Catalyst Summer 2018

In a First, This Year’s UCS Ranking Declines to Name “Greenest” Automaker

Photo: RainerPlendl/iStockphoto

In June, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued the seventh edition of its Automaker Rankings, a report that compares major US automakers based on the emissions of the vehicles they sell. In a departure from previous editions of the rankings, UCS found that no company deserved to be named as the “greenest” automaker this year.

The report identifies a number of energy-efficient technologies that are being deployed by the automakers—and leadership from some companies that could drive progress considerably further. The problem is, even though the automakers have these innovative technologies at their fingertips and publicly tout their commitment to sustainability and climate, their lobbyists and trade groups are working with the Trump administration behind the scenes to roll back fuel efficiency standards. This deprives consumers of the efficient choices they deserve.

Among the report’s other key findings:

  • Fiat Chrysler is the dirtiest of the major automakers, standing out for its failure to invest in cleaner technologies.
  • Progress has slowed at Toyota, once a leader in fuel-efficient technology, to the point where its average vehicle sold in 2017 emits more global warming emissions than in 2013.
  • Honda tops the list of major manufacturers this year, while American manufacturers Ford and GM lag well behind their international competitors.
  • Smaller companies such as Tesla now lead the industry in low-emissions vehicles.

The report’s author, UCS Senior Vehicles Analyst Dave Cooke, emphasizes that strong government emissions standards are driving the progress we’ve seen to date, and need to be maintained to help ensure that cars keep getting cleaner—for the climate, public health, national security, and Americans’ wallets. “Many automakers, including Ford and Toyota, tout themselves as ‘green’ companies, and their executives talk a lot in public about sustainability and climate change,” he says. “Our rankings are a reminder that we need to judge these companies not just on what they say, but what they do.”

Poll Showcases Broad Farmer Support for Sustainable Agriculture

Photo: Dusan Kostic/Adobe Stock

This spring, UCS surveyed some 2,800 farmers across the political spectrum in seven midwestern states about their views on sustainable agriculture. The results were impressive: nearly three-quarters of the farmers surveyed said they want a US farm bill that prioritizes sustainable agriculture and conserves soil and water. What’s more, 72 percent said they would be more likely to support a candidate for public office who prioritizes farm success through sustainable agriculture rather than business as usual. Learn more, and see state-by-state survey results.

“Farmers are eager for ways to safeguard natural resources while also improving their bottom lines,” says Karen Perry Stillerman, a senior analyst in the UCS Food and Environment Program. “They are telling us they want more tools, technical assistance, and financial support to help them adopt these practices. Their elected officials would be wise to listen.”

UCS Helps Win All-Electric Bus Fleet in San Francisco

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority—the second-largest bus fleet in the state of California—approved a transition to 100 percent zero-emissions buses by 2035. UCS worked hard with coalition partners for this win: a letter to the city’s transportation authority that we helped draft with local and national partners launched the process; UCS offered public comments at key meetings; and we got help from UCS Science Network members. “This is a very positive step in San Francisco to fight air pollution and global warming,” says UCS Outreach Coordinator Emily Heffling. “We’re hoping many other cities will follow suit.”

Political Motives Exposed at the EPA

Talk about getting caught red-handed: this spring, documents obtained by UCS through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request revealed that a so-called “restricted science” proposal floated by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was blatantly driven by politics. The documents confirm that Lamar Smith, the chair of the House Science Committee, initiated a conversation with the EPA about implementing Smith’s repeatedly failed “restricted science” legislative effort through administrative means.

The “restricted science” effort seeks to disqualify many important independent health analyses currently used by the EPA by requiring the disclosure of personal health data—a violation of US privacy laws. As UCS discovered, correspondence between several EPA political appointees, including EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Nancy Beck, a former staffer at the American Chemistry Council (the chemical industry’s trade association), explicitly discussed incorporating loopholes and exemptions to the proposed rule that would limit its impact on studies conducted by industry. As Yogin Kothari, senior Washington representative with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS explained: “The documents made it abundantly clear that the EPA was knowingly using a political ploy to try to undermine independent scientific analysis.”

UCS made the cache of documents publicly available, and the story earned widespread media coverage, exposing this attack on science and its possible impact on public health. Media coverage of the story helped UCS gather nearly 1,000 scientists’ and experts’ signatures and comments calling on the EPA to reject the proposed “restricted science” guidance. Click here to view the documents online.

A Major Boost for US Offshore Wind Power

The first US offshore wind farm was installed off the coast of Rhode Island in 2016 and has been providing clean electricity to New England ever since.
Photo: Derrick Z. Jackson

With several significant new approvals, the US offshore wind power industry has passed an important threshold in recent months, with project-driving mandates from Northeast and mid-Atlantic states over the next decade totaling more than 8,000 megawatts. That’s equivalent to the amount of electricity used by nearly 5 million homes. Try out the math with our offshore wind calculator. And with the help of UCS analytical work and advocacy, especially in Massachusetts, the United States is now poised to become a major player in offshore wind power, despite having lagged behind Europe for a quarter century.

Here are some of the details: Earlier this year, Massachusetts and Rhode Island approved projects totaling 1,200 megawatts, Maryland utilities regulators approved two offshore wind farms totaling 368 megawatts, and Connecticut took proposals for 200 megawatts’ worth of projects. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a goal of 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030.

An Enormous Opportunity

Equally notable, the Trump administration has allowed major lease sales of federal waters for offshore wind projects to move forward, maintaining the Obama administration’s support for the technology. As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said, “We think there’s an enormous opportunity for wind.”

A big piece of this opportunity is economics: rapid advances in turbine power and installation efficiency in Europe are driving offshore wind energy prices toward parity with fossil fuel energy sources far faster than predicted. With the biggest offshore wind companies in Europe now trying to stake claims in the US market, Trump’s Energy Department says there could quickly be a “robust pipeline” of nearly 24,000 megawatts.

To put that into perspective, Europe took 25 years to get to its current 16,000 megawatts of offshore wind power.

More Jobs, Fewer Emissions

A robust pipeline also means jobs. The clean energy agencies of New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island say the 8,000 megawatts of forthcoming projects could create up to 36,000 jobs. The US Department of Energy says that a market for offshore wind equivalent to that in Europe could match that continent’s current 75,000 jobs in the sector.

As for reduction of global warming emissions, Europe is well on track for onshore and offshore wind to provide 21 to 38 percent of the continent’s electricity needs by 2030. With enough wind resources in the United States to power the nation twice over, the prospects are looking increasingly strong for offshore wind to become a major source of energy in this country in the decades to come.

Working to Curb the Military in Outer Space

Photo: Omari Spears/UCS

While many Americans focus on the all-too-real threat of terrestrial war, UCS Senior Scientist Laura Grego is trying to forestall the possibility of war many miles above our heads. Grego is one of 25 experts worldwide who are now drafting a guide to what military activities are legal in space: the Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations.

Though more than 100 nations are party to an Outer Space Treaty created 50 years ago, updated agreements to keep space secure from conflict have stalled. The Woomera Manual aims to fill this gap by clarifying how existing international law, including humanitarian law, already provides important constraints. Grego was invited to join the Woomera Manual group based on her expertise in space security technology and policy. She and the team are working on the project now and expect to publish the manual in 2020.

New Developments in Fossil Fuel Lawsuits

Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

This spring, communities in Colorado and Washington State followed the example set by others in California and New York in bringing lawsuits against fossil fuel companies for their culpability in climate change. In April, two Colorado counties and the city of Boulder sued ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy (Canada’s largest oil company) to hold them responsible for climate-related damages. And, in May, Washington’s King County (which includes Seattle) sued the five largest oil companies on similar grounds.

In late June, as Catalyst went to press, a federal judge dismissed one of the suits that had been brought by San Francisco and Oakland against the five biggest privately owned oil companies claiming climate change–related damages. The ruling holds that Congress and the administration—rather than the courts—should resolve the issue of company responsibility for climate damages. Nonetheless, the judge agreed with the plaintiffs that climate science has demonstrably shown that “the combustion of fossil fuels has . . . materially increased carbon dioxide levels,” driving up average global temperatures and raising sea levels. Likewise, he acknowledged that the oil companies “have allegedly long known the threat fossil fuels pose to the global climate,” yet funded public relations campaigns that “downplayed the risks.”

The ruling is a setback for San Francisco and Oakland taxpayers who are bearing the mounting costs of climate change–related damage in their communities, but it will not directly affect suits filed by a handful of other municipalities and counties. As UCS Climate Accountability Campaign Director Kathryn Mulvey notes, “Given these companies’ significant contribution to climate change—and their decades of deception about climate science—it is long past time that they be held liable for the harm they have caused.”