What’s Waiting for Gina McCarthy as New EPA Administrator
The Senate has finally confirmed Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s choice to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She starts with a very full plate. I have some personal experience with what lies ahead for Administrator McCarthy—I once directed a federal agency myself.
For 14 months, I was the Acting Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though NIOSH doesn’t have the challenges of a regulatory agency, I know what the responsibility, demands and stress of the job can feel like. During my tenure at NIOSH—a worker health and safety agency—we were on the front lines of public health challenges in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as well as the anthrax events that followed shortly thereafter.
There was an enormous amount to do and a multitude of stakeholders to engage—first responders, laborers, iron and construction workers, postal workers, Senators and their staffs, public health officials, health care workers, law enforcement agencies—not to mention the rightly worried public. All while ensuring the agency continued to meet its mandates and responsibilities.
Administrator McCarthy’s Inbox
Administrator McCarthy knows what it’s like to set priorities, juggle multiple balls and make things happen; her decades of government experience and her commitment to public service put her in good stead to take on this new leadership position. And on behalf of Union of Concerned Scientists, I congratulate—and thank—her for taking on this role at this most critical time. Like the past presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science have said, I believe Gina McCarthy is exceptionally qualified and ready to get to work.
And there is surely plenty to do. One of the most urgent items on her desk is finalizing the cleaner gasoline and tailpipe standards. These cleaner gasoline and vehicle standards (the so-called Tier 3 standards) will reduce air pollution, save lives and create thousands of new jobs. This is precisely why the standards are supported by a diverse coalition of industry, public health, environmental, labor and science-based organizations representing millions of Americans. Failure to finalize the standards this year would result in losing an entire 2013 model year’s worth of benefits. EPA estimates that by 2030 these standards would prevent up to 2,400 premature deaths, 3,200 hospital admissions and 22,000 asthma attacks each year.
Also on the administrator’s to-do list is the serious heavy lifting needed to implement President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Strong and focused leadership is necessary to make sure that the EPA not only sets standards for power plants that will reduce carbon pollution, but also help us prepare for the impacts of climate change that we are already experiencing and simply can no longer avoid.
New Power Plant Carbon Standards Will Be Critical
On June 25, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum to the EPA on the “Power Sector Carbon Pollution Standards” outlining a specific timeline for the EPA to draft and issue standards to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. The president’s memorandum instructs the EPA to issue standards under the Clean Air Act to limit carbon pollution from both new and existing power plants.
More than 3 million Americans already voiced their support for draft standards for new power plants issued last year. The memo indicates that the EPA intends to propose a new draft by September 20, 2013. We need Administrator McCarthy to ensure that the re-proposed standard stays strong so that they foster a transition toward cleaner power generation sources. Draft standards for existing sources, which include our nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants, must be released by June 1, 2014, and finalized within a year. States must then submit their implementation plans no later than June 30, 2016.
This clear timeline provides ample opportunity for stakeholder input. We need Administrator McCarthy’s leadership to ensure the process stays on track. We cannot afford further delays on reducing emissions from power plants, the single largest source of carbon pollution.
More Progress on Clean Vehicles and Clean Fuels
The president’s climate plan also directs the EPA to continue to reduce carbon emissions from our transportation system, including establishing the next round of standards for heavy duty vehicles, such as big-rig trucks. According to the analysis in our Half the Oil plan, doubling the efficiency of commercial vehicles could reduce oil consumption by 1 million barrels a day in 2035. The EPA should build upon the successful stakeholder engagement of the first round of standards to create robust, stringent standards that achieve significant and measurable reductions in global warming pollutants.
The Renewable Fuel Standard is another important policy to reduce oil use and expand the use of clean low-carbon renewable fuels. Congress amended the law five years ago, adding ambitious targets to take the biofuels industry beyond food-based fuels and including science-based life cycle emissions requirements. While the framework is sound, the devil is in the details. The EPA needs to use the authority Congress gave it to revise the targets for advanced biofuels between 2016 and 2022. The agency should consider competition for agricultural commodities, constraints in our infrastructure and ensuring that the life cycle accounting and volume mandates avoid expanded use of palm oil and other biofuels implicated in the enormous emissions generated through clearing of peat and other tropical forests.
Administrator McCarthy has an excellent reputation for crafting regulations based on the best available science that will provide the maximum benefit at the least possible cost—as well as a tradition of working in an open and inclusive manner with multiple stakeholders. This is what the American people need and deserve as the EPA sets standards and takes action that will protect our health, clean up our environment and help build community resilience to the impacts of climate change.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.