Combined UCS Blogs

New EPA Guidance Stands to Increase Hazardous Air Pollutants in Environmental Justice Communities

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Photo: Yvette Arellano/TEJAS

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency reversed long-standing guidance that helps limit hazardous pollution such as mercury and lead from major sources like power plants, large industrial facilities and vehicles. The end result? Potentially, the biggest increase in hazardous air pollution this country has seen in decades, and environmental justice communities are likely to bear the brunt of it.

A history of clearing the air an old coal-fired power plant in Chicago

New guidance from the Trump administration would relax hazardous air pollution protections for powerplants and other industrial sources. Photo: Flickr user swanksalot

The new guidance is bad news. It creates a huge loophole through which companies can emit more hazardous pollution with less scrutiny from the EPA and the move breaks with more than 20 years of precedent in implementing the Clean Air Act.

During these last two decades we’ve seen impressive reductions in many types of harmful air pollutants that cause serious health problems, including heart and lung diseases, cancer, and the exacerbation of asthma. In this case, under the Clean Air Act, people are protected from major sources of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs).

Hazardous air pollutants, also known as air toxics, are a category of pollutants emitted from power plants and industrial facilities that pose very significant health risks. From the Clean Air Act, these are pollutants “known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental or ecological effects.” They are regulated at the source, meaning the EPA limits the amount of these pollutants that individual industrial facilities can emit.

These regulations have been incredibly successful. By requiring major pollution sources to employ control technologies (specifically the Maximum Achievable Control Technology or MACT), pollution from these sources has been reduced substantially. When fully implemented, these standards are projected to reduce annual air toxics emissions from industrial sources by about 1.7 million tons. Already, mobile source emissions have been reduced by approximately 50 percent—about 1.5 million tons of HAPs a year—since 1990. With additional fleet turnover, these reductions are expected to increase to 80 percent by the year 2030. But these gains are now in jeopardy.

Ignoring evidence, giving favors to industry

The Trump administration has issued new guidance on interpretation of this rule. Under the new guidance, major pollution sources would be able to avoid employing the maximum achievable control technology if they can demonstrate that they’ve reduced their emissions below the amount that qualifies them as a “major” source according to the Clean Air Act. Then they could be put in the laxer category of an “area” source, a category reserved for smaller sources of pollution which aren’t subject to the same kinds of pollution reduction requirements as major sources. Area sources are typically smaller facilities like laundromats and restaurants, and regulatory control is handled more at the state, county and tribal levels, rather than by the EPA.

In other words, because the policy has been effective in reducing pollution from major sources, it shouldn’t apply to them. This would, in turn, mean that these facilities would no longer need to use the most effective pollution control technologies and instead would be allowed to emit more pollution as long as they stay below the threshold for major sources.

With pollution control technologies advancing all the time, why wouldn’t we want facilities to use cutting-edge equipment and practices? Why wouldn’t we want to reap the health benefits of continuous reductions in pollution? Instead, the latest EPA guidance will likely cause hazardous pollution to rise significantly, and it also hurts businesses that develop innovative pollution control technologies.

EPA decisionmakers in 1995 noticed this potential loophole and issued guidance in response. They stated that the policy of keeping facilities labeled as major sources even after they meet requirements “ensures that MACT emissions reductions are permanent, and that the health and environmental protection provided by MACT standards is not undermined.”

The Trump administration is ignoring this consideration of public health and environmental protection by allowing companies to backslide into less pollution control. And importantly, this weaker air pollution policy will impact some people more than others.

Hotspots and fencelines: disproportionate impacts of hazardous air pollutants

One challenge with US air pollution regulation (that existed long before the Trump administration) has been its scope. Federal air pollution policies are generally not designed to capture and control pollution hotspots, which are subject to air pollution from multiple sources in close proximity. Pollutants like HAPs are regulated at the source, and other pollutants like ozone are regulated in the ambient air—i.e., we regulate the average pollution across a city any given day or hour, not any one spot at any one time.

The consequence of this gap is hotspots—places that tend to have higher air pollution because of their location near multiple sources. Communities in places like this have long worried about cumulative impacts. Sure, individual facilities might be meeting standards, but what is the impact of breathing air from many facilities all together day in and day out? Studies have shown the health risks of cumulative impacts, and many communities have long raised concerns about their own health as a result (see here, here, and here, for example). And who is facing these impacts? Those near industrial pollution tend to be low-income communities and communities of color.

Allowing polluters to avoid protecting public health

This is what makes the new guidance so problematic. The Trump administration’s move to weaken protections from major pollution sources will hit hardest the people that are already burdened by industrial air pollution. Communities that are already exposed to more hazardous air pollutants than elsewhere now stand to get more pollution emitted into the air they breathe and the water they drink. The EPA is rolling back this more than 20-year-old guidance to allow major pollution sources to expose these communities to greater health risks.

In addition to issuing this guidance, the EPA has also indicated that it intends to propose and take comment on additional regulatory text that would codify this harmful guidance. I’ll be watching closely for when the proposal is issued. Submitting public comments to the EPA calling on the agency to reverse this destructive action will be key.

The Trump administration should focus on improving air quality—as Administrator Pruitt has claimed to want—not nixing effective public health protections.

Photo: Yvette Arellano/TEJAS

Clean Energy Leadership: Next Steps for Massachusetts

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In 2016, the Massachusetts legislature laid the groundwork for important progress on clean energy with the passing of the Energy Diversity Act. But now it’s 2018, and there’s a lot more work to be done. And the legislative session is nearing its end.

Fortunately, the path is clear: We need to fix our renewable energy targets, make solar work for everybody, and send clear signals about where we need to head on clean energy and climate.

Increase the renewable portfolio standard to 50×30

Staying on top: Smart, strong policies can keep driving renewable energy in and for Massachusetts (Credit: UCS).

The 2016 law included a requirement that Massachusetts utilities contract for 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy over the next decade—an unprecedented and inspiring target (which New York has indeed since been inspired to top, and which New Jersey seems to be inclined to more than double). The energy diversity law also required utilities to sign long-term contracts for large amounts of clean energy, to help drive renewable energy and get low, stable prices for Massachusetts electricity customers.

What the 2016 law didn’t include was a strengthening of the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to make room for all those new renewables. The RPS specifies how much of the electricity mix of each of Massachusetts’s electric utilities needs to come from renewable energy.

Under the clean energy procurement requirement, the state has just announced that it’s going all hydro, all the time, and large hydro doesn’t count toward the RPS. But if something happens to nix that option (it’s a controversial choice for many), and one of the many proposals with RPS-eligible technologies included gets picked instead, that’ll be more flowing into the RPS.

Just the offshore wind piece, though, is more than enough to eat up all the RPS demand growth between now and 2030. And that offshore wind piece is moving forward.

The new frontier for renewable energy for Massachusetts: offshore wind (Credit: M. Jacobs)

A 2017 study showed the results of the mismatch between the push of the new requirements and the pull of the RPS. A full RPS can’t drive any additional renewables beyond those contracts, and we know we need more.

The solution is a much stronger RPS, and a requirement of 50% renewable energy by 2030 standard fits the bill. That same 2017 study showed that a stronger RPS along those lines would bring more renewables on line, reduce our risks from natural gas overreliance, and mean a lot of extra clean energy jobs in the state.

Upping the requirement is not complicated, particularly for a trailblazer/pioneer like Massachusetts, and other states are already sprinting down the path to targets at least that strong, including California, Hawaii, and New York.

With bills like S.1880 (plus S.1841, S.1876, H.2700, and H.1747), upping Massachusetts’s renewable energy game is an easy thing to check off the legislative to-do list.

Make solar work—for everybody

Another thing on the energy list? Getting solar back on track, and moving forward, not backward, on making it accessible.

Massachusetts has been a solar star, but the policy environment has been cloudy lately—particularly for low-income households. The state’s solar progress has meant that it has kept bumping up against its (self-imposed) caps on how much solar gets to get installed. A “fix” in early 2016, though, actually made solar a worse deal for a lot of people.

The new solar law slashed how much people could use shared or community solar to offset their electricity bills—by a full 40%. Shared solar is the option for the many people who can’t put solar on their own roofs: people with shaded roofs, no southern exposure, or roofs in bad condition; people in multi-family buildings; and renters. Most low-income households fall into one or more of those categories.

So 40% cut for shared solar meant that people who can put solar on their roofs get 100% of the value of their solar electrons, while people who don’t or can’t get 60%.

There’s something seriously wrong with those equations.

There’s more to the Massachusetts solar picture, including continuing problems with caps on how much solar we get to do, uncertainty from a change in state incentives, a bad decision just out of Gov. Charlie Baker’s public utility commission, and Pres. Trump’s decision last week to tax solar panel imports, making solar more expensive.

Here again, the legislature already has a range of bills to address the equity issue, and others. Those include H.3396 and S.1831, which would restore full credit for community solar for low-income households, and others to strengthen solar and solar equity (including S.1824, S.1848, H.2712, and H.3403).

Keep solar climbing, for everybody (Credit: J. Rogers).

Tell us where we’re going on climate change

A third area for legislative action is on our climate goals. The state’s landmark 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act provided for 2020 and 2050 targets for reducing our global warming pollution. Having that 30-year gap between milestones potentially allows for “solutions” that look good in the near term, but won’t serve us well in the long term—with Exhibit A being natural gas (still a fossil fuel, people), which fuels two-thirds of in-state generation already and puts electricity consumers at risk.

What we need is clarity on the waypoints, what kind of reductions we want by 2030 and 2040. Those would be important signals on the road to 2050.

Wouldn’t you know it: There are bills ready to fix this, too: S.1880 and S.479, plus ones that would strengthen our overall carbon pollution policies (including, S.1821, S.1869, H.1726, and H.3473).

And more

When the Massachusetts legislature gets rolling on these issues, there’s a lot more for them to consider in what’s already in other bills, including around:

  • Strengthening environmental justice: 2913/S.426
  • Getting serious about driving energy storage (and Massachusetts’s piece of the jobs and industry): 1746, S.1874, H.2600
  • Empowering communities to drive renewable energy forward collectively: 1745, S.1834
  • Modernizing our electricity grid to lower costs, promote energy efficiency, and protect low-income households: 1725, S.1875

Time is short. Fortunately, however you slice it, the legislature has plenty of opportunities—and plenty of proposals already drafted—for taking the next important steps on climate and clean energy.

Mike Jacobs owner

DTE Customers Could Save $340 Million with Clean Energy Compared to Proposed Gas Plant

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Stevendbradley

DTE Energy, Michigan’s largest electric utility, came up short in its attempt to justify charging customers nearly a billion dollars for a proposed new natural gas plant. Expert analysis shows that a mix of clean energy resources would meet customers’ power needs for about $340 million less than the cost to build and run DTE’s proposed plant.

DTE’s proposal to build a large natural gas plant in New China, MI doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Evidence shows a combination of renewables, efficiency, and demand response can do the job at lower cost for customers.

DTE is seeking approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to charge ratepayers $989 million for a new combined cycle natural gas plant in New China. According to the plan, construction would start in 2019 with the plant scheduled to come online in 2022 as the Belle River coal plant at the same site retires. Before DTE can charge its customers for the new project – along with a hefty profit on its capital expenditures – it must convince the MPSC that its plan is in the best interests of its customers.

After digging into the specifics of DTE’s proposal and the company’s analysis that purportedly supports it, several intervening parties (including the Union of Concerned Scientists) have raised serious doubts that the analysis fairly evaluated clean energy options on a level playing field. What’s more, our own analysis shows that a combination of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and demand response can meet DTE’s needs while coming in at $339 million less than the proposed natural gas plant.

A cheaper, cleaner path forward for DTE customers

Analysis submitted by us and our partners (The Environmental Law and Policy Center, Vote Solar, the Ecology Center, and the Solar Energy Industries Association) shows that a combination of additional renewable energy, energy efficiency, and demand response can meet DTE’s needs at lower cost while supporting more economic development and contributing to a more diverse, lower risk resource portfolio for DTE customers.

Doubling DTE’s commitment to renewable energy – from its plan to achieve just 11 percent in 2030 to 23 percent under our plan – with a combination of wind and solar resources, increasing DTE’s energy efficiency programs to achieve two percent annual savings, and adding a small amount of demand response to help reduce peak demand could meet DTE’s identified needs, and maintain reliability, at lower cost than the proposed gas plant.

The overall cost to build this portfolio of clean energy resources is about $340 million less than the cost to build and run DTE’s proposed natural gas plant. When we modeled this clean-energy portfolio using DTE’s own long-term modeling tool, the results show cumulative savings of over $2 billion through 2040 compared with DTE’s long-term resource plan due primarily to significant reductions in DTE’s capital expenditures and fuel expenses.

DTE’s long term plan would result in just 11 percent of the company’s energy coming from renewable energy and would continue the company’s addiction to fossil fuels – putting its customers and our environment at risk. (“Other Renewables” includes biomass and small-scale hydropower.)

Doubling DTE’s proposed commitment to renewables to achieve a still-modest 23 percent renewable energy diversifies the company’s energy portfolio, reduces its over-reliance on fossil fuels, and will save its customers an estimated $340 million.

The charts above show DTE’s proposed energy generation mix in 2030 compared to our analysis using increased investments in renewables, efficiency and demand response. Even under our more aggressive renewable energy scenario, DTE is still reliant on fossil fuels for nearly 60 percent of its energy needs – 37 percent and 22 percent for coal and natural gas respectively. This level of fossil fuel reliance is still far too high given the urgent need (and demand from DTE shareholders) to reduce carbon emissions and leaves DTE customers far too exposed to the risks associated with future fuel price and regulatory uncertainty.

But under DTE’s proposed plan, the utility would rely on fossil fuels for a whopping 71 percent of its energy needs. This level of over-reliance should raise big red flags with DTE customers, the MPSC, and all Michiganders who value a low risk electricity supply, clean environment, or stable climate.

DTE’s own analysis falls short

In addition to our analysis showing how clean energy can beat DTE’s natural gas proposal, analytic errors, inconsistencies, inaccurate assumptions about expected cost and performance of clean energy options, and blatant biases towards building this plant over other alternatives have been identified. Taking all these flaws together, it’s clear DTE inappropriately skewed its analysis in favor of natural gas over cheaper, cleaner alternatives like renewable energy, energy efficiency and demand response. DTE’s shoddy analysis strips away any confidence in its claim that spending $1 billion to continue its over-reliance on fossil fuels is a good deal for its customers.

The list of issues with DTE’s analysis is long, but the highlights include:

  • Making overly-optimistic assumptions about the future price of natural gas;
  • Failing to take full advantage cost-effective energy efficiency potential;
  • Failing to take advantage of cost-effective demand response potential that would lower peak demand and offset the need for new power plants;
  • Making inaccurate assumptions about the availability, cost, and performance of renewable energy options;
  • Failing to account for key risk factors such as price spikes in natural gas fuel prices;
  • Failing to consider emerging technologies like battery storage as part of the solution;
  • Failing to adequately consider resource options outside of DTE’s service territory.

DTE has not conducted a fair and robust analysis of the options available to meet customers’ energy needs. Taken together, the evidence suggests that the analysis was specifically designed to support DTE’s desired conclusion that Michiganders “need” this $1 billion natural gas plant, despite real-world evidence to the contrary.

In all, DTE’s analysis and justification for spending $1 billion in customer dollars on a new natural gas plant simply doesn’t hold water. The evidence – $340 million worth – points towards renewables, efficiency, and demand response as the solutions that are going to cost-effectively meet customer demands while also reducing emissions. Because DTE’s proposal is not in the best interest of its customers, the MPSC should reject it and send them back to the drawing board.


Infrastructure in the Trump Congress: We Must Build for the Future, Not the Past

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Photo: Wikimedia

President Trump is expected to announce plans for what he’s characterizing as a $1.7 trillion infrastructure package during his State of the Union address next week. Earlier this week a supposed leaked copy of a White House infrastructure memo revealed the broad outline of an infrastructure plan, only 20 percent of which appears to be direct federal investment.

The math doesn’t quite add up, but the White House is saying $200 billion in federal funds, and that the money will come from spending cuts. The plan includes federal credit support and loan programs, but assumes the vast majority of the infrastructure funding would come from state and local government budgets (which are already strapped), as well as the private sector.

Not surprisingly you won’t find terms like “climate change” or “clean energy” anywhere in the document, but in 2018 not even President Trump can escape the reality of worsening climate impacts and extreme weather threatening our outdated infrastructure. Nor can he ignore the job-creating renaissance happening in renewable energy, displacing old, expensive, harmful electricity generation like coal-fired power, and redefining assumptions about resiliency and the need for a centralized electricity grid.

Years of neglecting federal infrastructure investment have made the hole deeper. The American Society of Civil Engineers says we need to invest a staggering $4.6 trillion by 2025 just to bring our infrastructure up from a D grade to a B grade.

Regardless of what the final appropriation ends up being, the political will to make significant investments in infrastructure represents a huge opportunity to make the lives of Americans much better—public safety, agriculture, consumer, labor, and business interests all win if we get this right. But it will be up to the constituents, ordinary American citizens, to keep their members of Congress from squandering the public treasury on old, outdated ideas and business as usual.

We need an infrastructure plan that looks to the future and matches the reality we are living in in 2018. What is on the table right now doesn’t appear to be that.

How did we become a country with crumbling infrastructure?

State and local governments account for the vast majority of public infrastructure spending (about three quarters), but that spending has been sharply down across the country in recent years as states deal with their own budget crises. Federal capital investment in transportation and water infrastructure has fallen 19 percent over the last 15 years. Some analysis shows total federal spending on infrastructure as a percentage of GDP has dropped by half over the last 35 years.

Prior to the highway bill they passed out of desperation in late 2015, Congress had gone ten years without making a significant infrastructure investment, and the investments they have made are not remotely adequate to keep pace with our nation’s old, and rapidly deteriorating, infrastructure. Additionally, the US federal excise tax on gasoline, which is a primary source of funding for infrastructure projects, hasn’t been increased since 1993 and isn’t adjusted for inflation. As a consequence, our national Highway Trust Fund is at the edge of solvency.

Building for 2018 and beyond

As we’ve seen recently with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, climate change is making extreme weather events even more intense.

NOAA recently published numbers showing that 2017 was the costliest year on record for US disasters. We simply can’t afford to do things business as usual when it comes to disaster preparedness. Any responsible infrastructure package must include policies and direct investment that strengthen hazard mitigation before a disaster hits. Likewise, it also must include science-based standards that reflect “future conditions” including climate change, assuring that we build to last, stronger, and smarter, instead of letting our investment get washed away by the next storm. A recent UCS white paper describes a set of principles for climate-smart infrastructure.

Our antiquated electric grid is also badly in need of modernization. This includes the way we generate and distribute electricity, and also how we deploy electric vehicle charging or fueling stations. Spending large sums of money to maintain outdated electricity infrastructure squanders a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leap ahead; improving access and electricity reliability, particularly for rural and historically underserved communities, while also benefiting consumers and protecting public health.

But the administration has demonstrated a real lack of understanding of the real challenges vexing our outdated electric grid, and a lack of receptivity to the emerging technologies that can generate and deliver cleaner, cheaper electricity, in a more efficient and reliable way. Constituents will need to continue to weigh in with their members of Congress to make sure we invest in the electricity infrastructure of the future instead of propping up the old electricity infrastructure of the industrial revolution.

From a climate and clean energy perspective, here’s what we need in an infrastructure package
  • Direct investment and/or policies that prioritize the installation of customer-sited solar power and battery storage systems, which can provide both grid-connected and independent electric operation when needed during outages, rather than relying on expensive and polluting diesel or gas-fired generators. This is especially important for isolated or islanded communities in places like Alaska and Puerto Rico.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that deploy more clean energy micro-grids for isolated communities, and micro-grid systems which reduce outages and increase the resilience of critical public and private facilities such as schools, hospitals, community centers, and police and fire departments.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that modernize the electric grid, including the application of technologies to improve observability, efficiency, design flexibility, and prediction of system performance on the distribution system.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that accelerate investments in our electric transmission system to provide access our nation’s robust wind and solar resources, improve the efficiency of the system, and reduce the long-term costs to consumers.
  • Direct investment in charging infrastructure that will allow people to travel further in electric vehicles—particularly fast-charging stations along high-volume travel routes that connect urban centers.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that incentivize transitioning bus fleets and port trucks to electric vehicles to reduce the pollution impacts on communities that are on busy routes or adjacent to our nation’s ports.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that prioritize hazard mitigation before a disaster hits. This includes investments in hardened and surface infrastructure like roads, bridges, public buildings, military installations, the electricity system, water and wastewater infrastructure, taking into account future conditions from climate change.
  • Direct investment in flood and wildfire mapping, risk assessments, and data collection that can provide the science-based information and tools needed to plan, build, and repair critical infrastructure.
  • Updated building standards and codes that take account of future climate risks, including a robust flood risk management standard for federal infrastructure investments.
  • Prioritization of direct investment in historically disadvantaged communities and economically vulnerable communities, which are more likely to be vulnerable to damage from extreme weather, and have the least means to pay for needed up-front investments in preparedness and hazard mitigation.
The will to get infrastructure right

As noted earlier, Congress has lacked the political will to meet their responsibilities when it comes to investing in and maintaining our nation’s infrastructure. If somehow the stars align in this Congress to work in good faith on comprehensive infrastructure legislation, we shouldn’t squander that opportunity with misguided policy that looks to the past. And we should reject false choices that demand we pursue infrastructure at the expense of public health, safety, and environmental standards that help keep our standard of living high.

We need an infrastructure plan for 2018 and beyond: one that looks to the future, addresses real gaps, and capitalizes on real opportunities to increase access to reliable and affordable clean energy, while also reducing our vulnerability to extreme weather and future conditions from climate change. We need an infrastructure plan that responsibly uses public funds and makes direct investments on improvements. The costs of neglecting this investment are apparent, and the benefits for jobs, public health and safety, national commerce, and the planet should be too.

Reach out to your members of Congress and communicate your priorities for an infrastructure package. Getting this wrong is not an option; and if recent history is any indication, we can’t expect Congress to get it right on its own.


Despite Rhetoric, Coal Jobs Not Set to Increase in the Future

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Given the administration’s rhetoric around coal, you’d think that the president sprinkles coal dust on his breakfast cereal each morning. That’s not true—well… at least as far as I know, anyway—but the problem is that there is a great deal of misinformation out there around coal (and honestly, on a whole lot of other issues too).

For example, the president and his senior appointees continually tout an increase in coal mining jobs over the last year as evidence that they are delivering on campaign promises to bring back the coal industry—such as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s wildly wrong talking point about coal jobs last year.

Late last week, Reuters reported that while 2017 saw an increase of 771 coal mining jobs nationally, in fact most coal states actually saw coal mining jobs decline. And this week, a piece in the New York Times proclaims that coal’s decline continues, despite efforts by the administration to roll back environmental safeguards.

What do all these numbers really mean? Here at UCS, we believe that facts and evidence and science really matter, especially these days—and so today I’m kicking off a blog series that I like to call “Coal in Context” to offer some facts and perspective on coal. For this post, I’ll focus on jobs.

A person behind every number

First off, let me emphasize that tables and charts of jobs numbers can feel a bit de-humanizing. Ten jobs created might not sound like a lot, but it might well mean the world to one of those people that landed it!

So, in trying to put those 771 new jobs in context, I don’t mean to imply in any way that those additions aren’t meaningful. Coming from a coal mining family, I understand in my blood what those jobs mean—taking care of a family and providing new opportunities for your children.

Here, though, I want to look at the big picture questions—what do 771 new jobs mean in the context of the broader economy, and are they an indication of a new trend? Spoiler alert: there’s no evidence of a resurgence in the coal industry.

Employment in context

From a big picture perspective, is the administration succeeding in reviving the coal industry as they promised and frequently claim? One metric to evaluate that question (and there are others we’ll explore in this series) is jobs.

According to unreleased and preliminary data from the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), in 2017 net coal mining employment increased nationally by 771 jobs, to a total of 54,819 (an increase of 1.4 percent over the 2016 number). But as the Reuters piece points out, in most coal states the number of coal mining jobs actually declined.

For the top five states in terms of coal mining employment in 2016 (West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and Illinois) only West Virginia and Pennsylvania posted employment gains from 2016 to 2017. Notably, Pennsylvania’s gain will be erased early this year with the announcement of the closure of a mine in Greene County that will shed almost 400 jobs in the next few months—a painful reality for the rural community southwest of Pittsburgh, as the NYT article so vividly describes. Beyond the top five coal states, Virginia and Alabama also posted significant gains in coal mining employment (246 and 450 jobs, respectively).

Based on preliminary data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, this chart shows the change in coal mining jobs by state from 2016 to 2017.

West Virginia far outpaced other states in terms of a net increase in coal jobs, at 1,345 jobs added in 2017. So, is the president correct when he claimed in a recent interview that, “I’m the one that saved coal. I’m the one that created jobs. You know West Virginia is doing fantastically now.”

First, there’s no evidence that this uptick will change the long-term trajectory of West Virginia’s coal mining jobs. West Virginia’s coal mining employment peaked in the middle of the last century, with around 130,000 jobs in 1940. Even with last year’s increase, the state’s total coal mining employment was still just 13,972—still just a shadow of what it once was.

Coal Mining Employment in West Virginia Since 1880. Data Sources: 1880 to 1982, West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety, and Training (; 1983 to 2015, MSHA data downloaded from; 2016-2017, recent and unpublished data from MSHA.

Over the latter half of the last century, West Virginia’s employment numbers fell steadily, due to increasing mechanization of underground mines and a shift toward large scale mining operations out West. Further, in the last decade or so, cheap and abundant natural gas has steadily eaten away at coal’s market share overall. Electricity generation from coal stood at 51 percent in 2008, but by 2016 had fallen to 31 percent. During that time, the cost of producing energy from renewable sources like wind and solar also fell dramatically.

As much as we hear about coal jobs, you might think that it represents a sizable fraction of the West Virginia workforce. But if you look at the total number of people employed in 2016 in the state (the last year for which the Bureau of Economic Analysis has data)—892,900—the coal miners employed in 2016 represent just 1.4 percent of the state’s workforce. (It’s true that coal mining jobs help support jobs in other sectors of the economy, particularly in rural communities, but let’s save that for a future post.) According to West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, which publishes the Business Outlook for 2018-2022, the state’s three largest economic sectors in 2016 were Government (20 percent); Trade, Transportation, and Utilities (20 percent); and Education and Health Services (18 percent). Natural Resources and Mining (a broader sector than coal alone that includes natural gas, for example) represented just 3 percent of the state’s economy in 2016.

And contrary to the president’s assertion about how fantastic West Virginia is now doing, the WVU report highlights a few critical issues facing the state, including the nation’s lowest labor force participation rate (53 percent), a declining and aging population, and improving health and education outcomes to make the state’s workforce more attractive to new businesses.

So why the increase?

Analysts who follow the industry agree that the uptick in coal production, which helped spur the increase in coal mining employment, had nothing to do with a change in federal policy. As this analysis shows, domestic coal consumption continued to decline last year. Domestic coal production increased because of a growth in exports and a decline in inventory draws. As the Rhodium Group puts it,

“A recovery in Asian coal demand, particularly for steel making, combined with supply cuts in China and Australia boosted global seaborne coal prices… This made US exports more economically viable, increasing Jan-Oct volumes 70% from the same period in 2016…”

The temporary coal supply disruption in Australia resulted from infrastructure damage due to Cyclone Debbie and led to China purchasing more coal from the United States in 2017 to make steel.

Surely the administration’s grand plan for increasing Appalachian coal mining jobs isn’t to promote Chinese steel production?

Economic models also suggest that natural gas prices are the main driver for coal’s economic competitiveness (or rather, lack thereof)—not environmental regulations. In another report, the Rhodium Group found that domestic coal consumption is expected to decline if natural gas prices remain near current levels or if renewable costs fall more quickly than expected—despite the administration’s plans to rollback Obama-era environmental standards. WVU projects that the recent uptick in coal jobs will come to an end, citing ongoing uncertainty about future coal use.

The bottom line

The reality is that a relatively small bump in coal mining employment does not suggest a major resurgence of the coal industry. It’s critical to put the numbers in context and understand the reasons behind the change in order to prepare for the future that’s actually to come. Sadly, this administration’s interest in reckoning with reality seems to be in short supply.

Still, there is hope. Folks in Coal Country understand that coal isn’t returning to its heyday anytime soon. Intrepid business leaders get that—and are hard at work creating over 100 jobs in the heart of Coal Country. Community leaders and folks all around the country are pushing Congress to pass the RECLAIM Act, which would free up existing money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund and put people to work cleaning up old mine sites—with an emphasis on projects that support economic diversification. If the president really wants to help, this would be great place to start.

This is a series, so if you have ideas on other coal-related topics and questions that I might explore in future blog posts, please leave them in the comments!

Science and the Law: Two Pillars of Truth Intersect at Political Boundaries

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2018 is promising to be far more consequential than your average midterm election year. A number of landmark Supreme Court and state court decisions could literally transform parts of the country’s political landscape.  Beginning with Gill v Whitford, the case heard by the Supreme Court last October alleging that the state of Wisconsin’s legislative districting plan diluted the votes of Wisconsin Democrats, and a similar suit brought by Maryland Republicans, along with districting plans recently thrown out in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, the practice of extreme partisan gerrymandering is now being challenged on multiple fronts.

Unfortunately, while few plans (Pennsylvania is an important exception) will likely be redrawn in time for state primaries, the Supreme Court’s opinions in Gill and Benisek (Maryland), expected in June, will keep the issue salient throughout Congressional campaigns, regardless of the outcome. In an era characterized as “post-truth,” with claims of “fake news” polluting our discourse, there is something redemptive to following this legal and scientific debate. Arguably the two strongest truth-generating discourses of our civilization, science and the law, are intersecting on this question of how to fairly map out areas for electoral conflict. It reminds us of just how precious truth is to this whole civilizing project.

First principles

First, the question of which constitutional principles are at stake is being addressed. In previous gerrymandering cases and those involving enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, claims of voting rights violations have relied on the Equal Protection Clause and a demonstration that a districting plan dilutes the value of some votes over others. Whitford followed this path in part, as did the North Carolina case, and the Pennsylvania plaintiffs, in State Supreme Court, successfully argued that their plan violated the equal protection guarantee in the state constitution. However, plaintiffs in that case were also successful in getting the plan thrown out on the grounds that it violated state free speech protections.

This potential of a First Amendment protection against gerrymandering was hinted at by Justice Kennedy in the Supreme Court case that first removed the threat of judicial restraint from state legislatures seeking maximum partisan advantage, Vieth v Jubelier. Taking the hint, plaintiffs in Gill also claimed a free speech violation, as did the Maryland Republicans in Benisek and plaintiffs in the successful North Carolina case. Two courts, one state and one federal, have thus already declared partisan gerrymanders unconstitutional based on violations of equal protection and free speech.

A third approach also received judicial support in the North Carolina case, but was rejected by a federal court in Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs in North Carolina successfully argued that extreme partisan gerrymandering of Congressional districts violates Article I, section 4 of the Constitution, the Elections Clause, which delegates to Congress federal authority over the “Times, Places and Manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives…” The logic of this claim rests on an interpretation of the Clause as a safeguard that protects the House of Representatives against manipulation from state legislatures. In a related vein, during Gill arguments, Justice Gorsuch pondered whether or not these cases actually fell under the Guarantee Clause, which obliges the federal government to provide a republican (majority rule) form of government in each of the states.

Testing principles

Wherever the Constitutional violation might ultimately be grounded, the actual intersection of law and science comes in the standards used to establish the truth of a constitutional violation having occurred. Indeed, language between the two fields has become a little slippery here, as there are scientific standards that scientists develop, and constitutional standards developed through case law, such that the attempt by scientists to “constitutionalize” their standards or “quantify” the Constitution has become a familiar criticism of defendants. Nevertheless, most scientists are quite clear, as were professors Gaddie and Grofman in their Gill (and other) Amicus Brief, that “social scientists provide metrics, courts specify standards.”

The scientific gold metric that has emerged over the last several decades is partisan symmetry. Given that proportionality (where a party’s seat share is equivalent to its vote share) is currently a higher standard than what the Constitution demands, a symmetry test measures how disproportionality is allocated between parties. If one party is disadvantaged, as in the extreme case where one party wins a majority of the vote but fails to win a majority of seats, that districting plan is asymmetric.

Thanks to advances over recent decades, symmetry can be measured numerous ways, with bias, median-mean gap and efficiency gap being the most widely cited in these cases. These are complimentary measures in so far as they converge on clear cut examples of partisan gerrymanders. Further, advances in spatial and computational science now make it possible to assess how durable a gerrymander is through simulated vote swings and the sampling of alternative plans that meet standard districting criteria.

“Advances in statistical and empirical theory and application” like these, noted Judge Wynn (North Carolina) in one of the more eloquent decisions to date, “have the potential to allow parties, experts, and amici to provide courts with more rigorous and probative evidence,” and he warned against those who would dismiss science as gobbledygook: “The Constitution does not require the federal courts to act like Galileo’s Inquisition and enjoin consideration of new academic theories, and the knowledge gained therefrom, simply because such theories provide a new understanding of how to give effect to our long-established governing principles.”

Establishing the truth

Just how the Supreme Court will ultimately apply the science is not clear, but if they do, it is likely to take some form of three-part standard that uses the test of symmetry as evidence of effect, and a statistical estimate of how durable, or unresponsive, a plan is to vote swings compared to alternative or historical plans, which could also serve to demonstrate intent and/or invalidate alternative explanations for the degree of observed asymmetry. These sorts of applications were developed by the lower courts, in addition to use of non-quantitative evidence of intent, including, in the case of North Carolina, public acknowledgement of the partisan intent of the designers.  It won’t always be that easy.

The final truth to be established through this discourse is “how much is too much?” While it is unlikely that a constitutional standard against gerrymandering will tolerate no asymmetry, or “as little as possible,” courts are not likely to overturn just the few extreme cases like Wisconsin or Virginia, where majority rule has repeatedly been violated. The crucial question is whether any voter whose party loses at least one seat through gerrymandering is entitled to relief. Whatever the decision, science and the law will continue this truth-generating application of facts to principles, in a way that hopefully upgrades our capacity to democratically address collective disagreements.

Building Momentum After the Tax Bill: A Call for Scientists to Remain Engaged

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Photo: Brandon Mejia, AZPM

The recent process of moving proposed tax changes into law was a demonstration of graduate students’ power to influence change. While many may feel that the time to speak out is over – it’s not. Due to the projected $1.4 trillion increase in the federal deficit resulting from dramatic reductions in tax rates for corporations and wealthiest of individuals, the government will likely be unable to support current and future tax funded programs at current levels. Without tax revenue flowing into the government, it is inevitable that discussions will begin where cuts to entitlement and discretionary funding are put on the table.

The scientific community must voice their objections to discretionary funding cuts that would reduce research funding at the NIH and NSF, as well as cuts to entitlement spending that funds non-defense discretionary spending for agencies such as the EPA and FDA. To accomplish this we must harness the collective power of graduate students and others to protect the research enterprise and graduate education. We learned during the latest tax legislation process that concerned students needed advice and resources related to proposed legislation and the potential downstream effects if passed into law.

While many concerned individuals turned to their universities for guidance, administrators and staff were not always prepared to provide the necessary information, as this is not their normal role. It’s important for individuals and institutions to understand where they can turn to for guidance related to policy. As a community, we are fortunate to be supported by a number of policy groups, including the Coalition for the Life Sciences, Research America, and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Additionally, advocacy (Future of Research, Rescuing Biomedical Research, March for Science) and professional organizations (American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Society for Cell Biology, Genetics Society of America, and National Postdoc Association) are also resources for information or to actively engage in advocacy efforts. All stakeholders in the community should provide resources as well as understand those resources. This will enable rapid response to proposed policy changes in the future.

We urge the entire scientific community to remain vigilant and policy-engaged, reaching out to congressional representatives to voice concerns and priorities. Connect with local graduate school personnel, inquire about institutional legislative interactions, and learn about how institutional efforts ensure understanding and inform action for legislation that affects students and science policy. Discuss policy concerns with directors of graduate studies, graduate office support staff, students, and faculty. Engage with professional societies and science policy groups to better understand community resources and collaborate on solutions. Openly and regularly explore issues that impact graduate education and the scientific enterprise. Practice science advocacy and communication so that when the next threat occurs, we are ready to mobilize.

Future of Research wants to empower early career scientists to speak up and advocate for policies that support the research enterprise and higher education. This requires that, as a community, we have a unified voice of the value of graduate education and its positive impact on the economy and medical advancements. Please share useful resources and suggestions with us.


McKenzie Carlisle is a social and health psychologist trained in conducting translational and transdisciplinary science. She has been an advocate for early career scientists at both the institutional and national levels and is currently working for a Salt Lake City-based biotechnology company supporting cross-disciplinary projects.

Dr. Sonia Hall commits her career to building engagement in the spirit of developing innovative programs to enhance the training experience of graduate students and postdocs. Sonia received her PhD in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Kansas and invested two years in postdoctoral training at the University of Massachusetts Medical School – one-year in a research laboratory followed by a year training in academic administration at the Center for Biomedical Career Development with Cynthia Fuhrmann. Sonia has led the development of multiple educational outreach initiatives, including building the DNA Day Network in collaboration with UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Kansas.

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.

Three good things Massachusetts is doing on climate

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Photo: Rappaport Center

Three recent steps in Massachusetts show that the Governor Charlie Baker’s administration continues to make progress identifying solutions to pressing climate challenges:

  1. This week, the Baker administration announced a new commission on the future of transportation. This commission will bring together 18 experts, including UCS President Ken Kimmell, to help address some of the critical challenges facing transportation in Massachusetts.  This work is important, as transportation is now the largest source of pollution in the state. Major questions to be addressed include: how we make electric vehicles a mainstream choice for consumers, how we can best manage the transition to automated and shared vehicle fleets, and how we can protect our transportation system from the impacts of climate change. We are excited to play a role in this discussion and look forward to helping the administration think through these critical issues.
  2. Building on Governor Baker’s 2016 Executive Order establishing a Climate Strategy, yesterday the Baker administration further announced $2 million in new funding for climate adaptation projects. As the dramatic scenes of coastal flooding from Winter Storm Grayson demonstrated, Massachusetts remains vulnerable to coastal flooding, among other impacts. Now, if the legislature follows suit by passing the Comprehensive Adaptation Management Plan bill (S.2149), Massachusetts will truly be getting serious about our climate risks.
  3. Finally, in December the Baker administration launched their Housing Choice initiative, a $10 million fund that will provide grants to cities and towns in the state who meet certain criteria for new housing construction. Solving the housing affordability crisis remains a critical challenge for the Commonwealth. As rents in the metro Boston area increase, low income residents are increasingly left behind or pushed into outer suburbs where they face higher transportation costs and produce greater transportation emissions.

Taken together, these polices demonstrate that the Baker administration remains engaged on many of the critical climate issues facing Massachusetts.

The challenge for the Baker administration and folks in the legislature in 2018 is to figure out how we are going to pay for all of these investments. The housing and adaption challenges facing the Commonwealth will require far greater investments than $10 and $2 million respectively, while building a clean and modern transportation system will require billions in new funding.

One approach would be to build on the cap and invest model of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. This policy has successfully cut emissions while raising millions for efficiency and clean energy projects in the electricity sector. A similar approach covering new areas such as transportation fuels could provide the state with over $450 million in dedicated funding for climate projects every year.

This November, Massachusetts was one of seven Northeast states to join in a statement at the Bonn climate talks announcing that they were considering a program modeled after RGGI in the transportation sector. We look forward to working with the Baker administration as they consider this and other approaches to key climate questions over the coming year.

Should the President Have Sole Authority to Launch a Nuclear Attack? In the Age of Trump, Experts Offer an Alternate Plan

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Flickr/Creative Commons/Pierre J.

More than a million people in Hawaii thought it was time to say their final alohas. A state cellphone alert announced that nuclear missiles were heading their way. “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii,” the January 6 text read. “Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

Fortunately, it was a false alarm. It turned out that a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee had pushed the wrong button during an early morning shift-change safety drill. At a press conference later that day, Hawaii Gov. David Ige promised that no single person would be able to send such a warning again. The next day, the agency announced it now would require that two people issue an alert.

Good idea. But an even better idea would be to take the same approach to the US nuclear button, the one that President Trump insists is bigger than North Korea’s.

In a paper published Wednesday in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, two experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and a University of Maryland national security specialist recommend that US policy require at least two other officials sign off on such a critical decision.

“There’s no reason to maintain our current, unnecessarily dangerous policy,” said paper co-author Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the UCS Global Security Program. “There are viable alternatives that would allow other officials to take part in any decision to use nuclear weapons, whether it’s first use or a response to a nuclear attack.”

Not even a ‘stable genius’ is reassuring enough

Putting aside the fact that the nuclear button is actually a briefcase that for some reason is called a football, the US president has the sole authority to order the launch of a nuclear weapon, for any reason and at any time. That’s terrifying, regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office. No one person, not even our current, self-described “stable genius,” should have the license to start a nuclear war. As former Defense Secretary William Perry has said, “Certainly a decision that momentous for all of civilization should have the kind of checks and balances on executive powers called for by our Constitution.”

President Trump’s ignorance about nuclear weapons and his chest-thumping threats to incinerate North Korea have prompted some members of Congress to take action. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced a bill last January that would prohibit the president from ordering a first nuclear use without Congress declaring war, and last fall the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the sole authority question for the first time in four decades.

But don’t bet on Congress to pass legislation on the matter any time soon. The Markey-Lieu bill does not have the requisite bipartisan support, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who had previously warned that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric could put the country “on the path to World War III,” told reporters after the November 14 hearing that he did “not see a legislative solution today.” Something could happen “over the course of the next several months,” he added, “but I don’t see it today.”

Who’ll be the next in line?

A few days after Corker’s hearing, Columbia University professors Richard K. Betts and Matthew Waxman published a proposal to constrain the president’s sole authority. They suggest a protocol requiring the secretary of defense and the attorney general to certify the validity and legality of a presidential first-use order. The certification requirement would not apply if the United States were attacked, however, because Betts and Waxman presume it would delay a response.

Gronlund and her co-authors, UCS Global Security Program Co-Director David Wright and University of Maryland School of Public Policy professor Steve Fetter, agree that at least two other officials should be involved, but recommend the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives, the next two officials in the presidential chain of succession.

Tapping officials from the presidential succession list has three main advantages, Gronlund et al. explain. First, they have political legitimacy. Both are already designated by law to become commander-in-chief and assume authority to order a nuclear attack. Second, they would provide democratic input. Both were elected, and one—the speaker—can act on behalf of Congress. Finally, unlike the defense secretary or the attorney general, they are both independent. The president cannot fire either of them for refusing to follow an order.

Given that the Federal Emergency Management Agency continually tracks the location of the top officials in the line of presidential succession, Gronlund et al. point out, it would be relatively easy to include the vice president and House speaker in the decisionmaking process and make it possible for them to sign off on a first use order and a retaliatory nuclear launch.

“If the US government is confident that the current system would allow a quick and smooth transfer of launch authority if the commander-in-chief were killed or incapacitated,” they write, “it should also be confident that this system would allow a small number of additional officials to affirm a launch decision by the president.”

End hair-trigger and declare no first use

Gronlund and her co-authors recommend two other changes in US nuclear policy that they say would make the world safer. First, they call on the United States to take its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) off high alert and eliminate the option of launching them in response to an attack warning.

The policy of keeping US land-based missiles on a hair trigger dates to the Cold War era, when both US and Soviet military strategists feared a surprise first-strike nuclear attack on cities and industrial sites as well as on their land-based nuclear missiles and bombers. To ensure that they maintained the capability of responding, both countries kept their land-based nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert so they could be launched within minutes to avoid being destroyed on the ground.

Today, even if all US ICBMs were destroyed in their silos, most US nuclear weapons are deployed on submarines, which are virtually undetectable. They are designed to be able to survive a first strike and launch a retaliatory attack.

It is now much more likely that the United States would launch a retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an erroneous or misinterpreted nuclear-attack warning than an actual incident, the chance of which is extremely remote. Indeed, the possibility of an accidental nuclear launch is frighteningly real. A number of technical glitches and human errors in both Russia and the United States over the past few decades have nearly triggered one.

Finally, Gronlund et al. urge the United States to embrace a no-first-use policy. The sole purpose of US nuclear weapons, they write, should be “to deter and, if necessary, respond to the use of nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies.”

A leaked draft of the soon-to-be released Nuclear Posture Review, however, indicates that the administration plans to permit the use of nuclear weapons under a wider range of circumstances, including “non-nuclear strategic attacks,” which presumably would include cyberattacks. To push back on this ill-advised idea, Gronlund and her co-authors urge Congress to pass the aforementioned Markey-Lieu bill requiring Congress to declare war and authorize the use of nuclear weapons as well as a bill introduced by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) last November that simply states: “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”

ExxonMobil’s Jekyll-and-Hyde Act: A Year in Holding Fossil Fuel Companies Accountable

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Photo: Brian Katt

Just a few weeks into the new year, ExxonMobil has turned the page on 2017—a year of significant gains for corporate climate accountability and significant setbacks for major fossil energy companies. However, some of these companies are aggressively fighting back, continuing to spread climate disinformation and refusing to plan for a low-carbon future. ExxonMobil, in particular, has moved toward countersuing California communities that are suing it and other fossil fuel producers over climate-related damages, and launched a webpage and video attacking the #ExxonKnew campaign. ExxonMobil’s retaliation against advocates for climate action and corporate accountability is a sure sign that our work is having an impact, and that now is the time to redouble our efforts.

Here’s a look back at important 2017 developments in three key areas: science attributing climate impacts to particular companies, efforts to hold fossil fuel producers legally accountable for their role in change, and investor pressure for improved climate-related disclosure and governance—and a look ahead to what we can expect from ExxonMobil and other major fossil energy companies in 2018 and beyond. (Spoiler alert: we need to be prepared for both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

For more information, listen to UCS’s Got Science? podcast featuring my colleague Peter Frumhoff.

1) Advances in company climate attribution science

A UCS-led study published in September in the scientific journal Climatic Change for the first time links global climate changes to the product-related emissions of specific fossil fuel producers, including ExxonMobil and Chevron. The study found, for example, that emissions from the manufacture, extraction, and burning of the products marketed by 90 fossil fuel companies and cement manufacturers contributed nearly half of the rise in global average surface temperature and nearly 30 percent the rise in global sea level between 1880 and 2010.

Importantly, the study also quantified the climate change impacts of emissions traced to these companies’ products from 1980-2010—when major investor-owned companies knew the risks of burning fossil fuels and not only did not take steps to reduce those risks but also supported a concerted campaign to deceive the public and block action.

Read more here, and share this information with your networks.

This new analysis is timely, as communities in the US and worldwide are experiencing climate impacts from record flooding, extreme drought, severe wildfires, and devastating storms like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Advances in climate attribution science support the argument that taxpayers alone should not have to foot the bill for climate damages and adaptation costs.

In October, billboards in Houston raised the question of fossil fuel company accountability for damages caused by Hurricane Harvey.

2) Moves toward legal accountability

New York City recently joined several California communities in suing major fossil energy companies over climate change-related damages. Most of the complaints focus on addressing climate-related sea level rise and preparing for future climate impacts. For example, sea level rise increased Hurricane Sandy’s flood damages to property in New York City by $2 billion, more than $230 per New Yorker, according to one study. Meanwhile, New York City officials have already estimated it will cost more than $19 billion to adapt to climate change.

The lawsuits filed by the City of Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County were the first to call out disruptions to the hydrologic cycle caused by fossil fuel pollution, including more frequent and severe wildfires, heat waves, droughts and extreme precipitation events. This week, the city of Richmond, California—home to a large Chevron refinery—filed a similar broad complaint.

These complaints are grounded in the outsized role of fossil fuel companies in making the problem of climate change worse—not only through emissions from the burning of their products, but also through their decades-long campaign to sow doubt about climate science. As communities begin to demand that fossil fuel companies pay their fair share of harm caused by their products, the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general continue to investigate whether ExxonMobil violated any laws by deceiving shareholders and the public about climate change. (A federal judge may rule soon on whether ExxonMobil’s efforts to block these investigations can go forward).

For more information about holding fossil fuel companies liable for climate change harms in California, join a live webcast of an event this Thursday, January 25, co-sponsored by the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, UCLA School of Law, and UCS.

3) Mounting investor pressure

It’s no wonder that investors are feeling antsy about climate risk and calling companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron to account.

ExxonMobil began 2017 by appointing a climate scientist, Dr. Susan Avery, to its board of directors—acceding to demands from shareholders to improve its corporate governance on climate-related issues.

Both ExxonMobil and Chevron faced shareholder resolutions calling for them to report on how they are aligning their businesses with global climate action. Chevron released a report, “Managing Climate Change Risks: A Perspective for Investors,” which, though short on details, bought the company more time to explain to shareholders how it factors climate change into its strategic planning. ExxonMobil shareholders, meanwhile, voted in May by a two-to-one margin to call on the company to report annually on how global measures designed to keep global temperature rise well below 2° Celsius would affect its business.

In June, the industry-led Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD)—chaired by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg—reinforced the demands of ExxonMobil shareholders. In its final recommendations, the TCFD recommended that companies across all sectors and jurisdictions disclose what a 2°C or lower scenario would mean for its business, strategies, and financial planning. Royal Dutch Shell was among more than 100 companies that supported the TCFD’s final recommendations.

In December, on the eve of the deadline for submission of shareholder proposals for consideration at the company’s 2018 annual meeting, ExxonMobil pledged in a filing to US securities regulators that its board will provide shareholders details on climate change risks and impacts to its business. However, the filing raised more questions than it answered. Take action here to tell the company what you expect to see in its report.

At the other end of the socially responsible investing spectrum, fossil fuel divestment is also gaining traction. In March, the Barnard College Board of Trustees took an innovative approach to divestment, voting to divest from all fossil fuel companies that deny climate science or otherwise seek to thwart efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change. In December, Barnard announced the criteria it will use to assess a fossil fuel company’s position on climate change, working with Fossil Free Indexes and UCS toward the release of a public list in spring 2018.

Divestment momentum continues into 2018, with New York City announcing that its pension funds plan to divest $5 billion in fossil fuel investments.

4) Crumbling public trust

In March, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden admitted, “Trust has been eroded to the point where it is an issue for our long-term future.”

In 2017, several major fossil energy companies took baby steps away from the deception and disinformation that cost them the public’s trust.

  • ExxonMobil was one of many companies that urged President Trump not to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • BP, ExxonMobil, and Shell endorsed the Climate Leadership Council’s proposal for a carbon tax (albeit without a concrete advocacy plan).
  • BHP Billiton Limited reported on misalignment between its climate-related positions and those of trade associations of which the company is a member—and based on its review, pledged to get out of one group, reconsider its membership in another, and put a third on notice about the inconsistencies it identified.
  • ExxonMobil publicly pressured the American Legislative Exchange Council to refrain from drafting a sample resolution against the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 finding that greenhouse gases are endangering the planet.

Lest we lapse into complacency that we are dealing with Dr. Jekyll, ExxonMobil’s aggressive counterattacks against public officials, communities, and civil society organizations are a reminder that Mr. Hyde can still emerge. Ultimately, both corporate personas are a response to growing pressure from advocates—including UCS experts and supporters.

Courtesy of Public Citizen, Air Alliance Houston, and Center for Climate Integrity

Why the Solar Tariff Slows Clean Energy Progress and hurts Californian Workers

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Photo: Audrey Eyring/UCS

Yesterday President Trump imposed a new tariff on imported solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules. More than 80% of all US solar installations rely on foreign solar modules, mostly from Asia.  The intent of President Trump’s tariff is purportedly to give made-in-the-USA solar panels a boost and support US solar manufacturers. The problem is, of the approximately 260,000 solar jobs in the country, only about 8,000 are in manufacturing. So increasing the cost of solar panels for the majority of US solar companies will have a negative impact on workers that install, operate, and repair solar equipment. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) estimates that more than 20,000 US solar workers could lose their jobs. What’s worse, it’s also likely that the tariff does not go far enough to rescue the companies and workers making solar modules in the US. So, the whole package is a loser for US jobs and clean energy. Sad.

What does the solar tariff do?

The decision imposes a 30% tariff on imported cells and modules in 2018, and declines 5% each year for 4 years, settling at 15% by 2022. The first 2.5 GW of imports are excluded from the tariff every year. GTM Research estimates that a 30% tariff amounts to an additional $0.10-$0.15/watt. For those wanting more details on the tariff and its potential implications for the US solar industry, SEIA put together an informative frequently asked questions webpage.

What does this mean for California?

California has the largest solar market in the country and accounts for more than one-third of workers in the US solar industry.

Source: Solar Jobs Census 2016, Solar Foundation

More than half of those jobs are installing solar modules, which means that these workers become vulnerable, solar costs rise, and as a result fewer people decide to put solar panels on their homes and businesses.

Solar jobs and solar installations have grown rapidly in California in the past few years because we have strong policies in place to promote clean energy investments, but also because scaled-up solar cell manufacturing around the world has helped bring prices down dramatically, making solar PV competitive–and sometimes cheaper–than natural gas generation.

Source: Lazard; Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis 2017

If the Trump Administration wants to protect US workers, making things more expensive for the great majority of the solar industry is not the way to go. According to the Solar Foundation’s 2016 National Solar Jobs Census, the solar industry created jobs in 2016, 17 times faster than the rate of job growth for the overall economy, and accounted for nearly 2% of the 2.07 million jobs added by all US employers in 2016, equal to one in every fifty new US jobs.

Is this really about saving a few thousand solar jobs or about stalling meaningful progress to lower greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change? To me, it looks like another reason why California’s leaders and not the federal government must continue to lead the world on climate change and clean energy policies.

UCS Sues to Stop EPA from Kicking Independent Experts Off Advisory Boards

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The Union of Concerned Scientists and Protect Democracy – a legal non-profit dedicated to preventing our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government – have teamed up to challenge EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s directive that would ban anyone from serving on EPA advisory boards if they receive EPA grant funding. Under the guise of improving advisory board balance, Pruitt is using this directive to populate advisory boards with industry-funded scientists and state government officials who have made a career fighting federal regulations. The EPA Science Advisory Board, for example, now includes fourteen new members who consult or work for the fossil fuel or chemical industries, which gave Pruitt nearly $320,000 for his campaigns in Oklahoma as a state senator and attorney general.

Banning EPA grant recipients from EPA advisory boards excludes academic scientists from serving on EPA advisory boards in particular, since academics often rely on outside funding – from EPA or elsewhere – to conduct research, fund graduate students, and work in the public interest. For example, EPA grants have funded research linked with projects that: protect children who are at-risk for lead poisoning in Indiana, restore coastal forests in Connecticut, and maintain clean drinking water in Mississippi. It’s hard to argue why conducting research in support of these types of projects would make someone provide biased advice to EPA, yet that’s the reasoning that Pruitt uses to justify this directive. The reality is that industry-funded science tends to be biased, not science from independent academic institutions.

The scientists that Pruitt has removed from EPA advisory boards also happen to be some of our country’s best. Those already dismissed include a Fulbright Scholar and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, for example. Pruitt has replaced these leaders with scientists who work for the fossil fuel, tobacco, and chemical industries and have a history of downplaying the health risks of secondary smoke, air pollution, and other public health hazards.

The real reasoning behind this directive is to make it easier for Pruitt to delay, rollback, or dismantle the EPA regulations that are designed to protect clean air, water, and public health. As we begin 2018, EPA is reconsidering rules that would address: the high asthma and cancer rates caused by heavy-duty trucks on busy roadways, the huge amount of global warming emissions from passenger vehicles, and the outdated emergency response requirements for facilities that store explosive or hazardous chemicals. These types of regulations rely on advise from EPA advisory boards, which are now more likely to support Pruitt in loosening rules that cover the industries tied to the new EPA advisory board members.

Our suit challenging the advisory board directive, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, alleges that the Pruitt directive is arbitrary and capricious (legalese for b.s.), and has no basis in law or EPA precedent. Our complaint also details how this directive violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires all advisory committees to be “fairly balanced,” and not be “inappropriately influenced” by the appointing authority.

I’ll keep you posted on how this suit develops. In the interim, if you have received EPA funding or have served on an EPA advisory committee, send me your story at (

Even if you aren’t an EPA-connected expert, check out how you can get more involved in the fight against Pruitt’s anti-science crusade by visiting the UCS action center. This Administration needs to hear from everyone, not just scientists, and UCS provides a platform for you to join the hundreds of thousands of UCS supporters across the country in standing up for independent scientists and an EPA that seeks to protect public health, not industry profits.

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

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

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

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

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

A tide of reckoning: #MeToo and beyond

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

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

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

Accountability and consequences for sexual harassers

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

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

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

The House Science Committee: an inconsistent history on science

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

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

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Flickr/Michael Fleshman

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

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

Total retaliation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standing ground

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Fleshman

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

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Photo: USDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Report Reveals Trump Administration Is Abandoning Science Advice

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Photo: sharply_done/iStockphoto

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

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

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

What we found

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

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

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

Neglect, disregard, and egregious politicization

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

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

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

Experts are clamoring to be heard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Lessons Our Science Network Watchdogging Teams Have Taught Us

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

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

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

Constituency and local knowledge matter

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

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

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

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

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

Scientists have a lot to say

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

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

A little training goes a long way

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

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

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

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

To find the best recruiters, look in the mirror

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

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

Advocating for science feels good too

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

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

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

Why Engineers Should Refuse to Work on Trump’s Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally appeared on

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

Benny Hill Explains the NRC Approach to Nuclear Safety

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

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

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

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

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

NRC Inspection Findings and Sanctions 2001-2016

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

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

Fig. 1 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

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

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

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

Fig. 2 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

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

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

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

NRC’s Cognitive Dissonance

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

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

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

Benny Hill to the Rescue

Fig. 3 (Source:

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

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

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

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


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