Combined UCS Blogs

Scott Pruitt’s Cynical Move to Rescind the Clean Power Plan

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Tomorrow, the EPA is expected to take a first formal step in repealing the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), a regulation designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by approximately 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This is a terribly irresponsible decision. Recent ferocious storms, intensified by warming oceans and air, remind us of the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is a sensible, flexible, cost-effective rule addressing one of one of the biggest sources of US carbon emissions, and one of the least expensive sources to control.

The action comes as no surprise: candidate Trump promised to do this during the campaign, and as President he signed an executive order reiterating that commitment earlier this year. But the manner in which the EPA is gutting CPP is astonishing, marking one of the most tainted and cynical moves to date by the Trump administration.

Notably, it appears from a leaked draft that the EPA does not base its proposed repeal on a change in policy goals, or on any of the usual considerations such as the rule’s costs, feasibility, or impacts.  Rather, the EPA hangs its repeal hat entirely on a legal hook—the EPA now claims that the Clean Power Plan violated the law because it regulates “beyond the fenceline” of individual power plants—a claim that is directly contrary to what the EPA and the Department of Justice argued in court just last fall. With this legal sleight of hand, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt once again forsakes the mission of the agency he heads—to safeguard human health and the environment—to pander to fossil fuel interests.

A Cynical Ploy

Let’s unpack the EPA’s argument a bit. Often, when the EPA limits pollution from a stationary source, it sets a limit based on technology that an individual source can deploy, such as a so-called “scrubber” to trap soot before it leaves the stack. The Obama administration didn’t use this approach when it issued the Clean Power Plan for this compelling reason: while it is possible to cut carbon dioxide emissions using “inside the fenceline” technology, it is far more expensive and technically risky than what the electric industry actually does now to cut carbon pollution—switching electric generation from coal to gas and to renewables, such as wind turbines and solar panels. In this case, EPA was required to base the pollution limit on the “best system of emission reduction;” EPA determined that the best system was switching from dirtier sources of generation (coal) to cleaner sources (gas and renewables), and making improvements in the efficiency of coal plants.

EPA’s interpretation of the phrase “best system of emission reduction” law was challenged in court by a number of states, coal companies and others. In the court case, EPA was represented by a team of elite attorneys in the United States Department of Justice, who specialize in litigating questions of this kind. This team wrote a 175 page legal brief explaining , convincingly, why EPA’s interpretation was lawful.

But now, EPA has scrapped the legal argument of its own lawyers, dismissing the expertise of the Justice Department just as it has dismissed the expertise of government scientists.  And it has substituted the Department of Justice’s legal analysis with—can you guess?—the legal analysis of none other than Scott Pruitt, back when he was the Oklahoma Attorney general actively suing the EPA over this very rule. As a litigant in the case, Scott Pruitt and other attorneys argued that EPA could not go beyond the fenceline.  The EPA decision today is lifted from the brief that Pruitt and his allies in the fossil fuel industry filed. So, in a span of a year and half, Scott Pruitt has participated in this important legal dispute over the Clean Power Plan first as a lawyer on one side, then as judge and jury at the EPA, and now as the plan’s executioner. Do the words “conflict of interest” mean nothing to this administration?

But the cynical nature of this gambit goes even further. As I noted, the issue of whether the EPA could use a “beyond the fenceline” approach is currently before the court of appeals for the District of Columbia. That court has reviewed thousands of pages of legal briefs on this issue, and spent an entire day hearing legal arguments about it. The court seemed poised to decide the case last fall, and then the Trump administration came in. Almost immediately, Scott Pruitt’s EPA implored the court to put the case on hold, claiming that EPA needed time to do its own evaluation of the rule. It is now clear that this ploy was simply a stalling tactic: the Pruitt EPA feared that the court would uphold the legality of the rule and make it harder for EPA to repeal it. So, the EPA bought time for itself, then jumped the gun to declare the rule illegal before the court could rule otherwise.

Why did the EPA go this route? It had no good alternatives. If the EPA were to repeal the Clean Power Plan on policy grounds, it would have a hard time defending a decision to do nothing on carbon pollution from power plants. If the EPA were to rescind only parts of the Clean Power Plan and leave other parts in place, or even propose an alternative regulation, it would disappoint its allies in the coal industry who want no federal regulation.

So, the EPA decided to use a legal argument to escape the dilemma–one intended to short-circuit the judicial process, and one that is irrevocably tainted by a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, coal and gas plants continue to enjoy the extraordinary right to emit unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, unregulated by any federal law.

Lest there be any doubt, the EPA’s right and obligation to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act—an act of Congress—stands on firm scientific and legal ground. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling, followed by EPA’s Endangerment finding and Cause or Contribute finding clearly establish that the agency must act to curtail carbon emissions from major sources. The obligation to curtail power plant carbon emissions was further reaffirmed in a 2011 Supreme Court ruling. Administrator Pruitt knows this. Yet, even as the latest climate science indicates increasing urgency to act to limit costly and harmful impacts of climate change, Mr. Pruitt, in a gross dereliction of duty, is using every possible machination to delay action.

What now? The EPA’s announcement is the start, not the end of the process.  We must continue to make the case for lowering carbon pollution from power plants and accelerating the transition to clean energy, and put Pruitt’s EPA through the wringer for abandoning this key tool.  At the same time, we must push for actions by states, cities, businesses, and others to accelerate the transition to clean energy, regardless of what EPA ultimately does. And finally, one hopes that the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, which still has jurisdiction over this case, sees through this gambit and does its job—decide this legal dispute once and for all, the sooner, the better.

Photo: justice.gov

Don’t Make the Same Mistake on Iran that Bush Made on North Korea

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Press reports say President Trump will likely not certify Iranian compliance with the Iran nuclear deal in the near future, setting up a situation in which Congress can reimpose sanctions and effectively end US compliance with the deal.

(Source: US State Dept.)

Since the agreement includes several other countries, that would significantly weaken the deal but would not end it.

Still, that the United States would undermine the agreement—which administration officials acknowledge Iran is abiding by—is incredibly short-sighted. It goes against the advice of President Trump’s senior advisors and essentially the whole US security policy community. It erodes US credibility as a treaty partner in future negotiations.

Killing the deal would throw out meaningful, verified limits on Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons because the president doesn’t think the agreement goes far enough.

The US did this with North Korea, and it was a disaster

The US did this before—with North Korea—and that led to the crisis we are in today.

In 2001, when the Bush administration took office, there was an agreement in place (the Agreed Framework) that verifiably stopped North Korea’s production of plutonium for weapons and put international inspectors on the ground to make sure it was not cheating. This stopped Pyongyang from making fissile material that could be used for dozens of nuclear weapons, and provided the world valuable information about an intensely opaque country.

Also by 2001 North Korea had agreed to stop ballistic missile tests—which was readily verified by US satellites—as long as negotiations continued. This was also meaningful since it would cap Pyongyang’s missile capability at a range of only 800 miles.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who was closely involved in the negotiations with Pyongyang, has said he believes at that point the United States was a couple months from reaching an agreement that would have ended the North’s nuclear and missile programs. This was years before North Korea had done any nuclear tests or long-range missile tests.

Instead of capturing these important restrictions and building on them, the Bush administration—like Trump today—argued these limits were flawed because they did not go far enough to reign in the whole range of activities the United States was concerned about. Bush stopped the talks and eventually let the constraints on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs fall apart, bringing us to where we are today: facing a North Korea with hydrogen bombs and long-range missiles.

One reason the Bush administration gave for stopping implementation of the Agreed Framework was that Pyongyang had a fledgling uranium enrichment program that was not captured by the agreement. US negotiators knew about that program in the 1990s, and were watching it, but decided that ending Korea’s operating plutonium-production capabilities and getting inspectors on the ground was the crucial first step, and with that in place the uranium program could be addressed as a next step. The Agreed Framework was not meant to be all-encompassing—it was an important, logical step toward solving the bigger problem that was too complex to be solved all at once.

The Iran deal was similarly seen by those negotiating it as a meaningful, achievable step toward solving the bigger issues that could not be addressed all at once. And it has been successful at doing that.

Drifting toward disaster

In the case of Iran, as well as North Korea, President Trump is taking provocative steps that go against the advice of his senior advisors—and in many cases simply defy common sense. The stakes are extremely high in both cases. Dealing with them requires an understanding of the issues and potential consequences, and a long-term strategy built on realistic steps and not magical thinking.

If Trump de-certifies the Iran agreement, he will be tossing the fate of the deal to Congress. Congress needs to heed the advice the president is not taking. That means it should listen to Secretary of Defense James Mattis; Gen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; and others who believe it is in the best interests of the United States to continue to support the agreement.

We find ourselves in a situation in which the whims of the president are escalating conflicts that potentially put millions of lives at risk and create long-term security risks for the United States, and no one appears to have the ability to reign him in and stabilize things. That situation should be unacceptable to Congress and the US public. If this situation continues, it could go down as one of the darkest periods of US history.

Well-Deserved Recognition: ICAN Wins Nobel Peace Prize

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

For most of my professional life going back to the late 1980’s, I have been a nuclear weapons organizer/campaigner.  It’s my life’s work.  Over all these years, no group of campaigners has impressed me more than the good folks with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).  Their skill, passion, energy, professionalism and unrelenting doggedness is truly inspiring in our mutual pursuit of a safer world free of nuclear weapons.

I am not the only one who feels this way and today I am so pleased to join a global chorus of folks honoring and congratulating ICAN for being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their “work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

It is hard to overstate how significant an achievement it was to get 122 nations to join together and adopt this treaty –one vigorously opposed by all of the nuclear weapons states and those under their nuclear protection.

To this day, the many supporters of the US nuclear status quo—both within and outside of the government—are full of excuses for not acting and not aggressively pursuing disarmament.  Even worse, the United States seems to be going in the wrong direction with all of the talk of, and plans for, new more usable nuclear weapons and the rebuilding of the entire US nuclear arsenal at a cost that is sure to exceed $1 trillion of our tax dollars. The international discussion that ICAN has been leading about nuclear weapons and humanitarian consequences is even more important in that context.

Similarly, it’s well past time for a debate on the morality of threatening millions of innocent civilians in the name of national security.  And who thinks it’s OK that one person has the power and authority to effectively end humanity?

What ICAN and many of us are saying is: let’s get serious folks (we are looking at you. nuclear weapons states) about nuclear disarmament before our luck runs out.

But for now, let’s raise our glasses and congratulate and honor everyone at ICAN and elsewhere who wake up every day and work so hard—against such incredible odds—to prevent nuclear war and make the world a safer, better place.  I thank you.  My children thank you.

Would Jim Bridenstine Be a Down to Earth NASA Administrator?

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Credits: NASA-JPL/Caltech/GSFC/University of Montana SMAP website

Let’s get right to it. Understanding the dynamics of our Earth, including disasters like hurricanes and droughts, has never seemed more important. As if on cue, we have a confirmation hearing for the NASA Administrator nominee coming down the pike. Is President Trump’s nominee, Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), the right fit?

There are a number of things that members of Congress should be looking for as they go into the confirmation hearing. If members of Congress want a NASA that will be able to advance understanding of the formation and impacts of disasters like Hurricane Irma, Harvey, and Maria or droughts in the Upper Midwest, they need a NASA Administrator who will prioritize Earth science research, including that of climate change and land use/land cover change. Accomplishing this in an administration that has politicized – and at times obfuscated – climate science will not be easy.

The job will require a NASA Administrator who can tell science from politics, and whose main objective is to advance the former.

Critical Attribute #1 – A NASA administrator who will not drop NASA’s Earth science research

Bridenstine would come into the NASA Administrator position, most often held by a scientist or a space professional, with no formal science or engineering training.

His main qualifications include his service as a pilot in the U.S. Navy, his service on the House Science, Space, and Technology and Armed Services Committees, and his leadership of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium.

In 2016, Bridenstine introduced a piece of legislation that should have anyone who wants NASA to better understand natural disasters worried. In H.R. 4945, Bridenstine recommends significantly altering NASA’s mission by stripping out all Earth science related work from Congress’ declared policy and purpose for NASA:

Bridenstine’s recommended changes to Congress’s policy and purpose statement for NASA, as specified in his 2016 proposed legislation, “The American Space Renaissance Act”.

As Administrator, would Bridenstine seek to extract Earth science research from NASA’s work, or would he commit at the confirmation hearing to supporting this critical arm of the institution?

Critical Attribute #2 – A NASA administrator who understands and will promote climate science

Bridenstine made a number of public remarks that both question the well-accepted human cause of climate change and are incorrect. Members of Congress need to hold him accountable to these woefully inaccurate statements, such as:

“I would say that climate is changing. It is always changing. There were periods of time long before the internal combustion engine when the Earth was much warmer than it is today. Going back to the 1600s, we have had mini Ice Ages from then to now.”

Reality: We are living in between two ice ages – one that ended roughly 11,500 years ago, and one that is yet to come. Ice ages happen because of changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. If people weren’t emitting so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the Earth would be slowly beginning to cool right now.

But that’s not the case.

Instead, the Earth’s average surface temperature is the warmest it has been in the past 1,400 years in the Northern Hemisphere (where it is possible to make this kind of measurement). Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are the highest in at least 800,000 years.  Sure, there was a period of cooling in some portions of the world between ~1400 and 1900 (not an actual ice age, but a period that is affectionately known as the Little Ice Age). However, by using both basic physics (more heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere = more heat trapped) and sophisticated computer models, scientists know that the warming they have seen since the mid twentieth century is the result of human-caused global warming emissions.

Members of Congress also need to inquire about this false statement:

“Here’s what I would tell you. That if you look at the Chinese and the Russian and the Indian production of carbon emissions, it is overwhelmingly massive compared to the carbon footprint of the United States of America.”

Reality: Currently, the United States is the second largest producer of global warming emissions in the world, behind China and ahead of Russia and India, and has produced more global warming emissions than any other country since preindustrial times.

And this one:

“Again, I am not opposed to studying it [climate change.] What you’ll find, though, is that the space-based assets that are studying climate change are not in agreement with the terrestrial assets that are studying climate change. In fact, the space-based assets are not corroborating some of the data.”

Reality: Scientists have examined trends in the Earth’s average surface temperature using satellite observations of the troposphere (the lower atmosphere), weather balloon and ocean buoy measurements, information from weather stations, and more – and they all show that the Earth’s surface temperature has increased significantly since the 19th century. Furthermore, the latter part of Bridenstine’s statement is a claim made by skeptics of climate science that has been debunked many times.

Can Bridenstine explain these statements and demonstrate an accurate understanding of climate science?

Measurements of Earth’s changing climate. Each colored line represents an independent measurement of an aspect of the Earth’s climate. IPCC AR5

Critical Attribute #3 – A NASA administrator who will be able to differentiate science from politics

Bridestine’s public remarks suggest that his current understanding of Earth science is largely informed by politically-charged skeptics of climate change research.

Given that Bridenstine would enter into the Administrator position with no formal science education, it is particularly important that members of Congress test his ability to differentiate science from politics.

Members of Congress should not underestimate the quandary they will find themselves in if NASA does not continue these critical Earth science research activities. The products of these endeavors form the basis of our nation’s weather forecasts, lead to new technologies that drive our economy forward, and help protect American lives, infrastructure, and investments. Doing away with or demoting these activities is a risk they should not be willing to take.

Anyone who does not support Earth science research at NASA should not be confirmed as Administrator.

 

 

Original document created by Rachel Licker using the text of H.R. 4945 IPCC Working Group I, Fifth Assessment Report, Frequently Asked Questions

Much to Grouse About: Interior Department Calls for Changes That Could Threaten Sage Grouse Protection

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

The sage grouse's survival is entirely dependent on sagebrush. Photo: Jennifer Strickland, USFWS

That the current administration places very little value on the merit of robust scientific evidence when considering its actions (or inactions) is no longer shocking, but it remains an intolerable practice. In this week’s episode of “How is the Trump Administration Dismantling Science-Based Protections?”, we visit the Interior Department’s decision to formally reconsider a widely heralded Obama-era agreement for protections of the greater sage grouse in the West.

On Thursday, the Interior Department published a formal notice of intent to rework 98 sage grouse management plans across the quirky bird’s 11 state range. This change comes after a mere 60 days deliberation by the Interior Department’s internal Sage-Grouse Review Team (appointed by Secretary Ryan Zinke) and Sage-Grouse Task Force (representatives of Governors of the eleven Western States) – and much to the chagrin of the many stakeholders who worked for several years to craft a cooperative land use agreement in an effort to protect the sage grouse and its habitat.

What’s the deal with the sage grouse?

The sage grouse is the chicken of the “Sagebrush Sea” — an ecosystem which is “suffering death by a thousand cuts”, as former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell put it. Habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and wildfires in the sagebrush have all contributed to the decline of this magnificent bird.

Importantly Secretary Jewell worked to put in place federal-state partnerships in order to protect the sage grouse. In 2010 the FWS proposed listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species because of the threats its survival faced. After much input from stakeholders and the public, the agency in 2015 chose NOT to list the species and instead put efforts into state management plans, assuring us all that states could put programs in place to ensure the bird’s protection.  With Secretary Zinke’s moves, we’re now paving over (perhaps literally) those state protection plans, leaving the sage grouse at least as vulnerable as it was when the FWS proposed listing it under the Endangered Species Act.

The sage grouse has long been caught in the crosshairs of political controversy, especially when it comes to undermining the science behind conservation efforts. For example, in 2004, Julie MacDonald, a political appointee at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), altered scientific content in a report examining the vulnerability of the greater sage grouse, which was subsequently presented to a panel of experts that recommended against listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)(read my colleagues’ thoughts on political interference in sage grouse conservation efforts here and here).

Ignoring the science

The Sage-Grouse Review Team (SGRT) recommendations include potentially removing or modifying the boundaries of critical habitat called sagebrush focal areas (SFAs), as well as setting population targets and captive breeding, and modifying or issuing new policy on fluid mineral leasing and development. Also worth noting is that an Obama-era moratorium on mining claims in six Western states recently expired, with no indication of renewal from Secretary Zinke.

The problem with the Interior changing the conservation plans is twofold: 1) the motivation for reviewing the sage grouse management plans was to “ease the burden on local economies” by opening protected lands to development, which could have negative impacts on already rapidly-dwindling sage grouse populations, and 2) reopening the plans could spell more trouble for recovery efforts and potentially force FWS to list the sage grouse under the ESA in the future, which is precisely what states wanted to avoid. The conservation plan is critical, but it only works with the agreed upon protections in place.

The decision to undo years of collaboration and compromise between federal, state, local, and tribal governments, NGO’s, scientists, industry, landowners, ranchers, and hunters in a matter of two months sends a loud message to the public that economic considerations prevail over scientific evidence, even at the cost of an entire ecosystem and the species dependent upon it.

The SGRT recommendations ignore the science and put the entire sagebrush landscape at risk, much to the detriment of the sage grouse. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead is critical of the new plan, concerned that it ignores scientific consensus. “We’ve got to have good science lead the way, and that trumps politics,” Mead said. “Let’s look at what the states have done, and what biologists, folks who know this, are telling us.”

Sage advice

We cannot allow our government to irresponsibly cater to oil and gas industry at the expense of our wildlife and public lands. Instead, we must urge the Department of Interior to focus their efforts on collaborative, science-informed management of the sage grouse and its habitat.

Jennifer Strickland, USFWS Wikimedia Commons

Why Are So Many Car Companies Making Big EV Announcements?

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If you’ve been reading the news lately you might have noticed a trend in the automotive news: Major car brands are announcing their transition plans to go electric.

This is quite a string of announcements in the last few months from some major players in the automotive industry! Why is this happening now and what does it mean for the industry and the environment?

International and domestic pressure to clean up cars and trucks

To answer the question of why now, let’s look at another list of headlines from this year:

These countries (and state) are in different stages of enacting limits on gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, but the trend is clear: if you want to be part of the future in the biggest automotive markets you need to have a transition plan from petroleum to electric vehicles.

Even beyond these limits on internal combustion engines altogether, many jurisdictions are strengthening the emissions standards for vehicles, meaning auto companies need to produce cleaner and more efficient cars and trucks. Electric vehicles can of course be a part of automakers’ efforts to comply with air pollution and global warming regulations.

Cleaner vehicles, fuels needed to reduce emissions

Transportation has recently eclipsed electricity generation as the largest source of global warming emissions in the US.  Governments around the world are concerned not only with the carbon emissions from petroleum-powered vehicles, but also with the Volkswagen emissions scandal, which has heightened awareness of the air pollution from vehicle tailpipes. Electric vehicles, when paired with cleaner electricity, are an excellent solution to reduce pollution and global warming emissions from transportation.

In our most recent analysis, the average electric vehicle in the US only produces global warming emissions equivalent to what a 73 MPG gasoline car would produce. And the trend in the US has been towards cleaner electricity, meaning these electric cars will likely get even cleaner over time. So these plans by General Motors and others to vastly increase their EV offerings could mark a significant transition to much cleaner transportation.

 

 

Excitement tempered by automakers’ work to weaken regulations

Looking only at the headlines about large automakers’ EV plans, it would seem as though they have embraced the need for cleaner vehicles and fuels wholeheartedly. However, this is not the case.

The automakers’ lobbying groups, led by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, convinced the US EPA to re-review its recently finalized 2022-2025 global warming emission standards for cars and light trucks. Even as their trade groups work to weaken the fuel economy and global warming pollution standards, individual manufacturers have recently announced moves to increase their number of EV models, including General Motors, Ford, and BMW.  But as they tout their plans for cleaner cars (and get good press), they are actively opposing US efficiency standards already in place. And they are also opposing international regulations, such as GM’s CEO Mary Barra’s  pointed push back at China’s efforts to require electric vehicles.

The increasing number of electric vehicles being announced by automakers around the world is good news and certainly a step in the right direction. But these intentions aren’t enough. We need the automakers to make sure these vehicles are a success, putting them at the center of their showrooms and marketing efforts as they do with gasoline-powered cars and trucks today. And they certainly need to stop actively opposing the efforts of policymakers and regulators to clean up transportation and reduce emissions.

Who Would Lose with New Suniva/SolarWorld Solar Tariffs? Just About Everybody

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A recent decision by the US International Trade Commission (USITC) in favor of two solar manufacturers means that new tariffs on solar cells and panels could be coming. As the reactions from companies and organizations across the economy—and across the political spectrum—make clear, that’s bad news for just about everyone, including you and me.

The solar tariff case

Solar means jobs. As long as we don’t mess things up. (Credit: John Rogers)

The case was brought by Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, two foreign-owned US manufacturing operations that had hit rocky patches in recent years. The companies applied to the USITC under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974, which basically says that “domestic industries seriously injured or threatened with serious injury by increased imports” can ask the USITC for “import relief.”

That might seem like a pretty low bar—competition is never easy, whether it’s domestic or foreign, and some of that competition could indeed be serious—but Section 201 has been used only once in the 21st century (in 2002, in a short-lived attempt to protect the steel industry, but one that would have harmed consumers and destroyed more jobs than it created because of the impact of the higher steel prices).

It’s not lost on anybody, though, that this latest petition comes at a time when we have a president who is no friend of trade, and is hungry for tariffs.

The relief that the two petitioners are asking for—sizeable new tariffs on both solar modules, and the cells that manufacturers (yes, US manufacturers) might assemble into modules—would put a definite dent in solar’s incredible momentum in recent years. More importantly, for a president who professes to be about jobs, it would be very likely, as with the 2002 case, kill more jobs than it saved or created.

Even so, on September 22, the bipartisan USITC voted 4-0 in favor of the petition, determining:

…that increased imports of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells (whether or not partially or fully assembled into other products) are being imported into the United States in such increased quantities as to be a substantial cause of serious injury to the domestic industry producing an article like or directly competitive with the imported article.

How do I love thee not? Let me count the ways…

The reaction to both the original petition and the recent USITC decision has been notable in the breadth of organizations and people reacting negatively, the near unanimity in condemning these moves. Here’s a sampling of reactors and reactions.

The solar industry – Those opposed to Suniva-SolarWorld include just about the whole rest of the US solar industry. Manufacturing jobs account for only 15% of the industry’s 260,000 jobs. For solar project developers, sales forces, installers, and even other manufacturers, new tariffs means increased costs and, likely, diminished prospects for success. As SEIA (the Solar Energy Industries Association) put it:

The ITC’s decision is disappointing for nearly 9,000 U.S. solar companies and the 260,000 Americans they employ… An improper remedy will devastate the burgeoning American solar economy and ultimately harm America’s manufacturers…

Indeed, SEIA has claimed that, if the petitioners are successful in their appeal to the USITC, “88,000 jobs will be lost nationwide, including 6,300 jobs in Texas, 4,700 in North Carolina and a whopping 7,000 jobs in South Carolina.”

The US solar industry is about manufacturing, and a whole lot more. (Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016)

Bipartisan voices — Before the recent vote, a bipartisan group of governors of leading solar states—Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, and North Carolina—sounded the alarm in a letter to the commission:

The requested tariff could inflict a devastating blow on our states’ solar industries and lead to unprecedented job loss, at steep cost to our states’ economies. According to a study conducted by GTM Research, if granted, the tariff and price floors would cause module prices to double, leading solar installations—both utility-scale and consumer-installed—to drop by more than 50 percent in 2019. At a time when our citizens are demanding more clean energy, the tariff could cause America to lose out on 47 gigawatts of solar installations, representing billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in our states.

Conservative groups – From the “strange bedfellows” department came the news that opponents also include conservative groups who don’t like the idea of mucking with trade, and particularly not in defense of two relatively minor companies. The Heritage Foundation, for example, spoke against what it said was “a case that could undermine the entire U.S. solar energy industry.”

Solar jobs; red dots indicate “manufacturer/supplier”. It’s about a lot more than modules. (Source: SEIA National Solar Database)

Likewise, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), not usually on the same side of arguments as renewable energy companies or advocates, cited the broader solar industry’s impressive job tally and job progress in recent years, and the risks to even the manufacturing piece of that:

Many of those [260,000] workers are employed by other solar companies that have successfully figured out how to prosper in this growing industry. Over 38,000 solar workers are employed in manufacturing positions at firms domestically making solar components like inverters, racking systems and more…

Those 38,000 manufacturing jobs might disappear if artificially high input costs price the entire industry out of existence.

Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016

A broad coalition – The Energy Trade Action Coalition formed by SEIA, solar companies, ALEC, Heritage, plus utilities, retailers, and others in response to this Section 201 threat reacted to the recent decision by going after the petitioners themselves:

The ITC decision to find injury is disappointing because the facts presented made it clear that the two companies who brought this trade case were injured by their own history of poor business decisions rather than global competition, and that the petition is an attempt to recover lost funds for their own financial gain at the expense of the rest of the solar industry.

Security experts – For security types, the risks have to do with our military preparedness, resilience, and assurance; more than a dozen former members of the US military, including a lieutenant general and a rear admiral, weighed in with the USITC on the fact that “[t]his dramatic cost increase could potentially jeopardize the financial viability of planned and future solar investments on or near domestic military bases.” This could put at risk bases, missions, and critical services.

And the list goes on.

Not everyone is opposed, of course. Along with the petitioners themselves, a coalition of labor, manufacturing and agricultural interests, the Coalition for a Prosperous America, has spoken out in support of the Suniva-SolarWorld move, saying that the coalition “strongly believes that relief is needed in the face of an Asian import surge to prevent the complete collapse of a critical industry, the manufacture of solar panels”:

Thousands of workers have lost good paying U.S. jobs as a result [of overproduction by international module manufacturers]. That these severe effects occurred during a period of booming U.S. [solar] demand, and despite two successful solar trade cases, is all the more troubling.

But national opinion is overwhelmingly on the other side. Even Suniva’s majority owner, Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy, is purportedly against Suniva’s crusade.

Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior

What’s next

With the September 22 commission decision that the petitioners were indeed seriously hurt by imports, the next step is the “remedy” phase, which starts with various parties weighing in to say what they think the fix should be.

Flush with (and surprised by?) the success of their ITC petitions, Suniva and SolarWorld have backed down a little in their demands… but only a little. Others are pushing for a “cure” much closer to a placebo, in the hopes of minimizing the damage to (other) US companies, US consumers, and American jobs.

The USITC then needs to make a recommendation to President Trump, by mid-November. And then the president needs to decide where this goes.

Meanwhile, SolarWorld has said it’s planning to ramp up production given the recent decision. The president of SolarWorld Americas is quoted as saying:

With relief from surging imports in sight, we believe we can rev up our manufacturing engine and increase our economic impact… [W]e at SolarWorld are prepared to scale up our world-class manufacturing operations to produce leading solar products made by more American workers.

That commitment to leaping right back in is a little hard to believe, given the uncertainties that remain while this plays out. The 2002 Section 201 case around steel tariffs ended in failure the following year, after a purported loss of 200,000 American jobs.

It’s the president’s call

What’s clear, though, is that this is potentially a pivotal moment in solar’s trajectory in this country. The US solar industry is about much more than manufacturing, and even the manufacturing sector is about more than cells and modules.

President Trump could take a tariff sledgehammer to the shining solar piece of our nation’s impressive clean energy momentum, favoring a small piece of the industry regardless of the damage to the rest. That would mean harming a sector that has been arguably the best story of job creation and economic growth over the last 10 years. Destroying US jobs while pretending he’s all about creating them.

Or our president could take minimal or no action, send out a victorious tweet or two, and let the US solar industry—in all its dimensions—continue to do its thing. Creating American jobs, not killing them. Strengthening our energy security, not weakening it. And benefiting millions of US customers with greater affordability and access to solar.

Let’s go with option B.

What’s Tax “Reform” Got to Do with Science and Public Well-being?

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Photo: USCapitol/Flickr

In the days since the “Big Six” group of Congressional leaders and Trump administration officials unveiled the outlines of their tax “reform” proposal, there’s been a fierce debate—and rightly so—over who stands to win and who lose. Will the average working American get anything significant from this tax plan, or are most of the benefits skewed towards the wealthy and profitable corporations?  More on this in a minute.

What’s gotten less attention is the impact of this plan on the public science enterprise and the well-being of all Americans.

An unprecedented assault

Federal government investments in science research and innovation have led to discoveries that have produced major benefits for our health, safety, economic competitiveness, and quality of life.  This includes MRI technology, vaccines and new medical treatments, the internet and GPS, earth-monitoring satellites that allow us to predict the path of major hurricanes, clean energy technologies such as LED lighting, advanced wind turbines and photovoltaic cells, and so much more. The work of numerous federal agencies to develop and implement public and worker health and safety protections against exposure to toxic chemicals, air and water pollution, workplace injuries, and many other dangers has also produced real benefits.

These essential programs are already under unprecedented assault. UCS president Ken Kimmell has called President Trump’s proposed FY18 budget “a wrecking ball to science.” Others at UCS have detailed the devastating impacts of Trump’s proposed budget cuts on the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, worker health and safety, the Forest Service, and early career scientists.

UCS and our allies are pushing back hard on these proposed budget cuts, and we remain vigilant to ensure that when Congress takes final action on the FY18 appropriations bills in December, these irresponsible cuts will be rejected.

All these programs (along with veterans’ care, homeland security, transportation and other infrastructure, law enforcement, education, and many other core government programs) fall within the non-defense discretionary (or NDD) portion of federal spending, which has been disproportionately targeted for spending cuts over the last decade. As an analysis by Paul Van de Water of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out, “NDD spending in 2017 will be about 13 percent below the comparable 2010 level after adjusting for inflation (nearly $100 billion lower in 2017 dollars).”

Even if the draconian Trump budget cuts are beaten back, the very real need to increase spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, along with a push by many in Congress to maintain (or increase) defense spending, will continue to squeeze NDD expenditures in the years ahead.

Creating long-term pressure on essential programs

Here’s where the Republican tax plan comes in, as it will almost certainly reduce government revenues substantially and add to the national debt. While Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told ABC News that the tax plan would generate higher economic growth rates and “will cut the deficit by $1 trillion,” few independent economists agree with that rosy outlook.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates the plan could increase the deficit by $2.2 trillion over the next decade; CRFB president Maya MacGuineas cautioned that “tax cuts shouldn’t be handed out like Halloween candy,” and said they “certainly don’t pay for themselves.”

Senate Republicans openly acknowledge that the tax plan will increase the deficit; the Budget Committee resolution that they plan to put before the full Senate for a vote later this month contains reconciliation instructions to the Finance Committee that would allow the deficit to increase “by not more than $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.”

Deficit spending is sometimes justified, such as for investments in infrastructure, education, public health, and other forms of physical and human capital that more than pay back over time, or to kick-start the economy when unemployment is high. But that’s not the case here; as discussed below, the bulk of the benefits from this plan would flow to the wealthiest Americans, with low- and middle-income Americans receiving only modest direct benefits, if any.

Moreover, the resulting increase in the federal deficit would lead to louder calls for cuts in programs that benefit low- and middle-income Americans, including food assistance programs, student loans, unemployment insurance, economic development, and worker retraining.  As another analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities put it, “the majority of Americans could ultimately lose more from the program cuts than they would gain from the tax cuts.”

The government needs more revenue, not less

Looking down the road, it’s clear that the aging of the American population, continued increases in health care costs, the need to replace crumbling infrastructure, and other factors are creating pressure for federal spending to increase substantially over the next few decades.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that to accommodate these factors, federal spending will need to grow from 20.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 23.5 percent of GDP by 2035. This is largely driven by increased costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; CBPP projects that defense and non-defense discretionary spending will decrease somewhat as a share of GDP over the next couple of decades. As the CBPP report observes, the need to increase federal spending is “hardly a controversial notion. Budget plans from such diverse organizations as the National Academy of Sciences, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and the American Enterprise Institute have reached the same conclusion.”

To keep the national debt from growing faster than the overall economy, CBPP estimates that annual budget deficits need to be held to an average of 3 percent of GDP; this in turn means that federal revenues should increase from some 17.8 percent of GDP in 2016 to at least 20.5 percent in 2035. There are any number of ways to do this, from closing special interest loopholes in the tax code to putting a tax on carbon dioxide emissions or other forms of pollution. Of course, given the current political realities in Washington, no one expects a serious discussion of this issue anytime soon; the current challenge is just to avoid making the situation worse.

Tax fairness: the rhetoric and the reality

President Trump and Republican leaders insist that their aim is to provide tax relief for the middle class, and that taxes won’t be cut for wealthy Americans; President Trump even asserted that this tax plan is “not good for me. Believe me.”

But a preliminary analysis of the framework by the Tax Policy Center found otherwise. While acknowledging that several details remain to be filled in, TPC estimates that in 2018 under the “Big Six” plan, “taxpayer groups in the bottom 95 percent of the income distribution would see modest tax cuts, averaging 1.2 percent of after-tax income or less. The benefit would be largest for taxpayers in the top 1 percent (those making more than $730,000), who would see their after-tax income increase 8.5 percent.”

Over half of the total benefit of the tax cuts would accrue to taxpayers in the top 1 percent, increasing to nearly 80 percent of the benefits by 2027. Others have examined how the elimination of the alternative minimum tax, the abolition of the estate tax, and several other provisions of the plan would personally benefit President Trump—and his heirs.

Private interests vs. the public good

It’s clear that the stakes in the tax debate now under way in Washington are not just about the critical issue of whose tax bills go down (or up) and by how much. The outcome will also have an impact on our ability to maintain America’s global leadership on scientific and medical research and technology innovation, improve air and water quality, avert the worst impacts of climate change (and cope with the impacts we can’t avoid), upgrade our transportation, energy, and communications infrastructure, and many other important issues.

It’s hard to dispute the need for real tax reform—a plan that clears away the dense thicket of special interest loopholes and simplifies the tax code, in a way that’s equitable to all Americans. But that’s not what’s on offer right now—instead we’re seeing a drive to give trillions of dollars in handouts to profitable corporations and the wealthiest Americans, while laying the groundwork for deep cuts in a broad range of important federal programs down the road.

Our elected officials can – and should – do much better than this; if they’re unwilling to, they should observe the Hippocratic oath, and “first do no harm.”

 

 

Is Your Representative Setting Us Up for Another Dieselgate?

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Remember dieselgate? The Volkswagen scandal that led to huge emissions of harmful air pollution from their cars, criminal charges, and a $30 billion mea culpa? Well, dieselgate may be small compared to the new emissions scandal that is playing out across the country. This time, however, the emissions cheating would be explicitly allowed by Congress.

As with the VW scandal, it involves so-called emission defeat devices – equipment that shuts off a vehicle’s emissions control system, allowing the car to spew hazardous pollution into the air. These defeat devices are marketed to amateur racers (and sometimes the general public who think it’s fun to “roll coal” and blow black smoke at Priuses). Manufacturers of these defeat devices are pushing Congress to let them off the hook for selling products that are used illegally in our communities, and so far many in Congress are siding against clean air.

What do defeat devices do and who wants them?

All vehicles on public roads must have pollution control systems to remove dangerous air pollutants such as particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and smog precursors (carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons) from vehicle exhaust. And this is a really good thing. The EPA estimates that current pollution control systems will prevent up to 2,000 premature deaths, avoid 2,200 hospital admissions, and eliminate 19,000 asthma attacks annually because some of these pollutants cause lung cancer, heart disease, and respiratory harm.

These emission control systems can, however, be turned off by defeat devices which are frequently marketed as “tuners”, “oxygen sensor simulators” or “exhaust gas recirculation delete kits”.

Why would someone want to turn off their vehicle pollution controls? One popular reason is for amateur car racing. We’re not talking NASCAR here, as purpose-built race cars are already exempt from this requirement. Instead these are local races where people “convert” their regular cars into race cars to use at tracks.  And if people want to modify a car that they use just for racing so that it goes a little faster on the track, it’s probably not that big of a deal.

Out of the millions of vehicles on the road, only a tiny fraction of them are modified to be used in racing competitions. However, if people bypass the emission controls on cars they use on our streets on a regular basis, that’s a different story: it imposes unnecessary pollution on the drivers’ neighbors and it’s against the law. So if device manufacturers are knowingly selling defeat devices for off-track use, they should be prosecuted.

How big of a deal could this be?  Big. One settlement that the EPA made with H&S Performance states that they sold over 100,000 devices and that the pollution from those devices would be nearly TWICE the NOx pollution put out by VW diesel cars from 2008 until they were caught in 2015.[i] 

One company, double dieselgate.  It’s staggering.

It turns out that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of companies who are willing to sell people defeat devices that they can put on their own cars.  We don’t have a complete handle on the number of devices sold, or how much extra pollution they are spewing out into our communities. But based on the emissions from just H&S Performance, it has the potential to be HUGE. And if manufacturers and retailers of these devices are marketing these defeat devices to the general public for use on our roads, the emissions, and therefore health, impacts could be enormous.

So, what does this have to do with Congress?

Manufacturers of defeat devices have a vested interest in making it difficult for regulators to stymie the illegal use of these defeat devices since the more they sell, the bigger their profits. There are bills in the House (H. 350 ) and Senate (S. 203) called the “RPM Act” that would make it very difficult for the EPA to go after manufacturers of these defeat devices who are clearly selling to people who are using these on their everyday vehicles. It is critical that the EPA maintains the ability to stop manufacturers who aren’t playing by the rules.

In a recent hearing about the RPM Act in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Alexandra Teitz, a consultant for the Sierra Club, dubbed this “DIY Dieselgate”, which is incredibly apt.

There are a lot of Senators and Representatives supporting this bill because the trade association for the manufacturers who make these devices (and other aftermarket parts) is putting in a lot of effort on Capitol Hill. The manufacturers see a challenge to their business model and profitability. And they have put a lot of effort into convincing amateur racers, wrongly, that the EPA intends to stop all amateur racing or take their race cars.

The manufacturers are selling this bill as a clarification of existing law, when in actuality it will make it very hard, if not impossible, for the EPA to do their job and ensure that all Americans have access to clean air – and one way they will do it is to prosecute manufacturers who are clearly selling these defeat devices to individuals who are not using them solely for racing. We need to make sure Congress is aware they are voting for legislation that will put the health of their constituents at risk.

Allowing amateur racers to modify a small number of vehicles that are solely used at the track is one thing – but sanctioning mass marketing of emissions defeat devices that are resulting in deadly air pollution in communities across the country is another. Check out the list of cosponsors for the House and Senate bills to see if your representative is on the bill. If so, please call your representative and ask that they withdraw their support for the RPM Act.

[i] The settlement agreement notes 71,669 short tons (or 65,017 metric tons) of NOx emissions over the lifetime of vehicles with H&S Performance defeat devices installed.  An analysis by MIT researchers estimate excess NOX emissions of 36,700 metric tons between 2008 and 2015 from non-compliant 2.0L VW vehicles.

 

 

Sociological Gobbledygook or Scientific Standard? Why Judging Gerrymandering is Hard

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In Tuesday’s historic Supreme Court case, the question asked was how to identify and remedy unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering, where electoral district boundaries are drawn so as to benefit one political party’s voters over others.  The phrase uttered during oral argument that is getting the most attention is Chief Justice Roberts’ assessment of the various techniques that have been proposed to measure it: “sociological gobbledygook.”  It’s a funny way to describe Roberts’ apparent distaste for mathematical, as opposed to legal, explanations, but it also reveals a serious problem for the use of scientific evidence in the court.

Let’s look at the evidence.

One of the core issues in these cases, as I’ve previously discussed, involves the discovery of “workable standards.”  To be workable, a standard must identify a constitutional (fundamental) harm, as opposed to a de minimus (minor) harm, so as not to inundate the court with cases.  Further, the standard must be capable of being practically applied by justices who are not themselves scientists.

Whether or not tests for the standard of partisan symmetry, the equal treatment of voters regardless of which party they support, are workable, was the primary point of contention when Justice Roberts made his remark.

In describing his concern about judicial overreach into the political process, Roberts proclaimed that “you’re taking these issues away from democracy and you’re throwing them into the courts pursuant to, and it may be simply my educational background, but I can only describe as sociological gobbledygook.”

On the one hand, Roberts is identifying a serious problem that needs to be addressed by scientists in the courtroom.  Statistics can be manipulated and are open to interpretation in ways that other forms of legal evidence are often not.

In many cases, both parties trot out potentially motivated “experts” to exchange criticisms in specialized language, leaving judges to make decisions based on evidence that their educational background does not train them for.  Consider two examples taken directly from yesterday’s argument.

The term “false positives” was used by the defense (the state of Wisconsin) to refer to the inaccuracy of one way to measure symmetry, the efficiency gap.  “False positive” refers to a Type I error, when the test for something (like pregnancy, using a urine test that measures levels of the hormone chorionic gonadotropin) turns up positive, but has not actually occurred (no fertilized egg embedded in the uterus, which produces the hormone).  Pregnancy tests have about a 3% false positive rate.  But back to gerrymandering.

In this case, the claim of “false positive” was misapplied, and expanded to describe any state with a significant efficiency gap, where the plan was not drawn by the state legislature.  That is, the defense implied that districting plans not drawn by parties (those drawn by courts through litigation or by commissions, etc.) could not be biased.  But the efficiency gap is not a test of who draws a districting map, it is a measure of bias.

Even randomly drawn maps using computer simulations can result in quite biased plans, depending on the underlying geographic distribution of voters.  None of the justices seemed to pick this up.  Justice Alito, responding to such claims, expressed grave concern about “the dozens of uncertainties about this whole process.”

Worse still was Chief Justice Roberts’ mistaking of symmetry for “proportional representation, which has never been accepted as a political principle in the history of this country.”

Partisan symmetry is explicitly not a test of proportionality in election results (where a party receives the same percentage of seats as its percentage of votes).  In fact, symmetry was intentionally designed as an alternative standard of testing the principle of political equality in U.S. elections, because proportionality is a higher standard than what the Constitution demands.

These mistakes might have been avoided through a more thorough reading of the many scientific briefs offered to the court for review (or the video above).  Nevertheless, the burden is on scientists to communicate our work clearly and concisely to non-experts, otherwise this problem will only persist.

On the other hand, several of the Justices had a strong grasp of how scientific standards operate within the voting rights framework.  Justice Kagen, for example, correctly noted that both partisan symmetry and the one-person, one-vote standard (prohibiting unequally populated districts) address the dilution of voting strength for individual voters as a function of statewide plans, not single electoral districts.

Moreover, Justice Sotomayor, responding to the defense’s claims about inaccuracies in estimating the impact of Wisconsin’s plan, pointed out that “every single social science metric points in the same direction.”  That is the sort of understanding about probabilistic estimates that scientists need to convey to judicial authorities.  It is how scientists forecast everything from economic growth to health epidemics and weather patterns.  The Justice continued, noting that the same types of statistical estimates were used to create Wisconsin’s maps in the first place, and that “it worked.  It worked better than they even expected, so the estimate wasn’t wrong.  It was pretty right.”

Judges have their work cut out for them if the Supreme Court finally provides a means by which political parties can be restrained from advancing their partisan interests at the expense of voters’ fundamental right to an equally weighted vote.  But it is up to the scientific community to work with the judiciary in the appropriate application of statistical evidence.  The consequences, which feedback through the entire policy making process, make it well worth the effort.

Mr. President: Puerto Rico Is, Indeed, Living a “Real Catastrophe”

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Citizen Soldiers of Puerto Rico Army National Guard, alongside residents of the municipality of Cayey, clear a road after the destruction left by Hurricane Maria through the region, Sep. 30.

Recently, President Trump visited Puerto Rico to meet with federal and Commonwealth officials coordinating the relief and recovery effort in the wake of Hurricane María.  At an Air National Guard base, the president held a briefing where he congratulated the first responders on the ground there. Following that, President Trump toured neighborhoods and a church, where he threw paper towels at the crowd, much as a celebrity would at a sporting event.

I know well the neighborhoods he toured, as they are in my hometown of Guaynabo (goo-aye-nah-bow), a relatively wealthy city of almost 98,000 inhabitants near San Juan.  As I said in a previous blog post, I am relieved that my city–at least the part where my neighborhood lies–was not among the most heavily hit, yet most areas have not been so lucky.

President Trump would have done well to have visited not just Guaynabo, but the hardest-hit areas where a real catastrophic humanitarian crisis—contrary to what he implied yesterday in Puerto Rico— is indeed ongoing.

He could have seen, for example, a destroyed bridge connecting the rural towns of Morovis and Ciales, or a flooded residential subdivision in the eastern coast, where the storm surge came in with force. Not too far from Guaynabo is the San Juan working class neighborhood of Puerto Nuevo, which was heavily flooded as well. Or further inland in the mountainous region of the central and eastern Cordillera Central, he could have witnessed the ravaging defoliation of the El Yunque tropical forest, a vital part of the rich ecosystem of Puerto Rico. An aerial survey of the Levittown suburb in the northern plains would have shown him the effects of widespread flooding in one of the largest suburbs in the Commonwealth.

Even before a visit, just checking with NASA would have given the president an accurate idea of the scope of damage in the San Juan area, as this damage assessment to buildings done with remotely-sensed imagery shows, or the widespread loss of electricity. Maybe that would have made President Trump think twice before declaring that due to the latest official death toll (34 so far, but likely to rise), the situation in Puerto Rico is not “a real catastrophe like Katrina.

President Trump responds with scorn to the humanitarian plight of Puerto Ricans

But during the visit to the territory, the president did not go to any of the hard-hit areas, had nothing but scorn for the people of Puerto Rico, and seemed to be more worried about money than about the lives and well-being of 3.4 million U.S. citizens.

In one of his first remarks during the visit, President Trump claimed that Puerto Rico was “throwing our [federal] budget out of whack,” an assistance that so far totals $35 million dollars. In contrast, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of national Hispanic organizations in the U.S., has called on Congress and the President to, among other things, provide $70 billion dollars for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The president’s visit does nothing to assuage the fears among Puerto Ricans that Puerto Rico will be left behind in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and María.

A few days before his visit, President Trump suggested that Puerto Ricans want “everything to be done for them” in relation to emergency aid and relief. That assertion can’t escape being lumped together with the long-standing racist social construction of Puerto Ricans—especially those of African descent—as lazy and wilfully dependent on the government. That characterization is also patently not true, as the massive mobilization of both Puerto Ricans in the territory, along with the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, demonstrates anything but lazy complacency in the falsehood that Puerto Ricans expect the federal government to do everything for them. I know because over the last few weeks, I have been part of relief efforts in my local community and witnessed the solidarity of people everywhere—both of Puerto Rican origin, and otherwise.

The president’s unfortunate comments were followed by a personal attack on the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, for her very candid rebuttal of the acting head of Homeland Security’s comments that the federal response to the Puerto Rico crisis was a “good news story” when thousands of people still have no running water or electricity.

The president has an obligation to provide aid and comfort to millions of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

The demand for immediate action made by Puerto Ricans and many in the U.S. from Congress and the President is the demand of 3.4 million American citizens (and another 100,000 in the USVI) to which both Congress and the President have an obligation to provide for their well-being and safety in the face of such a catastrophe.

President Trump’s callousness and harsh words for Puerto Ricans sharply contrasts with the swift approval of an emergency aid package for Texas and Florida in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

I watch these events unfold, and the response of Congress, but especially of President Trump, with a mix of anger and sadness. It is simply incomprehensible that almost two weeks after Hurricane María made landfall, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands still have not received an emergency aid package to speed-up recovery and avert worsening of the humanitarian crisis unfolding there.

That is why I joined together with my colleagues at Voces Verdes – Latino Leadership in Action to elevate our voices to demand that Congress and the president provide an initial emergency spending package for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. We are not alone in this demand. The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) just sent a letter to Congress and the President with other demands in addition to the emergency relief package.

Multiple sectors have mobilized to aid Puerto Rico in recovering from the devastation and misery brought by this hurricane season. It is inspiring to see the way private individuals, including Puerto Rican musicians and actors, have stepped in to help. However, they should not have had to take on something that should be the responsibility of the president and Congress. Their solidarity and quick action contrasts sharply with the victim-blaming rhetoric the President has engaged in.

The president is supposed to be a unifying voice in times of national emergencies. Instead, President Trump has chosen to visit ravaged Puerto Rico to make a mockery of human suffering in the face of catastrophic extreme weather. The federal agencies he commands need the resources to continuing doing their job adequately (as they have been doing within the limitations of the aid that has been provided) to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That job can be best done if the president and Congress direct the adequate resources to FEMA and other federal agencies. His scorn and jarring tone with people who have lost everything make that task even more monumentally difficult than it already is.

Want to help?

Congress Could Help Farmers, Prevent Pollution, and Reduce Flood and Drought Damage. Will They?

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U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Conservationist Garrett Duyck and David Brewer examine a soil sample on the Emerson Dell farm near The Dalles, OR. USDA NRCS photo by Ron Nichols.

The news lately has been full of Congressional battles—healthcare, the debt ceiling, and now tax “reform” (ahem)—and it’s starting to seem like Congress is only interested in blowing things up. But a huge legislative effort is gaining steam on Capitol Hill, one that is likely to have general bipartisan support, though you probably haven’t heard nearly as much about it. I’m talking about the next five-year Farm Bill—which really should be called the Food and Farm Bill, as it shapes that sprawling economic sector worth more than 5 percent of US GDP, and which Congress must reauthorize by September 30, 2018.

In this first of a series of posts on the 2018 Farm Bill, I look at how this legislation could do more to help farmers conserve their soil, deliver clean water, and even reduce the devastating impacts of floods and droughts, all of which would save taxpayers’ money.

Farm conservation works

Since 1985, the Farm Bill has promoted stewardship of soil, water, and wildlife by directing funding to a variety of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs. These programs provide financial incentives and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to protect their soil and store carbon by planting cover crops, reduce fertilizer and pesticide use by rotating a mix of crops, capture excess fertilizer and add wildlife habitat by planting perennial prairie strips in and around vast cornfields, and even take environmentally sensitive acres out of farming altogether.

Recent UCS analysis has shown that farm practices like these lead to positive environmental outcomes while maintaining or increasing farmers’ yields and profits and saving taxpayers’ money.

And our latest report, Turning Soils into Sponges, reveals a surprising additional benefit: growing cover crops and perennial crops can make farmers and downstream communities more resilient to the effects of floods and droughts. The report demonstrates that these practices—which keep living roots in the soil year-round—result in healthier, “spongier” soils soak up more water when it rains and hold it longer through dry periods. Using these practices, farmers can reduce rainfall runoff in flood years by nearly one-fifth, cut flood frequency by the same amount, and make as much as 16 percent more water available for crops to use during dry periods. But farmers need help to do it.

A changing climate demands more conservation, not less

So it was a real step backward when the 2014 Farm Bill cut the very programs that help farmers build healthy soil and prevent pollution. That bill cut the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), for example, by more than 20 percent. A USDA official recently told a Senate committee that CSP is “greatly oversubscribed” and must turn away thousands of farmers who want to participate.

(Incidentally, the Senate will hear this week from President Trump’s nominee to lead the USDA’s conservation efforts, whose conservation record as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture has been mixed.)

Meanwhile (surprise!) the problems that on-farm conservation can help solve are not going away by themselves. Midwestern farm runoff has led to deteriorating water quality from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico. And climate change will only worsen water quality and increase the frequency and severity of floods and droughts.

The latter is particularly bad news for farmers, and for all of us. A new report from the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, which operates the taxpayer-subsidized federal crop insurance program, shows that losses from drought and flooding were to blame for nearly three-quarters of all crop insurance claims paid to farmers and ranchers between 2001 and 2015.

Farmers are adopting conservation practices, and policy support is growing

For example, earlier this year researchers at Iowa State University released the results of their 2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, which asked farmers across the state about conservation practices they used between 2013 and 2015. Nearly half (44 percent) reported an increase in the use of practices to improve soil health, with 20 percent reporting they’d increased their use of cover crops.

Meanwhile, the National Farmers Union (NFU), which represents family farmers and ranchers across the country, has become increasingly vocal about the need for USDA programs and research to help farmers build soil health and cope with climate change. And taxpayer advocates have lent their voice to the call stronger requirements for on-farm conservation as a condition of participating in the federal crop insurance program (so-called conservation compliance). A number of states have undertaken healthy soil initiatives, and some observers expect soil health to get more attention in this Farm Bill, as it should.

Congress: Don’t ask farmers to do the impossible

To recap: farm conservation works, farmers want to do it, and we all need more of it to cope with a changing climate and the floods, droughts, and escalating costs it will bring. So why wouldn’t Congress invest more?

As usual, budget-cutting fever is the problem. The Trump administration’s proposed USDA budget reductions shocked farmers and their allies in Congress last spring, cowing even the powerful Republican chair of the Senate agriculture committee, who warned that the 2018 Farm Bill will need to “do more with less.” That’s a silly thing to say, of course…with most things in life, doing more requires, well, more. For farm conservation, that means financial incentives and technical assistance for more farmers and more acres, along with more monitoring to ensure that it’s getting results.

That’s why UCS joined with NFU and two dozen other organizations in outlining our collective conservation priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill. These include a substantial increase in funding for USDA conservation programs including CSP, along with additional monitoring and evaluation of outcomes, better enforcement of conservation compliance, and improvements in the federal crop insurance program to remove barriers to conservation.

As Congress debates the Farm Bill in the coming months, UCS will be urging them to see farm conservation programs for what they are—critical programs to help farmers stay profitable today while preventing pollution, improving resilience, and avoiding more costly problems down the line.

In short, an excellent investment in our future.

Why Going 100% Electric in California Isn’t as Crazy as it Might Seem

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Electric vehicle charging stations line the perimeter of San Francisco's City Hall. Photo: Bigstock.

California’s top air pollution regulator, Mary Nichols, made headlines last week after making comments to a Bloomberg reporter about the possibility of banning gasoline cars in California.  Shortly after that, California Assembly member Phil Ting announced he would introduce state legislation to do just that. Skeptics may raise their eyebrows, but if California is going to meet its long term climate and air quality goals then nearly all future cars and trucks must be powered by renewable electricity and hydrogen. The good news is the state is already on this path.

Our health and our climate depends on vehicle electrification

It’s no secret that widespread vehicle electrification is needed to meet California’s climate and air quality goals. In 1990, the first Zero Emission Vehicle program was adopted – an acknowledgment that vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions were necessary to ensure healthy air in a state with a growing population and a whole lot of cars.

Climate change has only added to the importance of vehicle electrification, which takes advantage of the efficiency of electric motors and the ability to power vehicles with renewable electricity or hydrogen (fuel cell vehicles have an electric motor and zero tailpipe emission similar to battery electric cars).

The state’s recent assessment of vehicle technologies needed to meet our climate and air quality goals shows the importance of widespread vehicle electrification suggesting all sales of new cars should be electric by 2050 (including plug-in hybrids or PHEVs).  A national assessment, Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States, and a California assessment, also point out a large-scale transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is needed to achieve the level of emission reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

Figure 1: From a presentation by staff to the Air Resources Board in March 2017 showing that by 2050 the majority of cars on the road – and all of new car sales – are powered by electric motors.

Banning gasoline and diesel gains popularity  

In the wake of VW’s Dieselgate and with the impacts of climate change becoming more and more apparent –  banning the sale of internal combustion vehicles is becoming a popular policy choice around the world, with France, Britain, India and China all making big splashes with recent commitments to eliminate them at some point in the future.

With these strong commitments gathering steam, some one might ask if California is somehow losing its leadership on EVs.  California isn’t losing its leadership, it’s starting to share it with many more parts of the globe.  This is great news, as increased global demand for EVs will help drive down technology costs for everyone and help automakers recoup their investments in EV technology faster.

But is going to 100% electric vehicles practical? It might be hard to imagine a time when every car at your local dealership will be electric. But there are reasons to be bullish on the future of EVs. Battery prices are dropping with estimates that EVs could have comparable costs to gasoline vehicles sometime in the 2020s. And recent announcements by major manufacturers like Ford, GM, Volvo, VW and others about expanding electric vehicle line-ups over the next 5 years indicates the industry is betting on growth opportunities.

Figure 2: As recently noted in a blog by my colleague David Reichmuth,  battery costs are declining and approaching the point where EVs achieve cost parity ($125-150 per kWh).

California is taking the right steps to making electric cars an option for more and more drivers

In addition, California is implementing policies to support the deployment of EVs.  There’s a long list, but some of the most critical are direct consumer rebates, incentives targeting low- and moderate-income households, utility investments to support the deployment of EV charging infrastructure, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, and the Zero Emission Vehicle program, which requires automakers to bring EVs to market. Meanwhile, California’s relatively clean electricity grid means that driving an EV results in global warming emissions equivalent to a 95 mile-per-gallon gasoline car. As California increases its reliance on electricity from renewable sources, emissions will continue to decline.

Long-term goals must be matched with near-term action

Adopting a ban on gasoline and diesel cars would certainly send a strong long-term signal that powering electric vehicles with clean energy is our ultimate destination. It could focus policy makers’ and regulators’ efforts on supporting the transition and give automakers, charging companies, utilities, and entrepreneurs a vision and long-term target for the future to guide their investments.

However, it’s the near-term efforts to make EVs more accessible to all Californians that will accelerate the transition. That means expanding current programs targeted toward individuals and businesses who buy or use new and used cars and increasing access to charging. And it also means supporting electrification for those who rely on other modes of transportation too (see my colleague Jimmy’s blog on electric buses).

A future without internal combustion engine cars is consistent with a future of clean air and minimizing climate impacts. Ultimately, for a transition to a clean, electric transportation system to succeed, the system needs to be better than the one we have today. And it’s the policies we implement today that will drive the investments needed to reach a tipping point, a point where choosing the EV is a no brainer for whomever is shopping for a car.

 

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