UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

Demolishing Public Protections to Build Trump’s Wall

Photo: Denver Gingerich/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Wikimedia)

From Hadrian’s Wall, to the Great Wall of China, the Wall of the North and many more , political walls have been built to discourage or control immigration, White Walkers, and ideologies at state borders since ancient times (though this is certainly not an endorsement). They have been built from stone, earth, wood, and steel, but one thing they all have in common—they are an ineffective strategy for border control, with other damaging side effects.

Still, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced that they have waived 25 federal laws in order to expedite the construction of the US-Mexico border wall. Aside from being a humanitarian nightmare, this move stands to threaten the environment, wildlife, and culturally and historically significant public lands surrounding it—and the people whose lives and heritage depend upon these resources. The waiver will apply to the 20-mile vicinity east of the Santa Teresa, New Mexico port of entry, where existing vehicle barriers will be converted into a steel and concrete bollard wall.

Among the many statutes being set aside for construction are federal heavyweights like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Magna Carta of federal environmental law, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The waiving of NEPA, ESA and other laws by the Secretary of Homeland Security, allowed under the REAL ID Act of 2005, is a huge power grab though not entirely unprecedented: the DHS has exercised the waiver requirement seven times prior to this, five times under President Bush from 2005-2008 and two times already in 2017. Waiving protective statutes, however, should be considered with caution and not wielded as a weapon for political gain. These laws were designed to ensure public health and environmental protection using science-based rules. Together, these safeguards have kept people safe and kept our nation beautiful. By exploiting waivers like this, the administration is throwing away the progress we’ve made in developing science-based laws for the public’s benefit.

For example, Santa Teresa, NM lies in the cultural and natural resource-rich Chihuahuan Desert near the Rio Grande. Disruptions from wall construction will put pressure on this delicate ecosystem, which is already threatened by climate change, agricultural expansion, and population growth. Waiving these acts shows a blatant disregard for public health and culturally important, irreplaceable sites and resources, and impinges on the rights and freedoms of tribal communities to preserve their heritage.

Here are all the different (evidence-based) laws that the wall will trample over:

  • National Environmental Policy Act—This will allow the administration to forgo an environmental impact assessment on the project.
  • Clean Water Act – This will allow the administration to escape regulation of pollutants discharged into US waters, deflecting requirements for water quality standards.
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—The monitoring and enforcement of solid and hazardous waste generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal standards will be overlooked, meaning this safeguard will be laid to waste (pun intended).
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund)—A complement to RCRA (above), CERCLA “authorizes the President to respond to releases of hazardous substances into the environment”. Waiving this statute takes the administration off the hook for reporting and cleaning up releases of hazardous substances during construction activities.
  • Safe Drinking Water Act—This will remove requirements for monitoring contaminants in public water systems, as well as waiving the responsibility for notifying the public of contamination to the water systems.
  • Clean Air Act—Enforcement of air emissions standards from stationary and mobile sources will not be required for the construction project, potentially allowing for unmitigated emissions of hazardous air pollutants.
  • Noise Control Act—This will allow the administration to construct their wall without reducing excess noise pollution from transportation vehicles, equipment, and machinery.
  • Endangered Species Act—This waiver will remove administration requirements to consider the special protections of imperiled species and ecosystems in the proposed construction site.
  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act—This will allow for the harming, possession, purchase, sale, bartering, transport, export, and import of any migratory bird, nest, or eggs of migratory birds without the requirement of a federally issued permit.
  • Migratory Bird Conservation Act—This will allow for the purchase or rental of land (or water) in migratory bird habitat without consultation and approval by the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission (MBCC).
  • National Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956—Protections of fisheries and wildlife resources would be waived for the border wall construction. For example, collection of data on the availability and abundance of all wildlife (not just endangered) in the construction area would no longer be required.
  • Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act—This would relieve the requirements for federal agencies to conduct assessments on effects of sewage, waste, and other pollutants on wildlife.
  • Eagle Protection Act—This will allow for the harming, possession, purchase, sale, bartering, transport, export, and import of any bald (or golden) eagles, nest, or eggs of bald (or golden) eagles without the requirement of a federally issued permit.
Land rights
  • Farmland Protection Policy Act—This would allow the administration to construct their wall without requiring them to minimize impact to farmland (and forest land, pastureland, cropland, or other non-urban built-up land).
  • Federal Land Policy and Management Act—This Act establishes the procedures whereby the Bureau of Land Management manages public lands to accommodate multiple uses (for example: livestock grazing, mineral extraction, logging, fishing, hunting, conservation of historical and cultural resources), which won’t need to be adhered to for border wall construction purposes.
Cultural preservation and national heritage
  • National Historic Preservation Act—This will allow the administration to ignore the effects of federally funded projects on historic properties and artifacts.
  • Archaeological Resources Protection Act—This will allow the administration to excavate or remove archeological resources on federal or tribal lands without a permit.
  • Paleontological Resources Preservation Act—This will allow the administration to dismiss protections for non-renewable paleontological resources on federal lands.
  • Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988—The waiver will allow for a lack of specific statutory protections for significant caves that are “an invaluable and irreplaceable part of the nation’s natural heritage.”
  • Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act—Also waived away are requirements for preservation of historical and archaeological data that might be lost or destroyed by federal projects or activities.
  • Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—This will allow for the administration to construct their wall without regard for Native American burial sites. Moreover, consultations with tribes when archaeological investigations encounter or discover Native American cultural items on federal or tribal lands will not be required.
  • American Indian Religious Freedom Act—This will allow the administration to disregard protections of the religious cultural rights and practices of American Indian peoples, particularly by removing access to sacred sites and objects.
  • Antiquities Act—This Act provides protection for any cultural or natural resource, generally. The waiver, much like that of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, will remove the permitting requirement for excavation activities.
  • Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act—This will allow the administration to forego a survey of any historic and archaeologic sites, buildings, and objects existing at the site of construction.
Transparency in rulemaking
  • Administrative Procedure Act—sets requirements for publishing notices of proposed and final rulemaking in the Federal Register, opportunities for public comment on proposed rulemaking, and requires a 30-day delayed effective date.

Actions like this will not only succeed in straining US relations with Mexico, but also open the door to further dismissal of important science-based protections, particularly in the name of immigration reform. In fact, President Trump announced last week in his State of the Union address his plan to update US infrastructure—which will surely include gutting environmental protections in favor of corporate polluters, and at the expense of resources vital to nearby communities and wildlife.

Photo: Denver Gingerich/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Wikimedia)

How One Utility Is Using Tax Reform to Hide a Billion-Dollar Climate Problem

Florida National Guard responds to Hurricane Irma in Flagler Estates, FL. Photo: Ching Oettel, Florida National Guard

Picture this: You’ve just completed a decade of investing about $3 billion of your customers’ dollars into keeping the lights on when severe weather strikes. Now Hurricane Irma’s blasted through, 90 percent of your customers were left in the dark, and the restoration and repair costs you intend to bill them are estimated at $1.3 billion.

That’s right. A storm you’ve spent a decade preparing for is looking like it’ll end up costing nearly half as much as the preparations themselves. Worse, there’s no reason to think it won’t keep happening again, and again, and again, as climate change drives the intensity of these storms ever higher.

Bit of a thorny customer relations problem, that one.

Which is why the usual way of recovering storm restoration costs—as an additional line item on customers’ monthly bills—isn’t exactly “convenient.” That’s because it serves as a repeated reminder and ongoing invitation to your ratepayers and regulators to question just how come it is that all those billions in investments still result in such high costs.

Enter the late 2017 tax cuts and Florida Power & Light’s (FPL) sweet, sweet sigh of relief.

Magical Money Magically Solves Climate Problem?

Over the past month or so, utilities across the country have been hauled in front of their regulatory commissions and asked about how they intend to funnel tax cut windfalls back to the ratepayer. In turn, plans to reduce customer rates are beginning to emerge.

But FPL? With tax cuts, it saw an open lane and it drove straight to the basket.

As opposed to charging ratepayers monthly storm costs, the utility realized that it could instead deploy those freed up funds to, in effect, wipe away the storm. No monthly charges, no monthly reminders, no more problem.

On its surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything outright wrong with this accounting approach. In fact, it could end up saving ratepayers some amount of money through economic efficiencies—I leave that part to the regulators.

Here’s the problem I do have.

FPL’s experience with Hurricane Irma should have been an eye-opener to every utility, every regulator, every policymaker, every planner—every person—in this country. Here’s a utility that has worked hard on doing better, made big-time ratepayer investments to back those efforts up, and was still left with 90 percent of its customers in the dark, including 12 senior citizens who died as the outages—and ensuing lack of air conditioning—dragged on.

Now overall, many of FPL’s outages from Hurricane Irma were resolved fairly quickly, which is a primary goal of boosting grid resilience. Indeed, it’s not just about minimizing the initial scale and scope of the outage, but also minimizing the time an outage lasts should one come to pass.

The thing is, that relatively quick recovery cost FPL—and thus ratepayers—a staggering $1.3 billion. So even if we did accept the magnitude and duration of the outage given the size of the storm, we’re left with the glaring realization that we may not keep being able to afford the fix. The unsustainability of the plan is even more apparent when we consider that we have every reason to believe these storms won’t be getting any more docile in the years to come, especially in a place like FPL’s territory, where sea level rise is making storm surge worse, rapidly placing ever more critical infrastructure at risk.

According to NOAA’s tracking, billion-dollar weather events in the United States show no sign of slowing down. In 2017 alone, these disasters totaled more than $300 billion in costs.

This storm should result in people asking hard questions. Raising red flags. Demanding dialogue. Saying hey, we might just need to make a change.

But instead what FPL’s proposing to do is kick the can down the road. It’s putting a damper on ratepayer reactions, minimizing run-ins with regulators asking pesky follow-ups, and buying itself a bit more time before the (inevitable) question of if not this, what.

Because let’s face it: there won’t always be a magical tax reform to solve the climate problem. These costs are real, and these questions will come. Ratepayers deserve to have them asked after this $1.3 billion instead of the next.

But for now, it’ll be largely left to just five commissioners (and at least one hurricane-response docket) instead of the ongoing and motivated voices of a constantly reminded nearly 5 million customers. Again, that’s not necessarily wrong, just incredibly unhelpful.

The Conversations We Should Be Having

Here’s one thought on a place for the conversation to start: recognizing that if today’s “good enough” isn’t really good enough, then perhaps it’s the approach itself that must change. We see a viable path to the future through the concurrent pursuit of a two-pronged approach:

  1. Steadily increase grid resilience:
    • There’s a lot that can be done to improve the performance of the grid, from replacing wooden poles with reinforced concrete, to burying select power lines, to elevating flood-exposed substations, to installing smart devices across the system—all of which FPL has pursued, at least in part. But there’s also a broader need to shift the whole of the system from one that’s oriented around central generating stations, to one that’s powered by ever more decentralized and distributed clean energy resource—and here, FPL has seriously lagged (and dragged much of the rest of the state down with it by not using its heft to push for broader climate and clean energy action).
    • It’s also critically important for everyone to have on hand a shared vision of the future, and a plan for how to get there. That way every time there’s an upgrade or emergency repair, the grid gets smarter, stronger, and one step closer to that future state. Yet we can’t expect utilities and regulators to go it alone—we need the federal government to help in establishing guiding resilience principles and disseminating best practices along the way.
  2. Ensure continuous power for those who can’t afford to go without:
    • It will take time to achieve wholesale grid modernization, and even when we get there, we should still assume that the power will still, sometimes, go out. As a result, we must identify those populations and critical services for whom even a brief disruption is too much, and arm them with an electricity Plan B. This must be equitable and just, foremost through engagement with the communities themselves.
    • One top option for keeping the lights on? Ensuring that utilities have allowed a clear path for the individual installation and use of solar panels alongside storage, which can provide users with benefits year-round—not just when the electricity blinks out.

As much as we may not want to face it, preparing for climate impacts will cost real, significant, mind-bending amounts of money. And that means trade-offs. And that means dialogue. Everywhere. Not just with FPL—after all, other Florida utilities quickly jumped to follow FPL’s accounting lead—and not just in Florida (or Texas, or Puerto Rico, or California, or…). Everywhere we need to be asking these hard questions and having these hard conversations, all so that we can begin to set a course to a better tomorrow.

Using accounting maneuvers to mask the true costs of climate preparedness? Not the best conversation starter.

But though we may have lost this prompt, it doesn’t mean the conversation can’t go on.

NOAA 2017

Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration: The Cases of Alex Azar and Brenda Fitzgerald

Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services. Photo: Wikimedia

It is slim relief that Brenda Fitzgerald was forced to resign last week as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her final offense in her very short and immoral tenure was investing in tobacco stocks after being appointed in July, according to a Politico report. Before being appointed by the Trump administration, the former Georgia health commissioner had long invested in cigarette companies whose products kill 480,000 Americans a year and 6 million worldwide, according to her own agency.

She was further compromised by investments in drug, insurance, and health diagnostic firms that posed conflicts in dealing with cancer, opioids, and dissemination of health information. She told the New York Times that she was considering renewing CDC ties with Coca-Cola. In Georgia, she was a cheerleader for Coca-Cola’s physical fitness programs. The world’s largest soda company, based in Atlanta, was exposed in 2015 for funding scientists who said America’s obesity crisis was all about exercise, not the excess empty calories from sugary drinks. As documented by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Coca-Cola was following an all-too-common tactic of the corporate disinformation playbook—hiring scientists to produce results that obscure a product’s harm.

But her departure hardly guarantees that we can count on the CDC to protect the nation’s health. For the moment, the acting director is Anne Schuchat, a respected infectious disease expert, known for leading domestic and global response teams against flu viruses in the US and infectious diseases in Africa and China, including Ebola and SARS. A member of the National Academy of Medicine and a rear admiral in the United States Public Health Service, her disease detective work was the model for a lead character Kate Winslet played in the movie “Contagion.”

The ethical conundrum of Alex Azar

It is rare for acting directors, even if immortalized by actresses, to win a full appointment. So who comes next bears serious watching, especially since Alex Azar is the new secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), the department that oversees the CDC, and he himself is an ethical conundrum.

Azar, a lawyer who clerked for the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and was on George W. Bush’s legal team for the 2000 Florida recount, became general counsel at HHS and ultimately deputy secretary of the department. He left in 2007 to become the top lobbyist for the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical giant and worked his way to the presidency of the company in 2012.

When President Trump nominated him in November to replace Tom Price, who abused taxpayer dollars by traveling by private jet, the president tweeted Azar “will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices.” When Azar was sworn in on January 29, Trump, who has repeatedly said that drug companies get away with “murder,” said prices would now “come rocketing down.”

From drug company CEO to people’s champion on drug prices? Unlikely.

There is no evidence to remotely suggest that Azar, the first pharmaceutical executive ever to head HHS, according to the Washington Post, will miraculously transform from drug company CEO into the people’s champion on drug prices. In July, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported that in the last 20 years, while the price of milk went up 23 percent, the cost of a Dodge minivan rose 21 percent and general inflation was 32 percent, the price of Lilly’s insulin drugs Humalog and Humulin skyrocketed by 1,157 percent and nearly 800 percent respectively. A vial of Humalog that cost $21 in 1996 cost $274.70 last summer.

Lilly is a defendant along with global diabetes drug titans Novo Nordisk and Sanofi in a class action price-fixing lawsuit filed last year in federal court in Massachusetts. According to the lawsuit, Lilly’s Humulin shot up 325 percent from just 2010 to 2015, a period covering Azar’s first three years at the helm. Several news stories and guest columns last year featured the difficulty many American diabetics have in affording insulin. One out of every eight American adults has diabetes, and the lower the socioeconomic status, the higher the incidence of the disease.

According to the CDC, diabetes was listed as any cause of death on a quarter million US death certificates in 2015, and the annual direct and indirect cost of diabetes to the nation is a quarter billion dollars. Several small studies over the last two decades have shown that high percentages of patients admitted to hospitals with life threatening diabetic ketoacidosis became sick after discontinuing insulin therapy because it was unaffordable.

Lilly blamed the rise in drug prices to other parts of the health care system, but it refused to disclose to the Indianapolis Business Journal its net prices. Lilly ranks 132nd in the Fortune 500 with profits last year of $2.7 billion.

Keeping a watchful eye

Pressed in his Senate confirmation hearings on drug pricing, Azar acknowledged they were high but offered no major solutions, having opposed the Affordable Care Act and saying the government should not have a heavy hand in negotiating drug prices. As average Americans struggle with diabetes drug costs, Azar made $3.6 million in his last year at Lilly in salary and severance. He also sold off $3.4 million in Lilly stock, according to the Associated Press.

Azar’s light hand on out-of control drug prices merits a very watchful eye over both HHS and CDC. We need to make sure that our government officials, especially those making decisions about access to health care, advocacy against diseases, and scientific research aren’t beholden to profitable companies producing drugs, cigarettes, soda, or other health-related products or services. Before her departure, Fitzgerald came under fire when the Washington Post reported that certain words were being banned from budget requests, such as “evidence based” and “diversity.”

Trump says that under Azar, drug prices will come rocketing down. In actuality, the watch is on to see if Azar instead is another incoming missile from Trump against federal protection of the nation’s health.

Rigor and Transparency as an Antidote to Politicization at EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System

Tina Bahadori, Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA), and Kristina Thayer, Director of EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), speak about recent improvements to the IRIS program at Thursday’s workshop.

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study committee charged with reviewing advances made to the EPA’s National Center for Environment Assessment and its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program met at the NAS headquarters in DC this week. Over a day and a half, IRIS presented the full slate of activities that the program has been engaging in to modernize and improve the ways that the program is completing its hazard assessment and dose response evaluations.

IRIS assessments on environmental contaminants represent the gold standard for chemical toxicity reviews at the federal, state, and local level, and even internationally. These reviews provide a science basis for many of the standards set by U.S. environmental statues, including the Clean Air Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) also known as Superfund, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), and the Safe Water Drinking Act. IRIS is crucial in helping the agency meet its mission to protect human health and the environment. However, because of this program’s critical role in standard setting for federal and state policy, it is often targeted by industry for criticism and even calls to alter its mission or strike the program altogether.

During Thursday’s meeting, IRIS staff expressed concerns about the ability for IRIS to do the work at timelines expected due to staff attrition (now down to just 30 staffers) and lack of funding for external contractors to help with its workload, all while trying to meet Administrator Pruitt’s priority for increased efficiency. Over the course of four information sessions and a poster session, IRIS staff systematically addressed the ways in which the program has made targeted improvements to its processes as NAS recommended in its last review of the program in 2014. Layers upon layers of internal and external peer review and public engagement have been built into the review process using new tools and state-of-the-art methods.

The NAS meeting offered opportunities for public comment at several points throughout the meeting, and there were a series of comments communicating the value that this program offers, from a nonprofit organization that relies on IRIS assessments as it works to remediate superfund sites in New Jersey, to the plight of La Place, Louisiana community members living near a facility emitting chloroprene, a likely carcinogen as determined by IRIS. We cannot afford to have the work of this program diminished or politicized in any way.

My comment in support of the independence and integrity of the IRIS office is below.

Good afternoon, I would like to thank this National Academies study committee for the opportunity to provide this comment today. My name is Genna Reed. I am the science and policy analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS advocates for improved transparency and integrity in our democratic institutions, especially those making science-based public policy decisions.

The EPA IRIS program provides a critical scientific service to the public, offering a public searchable database with scientific analyses that inform the decisions that protect us from environmental contaminants.[1] This office is not just important for federal policymaking, but IRIS assessments and associated toxicity values are used by state environmental and public health agencies, as well as community groups, to assess local risks from facilities producing chemicals across the country. This incredibly valuable program must be preserved and protected to conduct its scientific work without political interference. The EPA’s authority to determine the risks posed by hazardous chemicals should not be compromised by interference from other federal agencies or industry stakeholders with vested interests in decision outcomes.

This office has been targeted for political interference in the past. A 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found several examples of interference from EPA political appointees, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), or other agencies to delay or weaken IRIS assessments, including decade-long review processes for naphthalene, formaldehyde, and RDX.[2]  A fall 2017 hearing held by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology about the integrity of IRIS failed to invite any IRIS staff to talk about the progress of the office.[3] This year, there have even been attempts to defund the program through the appropriations process.[4] Time and time again, the chemical industry has targeted IRIS because new assessments may lead to more stringent standards set based on the best available science on a chemical. Now there is the potential for the IRIS program to move under the jurisdiction of the TSCA program, which would limit the ability of the office to develop risk assessments for a range of industrial chemicals, instead forcing focus solely on those under TSCA’s authority.[5]

IRIS assessments and their staff provide institutional knowledge and assistance not only to risk assessors within the EPA and its regional offices, but also to public health practitioners in state and local governments. It is critical that the career staff scientists that comprise the IRIS office are supported so that they can continue to be a resource for individuals making regulatory decisions about these chemicals. This will allow for federal, state, and local decisions to be based on the best available science, using best methods for systematically evaluating that science. IRIS must continue to be housed in the Office of Research and Development as opposed to the policy office at the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention because IRIS represents a scientific database that should be prepared by scientific experts. There is not room for political considerations in the work that IRIS staff do. The EPA’s scientific integrity policy explicitly protects the agency’s scientists and their work from political interference or personal motivations,[6] thus NAS should consider what a potential restructuring of the program would mean for its ability to conduct scientific work free from interference.

NAS has acknowledged some of IRIS’ challenges in the past, including room for improvement in transparency in communicating risks and decision points to the public and standardizing assessments, updating methodologies, and regularly training employees. Its most recent report in 2014 found that IRIS had made impressive strides toward implementing their previous recommendations.[7] The EPA Science Advisory Board found similar results after reviewing IRIS progress. In a September 2017 letter from the chair of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), the Board commended the agency for its swift improvements to the IRIS program.[8]

At a time when the agency’s staff is shrinking[9] and science advisors are being underutilized,[10] the EPA needs its robust scientific staff to continue the work that has sustained stringent standards at the federal level and beyond. The healthy functioning of the IRIS program will ensure that we continue to have the data to set health-protective limits for hazardous chemicals and ensure public trust that the EPA has our best interests in mind.

Thank you.



[1] Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). Online at https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/iris_drafts/simple_list.cfm, accessed January 30, 2018.

[2] United States Government Accountability Office. Low Productivity and New Interagency Review Process Limit the Usefulness and Credibility of EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System. Report to the Chairman, Committee on Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senate. Report No. GAO-08-440; March 2008. Online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08440.pdf, accessed January 30, 2018.

[3] United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Joint Subcommittee on Environment and Subcommittee on Oversight. 2017. Examining the Scientific and Operational Integrity of EPA’s IRIS Program, Hearing, September 7. Online at https://science.house.gov/legislation/hearings/joint-subcommittee-environment-and-subcommittee-oversight-hearing-examining, accessed January 30, 2018.

[4] Erickson, B.E., C. Hogue, J. Morrison. 2017. Trump EPA to shed chemical programs, grants. Chemical and Engineering News. Online at https://cen.acs.org/articles/95/i17/Trump-EPA-shed-chemical-programs.html, accessed January 30, 2018.

[5] United States Senate Committee on Appropriations. 2017. Summary: FY2018 Interior, Environment Appropriations Chairman’s Mark Released, November 20. Online at www.appropriations.senate.gov/news/minority/summary-fy2018-interior-environment-appropriations-chairmans-mark-released, accessed January 30, 2018.

[6] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2014. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Scientific Integrity Policy. Online at www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-02/documents/scientific_integrity_policy_2012.pdf, accessed January 30, 2018.

[7] National Research Council. 2014. Review of EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Process. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/18764.

[8] Thorne, P.S. 2017. Letter to EPA Administrator E. Scott Pruitt, September 1. Online at https://yosemite.epa.gov/sab/sabproduct.nsf/0/A9A9ACCE42B6AA0E8525818E004CC597/$File/EPA-SAB-17-008.pdf, accessed January 30, 2018.

[9] Friedman, L., M. Affo, and D. Kravitz. 2017. E.P.A. Officials, Disheartened by Agency’s Direction, Are Leaving in Droves. New York Times, December 22. Online at www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/climate/epa-buyouts-pruitt.html, accessed January 31, 2018.

[10] Reed, G., S. Shulman, P. Hansel, and G. Goldman. 2018. Abandoning Science Advice: One Year In, the Trump Administration is Sidelining Science Advisory Committees. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists. Online at www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2018/01/abandoning-science-advice-full-report.pdf, accessed January 31, 2018.

Your Home vs. Winter: Let these “Game of Thrones” Quotes Be Your Guide

Photo: Norbert Stoop

For fans of HBO’s A Game of Thrones, the phrase “Winter is Coming” may evoke a myriad of feelings—anticipation, dread, (déjà vu),…

For those of us in many parts of the US, winter can mean cold days, colder nights, and the higher utility bills to go along with them. So how do we prepare… or deal with the fact that winter is here?

Fortunately, a few choice Game of Thrones quotes—and our book Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living—can get us where we need to be.

Winter is here. Let’s deal with it.


“Nothing burns like the cold.”

As described in Cooler Smarter, for the average American, heating and cooling are second only to transportation in terms of carbon pollution. They can also represent a sizeable chunk of the household budget, accounting for half of energy use in typical U.S. homes, according to the US Department of Energy.

All that means is that anything we can do to make our houses tighter will help with comfort, carbon emissions, and money, in the cold of winter or the heat of summer. The key, says Cooler Smarter,

…is that it’s not just a furnace or an air-conditioning system that keeps you and your family at a comfortable temperature; it’s the whole house. In cold weather, a house functions as a building-sized blanket, offering insulation from the freezing temperatures outside. In hot weather, a home shields you from the worst of the heat and humidity outside.

You can look for opportunities all over, that is—not just where the furnace or boiler is located.

“Knowledge is a weapon, Jon. Arm yourself well before you ride forth to battle.” (Master Eamon)

As with so many things in life, the first step is knowing where you stand. What do you heat with? How much do you use and spend? How does that compare with others’ energy habits, so that you can get a sense for what sort of opportunities there might be, efficiency-wise?

A few weapons you might turn to for help with that:

Gold and smiley faces. When you get energy efficiency right, the rewards are endless. (Credit: J. Rogers)

  • Your monthly bill – While you can’t necessarily do much about the costs of your energy per unit (kilowatt-hours, therms, gallons), you can see how many units you’re using. You can see how your usage compares to what you were using in previous winters, to get a sense if anything has changed (like, there’s a window open in the basement, or the dungeon…).
  • Online calculators – While you’re looking at your data, you can also see how that compares with how you maybe should be using, based on rules of thumb. Tools like this one can help with that.
  • Your comps – Even better, since it takes into account whether it’s been colder or warmer than usual, is if your utility shows you how you’re doing against others in your neighborhood with similar conditions (house size, heating fuel). It’s not perfect—maybe you’ve got four kids and a needy puppy dog, and they’ve got none. But it can help you orient yourself, particularly if you can look for changes in your relative standing over time; if you used to perform consistently better than neighbors, and now don’t, that might be a clue that something’s amiss.
“Once you’ve accepted your flaws, no one can use them against you.” (Tyrion Lannister)

When you’ve armed yourself as surely as the knights of Westeros (or Dothraki bloodriders across the sea) by seeing what opportunities there might be, it’s time to resolutely dive in.

You can view those opportunities in a few basic buckets: adapting, buttoning, and upgrading.

Adapting (changing how you operate). The easiest, lowest-cost (or no-cost) thing to do is likely to make better use of what you’ve already got.

Part of that is being more conscious about which parts of the house you’re heating (or cooling), and when. If you have the option of heating or cooling only the part of the house you’re using, that can be a fine way of staying comfortable and cutting utility bills.

That goes for the whole house, too, when you’re out for the day, or when you’re nestled all snug in your bed. The easiest way to do that is to not have to think about: a programmable thermostat can do it automatically, dialing the heat back during the day, and after bedtime, and bringing the heat back up in time for dinner or breakfast. (Just be sure to program it!)

Buttoning up your home. Another level of winterizing is helping your house keep you as warm and comfortable as possible with your existing heating system. Per Cooler Smarter:

Depending on how your home is constructed, you may be able to quickly reduce your carbon emissions and save money simply by caulking, sealing, and weatherstripping all seams, cracks, and openings to the outside. In fact, dollar for dollar, plugging these leaks is likely to be one of the most cost-effective energy-saving measures you can take.

Every house is different (and castles are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish), but here’s what leaks look like for the average house:

Source: Cooler Smarter

Replacing windows is a bigger commitment, but what these data suggest is that some caulk, some more insulation, and a few hours some weekend might do you a world of good.

And one thing I’ve learned in my own personal efficiency journey is that the most cost-effective amount of insulation might be much more than you’d think. In northern climes, you might do well to have something like 24 inches of insulation in your attic, if you can swing it.

Upgrading your heating system. The next level. Given that new HVAC equipment can run into the thousands of dollars, this isn’t necessarily something you do lightly. And it’s probably not something you can do unless you own the place.

But if you’re trying to ward off winter’s chill with something that was new when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House—or even Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan—it might be well worth your while to at least look into options. Furnaces have gotten a whole lot better in recent decades, efficiency-wise.

You’ll want to weigh what a new system will cost vs. what it’ll save you in lower utility bills (not to mention added comfort). That involves making some assumptions about where fuel costs are headed, but so does sticking with your old clunker.

One pretty new option that I’ve gotten excited about is air-source heat pumps that work even in really cold weather, which is a recent innovation (and important where I live).

White Non-Walker (Credit: J. Rogers)

“There’s no shame in fear, my father told me; what matters is how we face it.” (Jon Snow)

These ideas won’t make polar vortexes go away, and they won’t drop utility bills to nothing. But they can help you seize your utility-bill destiny, to save money, increase your comfort, and cut your carbon pollution.

As for games of thrones: I’ve got to admit that I read the first book a while back, but found its don’t-put-me-down-or-else insistence more of a drag on my brain than I could handle. So that’s as far as I’ve gotten (for now).

Besides, I really need to spend less time fighting White Walkers (even vicariously) and more time protecting my family from the weather (or getting outside to enjoy it).

Let winter do what it will. There are heating bills to cut, and snowforts to build.

= = = = =

Some handy resources—because, of course, “One voice may speak you false, but in many there is always truth to be found” (Daenerys Targaryen):

Hat tip to Time and Goodreads for the quote help.

Pruitt’s EPA Attempts to Undermine California’s Leadership on Vehicle Standards

The current EPA administration has repeatedly mischaracterized California’s authority and role when it comes to vehicle emissions standards—here is what that really means for California and the country writ large.

For the current Administration, “One National Program” means “One WEAKER Program”

On Tuesday of this week, Scott Pruitt responded to questions from Senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Ed Markey (D-MA) regarding vehicle emissions standards, declaring to a Senate Committee Hearing on EPA Oversight that “a national program is essential.” Yet in December, he declared that part of the ongoing midterm review of those standards could be revoking California’s waiver to maintain the current standards through 2025.

Similarly, last Thursday Assistant EPA Administrator Bill Wehrum, who leads the Office of Air and Radiation in charge of setting vehicle emissions standards maintained that “[t]he overarching goal of [ongoing conversations with California] is to maintain or retain one national program,” yet noted in the same line of questioning that the talks were held “with the intention and the goal of trying to achieve agreement as to whether changes should be made to the current (federal) standards.”

Just a heads-up to the EPA:  California already determined that the current standards remain appropriate.  And for that matter, the previous administration did so as well.  States who follow California’s program agree, which is why many have already intervened against any weakening.  So, if the current Administration wishes to make any changes to the program, it is they who are tampering with “One National Program.”  So much for that “essential” element, I guess!

Why does California get to set its own standards?

California was the first area of the country to encounter the problem of automotive pollution, and they were also the first region to take action.  Yet in doing so they encountered not just resistance by the auto industry towards regulation of those emissions, but denial by the industry such emissions were even a problem, and collusion by manufacturers to curtail the invention and adoption of emissions control devices, which I detailed in our report Time for a U-turn.

Fighting California’s standards is just one event in the timeline of automakers’ resistance to regulations. Learn more.

When Congress finally acted to regulate emissions from vehicles, they carved out an exemption for California to set its own, stronger emissions standards, recognizing its past leadership on the issue—an action which, again, the auto industry fought.  In the development of the Clean Air Act, this exemption was maintained, and in amendments to the Act this provision was expanded so that not only could California request a waiver to set its own standards stronger than those set by the federal government, but any other state could adopt California’s stronger standards.

Today, 12 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s passenger vehicle emissions standards—altogether, 1/3 of the market for passenger cars and trucks has committed to California’s standards.

The need for this leadership is critical—despite continued progress on mobile source emissions, California continues to be home to significant air quality issues, and they are at the front line of the fight against climate change, having already been affected by an extended wildfire season and severe drought amplified by global warming.

This map from the Blue-Green Alliance depicts manufacturing facilities around the country who manufacture technologies to improve vehicle efficiency, showing the breadth of investment in strong standards.  These facilities employ over 288,000 workers and are spread across 48 states.

Walking back from strong standards cedes U.S. leadership

Administrator Pruitt mistakenly characterized California’s leadership as some sort of authoritarian rule (“Federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate to the rest of the country.”), when the state is simply protecting its inhabitants.  It also misses the point of setting a high bar for the country as a whole.

When the current EPA administration talks about changing the standards already finalized by California and the previous administration, it does so at the peril of investment in innovation in the United States.  The European Union is moving forward with stronger standards, regardless of what happens in the U.S.  Some countries are even looking past internal combustion engines altogether.  China, too, is setting both strong emissions targets and its own zero emission vehicles goals.

When other countries set these strong targets, the U.S. is ceding its leadership to those regions, and with it, a greener economic future.  Ford, for example, is betting heavily on an electrified future…in China.  Those are investments in next-generation vehicles that are being built abroad instead of North America.  Volkswagen, General Motors, and others are all following suit.  Automotive suppliers will move to those more advanced markets, too.

Manufacturers can meet the 2025 standards that were affirmed last year—California knows it, and frankly so do the auto companies.  If the administration is serious about a “data-driven” mid-term review, 1) we already had one of those and 2) we know it comes down on the side of strong standards.  If instead the administration undermines the data with political hullabaloo, California and the states that have already finalized the adoption of the current 2025 standards may end up being the backstop the rest of the country needs to ensure we don’t lose out on the jobs, fuel savings, and emissions reductions that strong standards provide.

We have One National Program now—if the EPA chooses to undo that by weakening the federal standards, it is Administrator Pruitt who will be responsible for unraveling the cost-effective, unified program currently protecting consumers and the public and in place today in large part due to strong state leadership.

BlueGreen Alliance and NRDC

Why a Boring, Bureaucratic Reorganization at the Department of Energy Might Be Worse Than It Seems

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/JSquish

Organizational charts: possibly the most boring topic you can imagine. So why is the reorganization of a federal agency (in this case the Department of Energy, or DOE) the subject of a January 30 Congressional hearing in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee? I listened in to the live webcast of the hearing so that I could get the low-down on what this reorganization could mean for the future of basic and applied research at DOE. Early indications are that the administration will seek to cut clean energy research by 72 percent.

A Tale of Two Org Charts

Back in December, Energy Secretary Perry announced that his agency is planning to “modernize” its internal organizational structure “to advance its policy goals consistent with its statutory requirements.” That means a new org chart. It includes a big change from the previous administration: splitting the Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Energy into two: The Office of the Under Secretary for Science and the Office of the Under Secretary for Energy. Sounds harmless enough—why should this matter? While reasonable people disagree on what impact this may have on DOE’s operations and priorities—see this great summary piece—this change is potentially significant to our nation’s science and research enterprises and worth keeping an eye on.

The previous org chart, established by former Energy Secretary Moniz in 2013, combined the two Under Secretary positions. Moniz justified the change, arguing that the department required “the ability to closely integrate and move quickly among basic science, applied research, technology demonstration, and deployment” and that there was an advantage to having the majority of the National Labs within one department. He also highlighted the change as necessary for the innovation ecosystem for clean energy, which was critical for implementing President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. However, in March 2017, the current president rescinded the Climate Action Plan, along with a whole host of other efforts aimed at addressing climate change.


Instead of drawing attention to the administration’s ongoing work to sideline efforts to address climate change, Secretary Perry’s team refers to this DOE reorganization as “modernizing” the agency. Ironically, dividing Energy and Science into different offices returns the agency closer to how it was organized a decade ago. The witnesses from the Congressional hearing, the two men nominated and confirmed to lead the two new offices, suggested that this change was consistent with the intent of Congress. Congressman Beyer (VA-08) pushed back on the implication that former Secretary Moniz acted improperly in splitting them up; reading from the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (see video at about 1:16:07), he noted that the responsibilities of the Under Secretary for Science include both “basic and applied research” and suggested that the applied energy technologies offices could well fall under the purview of the Office of Science according to the statute.

In any case, the Secretary of Energy has broad discretion to organize the department and his own team as he sees fit, consistent with the law. The whole question of Congressional intent, in the end, appears to be a red herring. The real reason behind this change (justified by claims of modernization and Congressional intent) is to establish an artificial wall between basic and applied science. This could give leeway to the Administration to push for even deeper cuts for whatever it deems to be applied research—which could include a wide range of vital programs in clean energy and energy efficiency, our national labs, the applied energy technology offices, and R&D that supports the clean energy innovation ecosystem. Simply put, by separating the two offices Secretary Perry is laying the groundwork for the administration to cleave the research efforts they don’t want out of the DOE.

How will this happen? The President’s FY 2018 budget, released almost a year ago, offers a clue: It proposed the largest reduction in funding for scientific research seen in the last 40 years. What’s worse, the administration clearly prioritizes “basic and early-stage” R&D, but continues to suggest that “applied research”—especially technologies that are near commercialization—are best left to the private sector and not worthy of federal investments. In this week’s House hearing, several committee members questioned the witnesses about the distinction between basic and early-stage research and its implications for budget priorities, and the Under Secretaries indicated that they did not support many of the cuts that were proposed by the administration last year.

The chart below shows how last year’s budget proposal included much greater cuts for applied research compared to basic research. Basic Energy Sciences, within the Office of Science, was slated for a 16 percent cut, but many of the applied technology offices were facing cuts upwards of nearly 70 percent or more, including research on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). What’s in store for this year’s proposal?


Our National Labs: A “Crown Jewel”

Interestingly, Secretary Perry has repeatedly promised to defend DOE scientists and research, calling the nation’s 17 National Labs a “crown jewel.” He should know that the National Labs work on both basic and applied research because solving real-world problems requires both. DOE’s Labs develop and invest in breakthrough technologies that are too risky or too expensive for the private sector, and represent a wise investment of taxpayer money.

The ideological distinction between basic and applied research creates an artificial barrier which makes it harder for us to innovate and make breakthroughs. In DOE’s case, it will devastate the work of the National Labs—which are vitally important to our scientific competitiveness—and could force massive job losses in these institutions that are vital to local economies.

We’re Watching

In all the hoopla following the President’s first State of the Union address, we’re paying attention to his ongoing attacks on clean energy. We’ll be watching to see how this reorganization at DOE pans out. We’ll be watching the White House budget proposal (which could be released in just a few weeks) to see his flawed priorities. In fact, our team has already been following these attacks—from DOE’s bogus FERC proposal aimed at bailing out uneconomic coal and nuclear plants that was ultimately rejected, to the president’s decision to slap a 30 percent tariff on foreign made solar panels that threatens thousands of installer jobs in one of the fastest growing industries today. Be sure to follow this ongoing blog series, where we will spotlight administration efforts to hamper the development of clean energy.

When Renewable Energy Costs Fall Quickly, How Should Buyers Get Good Information?

Renewable energy in Illinois Photo: tlindenbaum/Flickr

Now that new wind and solar power plants are cheaper than burning fossil fuel at existing plants, old assumptions and outdated information are hazardous to our health and economy.

Recent news of renewable energy and storage competing to supply electricity is moving so fast, attention now must shift to how energy buyers make comparisons between fossil fuel and up-to-date information about renewable energy.  For years, UCS has pushed slow-moving institutions to keep up with the declining costs and improving performance of renewable energy.

Costs and performance of renewable energy have improved greatly in recent years. Using old information is not helping. Photo from Illinois: tlindenbaum/Flickr

Lowest prices ever!

New renewable energy plants’ success beating fossil fuel keeps spreading, and surprising experts.  The results Xcel found for solar, wind with storage from bids in Colorado made headlines. Median bid prices of 2.1 cents per kilowatt-hour for wind with storage and 3.6 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar plus storage sent shockwaves.  Wind under 2 cents is common in that region.  Corporate energy decisions, at utilities and at Steelcase, IKEA, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Wal-Mart and many more are based on price.  The declining costs of renewable energy seen by these market players are documented in public and industry reports, too.

The falling costs and rising capabilities of renewables are also seen for energy storage. The trajectory of storage replacing power plants demonstrates how zero-fossil fuel alternatives can increase grid reliability.

Reliability can be expensive

Reliability needs in certain areas of the grid, often near population centers, can be especially expensive. But these can drive interest in solutions based on renewables plus storage. In these locations, increased delivery of electricity has a higher value than an average location. Think of the higher value of the electricity in your cellphone or flashlight. The adoption of careful, concentrated efforts to use renewable energy, demand response, and storage in locations where reliability requires an expensive fix was used in northern Wisconsin in 2000.

Now there are policies coming into effect based on the idea that there are more ways to meet reliability.   California recently noted when procurements for meeting reliability needs are open, energy storage has shown an exceptionally high value in bid evaluation. In a new decision last month, the California Public Utility Commission ordered that a proposal to maintain outdated gas-fired peaker plants should be compared with new zero carbon supplies (solar, demand response and storage) in these high value, difficult to reach locations.

In that decision, the CPUC also noted something relevant everywhere: The public needs competition to test the continued support of existing plants.

New ways to meet your needs

This California order opens wide a poorly measured comparison of new energy supplies. Meeting reliability (and adding resiliency), a role previously met by power plants or added wires, is ripe for competition to save money and increase the use of clean energy.

New York City is another place the value of storage and other distributed energy resource such as solar and demand response have been recognized in utility planning.  Five years ago, Con Ed of New York adopted the idea that solar, demand response and storage can be combined as an economic alternative to a large reliability expenditure. The industry is learning in Brooklyn and Queens in New York City to bring these clean distributed resources to the upgrade the grid where the wires alternative was going to be very expensive.   This was a rare break, allowing competition for new technology to be compared to the cost of a wires upgrade.

Watch for non-competitive situations

With all these quickly changing practices in some places, consider how slow the information gathering and decision-making can be. Utilities still consider themselves the best developer and owner of new energy supplies. Utilities will even pretend that there are no alternative suppliers or new technologies capable of meeting their needs. Many oversight agencies (public utility commission and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) require either planning and evaluation subject to debate and review, or a competition with bidders offering supplies to conform to a Request for Proposals. (UCS is involved in these energy plan reviews in Michigan and Minnesota.)

These approaches can drag out over two years, making information stale and creating a high-stakes, winner-take-all situation dependent on hidden assumptions or analysis.

Not everyone has to hold on to old information or even create a new RFP to learn the present price of power from renewables. For an example of more routine gathering of prices without the cost and complexity of issuing an RFP, look at innovations available. As more supply is available and more places are suitable for electricity generation, new tools will be useful to buyers of all kinds. One firm rolling out an easily-updated database of renewable energy supply is Level 10.  The access to sellers’ offers from this firm accelerate the price comparisons, and purchasing from renewable energy plants in more places.

While regulated utilities need to be supervised to protect consumers and avoid monopoly abuses, how they gather and understand information is not necessarily stuck in the slow lane.  UCS is arguing for a fresh attitude to modeling the different tasks and benefits of energy supplies embedded in the power system. In a world where solar energy can be so common the old thinking calls this “a surplus”, and new wind farms can be the cheapest energy on the grid, information and analysis must keep up.

Science 1, Gobbledygook 0: Debunking Trump’s Climate Claims

I had the opportunity on The Lead with Jake Tapper (CNN) to react to recent climate statements by President Trump in an interview with Piers Morgan. Here is a quick review of the evidence refuting two common misrepresentations Trump made about the science.

Climate change vs. global warming

The president: “There is a cooling and there’s a heating. I mean, look, it used to not be climate change. It used to be global warming. Right? That wasn’t working too well because it was getting too cold all over the place.”

My response on CNN: As a scientist, we tend to use the term climate change because there’s all sorts of changes that are happening on the planet, including global average temperatures rising over the long term. And that latter part is called global warming.  It is not getting too cold. The global average temperatures for the earth is warming and that’s a fact.

Evidence: 2017 was one of the hottest years on record. @NASA and @NOAA agree that 17 of the 18 hottest years have occurred since 2001.

NOAA/NASA Annual Global Analysis for 2017

Long-term annual global average temperature increase. 17 of the 18 hottest years have occurred since 2001. Image Source: NOAA and NASA

Arctic sea ice

The president: “The ice caps were going to melt, they would have been gone but now. But now, they’re setting records.”

My response on CNN: We’re losing vast tracks of Arctic sea ice in the summer. And just because it’s winter time, doesn’t mean that you can point to sea ice in the winter and say climate change is not happening. That’s just … gobbledygook.

Evidence: The area around the North Pole is expected to have ice in the winter due to the cold temperatures during this time of year. At the same time, records are indeed being set, but not the kind President Trump is implying: January is currently on track to break the all-time record for lowest Arctic sea ice area for this time of year.

NSIDC Jan 2018 Arctic Sea Ice Extent

Arctic sea ice area was very low for the month of January in 2017 and 2018. Source: National Snow & Ice Data Center

The president of the United States has a responsibility to correctly represent scientific facts and should make full use of the vast array of scientific information and resources available to him.

As the recent letter from the American Meteorological Society to the President says: “There is a wealth of comprehensive and accurate information on climate change available to you and your staff within government agencies, as well as from experts in academic institutions and other organizations.”

He should consult them.


Donald Trump’s State of the Union: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

In his State of the Union address to Congress, President Trump exaggerated the benefits of the Republican tax cut bill to average Americans, overlooked the harm that will result from his push to weaken public health and worker safety protections, and disregarded the serious concerns expressed about key elements of his forthcoming infrastructure proposal.

Meanwhile, he failed to even mention a host of other issues where actions being taken by his administration are threatening the health and well-being of all Americans, including the assault on science-based policymaking at federal agencies, the dismantling of strategies to limit and respond to the mounting impacts of climate change, and the dangerous changes being considered to US nuclear weapons policy that would make nuclear war more likely.

Of course, President Trump’s words and actions have contributed to a number of other disturbing trends, including increased expressions of bigotry and racism, a lack of kindness and common decency, growing disrespect for facts and expertise, and a focus on short-term gain for the powerful and wealthy at the expense of longer-term investments for the public benefit. UCS president Ken Kimmell has more to say about that.

Trump’s tax cuts: largesse for the most fortunate endangers benefits for the rest of us

President Trump waxed eloquent last night about the tax cuts he signed into law in December, whose benefits go overwhelmingly to corporations and the wealthiest Americans. While the jury is out on how much of this windfall may eventually trickle down to middle- and working-class Americans, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the tax cuts will increase the federal deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next decade. This will increase pressure for cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, food assistance, and other programs that benefit low- and middle-income families, along with reduced investments in scientific and medical research, education and job training, infrastructure, and other public goods.

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

The threats to these federal programs aren’t hypothetical; they were spelled out clearly in President Trump’s FY18 budget proposals last spring, which UCS president Ken Kimmell aptly called “a wrecking ball to science.” Other UCS colleagues detailed the devastating impacts of these proposed budget cuts on the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationworker health and safety, the Forest Service, and early career scientists.

While these cuts have yet to come to fruition (in large part because Congress has been unable to agree on anything other than very short-term spending bills), indications are that President Trump intends to put many of them forward again when he unveils his FY19 budget as early as February 12. The higher deficits resulting from the tax bill will almost certainly be cited by some in Congress as a reason to make these cuts.

“Regulatory rollbacks” = less protection for all Americans

Last night, President Trump touted his success in rolling back a number of science-based safeguards, claiming that “we have eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration in history.”  While there’s no doubt his administration has been hyperactive on this front, there’s also no doubt who benefits from slashing protections for workers and average Americans: the banks, chemical companies, coal and oil producers, and other corporations whose harmful behaviors led to the regulations in the first place.

At a White House photo op event last month heralding his push for deregulation, President Trump announced that he has canceled or delayed more than 1,500 planned regulatory actions, “more than any previous president, by far,” and said “we’re going to cut a ribbon because we’re getting back below the 1960 level and we’ll be there fairly quickly.”  Of course, not everything was hunky-dory back then, as UCS senior writer Elliott Negin reminds us: “smog in major US cities was so thick it blocked the sun. Rivers ran brown with raw sewage and toxic chemicals. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River and at least two other urban waterways were so polluted they caught on fire. Lead-laced paint and gasoline poisoned children, damaging their brains and nervous systems. Cars without seatbelts, air bags, or safety glass were unsafe at any speed. And hazardous working conditions killed an average of 14,000 workers annually, nearly three times the number today.”

At the White House event last month, President Trump assured us that “We want to protect our workers, our safety, our health, and we want to protect our water, we want to protect our air, and our country’s natural beauty.” But as my colleague Yogin Kothari points out, it is the very regulations that President Trump and his appointees are assailing “that keep our air and water clean, our food safer to eat, our household products and our kids’ toys safer to play with, and our workers safer at work. And it is these regulations that can and should have the greatest positive impact on low-income communities and communities of color, who are often disadvantaged and facing some of the worst public health and environmental threats.”

Infrastructure: the devil is in the details

Last night, President Trump said “I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need,” and White House officials have signaled that he will be putting forward a detailed infrastructure proposal to Congress within the next few weeks. The need for a robust and equitable infrastructure package has never been greater; in its latest comprehensive assessment of the nation’s infrastructure conditions and needs, the American Society of Civil Engineers says that to bring our infrastructure up to a B grade from its current D grade, we need to invest $4.6 trillion by 2025 – some $2 trillion more than the estimated funding now in place.

At first blush, President Trump’s promised infrastructure plan may sound like it’s responsive to that need; but a closer look reveals serious concerns. A White House memo leaked last week indicates that only about 20 percent of these funds would be direct federal investment, with the rest needing to come from state and local governments and private sector investment. Even worse, a White House adviser told the US Conference of Mayors last week that the federal share of the funds would be offset by cuts to existing programs such as Amtrak and mass transit (talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul!).

Another leaked memo indicates the Trump administration will seek radical changes in environmental and other permitting procedures for new infrastructure projects, falsely claiming that these procedures—rather than the investment shortfalls noted above—are the source of the woeful state of our nation’s infrastructure. Scott Slesinger of NRDC charges that “the leaked provision would repeal critical clean air, clean water and endangered species protections and undermine basic environmental statutes. It would also set up a process guaranteed to neuter public input into federal actions and give agency heads free reign to virtually exempt any project from the National Environmental Policy Act, free from court challenge.”

While the leaked White House memos raise serious concerns, it is Congress that will determine the final shape and scale of any infrastructure bill. As my colleague Rob Cowin notes, any infrastructure bill must go beyond traditional investments in highways, bridges, and water projects, by seeking to ensure that our nation’s infrastructure is made increasingly resilient to the worsening impacts of climate change, as well as accelerating deployment of renewable energy, energy storage, and smart grid technologies that can enhance electricity system resiliency, while creating jobs and reducing environmental impacts. An infrastructure package that neglects these vital priorities, cuts other worthy programs to fund new investments, or attempts to gut important environmental review safeguards is not worth supporting.

President Trump’s assault on science and federal agency scientists

The importance of science to American prosperity, well-being, and international leadership went unmentioned in Trump State of the Union address. This is unsurprising, as President Trump’s administration and the 115th Congress have been actively dismantling science-based health and safety protections, sidelining scientific evidence, and undoing recent progress on scientific integrity. More than a year after taking office, President Trump has failed to appoint a presidential science advisor, and three-quarters of the key science and technology positions across the government also remain unfilled.

As my colleague Genna Reed put it recently in an article in Scientific American: “In its first year, the Trump administration has amassed a dismal record on science and science advice. Throughout the federal government, political appointees have misrepresented scientific information, overruled the recommendations of scientific experts, scrubbed scientific content from websites, and even reportedly forbidden some staff from describing their work as “science-based” in budget documents.”

UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy maintains a running list of Trump administration attacks on science—disappearing data, silenced scientists, and other assaults on scientific integrity and science-based policy. Among them:

  • A ban on employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using the words “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based” in documents being prepared for next year’s budget.
  • Attacks by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt on the independence of EPA’s scientific advisory committees, by ordering that no scientists receiving EPA grant funding could serve on EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Board of Scientific Counselors, or Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. (UCS and Protect Democracy have teamed up to challenge this directive in court).

Unfortunately, these are but a few examples of the administration’s abuses of science—and federal agency scientists—since President Trump took office, and new ones seem to come to light each month. These actions are doing long-term damage to the capability of these agencies to fulfill their mission, and causing real harm to public health and safety; it’s no wonder the president doesn’t want to talk about them.

Ignoring the climate crisis

Despite his brief shout-out to “everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California, and everywhere else” from the damages caused by last year’s extreme weather events, President Trump continued to ignore the role of human-induced climate change in worsening those impacts. A federal government report outlines how the costs of these and other natural disasters exceeded $300 billion last year, setting a new US record that blew past previous totals. President Trump’s omission of these facts is not surprising, as he and his administration have been working overtime to dismantle federal government strategies to limit and respond to the mounting impacts of climate change.

Ignoring the advice of other world leaders, the CEOs of hundreds of major corporations, Pope Francis, and many other important voices, President Trump last June announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, jeopardizing the health and prosperity of every American as well as people all over the world.  Fortunately, not one country has indicated that they will follow President Trump out the door; in fact, during last November’s climate summit in Germany, Syria announced that it intended to join all the other countries of the world in the agreement, rather than be lumped in with the United States as a climate scofflaw. And the ‘We Are Still In’ coalition of US states, cities, businesses, and other sub-national actors was at the climate summit in full force, unveiling America’s Pledge, committing to meet the US Paris Agreement emissions reduction goals despite the irresponsible and short-sighted actions of President Trump and his administration.

On the domestic front, the Trump administration has systematically moved to roll back President Obama’s climate action plan, including by repealing the Clean Power Plan, announcing a review of the highly successful clean car standards, and undercutting the agreement reached in 2016 with Canada and Mexico to sharply cut oil and gas sector methane emissions. What do these actions have in common?  They all put the short-term economic interests of favored corporate interests ahead of the health, security, and prosperity of the American people. While these and other harmful actions are being challenged in court and are being partially offset by the leadership of US states, cities, and businesses, they will make it more difficult to meet the ambitious temperature limitation goals in the Paris Agreement, and are harming America’s reputation across the world.

Increasing the threat of nuclear war

Finally, while President Trump made extensive remarks last night about the security risks posed by North Korea and Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, he failed to mention that his administration is poised to revise America’s nuclear weapons policy in ways that would intentionally lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. As my colleague Lisbeth Gronlund notes, “Every US president since the end of the Cold War has explicitly reduced the role, the types and the number of US nuclear weapons. This leaked draft lays out a policy that does exactly the opposite. It would increase the risk of nuclear use and reduce national security.”

The yawning gap between rhetoric and reality

So there you have it. While President Trump called for American pride and unity in his State of the Union address, and claimed his actions are bolstering our nation’s security and prosperity, there is a yawning gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

One year in to his administration, the damage being done is clear. But like my colleague Rachel Cleetus, I see grounds for hope as well – not only on the issues discussed above, but in the growing resistance to the threats this administration poses to our democracy, our values, and our basic human rights.

State of the Union: The Values that Can Stop a Wrecking Ball Presidency

State of the Union 2018 Photo: Win McNamee/Pool via AP

In his first State of the Union address last night, President Trump boasted about building sustained progress at home and abroad. His presidency is more accurately characterized as a wrecking ball, swinging at long-revered and essential norms and safeguards, widening the divide between Americans, and separating our country from the rest of the world.

President Trump spent his first year in office hawking false “solutions” that don’t address the real problems, and spewing outrageous and sometimes hateful tweets that divert our attention, allowing Congress or federal agencies to muscle through unpopular initiatives.

His plan to reduce the risk of a terrorist attack?  Ban all immigration from seven countries.

Cut health care costs?  Repeal Obamacare, with nothing to replace it.

Boost the economy? Eliminate safeguards that protect public health and safety while giving large tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy.

Ensure lawful immigration? Build a wall.

The president opted for a loftier tone at times in last night’s State of the Union, and he offered to compromise on issues such as immigration and infrastructure.  But for the most part, the substance was more of the same.  It was particularly disappointing that he said not a single word about climate change, the most pressing challenge of our time.  And the scapegoating was still there; for example, when he seemed to equate gang violence and immigrants.

Our country deserves better. But how do we get there? So far, strategies and tactics of resistance (such as marches, town hall meetings, and lawsuits) have proven successful in thwarting some of the worst excesses of the Trump administration.  What has been painfully missing, however, is a vision of what we are for, a vision resonant and powerful enough to prevail over the ugly and destructive policies the Trump administration has foisted upon us this year.

What does such a vision look like? And how does it connect to the issues we at UCS care deeply about? These are questions I expect to revisit over the year to come. But let me suggest some elements here that seem clear and essential.

A litmus test of kindness and decency

We all deserve a government that aligns with our values, including basic kindness and decency.  Kindness and decency have been critically missing this year.  Witness how vulnerable members of our community have been branded, or used as political footballs, or threatened with harm, or simply ignored.

How can we restore an emphasis on kindness and decency in our public policy choices?  A starting point is for our leaders to take this litmus test before they make important decisions: Would I vote “yes” on this policy if I knew that it would harm a close friend or neighbor?  For example, would I vote to cut supplemental nutrition assistance payments (as this administration has sought to do), or to take away health insurance, if I personally knew someone who would directly suffer as a result?

Second, our leaders must affirm that it is always—always—wrong to harm innocent people. That is exactly what we do when we threaten to deport “the dreamers,” kids who were brought here through no choice of their own, who have lived here peaceably and productively ever since, and have no other home than in the United States.

Third, our leaders must recognize moral limits on the exercise of power.  All of us understand that our ability to inflict harm on others can act as a deterrent to them harming us, but we cross a moral line when we amass power beyond what is needed for deterrence and threaten to use that power for other ends. This is the moral line that President Trump seems ready to cross on nuclear weapons, when he proposes to expand the range of reasons for which would we use them. Is it not indecent to threaten nuclear immolation against those who set off a cyber attack against us, as a leaked draft of a “Nuclear Posture Review” suggests?

Respect facts and expertise

When making important life decisions, most of us recognize that we make the soundest ones when we gather the best information we can and seek out expert advice when needed. That’s why we rely upon doctors when we are sick, hire experienced contractors for home renovations, or take our car to a trusted mechanic when it breaks down.

Our government should follow these same best practices.  Right now, it doesn’t.  An overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists are convinced that the earth is warming dangerously, that global warming is caused primarily by fossil fuel combustion, and that we are running out of time to address it. When President Trump called for pulling our country out of the Paris climate agreement, he signaled that he simply does not care what the scientific community thinks. Most of us would not ignore such dire warnings if they were directed at risks we were taking personally; we must similarly demand a government that listens to such warnings and acts upon them.

And to make sure we continue to have the vital information we need to make good decisions, we must have a government that invests in our scientific capacity, rather than trying to gut it.  This means boosting, rather than eviscerating, the budgets for scientists who can show us how to grow food more sustainably, or run an electric grid on renewable energy.  It means nominating individuals for scientific positions who are qualified for those positions, whose knowledge and experience can enlighten us.  It means welcoming the input of scientists from academia rather than excluding them on bogus conflict of interest grounds.  And it means allowing scientific information to be readily accessible to the public, instead of scrubbing it from government websites.

Think long-term for the next generation

Entrepreneurs who plow revenues back into their businesses, parents who sets aside funds for a child’s college, people who volunteer for the PTA or their places of worship are all doing the same thing– investing time, energy, and resources now to make life better in the future.  We must demand the same from our government.

Right now, it is falling far short.  Massively cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations may give a short-term adrenaline boost to the economy (we shall see), but it also robs the government of the revenue it needs to address pressing problems from the opioid epidemic, to the need to rebuild communities devastated by the floods, hurricanes, fires and mudslides that plagued us this year, to preparing our workforce to overcome the disrupting effects of automation, among many other vital priorities.   Trump’s tax cut is like raiding your child’s college fund to pay for a new sports car.

Investing properly also means taking a careful look at positive emerging trends and aligning our investments to them.  It is clear, for example, that the world is transitioning away from fossil fuels (though not nearly rapidly enough).  Yet when President Trump speaks of “energy dominance,” he means propping up yesterday’s energy sources (coal, oil and gas), while simultaneously undermining the energy sources that are growing the most rapidly, such as solar power, with tariffs that will destroy jobs in the US. The prudent strategy is precisely the opposite; invest in those areas that can help lead the world toward where it is going and needs to go faster, such as energy storage and electric cars, buses, and trucks.

Long-term thinking also means paying for the costs we incur ourselves, not imposing them on our children and grandchildren. Here again, we are falling short.  When President Trump cuts regulations that protect our health and safety, he is not cutting costs, but rather shifting them from businesses to taxpayers, or from the current generation to future ones.  We should always be prepared to prune unnecessary or outdated regulations (yes, there are some), but we should support regulations that prevent polluters from shifting their costs onto others, or that will save us more money over time.   From my days as Commissioner at MassDEP, I know that it is far cheaper to require companies to reduce and carefully manage their use of toxic chemicals than it is to clean them up after they have been released into the environment. The old adage— an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—applies to government protections and safeguards, and we need to embrace this principle to counter those who inaccurately claim that regulations stifle economic growth.

Our task for the coming year

The values of kindness and decency, reverence for facts and expertise, and long-term thinking were not present in most of Mr. Trump’s speech last night.  This is unfortunate.  But it gives those of us who would like to take the country in a different direction an opportunity: embrace those values even more forcefully, connect them to the policies that we seek to secure, and mobilize around them.  Last night’s State of the Union reminds us of just how much work we need to do.

Win McNamee/Pool via AP

Sea Level Rise Will Make Oregon’s Existing Flooding Problems Worse

In 2013 Annie Pollard opened her pub, the 7 Devils Brewing Co., in Coos Bay, Oregon. Less than two years later, the pub flooded during a heavy rain that coincided with a high tide, and Pollard found herself stacking sandbags and mopping up floodwaters. While high tide flooding is relatively infrequent in Coos Bay, when it does occur, businesses like Pollard’s are at risk, and inundated roads cause traffic in town to snarl. Pollard and other business owners are acutely aware that such floods could become a much bigger problem for Coos Bay in the future.

Sea level rise in Oregon

The hot spots of sea level rise in the US tend to be located on the East and Gulf Coasts, where sinking land and changes in ocean circulation are amplifying the global sea level rise rate. But when we take a deeper dive into our interactive maps of chronic flooding due to sea level rise, it’s clear that small but significant areas within many of Oregon’s idyllic coastal towns–Coos Bay and Tillamook, for example–are also at risk of chronic inundation in the coming decades. And residents of coastal Oregon like Annie Pollard are considering what that means for their homes, businesses, and communities.

Life in coastal Oregon

The Oregon coast is dotted with small towns that contribute to the state’s economy. “A lot of port facilities are right at sea level,” notes Bill Bradbury, the former Secretary of State of Oregon, and they are “definitely part of the economic infrastructure along the coast.” In Tillamook County, in northern Oregon, fertile lands for agriculture sustain, among other businesses, the Tillamook Cheese Factory.

These industries are intimately connected to the water. Regular flooding of Tillamook, for example, helped to make the land as fertile as it is today. And a network of seawalls and other structures have held back the sea since the 1800s in order to maintain the land for agriculture.

Residents of Oregon have noted, though, that the state’s traditional coastal industries have changed in recent decades. Bradbury speaks of how his hometown of Bandon, with about 3,000 residents, used to have a sizeable fishing industry, but it has since declined. Similarly, Pollard has noted that declining fisheries and the reduction of old growth forests caused an economic downturn that transformed Coos Bay from a working community to one that caters more to retirees. And the region’s oyster industry has had to adapt to the fact that ocean acidification is making it harder for oysters to grow. Sea level rise is poised to bring additional changes to Oregon’s coast.

Flooding in coastal Oregon today

Annie Pollard’s experience with flooding in Coos Bay a few years ago is mirrored by that of other residents and business owners in the state. When coastal Oregon floods today, it tends to result from heavy rainfall (typically in the winter months) exacerbated by high tides that prevent the water from draining into the ocean.

Floodwaters made railroad tracks in Coos Bay unusable in January of 2015.

In the town of Tillamook, such flooding, which occurs every 2-3 years, affects Marcus Hinz’s kayaking business, Kayak Tillamook. Hinz notes that his customer base declines in the wake of a flooding event. Most of his customers come from the I-5 corridor (southern Washington, central Oregon, Idaho). A single flooding event can scare customers away for the season, even if Hinz’s company is operating normally within a couple of weeks of the flood. “Our small company doesn’t have marketing to compensate for the news,” Hinz says.

In the wake of a flooding event Hinz and his staff have to re-scout the waterways, because each flood changes the flow of water and the dynamic of Tillamook Bay. And in 2015, he lost all three of his company’s vans due to flooding. The company is just now regaining its footing.

A similar dynamic with high tides that prevent heavy rains from draining takes place in the Coquille Valley, located inland of Bill Bradbury’s hometown of Bandon. This broad, low-lying region is connected to the Pacific by the Coquille River, which drains out from the Coast Range. The Valley is primarily agricultural land–cattle and sheep graze there, and hay is grown for livestock.

“The Coquille Valley floods almost every winter,” says Bradbury, but that flooding could become much more frequent within the next 15-20 years.

When will Oregon face chronic flooding?

UCS’s 2017 When Rising Seas Hit Home analysis shows that by 2035, with a moderate rate of sea level rise, parts of the Coquille Valley that do not see any flooding today could be flooding, on average, every other week simply due to higher sea levels. By 2060, the flooding would be even more extensive.

In Coos Bay, again with a moderate sea level rise scenario, an increasing number of streets could see flooding during high tides by 2035, and significant portions of the town could see flooding by 2060.

These results suggest that sea level rise could have a significant impact on Oregon’s coastal towns. More frequent flooding could, for example, affect the ability of business owners like Annie Pollard and Marcus Hinz to reliably operate and draw customers. And more frequent, widespread flooding of the Coquille Valley could challenge agricultural production in the area and exacerbate existing tensions between those who would like to maintain the land for farming, and those who want to restore low-lying areas to wetlands.

“We’re all going to have to get creative”

Marcus Hinz has witnessed some of the challenges associated with building resilience to sea level rise in Tillamook. In 2011 the community approved the Southern Flow Corridor project, which aims to create a corridor for water flow between Highway 101 and Tillamook Bay. While the ecological and flood mitigation benefits are clear, it has also meant buying land from farmers that will be restored to salt marshes, something that Hinz says has been difficult for landowners. And as the area adjusts to a new flow regime, the slough systems will change, as will the routes available for Hinz’s customers. “We’re all going to have to get creative,” he says.

Farther south in Coos Bay, Annie Pollard notes that local business owners are looking toward a future in which flooding is going to worsen, and that reduces their willingness to make financial investments. Many of the older building in Coos Bay are “beautiful and serviceable,” Pollard says, but are unlikely to be in the future. And while businesses currently have flood insurance, in order to maintain that insurance every renovation has to be carried out according to new standards, at high cost. So, Pollard reports, business owners are choosing not to upgrade their existing properties.

From ensuring that upgrades to existing infrastructure are affordable, to developing scientifically sound plans to improve water drainage that also respect existing communities and landowners, Oregonians are already grappling with the multifaceted challenges that resilience-building presents. And in cases like the Coquille Valley, solutions that accommodate floodwaters will become critical because, as Bradbury puts it, “You can’t build a wall to keep the water out of a place like the Coquille Valley.”

Getting ahead of climate change

The results of our When Rising Seas Hit Home analysis show that taking swift action to reduce carbon emissions could spare hundreds of communities from experiencing chronic flooding. Oregon is one of the nation’s leaders when it comes to addressing climate change. More than a decade ago, the state pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 30% by 2020. And the state has undertaken important steps such as developing a complete inventory of local flood control structures, many of which were built in the 1800s.

After nearly a decade of decreases, emissions in Oregon (blue) ticked slightly upward in 2014. Projections (red) show state emissions to be off track to meet reductions goals (yellow).

But a report released last year by the Oregon Global Warming Commission notes that statewide emissions have been rising in recent years and that without additional actions, the state will not meet its 2020 emissions reductions goals. And it will take time and careful research into which flood control structures are helpful and which potentially exacerbate existing flood issues before local flood resilience measures can be implemented.

Oregon may not be a hotspot of sea level rise. And because it will take decades for the benefits of emissions reductions to be felt, today’s business owners like Annie Pollard and Marcus Hinz may not benefit from such reductions themselves. But for the towns of coastal Oregon to continue to be dynamic, thriving places for the next generation of entrepreneurs and residents, the case for building resilience to flooding and reducing carbon emissions is clear.

JXBauer/Flickr Rob More for the Oregon King Tides Photo Project Oregon Global Warming Commission

Cyanobacteria-Based Biofuel: an Innovative Platform for Clean Energy Production

Photo: Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc./CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia)

Burning fossil fuels is a major driver of climate change with more than two billion tons of carbon dioxide released annually, leading to increased frequency of natural disasters and health concerns. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources is a key strategy to mitigate this harm.

Biological approaches to generate clean, green energy from renewable sources offer great promise for sustainable fuel production, but first- and second-generation biofuel crops compete for farmland, which limits their potential. By contrast, photosynthetic microorganisms, including algae and cyanobacteria, offer great promise as third-generation biofuel agents without the drawbacks of today’s biofuels.

We are excited to announce that the Sitther Biofuel Research Group at Morgan State University has developed a technology to generate a cost-effective biofuel using a model cyanobacterium. The team, consisting of graduate students Dr. Behnam Tabatabai and Ms. Somayeh Gharaie Fathabad, led by Dr. Viji Sitther, has developed strategies to reduce fossil fuel overuse. With a short life cycle, greenhouse gas fixation ability, and high lipid production capacity, we use cyanobacteria as an efficient biofuel platform. Carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuel and industrial emissions can be captured and used by these organisms efficiently. As with other algae-based fuels, we expect a 68% reduction in total carbon dioxide emissions as these organisms absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Our research group has engineered salt tolerance in a cyanobacterium (Fremyella diplosiphon) which produces oil (lipids) in its cells. The team’s innovation has been successful and the technology is now patented. With limited precious fresh water for agriculture and human needs, we will make use of naturally abundant sea water for biofuel production. The organism is now able to grow in 35 g/L salt, the salinity of sea water. With sea water containing 70 different nutrients to support its growth and using the sun’s energy, the technology will be cost-effective while minimizing fresh water input into the cultivation system.

Targeting large-scale commercialization, the team is now progressing to make the biofuel even more cost-effective. Our goal is to enhance cellular oil content using a novel technique based on cDNA overexpression, in addition to salt tolerance. Fuel produced using this technology will be environment-friendly and will make full use of Maryland’s location, with its access to the Chesapeake Bay and Eastern Seaboard.

For background information about cyanobacteria as a biofuel technology, please visit David Babson’s blog on algae.

Viji Sitther is an Associate Professor at the department of Biology at Morgan State University. She was a graduate research faculty at the Fort Valley State University prior to joining Morgan. Behnam Tabatabai is a recent PhD graduate and Somayeh Gharaie Fathabad is a doctoral candidate in the Bio-environmental Sciences.

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.

Governor Brown Aims to Boost California’s Leadership on Electric Cars

Image of California's Capitol Building

California has long been seen a leader on EVs of all kinds – plug-in hybrids, battery electric and fuel cell vehicles. The state established the first requirements for zero emission vehicles in 1990 and has been pushing the industry forward ever since. Governor Brown’s executive order last week gives another jolt to EV deployment in the state with a call for $2.5 billion in investments in infrastructure and consumer incentives over the next 8 years with the aim of reaching 5 million zero emissions vehicles by 2030 and the build out of 250,000 charging stations and 200 hydrogen refueling stations by 2025. The legislature will weigh in over the coming months about spending decisions including committing $200 million/year from Cap and Trade revenue for vehicle incentives.  Reaching mass market adoption of EVs means making them affordable and convenient for less affluent drivers and addressing the needs of those without dedicated off-street parking. The Governor’s proposed investment plan faces this challenge head on.

Here are 4 reasons why Governor Brown’s Executive Order is important.

(1) California – and the rest of the world – can’t tackle climate change without a revolution in the transportation sector

California Climate Emissions. Source: 2015 data reported in California’s 2017 Climate Change Scoping Plan, November 2017.

Transportation accounts for nearly 40% of California’s climate emissions. And that’s not including the emissions from producing gasoline and diesel from crude oil.  Including those sources pushes transportation to about half of all global warming emissions in the state.

Nationally, while transportation is a lower share of overall emissions than in CA, the trend in emissions is not encouraging.  Transportation recently overtook the electricity sector as the largest source of CO2 emissions in the country.

Source: EIA Monthly Energy Report (12 month total)

(2) Electric vehicles are cleaner than gasoline vehicles today, and they will only get cleaner

Making our gasoline cars cleaner is absolutely critical to getting us on track toward our climate goals – which is why UCS is doing everything we can to protect the important federal global warming emission and fuel economy standards currently on the books (If these are important to you too – tell your automaker to support strong standards).  But as we look ahead, electric vehicles will become more and more important to achieve deep emission reductions and transition away from oil.

This map shows how EVs compare to gasoline vehicles today on global warming emissions.  For example, in California, a gasoline vehicle would have to achieve a fuel economy rating of 95 mpg to have the same emissions as an electric vehicle charged on California’s electricity grid.  As the grid gets cleaner with more solar and wind power and less coal and natural gas  – so will EVs.

Fuel economy rating a gasoline vehicle would need to achieve to have similar emissions to an EV, based on electricity grid emissions data from 2014. For more about this map, see my colleague David Reichmuth’s blog post.

(3) California needs millions of EVs on the road to meet our 2030 climate targets

California committed to cutting its global warming emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 with the passage of Senate Bill 32. As noted above, with transportation emissions nearly 50% of the state’s total that means major progress is needed in reducing emissions from our cars and trucks.  Modeling from state regulators shows that even with continued steady progress in reducing emissions from new gasoline vehicles, at least 4.2 million zero emission vehicles (plug-in hybrid, battery electric and fuel cell vehicles) would need to be deployed in CA to meet climate and air quality goals.

Source: ARB Mobile Source Strategy Cleaner Technologies and Fuels Scenario (p. 66). Note: This is an illustrative scenario of the magnitude of adoption needed for plug-in hybrid, battery electric, and fuel cell vehicles.

This is just one scenario based on assumptions across all different sectors of the economy. Achieving Governor Brown’s new goal of 5 million zero emission vehicles by 2030 would help ensure California is achieving the state’s economy wide goals, while acting as a catalyst for accelerating EV adoption outside of the state as California leads by example.

(4) These investments target the most important barriers to owning an EV: upfront costs and access to charging

EV sales in California account for roughly half of all sales in the US. This is due to a combination of factors including the regulatory and financial incentives in place today.  But keeping up that momentum over the next decade to reach the 5 million vehicle mark means average new EV sales need to average about a 19 percent year over year growth (see figure).  For comparison, year over year sales growth between  2016 and 2017 was about 24%.

To make this happen, EVs need to become more affordable to more people and owners need a place to plug-in.

On the first measure, affordability, the good news is that EVs are cheaper to fuel, saving an average of $800 on fuel costs compared to a gasoline vehicle and prices of EVs are continuing to fall.  EVs are likely to reach price parity with gasoline vehicles sometime in the next decade.  But EVs still cost more than comparable gasoline vehicles today, so consumer incentives are critically important for accelerating their adoption.

Cap and trade funds have provided the bulk of the incentive funds to date for consumer rebates in CA, but the program has been subject to waitlists and uncertainty in the annual budget appropriations process.  A commitment by the Legislature and Governor of at least $200 million per year for rebates would go along way towards creating greater stability for the program and ensure support during a critical time of the market.

Charging infrastructure is also a must.  Single family home owners often have a place to park and plug in, but those in condos and apartments often face a more difficult challenge. Brown’s proposed investments in infrastructure through the California Energy Commission would provide steady investment over the next 8 years and supplement the proposed utility investments and VW settlement funds being directed towards building a charging network that can support 5 million vehicles.

Importantly, the executive order also calls for actions to increase investment in low-income and disadvantaged communities.  These communities often suffer the most from air pollution and deploying EVs in these communities is an important priority for reducing emissions where it is needed most and where it will have the biggest impact. Higher vehicle rebate amounts that exist for lower income households helps ensure more people can take advantage of the direct benefits of owning an EV while current income limits on rebate eligibility help stretch the dollars where they are need most.  Additional cap and trade funded programs to increase EV ownership in disadvantaged communities such as vehicle replacement programs and electric car sharing projects provide addition opportunities for deploying EVs more widely across all communities in the state.

Leadership from California mayors on climate change, air quality, and public transit

Photo: Jimmy O'Dea

What do the Super Bowl, national parks, and California mayors have in common? If you guessed electric buses, you’re right.

This Sunday, electric buses will shuttle people to and from downtown Minneapolis, another example of this technology being adopted in cold climates. Elsewhere, Zion National Park recently completed a 3-month trial of electric buses and Yosemite recently became the first national park to purchase electric buses.

And yesterday, 16 mayors wrote members of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) urging them to accelerate the deployment of zero-emission transit buses in cities across the state.

Whether in Minnesota, Utah, or California, electric buses offer significant benefits for air quality and climate change compared to diesel and natural gas buses. And the impacts of pollution from heavy-duty combustion vehicles are large, despite these vehicles making up a small fraction of vehicles on the road. This is one reason so many cities across the country are beginning to adopt zero-emission buses.

Mayors standing up for the people’s electric vehicle

The mayors’ letter comes as CARB has proposed a timeline for phasing in zero-emission buses across the state. This proposal has been met with pushback from the natural gas industry, which has more than 50 percent market share of buses in the California transit industry, the result of natural gas buses being the only alternative to diesel for many years.

Mayors writing CARB are from cities large and small across the state and represent nearly 8 million Californians. The letter follows a pledge made by 12 mayors of major cities across the world to buy only zero-emission buses from 2025 and on. And as attention focuses on the State of the Union address tonight, California mayors’ call for action on zero-emission buses highlights the important role cities and local governments play in air quality and climate change.

Zero-emission technology is here and ready

Mayors from 16 cities wrote the California Air Resources Board asking for strong action on zero-emission buses.

Commitments to zero-emission buses are achievable due to rapid advances in battery and fuel cell technologies and the increasing cost effectiveness of these vehicles. Zero-emission buses have fuel efficiencies many times greater than combustion technologies, in some cases as much as eight times better; ranges of more than 200 miles; and total costs of ownership that are competitive with diesel and natural gas vehicles.

California’s current state budget provides at least $35 million to offset the incremental purchase costs of zero-emission buses. Transit agencies are also likely to significantly benefit from proposed investments by Southern California Edison ($554 million), Pacific Gas and Electric ($210 million), and San Diego Gas and Electric ($150 million) to provide charging infrastructure for heavy-duty electric vehicles such as buses.

Regarding performance, this past week I rode on a battery electric bus that traveled 300 miles in one day, complete with stop and go LA traffic, long grades uphill, and over 50 people on board. The bus was able to recharge in just a few hours.

Perhaps the biggest testament to the readiness of battery electric buses is the large-scale deployment of these vehicles in China: 115,00 were sold in 2016 and 90,000 were sold in 2017. Shenzhen’s entire 16,000 bus fleet recently reached full conversion to electric buses, which is more than all the transit buses in California (~10,000).

The range of zero-emission buses is farther than you may think.

What’s being proposed by CARB?

CARB’s proposal calls for 25 percent of new bus purchases to be zero-emission vehicles beginning in 2020; 50 percent in 2023; 75 percent in 2026; and 100 percent in 2029. Transit agencies with 30 to 99 buses don’t have to comply until 2023 and transit agencies with less than 30 buses don’t have to comply until 2026. CARB’s proposed standard rewards transit agencies that have been early adopters of zero-emission buses by extending their eligibility for purchase incentives.

It is important to put purchase standards in the context of fleet turnover, which is about 14 years per bus, or an average of 7 percent annually. This means a purchase standard of 25 percent would result in roughly 2 percent of the overall fleet being converted to zero-emission vehicles. With 14-year vehicle turnover rates, CARB’s proposed timeline of 100 percent of purchases by 2029 would actually make it difficult to achieve the goal of all transit buses being zero-emission by 2040. And while standards beginning in 2020 may seem soon, this timeline ensures the transition is gradual.

The importance of clear targets

While CARB has yet to implement standards for zero-emission transit buses, it has been developing the most recent version of these targets over the last two years; previous versions of this standard that were never implemented date back 10 years, before zero-emission technology was at the scale it is today.

Several transit agencies have already made commitments to fully convert their fleets to zero-emission buses. The possibility of action by CARB has likely played a role in many of these decisions. In a recent report outlining its goal to adopt 144 zero-emission buses by 2032, Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) cites CARB’s intended standard of all zero-emission transit buses by 2040 as a motivating factor in developing its plan.

In all, buses are an important step in extending zero-emission technologies to other types of heavy-duty vehicles. Leadership from California mayors and CARB on transit buses will set us on the right path for reducing emissions from school buses, delivery trucks, beverage trucks, port trucks, and more. If your mayor wrote CARB asking for action on zero-emission buses, send them a note or tweet to thank them. And if they aren’t on the letter, talk to them about the importance of zero-emission transit buses and ask them to support their deployment in your community.

What the Science Tells Us About Making Football Safer This CTE Awareness Day

Photo: mike dupris/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

As the most high-profile football game of the year approaches this weekend, not everyone will be thinking about trophies and victory speeches. Families and friends of players who have faced long-term health consequences from playing the sport will be focusing on their loved ones. Today is the second annual Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Awareness Day, during which we should all take some time to think about how the health of players can be prioritized through institutional reform, rule improvements, and policy changes supported by evidence. It’s the very least we can do to offer support to the football players who reliably delight us with their athleticism on game days.

Earlier this month, the Concussion Legacy Foundation and its partners kicked off an awareness campaign to limit tackle football to children 14 years and older. Led by co-founder and CEO, Chris Nowinski, the organization has been working with scientists at Boston University to continue research on the pathology of CTE, to raise awareness about the degenerative brain disease, and to make football safer. There is still much research to be done, but initial studies on head injuries in children playing tackle football reveal a troubling pattern. A 2018 study published in the journal Brain of the impacts of subconcussive hits in mice revealed that head injuries, independent of concussions, can trigger neurophysiological changes and lead to the development of CTE pathology. A 2017 study coauthored by the Boston University clinical research team found that participation in youth tackle football before age 12 increases the risk of behavioral issues like impaired mood and cognition later in life. This builds upon a 2016 Wake Forest University study that found measurable changes to the structural integrity of the brain, due to repeated subconcussive hits, after children aged 8 through 13 played just one season of youth football.

A slide from an October 2017 presentation by Ann McKee, neuropathologist at Boston University’s CTE Center.

New policies aim to protect kids

While there is no definitive proof of a “safe” age to play football, the evidence now appears strong enough to support protective policies that will help to prevent these injuries from occurring in children whose brains are still developing and most sensitive to hits. Illinois and New York are leading the way with the introduction of bills that would prohibit children under 12 years old from playing tackle football in organized youth football leagues and schools.

In New York, state senator Michael Benedetto introduced the John Mackey Youth Football Protection Act, named after the NFL player from New York who developed severe dementia and passed away in 2011. Benedetto first sponsored the legislation in 2013 because, “I firmly believe that when we see evidence of the danger to children, we need to act on that…there are laws that you need to use a car seat, wear a bicycle helmet. It’s the same principle.”

In Illinois, representative Carol Sente introduced the Dave Duerson Act, named after the former Bears player who took his own life in 2011. She, like Benedetto, cited the evidence of harm as the primary reason for introducing legislation. At a press conference, Sente said, “As the science and the data move forward and progress, so must we, and we now turn our attention to CTE… children as young as five are playing tackle football. … They are taking hits in practice and at games, with forces that are similar to what college players are taking.”

Chris Borland, former NFL player and UCS science champion, cut to the chase on a panel at Aspen Institute last week, saying “Let’s take it out of the hands of kids who are five and six and seven years old, and parents who get their information from industries that stand to make billions of dollars from their children playing…leave it up to good research and make laws that protect kids. We’ve done more with less information, from car seats to cigarettes and all that. So I think it’s past due.” Borland’s primary interest is in getting kids through childhood safe from cognitive or emotional harm.

Chris Borland spent some time with our cast of youth football players after filming a PSA with UCS in summer 2017.

Concussion Legacy Foundation’s Chris Nowinski said at an Illinois press conference, “The more years you play, the greater the risk of CTE…The only way to (shorten) the years of tackle football is to prevent it at the beginning.” The organization put together the “All-Time Greatest Team” of former NFL players who did not play football until entering high school to show that you don’t need to play as a kid to excel. The impressive roster includes New England’s Super Bowl stud, Tom Brady.

NFL needs to be refereed

Children must continue to be protected through stronger policies and education campaigns, and the NFL must be held accountable for its unsavory history of aggressive marketing to kids and their parents. In 2007, the NFL hired marketing firm, Brandissimo, in order to “get to kids as early as possible,” according to a former employee. A 2015 report by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood found that the NFL markets itself to young children through fantasy football apps like NFL Rush tailored to children six to 11, through government-sponsored programs that promote physical activity but are often undermined by partnerships with fast food companies and screen time promotion, and through educational materials for schools claiming to teach real subjects using NFL-branded terms and visuals.

These tactics are eerily similar to some of the marketing techniques used by the food industry to hook young kids on junk food. Not only is the NFL targeting kids, but it has used its platform to misinform moms about the research on the link between playing football and brain injuries using “Moms Football Safety Clinics.” At one of these clinics in Birmingham, Alabama, the Falcons’ community relations coordinator told moms that “concussions are on the rise…at least in the media,” and failed to mention CTE entirely. In a Chicago clinic, a trainer with USA Football told a mom who asked when parents should let their kids play football that if a child’s neck is strong enough to hold up a helmet, that’s a “good indicator” that they might be ready. The NFL’s obfuscation of the facts needs to stop so that parents can make informed decisions about enrolling their teenagers in this sport.

In order to keep children and adults safe, the NFL needs to stop sidelining science and start prioritizing the health of its past, current, and future players. The fact remains that the development of brain pathologies like CTE is a result of repetitive subconcussive injuries to the brain over time and, as a full-contact sport, football offers many opportunities for these kinds of hits. For football to be a safer game, the number of head impacts needs to be reduced. And fortunately for football fans, there are some ways to reduce the risk without pulling the plug on the NFL and the NCAA entirely, including non-contact practices, mandatory medical staffs, required education about brain trauma for athletes at all levels, and swift removal of players who have signs of serious head injuries. These leagues have no excuse for not implementing these reforms as soon as possible.

There have been stunning advancements in the science on CTE just in the past decade. However, there must be authentic buy-in from the NFL, NCAA, and high-school football programs to reduce the risk of CTE in players. It’s time to listen to the science for all those we remember this CTE Awareness Day.

Photo: mike dupris/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

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

Photo: Yvette Arellano/TEJAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignoring evidence, giving favors to industry

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

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

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

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

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

Hotspots and fencelines: disproportionate impacts of hazardous air pollutants

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

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

Allowing polluters to avoid protecting public health

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

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

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

Photo: Yvette Arellano/TEJAS

Clean Energy Leadership: Next Steps for Massachusetts


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

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

Increase the renewable portfolio standard to 50×30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make solar work—for everybody

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

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

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

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

There’s something seriously wrong with those equations.

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

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

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

Tell us where we’re going on climate change

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

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

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

And more

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

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

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

Mike Jacobs owner

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

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Stevendbradley

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

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

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

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

A cheaper, cleaner path forward for DTE customers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DTE’s own analysis falls short

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photo: Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did we become a country with crumbling infrastructure?

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

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

Building for 2018 and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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