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Fossil Fuel Companies Blocked From West Coast Ports Keep Pushing to Bypass Local Governments

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Port of Longview, Washington. Sam Beebe / Ecotrust, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Shawn Olson-Hazboun and Hilary Boudet

A year after Washington state denied key permits for a coal-export terminal in the port city of Longview, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would proceed with its review—essentially ignoring the state's decision.

This dispute pits federal authorities against local and state governments. It's also part of a larger and long-running battle over fossil fuel shipments to foreign countries that stretches up the entire American West Coast.


We are sociologists who have studied how people respond to news about plans for big energy facilities in their communities. With President Donald Trump pushing hard for more fossil fuel production and exports, we believe it could get significantly harder for local communities to have a say in these important decisions.

Access to Asia

Oil and gas exports have dramatically increased nationwide over the past decade, ever since technological advances turned the U.S. from a top importer of these fuels to a growing exporter.

Energy companies have sought more access to West Coast ports for decades for routes to Asia and Australia. The region's deepwater ports, railroad and pipeline networks, and proximity to some of the nation's most productive oil, gas and coal fields make it particularly attractive for export terminals.

In some cases, exporting through the West Coast is the only economically viable option, as longer overland transportation routes would be too costly. Moreover, shorter trips by sea to reach China and other growing Asian markets cut costs.

Yet Western ports do not export as much crude oil as other American coastal areas.

Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-NDSource: U.S. Energy Information Administration

In addition, there are no facilities yet in California, Oregon or Washington for exporting liquefied natural gas, a form of the fuel that has been cooled to very low temperatures for easier storage and shipping.

This is not for lack of trying. All the numerous export terminals energy companies have proposed for liquefied natural gas up and down the West Coast have faced significant public opposition that made securing permits hard if not impossible.

Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-NDSource: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Likewise, relatively small volumes of coal are being shipped abroad from ports on the West Coast despite efforts to build new export terminals there.

Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-NDSource: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Energy Dominance

With his "energy dominance" policy, Trump has emphasized expanding production and export of fossil fuels and weakening environmental regulations—including those that address climate change.

His administration is siding with energy companies and landlocked states like Wyoming and Colorado angling to ship coal, oil and natural gas mined and drilled within their borders to lucrative and growing Asian markets.

At the same time, many local and state governments on the West Coast are on board with demands made by environmental activists for renewable energy development and advocates for more local control over development.

Local supporters of fossil fuel exports point to the positive local effects these facilities can have. Labor unions, county governments, business councils and ports frequently argue that bolstering fossil fuel exports would create jobs, entice investment and increase the tax base.

Opponents argue that transporting, storing, handling and shipping fossil fuels—via railroads, pipelines and ships—endangers nearby communities and contributes to climate change.

They point to oil train derailments, the public health perils of increased diesel fumes and coal dust, and pipeline explosions and leaks. They also highlight the climate implications of shipping fossil fuels abroad that may affect the carbon footprints of other countries, where the fuel would be burned.

These people have maintained a virtual blockade against new export facilities so far. But in our study of this issue, we have found it remains unclear if the federal government will overturn or override local and state decisions to deny permits.

Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-NDSource: Shawn Olson-Hazboun and Hilary Boudet

Mobilization

Public opinion research indicates both support and opposition for fossil fuel export depending on fuel type. Our 2017 national survey showed that about a third of U.S. citizens sampled opposed exporting natural gas, while about half supported it and almost a fifth were undecided. Our forthcoming survey of Washington residents found similar levels of opposition to natural gas exports. We also detected higher rates of disapproval of oil and coal exports, with about half of residents opposing them.

Activists in the Pacific Northwest have established what they call a "thin green line" of resistance against any big new fossil fuel infrastructure. Their protests have contributed to state and local decisions to deny permits, as well as the passage of ordinances and resolutions limiting such development. Cities like Portland, Oregon, have banned these projects altogether.

Tribal governments have actively opposed many of these proposals, too. For example, the Lummi Nation played an essential role in stopping the Gateway Pacific coal terminal proposed for Bellingham, Washington.

Legal fights have ensued. After Washington denied the permit for the Millennium Bulk Terminals coal export proposal, six interior states and several industry groups joined the company in a lawsuit. They allege that the state's decision violated the Constitution's commerce clause, which grants Congress—not states—the power to regulate trade.

In some cases, the courts have determined that local bans are not allowed. In others, companies have simply withdrawn proposals, especially after sustained public protests.

Silencing Local Voices

The administration is pursuing multiple workarounds for expanding fossil fuel export, including a recent proposal to set up export facilities on retired military bases. Energy companies and energy-producing states are trying to capitalize on the fossil-friendly administration.

For example, senators from Texas, Colorado and Montana have encouraged Trump to use his authority under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or the deal that may replace it, to override Washington state's denial of the coal export permit.

These moves at the federal level appear to be restricting opportunities for public participation in siting decisions, a development we find troubling.

In the case of the Jordan Cove natural gas export project in Oregon, the federal agency with permitting authority over the proposal used a new process for soliciting public comments in 2017. Instead of taking part in a hearing where those attending could hear all comments, members of the public met one-on-one with agency staff and a stenographer.

In previous research, we have shown how public hearings on energy projects are critical to the formation of active community groups, who use these opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals.

While one-on-one meetings may seem more efficient and less prone to conflict, they may also stifle important local debates on these issues. And they could potentially push activists toward more confrontational tactics because they do not feel their voices are adequately heard through official channels.

In addition, some companies have used existing permits and zoning to start handling a different fuel or expand facilities without undergoing environmental review and associated public comment processes.

Despite years of successfully blocking fossil fuel exports from the West Coast, whether the thin green line will hold is far from clear. Its resilience will partly depend on what happens with global fossil fuel markets and the success of export proposals in Canada and Mexico. Its resilience will also depend on how hard the Trump administration is willing to push and how hard the West Coast is willing to push back.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

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In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.