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The Trump Administration’s ‘Dishonest’ Attack on Fuel-Economy Standards

Politics
Jess Lundgren / CC BY 2.0

By John R. Platt

The Trump administration's plan to freeze fuel-economy standards is "the most spectacular regulatory flip-flop in history," said a retired EPA engineer who helped to develop new the standards under the Obama administration.


"These standards weren't going to be the ultimate solution for solving the climate problem, but they were a very, very important first step," said Jeff Alson, who retired this past April after a 40-year career at the EPA. "That's why this delay is so risky to us."

The Obama-era fuel-economy rules for cars and trucks—which former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced the Trump administration would "revise" this past April—would have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 540 million metric tons and oil consumption by 1.2 billion barrels.

The previous rules were developed over a period of seven years by the EPA and the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Passed in 2010 and 2012, the standards required automakers to continuously increase their vehicles' fuel efficiency and decrease their emissions through the year 2025. Alson said the effort—which involved "hundreds of meetings"—resulted in a plan to effectively double fuel efficiency over that time period while allowing automakers to incrementally improve their technology.

Since 2012 the rules have saved drivers "tens of billions of dollars on fuel and cut hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions," according to a recent Union of Concerned Scientists blog post by retired General Motors engineer Greg Kempf.

The Trump plan, however, would put that savings on hold and flatline further fuel-economy improvements for six years. If passed, it would result in a 500,000 barrel-a-day increase of oil consumption in the United States, according to S&P Global Markets. The rules, according to the August 24 announcement in the Federal Register, are actually designed to increase fossil-fuel consumption, saying the country has increased oil production enough to reduce "the urgency of the U.S. to conserve energy."

By contrast, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the world must, among other actions, rapidly switch to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy if it hopes to avoid a climate-change catastrophe.

A Change in Plans

Although the automotive industry publicly supported the old standards, experts say they also advocated for slowing them down, as evidenced by a letter a trade group called the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers sent to President Trump shortly after his inauguration.

"The industry is more concerned with their quarterly profits than long-term greenhouse gas emissions," said John M. DeCicco, research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute. "The Obama-era standards would have been a move in the right direction for the climate, but now we're regressing."

The Trump administration's freeze may appeal to corporate supporters, but they are not popular with the public. Alson testified at a public meeting about the plan last month and said "five or six of the 150 people attending supported some kind of rollback, some kind of weakening of the standards, but everybody else didn't."

More broadly, a recent survey by the Consumer Federation of America found that the public, regardless of political affiliation, overwhelmingly approves of both current fuel-economy standards and the previous plan to improve them.

That's no surprise, said DeCicco. "Such support has been consistently strong since the 1970s," he said. "Consumers instinctively know that stronger vehicle standards have been good for them in many ways."

Good for the Planet and the Bottom Line

"Making cars more fuel efficient not only reduces the carbon they emit but it reduces the amount of gasoline you got to buy," said Alson. "Every mile per gallon higher you have in your car, that's more money in your pocket." In fact, he said, fuel-economy standards typically save the average car owner twice money as much as they spend on the cost of fuel-efficient technology.

"I'd call it a free-lunch regulation," he said. "Economists don't like the concept of free lunch, but if these standards force new technological innovation and automakers bring it to market, consumers are actually going to save more on gasoline in the long run than they're spending on the technology."

Interestingly, Alson said the Trump administration's move is actually proving unpopular with automakers themselves. "The automakers are nervous right now," he said. "They wanted a little bit of relief, a little bit of flexibility, but they had no idea that the libertarian ideologues within this administration were going to go for an eight-year rollback. This has actually surprised the automakers and Ford came to the hearing I attended and said were opposed to this rollback, and Honda has also said that publicly."

That's in part because the industry always has a multiyear plan for developing and implementing new technologies. "They make decisions today about the billions of dollars they're going to be spending on new technology over the next five or 10 years," he said. The Trump administration's announcement has thrown a monkey wrench into those carefully established plans.

Unfortunately, those plans actually involve selling more trucks and SUVs instead of lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles, which are less profitable. DeCicco points out that recent emission gains from sales of electric vehicles have been "more than offset" by the increased sales in small trucks and SUVs. He said while consumers do recognize the need for fuel-efficiency standards, "they want bigger cars, and that's what the companies are offering."

Still, the tide toward electric vehicles continues to slowly rise around the world, and activist Bill McKibben said that puts the Trump administration effectively "alone" in wanting the new standards. "Even the auto industry realizes they don't really want to go back to the bad old days, and most Americans perceive, if dimly, that their next car or the one after that is going to be electric," he said. "At the very least they understand that we're handing the future of a key industry to the Chinese and the German manufacturers with Trump's idiocy."

So what happens next? Alson has a prediction: If the Trump administration successfully freezes standards, even for a short time, "there're going to be lawsuits, no question," he said.

That eventuality seems especially likely given the circumstances behind the freeze. The EPA itself did not participate in the efforts to roll back the regulations, the details for which instead came from the Department of Transportation. Alson said he and other experts from the EPA were not even allowed to consult on the changes.

"For 18 months, they refused to have a single technical working meeting, and from a process standpoint that's just indefensible," he said. "The taxpayers were paying people like me to use my expertise, and the Department of Transportation—which doesn't even have a lab that can test for fuel economy or greenhouse gas emissions—said 'we are doing it our own way.' That's the most dishonest technical analysis I've seen in my 40 years. They basically cooked the books."

And in the process, experts warn, they might be helping to cook the planet.

The EPA plans to finalize its new rules by March 2019. No further public hearings on the matter are planned, and the public comment period ends October 26.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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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.

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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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By Jake Johnson

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."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

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.