UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

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

Coal Bailout: Low on Benefits, but High on Costs

Photo: PDTillman/Wikimedia Commons

More indications that there is no national reason for a proposed financial rescue of coal plants came out this week. Power grid operator PJM says there is no emergency; a leading coal industry representative says we don’t have any measure or understanding of what is gained in terms of reliability; and financial estimates are reported at $17 – 35 billion per year.

A hand holding a bag of money

Handouts are not as simple as this. If they were, everyone would get in line. Source: http://chittagongit.com

Plenty of money at stake

In the energy industry, the costs of decisions are often very substantial. Economics, policy, and engineering are all relevant. There’s usually a lot of emphasis on costs and benefits, with the expectation that the benefits are larger than the costs. In this case, we have an active debate about paying old coal plants to keep operating at a loss, without an indication of who pays, what benefits are gained, or who can qualify for government-ordered payouts.

At a national meeting this week of utility regulators, who would normally review the costs of the grid and electricity supplies, we heard from Andy Ott, CEO of the regional grid PJM Interconnection; Michelle Bloodworth, COO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity which represents coal plant owners and their supporting industry; Kristin Munsch, Deputy Director, Illinois Citizens Utility Board; and Neal Cohen, Senior Vice President for External Affairs, Nuclear Energy Institute.

Plenty of safety margin available

When the CEO of PJM says they have looked, and can’t find an emergency, that means something. PJM operates the largest electricity market in the world ,serving the area from Chicago to New Jersey and south from Pennsylvania to the North Carolina coast. PJM has plenty of procedures for dealing with uneconomic power plants, planned as well as sudden power plant retirements, and how to keep the lights on across the region. If you haven’t spent time with a regional transmission organization, you can’t imagine how careful these organizations are to maintain the supply of electricity.  PJM presently has a reserve margin that is twice as large as its target reserve margin. From the 2018 Summer Reliability Assessment: “The PJM reserve margin for this summer is 32.8 percent with a requirement of 16.1 percent. With this level of surplus, PJM has not identified any emerging reliability issues regarding resource adequacy.” In other words, PJM is well-prepared and has the means to provide for our electricity needs.

Nothing clear from coal perspective

Perhaps more astounding was the perspective of the coal industry representative. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity acknowledged that the defined standards for reliability are all being met. While acknowledging that they don’t have a definition of the need or benefits, the coalition still claims that in the future there will be a need. Compounding this problem, this speaker said we really don’t know what plants will be affected by a federal rescue or “where the money will come from.” With that, the coal industry assured the audience that the cost figure they selected, $4 billion per year for needy coal plants, isn’t much to ask.

Making estimates of the costs of this bailout is an educated guess at this point since details have not been offered to the public. (No one is making estimates of the benefits, because no one has defined the problem or need.) News came out today of a few cost estimates for a federal bailout. These numbers range from $17 billion per year for unprofitable coal and nuclear plants to continue running with an annual payment of $50 per kilowatt of capacity, which translates to $50 million per year for a large plant with 1,000 MW capacity. Paying the profits as well as the costs could push the number to between $20 billion and $35 billion per year. But remember: we don’t know who gets this payout, or what other revenues will no longer be available once the federal payments kick in.

Not coincidentally, there was already a debate within grid operators and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about the practices of individual states making payments for the operational characteristics that lawmakers in those states approved. These have a few flavors, but they came out of debates and votes that identified benefits. In our federal system, the states’ authority to select power plants hasn’t been revoked by economists or other ideologically driven actors.

Consumers’ voice

At the utility regulators meeting, Kristen Munsch, a leader among consumer advocates in the PJM region, reminded us that markets and prices are doing what they were designed to do. “Operational characteristics” that are not recognized by the market are being selected by state policies, where they are valued. But that is limited, same as a bailout of coal plants is limited, to what the poles and wires can transfer from power plant to user. The power grid is a system, and a rush to define the security of the system from only the perspective of fuel for the plants is not useful. The consumers’ perspective, as the user of energy, needs to be included. If the debate is framed so as to squelch discussion, we are likely to overpay for stuff that under delivers.

Oh, one more thing. Andy Ott of PJM said to the gathered state officials that if this proposed bailout comes with a justification of “national defense” then he will ensure that the revenue is collected from the whole nation.

Photo: PDTillman/Wikimedia Commons

Most Popular Energy Source? Everyone Loves Solar

Photo: Andreas Gücklhorn

A recent survey shows yet again that solar panels (and wind turbines) have a level of bipartisan popularity that would be the envy of any politician. That means we’ll have something safe to talk about at the next barbeque after all.

The survey, from the Pew Research Center, had a lot of fascinating findings about the surprisingly high levels of agreement among Americans on a range of environmental issues, with strong majorities saying that the federal government is doing too little on water quality, air quality, and climate change.

What really caught my eye, though, were the pieces specifically dealing with energy. The numbers on public support for expanding different energy sources, in particular, are stunning (figure 1).

Figure 1. Source: Pew Survey on Environment 2018

Think about that: 9 out of 10 adults in this country agree that more solar farms would be a good thing. And 8.5 out of 10 feel the same way about wind farms.

The survey report calls “[r]obust support for expanding solar and wind power… a rare point of bipartisan consensus in how the U.S. views energy policies.” And here’s the breakdown by political leaning showing that bipartisanship (figure 2).

Figure 2. Source: Pew Survey on Environment 2018

Diving in even further doesn’t do much to dispel the sense of bipartisanship (figure 3); even self-described “conservative Republicans” overwhelmingly favor expanding solar farms (80%) and wind farms (71%).

Figure 3. Source: Pew Survey on Environment 2018

While I admit that the strength of all these numbers took me by surprise, they shouldn’t have, and the overall finding is consistent with lots of previous polling, and efforts like the green Tea Party in support of rooftop solar rights. The broad support for solar and wind shows up among governors of all stripes and in Congress, with lots of bipartisanship in favor of keeping up wind power’s momentum, and against letting the president’s ill-conceived trade taxes, for example, hurt solar’s. Even the Trump administration now and then admits to having a soft spot for certain renewables.

Love for clean energy all around.

While the data show there are still sharp disagreements over fossil fuels, at a time when divisions are so deep on so many issues, it’s refreshing to find things we strongly agree on.

Fire up the grill

I’m not advocating that we steer clear of the tough conversations we need to be having as a society (and those are legion). But the next time you’re chatting up your neighbor, or a stranger, at a summer barbeque, and aren’t interested in talking politics or religion or sports (or fossil fuels), just know that solar panels and wind turbines are likely to be pretty safe ground to tread. The odds are strong that your conversation partner is as excited about them as you are, regardless of political affiliation (or where they come down on the Yanny-Laurel debate).

With the World Cup over, it’s great to have teams we’re all cheering for: Team Solar, Team Wind. So bring the chips, and the data, or just your enthusiasm, and have at it.

Thanks, solar and wind, for guaranteeing our barbeques some common ground.

Photo: Andreas Gücklhorn

Electric vs. Diesel vs. Natural Gas: Which Bus is Best for the Climate?

Map of the United States showing the fuel efficiency that a diesel bus would need to have the same life cycle global warming emissions as a battery electric bus in each region.

Battery electric buses – the people’s electric vehicle – are becoming more and more common. An increasing number of transit agencies – large and small – are making announcements about purchasing electric buses and putting them into operation.

The obvious benefit of electric buses is that they don’t have any tailpipe emissions. A question we often get at UCS is, “What about emissions used to generate electricity for electric vehicles?”

We answered this for buses charged on California’s grid and found that battery electric buses had 70 percent lower global warming emissions than a diesel or natural gas bus (it’s gotten even better since that analysis). So what about the rest of the country?

You many have seen my colleagues’ work answering this question for cars. We performed a similar life cycle analysis for buses and found that battery electric buses have lower global warming emissions than diesel and natural gas buses everywhere in the country.

What the map shows

The map above shows the miles per gallon that a diesel bus would need to have equivalent life cycle global warming emissions as a battery electric bus on today’s grid (really the 2016 grid, the most recent data available).

This means a battery electric bus operated in North Carolina, for example, has the same life cycle global warming emissions as a diesel bus that gets nearly 15 miles per gallon! That’s impressive considering a comparable diesel bus actually gets 4.8 miles per gallon. So, you can operate three electric buses in North Carolina and have the same emissions as a single diesel bus.

Electric buses are better for the climate than diesel buses everywhere in the country

Battery electric buses range from 1.4 to 7.7 times better than a diesel bus, as shown in miles per gallon emissions-equivalency. Another way of saying this is that a diesel bus has nearly 1½ to 8 times the global warming emissions as an electric bus, depending on the region.

And the grid is getting cleaner every year. Emission rates from electricity have steadily declined the last sixteen years. Transit agencies can also choose cleaner power than what’s provided on their grids by installing solar panels and batteries on site or through renewable electricity contracts.

Charged with the national electricity mix, a battery electric bus has global warming emissions equivalent to a diesel bus getting 12 miles per gallon. This is 2.5 times better than an actual diesel bus (4.8 miles per gallon).

They’re also better than natural gas and diesel-hybrid buses

Everywhere in the country, battery electric buses also have lower life cycle global warming emissions than natural gas and diesel-hybrid buses. Charged with the national electricity mix, an electric bus produces 1,078 grams CO2e per mile, while a natural gas bus produces 2,364 grams CO2e per mile and a diesel-hybrid produces 2,212 grams CO2e per mile.

(Note, values for CO2e per mile reflect the same analysis as the miles per gallon emissions-equivalent values shown in the map, just presented in different units).

Chart showing global warming emissions per mile for diesel, natural gas, diesel-hybrid, and battery electric buses.

Natural gas buses have 12 percent lower global warming emissions than diesel buses.* Electric bus emissions range from 29 to 87 percent lower than diesel buses and 19 to 85 percent lower than natural gas buses.

Here’s a table showing the life cycle global warming emissions per mile from electric buses in all regions of the US.

Table showing the global warming emissions per mile of electric buses charged in different regions of the country.

Click to enlarge.


 Cleaner electricity means cleaner electric buses

In upstate New York, the region with the lowest carbon grid in the country (roughly 30 percent hydropower, 30 percent nuclear, 30 percent natural gas), a battery electric bus has nearly 90 percent lower global warming emissions than a diesel bus.

A battery electric bus charged in upstate New York even has lower life cycle emissions than the average passenger vehicle on the road (new and old combined)! An electric bus charged there produces about 350 grams carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) per mile, while the average gasoline car/SUV in the US is responsible for 500 grams CO2e per mile.**

Other grid regions (California, Alaska, New England, and the Pacific Northwest) aren’t too far off at about 650 grams CO2e per mile, without even accounting for the fact that a bus can carry a lot more people than a car.

The time is right to get more electric buses on the road

With zero-tailpipe emissions and low life cycle global warming emissions, battery electric transit buses offer significant local air quality and climate benefits. The more of these buses that are deployed the better. Encourage your local transit agency to begin exploring electric buses, if they haven’t already. Also encourage your state and federal representatives to provide incentive funding to help get these clean vehicles on the road.


Methods Life cycle emission data and models

Life cycle global warming emissions for battery electric buses include those from generating electricity and extracting, processing, and transporting the fuels used to generate electricity. These emissions were compared to the life cycle emissions of diesel and natural gas buses, which include tailpipe emissions and emissions from extracting, refining, and transporting the oil and natural gas.

Emissions from electricity generation are from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s eGRID 2016 database, reflecting emissions from calendar year 2016. Emission rates include transmission losses associated with delivering electricity, roughly 5 percent, depending on the region.

Emissions from extracting, processing, and transporting the fuels used to generate electricity, diesel, and natural gas were determined using Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET 2017 model. This model was also used to determine the tailpipe emissions from diesel and natural gas vehicles.

Methane emissions and global warming potential

Life cycle emissions from natural gas vehicles depend greatly on the extent of methane leaks throughout the fuel’s life cycle and the global warming potential used for methane. Our analysis uses conservative estimates for both, including global warming potentials over a 100-year period from the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report. Using higher, yet justifiable, assumptions for methane leaks and its global warming potential, the global warming emissions of natural gas buses can change from 12 percent less than diesel (as used in this study) to 20 percent greater than diesel.

Fuel efficiency

A New Flyer Xcelsior battery electric bus.

The bus manufacturer New Flyer makes the same bus (40-foot Xcelsior) in diesel, diesel-hybrid, natural gas, and battery electric versions. These buses have undergone testing by the Federal Transit Agency, allowing for comparison of fuel efficiencies across vehicle type and over the same test conditions.

Fuel efficiencies used in this analysis were as follows: diesel bus: 4.82 miles per diesel gallon; diesel-hybrid bus: 5.84 miles per diesel gallon; natural gas bus: 4.47 miles per diesel gallon equivalent; and battery electric bus: 2.02 kWh per mile, which accounts for a 90 percent charging efficiency.

The on-road fuel efficiency of any bus will depend on the specific route, including the vehicle’s speed, number of stops, and terrain; passenger load; auxiliary uses of energy, e.g. air conditioners or heaters; and the inherent efficiency of the engine or electric motor, which varies by manufacturer.

Standardized testing of the New Flyer buses shows that electric buses are four times more energy efficient than natural gas buses. In contrast, a study of electric and natural gas buses operated on the same routes by Foothill Transit in Southern California showed electric buses had eight times better fuel efficiency.

Note, converting the fuel efficiency of the electric bus (i.e., 2.02 kWh per mile) into an equivalent miles per diesel gallon (using the amount of energy contained in a gallon of diesel, 129,488 British thermal units per gallon), gives an equivalent fuel efficiency of the battery electric bus of 18.8 miles per diesel gallon equivalent.

Comparing this fuel efficiency to a diesel bus reflects only how much energy the two vehicles use over the course of a mile. The MPG numbers shown in the map above go several steps further and include upstream emissions, which is why we refer to them as “the equivalent life cycle global warming emissions from a diesel bus with X miles per gallon efficiency.” A mouthful, but a critical distinction.

Fuel efficiency is representative of global warming emissions if you’re talking about the same type of vehicle using the same type of fuel, e.g., comparing a diesel bus made by company X to a diesel bus made by company Y. But, if you want to compare two different types of vehicles, e.g. a battery electric bus and a diesel bus, the upstream emissions associated with the fuel or electricity production need to be accounted for, as reflected in the values on the map.

* This result is similar to the finding that natural gas buses have just 9 percent lower global warming emissions than diesel buses in our previous analysis, which was specific to California.

** This result makes use of our life cycle emissions analysis for passenger vehicles and the average fuel efficiency of these vehicles on the road.


Photo credit: MJW15 CC BY-SA 4.0

Watching Wheeler: 9 Critical Actions the New EPA Chief Should Take

EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Photo: Alamy

The people’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a new leader. Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler took the helm of the agency on July 9 following the resignation of Scott Pruitt. And now Wheeler has the opportunity to move past his predecessor’s scandals and return the agency to its science-based mission of protecting human health and the environment.

Like many other Trump administration department and agency heads, Mr. Wheeler is there to implement President Trump’s anti-regulatory, industry-first agenda—and he has clearly indicated his intention to do so. Yet in his address last week to a whipsawed and often demoralized EPA staff, he also acknowledged the agency’s “collective goal of protecting public health and the environment on behalf of the American people.”

If Wheeler is truly sincere about returning the EPA to its core mission, here are nine critical actions he will need to take to achieve that goal.

1. Abandon efforts to restrict the agency from using the best available science to protect public health

Former Administrator Pruitt pushed forward a dangerous proposal that would effectively restrict the types of science that can be used in policymaking. Under this proposal to restrict science, the EPA would be unable to use a range of public health research that relies on personal medical records and other information that must be kept confidential to protect individual and patient privacy rights.

Developed by political appointees with no input from scientific organizations, the proposal is a key part of the administration’s real goal: weaken air pollution rules that protect the quality of the air we breathe.

There is not a single mainstream scientific organization that supports the proposalPublic health organizations and experts have expressed significant concern about it. Dozens of scientists and advocates testified against the proposal at a public hearing in Washington, D.C. on July 17.

If the new acting administrator is serious about listening to science and scientists and to protecting public health, he will immediately withdraw the proposal to restrict science at the EPA.

2. Halt rollbacks of vehicle standards and close the “glider” truck loophole

The evidence is clear. Efficiency and emissions standards for vehicles are working, across the country, to cut emissions that impact our health, while saving families money at the pump. But former Administrator Pruitt willfully ignored the evidence, disavowing years of work by his own agency, and declared his intention to roll back these standards and effectively end the progress we’ve made on delivering cleaner cars of every size.

The administration has not yet issued a new proposed rule, which gives Wheeler the opportunity to listen to the evidence and change course. A growing number of states support strong standards, and we have the technology to continue to improve efficiency and cut emissions in a cost-effective way. Wheeler should halt efforts to roll back these successful standards.

In addition, Scott Pruitt’s final action in office was to announce that the agency would not enforce pollution rules for “glider” trucks, which often use higher-polluting older engines. The EPA’s own research shows that closing the loophole that allowed glider trucks to use old engines would save 1,600 lives every year by cutting dangerous pollution. The choice is clear: Mr. Wheeler must keep enforcing rules that keep high-pollution “glider” trucks from endangering hundreds of lives every year.

3. Improve transparency

In his address to EPA staff last week, Wheeler vowed to be more transparent about his actions than his predecessor. But to greatly improve transparency at the agency, he will need to go beyond ditching Scott Pruitt’s soundproof booth, unlocking access to the administrator’s office area, and making his public calendar actually public (some of which is now online). It will mean allowing reporters full and unfettered access to EPA scientists; affirming the rights of scientists to communicate the science publicly without first asking for permission; and fully complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.

It also means fully detailing how the many political appointees with current or former financial ties to industries that the EPA regulates—including Wheeler himself—will recuse themselves from decisions that affect their former employers and clients.

4. Support the facts on climate change

Unlike his predecessor, Wheeler acknowledged the facts on climate change in a recent interview, saying that “I do believe climate change is real. I do believe that people have an impact on the climate.”

That is encouraging to hear. But Wheeler should show leadership by more clearly and frequently articulating the urgent need to cut carbon emissions to limit the harmful effects of climate change, as well as highlighting the key role his agency must play in that effort.

To address the growing threat of climate change, the EPA can and should set strong standards to cut heat-trapping emissions from the power sector, the transportation sector, and from industrial sources.  To support those efforts, it is also essential that Wheeler restores science to its rightful place at the EPA and removes all implicit or explicit barriers for staff working on issues related to climate change.

Last week, Wheeler noted the importance of communicating risks and related information to communities and the public, including the need to improve risk communication to lower income communities that are often most impacted by environmental threats. It is critical that his clearly articulated priority on risk communication also extends to the science, the risks, and the impacts of climate change to public health and the environment.  An easy first step would be restoring the web pages on climate change that were taken down or buried on the EPA website under his predecessor.

5. Stop efforts to weaken and delay the Clean Power Plan

Under Pruitt, the EPA began efforts to dismantle the Clean Power Plan—the nation’s first-ever standards to limit power plant carbon emissions—and replace it with a substantially weaker standard.  

It makes no sense to turn back the clock on the nation’s transition to clean energy, especially when the nation is facing worsening climate impacts—including flooding, heat waves, and wildfires—and the renewable energy industry is providing one of the fastest-growing sources of employment. What’s more, cutting carbon emissions from power plants will also decrease air and water pollution, which will bring significant public health benefits to communities around the country. 

Mr. Wheeler must know that, despite the administration’s claims, undoing the Clean Power Plan will not bring back coal. Indeed, a recent analysis shows that many operating coal units in the country are increasingly uneconomic relative to cleaner generation sources. If the administration truly cared about coal miners and coal communities, it would work with Congress to pass legislation to help with transition assistance, worker training, and the creation of new economic opportunities in these communities. 

Wheeler knows that the EPA is legally bound to act to limit carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act because they are a threat to public health. Rather than looking for ways to limit EPA’s role in addressing climate change, as he has indicated in recent interviews, he needs to make good on the agency’s legal obligations and deliver a strong power plant carbon standard without delay.  

6. Acknowledge and account for the health benefits of improved air and water quality

The EPA recently issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking signaling its plan to substantially change the way the agency accounts for the benefits of pollution standards that improve public health.

The proposed rule would essentially use a deceptive approach that reduces or eliminates the way these substantial health benefits are accounted for in formulating new policies. And then use that as a back-door way to weaken rules that protect air and water quality. For example, the EPA’s 2017 proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan used this type of crooked math to artificially lower the benefits of the pollution reductions that the standard would have brought. In particular, the EPA failed to account for the fact that actions to cut carbon emissions also pay large dividends by reducing other forms of harmful pollution like soot and smog.

If implemented, this proposed rule would have far-reaching consequences for the public’s health and well-being. Wheeler should halt this blatant attempt to fudge the numbers at the expense of the public’s health.

7. Require chemical companies to tell communities and first responders about the potential risks they face

 In early 2017, the EPA finalized changes to the Risk Management Program that would have provided the public and our nation’s first responders with more information about hazardous chemicals at industrial facilities in their neighborhoods. Beyond supporting and advancing the agency’s community-right-to-know responsibilities, providing this information is just plain common sense for planning and preparing.

Under Pruitt, the EPA delayed implementation of these changes and then proposed a new rule that would roll back these improvements. In his speech to agency staff, Wheeler said that he wanted to improve risk communication, especially for low-income communities and communities of color. Reversing course on this rollback will demonstrate his sincerity, his leadership, and his willingness to put public health and safety ahead of chemical industry pushback.

8. Work with independent stakeholders

To ensure the EPA is upholding its fundamental mission to protect human health and the environment, the agency must be informed by the best available science and ensure that the well-being of communities affected by pollution are prioritized.

Wheeler’s predecessor, however, focused almost exclusively on engaging with business interests. He failed to engage with other stakeholders, including scientists and affected communities. Regulated industries are important stakeholders as well, but is it in the best interests of public health and the health of our economy for the EPA’s decisions to be informed almost exclusively by this narrow perspective? I don’t think so.

To ensure a broader airing of perspectives, issues, and concerns, Wheeler should commit to engaging with a wider set of stakeholders. This includes scientists with relevant expertise, environmental justice and other community groups, and public health professionals. Wheeler must elevate the mission of the agency above the interests of the regulated of industry groups. It also means rescinding a ban on science advice from the very scientists whose work the EPA has found most promising.

Wheeler must also provide adequate opportunities for public hearings and comments—and clearly demonstrate his commitment to serving the American public first and foremost.

9. Fight to protect and increase the budget of the EPA so it has the resources needed to do its job

President Trump and former Administrator Pruitt repeatedly proposed sweeping budget cuts to the EPA, threatening the ability of the agency to carry out its mission. In 2017, President Trump and then-Administrator Pruitt proposed cutting the spending by nearly a third, which would have taken the agency to the lowest level in 40 years. The administration followed up in 2018 with proposed budget cuts of over 25%.

These proposed cuts—which Congress ultimately rejected—would have had severe implications for the health and safety of the American public. As just one example, as I’ve written about before, such budget cuts would have gutted EPA clean air programs that allow EPA staff to monitor air quality levels, estimate population exposure to air pollutants, and provide tools and guidance to states that help ensure that Americans can breathe clean air.

The EPA needs a leader who sees the critical value of the work and the staff of the agency and will fight to protect—and actually increase—its budget so that the agency can carry out its mission and protect the health and safety of the American public. It makes no sense to hobble the agency’s ability to deal with current threats, let alone anticipate and plan for the future risks which are sure to come.

Waiting…and watching

Over the coming weeks and months, we will be watching how Wheeler lives into his new role. Will he take the steps needed to put human health and the environment first and foremost in agency policy and decision-making? Will he stand up and ensure that the agency is guided by independent, unconflicted science in what it does and what it says? Will he restore agency morale—and integrity, trust, and credibility in the eyes of the public he is duty-bound to protect?

While the Trump administration’s track record gives us ample reason to be skeptical, Wheeler now has the opportunity to put duty to the public and to the country first.

There will be ample opportunities to encourage and insist that he do so in the months ahead. And we will be there with you to hold him accountable for his actions.

Science Citizenship: Making Science Actionable

Photo: InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

I decided to pursue a career in science in part because my high school chemistry teacher believed in me and sent me on a glacier expedition. My research as a Masters and PhD candidate brought me to remote corners of the earth, exploring glaciers at all latitudes. At otherworldly sites, I sampled the chemistry of snow and glacier melt. Most of my work was based in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, earth’s analogue to Mars. It was just 100 years after the first explorers set foot on these lands and numerous programs funded scientific research in extreme ecosystems, such as the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research Program, which enabled scientists to study and understand trends through time.

During my 2006 field season, a helicopter of twelve national political leaders descended on our camp to learn about polar science. I spent ten minutes talking to Senator John McCain, who had recently tried to pass legislation on global warming with Senator Joe Lieberman. After the policymakers flew off, I returned to the field, energized by science and optimistic that climate policy was on its way.

Connecting students to local issues

InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

In 2011, I began my career at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. In Springfield, one in four elementary school children needs food assistance. Water quality is threatened by combined sewage overflow, which is amplified by aging infrastructure and climate inaction. While there were nominal resources to address these issues, the community response and rallying around this issue highlighted to me how important social capital is to problem-solving. Access to food and water for Springfield residents was at stake.

My experiences in Springfield and dismay at the lack of national climate policy impressed upon me that my students needed to learn about more than how earth and environmental systems work; they needed to know how their work connected to community and political decisions. Millennials are the largest block of voting aged citizens, but are the least likely to vote. They are inundated by partisan media but are able to quickly search for information for everyday decision making. As a whole, our recent graduates have discussed the big issues we face as a society, but have not reflected on how those issues manifest in their communities. Helping students see and realize their personal and local power is central to justice.

Each of my classes focuses on addressing major justice issues in our community. I see my introductory courses as science citizenship classes where students gain skills in evaluating the science they read and gain insight into the perspectives involved in local issue decision making. Our program features partnerships and working on community solutions-centered projects. Students evaluate carbon sequestration opportunities in vacant lots, soil health improvement strategies in places suffering from housing blight and soil lead contamination, and water quality solutions. Key to this work is having students reflect on their individual roles and what they have learned from community perspectives that informs next action steps.

Small changes in curricula can have a big impact

InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

During my sabbatical I’ve reflected deeply, reviewed resources on teaching to support democracy, and created and compiled teaching resources that help science faculty interested in designing their courses and activities to support democracy. These include design prompts for identifying civic activities that fit the current roles and interests of faculty and resources to design courses around local issues and build student civic agency, or consider how you, as an invited speaker or host of a seminar series might help students think about their future roles as scientists or constituents.

Are you helping your students understand how to form a science supported-opinion? Are you teaching your students how to evaluate and communicate using science? Are you showing them the complexity of scientific problem-solving and the views incorporated or missed in political decision-making? Some teaching activities that help build these skills appear here. While some of the specific examples relate to teaching geology and environmental science, these strategies apply to any science faculty interested in making connections between their discipline and positive societal transformation.

I encourage other faculty to join me in building science literacy, agency, and designing curriculum to support informed, equitable, and just decisions. If you are just getting started, start by making one change, such as including an example of local or student-relevant science in your class, or including an op-ed writing or social media assignment. If you want to learn more about your community, consider inviting local experts as guest speakers, or exploring locally-relevant data. This may be especially important in small towns that sometimes lack fact sheets on climate change, water, or other resource trends. Finally, you might directly show your students how to take action by hosting a science literacy or advocacy event in your class through campus programming. Faculty play an important role in making science actionable.


Sarah Fortner, Ph.D., (@erthsarah) serves as the Geological Society of America Scholar in Residence for the American Geosciences Institute. She is an Associate Professor of Geology and Environmental Science at Wittenberg University. Both programs are recognized for civic excellence by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

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.

The Midwest’s Food System is Failing. Here’s Why.

Photo: dvs/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

If you’ve perused the new UCS 50-State Food System Scorecard, you’ve probably noticed a seeming contradiction. As shown on the map below, the heavily agricultural states in the middle of the country aren’t exactly knocking it out of the park when it comes to the overall health and sustainability of their food and farming systems. On the contrary, most of the leading farm states of the Midwest reside in the basement of our overall ranking.


So what’s that about? A couple of reasons stand out to me.

First, much of what the Midwest grows today isn’t really food (much less healthy food).

It’s funny. But not really.

It’s true. While we often hear that the region’s farmers are feeding America and the world, in fact much of the Midwest’s farm output today is comprised of just two crops: corn and soybeans. There are various reasons for that, including some problematic food and farm polices, but that’s the reality.

Take the state of Indiana, for example. When I arrived there in 1992 for graduate school (go Hoosiers!), I bought the postcard at right. That year, Indiana farmers had planted 6.1 million acres of corn, followed by 4.55 million acres of soybeans. Together, the two crops covered more than two-thirds of the state’s total farm acres that year.

The situation remains much the same today, except that the crops have switched places: this year, Indiana farmers planted 6.2 million acres of soybeans and “just” 5.1 million acres of corn. Nationwide, soybean acreage will top corn in 2018 for the first time in 35 years.

Regardless of whether corn or soy reigns supreme, the fact is that most of it isn’t destined for our plates. Today, much of the corn goes into our gas tanks. The chart below shows how total US corn production tracked the commodity’s use for ethanol from 1986 to 2016:

Reprinted from the US Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, https://www.afdc.energy.gov/data/10339.

The two dominant Midwest crops also feed livestock to produce meat in industrial feedlots, and they become ingredients for heavily processed foods. A 2013 Scientific American essay summarized the problem with corn:

Although U.S. corn is a highly productive crop, with typical yields between 140 and 160 bushels per acre, the resulting delivery of food by the corn system is far lower. Today’s corn crop is mainly used for biofuels (roughly 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol) and as animal feed (roughly 36 percent of U.S. corn, plus distillers grains left over from ethanol production, is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens). Much of the rest is exported.  Only a tiny fraction of the national corn crop is directly used for food for Americans, much of that for high-fructose corn syrup.

All this is a big part of why, when UCS assessed the extent to which each US state is producing food that can contribute to healthy diets—using measures including percentage of cropland in fruits and vegetables, percentage of cropland in the top three crops (where a higher number means lower diversity), percentage of principal crop acres used for major animal feed and fuel crops, and meat production and large feeding operations per farm acres—we arrived at this map:


As you can see, the bottom of our scorecard’s “food produced” ranking is dominated by Midwestern states. This includes the nation’s top corn-producing states—Iowa (#50) and Illinois (#48), which together account for about one-third of the entire US crop. It also includes my one-time home, Indiana (#49), where just 0.2 percent of the state’s 14.7 million farm acres was dedicated to vegetables, fruits/nuts, and berries in 2012.

Now let’s switch gears to look at another reason the Midwest performs so poorly overall in our scorecard.

Today’s Midwest agriculture tends to work against nature, not with it.

In addition to the fact that the Midwest currently produces primarily non-food and processed food crops, there’s also a big problem with the way it typically produces those commodities. Again, for a number of reasons—including the shape of federal farm subsidies—the agricultural landscape in states such as Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana is dominated by monoculture (a single crop planted year after year) or a slightly better two-crop rotation (you guessed it, corn and soybeans). These oversimplified farm ecosystems, combined with the common practice of plowing (aka tilling) the soil before each planting, degrade the soil and require large applications of fertilizer, much of which runs off farm fields to pollute lakes and streams. Lack of crop diversity also leads to more insect pests, increasing the need for pesticides. Moreover, as corn is increasingly grown in dry pockets of the Midwest such as Kansas and Nebraska, it requires ever-larger quantities of irrigation water. Finally, the whole system relies heavily on fossil fuels to run tilling, planting, spraying, and harvesting equipment.

No wonder that whether we look at resource reliance (including use of commercial fertilizers and chemical pesticides, irrigation, and fuel use) or, conversely, implementation of more sustainable practices (reduced tillage, cover crops, and organic practices, among others), most Midwest states once again lag.






But Midwestern farmers want to change the map.

To sum up: in general, the Midwest is using up a variety of limited resources and farming in ways that degrade its soil and water, while falling far short of producing the variety of foods we need for healthy diets. Not a great system. But there are hopeful signs that the region may be starting to change course.

For example, in Iowa, more and more farmers are expanding their crop rotations to add oats or other small grains, which research has shown aids in regenerating soils, improving soil health, and delivering clean water, while also increasing productivity and maintaining profits. Diversifying crops in the field can also help to diversify our food supply and improve nutrition.

Back in my alma mater state of Indiana, farmers planted 970,000 acres of cover crops in 2017—making these soil protectors the third-most planted crop in the state. And in a surprising turn of events just last week, Ohio’s Republican governor signed an executive order that will require farmers in eight Northwest Ohio watersheds to take steps to curb runoff that contributes to a recurring problem of toxic algae in Lake Erie that hurts recreation and poisons Toledo’s drinking water.

A recent UCS poll provides additional evidence that farmers across the region are looking for change. Earlier this year, we asked more than 2,800 farmers across the partisan divide in seven states (Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) about federal farm policies that today incentivize the Midwest agricultural status quo. Nearly three-quarters of respondents indicated they are looking for a farm bill that prioritizes soil and water conservation, while 69 percent supported policies (like farm-to-school supports) that help farmers grow more real food for local consumption. More than 70 percent even said they’d be more likely to back a candidate for public office who favors such priorities.

Speaking of the farm bill, things are coming to a head in Congress this summer over that $1 trillion legislative package that affects all aspects of our food system. As the clock ticks toward a September 30 deadline, the shape of the next farm bill is in question, with drastically different proposals passed by the House and the Senate. Critically important programs—including investments that could help farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere produce more healthy food and farm more sustainably—are at risk.


Leaders from the House and Senate need to come together to hash out their differences and agree on a compromise before the current farm bill expires. As they negotiate behind closed doors this summer, urge them to prioritize proven, science-based policies and programs that will alleviate hunger, improve nutrition, sustain our land, soil, and water, and help farmers prosper. Add your name to our petition to farm bill negotiators today!


The Endangered Species Act is Itself Endangered

The endangered margay. Photo: Proyecto Asis/Flickr

In the last two weeks, both the Senate and House have introduced bills proposing damaging amendments to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the leading piece of science-based legislation used to protect and recover biodiversity in the United States. Notably, Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) and long-time critic of the Act, released a discussion draft of the bill he’s been working on entitled, “the Endangered Species Act Amendments of 2018.” The changes to the Act would introduce more routes for political interference under the guise of increased transparency, while relegating science to an afterthought instead of the basis upon which Endangered Species Act decisions are made. An EPW hearing is scheduled for tomorrow morning, where representatives from Wyoming, Colorado, and Virginia will testify before the committee on the proposed changes to the Act.

Here are some of the most concerning pieces of the misguided Barrasso proposal and what you need to know:

Section 109: State feedback regarding United States Fish and Wildlife Service employees

This section requires State agencies working with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on species conservation, management, and recovery or other interactions relating to implementation of the ESA, to provide annual performance feedback to the FWS Director regarding the responsiveness and effectiveness of the individual FWS employee(s) to state and local authorities and various other stakeholders.  This is nothing more than an intimidation tactic that could lead to scientists either being punished for saying things others don’t want to hear, or self-censoring for fear of putting their jobs in jeopardy. It opens the possibility for states hostile to conservation work to give negative feedback unfairly, or to simply bring allegations against employees to undermine their work, with no mechanism to refute or respond on behalf of the federal public servants. Ultimately, this limits the ability of FWS scientists to independently assess the science and make evidence-based recommendations to protect imperiled species, therefore rendering the Endangered Species Act less effective.

Section 301: Policy relating to best scientific and commercial data available

This section gives a green light to the politicization of the science-based determination of whether a species needs protections. It establishes a policy where the Secretary of the Interior, not a scientific expert, could assign greater weight to some data. The goal of this section is to automatically give State, Tribal, and local information greater weight regardless of its scope or quality.  Of course, such data is currently considered, but it should not be given undue consideration. In the event the Secretary finds the State, Tribal, or local data inconsistent with the “best scientific and commercial data available”, he or she will be required to provide a written explanation to the State, Tribal, or local government as well as Congress, and include it in the administrative record. This could discourage the agency from saying that the information is weak because of the political cost of doing so.

Section 302: Transparency of information

In an effort to slow the species listing process, this section would require all raw data be released on the listing. Furthermore, any state or local information used for listing decisions must be approved by said state or local government before publishing.  Again, this would lead to FWS or the states censoring the scientific information used to determine if a species needs protections.  And it would increase the procedural requirements for assembling the scientific information, slowing the process.

This section is a deliberate misinterpretation of the process we have now and will succeed only in making the Endangered Species Act process more difficult. It has been drafted under the false premise that FWS does not already heavily involve or communicate with all stakeholders, including state, local, and tribal governments.  And it implies with no justification that the federal agencies are “hiding something,” which further politicizes the process.

The Endangered Species Act has prevented 99% of species listed under the law from going extinct. The decisions on whether species need protection are based solely on the best available science. Giving greater authority to states that often lack the resources, political will, and national perspective to protect species is, to put it simply, a bad idea. Statutes like the Endangered Species Act are in place to set a national commitment, in this case for saving endangered or threatened wildlife from extinction by focusing first on science. But the changes proposed by Senator Barrasso would politicize the process and add undue procedural burdens, putting wildlife at risk for short-term political gains.

As both the House and Senate try to rush through changes to the Endangered Species Act, call your member of Congress to tell them that a law meant to protect our precious wildlife resources and habitats should not be politicized.  These endangered species and all of our natural resources depend upon stopping species extinctions.

Photo: Proyecto Asis