UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

Who Would Lose with New Suniva/SolarWorld Solar Tariffs? Just About Everybody

A recent decision by the US International Trade Commission (USITC) in favor of two solar manufacturers means that new tariffs on solar cells and panels could be coming. As the reactions from companies and organizations across the economy—and across the political spectrum—make clear, that’s bad news for just about everyone, including you and me.

The solar tariff case

Solar means jobs. As long as we don’t mess things up. (Credit: John Rogers)

The case was brought by Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, two foreign-owned US manufacturing operations that had hit rocky patches in recent years. The companies applied to the USITC under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974, which basically says that “domestic industries seriously injured or threatened with serious injury by increased imports” can ask the USITC for “import relief.”

That might seem like a pretty low bar—competition is never easy, whether it’s domestic or foreign, and some of that competition could indeed be serious—but Section 201 has been used only once in the 21st century (in 2002, in a short-lived attempt to protect the steel industry, but one that would have harmed consumers and destroyed more jobs than it created because of the impact of the higher steel prices).

It’s not lost on anybody, though, that this latest petition comes at a time when we have a president who is no friend of trade, and is hungry for tariffs.

The relief that the two petitioners are asking for—sizeable new tariffs on both solar modules, and the cells that manufacturers (yes, US manufacturers) might assemble into modules—would put a definite dent in solar’s incredible momentum in recent years. More importantly, for a president who professes to be about jobs, it would be very likely, as with the 2002 case, kill more jobs than it saved or created.

Even so, on September 22, the bipartisan USITC voted 4-0 in favor of the petition, determining:

…that increased imports of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells (whether or not partially or fully assembled into other products) are being imported into the United States in such increased quantities as to be a substantial cause of serious injury to the domestic industry producing an article like or directly competitive with the imported article.

How do I love thee not? Let me count the ways…

The reaction to both the original petition and the recent USITC decision has been notable in the breadth of organizations and people reacting negatively, the near unanimity in condemning these moves. Here’s a sampling of reactors and reactions.

The solar industry – Those opposed to Suniva-SolarWorld include just about the whole rest of the US solar industry. Manufacturing jobs account for only 15% of the industry’s 260,000 jobs. For solar project developers, sales forces, installers, and even other manufacturers, new tariffs means increased costs and, likely, diminished prospects for success. As SEIA (the Solar Energy Industries Association) put it:

The ITC’s decision is disappointing for nearly 9,000 U.S. solar companies and the 260,000 Americans they employ… An improper remedy will devastate the burgeoning American solar economy and ultimately harm America’s manufacturers…

Indeed, SEIA has claimed that, if the petitioners are successful in their appeal to the USITC, “88,000 jobs will be lost nationwide, including 6,300 jobs in Texas, 4,700 in North Carolina and a whopping 7,000 jobs in South Carolina.”

The US solar industry is about manufacturing, and a whole lot more. (Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016)

Bipartisan voices — Before the recent vote, a bipartisan group of governors of leading solar states—Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, and North Carolina—sounded the alarm in a letter to the commission:

The requested tariff could inflict a devastating blow on our states’ solar industries and lead to unprecedented job loss, at steep cost to our states’ economies. According to a study conducted by GTM Research, if granted, the tariff and price floors would cause module prices to double, leading solar installations—both utility-scale and consumer-installed—to drop by more than 50 percent in 2019. At a time when our citizens are demanding more clean energy, the tariff could cause America to lose out on 47 gigawatts of solar installations, representing billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in our states.

Conservative groups – From the “strange bedfellows” department came the news that opponents also include conservative groups who don’t like the idea of mucking with trade, and particularly not in defense of two relatively minor companies. The Heritage Foundation, for example, spoke against what it said was “a case that could undermine the entire U.S. solar energy industry.”

Solar jobs; red dots indicate “manufacturer/supplier”. It’s about a lot more than modules. (Source: SEIA National Solar Database)

Likewise, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), not usually on the same side of arguments as renewable energy companies or advocates, cited the broader solar industry’s impressive job tally and job progress in recent years, and the risks to even the manufacturing piece of that:

Many of those [260,000] workers are employed by other solar companies that have successfully figured out how to prosper in this growing industry. Over 38,000 solar workers are employed in manufacturing positions at firms domestically making solar components like inverters, racking systems and more…

Those 38,000 manufacturing jobs might disappear if artificially high input costs price the entire industry out of existence.

Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016

A broad coalition – The Energy Trade Action Coalition formed by SEIA, solar companies, ALEC, Heritage, plus utilities, retailers, and others in response to this Section 201 threat reacted to the recent decision by going after the petitioners themselves:

The ITC decision to find injury is disappointing because the facts presented made it clear that the two companies who brought this trade case were injured by their own history of poor business decisions rather than global competition, and that the petition is an attempt to recover lost funds for their own financial gain at the expense of the rest of the solar industry.

Security experts – For security types, the risks have to do with our military preparedness, resilience, and assurance; more than a dozen former members of the US military, including a lieutenant general and a rear admiral, weighed in with the USITC on the fact that “[t]his dramatic cost increase could potentially jeopardize the financial viability of planned and future solar investments on or near domestic military bases.” This could put at risk bases, missions, and critical services.

And the list goes on.

Not everyone is opposed, of course. Along with the petitioners themselves, a coalition of labor, manufacturing and agricultural interests, the Coalition for a Prosperous America, has spoken out in support of the Suniva-SolarWorld move, saying that the coalition “strongly believes that relief is needed in the face of an Asian import surge to prevent the complete collapse of a critical industry, the manufacture of solar panels”:

Thousands of workers have lost good paying U.S. jobs as a result [of overproduction by international module manufacturers]. That these severe effects occurred during a period of booming U.S. [solar] demand, and despite two successful solar trade cases, is all the more troubling.

But national opinion is overwhelmingly on the other side. Even Suniva’s majority owner, Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy, is purportedly against Suniva’s crusade.

Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior

What’s next

With the September 22 commission decision that the petitioners were indeed seriously hurt by imports, the next step is the “remedy” phase, which starts with various parties weighing in to say what they think the fix should be.

Flush with (and surprised by?) the success of their ITC petitions, Suniva and SolarWorld have backed down a little in their demands… but only a little. Others are pushing for a “cure” much closer to a placebo, in the hopes of minimizing the damage to (other) US companies, US consumers, and American jobs.

The USITC then needs to make a recommendation to President Trump, by mid-November. And then the president needs to decide where this goes.

Meanwhile, SolarWorld has said it’s planning to ramp up production given the recent decision. The president of SolarWorld Americas is quoted as saying:

With relief from surging imports in sight, we believe we can rev up our manufacturing engine and increase our economic impact… [W]e at SolarWorld are prepared to scale up our world-class manufacturing operations to produce leading solar products made by more American workers.

That commitment to leaping right back in is a little hard to believe, given the uncertainties that remain while this plays out. The 2002 Section 201 case around steel tariffs ended in failure the following year, after a purported loss of 200,000 American jobs.

It’s the president’s call

What’s clear, though, is that this is potentially a pivotal moment in solar’s trajectory in this country. The US solar industry is about much more than manufacturing, and even the manufacturing sector is about more than cells and modules.

President Trump could take a tariff sledgehammer to the shining solar piece of our nation’s impressive clean energy momentum, favoring a small piece of the industry regardless of the damage to the rest. That would mean harming a sector that has been arguably the best story of job creation and economic growth over the last 10 years. Destroying US jobs while pretending he’s all about creating them.

Or our president could take minimal or no action, send out a victorious tweet or two, and let the US solar industry—in all its dimensions—continue to do its thing. Creating American jobs, not killing them. Strengthening our energy security, not weakening it. And benefiting millions of US customers with greater affordability and access to solar.

Let’s go with option B.

What’s Tax “Reform” Got to Do with Science and Public Well-being?

Photo: USCapitol/Flickr

In the days since the “Big Six” group of Congressional leaders and Trump administration officials unveiled the outlines of their tax “reform” proposal, there’s been a fierce debate—and rightly so—over who stands to win and who lose. Will the average working American get anything significant from this tax plan, or are most of the benefits skewed towards the wealthy and profitable corporations?  More on this in a minute.

What’s gotten less attention is the impact of this plan on the public science enterprise and the well-being of all Americans.

An unprecedented assault

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

These essential programs are already under unprecedented assault. UCS president Ken Kimmell has called President Trump’s proposed FY18 budget “a wrecking ball to science.” Others at UCS have detailed the devastating impacts of Trump’s proposed budget cuts on the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, worker health and safety, the Forest Service, and early career scientists.

UCS and our allies are pushing back hard on these proposed budget cuts, and we remain vigilant to ensure that when Congress takes final action on the FY18 appropriations bills in December, these irresponsible cuts will be rejected.

All these programs (along with veterans’ care, homeland security, transportation and other infrastructure, law enforcement, education, and many other core government programs) fall within the non-defense discretionary (or NDD) portion of federal spending, which has been disproportionately targeted for spending cuts over the last decade. As an analysis by Paul Van de Water of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out, “NDD spending in 2017 will be about 13 percent below the comparable 2010 level after adjusting for inflation (nearly $100 billion lower in 2017 dollars).”

Even if the draconian Trump budget cuts are beaten back, the very real need to increase spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, along with a push by many in Congress to maintain (or increase) defense spending, will continue to squeeze NDD expenditures in the years ahead.

Creating long-term pressure on essential programs

Here’s where the Republican tax plan comes in, as it will almost certainly reduce government revenues substantially and add to the national debt. While Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told ABC News that the tax plan would generate higher economic growth rates and “will cut the deficit by $1 trillion,” few independent economists agree with that rosy outlook.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates the plan could increase the deficit by $2.2 trillion over the next decade; CRFB president Maya MacGuineas cautioned that “tax cuts shouldn’t be handed out like Halloween candy,” and said they “certainly don’t pay for themselves.”

Senate Republicans openly acknowledge that the tax plan will increase the deficit; the Budget Committee resolution that they plan to put before the full Senate for a vote later this month contains reconciliation instructions to the Finance Committee that would allow the deficit to increase “by not more than $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.”

Deficit spending is sometimes justified, such as for investments in infrastructure, education, public health, and other forms of physical and human capital that more than pay back over time, or to kick-start the economy when unemployment is high. But that’s not the case here; as discussed below, the bulk of the benefits from this plan would flow to the wealthiest Americans, with low- and middle-income Americans receiving only modest direct benefits, if any.

Moreover, the resulting increase in the federal deficit would lead to louder calls for cuts in programs that benefit low- and middle-income Americans, including food assistance programs, student loans, unemployment insurance, economic development, and worker retraining.  As another analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities put it, “the majority of Americans could ultimately lose more from the program cuts than they would gain from the tax cuts.”

The government needs more revenue, not less

Looking down the road, it’s clear that the aging of the American population, continued increases in health care costs, the need to replace crumbling infrastructure, and other factors are creating pressure for federal spending to increase substantially over the next few decades.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that to accommodate these factors, federal spending will need to grow from 20.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 23.5 percent of GDP by 2035. This is largely driven by increased costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; CBPP projects that defense and non-defense discretionary spending will decrease somewhat as a share of GDP over the next couple of decades. As the CBPP report observes, the need to increase federal spending is “hardly a controversial notion. Budget plans from such diverse organizations as the National Academy of Sciences, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and the American Enterprise Institute have reached the same conclusion.”

To keep the national debt from growing faster than the overall economy, CBPP estimates that annual budget deficits need to be held to an average of 3 percent of GDP; this in turn means that federal revenues should increase from some 17.8 percent of GDP in 2016 to at least 20.5 percent in 2035. There are any number of ways to do this, from closing special interest loopholes in the tax code to putting a tax on carbon dioxide emissions or other forms of pollution. Of course, given the current political realities in Washington, no one expects a serious discussion of this issue anytime soon; the current challenge is just to avoid making the situation worse.

Tax fairness: the rhetoric and the reality

President Trump and Republican leaders insist that their aim is to provide tax relief for the middle class, and that taxes won’t be cut for wealthy Americans; President Trump even asserted that this tax plan is “not good for me. Believe me.”

But a preliminary analysis of the framework by the Tax Policy Center found otherwise. While acknowledging that several details remain to be filled in, TPC estimates that in 2018 under the “Big Six” plan, “taxpayer groups in the bottom 95 percent of the income distribution would see modest tax cuts, averaging 1.2 percent of after-tax income or less. The benefit would be largest for taxpayers in the top 1 percent (those making more than $730,000), who would see their after-tax income increase 8.5 percent.”

Over half of the total benefit of the tax cuts would accrue to taxpayers in the top 1 percent, increasing to nearly 80 percent of the benefits by 2027. Others have examined how the elimination of the alternative minimum tax, the abolition of the estate tax, and several other provisions of the plan would personally benefit President Trump—and his heirs.

Private interests vs. the public good

It’s clear that the stakes in the tax debate now under way in Washington are not just about the critical issue of whose tax bills go down (or up) and by how much. The outcome will also have an impact on our ability to maintain America’s global leadership on scientific and medical research and technology innovation, improve air and water quality, avert the worst impacts of climate change (and cope with the impacts we can’t avoid), upgrade our transportation, energy, and communications infrastructure, and many other important issues.

It’s hard to dispute the need for real tax reform—a plan that clears away the dense thicket of special interest loopholes and simplifies the tax code, in a way that’s equitable to all Americans. But that’s not what’s on offer right now—instead we’re seeing a drive to give trillions of dollars in handouts to profitable corporations and the wealthiest Americans, while laying the groundwork for deep cuts in a broad range of important federal programs down the road.

Our elected officials can – and should – do much better than this; if they’re unwilling to, they should observe the Hippocratic oath, and “first do no harm.”

 

 

Is Your Representative Setting Us Up for Another Dieselgate?

Remember dieselgate? The Volkswagen scandal that led to huge emissions of harmful air pollution from their cars, criminal charges, and a $30 billion mea culpa? Well, dieselgate may be small compared to the new emissions scandal that is playing out across the country. This time, however, the emissions cheating would be explicitly allowed by Congress.

As with the VW scandal, it involves so-called emission defeat devices – equipment that shuts off a vehicle’s emissions control system, allowing the car to spew hazardous pollution into the air. These defeat devices are marketed to amateur racers (and sometimes the general public who think it’s fun to “roll coal” and blow black smoke at Priuses). Manufacturers of these defeat devices are pushing Congress to let them off the hook for selling products that are used illegally in our communities, and so far many in Congress are siding against clean air.

What do defeat devices do and who wants them?

All vehicles on public roads must have pollution control systems to remove dangerous air pollutants such as particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and smog precursors (carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons) from vehicle exhaust. And this is a really good thing. The EPA estimates that current pollution control systems will prevent up to 2,000 premature deaths, avoid 2,200 hospital admissions, and eliminate 19,000 asthma attacks annually because some of these pollutants cause lung cancer, heart disease, and respiratory harm.

These emission control systems can, however, be turned off by defeat devices which are frequently marketed as “tuners”, “oxygen sensor simulators” or “exhaust gas recirculation delete kits”.

Why would someone want to turn off their vehicle pollution controls? One popular reason is for amateur car racing. We’re not talking NASCAR here, as purpose-built race cars are already exempt from this requirement. Instead these are local races where people “convert” their regular cars into race cars to use at tracks.  And if people want to modify a car that they use just for racing so that it goes a little faster on the track, it’s probably not that big of a deal.

Out of the millions of vehicles on the road, only a tiny fraction of them are modified to be used in racing competitions. However, if people bypass the emission controls on cars they use on our streets on a regular basis, that’s a different story: it imposes unnecessary pollution on the drivers’ neighbors and it’s against the law. So if device manufacturers are knowingly selling defeat devices for off-track use, they should be prosecuted.

How big of a deal could this be?  Big. One settlement that the EPA made with H&S Performance states that they sold over 100,000 devices and that the pollution from those devices would be nearly TWICE the NOx pollution put out by VW diesel cars from 2008 until they were caught in 2015.[i] 

One company, double dieselgate.  It’s staggering.

It turns out that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of companies who are willing to sell people defeat devices that they can put on their own cars.  We don’t have a complete handle on the number of devices sold, or how much extra pollution they are spewing out into our communities. But based on the emissions from just H&S Performance, it has the potential to be HUGE. And if manufacturers and retailers of these devices are marketing these defeat devices to the general public for use on our roads, the emissions, and therefore health, impacts could be enormous.

So, what does this have to do with Congress?

Manufacturers of defeat devices have a vested interest in making it difficult for regulators to stymie the illegal use of these defeat devices since the more they sell, the bigger their profits. There are bills in the House (H. 350 ) and Senate (S. 203) called the “RPM Act” that would make it very difficult for the EPA to go after manufacturers of these defeat devices who are clearly selling to people who are using these on their everyday vehicles. It is critical that the EPA maintains the ability to stop manufacturers who aren’t playing by the rules.

In a recent hearing about the RPM Act in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Alexandra Teitz, a consultant for the Sierra Club, dubbed this “DIY Dieselgate”, which is incredibly apt.

There are a lot of Senators and Representatives supporting this bill because the trade association for the manufacturers who make these devices (and other aftermarket parts) is putting in a lot of effort on Capitol Hill. The manufacturers see a challenge to their business model and profitability. And they have put a lot of effort into convincing amateur racers, wrongly, that the EPA intends to stop all amateur racing or take their race cars.

The manufacturers are selling this bill as a clarification of existing law, when in actuality it will make it very hard, if not impossible, for the EPA to do their job and ensure that all Americans have access to clean air – and one way they will do it is to prosecute manufacturers who are clearly selling these defeat devices to individuals who are not using them solely for racing. We need to make sure Congress is aware they are voting for legislation that will put the health of their constituents at risk.

Allowing amateur racers to modify a small number of vehicles that are solely used at the track is one thing – but sanctioning mass marketing of emissions defeat devices that are resulting in deadly air pollution in communities across the country is another. Check out the list of cosponsors for the House and Senate bills to see if your representative is on the bill. If so, please call your representative and ask that they withdraw their support for the RPM Act.

[i] The settlement agreement notes 71,669 short tons (or 65,017 metric tons) of NOx emissions over the lifetime of vehicles with H&S Performance defeat devices installed.  An analysis by MIT researchers estimate excess NOX emissions of 36,700 metric tons between 2008 and 2015 from non-compliant 2.0L VW vehicles.

 

 

Sociological Gobbledygook or Scientific Standard? Why Judging Gerrymandering is Hard

In Tuesday’s historic Supreme Court case, the question asked was how to identify and remedy unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering, where electoral district boundaries are drawn so as to benefit one political party’s voters over others.  The phrase uttered during oral argument that is getting the most attention is Chief Justice Roberts’ assessment of the various techniques that have been proposed to measure it: “sociological gobbledygook.”  It’s a funny way to describe Roberts’ apparent distaste for mathematical, as opposed to legal, explanations, but it also reveals a serious problem for the use of scientific evidence in the court.

Let’s look at the evidence.

One of the core issues in these cases, as I’ve previously discussed, involves the discovery of “workable standards.”  To be workable, a standard must identify a constitutional (fundamental) harm, as opposed to a de minimus (minor) harm, so as not to inundate the court with cases.  Further, the standard must be capable of being practically applied by justices who are not themselves scientists.

Whether or not tests for the standard of partisan symmetry, the equal treatment of voters regardless of which party they support, are workable, was the primary point of contention when Justice Roberts made his remark.

In describing his concern about judicial overreach into the political process, Roberts proclaimed that “you’re taking these issues away from democracy and you’re throwing them into the courts pursuant to, and it may be simply my educational background, but I can only describe as sociological gobbledygook.”

On the one hand, Roberts is identifying a serious problem that needs to be addressed by scientists in the courtroom.  Statistics can be manipulated and are open to interpretation in ways that other forms of legal evidence are often not.

In many cases, both parties trot out potentially motivated “experts” to exchange criticisms in specialized language, leaving judges to make decisions based on evidence that their educational background does not train them for.  Consider two examples taken directly from yesterday’s argument.

The term “false positives” was used by the defense (the state of Wisconsin) to refer to the inaccuracy of one way to measure symmetry, the efficiency gap.  “False positive” refers to a Type I error, when the test for something (like pregnancy, using a urine test that measures levels of the hormone chorionic gonadotropin) turns up positive, but has not actually occurred (no fertilized egg embedded in the uterus, which produces the hormone).  Pregnancy tests have about a 3% false positive rate.  But back to gerrymandering.

In this case, the claim of “false positive” was misapplied, and expanded to describe any state with a significant efficiency gap, where the plan was not drawn by the state legislature.  That is, the defense implied that districting plans not drawn by parties (those drawn by courts through litigation or by commissions, etc.) could not be biased.  But the efficiency gap is not a test of who draws a districting map, it is a measure of bias.

Even randomly drawn maps using computer simulations can result in quite biased plans, depending on the underlying geographic distribution of voters.  None of the justices seemed to pick this up.  Justice Alito, responding to such claims, expressed grave concern about “the dozens of uncertainties about this whole process.”

Worse still was Chief Justice Roberts’ mistaking of symmetry for “proportional representation, which has never been accepted as a political principle in the history of this country.”

Partisan symmetry is explicitly not a test of proportionality in election results (where a party receives the same percentage of seats as its percentage of votes).  In fact, symmetry was intentionally designed as an alternative standard of testing the principle of political equality in U.S. elections, because proportionality is a higher standard than what the Constitution demands.

These mistakes might have been avoided through a more thorough reading of the many scientific briefs offered to the court for review (or the video above).  Nevertheless, the burden is on scientists to communicate our work clearly and concisely to non-experts, otherwise this problem will only persist.

On the other hand, several of the Justices had a strong grasp of how scientific standards operate within the voting rights framework.  Justice Kagen, for example, correctly noted that both partisan symmetry and the one-person, one-vote standard (prohibiting unequally populated districts) address the dilution of voting strength for individual voters as a function of statewide plans, not single electoral districts.

Moreover, Justice Sotomayor, responding to the defense’s claims about inaccuracies in estimating the impact of Wisconsin’s plan, pointed out that “every single social science metric points in the same direction.”  That is the sort of understanding about probabilistic estimates that scientists need to convey to judicial authorities.  It is how scientists forecast everything from economic growth to health epidemics and weather patterns.  The Justice continued, noting that the same types of statistical estimates were used to create Wisconsin’s maps in the first place, and that “it worked.  It worked better than they even expected, so the estimate wasn’t wrong.  It was pretty right.”

Judges have their work cut out for them if the Supreme Court finally provides a means by which political parties can be restrained from advancing their partisan interests at the expense of voters’ fundamental right to an equally weighted vote.  But it is up to the scientific community to work with the judiciary in the appropriate application of statistical evidence.  The consequences, which feedback through the entire policy making process, make it well worth the effort.

Mr. President: Puerto Rico Is, Indeed, Living a “Real Catastrophe”

Citizen Soldiers of Puerto Rico Army National Guard, alongside residents of the municipality of Cayey, clear a road after the destruction left by Hurricane Maria through the region, Sep. 30.

Recently, President Trump visited Puerto Rico to meet with federal and Commonwealth officials coordinating the relief and recovery effort in the wake of Hurricane María.  At an Air National Guard base, the president held a briefing where he congratulated the first responders on the ground there. Following that, President Trump toured neighborhoods and a church, where he threw paper towels at the crowd, much as a celebrity would at a sporting event.

I know well the neighborhoods he toured, as they are in my hometown of Guaynabo (goo-aye-nah-bow), a relatively wealthy city of almost 98,000 inhabitants near San Juan.  As I said in a previous blog post, I am relieved that my city–at least the part where my neighborhood lies–was not among the most heavily hit, yet most areas have not been so lucky.

President Trump would have done well to have visited not just Guaynabo, but the hardest-hit areas where a real catastrophic humanitarian crisis—contrary to what he implied yesterday in Puerto Rico— is indeed ongoing.

He could have seen, for example, a destroyed bridge connecting the rural towns of Morovis and Ciales, or a flooded residential subdivision in the eastern coast, where the storm surge came in with force. Not too far from Guaynabo is the San Juan working class neighborhood of Puerto Nuevo, which was heavily flooded as well. Or further inland in the mountainous region of the central and eastern Cordillera Central, he could have witnessed the ravaging defoliation of the El Yunque tropical forest, a vital part of the rich ecosystem of Puerto Rico. An aerial survey of the Levittown suburb in the northern plains would have shown him the effects of widespread flooding in one of the largest suburbs in the Commonwealth.

Even before a visit, just checking with NASA would have given the president an accurate idea of the scope of damage in the San Juan area, as this damage assessment to buildings done with remotely-sensed imagery shows, or the widespread loss of electricity. Maybe that would have made President Trump think twice before declaring that due to the latest official death toll (34 so far, but likely to rise), the situation in Puerto Rico is not “a real catastrophe like Katrina.

President Trump responds with scorn to the humanitarian plight of Puerto Ricans

But during the visit to the territory, the president did not go to any of the hard-hit areas, had nothing but scorn for the people of Puerto Rico, and seemed to be more worried about money than about the lives and well-being of 3.4 million U.S. citizens.

In one of his first remarks during the visit, President Trump claimed that Puerto Rico was “throwing our [federal] budget out of whack,” an assistance that so far totals $35 million dollars. In contrast, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of national Hispanic organizations in the U.S., has called on Congress and the President to, among other things, provide $70 billion dollars for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The president’s visit does nothing to assuage the fears among Puerto Ricans that Puerto Rico will be left behind in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and María.

A few days before his visit, President Trump suggested that Puerto Ricans want “everything to be done for them” in relation to emergency aid and relief. That assertion can’t escape being lumped together with the long-standing racist social construction of Puerto Ricans—especially those of African descent—as lazy and wilfully dependent on the government. That characterization is also patently not true, as the massive mobilization of both Puerto Ricans in the territory, along with the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, demonstrates anything but lazy complacency in the falsehood that Puerto Ricans expect the federal government to do everything for them. I know because over the last few weeks, I have been part of relief efforts in my local community and witnessed the solidarity of people everywhere—both of Puerto Rican origin, and otherwise.

The president’s unfortunate comments were followed by a personal attack on the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, for her very candid rebuttal of the acting head of Homeland Security’s comments that the federal response to the Puerto Rico crisis was a “good news story” when thousands of people still have no running water or electricity.

The president has an obligation to provide aid and comfort to millions of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

The demand for immediate action made by Puerto Ricans and many in the U.S. from Congress and the President is the demand of 3.4 million American citizens (and another 100,000 in the USVI) to which both Congress and the President have an obligation to provide for their well-being and safety in the face of such a catastrophe.

President Trump’s callousness and harsh words for Puerto Ricans sharply contrasts with the swift approval of an emergency aid package for Texas and Florida in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

I watch these events unfold, and the response of Congress, but especially of President Trump, with a mix of anger and sadness. It is simply incomprehensible that almost two weeks after Hurricane María made landfall, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands still have not received an emergency aid package to speed-up recovery and avert worsening of the humanitarian crisis unfolding there.

That is why I joined together with my colleagues at Voces Verdes – Latino Leadership in Action to elevate our voices to demand that Congress and the president provide an initial emergency spending package for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. We are not alone in this demand. The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) just sent a letter to Congress and the President with other demands in addition to the emergency relief package.

Multiple sectors have mobilized to aid Puerto Rico in recovering from the devastation and misery brought by this hurricane season. It is inspiring to see the way private individuals, including Puerto Rican musicians and actors, have stepped in to help. However, they should not have had to take on something that should be the responsibility of the president and Congress. Their solidarity and quick action contrasts sharply with the victim-blaming rhetoric the President has engaged in.

The president is supposed to be a unifying voice in times of national emergencies. Instead, President Trump has chosen to visit ravaged Puerto Rico to make a mockery of human suffering in the face of catastrophic extreme weather. The federal agencies he commands need the resources to continuing doing their job adequately (as they have been doing within the limitations of the aid that has been provided) to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That job can be best done if the president and Congress direct the adequate resources to FEMA and other federal agencies. His scorn and jarring tone with people who have lost everything make that task even more monumentally difficult than it already is.

Want to help?

Congress Could Help Farmers, Prevent Pollution, and Reduce Flood and Drought Damage. Will They?

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Conservationist Garrett Duyck and David Brewer examine a soil sample on the Emerson Dell farm near The Dalles, OR. USDA NRCS photo by Ron Nichols.

The news lately has been full of Congressional battles—healthcare, the debt ceiling, and now tax “reform” (ahem)—and it’s starting to seem like Congress is only interested in blowing things up. But a huge legislative effort is gaining steam on Capitol Hill, one that is likely to have general bipartisan support, though you probably haven’t heard nearly as much about it. I’m talking about the next five-year Farm Bill—which really should be called the Food and Farm Bill, as it shapes that sprawling economic sector worth more than 5 percent of US GDP, and which Congress must reauthorize by September 30, 2018.

In this first of a series of posts on the 2018 Farm Bill, I look at how this legislation could do more to help farmers conserve their soil, deliver clean water, and even reduce the devastating impacts of floods and droughts, all of which would save taxpayers’ money.

Farm conservation works

Since 1985, the Farm Bill has promoted stewardship of soil, water, and wildlife by directing funding to a variety of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs. These programs provide financial incentives and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to protect their soil and store carbon by planting cover crops, reduce fertilizer and pesticide use by rotating a mix of crops, capture excess fertilizer and add wildlife habitat by planting perennial prairie strips in and around vast cornfields, and even take environmentally sensitive acres out of farming altogether.

Recent UCS analysis has shown that farm practices like these lead to positive environmental outcomes while maintaining or increasing farmers’ yields and profits and saving taxpayers’ money.

And our latest report, Turning Soils into Sponges, reveals a surprising additional benefit: growing cover crops and perennial crops can make farmers and downstream communities more resilient to the effects of floods and droughts. The report demonstrates that these practices—which keep living roots in the soil year-round—result in healthier, “spongier” soils soak up more water when it rains and hold it longer through dry periods. Using these practices, farmers can reduce rainfall runoff in flood years by nearly one-fifth, cut flood frequency by the same amount, and make as much as 16 percent more water available for crops to use during dry periods. But farmers need help to do it.

A changing climate demands more conservation, not less

So it was a real step backward when the 2014 Farm Bill cut the very programs that help farmers build healthy soil and prevent pollution. That bill cut the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), for example, by more than 20 percent. A USDA official recently told a Senate committee that CSP is “greatly oversubscribed” and must turn away thousands of farmers who want to participate.

(Incidentally, the Senate will hear this week from President Trump’s nominee to lead the USDA’s conservation efforts, whose conservation record as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture has been mixed.)

Meanwhile (surprise!) the problems that on-farm conservation can help solve are not going away by themselves. Midwestern farm runoff has led to deteriorating water quality from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico. And climate change will only worsen water quality and increase the frequency and severity of floods and droughts.

The latter is particularly bad news for farmers, and for all of us. A new report from the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, which operates the taxpayer-subsidized federal crop insurance program, shows that losses from drought and flooding were to blame for nearly three-quarters of all crop insurance claims paid to farmers and ranchers between 2001 and 2015.

Farmers are adopting conservation practices, and policy support is growing

For example, earlier this year researchers at Iowa State University released the results of their 2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, which asked farmers across the state about conservation practices they used between 2013 and 2015. Nearly half (44 percent) reported an increase in the use of practices to improve soil health, with 20 percent reporting they’d increased their use of cover crops.

Meanwhile, the National Farmers Union (NFU), which represents family farmers and ranchers across the country, has become increasingly vocal about the need for USDA programs and research to help farmers build soil health and cope with climate change. And taxpayer advocates have lent their voice to the call stronger requirements for on-farm conservation as a condition of participating in the federal crop insurance program (so-called conservation compliance). A number of states have undertaken healthy soil initiatives, and some observers expect soil health to get more attention in this Farm Bill, as it should.

Congress: Don’t ask farmers to do the impossible

To recap: farm conservation works, farmers want to do it, and we all need more of it to cope with a changing climate and the floods, droughts, and escalating costs it will bring. So why wouldn’t Congress invest more?

As usual, budget-cutting fever is the problem. The Trump administration’s proposed USDA budget reductions shocked farmers and their allies in Congress last spring, cowing even the powerful Republican chair of the Senate agriculture committee, who warned that the 2018 Farm Bill will need to “do more with less.” That’s a silly thing to say, of course…with most things in life, doing more requires, well, more. For farm conservation, that means financial incentives and technical assistance for more farmers and more acres, along with more monitoring to ensure that it’s getting results.

That’s why UCS joined with NFU and two dozen other organizations in outlining our collective conservation priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill. These include a substantial increase in funding for USDA conservation programs including CSP, along with additional monitoring and evaluation of outcomes, better enforcement of conservation compliance, and improvements in the federal crop insurance program to remove barriers to conservation.

As Congress debates the Farm Bill in the coming months, UCS will be urging them to see farm conservation programs for what they are—critical programs to help farmers stay profitable today while preventing pollution, improving resilience, and avoiding more costly problems down the line.

In short, an excellent investment in our future.

Why Going 100% Electric in California Isn’t as Crazy as it Might Seem

Electric vehicle charging stations line the perimeter of San Francisco's City Hall. Photo: Bigstock.

California’s top air pollution regulator, Mary Nichols, made headlines last week after making comments to a Bloomberg reporter about the possibility of banning gasoline cars in California.  Shortly after that, California Assembly member Phil Ting announced he would introduce state legislation to do just that. Skeptics may raise their eyebrows, but if California is going to meet its long term climate and air quality goals then nearly all future cars and trucks must be powered by renewable electricity and hydrogen. The good news is the state is already on this path.

Our health and our climate depends on vehicle electrification

It’s no secret that widespread vehicle electrification is needed to meet California’s climate and air quality goals. In 1990, the first Zero Emission Vehicle program was adopted – an acknowledgment that vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions were necessary to ensure healthy air in a state with a growing population and a whole lot of cars.

Climate change has only added to the importance of vehicle electrification, which takes advantage of the efficiency of electric motors and the ability to power vehicles with renewable electricity or hydrogen (fuel cell vehicles have an electric motor and zero tailpipe emission similar to battery electric cars).

The state’s recent assessment of vehicle technologies needed to meet our climate and air quality goals shows the importance of widespread vehicle electrification suggesting all sales of new cars should be electric by 2050 (including plug-in hybrids or PHEVs).  A national assessment, Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States, and a California assessment, also point out a large-scale transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is needed to achieve the level of emission reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

Figure 1: From a presentation by staff to the Air Resources Board in March 2017 showing that by 2050 the majority of cars on the road – and all of new car sales – are powered by electric motors.

Banning gasoline and diesel gains popularity  

In the wake of VW’s Dieselgate and with the impacts of climate change becoming more and more apparent –  banning the sale of internal combustion vehicles is becoming a popular policy choice around the world, with France, Britain, India and China all making big splashes with recent commitments to eliminate them at some point in the future.

With these strong commitments gathering steam, some one might ask if California is somehow losing its leadership on EVs.  California isn’t losing its leadership, it’s starting to share it with many more parts of the globe.  This is great news, as increased global demand for EVs will help drive down technology costs for everyone and help automakers recoup their investments in EV technology faster.

But is going to 100% electric vehicles practical? It might be hard to imagine a time when every car at your local dealership will be electric. But there are reasons to be bullish on the future of EVs. Battery prices are dropping with estimates that EVs could have comparable costs to gasoline vehicles sometime in the 2020s. And recent announcements by major manufacturers like Ford, GM, Volvo, VW and others about expanding electric vehicle line-ups over the next 5 years indicates the industry is betting on growth opportunities.

Figure 2: As recently noted in a blog by my colleague David Reichmuth,  battery costs are declining and approaching the point where EVs achieve cost parity ($125-150 per kWh).

California is taking the right steps to making electric cars an option for more and more drivers

In addition, California is implementing policies to support the deployment of EVs.  There’s a long list, but some of the most critical are direct consumer rebates, incentives targeting low- and moderate-income households, utility investments to support the deployment of EV charging infrastructure, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, and the Zero Emission Vehicle program, which requires automakers to bring EVs to market. Meanwhile, California’s relatively clean electricity grid means that driving an EV results in global warming emissions equivalent to a 95 mile-per-gallon gasoline car. As California increases its reliance on electricity from renewable sources, emissions will continue to decline.

Long-term goals must be matched with near-term action

Adopting a ban on gasoline and diesel cars would certainly send a strong long-term signal that powering electric vehicles with clean energy is our ultimate destination. It could focus policy makers’ and regulators’ efforts on supporting the transition and give automakers, charging companies, utilities, and entrepreneurs a vision and long-term target for the future to guide their investments.

However, it’s the near-term efforts to make EVs more accessible to all Californians that will accelerate the transition. That means expanding current programs targeted toward individuals and businesses who buy or use new and used cars and increasing access to charging. And it also means supporting electrification for those who rely on other modes of transportation too (see my colleague Jimmy’s blog on electric buses).

A future without internal combustion engine cars is consistent with a future of clean air and minimizing climate impacts. Ultimately, for a transition to a clean, electric transportation system to succeed, the system needs to be better than the one we have today. And it’s the policies we implement today that will drive the investments needed to reach a tipping point, a point where choosing the EV is a no brainer for whomever is shopping for a car.

 

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