Catalyst Spring 2016

What’s in Your Tank? Not Knowing Can Hurt the Planet

When choosing a new car, you know exactly how many miles it gets to the gallon, which probably factors into your decision. This information is available thanks to federal fuel economy standards that are intended to hold manufacturers accountable for producing more fuel-efficient vehicles each year. But when you take your new car to the gas station, it’s a different story: there’s no way to know what harmful emissions were produced to extract and refine the fuel going into your tank.

The sad truth is, while fuel economy standards have helped gas-powered cars run more efficiently, the gas these cars run on is actually getting dirtier. The pollution associated with extracting and refining oil has increased by nearly a third over the last decade as companies have increasingly begun to extract it from unconventional sources such as tar sands and shale formations. Unlike the window stickers on cars, however, there is no obligation for companies to publicize the origin of the gas we buy or the global warming emissions caused by its production.

Extracting oil from unconventional sources such as tar sands is more energy-intensive, generating more global warming emissions compared with traditional oil wells.
Photos: Jennifer Grant, Pembina Institute/Creative Commons (Flickr) (tar sands); Suncor Energy/Creative Commons (Flickr) (hands)

Last year, California and Oregon passed legislation requiring transportation fuel producers to steadily lower the carbon intensity of their fuels—reducing emissions not only from tailpipes, but also from the fuels’ production and distribution. A bill proposed in Massachusetts that was recently voted out of committee would require producers and distributors to track the source of all transportation fuels sold in the state. If this bill passes, Massachusetts could set a precedent for this kind of disclosure, holding oil producers more accountable for the emissions their products generate.

Cutting oil use with more efficient cars and cleaner fuels is a critical part of the Union of Concerned Scientists' plan to cut projected US oil use in half by 2035. But we also need to ensure that the oil we do use doesn’t get dirtier than it already is. Learn more about the changing composition of oil—and what we need to do about it—in our report Fueling a Clean Transportation Future.

Cities Fight a Broken Food System

In Louisville, Kentucky, community-run Fresh Stop Markets provide local, healthy produce at an affordable cost to low-income neighborhoods.
Photo: James Bennett

UCS is hard at work with our partners making the case for a national food plan that can address systemic problems in the way food is produced and consumed in the United States. But, in our recent report Fixing Food: Fresh Solutions from Five U.S. Cities, weshowcase five local efforts that are already addressing some of the worst problems with creative strategies that improve the way we grow, distribute, and consume food.

Baltimore’s Virtual Supermarket Program, for example, addresses the lack of access to healthy food in impoverished neighborhoods by letting residents order groceries online and pick them up at the closest library. In Louisville, Kentucky, Fresh Stop Market is increasing the affordability and accessibility of healthy foods through a program its founder, Karyn Moskowitz, describes as “a cross between a fruit-and-vegetable flash mob and a family reunion.”

And in Memphis, Tennessee, the Farm Academy, run by the nonprofit urban farm Roots Memphis, provides training in sustainable agriculture and business management to aspiring farmers who sell their produce to local restaurants or through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. In so doing, this initiative addresses three problems simultaneously: stemming the decline in small farms; boosting the availability of fresh, locally grown produce; and supporting sustainable farming practices.

Many of the efforts we highlight are scalable, smart solutions for the worst of our food problems. Read the full report—and perhaps some inspiration for your own city.

We Heard You: Now Less Mail, More Reporting on the Work

When we recently surveyed you, our members, about your preferences, one theme came up repeatedly: you wished to receive less paper mail from us. We listened. And because UCS is a science-based organization, we also ran some tests and conducted some analysis about the best way forward.

We have expanded Catalyst and will, of course, continue to update members on all our work. But, starting this year, members will receive fewer fundraising letters from UCS: just one per quarter. We’re breaking with most other nonprofit organizations’ strategies on this, but we have crunched the numbers and concluded that our extraordinarily engaged members will maintain—and even increase—the level of funding necessary to support our scientists and analysts’ work. That makes this change a win-win-win: honoring your preferences, funding our mission, and keeping you informed about UCS with less environmental impact. Thank you for your comments and suggestions, and keep them coming!

Solar and Wind Energy’s Future Looks Brighter than Ever

Solar panel installation


The latest figures on the burgeoning number of new wind and solar installations are exceeding all expectations. Consider: For the first time ever, utility-scale solar projects will add more new capacity to the nation’s grid than any other energy source in 2016, according to the US Energy Information Administration. All told, in the United States, more electricity was generated by new solar projects in 2015 than in any previous year according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, and the amount is expected to double next year—with projects now scheduled for 2016 that are expected to generate about 16 gigawatts (GW) of new energy. That’s enough to power more than 3 million average homes.

The numbers for new wind power installations are equally impressive. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports that the United States added almost 8.6 GW of wind energy last year, bringing our nation’s total to 74.4 GW—enough to meet the electricity needs of some 20 million American households. And AWEA says another 9.4 GW of wind power is now under construction. Here again, the pace of change is eye-opening: more megawatts of wind power were installed during the fourth quarter of 2015 alone than in all of 2014.

Equally important, though, is the fact that these capacity numbers tell only a piece of a bigger story. Dramatically dropping costs, the extension of the federal tax credit, and farsighted state policies such as strengthened renewable electricity standards all mean the rapid growth in renewables is likely to continue—and UCS is working in states across the country to help make it happen.

In the forecast: improved public health from the resulting reduction in pollution from fossil fuel–fired electricity generation, and economic growth—with lots of new well-paying jobs. The US solar industry, for instance, now employs more than 200,000 workers according to the Solar Foundation—a number that has grown roughly 20 percent since November 2014. And, in another notable indicator, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that “wind turbine technician” is now the fastest-growing profession in the nation, with employment opportunities projected to double by 2024.

UCS Database Marks 10 Years of Tracking Satellites


Photos: Chris Devers/Creative Commons

Everything from long-distance phone calls to GPS tracking relies on satellites, but most of us know remarkably little about them—such as: how many active satellites are currently orbiting Earth? How many countries have their own satellites? Or, how many of the satellites are used for military versus commercial purposes? Ten years ago this March, we built the Web-based UCS Satellite Database to provide answers to all those answers and more.

“UCS launched the database back in 2006, and it quickly became a favorite research tool for professionals and hobbyists alike,” explains Laura Grego, a senior scientist in the UCS Global Security Program. “Astronomers naturally like to look at the planets and stars, but there’s a lot that can be learned about military and commercial activity by tracking the objects we humans have placed in space.”

The UCS database lists active satellites—ranging from softball-size to as large as six feet by 15 feet—by launch date, country of origin, sponsor, and orbital coordinates. As for some of the questions posed above? There are currently 1,381 active satellites, up from approximately 800 when UCS started the database. Roughly 40 percent are owned by the US government or US corporations, and nearly half of those serve a commercial purpose.

Pressure Builds on Fossil Fuel Companies over Climate Deception

MA Attorney General Maura Healey

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey
Photo: Robin Lubbock/WBUR

As the world’s major fossil fuel producers begin to hold their annual shareholder meetings this spring, most face growing scrutiny about the discrepancy between their internal understanding of climate science and their public denial of climate change. Last July, UCS released The Climate Deception Dossiers, a report documenting how, over the past three decades, many of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies have intentionally spread disinformation about climate science.

Since the report’s release, and subsequent articles in the Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman , California Attorney General Kamala Harris, and, most recently, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy have all announced investigations into whether ExxonMobil lied to shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change, and whether such actions could amount to securities fraud or violations of environmental laws. According to press reports, the US Justice Department has now asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine whether a federal probe of ExxonMobil’s climate disclosures is merited.

In another recent development, Representatives Ted Lieu of California, Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, and Peter Welch of Vermont asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate whether Shell Oil violated securities laws by allegedly failing to disclose risks tied to climate change. UCS, meanwhile, is not only working on a report that will rate the climate statements and actions of the major fossil fuel producers, but also partnering with several shareholder groups who plan to call on major producers such as ExxonMobil to explain how these companies are positioning themselves for an increasingly carbon-constrained world.