Obama's New Special Adviser Is Outspoken Critic of Keystone XL
By asking John Podesta to come to the White House as a special counselor at a time of turmoil and tough choices, President Obama has created an unusually close tie to an outspoken critic of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Canadian tar sands it would carry.
Podesta is a Washington policy insider who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff and whose Center for American Progress, or CAP, is an influential voice of liberalism. He has kept climate change high on his agenda for years and will continue to do so in the White House, reported The New York Times, which broke the news of his new assignment.
His arrival comes just as the decision on TransCanada's proposal to build a controversial pipeline to deliver tar sands crude from Alberta across the midsection of the U.S. approaches a critical turning point: the completion of a final environmental impact statement by the State Department. That will be followed by a crucial 90-day period in which President Obama must decide whether the pipeline is in the U.S. national interest.
Environmentalists who oppose the pipeline view the decision as a crucial test of President Obama’s determination to tackle the problem of climate change.
Podesta has allied himself closely with some of them, including the wealthy investor Tom Steyer, who has been mobilizing opposition to the project. They appeared together at CAP's conference to celebrate its tenth anniversary this fall.
Just last week, CAP co-sponsored a daylong conference with Steyer's team in Georgetown to argue that the pipeline could not pass the litmus test President Obama set back in June—that the Keystone could only be approved if it didn't significantly exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions.
From the moment President Obama set that standard in a June speech, Podesta seems to have recognized the opportunity to reverse a tide that some had seen as flowing Keystone's way. On Twitter, he called the news a "huge announcement."
The Keystone decision is not by any means the main reason President Obama sought his help at this time. Podesta's range of policy expertise is very broad, and President Obama is turning to him for help with many challenges—from the implementation of the health care overhaul to the problem of income inequality that President Obama has been trying to elevate on the national agenda. These, not the KXL, will dominate their work on what the White House sees as legacy issues.
But climate change is another such legacy issue. And as the various interests in the Keystone decision make their final arguments at the White House, Podesta could not be better positioned as a particularly close adviser to voice his own views—and to debunk the arguments of those who favor the tar sands pipeline.
Just as he arrives, other key environmental aides are leaving: Heather Zichal, the White House climate czar, Nancy Sutley, the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and Gary Guzy, Sutley's deputy. (Zichal is replaced by her deputy, Dan Utech.)
A Long Public Record
Podesta's views on the tar sands and the Keystone pipeline have been clear for years.
In a 2010 speech entitled "The Dirty Truth About Tar Sands," he said that "oil extraction from tar sands is polluting, destructive, expensive, and energy intensive." He was speaking to a conference addressing ways that the industry might be made more "green," which he called highly unrealistic.
After President Obama turned down TransCanada's initial proposal for the pipeline in 2011, saying that there wasn't enough time to make an informed decision under a tight deadline imposed by Congress, Podesta and Steyer jointly wrote an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal saying that the pipeline was unnecessary. They based their argument on the fact that oil production in the Bakken and other U.S. oilfields was growing so fast that the Canadian supplies were becoming irrelevant.
"While conservatives have been fighting to build a pipeline to import more foreign oil and deepen U.S. dependence, the U.S. is poised to transform its energy portfolio by developing domestic resources—renewable and mineral—that will let it become a net exporter of clean energy and energy technology in this decade," they wrote.
Podesta's operation publishes the blog ClimateProgress, whose founding editor Joe Romm has been a consistent voice against the Keystone; the blog was expanded significantly this year in another signal of how seriously CAP takes the issue. Other members of the CAP policy staff, like Daniel Weiss, its director of climate policy, also play leading roles in marshaling opposition to the pipeline.
The group's detailed policy prescriptions include urging the Obama Administration to put into effect a policy drafted several years ago to explicitly require that the greenhouse gas emissions and climate consequences of all major federal actions be thoroughly reviewed under NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. That could have required the State Department’s environmental impact statement on the Keystone to give stricter scrutiny to the line, for example by emphasizing the cumulative effects of emissions, or by demanding some form of offsetting mitigation.
When asked about Podesta's appointment, TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said: "It's not our place to comment on potential staff changes at the White House, but as a company, we remain focused on the regulatory process that the U.S. Department of State has been overseeing for more than five years. We continue to remain focused on the final stage of our Presidential Permit review where the fundamental question is going to be if the Keystone XL Pipeline is in America's national interest. We continue to believe that it is."
But Podesta's move to the White House immediately ricocheted around Twitter as an omen of which way President Obama's pipeline decision would go. "Can't see this as good for Keystone XL pipeline," wrote David McLaughlin, who led Canada’s National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy until it was disbanded by the Conservative government.
In fact, the pipeline decision is still up in the air. Podesta surely will be heard in the inner councils to come. But in the end he, like Secretary of State John Kerry, will not own the decision—President Obama will.
UPDATE: Late on Tuesday, Dec. 10, after The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza published comments about Keystone XL that Podesta had made in an earlier interview, a White House aide said Podesta would not take part in its review of the pipeline. "John [Podesta] suggested that he not work on the Keystone Pipeline issue, in review at the State Department, given that the review is far along in the process and John's views on this are well known," the aide said. " [White House Chief of Staff] Denis [McDonough] agreed that was the best course of action."
Republished with permission of InsideClimate News, a non-profit, non-partisan news organization that covers energy and climate change—plus the territory in between where law, policy and public opinion are shaped.
Visit EcoWatch’s KEYSTONE XL page for more related news on this topic.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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