There’s No Compromising on Science When It Comes to Protecting Water Quality in the Nation’s Rivers and Streams
By Derrick Z. Jackson
With its "Waters of the United States" rule, President Obama's administration enacted unprecedented protections of rivers and streams. The Trump administration, ignoring science and the importance of wetlands, tried to return many of those waterways back to polluters by rolling back the Waters of the US rule.
Now Michael Regan, President Biden's EPA administrator, says he wants to forge a compromise.
"We don't have any intention of going back to the original Obama 'Waters of the U.S.' [rule] verbatim and we don't necessarily agree with everything that was in the Trump administration's version as well," Regan told a House Appropriations Committee last month. "We've learned lessons from both, we've seen complexities in both, and we've determined that both rules did not necessarily listen to the will of the people."
The attempt at middle ground is understandable as Regan is in the first months of a new administration dealing with the highly organized powers of manufacturing and factory agriculture. But this sounds dangerously close to a false equivalency when it throws some of Obama's efforts under the bus while suggesting that the previous administration's reversal of the rules was anything more complex than a hatchet job by industry hacks, most notably former EPA Administrator and ex-coal-industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler.
Before Administrator Regan tries to form one edible fruit out of an apple and an orange in the EPA's new rules, he must remember one thing: Obama's regulations for aquatic preservation were based on science.
The Science Behind the Waters of the US Rule
When the Obama administration issued its Clean Water Rule in 2015, it expansively redefined waters eligible for federal protection as Waters of the United States (WOTUS). At that time, nearly half of the nation's rivers and streams and a third of our wetlands were in "poor biological condition," according to the EPA's water quality report to Congress.
So the administration sought to protect about 60 percent of water in the nation, including many intermittent and ephemeral streams that experience natural dry periods but flow during rainy periods. Most people don't realize it but 59 percent of streams in the United States — and 81 percent of the streams in arid Southwestern states — are of this nature. A 2008 EPA report, published during the George W. Bush administration, said it was "critical" to consider the cumulative human impacts on such streams as 117 million people, a third of the populace, drinks water that relies at least in part on them.
"Given their importance and vast extent," the EPA said back then, "individual ephemeral or intermittent stream segment[s] should not be examined in isolation." The science is clear: even seasonal waterways are interconnected.
Unfortunately, industry and its political enablers went on a rampage to exempt as much water as possible from federal protection. The US Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Mining Association, the National Association of Home Builders, and the National Association of Manufacturers all opposed the rule, often propping up "small farmers" as poster children who would be burdened by having to worry that every "ditch" would be considered federally protected water.
The scare campaign reached such a level that a blogger for the Iowa Farm Bureau speculated, "You may not be able to weed and feed your lawn, spray for bugs, landscape with treated lumber and wood chips, fill in a low area with soil, or even dig a hole" without a federal permit. Iowa Senator Joni Ernst went so far as to invoke the horror of federal regulation for every "tire track that collects rain water."
Discarding Science to Eliminate Protections for Wetlands
Playing on these trumped-up fears, the last administration, led by Wheeler, rewrote the rules to say, essentially, that if you cannot visibly see the connection of small creeks to large rivers and lakes on the surface, then there is no connection deserving of federal protection. The reversal removed half of wetlands and a fifth of streams and tributaries from protection. This change came despite the strenuous objection of a host of scientists, including Wheeler's own scientific advisory board.
In a February 2020 admonishment, the board wrote Wheeler to say that his narrow definition of WOTUS "does not incorporate best available science." Reasserting how science has established major hydrologic connections between tiny tributaries and intermittent and ephemeral streams to large bodies of water, the board rebuked Wheeler for offering "no comparable body of peer reviewed evidence, and no scientific justification for disregarding the connectivity of waters" saying that it found "a scientific basis for the proposed rule. . . lacking."
Perhaps most ominously, the board warned that the administration's proposed rule excluded industrial and agricultural irrigation canals that can carry harmful contaminants into the nation's waterways, such as E.coli bacteria from vegetable farms or steroids from confined animal feeding operations.
Seconding the board, specifically on behalf of wetlands, were the leaders of seven research institutions concerned with freshwater science. In letters to the previous administration and Congress, they wrote that even though wetlands comprise less than six percent of the landscape, they play a massive, outsized role in filtering urban and agricultural runoff, trapping sediments, mitigating floods and being a nursery for a myriad of wildlife. They noted that clean water is the backbone of an $400 billion-a-year outdoor recreation industry. "Like diamonds," the seven research organizations said of wetlands, "they can be small but extremely valuable."
That is exactly what Administrator Regan needs to pay attention to as he crafts the Biden administration's rule to protect the nation's rivers and streams. When he was secretary of environmental quality for the state of North Carolina, he was lauded by both environmentalists and industry for his ability to craft compromise. The Natural Resources Defense Council praised Regan, who links his childhood asthma to coal plant pollution in his native Goldsboro, N.C., for an agreement with Duke Energy that resulted in the largest coal ash cleanup in the nation and a settlement with former DuPont subsidiary Chemours to better prevent PFAS "forever chemicals" from contaminating the Cape Fear River.
Despite those positive testimonials, though, some questioned whether Regan also gave too much deference to other powerful industries in North Carolina. Top on the list is the pork industry, infamous for toxic waste lagoons, spills, and stench in nearby communities. Too often, some critics said, Regan should have suspended operations in severe cases of environmental injustice from hog farm pollution from concentrated animal farming operations (CAFOs) instead of merely fining chronic offenders.
Some activists said in a Rolling Stone profile that Regan often displays a style that appears to bring stakeholders to the table as equals, when in reality, industry arrives with a loaded deck of money and lawyers. Elizabeth Haddix of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said, "It's not an equal playing field. The industry controls everything here." She told E&E News that Regan's decision not to use his executive authority to pull permits from hog polluters, who she said are disproportionately situated near communities of color, "was a horrible disappointment for us."
EPA Administrator Regan Must Follow the Science
Under both the second President Bush and President Obama, the EPA said that even streams that flow seasonally are still critical to our water infrastructure. The EPA under the previous administration chose to overlook this fact. In the short time between last June and September, Bloomberg Law found that, of 1,085 exemptions sought by polluting industries and developers to escape federal water regulation for their projects, the Army Corps of Engineers granted 758, or 70 percent of them. About 200 of the exemptions were granted on the very first day the rollback took effect, a complete abandonment of the scientific analysis that previously often took up to three years to complete.
Regan said last week, "I don't believe we have to choose between good water quality … and overly burdening our small farmers." It's certainly acceptable for the Biden administration to factor in true burdens to small farmers in its rewrite of the WOTUS rule. But Regan must prioritize science and water quality over the demands of big industry. Because the prior administration had no scientific justification for disregarding the connectivity of waters, the burden is on him to reconnect science to regulation — and thereby reconnect the nation's waterways.
On that, there can be no compromise.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. He is an award-winning journalist and co-author and photographer of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock, published by Yale University Press (2015).
Reposted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By Sarah Reinhardt
When it comes to healthy eating, there's a lot we already know.
Just take a look at the scientific report issued by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the group of scientific experts behind the newly released 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. At 835 pages, the report spans a rigorous review of current research on dozens of topics, from whether eating peanuts early in life reduces the likelihood of peanut allergies (it probably does), to how much added sugar we can eat and still maintain a healthy diet (way less than what we're eating now). It also outlines the broad contours of a healthy diet, which has changed little from past editions of the Dietary Guidelines: it's typically higher in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, lean meat and poultry, seafood, nuts, and unsalted vegetable oils, and lower in red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, and refined grains.
But food is more than just nutrition. We also know that food can affect the health of many people before it even reaches our plates. For example, pollution caused by fertilizer runoff from farms have left communities without access to safe drinking water, while many of the people who produce our food don't earn enough to afford healthy diets themselves. So, is it possible to eat in ways that promote health and produce better outcomes for our collective wellbeing, livelihoods, and natural resources? And what would it take to get us there?
These are complex questions, but critical ones—and if the federal government made it a national priority to answer them, we might have a chance at avoiding otherwise devastating consequences.
That's why leading experts and scientific bodies, including the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, are increasingly calling attention to the importance of research on sustainable diets. Though there is no official record of how much federal funding is currently supporting this field, funding for nutrition research across the board has remained stagnant for decades. Research funding at the intersection of food and agriculture issues, in particular, is decidedly inadequate to address the magnitude of the public health challenges before us, including climate change, threats to food security, and persistent poverty and health disparities.
Many, including UCS, are working to change that by advocating for greater government investment in sustainable diets research. Here are three of the most pressing questions that research can answer to enable more sustainable eating for all.
1. When it comes to healthy and environmentally sustainable diets, what exactly is on the menu?
Research on healthy and environmentally sustainable diets has seen extraordinary growth in recent years. According to UCS research, nearly 100 new scholarly articles were published on this topic between 2015 and 2019, including 22 articles focused specifically on US diets. For reference, that's more than four times the number of articles published on the same topic between 2000 and 2015—in about a quarter of the time.
Much of this research agrees that, in general, healthy diets that are higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are more environmentally sustainable—meaning they are often associated with reduced energy and land use, as well as less air and water pollution.
This is an important finding that enables us to take the first steps toward more sustainable diets—and each step is critical, given the urgency and magnitude of dual public health and climate crises. Indeed, a number of other countries already have acted on existing knowledge to incorporate sustainability into national dietary guidance.
But the more we know, the faster (and further) we can move forward.
For example, we need to better understand the impacts of all different kinds of dietary shifts that could improve health and sustainability, and the most effective ways to encourage such shifts at the individual, institutional, and societal levels. We also need to better understand how a wide variety of sustainable diets align with diverse cultures and culinary traditions. Both of these areas of research will be crucial to informing practical public health interventions and policy recommendations that can help all people make meaningful changes.
There are also challenges with available data and models. Many studies on sustainable diets rely on models called Life Cycle Assessments, which help estimate the cumulative environmental impacts of the foods we eat. For example, how much energy is required to process, package, and transport a pound of beef from the farm to the grocery store? How much land, water, and energy was required to raise the cattle? While a Life Cycle Assessment is useful in providing general estimates, it's often based on averages that don't account for key differences in production methods, for example, or regions. More data—and more diverse data sources—could make this an even more powerful and practical tool.
These and other outstanding research gaps prompted the Interagency Committee on Human Nutrition Research (ICHNR), an interdisciplinary group of leaders across key federal agencies, to identify sustainable diets as a research priority in the creation of its 2016-2021 National Nutrition Research Roadmap. And though interest in this topic continues to grow, there is evidence that federal funding remains woefully inadequate to support independent research on sustainable diets and food systems.
2. How could more socially and economically sustainable food systems support healthy eating?
While environmental sustainability receives a lot of attention, a truly sustainable diet also takes into account the social and economic conditions that can threaten our health, wellbeing, and the future of our food supply.
Among these considerations are the persistent health and economic disparities embedded in the current US food system, which disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and other resilient communities of color who have faced decades of racist and discriminatory practices and policies. Even before the pandemic, the people working throughout the US food system—nearly 40 percent of whom are people of color—experienced greater poverty, poorer healthcare access, and higher occupational health hazards relative to the general population. Many of these same populations are also most vulnerable to the environmental consequences of unsustainable food systems, such as climate change, water pollution, and other environmental impacts. The irony should not be lost on anyone that many Indigenous populations have for generations produced food in harmony with ecological systems—a way of living that, in the US and elsewhere, was deeply and violently disrupted by colonization and genocide.
Pervasive exploitation in the food chain can function to make certain foods cheap, while also preventing workers from being able to afford healthy diets themselves. And unfortunately, this isn't a challenge unique to workers in the food chain. Many US households are already struggling to afford a healthy—let alone sustainable—diet.
So how can research help?
For one, there are an increasing number of studies that are putting dollar signs on healthier and more sustainable diets. Understanding what these diets might cost consumers, and what segments of the population might be unable to afford them, is an important first step in creating policy and programs that can bring healthier and more sustainable eating into reach for more people. Existing research on programs and initiatives such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP), cash assistance programs, or minimum wage increases will also be useful in identifying the best ways to increase consumer purchasing power, particularly among low-income households. Perhaps most importantly, effective community-based participatory research can support community efforts to resist and address the root causes of social and economic disparities, including racism and exploitative economic systems. Organizations like the HEAL Food Alliance, a multi-racial coalition building a national movement to transform food and farming systems, should be looked to as experts and leaders in shaping the goals and objectives of research that will impact the communities they represent.
3. What are the synergies and tradeoffs when you value both public health and sustainability?
Not every food choice that supports health will support sustainability, and vice versa. In fact, as our research shows, if the US population shifted from our current diet to a healthier diet, greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and water use could actually increase. This is due in part to the fact that many fruits and vegetables—which most of us don't eat nearly enough of—are produced in ways that require a lot of water and energy.
Another commonly cited example is the conflict between US dietary recommendations for fish and shellfish and the ability of fisheries to meet this demand in a sustainable way—an issue highlighted by experts in a National Academies of Science workshop and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
None of this is to say that we should abandon our efforts to eat healthfully. Rather, it's to say that we need to do some problem-solving if we want to eat in ways that are healthy and sustainable for people and the planet, and research can play a key role in helping us get there.
Solving the sustainable food Rubik's cube
It was more than thirty years ago that federal policy established the first specific directives for prioritizing nutrition research, yet its funding has remained stagnant for decades and coordination across federal agencies remains inconsistent. Meanwhile, many complex factors are fueling the public health challenges embedded in the US food system: rates of diet-related disease and health disparities continue to climb, the degradation of soil and other natural resources has grown more dire, many workers are still underpaid and unsafe, and climate change is now a reality that looms large in our daily lives.
It's time for the next generation of nutrition research. To fill these gaps in research and provide information we need to make the best possible policy decisions, we must invest in research that is systems-oriented and can help identify healthy diets that deliver the best possible social, economic, and environmental benefits for all populations. Such research must span disciplines, take leadership from communities most affected by health disparities and environmental injustices, and at its core focus on tackling root causes of the greatest threats facing the food system, including the systemic exploitation of people and finite resources.
President Biden's administration has no shortage of opportunities to prioritize this area of research, which sits at the nexus of some of its foremost policy priorities. US Department of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack is well positioned to play a powerful role in lifting up and improving coordination of nutrition research needs, particularly as he works to rebuild capacity in the department's research arms. And Congress, for its part, can leverage legislative opportunities such as appropriations and the potential reauthorization of child nutrition programs to ensure that funding is finally available to answer these and other critical nutrition research questions.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
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Embracing solar power means reducing both your reliance on traditional utility companies and your environmental footprint, but the high upfront cost of solar panels can be a big deterrent for some homeowners.
If you're considering solar, you may have questions like: How much does it cost to install a solar energy system? What are some of the factors that can impact pricing? What else should home- and business owners know about going solar? In this article, we'll touch on each of these important topics, with the goal of helping you make a fully informed, financially responsible decision about solar energy.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
How Much Do Solar Panels Cost to Install?
To begin with, let's take a look at the basic price range for solar panel installation. According to the most recent U.S. Solar Market Insight report, in the first quarter of 2021, the national average price of a residential solar system was $2.94 per watt, which would mean a 5 kWh system would cost $14,700 and a 10 kWh system would cost $29,400.
The exact price you'll pay for solar panels will depend on a number of factors, including your geographic location, the size of your home and more.
Now, you might rightly wonder: What exactly are you paying for? The solar panels themselves usually make up just about a quarter of the total cost. Remaining expenses include labor, maintenance and additional parts and components (such as inverters).
What Factors Determine Solar Pricing?
As mentioned, there are a few key things that can lead to variation in solar system installation costs. Analyzing these can help you determine whether solar panels are worth it for your home. Let's take a look at them in greater detail.
Your Electrical Needs
The solar panels themselves will be rated for a particular wattage, which reflects the amount of energy they can absorb for storage and ultimately for power generation. You will actually pay according to wattage, which means that the greater your household energy needs, the more you'll have to spend to get the correct number of solar panels.
So, how do you determine how much energy you need for your home? The best way to figure this out is through a consultation with a solar installer. (We recommend shopping smart by requesting free consultations with two or three top solar companies in your area.)
Your installer will evaluate your home energy needs based on total square footage, the number of people who live in your home, the number of appliances and power-draining devices that you have connected and more. It can then recommend the ideal solar panel system size to accommodate your energy usage.
Type of Panels and Other Components
Variation in manufacturing can also affect the cost of solar panels. There are three basic types of solar panels, two of which are commonly used residentially: monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. Of these two, monocrystalline options tend to be more energy-efficient and thus may provide you with greater savings in the long run. They are also a bit pricier on the front end. With that said, homeowners with a smaller roof surface area may benefit from getting the most efficient solar panels, even if the initial cost is a bit steeper.
Other components you'll need to purchase include inverters, wiring, charge controllers, mounts and more. The quality of these materials can affect your total solar system cost. For example, if you spring for the best solar batteries, they may add a few thousand dollars to your investment.
Another factor that can have a big impact on solar pricing? Your geographic area. Solar installation tends to be most cost-effective in parts of the country that get a lot of sun exposure, and thus a lot of photovoltaic light. This basically means that solar panels can operate more efficiently, and in many cases means that fewer total panels are needed. Those who live in states like California, Florida and Arizona — or really any areas of the Sun Belt or Southwest — will likely get the most out of their home solar power systems.
Both state and federal governments have established incentive programs to encourage homeowners to buy solar panels. There is currently a 26% federal solar tax credit, called an Investment Tax Credit (ITC), available for homeowners who install residential solar panels between 2020 and 2022. It is scheduled to reduce to 22% in 2023 and may not be extended thereafter.
Local incentives vary by state, but most of the best solar panel installers will help you identify and apply for these programs so you don't miss out on savings.
There are plenty of other factors that can impact solar panel installation costs. Different vendors are going to offer different levels of customization, expertise and consumer protections (including guarantees and warranties). The bottom line? It is wise to shop around a bit, determine the average cost of solar panels in your area and evaluate the value of services offered by a few solar installation companies.
Solar Panel Price Vs. Return on Investment
Clearly, your upfront solar panel installation cost may be a little steep. Now, let's look at the flipside: How much money will you actually save? And will your energy savings be enough to offset the initial cost of your solar energy system?
It is not unreasonable to think that you can cut your monthly utility bills by as much as 75% or more by switching to solar energy. Of course, the specific dollar amount will depend on where you live, the size of your home and the number of people in your household.
One way to look at it: The average household energy bill is somewhere between $100 and $200 monthly. It would probably take about 15 years for your energy savings to cancel out the cost of solar panel installation. In other words, within a decade and a half or so, your solar system might pay for itself. Factor in savings from tax rebates and other incentives, and most solar systems pay for themselves in closer to seven or eight years.
Note that most solar energy companies offer free solar calculators, which help you arrive at a ballpark for monthly energy savings. While these calculators are imprecise, they can certainly give you a general sense of the financial benefits you will experience when you convert to solar energy.
Free Quote: See How Much You Can Save on Solar Panels
Fill out this 30-second form to get a quote from one of the best solar energy companies in your area. You could save up to $2,500 each year on your electric bills and receive tax rebates.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Cost of Solar Panels
As you continue to weigh the pros and cons of solar energy, it's natural to have a few questions. The best way to resolve these is really to set up a solar consultation with a local expert, but in the meantime, here are a few general answers to some of the most common solar inquiries.
How much will it cost to maintain my solar energy system?
In general, solar systems are designed to run smoothly for decades without requiring any maintenance or upkeep. As such, you should not really need to factor maintenance into the equation for the first 20 years or so after you install your system. (And most solar companies will offer you warranties and guarantees to give peace of mind on this front.)
How will solar energy impact my property values?
Many homeowners want to know how going solar will impact the value of their homes. Going solar increases property values. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy has reported buyers are willing to pay an average premium of about $15,000 for a home with a solar panel system. With that said, you are only going to see your property values go up if you own your solar system outright, as opposed to leasing it.
How can I finance the cost of solar panels?
Different solar installers may offer different financing plans, allowing consumers some flexibility. With that said, there are three basic options for paying for your solar energy system:
- Purchase your solar energy system outright (that is, pay in cash).
- Take out a solar loan to purchase the system, then pay it back with interest.
- Lease your system; you will pay less month-to-month but won't actually own the system yourself.
Which is better, buying or leasing my solar system?
It all depends on your motivation for going solar. If you want to maximize long-term savings and increase the value of your home, then purchasing your solar system is usually best. However, if you just want a low-maintenance way to reduce monthly energy costs and practice environmental stewardship, then leasing might be a better option. Also note that leasing can be a good option for those who do not plan on being in their home for exceptionally long.
How can I be sure my roof will accommodate a solar system?
If your roof faces south, has ample space and has little to no shade cover, it should work just fine. Even roofs that are not optimal can still be utilized with a few tweaks and adjustments. Your solar energy consultant will advise you on whether your home is a good fit for solar energy.
How long will my solar energy system last?
Solar systems are designed to be exceptionally durable. With just the most basic upkeep, most solar energy systems should continue to work and produce power for anywhere from 25 to 35 years.
Make the Best Choice About Solar Energy
Solar energy is not right for every homeowner, nor for every home. With that said, many homeowners will find that the initial cost of solar panels is more than offset by the long-term, recurring energy savings. Make sure you factor in cost, energy needs, tax incentives, home value and more as you seek to make a fully informed decision about whether to embrace solar power.
By David Reichmuth
Over the last month, I've seen a number of opinion articles attacking electric vehicles (EVs). Sadly, this comes as no surprise: now that the Biden administration is introducing federal policies to accelerate the roll out of electric vehicles, we were bound to see a reaction from those that oppose reducing climate changing emissions and petroleum use.
Some of the opposition will come from auto companies that want to delay the transition to electric vehicles, but others will be from fossil fuel interests or climate deniers. But it really doesn't matter why they're trying to mislead the public about electric vehicles.The important thing is that you know that this is familiar and worn-out disinformation, designed to sow doubt and confusion. Here are some of the truths about EVs, so that you can spot misleading attacks.
1. EVs aren't the perfect solution for the future of transportation – they're just much, much better than gasoline vehicles.
EVs offer us a way to have personal mobility with much fewer global warming emissions than gasoline vehicles. It's clear that the emissions from driving on electricity are lower than those from using a gasoline vehicle, even when accounting for electricity generation. Our most recent analysis shows that, across the country, driving electric is cleaner than even the most efficient gasoline car. As our electric grid continues to get cleaner (with lower coal use and more renewable energy sources), the climate benefit from electric vehicles is increasing. And, of course, because they avoid burning gasoline, electric vehicles can reduce tailpipe emissions that lead to harmful air pollution across the country and put us on the path to reducing the pollution and environmental degradation that is associated with extracting and refining petroleum.
Of course, there are emissions from building every vehicle. Because of battery manufacturing, climate emissions from building electric vehicles are slightly higher those from manufacturing a gasoline vehicle. However, those increased emissions are quickly (within 6 to 16 months depending on location) made up from the savings from using electricity in place of gasoline. As we increase the production of EVs, it will be important to work to minimize manufacturing emissions by reducing energy use in the extraction and preparation of battery materials and by the recycling and reuse of used batteries.
It will also be important to hold all companies to environmental and human rights standards for their manufacturing and supply chains. Auto companies and battery suppliers need to source products and raw materials in a sustainable and ethical way. Greater transparency from manufacturers would be helpful in this area. Some have started to disclose details on their supply chain and make commitments to improve their practices. We also need to remember this goes beyond electric cars; we should be asking the same sorts of questions about our consumer-electronics companies and yes even the companies that produce and extract petroleum products and other fossil fuels.
2. EV sales are a small fraction of U.S. autos now, but that's going to change.
A common line used to argue against EVs is that they have historically made up a small fraction of the sales in the U.S. and therefore they can't possibly make a difference in our emissions. Others try to use the fact that fewer EVs were sold than gasoline cars to mean that EV's just aren't very popular.
These backwards-looking approaches could be used to dismiss any new technology, not just EVs. For example, in 2000 only 2.5% of households had broadband internet access. Of course that didn't mean that home internet wasn't going to be a transformative technology. We can't look in the rear view mirror to see the road ahead for EVs.
It's obvious if we look back 10 years ago that the number and the capability of EVs was not at the level needed to replace gasoline vehicles. The good news is that in 2021, the EV landscape is vastly changed from even 5 years ago. New car buyers now have multiple options for long range EVs and can choose compelling options from more automakers than ever before. Currently, plug in cars make up about 2 percent of all sales in the U.S., but the number is higher in areas that have sought to accelerate the market via regulation and incentives. For example, in California, EV sales were over 8% of all new car sales in the state, showing the potential for higher sales elsewhere in the country with the use regulations, incentives, and customer awareness efforts.
3. EVs are much more than the Tesla Model S.
Tesla gets the lion's share of attention in the EV market, and for good reason. Tesla has led in plug-in car sales and the introduction of the Tesla Model S in 2012 changed many people's impression of what an electric car is. While some may have thought EVs were "golf carts", unstylish, or boring before, it would be hard to apply those labels to Tesla's Model S. However, Tesla's success (and press coverage) has now meant that the Tesla brand or the Model S is used synonymously with "EV."
Tesla has been a game changer in the EV market, but there are many more plug-in options now than the Tesla Model S. We're seeing many more affordable EVs on the market, though they often get much less press coverage. As more automakers introduce EV models and production volumes of plug-in vehicles increase, we are seeing even long-range battery electric cars being offered for lower than the MSRP (Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price) of the average new car in the U.S. (estimated to be over $40,000 in 2019). The majority of EVs sold in 2020 were models with a base model MSRP under $40,000 and only a fifth of models had a starting price over $60,000. Those who are critical of EVs would like to portray all plug-ins as high-priced luxury vehicles, but that simply isn't the case in 2021. Both here and abroad, automakers are increasing electric vehicle production, pushing down prices and making more options available to buyers.
Despite the proliferation of anti-EV arguments in the press, these arguments are old and long-debunked — dubious even when they were introduced, but downright silly after a decade of advancement in the EV market.
The majority of EVs sold in 2020 were models with a starting price (Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price) under $40,000 and only a fifth of models had a starting price over $60,000.
Now is the time to accelerate the switch to EVs.
With the impacts of climate change becoming more evident every year and the clear science on the health harms of air pollution, it's imperative that we switch from gasoline to electric vehicles as soon as possible. To make this happen, we need to use all of the policy tools available.
Federal and state incentives are vital in the short term to make buying EVs easier for more people. Battery prices (and therefore EV prices) are dropping as the scale of production ramps up, but incentives are vital now to offset the extra initial cost of EVs.
We also need to use existing greenhouse gas emissions and air quality regulations to make sure the aspirations of automakers to go electric become reality. This means setting both strong federal standards for emissions and using California's authority under the Clean Air Act to require zero emission vehicles. Because the Clean Air Act also allows other states to adopt the California standards, there are now 11 states representing 30% of the U.S. population now moving forward with zero emission clean car standards to reduce their residents' exposure to tailpipe pollution and put their states on a path to lower carbon emissions and more states are poised to enact these standards.
Some have argued that we shouldn't rush this transition or wait until electricity and EVs are perfectly clean to start rolling out electric vehicles. There might be value in those propositions if there was not such urgency in the need to reduce emissions and clear costs for delay. Every gasoline vehicle we put on the road today means 10 to 20 years of pollution over its lifetime, and the climate-warming tailpipe pollutants accumulate in the atmosphere accumulate over time. If we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we can't afford to keep putting tailpipes on the road.
David Reichmuth is a senior engineer in the Clean Transportation Program with the Union of Concerned Scientists, focusing on oil savings and vehicle electrification.
Reposted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Jacob Carter
On Wednesday, the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced that it will be rescinding secretarial order 3369, which sidelined scientific research and its use in the agency's decisions. Put in place by the previous administration, the secretarial order restricted decisionmakers at the DOI from using scientific studies that did not make all data publicly available.
This order potentially prevented the use of studies, for example, that included data on endangered or threatened species' locations or data about individuals' health, which cannot be made publicly available. With the order rescinded, scientists and decisionmakers can now once again bring the best available science to help inform decisions and continue to make progress on protecting endangered species, people's health, and our country's natural resources and cultural heritage.
Science Rising at Interior
The rescinded secretarial order is not the only notable victory we have seen from the DOI recently. The Biden administration has moved swiftly to restore consideration of climate change in its decisions, reverse assaults on our public lands, and taken actions to protect our nation's wildlife. These decisions, unlike many made at the DOI over the past four years, have been informed by science—and President Biden's pick to lead the DOI, Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, has promised in her confirmation hearing to continue to make decisions that are guided by science.
Saving Migratory Birds
One of the parting gifts of the prior administration was a reinterpretation of a long-standing rule that protected migratory bird species. For decades, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) had protected migratory bird species, which are in decline in the US, by allowing the DOI to fine industries that failed to take proper precautions to protect migratory birds. For example, not placing proper netting over oil pits, which can result in the death of migratory birds. The rule, however, was reinterpreted by the prior administration such that industries could only be fined if bird deaths were "intentional" and not if they occurred incidentally due to a lack of precautions.
The prior administration, in its final days, also eliminated protections for the northern spotted owl, which is currently listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as a threatened species. More than 3 million acres of the owl's habitat were removed from protection to pave way for timber harvesting. Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, stated that she had received "…several calls from wildlife biologists who are in tears who said, 'Did you know this is happening? The bird won't survive this."
The Biden administration, following the best available science, has delayed the implementation of both rules.
Restoring Public Lands
In 2017, two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante of Utah, were reduced in size by some two million acres, the largest reduction of federal land protection in our nation's history. Later, internal emails at the DOI would show that these actions were not a product of following the best available science, and were instead guided by a push to exploit oil and natural gas deposits within the boundaries of the protected land. In particular, the decision did not consider the archaeological importance of the protected lands or their cultural heritage. Sidelining these facets of this decision is likely what prompted a review of the reductions by the Biden administration.
Bringing Science Back Across the Administration
Beyond the Interior department, the Biden administration has taken quick steps to bring science back to the forefront of decisionmaking across the federal government. In January, President Biden signed a presidential memo to strengthen scientific integrity and evidence-based decisionmaking. The memo, among many other positive steps for science, has initiated a review process on scientific integrity policies that should be finalized toward the end of the year. Given the unprecedented number of times we documented political interference in science-based decision-making processes over the past four years, such a review, and the subsequent recommendations arising from it, are clearly warranted.
The Biden administration also has formed multiple scientific advisory groups to help make choices informed by the best available science to protect public health and our environment. This includes advisory groups on critical issues such as scientific integrity, COVID-19, and environmental justice. The administration also is moving quickly to appoint qualified leaders at science-based agencies and has asked the heads of agencies to expeditiously establish scientific integrity officials and chief science officers.
In addition to rescinding the secretarial order at DOI, the Biden administration has also rescinded several other anti-science actions taken over the past four years. Among the many anti-science executive orders reversed by President Biden are an order that directed agencies to arbitrarily cut their advisory committees by one-third and another that required agencies to cut two regulations for every new regulation they issued.
There has been a lot of progress for science-based decisionmaking over the past six weeks, with more expected as qualified individuals are appointed to head science-based agencies. And yet we know through our research that every administration has politicized science-based decisionmaking to some extent.
We will continue to watch, demand, and ensure that science guides the critical decisions being made by the Biden administration. Our health, our environment, and our safety depend on it.
Jacob Carter is a research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Reposted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By John Rogers
The Polar Vortex hitting much of the US has wreaked havoc not just on roadways and airports, but also on our electricity systems, as plenty are experiencing first-hand right now. Households, institutions, and communities across the region — and friends and family members — have been hit by power outages, and all that comes with them.
Here are six things to keep in mind as we make it through this.
1. Restoring power (safely) is Job 1.
First: Some things about all this we won't know until we have the benefit of a few days — or months — of hindsight, and data. But one thing we do know right now is that electricity, which we so often take for granted, is crucial to so many aspects of our lives.
For some, power outages are an inconvenience. For others, they're life-threatening. So keeping the power flowing, or getting it back up as quickly as possible, is key. Grid operators need to avoid affecting vulnerable populations and critical infrastructure as much as possible when they're implementing rolling blackouts, and need to prioritize them when they're restoring service.
While all confronting power outages or near misses are indebted to those working around the clock to keep things from getting worse, keeping crews safe is also key. Weather like this, combined with the ongoing pandemic, sure doesn't make for the easiest working conditions, so utilities and grid operators will need to use really solid judgement about where they can safely focus people, and when, for any needed repairs.
2. The power outages are about both supply and demand.
Utilities and grid operators have been hit by the double whammies of unprecedented demand and big challenges on the supply side. On the demand side, for example, Texas on Valentine's Day shattered its previous winter peak record by almost 5%. The peak was 11,000 MW above what ERCOT, Texas's electric grid operator, was projecting and planning for as of November — some 15-20 good-sized power plants' worth.
And on the supply side, power lines taken out by the weather are a piece of it, as you'd expect. But it also turns out that all kinds of power plants have gone offline, for a range of reasons. Take natural gas, for example:
3. Natural gas plants have been hit hard.
Gas plants suffer from their own supply-and-demand issues. One piece of it is the fact that the same gas that supplies them is also needed for heating homes and businesses. And if a power plant doesn't have firm contracts to get gas when it needs it, the way gas utilities would, the power plant loses out. The laws of physics may also be coming into play, as any moisture in the gas lines succumbs to the extreme cold and gums up the works—valves, for instance.
And indeed, initial indications are that a lot of the lost capacity is natural gas-fired. Data from Southwest Power Pool (SPP), the grid operator for much of the Great Plains, show that 70% of its "outaged" megawatts (MW) were natural gas plants.
ERCOT, which is powered primarily by natural gas and wind, was warning yesterday that "Extreme weather conditions caused many generating units — across fuel types — to trip offline and become unavailable." It clarified elsewhere, though, that the majority of the capacity it had lost overnight was "thermal generators, like generation fueled by gas, coal, or nuclear". In all, Texas was out more than a third of its total capacity.
4. Don’t think an “all of the above” strategy would have saved the day.
As ERCOT's messages suggests, this isn't just a gas issue, and these last few days should in no way be fodder for the type of fact-free "all of the above" pushes favored by the prior administration.
For example, many power plants, including all nuclear plants, virtually all coal plants, and a lot of natural gas plants, depend on water to cool the steam that drives the electricity-producing turbines. Any power plant dependent on cooling water will run into trouble if that cooling water is actually frozen solid. And they can have their own troubles with fuel availability during extreme cold.
(While we're on the subject of fossil fuels: Note that the extreme weather has also hit oil production, with the Permian basin, for example, down an estimated 1 million barrels a day.)
5. Wind turbines can be winterized (but Texas…?).
Wind turbines aren't immune to extreme cold, and initial reports show that they, too, have been hit by this wave. In SPP, wind was the #1 source of electricity last year, and initial data from yesterday suggested it accounted for almost a fifth of the capacity taken offline.
ERCOT also mentions wind turbines going offline; one source suggests 4,000 MW of wind was offline yesterday morning, compared with 26,000 MW of downed thermal capacity (mostly gas). Wind is ERCOT's second-largest supplier of power, accounting for 23% of its electricity last year (from a nation-leading 33,000 MW).
But wind farms going offline appears to be a much smaller piece of the picture than detractors will suggest. And wind power has played an important role in keeping the lights on in past extreme cold events (remember the Bomb Cyclone?). They can also be at least partially winter-proofed — by hardening the control systems, using the right fluids, and de-icing the blades. But if you don't see weather like this coming…
6. We need to be ready for more extreme weather.
And that's one of the lessons to learn from this episode, once we get beyond the immediacy of it all: Past performance is no indication of what's going to be coming at us. We know that climate change is bringing not just overall warming, but also more extremes at both ends. We also know that there are all kinds of ways that climate change affects our ability to keep the lights on.
So we need to be ready, or readier, for situations like this. And it turns out that there are a lot of ways we can be. Stronger transmission links can allow regions to back each other up when they aren't all facing the same challenges at the same time. A diversity of (clean) power options can mean some might be available even when others aren't. (ERCOT anticipated yesterday morning being able to reconnect customers later that day in part because of "additional wind & solar output".)
We also don't have to take electricity demand as a fixed, can't-do-anything-about-it quantity. Utilities (including mine, a few days ago) called on customers to be as efficient as possible to get us past the latest crunches. Programs put in place ahead of time can reward customers for delaying or shifting their electricity use.
And energy storage can be an important middleperson between supply and demand, from the large scale all the way down to battery packs in our garages and basements.
Getting through this, and beyond
Right now, the task is getting the power back on. Longer term, the goal shouldn't be about ensuring 100% reliability (because of the prohibitive cost of removing that last fraction of a fraction of a possibility of a blackout), but to make them as infrequent and as limited in duration as possible. It should, though, be about making sure we make decisions that serve us well in the short term and, in the face of climate change, in the long term.
Blackouts will happen; that doesn't mean we're powerless against them. The need is there, but so are the tools.
John Rogers is a senior energy analyst with expertise in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies and policies.
Reposted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
- What Exactly Is the Polar Vortex? - EcoWatch ›
- Polar Vortex: Everything You Need to Know - EcoWatch ›
- What Exactly Is the Polar Vortex? - EcoWatch ›
- Texas Grid Operator Overcharged Power Companies $16 Billion During Winter Storm - EcoWatch ›
By Elliot Negin
There has been a spike in good news recently when it comes to the future of electric vehicles (EVs). That's encouraging, given the transportation sector is now the largest source of US carbon emissions and vehicles are the main culprits.
Late last month, President Biden signed an executive order directing federal officials to come up with a plan to convert all federal, state, local and tribal fleets to "clean and zero-emission vehicles." That amounts to roughly 645,000 vehicles, which currently travel some 4.5 billion miles every year, consume nearly 400 million gallons of gasoline and emit more than 7 billion pounds of carbon pollution.
This is a big deal. If every vehicle in the federal fleet were electric, the number of all-electric EVs in the United States would jump by more than 50 percent. Biden's announcement alone, by guaranteeing greater demand, should spark automakers to amp up their investments in EV technology.
As if on cue, just a day after Biden signed the executive order, General Motors (GM) announced it hopes to stop selling gas- and diesel-powered passenger cars and light sports utility vehicles (SUVs) by 2035. That target date is likely no accident. Last fall, China announced that 50 percent of the new cars sold in the country by 2035 will have to be electric, plug-in hybrid, or fuel cell vehicles, while California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order banning the sale of gasoline-powered passenger cars and pickup trucks in his state by then.
Of course, transitioning from gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles to EVs will not happen overnight. Cars remain on the road for an average of 12 years and trucks average 15, so it will take some time to turn over the entire US fleet of 280 million cars, light trucks and heavy duty rigs. In the meantime, a UCS member from Terre Haute, Indiana, who used to work in the auto industry, wanted to know if it would make the most sense to promote gasoline-powered hybrids and stronger fuel efficiency standards, not pure EVs, for the time being.
"There is certainly a lot of hype about electric vehicles," Terry S. wrote. "If electricity production were 100 percent renewable, then electric vehicles would be a big step in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But transitioning to electric vehicles is likely to take decades. I applaud UCS for working to accelerate that transition. However, it seems a larger emphasis should be on pushing the adoption of hybrids, such as the Prius, and higher mileage standards over the next decade."
Does the US electricity grid have to be completely carbon pollution-free before EVs can make a significant difference? And would it make more sense to recommend that car buyers purchase hybrids instead of EVs for the next 10 years or so? These are good questions.
I turned to David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the UCS Clean Transportation Program to respond. Reichmuth, who holds a PhD in chemical engineering, is an expert on California's Zero Emission Vehicles regulation and has authored several reports on the benefits of EVs.
EN: Let's start with Terry S.'s comments. Based on your research, what would be the best way to go over the next decade? Do EVs make sense when some parts of the country still get their electricity from coal-fired power plants? Would it make more sense to buy a hybrid instead of an EV?
DR: To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we'll need stronger gasoline fuel efficiency and emissions standards and a quick transition from gasoline-powered vehicles to EVs. It will take both at the same time. But for nearly everyone in the United States, the best option today for reducing carbon emissions is an EV.
Last year, we updated our analysis of EVs by comparing lifecycle emissions from EVs and gasoline-powered cars. For gasoline cars, we calculated the total emissions from extracting crude oil, shipping it to a refinery, manufacturing gasoline, and then trucking it to filling stations, in addition to their tailpipe emissions. For EVs, our calculation included electric power plant emissions as well as the emissions from producing coal, natural gas and the other fuels that power plants use.
We found that the average EV is responsible for lower carbon emissions than a 50 miles-per-gallon gasoline car for 94 percent of the US population. But that's for the average EV, because the most efficient EVs currently available are better than any gasoline-powered car virtually anywhere across the country. And in regions with cleaner electricity grids, EVs are also much cleaner than gasoline cars. For example, the carbon emissions associated with an average EV driven in California are equivalent to the emissions from a hypothetical 122-mpg gasoline car, while an EV in upstate New York is even better. It would have emissions equivalent to a 231-mpg gasoline car.
It's also important to consider that a new EV purchased today will be powered by an electricity grid that is getting increasingly cleaner as the nation moves away from coal and adds renewable sources like solar and wind power. The amount of electricity from coal-fired plants dropped from 45 percent of all US output to 28 percent between 2009 and 2018, which helped make driving on electricity cleaner. Unlike gasoline cars, EVs already on the road are going to get "cleaner" over time.
EN: Let's turn to some of the recent developments. What's the significance of President Biden's recent executive order? What challenges will be have to be overcome to make his administration's goal a reality?
DR: First off, it's an important signal from the new administration that it recognizes the need to move rapidly to electric vehicles. The federal government's purchasing power will help push automakers to offer more EV models at higher production volumes, given the certainty of demand. It won't be easy to make Biden's executive order a reality, though. While there are a lot more EV models available now, there are some types of vehicles, like pickups and full-size vans, where electric options aren't yet available. The government also will have to install infrastructure at federal facilities across the country to recharge these EVs.
EN: GM won plaudits for its recent announcement, but unlike BMW, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen, the company has not agreed to comply with California's emissions standards, which are more stringent than the Trump administration's watered-down targets. How do you see GM's commitment, and how does the company stack up against other automakers?
DR: I'm all for auto companies setting targets to electrify their vehicle offerings. However, GM only said that it aspires to getting rid of tailpipe pollution. At the same time, it still supports the last administration's weakened emissions standards and has decided not to join the four automakers that have agreed to comply with California's emissions standards. And while GM has announced plans to release new electric models, less than 1 percent of its US sales last year were EVs. If the company were serious about committing to an electric future, it would support standards that ensure the country will have 100-percent zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2035.
EN: What needs to happen to enable the switch from gasoline cars to EVs?
DR: To accelerate the transition from gasoline to electricity, several barriers have to be overcome.
First, automakers have to manufacture more EV models, including sedans, full-size SUVs, pickups and minivans. Regulation is powerful tool to make that happen. There are more options for EV buyers in Europe right now because their emissions standards are ahead of the United States.
Second, EV owners need a lot more recharging infrastructure to support long-distance travel and options if they can't charge at home because, for example, they live in an apartment building and have to park on the street. Private charging companies will play a role, but electric utility and government investments can help ensure that infrastructure is available so more people can buy an EV and not have to worry about where they can charge it.
Finally, automakers have to provide car buyers with the information and resources they need to have the confidence to choose an EV over a gasoline car. Virtually every driver knows how to refuel a gasoline car. Charging an EV isn't hard, but EV owners will understandably have questions about where they can plug in.
EVs are cheaper to drive and maintain than gasoline cars, but they still have a higher upfront cost. Battery—and therefore EV—costs are coming down quickly as production volume increases, but federal and state incentives will be critical during this transition period to address both the upfront cost and consumer uncertainty over a new technology. It will also be important to make it easier for low- and moderate-income households to go electric by, for example, providing incentives for used EV purchases and ensuring that renters in apartment buildings have access to nearby charging stations.
EN: What else should car buyers be thinking about when considering an EV?
DR: We want to get to the point where everyone in the United States can choose an EV and meet their mobility needs. We're not there yet. We need more EV models and charging availability for everyone. Even so, a lot of people could make their next car purchase or lease an EV, either a fully electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid, especially given the fact there are more affordable long-range models available this year. Switching to an EV is a step people can take right now to make a significant reduction in their carbon emissions. Plus, owning an EV has real advantages: They are cheaper to refuel, have lower maintenance costs, run quietly, and often perform better than a gasoline car. The bottom line: Buying an EV will save car owners money, reduce toxic air pollution, and cut carbon emissions at the same time. That sounds like a good deal to me!
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By Taryn MacKinney
First, the bad news: An analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists reveals that federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have lost hundreds of scientists since 2017. The good news: With the Biden administration already acting on its pledge to lead with science, a new day has dawned, and it's time to get to work.
Science Under Attack
Since the birth of the National Academies of Sciences more than 150 years ago, US federal science has fueled many of the nation's and the world's great achievements. Federally funded scientists have mapped the human genome, created the World Wide Web, protected species from extinction, and saved countless lives through revolutionary vaccine campaigns—against polio and smallpox in years past, and today, against COVID-19.
At the heart of these triumphs stand the government scientists. Whether chemist or physician, economist or engineer, each has dedicated their career to the American public and its interests: clean air and water, safe homes, a healthy future for all.
But cracks have formed in the foundations of government science. Especially since 2017, political officials have stunted or stalled scientific research, retaliated against scientists, weakened science advisory committees, left scientific positions vacant, and undermined career staff. Some federal offices, battered by political attacks, have hemorrhaged scientific experts.
Now that the sun has set on the Trump administration, questions remain. How have federal scientists fared in the last four years? How many work in government today? And how can the Biden administration repair what was broken?
The Hunt for Numbers
To answer these questions, we needed government information and lots of it. Last autumn, we requested, via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), two decades of staffing records from nearly 30 federal science agencies, from the FWS to the Census Bureau.
We're still waiting on a lot of data, but the results we have gotten are revealing. In the last four years, five of the seven agencies we analyzed collectively lost more than 1,000 scientists.
This figure shows the percent change in the number of scientists from 2016 to 2020 across seven federal agencies. Percent change is useful, but it can also mask the human scale of loss. Here's an example: By 2019, the EPA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) had both lost 6% of their scientists compared to 2016. But the EPA is far larger than BOEM. A 6% loss is 28 scientists at BOEM — and nearly 750 scientists at the EPA. And while BOEM regained many scientists between 2019 and 2020, the EPA did not.
A Blow to Science at the EPA
The losses at the EPA weren't random. Between 2016 and 2020, the EPA lost 550 environmental protection specialists — 1 in 4. These specialists implement air and water quality programs and track environmental law violations, tasks that the last administration spurned.
The EPA lost hundreds of highly specialized scientists, too. For example, environmental engineers work to prevent pollution, recover natural resources, and protect public health; the EPA lost 126 of them. 12 hydrologists, 22 geologists, and 18 statisticians were also lost — about a third of jobs in each category—as were 44 chemists (1 in 10), 27 ecologists (1 in 5), and 18 microbiologists (nearly 1 in 4).
Scientists nationwide felt the crunch. Many staffers in the EPA's 10 regional offices work on the ground in communities and states to implement Agency programs. These offices are scattered across the country, and every single one lost scientific staff between 2016 and 2020, especially offices in the West, Southwest, Great Plains, and Midwest.
Staff also disappeared from programmatic offices. The Office of Research and Development (ORD), the EPA's research powerhouse, lost 12% of its scientific staff — more than 180 people.
But wait, you ask — could these just be retirements? Good point. But if 20 people retire, we'd expect most of them to be replaced, their roles filled via a robust pipeline of early-career scientists. The result: a net loss of zero, or close to it. Instead, we're seeing a net loss of hundreds of scientific staff, indicating that many lost employees weren't replaced. We know from surveys that losses like these hinder vital scientific work.
Losses Beyond the EPA
Other agencies also lost experts between 2016 and 2020. The FWS lost 231 scientific staff, a nearly 4% decline. This includes a net loss of 68 wildlife biologists (about 1 in 8) and 48 staff in wildlife refuge management (about 1 in 12). The US Geological Survey, meanwhile, lost 118 hydrologists (1 in 10), 55 geologists (1 in 10), 45 wildlife biologists (1 in 4), and myriad others.
The Department of Education's research branch, the Institute of Education Services, lost 33 scientific staff—a staggering 19 percent decline. More than half were education researchers.
BOEM — a young agency with fewer than 600 employees — steadily gained scientists through the last quarter of the Obama administration, when it reached a high of 450 scientific staff. But then this number began declining, falling to 403 in Q2 2019. As with the EPA, many of BOEM's losses were highly specialized scientific staff, including 10 geologists (-10%) and 7 oceanographers (-29%).
On the flip side, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has gained scientific staff since 2016, continuing a trend that dates to at least 2010. NASA gained 91 scientific experts — a modest 0.7% increase. We're heartened to see this, but don't be fooled: all is not well in government science.
The Humans Behind the Data
These numbers validate what many civil servants have long witnessed: the decline of federal science. We've tracked nearly 190 attacks on science since 2017, and stories abound of scientists being ignored, defunded, and pushed out. In our 2018 survey, majorities of scientists across agencies reported seeing workforce reductions.
Dr. Joel Clement, a Senior Fellow at UCS and former Department of Interior (DOI) scientist, witnessed these attacks firsthand. At the DOI in 2017, he was reassigned from a senior scientific role to an unrelated role in an accounting office. "I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities," he said.
Dr. Clement is one of many to face these assaults. When the Department of Agriculture announced it would move its research arm from Washington, DC to Kansas City, two-thirds of Economic Research Service staff jumped ship — as did 8 in 10 staff in the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Even when scientists stayed, they faced censorship, funding cuts, and the dissolution of crucial offices and projects. "It feels like a wholesale attack," said Dr. Betsy Smith, a 20-year veteran of the EPA whose research on climate change was abruptly canceled in 2017.
The Path Forward
Still, have hope. Already, President Biden has given the microphone back to federal scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci, assembled a team of qualified science advisors, and, in rejoining the Paris climate agreement, did what his predecessor never could: recognized the truth of climate change and vowed to work with the world to solve it.
But rebuilding is not enough. Federal science must be fortified. In the coming months, the Biden administration must do all it can to invite more early-career scientists into government—for example, by bolstering fellowship programs and expanding recruitment to underrepresented communities. The administration must also work to keep these vital staff, by strengthening mentorship of early-career scientists and, of course, funding them (a robust White House science and technology budget is a great start).
President Biden must also support policies that promote and protect scientists and their work. We at UCS have a lot of recommendations, and we're thrilled to see many of them already in the administration's latest memorandum on scientific integrity.
The United States is a divided country, cleaved by rival realities and bitter partisanship. But as our leaders brace themselves for the rocky seas ahead, science must be their lighthouse. We implore the Biden administration, and all those elected by the people, to "lead with science and truth." The nation depends on it.
Taryn MacKinney is an investigative researcher for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Reposted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By Jacob Carter
Since 1918 the federal government has implemented its authority under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) to hold industries accountable for the death of birds due to their operations. Such operations include the spraying of insecticides that poison birds, maintaining oil pits that can lead to drowning, or contact with infrastructure such as wind turbines that can cause death on impact.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimated in 2002 that up to two million birds were killed in oil pits every year. This number dropped in 2012 with a best estimate of 500,000 to 1 million birds killed in oil pits every year. The FWS attributes the decrease in bird deaths to oil operators taking prevention measures that reduce migratory bird mortality because of the industry's operations. The MBTA provides an incentive for oil operators and other industries to take such prevention measures.
But on January 7, the outgoing administration changed the legal interpretation of the MBTA such that the FWS will no longer be able to hold industries accountable for the "incidental" killing of migratory bird species. This means that if an oil operator, for example, did not place mesh lining over an oil pit to prevent migratory birds from dying in that oil pit – the oil operator would not be at fault nor held accountable for the deaths of migratory birds.
The Logic is Ludicrous
I think that the logic used in the revised MBTA is ridiculous for one very important reason: we know that migratory bird species die because of bad industry practice and that such deaths are preventable.
There is a clear need to hold industries accountable for migratory bird death, especially since we know it happens and that it is preventable. And if we know a bad thing is preventable, we should create mechanisms (like the MBTA) to encourage folks to take prevention measures to help ensure that a bad thing does not happen.
Imagine that you have a toddler that continues to explore that "dangerous chemicals cabinet" (you know the one) in your household. What do you do? Well, you probably "toddler-proof" that cabinet to prevent said toddler from ingesting harmful chemicals — or you potentially face punitive measures for child neglect.
My point is that it makes absolutely no sense to discourage the use of measures to prevent a bad thing we know will happen — in this case it is the death of migratory bird species.
Bird Death Affects Us All
The number of birds in the U.S. is falling. The number of birds in North America has fallen by 29 percent since 1970 according to one study in Science. There are 2.9 billion fewer birds than there were 50 years ago.
These losses do not only mean that we have fewer gorgeous birds for birders to enjoy. Bird species are incredibly vital to ecosystem health that your health, my health, my grandmother's health, are all dependent on. Bird species control unwanted pests, they pollinate plant species, they are seed dispersers, and they bring in loads of cash to our economies every year. The FWS estimates that bird watchers alone bring in nearly $15 billion to local economies and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
If we lose our native bird species then our ecosystems will be not be the same, our local economies will not be the same, our health will not be the same. This is the future-to-come if the Biden administration allows the new interpretation of the MBTA to go into effect on February 8 of this year. We should be working to strengthen protections for bird species, not fighting to kill them.
President Biden's nominee to lead the Department of the Interior (DOI), Deb Haaland, should prioritize and work quickly to interpret the MBTA to its original intent to protect declining bird populations. In fact, we have provided a number of recommendations for President Biden and Representative Haaland to restore science back to the DOI. President Biden has stated that he plans to bring science back to decision-making — and we will be holding him accountable to his word.
Jacob Carter is a research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Reposted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By Andrew Rosenberg
The first 24 hours of the administration of President Joe Biden were filled not only with ceremony, but also with real action. Executive orders and other directives were quickly signed. More actions have followed. All consequential. Many provide a basis for not just undoing actions of the previous administration, but also making real advances in public policy to protect public health, safety, and the environment.
These first executive orders address huge challenges — the pandemic, climate change, racial justice, and economic uncertainty. Among these actions, President Biden also issued a critically important order on "Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis," which includes some provisions that have received much less attention than they warrant. They go to the heart of much of UCS' work and advocacy.
Section 1 of the order is clear and inspiring:
"Policy. Our Nation has an abiding commitment to empower our workers and communities; promote and protect our public health and the environment; and conserve our national treasures and monuments, places that secure our national memory. Where the Federal Government has failed to meet that commitment in the past, it must advance environmental justice. In carrying out this charge, the Federal Government must be guided by the best science and be protected by processes that ensure the integrity of Federal decision-making. It is, therefore, the policy of my Administration to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals." (emphasis added)
Music to my ears. Listening to the science is not just about the pandemic, it is about serving the needs of the public. For protecting public health and safety in our communities. For worker safety. For protections for all with justice and equity, particularly communities of color and low-income communities that have long suffered much of the burden of pollution and environmental harms. These are exactly the changes that UCS has been advocating for and will pay enormous dividends in improving public health and safety, with specific attention to ensuring those benefits are for all communities.
As ordered by our president, all agencies and departments in the Executive Branch must immediately review and address actions taken between January 20, 2017 and January 20,2021 that conflict with these policy goals. And suspend, revise, or rescind those found to be in conflict with the new president's policy goals as soon as possible.
For example, these actions will include, but are not limited to:
- Reversing the climate- and health-harming rollback of methane emissions standards.
- Redoing the fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and light trucks that were gutted under the last administration, while also moving forward with ambitious standards that will dramatically reduce emissions and increase transportation electrification in the future.
- Reconsidering rollbacks of energy efficiency standards.
- Undoing attacks on mercury and air toxics standards for coal plants.
- Reconsidering changes to the way costs and benefits are calculated.
- Revoking the rule that limits the science that the EPA can use in rulemaking.
- Reestablishing the interagency working group on the "social cost of greenhouse gas emissions to determine the social benefits of limiting global warming as critical input to evaluating regulatory proposals, and requiring an interim SCC, SCN and SCM within 30 days which will be used until final values are published.
- Erasing the shortcutting of environmental reviews of federal projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Within 30 days agencies must submit a full list of actions from the last four years that will be considered for review and revision or cancellation within the next year.
(Measured) Excitement at UCS
I danced around the room with my dogs at the push toward restoring NEPA analyses. Doing a thorough NEPA analysis, which the shortcuts held back, means that agencies must seek public input more extensive than just notice and public comment during the rulemaking process. And critically it means that alternatives to a proposed action must be considered and vetted with the public, with the full analysis available to anyone who wants to understand the ramifications of a particular policy action. That includes, now with the new order, considering the impacts of climate change and on environmental justice. We need these analyses and public discussion — they are a key part of decisionmaking in our constitutional democracy.
I am definitely not the only one at UCS who gets excited by these wonky, technical pronouncements.
My colleague Jonna Hamilton raised a glass to toast the drive to more ambitious fuel economy and emissions standards, saying it's time to ensure that the auto companies make the next generation of vehicles that consumers want to drive. Strong standards will help the transition to electric vehicles, which reduce emissions, no matter where they are charged.
Rachel Cleetus breathed a sigh of relief that the government will be restoring the use of the social cost of carbon (and the social cost of methane and the social cost of nitrous oxide) for regulatory purposes. And that the Council on Environmental Quality will be updating its guidance on the consideration of greenhouse gases for NEPA analyses. With 2020 ending the hottest decade on record globally, and bringing a record-breaking 22 extreme weather and climate related disasters in the US that killed at least 262 people and each cost more than a billion dollars, it's high time we took the costs of climate change seriously!
And Gretchen Goldman, swinging her young sons in the air in joy, was thrilled to see that revoking the limits on science was named as a top priority of the Biden administration! The so-called Transparency Rule would do widespread damage to the EPA's ability to use the best available science on everything from air pollution standards to pesticide regulation. Finding a way to get rid of this harmful rule will allow the EPA to fully carry out its mission of protecting public health and the environment.
This order does a lot more to revoke bad policies. It also calls on the Secretary of the Interior to review the national monuments with a view to restoring them to 2017 boundaries. It declares the environmental review of oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge inadequate, placing a moratorium on leasing. It revokes the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline because it is inconsistent with the economic and climate goals of the new administration. And part of those stated goals as laid out in the policy section of the order includes respecting the voices of the Indigenous communities whose lands, livelihoods, and culture were given short shrift in the permitting process to date.
Another Less Noticed, Even Wonkier, Remarkable Day One Action
Another Presidential Directive of critical importance to the mission and work of UCS is titled "Modernizing Regulatory Review." It calls for the Office of Management and Budget, through its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), to re-focus the role and content of reviews of regulations proposed by federal agencies.
The new process OIRA is tasked with designing and implementing in consultation with agencies across the government will:
- Reflect new developments in science.
- Fully account for benefits of regulations that are difficult to quantify.
- Take into account the distributional consequences of regulations to ensure they appropriately benefit, and not inappropriately burden, disadvantaged, vulnerable or marginalized communities.
- Find ways for OIRA to work more proactively and effectively with agencies to obtain the benefits to the public that come with regulatory initiatives.
- Improve efficiency, transparency, and inclusiveness in the interagency review process.
For example, consider the review of the previous administration's rules that would limit the science that the EPA can use as the basis for implementing public health protections. That rule requires that the underlying data of any study be publicly available to be fully considered by the agency. That would necessarily exclude studies that rely on confidential health information in most cases, or give those studies lower credence, not on the basis of their scientific merit, but because of an artificial barrier labeled as "transparency" concerns. OIRA has reviewed both the proposed and final rules and deemed them not economically significant, despite the fact that they affect all of the work that EPA does. Under an improved review process, the rule would have never moved through the process because it will in fact overburden, yet again, vulnerable communities.
Though OIRA's work is often behind the scenes and rarely fully acknowledged, the agency plays a critical role in either advancing or hindering the regulatory process. In order for the Biden administration to meet its goals on climate, the pandemic, racial justice, and economic recovery, that process has to become better and more effective. OIRA involvement must add real value to the benefit of the public. It is heartening and remarkable that this directive is a Day One action of the new administration.
Toward Real Action
By no means do the first executive orders accomplish the huge tasks before this administration. But it is an extraordinarily good start.
Now these orders need to turn into real actions from top to bottom in the federal government and in partnership with state and tribal governments as well as internationally. None of the challenges we face will be solved without action at all levels.
Our excitement at UCS is tempered by the enormous amount of work that needs to turn this promising vision into a reality. We will make our voices heard to hold the administration and Congress to account. Please join us in doing so.
Andrew Rosenberg is the director of the UCS Center for Science and Democracy.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
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Ask a Scientist: What Should the Biden Administration and Congress Do to Address the Climate Crisis?
By Elliott Negin
What a difference an election makes. Thanks to the Biden-Harris victory in November, the next administration is poised to make a 180-degree turn to again address the climate crisis.
President Trump famously called climate change a "hoax," appointed fossil fuel industry lobbyists to key positions in his administration, rolled back the Obama-era rule that would have curbed power plant carbon emissions, and weakened Obama-era limits on vehicle carbon emissions. Just a day after last fall's election, he pulled the United States out of the international Paris climate agreement.
By contrast, President-elect Biden has endorsed a $2 trillion climate plan, and pledged to issue at least 10 executive orders to protect the climate and rejoin the Paris climate accord on Day One of his administration. He also has appointed an impressive and diverse climate change team to take key administration positions, including New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who co-sponsored the Green New Deal, to run the Interior Department; North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality head Michael Regan to lead the Environmental Protection Agency; former Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy as national climate advisor; and former Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement, to serve as his international climate envoy.
That's a welcome relief, because the world is running out of time. In 2020 alone, wildfires burned millions of acres in Australia and California to a crisp; heat waves scorched Europe, Asia and the Arctic; floods inundated the U.S. Midwest as well as nations in Africa and Asia; and a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season battered the coasts of Central America, Caribbean islands and the United States.
But for all the promises President-elect Biden has made, some nagging questions remain: Given the constraints of a closely divided Congress, how much will the Biden administration truly be able to accomplish? And even with the United States rejoining the Paris accord, will countries live up to its promise to keep the Earth's temperature in check?
For some answers, I turned to Climate and Energy Program Policy Director Rachel Cleetus, who I last interviewed in May about what a post-pandemic economy should look like. The questions I posed to her this time around are a logical extension of the conversation we had then.
EN: Before we dig into what we can expect from the incoming Biden administration, let's talk about what Congress included in the pandemic relief package it passed just before Christmas. I don't know about you, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it included some good climate-related provisions. Does this suggest that the next Congress will take climate change seriously?
RC: The omnibus pandemic relief bill Congress just passed was long overdue and desperately needed, given the fact that millions of people are in increasingly dire economic straits. It also included a provision to dramatically reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), extremely potent heat-trapping gases used in air conditioners and refrigerators; an extension of renewable electricity production and investment tax credits, which will help boost clean energy and create jobs; support for energy storage technology research and development; and increased funding for ARPA-E, the Department of Energy's technology innovation program. The bill also included a one-year extension of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, a welcome but inadequate provision as black lung disease hits record levels in coal country.
The National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress just passed with an overwhelming bipartisan override of President Trump's veto, also includes provisions recognizing the impact of climate change on the military and the need to invest in resilience measures.
These provisions demonstrate that Congress can act in a bipartisan manner on clean energy and climate change issues. But much more will be needed in the months and years ahead to make steep cuts in global warming emissions and achieve comprehensive, bold and just climate policies that benefit everyone. Congress has yet to demonstrate the will to act commensurately with the scale of the challenges we face, which is why we will need to continue to pressure policymakers to do the right thing after the new Congress and administration take office.
EN: Notwithstanding the fact that leading Republicans supported the climate-related elements of the pandemic relief package, how much will the incoming Biden administration have to rely on executive orders to advance initiatives to combat climate change? After all, the oil and gas industry still has a great deal of influence over Congress.
RC: President Biden should send a clear and strong signal, early on, that he is committed to using his full powers to advance climate action through executive authorities and regulations. Here are some of the most important actions on climate that he should take, many of which could be done within the first 100 days and some which should happen via a Day One executive order on climate change:
- Set science-informed climate goals and commit the United States to reaching net-zero carbon emissions economywide no later than 2050, and at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
- Direct all federal agencies to incorporate climate science into their actions and develop updated climate action plans.
- Initiate administrative and regulatory actions to sharply curtail heat-trapping emissions economywide and advance climate resilience, prioritizing investments in historically marginalized communities.
- Rejoin the Paris agreement, with an ambitious commitment to cut heat-trapping emissions and provide climate funding for developing countries, in line with the US fair share contribution to global climate goals.
- Reverse the Trump administration's egregious executive orders that have halted, undermined, and reversed climate action.
- Create White House-level offices focused on environmental justice and economic transition to elevate and mainstream these priorities.
As you note, opposition from the fossil fuel companies is not going away any time soon. They may continue to try to slow down or stop climate action, or at best support incremental policy changes that preserve their profits—even as they claim to endorse the Paris agreement's net-zero goal.
UCS and its coalition partners will continue to engage in sharp and strategic corporate campaigns to expose their disingenuous actions, curtail their Wall Street financing, and prod them to align their business models with what the science demonstrates is necessary. We will continue to push for companies to disclose their climate risks, and for financial regulators to require this. And we support the rights of affected parties to seek legal accountability for climate damages caused by fossil fuel companies.
EN: OK. So what can a narrowly divided Congress accomplish?
RC: Congress also will have to step up to play its part. We are coming off a year of record-breaking climate related disasters—including wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and heatwaves—which intersected cruelly with the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting ongoing economic crisis. People across the country need Congress to do its job. Securing robust, comprehensive, durable climate and clean energy policy will require legislation.
President Biden should immediately begin working with the new Congress to advance a suite of policies that ramp up clean energy, drive down carbon emissions economywide, and build climate resilience, while also addressing longstanding environmental injustices that have disproportionately affected low-income communities and communities of color and ensuring a fair transition for coal communities. Breaking through the long-standing political logjam won't be easy, but the needs are urgent and the economic, health and climate benefits of a low-carbon climate-resilient economy are clear.
Many of these policy priorities were highlighted in the Biden-Harris campaign platform. The incoming administration must do all it can to prod Congress to pass legislation addressing them. Here's just a partial list of what we need:
Additional pandemic relief and economic recovery packages. More funding for public health priorities and economic relief is desperately needed at the national, state and local level. Congress should include a robust "green" economic recovery package to jumpstart and foster a just and equitable economic recovery, with job creation driven by investments in clean energy and climate resilient infrastructure. Forty percent of these investments should directly benefit historically marginalized communities.
Fair transition for workers and communities. Congress should pass a comprehensive, well-funded transition package for displaced workers and communities hurt by the country's ongoing transition away from coal.
Environmental justice. Congress should strengthen public health safeguards, tighten enforcement, and invest in cleaning up the cumulative toxic burden of pollution in fence-line and frontline communities, which are disproportionately low-income communities and communities of color.
Recognition of climate change's financial and economic risks. Congress should pass legislation to ensure that financial regulators require corporations to disclose their climate risk to ensure they—and the market more broadly—are appropriately accounting for such risks and taking steps to mitigate it.
Guaranteed community access to the courts. As a mounting number of cities, counties and states seek to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate damages and fraud, here's one thing Congress should not do: pass laws attempting to limit or eliminate communities' access to the courts to seek redress.
EN: President-elect Biden recently proclaimed that he will "put America back in the business of leading the world on climate change." What should that mean in concrete terms? As the country responsible for the largest share of cumulative carbon emissions to date, what does the United States have to do regain international respect and provide leadership?
RC: To be perfectly frank, the Biden administration will have to do a lot more than trot out tired rhetoric about US leadership on climate action.
What the country and the rest of the world need is for the United States to take its place at the table, alongside and in cooperation with nations large and small, and do its part responsibly, fairly and consistently. The Biden administration and Congress need to enact strong national climate policies and make an ambitious, credible emissions reduction commitment ahead of the next international climate talks. They also must commit to scaled-up climate finance for developing countries. Finally, they have to work together with states, cities, tribal governments, businesses, and local stakeholders, many of whom have contributed to significant climate progress despite the absence of national leadership in the last four years. It's time—well past time, actually—for meaningful federal action.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Sarah Reinhardt
The federal government released new U.S. dietary guidelines Tuesday after three years of preparation, and it served a strong win to both alcohol and soda industries.
Rather than adopting a new recommendation for men to limit alcohol intake to one drink per day, the Trump administration instead passed on science and yielded to industry lobbying, leaving the prior limit of two drinks in place. New guidance for adults and children two and older to reduce added sugar from a maximum of 10 percent to 6 percent of daily calories was also rejected.
If you can look beyond its gratuitous gifts to industry, the new guidelines provide some wins for public health, too. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans retains evidence-based guidance on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and saturated fats, and for the first time includes dietary recommendations for infants, toddlers, and pregnant and lactating women.
Now, with the Dietary Guidelines on paper, another question looms large: How can federal agencies use it to make meaningful advancements in public health — particularly during a global pandemic?
What's the big deal about new Dietary Guidelines?
You may know the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the food pyramid of the early 1990s — which, despite having been replaced by MyPlate nearly a decade ago, seems to have a stronghold on the popular imagination when it comes to our ideas about healthy eating. But the impact and reach of U.S. dietary guidelines is far greater than many people realize. In addition to being the nation's leading nutrition recommendations, the Dietary Guidelines provide the scientific basis for federal nutrition programs, including school lunch and breakfast programs, that reach millions of kids, parents, seniors, veterans, and other members of the public every day.
As required by law, the guidelines are updated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) every five years to reflect the best available scientific research. This process typically starts with the selection of an expert committee that spends two years developing a rigorous scientific report on current nutrition science, and ends with agency staff and political leaders writing and publishing final guidelines. And the decisions made by agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue and HHS secretary Alex Azar about what to include — or omit — in the new guidelines will affect the health of our children and communities for years to come.
How industry gets inside access to the Dietary Guidelines
The Dietary Guidelines aren't developed in a vacuum; the process is intentionally designed to be both transparent and accessible to the public, and provides opportunities to attend meetings of the scientific committee and to submit comments. These opportunities are open to all individuals, academic institutions, advocacy organizations, and industry groups and associations whose input can inform and strengthen the scientific committee's work. But problems can arise when industry groups bypass this process and attempt to directly influence federal agencies or members of Congress, either through lobbying or unofficial meetings that may not be documented. During the three years preceding the release of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines, dozens of industry groups representing the interests of beer, wine, and liquor companies spent an average of $27 million per year ($30.7 million in 2018, $29.3 million in 2019, and $22.2 million in 2020) lobbying members of Congress. Once formed, these cozy relationships can prompt Congress to act on behalf of companies by petitioning USDA and HHS secretaries to change or omit recommendations that industry finds unfavorable. In August 2020, 28 members of Congress addressed such a letter to UDSA and HHS secretaries, challenging the scientific committee's findings on alcohol and mortality.
Meanwhile, industry groups such as the American Beverage Association, which includes soda giants Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper, and Pepsi, pushed back against the added sugar recommendations in the scientific report, asking USDA and HHS secretaries to maintain current targets instead. But as we wrote this summer, the current limit of 10 percent prevents the average individual from meeting all requirements for a healthy diet within their target calorie range — a rationale spelled out clearly in the scientific report. The science is also clear that reducing added sugar intake across the U.S. population would yield significant public health rewards. Our 2019 report, Delivering on the Dietary Guidelines, found that drinking just one fewer sugar-sweetened beverage per day could avert nearly 19,000 deaths from type 2 diabetes and decrease medical costs by $16 billion annually among U.S. adults.
Though industry influence is the exception, not the rule, this isn't the first time that Congress has interfered with the Dietary Guidelines. For example, when the scientific committee behind the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines was charged with reviewing evidence on diets, sustainability, and food security, its findings were met with strong opposition from meat industry groups, including the North American Meat Institute (NAMI). As reported by POLITICO, NAMI spent more than $220,000 lobbying members of Congress in the first three quarters of 2015 on issues including the Dietary Guidelines, while the National Cattlemen's Beef Association spent $112,000 and the National Pork Producers Council spent $780,000. Under political pressure from Congress, USDA and HHS secretaries ultimately omitted the committee's findings on this topic and declared sustainability outside the scope of U.S. dietary guidance.
For core dietary advice, it's much of the same
The biggest update to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines is the all-new dietary recommendations for infants, toddlers under two, and pregnant and lactating women. Key recommendations for infants include exclusive human milk for the first six months, with iron-fortified formula as an acceptable substitute when milk is unavailable, and the introduction of complementary foods thereafter.
But core dietary recommendations for the general population have largely remained the same. Despite sensational headlines and nutrition trends du jour, most of what we know about a healthy diet has actually remained fairly consistent over time: we're healthiest when we eat a diversity of plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; consume lean sources of protein, including poultry, seafood, and legumes (think beans, peas, and lentils); and limit solid fats and sodium, in addition to added sugars. And though the new edition does not drastically depart from a longstanding tendency to skirt the health risks of red and processed meat, the new edition does newly (if subtly) suggest replacing some "processed or high-fat meats" with beans, peas, lentils, or seafood. Meanwhile, neither the scientific report nor the final guidelines addressed the potential health consequences of ultra-processed foods, which are increasingly the focus of diet and health research and have been acknowledged in international dietary guidance.
New Dietary Guidelines must provide a pathway to sustainability and health equity
Five years ago, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans described the myriad social, cultural, and economic factors that can influence dietary choices, and offered evidence-based strategies for health professionals and policymakers. Much of this information was notably absent from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines released today, which named key federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but otherwise seemed to place a much greater focus on individual choices than the external factors that constrain those choices.
Of course, even when these factors are explicitly addressed, they are only useful if the federal government has the will and the means to act on them.
Historically, there has been very little investment in implementing dietary guidance. Following the release of each new edition of the Dietary Guidelines, the USDA works to develop evidence-based educational tools and resources (like MyPlate and its predecessor, the food pyramid) to reflect current recommendations, but the buck often stops there. Because while the guidelines are supposed to serve as the backbone for federal nutrition programs, the government lacks a mechanism — and perhaps more importantly, funding — to make sure this happens and to ensure that dietary guidance is reaching communities who need it most. Furthermore, USDA educational materials and resources are largely limited to dietary patterns that do not reflect the broad cultural and culinary diversity in the United States. All of this means that the Dietary Guidelines remain inaccessible to many populations, including many immigrant communities and people of color impacted by systemic racism and other forms of oppression.
Thousands of individuals who weighed in on the Dietary Guidelines process are also watching to see how the USDA and HHS will handle the issue of sustainability. Although sustainability was excluded from the initial list of research questions provided to the scientific committee — effectively barring a review of current evidence on sustainable diets — sustainability was highlighted in the scientific report anyway. The committee encouraged federal agencies to "support efforts to consider the Dietary Guidelines in relation to sustainability of the food system," and further noted that "the achievability and maintenance of healthy food and beverage intakes is dependent on a complex number of factors that influence food access, availability, and cost. Long-term maintenance of healthy intakes requires long-term support of associated food systems." Though the word itself doesn't receive a mention in the 164-page document, sustainability will continue to be a key issue the USDA will be expected to confront in its implementation of dietary guidance.
These considerations are particularly important against the backdrop of the public health crisis caused by COVID-19, which has produced sharp increases in food insecurity for families nationwide and underscored the threats posed by widespread chronic disease. But they will continue to provide critical context for dietary guidance after this pandemic passes, and have the potential to leave us better prepared in the face of the next crisis, be it a viral outbreak or a climate-related natural disaster. Though Biden's USDA will have plenty on its plate (so to speak), putting our national nutrition guidance to good use — and restoring public faith in the process — should be a top priority to protect public health for generations to come.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Ken Kimmell
2020 is coming to a close, and it can't end fast enough. But as the year winds down, I am buoyed by two big climate victories on the same day, perched atop a clear change in direction mandated by the election.
First, Congress just enacted a massive COVID relief and government spending package. While the COVID relief provisions are not adequate and need to be bolstered, the package includes important provisions on climate. Most significantly, Congress authorized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFC's), a greenhouse gas that is approximately a thousand times more potent than carbon dioxide and is widely used in refrigerants and air conditioners.
A worldwide phase out of HFC's has the potential to reduce the overall warming from climate change by .5 degree centigrade. With this legislative authorization, the United States can not only do its part, but US businesses can play a leading role in supplying the world with alternatives to HFC's.
The congressional package also includes a much-needed extension of tax credits for clean energy. One of the biggest wins is for offshore wind energy, for which tax credits are extended for five years. In conjunction with timely and decisive permitting decisions from the federal government, this will propel a giant, job-creating investment in offshore wind along the Atlantic coast. Also included in the tax credit package are more modest extensions for solar and onshore wind, energy efficiency investments, and carbon capture and storage. On top of that, the bill steps up funding for the Department of Energy. Especially important is a $2.9 billion authorization for ARPA-E, a DOE program that funds cutting edge research and development for clean energy.
On the same day that Congress passed this bill, three northeastern states (MA, CT, and RI) and the District of Columbia launched a "cap and invest" program to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, about forty percent of these states' emissions. The program would place an overall cap on the emissions from transportation fuels sold in the region, require the distributors of the fuels to purchase "allowances" to sell the fuels, and use the proceeds to invest in equitable and clean transportation alternatives, such as public transport, electric buses, and electric cars and trucks. In a statement accompanying this MOU, these three states and DC joined eight other states in pledging to continue to work together on this initiative. There is every reason to expect that many if not all these eight additional states will eventually join the TCI program, making it one of the largest carbon-cutting measures implemented by a group of states.
These breakthroughs are heartening in and of themselves, but even more encouraging is that they are likely an early indicator of much more change to come in 2021. For the first election in history, climate change and respect for science were major issues on the ballot this year, and president-elect Biden won with a large majority by pledging to act swiftly on climate and pay close heed to the overwhelming scientific evidence on the issue. President-elect Biden has shown that he understands this obligation by nominating people of rich depth and experience to his climate team, including Gina McCarthy, John Kerry, Michael Regan, Jennifer Granholm, Deborah Haaland, Pete Buttigieg, and Brenda Mallory.
The climate provisions in this bill are a strong step forward—but just a step. The Biden administration, through executive orders, rulemaking, and leading by example, can and must go much farther than these steps, and Congress needs to enact many other measures, such as a national clean energy standard and support for electric cars, trucks and buses, to codify and make durable the nation's commitment to addressing climate change.
But in a year in which virtually every trendline was in the wrong direction, this change in direction was a welcomed gift.
Ken Kimmell is president of the Union of Concerned Scientists and has more than 30 years of experience in government, environmental policy, and advocacy.