Combined UCS Blogs

Andy Wheeler: Trump’s Pick for EPA Deputy is a Threat to Our Climate and Health

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Washington’s latest parlor game involves predictions about the number of days left in Scott Pruitt’s tenure at the EPA.  There’s even a website where you can place bets on it and some very funny memes and gifs on the internet.  Amid the controversies over discounted condos, high priced furniture, self-important sirens, and questionable personnel practices, the outrage over Pruitt’s policies is getting lost in the noise.  If his ethical lapses result in his ouster, what’s to stop his replacement from continuing the destruction of nearly half a century of environmental progress?

Not much.  The nominated second in command, Andy Wheeler, is awaiting confirmation in the US Senate to become the Deputy Administrator.  Wheeler is a well-known as a lobbyist for the coal industry and former staffer for the senate’s leading climate denier, Senator Jim Inhofe, serving on the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) staff for 14 years. If Pruitt gets the boot, Wheeler will most likely be the acting Administrator.  Unlike Pruitt, Wheeler worked for the EPA early in his career and has played key roles in Congressional oversight of the agency and its budget, making him a formidable opponent with intimate knowledge of the agency’s programs and regulations.

Senate climate deniers at the EPA’s helm

Wheeler will join Inhofe alumni that already occupy the chief of staff and deputy chief of staff positions at the EPA. Pruitt’s senior advisers on air, climate and legal issues are also former Inhofe staff, as are the top domestic and international energy and environmental advisers to President Trump.  A Senate Democratic aide speaking off the record warned, “These are folks who are very capable. They know the agency and its programs.  They’re smart and hard-working, and they certainly could dismantle the programs if they were asked to do that. But the question is how they will react if they’re asked to do that.” Another former Capitol Hill staffer said , “I think Andrew is very similar to Scott Pruitt’s approach in understanding under EPA’s regulatory scheme that states have the priority over federal overreach.” Given Wheeler’s tenure with the Senate EPW committee and his coal company client list, it is safe to assume that he will continue the repeal of climate regulation and the assault on the Clean Air Act.

Crooked math on air pollution

Unfortunately, Wheeler is likely to move forward on changes to the way the EPA assesses costs and benefits of regulation that was buried in its proposed regulation gutting the Clean Power Plan (CPP).  The CPP was an Obama era regulation aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide to reduce the risks of climate change. UCS economist Rachel Cleetus commented that, “[t]oday’s proposal to repeal of the Clean Power Plan uses crooked math to artificially lower the benefits of the pollution reductions that standard would have brought. The EPA fails to account for the fact that actions to cut carbon emissions also pay large dividends by reducing other forms of harmful pollution like soot and smog.”

The “proposed repeal outlines a flawed approach to evaluating the risks of pollution — specifically particulate matter, which is a mix of very tiny particles emitted into the air. When inhaled, this pollution can cause asthma attacks, lung cancer and even early death,” according to the American Lung Association.  Harold P. Wimme, the national president and CEO of ALA and Stephen C. Crane, Ph.D., MPH, the executive director of the American Thoracic Society, argue that “[t]he [Trump] EPA has cherry-picked data to conceal the true health costs of air pollution. Its revised calculations diminish and devalue the harm that comes from breathing particulate matter, suggesting that below certain levels, it is not harmful to human health. This is wrong. The fact is: There is no known safe threshold for particulate matter. According to scores of medical experts and organizations like the World Health Organization, particle pollution harms health even at very low concentrations. Attempting to undercut such clear evidence shows the lengths the EPA, and by extension the Trump administration, will go to reject science-based policy that protects Americans’ health.”

What are the health dangers caused by air pollution for children and adults? Credit: American Lung Association.

What Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Wheeler and the Trump Administration don’t want you to know is that actions taken to reduce carbon also reduce the air pollution that causes illness and death.  A forthcoming analysis of the proposed change to the way the EPA assesses health benefits in the from Kimberly Castle and Ricky Revesz from the Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law finds that:

The benefits from particulate matter reductions are substantial for climate change rules, accounting for almost one half of the quantified benefits of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. These benefits are also significant for regulations of other air pollutants, making this issue one of far-reaching importance for the future of environmental protection.

Opponents of environmental regulation, including the Trump Administration, have recently embraced an aggressive line of attack on particulate matter benefits. They argue alternatively that these benefits are not real; are being “double counted” in other regulations; or should not be considered when they are the co-benefits, rather than the direct benefits, of specific regulations….An examination of the scientific literature, longstanding agency practices under administrations of both major political parties, and judicial precedent reveals that particulate matter benefits deserve a meaningful role in regulatory cost-benefit analysis.

Pruitt’s EPA has also indicated plans to adopt a policy similar to legislation that House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has unsuccessfully pushed for years, over the objection of the country’s leading scientific societies. The policy builds on a strategy hatched in the 1990s by lobbyists for the tobacco industry, who invented the phrase “secret science” to undermine robust peer-reviewed research on the harmful impacts of second-hand smoke. The goal back then was to create procedural hurdles so that public health agencies couldn’t finalize science-based safeguards.

Climate and health

The US Global Change Research Program found significant health impacts from climate change, and documented several linkages between climate and air quality. “Changes in the climate affect the air we breathe, both indoors and outdoors. The changing climate has modified weather patterns, which in turn have influenced the levels and location of outdoor air pollutants such as ground-level ozone (O3) and fine particulate matter.”  It also found that climate change will make it harder for any given regulatory approach to reduce ground-level ozone pollution in the future as meteorological conditions become increasingly conducive to forming ozone over most of the United States. Unless offset by additional emissions reductions, these climate-driven increases in ozone will cause premature deaths, hospital visits, lost school days, and acute respiratory symptoms.

The air quality response to climate change can vary substantially by region across scenarios. Two downscaled global climate model projections using two greenhouse gas concentration pathways estimate increases in average daily maximum temperatures of 1.8°F to 7.2°F (1°C to 4°C) and increases of 1 to 5 parts per billion (ppb) in daily 8-hour maximum ozone in the year 2030 relative to the year 2000 throughout the continental United States. Unless reductions in ozone precursor emissions offset the influence of climate change, this “climate penalty” of increased ozone concentrations due to climate change would result in tens to thousands of additional ozone-related premature deaths per year, shown here as incidences per year by county (see Ch. 3: Air Quality Impacts). Credit USGCRP, 2016: The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. Crimmins, A., J. Balbus, J.L. Gamble, C.B. Beard, J.E. Bell, D. Dodgen, R.J. Eisen, N. Fann, M.D. Hawkins, S.C. Herring, L. Jantarasami, D.M. Mills, S. Saha, M.C. Sarofim, J. Trtanj, and L. Ziska, Eds. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, 312 pp.

Temperature-driven changes in power plant emissions are likely to occur due to increased use of building air conditioning. A recent study in Environment Research Letters compared an ambient temperature baseline for the Eastern US to a model-calculated mid-century scenario with summer-average temperature increases ranging from 1 C to 5 C. Researchers found a 7% increase in summer electricity demand and a 32% increase in non-coincident peak demand. Power sector modeling, assuming only limited changes to current generation resources, calculated a 16% increase in emissions of NOx and an 18% increase in emissions of SO2.

Wheeler and Clear Skies

While at EPW, Andy Wheeler was the Bush Administration’s point person on Clear Skies – an ironically named effort to essentially gut the Clean Air Act proposed in 2003.  The bill would have significantly delayed the implementation of soot and smog standards and delivered fewer emissions reductions of Nox and SO2 than strict implementation of the existing Clean Air Act would deliver.  Wheeler not only negotiated the bill to near passage (a tied committee vote killed the bill in 2005), he carried out Inhofe’s intimidation effort against an association of state air quality officers, asking the group to turn over six years of IRS filings and all records of grants they received from the EPA.

President Trump claimed to want the EPA to focus on clean air and clean water.  But his defense of Pruitt on Twitter and his nomination of Wheeler as Deputy Administrator makes clear that he has no idea of what it takes to deliver clean air to the American people.  The Trump Administration’s priority is to reduce regulation on industry at the expense of the health and well-being of America.

Department of Energy Releases Bogus Study to Prop Up Coal Plants

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

A few months ago, the Department of Energy (DOE) made a request to one of its national labs, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), to study the impacts on the electricity grid of a severe cold snap called the bomb cyclone that hit the Northeast in early January 2018. NETL conducts important R&D on fossil energy technologies. The report released last week uses deeply flawed assumptions to inaccurately paint coal (and to a lesser extent, fuel oil) as the savior that prevented large-scale blackouts during the extreme cold, while greatly understating the contribution from renewable energy sources. It also estimates a bogus value for coal providing these so-called “resiliency” services. One has to wonder whether this deeply flawed and misleading study is part of the administration’s continued attempts to prop up the coal industry at all costs, especially after FERC rejected the DOE’s fact-free proposal to bail out coal and nuclear plants late last year. The utility FirstEnergy, which owns and operates a fleet of coal and nuclear generators, immediately seized upon NETL’s report and is petitioning DOE for an emergency bailout.

Separating the Facts from the Fiction

The report emphasizes the fact that fossil and nuclear power played a critical role in meeting peak demand during the cold snap. Across six regions, according to the report, coal provided 55 percent of daily incremental generation, and the study concludes that at least for PJM Interconnection (which manages the electricity grid across 12 Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states as well as DC), “coal provided the most resilient form of generation, due to available reserve capacity and on-site fuel availability, far exceeding all other sources” without which the region “would have experienced shortfalls leading to interconnect-wide blackouts.” The report then goes on to incorrectly estimate value of these “resiliency” services to be $3.5 billion for PJM.

The nugget of truth here is that we do need reserve capacity to be available in times of peak demand, especially during extreme weather events that lead to greatly increased need for heating or cooling. And this is especially important during the winter, when the demand for natural gas for home heating spikes in some parts of the country, leading to higher prices and less natural gas available for electricity generation (since home heating takes priority over electricity generation in terms of natural gas pipeline delivery contracts). In the Northeast, which uses a lot of natural gas for heating, this shortfall in natural gas led to an increase in electricity generation from [dirty] fuel oil, as the report points out.

However, regional transmission organizations (RTOs) and independent system operators (ISOs) were prepared for the cold snap, and the markets performed as expected. PJM in particular put systems in place to prepare for extreme cold weather following the 2014 Polar Vortex, and electricity markets in the Eastern U.S. are organized to provide payments to power plants for providing either energy (electrons to the grid) or capacity (the ability to switch on and provide a certain level of output if called upon). As fossil generators retire because they are uneconomic, plenty of other resources are under construction or in advanced planning stages and will be ready at the time they’re needed. This is why planning for future electricity needs is critical, and this is the responsibility of regional grid operators—one they take quite seriously.

To that point, grid operators and reliability experts see no threat to grid reliability from planned retirements of coal and nuclear power plants. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), whose mission is to ensure the reliability of the bulk power system for the continent, finds in its 2017 Long-Term Reliability Assessment, that (contrary to NETL raising potential reliability issues from future coal and nuclear retirements) most regions of the country have sufficient reserve margins through 2022, as new additions more than offset expected retirements. PJM, in its strongly worded response to FirstEnergy’s petition to DOE for an emergency bailout (see below), stated “without reservation there is no immediate threat to system reliability.

Beyond this, the report and its pseudo-analytic underpinnings really goes off the rails. Let’s take a few of its misleading points in turn.

How to Quantify Resiliency

NETL decided to consider the incremental generation from each fuel source—that is, how much more electricity was produced by each fuel during the bomb cyclone—as a metric for which fuel provides the grid with resilient services. As they put it:

“…we examine resilience afforded by each source of power generation by assessing the incremental daily average gigawatt hours during the BC event above those of a typical winter day.”

This is a bogus metric not only because it simply reflects the amount of unused or idle generation in the system, but also because the reference time period (the first 26 days of December) is a period when there wasn’t much generation from coal and oil. Turns out, there is a lot of coal-fired capacity sitting around because it is more expensive to run compared to natural gas. The only time it makes economic sense to call on these more expensive resources is when demand pushes electricity prices high enough, as it did during the bomb cyclone.

What NETL is basically saying is that the most expensive resources are the most resilient. The report then argues that the high cost of those expensive resources represents the value of “resiliency”—and that these expensive generators should be compensated for providing that value. It’s circular reasoning, and it’s the same argument that we heard all last fall as part of the fact-free DOE FERC proposal, which boils down to this: our assets can’t compete in the marketplace because they’re too expensive, so you (meaning, the ratepayer) should pay us more money to stay online.

The NETL report is essentially trying to invent a metric to define resiliency, and it’s wrong. There are certainly qualitative ideas about what resiliency means:

Infrastructure Resilience is the ability to reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events. The effectiveness of a resilient infrastructure or enterprise depends upon its ability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event.”  –NERC, 2012

But there is no agreed-upon quantitative definition for resiliency, which is one reason FERC has opened a docket to study the issue.

Enter Capacity Markets

The NETL report misses another crucial point. These resources are, in many cases, already being paid to be available when needed. In general, there are several ways that a given generating facility of any kind can make money: by providing energy; by offering capacity on demand; and by providing what are called ancillary services (things like voltage and frequency regulation, which ensure the stability of the grid). Without going into a detailed explanation of how these different markets work, it’s sufficient to understand that these markets exist—and are working as intended.

Instead of doing a detailed analysis of how fossil generators were compensated during the cold snap, or which plants may have been cheaper to run, NETL offers a deeply misleading back-of-the-envelope calculation: it multiplies the increase in the daily cost of electricity above an arbitrary baseline (see next section) by the number of days in the cold snap. This calculation fails to acknowledge that some of these generators are already receiving payments for those services by bidding into a market and agreeing to provide the service of additional capacity when needed.

Cherry-Picking Baselines to Attack Renewables

NETL’s flawed analysis also takes aim at renewables, suggesting that because of “below average” renewable generation, resources like coal and fuel oil had to come online to pick up the slack.

What NETL did here is classic cherry-picking. They compared the generation from renewables during the bomb cyclone to what they called a “typical winter day.” Except that it wasn’t. NETL used a 26-day period in December to compare baseline generation. Wind generation during the bomb cyclone event was actually higher than expected by grid operators in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. For example, In PJM, wind output from January 3-7 was 55 percent higher than the 2017 average output, and consistently 3 to 5 times greater than what PJM expected from January 3-5.

Actual Failure Rates

Instead of using NETL’s flawed analysis, looking at the actual failures rate of different generation resources during the extreme weather event provides a more accurate picture of the reliability and resiliency impacts. PJM did this, it turns out. As shown in the chart below, which compares forced outages during the polar vortex and the bomb cyclone, PJM’s analysis finds that coal plants experienced similar failure rates as natural gas power plants during both the 2014 and 2018 cold snaps. For example, on January 7, 2018, a peak winter demand day, PJM reported 8,096 MW of natural gas plant outages, 6,935 MW of coal outages, 5,913 MW of natural gas supply outages, and 2,807 MW of “other” outages (which includes wind, solar, hydro, and methane units).

The NETL study completely ignores the fact that baseload resources like coal and nuclear also pose challenges to reliability—because of limited flexibility, vulnerability to extreme weather events (like the polar vortex and bomb cyclone), extreme heat and drought affecting cooling water, and storm surge. During extreme cold, pipes and even piles of coal can freeze, meaning that coal plants can’t fire up.

FirstEnergy Begs for a Handout

Only a day after NETL’s report was released, the utility FirstEnergy submitted a request to DOE for emergency financial assistance to rescue its uneconomic coal and nuclear plants and heavily cited the NETL report. The basis of the request is section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act, a rarely used portion of the statute that allows DOE to keep power plants online in times of emergency or war. But as NERC, PJM, and others have pointed out, there is no immediate reliability crisis. The request is a Hail Mary pass to save the company from bankruptcy, and is not likely to hold up in court.

Garbage In, Garbage Out.

NETL has produced a document that isn’t worth the few megabytes of disk space it is taking up on my computer. As we often say when evaluating a computer model or analysis—garbage in, garbage out. The study appears to be politically motivated, and it reveals a deep misunderstanding of how the electricity grid works, using simplistic and misleading calculations to justify its conclusions. It is shrouded in insidious, analytic-sounding language that make it seem as if it were a legitimate study. It should be rejected out of hand by any serious person taking an objective look at these issues—as should FirstEnergy’s request for a bailout.

China in Focus #21: Finding Middle Ground in the Middle Kingdom

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

China’s a big country with large economy. But it also has an enormous population. When you take every Chinese individual into account the average person ranks 73rd among all nations in income and 72nd in production. Despite all the talk about the rise of China, after three decades of rapid economic growth China is still a middle income nation with a developing economy, well behind the upper income nations with advanced economies like the United States.

A personal encounter with China’s belt and road initiative: finding Polish yogurt in a local grocery in this neighborhood in Xuzhou for 45 cents.

The gap between China and the world’s leading economies is self-evident to the average Chinese person and their political leaders. President Xi Jinping may have a head full of Chinese dreams, but he wakes up every day with the problem of how to satisfy the needs and expectations of 1.4 billion individuals, or about one out of every five people on the planet.

Keeping that in mind might make China appear a little less imposing and a little more sympathetic to the average American, who is being told, by US pundits and politicians, that the modest increase in the average Chinese person’s standard of living has come at their expense.

Fair Trade or Fear

President Trump is starting a trade war with China because he thinks the United States is treated unfairly. But the economist who talked him into this war has other motivations. White House Trade Advisor Peter Navarro wants to stop China’s economy from growing. He sees China as a threat and endorses the following diagnosis from University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer.

What really makes China so scary today is the fact that it has so many people, and it’s also becoming an incredibly wealthy country so that our great fear is that China will turn into a giant Hong Kong. And if China has a per capita GNP that’s anywhere near Hong Kong’s GNP, it will be one formidable military power. So a much more attractive strategy would be to do whatever we can to slow down China’s economic growth – because if it doesn’t grow economically, it can’t turn that wealth into military might and become a potential hegemon in Asia.”

Hong Kong’s current per capita GNP of $46,080 is nearly fives times greater than China’s $9,380 and more than four times the global average of $11,310. (The current per capita GNP of the United States is $61,690.) At their present rates of economic and population growth it would take China about 100 years to approach Hong Kong’s per capita GNP.

This is why most Chinese people see the country’s enormous population as a burden not an asset. They understand that China’s newfound prosperity must be shared among a very large group of people who will rise up in anger if it isn’t shared equitably. That is the fear, more than any other, that animates the behavior of China’s leaders. Their dogged pursuit of sustained economic growth is not a manifestation of excess national pride or global ambition. It’s a matter of political life or death.

Xi Jinping

China is a communist country. The ruling communist party manages an economy it defines as being in the early stages of socialism. Everything its leadership does is the product of a way of looking at China and the world that most Americans, including the corporate executives who invested in the Chinese market, don’t understand or care to understand. For decades they’ve mistakenly looked at Chinese communist ideology as a fig leaf intended to protect the political legitimacy of leaders who didn’t believe in it themselves. This may be why they seem caught off-guard, and feel disadvantaged, by the way China manages its economy.

Xi Jinping was a dark horse candidate for General Secretary elected in 2012 by a majority of his comrades in the Central Committee, and the first party leader not ordained by its founders. He won the job with a plan to prevent the party’s collapse. Twenty years of economic reform and globalization created a dangerous gap between Chinese haves and have nots. Many ordinary Chinese associated economic success with government connections and corruption. Among the upper echelon of the 80 million member Chinese Communist Party there was a sense they were losing control of the country.

Five years into his administration the consensus among my Chinese friends and colleagues is that Xi has made a difference, cleaned things up, made the system more fair and shrunk the gap between rich and poor. They all think the elimination of term limits is a step backwards, but most believe they have a leader who is attentive to national needs and they like the idea that Xi won’t be a lame duck in his second term.

I lived and worked in China a long time. I still spend 6-8 weeks of every year here. I know a lot of people of all ages from many different parts of the country and many different walks of life. I feel confident their support is not a product of the heavy-handed propaganda coming from China’s state media. They’ve been exposed to communist propaganda all their lives, understand what it is and consume it with a healthy skepticism. Their measure of Xi’s leadership is grounded in the changes they’ve noticed in the way decisions are made and resources are allocated where they live and work.

There are dissenters, mostly among the well-educated, who know China’s history and see uncomfortable parallels between Chairman Xi and Chairman Mao. The worst of these is the imposition of much tighter controls on speech, publication and association that could undermine progress. Before Xi there was an “anything goes” mentality that enabled the innovative as well as the corrupt. Caution is the watchword now, and cadres throughout the communist system are afraid to take risks.

Nationalism and Militarism

Every nation has its community of “patriotic” hotheads and in China they’ve found a home in the propaganda apparatus and on social media. But in my circles I haven’t noticed an appreciable change in people’s attitudes. Strangers treat me pretty much the same as they always have, with a mix of curiosity and courtesy. Conversations of any length inevitably turn towards politics and I think the average American would be pleasantly surprised at the degree of objective sophistication exhibited by their Chinese counterparts.

At a recent international conference in Tokyo some participants expressed concern about Chinese “expansionism,” especially in the south and east China seas. The Chinese delegates pointed out that China’s territorial claims have not changed since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. What has changed is China’s capability to defend those claims. China has held military spending to an average of 2% of GDP per year since 1988, when Deng Xiaoping initiated policies on government spending that prioritized economic development over national defense. (The United States averaged 3.9% of GDP per year during the same period.) But two decades of rapid economic growth made China’s 2% part of an increasingly larger economic pie, and China’s military is better trained and equipped than it was before.

In the course of my work I’ve had an opportunity to speak with quite a few Chinese military officers and not a single one of them agrees with the optimistic assessments of China’s military capabilities dished out by what they derisively refer to as China’s “television generals.” They do tend to be pleasantly amused, however, that American officials take this kind of propaganda more seriously than most Chinese. They also take care to remind me that China’s leaders will go to war if US policy-makers leave them no other options, especially on the core issue of Taiwan. But none of them are anxious to start a war or confident of the outcome.

Global Reach

Some of the most alarming US commentary on China is connected to its efforts to play a greater role in international governance. Foreign Policy recently published an article by Rep. Michael McCaul that described those efforts as a “long march on American democracy” that has “blanketed the globe with a cloud of Chinese Communist influence.”

Globalization has been good for China and until recently its leaders were content to take a free ride on US stewardship of the process. US experts and officials used to complain about that. But the financial crisis of 2008 undermined Chinese confidence in US economic and political elites. China’s leaders have been struggling to adapt ever since. Given the pressure of their enormous population, and the inherent interdependence of the global economy, China’s leaders decided to play a more active role in international economic management.

China is applying its experience at home to what it does abroad. One of the most successful things Chinese economic planners do is building infrastructure. So it should not be surprising that China’s primary global economic initiative is the reconstruction of the ancient Silk Road trade routes connecting Europe, Africa and Asia by land and by sea. Chinese leaders hope this “belt and road initiative” will create the same sort of economic opportunities abroad that China’s high-speed rail network, subway systems and other infrastructure projects created at home.

US critics may be justified in wondering about the economic viability and political consequences of Chinese government investments whose returns will not be distributed to private shareholders in the form of profits but to national governments and their populations in the form of public goods. In that sense, what China is proposing may present a significant challenge to the corporate-dominated model of globalization advanced by the United States. It could also lead to long-term changes in global trade flows and the rules that govern them.

Looking Forward

If, like President Trump, you believe global economics is a zero-sum game, then China’s ongoing economic development may seem threatening. But if you don’t, then there are reasons to look at China’s progress with less dread.

Another lesson Chinese leaders appear to have learned during the last three decades is that long term economic growth is unsustainable without a healthy natural environment. The Chinese leadership’s support for the Paris agreement on climate change emerged from a recognition that Chinese could not continue to plunder and pollute their natural resources. Environmental degradation is the single greatest complaint leveled at the Chinese communist party by the 1.4 billion individuals it governs. If China’s rulers can solve the problem of how to provide its masses with a decent standard of living and a sustainable environment at the same time they will have solved the most important problem humanity faces. Why should we hope they fail?

What’s happening in China is likely to exert considerable influence on the US economy and US standing in the world for decades to come. It deserves our government’s attention. But my own experience suggests the fear mongering behind Trump’s trade war and the hyperbole coming out of Congress make it difficult for many Americans to get a balanced look.

The World’s Population Hasn’t Grown Exponentially for at Least Half a Century

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Recently I was looking at some data about world food production on the excellent Our World in Data site, and I discovered something very simple, but very surprising about the world’s population. We often hear (and I used to teach) about the threat of an exponentially growing population and the pressure it is supposed to be putting on our food supply and the natural resources that sustain it (land, water, nutrients, etc). But I found that the global population isn’t growing exponentially, and hasn’t been for at least half a century.

It has actually been growing in a simpler way than exponentially—in a straight line.

What exponential growth is

Exponential growth (sometimes also called geometric or compound-interest growth) can be described by an equation in which time is raised to a power, i.e. has an exponent—hence the name. But it also can be described in simpler terms: the growth rate of the population, as a fraction of the population’s size, is a constant. Thus, if a population has a growth rate of 2%, and it remains 2% as the population gets bigger, it’s growing exponentially. And there’s nothing magic about the 2; it’s growing exponentially whether that growth rate is 2% or 10% or 0.5% or 0.01%.

Another way to put it is that the doubling time of the population—the number of years it takes to grow to twice its initial size—is also a constant. So, if the population will double in the next 36 years, and double again in the following 36 years, and so on, then it’s growing exponentially. There’s even a simple rule-of-thumb relationship between doubling time and the percentage growth rate: Doubling Time = 72/(Percentage Growth Rate). So that population with a 36 year doubling time, is growing at a rate of 2% per year.

But probably the simplest way to describe exponential growth is with a graph, so here’s how it looks:

Figure 1. Exponential growth versus linear (straight-line) growth.

This graphic not only shows the classic upward-curving shape of the exponential growth curve, but also how it contrasts with growth that is linear, i.e. in a straight line. Additionally, it demonstrates a simple mathematical result: if one quantity is growing exponentially and a second quantity is growing linearly, the first quantity will eventually become larger than the second, no matter what their specific starting points or rates of growth.

This isn’t just abstract math; it also illustrates the most famous use of exponential growth in political debate. It was put forward by the English parson Robert Malthus over two centuries ago. He argued that the human population grows exponentially while food production can only grow linearly. Thus, it follows inevitably that the population will eventually outgrow the food supply, resulting in mass starvation. This is the case even if the food supply is initially abundant and growing rapidly (but linearly). The upward-bending-curve of an exponentially-growing population will always overtake it sooner or later, resulting in catastrophe.

Looking at real data

Critics ever since Malthus’ time have pointed out that his assumption that food production grows in a straight line is just that—an assumption, with little basis in theory. So I wasn’t surprised to see that the OWID data showed faster-than-linear (upward-curving) growth in global food production over the past half-century. What did surprise me was that the growth of the world’s population over that time period has actually been very close to a straight line.

Here’s that graph:

Figure 2. World population growth from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. To convert the index to actual numbers of people, just multiply the index value by 30,830,000, since the world population in 1961 was 3.083 billion.

The graph looks very much like a straight line rather than the upward-curving exponential, but is that really the case? We can test this by calculating the value of what statisticians call the R2 (or “coefficient of determination”) for this curve. The closer it is to a straight line, the higher R2 will be, and if the data fits a straight line perfectly then R2 will be exactly 1.0.

So, what’s the actual value for this data? It’s 0.9992. I.e. the fit to a straight line isn’t quite perfect, but it’s very, very close.

Is this some sort of artifact?

I was actually quite surprised at how well the data fit a straight line—so much so that I wondered if this was just an artifact of the method I used, rather than a real result. So I applied the same method—plot the data, fit a straight line to it, and calculate the value of R2—to the data for some of the world’s largest countries and regions, rather than the world as a whole.

For several of these, the lines looked very straight and the value of R2 was almost as high as in the graph for the world as a whole, or even slightly higher, e.g.:

Country or Region  R2 for the linear equation of Population vs. Time Brazil .9977 India .9954 Indonesia .9995 Latin America and the Caribbean .9994 North America .9966 Pacific island small states .9991

But for others it was considerably lower (e.g. .9777 for China, .9668 for the European Union) and two graphs proved clearly that the excellent fit to a straight line is a real result, not an artifact. These were the ones for Sub-Saharan Africa and Russia:

Figure 3. Population growth of Sub-Saharan Africa from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. Thin dotted line shows the best-fit straight line; thick dots show the actual data.

Figure 4. Population growth of Russia from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. Thin dotted line shows the best-fit straight line; thick dots show the actual data.

The point about the Sub-Saharan African graph is not simply that it has a lower value of R2 (0.964), but that its data deviates from the straight line in the way that an exponential curve should: higher than the straight line at the lowest and the highest time values, and lower than the straight line at the intermediate ones. It does fit an exponential curve quite well, thus showing that the method can pick out an exponential curve if the data do follow one. But this is the only region or large country for which that’s actually true.

The Russia graph doesn’t fit an exponential curve well at all—it actually curves downward overall, rather than upward as it should if it were an exponential—but it does show that the value of R2 can be much lower than 1.0 for real data. For Russia it’s 0.632. So as with the Sub-Saharan Africa case, it proves that the high value of R2 for the world as a whole is not an artifact caused by the method. It reflects the reality of the past 55 years.

Finally, since I and many of my readers are from the United States, here’s that graph:

Figure 5. Population growth of the United States from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. Thin dotted line shows the best-fit straight line; thick dots show the actual data.

For the US as for the whole world, population growth over the past half-century has been quite close to a straight line; the R2 is 0.9956.

A direct test of whether growth is exponential

These graphs and R2 values seem to indicate that linear growth is the best model for the world population over the past 55 years, but there’s another way to show that it’s not exponential. As I said above, exponential growth occurs when the percentage growth rate remains constant as the population gets bigger. So a simple test is to graph the percentage growth rate over time, and see whether it’s a constant—i.e., a horizontal line. So here’s that graph:

Figure 6. Percentage growth rate of the world population from 1961 to 2016, calculated from the official U.N. figures available at The trend lines goes downward over time, rather than being horizontal as it would if the percentage were a constant.

This result, like the others, is quite clear. The percentage growth rate is not a constant, as it should be if the population were growing exponentially. Rather, it has been dropping steadily over the past half-century, from over 2.0% in the early sixties to below 1.2% now.

What exponential growth is Not

So, we should stop saying that the world’s population is growing exponentially. That hasn’t been the case for at least 50 years. Exponential growth clearly doesn’t describe the global reality of the twenty-first century.

But there’s actually a second reason to stop saying that the global population is growing exponentially, and that’s because the term is so commonly misused and misunderstood. Note the next few times that you hear someone use the word, and I think you’ll find that it’s not being used in the sense of “constant percentage-growth-rate” or “constant doubling-time” or even just “an upward-bending curve.” Rather, it’s being used—often with an emphatic stress on the “-nen-” syllable and an implicit exclamation mark at the end of the phrase—to mean “rapidly” or “quickly” or “fast” or “big.”

That way of speaking is common, but it’s also just plain wrong. Remember the example that I started with: the exponential growth rate can be high (e.g. 10%) or low (e.g. 0.01%) or intermediate (e.g. 2%). In every case it’s exponential growth, but it’s very fast exponential growth if the growth rate is 10% and very slow exponential growth if it’s 0.01%.

I’m not that sanguine about getting people to go back to using “exponential” in its correct sense, but I think it’s at least worth a try. After all, we already have several other good words for that other, incorrect meaning—e.g. “fast” or “big.”


The results don’t just imply that we should talk about population growth differently, but also that we need to re-think how it relates to food production. There is good news in these data, because they show that hunger and environmental catastrophe is not at all inevitable. Malthus’ argument just doesn’t fit reality.

While linear growth has its challenges, it’s far easier to deal with than exponential growth. The distinction between growing exponentially and growing in a straight line does matter. On that point, at least, Malthus got it right.

FEMA and HUD Budgets are Vital for Disaster and Climate Preparedness

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Members of FEMA's Urban Search and Rescue Nebraska Task Force One comb a neighborhood for survivors impacted by flooding from Hurricane Harvey. FEMA

Last year’s record-breaking disasters—including hurricanes, wildfires and floods—were a reminder of how climate change and faulty development policies are colliding to create dangerous and costly outcomes for the American public. While much attention is focused on post-disaster recovery, we need to invest much more in preparing for disasters before they happen. The good news is that the omnibus budget deal recently passed by Congress appropriated significant funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help foster community resilience, in many cases undoing steep cuts that had been proposed by the Trump administration.

FEMA and HUD’s role in building disaster resilience

The omnibus budget deal recently passed by Congress was clearly influenced by the unprecedented series of disasters in 2017. There seems to be a dawning sense of new realities regarding extreme weather (even if some prefer to disavow climate science). We saw this reflected in the budgets of FEMA and HUD.

FEMA administers several programs that help states, territories, and tribal governments build back after disasters as well as invest in preparedness measures to reduce the risks and costs of future disasters. Done right, with future climate and other conditions in mind, these grants can be a powerful catalyst for building community resilience.

Key FEMA programs include:

  • The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which helps communities implement measures to reduce long-term risks to people and property from hazards after a presidential major disaster declaration. The HMGP provides funding for a range of activities including voluntary home buyouts, home elevation and infrastructure retrofits and is generally 15 percent of the total amount of Federal assistance provided to a State, Territory, or federally-recognized tribe following a major disaster declaration. To mark 30 years of this program, FEMA has created an online data visualization resource that summarizes data for HMGP projects by county, state, FEMA region or by Congressional District.
  • The Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Program, which helps state and local governments fund projects and plans to reduce the long-term risk of flood damages for properties insured by the National Flood Insurance Program. In the recently passed omnibus budget, this program’s budget was $175 million.
  • The Pre-disaster Mitigation (PDM) Grant Program, authorized by the Stafford Act to help states, local governments, and communities implement long-term measures to reduce the risks and losses from disasters. Typically, FEMA pays for 75 percent of project costs and states match the remaining 25 percent. In the omnibus, this program’s budget was $249.2 million. This was a striking increase from recent years, as one news story put it: that is three times the average annual amount over the past 15 years!
  • FEMA’s budget for flood risk mapping is also vital to ensuring that communities, planners, and policymakers are aware of these risks and can take protective measures to limit them. The omnibus budget provided $262.5 million for flood mapping.

HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, especially the CDBG-Disaster Recovery grants, are instrumental in helping low and moderate-income communities—often the hardest hit by disasters—prepare, recover and build resilience. Our nation has long under-invested in safe, affordable housing–a challenge which is further exacerbated when disasters strike. Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to decimate HUD’s budget with an $8.8 billion proposed cut, Congress passed an omnibus budget deal that increased funding for HUD across the board–including $1.36 billion for the HOME Program and $3.3 billion for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program.

Despite repeated attempts by the Trump administration to cut agency budgets, including FEMA and HUD’s, Congress has recognized the importance of their work for the well-being of the American public, and has maintained or increased funding levels. Unfortunately, funding still remains much below what is needed by communities, especially as the impacts of climate change worsen.

Another continued area of concern that Congress must stand up against is this administration’s attempts to sideline science in policymaking. A recent egregious example of this: FEMA scrubbed all references to “climate change” from its four-year strategic plan, released last month.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Investing in resilience ahead of disasters—so-called hazard mitigation—is incredibly cost-effective and can save lives. That’s the clear message from an authoritative report from the National Institute of Building Sciences, Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report. Based on nearly a quarter-century of data, the report found that hazard mitigation projects funded by FEMA, HUD and the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) can save the nation, on average, $6 in future disaster costs for every $1 invested (That ratio is even higher, 7:1, for measures to protect against riverine flooding).

The report also found that investing in measures that exceed requirements of the 2015 International Codes, the model building codes developed by the International Code Council, can save the nation $4 for every $1 spent. See the figure below for benefit-cost ratios for these two categories of protective measures to address different types of hazards.

In the aftermath of disasters, communities clearly need stepped-up aid, but the reality is we spend a lopsided amount of money post-disaster and shortchange pre-disaster investments to help limit costs and harms.  A 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report  found that from fiscal years 2011-2014, FEMA obligated more than $3.2 billion for the HMGP (Hazard Mitigation Grant Program) post-disaster hazard mitigation while the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program obligated approximately $222 million.

A recent paper from Kousky and Shabnam underscores the challenges, highlighting that:

For FEMA, almost 90% of flood risk reduction funding comes after a big flood and the HUD CDBG-DR funding is only after a major disaster. Across agencies, absent a severe flood, very few dollars for risk reduction are available.”

We also need more (bipartisan) action to foster preparedness 

It’s critical to support and bolster existing federal agency budgets and programs that are helping communities become more resilient, alongside funding to help them cope with and recover from disasters. It’s simply a commonsense way to help protect people and property—and it’s a smart use of taxpayer dollars.

What’s more, budgets for disaster preparedness and protective standards are a bipartisan priority, despite political polarization about some of the underlying climate-related risk factors.

For example, South Carolina Republican Representative Mark Sanford recently called for a flood-ready infrastructure standard, saying:

“The process of flooding and rebuilding has become increasingly costly, as taxpayer dollars are being spent to rebuild or repair public infrastructure – sometimes multiple times. It makes no sense to go through this cyclical and costly process when the simple step of strengthening the federal flood standard can save taxpayer money and protect our communities.”

This standard is sorely needed since the Trump administration rolled back the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard just before Hurricane Harvey hit.

Florida Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo has co-sponsored the National Mitigation Investment Act, which provides incentives for states to invest more in protective building standards.

Federal, state, and local policymakers will also need to do a lot more to align existing and new policies and incentives with worsening risks in a warming world. One important near-term opportunity is reforming the National Flood Insurance Program, which the omnibus bill sets up for reauthorization by July 31 this year.

State and local governments leading the way

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, recently filed legislation for a $1.4 billion climate adaptation bond to help the state prepare for the impacts of climate change. Coming off a brutal series of winter storms, accompanied by damaging coastal flooding, the Governor and the legislature now have an opportunity to pass legislation to address the near and long term threats of climate change.

At the local level we need to see more progress along the lines of the encouraging news last week that the Houston City Council has just adopted more protective building standards in the city’s flood-prone areas. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said it best:

“We’re going to be futuristic. We are not going to build looking back. We’re going to build looking forward.”

That’s a goal our nation must aspire toward, especially as climate projections show an increasing risk of many types of disasters.

FEMA News Photo

With Pruitt Under Fire, Likely Successor Andrew Wheeler’s Coal Ties Deserve Scrutiny

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Photo: Senate EPW

As ethics storm clouds build over Scott Pruitt, environmentalists eager for a new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should beware.

That is because the odds-on next leader of the EPA is Andrew Wheeler. He has been an unabashed inside man for major polluters on Capitol Hill. He lobbied for coal giant Murray Energy, a captain in that company’s bitter war against President Obama’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and enact more stringent clean air and clean water rules.

Wheeler assisted the efforts of refrigerant companies to resist stricter ozone rules and represented Energy Fuels Resources, a uranium mining company that successfully pushed for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to shrink the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah 85 percent, despite all its riches in Native American archaeology and art.

Confirmation now up for a vote

Nominated last October by President Trump to be Pruitt’s deputy administrator, Wheeler’s confirmation has been in limbo. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fast-tracked Wheeler for a vote that could come next week, by filing cloture.

The evidence is abundant that Wheeler stands squarely with the agenda of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt to render the EPA as ineffective as possible. When Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times as Oklahoma attorney general between 2011 and 2017 on behalf of polluting industries, a top petitioner and co-petitioner in half those cases was coal giant Murray Energy. Wheeler was its lobbyist from 2009 to last year. Even with pro-coal President Trump well into his second year, CEO Robert Murray is still complaining in his current message on the company’s Website:

“Our industry is embattled from excessive federal government regulations from the Obama Administration and by the increased use of natural gas for the generation of electricity. In my sixty-one years of coal mining experience, I have never before seen the destruction of an industry that we saw during the Obama presidency.”

An action plan for rollbacks

Wheeler accompanied Murray to the now-notorious meeting a year ago with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the one in which Murray handed Perry a 16-point action plan “which will help in getting America’s coal miners back to work.” That plan ultimately became the framework of a proposal by Perry to bail out struggling coal and nuclear power plants (Wheeler was also a nuclear industry lobbyist).

That particular proposal was shot down by federal regulators, but Trump and Pruitt have made good or are making good on most of those 16 points, including the US pullout from the Paris climate accords, the rejection of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and slashing the staff of the EPA down to a level not seen since the 1980s attacks on the agency by President Reagan.

In suggesting that EPA employees be cut by at least half, Murray’s action plan claimed that the verbiage of Obama-era EPA rules were “thirty-eight (38) times the words in our Holy Bible.”

Wheeler has denied helping Murray draw up that document, but he certainly shares its sentiments, telling a coal conference in 2016, “We’ve never seen one industry under siege by so many different regulations from so many different federal agencies at one time. This is unprecedented. Nobody has ever faced this in the history of the regulatory agenda.”

Longtime Inhofe aide

Wheeler’s vigorous lobbying career came after serving as a longtime aide to the Senate’s most vocal climate change denier, Oklahoma’s James Inhofe. When the Trump administration announced Wheeler’s nomination, Inhofe hailed Wheeler as a “close friend.” That closeness was evident last May when Wheeler held a fundraiser for Inhofe, as well as for Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee that advanced his nomination by a party-line 11-10 vote. The Intercept online news service reported that Wheeler held the fundraisers after it was reported that he was under consideration to be Pruitt’s second in command.

Up until now, Wheeler has escaped the harsh scrutiny that has forced the withdrawal of some Trump appointees who were seen as embarrassingly close to industry, such as Michael Dourson’s failed bid to oversee chemical safety at EPA. Part of that was his good luck in being paired in his committee hearing last November with Kathleen Hartnett White, who spectacularly flamed out with her blatant skepticism about the sources of climate change, once calling carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, the “gas of life.”

By contrast, Wheeler slickly held to dry, brief statements that climate change is real, while agreeing with Trump’s pullout of global climate change accords. He even tried to play the good Boy Scout. After Tom Carper of Delaware recited Scouting’s commitment to conservation, Wheeler said, “I agree with you that we have a responsibility in the stewardship of the planet to leave it in better shape than we found it for our children, grandchildren, and nephews.”

His long track record of lobbying suggests the opposite.

Pruitt Needs to Go—But So Do Others in Pruitt’s Conflicted and Corrupt EPA

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt seems to have a penchant for scandalous behavior, from misuse of public funds to special deals with corporate lobbyists. It was hard to keep up this week with Pruitt press.  Sometimes it is hard to remember that each of these inappropriate actions by the Administrator is connected to an action that undermines public health and safety protections, as described by my colleague Josh Goldman.

And there is really no question that it is time for Pruitt to leave the agency that he leads. He has done more than enough damage to the work of the EPA, sidelining science at the expense of Americans’ health and safety. I certainly hope that the White House hears from Congress and the public that we have all had enough of Mr. Pruitt.

Unfortunately, it will take more than just change at the top for the EPA to once again serve the critical mission it is charged with by Congress—and that all of us in the public need. Mr. Pruitt has filled key positions in the agencies with lobbyists for regulated industry, cronies from Oklahoma and others with deeply held positions in opposition to the agency’s mission.

The year of hiring dangerously

Several months ago I wrote that too many of the Trump Administration’s appointees either have deep conflicts of interest, are opposed to the mission of the agencies they are appointed to, or are fundamentally unqualified. At the EPA, all of those problems are on prominent display, and they don’t end when and if Pruitt is shown the door.

One of the scandals revealed this week is that Mr. Pruitt used a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to appoint Dr. Nancy Beck outside of civil service rules and the ethics requirements of the Trump Administration. He did this because, at the behest of the chemical industry, he wanted former lobbyist Beck to re-write (read: weaken) chemical safety rules. Dr. Beck couldn’t meet President Trump’s own ethics requirements because she previously lobbied for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) on those very rules and therefore has a deep conflict of interest. The result: the implementation of the Chemical Safety Act has been weakened and—shockingly—the rules now fully reflect the ACC stated desires, ignoring input from all other interested parties—like public health experts and affected communities.

Or this week, Mr. Pruitt withdrew common sense automotive fuel efficiency standards that clean our air and save drivers money at the pump. These are standards the auto industry had negotiated and applauded when taxpayers were footing the bill for a huge industry bailout in 2008. Nonetheless, Mr. Pruitt, working with the automakers trade group withdrew that standard without any supporting analysis. Integral to that rollback was EPA Senior Clean Air Advisor William Wehrum, a lawyer for oil, gas, coal and chemical industries. During his career he sued the EPA more than 30 times to rollback public health protections. Not only does he have conflicts of interest because of his recent clients, but this record shows he is largely opposed to the EPA’s mission. Recently he was the architect of a new EPA legal interpretation that has the potential to dramatically increase emissions of hazardous, cancer-causing pollutants from industrial facilities all around the country.

Conflicted and corrupted

Mr. Pruitt has also brought on board EPA staff Dr. Richard Yamada in the Office of Research and Development. Dr. Yamada previously worked with Rep. Lamar Smith (R–TX) to push forward legislative efforts to give regulated industries more seats on EPA’s Science Advisory Boards, as well as excluding certain peer-reviewed science the agency can consider when implementing health and safety protections. Neither of those efforts were successful in Congress. Undaunted, Mr. Pruitt and Dr. Yamada are pushing their implementation by administrative directives, circumventing the will of Congress. They are busy excluding independent scientists from serving as advisors while packing the Boards with industry-based scientists that have been employed to cast doubt on the need for public health protections.

For example, one of their recent advisory board appointees has argued that “modern air is a little too clean for optimum health” and needs to be dirtier to protect the public. At the same time, Dr. Yamada is crafting rules to exclude from consideration many public health studies unless all the underlying raw data is released to the public. But since they are studies of public health they rely on the private medical information of real people that can’t be made public. In other words, the EPA shouldn’t use public health science to protect public health. That’s what I mean when I say some appointees seem fundamentally opposed to the mission of the agency.

The collection of conflicted aides stretches into the dozens.

Another on the list: Liz Bowman, Associate Administrator for Public Affairs and Pruitt’s lead spokesperson (and former chemical industry exec) has sought to mislead the American public about Mr. Pruitt’s long list of scandals. Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett, who previously lobbied with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, also faced pushback from Senators over the significant conflicts of interest she would face in her job with EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations. Erik Baptist, a former lobbyist with the American Petroleum Institute, joined Pruitt’s EPA as a top lawyer who was approved to advise Pruitt on the renewable fuel law.

And finally, there are the close aides Mr. Pruitt brought in with him to make the unprecedented assault on our children’s and families’ health and safety. One notable name is Albert “Kell” Kelly—disgraced banker (banned from banking for life by the FDIC) and friend of Pruitt from Oklahoma who has no environmental background, but was nonetheless hired to run the cleanup of Superfund sites. Twenty-five million Americans live within 10 miles of these highly toxic industrial waste sites—relicts of the days before polluting industries were regulated by the EPA. It should not escape anyone’s notice that these are the good ol’ days that Mr. Pruitt and his inner circle would like us to return to.

So, yes, Mr. Pruitt, we’re ready to say bye bye. But when you go, please take your corrupt and conflicted colleagues with you (more than I could name in a single post). The EPA needs to get back to doing what we need it to do—protect public health and safety. We don’t need the most extreme positions of some industry groups that oppose any and all regulation at the expense of our children and families. We need EPA and its many highly skilled and committed civil servants, scientists, policy experts, administrative professionals, lawyers and enforcement officers to do the jobs that they do so well. On behalf of all of us—the public.

Shell Knew About Climate Risks Since the 1980s, Will it Act Now?

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Shell sign in gas stationPhoto: David Nagy CC-BY-SA-2.0 (Flickr)

The year is 1988. The Wonder Years debuts on TV, George Michael’s “Faith” tops the Billboard charts, gas costs $1.67 at the pump, the U.S. Surgeon General states that the addictive properties of nicotine are similar to those of heroin and cocaine, and Royal Dutch Shell writes a confidential report on climate science and its own role in global warming. This report is one of dozens of internal documents unearthed by journalist Jelmer Molmers of De Correspondent and posted this week on Climate Files that shed more light on what Shell knew decades ago about the risks of burning fossil fuels.

These documents are enormously significant in efforts to hold the company accountable to its stated support for the Paris Climate Agreement. Their release comes a week after Shell rolled out its Sky scenario illustrating a possible pathway for the world to achieve the goal of keeping global temperature increase well below 2 degrees Celsius—and sets up a showdown leading into the company’s annual meeting in The Hague next month, with Shell facing mounting pressure from climate litigation and its own shareholders.

“…it could be too late…”

The Greenhouse Effect,” a 1988 document marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” details Shell’s extensive knowledge of climate change impacts and implications. It includes this sobering observation:

“However, by the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation.”

Let that sink in. Shell knew in 1988—30 years ago—the enormous risks of fossil fuels. Not just that greenhouse gas emissions would warm that planet, and that the contribution of its products to heat-trapping emissions could be calculated (as scientists have since done in peer-reviewed research), but that in order to avoid impacts we needed to take action. Those detectable impacts—rising seas, wildfires, flooding, extreme heat—are now affecting every corner of the globe. A 1991 Shell video revealed last year by The Guardian warned of climate change “at a rate faster than at any time since the end of the ice age—change too fast perhaps for life to adapt, without severe dislocation.”

Yet what did Shell do? Along with other major fossil fuel companies, it deceived the public about the risks of its products and kept us on a path of unabated fossil fuel extraction. By 1994, Shell was emphasizing uncertainties in climate science in an updated internal document titled “The Enhanced Greenhouse Effect.” As my colleague Peter Frumhoff told Climate Liability News, “The company goes from saying ‘if we wait until all the scientific questions are answered it may be too late’ to saying ‘we have to wait until all of these scientific questions are answered.’”

Legal Challenges

The newly-released documents are likely to be relevant in climate-related litigation targeting Shell and other major fossil fuel companies. This week, Friends of the Earth Netherlands / Milieudefensie demanded that Shell align its business model with the Paris Climate Agreement or face legal consequences. The organization says it will sue the company if it fails to take action within eight weeks.

The Dutch lawsuit would compound the legal trouble Shell faces from lawsuits by New York City and several California communities over its contributions to climate change. Yet unlike those suits, which seek to recover costs to address climate damages and prepare for future impacts, this case would be the first to call for action by a company to prevent further climate change. It would open a new frontier in climate liability, and in efforts to use the courts to hold corporations accountable to human rights obligations and broad societal norms.

Shareholder concerns

Shell’s deadline to respond to Milieudefensie comes just a week after the company’s annual general meeting, scheduled for May 22 in The Hague. In its latest filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Shell acknowledged financial risks associated with “lawsuits seeking to hold fossil fuel companies liable for costs associated with climate change.” Shareholders should grill company decision-makers about the implications of the newly-released internal documents for current and potential litigation against Shell.

Some shareholders are already calling for changes to Shell’s business model similar to those outlined in the Milieudefensie liability letter. The Dutch organization Follow This has again filed a shareholder resolution requesting that Shell “set and publish targets that are aligned with the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C.”

Shell launched its Sky scenario last week with great fanfare, and won praise for its pledge last November to double spending on clean power and halve the carbon footprint of the energy it sells by 2050. Shell has gone farther than many of its peers in analyzing what a 2°C or lower scenario would mean for its business, addressing mainstream investor expectations such as the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). Yet serious questions remain, including about the company’s reliance on yet-to-be-developed technologies to achieve negative emissions—read more here and here and here.

Just over a year ago, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden remarked that, “Trust has been eroded to the point where it is an issue for our long-term future.” With this week’s revelations, erosion has turned into a mudslide.

Thanks to my colleagues Jean Sideris and Ja-Rei Wang for their contributions to this blog.

David Nagy

Grasping for “Hopeful Signs,” Washington Post Downplays the Dangers of Trump Administration Attacks on Science and Public Health

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

The headline of a Washington Post editorial board piece caught me off guard last week. It read, “Trump’s record on science so far is a mixed bag.” I read on to try and understand the points made but found myself disappointed and confused by the message conveyed.

Somehow despite the Trump administration appointing several climate deniers to key public health positions, working more closely with the oil and gas industry on policy than with public health organizations, and failing to name a science advisor, the authors argue that that there are “hopeful signs” in the public health arena despite the failures to protect the environment and reasonably approach the risks of climate change.

But to the editorial board of the Washington Post I say: you cannot separate public health from the environment and climate change. Just because the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has health in its name doesn’t mean it’s the only federal agency responsible for protecting public health. The fact is that our health is affected by a host of public policy decisions outside of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) purview. What about environmental health at the EPA? Occupational health at the Department of Labor? Nutrition and food safety at the Department of Agriculture? I have a hard time thinking of a single federal agency the decisions at which don’t have impacts on public health in some way. Every arm of the federal government has a responsibility to protect all Americans from a variety of potential harms, from malnutrition to the devastating health impacts of poverty.

You might not think of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, as having public health impacts. But, researchers have found that individuals receiving housing assistance from HUD are more likely to have access to health care than those on waitlists to receive housing assistance.

What about the Department of Commerce? The U.S. Census Bureau provides accurate and up-to-date statistics on a range of issues related to health in the United States, ranging from fertility to disability to health insurance coverage. This information helps other government agencies, state health departments, organizations, and the rest of us identify what health interventions might be needed for certain communities.

To narrow the focus of positive scientific developments to just one federal department and to use what I would consider a low bar for a good record on science fails to consider the ramifications that the Trump Administration’s actions and general disdain for science are having and will continue to have on public health. Yes, it’s true that the National Institutes of Health director and the CDC director are scientifically qualified to hold those positions. It’s true that Alex Azar, new head of HHS, has publicly stated that the CDC should be able to conduct research on the impacts of gun violence on public health. But, it’s also almost a year and half into the Trump administration and we’ve seen FDA’s Scott Gottlieb delay science-based added sugar labels at industry’s request, the previous CDC director resigned due to conflicts of interest so serious that she was unable to contribute to discussions ranging from tobacco to Zika vaccines, HHS removed LGBT health resources from its Office on Women’s Health website last fall and defunded over $200 million in teen pregnancy prevention program grants. The list goes on.

While there is promise of science-based policy decisions that will come out of HHS, there are also great concerns about the public health ramifications of this administration’s already very long list of attacks on science. At the EPA alone, the 22 deregulatory actions that Administrator Pruitt has bragged about saving taxpayer dollars actually will mean unrealized benefits for communities facing risks from environmental contaminants throughout the country.

For example, Pruitt has issued a proposed rulemaking to begin rolling back the 2015 Coal Ash Rule which would have required utility companies to monitor ponds storing coal ash waste (a byproduct of coal production), report leaks and spills regularly, and make lining ponds mandatory. If this federal requirement is no longer in place, we will see continued leakage of heavy metals into groundwater and surface water with known health consequences, including cancer risk, for nearby community members. Administrator Pruitt is doubling down on his misunderstanding of how science should inform policy by hinting at issuing a directive that would enact language from the HONEST Act. This would be an asinine move that would hamstring EPA’s ability to use a variety of scientific studies to support its policies which would have a drastic impact on its ability to enforce its own standards to protect public health from things like air pollution and lead contamination.

There have been several attempts at other agencies, like the Department of Interior (DOI), to stop monitoring and collecting data on environmental health impacts altogether. In August, DOI halted a National Academies study it had begun to fund that would have looked at the impacts of coal mining operations on residents of Appalachian states. Then, in December, DOI ordered NAS to cease yet another planned study that would review the department’s ability to inspect offshore oil and gas operations, originally commissioned to help prevent public health risks the likes of which were seen after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion. These research endeavors would have contributed to the body of evidence to help the government better protect public health from oil spills and downstream impacts of coal mining, but the administration’s actions display apathy toward both evidence and protecting public health.

And while there has been some progress made in defense of science priorities, like the fact that the 2018 fiscal year budget from Congress was signed by the President even as it protected strong funding to the science agencies, the mere fact that the President’s budget initially called for a 30% decrease in funding for EPA, and its Office of Research and Development and enforcement programs shows that using science to protect public health is not a priority for this administration. Acknowledging this fact, we understand how important our role is to continue to defend the scientific work of each agency so that we can preserve as much of our public health safety net as possible, despite political appointees’ and industry lobbyists’ best efforts to undermine it.

This week marks National Public Health Week as designated by the American Public Health Association, and while we should think about how to better protect the health of the next generation this week, we should remember that there are children at risk every second. All arms of government and all of us have a role to play in improving their lives not just through better access to healthcare, but through public safeguards that minimize or eliminate risk from all exposures. From air quality controls to pesticide tolerance levels to gun safety reforms, it’s our duty to build, not to demolish, the public health infrastructure that will allow the next generation to accomplish all of the feats they aim to take on.

Follow along with the American Public Health Association’s National Public Health Week’s conversations on twitter @NPHW and with the hashtag #NPHW.

Empowering Early Career Scientists to Engage in Science Advocacy, Policy and Communication

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Photo credit: Alina Chan, Future of Research

As a member of and an advocate for the early career scientist community, I strongly believe that we are the future of science. We need to engage in activities that allow us to use our voice for the greater good, and we must do this through multiple avenues. Adapting to the changing landscape of the scientific enterprise requires integrating professional development activities into the training of early career scientists, in order to create “whole scientists.” This culture shift will enable us to utilize valuable skills acquired during our training to benefit society.

Two important aspects of this training are developing the ability to explain science to various audiences, and to effectively advocate for the importance of science within our own institutions, to policy makers, and to the general public. In a sense, I believe it is the responsibility of our generation to be the change we want to see, and to lead by example in engaging others to participate in this change with us.

It is encouraging to see that many early career scientists today seek to engage in science advocacy. But in order to achieve our advocacy goals, it is imperative to receive proper training in this area. In 2016, three organizations (Future of Research, Academics for the Future of Science, and the MIT Graduate Student Council) organized a joint “Advocating for Science” symposium and workshop in Boston, MA, with the goal of sharing tools and skills necessary to train early career scientists in advocacy. The event highlighted the eagerness of participants to advocate for a particular cause, with the overall goal of improving specific aspects of the scientific enterprise. Overall, this event catalyzed the power of early career scientists to participate in culture change around science advocacy by preparing them for future engagement opportunities.

Preparing for a career that connects science and society

Similar to most early career scientists today, I now seek a non-academic career that fulfills a greater purpose. At the same time, I am part of a generation of early career scientists that is well aware of how our academic training is not preparing us for desired (non-academic) careers. This is a particularly important consideration given that academic careers are now becoming the minority, and more early career scientists are transitioning into occupations where their scientific skills can be applied towards broader societal impacts. In particular, as science advocacy, policy and communication careers are now becoming more popular with early career scientists, the manner in which they are trained for various career paths must drastically change.

At the core of Future of Research is our mission to champion, engage and empower early career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor.” To this end, we propose changes in the scientific training environment in order to enable a more effective level of engagement in activities that complement our scientific training at the bench. The ability to communicate our science to various audiences will only enrich this training and enable us to advocate for our cause. However, this shift requires a culture change around science communication and other skills, both within academia and beyond. While many barriers still exist to enacting this change, early career scientists in many cases have developed their own programs in universities, being able to also engage others in these types of activities.

Developing initiatives at the university level to enhance advocacy, policy and science communication skills for early career scientists, in which they learn to describe their science to various audiences, is a necessary and valuable skill. Some general examples of these types of efforts are storytelling strategies, podcasts, and groups in universities. Additionally, while I was a postdoc, I developed a career seminar series to expose graduate students and postdocs to different career options. I also organized symposia to create a sense of community among scientists at all levels in the Midwest within my area of research, and to give early career scientists a voice in this event and connect with other junior and senior scientists in the area working on similar research topics.

These efforts demonstrate the willingness of early career scientists themselves to change the culture around particular issues within their local communities. Nationally, many scientific societies and organizations seek to engage early career scientists in advocating for a cause of interest, providing a natural platform in which to advocate for particular issues in various settings and to various audiences. Taking advantage of these opportunities is vital to both our professional development as scientists and to maintaining the relevance of science in society.

Personally, my goal is to advocate for junior scientists. To this end, I have been a member of both local and national committees to benefit graduate students and postdocs (UofL Postdoctoral Studies Committee, ASCB COMPASS, National Postdoctoral Association), and more broadly advocating for this population through my role on the Future of Research Board of Directors. These leadership roles have allowed me to learn about the needs of early career scientists and devise ways to best engage them in changing the academic culture. These experiences have also enabled me to create and be part of a network of professionals who share these same goals, and these individuals were also instrumental in guiding my own career path towards researching and advocating for improved policies affecting early career scientists.

Find science advocacy, policy, and communication opportunities through Science Rising

There are many ways for early career scientists to demonstrate interest in these activities and to engage others in our cause. Joining organizations such as Future of Research and the Union of Concerned Scientists are positive ways to demonstrate commitment to particular advocacy causes that we feel passionate about. Participating in local policy meet-ups with groups such as Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy can also be a way to show interest in particular policy issues affecting scientists or the general practice of doing science, as well as broader issues related to the relationship between science and society. You can find out about more opportunities and resources related to advocacy, policy and science communication through Science Rising, a new effort designed to celebrate the connections between science and society, and showcase opportunities for science supporters around the country to get more involved in advocating for science within their community as well as nationally.

Future of Research recognizes the importance of engaging early career scientists in shaping the scientific enterprise in an evidence-based manner. At the same time, this population seeks to engage with various stakeholders in advancing and advocating for the importance of science in society. We are proud to support the Science Rising movement and encourage the involvement of early career scientists in such national efforts.

Early career scientists still face many barriers to moving ahead towards effecting change. For this reason, we need everyone to get involved. Whether it’s designing career development programs on your campus or exploring ways to engage in science advocacy as a constituent, there are many ways to make a broader societal impact with your science.


Adriana Bankston is a bench scientist turned science policy researcher. She is a member of the Board of Directors at Future of Research, a nonprofit organization with a mission to champion, engage and empower early career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor. Her goals are to promote science policy and advocacy for junior scientists, and to gather and present data on various issues in the current scientific system. Previously, she was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Louisville. Adriana obtained a B.S. degree in Biological Sciences from Clemson University and a Ph.D. degree in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University. Find her on Twitter at @AdrianaBankston

Science is Rising. Will You Rise With Us?

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

At last year’s March for Science, many wondered what would come next. Would the march be a blip, or did it represent a new era in science activism? We find that the enthusiasm for defending the role of science in public life has only deepened. Scientists and their allies went right from the streets into their communities and legislators’ offices, planning for the long haul.

At the same time, many scientists and scientific groups want to build on the successes and learn from the mistakes of others. That’s why today, UCS is partnering with a variety of science organizations to launch Science Rising, an initiative to help others make connections and put science to work for justice and the public interest.

Scientists are self-organizing, and are doing so around science issues in areas where they have not been as vocal in the past.

Scientists in Missoula, MT met with Republican and Democratic state legislators in March to better understand how to effectively communicate with elected officials.

Over the last year, some efforts were directly supported by UCS. The Penn State Science Policy Society convened a listening session to build relationships between scientists and community leaders. In Iowa, scientists organized a major advocacy day to urge the state legislature to restore funding for a sustainable agricultural research center. At the University of Washington, graduate students developed a workshop to better understand how climate policy works in Washington state.

Many efforts were not. The Data Refuge Project, made famous for safeguarding government data, is building a storybank to document how data connects people, places, and non-human species. The city of Chicago, which hosted climate change information on its website that the EPA took down, held an event in February to discuss how the city can support expanded access to climate and environmental data on its website and support research related to environmental policy decisions.

Scientific societies and universities have jumped into the fray. From Cambridge, Ohio to Corinth, Texas, the Thriving Earth Exchange of the American Geophysical Union is helping scientists and community leaders tackle climate change and natural resource challenges. Then there’s the Concerned Scientists at Indiana, a recently-convened group independent from UCS that has held multiple events and trainings for scientists in Bloomington. 500 Women Scientists, which formed after the 2016 election, held science salons—public talks—around the world during Women’s History Month to raise funds for CienciaPR, which promotes science education and research in Puerto Rico.

Make no mistake: this is just the beginning. There’s a thirst among scientists to create the infrastructure that is necessary to share ideas, amplify efforts, and keep the momentum going. And it’s clear that scientists are ready to stimulate conversation around science policy and take actions that restore it to its rightful place in policy decisions. As we head into the midterm elections, scientists and their institutions will be increasingly active in getting congressional candidates to articulate where they stand on science issues and whether and how they plan to hold the Trump administration accountable.

But to really catalyze the energy that is out there, we have to pool resources. On the Science Rising website you can explore how to organize events in your community that help you stand up for science. How to connect with legislators and inform media coverage. How to organize events, get active on social media, connect with local community organizations. And ultimately, how to inspire others to follow your lead.

Zachary Knecht, who leads the Brandeis Science Policy Initiative, is excited about making connections through this project. “Even in our interconnected world, academic life can be very isolating,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical for those of us engaged in the science policy sphere to be able to coordinate our efforts, and Science Rising provides a centralized platform to do that.”

Find out what’s happening in your area. Check out what other scientists and groups of scientists are doing that you can emulate. Figure out how to take your own interest in activism to the next level. Other groups and individuals will share what they are doing and learning. Make your contribution at

Newsflash: Better Fuel Efficiency is Good For Jobs

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Factory worker in a car assembly line.

For all the rhetoric coming from the administration around proposed rollbacks to the EPA’s vehicle emission standards, one would think that existing standards are somehow inflicting damage on our economy.  EPA administrator Scott Pruitt even gave a shout out to the “Jobs” signs at the event where he announced the EPA will be rolling back the standards.  But he’s got it all wrong. Keeping the standards strong is the best way to help grow jobs and support our economy.  Investing in technology advancement in the auto industry and saving consumers money on fuel – both outcomes of clean car standards – help to create jobs and make our economy stronger.

“I love these signs, particularly the ones that say ‘Jobs’.” EPA Administrator Pruitt, April 3, 2018 in announcing rollbacks to federal vehicle emission standards. Analysis by Synapse Energy Economics shows that keeping emissions and efficiency standards strong will create jobs.

A new analysis by Synapse Energy Economics examined the existing state and federal clean car standards currently on the books through 2025 to estimate their impact on US jobs and the US economy.  They found clean car standards will:

  • Add more than 100,000 jobs in 2025 with that number increasing to more than 250,000 in 2035.
  • Increase US gross domestic product by more than $13 billion in 2025 and more than $16 billion in 2035.
  • Save consumers nearly $40 billion in annual fuel costs by 2025 and $90 billion by 2035

For details, visit see our fact sheet: Cleaner Cars Are Good for Jobs.

Why the good news?

So wait a minute.  Doesn’t it cost money to make cars more efficient and less polluting?  Yes.  But just like that more efficient refrigerator might cost a little extra upfront, the lower operating costs more than make up for it, leaving more money in your pocket to spend how you like.

It turns out, savings from improved fuel efficiency adds up to billions of dollars every year. To date, Americans have already saved more than $57 billion dollars at the pump since 2010 because of clean car standards. And spending those savings on things other than gasoline is a whole lot better for our economy. (This is old news – I wrote about this in 2011).

In addition, the standards drive the auto industry to innovate. That means more R&D, manufacturing and engineering, creating jobs throughout the supply chain.

What did Indiana University get wrong?

In the administration’s final determination notice to revise the standards, they cite a study by Indiana University, paid for by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which concluded that clean car standards would cause near-term job losses, but be positive in the long-run.  However, Synapse’s analysis found both short-term and long-term economic benefits.  Why the difference?

Indiana University study’s macro-economic modeling assumes all consumers use cash to purchase their vehicle—in fact, only 30 percent do so—and assumes consumers do not factor fuel economy into their vehicle purchasing decisions, even though evidence shows consumers value fuel economy as well as price when purchasing a vehicle. These erroneous assumptions led to erroneous results that just don’t hold up.

Bottom line: Federal and state clean car standards drive the deployment of more fuel-efficient vehicles. Developing and building these vehicles creates thousands of new jobs, while the money consumers save on fuel can be spent on other goods and services, boosting the economy overall.

The administration’s actions to weaken standards will hurt US jobs and the US auto industry, despite what their signs say and how much Administrator Pruitt loves them (starting at minute 2:33).

5 Things the EPA Gets Wrong as it Re-Evaluates the Fuel Efficiency Standards (and One Thing it Ignores)

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Industry Representatives and Administrator Pruitt looking quite pleased at the press conference where they rolled out their rollback of the fuel efficiency standards. Left to right - Peter Welch, NADA, Administrator Pruitt, Mitch Bainwal, Alliance, John Bozzella, Global. Screenshot from C-SPAN

On Monday April 2nd, the EPA released a “redetermination” of the incredibly popular and successful car and light truck global warming emissions standards – spoiler alert – EPA said that the standards are not appropriate and need to be weakened.  As a reminder, the Obama administration previously completed the mid-term evaluation of the standards and issued a Final Determination that the standards are appropriate out through 2025.  Within a month of taking office, Administrator Pruitt promised that he would redo the Final Determination and voilà – here it is.

Reading the EPA’s redetermination is mind-boggling – it is basically a regurgitation of industry talking points put forward by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (Alliance) and Global Automakers (Global) in the public record.

Some comments that were in opposition to the auto industry talking points were alluded to in the document, but there is no substantive evaluation of any of them. Nothing approaching a robust technical debate of any information is presented in this report — it is simply declarative, substituting the political will of the Administrator to side with industry for the hard, ignoring the scientific rigor found in the 2017 Final Determination.

Although the redetermination is full of questionable assumptions and strange conclusions, we picked five falsehoods that are core to their reasoning and explain why they’re wrong.

Falsehood 1

What they say: Vehicle costs were underestimated in the EPA’s original record that was foundational to the first Final Determination.

Why they’re wrong: When it comes to technology costs, EPA ignores the large number of peer-reviewed publications from its own technical staff showing how manufacturers can meet the 2025 standards, even without significant penetration of plug-in electric vehicles or strong hybrids.  It takes at face value automaker claims about the level of technologies needed to achieve the standards, without actually examining the studies cited by the automakers in making those erroneous claims, studies which in fact contradict the automakers’ assertions that significant penetration of advanced technology is necessary.  It also ignores the latest evidence on the vehicle costs needed to meet the rules.

Falsehood 2

What they say: Gas prices have changed since the rule was finalized in 2012.

Why they’re wrong: Gas price projections did change between 2012 and 2018.  However, when the agency updated their analysis for the mid-term evaluation and did the Final Determination in January 2017, they took that into account.  The projected gas prices used in the previous administrations’ Proposed and Final Determinations are nearly identical to current gas price projections.  Why the current EPA decided to focus on this and say it was a reason to re-evaluate the Final Determination is beyond me.

In one place, the redetermination exclaims that “lifetime fuel savings to consumers can change by almost 200 percent per vehicles based on the assumption on gas prices according to the 2016 Proposed Determination (Table IV.12).”  This is true.  A quick look at the table (below) clearly shows that fuel savings can go from good to great depending on the gas prices expected in 2025, ranging from $1,439 to $4,209 over the lifetime of the average vehicle, which is all good news for consumers.

Falsehood 3

What they say: “Consumers’ preferences are not necessarily aligned to meet emission standards and there is uncertainty on this issue that merits further consideration.”

Why they’re wrong: They got out of their way to say that consumers don’t want fuel efficient vehicles, which is not the data we’ve seen.

They cite an automaker point that only 5% of 2017 sales of normal gasoline-powered vehicles would meet 2025 standards. I don’t know why they would expect today’s vehicles to meet standards 8 years out.  The whole point of the standards is to make sure that vehicles get more efficient over time.

Auto manufacturers redesign vehicles every five years or so – it is in these product redesigns that they make major changes in the body style, and the efficiency of the engine and other components.  In eight years, all vehicles are going through at least one redesign, which is plenty of opportunity to make vehicles more efficient so they meet the standards.

It’s worth noting that models of popular vehicles like the Ford F-150 and Toyota Camry already meet targets well into the future—there is lots of opportunity to improve the efficiency of these vehicles and ample technology to do so, as reams and reams of research ignored by the agency can attest.

In addition, the way the standards work, not every vehicle needs to be exactly in compliance every year because they are based on an average.  There are flexibilities built into the program that allow manufacturers to bank and borrow credits over time because it is understood that vehicles will be more efficient right after a redesign and may be less efficient than the standards when it’s approaching its next redesign.

They also show misleading data on the uptake of electric vehicles by consumers.  Plug-in electric vehicle sales are increasing every year and as more models are introduced in varying sizes, more consumers will be able to consider them as an option for their lifestyle. Moreover, hybrid sales also grew from 2016 to 2017; conveniently, EPA excluded 2017 because it was a chart lifted from Alliance comments rather than analyzed with any sort of independent rationale.

Lastly, multiple polls have shown that consumers value fuel economy strongly. A NRDC poll from 2016 showed that 95% of Americans agree that “Automakers should continue to improve fuel economy for all vehicle types” and 79% of Americans believe that “The U.S. government should continue to increase fuel efficiency standards and enforce them”. Consumers Union has also published multiple polls that show that nearly 9 in 10 Americans think that automakers should continue to raise vehicle fuel economy.  And a poll released by the American Lung Association last week showed that after people hear balanced arguments from each side, their support for the standards increases slightly. It’s like I’m not alone in wanting to spend less money at the gas station.

Falsehood 4

What they say:  Consumers will be priced out of the market by these standards.

Why they’re wrong: Consumers are the greatest beneficiary of these savings.  As noted above, consumers stand to save thousands of dollars in fuel costs over the lifetime of their vehicles. In fact, consumers that finance their vehicles save money as soon as they drive their new cars off the lot, as the marginal cost of the fuel saving technology on their monthly payment is far exceeded by the money they save on fuel every month.

They also say that average new car sales transaction costs have increased as a result of the standards, a point which has been debunked repeatedly.  For example, Consumers Union showed that new car prices have remained relatively flat over the past 20 years with respect to inflation, and used car prices have fallen.  Similarly, auto analysts Alan Baum and Dan Luria showed that transaction prices are on the rise as a direct result of automakers upselling luxury packages to increasingly wealthy consumers.  All of this ignores consumers who are currently saving money due to paying less at the pump, which recent research shows disproportionately benefits low-income individuals, again a study acknowledged and ignored by Administrator Pruitt.

Falsehood 5

What they say: The growing preference for larger vehicles over cars make it harder to comply with the standards.

Why they’re wrong: The popularity of SUVs and light trucks doesn’t undermine the standards—it reinforces the need to maintain their strength.  Rather than setting a single greenhouse gas emission target for the average vehicle sold by a manufacturer, which is what the original vehicle standards did in the 1970’s, the new vehicle standards consider the size and type of the vehicles sold to determine each manufacturer’s target. This ensures that all vehicles improve their efficiency, including trucks and SUVs, while giving automakers flexibility in hitting their targets, based on the vehicles they sell. This system means that no particular vehicle model needs to be “in compliance”; some vehicles can achieve greater fuel economy and others less in a given year and the manufacturer’s fleet can still be in compliance with the standards.

What’s missing from the redetermination?

What they don’t say: Weakening the global warming emission standards endangers public health and welfare by contributing to global warming

Missing from the Revised Final Determination is any mention of climate change or its impacts, which endangers Americans now and into the future and is the reason that EPA sets these standards. Scientists warn that we must significantly reduce emissions of global warming pollutants to avoid the worst effects of climate change, including sea level rise, wildfires, and infectious diseases.  As it stands now, no other federal policy is delivering greater global warming emissions reductions than these vehicle standards. If the EPA completely rolls back the regulations, as some have signaled, that will mean an additional half billion tons of global warming emissions just from the vehicles sold between 2022-2025.  Doing so would make hitting our obligations under the Paris Climate Accord a virtual impossibility, significantly damaging our ability to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

We knew that this day was coming, but the extent to which this redetermination relies solely on industry arguments and ignores the robust analytics that underlie the original Final Determination is confounding.  It makes me think about the story that came out around Administrator Pruitt’s confirmation, when we learned that he took a letter written by a Devon energy lobbyist and put it on his OK Attorney General letterhead and submitted it to the Department of Interior.

This redetermination feels like that – like he just read the Alliance and Global comments and used their quotes to rewrite the determination.  It’s a slap in the face to everyone who cares about data, analytics, scientific integrity, and our climate.  We know he’s going to propose rolling back the standards in the proposed rule that we expect to see this summer.  The question is by how much.  We will keep a close eye on this and let you know what he proposes and ask for your help in keeping the standards strong.


Five (More) Pruitt Scandals That You Should Know About, But Probably Don’t

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been hit with a string of brewing corruption scandals that go beyond merely ordering a soundproof “privacy booth” that cost taxpayers up to $25,000, or spending over $105,000 on first-class flights in his first year on the job.

Stories broke this week that Pruitt allegedly: (1) rented a condo linked to lobbyists who represented an oil pipeline project the EPA approved last year and who donated to Pruitt’s campaign to become Oklahoma Attorney General, (2) looked into renting a private jet that would cost U.S. taxpayers $100,000…a month, (3) gave two of his staffers raises under a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), but not to actually work on water safety, and (4) lied to Congress about his use of private email to conduct government business.

This misuse of taxpayer dollars and pay-to-play corruption is infuriating – though unsurprising given what else is going on in this Administration – and indicates the type of person we have in charge of the federal agency charged with protecting our air, water, and health.

Pruitt doesn’t give two quarks about the U.S. taxpayer. Instead, these potential ethics violations highlight Pruitt’s penchant for using the office of the EPA Administrator to further industry interests, give handouts to his inner circle, and hide the evidence all along the way.

Although these corruption allegations are making headlines today, equal or greater attention must be paid to Pruitt’s somewhat quieter crusade to rollback regulations designed to protect our health and environment. These regulatory “reforms” haven’t garnered as much press coverage as Pruitt’s lavish spending, lobbyist connections, or shady dealings, but they are based on the same type of corrupt moral code Pruitt brings to the EPA and will cost more than just taxpayer dollars.

So, here are 5 regulatory rollback efforts currently underway at EPA that will impact our health and safety, and must be making headlines too

(1) Rollback of the “Glider Truck Rule”

Glider trucks are brand new truck bodies that manufactures cram an old polluting truck engine into so that the truck looks new from the outside but has an ancient polluting relic of an engine on the inside. The particulate matter emissions from these vehicles are estimated to cause 1,600 premature deaths each year. Pruitt’s EPA reopened a loophole that was closed under the Obama Administration so that these trucks can now be made primarily by a single company that has funded bogus science and anti-EPA politicians.

(2) Delay of Chemical Safety Standards

EPA had previously designed a suite of updated rules to protect fence-line communities and first responders from chemical accidents that happen like clockwork across the country. Over 2,000 incidents were reported between 2004 and 2013, and lives were lost. Over 17,000 people were injured and 59 people were killed during this period, and over 400,000 people experienced evacuations or shelter-in place orders because of a chemical-related accident. Upon entering office, Administrator Pruitt put this rule on hold almost 2 years later than the rule was supposed to go into effect. In just the last year, 33 more accidents occurred at facilities covered by these rules, and the consequences of these accidents may have been lessened or avoided if EPA didn’t initiate this delay.

(3) Rollback of the light-duty vehicle fuel efficiency standards

The light-duty vehicle fuel efficiency standards are a joint effort by EPA and DOT to improve the average fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles. These standards have been shown to not only reduce oil use and pollution, but also create jobs, give consumers more fuel-efficient vehicles across all vehicle classes, and have been widely supported. But, the EPA now doesn’t care about any of that as they have signaled that they are going to reconsider or rollback the fuel efficiency rules covering vehicle model years through 2025. This decision overturns thousands of pages of hard evidence, good science, and sound data, and undercuts one of the most important climate policies that is still on the books.

(4) Repeal of the Clean Power Plan

Last fall, the EPA issued a proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, a policy designed to reduce emissions from electric power generation approximately 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. By the EPA’s own estimates, the Clean Power Plan would prevent 90,000 pediatric asthma attacks and save 4,500 lives each year. The agency is still taking comment on that proposal, which, in addition to making a mockery of the value of human health and the environment, attempts to reinterpret the Clean Air Act as well as how the power system works in order to avoid the need for meaningful regulatory action. UCS, along with 250,000 others, submitted comments to EPA in support of maintaining this policy, though EPA is forecast to rule in favor of industry, rather than individuals.

(5) Failure to require mining companies to clean up their waste

Pruitt’s EPA decided not to finalize a proposal that would have required mining companies to prove they have the financial means to clean up pollution at mining sites, despite an industry legacy of abandoned mines that have fouled waterways across the country. The estimated 500,000 abandoned mine lands in the U.S. can pollute waterways for more than 100 years and pose significant risks to surface and ground water. Pruitt claimed that safe-checking mining companies with a long history of pollution was unnecessary and enforcing a regulation that makes mining companies clean up their mess would impose an undue burden.

Guess who now has to foot these bills? The U.S. taxpayer. EPA spent $1.1 billion on mining cleanups between 2010 and 2014 and EPA’s own documents report at least 52 mines and their processing sites have had spills and pollution releases since 1980. Hard-rock mining companies would have faced a combined $7.1 billion financial obligation under the dropped rule, costing them up to $171 million annually to set aside sufficient funds to pay for future cleanups, according to an EPA analysis. These costs will likely now be borne by the taxpayer instead of the responsible parties.


Secretary Zinke’s Diversity Problem

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

I was a career senior executive and climate policy advisor at the Interior Department before I was involuntarily reassigned by the Trump Administration. In my role I had been focused on leading an interagency response to the slow-moving disaster in America’s Arctic, where Alaska Natives were faced daily with the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. With the safety of Americans at risk, I was stunned that the new Trump Administration would so callously leave these people to their own devices.

I should not have been surprised.

I was only one of the 33 senior executives Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reassigned that night last June, and recently-released internal DOI documents that I requested months ago (and had to sue the agency to obtain) have shown that nearly half of the reassigned senior executives were minorities, a disproportionate number of them were women, and a full third of them were American Indian, as recently reported in Talking Points Memo.

This is appalling for many reasons, and not least because Interior plays an important role as the federal trustee for American Indians and Alaska Natives, (who, incidentally, make up 10% of the Interior workforce). For this reason there are special rules that provide an Indian preference in hiring for some positions, government-to-government consultation policies that require special effort to seek out and incorporate input from Tribes and Alaska Natives, and a long list of programs and activities—including my work with the Alaska Natives facing climate impacts—dedicated to their well-being.

Secretary Zinke, notoriously ignorant of the DOI mission, was briefed on these issues. During his address to all employees on day one of his new job as Secretary he included “American Indian sovereignty” as one of his top three priorities. Several weeks later, however, he inexplicably dropped this item from his list of top priorities and from his talking points when he addressed us at Interior headquarters once more. The anti-Indian tilt in last June’s mass reassignment action was just another insult to the American Indians that work for him.

Zinke wasn’t done insulting American Indians yet, though. In December, 2017 he traveled to Utah with President Trump to tell Americans that they were going to enact the largest reduction of protected lands in American history by shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments. This announcement was a slap in the face to the leadership of the four primary tribes who had advocated for protecting Bears Ears, a sacred area with one of the highest concentrations of archeological sites in the world. Subsequent document disclosures have shown that Zinke lied when he said there was no connection between this action and the oil and gas industry’s ambitions in the region.

Zinke’s neglect of the agency’s responsibilities toward American Indians and Alaska Natives even extends to grant programs that are meant to directly serve struggling tribal communities. The Tribal Resilience Grant Program was one of the few programs intended to help tribal communities specifically address their own resilience in the face of a changing climate and other threats, and he has refused to disperse the dollars that Congress has appropriated for this program. In 2017 DOI declined to announce a request for proposals, and the dollars still languish at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It remains to be seen if Zinke will be held accountable for this illegal act—known as impoundment—and forced by Congress to disperse those dollars in 2018.

While he seems to have it out for Indians in particular, Zinke has made no effort to prioritize diversity more generally. He was recently quoted as saying “I don’t care about diversity” and a recent scan of the DOI website found that the pages on diversity training have been cut back and in some cases eliminated.

It’s no secret that the Federal Government is a perennial laggard on workplace diversity—79% of Federal senior executives are white, for example—but at the Interior Department, the numbers of employed minorities are staggeringly low. Black representation at DOI is 5.6%, the lowest of any cabinet agency. Every Administration in recent memory has made efforts, some better than others, to improve these abysmal numbers, until now. It was almost comical, in a sad way, when Zinke’s spokesperson boasted that Zinke clearly cared about diversity because he had appointed two women and an African American to senior positions. Interior has 70,000 employees.

With his statements and actions, Secretary Zinke is stoking concerns that this administration is actively rejecting minorities and discriminating against American Indians and Alaska Natives, and that the 30% of his employees who belong to a minority will be singled out. Congressional staff have even speculated about which employees Zinke was referring to when he stated that 30% of DOI’s career staff are not “loyal to the flag” and one member of Congress has suggested that Zinke seeks to create a “lily-white Department”.

Until now, the media and public discourse has focused on Zinke’s efforts to stifle science, break down the agency, and hand public lands over to his oil and gas cronies. Certainly these actions will have direct consequences for American health and safety and the protection of our natural legacy. Compounding the mission failure, however, these recent revelations about Zinke’s discriminatory actions and lack of support for diversity in the workplace will have direct and tragic consequences for how one of America’s biggest federal agencies serves its employees, American Indians, and the American people.

It’s impossible to know what Zinke’s intentions are, but it’s clear that his actions are having a deleterious effect on the agency’s diversity, morale, and effectiveness. Rather than dismissing diversity and demeaning American Indians, Secretary Zinke should step up efforts to increase diversity and show that he is proud to serve and support the people who were making America great for millennia before the white man arrived.

Crop Diversity: A Nice Thing If You Can Get It (and You Can Get It If You Try)

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Extended crop rotations, which often include small grains like oats, pictured here, can provide financial benefits to farmers while also providing broader environmental benefits, like reduced soil erosion and runoff. Nick Ohde/Practical Farmers of Iowa

Diversity is incredibly important for a productive and resilient agrifood system. Diverse cropping systems can lead to greater  productivity, profitability and environmental health. Diversity in the form of extended crop rotations can also reduce weed, insect, and disease pressure, which can help farmers cut the costs of their purchased inputs like herbicides and insecticides. Beyond these financial benefits, diversifying crop rotations also provides broader environmental benefits that can be experienced at both the field scale (e.g., reduced erosion) and landscape scale (e.g., reduced water quality impairment), as noted in the UCS report Rotating Crops, Turning Profits

Greater cropping systems diversity can also help mitigate risks associated with the impacts of global climate change, which will drive more extreme and variable weather events, not to mention sustained temperature and precipitation changes that will impact agricultural production. Sadly, much of the agricultural production in the US, particularly in the Midwest, is lacking in biological diversity (at the genetic, species, and community level).

If diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, good for the land and often for our bottom line, why then are so few farmers, particularly in the Midwest, implementing diverse crop rotations?

Corn is king

In collaboration with colleagues at Iowa State University, I attempted to answer this question in a recent paper published with Global Environmental Change, using information from Midwest Corn Belt farmers collected via surveys and in-depth interviews to examine the facilitators and barriers of more diversified crop rotations. Overall, we found that many farmers are interested in more diverse crop rotations. However, many of them feel constrained by the current corn-corn and corn-soybean rotation that is ubiquitous across much of the Midwest—as a Wisconsin farmer said in our study, “now, you live or die by two crops.” This farmer went on to note that he did not think this adherence to such a limited crop rotation was sustainable for the long-term health of the region’s agricultural system.

Our study also found that many farmers acknowledge the benefits of diversifying their crop rotation. Some also see diverse crop rotations as a way to take advantage of climate-related changes. Unfortunately, many farmers could not figure out what crops would be financially viable in their operation given that there are few regionally competitive markets for diverse crops. We did find that greater diversity at the watershed level (measured at the HUC6 level) facilitates farmers’ use of diverse crop rotations, likely due to the presence of alternative markets (e.g., small grains or feed) and associated technological and market infrastructure. It might also be that closer proximity with other farmers who have diverse rotations provides greater support to farmers considering adopting extended rotations. Our study also found that the loss of crop/livestock integration in the region had greatly reduced the need for more diverse rotations, with many farmers noting that they used to have more diverse rotations in the past, when they managed for an integrated crop and livestock system.

Overall, our study examined how path dependence, which limits the technological and economic options that farmers have within the corn-based cropping system in the US Corn Belt, restricts farmers’ options for changing their production systems to incorporate more diverse crop rotations.

An enabling environment for diversity

To enable greater diversity, it may be necessary to address both technology and informational barriers while also identifying incentives for more economically and environmentally resilient agricultural systems. Unfortunately, many farmers who are doing things differently from their neighbors can feel ostracized in their communities. Luckily organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa and Women Food and Agriculture Network can provide farmers with communities of practice that enable them to experiment with new cropping systems or different production/conservation practices that might not be commonplace. Organizations such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at Iowa State University, have been critically important in funding agricultural research that investigates diverse alternatives to the corn-based cropping system, such as the Prairie STRIPS project (check out efforts to re-imagine a new Leopold Center given recent funding cuts).

In our study, we suggest two primary strategies for facilitating greater cropping systems diversity in the US Corn Belt:

1) Increasing financial incentives to assist farmers with up-front costs associated with investing in new cropping systems or alternative crops, while also putting in place disincentives for monoculture production (e.g., conservation compliance); and

2) Investing in programs that will enable the development of alternative markets (e.g., perennial biofuel feedstock sources).

Diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, yet there is much work to be done to cultivate more diverse cropping systems in the Corn Belt and other agricultural regions in the U.S. In an era of global climate change, it is more important than ever to invest in agricultural production systems that reduce vulnerability by embracing the merits of agroecological diversity.


Gabrielle Roesch McNally received her PhD in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. She worked in the US Corn Belt for over four years conducting and analyzing survey data and in-depth interviews with large-scale corn producers as part of a multi-state effort to examine climate change impacts and resilience-building strategies for corn-based cropping systems. The results reported in this blog were published in a co-authored manuscript entitled, “Barriers to implementing climate resilient agricultural strategies: The case of crop diversification in the U.S. Corn Belt” in the journal Global Environmental Change. Gabrielle is a Fellow with the USDA Northwest Climate Hubs. Follow Gabrielle on Twitter @G_Roesch or on Research Gate.

Nick Ohde /Practical Farmers of Iowa

New Report: One Year In, EPA Chemical Rule Delay Allows Chemical Disasters to Continue

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

A chemical plant disaster in Michigan in 2010. Photo: Dragonflylady/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr).

While news this week suggests that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is a walking ethics disaster, he’s long been paving the way for actual disasters—chemical disasters that is. A report released today, A Disaster in the Making, by community, environmental, health, workers, and scientist groups, illuminates how Pruitt’s unnecessary delay of the Chemical Disaster Rule continues to harm Americans.

More delays, more disasters

The report was released today by Earthjustice in partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists, Coalition For A Safe Environment, Community In-Power & Development Association, Coming Clean, Environmental Justice & Health Alliance, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, and California Communities Against Toxics.

The key findings? One year after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s delay of the chemical disaster rule, otherwise known as the EPA Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule, several serious chemical incidents have occurred—many of which might have been prevented or mitigated by requirements in the rule. Specifically, the rule would have begun to prevent and reduce chemical disasters in communities near over 12,500 facilities nationwide if the Trump Administration had not abruptly suspended it one year ago, in March 2017.

The Arkema Crosby explosions

For example, a UCS report released last September found that the peroxide tank explosions at Arkema’s Crosby, Texas facility in the wake of Hurricane Harvey might have been prevented if such a rule had been implemented. The rule would have required better coordination between companies and emergency responders. Such coordination might have prevented the harmful exposure to chemicals endured by first responders on the scene in Crosby. The rule also requires that companies conduct analyses after accidents to determine their cause and what steps might be taken to prevent future incidents. For some facilities there are also provisions guiding companies toward use of inherently safer technologies and chemicals. For Arkema, a company with several past mishaps and accidental releases at its Crosby facility, such provisions might have made a difference post-Harvey.

The human toll

And these disasters aren’t happening in a vacuum. Families and communities are living every day with the threat of disasters and the nuisances of living next to a chemical facility. For many, this has meant tolerating health impacts like headaches, eye irritation, and worse. The report also details lived accounts by people on the frontlines of this issue. Take, for example, the account of Jesse Marquez, a resident of Wilmington, California:

“Both my office and home are located near oil refineries; I can hear the emergency alarms blaring at all hours of the day and night,” says Jesse Marquez, who lives in Wilmington, California, a part of greater Los Angeles. “This has been happening my entire life.”

Mr. Marquez traces his civic activism to push for a cleaner, safer environment to the day four decades ago when deadly explosions at the oil refinery opposite his family’s house knocked them off their feet and sent a fireball overhead. He ran outside and jumped over a fence, and then heard a woman’s voice begging him to stop.

“I turned around and there was a woman with a baby in her hand, about six or seven months old. She was burned, the baby’s blanket was burned, and the baby’s face was burned. She said, ‘Please save my baby.’ She then threw the baby over the fence like a football for me to catch.”

Or consider the experience of Hilton Kelley of Port Arthur, Texas:

“I was dealing with a couple of crises at once after Harvey,” says Hilton Kelley, who lives near a refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, a majority black and Latino community. “The restaurant me and my wife own was flooded and severely damaged, and my father-in-law’s house was also damaged and flooded. While trying to help my family and neighbors get back on their feet, we were also being subjected to toxic and hazardous substances with virtually no protection.”

Last September, shortly after the hurricane struck, fire broke out at the refinery near Kelley’s home as workers were trying to get it running again. He and other local residents were ordered to stay inside shelter, he says.

“I take my granddaughter to the park twice a week but I can’t really enjoy my time with her because I’m worried about her being harmed by toxic substances,” he says.

We need protection from chemical risks now

Jesse, Hilton, and the rest of the nation don’t need to live like this. About 177 million Americans live in the worst-case scenario zones for chemical disasters and at least one in three schoolchildren attends a school within the vulnerability zone of a hazardous facility. The Chemical Disaster Rule includes much-needed improvements to the EPA’s Clean Air Act Risk Management Program (RMP) and would prevent and reduce chemical disasters, hazardous releases and resulting chemical exposures, while strengthening emergency preparedness and coordination with local first responders. When developing the rule, the EPA determined that prior protections failed to prevent over 2,200 chemical accidents around the country during a 10-year period, including about 150 incidents per year that caused reportable harm.

UCS has joined the legal fight to challenge the Trump administration on the needless and harmful delay of the chemical disaster rule. We are being represented by Earthjustice along with the Environmental Integrity ProjectSierra ClubCoalition For A Safe Environment (Wilmington, California), Del Amo Action Committee (Torrance, California), California Communities Against Toxics, Louisiana Bucket BrigadeAir Alliance HoustonCommunity In-Power & Development Association (Port Arthur, Texas), Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy ServicesClean Air Council (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (West Virginia). The United Steelworkers Union, fenceline communities, workers, scientists and 11 states are also fighting in the courts to help ensure that future communities and workers are safe from chemical disasters. Our families deserve this.

Betrayal at the USDA

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Photo: Preston Keres/USDA

Unqualified government employees. Elected officials using their positions for personal gain. Policymakers favoring industry and disregarding science. Such betrayals of the public trust have become commonplace in the Trump administration. And while there’s been plenty of press coverage of HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s lavish dining set, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s shady condo deal, and President Trump choosing the White House physician to lead the VA, the same pattern is apparent in corners of the administration that have received less scrutiny.

Over the past year, I’ve tracked the actions of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and his USDA. In a new UCS report released today, I document the many ways Secretary Perdue has, in his first full year on the job, betrayed farmers and the public he is sworn to serve. And I highlight ways we can push back (as some farmers are already doing—see below).

Welcome to the Department of Agribusiness

When Perdue took the helm at the USDA on April 25, 2017, he spoke of rolling up his sleeves and vowed to “work tirelessly to solve the issues facing our farm families.” Using his down-home Twitter handle @SecretarySonny, he regularly issues folksy tweets championing hardworking farmers. This week, he’s trundling through three states in an RV, making a show of getting out of Washington and talking to people in the heartland.

But over the past year, Perdue’s actual record of policy decisions has favored ideology over expertise and the interests of the Big Ag lobby over that of the majority of America’s 2 million farmers—and of all of us who eat.

A few examples:

  • There was the time last year when Perdue reversed newly-minted USDA rules meant to protect small farmers who raise poultry and livestock for big meat companies (think Tyson Farms and Smithfield Foods). As their name suggests, the Farmer Fair Practices Rules would have evened the playing field for those farmers, giving them more leverage in contracts with these corporate giants and making it easier for farmers to sue for abuses. (Lobbyists for the meat industry hailed Perdue’s action and suggested celebrating “with a top-quality steak.
  • Then there’s a pair of decidedly unscientific decisions related to nutrition, an important USDA responsibility that affects the health and well-being of our country. First, Perdue disregarded the best nutrition science in rolling back standards for school meals served to 45 million children every day. Under Perdue’s new rules, schools can serve “flavored” (read: sugar-sweetened) milk again and get a pass on implementing progressive sodium targets until at least 2020. In announcing the decision last May, Perdue assured reporters, “This is not reducing the nutritional standards whatsoever,” adding, “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without flavored milk.” (The International Dairy Foods Association cheered.)
Farmers fight back

Secretary Perdue’s betrayal of farmers, in particular, may soon catch up with him. Already, his apparent failure to avert a Trumpian trade war that will hurt farm exports is causing anxiety and anger in farm country.

And now, a group of farmers is fighting his decision on the Farmer Fair Practice Rules in court.

In December, a handful of farmers and the watchdog Organization for Competitive Markets sued Perdue and the USDA, alleging that his decision to end the Farmer Fair Practices Rules unlawfully harms farmers. Just last week, the plaintiffs filed a new brief in the case, detailing the ways large agricultural companies have retaliated against them for standing up for their rights and how the now-rescinded rules would have helped them seek legal redress. The plaintiffs’ stories include companies lowballing them on price, retaliating against them when they complained, and even driving some out of business—practices they say the USDA’s own analysis shows are rampant in the livestock and poultry industries.

And OCM argues that Secretary Perdue and his USDA have failed to explain why rules that would prevent such actions are suddenly not needed.

Will sunshine be Sonny’s downfall?

Of course Perdue is siding with the agribusiness industry over the little guy. It’s who he has always been, going back to his days as Georgia governor. Back then, he made ethics pledges and promptly accepted gifts from lobbyists. He was fined by the state ethics board for campaign finance violations. And he went easy on big food companies in the state, which led to a pair of food safety crises—in the form of tainted peanut butter—that killed nine people and sickened more than 1,300. For all this, Perdue was named one of country’s the worst governors in 2010.

Anyone who studied Perdue’s record could have predicted how his tenure at the USDA would play out (and actually, some of us did). Still, over the past year, he has kept a relatively low profile as a member of the Trump cabinet “under the radar club,” avoiding serious scrutiny from the press while hewing closely to the boss’s deregulatory agenda.

As he hits the road this week, I’d like to see him field tough questions about why he is taking actions that hurt—rather than help—farmers and everyday people across this country.


Photo: Preston Keres/USDA

Burying Their Heads in the Sand: 11 Times the Trump Administration Quashed Scientific Studies and Data

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Man on beach with head in the sand. Photo: Peter/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

One of the tactics that the Trump administration uses to get science out of the way of their policymaking decisions is to bury it and pretend like it never existed. This is quite problematic because science-based decisionmaking is ineffective when it doesn’t use…well, science. By trashing the most up-to-date studies and data that could help inform our governments’ science-based decisions, this administration is literally putting people’s lives on the line.

This is why it is so important to stay abreast of what is going on, so we can use our collective power to advocate for our leaders, whose salaries we pay, to do what is right—let science guide the decisionmaking process. We avoided any further cuts to scientific studies and data collection in the latest version of the budget, but we continue to watch where such programs may be cut through the appropriations process via the powers of this administration and Congress.

Here are 11 times the Trump administration has killed, ignored, or suppressed a scientific study or data collection, in no particular order (if you know of others, let me know in the comments).

  1. Environmental Analysis of Mining Operations Near Minnesota Wilderness Halted

The federal government was preparing an environmental impact statement to determine if mining operations to be located on land managed by the US Forest Service nearby Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness would have harmful effects. The Department of Interior (DOI) determined that a less stringent review was required only after a month that the agency decided to renew expired mining leases nearby the wilderness area. The wilderness is home to hundreds of migratory birds and is used for recreational purposes. There are not only concerns that nearby mining operations will harm Boundary Water’s environment, but that such harm would also hurt the region’s economy by driving away those that come to enjoy the wilderness area.

  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Coal Mining Study Halted

On August 18, 2017, DOI halted a study under the auspices of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Division of Earth and Life Studies, entitled, “Potential Human Health Effects of Surface Coal Mining Operations in Central Appalachia.” The study was originally requested by states in Appalachia concerned about the health of their citizens. DOI’s reasoning for halting the study was suspicious. The agency said that it was reviewing all grants and contracts costing more than $50,000, but this study was the only one that was halted at the time the decision was made.

  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Oil and Gas Development Inspection Study Halted

 Another study aimed at investigating how the DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement could improve its inspections of offshore oil and gas development was halted by the agency. This study was requested by a number of experts and DOI itself in response to the catastrophic April 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Officials from NASEM said that they weren’t given a reason why the study was halted. In its statement on the stop-order of this study, NASEM expressed “disappointment” that this “important study has been stopped.”

  1. Federal Program to Prevent Teen Pregnancy is Abruptly Canceled

The Trump administration cut nearly $214 million in funding for a federal program aimed to prevent teen pregnancy in the US. The five-year grants were ended halfway through their funding cycle across 80 institutions—a decision that is highly unusual. While the decision makes it more difficult for teenagers to access contraceptives, it also prevents researchers who were part of the program from analyzing the data they were collecting. According to notes and emails internal to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the decision to end these grants was directed by political appointees of the Trump administration.

  1. The Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE) Tropics Project is Cut

NGEE-Tropics was a ten-year project that aimed to study how climate change would affect the most vulnerable ecosystems on Earth. The Department of Energy (DOE) project would close down nearly seven years before its expected termination date. The project had proved successful to date, resulting in at least sixty peer-reviewed publications and a greater understanding of how these ecosystems function under a changing climate.

  1. Treasury Economists Barred from Producing Study on Tax Reform’s Economic Impact

Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said that over 100 people were “working around the clock on running scenarios for us” to produce an analysis that would provide evidence that Congress’s proposed $1.5 million tax reform would pay for itself through great economic growth. Treasury economists stated that they were being barred from conducting comprehensive analyses, and that the analyses Secretary Mnuchin described did not exist. The Senate passed this sweeping tax reform on December 19, 2017 without considering any comprehensive analyses of the plan by the Treasury Department’s economists, and in lieu of the consensus of expert economists outside the government that the plan would not pay for itself through economic growth.

  1. Administrator Pruitt Ignores Analysis of HONEST Act Costs

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff-level analysis found that complying with Congress’s proposed “HONEST Act” would cost the agency more than $250 million per year. EPA career staff argued that the HONEST act would incur additional costs and time to implement, would limit research that gets conducted, and would deter industry and academics from working with the agency. The analysis that was sent to Administrator Pruitt’s office from experts at the EPA was to be sent on to the Congressional Budget Office as part of the agency’s analysis of the bill’s expected costs, but the study was never sent.

  1. Data Collection on Workplace Related Injuries No Longer Required

For over 40 years, larger employers in high-hazard industries have been required to keep accurate records of these types of serious, disabling events—and to maintain those records for five years. These records are vital to understanding the extent and nature of serious workplace injuries and illnesses in our nation’s larger workplaces—and preventing them. On a straight party line vote, the Senate repealed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) rule clarifying an employer’s obligation to maintain accurate records of serious injuries.

  1. Report on Costs of New Rule Affecting Service Employees’ Tip Wages Buried

In proposing a new rule that would allow employers to control service employees’ tip income, the Trump administration buried a study from economic experts at the Department of Labor (DOL) that estimated service employees will lose approximately $5.8 billion in income if the rule is implemented. The analysis was produced by economic experts at DOL, so the Trump administration sidelined their own employees.

  1. Study Showing Refugees Bring in Tens of Billions of Dollars in Revenue Trashed

The Trump administration wanted to reduce the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. The problem: HHS had produced a study that showed refugees actually brought in tens of billions of dollars more in government revenue than they cost. This evidence ran counter to the Trump administration’s rhetoric that refugees and immigrants are an economic burden. The administration’s solution: reject the draft study and produce a three-page final report, which has yet to be released publicly, that discusses only the costs of refugees and none of the benefits.

  1. Collection of Data on Methane Emissions Stopped

On March 1, 2017, nine attorneys general from states with strong oil and gas industry interests and the governors of Texas and Montana asked EPA Administrator Pruitt to suspend an information request to gas and oil operations about their methane emissions and technologies used to reduce them. Just one day later, the EPA withdrew the request so that Pruitt could “assess the need for the information that the agency was collecting.”

Photo: Peter/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Tell Secretary Alex Azar: We Need to Demand Equitable Gun Violence Research and Reform

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Damien Jones, the equity and justice outreach specialist for the Climate and Energy Program at the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC.

It has been only six weeks since last I wrote about gun violence in America, following the Parkland shooting that took seventeen lives and impacted a nation. In that time there have been 22 more mass shootings, at least 10 of them at schools. The number of deaths by guns in 2018 is at 3,423, and we’re only 89 days into the year—that’s about 38 human lives lost per day. In that time, hundreds of thousands of people have voiced their outrage and concerns over our country’s inaction around gun violence, as we witnessed at last weekend’s March for Our Lives.

March for Our Lives, Washington, DC, March 24, 2018.

We even saw a small victory for federal research into gun violence, as Congress clarified the legislative language that effectively prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from pursuing such research. Now we need the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to carry this forward and direct his department’s scientists to get to work.

But, as we pause to celebrate the national attention that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High students have garnered, we must recognize the racial disparities that exist both in gun violence related deaths and in the momentum to seek solutions. The truth remains that the fight has only just begun.

Solutions for gun reform must be inclusive

I’d like to take a moment to recognize all the people who have been advocating for gun reform for years. Namely, I’d like to acknowledge the black youth who have been at the forefront of this fight, with little to no recognition for being the heroes they are.

“Every day shootings are everyday problems,” said Trevon Bosley, whose older brother, Terrell, was fatally shot in Chicago over a decade ago. “It’s time for the nation to realize that gun violence is more than a Chicago problem or a Parkland problem but it’s an American problem. It’s time to care about all communities equally.”

“I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper,” said 11-year old Naomi Wadler.

“We are survivors not only of gun violence, but of silence. We are survivors of the erratic productions of poverty. But not only that. We are the survivors of unjust policies and practices upheld by our Senate,” said D’Angelo McDade, a high school senior from Chicago.

The youth who spoke at the March for Our Lives rally reiterated an important message to the audience: our solutions for gun reform need to be inclusive.

“We have to use our white privilege now to make sure that all of the people that have died as a result of [gun violence] and haven’t been covered the same can now be heard,” said David Hogg, student and survivor of the Parkland school shooting.

It was not lost on them that young black activists, including those belonging to the Black Lives Matter movement, who have long been organizing and mobilizing their communities to take action against gun violence, have been widely portrayed as domestic terrorists, black identity extremists (yes, really). While the (mostly white) students leading the #NeverAgain movement are heralded and named heroes, black youth are criminalized and seen as divisive, especially for pointing out existing inequities.

Social justice activists gather for a photo at the March for Our Lives with UCS Environmental Justice Advocate for the Climate and Energy program, Damien Jones. Two of the young men are graduates of Florida A&M University, a historically black university, and two are high school students from Jacksonville, Florida.

Science as a tool for justice (and public health)

Where does the scientific community fit into all this? I’m glad you asked. Women, low-income communities, people of color are all disproportionately affected by gun violence, and by proxy, they are impacted by the dearth of research around these issues—research that could lead to life-saving, science-based solutions. Let the words of the youth serve as a reminder for our federal scientists that, when they begin forming their research questions, they must be deliberate not only in including underrepresented groups, but by recognizing societal (and personal) biases against these communities when designing their research. The methods by which scientists collect, measure, and analyze data must be rooted in equity.

And while conducting research around gun violence is crucial, it is important to remember that science is only a means, not an end. CDC scientists are not to be put on pedestals as the saviors, nor should they be expected to hold the answers of the universe. But they have a role in this fight, just as the hundreds of thousands of marching activists do, just as our elected officials do. We can create effective policy solutions for this public health crisis. Let’s hold Secretary Azar to his word that the CDC will take on gun violence research immediately. We cannot afford further inaction.

Ted Eytan Damien Jones


Subscribe to Union of Concerned Scientists aggregator - Combined UCS Blogs