UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

Anti-Science Nominee Kathleen Hartnett-White Faces Renewed Scrutiny for Top Environmental Post

Hartnett-White's extreme views and lack of understanding of basic scientific issues were on full display at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Kathleen Hartnett-White was an ill-advised nomination to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) from the get-go.

Perhaps the Trump administration assumed her nomination would fly under the radar. CEQ is not exactly a high-profile entity; you don’t hear or read much about it. Nor is there much public discussion about the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that the CEQ oversees, even though NEPA is considered the Magna Carta of Environmental Law—so admired it has been replicated by nations around the world. (For more, here’s some quick background on CEQ and NEPA).

Serving industry interests over the public interest

Be assured, however, that regulated industries (especially the petrochemical industry) are well aware of NEPA. Some may be counting on Hartnett-White to weaken its environmental and public health protections. One commenter even noted that Hartnett-White’s nomination is a “game changer” in terms of CEQ ensuring agency enforcement and implementation of NEPA; the commenter mused that “It seems Trump has a very different role in mind, and CEQ is being lined up as a streamlining agency to make sure permitting is happening more quickly…. Maybe the idea is that CEQ will be pushing agencies to get things done quicker and not get bogged down in broader NEPA reviews.”

Along with other Trump appointees—like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry—Harnett-White, if confirmed, seems destined to serve industry interests over the public interest. That should worry all of us.

Facing intense scrutiny

White’s nomination hasn’t escape scrutiny in either mainstream or social media. It got a lot of press (here, here, here, here). More than 300 scientists sent a letter to the Senate opposing her nomination “because one thing more dangerous than climate change is lying.” (More here.) And she did herself no favors at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee where her extreme views and lack of understanding of basic scientific issues were embarrassing and on full display (see for yourself).

Her written responses to EPW Committee questions for the record also reiterated some of her anti-science views on climate change, particulate air pollution, mercury and air toxics, and the Clean Air Act. And then of course there is the fact that she actually plagiarized some responses from the answers submitted by other Cabinet nominees.

Despite her embarrassingly poor performance at the hearing and her historically extreme views, Hartnett-White was narrowly voted out of the EPW Committee on a strict party-line basis on November 29, 2017. But her nomination did not make it to the Senate floor in 2017.

Dangerous, outside the mainstream, and unfit to lead CEQ

Although CEQ is relatively small and unknown, it plays a critical role in our nation’s public health and environmental protection, especially through NEPA. And Hartnett-White’s views on climate science, air pollution and health, clean and renewable energy, and the role of science in public policy are dangerous and outside the mainstream. Our country needs and deserves a more qualified candidate to lead CEQ.

Kathleen Hartnett-White vs. Science

These few snippets of her views and prior statements make their own case—and you can see more here.

Hartnett-White: “Ambient PM [particulate matter, a.k.a. soot] levels in the United States today are low and I do not believe that PM at these levels pose a health hazard. There is considerable uncertainty in the scientific literature about whether exposure to PM actually causes adverse health outcomes and, if it does, at what concentration effects may occur.” (Written submission to EPW questions for the record, 2017: Question 34, page 13.)

Science: Numerous scientific studies document adverse health effects of particulate matter (e.g., here and here). A 2017 Harvard study could find no evidence of a safe level of exposure to smog or particulate matter.

Hartnett-White: “Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, and carbon is certainly not a poison. Carbon is the chemical basis of all life on earth. Our bones and blood are made out of carbon. A natural, trace gas in the Earth’s atmosphere, invisible and odorless, carbon dioxide does not contaminate the air as genuine pollutants can do. Ambient CO2 has zero health impacts. This falsely maligned natural gas is better known as the “gas of life” because it is a necessary nutrient for plant growth — the food base of life on the planet earth.” (Op-Ed in Austin American-Statesman, 2016)

Science: Credible scientists and institutions recognize CO2 as the most important and dangerous driver of climate change; it remains in the atmosphere for decades and, as a climate pollutant, is associated with a host of health impacts. See here, here, here, and here.

Hartnett-White: “IPCC science claims of 95 percent certainty that human activity is causing climate calamity are more like the dogmatic claims of ideologues and clerics than scientific conclusions.” (June 2014 TPPF policy document, titled “Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case”).

“There’s a real dark side in the kind of paganism, the secular elites of religion now being evidently global warming.” (From 2016 interview on the TRP Show, The Right Perspective)

Science: IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report (AR5) is the result of the collaboration of over 800 scientists from 80 countries and the assessment of over 30,000 scientific papers.

Hartnett-White: “I am not at all persuaded by the IPCC science that we are standing on some precipice…. “We’re not standing on a cliff from which we are about to fall off.” She also called the scientific conclusions from United Nations panels “not validated and politically corrupt.” (Washington Post, 2017)

Science: IPCC, 5th Assessment Report (AR5), Summary for Policy Makers (SPM), pages 8-16:  “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”

Public health experts also sound the alarm. The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change…”exposes the urgency for a response as environmental changes cause damaging effects on health worldwide now.”

Hartnett-White: “[The IPCC] never really takes on an explanation of how the other variables in climate affect climate. […] It never takes on the Sun.” (Speaking at Ars Technica, 2016)

Science: IPCC SPM, Page 8.  Shows the negligible contribution of “natural forcings” and “anthropogenic forcings.” See also NASA data, Figures 1 and 2 and National Academy of Sciences, page 9

Hartnett-White: “Most green energy policies undermine human progress.” (from her book Fueling Freedom, co-authored with Heritage Foundation fellow Stephen Moore).

Science: See, for example: Renewable Resources: The Impact of Green Energy on the Economy; The Economics of Renewable Energy: Falling Costs and Rising Employment; more here and here.

Hartnett-White: “Government by popularly elected representatives on the one hand and the government by federal administrators swearing by the authority of science, on the other hand, are contradictory notions. I would call the latter, moreover, an acutely dangerous notion. Regrettably, in the modern United States these two incompatible policy-making models clash often, and with dire results. Elected officials trying to carry out their public duties—e.g., maximizing access to clean, affordable energy—meet stubborn opposition from federal mandarins brandishing their scientific credentials.”  (Texas Public Policy Foundation, 5/18/2012)

Science: To the benefit of public health, federal scientists have “brandished their scientific credentials” on a host of toxic substances (e.g., lead, arsenic, silica), not to mention on HIV, bird flu, food safety, etc.   (Add your favorite to the list here.) This recent op-ed by former EPA Administrator Ruckleshaus is also worth a read.

A second bite at the apple?

There may be hope yet. Senate rules require all unconfirmed nominations still pending at the end of its first session be sent back to the White House—unless there is unanimous consent that it be held over without re-nomination. If a nomination is sent back, the confirmation process begins all over again. And, thanks to Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the Hartnett-White nomination has gone back to the White House. This means President Trump would need to re-nominate her—or someone else—and there may be another EPW hearing and vote before any nominee goes before the full Senate for confirmation. (Read about this here.)

This provides several opportunities for a re-think. Hartnett-White could avoid herself further embarrassment and withdraw her nomination or the administration could decide to do the same and instead nominate a more qualified candidate for this important post.

If Hartnett-White is re-nominated, EPW Committee members who previously voted for her could put party politics aside and NOT send her nomination to the Senate floor. And, if all else fails, the full Senate could look honestly at her record, her anti-science and unscientific views, her coterie of ardent benefactors among polluting industries, and her own deep conflicts of interest, along with her questionable support of and at times outright hostility for our fundamental environmental laws. And then the Senate itself could do the right thing and reject her nomination.

Time to speak up. Again.

We’ve seen how our collective voices can make a difference. Public pressure and scrutiny has already forced other unqualified candidates to withdraw, including Sam Clovis, who was nominated to be chief scientist at the US Department of Agriculture; and Michael Dourson, who was nominated to be Assistant Administrator for Toxic Substances of the EPA.

We need to exercise our voices (and writing skills) yet again to oppose this egregious nomination.

Call your senators today at 866-580-8532 and urge them to oppose the nomination of Kathleen Hartnett-White. You can prepare with more information and talking points to help you have as effective a call as possible.

If the White House does nominate her once again, call your Senators and ask them to oppose her confirmation. You can also help fight this nomination by penning a letter to the editor or an op-ed for your local paper (some helpful hints here), and speaking out on social media.

We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. But time is of the essence; the time to act is now.

The Polar Vortex, Winter Storm Grayson, and Climate Change: What’s the Connection?

The jet stream and polar vortex on January 3, 2017. Map from the University of Maine Climate Change Institute.

Forecasters are trotting out “polar vortex” and atypical terms like “Nor’easter bomb” and “bombogenesis.” These words signal the unusual and dangerous conditions forecast for winter storm Grayson and their implications for the southeast US,  mid-Atlantic, and eventually New England and beyond. What do they mean?  

Meteorologists use the phrase bombogenesis to describe a sudden and extreme drop in barometric pressure of at least 24 millibars over 24 hours, which leads to rapid intensification of a mid-latitude cyclone. We are used to hearing about North Atlantic cyclones during summer and fall—its the meteorological term for hurricanes—and now winter storm Grayson is drawing moisture from a similar cyclonic circulation that will bring blizzard conditions as it moves northeast just offshore of the US east coast.

Winter weather and global warming

With cold temperatures and icy conditions leaving the continental US reeling over the New Year, it might seem counter-intuitive to say that we’re still experiencing global warming. But as my colleague Peter Frumhoff puts it, saying that climate change isn’t occurring because of the cold in the eastern US is “like saying if everyone around me is wealthy then poverty is not a problem…local weather is not an indicator of changes in climate.

Global warming is exactly that: global. The total area of the US, including Alaska and Hawaii, is only about 2 percent of the surface area of Earth. This map from the University of Maine Climate Change Institute showing the deviations from average temperature for this time of year demonstrates this concept well—much of the continental US may be unusually cold right now but most of the rest of the world is well above average (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Temperature departure from average for this time of year. Much of the continental US may be unusually cold right now but most of the rest of the world is well above average. Map from the University of Maine Climate Change Institute.

Alaska has been unusually warm this winter even though it is in the Arctic. It might seem strange that local weather events such as a balmy Alaska and freezing Florida can occur at the same time, but they’re examples of another phenomenon we can expect from a changing climate: more events at the extremes. Many scientists are studying these clues to explore the connections between a rapidly warming Arctic from climate change and shifting extreme weather patterns in northern hemisphere mid-latitudes (i.e. the continental US and Eurasia).

Arctic cold outbursts reach the southern US

Scientists noticed an unusual winter pattern in the jet stream that started around the year 2000. Before that time the jet stream was typically fast with small waves that kept the cold air contained in the Arctic region. However, the jet stream began slowing down, and its waves meandering more.

The distance between the peak (like the green and yellow band peaking near the intersection of the borders between Alaska and the Yukon Territory of Canada in Figure 2) and the trough (the highlighted red, yellow, and green area near the southern US) has become much longer since the 2000s when compared to prior decades.

Figure 2: The jet stream and polar vortex on January 3, 2017. Map from the University of Maine Climate Change Institute.

Scientific process and progress in understanding extreme weather

Scientists are making progress in better understanding how much natural seasonal patterns, ocean cycles, and other factors play a role in altering the jet stream and how much global warming is responsible. Some say a lot, others not as much. This is a robust scientific discussion that has continued to evolve over the past several years.

One thing is certain: no climate scientists say there is zero contribution from global warming. We agree on 90 percent of the facts of the issue—now we’re debating the remaining 10 percent.

How will we know when this particular scientific debate is over? One way or another, the scientific community will reach consensus—just as it has with climate change more broadly.

Assessments will shift toward keeping track of the changing percentage of contribution from climate change to the altered jet stream. And we’ll really know consensus is reached when this research is incorporated into longer-term outlooks for winter forecasts. In fact, a recent publication suggests that if the Arctic indicators—such as the strength or weakness of the polar vortex—were better incorporated into current winter forecasts, we could have two- to six-week previews of the winter temperatures in the northern hemisphere just like we get our 10-day forecast today.

If predictions become reliable enough, this could help cities and counties plan to distribute snow removal equipment to regions that will need it well in advance of storms. This knowledge may better protect people facing risks to their daily lives from the consequences of extreme cold winter storm events.

University of Maine Climate Change Institute University of Maine Climate Change Institute

A Year of Resistance—and Why I’m Hopeful for 2018

Photo: UCS/Audrey Eyring

What a year it’s been. The destructive antics of the Trump administration and Congress and a political discourse increasingly polluted by ‘alternative facts’ have frequently made many of us angry, sad, and sometimes just plain crazy.

Through it all, it’s been inspiring to see a resistance movement gather strength and show its muscle. I’ve been awed by the work of racial justice activists, scientists, grassroots groups, immigrant rights groups, youth groups and many many others. Here’s a snapshot of what a year in the resistance looked like for me.

January

The Women’s March (one of the largest protest marches ever, coordinated across the nation and globally), held a day after President’s Trump’s inauguration (with its less-than-record attendance), showed where the true power of the people lies.

Like many of you, I joined the march with my family. Watching my kids (in their pink hats, of course) experience the crowds, point out their favorite signs, raise their voices in call-and-response chants—all of it gave me a thrill to think that a new generation was beginning to understand the power of peaceful protest in a democracy.

And we called out a dangerous new form of climate denial taking hold in the administration, especially with the nomination of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator.

February

In courts across the nation, including in Hawaii, Washington, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Maryland, there were immediate challenges filed to President Trump’s terrible ‘Muslim Ban’ executive order issued at the end of January.

As an immigrant myself, it was especially moving to join a large and diverse crowd of people marching in protest in Boston, and to see similar protests nationwide. At many major airports teams of lawyers also flocked in to offer pro bono assistance to travelers affected by the ban. (The Supreme Court has since allowed a modified version of the ban to go ahead but this is by no means the last word since it is still being litigated.)

March

We called out Scott Pruitt’s lies on climate change, held the administration accountable on its rollback of protective health standards including an all-out attack on climate policies, and we urged Congress to resist harmful cuts to the EPA budget (and succeeded in fending off some of the most damaging cuts).

April

The March for Science March and the Peoples Climate March were the highlights of April. It was magnificent to join the throngs of people marching for climate, jobs and justice on that sweltering hot day in Washington DC. More importantly, we are building a movement that is about more than just that one day.

May

President Trump’s destructive first budget proposal was shown up to be all bark and no bite since Congress actually controls the purse strings. We campaigned against the many awful elements of the Trump budget proposal, including cuts that would harm our nation’s ability to prepare for climate and extreme weather disasters and cuts that would gut the EPA. (Harmful budget cuts are an ongoing threat. It’s critical for constituents to continue to urge their policymakers to resist deep cuts to agency budgets that jeopardize the health and well-being of Americans.)

June

We are still in!’ declared states, cities, counties, tribes, businesses, investors, faith groups, colleges and universities, in prompt response to President Trump’s shameful announcement that he intended to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement.

Unfortunately, June also brought terrible heatwaves and wildfires, further evidence that the impacts of climate change are here and now, despite the climate denialism rampant in this administration.

July

One of the most satisfying ways to resist the madness wrought by this administration is to just carry on doing good science. In July, my colleagues and I released a new report, When Rising Seas Hit Home: Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities. The report highlights the threat of chronic coastal inundation exacerbated by sea level rise, and is accompanied by a fantastic online mapping tool.

Its findings challenge us to work toward solutions at the national, state and local level. Frontline communities facing these risks need help—and this should not be a partisan issue.

August-September

The nightmare hurricane season of 2017 unfolded in August and September, bringing Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Houston, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands suffered particularly devastating impacts. Groups like Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), an Environmental Justice organization in Houston, rallied to call attention to urgent needs.

My colleagues and I wrote about the flood threats in Houston, especially the risks from toxic pollution and the need to keep environmental justice front and center in the recovery process. We also laid out the science of hurricanes and climate change, and called on Congress to take action to help devastated communities.

And, yes, we also pointed out the irony of the Trump administration’s rollback of the federal flood risk management standard just a week before Harvey hit. And the how damaging the administration’s proposed budget cuts to FEMA and HUD, key agencies for our nation’s disaster response, would be.

October

Market trends, state policies, and federal tax incentives continued to drive a historic transition away from coal to cleaner forms of energy, despite the EPA’s announcement that it would repeal the Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever limits on power plant carbon emissions. We called out Administrator Pruitt’s cynical move to pander to fossil fuel interests while blatantly ignoring the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment.

Terrible wildfires raged across Northern California, killing 44 people and causing billions of dollars of damage. Sadly, another example of how climate change is exacerbating risks to people and property.

November

I was in Bonn, Germany for COP23, the annual UN climate talks, where the Trump administration was rendered largely irrelevant and isolated in its stance on the Paris Agreement. Every other nation is steadfastly committed to the agreement, and the ‘We Are Still In’ coalition of US sub-national actors was there in full force to reiterate that the nation’s clean energy and carbon-cutting progress will continue despite the retrograde actions of the Trump administration.

December

As we close out the year with the passage of a deeply unjust and harmful tax reform bill and a sober reckoning of this year’s record-breaking disastersincluding wildfires and hurricanes, there are lots of reasons to be very concerned.

Yet, there are some bits of good news too. The terribly destructive Thomas Fire in California is finally under control, for one. I also see signs all around that the resistance is alive and well–and gathering steam.

Just a few examples of positive developments:

  • We’ve seen a number of unqualified nominees proposed by the administration forced to withdraw recently because of public pressure;
  • Our nation’s transition away from coal to cleaner power sources continues unabated, lowering power sector carbon emissions;
  • Many states continue to enhance the ambition of their clean energy policies;
  • Many people stood up to defend science (here’s UCS’ list of 2017 Science Defenders, example);
  • Congress roundly rejected many of the extreme budget cuts proposed by the administration;
  • The Alabama election demonstrated the power of African American voters (women especially), a historically disenfranchised segment of the population;
  • The National Defense Authorization Act recently signed by President Trump explicitly acknowledges that climate change is a direct threat to US national security. (Of course we had to then call him out for flip-flopping a week later when the administration released a National Security Strategy that doesn’t even mention climate change!)
Hope for 2018

What gives me hope for 2018 is that Americans from all walks of life are now awake to the threats this administration poses to our democracy, our health, our climate, and basic human rights—and we’re fighting back! Our movement is strongest when we work together, connecting our work to people’s daily lives and concerns, and specifically aiming for solutions that are just.

The wins may not come easily and there’s a lot of work ahead. This administration’s attacks on science and our core values will very likely continue. But they are helping to forge our resistance and build its power. (Not to mention inspiring reams of incredibly biting, funny, incisive political satire–humor is sometimes the only way to handle the farcical extremes we’ve experienced this year!)

I hope you’ll share your moments of resistance in the comments section. A peaceful new year to all.

All I Want for Christmas Is Added Sugar Information Over Disinformation

The struggle is real right now for all of us trying to watch our added sugar intake this holiday season as we await the implementation of the revised nutrition facts label. Now, thanks to the administration’s delay of implementation dates, we’ll have longer to wait for clear labels.  Want to know how much sugar was added to that egg nog? Tough. How about that fruit cake? None of your business. Trying to figure out whether you’ll max out on your daily sugar intake from that cup of hot cocoa? Better luck in 2020!

The Sugar Association had the gall to claim that the added sugar label was “not grounded in science” when it was finalized in May 2016. Now, multiple revelations over the past year have shown the way in which the organization has sidelined science using the disinformation playbook since at least the 1950s. It is clear as crystal that the Sugar Association cares only about science that downplays the risks of sugar consumption. All other data is subject to being contested or buried altogether.

Speaking of burying data, here’s how the Sugar Association used “The Fake” to end a research study with inconvenient initial findings.

In a November PLoS article, UCSF researchers found that the Sugar Research Foundation had suppressed its own research when its results indicated that rats fed a high-sugar diet had a statistically significant increase in likelihood that they would have higher levels of beta-glucoronidase which is associated with bladder cancer. SRF funded the 15-month study in 1968 to be led by W.F.R. Pover at the University of Birmingham. When Pover reported his results and asked for more time to complete the study, SRF Vice President, Hickson, described the study’s value as “nil” to industry executives, leading to a denial of the funding request and a termination of the incomplete study. This meant that the study’s conclusions were never published and that the link between a high sugar diet and associated cancer risk were kept secret from the public, until now. As recently as 2016, the Sugar Association has denied the link between sugar consumption and cancer, stating that “no credible link between ingested sugars and cancer has been established.”

The Sugar Association has also spent years trying to shift attention off of the harmful impacts of added sugar, using “The Diversion.”

The same UCSF research team published a study last year which revealed that as a part of its campaign to increase sugar consumption in the 1960s, the Sugar Research Foundation funded its own literature review on sugars, fats, and chronic heart disease in an obvious attempt to dispel the rumors that calories from sugar were at least part of the problem. The SRF paid Dr. Mark Hegsted and Dr. Robert McGandy, under the supervision of Harvard University’s Fredrick Stare, a total of nearly $50,000 (in 2015 dollars) for their work. And the SRF was heavily involved throughout the review process, urging the scientists to focus on the perils of fat consumption. The SRF vice president and director of research, John Hickson, emphasized in 1965, “Our particular interest had to do with that part of nutrition in which there are claims that carbohydrates in the form of sucrose make an inordinate contribution to the metabolic condition, hitherto ascribed to aberrations called fat metabolism. I will be disappointed if this aspect is drowned out in a cascade of review and general interpretation.”

Another trick up the sleeve of the Sugar Association was their use of “The Screen,” taking advantage of the funding relationship it had with Harvard University’s nutrition department.

Just as the Sugar Association and Corn Refiners Association today work with academic scientists to advance their talking points, when the trade association’s aforementioned literature review was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, the authors did not disclose the funding or close involvement of the SRF in the review. Dr. Fredrick Stare, the founder and chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, had an extended history of funding from the sugar and food industry: over 30 papers authored by members of his department were funded by the SRF just between 1952 and 1956. Stare’s department at Harvard is a key example of how industry funding can influence academic science, with dangerous consequences for public discourse and public policy.

Despite all we know about the disinformation campaign of the sugar industry, government officials are still failing to see through their same old distraction tactics and talking points about “sound science” to act to protect our health rather than the trade association’s profit margin. The result? Delayed access to information on the nutrition facts label even though we know that sugar is one of the risk factors implicated in the obesity crisis that continues to worsen every year.

Early last month, UCS submitted a comment to the FDA urging them to choose information over disinformation and not to go through with the further delay of enforcement of the revised label. To formally delay compliance of this already long-awaited and scientifically supported rule would be an arbitrary step backward for public health. 

Bah-humbug.

As a Government Funding Deadline Looms, Scientists Seek Support for Agroecology Research

Photo: USDA-SARE/Edwin Remsberg

Among the many challenges Congress faces in the dwindling days of 2017 is this: the federal government will run out of money on December 22 unless lawmakers can agree on a budget extension.

In recent years, the threat of a government shutdown has become an unofficial December tradition in Washington. Unsurprisingly, this lack of certainty has real impacts on millions of Americans from all walks of life. But in recent years, scientist and researchers have started speaking up.

My colleague Tali Robbins works closely with these scientists and researchers and below has laid out the current landscape of Congressional funding, the importance of agroecological research, and exactly how new voices are getting involved:

In the vast complexity of funding the government, agriculture research rarely makes headlines. Yet, few investments are more important for the future of farming, rural communities, clean water, and healthy food. That’s because the federal budget is the key vehicle through which scientists, farmers, and others who care about our food system can push for more support of sustainable agriculture. Perhaps the biggest opportunity to hasten the transition to a more sustainable food and farming system is through public research funding for agroecology.

Agroecology shows tremendous promise to support farmers’ bottom line while achieving positive social and environmental outcomes, yet recent analysis shows that this area of research is vastly underfunded. Some USDA research programs have enjoyed modest funding increases in previous rounds of budget negotiations, but with pressure mounting from fiscal conservatives on the Hill, these programs are under serious threat. Let’s backtrack to earlier this year to understand the current budget drama and the outlook for agroecology in the next fiscal year.

In March, the President proposed a “skinny budget,” the administration’s first major foray into government funding decisions, which decimated research funding at USDA and throughout other federal agencies. Thankfully, allies in both the House and Senate recognized that public support of agricultural research results in an enormous return on investment of more than 20 percent, and they rejected Trump’s proposal wholesale. The agreement that was eventually signed into law in May maintained or increased funding levels for some of the key USDA programs that fund agroecological research, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI; a $25 million increase to $375 million), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE; a $2.3 million increase to $27 million), and the Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI; holding steady at $20 million).

As that deal was set to expire earlier this fall, the President signed another bill extending those same funding levels through December 8, and then signed yet another extension through December 22. That means that as of today, Congress has just days to reach another agreement to keep the government open – and keep researchers at USDA and land grant universities around the country working to find solutions to the nation’s most pressing agricultural challenges.

Agricultural research has historically found bipartisan support and rightly so. Despite the polarized political environment and the legislative logjam, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle agree that sustainable agriculture research programs need more funding. For example, SARE – the primary vehicle to conduct on-farm research – was only able to fund 7 percent of qualified pre-proposals for Research and Education grants last year. Farmer-driven research that would have supported farmers seeking to incorporate sustainable practices that mitigate the impact of floods and droughts, prevent fertilizer runoff, and sequester carbon in the soil has been left unfunded.

Over the last several months, congressional appropriators have drafted funding bills for the next fiscal year. And agricultural scientists around the country mobilized to impress upon these legislators the importance of fully funding key USDA programs that prioritize agroecology. Researchers from Oregon to Kansas to New Mexico have been working to demonstrate the value these programs have to farmers, ranchers, and rural communities around the country.

Steve Guldan, Professor of Plant and Environmental Sciences and superintendent of the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at New Mexico State University, recently met with the office of Senator Tom Udall (D-NM). Senator Udall serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee and has been a champion for agroecology research. I reached out to Dr. Guldan to find out more about the impact of USDA funds on agricultural research in New Mexico.

You have decades of experience at New Mexico’s largest land grant university. What role do programs like AFRI, SARE, and OREI play in supporting region-specific research?

The southwestern U.S. has a different combination of climate, soils, and elevations than other areas of the country. For this reason, the development of sustainable farming and ranching practices must be based upon research carried out in our region. AFRI, SARE, and OREI are grant programs that allow researchers from the diverse regions that exist in the U.S. to develop agricultural and natural resource management principles and systems appropriate for each region.

SARE is the only USDA competitive grants research program that focuses solely on sustainable agriculture. Could you tell us about your recent SARE-funded research and its relevance to agricultural stakeholders in your state?

SARE allowed us to develop and evaluate low-cost high tunnels for winter greens (e.g., lettuce, spinach, kale) production systems, including organic systems, that can be used in our region of high elevations and relatively cold winters by making the most of our many sunny days. Increasing the capacity to grow vegetables locally during the winter months can help farmers develop more marketing options as well as provide locally-grown produce to schools, restaurants, and year-round farmers markets.

You drove two hours to meet with Senator Udall’s office and discuss your concerns around this budget. Tell us about that experience and the reception you got from the senator.

I was pleased to find Senator Udall’s staff to be very interested in hearing about the importance of AFRI, SARE, and related USDA research programs to New Mexico agricultural research. They were very generous in the amount of time they provided to me and another researcher. The two staff members we met with were experienced and knowledgeable about the legislative process and how funding for these research programs fits into it.

The Senate and House Appropriations committees have passed their funding packages, which tentatively include some important funding increases to key research programs. However, appropriators in both chambers must now negotiate to determine final spending levels on USDA programs for the remainder of FY18. Congress has a jam-packed schedule until the holiday break, but it’s imperative that appropriators recognize the importance of publicly funded agroecological research and the value that AFRI, SARE, and OREI provide to farmers, ranchers, and communities around the country.

Good Riddance to that Deadbeat, 2017. And Hopeful Greetings to a Fresh New Year.

Winter solstice at the Bering Sea. Photo: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Flickr

Many millions of us are dying for 2017 to be over and for a fresh, if symbolic new start. We’re crawling toward 2018, just waiting to donkey kick the door shut behind us. As we bag up these last 12 months for shipment to Yucca Mountain, I’m trying to take a moment… both to scream into a pillow over what’s gone down and pull it together for what comes next. 

We had a bad feeling about 2017 from start. When the year turned and a Donald Trump administration took control, we were deeply uneasy. We felt like the storybook orphan who meets their new sketchy stepmother or distant-uncle-turned-guardian: okay, this is bad. But surely not as bad as it looks…

Oh, innocent January 2017 selves! No, kids. It was way, way worse.

Now we see 2017 for the sleazy, shambolic dumpster fire in the 10th circle of hell that it is. Just my take – I know others take a truly dim view of the past year.

We started the year full of fight — and we’re still fighting, make no mistake. But man, the hits kept coming. Facts were devalued, lies were legitimized, shame went AWOL. It’s not that our resolve to resist has weakened. It’s just that, after a point, all the outrages shot from a firehose started to blend together. Resist… which?

We became convinced that the president woke up on Monday demanding a list of the most destabilizing, divisive, and ideally, rude things he could do on the national and global stage that week, and then set about tweeting them into reality from bed. There were some weeks you could only laugh. What?!! He shrunk our national monuments, upended decades of Middle East diplomacy, and formally endorsed accused child molester Roy Moore? Someone get an XL Havahart trap with a diet Coke to the West Wing, STAT. By the holidays, he’ll be skeet-shooting puppies. With Congress reloading.

So, in a matter of days, it’ll be 2018, at last… Then what? Is there reason to think we’ll be more effective fighting back? Is there reason to think we haven’t hit rock bottom, when it has gathered such a bottomless quality?  I’m not sure about the last one – things may get worse in some ways before they get better. But I would say hell, yes to the first. You can already see signs of it, thank you Alabama. More on that in 2018.

But before we do any of that, some rest and rejuvenation is in order. Some celebration, even. I hear (from my kids every waking moment) there are holidays happening. I hope, whatever you do, you get to start the new year feeling refreshed.

My family does a little solstice celebration each year where we go to the edge of the woods at dusk as the longest night gathers. It’s a nod to the darkness – okay, you rule the world right now. But as we light small, defiant candles, it’s also a way of standing with the light. Of welcoming it back. Of believing in what lies ahead and being hopeful.

We hold these candles and we talk about what we’re grateful for from the closing year, and what we’re hopeful for in the coming year. Last solstice, we were scared, but we hoped lots of people would stand together and stop bad things from happening. This solstice, I’m grateful for the millions and millions of people who have fought so hard this year — for truth, justice, decency, our shared and deepest values. We’re wounded but wiser and, actually, we’ve just begun to fight. So this solstice, I’m hopeful once again for the future of this country as together we bring back the light.

Step 1: Rejoice! Step 2: Revive. Step 3: Resist.  And, as needed, Repeat a year from now.

Happy New Year, all!

 

  

Don’t Believe the Trump Administration—That Coal In Your Stocking Is Not a Compliment

In this the year of our collective disappointment on federal support for climate, energy, public health—progress—let us relish in one certainty: a surge in year-end searches about holidays and coal. From the warm and cozy outposts of our nation’s leaders’ homes, hiding from the storm of public scorn, one can imagine little queries being soon sent into the night:

  • “is receiving coal a compliment?”
  • “if coal is clean why is stocking dirty?”
  • “does lump of coal mean democratic process is preferred?”

And so on.

But here’s the thing. Earlier this year, the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy released an infographic titled “6 Things You May Not Know About Coal.” Unfortunately, this infographic is a tour-de-force in obfuscating truth through diversions and distractions.

And me? I don’t want those late-night searches leading to any wrong conclusions.

So below, we’re adding context to DOE’s coal trivia to help ensure these lumpy forms of year-end feedback are appropriately received.

1. Menacing piles is right—our nation is being smothered in coal ash. One side effect of using all those coal reserves? Generating even more of the toxic coal ash that gets left behind. It turns out that when we burn coal, it doesn’t all go up in polluting smoke. Indeed, coal ash comprises one of the nation’s largest industrial waste streams, totaling more than 100 million tons last year.

This waste is an awful gift that keeps on giving, from its toxic pollutants leaching into drinking water, to multiple horrors of coal ash ponds bursting forth and decimating unsuspecting communities and waterways below.

But protections against these threats? Keep dreaming. This fall, the Trump administration moved to reconsider a regulation that would demand basic protections against these ticking time bombs.

2. If your state has traditionally been a coal-based economy, prepare for your budget to take a tumble in a front-load washer. There is an undeniable and unrelenting transition taking place in the nation’s power sector. And a transition, by its very nature, means moving away from one thing and toward another. For states that have long provided our nation with the fuel required to power our energy needs, this transition is hard. But the administration’s continued denial about what’s really happening means that these states aren’t planning for the future—they’re desperately clinging to a rapidly disappearing past.

Unfortunately, the end result of all those rosy distractions from the Trump administration is states forgoing actual long-term opportunities that could help them stay afloat.

3. The nation’s coal cart isn’t serenely parked—it’s careening headlong towards a crash. What’s remarkable about coal’s contribution to electricity generation is not that it represents nearly a third of our supply—it’s that as recently as 2006, it made up more than half. Driving this precipitous fall is a confluence of factors, foremost among them an abundance of cheap natural gas, as well as limited load growth, and more recently, sky-rocketing rates of deployment of renewable resources like wind and solar.

4. Potato, potahto; one man’s beneficial byproduct, another man’s toxic waste site. Our nation is awash in the harmful coal mine outflow known as acid mine drainage—estimates suggest that in Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone, 10,000 miles of streams are affected—as well as a seemingly endless supply of coal ash (see above). Researching ways to clean up these environmental and public health catastrophes is good; calling them opportunities—and implying value in creating ever more—is a bad joke.

Let’s clean up what we’ve already spoiled, not set off to make an even bigger mess.

5. Clean coal? Beautiful, clean coal? Close your eyes, click your heels, and repeat after me [loudly, so EPA Administrator Pruitt can hear from his soundproof booth]: “There’s no such thing as clean coal. There’s no such thing as clean coal. There’s no such thing as clean coal.”

Poof! Welcome back to the sweet, sweet land of reality. Facts are hard, and sometimes even inconvenient, but they do have the distinct benefit of being true. So long as we’re still burning coal, yes, let’s do it as cleanly and efficiently as possible—we all benefit from that. But let’s not kid ourselves. Coal can be cleaner, but it’s not clean, and all the while the disproportionate burden of pollution from mining and burning coal too often falls on low-income and minority communities.

6. If we go all-in on “clean coal,” the only thing still going up is our pollution footprint. To forestall the worst of climate impacts, it’ll take a wholesale shift in our economy, including remaking our power sector to reach near-zero carbon. Given the urgent need to cut emissions, let’s get going with renewables today, which can go a long way toward getting the job done right here and right now—from stimulating the economy, to creating new jobs, to improving public health.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology—which aims to capture and store CO2 from burning coal—could eventually play a larger role if we can overcome the significant technological and cost challenges it currently faces. But remember: while CCS can make coal cleaner, it can’t alone take care of all the other lifecycle pollution baggage coal’s got.

And thus take note, all you dirty-stocking coal queriers out there: others can try to spin it all they want, but the hard truth for you is that coal you got? It’s no compliment. So take your lumps, and then let’s look ahead to smoother times next year: one driven by facts, pointing toward truths, and reckoning with the real challenges and real opportunities ahead.

The Next Big Step in Massachusetts Offshore Wind: The Bids are in

Something big to celebrate in the world of US offshore wind as 2017 winds down: We’ve just hit the deadline for proposals to build the first projects in response to Massachusetts’ pioneering 2016 energy diversity law. And the responses from the three holders of offshore wind leases off Massachusetts are in.

What’s on offer

More on the way! (Credit: J. Rogers/UCS)

Offshore wind is brand new in this country. So you could have bet that each new proposal would have a unique flavor. The proposals bear that out.

Deepwater Wind owns the title of First in the Water, with their five-turbine, 30-megawatt offshore wind farm near Block Island, RI, that went online in late 2016 as the first offshore wind farm in the Americas. For this Massachusetts move, they’ve partnered with National Grid Ventures and the Northfield Mountain pumped hydro storage facility in a project they’re calling Revolution Wind.

The partnership with the Northfield Mountain, located in north-central Massachusetts, Deepwater says, would mean that “offshore wind can act like a baseload resource,” supplying energy around the clock.

With National Grid Ventures, an affiliate of National Grid (one of the utilities tasked with buying offshore wind based on the 2016 law), Deepwater is looking to build a transmission backbone, enough capacity to move electricity not just from their own project, “but also future offshore wind farms, even if they’re built by [their] competitors.”

The Deepwater proposals would result in 200-400 megawatts of new offshore wind capacity. The company is aiming to start construction in 2022, for operation in 2023.

Vineyard Wind, a collaboration between a Danish fund management company (Copenhagen Investment Partners) and a subsidiary of a Spanish utility (Avangrid Renewables), is looking to supply half or all of the energy from a planned 800-megawatt project in its lease area. The company, according to Chief Development Officer Erich Stephens, is

…confident that its proposal… is the right approach for local residents and businesses eager to reap the abundant environmental and economic benefits that are associated with large-scale renewable and sustainable wind energy…

Vineyard Wind CEO Lars Thaaning Pedersen says the project “will serve as an accelerator for the local clean energy economy and green tech workforce…”

Both Copenhagen Investment Partners and Avangrid have strong offshore wind experience in Europe, directly or through affiliates, and Avangrid is one of the largest developers of land-based wind in the US.

The company is looking to start construction in 2019, and be online by 2021.

Bay State Wind, like Deepwater, is incorporating energy storage, but in the form of a 55 megawatt battery, which it claims will be “the largest battery storage system ever deployed in conjunction with a wind farm,” aimed at “helping to ensure power is available during peak hours when it is needed most.”

Like Vineyard Wind, Bay State Wind is offering 400-800 megawatts, which it says will allow it to “provid[e] energy at the lowest cost to consumers, all while bringing significant environmental and community benefits.”

Bay State Wind is a partnership between Danish power company Ørsted and Eversource Energy. Ørsted (formerly DONG Energy) is the owner of thousands of megawatts of offshore wind, developed the very first offshore wind farm in the world (in 1991), and is working on what will likely be the largest offshore wind project in the world. Eversource Energy is New England’s largest utility (and another of the offtakers for whichever projects win these bids).

What’s next

Three projects, lots of partners, decisions to make.

The state-approved process calls for “projects for negotiation” to be selected by May 22, 2018, for contract negotiations to be done by October 3, and for the utilities to submit their proposed contracts for approval by the department of public utilities by November 1.

Cost will certainly be one factor in the decision making, but far from the only one. The 2016 legislation, in fact, had a boatload of criteria for would-be projects, including:

(i) provide enhanced electricity reliability; (ii) contribute to reducing winter electricity price spikes; (iii) are cost effective to electric ratepayers in the commonwealth over the term of the contract… (vii) allow offshore wind energy generation resources to be paired with energy storage systems; (viii) where possible, mitigate any environmental impacts; and (xi) where feasible, create and foster employment and economic development in the commonwealth. 

It also required that preference be given “to proposals that demonstrate a benefit to low-income ratepayers in the commonwealth, without adding cost to the project.”

The wide variety of issues and opportunities will make sauce out of attempts to do apples-to-apples comparisons. Each proposal will likely offer appreciable advantages over others in one area or another.

The important thing, for now, is that, in our path to the eventual 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind that the law requires, we’ve passed the next big milestone for Massachusetts’s embrace of this incredibly exciting new technology. On to 2018.

Trump Vows to Kill 50 Years of Federal Health and Safety Protections

New York City smog in the 1960s. Photo: Wikimedia

President Trump wants to set the regulatory clock back to 1960, and last week he acted it out for the cameras.

Wielding a pair of golden scissors at a White House photo op, he cut red tape strung around two stacks of paper. One was a small pile of some 20,000 pages representing the amount of regulations in 1960; the other a mound of more than 185,000 pages representing those of today.

“We’re getting back below the 1960 level,” Trump declared, “and we’ll be there fairly quickly.”

There’s only one problem. That mountain of paper Trump used as a prop symbolizes hard-won measures that protect us.

To refresh the president’s memory, back in the 1960s, 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.

In response, Congress enacted the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and other landmark pieces of legislation to protect public health and safety. Some of those laws also created the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other federal agencies to write and enforce safeguards.

None of those laws, or the regulations they spawned, existed in 1960.

Trump grew up on dirty air

Trump should remember quite well what it was like in the 1960s. After all, he lived in New York, at the time one of the dirtiest cities in the country. Garbage incinerators routinely rained ash on city streets, while coal- and oil-fired power plants spewed a noxious mix of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and toxic metals. John V. Lindsay, the city’s mayor from 1966 to 1973, famously quipped, “I never trust air I can’t see,” but it was no laughing matter. On Thanksgiving weekend the year Lindsay took office, the smog was so bad it killed some 200 people.

The waterways coursing around the city’s boroughs, especially the Hudson River, were just as filthy. In 1965, then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller accurately called the Hudson “one great septic tank.” Indeed, 170 million gallons of raw sewage fouled the river daily while factories along its banks treated it as a waste pit. A General Motors plant in Sleepy Hollow, 27 miles north of New York City, poured its paint sludge directly into the river. Even worse, General Electric manufacturing plants in Fort Edwards and Hudson Falls dumped about 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a probable human carcinogen, into the river over a 30-year period ending in 1977. Since 1984, a 200-mile stretch of the river from Hudson Falls to Manhattan’s southern tip has been on the EPA’s Superfund program list of the country’s most hazardous waste sites.

Protections prevent disease and save lives

Fast forward to today. By and large, the environmental laws Congress began passing in the 1970s have been remarkably successful.

Thanks to the Clean Water Act, for example, tens of billions of pounds of sewage, chemicals and trash have been kept out of U.S. waterways since it was enacted 45 years ago. In New York City, harbor water quality has improved so much that humpback whales have returned for the first time in a century.

Thanks to the Clean Air Act, nationwide emissions of six common pollutants—carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter (soot) and sulfur dioxide—plunged 70 percent on average between 1970 and 2015.

New Yorkers are breathing easier, too. On Earth Day last April, the city’s health department released a report announcing that air pollution in the Big Apple is at the lowest level ever recorded. Between 2008 and 2015, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter declined 23 percent and 18 percent, respectively, while sulfur dioxide levels plummeted 84 percent after the city and state tightened heating oil rules.

That’s all good news for public health. In 2010 alone, according to an EPA study, Clean Air Act programs that reduced levels of fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone prevented an estimated 160,000 premature deaths, 130,000 heart attacks, and 1.7 million asthma attacks across the country.

These accomplishments, however, do not mean it’s time to eliminate or weaken environmental safeguards. There is still much left to do. Consider that in just one year—2015—polluters dumped more than 190 million tons of toxic chemicals into waterways nationwide; at least 5,000 community drinking water systems violated federal lead regulations; and some 116 million Americans lived in counties with harmful levels of ozone or particulate matter pollution, which have been linked to lung cancer, asthma, cardiovascular damage, reproductive problems, and premature death.

If you can’t kill ’em, just don’t enforce ’em

Fortunately, it will be very difficult for the Trump administration to roll back 50 years’ worth of congressionally mandated rules protecting the public from industrial poisons, harmful drugs, adulterated food and defective products. Trump’s regulation czar conceded the point immediately after the December 14 White House photo op.

“I think returning to 1960s levels would likely require legislation. It’s hard for me to know what that looks like,” said Neomi Rao, director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget. “Deregulation also takes time. If we’re doing something consistent with the law, it takes time to reduce rules.”

In the meantime, the Trump administration is resorting to the next best—or worst—thing, depending on your perspective: It has cut back dramatically on enforcing environmental laws.

A recent New York Times investigative report compared the number of enforcement actions filed in the first nine months of the Trump EPA with what the two previous administrations did over the same time period. Under Scott Pruitt, the EPA initiated about 1,900 cases, about a third fewer than under Lisa Jackson, President Obama’s first EPA administrator, and about a quarter fewer than under Christine Todd Whitman, who directed the agency under President George W. Bush and was not known for aggressive enforcement.

The Times also found that the Trump EPA is reluctant to seek civil penalties. In its first nine months, the agency tagged polluters for about $50.4 million for violations. Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to roughly 70 percent of what the Bush EPA levied and only about 39 percent of what the Obama EPA sought over the same time frame.

To make matters worse, Pruitt is threatening to cut off funding for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, which files lawsuits on behalf of the EPA’s Superfund program to force polluters to cover the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites. In recent years, the EPA has reimbursed the division more than $20 million annually.

In an apparent attempt to blunt criticism, Trump acknowledged at last week’s photo op that purging a half century of protections could have an adverse impact, and he assured Americans that he would not let that happen.

“We know that some of the rules contained in these pages have been beneficial to our nation, and we’re going to keep them,” he said. “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.”

Somehow, I’m not convinced. Given the president’s penchant for lying, his administration’s abysmal track record, and now his avowed intention to kill nearly 90 percent of federal regulations, the smoke Trump is blowing is as thick as 1960s New York smog.

What’s in the Nutrition Title of the (Food and) Farm Bill?

We’ve been talking a lot about the federal legislation known as the Farm Bill, a major law governing key US food and agriculture programs that’s up for re-authorization during 2018. And while most of the dozen sections or “titles” of the 2014 Farm Bill are deep in the weeds of agriculture—from commodity crop programs and crop insurance to agriculture research and on-farm conservation—the title governing nutrition programs is actually the largest, and by a long shot. It accounts for approximately 80 percent of the bill’s spending, and its programs are among the most important resources in the federal safety net.

They are also among the most at risk of cuts each time the Farm Bill is reauthorized. This reauthorization cycle is no exception, with President Trump’s proposed budget earlier this year and recent comments by his agriculture secretary serving as some of the first of many indications that nutrition assistance programs could face structural changes and drastic reductions in funding by the time this is all over.

Farm and food programs go hand-in-hand

Before we go down that road, it’s worth noting that the cornerstone food assistance programs of the nutrition title have roots that are intricately intertwined with those of early agricultural programs. In 1933, as farmers were faced with surpluses and historically low prices in the midst of the Great Depression, the federal government responded with the first Farm Bill: The Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1933. This legislation established, among other things, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, which allowed the government to purchase farm commodities at discounted prices and distribute them at hunger relief agencies. In leveraging federal resources to relieve the strain on both US farmers and families, the program offered a model for what would become the first food stamp program in 1939.

Eight decades and 16 Farm Bills later, the nutrition title continues to support households at risk of food insecurity—though the relationship between nutrition and farm programs is increasingly complicated by financial and political interests. This is evident in the dissonance between our farm policies, which tend to give preference to commodity crops like corn and soy, and our dietary guidelines, which encourage us to consume more foods like fruits and vegetables. And while the food stamp program—now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—remains a foundational component of the nutrition title, other nutrition programs have emerged alongside it with renewed interest in a healthy food supply that benefits both consumers and regional food producers.

So what did the nutrition title look like in the last Farm Bill passed in 2014, and what’s on the horizon for its reauthorization in 2018?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: The fabric of the federal safety net

SNAP is one of the largest components of the federal safety net, providing critical financial support for more than 21 million American households. The program helps to prevent hunger and poverty among some of our most vulnerable populations, including children, who account for about 4 out of 10 SNAP participants, as well as seniors and people with disabilities. It also acts as a critical safeguard in circumstances causing temporary food insecurity or financial strain, such as natural disasters or unexpected gaps in employment. In 2014, the program lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children, and reduced food insecurity rates by nearly a third.

There are currently few restrictions on the foods and beverages that can be purchased with SNAP benefits, though benefits can’t be used to buy alcohol, vitamins, medicine, and hot foods or foods consumed in-store. (An exception: states offering the Restaurant Meals Program may allow homeless, disabled, or elderly participants to redeem benefits in restaurants.)

Disaster SNAP was used to provide emergency food relief to those impacted by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. Photo: US Department of Agriculture/CC by public domain

SNAP eligibility is primarily determined by household gross income (set at 130 percent of the poverty line) and net income tests, with exceptions for seniors and those receiving disability payments. Applicants may also be eligible for SNAP benefits if they’re qualified for other assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), through a provision called broad-based categorical eligibility. Adults in households without children, seniors, or people with disabilities must meet work requirements or face benefit termination after a period of three months (renewed every three years). During periods of severe economic downturn, as in the years following the Great Recession, states may be given the option to grant waivers lifting the three-month time limit.

SNAP is uniquely equipped to respond to changing economic conditions due to its status as an entitlement program, which ensures that increases in eligibility or program participation are matched by increases in funding. The Great Recession highlighted the importance of this funding structure: when unemployment grew by 93 percent between 2007 and 2011, SNAP participation grew by 70 percent. Meanwhile, assistance programs funded through block grants, such as TANF, experienced only marginal increases in participation.

Increased SNAP spending not only improves food security among participating households, but also acts as an economic stimulus, with every five dollars in new SNAP benefits generating as much as nine dollars in economic activity. Following economic recovery, enrollment and spending tend to decline. Between 2013 and 2016, caseloads in a majority of states experienced steady declines, due to both economic recovery and the reinstatement of three-month time limits for adult participants without employment. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that program costs will continue to decline throughout the next decade.

The Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Grant Program, generally referred to as SNAP Education or SNAP-Ed, complements SNAP benefits by providing grant funding for nutrition education. SNAP-Ed prioritizes evidence-based programs and interventions that support healthy eating behaviors and physical activity among low-income populations. Evaluations of nutrition education programs have reported increases in fruit and vegetable intake, reductions in overweight youth, and increases in physical activity among adults, with some studies estimating a $10 savings in overall long-term health care costs for every dollar invested.

SNAP Education grants help kids and adults learn new skills and develop healthy eating behaviors. Photo: Coqui the Chef/CC by SA 2.0

Nutrition assistance for special populations

There are multiple programs contained in the nutrition title of the 2014 Farm Bill that provide nutrition assistance to special populations and supplement existing programs with increased access to fresh, healthy foods.

  • The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) works in lieu of SNAP, providing USDA foods to low-income households living on Indian reservations, as well as Native American families residing in designated areas.
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides USDA commodity foods to public or private nonprofit organizations preparing or distributing meals to primarily low-income populations.
  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provides nutritious USDA commodity foods to participating states and Indian Tribal Organizations to supplement the diets of low-income elderly persons 60 years of age and older.
  • The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program provides grant funding for state agencies to offer low-income seniors coupons that can be redeemed for fruits, vegetables, honey, and herbs at farmers markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs.
  • The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides eligible elementary schools with free fresh fruits and vegetables during the day, with the goal of supporting nutrition education and introducing children to greater varieties of health-promoting foods.
Nutrition programs supporting healthy food access and stronger food systems

A number of innovative programs established in the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills called attention to the importance of improving healthy food access and supporting local and regional farm economies through nutrition assistance programs. These programs play a crucial role in helping families secure access to healthy and affordable foods—especially as recent research has confirmed that, at current levels, SNAP benefits alone aren’t enough to help families achieve a healthy diet.

  • The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program provides grant funding to help provide point-of-purchase incentives that encourage the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants. Modeled after Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program, which matches the value of SNAP benefits spent on fruits and vegetables at participating farmers markets and grocery stores, the FINI grant program helped thousands of low-income SNAP households spend over $5 million in SNAP benefits on fresh fruits and vegetables in 2015. More than three quarters of participating SNAP farmers market shoppers reported buying or consuming more fruits and vegetables as a result, and over half of all participating farmers reported making greater profits or increasing the scope of their operations.
  • The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) provides grants, tax credits, low-cost loans, and technical assistance to help increase access to healthy, affordable foods in low-income and underserved communities. Applications of HFFI funding include investments in new grocery stores, corner stores, farmers markets, and other retail outlets offering nutritious foods. Modeled after the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, HFFI helped communities invest more than $69 million in 119 retail projects for a total of more than 1.5 million square feet of new retail space as of 2015.
  • The Food and Agricultural Service Learning Program is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and complements federal farm-to-school grants to increase the capacity for food, garden, and nutrition education programs.
Looking ahead: Nutrition in the 2018 Farm Bill

The upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization introduces both opportunities and threats to key components of the nutrition title, with the latter most likely to impact SNAP.

The House Agriculture Committee conducted a comprehensive review of SNAP between 2015 and 2016, gathering testimony from 60 witnesses across a total of 16 hearings, and published a report highlighting its findings. This report, paired with recent statements from the administration regarding SNAP and welfare reform, indicate that a number of changes that may befall the program in the coming Farm Bill, including stricter work requirements, mandatory drug testing, and other mechanisms to reduce eligibility. There is little evidence supporting the need for and utility of such reforms: USDA data demonstrates that most participants who can work, do work, while past attempts to implement drug testing in TANF have proved costly and yielded low rates of drug abuse.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue attends a Farmer’s Roundtable where President Donald Trump signed the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America in April 2017. Photo: USDA/CC by public domain

However, the re-authorization of the Farm Bill also provides important opportunities to lift up the voices of those who have relied on SNAP benefits during disasters and economic downturn, highlighting the ways in which the program helps all Americans; to make positive changes that can increase the reach of existing programs, such as the inclusion of veterans in the Senior Farmers Market Promotion Program; and to provide continued funding and support for programs like FINI and HFFI that are making substantial progress in bridging the gap between low-income consumers and local food producers.

Though the nutrition title may appear to be an outlier by name, the benefits it provides to our households and communities are also in large part sustaining our food and farming systems—and have great potential to also help them thrive. To receive updates on the ways in which we’re working to build stronger food systems and healthier populations in the next Farm Bill, or to learn how you can get involved and support the programs that are important to you, text “food justice” to 662266.

Trump’s Two-Minds on Climate Change Puts America’s Security Last

Today President Trump released the National Security Strategy (NSS) which lays out the Administration’s “America First” vision: a stark departure from decades of previous Administration’s commitment to multilateral engagement.  In another standalone move, President Trump has removed any mention of climate change as a national security threat in the National Security Strategy.

The last National Security Strategy in 2015 under the Obama Administration recognized climate change as one of many global threats we need to prepare for:

Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water. The present day effects of climate change are being felt from the Arctic to the Midwest. Increased sea levels and storm surges threaten coastal regions, infrastructure, and property. In turn, the global economy suffers, compounding the growing costs of preparing and restoring infrastructure.”

President Trump’s National Security Strategy follows his consistent censorship of and attack on science and climate change, but it is also a contradiction to legislation that he just signed into law.

Yes, Just Last Week President Trump Confirmed Climate Change Is a Major Threat to U.S. National Security and Our Armed Forces Overseas

On December 12, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law, recognizing that climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States.  The act requires the Pentagon to do a report on how military installations and overseas staff may be vulnerable to climate change over the next 20 years.  If you haven’t had a chance to read the language in the bill, it’s worth a read – see Section 335: Report on effects of climate change on Department of Defense – just a few pages in the 740 page bill.

The language recognizes previous statements by Secretary of Defense James Mattis on climate change, including:

‘‘It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.’’

And

‘‘I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation.’’

In addition to citing other high-ranking military staff and reports on climate change impacts, the legislation requires the report to include:

  1. “A list of the ten most vulnerable military installations within each service based on the effects of rising sea tides, increased flooding, drought, desertification, wildfires, thawing permafrost, and any other categories the Secretary determines necessary.
  2. An overview of mitigations that may be necessary to ensure the continued operational viability and to increase the resiliency of the identified vulnerable military installations and the cost of such mitigations.
  3. A discussion of the climate-change related effects on the Department, including the increase in the frequency of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, and the theater campaign plans, contingency plans, and global posture of the combatant commanders.
  4. An overview of mitigations that may be necessary to ensure mission resiliency and the cost of such mitigations.”
While POTUS (And Other Climate Change Apologists) Have Their Heads in The Sand, It Doesn’t Mean the Risk Is Gone; In Fact, It’s Growing

In previous blogs (here and here), I’ve spoken to the long history of the military’s understanding of the threat of climate change on our national security.

NAS Key West is Expected to Lose Currently Utilized Land to Sea Level Rise.

Last year, UCS released “The U.S. Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas” which provides a snapshot of 18 military installations exposure to sea level rise and storm surge.  Without extensive flood risk mitigation measures, we found that by the end of this century, most military installations can expect a large increase in the frequency of tidal flooding, storm surges that cover greater areas at increased depth, and loss of usable land area to the sea.

For Naval Air Station Key West, for instance, the findings were particularly stark. By the end of this century, under a high sea level rise scenario, the installation will be almost completely under water.

In a Navy Times article, the Department of Defense recognized the value of the analysis:

DoD values the UCS’s insights into the impacts of climate change on military installations,” Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Badger told Navy Times. “We welcome their report and its findings. We recognize climate change impacts and their potential threats represent one more risk that we must consider as we make decisions about our installations, infrastructure, weapons systems and most of all, our people.”

Our most recent sea level rise analysis  – “When Rising Seas Hit Home: Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities” – makes clear the challenges the nation faces from climate change-driven sea level rise.

However, sea level rise is just one of the many climate change risks we’re facing now, and that are growing.

Leaving Climate Change Behind While Addressing National Security Simply Puts America Last, Not First.

While President Trump continues to hold the United States back from acting on climate change, the international community continues to move forward.  In November, my colleague spoke to Syria’s announcement that they would join the Paris Agreement, leaving the United States as the sole country not joining the global effort to combat climate change.

It’s not only a shame that President Trump will delete climate change as a U.S. threat from his National Security Strategy, it is irresponsible. In fact, the government’s watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), just released a new report last week that finds that when it comes to our military installations overseas, the Department of Defense needs to do better at incorporating climate change in adaptation and planning.

I’ve written previously about the implications of climate change on national security, where I highlight the 2016 report by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) and the six key pathways in which climate change will threaten national security. The 5th key pathway addresses the negative impacts on investments and economic competitiveness. It should resonate with the POTUS and be just one of many reasons climate change should not be deleted from the National Security Strategy.

While we have come to expect inconsistency from this administration, we must not accept it when it comes to the vital area of national security. After all, if America is to be first, it cannot risk being unprepared for these climate related risks that threatens our national security.

Photo: Ian Swoveland The Union of Concerned Scientists

The Trump Administration Word Ban Extends to Other Federal Agencies. Its Ongoing Assault on Science Is Much Worse.

A word ban extends beyond the CDC, the Washington Post reported last night, including at another, unnamed HHS agency that was told how to talk about the Affordable Care Act, presumably to discourage people from signing up for health care. The directive came from the White House Office of Management and Budget, which coordinates the president’s budget proposal and rule-making agenda.

On Friday, the Washington Post broke the news (and other outlets confirmed) that CDC officials were prevented from referring to seven words when putting together the agency’s budget: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based.

If only the banning of “science-based” and “diversity” was the worst thing the Trump administration has done to science.

Additional terminology guidance given to the State Department suggests that the administration intends to pull funding from science-based HIV/AIDS prevention initiatives that work to promote abstinence-only programs instead, even though peer-reviewed research consistently finds that abstinence-only programs do not delay sexual activity or change other sexual risk behaviors.

The CDC word ban was widely repudiated by scientists, senators, and public health advocates. The issue has attracted enormous attention (even from Cher!) as emblematic of a morally, scientifically, and ethically corrupt style of governing.

In an email to staff last night, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald said that the CDC “remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution…science is and will remain the foundation of our work.”

Yet recently, CDC scientists were banned from responding to basic data requests from reporters without political approval—a clear violation of the agency’s scientific integrity policy.

Sidelining science since day one

This starts with words and communication, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Just last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke summoned the head of Joshua Tree National Park to his office for a tongue lashing over tweets the park had sent out referencing climate change. That’s right: the park director flew across the country to be reprimanded for a couple of tweets, in order to send a message to all park directors: talking about climate change is verboten.

And oh, if only word choice was the worst action this administration has taken to undermine the use of science in policy-making. They’re not just trying to downplay the phrase “evidence-based.” They’re trying to ditch the whole idea of basing policy on evidence.

In July, we chronicled how the Trump administration has sidelined science since day one. And since then the abuses of evidence have continued to flow.

The Treasury Secretary claimed that economists were working “around the clock” to come up with analysis justifying the tax bill. They were not. The EPA banned scientists who receive EPA grants—the ones the agency has decided do the most promising environmental and public health research—from providing science advice to the agency. The Department of Interior is trying to defund and prevent public access to the US Geological Survey library system.

The White House has no science advisor, and the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is a ghost town. Numerous political appointees—including the CDC director and the nominee for NOAA administrator—have financial conflicts of interest that lead many to question their ability to do the jobs. The administration has shut down studies where it expects it won’t like the outcome: on climate change in the tropics, on teen pregnancy prevention, and on the health risks of surface coal mining in West Virginia. Science agencies are targeted across the board for severe budget cuts.

An exhaustive list is, quite frankly, impossible. President Trump’s attacks on science harm our environment and make all of us sicker and less safe. If the Trump administration won’t allow federal agencies to do their job, it’s time to ask Congress to step up its game, engage in meaningful oversight, and do its job.

Is CDC Banning the Use of Scientific Words? It’s Time for CDC Director Brenda Price to Speak Up

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been prohibited from using certain words (including diversity, science-based, and vulnerable) in any documents related to next year’s budget, the Washington Post reported late Friday. New CDC Director Dr. Brenda Price has the opportunity to clarify that no such restrictions exist and that staff are explicitly encouraged to make science the centerpiece of the CDC’s work.

The agency’s scientific integrity policy is unambiguous about this point: As the nation’s public health agency, CDC places primary emphasis on scientific evidence for developing policies, guidelines, and recommendations. But officials suggested in a meeting that instead of putting primary emphasis on science, staff should write that “the CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

It’s quite obvious that good public health policy is not based on wishes.

It is unclear whether the directive came from Trump administration officials or from career staff self-censoring to avoid falling into political traps. Career staff at government agencies often modify language to stop their work from being politicized.

Yet there’s a fine line between necessary self-preservation and needless self-censorship. For example, CDC staff took the unusual and unfortunate step of canceling a conference on climate change and public health even before the inauguration.

I have spoken to dozens of CDC staff and grantees in recent months, and so far, much of their valuable public health research and protection work has continued unabated despite the change in administration. Actions that divert the agency from its grounding in science could compromise the progress they are making in tracking opioid overdoses, reducing teen pregnancy, protecting the elderly from the flu, and slowing HIV transmission among transgender Americans.

At its best, CDC should not be a political agency. Its scientific integrity policy affirms this:

CDC has a responsibility to conduct the best science and is committed to disseminating scientific findings and results without being influenced by policy or political issues. Although CDC may conduct research in areas relevant for making policy decisions, the goal of such research is to provide the best evidence to drive policy in the right direction. CDC is committed to ensuring that all information products authored, published, and released by CDC for public use are of the highest quality and are scientifically sound, technically accurate, and useful to the intended audience.

Yet earlier in the year, Axios reported that the CDC now requires scientists to ask for permission before providing scientific information to reporters and the public. “This correspondence includes everything from formal interview requests to the most basic of data requests,” wrote a CDC official. The constraint on employee communication is another clear violation of the agency scientific integrity policy. It’s also time for the CDC to repudiate this kind of muzzling.

CDC research and initiatives have direct impact on public health and safety for all populations—including and especially those who are most vulnerable to public health threats. Effectively tackling public health challenges means being honest and open about risks and who faces these risks. To prevent the agency from losing its legitimacy, CDC Director Price must speak up now to reinforce the centrality of science to the agency’s work.

Conflicts of Interest Matter—Congress Needs to Stop This

With the election of Donald Trump, our government has apparently changed the way in which financial conflicts of interest are addressed by political appointees to his administration. The President himself has, of course, been unwilling to sever ties to his businesses even as his actions in office impact their financial performance. That has raised constitutional issues for some critics and is the subject of ongoing litigation.

But for appointees to the executive branch agencies, conflicts of interest no longer seem to be a major hurdle. My colleagues and I (e.g. here, here and here) have written about this before with regard to several prominent nominees. Of course, the concern is that appointed officials in executive branch agencies will make decisions that favor their own interests now or in the near future.

There is another concern though. Suppose that a high level appointee is scrupulous about following the ethics rules and recuses themselves from any decision that might have the appearance of impacting their own interests (or those of their family and close associates). That has always been my simple understanding of the rules when I served in government or on advisory panels. And in my experience recusal works pretty well because there are always a small number of issues where it becomes necessary for any decision-maker or advisor to step away from the discussion. It happens, but is not often necessary.

I recently noted that Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—a critical public health agency—has financial interests that are not severable related to cancer detection and opioid addiction treatment. She has recused herself from decisions concerning those issues at the CDC. But cancer and opioid use are two of the major public health crises facing our nation. Now the head of the CDC must stay out of the discussion on how to deal with these huge problems? Does that mean that the CDC will take less of a role in these battles because the director can’t participate?

Now take the nomination of Barry Myers to head my former agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As the CEO of Accuweather, which is essentially his family’s company, Mr. Myers will be affected by decisions about the National Weather Service, the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, three of the line offices of NOAA. And not for just a few isolated topics, but the broad scope of work of all of these offices has the potential to impact Accuweather’s business and finances. Since it is a family business (his brother is the founder and president), divestiture is not going to remove the appearance of a conflict of interest. So, properly, he should recuse himself from decisions that have the appearance of impacting his family. Does that mean the new head of NOAA should recuse himself from, say, two-thirds of the work of the agency? I think so, but how can that possibly work? Everyone subordinate to the NOAA Administrator will know that their work may impact him personally. So even recusal seems a weak tool.

Dr. Fitzgerald may be a good public health professional. Mr. Myers may be a good businessman. But that doesn’t mean they are appropriate choices to lead federal agencies if their conflicts of interest run so deep as to be unavoidable. This shouldn’t be the new standard for government officials, because we already have ethics laws on the books. We need Congress to step up and say no to conflicted appointees and ensure that no one is above the law.

¡La Lucha No Se Acaba!: La lucha Continúa por una Transición Justa de la Planta de Carbón de Crawford en La Villita

El 12 de agosto de 2017, nuestra organización, la Organización de Justicia Ambiental de La Villita (LVEJO por sus siglas en ingles, por sus siglas en inglés), celebró un encuentro en el parque La Villita en el vecindario de La Villita para celebrar el quinto aniversario del cierre de las plantas de carbón Crawford y Fisk en Chicago. Con miembros de la comunidad y líderes juveniles en asistencia, fue una oportunidad especial que tuvo LVEJO para recordar a muchos, todos los años de organización comunitaria y de formar coaliciones que tuvieron lugar, y para agradecer a viejos amigos y aliados del vecino vecindario de Pilsen quienes fueron esenciales en esta campaña. Con ritmos de cumbia comimos pastel, distribuimos literatura acerca de la Justicia Ambiental a los asistentes del parque(aprenda sobre los principios de justicia ambiental aquí), y disfrutamos viendo a nuestros niños romper una piñata y correr rápidamente por las golosinas que caían al suelo.

Líder juvenil de La Villita en el 5to aniversario del cierre de la planta de carbón Crawford (Crédito de la foto: Antonio López)

La conmemoración fue un momento agradable, pero también nos recordó que cinco años después La Villita sigue enfrentándose a serios desafíos de justicia ambiental, incluyendo una batalla difícil para reconstruir la planta de carbón de Crawford. De hecho, la comunidad es cada vez más vulnerable al aumento de las emisiones de diésel y muchos están preocupados por la gentrificación y el desplazamiento. A pesar de estas amenazas, los líderes de La Villita continúan luchando por una comunidad más sana y responsabilizar a los que tienen poder para que sigan principios de reconstrucción comunitaria equitativa. Como decimos en LVEJO, ¡la lucha no se acaba!

Una Transición Justa en la Planta de Crawford

Cinco años más tarde, la planta de carbón de Crawford sigue siendo un sitio poco acogedor en La Villita. A diferencia de muchas otras comunidades dependientes del carbón, La Villita no fue devastada económicamente por el cierre de la planta de carbón y la pérdida de puestos de trabajo. De hecho, Crawford contrató a muy pocos trabajadores de La Villita. Sin embargo, sabiendo que Crawford perjudicó la salud de la comunidad durante tanto tiempo y excluyó a la fuerza de trabajo local de empleos bien pagados, LVEJO está comprometida a ver llevar a cabo una transición justa en el lugar.

Una transición justa de la vieja planta de carbón significa para nosotros que los miembros de la comunidad estén profundamente involucrados en el proceso de reconstrucción y que el sitio eventualmente se convierta en un catalizador de mejor salud, acceso a trabajo y otras actividades económicas que beneficien a los residentes de largo tiempo. Situado en 72 acres de terreno creemos que hay una oportunidad significativa para transformar el sitio en un lugar que satisfaga múltiples necesidades identificadas por la comunidad, y sea una fuente de orgullo. Hemos escuchado claramente que nuestra comunidad quiere más espacios verdes, oportunidades de capacitación laboral, agricultura urbana y pequeñas empresas que sean culturalmente relevantes como Los Mangos. Puede parecer un sueño inalcanzable – y ciertamente hay muchos obstáculos – pero con un profundo apoyo de la comunidad realmente creemos que la transición justa de Crawford es posible.

Líderes juveniles de LVEJO continúan resaltando los daños a la salud comunitaria causados por Crawford (Crédito de la foto: LVEJO)

Desafíos para el Desarrollo

Entendemos que la reconstrucción de una vieja planta de carbón toma muchos años y no es fácil. Desafortunadamente, desde el cierre de Crawford, LVEJO ha tenido conocimiento de proyectos recientemente propuestos y planes de uso de terrenos que amenazan con quebrantar los avances en la calidad del aire por los que tanto luchamos.

Como La Villita tiene una ubicación centrada en Chicago y está muy cerca de las principales arterias de transporte, planificadores urbanos han designado a La Villita como un área para nuevos centros de transporte y de logística. Sin considerar el impacto en la salud de las emisiones de diésel en la comunidad alrededor, planificadores urbanos y concejales locales están rezonificando espacios industriales, aprobando proyectos de reurbanización y llevando a cabo planes de uso de terrenos que no toman en cuenta la incorporación de la justicia ambiental. En lugar de aprovechar las fortalezas y el sólido historial de ambientalismo en la comunidad, los responsables de tomar decisiones amenazan con hacer de La Villita una zona de sacrificio una vez más. Un ejemplo importante es el Proyecto de Expansión de Unilever.

Amenazas de Diésel/Unilever

La planta cercana de Unilever ha estado en el vecindario desde 1918, un testimonio del legado industrial heredado en el vecindario. En febrero de 2015, la planta de Unilever que produce la Mayonesa Hellman’s, anunció que aumentará la producción y generará 50 empleos locales adicionales en la fábrica. Pero estos trabajos tienen un costo. Hoy en día, las leyes de zonificación actuales permiten que una fábrica industrial tan grande como Unilever se expanda justo al lado de una escuela primaria de más de 1,000 niños e innumerables familias. Todos los días más de 100 camiones de diésel fluyen dentro y fuera de esta área. Basado en el estudio de tráfico de Unilever, habrá un aumento de hasta 500 camiones diésel que estarán fluyendo dentro y fuera del vecindario diariamente. Los camiones de motores diésel producen una gran cantidad de contaminantes de partículas finas que se han relacionado con el asma, las enfermedades respiratorias, y el daño general a los tejidos pulmonares. Los humos adicionales del diésel crearán peligros para la salud, aumentarán la incidencia de asma y de enfermedades relacionadas con el aire. Los niños son especialmente vulnerables. Debido a estas preocupaciones de salud, LVEJO ha lanzado una campaña de para educar a los miembros de la comunidad sobre los riesgos que el diésel plantea y hacer responsables tanto a las empresas como a quienes toman decisiones.

La Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro (Future Energy Jobs Act, o FEJA por us siglas en Inglés)

El fracaso de los planificadores de la ciudad y los funcionarios locales en aprovechar el cierre de la planta de Crawford para volver a desarrollar la comunidad de acuerdo con nuestras necesidades no ha detenido nuestros esfuerzos para organizar y defender una nueva economía libre de combustibles fósiles. LVEJO sigue luchando por la democracia energética y se opone vehementemente a las falsas soluciones al cambio climático.

LVEJO fue vital para la creación de una Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro (FEJA, por sus siglas en inglés) en Illinois que tuvo un amplio apoyo de coaliciones y de la comunidad. Críticamente, el liderazgo de LVEJO en la FEJA priorizó oportunidades de salud y justicia económica, incluyendo acceso a capacitación laboral y trabajos en energía limpia en las comunidades de bajos ingresos – una alta prioridad para todos los líderes comunitarios. FEJA incluye $33.25 millones en gastos anuales en programas de eficiencia energética para comunidades de bajos ingresos, el triple de niveles actuales de gasto en dichos programas en el estado de Illinois.

Esto sumado a millones de dólares comprometidos a aumentos en asistencia para cuentas de energía, ahorrarán dinero a las familias que luchan por pagar estas cuentas. LVEJO participó como arquitecto principal de políticas críticas en la legislación relacionadas con el servicio a comunidades de bajos ingresos, incluyendo la nueva Illinois Solar Para Todos (Illinois Solar for All), un programa de energía solar para comunidades de bajos ingresos con metas enfocadas en acceso para comunidades de justicia ambiental financiado con más de $400 millones.

El programa está emparejado con un canal de capacitación laboral que se centrará en el reclutamiento en estas mismas comunidades, con incentivos adicionales para contratar a 2.000 personas con antecedentes penales y egresados del sistema estatal de cuidado de crianza temporal.

Con la aprobación de la Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro, comunidades de bajos ingresos y comunidades racializadas y/o etnias minoritarias, como La Villita, tendrán oportunidades importantes de beneficiarse de los recursos comprometidos para construir una economía de energía limpia en el estado.

Kim Wasserman de LVEJO y Jerry Lucero de PERRO celebran el 5º aniversario del cierre de las plantas Fisk y Crawford en Pilsen y La Villita. Crawford está atrás de ellos. (Crédito de la foto: Antonio López)

¡No al Carbon! ¡Queremos Justicia Ambiental!

Además de asegurar que los programas de FEJA lleguen a comunidades de línea de frente y de bajos ingresos, la transición justa de la planta de carbón de Crawford es un objetivo principal de la Organización de Justicia Ambiental de La Villita. Creemos que el redesarrollo equitativo de la planta de Crawford puede destacarse como un modelo para otras comunidades de Justicia Ambiental que trabajan en iniciativas de transición justas.

De hecho, en todo el Medio Oeste de EE.UU. las comunidades de Justicia Ambiental están liderando la lucha para cerrar plantas de carbón, incineradores y otras fábricas contaminantes. La reconstrucción comunitario de la planta de Crawford no sólo beneficiará profundamente a La Villita, sino que también será un poderoso símbolo de justicia ambiental.

Major Job Losses in Renewable Energy if Current Tax Plan Passes

In March 2017, I testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on how federal tax credits for renewable energy have been a key driver for the recent growth in the US wind and solar industries, creating new jobs, income, and tax revenues for local communities.  They have also helped drive down the cost of wind and solar power by more than two-thirds since 2009, making renewable energy more affordable for consumers.

Originally enacted as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, Congress has extended the Production Tax Credit (PTC) seven times and has allowed it to expire on six occasions. This “on-again/off-again” status resulted in a boom-bust cycle of development in the wind industry. In the years following expiration, installations dropped between 76 and 93 percent, with corresponding job losses. Congress has also extended the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar several times.

Finally, after many years of this policy uncertainty, Congress passed a five-year extension and phase-down of the PTC and the ITC for wind and solar in December 2015. The legislation also removed the longstanding US oil export ban, as part of a compromise deal with the oil industry.

Unfortunately, the Senate and House tax bills would renege on this deal and change the rules midstream, resulting in major job losses across the US renewable energy industry. They would also jeopardize tens of billions in investments in renewable energy projects and manufacturing facilities in rural communities across America—many of which are in districts and states held by Republicans and that voted for President Trump.

Senate tax bill undermines renewable energy financing

The renewable energy industry initially praised an earlier version of the Senate tax bill, which honored the 2015 deal and did not make any direct changes to the PTC and ITC. However, the Senate made two last-minute changes to the bill to fill revenue gaps and build support from key Republicans that were concerned about the deficit that would have a significant impact on renewable energy projects.

Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): One of these last-minute changes was to restore the AMT to fill a $40 billion revenue gap. The proposal in both the Senate and House tax bills to reduce the corporate tax rate to 20 percent would likely move most US corporations from the regular corporate income tax rate to the AMT (which is also set at 20 percent on a broader tax base), according to tax experts.

However, not all tax credits count toward the AMT and depreciation must be calculated at a slower rate. While the ITC for solar projects can count toward the AMT, the PTC for wind projects (and geothermal, biomass, landfill gas and incremental hydro projects) can only count for the first 4 years out of the 10-year window that projects are eligible to receive the tax credits. Not only would this jeopardize investment in new projects, it would have a retroactive impact on existing projects placed in service after 2007 that are still receiving tax credits under the PTC.

Base-Erosion Anti-Abuse Tax (BEAT): The Senate also made a last-minute change to the BEAT provision that could greatly reduce tax equity financing for renewable energy projects. BEAT would impose a tax on large corporations that make cross-border payments by requiring them to add those payments to their taxable income. This amount is then multiplied by 10 percent to determine what they owe to the government (except for banks and security dealers, which the Senate raised to 11 percent). These corporations must also calculate their regular tax liability minus any tax credits they receive, including the PTC and the ITC. If their adjusted tax liability is less than the fraction of their taxable income with the cross-border payments, the company would have to pay the difference to the IRS as a tax.

The more tax credits a company has, the more a company is likely to pay, making banks and other large tax equity investors reluctant to finance renewable energy projects. And like the AMT, the BEAT provision would not only impact financing for new projects but could have a retroactive effect on most existing projects that received tax equity financing.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) claims that the Senate bill could threaten $12 billion in annual tax equity financing in 2017, up from $7.3 billion in 2013 (see Figure). They estimate that tax equity financing accounted for 21 percent of the $58.5 billion in total US renewable energy investment in 2016.

The Senate tax bill would have a big impact on companies like JPMorgan, Bank of America, GE, US Bank, and Citigroup that led tax equity financing in 2016 for both wind and solar projects, as shown in this BNEF chart.

The BEAT provision would also hurt other energy sources that currently receive tax credits such as refined coal facilities placed in service by December 2011. The coal industry is also speaking out against the AMT, which Bob Murray claims will cost his company $50-60 million in increased taxes and eliminate 65,000 jobs.

House bill puts 60,000 wind industry jobs and $50 billion in new investment at risk

While the House bill does not include the AMT or BEAT provisions, it makes several direct changes to the PTC and ITC that would undermine investments in new wind and solar projects and have a retroactive impact on existing projects. These changes include:

  • Eliminating the inflation adjustment for the PTC, reducing its value by 38 percent from 2.4 c/kWh under current law to 1.5 c/kWh.
  • Changing the commence construction provision, dropping safe harbor provision, and requiring projects to have “continuous construction” to be eligible, which would greatly accelerate the PTC phase-down schedule. When combined with the change to the inflation adjustment, AWEA estimates these two provisions could reduce the value of the PTC by more than half.
  • Allowing the permanent 10 percent solar ITC to sunset in 2027.
  • Extending the tax credits to “orphan” technologies like geothermal, biopower, landfill gas, and incremental hydro that were largely left out of the 2015 deal to extend the tax credits for wind and solar for 5 years. This is the only positive change in the House bill.

The House bill would cut new wind development by more than half by 2020, according to both Bloomberg and Goldman Sachs. AWEA estimates that the House bill would put 30,000 MW of new wind projects that are under development in the US worth $50 billion of new private investment at risk, along with 60,000 jobs, as shown in this map.

Source: AWEA, Protecting American wind workers during tax reform.

Making renewable energy a priority in conference committee

The provisions in the House bill that renege on Congress’ 2015 compromise deal with the oil industry and drastically cut the value of the PTC are completely unacceptable and should be dropped. The AMT and BEAT provisions in the Senate bill should either be dropped (they are not included in the House bill) or renewable energy tax credits should be excluded—similar to how R&D tax credits are currently excluded from the BEAT provision.

House and Senate conferees were named last week. They will meet over the next two weeks to resolve key differences, with the goal of delivering a final bill to President Trump by the end of the year.

It is an ominous sign that Senator Grassley (R-IA), a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, was left off the conference committee. As the father of the PTC, who represents a state that ranks second in installed wind capacity, he has been outspoken about honoring the 2015 deal and working to fix the problems in the Senate and House tax bills. “The wind energy production tax credit is already being phased out under a compromise brokered in 2015. It shouldn’t be re-opened,” Grassley said.

Pro-renewables Senators like Grassley and Susan Collins (R-ME) will have a tough vote to make on the Senate floor if these damaging provisions are not addressed in conference. Maine, for example, has over 900 MW of existing wind capacity and nearly 300 MW of new solar and wind under development that is potentially at risk.

But there are conferees who represent states with large renewable energy industries, and they are in unique position to make the changes necessary to keep that clean energy momentum going.

  • Conferees like Senator Thune and Representative Noem from South Dakota, where a wind turbine blade manufacturer from Aberdeen just announced they will be closing and laying off over 400 people, citing the federal tax bills as one of reasons for this decision. “It’s apparent that the new tax bill will cause some economic disruption and this is one of them,” according to Aberdeen Mayor Mike Levsen. “It’s what happens when government policies turn against industries. It discourages investment.” South Dakota also has 960 MW of wind projects currently under development, representing $1.6 billion in new investment, that is at risk.
  • Senator Murkowski (R-AK) has also said that fixing the BEAT and AMT provisions in the Senate bill will be “clear priorities” for lawmakers in conference
  • Senator Portman (R-OH) is from a state with a strong renewable energy supply chain, including 5,831 solar jobs at 189 companies and more than 2,000 jobs and 61 manufacturing facilities in the wind industry. Ohio also has 560 MW of new wind projects under development and $900 million in new investment that is at risk.
  • Other conferees from leading renewable energy states such as Texas, California, Illinois, Washington and Oregon would also experience significant job losses.

The US renewable energy industry has a proven track record of creating new jobs and making new investments in states and rural areas across America. Federal tax reform should encourage rather than discourage US investment in this rapidly growing global industry.

Make sure your members of congress know clean energy is important to you. Tell them to fix the AMT and BEAT provisions, and to leave the renewable energy tax credits alone.

A billion dollar policy for electric vehicles that you probably haven’t heard of

Combined, Pacific Gas and Electric (16 million people), Southern California Edison (15 million people), and San Diego Gas and Electric (3.6 million people) provide electricity to nearly 90 percent of California’s 39 million people.

Two years ago, California passed Senate Bill 350, requiring 50 percent of electricity to come from renewable energy by 2030. This was big news. Hawaii had just passed a similar bill requiring 40 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045. There was a lot of well-deserved excitement around these renewable portfolio standards.

One section of the California bill that didn’t get a lot of attention outside of policy circles, however, requires electric utilities in the state to come up with plans to “accelerate widespread transportation electrification.” The bill recognized the critical role electric cars, trucks, and buses must play to meet air quality, climate, and public health goals.

Fast forward two years and we’re in the middle of what could be the largest single investment in electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the United States to date. Over $1 billion of investments have been proposed over a five-year period by the three large, investor-owned utilities in California: Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E).* For comparison, the Volkswagen “dieselgate” settlement will result in $800 million of charging infrastructure in California over ten years.

The so-called “SB 350 transportation electrification” plans are currently being reviewed by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), and I’ve been representing UCS in this public process. Here’s a snapshot of the process, which has already spanned several months and several thousand pages of documents.

What’s going on?

In January, PG&E, SCE, and SDG&E submitted plans for advancing transportation electrification in their service territories. The plans mostly focus on providing charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. SCE and SDG&E also proposed new charging rates for electric vehicles to address “demand charges,” which increase bills for large draws of electricity at once, but depending on how they are structured, may discourage the use of electric vehicles.

The utilities submitted projects for “priority review” and “standard review.” Priority review projects were designed to speed up decisions on smaller, “non-controversial” projects. These projects were limited to one year in duration, costs of less than $4 million per project, and no more than $20 million in priority review projects per utility. The idea is that lessons learned from these short-term projects can guide future investments. Standard review projects are larger in scope and subject to the full evidentiary hearings typically associated with proceedings at public utility commissions.

Proposals from PG&E and SCE focus mostly on charging infrastructure for trucks, buses, and heavy-duty equipment, while SDG&E’s proposal focuses mostly on residential charging infrastructure. The CPUC made it clear from the onset that utilities’ proposals should not merely be an expansion of existing pilot projects, which focus on light-duty vehicles.

Senate Bill 350 also provided guidance that utilities’ proposals should benefit communities most impacted by air pollution. This also explains the focus on heavy-duty vehicles in proposals from PG&E and SCE. Heavy-duty vehicles disproportionately contribute to air pollution, making up just 7 percent of vehicles in California but 33 percent of NOx emissions (harmful alone but is also a precursor to smog) and emit more particulate matter than all of the state’s power plants combined.

What’s next?

The CPUC recently released a proposed decision on the priority review projects; a final decision is expected as early as the second week of January. The proposed decision would approve 15 of the 17 priority review projects totaling nearly $43 million. Projects proposed for approval include infrastructure for electric school buses, delivery trucks, airport ground equipment, transit buses, truck stops, and park-and-ride parking lots.

A decision on the standard review projects is expected in May 2018. SDG&E’s proposal would support 90,000 residential electric vehicle chargers. Proposals from SCE and PG&E would support charging infrastructure for up to 15,000 and 5,000 electric trucks and buses, respectively. Approval of these projects would be significant, but compared to the 25 million automobiles and 1.5 million trucks and buses operating in California, it would be just one step towards reducing global warming emissions and air pollution to safe amounts.

A major investment in electric vehicle infrastructure couldn’t come at a better time. Sales of passenger electric vehicles are growing. Manufacturers of heavy-duty vehicles are offering a wide array of electric vehicles, and fleets such as transit agencies and delivery companies are increasingly adopting electric buses and trucks. In all, availability of charging infrastructure and fair electricity rates is critical to the continued uptake of these clean vehicles.

*Note, publicly-owned utilities are not under the jurisdiction of the California Public Utilities Commission and thus were not required to submit plans, nor were Community Choice Aggregators (e.g., Marin Clean Energy) who don’t own infrastructure related to electricity generation or distribution. Small, electrical corporations were required to submit plans, which are being considered separately from those of the three large, investor-owned utilities.

Image: California Energy Commission

Arctic Report Card 2017: Ice Cover Is Shrinking Faster Compared With Prior 1500 Years

Osborne, Cronin, and Farmer, 2017, Arctic Report Card (NOAA)

Sea ice extent, temperature anomaly, CO2 concentrations. Temperature anomalies show the fluctuations in temperature around a long-term mean; positive anomalies indicate warmer than average temperatures within a time series. The vertical dashed black line marks the start of the Industrial Revolution and global impacts of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

The 2017 Arctic Report Card reflects contributions from 85 scientists representing 12 countries. The pace of Arctic sea ice area (hereafter extent) decrease is unprecedented over the past 1,500 years, according to Emily Osborne’s et al. 2017 contribution to the Arctic Report Card released today.

Osborne and team carefully relied upon 45 different archives with a variety of yearly records (i.e. ice cores, tree rings, and sediment cores) that provide information on air temperature, sea surface temperature, and Arctic sea ice extent.  Note that record ends at around 2,000.

To see the latest story with sea ice extent observations, Don Perovich et al. 2017 contribution to the Arctic Report Card demonstrate it is not rebounding or recovering.

It is critical to track such unprecedented pace of change.

Navy Rear Admiral (Ret.) Timothy Gallaudet, Acting NOAA Administrator, highlighted the national security and economic reasons for closely tracking changes in the Arctic.

Perovich et al., 2017, Arctic Report Card (NOAA)

Time series of ice extent anomalies in March (maximum ice extent) and September (minimum ice extent). The anomaly value for each year is the difference (in %) in ice extent relative to the mean values for the period 1981-2010. The black and red dashed lines are least squares linear regression lines. The slopes of these lines indicate ice losses of -2.7% and -13.2% per decade in March and September, respectively.

Gallaudet mentioned that NOAA is already taking action in terms of advancing our Earth system prediction and capability.  Various departments depend on this information including   Departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Defense.

The longer-term perspective sure gives the impression of precipitous decline in Arctic Sea ice extent. Accordingly, there are many consequences associated with such a rapid pace of change.

Jeremy Mathis, Director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program noted that ‘the Arctic is among the most under observed places on the planet. The imperative is clear whether we are dealing with open ocean navigation, refugees, or native hunters.’

Spanning a dozen years, NOAA, has consistently delivered a robust assessment of the Arctic. As we know, the world depends on this information because what happens in the Arctic influences coastlines around the world, extreme weather events in the Northern Hemisphere and more.

Osborne, Cronin, and Farmer, 2017, Arctic Report Card (NOAA) Perovich et al., 2017, Arctic Report Card (NOAA)

Dialogue About Risks of Environmental Exposure Begins with Taking Environmental Justice Concerns Seriously

“We must listen more to the people we serve, have uncomfortable conversations, and increase our push for social justice.” Georges C. Benjamin, MD, Executive Director, American Public Health Association

Public health officials are tasked with one of the most critical jobs in our modern risk society: to research, understand, educate, and help prevent the multiple and complex ways in which people are exposed to and suffer from disease. But when public health officials deflect attention away from significant sources of toxic pollutants that put people at risk (and instead blame the overexposed population’s race, lifestyle, or genetics), they do a disservice to the people they are supposed to protect.

Such tactics are expected from industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute, who recently engaged in a classic “diversion” disinformation play to baselessly argue there’s no link between elevated risk of cancer from air toxics and oil and natural gas industry emissions among African American populations, as a new NAACP, Clean Air Task Force, and National Medical Association report finds (see my colleague Charise Johnson’s blog takedown of API’s feeble attempt at refuting the report’s scientific claims). But to see the same sort of diversionary tactic in a worrisome op-ed by Dr. Karyl Rattay—director of the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH)—raises the question of whose interests the DPH is looking after.

The target of Dr. Rattay’s column was a report recently released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in which, together with our environmental justice (EJ) partners in Delaware, we reported on air toxics and associated cancer risks in selected EJ communities in the state. We utilized the EPA’s latest (2011) National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), an “ongoing comprehensive evaluation of air toxics in the United States”. These data represent the state-of-the-science in air quality modeling of air toxics. In our report, contra what Dr. Rattay argues, we have been careful not to overrepresent what the pollutant concentrations mean and have been consistent with EPA’s own statements about appropriate use of the data[1]:

  • We identify pollutants of greatest concern
  • We provide improved understanding of health risks posed by air toxics
  • Additionally, in our recommendations we are contributing to helping set priorities for the collection of additional information, improving emissions inventories, and informing community and local air toxics program in the context of both acute exposures that can be reduced through the Risk Management Program (RMP) rule, and chronic exposures that can be addressed through local toxics reductions programs.

Dr. Rattay claims that “the way [UCS] interpreted the data, and the conclusions they have drawn, artificially inflated a person’s risk of cancer from environmental air pollution”. In fact, we did not inflate (artificially or otherwise) a person’s risk of cancer from environmental air toxics pollution. On page 11 of the report, we carefully adhered to the EPA’s NATA disclaimers by noting that “the health estimates represent average risks and hazards affecting a community rather than exact risks or hazards for a particular person”. Furthermore, the DPH director’s claim that many of the health outcomes we report on can be explained by “lifestyle” choices individuals make is very perplexing. At best, Dr. Rattay is engaging in the ecological fallacy of extrapolating the putative unhealthy lifestyle choices of a few individuals (e.g., smoking) to a population that is demonstrably exposed to undue burdens of air toxics. At worst, Dr. Rattay is echoing the very offensive and debunked claims that low-income people of color make bad lifestyle choices like smoking and barbequing that account for higher cancer rates, and simultaneously downplay the role of the acute and chronic toxic exposures that we have documented.

The Delaware Department of Public Health does not think petrochemical facilities like the Delaware City Refinery are a big deal in terms of air toxics exposure and health risks, and instead thinks environmental justice communities in Delaware just need to quit smoking.

Public health professionals wield a comprehensive and holistic science-based understanding of the complex ways in which disease affects human health. As health, environmental justice, and scientific advocates, we could and should have an open dialogue to better understand the causality chain of various factors that influence cancer and other diseases, which should include individual or collective lifestyle practices, as well as indoor and outdoor environmental exposures to pollutants. But to that, we must include understanding of the structural socio-economic conditions that restrict the range of healthy lifestyle choices that individuals can make. Two examples spring to mind: we know that low-income populations’ access to healthy foods is a growing challenge in Delaware, and that tobacco companies aggressively market to low-income populations.

To be sure, establishing the epidemiological causality between specific health outcomes and pollutants is a difficult task and there’s often not much data to do this reliably and systematically. As a matter of scientific data and methods reliability and accuracy—and by their own admission—there is room for improvement in the EPA’s NATA dataset. But the DPH director chooses to “shoot the messenger” (UCS) instead of making the right call on the limitations of the data, which would be to urge the EPA to improve and increase air toxics data collection, air quality modeling, as well as fine-scale assessments of what these imply for cancer risks related to air toxics exposure.

But to entirely discredit the role of outdoor air toxics obscures the science-based knowledge that low-income communities of color are more exposed to these toxics and are thus at higher risks. This anti-scientific posture does not advance the dialogue that Dr. Rattay says should take place. As I have argued before, deflection away from social and scientific reality contributes to the “legacy of distrust” between low-income populations of color snd our scientific and health institutions, who have not always acted in the best interest of populations at the intersection of unfair environmental hazards burdens and political and socio-economic marginalization. The dialogue begins with taking their concerns seriously—not dismissing them outright.

[1] National Air Toxics Assessment: NATA Frequent Questions. Q3: How can NATA information be used?

Oil and Gaslighting: The American Petroleum Institute Misses the Mark on Environmental Justice

Last month, the American Petroleum Institute (API) made a feeble attempt at refuting the findings of the latest report from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Clean Air Task Force, “Fumes Across the Fence-Line: The Health Impacts of Air Pollution from Oil & Gas Facilities on African American Communities.” The report highlights the disproportionate risk of health problems facing Black communities in proximity to oil and gas facilities.

Specifically, the study found that more than one million Black people live within half a mile of natural gas facilities and in counties where the cancer risks from natural gas facilities emissions are higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s level of concern. The analysis considers risks associated with oil and gas facilities, while recognizing the various other sources of pollution with which Black communities are burdened. In a post on the API site, Uni Blake, a toxicologist by training and current scientific adviser to API, attempted to discredit the work of environmental justice groups and to diminish the environmental health issues facing communities of color.

Objectivity, that old chestnut

Ms. Blake used the age-old qualifier of “I am an objective scientist” to denigrate the very real problems facing Black communities. She claims that “…the paper fails to demonstrate a causal relationship between natural gas activity and the health disparities, reported or predicted [my emphasis], within the African American community.” In other words, objectivity for API means refusing to acknowledge the importance of traditional knowledge from local communities in developing research questions. “Objectivity” to API means instilling doubt about links between pollution from industry operations and negative health impacts. This is not new for API, which has for decades been in the business of spreading disinformation on science, but it is still appalling.

Racism in environmental health and scientific methodology

Racism in scientific research has always been an issue. Prejudices abound in research questions and methodology, and even the way results are interpreted. As the NAACP astutely captured in their report, “The nature of the vulnerability of African American and other person of color fence-line communities is intersectional—subject to connected systems of discrimination based on social categorizations such as race, gender, class, etc.”

Ms. Blake is clearly not coming from a place of understanding of the historical and current inequities placed on Black Americans, which is inexcusable since environmental injustices have long been documented. An extensive and expanding body of scientific evidence finds that people of color and those living in poverty are located more often in communities—termed environmental justice communities or overburdened communities—that are exposed to disproportionately higher levels of environmental pollution than Whites or people not living in poverty (See here, here, here, here, *pauses to take a breath* here, here, here, here, here, and even here).

Ms. Blake’s piece lacks actual evidence to back her claims.  Here are a couple of Ms. Blake’s arguments, followed by my comments:

  • “…attacking our industry is the wrong approach and detracts from the real work that should be done to reduce disparately high rates of disease among African Americans.”

Leslie Fleischman, a Clean Air Task Force analyst and study co-author, clarified the goal of the report: “The data in our report looks at the cancer risk and health impacts of ozone smog among the population and so, if that population is more vulnerable because of these factors, then it is even more important to address aggravating factors that are easily avoidable like controlling unnecessary leaks from oil and gas infrastructure.” It would seem that API is detracting from the purpose of the study, mischaracterizing what was demonstrated by the NAACP study.

  • “Rather, scholarly research attributes those health disparities to other factors that have nothing to do with natural gas and oil operations—such as genetics, indoor allergens and unequal access to preventative care.”

All I hear is: “Well, if you changed your lifestyle, had more money, and didn’t have such weak genes, you wouldn’t have health problems! Our operation has nothing to do with your inability to handle the hazardous air pollutants.”  The report she linked to maintains that “Asthma has a strong genetic component, although for this to be manifest interaction with environmental factors [emphasis mine] must occur.” Somehow, she interpreted this to mean “your house is too dusty and you have mold, these health problems are your fault alone,” thereby ignoring the contributions of oil and gas industry on health impacts to the substandard environment people are then forced to endure, as well as putting the onus on the very communities she recognizes as having “socio-economic factors that contribute to the disparities” (e.g. lower income, less access to health care).

As for preventative care, here’s a thought—oil and gas facilities need to quit finding loopholes and touting their successes meeting the bare minimum standards (not to mention constantly pushing for less stringent rules or delaying them). From that same study, “Exposure to airborne allergens and other irritants [emphasis mine] both triggers asthma attacks and is associated with the development of chronic asthma in infants.” Why not investigate some of those other irritants, API?

Same old stuff, different day

This tactic of diverting attention from the real issue is not new to us in environmental justice research and advocacy. We’ve even seen it recently with pushback from the Delaware Department of Health on our recent collaborative report. In October the Union of Concerned Scientists—working closely with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, Community Housing and Empowerment Connections Inc., and Coming Clean—released a report that demonstrated the potential link between environmental pollution and health impacts in Delaware’s industrial corridor. We analyzed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data for risk of cancer and respiratory illnesses stemming from toxic outdoor air pollution, as well as proximity of communities to industrial facilities that pose a high risk of a major chemical release or catastrophic incident.

In November, Karyl Rattay from the Delaware Division of Public Health wrote an op-ed personally attacking UCS and the report findings. She said, “The most common risk factors for cancers are related to lifestyle behaviors (e.g. tobacco use) and genetics.” So, lifestyle choices carry more weight than environmental factors when determining cancer risks? Not only is this argument a baseless racist victim-blaming line, but it shows that Dr. Rattay failed to even understand our study.  The study, like the NAACP study, focused solely on environmental risks to communities. Of course, we all know that our health is determined by a wide range of factors. That’s why it is so important to study the contribution of environmental exposures. Otherwise, such risks are often (and have historically been) overlooked.

I urge Ms. Blake and API to stop blaming the communities living in the danger zone. It’s time for the oil and gas industry to take accountability for their polluting ways and honor their commitment to protect the health and safety of the communities where they operate.

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