UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

New Defense Bill Strengthens the Military’s Flood Readiness and Saves Taxpayer Dollars—All While Addressing Climate Change

H.R. 5515, the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2019 This week President Trump is expected to sign into law H.R. 5515, the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2019.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (NDAA FY 2019) builds to the future and reflects the reality of climate change, therefore providing a useful roadmap for Congress as they consider different infrastructure proposals.

The Armed Services Committee deserves recognition for their leadership in ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and that new military construction is built to be flood-ready and resilient to future environmental conditions including climate change.

The Department of Defense and military branches such as the Navy, have made clear that climate security is national security. Recent examples include:

  • In 2017, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFC) Headquarters released a climate adaptation planning handbook and tools (Appendix F and Appendix G) to help military installation planners implement viable strategies to address climate change impacts.
  • In 2016 the Department of Defense led a multi-agency team of researchers to develop an online database and tool to help more than 1,700 military installations worldwide plan for different sea level rise scenarios and timeframes based on each planners’ risk tolerance.

The NDAA for Fiscal Year 2019 provides support for the Department of Defense to continue these types of climate-ready activities while also representing a good step in the right direction by Congress on climate preparedness.

 Climate and energy resiliency

The NDAA for Fiscal Year 2018 required the Pentagon to do a report on how military installations and overseas staff may be vulnerable to climate change over the next 20 years. The language in that bill (see Section 335Report on effects of climate change on Department of Defense) recognized that climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the U.S. and “is impacting stability in areas of the world both where the United States Armed Forces are operating today, and where strategic implications for future conflict exist.”

The climate and energy resilience language in the NDAA FY 2019 is a smart next step following the NDAA FY 2018 that required vulnerability assessments of military installations. The NDAA FY 2019 (see Section 2805) requires the Defense Department to direct the different branches to implement multiple climate and energy resiliency measures and standards. Section 2865 also includes important preparedness language that authorizes the Secretary of Defense to use funds to repair and mitigate the risk to highways if they have been impacted by recurrent flood events and fluctuations in sea levels.

The bill defines ‘energy and climate resiliency’ as the:

anticipation, preparation for, and adaptation to utility disruptions and changing environmental conditions and the ability to withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from utility disruptions while ensuring the sustainment of mission-critical operations.’’

 Climate resiliency:  Ensuring new construction is flood-ready

The NDAA FY 2019 (Section 2805) requires the Defense Department to direct the different military branches to implement flood standards to help avoid building in the floodplain if possible and if that isn’t possible, to ensure that new projects are more resilient to future floods.

The language in section 2805 requires smart, flood-ready resilient measures including:

  • disclosure of whether a proposed project will be sited within or partially within a 100-year floodplain;
  • a specific risk mitigation plan if the project is sited within or partially within a 100-year floodplain;

The bill also requires the Secretary of the Department of Defense to submit a report to the Congressional Defense Committee on proposed projects that are to be sited partially or within the 100-year floodplain.  Included in this report must be:

  • An assessment of flood vulnerability for the proposed project;
  • Information on alternative construction sites considered and an explanation as to why those sites do not satisfy mission requirements; and
  • A description of planned flood mitigation measures.

    HRPDC Quarterly Commission Meeting

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it also sets minimum base flood elevation requirements for new construction in the 100-year floodplain. Base flood elevation is the height flood water is expected to rise during a base flood. For non-mission-critical buildings and facilities, the structure must be built 2 feet above the base flood elevation (BFE) and for mission-critical buildings, 3-feet above BFE.

At least 600 communities ranging from big cities, mid-size like Hampton Roads, VA as well as small towns are already implementing these commonsense flood-ready standards.  These base flood elevation standards ensure that structures are built from 1 to 3 feet (“freeboard”) above the “100-year flood” level.

Section 2865 of the NDAA FY19 is a critical piece to advancing preparedness on military installations. Section 2865 gives the Secretary of Defense the flexibility to utilize funds to repair and mitigate the risk to highways if the access to the military installation has been impacted by past recurrent flood events and fluctuations in sea levels.

Why make new construction flood-ready? Connecting the dots…

#1  Climate Change: Climate change is driving rising seas & more extreme precipitation

This commonsense standard will help to protect defense facilities but will also save taxpayers money by ensuring the newly built structures can withstand rising seas and riverine flooding, both of which are becoming more frequent and costly.

US Naval Station Norfolk

Rising Seas: The military is at the frontlines of sea level rise given its large coastal presence, its interconnectedness with the surrounding communities and its important role in maintaining our national security. With higher water, high tides will reach further inland, tidal flooding will become more frequent and extensive, and storms will have more water to drive ashore.

In Hampton Roads, VA for example, installations will be challenged with getting military personnel to their bases when the roads are inundated or to service ships at Naval Station Norfolk, the largest in the world. If the electricity at the piers must be turned off due to extra high tides, this will impact deployment and operations.

Extreme Precipitation:  UCS’s fact sheet “Climate Change, Extreme Precipitation and Flooding: The Latest Science” summarizes how global warming is shifting rainfall patterns, making heavy rain more frequent in many regions.  This extreme rainfall, along with human alteration of the

North Carolina Army National Guardsmen and local emergency services assist with evacuation efforts in Fayetteville, N.C., Oct. 08, 2016. Heavy rains caused by Hurricane Matthew led to flooding as high as five feet in some areas.

land and development in floodplains is placing more and more places at risk of destructive and costly floods.   We know that climate change is worsening extreme weather events, making them more extreme and frequent as we’re seeing with extreme rainfall events.

#2: Dollars & Sense:  Investing now, means savings down the road

Dollars: As downpours become more frequent and intense and as seas are rising, we’re seeing a toll on our nation’s coffers. Last January just after NOAA found that 2017 was the costliest year on record for weather and climate disasters.

Underwater, UCS’s recent analysis of properties at risk of chronic inundation due to sea level rise indicates that within a lifetime of a mortgage 300,000 homes worth $17.5 billion while 14,000 commercial properties worth $18.5 billion are at risk of this type of tidal flooding.  By the end of the century, these numbers grow to a collective 2.5 million homes and businesses worth a $1 trillion. These numbers do not capture the value of coastal military installations nor other infrastructure such as roads, bridges, urban drainage or water or energy utilities, and therefore provide a glimpse of the value of what’s at stake. While inland flooding and storms will only exacerbate this risk and the costs of future impacts.

Sense: While cost assessment of natural disasters for just the last year alone is daunting, we can be smarter about how we spend federal taxpayer dollars  while also increasing the nation’s resilience. An assessment of federal investments to reduce the risk of multiple natural hazards made just this case.  The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) issued Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report which found that every $1 invested in disaster mitigation saves taxpayers $6.  The findings show even better numbers for riverine flooding.  Investing in preventive measures like the Department of Defense’s flood standard, there’s a $7 benefit for every dollar invested.  NIBS also found that the Gulf Coast and other regions in the

United States benefit even more from these standards that ensure building above the legally mandated height.

Energy resiliency

The Armed Services Committee also deserves praise for addressing energy resiliency in the NDAA FY 19. The law incentivizes emissions reductions of new buildings and facilities by requiring that the Secretary of Defense provide an energy study or life cycle analysis for each requested military construction. Life cycle analysis can help inform better decisions by providing data on the projected energy needs, the costs and related environmental impacts over the life span of that project.

Finally, the law requires the Secretary of Defense to incorporate data from authorized sources on the projections of changing environmental conditions during the design life of existing or planned new facilities or infrastructure in the overarching facilities criteria and any other subsequent regulations.

The examples of the type of conditions and of “reliable and authorized” sources include:

  • The Census Bureau for population projections;
  • The National Academies of Sciences for land use change projections and climate projections;
  • The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for land use change projections; and
  • The U.S. Global Change Research Office (USGCR) and National Climate Assessment (NCA) for climate projections.
Time to keep up the momentum on flood and climate readiness

The NDAA FY 2019 moves the needle on flood and climate readiness in many ways.  It reflects the reality of climate change and the real challenges we face as a nation, particularly when it comes to the impacts of sea level rise and flooding.  It also recognizes the importance of informing policies and plans based on the most recent science.  Finally, it provides a solid example of the policies around planning and mitigating these risks including the need to: 1) disclose flood risk; 2) avoid placing new development in risky areas, particularly floodplains; and 3) implement mitigation measures to reduce flood risk.

The NDAA FY 2019 provides a valuable and badly needed example of bicameral, bipartisan leadership on flood and climate readiness and on using federal taxpayer dollars wisely.  Hopefully, Congress will continue to move the needle on flood and climate readiness to ensure our communities and military are more resilient to extreme weather events and climate change.





Photo: Ian Swoveland North Carolina National Guard FEMA

At the Trump USDA, the “D” Stands for “Dow”


Everywhere you look in the Trump administration, there’s the Dow Chemical Company. Or rather, DowDuPont, as the company has been known since a 2017 corporate merger. The influence of this multinational chemical and agribusiness conglomerate is being felt in regulatory decisions involving Dow’s products, and the administration has pulled multiple Dow executives and lobbyists through the revolving door into high-level government positions.

The latest example of the latter? Meet Scott Hutchins, the career Dow exec and pesticide booster nominated last month to oversee science at the USDA.

Hutchins is a scientist…but is that enough?

To be fair, Hutchins is a vast improvement over the White House’s first choice (remember this guy?) for the job of USDA under secretary for research, education, and economics (REE), a position that encompasses the role of the department’s chief scientist. A trained scientist with a PhD in entomology, Hutchins clearly meets the criteria Congress set for this position in 2008. And to be sure, scientific training and experience with agriculture is critical for the person who will manage the USDA’s four science agencies and its $3 billion annual investment in science to support farmers and protect and enhance our food supply. It was the main reason UCS deemed the previous nominee unacceptable and more than 3,100 independent scientists urged the Senate to reject him.

But do Dr. Hutchins’ scientific credentials alone make him the right person for the job? I don’t think so.

Most of the USDA’s scientific work is carried out in four agencies that Hutchins would directly administer, and their work affects all of us every day. For example:

  • Some 2,000 scientists at the department’s Agricultural Research Service conduct research, often in collaboration with universities, that helps keep our food safe and shapes farmers’ decisions about what to grow and how to grow it.
  • Researchers at the Economic Research Service analyze the state of the agricultural economy, track food prices, and evaluate the economic impacts of farm pollution and efforts to curb it.
  • Number-crunchers at the National Agricultural Statistics Service conduct a 5-year census of agriculture that provides consistent, comparable, and detailed agricultural data for every US county, and analyze other data to identify trends in food and farming.
  • And the National Institute for Food and Agriculture awards grants to scientists working across the country to meet many of our greatest challenges, from fighting hunger and food insecurity to reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions and preparing the next generation of scientists and farmers.

As the REE under secretary oversees all this work, he or she needs to have an expansive view of our food and agriculture system. And this is what concerns me most about this nomination: There are many ways we can address the system’s challenges, but Scott Hutchins has spent his whole career on just one of them.

A career steeped in Big Ag

Hutchins is a pesticide guy. Since 1987, he has worked to develop and refine marketable chemical solutions to farm pests at Dow AgroSciences’ pesticide and seed division, a unit renamed Corteva Agriscience last year when it was spun off from the newly-merged DowDuPont. If he joins the USDA, he will leave the position of Corteva’s global leader of integrated field sciences; previously, he was Dow AgroSciences’ global director for crop protection R&D.

More than 30 years’ worth of ties to Dow and other agribusiness corporations will be difficult for Hutchins to fully disentangle, as his public financial disclosure form and ethics agreement illustrate. He will receive a severance payment and a prorated 2018 bonus from Corteva/DowDuPont upon his resignation, and the company will continue to pay for his and his wife’s health insurance, for life, under its retiree plan. For two years after the severance and for as long as he participates in the health insurance plan, he’s committing to recuse himself from participating “personally and substantially in any particular matter” involving DowDuPont…though there’s a loophole that allows for a written waiver, which other conflicted USDA officials have received. And anyway, who’s to say that any given decision he’d make at the USDA would have no effect on a company as embedded in the agriculture system as Dow?

Hutchins has also pledged to divest a lot of personal stock holdings—copious Dow stock but also that of Big Food companies including Coca Cola and Nestlé. And he will resign from the Board of Directors of AgriNovus of lndiana (described as “an industry sector initiative formed by the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership,” which in turn involves 55 corporations). That’s a whole lot more industry ties he will officially sever but inevitably bring with him, in some way, to the USDA.

Another day, another betrayal at the USDA

This is part of a troubling pattern. We’ve already documented the ways USDA Secretary Perdue—who literally applauded the Hutchins nomination—has catered to large agribusiness corporations at the expense of farmers and the public, just in his first year. And the list of industry-friendly actions just keeps coming.

Take the president’s trade war. A July op-ed by Alicia Harvie of the nonprofit Farm Aid is a good reminder that Perdue’s rationale for the trade war—China’s theft of patented GMO seeds from US farm fields—isn’t really about farmers at all:

We should remember that farmers are not the ones who reap benefits from patented seed technologies. Those profits go to the patent-holding company itself, which these days is one of ever-fewer multinational seed conglomerates, while farmers watch their seed prices skyrocket.

The supposed reason for this trade war with China, then, is not to protect farmers — it’s to shelter multinational seed and chemical giants, like Bayer-Monsanto, Dow-Dupont and Syngenta-ChemChina, and other agribusiness giants who benefit from free trade regimes that put corporate profits before people. 

Now, the administration is trumpeting a $12 billion bailout (but don’t you dare call it that) for farmers caught in the crisis the president himself manufactured. But some farmers are rightly pessimistic that the money will end up in their pockets rather than in agribusiness coffers. The Trump USDA’s betrayal of farmers continues unabated, it seems.

Dow and the Trump administration are cozy, and getting cozier

Even among huge agribusiness corporations, Dow is particularly tight with the Trump administration. That relationship began with a million-dollar gift from Dow CEO Andrew Liveris to the president-elect’s inauguration fund. The new president then tapped Liveris to lead his short-lived manufacturing council. (President Trump abruptly disbanded the council last summer after some of its members—though not Liveris—resigned in protest of the president’s response to racist violence in Charlottesville. But that’s another story.)

As Bloomberg reported in April 2017, a pre-merger Dow Chemical nearly tripled its lobbying expenditures between 2008 and 2016.

Source: Center for Responsive Politics, https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000000188&year=2016

In 2017, as the Trump administration got underway, the newly-merged DowDuPont ramped up its lobbying even further.

Source: Center for Responsive Politics, https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000069022&year=2018

Clearly, Dow saw the Trump era as a promising one for its policy priorities, and it appears they were right. The company’s investment in the Trump administration started paying off in March 2017, when the EPA suddenly reversed its planned ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos in an apparent gift to its manufacturer…Dow. Not satisfied with that win, the company has continued to press the administration and its allies in Congress to weaken pesticide regulations in ways that would harm endangered fish and wildlife.

And now former Dow officials and lobbyists are literally holding the reins of government. The Hutchins nomination brings the number of Dow employees appointed to high-level USDA jobs to three. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, note that there are only 13 Senate-confirmable positions at USDA. Hutchins would join former Dow AgroSciences lobbyist Ted McKinney, who was confirmed last year as USDA under secretary for trade, and Ken Isley, who was appointed (without need for Senate confirmation) to head the Foreign Agricultural Service. Like Hutchins, the two spent many years (19 and nearly 29, respectively) at Dow and its subsidiaries. There’s also Rebekah Adcock, an advisor to Secretary Perdue who was a lobbyist at CropLife America, a pesticide lobby group that counts Corteva among its members, and who got caught last fall opening the department’s door a little wider for her former pesticide industry colleagues.

Add to all this the pending nomination of former Dow lawyer Peter Wright as assistant administrator of the EPA office that manages the Superfund program and other chemical hazards programs—my colleague Genna Reed recently blogged about why that’s so troubling.

Doubling down on Dow

It’s clear that DowDuPont already wields significant influence in the Trump administration. Moreover, Dow and a small number of other multinational agribusiness conglomerates have enormous control over US agriculture and our food system, a situation that pre-dates Trump, of course. The trend toward corporate consolidation has increasingly detrimental effects on farmers (as our allies at the Organization for Competitive Markets explain), and DowDuPont is emblematic of that trend.

For example, with the DowDuPont merger completed and the recently-approved merger of Bayer and Monsanto underway, it’s been estimated that the resulting two mega-companies sell three-quarters of all corn seeds planted by US farmers, and nearly two-thirds of all soybean seeds. Globally, Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont, and Switzerland-based Syngenta now sell 59 percent of the world’s seeds and 64 percent of its pesticides.

This is the world Scott Hutchins inhabits, a world in which giant corporations develop and patent a few tools and products that make up the bulk of our agriculture system. It’s a world, and a mindset, that is incompatible with the kinds of ecologically-sophisticated, knowledge-based solutions farmers say they want and scientists urge the USDA to invest in. It’s also incompatible with what eaters are increasingly looking for: healthy and sustainable food. Yet perversely, the Trump USDA is embracing that model as the nation’s official stance on what agriculture should be. With yet another Dow exec in a position of power at the USDA, that model would be reinforced further.

Bottom line: taxpayer-funded research of the kind Hutchins would oversee at the USDA should focus on solutions in the public interest, not Dow’s interest. Ultimately, that’s why UCS is decidedly less-than-enthusiastic about Scott Hutchins. But he is the nominee, and the Senate must now vet his appointment and give their advice and consent. In another post, I’ll share my thoughts on key questions Senators should ask him.

My No-Regrets, Enthusiastic Transition to Driving an EV

It is summertime.  I want to take a brief respite from the horrific news that dominates the headlines and public debate, and let you in on for what many may be a secret:

Electric cars rock.

In February, I took out a three-year lease on an all electric Chevy Bolt EV (confusingly named because its cousin, a Chevy Volt, is a hybrid electric/gas car).  I’ve had the car for about six months.  Here is what I have learned.

It is really fun to drive.  Because an electric motor rotates with much higher variability than its gas-fired counterpart, it does not need gears. This means it ramps up very quickly and very linearly—no peaks and valleys as you drive up a highway ramp and merge into traffic, for example.  Similarly, the car uses “regenerative braking”—the motor takes the kinetic energy from slowing down or stopping and transfers it back to the battery.  This means that the car comes to a gradual, smooth stop when you take your foot off the pedal, and when you get used to this “one-pedal system,” you use the brake only for the relatively rare unexpected need to stop quickly.  Driving an EV is like ice skating rather than walking/running—easier to get torque when you start out, more like a glide when you are level speed, and a much smoother stop.

It is more, not less, convenient than a gasoline-powered car.  I installed a “Level Two” charger in my garage.  This required an electrician to wire an outlet for 220 volts (the same as what a typical dryer requires), and install a charger which I purchased.  I charge the car once or twice a week overnight.  Plugging it in takes about five seconds, and the charging takes between 4-8 hours.  When I wake up, the battery is full.  No more trips to the gas station.  It will go between 200-280 miles on a full charge, depending upon weather (cold New England days decrease the range) and driving (highway driving uses more energy than city driving).  Because of the long range, I rarely need to use public charging stations while on the road.  I’ve used them five times since I leased the car, typically to add about fifty miles of range.  This takes about twenty minutes of charging time, which I use to stretch, get a cup of coffee or answer e-mails.   For the most part, these public charging stations are strategically located along major roadways, and easy to locate and use with apps on my phone.

It is more affordable than you think. The Chevy Bolt lists for about $37,000, which is too high a price for many to afford.  However, there is a federal tax credit of $7500.  Officially, that tax credit only applies if you buy rather than lease the car, but many dealers will pass the value of the tax credit on in a lease.  In some states, like Massachusetts where I live, there is an additional rebate of $2500 which applies to purchases or leases.  The bottom line is that I paid $2500 down for a three year lease, got that down payment back from the MA rebate program, and now pay $240/month in lease payments.  At the same time, I am saving about $60/month in fueling costs, as electricity cost per mile is less than half of  gasoline, even in a state like Massachusetts that has relatively high electricity costs and relatively low gas prices.  And not paying for oil changes, air filters, belts, brake pads and many other maintenance expenses for a gas-fired car also saves money.

It feels really good not to cause unnecessary pollution.  It is a challenge to identify things you can do in your personal life to lower your carbon footprint.   For example, carbon-intensive air plane trips is a must for me, as my job requires a lot of travel.  And some other options, such as rooftop solar, are not viable for me due to the orientation of my house and surrounding foliage.  But according to the Department of Energy, the electricity I use for driving my car generates about 3500 pounds of greenhouse gases per year, while an average gas-fired car generates 11,500.  That is a difference of about 4 tons per year of emissions.  To put that in perspective, the average resident of Massachusetts has a carbon footprint of about 10 tons per year.  Simply shifting to an electric car drops my carbon footprint by approximately forty percent.  Or to put it another way, according to UCS data, I am driving the equivalent of a gas-fired car that gets over 100 miles per gallon.

A lot more work needs to be done to scale up and broaden access to EV’s

As UCS’s president, I was obviously very motivated to drive an electric car.  But going through all the steps made me realize that we must do a lot more to persuade and assist people who might not have my level of motivation or income.  Here are some of the most important barriers we must remove.

Affordability.  While the Chevy Bolt EV is not a luxury car, the price is still out of reach for many Americans.  And the $7500 tax credit, while very helpful for some, fully benefits only those that pay taxes of $7500 or more– i.e., families that earn more than about $63,000 per year.  Moreover, that tax credit only applies to new cars; this typically is not going to reach those of lower incomes who buy used cars.  And, it is set to start expiring for some of the car makers, such as GM, who have sold 200,000 or more electric cars.  A high priority must be to extend that tax credit on the federal level and expand upon it at the state level to effectively encourage moderate and lower income drivers to make the switch.  Many expect that by the mid-2020’s no such subsidy will be needed, as falling battery costs will allow EV’s to reach cost parity.  But we are not there yet.

Practicality.  What makes an electric vehicle super convenient for me is that I can plug it in night in my garage.  Yet many don’t have this option. To make electric cars suitable for a larger range of drivers, we need to make a significant investment in very fast public charging stations, located in convenient places such as shopping malls, libraries, town centers, apartment buildings and workplaces, among others.  Funding for some of those investments will come from the Volkswagen settlement, in which VW has agreed to settle claims over its fraudulent emissions testing by expending over $2 billion in EV infrastructure, outreach and education.  Some utility companies are also starting to invest in charging infrastructure, recognizing that the growth of an electric vehicle market will add business opportunities for them.  But governments will also need to play a role in making EV’s accessible, and will need to identify new sources of funding, such as revenues from a cap and invest program for transportation.

Education and One Stop Shopping.  It took a lot of time to sort out all the practical aspects of owning an EV.  While there are helpful websites, I still had to do significant research to figure out, for example, what type of charger I would need for my home and how to find a good electrician.  I was motivated enough to overcome those obstacles, but for someone who doesn’t have my level of motivation, having to figure all this out might make an EV a non-starter.  To overcome the hassle factor, we need to make EV ownership very easy.  For example, just as utility companies provide one-stop shopping energy efficiency services, they can be tasked with installing home charging stations.

The past six months of EV driving has been illuminating for me.  It has shown me that the technology is here now, and it is a pleasure to take advantage of it.  But what is needed now is a surge of political will to make the necessary investments to scale up usage, and a stepped-up commitment from automakers to build and market a wide range of EV’s that are affordable and meet the needs of all drivers.

Photo: Dave Reichmuth

Chronic Flooding and the Future of Miami

Photo: Ben Grantham/Flickr

En español > 

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently released a report analyzing the impacts of chronic tidal flooding on U.S. coastal properties in the lower 48 states. The number of homes and businesses, their value, along with the amount of tax base and most importantly, people at risk is startling. They found that by 2045, 311,000 homes, worth $117.5 billion dollars by today’s market values, could be at risk of chronic flooding driven by climate change. By 2100, 2.4 million homes, worth approximately $912 billion dollars, and 4.7 million people will be at risk. Nowhere more than Florida, that bears 40% of the risk, are these realities being felt now and will be more so in the future as sea levels continue to rise. Ultimately, the impacts of climate change driven chronic flooding leads to a greater potential crisis for low-income communities.

In my time at UCS, I served as an on-the-ground researcher and advocate for low-income communities. I was lucky to be able to work in my hometown examining how climate-driven chronic flooding is changing Miami. I worked with local residents to better understand how they were already dealing with chronic flooding and how they could plan for an uncertain future.

The two faces of climate gentrification

Long time freedom fighter and community leader Paulette Richards, of Miami’s Liberty City, introduced me to the concept of climate gentrification. A term she coined in response to the issues her neighborhood was facing. When I met with her in 2014, she talked about how her community was changing under the pressure of expedited foreclosures. She understood that she was on higher ground and knew that this was becoming a desirable location for developers looking to capitalize on the public’s growing awareness of sea level rise. She said, “I’ve seen gentrification, but I call this climate gentrification”. Over the years Paulette and her fellow community leaders in Miami have tracked this shift.  As long-time Liberty City residents are being edged out of the community they built, they are being directed to the southern most point of the county, relocating to an area that is at a much lower elevation and neighbors Turkey Point, a nuclear power plant.

Now the media and others are taking notice and verifying what Paulette has known for many years. In 2017, Scientific American published a story called “Higher Ground Is Becoming Hot Property As Sea Level Rises”. The article details how climate driven gentrification is happening in Miami and how more people, including academics, are finally tracking these changes.

Only four miles away from Paulette’s home sits the neighborhood of Shorecrest, part of the City of Miami. It’s a low-elevation, mixed income community that represents what chronic inundation looks like on the ground. Much like Miami Beach, Shorecrest consistently floods during high tides. However, unlike high-end Miami Beach, it does not have the same access to the kind of funds needed to properly address chronic flooding.  In front of a strip of affordable rental apartments, I met with residents who told me about their frustration with chronic flooding. Many have seen their jobs affected by the, sometimes, impassable floods; there have been issues with accessing transportation, garbage collection and possible health impacts related to wading through waters that have tested for high levels of bacteria. Low-income residents of low-elevation communities without the proper resources to adapt to climate change are faced with the toughest questions. Do we leave? Where will we go? Can we afford to leave? How much time do we have to make these decisions? Local officials are also facing difficult questions. In some cases, the development projects that would build adaptively and could bring in the tax revenue needed to fund community wide adaptation projects are often the same projects that lead to gentrification.

How can coastal areas find the resources to adapt while maintaining the integrity of their communities?

The City of Miami recently passed bonds that provide funds of almost $200 million to deal with sea level rise. While this is a step in the right direction, the task of equitable sustainable adaptation will require much more funding and more collaborative support from state and federal agencies. Just in terms of sheer square miles, the City of Miami is roughly 4 times the size of Miami Beach, yet Miami Beach has allocated $500 million dollars in funds to deal with their sea level rise issues. Add to that the complex canal and drinking water systems and varied needs of many different communities, and the challenge is daunting.

What can be done?

Will my hometown still be the diverse, multicultural, thriving metropolis that I know and love or will it slowly become a monochromatic string of islands catering to the recreational fancies of the rich? When sea level rises it not only stands to wipe out miles of coastline and properties, but decades and even centuries of culture while displacing millions of lives by the end of this century.

Our greatest hope in avoiding the worst is that we, as a global community, adhere to the Paris Agreement, that holds warming to less than 2C. In this case the vast majority of homes at risk in Florida (93%) would be spared.

Additionally, not just property owners, but all residents and businesses in coastal communities must be aware of their vulnerability and when this type of tidal flooding will become disruptive to their daily lives. UCS provides a mapping tool for gathering this information.

Finally, elected officials must make equity a priority when designing and planning for the future to ensure resources are distributed not just to the wealthy but to those who have fewer resources to plan and implement solutions.

For more information about the study, including a discussion of solutions, please visit Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate



Nicole Hernandez Hammer is a sea-level researcher, climate change expert and environmental justice advocate. A Guatemalan immigrant, Ms. Hernandez Hammer works to address the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities across the US. Most recently, Ms. Hernandez Hammer served as the climate science and community advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She was the Florida field manager for Moms Clean Air Force, and an environmental blogger for Latina Lista. Before that, she was the assistant director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University, and coordinated the Florida Climate Institute’s state university consortium.

She has co-authored a series of technical papers on sea level rise projections, impacts and preparedness. Her activism and initiative on climate change earned her an invitation from First Lady Michelle Obama to be her special guest at the 2015 State of the Union address.

Nicole speaks across the country on climate change issues. Most recently, she presented at the 2018 National Hispanic Medical Association Conference and the MIT Cambridge Science Festival. She has done extensive media work and has been featured in National Geographic’s The Years of Living Dangerously,  Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, The New Yorker, MSNBC, the Miami Herald, Telemundo News, Univision.com, The Huffington Post, PRI Science Friday, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Grist, NPR and other major news sources.

Photo: Ben Grantham/Flickr

Why Republican Farm Bill Negotiators Should Think Twice About Attacks on SNAP

Photo: US Department of Agriculture

This September, after Congress returns from its August recess, we can expect to see the first public meeting of the farm bill conference committee.

The committee—currently composed of a healthy 47 appointees (or “conferees”) from the House and nine from the Senate—will have the difficult task of reconciling two vastly different versions of the bill. The House bill received sharp criticism for its proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), including extreme and unjustified work requirements that would reduce or eliminate benefits for millions of people. The Senate, by contrast, passed a bipartisan bill that left the structure of SNAP largely intact and made additional investments in healthy and sustainable food systems.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, it wouldn’t surprise us if House Republican conferees continue to push for changes that will make it harder for people to access SNAP. But based on the data, this strategy seems pretty misguided.

We looked at household SNAP participation among the counties represented by the 28 House Republican conferees and found that restricting SNAP would not only harm many of their constituents—it would harm them disproportionately compared to counties represented by House Democrats.*

Will conferees push SNAP changes at the expense of their own voters?

Evidence shows that SNAP is one of the most effective public assistance programs we have. In 2016, it lifted 3.6 million people out of poverty and provided many more with temporary assistance between jobs or in crisis. And as we’ve shown, it benefits people of every zip code and political persuasion across the country, helping families put food on the table and set aside money for other critical expenses. Yet SNAP has become an intensely partisan issue, and its work requirements are now the most polarizing piece of the farm bill debate.

But dogma and data don’t always converge—and this could prove particularly troublesome for the House Republican conferees.

We looked at the average household SNAP participation among counties represented by both the 28 House Republicans and 19 Democrats appointed to the farm bill conference committee. Here’s what we found:

  • On average, households in counties represented by Republican conferees are more likely to participate in SNAP than those in counties represented by Democratic conferees. The average household participation across the nearly 600 Republican counties is 13.9 percent, compared to an average of 12.3 percent across 135 Democratic counties.
  • Nationwide, about 14.3 percent of households in a given county participate in SNAP. Nearly half of all counties represented by Republican conferees exceed this average (288 out of 597) —compared to just a quarter of counties represented by Democratic conferees (34 out of 135).
  • For some Republican conferees, a vast majority of the counties they represent have above-average household SNAP participation:
    • All but one of the 13 counties Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL-3) represents have above-average SNAP participation. In Macon County, nearly a third of households participates in SNAP.
    • Likewise, 23 of the 24 counties represented by Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA-8) have above-average SNAP participation. In Atkinson County, Ben Hill County, and Turner County, more than a quarter of households participate in SNAP.
    • A vast majority of counties (147 out of 174 in total) represented by eight other Republican conferees exceed the national average for household SNAP participation. Those counties are represented by Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR-1), Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR-4), Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL-2), Rep. Rick Allen (R-GA-12), Rep. James Comer (R-KY-1), Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA-5), Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC-7), and Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC-6).

The data beg the question: are House Republicans unaware of the extent to which SNAP helps people in the counties they represent, or are they just indifferent?

A is for August (and Action)

As we mentioned, it’s August recess (sort of—Principal McConnell cut summer break short in the Senate), which means your Senators and Representatives are probably spending some time at home. If one of the farm bill conferees (see the full list of House Republicans and Democrats) represents your district, pay them a visit.

If your Representative isn’t on the committee, there’s still plenty you can do to be vocal about your priorities:

  • Sign onto our national action alert urging farm bill conferees to adopt the Senate version of the bill. (If you’re a public health expert, we’ve got something special for you.)
  • Tweet, email, or snail mail a “thank you” to your Representative if they voted no on the House bill—or a “no thank you” if they voted yes.
  • Take a look at the Senate list, too. Though they managed to pass a bipartisan bill the first time around, they’ll need our support more than ever if they hope to engage in successful negotiations with the House.

*Includes full and partial counties. Does not include Virgin Islands. 5-year estimates of county-level SNAP participation provided by the 2011-2015 American Community Survey.

Trump Fuel Efficiency Rollback Is an Attack on Science and the Public Interest

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation released their long-awaited revisions to federal fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards. To no one’s surprise, their preferred alternative is to essentially eliminate the standards—a predetermined outcome that the administration is now trying to defend with bogus analysis.  The current standards were created in collaboration with California and the entire automotive industry and have directly made new cars and trucks cleaner and cheaper to drive. EPA and California Air Resources Board scientists spent years studying the standards, as was required, and concluded last year they are technologically feasible and cost-effective.

Millions of vehicle owners, transportation experts, public health officials and consumer advocates are rightfully outraged.

Thanks to the Clean Air Act, California has a waiver from the EPA to maintain tougher state emission standards despite a national rollback. However, with the current proposal the administration intends to make real its threat to revoke California’s authority to set its own standards. California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra says California will take any step necessary to protect our planet and people and recently, Representative DeSaulnier (CA), introduced a resolution aimed at protecting state authority while Senator Harris (CA) is expected to do the same in the Senate. While threatening to revoke the waiver has led to much consternation, actually revoking the waiver will surely lead to years of litigation and regulatory chaos.

A battle between the Trump Administration and California sounds like it’s made for Hollywood, but it’s also the story the administration is using to distract us. Why? Because it’s easier to paint California as a rogue state of pushy progressives than to defend a policy decision that ignores scientific evidence and relies wholly on industry talking points. The rollback is not just an attack on our state, but on the 12 other states that choose to follow California’s more protective standards and all the other states that have the right to choose to follow California standards if they wish, as Colorado is now moving to do. It’s also more than a fight for authority, it’s an attack on our values and a larger strategy from this administration of pushing science and the public interest aside.

To justify this policy, the agencies are twisting themselves in knots and ignoring their own analysis that show safe, cost-effective technologies exist to continue to improve efficiency, cut emissions, and save consumers money at the pump. They are dragging up tired old arguments that efficiency standards make vehicles less safe, contrary to actual evidence. And the cherry on top: they point out the U.S. is pumping more oil than ever. So the days of needing to conserve energy have passed? Using more oil is not going to make our country stronger or safer, nor is it going to be good for consumers.

Americans like clean cars

Multiple polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans favor clean car standards because no matter what size car or truck they buy, drivers want more efficient, cleaner vehicles. The standards have delivered cleaner cars of every size and class to consumers every year. Additionally, vehicle standards benefit lower income individuals who tend to purchase used cars and for whom gasoline costs are a much larger share of their income.

In the U.S., transportation accounts for about 27 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change – in California it’s nearly 40 percent. The vehicle standards directly curb these carbon emissions. The standards are the most effective climate policy the United States has on the books today and an example of how scientists and industry can work together to create good public policy that protects everyone.

If the standards are rolled back as proposed, the U.S. will pump out an extra 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions and consume 200 billion more gallons of fuel by 2040. If this happens, it will be impossible to achieve our obligations under the Paris climate agreement and significantly damage the planet’s ability to hold global warming to two degrees Celsius. The automakers want a compromise between leaving them alone and a total rollback. But a compromise would mean we significantly veer off the path the country and the planet need to be on to avoid the worst impacts of climate change during our lifetimes.

These rollbacks hurt progress

With the undeniable signs of climate change increasing each season, making consumers use more fossil fuel, even when fuel efficiency technology is available and cost-effective, is at best short-sighted and at worst cynical and destructive.

New cars and trucks aren’t cleaner and more efficient by accident or because of automakers’ goodwill. They are more efficient because forward-looking and scientifically sound public policies require them to be. California and the twelve other states with clean car standards cover more than one third of the new car market. These states have a critical role to play in defending cleaner cars. We must take every legal and legislative step necessary to make sure the Trump administration does not take us backward. But don’t fall for the headlines or the simplistic rhetoric from Washington DC. It’s not just California under attack – it’s science and the public interest that they are targeting.


8 Ridiculous Things in the Trump Rollback of Clean Car Standards (And 1 Thing They Get Right)

President Trump has followed through on his promise to roll back Obama-era fuel economy and emissions standards for passenger cars and trucks, proposing to freeze standards at 2020 levels.  Given the tremendous benefits of these rules to-date and the promising future for 2025 and beyond, you can imagine that justifying this rollback requires contortions that would qualify the administration for Cirque du Soleil…and you would be right.  Here are just a few of the ridiculous assertions found in the proposal to justify rolling back such a successful policy:

Absurdity #1: Consumers will benefit from the rollback

Consumers, of course, stand to be the biggest losers from this rollback.  To date, these rules have saved consumers over $64 billion in fuel costs. Every class of vehicle is seeing record fuel economy levels, with the most popular vehicle classes showing the greatest improvement since the rules went into effect.  This rollback threatens to put all of that in jeopardy, limiting consumer choice.

Absurdity #2: More efficient vehicles will be less safe

Last year, a study (that the administration even cites!) showed that fuel economy standards have resulted in reduced fatalities since their inception by reducing the average weight disparity in a crash, refuting oft-trotted out nonsense from groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute who hysterically claim that making more efficient cars kills people in an effort to eliminate the rules.  Rather than sticking with the science, the administration is borrowing this ideological argument to market its rollback agenda as safety.

Lightweight materials were first deployed for safety reasons, and manufacturers have been using high-strength steel and aluminum and other lightweight materials to significantly reduce the weight of the biggest vehicles on the road, like the F-150.  This is good for society, reducing the lethality of the largest and least efficient vehicles.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s latest data confirms this, of course—but the agencies instead fudge the economics of their model to spit out the answer that the boss in the White House wants.

Absurdity #3: The fleet will get older and travel more without the rollback (and therefore be less safe)

The people who wrote this proposal somehow came up with ridiculously high fatality numbers, which they use to justify rolling back these incredibly popular and consumer friendly standards.  About 99% of the increase in fatalities have absolutely nothing to do with the safety of new vehicles but come instead from an economic model that claims older, less safe vehicles will stay on the road longer and that there will be a massive increase in total miles traveled if the standards stay in place (more miles = more crashes = more fatalities).

There is no consistency to this logic—they claim that these newer and more efficient vehicles will be so great that everyone will travel more, but not so great that people will want to buy them.  Never mind, of course, that manufacturers are on pace for 17 million in annual sales for the fourth consecutive year, extending an industry record, or that the primary source of vehicle travel are commutes, which are fixed, and that there is little evidence of as high an increase in “rebound” or additional travel as the agencies claim.

Absurdity #4: “Energy dominance” means we don’t have to worry about conserving energy

Ignoring the absurdity of “energy dominance” itself, the notion that increasing domestic oil production means we don’t care about energy conservation doesn’t just defy the Energy Policy and Conservation Act requirements of the fuel economy program—it defies basic economics.

Oil is the one of the most fungible commodities in the world—that means that prices are set on a global market, by the basics of supply and demand.  As such, the best way to insulate yourself from global uncertainty (and I think we can all agree there is plenty of that) is to simply decrease demand, which sets downward pressure on market prices and helps buffer against volatility.  The decoupling of economic growth and oil demand is not just good for the environment—it’s good for consumers and national security.

Absurdity #5: Zero emission vehicle standards are inherently fuel economy standards

Perplexing to anyone who understands California’s air quality challenge and the history of the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program is the Trump administration’s assertion that the ZEV program is connected to fuel economy.  In fact, the ZEV program predates California Assembly Bill 1493, which is what pushed the state to adopt global warming emissions standards for vehicles (it should of course be noted here that those, too, are under attack, despite also not being fuel economy standards).

California’s ZEV program is designed to improve air quality in the state and is a critical part of the state’s plan to meet federal air quality requirements.  Other states have adopted the standard because they see ZEVs as a critical part of their sustainable transportation future, including for air quality reasons.  The administration suggesting that a regulation aimed squarely at eliminating tailpipe pollution is pre-empted by fuel economy standards is not just legally dangerous—it’s bad for anyone who breathes air in the states adopting those standards.

Absurdity #6: Manufacturers will improve fuel economy without regulations

The real impacts of the rollback would look too bad on paper, so the administration cooked the books by claiming that manufacturers will overcomply with the 2020 standards by nearly 3 miles per gallon, out of the goodness of their hearts and because they know people will buy fuel-efficient vehicles (no, the administration does not seem to sense the irony here in claiming that people will buy these fuel-efficient vehicles but not even more efficient vehicles).

Historically, fuel economy has only improved when standards have been tightened. (Values shown are lab test values—the “sticker” value is about 20 percent lower today.)

This of course smacks of ignorance—the fleet-wide efficiency of cars did not increase absent regulation  in the past 40 years — in fact, in the 1990s fuel economy actually went down as a result of flatlined standards (see figure).  To pretend like fuel economy improvements are going to magically happen without regulation defies the historical record.

Absurdity #7: Manufacturers will put on more technology than necessary to meet the standards

A corollary to the modeling of the rollback magically adopting fuel economy improvements for free is the ridiculous amount of technology being applied to meet the standards, helping to drive up costs for the standards. The administration has crafted a modeling approach so insane that the output shows manufacturers putting on more technology than is needed to meet the standards—so much, in fact, that the manufacturers will overcomply and earn credits  that will expire before they can be used!

This is completely at odds with how manufacturers actually plan to comply with the regulations.  Generally, manufacturers try to target an individual vehicle’s performance to the average standard over the car’s product lifecycle.  Since cars generally don’t change much over a 5-year span, a vehicle will tend to perform better than the standard initially, generating credits, which can then be used to compensate for the vehicle’s underperformance relative to the standard in the latter years.

In the agencies’ modeling, manufacturers improve their vehicles so quickly and to such a strong degree that they end up banking credits that never get used!  That is beyond economically inefficient—it’s just dumb.  And it’s yet another cynical ploy by the administration to inflate the estimate of the cost of the currents regulations.

Absurdity #8: Everyone’s going to need to drive “turbo hybrids” in 2025 if the standards aren’t rolled back

The end result of these ridiculous assumptions on technology is borne out in a vehicle fleet that no manufacturer would possibly design.  There are many issues with the technical assumptions in the rule, but perhaps my favorite is a concept the agencies have introduced called a “turbo hybrid”.  Their modeling effort claims that initially, manufacturers will adopt turbocharged engines (which we’re seeing—about ¼ of vehicles on the road incorporate a smaller, boosted engine), and then eventually they will be forced to become hybrids like the Prius…but  they will maintain that turbocharged engine in the hybrid.  This is not how manufacturers would design a car.

This idea is so ludicrous that the only example that I could find of anything close to this was the incredibly complex engines found in Formula 1 race cars.  The reason an auto manufacturer would never make this choice is that the electric motor on a hybrid car already provides power supplemental to the engine—you don’t need to turbo boost it as well.  There are lots of examples of car companies taking advantage of the extra power provided by a hybrid and pairing it with a smaller engine, like how the Toyota Prius utilizes the much more efficient Atkinson cycle or why the new Honda Insight can get away with using just a 1.5L engine.  There’s no reason a manufacturer is going to add cost and complexity when they don’t have to.  But by pretending like this is how manufacturers would comply, the agencies have been able to artificially inflate the costs of the current standards.

The one thing they get right: These standards are going to cost jobs

Surprising to me was that the agencies acknowledge in their analysis that this rollback is bad for the automotive sector.  According to their analysis, the industry stands to lose $200-$250 billion in revenue, cut investments in technology by $40 billion, and cut jobs in the automotive sector by 60,000 in 2030.  We pointed out how bad this rollback will be for the economy as a whole, as consumers are forced to spend more money on oil and less money on sectors with greater job growth potential, which will cut overall job growth by 125,000 in 2035 and nix $8 billion from national GDP—but this is confirmation that this rollback is terrible for the industry that asked for it.

The industry asked for this rollback—now it’s up to them to stop it

The industry opened up Pandora’s box by requesting the administration take another look at standards that are working for the American people.  Now we are getting a clearer picture of what that action means for consumers at the pump, the economy, the environment, and the auto industry—in short, it’s terrible.

It is up to the auto industry to try to fix what they broke.  I have little faith that this administration is interested in the facts—industry voices, on the other hand, may carry a lot more weight.

So, auto companies—are you willing to go to bat for the American people?  Or are you going to sit on the sidelines and watch this disaster of your own making unfold?

Photo: Ryan Searle/Unsplash

At Long Last, President Trump is Expected to Appoint a Science Adviser

Multiple outlets (Nature, Science, the Washington Post) are reporting that President Trump is set to appoint meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). He is an experienced scientist with an impressive record of public service. When the appointment happens, the Senate should move quickly to vet and consider his nomination so that the vacuum of science advice within the White House can begin to be filled.

Importantly, the OSTP director has typically also served as the science advisor to the president, reporting directly to the president (except during the George W. Bush administration, when the science advisor was demoted to report to the White House chief of staff). If you want to go deep on presidential science advice, here’s one book for you.

Presumed science adviser nominee Kelvin Droegemeier could be a moderating force within the White House. Photo: Oklahoma State University

Direct access to the president matters. Just think of all of the issues the president deals with that have a science and technological component: pandemics, disaster response, economic competitiveness, health care, drug abuse, energy, food systems, resource extraction and more. Imagine how much better prepared the president could have been in talks with North Korea with a trusted advisor on the nation’s nuclear capacity.

Dr. Droegemeier is an extreme weather expert, a knowledge base that is becoming more and more important with climate change loading the dice as extreme weather becomes more prevalent, costly, and deadly. Science advisors can be moderating forces by providing road maps and showing what is possible, and working behind the scenes to stop dangerous proposals from moving forward.

Hopefully, Dr. Droegemeier would help the president and his advisors make decisions that are more scientifically justifiable and reflective of scientific evidence. He would also serve the country well by supporting efforts that protect federal scientists from political interference in their work.

Some will doubt that the president will have any inclination to listen to science advice and incorporate it into his erratic behavior. But not all policy comes from the mouth of the president, and at this point any mainstream scientific presence in the White House should be considered a step forward.

ExxonMobil’s Support for a Carbon Tax is a Sham

Rep. Steve Scalise and other ExxonMobil-funded House members routinely vote against a carbon tax despite the company’s avowed support for one. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

ExxonMobil executives just had another opportunity to convince skeptics that their support for a carbon tax is genuine.

They blew it.

On July 23, Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo introduced a bill that would place a $24 per ton tax on carbon emissions and dedicate 70 percent of the revenue to rebuilding U.S. infrastructure.

ExxonMobil’s reaction? “We appreciate Rep. Curbelo’s effort to help generate a constructive discussion on this important issue” was all a company spokesman was willing to say.

ExxonMobil’s reluctance to seriously engage, however, should not come as a surprise.

Yes, the company has consistently paid lip service to a carbon tax since 2009. And yes, it is a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council—which supports a $40 per ton carbon tax—and it recently endorsed Americans for Carbon Dividends, a new bipartisan lobby group promoting a carbon tax that would return revenues to taxpayers.

But more telling is the fact that the oil giant has never publicly supported a carbon tax bill and consistently funds members of Congress who oppose a carbon tax.

How does that square with the company’s avowed position?

It doesn’t.

Just say no

Curbelo’s bill is hardly the first carbon tax legislation that ExxonMobil has snubbed. When California Rep. Ted Lieu asked ExxonMobil lobbyists to support a carbon tax bill in 2015, they refused. And when Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii  introduced the “American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act” in 2016, the company would not endorse their bill or lobby on its behalf.

“Regarding ExxonMobil’s alleged seven years of support for a carbon fee, we’ve seen no meaningful evidence of that,” the senators wrote in a letter they sent to the company in August 2016. “None of the top executives that make up ExxonMobil’s management team has expressed interest in meeting with any of us to discuss the Whitehouse-Schatz proposal or any carbon fee legislation.”

Besides ExxonMobil’s unwillingness to support actual legislation, it rewards members of Congress who oppose a carbon tax by consistently funding their reelection campaigns.

The most recent example of ExxonMobil’s upside-down funding priorities was a nonbinding carbon tax resolution in the House, which stated that such a tax would be “detrimental” to the U.S. economy. The measure, which Majority Whip Steve Scalise sponsored just days before Curbelo introduced his carbon tax bill, passed by a 229 to 180 vote, and a majority of ExxonMobil-funded lawmakers lined up in favor of it. All told, 78 percent of the 174 House members who have received ExxonMobil campaign contributions since 2013 voted for the resolution.

Scalise has introduced similarly worded measures before—with similar results. In March 2013, 156 House members cosponsored his resolution stating that “a carbon tax…is not in the best interest of the United States.” Ninety-three percent of the cosponsors, including Scalise, were funded by ExxonMobil. Three years later, the House passed a Scalise resolution with the same wording as the one earlier this month. Eighty-five percent of the 237 House members who voted for the resolution received ExxonMobil funding since 2013. The day before that vote, a reporter asked an ExxonMobil spokesman for the company’s opinion. Given its supposed support for a carbon tax, surely it would encourage the House to vote no. His response? “We’re not commenting on the resolution.”

Most of ExxonMobil’s beneficiaries in the Senate also oppose a carbon tax. In March 2013, for example, Whitehouse offered a budget resolution amendment that would ensure that “all revenue from a fee on carbon pollution is returned to the American people.” That’s exactly what ExxonMobil claims to support: a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Regardless, 39 of the 48 senators on the floor that day who had received contributions from ExxonMobil between 2010 and 2014 opposed the amendment, which was defeated by a 58 to 41 vote. Two years later, the Senate voted 58 to 42 in favor of a budget resolution amendment introduced by Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt prohibiting a carbon tax. Thirty of the 40 senators who received ExxonMobil campaign contributions, including Blunt, voted in favor of the amendment.

The $130-million question

A few years ago, a top ExxonMobil official claimed that since 2009, his company had been vigorously promoting a carbon tax with federal lawmakers as the most viable way to curb carbon emissions. “ExxonMobil executives,” he wrote, “have echoed that message in countless private briefings with members of Congress on carbon tax policy options.”

Since 2009, ExxonMobil has spent nearly $130 million on its Washington lobbying operation — more than any other oil and gas company — and another $9.6 million on federal campaigns. The $130-million question: What have ExxonMobil executives been saying during those countless private briefings?

To be sure, ExxonMobil is not the only fossil fuel company plying the halls of Congress, and Koch Industries and Murray Energy are definitely not trying to sell a carbon tax to anyone, so perhaps ExxonMobil lobbyists — no matter how hard they try — are overmatched. That said, the voting record compiled by ExxonMobil-funded lawmakers, the company’s refusal to back a bona fide carbon tax bill, and the fact that it continues to finance a climate disinformation campaign all suggest that the company is deliberately misleading the public while it sabotages federal efforts to address climate change.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Auto Standards Rollback: Oil companies Win, Everyone Else Loses

Factory worker in a car assembly line.

In April, I blogged about the findings of a new analysis showing how state and federal standards to improve vehicle efficiency and accelerate vehicle electrification could impact jobs and economic growth. The results of the analysis were overwhelmingly positive.  Investing in vehicle technologies to reduce spending at the pump isn’t just good for drivers: the money invested in technology development creates jobs, and savings on fuel get pumped back into the economy.  So what would happen if instead we decide to take a step backwards and not invest in improving vehicle emissions and efficiency as the Trump administration is anticipated to propose any day now? Spoiler alert: Oil companies win and everyone else loses.

We worked with Synapse Energy Economics, Inc, to run economic modeling scenarios assuming the administration moves forward with what appears to be their preferred outcome: freeze federal vehicle standards at 2020 levels and undermine state authority which allows California to set more stringent greenhouse gas and zero emission vehicle standards that other states can opt into.

Compared to the standards on the books today, this rollback would:

  • Increase consumer spending on gasoline by about $20 billion in 2025 and nearly $50 billion by 2035
  • Economy wide, reduce employment by 60,000 in 2025 and 126,000 in 2035
  • Reduce gross domestic product by $8 billion in both 2025 and 2035.

Rolling back federal and state vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards would reduce employment by an estimated 126,000 in 2035 as investments in the auto-sector are reduced and consumers spend more of their income on gasoline

All that of course is in addition to the energy security and pollution impacts from consuming billions of more gallons of gasoline in the coming decades.

Why is rolling back vehicle standards bad for the economy? 

Time and again the analysis of the economics of efficiency have been shown to pay off, especially when it comes to cutting oil use.  Prodding investment in automotive technology leads to job growth. The added costs of the technologies pay for themselves over the first few years of vehicle ownership paving the way for savings over the life of the vehicle, meaning people’s hard-earned money can be spent on things other than filling up their tank.

Rolling back standards, on the other hand, means forking over more money to oil companies in the form of higher gasoline bills. It also means abdicating leadership on automotive technology at a time when other countries, like China, are moving full steam ahead, putting our own automotive industry at risk.

No matter how the administration tries to spin it, it’s hard to see how going backwards on fuel efficiency and emissions standards is going to be good for the average American or our economy as a whole, let alone the auto companies who got this whole thing rolling to begin with.

The oil companies on the other hand?  Well that’s a different story.

Energy Storage Should Be an Urgent National Priority

Energy storage experts from across the country meet with UCS staff to discuss the role of the federal government in supporting energy storage. Photo: UCS

Imagine if the US had these three things: access to unlimited electricity from clean sources everywhere in the country, an electricity grid impervious to outages and electricity prices that were even cheaper than they are today.  These aspirations can become reality with advancements in energy storage.

This technology was developed right here in the good ole’ US of A, but unfortunately, the US is now falling behind other countries in this increasingly lucrative global market, and our outdated electric grid is growing more vulnerable to increasing threats like cyber-attacks and extreme weather.  So how do we regain our leadership in this critical technology, and how can we increase the development and deployment of energy storage here at home?  The answer is innovation.

What are the experts in the field saying?

Back in March, with the help of the Bipartisan House Advanced Energy Storage Caucus, UCS convened twenty-one experts on energy storage research, development and demonstration from around the country.  The goal was to develop recommendations for congress on how the federal government could best support innovation in this game-changing technology.  Our new policy brief, “Federal Support for Electricity Storage Solutions: State Perspectives on Research Development and Demonstration”, synthesizes the convening dialogue and includes a brief analysis of the applications and benefits of energy storage.  It also identifies and prioritizes the most important research questions and breakthroughs needed to advance the technology.  The brief highlights important ongoing work on energy storage across the federal government.  And most importantly, it contains recommendations for policy-makers on how the federal government can best foster and support innovation in energy storage.

We wanted to hear diverse perspectives, so we included a broad cross section of technical experts from different states and regions, including university professors, start-ups, the national labs, small rural electric co-ops and big utility representation, conservative political voices, the defense community, former state and federal officials, and financial analysts.

Three important points of unanimous agreement at the outset of the convening:  1) Energy storage RD&D across the federal government is underfunded relative to the strategic importance of innovation in this technology.  2) “The U.S. is no longer the global leader in energy storage technology.”  3) The private sector is not making the needed investments in energy storage RD&D to achieve transformational change.  Specific, strategic efforts are needed by the federal government to advance the technology.

The fiscal year 2019 “Minibus” is an opportunity

When congress returns from August recess, and the “minibus” conference committee resumes consideration of the fiscal year 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, they can provide a big boost to our energy security and our economy by increasing our federal commitment to research, development and demonstration of energy storage.  At present, we are only spending $41 million in fiscal year 2018 on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) flagship Energy Storage Program at the Office of Electricity (OE).  We are not going to out-innovate China and South Korea with that kind of insufficient federal investment.  For context, DOE is spending $1.2 billion in FY18 on nuclear energy RD&D.

The FY19 House bill surprisingly increases appropriations for OE’s energy storage program by $10 million, indeed a modest, but much needed increase, whereas the Senate bill keeps funding at FY18 levels.  OE’s Energy Storage Program partners with industry, utilities, and state energy organizations to advance multiple storage technologies, improve performance, and reduce costs, and has a strong track record.  This program focuses on research questions ranging from the applied early stage, to pre-commercialization and demonstration projects.  Minibus conferees should support the House funding levels for this program.

Another important DOE program for energy storage RD&D is the Advanced Research Projects Agency -Energy (ARPA-E), which has invested between 10 and 15 percent of its funding in energy storage projects over the last several years.    The Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E) pioneers transformational energy projects that represent high-risk but potentially game-changing technologies and provides effective technology-to-market advice to the best performers. For storage, ARPA-E takes this transformational approach to new chemistries, controller technologies, long-duration components, and cost reduction.

The FY19 House Energy and Water Appropriations bill cuts ARPA-E’s funding by 8 percent, but the Senate bill increases funding by 6%.  Minibus conferees should take this opportunity to come together on this nonpartisan issue and do what’s best for the country by supporting the Senate funding levels for ARPA-E.  The US must continue to innovate and lead in the energy technologies of the future.

We all want the US to be the country selling batteries instead of buying batteries in the 21st century.  Increasing federal funding for energy storage research development and demonstration will pay big dividends for our economy and national security, while helping to make the US electricity grid cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable.  We’re not doing enough; we’ve got to do more.  Let’s hope congress seizes the opportunity in the FY19 budget.

Photo: UCS

A Rare Victory: EPA Reverses Course and Closes Zombie Truck Loophole (for Now)

Last night, we learned that we actually scored a win on glider trucks.

Just before Scott Pruitt resigned from his position as EPA administrator, he gave a parting gift to the super-polluting glider truck industry. He said that the EPA wouldn’t enforce their own rule that limits production of these super-polluting trucks for another year and a half, an action that put thousands of lives at risk and seems legally indefensible. We had something to say about this, and so did you! More than 14,000 UCS supporters weighed in with EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, telling him to reverse course and close the glider vehicle loophole.

Glider trucks are really bad—they emit up to 40 times the NOx and 450 times the particulate pollution allowed in new trucks sold today. We have written about the strange backstory of these trucks and the saga of how one company (cough – Fitzgerald – cough) stands to gain from the previous administrator’s actions several times. You could say that we’re pretty fired up about glider trucks here at UCS.

So, what happened yesterday?

Andrew Wheeler is now the acting administrator of the EPA.  He was confirmed as deputy administrator in April and took over when Pruitt resigned.  We have been watching to see what he will do on several issues core to UCS’s mission and we got our first indication last night that he is at least more rational than his predecessor. He is not going to follow through with the enforcement ban that Pruitt put in place, which is great news. Is it the end of the story? Definitely not. But it’s a good indication that he is cut from different cloth than Pruitt.

This is a huge win for people who breathe air, particularly if they do so near trucking corridors. But we’re not out of the woods yet. There is still a rule on the table that would deregulate glider trucks entirely—many of you submitted comments on this rule (thank you!!) and we are in a waiting period to see if it gets finalized. Acting Administrator Wheeler has the power to kill the rule, like he did the enforcement ban, we just need to wait and see if he is willing to take that next step.

A political maneuver—but nonetheless a positive one

You may be wondering why he did this now, quietly, on a Thursday night, less than a week before he’s scheduled to testify in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee…..oh wait.There’s no doubt in my mind that Acting Administrator Wheeler made this move on purpose just before his first Senate hearing since he was confirmed. He is signaling that he is a different kind of political appointee and is probably hoping that Democratic members will go easier on him; this move may help.

The other piece of this puzzle are the lawsuits against the enforcement that were immediately filed by several environmental groups  and 16 states—the DC Circuit Court stayed the enforcement ban as they collect more information.

However, there are still LOTS of outstanding issues that we will keep a close eye on and will work to hold him accountable for anything the agency does under his watch—including weakening the clean car standards and undermining state authority to regulate tailpipe emissions (the proposal for this could come next week), advancing the restricted science proposal, continuing with this nonsense on PFAS, taking any further action on glider trucks…..the list is long.

But today let’s take a moment to savor our victory. Enjoy it. Relish it. Drink it in. These moments are infrequent, but they are fortifying. On Monday, we’ll be back in the fight.

Federal Health Study on Drinking Water Contaminants Calls into Question Safety of Nation’s Drinking Water Supply

The public water supply in Hyannis, Massachusetts, one of the communities currently dealing PFAS contamination. Photo: A. Fox. Courtesy of STEEP

On a late June evening in a high school auditorium in Exeter, NH, dozens of people stepped up to the microphone to tell EPA about contaminated drinking water in their communities. They described unexplained illnesses in their families, expressed frustration about inadequate government response, and shared their guilt and fear about their children’s exposures to toxics and the possible long-term effects. “Years before becoming pregnant, I was educating people on how to eliminate environmental toxics from their personal care products and food. That’s why this was so devastating,” said Alayna Davis, co-founder of a local community group called Testing for Pease. “I could not prevent this water from contaminating my son’s body.” 

This event was the first in a series of community listening sessions that EPA will host nationwide on a class of chemicals called PFASs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—toxic chemicals that, in recent years, have been detected in drinking water supplies across the country serving millions of Americans. A new federal report on PFAS health effects suggests that drinking water guidelines developed by EPA are not protective enough and should be lower. Scientists, environmental organizations, and community groups are urging the agency to take strong steps to address the problem. How the agency will respond is unclear at this point. What we do know, however, is that regardless of EPA action, the problem will not go away anytime soon unless we reduce our reliance on these chemicals and invest in safer alternatives.

A wake-up call

PFASs are ubiquitous. They’re used in stain-repellent furniture and carpets, waterproof clothing, nonstick cookware, and even some fast food packaging and dental floss. They can also end up in drinking water through waste released from chemical manufacturing sites as well as military bases and airports where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used. Due to their extreme persistence, these chemicals have been dubbed “forever chemicals.” PFASs are found in all of our bodies, and have been linked to cancers, developmental and reproductive toxicity, thyroid disease, immune system toxicity, and other effects.

In May, there was public outcry over efforts by the White House and EPA to delay the release of a federal health study on PFASs. The study was conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to internal EPA emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, officials were looking to avoid a “public relations nightmare.” Advocacy groups circulated online petitions and launched social media campaigns, pressing the government to release the report. On June 20, after much anticipation and controversy, ATSDR finally released a draft of the study, which found health risks associated with exposure to PFASs at levels much lower than the threshold levels estimated by EPA.

Weighing the evidence

Weighing in at 852 pages, the report is a comprehensive review of dozens of published studies on the toxicity of PFASs in humans and laboratory animals. While there are at least 4,700 PFASs on the global market, the report looked at just 14 types—ones the CDC monitors in the general population. Of these, ATSDR found it only had enough information on four—PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, and PFNA—to generate what are called minimal risk levels, or MRLs.

An MRL is essentially a measure of how much of a chemical a person can be exposed to each day without it causing health effects. MRLs encompass exposures from all sources, including drinking water, food, and consumer products. To calculate an MRL, scientists identify the lowest levels of exposure shown to cause harmful effects in humans or laboratory animals. They further reduce these levels by building in various safety factors to ensure that MRLs are protective for even the most vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children.

Safety in numbers

What got the attention of EPA officials earlier this year was that ATSDR’s new MRLs for PFOA and PFOS (the two most prevalent PFASs) are 6.7 and 10 times lower, respectively, than comparable values developed by EPA, which are known as reference doses (RfDs).

Although MRLs and RfDs are more or less the same thing, in this case, there were some differences in the way the two agencies generated their numbers. For PFOS, ATSDR and EPA both based their values on the same study that showed developmental effects in rats. However, in calculating its MRL, ATSDR lowered its value by a factor of 10 to account for additional studies showing effects on the immune system at low levels of exposure. In the case of PFOA, ATSDR and EPA relied on different studies altogether for their calculations.

What does this mean for our drinking water?

In May 2016, EPA issued a non-enforceable drinking water health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS, individually or combined. Dozens of public water supplies across the U.S. scrambled to meet this new advisory by shutting off polluted water sources and installing new treatment. For instance, on Cape Cod, where I have been studying unregulated drinking water contaminants including PFASs since 2010, the Hyannis Water System issued a temporary do-not-drink advisory to its customers. It has since spent millions of dollars to install large carbon filters to remove PFOS and PFOA from polluted wells.

The EPA develops its drinking water health advisories based on its RfDs, and includes assumptions about how much water people drink and how much of people’s exposure comes from other sources. Using the same methods and assumptions as EPA, when we translate ATSDR’s MRLs into drinking water guidelines, we get equivalent levels in drinking water of 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA—7 to 10 times lower than EPA’s. These values are also similar to those developed by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, which recommends limits of 13 ppt for PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA.

What’s next?

The public comment period for ATSDR’s report ends on August 20, and anyone can submit comments online. Meanwhile, back in New Hampshire, officials from EPA’s Washington DC and Boston offices have pledged to take action on PFASs in drinking water. Following a federal PFAS summit in May, EPA identified four areas for future action, including developing enforceable drinking water standards and groundwater cleanup recommendations to speed up remediation at contaminated sites.

These are good first steps. EPA should also consider ATSDR’s recent report and additional evidence of health effects at low levels of exposure. For instance, a study led by Harvard researcher Philippe Grandjean concluded that drinking water guidelines for PFOS and PFOA should be closer to 1 ppt based on immune system effects in children. In addition, studies in laboratory animals have found that low levels of PFOA exposure can impair mammary gland development. This is concerning because research shows that altered mammary gland development may increase breast cancer susceptibility later in life.

While PFOS and PFOA have received the most attention, it’s important to remember that PFASs are a broad group of chemicals, each with its own unique structure but united in their persistence. Although manufacturers have moved away from PFOS and PFOA, new alternative PFASs have emerged to fill their place, and these too raise concerns about effects in the environment and in people. Efforts to limit PFASs as a class rather than one at a time, such as Washington State’s recent ban on PFASs in food packaging and firefighting foam, are an important step in the right direction. Residents of affected communities across the U.S. are demanding action, and EPA needs to follow up on its promises by taking strong steps to protect public health.


Dr. Laurel Schaider is a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass. Her current research focuses on PFASs in drinking water and consumer products, including fast food packaging, and on septic systems as sources of unregulated drinking water contaminants. She is a researcher on the Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFASs (STEEP) Superfund Research Program at the University of Rhode Island and is a technical advisor to ATSDR’s Community Assistance Panel at the Pease Tradeport, a site of PFAS drinking water contamination. Find her on Twitter @laurelschaider.

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

Courtesy of STEEP, photo by A. Fox.

Is Tesla Doomed? The cases for and against the electric vehicle pioneer.

Photo: Matt Henry/Unsplash

Tesla is at a crossroads. One path leads to a sustainable business model and the other leads here. Earlier this month the California company hit the limit for the electric vehicle (EV) federal tax credit, meaning the full $7,500 credit will only be available to those who are delivered a Tesla before the end of 2018. The credit then phases down for Tesla vehicles during 2019 and is ultimately eliminated beginning January 2020. Other EV makers, like GM and Nissan, have yet to hit the 200,000-vehicle limit for tax credit eligibility. As a result, Tesla’s already expensive vehicles are set to get even more expensive, especially compared to other EVs that still qualify for the tax credit. This coming dynamic has spooked Wall Street analysts and inflamed hand wringing over whether there will be sufficient consumer demand and vehicle output to make Tesla ultimately profitable.

Here is the phase out schedule for the federal electric vehicle tax credit for Tesla. Note that other EV models from other brands still qualify for the credit. Source: https://www.tesla.com/support/incentives

There are strong arguments for both why Tesla will fail and why they will succeed. And, if marriage has taught me anything, it’s that I’m usually wrong. So, I don’t want to predict what exactly will happen to Tesla. Instead, I can detail why Tesla may succeed or fail irrespective of the broader EV industry, which is set to overtake gasoline-powered vehicles over the next decade.

SCENARIO A: Tesla is doomed. Why the electric vehicle maker will fail.

The coming elimination of the federal tax credit may have prompted some to cancel their Model 3 orders. One report claims that 24 percent of the 450,000 Model 3 deposits have been refunded, though Tesla contends the report doesn’t match its own data. Even if the 24 percent estimate is far off, the elimination of the federal tax credit will impact consumer demand.

You can’t get a Model 3 for less than $49,000 today, so the major Model 3 competitors – the Nissan LEAF and GM Bolt – have now become better bargains as they have both significantly cheaper sticker prices (from $29,990 and $36,620, respectively) and will remain eligible for the full $7,500 federal tax credit beyond 2018. Prospective EV buyers who aren’t charmed by the Tesla allure and want to save a couple “stacks of high society” may forget about their Model 3 deposit and choose one of the dozens of other EVs for sale (though many could be considered inferior when it comes to range, brand prestige or technology add-ons like autopilot).

Tesla may not only face demand problems. Their vehicle production pace hasn’t been quick enough to yield a positive balance sheet on an annual basis and the company has run higher quarterly deficits in the ramp up to Model 3 production. Also, Tesla doles out hundreds of millions a year for solar energy systems, has a burn rate of around $480,000…per hour, and has a $82.5 million debt note coming due in August.

Tesla has consistently become cash flow negative before getting back to the black, so the current cash flow problems should not be a big concern. Source: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/05/elon-musk-says-dont-worry-about-teslas-burn-rate-he-might-be-right/

Putting supply and demand aside, Tesla’s outlook has also been impacted by CEO Elon Musk’s recent bout as a whiny billionaire. He got into a social media spat with one of the divers who rescued the kids trapped in the Thailand cave, argued about the value of his donations to conservative politicians and campaigns, and threw a public tantrum about negative media stories. This erratic behavior couldn’t have helped Tesla’s stock price, which dropped 5 percent after Tesla asked suppliers for cash back to help the car maker turn a profit, a milestone that was promised to investors in Tesla’s last shareholder meeting.

$TSLA took a bit of a hit in mid-July, due to concerns about cash flow. Source.

SCENARIO B: Everybody relax! Here is why Tesla is guaranteed to succeed.

OK, ok. I know there was a lot of negativity in the preceding paragraphs. Take a breath, do this 3-minute meditation exercise then come back. You good? Good. Let’s continue.

Tesla is guaranteed to succeed because of one simple fact. Electric vehicles are a better product than gasoline-powered vehicles. They are cheaper to drive, cleaner to operate, cost less to maintain, drive smoother, can be fueled at home or topped off in a couple minutes on the road, direct fuel spending to regional utilities rather than multinational oil companies, and are simply a blast to drive.

All signs point to the coming electric revolution. The only question remains; how quickly will it happen? The answer depends on vehicle cost parity, which is improving as battery costs decline and EVs are made at larger scales from more manufacturers. The number of globally available EV models is set to jump from 155 at the end of 2017 to 289 by 2022 and the sticker price of EVs could become competitive with gas vehicles by 2024 – even cheaper than gas cars after that. Automakers are extending electric drivetrains to more vehicle segments like CUVs and minivans and, as a result, EV sales are rising in the U.S and around the world.

EVs will succeed and so too will Tesla. The Tesla brand has developed an allure strong enough to get them over any financial hurdle. Despite rarely becoming cash flow positive, the company has already raised $19 billion. That’s just how things roll out in Silicon Valley. And investor enthusiasm for the brand is well-founded. Tesla is the best in the game at marketing their brand of sustainability and cutting-edge technology to buyers of all ages and backgrounds. Both my 60-year old neighbor and 18-year old niece think Tesla’s are cool, for example. Musk is a revered figure (in some circles) and viewed as a prophet who will lead transportation away from fossil fuels and toward the promised land of using rooftop solar panels to capture energy, store it in home-based battery packs, and use it to light our homes and fuel our vehicles. That’s a powerful vision that seems within grasp, and Musk is bold (read: rich) enough to help us make it happen.

This marketing strategy has been backed up by Tesla’s ability to produce cars that turn heads and a profit. The Model 3 is the most profitable electric car in the automotive industry, with a margin as high as 30 percent, and has garnered glowing reviews from some of the toughest auto reviewers. The Model S was the top-rated car in its class by Consumer Reports and the Model Y SUV is set to disrupt one of the most popular vehicle segments in the U.S. Also, Tesla’s can come equipped with add-ons unique to the brand, like “ludicrous mode,” “autopilot” and a network of high-speed charging stations.

Overall, the performance of Tesla’s vehicles combined with the effective marketing of Elon Musk’s vision has given Tesla an “it” factor, and generated tremendous enthusiasm around the brand. This hype is more than enough to continue fueling demand to keep Tesla afloat even after they lose the federal tax credit.

As for cash flow and production? Being cash flow negative is a growing company’s M.O., and Tesla has demonstrated that they can get back in the black once they start churning out enough vehicles to meet demand. Today, Tesla is set to pump out 6,000 Model 3s a week – a record high – and plans to ramp up production even further. Demand isn’t set to wane, either. 450,000 people put down a deposit on a car that they hadn’t necessary seen, step foot in, or read anything about beyond the company propaganda – and demand has steadily risen for Tesla’s other models.

So don’t fret. This electric vehicle pioneer is set to settle in as a market leader in EVs.

Photo: Matt Henry/Unsplash

Unwinding the Perverse Arithmetic of Scott Pruitt’s Small Refinery Exemptions to the RFS

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt dramatically scaled back federal biofuels policy by exempting many refineries from their compliance obligations. Photo: WClarke/Wikimedia Commons

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is gone, but the messes he created will be with us for a long time. His approach to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) took an already complicated policy and turned it upside down. Here, we untangle the opaque way Pruitt rigged the system for his fossil fuel friends and what this means for the ongoing RFS rulemaking.

Pruitt pulling strings for polluters

Last year Pruitt, acting on behalf of some oil refineries, tried to roll back the standard through a rulemaking process, but his efforts were blocked by the political power of the ethanol industry and its backers in the Senate. But when Pruitt was blocked through the normal administrative process, he did the administrative equivalent of slashing tires, abusing a previously obscure provision to hand out exemptions to individual oil refiners at an unprecedented pace, and claiming the details and the reasoning are confidential business information not subject to public comment or even Congressional oversight.

The specific mechanism Pruitt used to make this change is called the Small Refinery Exemption (SRE), which is a provision of the law that allows EPA to exempt a small refiner from compliance with the standard in cases of disproportionate economic hardship. Until Pruitt assumed control of EPA, this provision had been used sparingly, which makes sense because the cost of complying with the RFS applies to all refiners equally, so in general the economic impact is exactly proportionate. But with Pruitt at the helm, EPA approved most of the SRE applications it received, reducing the standard by more than 7% compared to the volumes EPA had mandated (See this excellent FarmDocDaily article for the details)

The impacts of these decisions are wide-ranging:

Free lunch for small refiners

Some refiners enjoyed windfall profits, since the waiver gives them a significant competitive advantage over other refiners, who were not exempted. The market price for gasoline and diesel includes the cost of complying with the RFS, so refiners that get a waiver still sell their product for this price, without bearing the cost of compliance, which basically amounts to free money, courtesy of Scott Pruitt. Some of the beneficiaries of this largess included Carl Icahn, friend of the President and former adviser on regulations. Others getting a break include Andeavor, one of the largest refiners, who apparently qualified based on individual refineries that are below the size cutoff. Exxon Mobil and Chevron have reportedly also filed applications to exempt some of their smaller facilities.

Cellulosic fuels and biodiesel take a hit

The immediate impact of SREs on the use of biofuels is complicated. It might seem that ethanol use would fall in line with the RFS standards, but for economic and technical reasons ethanol use is likely to remain very close to 10 percent of gasoline use, regardless of changes in the RFS, at least in the near term. Instead it is biodiesel that likely takes the biggest hit. This is because SREs includes reductions in advanced biofuels and bio-based diesel, and also because biodiesel has been filling the gap between the conventional ethanol mandate and the E10 blend wall, which would stop if the SREs push ethanol mandates below the blend wall.

The standard for non-food based cellulosic biofuels, which Pruitt had already reduced by more than 7% in 2018 compared to 2017, was effectively further reduced by about another 8% by SREs.

Long term ramifications for compliance and certainty

Much of the impact of the SREs will be felt in future years. The RFS allows refiners to save extra credits for use in future years. In EPA’s proposal they revealed that banked credits increased by 38% last year, to more than 3 billion gallons worth. These banked credits will be used to reduce refiners’ compliance obligations for years into the future.

The big loser is fact-based policy-making

In the midst of the political train wreck that the RFS has become, it’s easy to lose sight of the basic goals the policy was meant to advance: to cut oil use and promote the development of low carbon biofuels. However, Pruitt left in the middle of a rulemaking process in which stakeholders were asked to comment on a proposal that claimed to be increasing the use of biofuels, when agency actions are actually decreasing biofuel use! Here’s the math:

  • EPA proposes a 590-million-gallon increase in biofuels use, about 3 percent more than 2018
  • However, if EPA continues to grant SREs at the same pace and without reallocating the volumes, the result will be to weaken the standards by about 8 percent
  • Therefore, reductions in the RFS targets through the use of SREs is larger than the proposed increases of the targets

Despite the huge impact SRE’s have on the RFS program, EPA specifically states that any comments on accounting for SRE will be ignored (page 32057).

EPA is not soliciting comments on how small refinery exemptions are accounted for in the percentage standards formulas in 40 CFR 80.1405, and any such comments will be deemed beyond the scope of this rulemaking.

What is more frustrating is that the rulemaking docket reveals the agency almost did the right thing, which would have recognized the SREs in the rulemaking process and kept the RFS targets intact. A review of early drafts of the proposal by Reuters (here) suggests that after returning from a tour of the Midwest, Pruitt was prepared to do just that. The consequence of reallocating the SREs would be that the overall RFS standards would be unaffected by the SREs, and instead any windfalls enjoyed by individual refineries would be made up by other refiners. Of course, the refineries were unhappy with this proposal. Refiners prefer their free lunch to be paid for by the biofuels industry, and started lobbying EPA furiously, with refinery state Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania calling Scott Pruitt. After these calls, the proposal to reallocate the SREs was removed, just three days after it had been written.

Cleaning up the mess

Biofuels is a complicated and politically divisive topic, and it’s not just the ethanol industry and oil refiners who have concerns about the RFS. But the starting point for legitimate policy making is to present the facts clearly and allow for public review and comment. In the case of the RFS, that means explaining the administration’s position on small refinery exemptions, and how the treatment of small refineries will affect the quantity of biofuels used in the United States. I have sent a letter to Acting Administrator Wheeler requesting that he do just that.

Acting Administrator Wheeler needs to clean up the mess left by former Administrator Pruitt. This requires not just arbitrating the disputes between the Texas and Iowa Congressional delegations, but also administering the laws as written and making policy decisions based on facts – can he rise to the challenge?

Photo: WClarke/Wikimedia Commons

If You Smell Something, Say Something: Identifying Local Natural Gas Leaks

Photo: W.carter/Wikimedia Commons

Walking my dog around my neighborhood one day, I caught a whiff of something very clearly – gas. At first, I noted the smell but assumed it was a fleeting odor and chalked it up to urban living. But soon I realized there was nothing fleeting about it.  I take the same route each day, and it became clear that specific locations  persistently smelled strongly of gas. Internal alarm bells went off in my head as I calculated the amount of gas necessary to be detected outside, in open air, uncontained. I asked my neighbors and the local utility company about the leaks – surely, I was not the only one who had noticed the smell, which led to my next question, what was being done about it? I was surprised to find that my neighbors had actually been smelling the leaks and alerting the utility companies for years. YEARS. I was shocked, and I wanted to know more.

Boston is leaking gas, and we are not alone

Click to enlarge.

I quickly learned Massachusetts depends heavily on natural gas and unfortunately has very old (and thus leak-prone) gas infrastructure. Natural gas leaks are associated with a host of negative impacts to our health, our environment, and our wallets. Methane, the main chemical released in a natural gas leak, is toxic and has been known to aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases. Leaks are damaging to local flora as methane displaces the oxygen in the soil, essentially suffocating plants and trees. Additionally, methane is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG), and the amount released from natural gas is affecting the climate at an alarming rate. Currently there is no law that requires utilities to pay for gas that is wasted and released into the atmosphere; instead companies build that cost into consumers’ bills. Most consumers are neither aware of the extent of the leaks nor that they are footing the bill. Through the UCS Science Network Mentor Program, I was connected with Dr. Nathan Phillips at Boston University who led a study in 2013 which quantified the location and concentration of leaks in Boston. This study identified more than 3,000 leaks, many of which had methane concentrations well above expected background levels. With miles and miles of aging infrastructure, this leaking problem is pervasive throughout the natural gas industry and is not unique to Boston.


Many small leaks = one big problem; many voices = one big solution 

Click to enlarge.

When combined, the thousands of natural gas leaks in Massachusetts account for a 10% increase in the state’s annual GHG footprint. Furthermore, just 7% of leaks are responsible for 50% of total methane emissions. Yet, methane from natural gas systems is not accounted for when tallying citywide GHG emissions in Boston’s climate action plan. As a citizen, it is easy for me to view a problem of this size as insurmountable, but as a scientist I know there is much to be gained from analyzing the data and sharing the results. For instance, the work outlined above prompted legislation requiring utilities to report the locations of leaks to the MA Department of Public Utilities. Subsequently, the nonprofit Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET), took it upon themselves to map utility-reported gas leaks and make this information clear and available to the public. Making science accessible for people to use to improve their community is a fundamental step forward. So far I have accomplished this in my community by holding information sessions and sharing the locations of leaks in Roxbury. Scientists and experts can make valuable contributions to advancing solutions in many ways and it all starts by joining the conversation.


Sarah Salois (@Sarah_Salois) is a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology with a focus on theoretical ecology at the Marine Science Center of Northeastern University in Nahant MA. Her dissertation work focuses on the assembly and dynamics of ecological metacommunities. She is passionate about understanding the vulnerabilities of ecosystems to a changing climate and other anthropogenic pressures.

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

Photo: W.carter/Wikimedia Commons

Trump’s EPA Puts Our Health at Risk

It’s common sense: the environment matters to our health.

Ask parents, teachers, nurses, and community leaders, and they get it. They know that air and water pollution, contaminated land, and chemical exposures in their homes, schools, workplaces, and communities can cause serious health effects – both acute and chronic. Families and communities across the country value a clean environment and rely on strong public standards, based in science, to give them the protection they need, expect, and deserve.

That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created. It is a critical public health agency whose primary mission is to “protect human health and the environment.” Unfortunately, its track record over the last year-and-a-half has not been good. We have seen the agency sideline science and run in the opposite direction—delaying, weakening, and rolling back public health protections and ignoring the advice of its own scientific experts and advisors. Whether considering pesticides and toxic air emissions or the safety of chemical facilities, the EPA has been stepping back from its primary mission and putting public health at risk.

Now the agency plans to go one step further. It’s proposing a rule to ensure it doesn’t have to use the best available science to make public health and environmental decisions. Next week (July 17), EPA will hold its only public hearing on the proposed rule called “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.” That sounds like a good thing, but it is a deceptive title and a threat to our health. It turns out that this proposal is really an effort to allow EPA to restrict the science it uses for decision making.

In examining the relationship between public health and environmental pollution, EPA is proposing to eliminate consideration of scientific studies unless the raw study data are made publicly available — possibly including participants’ personal, confidential, and private information — data that may be subject to legal, ethical, and human subject research protections.

This requirement would eliminate human health studies that use integral medical, lifestyle, and geographic data, as well as studies that include confidential business information, such as information from studies conducted by industry to demonstrate safety of a pesticide or other toxic chemical. It could also eliminate consideration of older studies for which data are no longer available or accessible, even if the data have been reanalyzed and the studies have been validated, replicated, reproduced, and undergone rigorous and independent peer review.

Far from using the best available science for EPA decision-making, the proposal would severely limit the studies and scientific evidence the agency would use to fulfill is statutory mission to protect human health and the environment. This is not a new idea. It is the result of a decades-long campaign to undercut reliance on groundbreaking research that definitively linked exposure to fine particulate matter (PM) to premature death and prompted the first regulation of PM under the Clean Air Act. For example, Harvard University’s “Six Cities study has been anathema to lobbyists in regulated industries for a long time.

EPA provides no analysis of the need for or the potential impacts of the proposed rule. The agency did not consult with critical stakeholders, including scientists and health professionals in developing the proposal. It did not consult with the prestigious National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine or even its own hand-picked Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), whose members found out about the proposed rule via a press event, news articles, and an announcement in the Federal Register. In its June 28, 2018, letter to then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the SAB chair urged the agency to request, receive, and review scientific advice from SAB before revising the proposed rule.

Science organizations, scientists, public health, and medical professionals from across the country have urged the EPA to withdraw the proposed rule. The editors of major scientific journals issued a joint statement opposing and objecting to EPA’s claim that the rule is consistent with scientific community norms.

In its joint letter of June 1, 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wrote that “The proposed rule would drastically and incorrectly limit the types of scientific data that EPA can use when making substantial regulatory changes. Implementing this rule will harm the health of children and pregnant women by causing EPA to disregard some of the best available scientific studies examining the effects on these vulnerable populations from lead, harmful chemicals, fine particle pollution, and contaminants.”

The American Public Health Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and a host of other public interest organizations jointly called on the agency to withdraw the rule, noting that it “significantly departs from long-standing policy at EPA and is inconsistent with well-established practices used throughout the scientific community.”

And in a May 8, 2018, letter, 300 public health scientists and professionals noted that “If finalized, the proposed rule could place unprecedented limits on the use of scientific evidence by EPA. These limits will in turn shape the development of evidence-based public health policies including air pollution standards, drinking water regulations, pesticide tolerances, worker protections, and more.”

As public health professionals with years of experience in academia, government, and the non-profit sector, we have witnessed political interference and shifting tides on core policy issues across both Democratic and Republican administrations. But EPA’s newly proposed restrictions on the body of scientific evidence it will consider in its regulatory decision making is a fundamental threat to public health, and it will seriously erode the agency’s ability and responsibility to protect it.

Make your voice heard by submitting comments on the proposed rule via Regulations.gov to docket EPA-HQ-2018-0259 by August 16, 2018. This proposal is a dangerous threat to your health.

This post originally appeared in Scientific American.  It was co-authored by Kathleen Rest, PhD, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association

Trump Administration Declares Poverty is Over, We Can All Go Home Now

Photo: Michael Vadon/CC BY SA 4.0

Picture it: The loading dock of the city’s largest food bank is shrouded in silence. Pallets of food are stacked inside, draped with cobwebs, waiting for volunteers who will never come to unload them. The food bank is now a relic of a bygone era—when people befallen by any number of ills needed help feeding their families. From a window above, a boy’s face appears. “Haven’t you heard?” he shouts. “Poverty is over!”

Okay, okay—I know this is absurd. But does the Trump administration?

Earlier this month, its Council of Economic Advisers released a report defending its proposals for stricter work requirements in major social safety net programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). If you’ve been following the 2018 farm bill reauthorization, you’ll recall that a host of unnecessary and punitive work requirements were included in the House bill. The White House report justifies these work requirements by citing a decline in self-sufficiency alongside a decline in material hardship—in other words, many households continue to participate in public assistance programs, despite the fact that their purchasing power seems to be increasing on the whole. And it’s under this pretense that the authors make a dangerous claim: the “war on poverty” has been successful, and is effectively over.

We’ve discussed the work requirements contained in the House bill—by and large, they’re built on misinformation, prejudice, and partisan ideology. But this inaccurate and wildly irresponsible declaration of victory over poverty in America warrants a discussion of its own.

In a country of wealth and abundance, everyone should be able to eat

The new White House report contends that “most” people in the United States now have their basic needs met, and that’s true. But while more than 99 percent of us have housing on any given night, that still leaves more than half a million people on the streets. Similarly, “only” 4.6 percent of people live in households with very low food security—meaning an unthinkable 15 million people worry that their food will run out, cut back on portions, or skip meals altogether with some regularity. (This doesn’t include the additional 27 million people living in households with low food security.)

Caring only about what happens to most of us isn’t good enough in one of the wealthiest and most resource-abundant countries in the world—particularly when the “few” represent millions of people struggling to get by, with prospects for upward mobility that are increasingly bleak.

Prosperity is more than the absence of poverty, and it’s getting harder to come by

The administration correctly identifies that there are many able-bodied, working-age adults who don’t have consistent employment, but it’s wrong in naming “the American work ethic” as the culprit. The reality is that it’s getting harder and harder to climb the economic ladder—particularly if you’re starting at the bottom rung.

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows that income inequality—the gulf between the haves and have-nots—continues to widen in every state, as it has since the 1970s. On average, those in the top 1 percent of US families by income earned 26.3 times more than the those in the bottom 99 percent. Not 26.3 percent more; 26.3 times more. As the authors state, “The gains of those at the top have come at the expense of the vast majority of working families.”

And the inequitable distribution of income affects some families more than others. Structural racism remains a powerful force that keeps doors to opportunity closed to people of color. A recent report found that rates of home ownership and unemployment among black Americans have remained virtually unchanged for the last five decades. Over the same time period, the share of black Americans in prison or jail nearly tripled and currently outpaces the incarceration rate of white Americans by a factor of six.

Asserting that the state of economic well-being in this country is just fine, thank you, should elicit the same response as the declaration to Make America Great Again. For whom?

SNAP helps with more than just food – and it needs our support

Until our country gets its act together, we need to maintain a strong social safety net—and SNAP is a critical part of that safety net. Every year, it helps millions of households put food on the table. But more importantly, as we’ve shown, it also enables people to set aside more of their income for other necessities like housing, utilities, and transportation—as well as things like education, which is a key contributor to higher income and lifetime earnings.

As the 2018 farm bill enters a critical stage of negotiations, the fate of SNAP hangs in the balance. The best thing we can do for the millions of families across the United States who face the very real consequences of poverty—whether temporary or persistent—is to ask our senators and representatives to reject the draconian and ill-advised work requirements contained in the House version of the bill, and to adopt the Senate bill instead. Visit our website to take action today.

This isn’t exactly the main message of the report and so it could seem a little histrionic. Is there a way to reframe it to be more consistent with the key findings of the report?  I know this is in the report as an explanation, but it would be better if attacking the report to highlight something that is directly stated, like their stated finding below, and then using that to explain their stance that poverty is over.

Photo: Samuel Zeller/Unsplash

The 1 Thing Massachusetts Needs in its Clean Energy Bill

Photo: Emmanuel Huybrechts/Flickr

Massachusetts is at a pivotal point in its lawmaking trajectory and its clean energy path. With just one week remaining in this legislative session, where we head on clean energy is up to a polydactyl handful of lawmakers tasked with coming up with shared language in the next few days for a bill that takes the state to the next level on climate and energy. The good news is that there’s just one thing we need to see in what they come up with.

Our journey and our guides

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed clean energy bills, and a group of three representatives and three senators is working on hammering out a version that represents the best of each.

The make-up of that “conference committee” is auspicious, in terms of clean energy action:

  • The lead conferees are Rep. Tom Golden of Lowell, the house head of the joint senate-house energy committee and an advocate for energy storage, and Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington, a strong, tireless voice for climate action economy-wide.
  • Also representing the senate is President Pro Tem Marc Pacheco (Taunton), a long-time advocate for moving on climate change, and author of the state’s landmark 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA).
  • The conferees also include House Speaker Pro Tem Patricia Haddad (Somerset), who last session came out swinging hard (and successfully) for offshore wind, and who is behind some of the important house pieces of what’s in play this time around.
  • Rounding out the committee are Sen. Patrick O’Connor (Weymouth), the sole Republican member of the senate’s global warming committee, and House Minority Leader Brad Jones (North Reading), who has led his fellow Republicans to unanimous votes on virtually every major climate and clean energy bill of the last decade (and co-signed a recent house letter urging clean energy action this session).
The secret of our success

So what should that special sextet do in the next few days?

It’s easy to picture a really solid bill emerging from what has already passed one chamber or the other. It should certainly include these elements:

Photo: J. Rogers

  • Strong boost for new renewable energy. The state’s requirement that utilities use increasing amounts of new renewable energy (the main class of the renewable portfolio standard, or RPS) is currently set at 13%, and set to grow 1% per year.
    • Status: The house and senate agree that it’s in need of an increase—it’s unfinished business from the otherwise impressive clean energy bill from last session—so all they need to do is agree on how much. The senate’s version takes us to getting half of our electricity from new renewable energy by 2030, the same level that leading states, including California, New York, and New Jersey—are headed toward. That’s the one that belongs in the combined house-senate bill.
  • Barrier-busting for solar energy. Massachusetts has been a major solar success story for most of the last decade, and solar has been a major driver of clean energy job growth in the state. But policy uncertainty and the caps that earlier laws put on its growth caused the industry to actually lose jobs last year. And Massachusetts fell from the #5 state in new solar in 2017 to #9 in the first quarter of 2018. Those are self-inflicted wounds we could well do without. We also need the legislature to knock down barriers that are keeping low-income households from adopting solar.
    • Status: The solar bill in the house hasn’t made it through the full chamber yet, but the conferees should adopt the senate language that does away with the caps, nixes unfair utility practices that hurt customers who use less electricity, and expands access for low-income solar.
  • Stardom for storage. Leading states are pushing their utilities to embrace storage at really meaningful levels, which will help drive innovation, cut pollution, and make our electricity grid more flexible and resilient.
    • Status: House language would encourage innovation, and senate language would set specific targets for utility progress. The conferees should embrace both chambers’ language.
  • The next leap for energy efficiency. Massachusetts has been the #1-ranked state on energy efficiency policy for 7 years in a row, and it’s ready for the next level. New technologies, like efficient heat pumps for home heating and cooling, are willing and ready partners.
    • Status: The house has two strong bills to power that next leap. One would keep the momentum going by broadening programs to incorporate new technologies. Another would drive appliance efficiency standards to new heights (especially important in the absence of sufficient federal progress). Both those house efforts should be in the final bill, along with senate language worth incorporating.

And there are plenty more pieces potentially in play and certainly worthy of strong consideration, around 2030/2040 targets for cutting carbon pollution under the GWSA, for example, and around climate action in sectors other than electricity. Both houses have language to expand the offshore wind push that last session brought too, so including those should be slam dunk.

The guiding star

Those are the pieces that, if wisdom prevail, will come together to form Massachusetts’s next strong step forward on clean energy and climate action.

And the way to get there, in part, is to think not just about the particulars—those elements that will make for a great package—but also about one overarching concept, the one thing we really need from this package. At a time when our president has willfully abdicated American leadership on climate and clean energy (and so much more), when some in our state are calling for a “wait and see” approach to further progress (rebutted nicely here), what we need, here and now, is leadership.

Since it restructured the way electric utilities operate, two decades ago, Massachusetts has taken the lead in so many ways. From its establishment of the first statewide renewable portfolio standard way back when, to its strong push to show how solar could work even in northern climes, to its prominence in energy efficiency, to its nation-leading commitment to offshore wind in 2016, the Bay State has blazed trails for others to follow.

The thing about leadership, though, is that it takes effort to stay out in front. On offshore wind, for example, Massachusetts’s strong commitment was followed by a stronger one in New York, and an even stronger one in New Jersey.

Other states have seized the mantle of leadership.  And we want it back.

To be clear, we want leadership not just for leadership’s sake. Our trailblazing has led us to a vibrant clean energy economy. Offered the prospect of economic renaissance in areas of the state where new energy is building on energy experience stemming back to the days of whale oil. Brought us cleaner air and water, with the health and economic benefits that come with those. Made energy so much more affordable because of the power of energy efficiency and our ability to do more with less.

But America does need leadership from the laboratories of democracy that are the states, needs shining cities on the hill that demonstrate the next steps, that inspire action commensurate with the scale of the challenge and the opportunity.

Lead on

In the next few days, then, we need leadership. From the six members of our legislature who must hash things out. From their legislative colleagues who can weigh in in support of the strongest possible package for progress. From the leaders of the house and senate who aren’t on the conference committee.

And we need the voices of the citizens of Massachusetts to ring in the ears of those elected officials, helping them understand how much we value what we’re so close to achieving. If you’re a Bay Stater, and particularly if your senator or representative is on the conference committee or in leadership, now’s the time to make your voice heard on clean energy.

Leadership takes work. And it is so worth it.

Photo: Emmanuel Huybrechts/Flickr

New EPA Administrator, Same Bad Idea—Car Standard Rollbacks Would be Awful

Photo: NeONBRAND/Unsplash

For months now, we’ve heard from a variety of sources that the Trump administration is readying a proposal which would roll back 2025 vehicle standards to 2020 levels, halting progress on reductions in emissions and oil use at the same time that transportation has become the largest source of global warming emissions in the U.S.  With Scott Pruitt resigning from his post at the EPA, many had high hopes that this could signal a change in direction for the agency—unfortunately, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler appears headed down the same wrong-headed path.

With the standards on the cusp of being rolled back, I thought it would be helpful to put into context exactly what is at stake.  The technology is here to move industry and the country forward while providing consumers with tremendous savings, increasing jobs and economic growth, improving national security, and reducing environmental impacts of the largest source of global warming emissions in the country—Acting Administrator Wheeler should be siding with the science to protect those gains, and moving us forward towards even stronger standards beyond 2025.

The current fuel economy and global warming emissions standards have helped “bend the curve” on emissions from cars and trucks, but they are not sufficient to hit our climate goals. The current administration’s push to roll back these rules is a huge step backwards precisely when we should be moving forward on even stronger standards.

Rolling back vehicle standards: by the numbers

We cranked the numbers on what this rollback would mean, together with their threat to void state regulations on vehicle emissions, and it is truly staggering:

  • Rolling back these standards will result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040—that’s 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone, equivalent to keeping 43 coal-fired power plants online.
  • These inefficient cars and trucks will use an additional 200 billion gallons of gasoline by 2040—that’s as much oil as we’ve imported from the Persian Gulf since the standards were first finalized in 2010.
  • This will cost consumers hundreds of billions of dollars—in 2040 alone, consumers will spend an additional $55 billion at the pump if these standards are rolled back.
And it’s even worse than that!

There are, of course, additional impacts that we have not yet directly quantified.  For example, automotive suppliers provide about two-thirds of the value of a new vehicle, and they’ve invested in the long-term to reduce fuel use—rolling back these standards will mean reduced returns on that investment, likely prompting some of these global companies to move their R&D facilities to the countries still charting a course forward, like China and the European Union.  Combined with consumers’ reduced discretionary spending, which means less money in job-intensive sectors like the service industry and retail, this action will result in job losses and shrinking economic growth. The current 2017-2025 standards are slated to create more than 250,000 jobs nationwide by 2035 and increase GDP by $16 billion—President Trump’s action could cut that growth in half.

By going after state authority to set emissions standards, the administration would also be fighting against one of the strongest levers California and other states have on public health.  Electrification of transportation is a key component of many state plans to meet air quality requirements.  Attacking state leadership on cleaner vehicles is a direct attack on public health, particularly that of the most vulnerable communities.

The only clear winners of this rollback would be the oil companies—with consumers forking over more of their hard-earned money for every fill-up.

Photo: NeONBRAND/Unsplash