Ranking Member Graves, and Members of the Select Committee, for providing me the opportunity to testify here today. My name is Rachel Cleetus. I am the policy director and lead economist for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Impacts of sea level rise on coastal property

I’d like to start with some research on the impacts of worsening tidal flooding caused by sea level rise. Last year UCS released a study showing that, by the end of the century, under a high sea level rise scenario, approximately 2.5 million US coastal homes and commercial properties currently worth more than $1 trillion would be at risk from chronic flooding—a threshold we defined as flooding that occurs 26 times per year or more. By 2045, within the lifetime of a typical mortgage issued today, about 325,000 coastal properties worth $136 billion will be at risk of chronic flooding (see figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Homes at risk of chronic inundation

Figure 2: Value of homes at risk from chronic inundation

The properties at risk by 2045 currently house 550,000 people and contribute nearly $1.5 billion toward today’s property tax base. Those numbers jump to about 4.7 million people and $12 billion by 2100 (see figure 3).

Figure 3: Property tax base at risk from chronic inundation

States with the most homes at risk by the end of the century are Florida, with about 1 million homes; New Jersey, with 250,000 homes; and New York with 143,000 homes.

The declining value of coastal homes will be devastating to individual homeowners. It will also have more widespread consequences, including for affected communities, lenders, investors, and taxpayers. Communities with fewer resources to start with will likely be most heavily affected by the economic consequences of chronic flooding. Louisiana, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Maryland have significant numbers of highly exposed communities with above-average rates of poverty (see figure 4).

Figure 4: Communities with high poverty rates at risk of chronic inundation in Louisiana and Maryland

UCS also developed an interactive map tool that lets you explore the risk sea level rise poses to homes in your congressional district, along with district-specific fact sheets.

Our research also points to the choices we face: If the global community adheres to the primary goal of the Paris Agreement of capping warming below 2°C, and with limited loss of land-based ice, by the end of the century the United States could avoid up to 85 percent of these residential property losses.

Impacts on military bases

UCS has also analyzed the exposure of 18 military installations along the East and Gulf coasts to more frequent and extensive tidal flooding, land loss, and deeper and more extensive storm surge inundation. In the absence of preventive measures, these sites, including bases in Virginia, Georgia and Florida, face major risks:

  • By 2050, most of the installations we analyzed will see more than 10 times the number of floods they experience today.
  • By 2100, eight bases are at risk of losing 25 percent to 50 percent or more of their land to rising seas.
  • Four installations—Naval Air Station Key West, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Dam Neck Annex, and Parris Island—are at risk of losing between 75 and 95 percent of their land by the end of this century (see figure 5).
Flooding and exposure to toxics

Figure 5: US military bases exposed to chronic inundation and land loss. Click to enlarge.

Scientists have linked Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented levels of rainfall to warmer air and oceans caused by climate change. UCS analysis  conducted in the wake of the storm showed that more than 650 energy and industrial facilities may have been exposed to Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters. This included over 160 TRI facilities; more than 40 energy facilities; and nearly 430 wastewater treatment facilities.

In the Houston area, low-income communities and communities of color have long been disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals, as local environmental justice groups like the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.) have documented. The hurricane’s impacts—including floodwaters contaminated with toxic chemicals and potent bacteria, compromised industrial facilities, and the associated release of toxins into the air—magnified public health risks to surrounding communities.

Growing risks from inland flooding

Climate change is also making heavy rain heavier and more frequent in many areas of the country. With human alteration of the land—like the engineering of rivers, the destruction of natural protective systems, increased construction on floodplains, and increased area of impermeable surface—many parts of the United States are at greater risk of experiencing destructive and costly floods.

This spring alone has brought extended flooding to many parts of the country, including Louisiana, Texas, the Midwest and the central part of the country along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. NOAA data confirm that (at the end of April 2019) the US has just experienced the wettest 12 months on record.

Projections of future climate suggest that the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events will continue to increase across much of the United States in the coming decades.

Public health impacts of climate change

The Fourth National Climate Assessment highlights several major pathways through which climate change will have profound effects on human health (see figure 6). Climate change is contributing to extreme heat events, flooding, wildfires, intensifying storms and other extreme events. These in turn can cause heat-related illnesses; contribute to poor air quality and associated cardiopulmonary illnesses; increase risks of food, water and vector-borne diseases; and trigger mental illnesses associated with stress and trauma. In many cases, socioeconomic and environmental factors can exacerbate the vulnerability of specific populations. The elderly, the very young, people with pre-existing medical conditions, outdoor workers and athletes, first responders, many tribal communities and communities of color, people who live in poverty, homeless people and incarcerated people are among those at heightened risk.

Responding to climate change

Figure 6: Climate change and health. Click to enlarge.

The grave risks climate change poses to our nation require an urgent response from federal, state and local policymakers, as well as the private sector, to help protect communities and build resilience. Broadly:

  • Policymakers and market actors must do more to communicate climate risks to the public and to incorporate those risks into their own actions.
  • Robust, expeditious funding of disaster assistance for hard-hit communities, with a view to building resilience to future events, is vital.
  • We must also do much more to get out ahead and invest in pre-disaster risk-reduction measures.
  • We also need bold, new policies and visionary leadership, scaled-up resources for adaptation, and investments in coordination, governance and stakeholder engagement.
  • Our nation’s resilience efforts must prioritize the needs of communities most exposed to risks, including low-income communities and communities of color who often face disproportionate risks.

Most importantly, we must make deep cuts in heat-trapping emissions to contribute to global efforts to limit climate change. Adaptation is costly, and there are limits to how much change we can adapt to. Transitioning to a low-carbon economy—by investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency and other low-and zero-carbon energy options—and reaching net zero carbon emissions by mid-century would not only help address climate change, it will deliver tremendous near-term public health and economic benefits.

Closing

In closing, I am here today both as a climate expert, and as a Mom. I have two young children aged 11 and 13. Like many of you with young people in your lives, I am acutely aware that the choices we make today—choices that you in Congress are uniquely empowered to help make—will be deeply consequential to their future. I hope we will seize the opportunity to leave future generations a world where they can prosper without fear of runaway climate change. Thank you for this opportunity to testify and for your leadership on climate action.

Source: Union of Concerned Scientists. Property data provided by third parties through the Zillow Transaction and Assessment Dataset (ZTRAX). Source: Union of Concerned Scientists. Property data provided by third parties through the Zillow Transaction and Assessment Dataset (ZTRAX). Source: Union of Concerned Scientists. Property data provided by third parties through the Zillow Transaction and Assessment Dataset (ZTRAX). Source: https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/chapter/14/

Court Records Reveal Plan to Use Census for Racial Discrimination

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Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

Just weeks before the Supreme Court will determine the constitutionality of placing a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, newly released documents from a federal trial demonstrate that Trump administration officials falsely testified about the Justice Department’s motives and justification for adding the question, a decision that has been roundly criticized by the nation’s leading scientific and civil rights organizations. The documents reveal that renowned and recently deceased redistricting expert Thomas Hofeller played a direct role in advocating for a Census citizenship question that would provide data needed to implement racially discriminatory gerrymanders using citizen-only redistricting populations.

This new evidence, together with the Trump Administration’s previous attacks on voting rights and misuse of election science, underscores the importance of the Supreme Court’s upcoming decisions on both the citizenship question and the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. It is increasingly evident that through the distortion of science, core institutions of American democracy are under direct attack, and that the Constitutional protection of equality under the law will erode in the absence of judicial oversight.

Hofeller was commissioned for an analysis in 2015 that showed how the Republican Party could design even more extreme gerrymanders using the citizen voting age population to create districts, rather than the total population. This question was the subject of a voting rights case that same year, where Texas officials argued before the Supreme Court that the Constitution required that voters, not persons, be counted for apportionment of election districts.

Hofeller’s study of Texas state legislative districts showed that citizen-only districts would require expanding the geography of heavily Latino, traditionally Democratic voting districts, which in turn would be “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” But Hofeller concluded that “Without a question of citizenship included on the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire, the use of citizen voting age population is functionally unworkable.”

Records show that Hofeller urged the Trump Administration to add the question, and that he worked directly with Mark Neuman, who then testified that using Census citizenship data was necessary to better enforce the Voting Rights Act and increase Latino political participation (despite the fact that VRA enforcement has never relied on Census citizenship data since it was passed in 1965).

That justification has been thoroughly discredited by election experts and several federal judges who have sided with scientific and civil rights groups seeking to stop the question from being added. Adding such a question, when adequate data is already available through the American Community Survey, would reduce the Census response rate, distort the results, and make it more difficult to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The Court now has before it concrete evidence that the citizenship question addition is an effort to deploy racially discriminatory gerrymandering to gain political power. Several other studies support Hofeller’s claims that citizen-only districting would dilute Latino representation in Congress and state legislatures, and that substantial power would shift away from areas with more immigrants and people of color, to already over-represented areas with more non-Hispanic whites and older residents. Unfortunately, the Roberts Court does not have a great record of relying on clear evidence when it comes to protecting voting and civil rights: It has already weakened the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v Holderturned a blind eye to voter purging from registration lists in Husted v Randolph, and showed extraordinary deference to executive power, including the president’s religious hostilities, in Trump v Hawaii.

This is disheartening because when one considers the three aspects of elections that this new evidence touches on, the path to entrenched minority rule and further erosion of democracy is clear.

  • A citizenship question on the Census would itself result in more non-citizens and other immigrants not completing it, distorting the apportionment of seats to the House of Representatives and the allocation of millions in federal funds to states and localities;
  • While the Court has unanimously upheld the right of states to count all persons in redistricting, at least some of the Court’s conservatives lean in the direction of allowing citizen-only redistricting, which would enable further discrimination and distortion;
  • Without a clear ruling to restrain partisan gerrymandering, mapmakers will use such data to mask racial gerrymandering as “partisan politics” when in reality the two are increasingly inseparable.

If the Supreme Court is to uphold its constitutional obligation, it must apply the unanimously supported opinion that Ruth Bader Ginsburg crafted in that Texas apportionment case, where she stated“As the Framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote.”

Indeed, the Fourteenth Amendment binds us to the principle of political equality, and the Decennial Census is the scientific instrument that allows us to achieve it, at least as far as political representation gets us there. The Court must not allow the Census to be weaponized as a tool for the distortion of political power. Along with the Voting Rights Act, it is arguably our best means of securing the integrity of our electoral systems and our status as a democracy.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

It’s National Heat Awareness Day—Let’s Protect Farmworkers from Extreme Heat

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Strawberry pickers in Salinas, CA. Farmworkers typically wear long-sleeve shirts year-round in order to protect themselves from sun, insects, and pesticides.

The last Friday in May is National Heat Awareness Day. For those of us in parts of the country where summer has already arrived like a sack of bricks, you might be thinking “Don’t remind me!” I know that here in DC, my short morning commute is starting to feel like a steamy tropical hike.

But I know I’m lucky. I still remember what it’s like to have a commute that doesn’t end in an air-conditioned office. And honestly, I was lucky even back when I was working in construction. I could often work in the shade, and because I worked for a responsible employer, I could also count on access to water and regular rest breaks. So when I arrive at this air-conditioned oasis where I research food and farming issues, my thoughts go to the 2-3 million people growing our food whose workplace is a farm field. Like warehouse workers, construction workers, and many others, farmworkers can’t count on regular access to water, rest breaks, and shade—much less climate control.

Working in hot conditions isn’t just difficult—it’s dangerous. And in the absence of AC, it’s these three things: water, rest, and shade, that are the keys to avoiding heat-related injury. That’s why the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) are joining forces to remind employers to provide water, rest, and shade for their employees.

But experience shows that—however welcome those reminders—workers need legal protection, not just helpful suggestions. As with other climate impacts, it’s people without economic and political power—like farmworkers—that are hit first and hardest by dangerous heat. Unfortunately, there are no heat-related worker protection standards at the Federal level. While workers are theoretically protected by general duty standards that require employers to maintain a safe workplace, the lack of any heat-specific standards renders this protection vague, weak, and difficult to enforce.

This lack standards for heat is shocking given that we know heat is a killer both on and off the job. Heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths in the US (and many countries around the world). The national Weather Service just released their Natural Hazard Statistics for 2018, and heat killed more people last year than lightning, tornadoes, hurricanes, cold, and winter weather combined. At work, heat was responsible for the death of 815 workers and serious injury to more than 70,000 between 1992 and 2017.

I was lucky, but you shouldn’t have to be lucky to be protected against injury at work. No occupation better illustrates the need for protection than farm labor. Despite being the foundation of our food system, farmworkers have less protection from exploitation and abuse than other workers. They can’t count on having responsible employers and safe working conditions, and it shows:  Farmworkers die from heat at a mind-boggling 20 times the rate of the general population (and that’s without factoring the under-reporting of heat-related mortality and farmworker mortality in general). Hours before I arrive in my comfortable office, they are in the field doing one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs our country has to offer, in order to produce the food we all eat.

Thanks to climate change, the need for strong protection is only becoming more urgent. Danger from extreme heat is on the rise everywhere, and heat-related deaths are expected to increase in the coming decades.  Last summer saw a record-breaking and dangerous heat wave across much of the Northern Hemisphere. The first half of this year has already brought unprecedented lethal heat in India, Vietnam, and Australia.

Fortunately, the need for change is not going unrecognized. A national coalition of organizations is calling for OSHA to issue a National Heat Protection Standard. Last July, more than 130 organizations, supported by members of Congress, delivered a petition to OSHA to draft such a standard. In the fall the organizational petition was followed by a grassroots petition signed by over 61,000 individuals so far. And in April, UCS joined 109 other organizations in signing on to a letter of support for worker protections from climate change.

Farmworkers, like all workers, deserve protection from dangerous working conditions. We can all help make sure they get that protection. You can learn more about the national campaign and find ways to get involved here—starting with the grassroots petition that is still open. For this National Heat Awareness Day, let’s commit to make protecting workers from dangerous heat a matter of law, not luck.

Holger Hubbs

Hurricane Season 2019: Global Warming, Forecasts, and Probabilities

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Photo: Alexander Gerst/Flickr

On May 21, the first named storm of 2019, Andrea, was recorded on the north Atlantic. This makes 2019 the fifth consecutive year that a named storm has formed before the official start of Atlantic hurricane season.

Something caught my eye when I read that: the number five. That’s because, according to NASA, 2018 was the 4th warmest year in a continued warming trend since record keeping began in the 1880’s, with temperatures 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0.83 degrees Celsius) warmer than the 1951 to 1980 mean. And with it, a string of five consecutive years have been recorded as the five warmest on record. I will say this again: the last five years have been the five warmest years on record.

Is climate change having an effect on hurricane season, or on hurricanes themselves? Hurricane season starts on June 1st. Let’s take a look at the latest forecasts and science.

Hurricane forecasts and their messages

On April 16, Colorado State University (CSU) released its hurricane outlook for the 2019 season, forecasting 13 named storms with 5 of them turning into hurricanes, of which 2 would classify as major (categories 3 and above).

On May 23, the National Hurricane Center, part of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) released their forecast, predicting a “near-normal” season with 9-15 named storms and 4-8 hurricanes, with 2-4 being major ones. An average season has 12 named storms, six hurricanes, and three major hurricanes. The numbers are very similar to the ones from CSU.

The odds for that near-normal season are 40%. Odds for above-normal or below-normal activity are both at 30%. But, as I mentioned last year, odds are not certain predictions. They are just that: odds (see below for more on that). And the last couple of years certainly reminded us of that.

Years to remember – in more than one way

NOAA’s forecast for the 2018 season also had a near-normal probability of 40%, with 35% odds of it being above normal, and 25% odds of being below-normal. It forecast 10-16 named storms and 5-9 hurricanes, with 1-4 being major. What we saw was a season tilted toward the higher side of the predictions – there were 15 named storms and eight hurricanes. Two of those were major, and two hurricanes—Michael and Florence, the latter not a major hurricane but a category 1—caused roughly $50 billion in estimated damage.

While the probabilistic predictions may not have raised any eyebrows, when a record four hurricanes were active at the same time, that caught my eye.

If we look further back, at 2017, the probability of an above-normal season was at 45%, and below-normal activity was at 20%. The forecast called for 5-9 hurricanes, with 2-5 being major – and the reality blew the predictions: we had 10 hurricanes with 6 major ones. Three of these major ones hit the US, and nobody will forget the string of names Harvey, Irma and Maria anytime soon. That also caught my eye.

However, I was not surprised when the numbers fell outside of the given range.

Understanding the forecast

That is because the range in numbers given in NOAA’s forecast has a 70% probability, meaning that “The seasonal activity is expected to fall within these ranges in 7 out of 10 seasons with similar climate conditions and uncertainties to those expected this year. They do not represent the total possible ranges of activity seen in past similar years.” So, there you have it, in plain language, that the actual numbers for 2019 (as in any season) may be different from the ones in the forecast.

What do these seasons tell us?

Forecasts are based on probabilities calculated from conditions at the time of the forecast, and as such, there is ample room for conditions to change and actual facts to fall outside the probabilistic calculations, as the numbers for 2017 show. At the time of the 2018 forecast, sea surface temperatures were running below average in the area where tropical storms form, and the forecast was based on those conditions. For this year, NOAA stated that there are competing signals affecting the forecast: an ongoing weak El Niño is expected to suppress intensity of Atlantic hurricane activity, while warmer-than-average surface waters and an enhanced African monsoon are forces that could lead to increased activity. Will these conditions change and affect hurricane activity? Probably. That is also why NOAA releases an updated forecast later in the season, usually in early August. Mind you, the updated forecast is based on the same probabilistic calculations, only using updated conditions.

Most importantly, it only takes one hurricane to hit to cause possible devastation. Nobody can tell ahead of time how many hurricanes in a season will strike land. One should always remember that, and be prepared, such as by following NOAA/NWS storm tracking page and FEMA hurricane preparation guidance. And with the last couple of seasons seeing major hurricanes (some making landfall), preparedness takes on a new urgency.

But are we really seeing more of these major hurricanes, or is it just an impression – or coincidence?

Hurricanes are getting stronger

The fact is that global warming is loading the dice when it comes to hurricane strength, with abnormally warm water being one of the culprits because it has the potential to increase hurricane power. Two of the most powerful hurricanes in recent history, Harvey and Florence, gained immense strength in very little time, and one of the reasons was that the sea surface temperature of the water in its path was running well above normal. In the case of Harvey, Gulf waters were warmer than any time on record, and temperatures along Florence’s path were 3.6°F (2°C) hotter than normal. That warmer water is linked to human-caused warming due to emissions from burning coal, oil, and gas. And it is worth noting that, after further analysis, hurricane Michael was upgraded to a category 5 in April 2019, months after it hit in 2018.

But it is not just the wind and strength of a hurricane that are amplified by climate change: global warming can also increase the amount of rain that hurricanes bring. Warmer air holds more moisture (read: more water to fall when it rains), and global average temperature is currently about 1.8°F (1°C) warmer than it was in the late 1800’s. In fact, a study found that the record rainfall from Harvey was roughly three times more likely and 15 percent more intense than in a world without global warming. Another study found that higher ocean heat content and sea surface temperatures make hurricanes such as Harvey “more intense, bigger, and longer lasting and greatly increase their flooding rains.”

Furthermore, research suggests that there has been an increase in intense hurricane activity over the past 40 years, and since the mid-1970s the number of strong hurricanes reaching categories 3 and above has roughly doubled.

So, while we wait for this hurricane season to develop, let’s be mindful of probabilities, a changing climate, changing conditions, and most of all, preparedness. It reduces risks, helps ensure communities withstand the next storm, and can save lives.

Photo: Alexander Gerst/Flickr

Trump Administration Puts Offshore Oil Rig Workers’ Lives at Risk

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Photo: mliu92/Flickr

The Trump administration is failing to consider scientific evidence in rolling back a rule intended to keep lives of offshore oil rig workers safe. These are the very workers that the Trump administration claims to care so much about. But evidence suggest that this rollback on worker safety has been a long time coming.

First, a study was halted

The first step to rolling back oil rig workers’ safety was the Trump administration canceling a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) study intended to investigate how to improve safety inspections of offshore oil rigs. While it is odd for any administration to cancel a study led by the country’s most prestigious scientific institution, it also was odd that this study was halted because the agency it was intended for asked for the study to be conducted…then made a U-turn and asked for the study to be halted.

In April 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and released 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion killed 11 workers and the spill caused an estimated $8.8 billion in environmental damages. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered the most damaging in U.S. history.

A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sharply criticized the Interior Department’s offshore regulating body, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), for conducting inspections that are still based on pre-Deepwater Horizon standards. The report stated, “The use of outdated investigative policies and procedures is a long-standing deficiency.” In response to this report, the BSEE requested a study by NASEM to determine the best inspection practices to help avoid another catastrophic accident like Deepwater Horizon. The study was requested in 2016, but progress on the study was immediately halted in 2017. No reason was offered as to why the study was canceled.

Then, the waivers came

The Obama administration implemented safety requirements for offshore oil rigs in 2016. In September 2018, the Trump administration released a proposal for rolling back many of those safety requirements (subscription required). Many assumed that the administration would be waiting for public comment and review processes before the rollback could take place, but this did not happen.

In 2019, Politico revealed that the Trump administration had issued nearly 1,700 waivers on the offshore safety rules to states. These waivers were largely to bypass rules related to blowout preventers – the last line of defense that ensures an uncontrolled oil spill doesn’t occur.

The finale – A rollback issued

And the final rollback of safety measures has been issued by the Trump administration, putting more lives and our environment at risk of another catastrophe like Deepwater Horizon. The Trump administration says that they can achieve the same level of safety for workers and our environment with the revisions. How does that even make sense? That’s like saying that I’ll achieve the same quality of brownies if I leave the sugar and chocolate out. It’s just never going to be true. Additionally, it’s worth noting that BSEE didn’t even conduct a risk analysis on the revised rule.

So why ignore scientific evidence, cancel an investigation by the most prestigious scientific institution in our country on how to better safety standards, issue waivers quietly, and roll back protections for workers? You may have guessed it already – money.

The Interior Department estimates that the rollback will save industry more than $1.5 billion over 10 years. According to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), “Most of the savings from the final rule—$919 million of it—is attributed to requiring less frequent testing of safety systems known as blowout preventers, which are the last line of defense against runaway wells.” Blowout preventers – the safety mechanism widely regarded to be the culprit of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The majority of comments submitted were in opposition to the proposed rule and many of its major proposals that rollback offshore oil rig workers’ safety. Yet, the administration didn’t listen to the public.

It’s ironic, don’t you think?

The Deepwater Horizon spill cost BP an estimated $67 billion in losses from the disaster. Yet, the Trump administration is willing to put the safety, the lives, of offshore oil rig workers on the line for $1.5 billion? I’m not a mathematician, but it seems like it’s cheaper in the long run to implement the safety practices that don’t result in $67 billion in losses. But, like I said, I’m not a mathematician. Also, making sure people don’t die is pretty good, too.

These are lives that the Trump administration claims to care about dearly. Yet, we have seen this administration plan to decimate protections for these workers since day one. There has been a coordinated plan that makes it clear – the Trump administration never cared one bit about the safety of these workers. It seems that the administration has their eyes on something else. Let’s just hope more lives aren’t lost on this irony.

Photo: mliu92/Flickr

Managing the Work: Reflections on a year of science advocacy from the 2018 UCS Science and Democracy Fellows (Part 2)

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Science and Democracy Fellows with trainers and fellows from COMPASS.

This is the second part of our series reflecting on the 2018 UCS Science and Democracy Fellowship. You can read the first part here

Learning to be an effective science advocate isn’t just about developing advocacy skills and learning about science policy. It’s also learning about how you make advocacy a sustainable part of your life’s work. It’s easy to get frustrated, burnt out, and want to give up when change isn’t coming fast enough. Strategies for approaching advocacy in a thoughtful way can lead to more long-term gains and also make it feel less overwhelming.

4. Pace yourself! Time management and self care are important.

5. Remain detached from the outcome. Celebrate little successes.

4. Pace yourself! Time management and self care are important.

Emily – Remember that “the work” is the work of a lifetime – while it may seem as if there is no time to wait, “there will be time, there will be time, there will be time” (to quote T.S. Eliot). Pace yourself! The timeline of the fellowship was not the timeline of the issues at hand, but was a start that led to meaningful and continued engagement, rather than a finite experience.

Tim – Emily brings up a great point that, for me, gets lost sometimes in this age of partisan political turmoil. I would add that focusing on what can be done rather than what could happen and being mindful of the moment allows the opportunity to take advantage of new possibilities that happen unexpectedly.  As an example, I was at a get-out-the-vote event and was able to network with other groups that were also there for a similar event that day. We took opposite sides of the student fairway and engaged more students together than we would have been if it had just been my group.

Adrienne – As Tim highlighted, look to build bridges with those already engaged in community building. No need to reinvent the wheel! Instead, think about how together you can do more.

Lindsay – It was really beneficial for me to have a timeline when planning my events, I am motivated by approaching deadlines. However I had a few very significant life changes last year that led to a shift in prioritization of my commitments. The timelines were essential, but so was extending grace to myself and realizing I’m just getting started, these are tools for a greater shift in engagement, not just tools to complete the Fellowship.

Shri – Be gentle with yourself. It’s okay to share your struggles with your cohort. None of us are alone in these struggles.

Trainer Pamela Chang leads a group exercise at the fellows summit.

5. Remain detached from the outcome. Celebrate little successes.

Adrienne: Grassroots community advocacy work is a challenging long-game and successes didn’t always come in the form I expected during my fellowship. Thankfully, in times of frustration my UCS fellows reminded me to detach from the original goal and attach to each little success — a room full of students and community members at a LTE workshop (regardless if we didn’t get anything published), walking a few new voters to polls, or encouraging one more student to regularly call their representatives. I believe there is a gradual ladder of engagement and getting any individual to step up one rung is a success. Even just passively exposing constituents to a dialogue of science advocacy gives me hope that one day others will walk up the ladder towards more active advocacy.

Emily – As Fellows, our goal was to open a door into political engagement and advocacy for others who were new to the work, or for those who were seeking to collaborate. Who can tell where an opened door will lead at the start? Often, unexpected opportunities became available, and we learned to follow where they lead. Personally, I grappled with some opportunities becoming dead ends, but I learned that did not mean THE end of my work or goal. I just had to keep searching.

Lindsay –  Even if your actions don’t yield the results you were hoping for, your involvement is still valuable. Maybe it taught you an essential lesson to carry into your next action or prompted important dialogue within a partnering organization. I worked to increase indigenous attendance at a partner organization’s statewide event. While we didn’t get the attendance we had hoped for, we learned from the process and the partner organization realized its important to their membership that they are intentional about organizing inclusive events.

Shri – Celebrate connections made and recognize that it’s okay to go with the flow. Things become much less overwhelming when in good company.

Tim – I had to keep reminding myself that a healthy democratic process involves many differing opinions from people who must come together with compromise and common ground.  Engaging in a partisan way can make others feel excluded and or minimized.

Advocacy as a life-long pursuit

We started as neophytes who came to understand that advocacy is a continual learning process. While our Fellowship has ended, our advocacy and teamwork has not. In struggling and striving to enact positive change we developed powerful bonds with one another. Mutual appreciation, support, respect, and willingness to lift each other up after inevitable mistakes, let-downs, and self-perceived failures facilitated the formation of vibrant inter-connections. This sense of belonging to a purpose and movement greater than ourselves is priceless. We discovered that our individual experiences were not separate from other Fellows’ experiences, but rather like threads in a tapestry they provide variation in texture and color, supporting and complementing the other strands that make up our fabric.

 

 

Shri A. Verrill grew up in the Western foothills of Maine and holds a M.S. in Biology from the University of Southern Maine where she gained expertise in wetland science focusing on coastal salt marsh, estuarine ecology. Shri is currently a Habitat Restoration Project Manager with the Downeast Salmon Federation, and has lobbied both at the State and Federal level with the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and with the Downeast Science Watchdogs.  

 

Lindsay Wancour works with Swan Valley Connections, a collaborative conservation and education non-profit, as their Field Program Coordinator. Originally from Michigan, Lindsay moved to Montana after graduating from Michigan State University and served in Americorps’ Montana Conservation Corps. She then went on to complete her M.S. in Environmental Science from University of Montana, focusing on community engagement in watershed health. After completing her UCS fellowship, she started a UCS Western Montana Local Team and has continued her work in advocacy with her newly formed team.

 

Adrienne Keller is a PhD student in the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior program in the Department of Biology at Indiana University, where she studies forest carbon and nutrient cycling. Adrienne holds an M.S. in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana and a B.A. in Biology and Geography from Macalester College (St. Paul, MN). In addition to her research in ecosystem ecology, Adrienne is an active member of the newly formed, grassroots organization Concerned Scientists @ IU.

 

Tim Rafalski is a Ph.D. candidate in the Computer Science department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He works under Dr. Andreas Stefik conducting empirical studies—designing, running, and implementing programming language experiments—to validate scientific computing design and organization. Outside of the lab, Tim is a math and science tutor for students in elementary school through college, and he helps organize and participate in community elevating educational events.

 

Emily Piontek is seeking her master’s degree in Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She believes that climate solutions and common-pool-resource protections require a combination of political action and the fostering of place-based environmental values in our communities. In her classes and as a research assistant, she studies the relationship between human behavior and natural resources.

 

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.

Fellows workshop ideas in small groups.

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