Catalyst Spring 2019
Advances

New Mexico Commits to 100 Percent Carbon-Free Electricity

Photo: Office of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham
After years of advocacy and analysis by UCS and its partners, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill in March committing the state to getting 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free resources by 2045.

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham recently signed into law a landmark bill that puts the state’s energy sector on an ambitious path and establishes New Mexico as a clean energy leader.

The state’s Energy Transition Act takes New Mexico’s current renewable electricity standard of 20 percent by 2020 and accelerates it—jumping to 50 percent by 2030, and 80 percent by 2040. Then, by 2045, the bill commits the state to a power sector that’s 100 percent carbon-free. With this farsighted move, New Mexico becomes only the third state (after Hawaii and California) to explicitly set itself on a path to zero-carbon electricity.

The move comes after years of advocacy and analysis by UCS and its partners, including the influential 2017 UCS report Committing to Renewables in New Mexico: Boosting the State’s Economy, Generating Dividends for All, which demonstrated the cost-effectiveness of moving to a high level of renewable energy to power the state’s electric grid, especially given the relatively high cost of coal. “Transitioning away from coal-fired power plants presents an incredible opportunity for New Mexico to slash carbon emissions, clean the air, and create a vibrant, clean energy economy,” says UCS Senior Energy Analyst Julie McNamara. Equally important, she notes, by working toward a carbon-free electric grid, the bill ensures the state will not simply replace coal with natural gas, which also produces carbon emissions.

Supporting Coal Workers  

Notably, the Energy Transition Act acknowledges that coal plant and coal mine workers and communities need a transition plan of their own. While striving to keep the economics of the transition cost-effective, the bill ensures that some of the money saved will be used to support the workers and communities impacted by the shift—through workforce retraining, economic development, severance pay, and reclamation.

“Instead of ducking hard truths, New Mexico’s state legislators confronted the challenges of coal plant retirements head-on to make sure coal workers and coal communities won’t be left behind,” McNamara says. “The time is right for other states to follow New Mexico’s lead and balance the particular challenges and opportunities they face to make a swift transition to a carbon-free future.”

A Trip to the Supermarket with UCS

Illustration: LimeRed Studio

 

Consumers in the United States today are becoming more interested and invested in how our food is produced, packaged, and distributed. And now, UCS has a new interactive tool to help shoppers learn more about how our food system actually works, and what it will take to make real change.

At our virtual supermarket, you can shop for knowledge on the hidden costs of items you might buy regularly at your local store such as coffee, eggs, meat, and vegetables. You can also find recommendations to help make our food system work better for all of us, not just through supermarket trips but also with policy shifts.

“We understand that making choices about food can be overwhelming,” says Karen Perry Stillerman, senior strategist and analyst for the UCS Food and Environment program. “By revealing hidden stories behind some of the products on the shelves, we’re giving shoppers information to make more informed decisions—and an understanding of how to advocate for a better food system.”

Try it out and fill your cart.

UCS Exposes Air Quality Inequities in California

Photo: Viktor Hanacek/picjumbo

 

A recent UCS analysis, Inequitable Exposure to Air Pollution from Vehicles in California, published in both Spanish and English, demonstrates that Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and low-income communities are exposed to substantially more air pollution from cars, trucks, and buses than other demographic groups in the state.

Our analysis focused on fine particulate air pollution (smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter), which can be directly produced by the burning of gasoline or diesel in an engine and indirectly produced in the atmosphere from tailpipe exhaust and fuel evaporation. These particles, some 20 times smaller than the width of a human hair, can penetrate deeply into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, posing a serious threat to human health from heart and lung diseases.

Previous public health studies have shown anecdotally that communities of color and low-income communities have experienced elevated incidence of air pollution–related illnesses such as asthma and lung and heart ailments, and even premature death. But, in a new line of analysis, our team overlaid data about the amounts of fine particulate air pollution from cars, trucks, and buses with demographic data to determine which communities were hardest hit.

Among the key findings are that African Americans in the state are exposed to fine particulate pollution at a level 43 percent higher than that for white residents of the state; this pollution exposure is 39 percent higher for Latinos in the state than for white residents. In addition, low-income households in California are exposed to fine particulate pollution at a level 10 percent higher than the state average; by comparison, for the state’s highest-income households, the level is 13 percent below the state average.

What to do? The analysis makes a number of recommendations for targeted actions state and local governments should take, including: electrifying passenger and freight vehicles as swiftly as possible; requiring, as California currently does, that a percentage of revenue generated from the state’s cap-and-trade program be specifically earmarked for low-income communities; and offering clean vehicle incentive programs that provide greater financial incentives for low-income households and for accelerating the retirement of the oldest, most high-polluting vehicles.

UCS Spotlight on PFAS Spurs Progress

A sign in Millford, Michigan, warns of the dangers of eating fish from a local river that has been found to be contaminated with a group of chemicals known as PFAS.
Photo: Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo

Over the past year, UCS has sounded the alarm about the health risks of unregulated exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. These chemicals are used in firefighting foam, food packaging, and nonstick pans, and are linked to health problems including asthma, multiple types of cancers, and thyroid disease. And sadly, these chemicals may be found at unsafe levels in the drinking water of many people in the United States.

For example, a 2018 UCS report flagged the prevalence of high concentrations of PFAS in the drinking water at military bases around the country, with some groundwater concentrations as high as 1000 times the levels scientifically considered safe. UCS also drew attention to an attempt by the Trump administration to cover up the results of a study suggesting these chemicals are unsafe at lower amounts than previously believed.

“We’re starting to see movement on this issue now,” says Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “Congress and individual states are launching oversight and accountability measures, which is good news for public health.” Notable among the state efforts, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection recently set science-based limits for PFAS in the state’s drinking water and ordered five major chemical companies that produce PFAS to pay for the cleanup of contaminated sites. Additionally, New Jersey’s attorney general is suing two of those companies for the damage they’ve caused.

Meanwhile, members of Congress have created a task force on PFAS contamination and introduced bipartisan bills in the House and Senate that would classify PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund toxics law.

Reed is determined to keep PFAS top-of-mind among lawmakers and regulators. “UCS is going to keep working on PFAS until it’s evident that contaminated sites are cleaned up, enforceable standards are set, and our drinking water is safe,” she says. “Our health is at stake.”

Sidelining Science on Air Pollution Standards: UCS Fights Back

Dr. Tony Cox, the current chair of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, is calling for changes that will undermine the scientific process that shapes the nation’s clean air policies.
Photo: EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a long-established process for ensuring that national air pollution standards are based on science, as required under the Clean Air Act. But to an unprecedented extent, the Trump administration has been trying to chip away at the science that underpins these protections.

In October of last year, the EPA disbanded a scientific review panel that had served as a key resource for ensuring the agency sets air pollution standards that will protect public health. At the same time, the EPA kicked independent scientists off its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). Together, these changes mean the EPA is getting far less qualified science advice for the decisions it needs to make about air pollution policy.

In the latest effort to sideline science, Dr. Tony Cox, the current chair of CASAC, has called on the EPA to upend its time-tested and scientifically sound process for setting air pollution standards. Gretchen Goldman, an air pollution expert and research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, is pushing back.

Goldman co-authored a prominent piece in Science charging that Cox and the current administration are undermining a process that, even in the face of enormous political and financial pressures, “has worked remarkably well across both Republican and Democratic administrations and has been upheld in the courts.” As Catalyst goes to press, early indications are that the pressure we are exerting has helped forestall Cox’s current efforts to do an end run around EPA requirements. UCS is monitoring developments closely and will continue to fight hard for air pollution protections based on science.