UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

Illinois’ Energy Future: Less Coal, More Renewables

Photo: US Air Force

Yesterday the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency submitted a proposal to set stricter air pollution limits in the ongoing state rulemaking over Dynegy-Vistra’s fleet of coal-fired power plants in Illinois.

The proposal is a good thing for lowering harmful air pollution. Dynegy-Vistra has also discussed the possibility of retiring some of its remaining coal-fired units in the near future.

Coupled with the recently-introduced Clean Energy Jobs Act (SB2132/HB3624) pending before the Illinois General Assembly, the state’s path toward cleaner, healthier energy is taking shape.

Why Illinois’ multi-pollutant standard is important

Originally enacted in 2007, the state environmental regulation known as the MPS limits how much of the harmful air pollutants sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides Dynegy-Vistra’s coal plants can spew into the air.

In 2017 and 2018, the Illinois EPA, under then-Governor Bruce Rauner, supported a Dynegy-Vistra proposal to significantly change and weaken the MPS. The Illinois Pollution Control Board modified the proposal in October but the proposed changes still contained public health risks, as pointed out in testimony I submitted on behalf of environmental and health advocates in December.

This January, the Illinois EPA under new Governor J.B. Pritzker, requested an opportunity to re-evaluate the Board’s modified proposal which led to yesterday’s filing by Illinois EPA proposing lower pollution caps.

My colleague Jessica Collingsworth and I previously examined the public health concerns under earlier versions of the MPS rulemaking proposals. We also discussed in detail the public health impacts of Illinois coal-fired power plants in last fall’s Soot to Solar report. It’s clear that lower pollution caps on coal plants are a good thing for cleaner air and a healthier environment.

The path ahead: The MPS and the clean energy jobs act

Assuming the Illinois Pollution Control Board adopts Illinois EPA’s revised proposal, the MPS will hopefully continue as a meaningful limit on air pollutants from Dynegy-Vistra’s coal-fired power plants.

And if Dynegy proceeds to retire some of those plants, which will eliminate significant amounts of climate change pollution, the company should also ensure that workers at those plants are treated fairly and that transition plans are developed with affected communities such as the E.D. Edwards Power Station in Bartonville, Illinois.

In the state capitol, the legislature also has before it bills proposed by Dynegy-Vistra designed to charge ratepayers to increase the company’s revenues and keep old, uneconomic coal plants afloat.

A better path is provided by the proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act, which was introduced in February and has provisions to expand renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy storage while also putting the state on a path to further reduce fossil fuels in the power sector.

By keeping the MPS strong with respect to air pollution limits, and enacting policies like the Clean Energy Jobs Act to keep clean energy growing in Illinois, we can keep the state moving toward its cleaner, healthier energy future.

Ask your state legislator to co-sponsor and support the Clean Energy Jobs Act. The Illinois Clean Energy Jobs Coalition (of which UCS is a member) is working to get all 177 legislators to support the bill.

Photo: US Air Force

What’s Hot in Offshore Wind: 5 Dispatches from the Front Lines

Credit: J. Rogers/UCS

Here’s the latest on offshore wind, in 5 quick bites: Projects, pull, protections, power, and people. For America’s newest renewable energy source, the pieces are coming together nicely.

1. Projects: Rhode Island approves Massachusetts offshore wind project

The offshore wind project poised to be the first Massachusetts one out the gate—and maybe the first large-scale one in the US—hit a snag a few weeks back, as it seemed unable to reach an agreement with a key stakeholder in a neighboring state. The Fishermen’s Advisory Board in Rhode Island was threatening to throw a big wrench in the permitting process of the Vineyard Wind project, by hurting the project’s chances to get a required sign-off from the Ocean State’s Coastal Resources Management Council.

A recently announced agreement, though, will see millions of dollars going to commercial fishermen to compensate them for perceived impacts on their businesses—and helped garner a thumbs-up from the council. More.

Plus: In New York, four offshore wind developers submitted a range of bids last month in response to that state’s search for its first 800 MW.

2. Pull: New York ups the offshore wind ante—in a big way

Project announcements seem set to be coming more and more frequently as states compete to attract offshore wind (and related jobs) with the market “pull” of action by legislatures and governors. Requirements from Massachusetts (1,600 MW), New York (2,400 MW), and New Jersey (3,500 MW), combined with other states’ procurements underway, and a likely doubling-down by Massachusetts, put the total for offshore-wind-on-the-way at some 10,000 MW.

But New York has decided that bigger is even better. As part of his latest ambitious state-of-the-state package, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a move to almost quadruple the state’s target, to a stunning 9,000 MW by 2035. More.

Plus: Legislatures in other states are looking at higher offshore wind targets themselves. In Massachusetts, for example, different bills would up the state’s existing requirement by 1,600, 2,000, or 2,800 MW (or even more in conjunction with other New England states). And Connecticut has bills already moving through the legislature that would put in place offshore wind requirements of 1,000 or 2,000 MW.

3. Protections: Conservation groups and Vineyard Wind agree on whales

As offshore wind takes off in the US, a really important piece of getting it right is making sure that endangered species are properly protected. And a key species along the Eastern Seaboard is the North Atlantic right whale, of which there are only around 400 left.

So it was great to hear that some of the most important conservation organizations active in this space had reached an agreement with Vineyard Wind on how best to protect right whales. Here’s a piece of the announcement:

Vineyard Wind and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, and Conservation Law Foundation today entered into an unprecedented agreement to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Under the historic agreement, Vineyard Wind will institute a variety of protective measures to keep right whales safe while installing and operating turbines at its proposed 84-turbine project off the coast of Massachusetts. Harnessing offshore wind is a key step in transitioning the nation away from dirty, polluting fossil fuels to a clean energy economy.

More here.

Plus: That effort has now broadened into a set of “Best Management Practices” for right whales and offshore wind, from those and other environmental organizations.

4. Power: Innovation keeps happening

Offshore wind technology keeps evolving, as proponents look to continue to bring down costs with greater scale, and look to expand the range of options for deploying offshore wind.

One important recent development is the ongoing increase in wind turbine sizes. The South Fork Wind Farm, planned as a 90-MW project, has now increased its expected output to 130 MW—with the same number of turbines and the same layout—just by swapping out 6-MW turbines for 8.6 MW ones. Vineyard Wind has inked a deal for even larger turbines, each 9.5 MW—60% more powerful than those in America’s first offshore wind farm off Block Island. More and more.

Plus: In the what’s-over-the-horizon category (literally, actually), the US Department of Energy has just announced it’s looking to invest almost $30 million in “new and potentially disruptive” innovations to enable more floating offshore wind turbines.

5. People: The heart of it all

Of course, none of the progress that we expect, hope for, and need in offshore wind is possible without the people to make it possible—and academic institutions to empower them. So it was particularly good to see an op-ed in papers around New England from a range of university personnel highlighting the importance of workforce development, including this:

New England’s colleges and universities can and will help this industry grow even beyond what existing public policy envisions. Our professors, students, and graduates will help ensure a robust offshore wind industry is built with minimal impact on the marine environment and maximum benefit for our economy and environment. As we educate the leaders of tomorrow, we need to build an industry that will keep our graduates in New England.

More here.

Progress

For US offshore wind, these pieces are crucial for realizing our potential. And the progress is palpable and empowering.

And, in case you’re looking for even more inspiration, one more tidbit from the broader world of offshore wind: The first turbine is now producing electricity in what will be the largest offshore wind farm in the world—almost twice as big as the current market leader.

Progress!

Photo: Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons Photo: NOAA.gov Photo: Ad Meskens

Maps Lie. Beyoncé Doesn’t

We live on a (nearly) spherical planet. Until recently, this was one of those facts that I knew in the back of my mind, but didn’t really think about.

Like how there were other members of Destiny’s Child besides Beyoncé. Sure, I knew that Kelly and Michelle existed (mostly cause of that intro to Bootylicious), I just hadn’t really thought about them.

But wow have things changed. Not only am I embarrassed by my neglect of two women who sang the soundtrack of my adolescence, but since I started working with maps and geospatial data, I think about Earth’s sphericity ALL. THE. TIME.

Maps, maps, maps

Right off the bat, we’ve got to acknowledge that all maps are wrong. This doesn’t mean that some maps aren’t useful, but they’re wrong precisely because our Earth is (nearly) spherical. It’s impossible to take a sphere, put it on a flat surface and accurately represent the shapes, sizes, directions, and distances between its features.

This is where map projections come in: any given projection will compromise most of these features to preserve the integrity of one.

In most situations, map projections are a tool that we can use to better understand our world, where purpose dictates projection (navigation, calculating land area, displaying satellite imagery etc.). We even have regional projections that are designed to be most accurate in one specific area, like Alaska Albers that dampens the intense warping that projections often produce near the poles. However, when projecting a global map, these unacknowledged distortions can have profound consequences.

To fully appreciate how these projections inform our understanding of Earth’s most basic geography, we need to project an image of known dimensions, an image with which we are so familiar that even the smallest modification to the length or shape of its features jumps off the screen…

An image like Beyoncé’s face.

If I were a map

To do this, I embedded geographic information (aka geo-referencing) into four identical photos of Queen Bey, and then re-projected these images to the globe using several common map projections.  I specified that her face should take on the approximate locations of North America, South America, Africa and Eastern Asia so without projections we might expect our map to look something like this:

However, when we start to do the re-projections, it’s easy to spot the distortion.

Ring the alarm

In most of our nation’s schools, global maps are displayed in the Mercator projection.

We can see above that the Mrs. Carter is clearly warped in North America and Asia. However, this is only obvious because we already know how Beyoncé looks. When it comes to the continents, we’re getting distorted information right off the bat without ever being told that it’s wrong!

The Mercator projection was originally designed for navigation and while Bey looks like herself near the equator, areas around the poles are stretched out and appear way larger than their actual land area. In the northern hemisphere,  this not only affirms a US and Euro-centric world view, it also makes Antarctica seem like the world’s largest continent, when that’s definitely not the case.

Irreplaceable?

Like me, this is probably the map that has shaped your view of global geography. And also like me, you may not have known that other projections exist.

But they do. Put another way: we don’t have to use this one, we have options.

Depending on the purpose, these projections vary. As a scientist, when I’m doing analysis that explicitly considers where something is located in space relative to anything else, I have to ensure that all maps from which I’m gathering data are in the same projection. Or I have to re-project each map to make sure that they match. And based on the pictures below, you’ll see how mismatched projections could cause problems and why some maps aren’t intended to teach global geography.

We’ve got the Sinusoidal, which is one of the projections used for satellite data like MODIS, which takes daily photos of Earth’s surface and is an incredibly important tool for climate and global change scientists alike.

Sinusoidal projection

And the Azimuthal projection, which is often used for calculating flight distances because it maintains accurate distances.

Azimuthal projection.

We’ve also got my personal preference, the Eckert IV projection, which is a great example of an equal area projection, where we can see some distortion, but the shape and size of Bey’s face is relatively consistent. This is similar to the Peters Projection, which has gained popularity in recent years, most recently being adopted by Boston Public Schools.

Eckert IV projection

While I’ve highlighted several projections that I’ve used in my work, there’s a whole world of projections out there.

Listen

If Queen Bey hasn’t convinced you, let’s use Greenland and Africa to drive this point home. Based on this standard Mercator map, I would wager that Greenland’s area can fit inside Africa’s about 1.5 times.

A classic Mercator projection, Beyoncé is noticeably absent.

But if anyone took that wager, I would lose all my money.

If we look at this global and spherical representation of the two continents, it clearly shows that Africa is WAY bigger than Greenland, nearly 14 times bigger actually. Greenland barely holds a candle to Algeria much less the entire continent.

Google recently changed their wildly popular mapping platform to include a spherical view of the globe once you zoom out completely.

Hold up

As Beyoncé and Greenland both illustrate, all maps are wrong. But maps and map projections are incredibly useful tools. As scientists, being explicit about projections ensures the accuracy of our work and allows us to better understand the world.

As far as education is concerned, I’m not suggesting that we only use globes to teach children or ceremonially burn Mercator projected maps. Rather, I’m suggesting that we teach maps as a tool (in all our schools not just Boston) and not as absolute, geographical truth. I’m suggesting that we move away from a projection that affirms a US and Euro-centric world view. Because when we work towards equity, and specifically equity in scientific realms, there’s no detail too small to deserve attention. Inequities persist when we leave the status quo uninterrogated, even for something as seemingly innocuous as a map.

The Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics Continues to Weaken

This letter was originally posted by our partners at the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN). PR-SPAN is a new initiative of Ciencia Puerto Rico that seeks to activate the Puerto Rican scientific community, wherever it may be, to inform the development and implementation of federal, state and local policies based on scientific basis. PR-SPAN and Ciencia Puerto Rico have been diligently following the important issue of the integrity of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics for many months now. As partners in support of science-based advocacy and policy making, the UCS Science Network is sharing their call for signatures to raise support for the independence and credibility of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics.

 

Dear members of the scientific community and friends of Puerto Rico,

We want to draw your attention and invite you to take action on an urgent public policy issue: the continued weakening of the governance of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS). We invite you to sign and share the petition below.

Sign the petition

Are you signing on behalf of a professional organization or scientific society? Click here.

—The Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)

————

We demand strong governance for an independent and autonomous Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics

During the past two years, the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) has faced a series of threats that have undermined its autonomy, credibility, and reputation. From 2017 to date, the administration of the Hon. Dr. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares has illegally removed members from the Board of Directors, tried to dismantle the Institute and outsource its functions, and made appointments to the Board that have been questioned by the international scientific community. In January 2019, there were allegations about the politicization of the Board of Directors and their ability to act independently and free of partisan influences. As of February 10, 2019 the role of executive director of the Institute has been vacant, after the resignation of Dr. Mario Marazzi Santiago, who had served in this role since 2007.

These events not only cast doubt on the future of the Institute of Statistics, but also create serious concerns about the capacity of the Puerto Rican government and society to make decisions and create public policies informed by scientific evidence and by statistics that are timely, reliable, and of high-quality.

Therefore, we ask the Government of Puerto Rico and the Board of Directors of the Institute of Statistics to take the following actions to strengthen the governance, independence and autonomy of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics:

  • Maintain the powers and faculties of the Executive Director to protect the independence of PRIS: Any future amendments made to the organic law of the Institute should seek to strengthen the governance and independence of the agency, but without weakening the powers and faculties of the Executive Director, and without granting more power to the Board of Directors or the Governor.
  • Dissociate the Governor and Puerto Rico Senate from the process of nominating and confirming members to the PRIS Board of Directors: Currently, the members of the PRIS Board of Directors are nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Puerto Rico Senate. To avoid the possibility of partisan influence, we ask that the nomination and confirmation process to the Board of Directors of the Statistics Institute be dissociated from the government in turn (similar to the nomination process for the Board of Trustees of the Puerto Rico Science Trust).
  • Strengthen the PRIS Board as an independent, objective body of experts: We ask that candidates to the PRIS Board of Directors (1) are nominated by scientific associations or professional and industrial groups that represent the relevant fields of specialization; (2) are experts with integrity, personal and professional objectivity, demonstrated expertise, and advanced academic preparation (a master’s or doctoral degree) in the use of statistics, economics or planning; (3) do not have direct connections to the current or previous government administrations (i.e. not having held elective public office during at least five (5) years prior to their appointment; not having participated, collaborated or made political or financial contributions to political candidates or campaigns, as suggested in Article 2 of P. de la C. 4409 from May 12, 2008 [Word document], presented by the Representative and now Resident Commissioner Hon. Jennifer González-Colón).
  • The search and appointment of the next Executive Director is done transparently and in consultation with the Puerto Rican and international scientific community: The scientific community has demonstrated time and again its commitment to the autonomy of the PRIS and government transparency in Puerto Rico. Therefore, the members of PR-SPAN and UCS, and members of the Puerto Rican and international scientific community are willing to actively participate in the nomination, search and selection process for the next Executive Director of the PRIS. It is of the utmost importance that the Executive Director has the relevant expertise, and is committed to the independence and autonomy of the Institute, and to keeping it free from partisan influences.

We urge the scientific community and friends of Puerto Rico to join this petition and continue advocating for the autonomy, independence, reputation and credibility of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics.

Sign the petition

Are you signing on behalf of a professional organization or scientific society? Click here.

 

Carlos M. De León-Rodríguez is a PR-SPAN ambassador, was also part of the inaugural class of the Scientist Sentinels: Civic Engagement & Leadership Program. He is an advocate for evidence-based policy making.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Inspiration, Humility, Hope, and Sadness: Reflections on the Youth Climate Strike

The Youth Climate Strike in Washington, DC, on March 15, 2019

Last Friday, hundreds of thousands of students in the United States and around the world were out in the streets rather than in their classrooms, demanding that our political leaders address the climate crisis with the urgency and focused action that the science so clearly demands.

As a soon-to-be-67-year-old advocate who’s been working on US and international climate policy and politics for some 30 years—as well as the father of a 24-year-old daughter—I welcome the passion, energy, and directness these young leaders are bringing to the conversation. As I listened to the powerful statements that youth leaders made at the rally at the US Capitol, I found myself experiencing a range of emotions: inspiration, hope, humility, and sadness.

I am inspired by the strength and moral clarity of the students’ demands, and hopeful that their actions will help drive leaders in both the public and private sectors to pursue the transformational changes that are required to come to grips with the climate crisis.

I am humbled by the recognition that despite our best efforts, I and the many other advocates of my generation have fallen well short in our efforts to drive climate action on the scale that’s needed.

And I am profoundly saddened by the fact that even if we are able to dramatically ramp up emissions reductions so as to meet the temperature limitation goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, the world these students will experience during their lifetimes will be severely stressed by the impacts of climate change.

Youth activism on climate is certainly not new; for example, youth groups in Europe, the US, and other countries have been attending the international climate negotiations for more than 20 years, and in 2005, they formed the International Youth Climate Movement to coordinate their efforts. And the youth-driven Power Shift conferences that started in Washington, DC in fall 2007 and spread around the world have engaged thousands of young activists in the fight against coal and oil and for a clean, renewable, energy-efficient world.

Greta’s gift

But the strategy of school climate strikes is much more recent; it began last August, when a then-15-year-old student in Sweden, Greta Thunberg—inspired by the March for Our Lives protests on gun control organized by students at Florida’s Margory Stoneman Douglas high school—began what she called the Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate).

I saw Greta speak at last December’s UN climate summit meeting in Katowice, Poland, and her clear and passionate words are still ringing in my ears: “You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake,” she told the ministers and negotiators assembled in the plenary hall. “You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children… You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

She ended with this clear warning: “We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”

Politicians take notice

In the last six months, the spark that Greta lit has become a wildfire, with school strikes and student marches and demonstrations all across the world. And they have struck a nerve. In the United Kingdom, where student strikes took place in 60 cities and towns across the country last month, government ministers—and even Prime Minister Theresa May—at first criticized the strikers. But after commentators from a range of publications expressed their support for the strikes, several of these ministers reversed course, announcing their support for the children. Within a month of the strikes, Parliament held the first debate on climate change it has had in years – though it was lightly attended by members of the governing Conservative party.

And just last week, at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, French President Macron gave a shout out to the climate strikers: “Young people are telling us ‘you’re not going fast enough’, he said. “And they’re right, because we have been too slow. We all have to move: governments, big business, citizens.”

Last Friday, more than 2000 student actions took place in more than 120 countries, according to the FridaysForFuture organizers. Here in the United States, Youth Climate Strike organized actions at state capitols, city halls, and universities across the country. Among the reasons they give for the strike:

  • because decades of inaction has left us with just 11 years to change the trajectory of the worst effects of climate change, according to the October 2018 UN IPCC Report.
  • because our world leaders have yet to acknowledge, prioritize, or properly address our climate crisis.
  • because marginalized communities across our nation—especially communities of color, disabled communities, and low-income communities—are already disproportionately impacted by climate change.
  • because if the social order is disrupted by our refusal to attend school, then the system is forced to face the climate crisis and enact change.
The political—and personal—impacts of the student strikes

At the conclusion of each of the major international climate negotiating milestones over the last 30 years—including the Rio framework treaty in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and the Paris Agreement in 2015—my message to policymakers and reporters has been frustratingly consistent: “this (fill in the blank) agreement represents an important step forward, but much more must be done.”  For as the Chinese philosopher Laozi (or Lao Tzu) said, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”  And as the world’s scientific community has made abundantly clear, where we are currently heading on climate change is unacceptable.

The time for incrementalism is over; bold action is needed, and now. As my colleague Peter Frumhoff noted when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC was released last October, “every fraction of a degree of warming we can avoid matters.”

When I first came to UCS in 1989 to start up our work on climate change and energy issues, we had many choices, many paths to take, and many opportunities to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The hard truth is that we didn’t make the choices that we should have, and now the paths ahead range from hard to hellish and the opportunities to avert truly catastrophic climate change are narrowing with each passing year. Adults of conscience feel real guilt and shame and sadness over this, as we should—along with deep anger at the short-sighted politicians and self-interested corporate leaders who have worked so hard to block progress at every turn.

The young climate strikers who were out on the streets last Friday know their whole future is on the line, and they’re finding the courage to throw themselves into the fray. Their actions are creating cracks in the status quo through which real light and possibility can flow; we need them to keep pressing to make those cracks wider and wider, until the whole edifice of denial, delay, and delusion on climate change comes tumbling down.

Adults like me will stay in the fight, working side-by-side with these young new leaders to confront the powerful fossil fuel lobby and others who are standing in the way of bold climate action, and to prod our political leaders to start acting as grown-ups.

But thanks to the growing wave of youth action, the bitter mix of grief, fatigue, frustration, and anger that so many of us grizzled climate warriors all too often feel will now be overlaid with something fresh, inspiring and beautiful: new hope, and gratitude for it. We owe you, young friends.

Photo: Alden Meyer Photo: @GretaThunberg

Trump’s Proposed 2020 Budget Takes Aim at Science (Again)

The president’s budget signals a clear antipathy towards action on climate change, with a host of cuts to climate research, adaptation, and even energy efficiency and renewable energy. 

Earlier this week, President Trump unveiled his proposed budget for 2020, calling it a “Budget for a Better America.”

Better for whom?

Even a quick and high-level look at the spending increases and spending cuts in the proposal demonstrates that the Trump administration is out of touch with the American people. The president’s budget calls for dramatic increases in new defense spending ($750 billion!) and—wait for it—$8.6 billion for his wall along the border with Mexico.

It’s the domestic programs that take the hit. The budget slashes programs that provide health care, food, and housing assistance to our nation’s families. It proposes reductions in tax credits that help keep working families out of poverty.

Predictably, the president’s budget once again takes aim at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), proposing a 31 percent cut in the agency charged with ensuring safeguards critical to our nation’s health—clean air, clean water, and chemical safety, along with disaster preparedness and response.

The president’s budget also signals his clear antipathy towards action on climate change, with a host of cuts to climate research, adaptation, and even energy efficiency and renewable energy. These include:

  • Completely eliminating the EPA’s Global Climate Change Research Office
  • Cutting the Climate Adaptation Science Center in the Department of the Interior by nearly 50 percent
  • Completely eliminating Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) (energy innovation be damned!)
  • A whopping 70 percent decrease in funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy. (In contrast, DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy Research & Development would get an additional $6o million.)
  • Elimination of the Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Stewardship Program, which helps farmers adopt sustainable agriculture practices that can help them adapt to a changing climate
  • Elimination of two planned Earth science missions at NASA aimed at understanding climate systems
  • Elimination of the tax credit to decrease the cost of an electric vehicle
A “Better America” runs on science

Science. It creates knowledge. It spurs innovation. It identifies and anticipates problems and risks. It trains and mentors the next generation of STEM professionals for critical roles in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It creates jobs. It fuels our nation’s competitiveness. But all this seems to be lost on the Trump administration as it chips away at the federal science budget.

The president’s budget calls for cuts to science agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and even the National Science Foundation, which is the mainstay of grant-making for tens of thousands of scientists across the country.  This is shockingly short-sighted, with long-term implications for our nation’s scientific enterprise.

You be the judge. Would President Trump’s budget result in a better America? Better for the health, safety, and livelihoods of the American people? Or perhaps it’s simply better for a select group of special friends and special interests.

Good news

There is a silver lining here. The president’s budget is simply a wish list. Congress controls the purse, and over the next months, appropriators in both the Senate and the House of Representatives will decide what gets funded and where to spend taxpayer dollars. Last year, Congress restored many of the president’s proposed cuts to science agencies and actually boosted research funding in some cases.

It’s not too early to let your congressional representatives know what you, as a constituent, think makes for a better America—what government safeguards, programs, and services are important to you and integral to the health and safety of our families and communities.

At UCS, we will be watching the budget process unfold and look forward to working with Congress to fund the government in a way that really will make for a better America.

A Comment Guide for Fighting the EPA’s Attacks on Mercury Standards and Cost-Benefit Analysis

Attendees at a December 2011 hearing on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. The EPA's Clean Air Act standards protect the health of all Americans, especially our children. Photo: USEPA/Flickr

Download the public comment guide. 

A couple of days after Christmas last year, during the federal government shut-down, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler somehow found time to issue a pernicious proposal to undermine a crucial clean air rule, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for coal-fired power plants.

More insidiously, the proposal is an attack on long-standing legal, economic and regulatory precedent on cost-benefit analysis—and as a result could have far-reaching consequences for many other public health protections. That’s why we’re asking experts–and anybody who cares about science and public health—to weigh in and submit comments on this proposal by April 17.

UCS has just issued a new public comment guide to support those efforts.

What’s behind the EPA proposal?

The 2012 MATS standard for coal-fired power plants was aimed at addressing the single largest industrial source of mercury at the time. The standards also limit other hazardous air pollutants, including hydrogen chloride, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, and nickel. These toxic pollutants can cause or contribute to neurological damage in developing fetuses, chronic respiratory diseases, various cancers, and other severe damage to human health and ecosystems.

These first-ever standards came 30 (!) years after Congress directed the EPA to study the public health threat of air toxics from coal-fired power plants, and to limit this pollution under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act if the EPA found regulation “appropriate and necessary.” The agency made and confirmed that determination several times, including in 2016 as part of a detailed supplementary finding where the agency specifically took costs of compliance into account.

Now the EPA is seeking to undermine MATS by reversing the prerequisite finding that this regulation is “appropriate and necessary.” The agency is basing its current proposal on a deeply flawed and narrow evaluation of the costs and benefits of this standard, essentially inflating its costs and stripping down its benefits, to deliver an outcome firmly tilted in favor of polluters.

For more on the EPA’s attack on MATS, please read UCS Executive Director Kathy Rest’s recent blog posts here and here.

Eviscerating the value of health benefits

How significant are the public health benefits of implementing MATS? Well, in 2011 the EPA estimated that once MATS was in place, each year 11,000 fewer people would die prematurely and there would be 130,000 fewer asthma attacks and and 4,700 fewer heart attacks—resulting in monetized savings on the order of $37 billion to $90 billion each year. Meanwhile they estimated costs to be on the order of $7.4 to $9.6 billion annually.

A big part of why MATS is so valuable to public health is that the same technologies and measures that help limit mercury and other toxic pollutants also help limit other harmful pollutants that are produced when coal is burnt, especially fine particulate matter (PM2.5). This simultaneous and significant reduction in multiple harmful pollutants is a major bonus for public health, worth billions of dollars annually.

Now, however, the agency is trying to ignore these clear public health benefits and focusing instead on a narrow definition of benefits that only considers the benefits from reducing the directly targeted pollutants (mercury and other air toxics) while completely eliminating the significant co-benefits of PM reductions.

What’s more, data from the US Energy Information Administration also show that the power sector’s actual costs of complying with MATS turned out to be far lower than initially estimated. The EPA’s current proposal ignores these recent data, however, and still uses the older, higher cost numbers from its 2011 regulatory impact analysis for MATS.

Far-reaching consequences

The craziest part of all this is that the EPA is attacking the essential foundation of MATS while claiming to leave the standard itself in place.

In a sense it has no choice: virtually all coal-fired power plants are already in compliance with MATS and utilities have already made the necessary investments in pollution control technologies. The reality is that MATS is already a fait accompli.

So why take this action now?

The Wheeler EPA has its eyes set on the more far-reaching and consequential effects of finalizing this proposal. Specifically, formalizing this distorted method of cost-benefit analysis would make it easier to weaken a range of regulations under the Clean Air Act and other public health laws, including the agency’s actions to regulate global warming emissions.

And regardless of what the agency claims, it does also put MATS on precarious ground. The end result of finalizing this egregious proposal could very well be that MATS is rescinded. It could even go as far as creating a risk that the agency removes power plants from the list of sources regulated under section 112 of the Clean Air Act (which addresses hazardous air pollutants like mercury). The agency itself acknowledges these risks by seeking comment on these specific issues in the proposal.

Taken together, these potential impacts would be a huge blow to public health—and a boon to polluters.

Send your comments to the EPA!

The mission of the EPA is to protect public health and the environment, which makes it hard to believe that the agency actually wants to argue against the value of limiting harmful emissions of mercury and air toxics—but that’s exactly what the EPA under the Trump administration is seeking to do.

If any of this sounds ludicrous to you, it should. (And you’ll probably find grim solace in my colleague Julie’s scathing takedown of rulemaking in the Trump era.)

But you can do something about it: your comments are vital to restoring science to the rule-making process. If you’re a public health expert, a legal scholar, an economist specializing in cost-benefit analysis, an expert who sees the everyday impacts of toxic pollution in your community, or a parent who worries about the impacts of mercury on children, your voice matters.

We realize that regulatory proposals and rule-making processes can be complicated, so we’ve broken it down for you in an easy-to-use comment guide. In it, we’ve highlighted four key areas for your comments and provided more information related to each of them. They include the EPA:

  • refusing to consider all benefits when evaluating the “worth” of a rule;
  • ignoring unquantified direct benefits of reducing air toxics;
  • relying on outdated information and disregarding new information; and
  • undermining the public health gains from MATS and potentially other public health protections.

Detailed, individual comments that draw on your expertise and experience are of greatest value. Were this rule to face legal challenge (which is a virtual certainty if the proposal is finalized), the EPA will have to reckon with the record of substantive comments in court.

Tell Administrator Wheeler to take back this harmful proposal and leave MATS, and its underlying foundation, in place. The public health protections we rely on are at stake.

USEPA/Flickr

Perdue’s Paradox: Proposed USDA Reorganization Would Undermine Farmers and Science-Based Research

Presidential budgets are wish lists. Very detailed and public wish lists.

That’s why on Monday, when the Trump Administration released its FY2020 Budget, it was alarming to see a 7 percent reduction to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area.

Thankfully, Congress has routinely rejected President’s Trumps budget proposals. Still, there’s a lot we can learn from the hundreds of millions in proposed cuts to food and agriculture research.

Late last year, the USDA unveiled major changes to two of the Department’s world-class research agencies—the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA), and the Economic Research Service (ERS). At the time, USDA claimed the changes were to benefit taxpayers.

Since the changes were announced, key Senators and Representatives, bipartisan former agency heads, and thousands of researchers have raised legitimate concerns—from scientific integrity to whether or not the proposed changes would increase and improve publicly funded USDA research. Of all these concerns, one fundamental question still looms large:

Will American agriculture research—and the farmers, ranchers, and consumers who rely on it—benefit from the proposal?  

With a quick scan of recent headlines, it’s clear that from international trade anxiety to the devastating havoc of natural disasters, uncertainty is ruling the day for many producers around the country. At times of uncertainty, USDA’s role is to provide leadership and stability.

Strategic investments in food and agriculture research are some of the best our government can make. Scientific advances generated by ERS and NIFA—the two agencies impacted by the proposed reorganization—have benefitted countless communities in all 50 states and have contributed to rural economic development, food safety and security, and environmental stewardship, among others. But the good doesn’t stop there—the USDA itself has said that public investment in agriculture research results in “large economic benefits with annual rates of return between 20 and 60 percent.”

Given the clear benefit of research and the need for stability in American agriculture, we need to increase and improve our public investment in food and agriculture research—not produce half-baked proposals which further sow doubt about USDA’s diminishing leadership in agriculture research.

Yet, paradoxically, the proposed reorganization of ERS and NIFA has only raised doubt as to whether USDA still values agriculture research. In fact, the press release announcing the reorganization cited three justifications for the proposal—and none of them include increasing or improving public investment in food and agriculture research. Even USDA’s own employees have expressed their deep concerns about the intent behind the move.

Congressional requests for clarity from USDA have gone unanswered for months even though lawmakers have now requested “an indefinite delay” to the proposed reorganization. On March 12, USDA further ignored Congress and announced the 67 finalists for the new ERS and NIFA location. Now more than ever, it’s becoming obvious that USDA has no desire to listen to Congress.

Given the mounting opposition and continued lack of clarity on the proposed reorganization, it’s completely reasonable to ask—what’s the true motivation behind the reorganization? Will it benefit food and agriculture research, and the millions who rely on it? If so, why is there no evidence after more than seven months?

Unfortunately, the evidence is already in plain sight: the President’s budget proposes more than $225 million in cuts to food and agriculture research, which maintains the theme from previous Trump budget proposals. An administration that values rigorous science-based food and agriculture research wouldn’t do that.

American farmers, ranchers, and consumers should never have to question whether USDA has their back, nor should the talented and dedicated staff of USDA’s research agencies.

Yet, with this proposal, that’s exactly what’s happened.

The Scientific Integrity Act is Good for Science and Good for Government

Today, Senator Schatz (D-HI) and Representative Tonko (D-NY) introduced the Scientific Integrity Act, legislation that would give scientists who work for government agencies the right to share their research with the public, ensure that government communication of science is accurate, and protect science in policy decisions from political interference. The bill empowers federal scientists to share their personal opinions as informed experts. And the bill prohibits any employee from censoring or manipulating scientific findings. Anyone reading this post should reach out to their representative and senators to urge co-sponsorship of this important bill.

The Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control, Department of Interior, and Food and Drug Administration are supposed to use independent science to protect and improve public health and the environment. Much of the time, they do. But presidential administrations want excessive control over information that comes out of federal agencies—especially if it doesn’t support the policies they want to put forward. This keeps valuable information from the public, and makes it easier for politicians to base public health and environmental protection decisions not on sound science but on something that sounds like science, but isn’t. This makes people sicker and degrades the environment.

Today, members of Congress introduced a bill to strengthen scientific integrity at federal agencies and enhance protections for government scientists. Photo: USDA

The Scientific Integrity Act would require federal agencies that conduct or utilize science to set up systems to prevent and address attacks on science. Any federal agency addressing science would designate a scientific integrity officer, develop a scientific integrity policy that includes a set of minimum standards, and provide scientific integrity and ethics trainings. Currently, some agencies have had the resources to devote more staff time and resources to scientific integrity than others, and we see the results of this when we look at scientists awareness of the policy and enforcement of its provisions.

Much of the bill is focused on protecting scientists’ rights to communicate their research. You may have thought that this was obvious: don’t scientists who work for NASA or EPA already have the freedom to publicly share their expertise? Well, yes and no. Widespread censorship of science and scientists in the past led federal agencies to develop or improve media and scientific integrity policies that are supposed to protect this right. These polices, however, lack the force of law, and vary agency to agency in terms of their comprehensiveness and effectiveness.

That’s why it’s easier for the White House to try to get away with censoring a study on chemical contamination of drinking water. It’s why employees can be reprimanded for tweeting about climate change.

It’s why, according to surveys, federal scientists are self-censoring and keeping a low profile rather than risk the ire of their political superiors. 631 federal scientists reported having been asked to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work and another 703 federal scientists reported that they had avoided working on climate change or using the phrase “climate change” without explicit orders to do so. Policies that better protect scientists communication would help address censorship and self-censorship.

The bill also requires some public reporting as to agency scientific integrity performance, and gives the White House Office of Scientific Integrity Policy some purview over policy implementation. We will do our best to work with the committee to strengthen the reporting and existing policies portions of the legislation as it moves through Congress.

To be sure, there are other steps needed to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking—increasing data disclosure and transparency in decisionmaking, reducing conflicts of interest on science advisory boards, and ensuring that we know when scientists within government disagree with each other, just to name a few. But no one piece of legislation will solve everything.

We all deserve access to the scientific analysis that the government creates, as well as access to the experts who can interpret that information. States, local governments, and individuals all depend on the federal government to help understand the risks we face and how to keep our families and communities safe. From consumer product safety to prescription drugs to air pollution, we are all better off when the scientists who work for government have the basic right to share what they know free from political interference.

This bill is absolutely an essential building block to strengthen the role of science in policymaking that deserves swift consideration in the House and Senate. Bravo to Senator Schatz and Representative Tonko for introducing this legislation and advocating for its passage. Please ask your representatives in the House and Senate to co-sponsor this bill.

Bury the Science, Then Claim It Doesn’t Exist: Interior Department Undermines Arctic Drilling Review

Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Laws are good to have.

Take the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the federal government to complete a science-based  Environmental Impact Assessment for any project that might damage the surrounding landscape, endanger wildlife, or cause other environmental harm. This helps ensure the wise use of science to protect our nation’s world-class natural heritage.

Another great law? The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which requires federal agencies to provide copies of federal documents upon request. This helps ensure a transparent government in the public interest.

When federal agencies fail to honor either of these laws, they get sued. But what about when they fail to honor both of those laws…at the same time…intentionally? We are about to find out, thanks to the latest scandal that emerged this week from President Trump’s Interior Department.

According to documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and posted online this week, the Interior Department failed to consider [login required] more than a dozen internal memos from staff scientists raising scientific and environmental concerns about proposed oil and gas operations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These were not minor concerns; the memos described significant data gaps for understanding the habitat, and proposed studies that would be necessary to meet regulatory requirements. To make matters worse, the Department refused, when requested via FOIA, to disclose that these important documents even existed.

This failure is striking because the Arctic Refuge is one of the most sensitive protected areas on Earth as well as a sacred area for the Gwich’in people—the agency knew that its activities would be closely scrutinized. Indeed, over the past few decades efforts to drill in this sensitive area were rebuffed by Congress or the president time after time. It took a Republican sweep of the House, the Senate, and the White House to put drilling on the table, and it still required a rider on the 2017 tax reform law to start the process.

For Americans concerned about the environment and environmental justice for Alaska Natives, efforts to industrialize the coastal plain of the refuge would be a disaster. So all eyes were on the process, begun by then-Secretary Ryan Zinke, to quickly get oil and gas leasing underway there.

And yet, in the Trump Administration’s march to drill everything they can while they still can, the environmental review was rushed, incomplete, and by all accounts a cut and paste operation using out-of-date research. While the sloppiness of the work left the review legally vulnerable, the release of these memos suggests this was more than just a slipshod rush-job; it suggests there was an intentional effort to hide scientific findings/concerns that may have slowed down the administration’s rush to drill.

In some ways this is not surprising—the agency is now led by Acting Secretary David Bernhardt, a walking conflict of interest and former oil and gas lobbyist whose micromanaging has bottlenecked everything from science grants to National Park restoration projects. According to one lawsuit already underway, his former clients “began receiving sudden and dramatic windfalls only months since his swearing-in.” Doesn’t sound like a by-the-book guy, but this latest gaffe indicates an even more cynical attitude toward the laws of the land.

Despite the Trump Administration’s numerous depredations of science and the environment, Americans—and Congress—still expect public servants to actually serve the public rather than provide handouts to industry and former clients. Bernhardt and his political staff must explain why they buried important scientific information and then denied its very existence, and face the legal consequences for doing so. Anything less is a betrayal of the public trust, and certainly disqualifies Bernhardt from his current role as a public servant.

Getting to 100% Clean Energy—and the Grid Operators that Stand in the Way

If we are going to fulfill the growing commitments from states, cities, and corporations for clean energy, we are going to need explicit action in the right direction. The electricity industry mixes private and public interests, so a combination of public policies and markets has been the norm in utility regulation for the past 100 years. Now, this is an important place for the fight to reduce fossil fuel use and increase renewable energy.

Transition to renewable energy takes place in a governing framework. Recent debates over “fuel security,” “resilience,” and “the changing energy mix” reveal how electricity service is laden with the public interest. Our utility regulatory framework already deals with the costs of a monopoly and the costs to avoid possible power outages. Regulators watch for prudent costs and non-priced “externalities” that affect society such as safety, health and reliability. Public policies set by public governing bodies balance these issues.

Without regulatory oversight of expenses, a utility can collect money to build and operate for ever more reliability. To keep this from getting too complicated, policymakers often seek focused and measurable requirements or standards. Present practices at PJM, the grid market operator in 13 states from Illinois to New Jersey and North Carolina, are costing $200 million to $2 billion per year, before the next “fuel security” gets layered on top.

Standards for reliability exist

Electric system reliability is closely watched. The largest electric utility investments are in power plants used collectively by all the consumers in an area. The adequacy of the supply from power plants is the most common measure of reliability, and every utility compares supply to demand for electricity. For at least 50 years, utilities and regulators have used a standard of “one day of shortage in ten years” for judging adequacy of electricity supply. This probability estimates risks in the forecast and provides a reserve, or margin for unexpected incidents that would affect both supply and demand.  Without such a standard, the utility industry has incentives to keep building and operating power plants without any means to judge if the added expense is needed.

Addressing externalities with policies

Most of the environmental harm and impacts on communities from building new power

plants and continued operation of old, polluting power plants are externalities, outside the price paid for electricity. Utilities are governed by public entities to deal with these external costs. Cost reviews and environmental standards help define how the utility can raise consumer rates for the costs to meet standards.

As fuel types change and debates shift, there are still private interests and public policymakers. PJM, along with another grid operator in New England, has been having trouble with public policies for clean energy, in addition to also having trouble with market prices favoring natural gas as fuel for electric power plants over coal and nuclear. The market operators PJM and ISO-New England are disqualifying renewable energy from being counted in the capacity market as a supply. That means that as states meet renewable energy laws and corporate buyers add wind and solar, PJM and ISO-NE have policies that continue to pay redundant fossil generation to meet demand and hide the amount of renewables on the grid. This adds costs and delays the retirement of fossil-fired plants and their carbon emissions.

A wind farm in winter (credit: Vermont Environmental Research Associates, Inc.)

PJM and ISO-NE argue that there are other values and attributes to other energy resources that deserve higher payments. PJM has changed the definition of a qualified supply to be year-round, discarding the summer peak as the driver of peak demand. PJM and ISO-NE now want to reward plants that have “secure fuel.” Already, PJM and ISO-NE provide a variety of payments to power plants to provide energy, or be ready to provide energy, or to change their energy production on short notice. The definition of these “products and services” other than energy have been debated and changed pretty much continuously since the markets were launched 20 years ago. (One stakeholder counted 40 requests made by PJM to FERC to change the capacity market rules.)

The trend from PJM in the last few years has been hostile to clean energy. The newest of PJM’s policy shifts favoring “fuel security” is aimed at reducing the dominance of natural gas. But as happens often in PJM, this also disadvantages wind, solar, demand response and the latest in new technology, energy storage. PJM’s premise is that a whole series of improbable events might happen to stress the supply and the gas generators.

But PJM finds the power grid would still be reliable. The PJM analysis says the power system would be fine if a combination of particularly bad things happen all at once: the weather was colder than 1 in 20 years, the market does not replace closing power plants with new plant investment of any kind, and during the cold snap the gas pipelines are overloaded and start to explode (PJM uses the term “high-impact disruption”). PJM’s view of supplies for theoretical cold snaps misses lessons from wind contributions in 2011 in Texas and 2014 in PJM.

Wait, the analysis says reliability is OK?

The PJM reporting on this says upfront: “The PJM system is reliable today and will remain reliable into the future. While there is no imminent threat, fuel security is an important component of reliability and resilience—especially if multiple risks come to fruition. The findings underscore the importance of PJM exploring proactive measures to value fuel security attributes, and PJM believes this is best done through competitive wholesale markets.”

And yet we need to fix this?

PJM is taking the stakeholders through a process to make new changes to its market. PJM hasn’t offered any probabilities to the events it calls improbable, other than the extreme cold. But this isn’t the first time PJM focused on the gas supply delivered by pipelines. In 2015 PJM found “Gas sector infrastructure improvements have resulted in much greater operational flexibility across the pipelines and storage infrastructure that heighten the resiliency of the network to compensate for highly disruptive gas-side contingencies.”

Now PJM notes: “there is no common planning standard similar to what is required for the planning of the bulk electric system.”

Overbuilding every day, making policy as it goes

The PJM power supply has a persistent fat reserve margin, plus numerous clean energy sources it doesn’t count that boost its safety margins even further. PJM meets the one-day-in-ten-years standard with its “Reliability Pricing Model” (RPM, aka capacity market). PJM makes calculations and estimates of peak demand plus a reserve margin to determine how much capacity it needs. In doing so, the regulated private utility starts acting like a policymaker.

PJM manages the eligibility, bid prices, and clearing mechanics of its RPM auction. An intertwined set of PJM practices interfere with prices in the energy market and elevate the capacity market. PJM has made changes (40 by some count) to manage the capacity market. The trend of these changes is to spend more on fossil generators, obtain more generator-based supplies, and ensure asset owners have steady revenues.

The cumulative results of these changes is overbuilding, and greater expenditures for reliability. Instead of a reserve margin that provides one day in ten years probability, PJM’s practices are providing an estimated probability of one day in 100 years, with annual costs of $200 million to $2 billion more per year than the standard requires. The results from recent capacity market procurements show PJM is spending to exceed the 16% needed reserve margins to reach reserve margins of 20% (2015), 21% (2018), 22% (2016) and 23% (2017).

Summarize please

The policy-setting done by public, transparent organizations regarding the reliability of the electric grid, and the shift to include more renewable energy, is being trampled by PJM. The costs fall on consumers. Other regions have adopted some or none of these practices. The states and locally-controlled utilities that have voluntarily joined PJM should be asking who is in charge, how are they following their mandates, and whether or not will this lead where we want to go.

Photo: Vine House Farm/Public domain (Flickr)

3 Key Facts on the Participation of Women in Renewable Energy

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The International Women´s Day commemorates efforts to promote the equitable participation of women in society. Even though this celebration started in some countries in Europe in 1910, it was not institutionalized until 1975 by the United Nations (UN).

It has been more than a century after its first celebration and almost half a century after the UN invited states to declare the International Day of Women’s Rights. So, what progress have women made in the renewable energy industry?

Here I share 3 key facts:Women represent 32% of the global renewable energy workforce

Women representation in traditional energy, renewable energy and global workforce

Globally, the renewable energy industry has more women representation (32%) than traditional energy industries like oil and gas (22%). However, this figure is considerably lower than the women’s participation in the global labor market (48%).

In the case of US solar, 28% of the industry’s workforce was female in 2016, compared to 2018, where the participation of about 64 thousand women was equivalent to 26% of the workforce. The numbers show us that there is a weak representation of women in the solar workforce.

Women represent 28% of the roles in STEM in the renewable energy industry worldwide

Shares of Women in STEM, non-STEM and administrative jobs in renewable energy

Women representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields in the renewable energy industry is only 28%, compared to 45% in administrative roles. This shows a clear imbalance in the participation of women in the value chain of the renewable energy industry.

A recent McKinsey survey conducted in the US showed that the higher up the corporate ladder, the fewer women you find. 48% of entry level positions were represented by women, going down to 39% to 34% in management roles, 30% for vice presidential positions, and just 23% for executive-suite roles.

The renewable industry should promote the participation of women in leadership positions in order to enjoy the benefits offered by a diverse workforce. They include new perspectives, better financial returns, better understanding of customers, and improvements in the work environment.

More than 70% of women perceive a gender wage gap in the renewable industry globally

Beliefs about pay equity among women and men.

A recent survey led by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) that included more than 1,500 participants from 144 countries found that 71% of women perceive payment inequities among women and men. In comparison, just 38% of men perceive such inequity. Studies confirm this perception.

Research on the participation of women in Germany’s solar workforce identified that women continue earning less money than their male counterparts.

Ingresos de al menos $75/Hr por género y raza

Similar situations are reported in the US solar worksforce. In 2017, just 1 in 5 white women (20%) and almost 1 in 20 women of color (4%) reported earning wages of at least $75 per hour. In comparison, 1 in 3 white men reported earning this hourly wage.

Greater transparency with respect to salary scales and professional careers within organizations is a vital step to achieve equity in payments, salary increases, bonuses and promotions.

Renewables: a growing industry that needs to integrate a diverse workforce

In commemoration of International Women’s Day, these numbers serve as a reminder of efforts that began more than 100 years ago to ensure women’s participation under equitable conditions, and the work that is still ahead in the renewable energy industry.

The industry had a global workforce of more than 10 million workers and by 2050 this number is expected to triple. It is essential that this growth comes hand-in-hand with inclusive practices that reflect in the workforce the communities that the industry serves. This will undoubtedly contribute to advancing not only the rights of women and other diverse groups, but will also yield better performance for companies, thanks to highly competitive, committed, and motivated teams.

IRENA IRENA online survey, 2018 IRENA online gender survey, 2018 The Solar Foundation

3 Cifras Claves Sobre la Participación de la Mujer en la Energía Renovable

En la conferencia ANDREC 2018 con líderes de la industria de energía renovable en las Américas. De izquierda a derecha: Natalia Gomez (Light4Education), Monica Gasta (SER Colombia), María Urrea (MEICO), Olga de Narvaez (IADB), Cristina Clavijo (Mujeres en Energía Renovable Latinoamérica), Paula García (UCS), Carolina García (Bavaria)

El Día Internacional de la Mujer conmemora la lucha de la mujer por su participación en la sociedad en condiciones de equidad. Aunque esta celebración inició en algunos países de Europa desde 1910, solo hasta 1975 fue institucionalizada por la Organización de las Naciones Unidas (ONU).

A más de un siglo de su primera celebración y a casi medio siglo que la ONU invitara a los Estados a declarar el Día Internacional de los Derechos de la Mujer, ¿cómo ha avanzado la participación de la mujer en la creciente industria de energía renovable?

Acá les comparto 3 cifras claves

  • Las mujeres representan el 32% de la fuerza laboral global en la industria de energía renovable

Representación de la mujer en la industria energética, la industria de renovables y el mercado laboral

A nivel global hay mayor participación de la mujer en la industria de energía renovable (32%), en comparación con industrias tradicionales de energía como el petróleo y el gas (22%). Sin embargo, esta cifra es considerablemente inferior al casi 50% de participación de la mujer en el mercado laboral global.

En el caso de la energía solar en los EE.UU., en 2016 hubo mayor participación de mujeres en la industria solar con casi un 28% de representación, en comparación con el año 2018 donde la participación de cerca de 64 mil mujeres fue equivalente al 26% de la fuerza laboral. Los números nos muestran que hay una débil representación de la mujer en la fuerza laboral de la industria solar.

  • Las mujeres representan el 28% de los roles en STEM de la industria de renovables a nivel mundial

Participación de las mujeres en diferentes roles de la industria de energía renovable

La representación de mujeres en áreas relacionadas con la ciencia, tecnología, ingeniería y matemáticas (STEM, por sus siglas en inglés) en la industria de energía renovable es tan sólo del 28%, en comparación con un 45% en roles administrativos. Esto muestra un claro desbalance en la participación de la mujer en la cadena de valor de la industria de energía renovable.

En efecto, una reciente encuesta de McKinsey en los EE.UU. mostró que entre más se asciende en la escala corporativa, hay menos probabilidades de encontrar mujeres. 48% de empleos para principiantes estaban en cabeza de mujeres, a nivel gerencial la participación de las mujeres bajó de 39 a 34%, a nivel de vicepresidencia a 30% y en cuanto a posiciones de presidencia o cargos ejecutivos a tan sólo un 23%.

La industria de energía renovable debe promover la participación de las mujeres en posiciones de liderazgo para así gozar los beneficios que brinda una fuerza de trabajo diversa como nuevas perspectivas, mejores rendimientos financieros, mejor entendimiento de los clientes y mejoras en el clima organizacional.

  • Más del 70% de las mujeres perciben inequidad salarial en la industria de energía renovable a nivel mundial

Percepción sobre equidad en pagos en la industria de renovables a nivel mundial

Una reciente encuesta liderada por la Agencia Internacional de Energía Renovable (IRENA, por sus siglas en inglés) que incluyó 1.500 participantes en 144 países, reveló que el 71% de las mujeres entrevistadas perciben inequidad salarial. Esto, en comparación con un 38% de hombres entrevistados que reportó percibir dicha inequidad. En este sentido, los estudios confirman la percepción de las mujeres entrevistadas por IRENA.

Por ejemplo, una investigación sobre la situación laboral de las mujeres en la industria de energía renovable en Alemania encontró que las mujeres continúan ganando menos dinero en comparación con los hombres.

Situación similar se presenta en la fuerza laboral de la industria de energía solar en los

Ingresos de al menos $75/Hr por género y raza

EE.UU. En el 2017, sólo una de cada 5 mujeres de raza blanca (on un 20%) y aproximadamente sólo 1 de cada 20 mujeres de minorías étnicas y raciales (o un 4%) ganaba un sueldo por hora superior a 75 dólares. En comparación, 1 de cada 3 hombres de raza blanca reportó recibir este sueldo.

Mayor transparencia con respecto a las escalas salariales y carreras profesionales al interior de las organizaciones es un paso vital para lograr equidad de remuneración en salarios, aumentos, bonos y promociones.

Las renovables: una industria en crecimiento a tiempo de integrar una fuerza laboral cada vez más diversa

En conmemoración del Día Internacional de la Mujer, estas cifras sirven de recordatorio de una lucha que empezó hace más de 100 años y que aun continúa para asegurar la participación de la mujer en condiciones de equidad, en este caso en la industria de energía renovable.

En el 2017 la industria contaba a nivel global con más de 10 millones de trabajadores y para el 2050 se espera que este número sea triplicado. Es fundamental que este crecimiento de las renovables venga de la mano de prácticas incluyentes que reflejen en la fuerza laboral a las comunidades que la industria sirve. Esto sin duda contribuirá a avanzar no sólo los derechos de las mujeres y otros grupos diversos, sino a generar mayores rendimientos financieros y mejorar el desempeño en las empresas gracias a equipos de trabajo altamente competitivos, comprometidos y motivados.

IRENA IRENA online survey, 2018 IRENA online gender survey, 2018 The Solar Foundation

Washington State Tackles Transportation Emissions

Photo: Alaska Airlines

The climate crisis demands an immediate response on multiple fronts, and while in Washington DC the Trump administration is attempting to reverse the progress of the last administration, in Washington state legislators are tackling the challenge head on.

The largest source of pollution in Washington state is transportation, which is another way to say burning petroleum-based fuels like gasoline and diesel. Tackling emissions from transportation requires policies that focus on vehicles and transportation fuels. Broad economy-wide measures like carbon pricing or cap and trade are important and should be pursued but will have limited direct impact on transportation in the near term. Fortunately, a clean fuel program, which targets transportation fuel directly, has proven quite effective. Legislators in Washington are considering enacting such a standard, which would be a major step forward in cutting oil use and emissions from transportation.

Clean fuels policies cut oil use and emissions

California, Oregon and British Columbia each have a clean fuel standard in place. These are technology neutral performance standards that require average transportation fuels to get cleaner over time. They don’t mandate the use of any specific clean fuel but instead provide support for all clean fuels based on a scientific assessment of the benefits they provide compared to burning gasoline and diesel fuel.

The measure of a clean fuel adds up the global warming pollution associated with the full lifecycle of the fuel, from fuel production to combustion. This approach is flexible, and allows for the goals to be met in several ways: by blending cleaner biofuels into the gasoline and diesel used by the existing fleet of cars and trucks,  substituting fossil fuels with drop-in renewable fuels (such as renewable diesel, renewable natural gas, or renewable jet fuel), or by using more clean fuels like electricity and hydrogen. The lifecycle assessment for each fuel recognizes that producing transportation fuels can also be very polluting, so emissions from using fuels is combined with emissions from oil fields, tar sands, oil refineries, not to mention the production of crops for biofuels or power for electricity generation. See our fact sheet and analysis on clean fuel availability for more details.

Experience shows clean fuels policies work

California’s clean fuel policy, called the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, was enacted nearly a decade ago, and with a track record of success it was recently extended to reduce the carbon intensity of the state’s fuel supply by 20 percent by 2030. The policy has significantly increased use of clean alternative fuels in the state and has encouraged producers of clean fuels to reduce emissions associated with their production.

For example, the policy does not just simply encourage the use of alternative such as biodiesel and natural gas; it encourages fuel producers to use the lowest carbon sources of these alternative fuels, which means biodiesel, made from used cooking oil or biomethane captured from wastes. Clean fuels policy also provides a substantial support for electrification of vehicles. By switching from diesel to electricity, transit agencies can generate credits worth more than $10,000 per year for each bus, and clean fuel credits can be used to fund rebate programs for electric vehicles. A program under development in California is expected to provide rebates worth up to $2,000 per EV.

The cost of climate inaction is high and rising

The oil industry and other critics of clean fuel policies claim they will increase the cost of gasoline or diesel. But by focusing attention on the small cost of making smart investments to move steadily away from petroleum-based fuels, they distract from the real risks to consumers and the public. Cleaner transportation choices like electricity not only are produced in state but have lower and more stable prices than oil.  The real risk to consumers comes from the inherent instability of global oil markets and the Trump administration’s efforts, aided by the oil industry, to roll back fuel economy and emissions standards. And the cost of inaction in the face of the climate crisis is much higher still. Beware of the oil industry’s self-serving claims to be protecting the pocketbooks of drivers when they are really protecting their own monopoly on the transportation fuel marketplace at the expense of future generations.

Washington lawmakers should join their neighbors on the west coast by enacting a clean fuels program of their own.  The cost of inaction is just too high to neglect the largest source of pollution in the state, and the benefits of accelerating the transition to electricity and other clean fuels is too great to ignore.  Together with other policies to promote renewable energy and more efficient buildings, a clean fuels policy is a critical tool for Washington to address the climate crisis.

100% Clean Electricity in Washington State: Everything You Need To Know

Photo: Juliwatson /Pixabay

Washington state’s lawmakers are contemplating the transition to 100% clean electricity. Fortunately, Washington’s grid is already one of the cleanest in the nation, with much of its electricity coming from hydropower. So what exactly does “100% clean electricity” mean for the state? How would this transition affect Washington’s economy? And why should Washington do this in the first place?

What “100% clean” means

The current electricity mix in Washington state is very clean already. Roughly two-thirds of Washington’s electricity comes from hydropower, but there’s still a problem. Nearly a quarter of Washington’s electricity comes from fossil fuels. Electricity generated from coal and natural gas accounts for a fifth of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions. With that in mind, 100% clean electricity means 100% carbon-free electricity. Carbon-free electricity will require ratcheting down the use of fossil fuels and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector. The state can do that by generating electricity from carbon-free resources (such as wind and solar) or reducing demand for electricity by investing in energy efficiency.

Roughly two-thirds of the state’s electricity comes from hydropower, but a quarter still comes from fossil fuels, namely coal and natural gas. Data is for 2017 from the Washington State Department of Commerce.

The transition will be easier for some electric utilities than for others. For example, Puget Sound Energy, Washington’s biggest utility, gets almost 60% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. Replacing all that electricity with energy from carbon-free sources will require a continued shift in investments.

On the other hand, some utilities, such as Seattle City Light and Tacoma Power, already get more than 95% of their electricity from carbon-free sources. These utilities will have less work to do to reach 100% carbon-free electricity. Instead, they will serve as examples, demonstrating that 100% carbon-free electricity is well within reach.

The clean economy

Transitioning to 100% clean electricity will have countless benefits, especially for Washington’s economy.

While the most common objection is that transitioning to 100% carbon-free electricity will cost too much, that is simply not true. Renewable energy from wind and solar is often cheaper than energy from natural gas and coal. Financially speaking, renewable energy just makes sense. To demonstrate this further, a study conducted for the Washington governor’s office showed that rapidly decarbonizing all sectors of Washington’s economy (not just the electricity sector, but also transportation, industry, etc.) could be achieved at reasonable cost. It’s very clear: 100% carbon-free electricity will not break the bank.

As Washington invests in new energy infrastructure – building wind turbines, solar farms, energy storage and transmission lines – many jobs will be created in the process. Research indicates that investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency create three times more jobs than investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. Furthermore, jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency are good jobs, built to last.

In short, working towards 100% clean electricity won’t cost too much, and it will bring more good jobs to Washington state.

Why should Washington do this in the first place?

Workers construct massive wind turbine in Colorado. Photo: US Department of Energy

If for some reason you’re not convinced by the creation of good jobs in Washington, there’s another important reason to make the transition to 100% carbon-free electricity: preventing climate change.

Climate change is already affecting Washington in numerous ways. For example, climate change is increasing the risk of record-breaking wildfires like those that have blanketed the state in smoke the past few summers, and it has acidified the ocean, threatening Washington’s shellfish industry. Unfortunately, this may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Carlton Complex Fire in north central Washington. Photo: US National Guard

This past year we saw a number of sobering new reports on climate change, including the Fourth National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report. These reports set off alarm bells, demonstrating the urgency of reducing our global warming emissions fast.

Transitioning to 100% carbon-free electricity in Washington would significantly reduce the state’s global warming emissions, and not a moment too soon.

What is Washington waiting for?

Luckily, Washington is not waiting. (And neither are many other states!) Senate Bill 5116 was passed in the Washington state Senate on March 1st, so it just needs to pass the House before it makes it to the Governor’s desk. This bill will phase out electricity generated from coal by the end of 2025, and it will set a goal for all electricity to be 100% carbon-free by 2045.

If all goes well, it’s only a matter of time before Washington takes another major step towards a carbon-free electricity sector, creating good jobs and preventing climate change in the process.

Photo: Juliwatson /Pixabay

EPA Report Shows Vehicles Are Most Efficient Ever But is Trying to Roll Back That Progress

Today, EPA published the latest in a series of annual reports looking at the fuel economy and emissions of passenger cars and trucks. The news is both good and completely unsurprising: vehicles are more efficient than ever before, and manufacturers continue to comply with the strong standards driving that improvement.

Incredibly, the fact that consumers continue save bucketloads of cash ($78 billion and counting) as a result of these standards is not slowing down this administration from rolling them back. Manufacturers have plenty of technology left on the shelf…and if the administration gets its way, that’s where it’ll stay.

MPG at highest ever (again)

I’ve read countless articles about the death of sedans and the rise of crossovers, but no matter what type of vehicle it may be that customers are buying today, they’re getting choices that are (or nearly are) more efficient than ever before. Improved efficiency in each class of vehicle over the past few years has continued to push the fuel economy of all new vehicles sold to a new record high of 24.9 mpg for the 2017 model year, up 0.2 mpg from the previous year, even as cars give way to more pick-ups and SUVs.

The only major improvements in fuel economy and emissions have occurred under strong standards—CAFE standards were held flat for nearly 20 years before the first improved standards for light trucks went into effect in 2005, to be followed with standards for all passenger vehicles beginning in 2011 (CAFE) and 2012 (global warming emissions). And now EPA wants to put the freeze on that progress once again.

Manufacturers are complying with strong standards

This record level of fuel economy is no accident—driving that improvement for consumers are strong standards set in 2010 and affirmed in 2016. And, despite their statements to the contrary, we continue to see automakers complying with these emissions standards.

Manufacturers are reducing emissions in response to strong standards and have accrued a massive bank of credits (249 million metric tons!) that will help them meet even stronger standards in the future.

Automakers will be entering the 2018 model year with more than 249 million metric tons (MMT) of CO2 credits, thanks to doing better than required in previous years. While they’ve had to use some of these credits again this year, the industry used less than last year (18 MMT worth vs 30 MMT). That’s because automakers improved their fleets in 2017 at a rate greater than required, which helps illustrate the year-to-year variance in model updates and the way in which banked credits are planned as apart of an overall compliance strategy.

To put that 249 MMT of banked credits in context, manufacturers could actually do absolutely nothing to improve the efficiency of their vehicles until 2020 and still continue to comply with the standards.

Plenty of technology to choose from for future improvements

In order to achieve record high levels of fuel economy, manufacturers have been deploying a wide array of different technologies, as highlighted in the latest report (see figure). The figure below shows the percent of a manufacturer’s vehicles that employ a particular type of efficiency technology–note in particular the wide variance and numerous values well short of the majority of a manufacturer’s sales.

The latest data from EPA on some of the most common efficiency technologies shows that manufacturers have only just begun to deploy some of the most obvious ways to improve the efficiency of conventional vehicles, often focusing on just one or two technologies. That leaves plenty of room for further improvement, to meet even stronger standards.

There are two clear facts that jump out from this figure: 1) most manufacturers have invested in just a handful of technologies to-date to improve their fleet, and 2) that means a lot of unfulfilled potential yet to tap. For example, while Hyundai has focused on deploying direct injection across its fleet, it has barely invested in increasing the efficiency of its transmissions or even much deployment of smaller, turbocharged engines. Increasing investment in these technologies would provide ample room for further future improvement.

While most companies have at least begun to invest in improving their fleet, one company has essentially rested on its laurels: Toyota. As we pointed out in our 2018 Automaker Rankings, Toyota stopped investing in its trucks and SUVs for a number of years, largely relying on its Prius family of hybrids to comply with efficiency requirements—and that’s borne out in the data provided by EPA. As a result, Toyota is the only major manufacturer to actually see its fuel economy get worse over the past 5 years.

The data shows we can, and should, keep moving forward

This latest EPA report shows clearly: 1) the standards are driving improvements as intended, saving consumers money and reducing emissions; and 2) there is ample technology available to continue to improve, with manufacturers well positioned to meet stronger standards primarily by continuing to invest in reducing emissions from conventional vehicles.

Unfortunately, Andrew Wheeler’s EPA would rather ignore its own ample evidence for the benefits of setting strong standards and the ability for manufacturers to meet the challenge in order to roll back this successful program for the administration’s own ideological aims. After calling off negotiations with California, with scant evidence these negotiations truly started in the first place, it’s clear that this administration is aiming to stop this successful program no matter what, essentially halting progress at 2020 levels.

Rolling back the standards will throw the whole industry in limbo, stifling investment in many of the most obvious off-the-shelf opportunities and putting the brakes on investment in the next generation of technology. The people who will pay the most for this administration’s failure to follow the data are those who can least afford it: American workers and lower- and middle-class families who spend a disproportionate share of their income at the pump.

EPA’s own analysis shows that a rollback is the wrong way to go—but there’s little to suggest that this administration is interested in anything but driving this successful program off a cliff.

EPA EPA EPA

50 Years of Science In Action

Today is a very special day–the 50th anniversary of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  As a proud leader of this great organization for five of these fifty years, I would like to share my reflections, which are excerpts from a 50th anniversary speech I gave a few weeks ago.

How it all began

Fifty years ago today–March 4, 1969–this organization was founded.  This day marked an unprecedented political awakening in the scientific community.

Richard Nixon had recently been sworn in as president. Military service was compulsory in the united states and nearly 500,000 American soldiers were deployed in Vietnam. The arms race was in full swing.  The US government used hideous weapons like napalm bombs on innocent people. At the same time, here in the US, rivers were literally catching on fire, and air quality in many cities was so toxic that it was dangerous to exercise outside.

The founders of UCS—Henry Kendall, Kurt Gottfried, and others, saw clearly what others missed– our precious scientific assets were devoted to military dominance and weapons of destruction, instead of addressing the world’s most pressing problems. And the scientific community was too quiet, constrained by an understandable, but ultimately misguided idea that scientists would hurt their enterprise by engaging in advocacy.

Kendall and Gottfried founded UCS to change all that.  Their simple and compelling idea—bring the power of science to make our world safer and healthier and mobilize the scientific community behind that cause.

What has UCS accomplished?

Now, as we look back, what can we say that this noble experiment has brought us?

A long and proud history of achievements, many of which are highlighted in this timeline.  While there are far too many victories to mention them all here, several themes emerge:

UCS has a proud history of being ahead of the curve

In January 1979, UCS called for the Three Mile Island nuclear plant to be shut down; our experts concluded that it was unsafe.  It was a remarkably prescient warning.  Just two months later, that plant partially melted down, gravely threatening thousands.

In 1992, UCS issued “A Warning to Humanity” highlighting the danger of climate change, long before public fully appreciated the threat it posed to the planet.  We followed this general warning up with regional climate impact reports that identified in concrete terms the future we faced–again long before the dangers manifested themselves in the extreme weather events we see today.

Our report ten years ago highlighting ExxonMobil’s campaign of deception about climate science helped start a whole ball rolling in exposing the deceptive practices of fossil fuel companies, leading to investigations, lawsuits, and other efforts now underway to hold these companies accountable for their enormous contribution to climate change.

Our work is often indispensable

UCS has a unique history of weighing in the public interest, even when others were quiet, in fact, especially when others were quiet.  We have often punctured the conventional wisdom and brought the facts to light so decisions were not made in darkness.

For example, we led, and still lead today, on revealing the vulnerabilities of missile defense systems. It was UCS who called out that this emperor had no clothes, and showed why that was and how easily these systems could be defeated with simple countermeasures.

Many years later, UCS exposed that the George W. Bush administration was threatening scientific integrity by suppressing, distorting and maligning the work of government scientists.

Or showed the dangers to human health posed by the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed when others were assuring us that everything was ok.

UCS has devised solutions that seem impossible to many at first—impossible, that is, until they come to be inevitable

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, UCS focused on the promise of renewable energy  and pioneered the use of state Renewable Energy Standards to drive them.  Look what has happened!  Twenty nine states now have these standards and wind and solar are leading every other energy source in new capacity.

We focused on doubling the fuel economy of cars, and we got that (though it is under attack right now).

We focused on protecting the work of government scientists, and won unanimous passage of a whistleblower protection law.

And now, we are proving that you can run a modern electrical grid, primarily on renewables, and states such as California relied on our work when committing to 100% clean energy by 2045.

Looking ahead

But an anniversary of this kind is not just about looking backwards.  The focus must be on the future.  And we must be honest with ourselves–our work has never been more urgent or important and the challenges of securing progress have never been more daunting.

Let’s start with climate change.   We are learning a bitter truth the hard way–the most precious commodity of all is—time.  We are running out of it.

Despite the rather miraculous advent of new technologies, and the almost daily lessons in the dangers of climate change we are learning in the form of extreme weather events, we are not moving nearly fast enough.

On nuclear weapons, while we made significant progress cutting the US and Russian arsenals, the nuclear threat persists, and in some ways, it is harder to address now.  Many people, particularly young people whose energy and passion we need, are not even aware of the threat.  And many who understand the threat think that there is nothing they can do about it.

On food, the challenge of sustainably feeding a burgeoning population has never been more daunting. 1.2 billion people are expected to be added to the planet in the next ten years, from 7.3 to 8.5.  1.2 billion people in ten years!   For many decades agricultural productively kept up or even exceeded population growth.  But, today, there are ominous signs that this is changing, as climate change wreaks havoc with growing cycles, pollinators decline, topsoil is depleted, and supplies of usable water decline.

And last but certainly not least, here in the US, we find ourselves in a place where top officials in Washington talk openly about alternative facts, and the institutions we relied on to separate truth from falsity are no longer respected by many people.  When facts mean different things to different people, depending upon which tribe they identify with, we face a mortal threat to democracy itself.

Why do I say this? Let’s remember that the roots of democracy are in the enlightenment, that period in which we climbed out of the dark ages through scientific curiosity and empiricism.  From this came the radical insight—that facts were demonstrable and knowable to all whose minds were open to the scientific method, and therefore truth was not the special province of one tribe, or one church, or one king.

That radical notion gave birth to democracy because, when knowledge resides in all of us, all of us have the right–in fact–the duty to participate in decision making.  That means the Dear Leader, or Big Brother of 1984—or yes, President Trump—don’t get to define the truth.

And so, we must understand that the current attacks on science, the way it is maligned and suppressed and misused on behalf of those with an agenda to benefit special interests, is an attack on our democracy itself.

So, as I see it, we have four tasks ahead:
  • Bending the curve on climate change before it’s too late
  • Reducing the nuclear threat
  • Sustainably feeding our population
  • maintain and enhancing the rightful place of science in a democracy.

And a fifth overlying obligation—to make sure that this work is done in a way that includes the many and benefits the many. Now, these are weighty challenges. But in this 50th year, our Union of Concerned Scientists is the best equipped it has ever been to overcome them. Our staff and our resources have grown significantly, thanks to the thousands who support our work. We have forged new partnerships, particularly with disadvantaged communities; equity, diversity, and inclusion is woven into our work in ways that it has never been before. We have changed the way we communicate, using the best new modern tools, knowing that the way you capture people’s attention and impel them to act is very different than it was 50 years ago, or even ten years ago.  Here is the modern face of UCS in this video. We have invested in outreach and now have a science network with over 25,000 members. And we have broadened our own thinking, knowing that these problems are so big that they can’t be solved only with the solutions that are our personal favorites.

So, on this 50th anniversary, we are awed by the foresight and prescience of our founders. We are profoundly thankful for the passion and loyalty from all of our supporters who have walked with us for 50 years!

And we march forward, with what Dr. Martin Luther King called upon all of us to have–tough minds, and tender hearts. And if we stick together, and never give up, there will be a 100th anniversary of UCS. And at that anniversary, my successor will look back, and thank us for:

  • Getting the world to net zero emissions by mid century
  • Eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons
  • Finding the way to sustainably feeding the world’s population
  • And strengthening the bonds between science and democracy, so that each flourish together and become so strongly linked that they cannot be torn asunder.

6 Ways HR 1 Would Strengthen Democracy and Science-Based Policy

Photo: Omari Spears/UCS

The U.S. House of Representatives will soon advance the most significant electoral integrity bill since the 1965 Voting Rights Act for a floor vote. H.R.1, the For the People Act, is comprehensive legislation that would help modernize outdated election practices and curb the corrupting influence of money in politics. If you care about good governance and transparent policymaking, or are concerned about science being sidelined while entrenched interests shape policy to their benefit, you should check out H.R.1.

The bill is far from perfect; it will probably not go far enough to protect voters through national standards for ballot design, election data collection and public records provision; it will probably not repeal the prohibition against proportional representation for the House; it can’t eliminate the capacity of powerful interests to insulate themselves from evidence-based testimony and public accountability; and it doesn’t grow unicorns or rainbows. Nevertheless, there is a lot to like in H.R.1, and there may be amendments to improve it further. As it is, H.R.1 would strengthen our democracy in six significant ways:

1.   Eliminate barriers to voter registration

Many hurdles make it difficult for voters to get and stay registered, which results in the United States exhibiting excessively low voter turnout. H.R.1’s requirements for automatic voter registration (AVR), early voting and same-day registration (SDR) would greatly expand the electorate and encourage greater participation, which will lead to more accurate representation.

With AVR, eligible citizens are added to voter rolls and their registration status is updated whenever they interact with another government agency such as their local Department of Motor Vehicles, unless they opt out. The implementation of AVR has the additional advantages of keeping voter rolls more accurate through electronic transfer of information across agencies, as well as reduced costs associated with data entry and error correction, mailing, and shipping.

More than a dozen states, led by Republicans and Democrats, have already adopted AVR in an effort to reduce discrimination and remove barriers to participation. SDR also ensures that no eligible voters fall through the cracks. Further, pre-registration requirements for 16- and 17-year-olds will help prepare younger citizens for the responsibilities of citizenship.

2.   Protect voter lists from manipulation

Removal of voters from registration lists should be based on positive evidence of ineligibility, not failure to vote. H.R.1 helps ensure that states’ voter registration lists are protected from discriminatory manipulation. In light of voter suppression tactics like those identified in Georgia in 2018, and a lack of appropriate court oversight, H.R.1 prohibits voter purging based on demonstrably flawed “exact match” criteria.

3.   Expand early and provisional voting

Voting inequalities result when people with fewer resources (such as time, money, and work-time flexibility) find it harder to vote. The For the People Act would require states to implement early-in-person voting at least two weeks prior to the end of a federal election period, along with allowing voting by mail, and make Election Day a national holiday. Previous research has shown that restricting early-in-person voting can lower turnout. Congress ought to provide every institutional opportunity to vote available, given the pervasive impact of socioeconomic inequalities on voter participation. HR1 would make sure than every potential voter would be able to cast a verifiable provisional ballot.

4.   Reign in the abuses of gerrymandering and partisan bias

Voters deserve fair representation, yet gerrymandering and partisan bias in redistricting means that our votes are not counted equally. State political parties bias representation so as to maximize partisan advantage. This results in distorted policymaking in Congress.  Non-partisan, citizen-focused redistricting commissions for drawing all Congressional districts, as is done in California and several other states, would be required under the For the People Act.

We need these reforms, in part because the United States has the lowest level of electoral integrity among advanced industrial democracies. Stronger ethics rules are also needed to ensure our officials can make decisions in the public interest based on evidence, not unduly influenced by their connections to special interests. For the first time since Transparency International data have been collected, the United States has fallen out of the top 20 among the least corrupt governments in 2018. As figure 1 shows, the United States is behind most of the advanced industrial nations along these measures.

Figure 1: Among the 35 least corrupt governments, the United States dropped out of the top 20 for the first time in 2018. Perceptions of corruption are clearly linked to electoral integrity, especially for the world’s older democracies. Source

The heads of federal science agencies must be free to carry out the missions of those agencies, not do the bidding of regulated industries. Yet, this is exactly what happened in the cases of former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Both Trump-appointed officials were seeped in ethics scandals during their tenure, with several instances of using their positions of power to give favors to their oil and gas industry connections and weaken public health and environmental protections that were inconvenient for regulated industries. H.R.1 also addresses these institutional weaknesses.

5.   Limit the power of monied interests to drown out science and information in political debates

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC opened the floodgates to large sums of anonymous money pouring into our political system. To address this and other challenges in our campaign finance system, H.R.1 requires that publicly traded corporations disclose more about their political spending.

Industry-funded groups often inject misinformation into policy debates with little accountability for who funds them. This can drown out what should be evidence-based policy debates.

H.R.1 also authorizes the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies disclose their political spending to their shareholders and the public. We need prompt disclosure of all political expenditures, and a prohibition against any foreign campaign spending, as laid out in the disclosure section in the For the People Act.

The Federal Elections Commission is also strengthened under H.R.1 to enforce campaign finance regulations. Right now, the FEC is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and is notoriously dysfunctional. By reducing the current six commissioners to five (two Republicans, two Democrats and one independent) the body would be able to act on majority rule.

Public financing of campaigns also helps reduce the political impact that economic inequality exerts on the election process. One innovative pilot program in H.R.1 is a $25 voucher for registered voters that could revolutionize campaign finance. Such a voucher program, like that implemented in Seattle, Washington empowers voters who can individually decide which campaigns to support, while encouraging candidates to seek out small donations instead of relying on a small number of wealthy, private donors.

6.   Clean up corruption of officials by tackling conflicts of interest

The For the People Act would restrain actors from engaging in blatant conflicts of interest as we have seen in the Trump administration. In addition to prohibiting election officials from oversight of their own elections as happened in Georgia, these laws would also require the federal Office of Government Ethics to issue rules on addressing conflicts of interest.

Individuals nominated or appointed to Senate-confirmed positions and certain other senior government officials would be required to disclose contributions or solicitations made by or on behalf of entities they regulate. These individuals and their families would also have to disclose certain types of gifts. Publicly traded corporations would also have to disclose political expenditures to their shareholders and to the general public through the Securities and Exchange Commission. Together, these reforms would ensure more transparent governance and oversight, and reduce the risk that science is sidelined to the advantage of powerful interests.

Let’s Protect Science and Democracy

Protecting democracy and science is not a partisan cause. Every reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by a Republican president. The last revisions were passed by a Republican-led House & Senate. The politicization of science, like the politicization of voting rights, is a detrimental threat to democracy that we must avoid. The reforms outlined here can help ensure our federal elected officials fairly represent us and are free to use science to make decisions in the public interest.

Photo: Omari Spears/UCS

Remember the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Disaster? The Trump Administration Wants You to Forget

Photo: US Coast Guard/Wikimedia

In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig suffered an uncontrollable well blowout and a series of explosions that killed 11 people. Two days later the rig sank 5,000 feet to the ocean floor and the well continued to gush oil for more than three months, causing the largest oil spill in US history and a regional economic disaster. The federal judge who assigned guilt described the operators as reckless and negligent.

A bipartisan commission, convened by President Obama in the aftermath of the accident, found that the cause was twofold—lax federal inspection and inadequate safety practices on the part of offshore operators. The Republican Congress approved additional funds to beef up inspections, while the Obama administration implemented the necessary offshore safety requirements in 2016. Everyone hoped that such a disaster would never be repeated.

Enter the Trump administration, and a series of actions intended to weaken these protections on behalf of the oil industry.

Attacks on science and offshore drilling safety

First, they went after the science. In December 2017, the Trump administration halted a National Academy of Sciences study looking at how the Interior Department’s offshore regulating body, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), could improve its offshore inspection practices. BSEE itself had requested the study after the Government Accountability Office criticized BSEE in 2016 for outdated inspection practices. The Interior Department provided no reasoning for cancelling the study, an action that seemed counter to BSEE’s safety-focused mission.

Then in September 2018, at the behest of oil producers, the Interior Department released its proposal for rolling back the offshore drilling safety rules put in place following the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Given the oft-cited struggles of the offshore oil production industry to ensure safe operations, and the Deepwater Horizon as an extremely prominent case study in failure, observers and lawmakers were understandably stunned that the administration would consider such a handout to the oil and gas industry.

A secretive ploy to get around existing safety rules

What observers did not know, however, was that the administration was not waiting for the public comment and review process that is required before the rollback can go into force. Instead, the Interior Department had already been quietly granting hundreds of waivers to the offshore safety rules—with a particular focus on sidestepping the rules regarding blowout preventers, widely understood to be the culprit behind the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

There are no records showing why Interior granted these 1,679 waivers, and the agency hid the existence of the waivers from public view until a Freedom of Information Act request brought them to light. This lack of transparency and disregard for public process have been a hallmark of the Trump administration, and the Interior Department in particular, but the disdain for American health and safety in the wake of the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon disaster takes this neglect to a whole new level.

A disgrace to public service

In a recent report, the Union of Concerned Scientists documented two years of non-stop Trump administration attacks on science and evidence-based policy, demonstrating how agencies are ignoring urgent concerns about climate change and are instead promoting an industry-first agenda.

In stifling the science and then using a secretive ploy to get around existing regulations, the administration is showing its hand once again. They will stoop to anything to serve their industry masters, even if it means putting American workers at risk, compromising the marine and fishing economies, and hastening the dramatic impacts of climate change.

Do you remember the Deepwater Horizon disaster? The fishermen of the Gulf of Mexico remember; the scientists who studied the spill’s impacts on birds and animals remember; the beach towns along the coast remember.

The families of the 11 men killed in the explosion remember.

For trying to get us to forget, for muzzling science, and for secretly undermining safety protections, this administration is a disgrace to public service.

Photo: US Coast Guard/Wikimedia

Confirmed: Andrew Wheeler’s Love of Polluters, Disdain for Science and Public Health

Andrew Wheeler’s confirmation as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency is creeping up on us like watching a coal ash spill flow down a gentle slope. It slowly lays waste to the landscape as it advances, then engulfs you in toxic pollution. 

Mr. Wheeler has been the Acting Administrator of the EPA since July 2018, when his predecessor Scott Pruitt left the post after a tawdry mudslide of scandals. And he has been very busy over the past 8 months while awaiting his Senate confirmation as EPA administrator.

An active acting administrator

In the past, when officials were serving in a high-level position on an acting basis, they were careful not to push forward policies too aggressively until Senate confirmation was completed. Not so Mr. Wheeler.

In his short time at the helm of the EPA, Wheeler has proposed rolling back requirements to reduce neurotoxic emissions of mercury from power plants. He has pushed forward with reducing fuel efficiency standards for automobiles in spite of overwhelming evidence showing that doing so would harm public health and make global warming worse. And he has moved ahead with new rules that weaken the requirements for protecting local communities from accidents at chemical plants.

When it comes to the air we breathe, Wheeler has attacked rules that have successfully reduced pollution. He has slackened requirements to reduce emissions of cancer causing toxics. And he has put even basic air quality at risk with respect to particulate matter and ozone.

All the while withdrawing the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and replacing it with a plan seemingly designed to provide endless opportunities for the states NOT to take action to reduce emissions while encouraging the greater use of coal. Our water hasn’t escaped Wheeler’s watch either. He has proposed reducing protections for the nation’s waterways and delayed action to address widespread contamination of drinking water with PFAS chemicals, particularly near military bases.

Contorting the science basis for protecting the public

While these specific efforts are all worrisome threats to public health and safety, they are not the end of the story. Under the Trump Administration, the very process by which science informs public health and safety protections at the nation’s premier public health agency has been dramatically weakened.

Independent science advisors have been dismissed and replaced by a combination of those with deep ties to regulated industry and those with fringe views on key scientific issues such as the health impacts of pollutants or the science of climate change. The agency has proposed restrictions on the very information the agency considers in crafting health and safety rules, ignoring broad evidence of public health impacts in favor of information that primarily comes from regulated industry itself.

In the same vein, the EPA is trying to rewrite the ways that we consider the costs and benefits of health and safety protections so that only direct benefits are considered, discounting any “co-benefits” of taking regulatory action. And even the Office of the Science Advisor to the Administrator has been disbanded and put under direct political control.

At the same time, staffing in the agency, and the science staff in particular, is at levels below those of the 1980s.  Inspection and enforcement of the rules on polluters has also dropped precipitously. So the bad actors in industry have less to fear and the good actors lose out.

Keep fighting

Mr. Wheeler may be confirmed in his position this week, but that doesn’t mean we can give up the fight. Every time the agency withdraws a protection it must make a proposal, accept public comments, and then say how those comments were addressed in its final action.

That means you and I and everybody who works on and cares about these issues can provide detailed substantive written comments for the administrative record. Even if the agency doesn’t change course, those comments will be considered in legal action, they can be considered by Congress when they hold hearings to oversee agency actions, and they can help provide input in future for more sane, science based policies.

So don’t be silent! We can’t give in to flood of pollution flowing from Andrew Wheeler and the Trump administration. Even now, with Wheeler the confirmed Administrator of the EPA, Congress must serve as a check on this Administration. We have outlined many of the issues to be addressed. And Congress is more likely to exercise its oversight role when constituents speak up.

Tell Your Representative to Hold the Trump Administration Accountable

 

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