UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

USDA Secretary Sidelines Science, Sells Out Farmers, Workers, and Eaters

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Lest you think the Trump administration’s headlong rush toward rejecting science in favor of industry deregulation is mostly a problem in Scott Pruitt’s EPA, recent less-reported developments at the US Department of Agriculture demonstrate otherwise. Over the past few weeks, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has taken a variety of steps to sideline science and betray farmers, food chain workers, and eaters. Let’s review…

Secretary Sonny’s approach to science and policy takes shape (and it doesn’t look good)

Don’t be fooled by his folksy moniker and down-home anecdotes. Secretary Sonny is a big agribiz guy through and through, with a long history of ethics run-ins and rewarding his friends and business associates. And though he likes to talk about science-based decision-making and serving farmers and taxpayers as customers, so far it doesn’t appear that he’s walking the walk.

Since he took up the reins at the USDA last April, we’ve seen Secretary Sonny take steps to reorganize the department in ways that don’t bode well for rural development, conservation, nutrition, and other essential programs. His steadfast support of the troubling (and now-withdrawn) nomination of non-scientist Sam Clovis should be another big red flag.

For a big-picture look at the Trump administration’s USDA, read Moneyball author Michael Lewis’s in-depth (and disturbing) new Vanity Fair article on the topic. Meanwhile, I’ll pull out three recent moves that give us a clear indication of who stands to gain (and who is likely to lose) under Secretary Perdue’s watch.

Poultry workers: Unsafe at any speed?

First, Perdue’s Food Safety and Inspection Service quietly opened a comment period on a petition from the National Chicken Council (NCC) to speed up the process of processing chickens. Plants operated by the NCC’s member companies—which include giants Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms (no relation to the Secretary)—slaughter, cut up, and debone billions of chickens every year. The industry and at least one of its allies in Congress, looking to capitalize on the Trump administration’s zeal for deregulation, are lobbying Perdue’s USDA to let them process chickens even faster than the current speed of 140 birds per minute.

Civil Eats has a devastating account of the dangerous conditions already faced by workers in those plants. And under President Obama, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) determined that allowing plants to operate at higher speeds could result in more injuries among workers deboning chickens. NBC News reports:

“USDA wanted to raise the maximum line speed, but OSHA was very concerned that it would result in more workers being injured,” said David Michaels, Obama’s former head of OSHA. “We had support (from White House officials) who agreed that we didn’t want thousands of workers to have their arms destroyed by having to cut up chickens at 175 birds per minute.”

USDA maintained the speed at 140. But now Secretary Sonny seems poised to reverse that decision.

Citing research on the danger to workers and consumers, our allies at the Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Council submitted a public comment urging the USDA to “follow the law and the agency’s own findings” and reject the NCC’s petition. The comment period closes December 13.

Farewell, Farmer Fair Practices

And the Secretary also had another gift for Big Meat and Poultry last month. As Politico reported, he rolled back a pair of rules known collectively as the Farmer Fair Practices Rules:

Perdue withdrew an interim final rule that would have lowered the bar for producers of poultry and other livestock to sue the meatpacking or processing companies with which they have contracts. And USDA also will take no further action on a proposed rule to shield contract growers from unfair practices.

The rollback of these two rules administered by the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) means that contract farmers lose their newly-gained protection from exploitation by the corporate giants who control nearly every step of the meat and poultry production chain. The National Farmers Union, which represents family farmers across the country, called the move “deeply disappointing,” noting in a statement:

With this decision, USDA has given the green light to the few multinational meatpackers that dominate the market to discriminate against family farmers. As the administration has signaled its intent to side with the meat and poultry giants, NFU will pursue congressional action that addresses competition issues and protects family farmers and ranchers.

Do right and feed…well, maybe not everyone

In addition to turning his back on small farmers and underpaid food workers, Secretary Sonny also appears to be taking aim at low-income consumers. Since being confirmed as agriculture secretary in April 2017, Perdue has often repeated his “new motto” for the USDA:

I like to say that @USDA‘s new motto is “Do right and feed everyone.” Feel like today at our first #USDAFamilyDay we did just that. pic.twitter.com/CFl6X1rJck

— Sec. Sonny Perdue (@SecretarySonny) June 24, 2017

“Do right and feed everyone” is a fine motto, but now it seems the Secretary didn’t really mean everyone. He recently went on record suggesting that enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would fall if individuals who are able to work are restricted from using it.

Perdue’s suggestion that the working poor should be barred from receiving nutrition benefits via SNAP is confounding. Data show that most SNAP recipients who can work do so—though usually for low or inconsistent pay that isn’t enough to feed their families. As Perdue’s home-state newspaper points out:

[I]n a state hostile to unions and with a minimum wage of only $5.15 an hour, also barring those who receive paychecks from receiving food stamps would have tremendous impact. An estimated 546,000 working Georgians live in households that receive the help, according to one study.

Even so, members of Congress have increasingly called for strengthening work requirements for SNAP participants. So, which is it—should SNAP beneficiaries work or not?

Mr. Secretary, we’re keeping our eye on you

Secretary Perdue has now been in office just over six months. Of his department’s 13 other leadership positions requiring Senate confirmation, only three are in place, and seven positions don’t even have a nominee yet. And the Secretary’s proposed departmental reorganization is still taking shape. But with early signs already troubling, we’ll be tracking further developments to paint a fuller picture of his intentions for science-based policy making for the nation’s food and farm system.

Stay tuned…

You Heard Right—The Trump Administration is Bailing Out Coal Plants

Photo: Seth Anderson/CC BY-NC-SA (Flickr)

No one likes paying more on their electric bills. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what might happen if the US Department of Energy gets its way with a recent request that bails out uneconomic coal plants. UCS opposes both this and something similar under review by the West Virginia Public Service Commission.

Who benefits? Owners

The Trump administration proposes to force the markets to provide guaranteed profits to coal-fired power plants and nuclear plants that are failing in the competitive wholesale electricity markets. Although the proposal is thin on details, it would amount to a bailout. This primarily benefits the owners of US coal mines by paying the uneconomic coal-burning power plants upwards of $5 billion per year to keep burning coal from those mines.

The power plant owners will also have larger profits in the short-run.

Power plant owners of course understand these coal plants are uneconomic—which is why they are looking for someone to pay them to keep them online. Before the Trump DOE came along, West Virginia went through this in 2013 with the Harrison power plant, which has cost consumers more than $164 million so far. Now Harrison’s owner, FirstEnergy, is attempting the same thing with its Pleasants coal plant.

Coal plants potentially benefiting from DOE proposal in green and red. Size based on Co2 emissions. Source: UCS analysis

The track record of coal mine owners in protecting the jobs and health of coal miners is abysmal; spending money to keep coal-burning plants open is not a great policy for the communities in coal country. While purporting to support coal communities, the administration simultaneously proposed to cut federal budgets that support those communities.

Who pays? Trapped consumers

Bending the markets to require profits be given to a few plant owners is an awful idea.When the Administration rejects the markets’ results to favor a few political supporters, every business owner and every consumer should consider themselves under attack. Electricity is not a luxury or an option for our society.

The government needs a very clear explanation if the captive customers paying unavoidable electric bills are suddenly required to pay billions more in costs each year.

While FERC and state regulators do have the authority to approve rule changes that increase payments to existing power plants, using good policy to reduce the cost of an expensive change would be the responsible choice. Unfortunately, the debates are tilted against consumers.

How much money?

Estimates for increased payments to generators run in a range from $2.4 billion to $10.6 billion annually for payments under the proposed rule—but that does not include the pollution impacts. UCS offered FERC an initial estimate of costs due to increased CO2 emissions by calculating the CO2 emissions from existing coal-burning generators that appear to be eligible for the payments proposed by the DOE. UCS found over 50 GW of existing coal capacity that would potentially be eligible for the proposed subsidy and included only those that were located within energy markets of PJM, MISO,NYISO, or ISO-NE, and that are known to be presently subject to market competition.

Using their 2016 CO2 emissions, the coal plants potentially eligible for payments under the DOE Proposal create annual costs of about $9 billion from emitted CO2. Impacts from other pollutants will make this higher.

What’s wrong with the DOE proposal?

The proposed rule submitted by the DOE is worse than vague about benefits to reliability or “resilience.” The DOE proposal has not defined the need for a set of services, not defined the services, and not defined the performance improvements sought or expected from generators eligible for proposed payments. The DOE has not supported its proposal with evidence, nor is it supported by the body of science-backed reports that have been published in recent months, many of which were funded and directed by the DOE. The National Academy of Sciences described how to improve in electric system resilience, and the DOE ignored that, too.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should not approve this proposed rule with this lack of evidence and detail regarding impacts on consumers and reliability.

Further, the DOE proposal fails to define resilience. This is sufficient reason for FERC to reject the proposal. Where “essential reliability services” have been defined, those capabilities can be provided by solar, wind, and storage. Demonstrations of solar generation capabilities to provide “essential reliability services” have recently been published by the California ISO, California Energy Commission, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and First Solar. Earlier documentation of wind generation capacity providing reliability and ancillary services has been made by NREL, and deployed commercially by Xcel operators in Colorado.

Is the DOE wrong in claiming reliability is being affected?

Yes. The retirement of power plants in the RTOs/ISOs has not diminished the reliability of the electric power system, and DOE has not supported its claim that retirements of uneconomic creates a reliability impact. Reliability is closely watched, with regular comprehensive reviews provided by NERC. The DOE proposal contradicts NERC and does so despite the fact that the NERC reliability assessment is cited in the DOE Staff report. NERC’s State of Reliability 2017 report states that the bulk power system is reliable today despite the recent plant retirements.

Resilience (and reliability) for the electric power system are desirable goals for the economy and the well-being of everyone—but without a definition and means to evaluate the contribution to serving such goals, a policy or expense cannot be justified. A better approach is to invest small, distributed resources for the grid, given that the vast majority of customer outages are due to disturbances on the transmission and distribution systems and not the shortage of fuel at large power plants.
UCS continues to actively engage in the FERC and regional debates over the DOE proposal. Stay tuned for updates.

Photo: Seth Anderson/CC BY-NC-SA (Flickr)

Kathleen Hartnett White Nomination Spells Trouble for the Magna Carta of Environmental Law: NEPA

NEPA is a landmark law that is crucial for identifying and considering environmental impacts on people, communities, and our shared environment. Photo: Bill Hughes, FracTracker Alliance

President Trump’s nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to lead the nation’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) comes as no big surprise. She will be just the latest addition to a Trump team determined to slow, stem, stymie, and roll back environmental and public health protections with reckless disregard for the well-being of all Americans. 

Despite the up to $180 billion in devastation caused by a climate change fueled-hurricane in Houston, Hartnett White, the former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, does not believe that climate change is a danger to society. Ever a friend to the oil and gas industry, she sees efforts to address climate change as simply an attack on the fossil fuel industry.

I could go on (and on and on) to express my dismay and alarm about this impending appointment, and others have—see here, here, and here—but that’s not where I’m headed with this post.  Instead, I want to tell you why you should care about two acronyms most American’s have never heard of: CEQ and NEPA.

CEQ does what exactly?

The national Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is a small but important office within the Executive Office of the President. Established by a 1969 law (more on NEPA in a second), the council essentially functions as the president’s chief advisor on environmental quality within the White House.

CEQ was created to gather information on environmental quality; develop and recommend to the president national policies to foster and promote the improvement of environmental quality; set regulations that guide agency compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA; and be a source of information for the public.

In other words, CEQ is meant to play a critical role in protecting and promoting the quality of our environment, and the head of CEQ will be a primary source of advice and information for President Trump on the issue of environmental quality. 

NEPA: The Magna Carta of environmental law  

First, a bit of history. While environmental protection is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Richard Nixon, his administration ushered in some sweeping changes and had singular environmental achievements. NEPA is a case in point.

President Nixon signed the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on January 1, 1970. This landmark law charges the federal government and its agencies with a responsibility to promote environmental protection, preservation, and restoration, and notes the responsibility each generation has to act as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.

NEPA has inspired the adoption of similar requirements in 16 US states, and over 130 nations around the world have enacted national environmental policies modeled after it. NEPA has been called the Magna Carta of Environmental Law, a reflection of just how important and valuable it is considered around the world.

NEPA is important for three main reasons

1) Identifying and considering impacts on people, communities, and our shared environment

NEPA established the requirement, with certain exemptions, that all federal agencies undertake an environmental impact statement (EIS) when they propose legislation and any other major federal action that significantly affects the quality of the human environment.

Such actions include but are not limited to specific projects (such as road construction), plans or proposals to manage and develop federal land (such as national parks), and federal permitting or funding of private sector projects (such as granting an easement for a power lines or a permit for use of a waterway).

This is critical in order to ensure that federal agencies identify and consider environmental impacts on the people, communities, places, and environmental resources (i.e., air, water, land) that will be affected by their proposed actions.

2) Explaining the environmental impacts of different alternatives 

In formulating an environmental impact statement, agencies must explain the purpose and need for action, and importantly the different reasonable alternatives for addressing the need so that decision makers are fully aware of the environmental consequences of their choices. The document must explain the environmental impacts of these alternatives, and possible measures to reduce adverse impacts.

The EIS always includes as part of its analysis a “no action” alternative, that is, what would happen if the action was not taken at all. (For more, check out the Wiki page on EIS; it’s good. For a more detailed look at NEPA, check out chapter 5 in this book.)

Per Executive Order #12898, agencies are also required to consider issues of environmental justice in the NEPA process–including environmental effects on human health, and economic and social effects, specifically within communities of color and low-income communities, which are disproportionately impacted by environmental risks and harms.

3) Allowing the public to have a say in decisions (a.k.a. democracy)

NEPA also advances two essential features of our democracy—transparency and public participation. Federal projects and actions can have profound effects on our surrounding environments and thus on our daily lives—from the air we breathe and the food and water we consume to the roads we travel and the places we love.

We, the people who may be impacted by a project for years to come, should have the right to know what the agencies are planning; what alternatives they are considering; and have an opportunity to comment, question, and suggest different alternatives. Indeed, in 2007 the CEQ itself published A Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA: Having Your Voice Heard.  (I suggest you you read it now; it could easily disappear.)

So, for example, the public—not just business interests—would get to weigh in when the federal Department of Transportation proposes to build or extend the interstate highway system that might cut through communities or nearby farmlands. Or when the US Forest Services plans logging activity on federal lands, which could potentially impact tourism and local water quality. Or when the Army Corps of Engineers develops plans for flood control or river transportation on the nation’s waterways. Or when an oil and gas company needs a permit for a new drilling operation. Or for a pipeline. NEPA provides a critical opportunity for the public to comment on the proposed actions and alternatives.

Flexibility and recourse

While the process provides opportunity for public engagement and is meant to ensure that decision-makers consider different alternatives and their environmental impacts, agencies have flexibility to make the final decision they deem most appropriate.

Specifically, agencies are not bound to select the least burdensome alternative. However, agency decisions are appealable and open to judicial review. And the EIS, along with the record of public comment, provides information that can be used to fight an agency decision in court. Without getting into the legal weeds, the courts generally tend to review decisions if 1) the proper process was followed, 2) there was appropriate public participation, and 3) the alternatives considered and decisions made were not “arbitrary and capricious.”

In other words, the agency must have a logical basis for its decisions following public input. As a standard, that’s not bad!

Hartnett White: Here’s the rub

The White House Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) oversees the implementation of NEPA. It issues and interprets NEPA rules and regulations and reviews and approves NEPA procedures in agencies. So it matters who is running the show. Is it someone who will put public health and environmental protection first, or someone who will sideline science in favor of industry? Is it someone who truly believes in the public process and the opportunity for different perspectives and interests to be at the table, or only the most deep-pocketed players?  Is it someone who will staff the office with people who understand and support the statutory missions of the agencies or people from regulated industries who have been vocal critics of NEPA, regulatory protections, and the agencies they will oversee?

Do we want the chief environmental quality advisor in the White House to be someone who views carbon dioxide as a harmless and beneficial gas rather than a proven climate pollutant? Who sees “global warming” as a “kind of paganism” for “secular elites.”  Who has tight and profitable connections with the fossil fuel industry? If yes, then Kathleen Hartnett White is the person for the job.  President Trump certainly thinks so.

With federal promises to address our aging infrastructure in the offing, you may find yourself with a newfound interest in this somewhat arcane, often lengthy, and sometimes contentious process. As well as exceedingly grateful for a functioning NEPA and a CEQ that puts public interest first.

My worry is that powerful private interests will persuade their friends in the administration to “streamline” (read: WEAKEN) NEPA protections and processes. And a willing CEQ with Hartnett White at the helm will be instrumental in the process.

If you’re worried too, call on your senator (you can reach him or her via the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121) to oppose the confirmation of Kathleen Hartnett White!

¿Qué es la energía eólica marina? Una visita a la primera granja de los EE.UU.

Viajar a Block Island para ver de cerca la primera granja eólica marina de los Estados Unidos me hizo recordar lo mucho que disfrutaba las salidas de campo organizadas por el colegio y luego la universidad. Desde las visitas de primaria a granjas con conejos, vacas y caballos, a las salidas mientras estudiaba ingeniería a procesos de automatización e industrias de ensamblaje de productos, siempre me fascinó presenciar en vivo lo que aprendía en las aulas de clase. Ahora que me especializo en temas de energía limpia, la visita a esta granja eólica marina no fue la excepción.

 ¿En qué consiste la energía eólica marina?

La energía eólica consiste en la generación de energía por medio del uso de turbinas que aprovechan la velocidad del viento. En el caso de la energía eólica marina, las turbinas de viento están ubicadas en plataformas instaladas en el mar.

Medidas de las turbinas eólicas marinas de Block Island. Crédito: Deepwater Wind, LLC

La granja eólica marina de Block Island cuenta con 5 turbinas de proporciones impresionantes. Las torres miden 360 pies (110m), equivalente a la altura de 20 jirafas ubicadas una sobre la otra. Cada aspa mide 240 pies (73m), casi igual al ancho de un avión Airbus A380 de un extremo a otro de sus alas.

En cuanto a las plataformas, para este proyecto se usaron jackets  los cuales están situados entre 75 y 90 pies (23 a 27m) bajo el nivel del mar; en el buceo recreativo la profundidad máxima autorizada oscila entre 20 y 40m. Las plataformas están aseguradas a su vez con pilotes que penetran 200 pies (60m) el fondo del mar.

La energía generada por esta granja eólica marina de 30 megavatios (MW) es suficiente para cubrir las necesidades de 17.000 hogares. Esta energía es transmitida a través de un cable submarino que conecta la granja con Block Island, y la isla a su vez se conecta con la red eléctrica continental del estado de Rhode Island a través de un segundo cable submarino.

¿Cuáles son los beneficios de esta tecnología?

Granja eólica marina de Block Island: energía limpia hecha realidad. Foto: P. García.

Son múltiples los beneficios del uso de la energía eólica marina.

Ambientales. Debido a su naturaleza, no produce emisiones contaminantes al utilizar el viento y no plantas diésel u otros combustibles fósiles para generar energía. En el caso de la granja eólica marina de Block Island, anualmente evitará la emisión de 40.000 toneladas de dióxido de carbono, equivalente a sacar de circulación 7.500 carros. Esta transición a energías renovables es de singular importancia para contrarrestar los peores efectos del cambio climático.

Económicos. El diseño, implementación y mantenimiento de proyectos eólicos marinos requiere de mano de obra, lo que se traduce en empleos, desarrollo industrial y por ende económico. Tan solo en Block Island para un proyecto de 30MW se han creado más de 300 empleos. Esto es un claro abrebocas de lo que viene para la región si tenemos presente las metas de desarrollo de energía eólica marina establecidas por estados como Massachusetts (1.600MW) y Nueva York (2.400MW).

Tecnológicos: La costa este de los Estados Unidos presenta un especial potencial para la eólica marina debido a la velocidad del viento y la poca profundidad del mar. Sumado a esto, la energía eólica marina provee un mayor rendimiento y eficacia en comparación con la eólica terrestre debido al tamaño de las turbinas, y a que hay menos obstáculos para el viento al no haber construcciones o alteraciones geográficas. Adicionalmente, la energía eólica marina es usualmente ubicada cerca a los lugares donde la energía es consumida, evitando así el uso de extensos sistemas de transmisión para poder transportar la energía a su destino final.

Sociales y ecológicos. La debida planeación, integración de la comunidad científica y consulta previa con comunidades y pescadores de la zona, garantizan la sana coexistencia de proyectos tecnológicos como la granja eólica marina de Block Island y el desarrollo de actividades productivas, la continuidad de la vida diaria de las comunidades y la conservación de especies marinas y de aves de la zona.

Presenciando como se construye el futuro. Foto: P. García.

Mi deseo para la energía eólica marina: ¡Buen viento y buena mar!

Sin duda, la energía es esencial para nuestra vida diaria. Visitar esta granja eólica marina ha sido una valiosa oportunidad para dimensionar las proporciones de esta tecnología, comprobar su increíble desempeño, y reafirmar que proyectos sostenibles como este son no solo viables, sino esenciales para nuestro desarrollo económico, social y ambiental. Dadas las innumerables oportunidades para su implementación en la costa este de los Estados Unidos y muchísimos más lugares del mundo, espero que la energía eólica marina tenga cada vez más: ¡Buen viento y buena mar!

Paula García Deepwater Wind, LLC Paula Garcia P. Garcia