Climate 411

Administrator Pruitt opened the door to making Houston’s air toxics problem worse

Residents of Houston, Texas – our nation’s fourth largest city – have long been burdened with a serious air pollution problem.

Between 2013 and 2015, the Houston area reported unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone (“smog”) on an average of over 23 days each year. Last year, the American Lung Association ranked Houston as the sixteenth-most polluted city in the nation for year-round particle pollution.

The city’s massive industrial base – which includes two of the nation’s four largest petroleum refineries and more than 400 chemical manufacturing plants – spews a wide array of carcinogenic and toxic substances like benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and formaldehyde. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest National Air Toxics Assessment, not surprisingly, found elevated cancer risks in many Houston neighborhoods as a result of these pollutants.

Recent records also show that pollution releases from these industrial facilities in the wake of Hurricane Harvey are also much higher than initially reported.

Yet EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, rather than working to reduce this dangerous pollution, has opened the door to even greater risks to public health.

On January 25th, Pruitt’s EPA abruptly overturned a long-standing policy that was designed to prevent large industrial sources from increasing their emissions of hazardous air pollutants such as benzene. Under the new policy, many industrial facilities that are now subject to tough emission standards for “major” sources would be allowed to become subject to weaker emission standards, or even avoid federal emission limits altogether.

This dangerous new “Air Toxics Loophole” was issued without any opportunity for public comment, and with no consideration of its public health or air pollution impacts.

That’s why, we joined with six other public health and environmental organizations last month to file a legal challenge to the Air Toxics Loophole in a federal court of appeals

Today, we are releasing a white paper that takes a closer look at what the Air Toxics Loophole might mean for emissions of hazardous air pollutants in the Houston-Galveston area. We used EPA’s own enforcement and compliance database, EPA’s most recent National Emissions Inventory (NEI), and a careful review of federal permitting records to identify facilities that might be able to take advantage of the Air Toxics Loophole – and to estimate what the potential emissions impact might be.

The results aren’t pretty. In the Houston area alone, we identified 18 facilities that are potentially eligible to use the new Air Toxics Loophole. These facilities collectively emitted approximately 183 tons (366,000 pounds) of hazardous air pollutants in 2014. If all of these facilities exploited the Air Toxics Loophole to the maximum degree, we estimated that annual hazardous air pollution from these facilities would increase by almost two-and-a-half times – to a total of about 450 tons (900,000 pounds).

Many of these facilities are located in communities that are highly vulnerable to the harmful impacts of air pollution: half are located in areas where more than one in five people live in poverty and where people of color make up more than 30 percent of the population. On average, almost 20,000 people live within three miles of each facility in our dataset.

We aren’t the only ones to point out the potential risks of the Air Toxics Loophole. A report issued by the Environmental Integrity Project last month identified twelve additional facilities across the Midwest that could take advantage of the Air Toxics Loophole – and estimated that emissions from those facilities could more than quadruple to 540,000 pounds per year if they were to do so.

EPA’s own staff have pointed out the risks as well. Under the George W. Bush Administration, EPA floated – but never finalized – a proposal that was very similar to the Air Toxics Loophole. EPA received critical comments from state air regulators and EPA’s regional offices that raised the same concerns about the potential increases in toxic air pollution.

That Administrator Pruitt has decided to plow ahead again despite those warnings, and with no public input and no analysis of health impacts, is unconscionable. The results of our Houston analysis underscore how reckless that decision was.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time this EPA has denied the public an opportunity to participate in a major decision that will impact so many lives. Over the last year, EPA has taken a series of actions to roll back important safeguards, often at the demand of industry representatives, with no opportunity for the public to comment. Luckily, courts have been serving as an important backstop and are rejecting agency actions taken with disregard for required administrative procedures.

Let’s hope that the Air Toxics Loophole meets the same fate.

Photo: Manchester Ship Channel in Houston. Credit: Garth Lenz/International League of Conservation Photographers

Posted in Clean Air Act, EPA litgation, Policy / Comments are closed

Cherry blossoms: Predicting peak bloom in a warming world with weirder weather

USDA photo by Scott Bauer

Every March, Washington D.C. anxiously anticipates the arrival of the city’s world-famous cherry blossoms.

Millions of people flood the National Mall each year to observe the “peak bloom” – defined by the National Park Service as the day when 70 percent of the Yoshino cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin have opened.

Fluctuating weather patterns render predictions of peak bloom notoriously fickle. Experts consider it impossible to accurately estimate the cherry blossoms’ vibrant debut more than 10 days in advance.

This year has been no exception – with three changes to the 2018 peak bloom date prediction since March 1st.

While bloom forecasting is a historically temperamental exercise, climate change is now further complicating matters.

As global average surface temperatures continue to rise, D.C. has felt the heat. Weather station measurements from the city have recorded a 1.6 degree Celsius per century increase in regional temperature – double the global average warming rate. The warmer winters associated with these increasing temperatures may help explain why between 1921 and 2016 peak bloom dates have shifted earlier by about five days.

A warming regional climate may influence seasonal trends, but blooms are still heavily affected by short term changes in the weather. While 2018 peak bloom was originally projected to occur between March 17th  and 20th – early in the season due to the city’s exceptionally warm February – a major snowstorm and cold temperatures persisting through March delayed the arrival until April 5th.

It may initially seem that heavy snowstorms and colder temperatures are inconsistent with climate change. However, there is a growing body of evidence that shows how changes in atmospheric circulation patterns associated with rapid warming in the Arctic may actually be linked to these dramatic cold snaps in the mid-latitudes. Increased moisture in the atmosphere from a warming world also allows for heavier precipitation events, including snowfall.

These opposing consequences of climate change – hotter temperatures with intermittent cold snaps – make the bloom schedule of D.C.’s cherry blossoms even more complex. But one thing is clear: predictions will certainly not get any easier.

Posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, News, Science / Comments are closed

An outpouring of support for clean car standards, in the face of Pruitt’s attempted rollback

Cars on a dealer lot, waiting to be sold. Photo: Every Car Listed

(EDF Legal Fellow Erin Murphy co-authored this post)

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt just announced his intention to rollback one of our country’s biggest climate success stories – clean car standards that reduce pollution and save Americans money at the pump.

In a closed-door ceremony, Pruitt kicked off a process to weaken these standards — placing at risk as much as two billion tons of climate pollution reductions and $460 billion in consumer savings.

His determination cited the auto industry dozens of times yet made no mention of people’s health or climate change, and cited zero EPA analyses justifying the rollback.

Even some auto industry leaders have raised concerns about this attack:

  • Honda: “We didn’t ask for that,” said Robert Bienenfeld, assistant vice president in charge of environment and energy strategy. “The position we outlined was sensible.”
  • Ford: “We support increasing clean car standards through 2025 and are not asking for a rollback.”
  • Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls: “Trump has been saying these standards are crushing the auto industry. But we’ve had record years for the past four or five years, in terms of sales and profit. It almost makes you think he doesn’t have the facts.”
  • Automotive Technology Leadership Group: “It is in the nation’s best interest for the U.S. to continue leading in the development and manufacture of the cleanest and most efficient vehicles in the world. The innovation brought on by competition and our national performance standards has created hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country and significant market opportunities for U.S. companies abroad.”

Pruitt’s announcement has even generated a backlash in the most auto-industry-friendly place in America – Detroit.

In a strongly-worded editorial, the Detroit Free Press accused auto companies of reneging on their deal with the American taxpayer:

  • “[T]he auto bailout was more than a federally guaranteed loan; it was a multi-lateral agreement that your companies would henceforth go about the business of manufacturing cars and trucks more thoughtfully than they had in the past … [M]anufacturing more fuel-efficient vehicles that would cost less to operate and spew a dramatically smaller amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere was part of the bargain that saved your lives.” – Detroit Free Press editorial

The clean car standards have strong public support across the country. A recent American Lung Association poll showed that nearly seven in 10 voters want EPA to leave current fuel efficiency standards in place.

That support is reflected in the broad outpouring of support for clean cars expressed in the run up to, and aftermath of, Pruitt’s rollback announcement. A diverse group of leaders recognizes that weakening these protections will cost Americans money, hurt our health, and harm our national security:

  • “Thanks to emissions and efficiency standards, consumers have saved billions of dollars on fuel over the last 5 years. And if the standards were protected instead of undermined, consumers could expect to save a lot more over the next decade. It would be wasteful to discard those consumer savings, but EPA now appears poised to do just that.” – Shannon Baker-Branstetter, Consumers Union
  • “The American Lung Association strongly opposes EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to revise the clean car standards … Transportation is the nation’s single largest contributor of carbon pollution, which drives climate change. Starting a process to weaken clean car standards marks yet another step backward from the fight to curb climate change. Climate change poses serious threats to millions of people, especially to some of the most vulnerable Americans, including children, older adults and those living with chronic diseases such as asthma.” – American Lung Association CEO Harold Wimmer
  • “Weakening CAFE and reducing future U.S. net oil exports will further diminish the future global energy leverage of the United States and leave the country and its allies on a more precarious footing.” – Council on Foreign Relations blog, 3/13/18

Political leaders across the country have voiced strong bipartisan support for the existing clean car standards:

  • “Today’s EPA decision on vehicle emissions won’t prevent us from fulfilling what we believe is an obligation to protect Colorado’s air and the health of our citizens. Many of our auto manufacturers are making cars cleaner and more efficient. Indeed, many support the existing stricter standards. It doesn’t make sense that the EPA would take us backwards. Who is the EPA trying to protect?” – Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper:
  • “As U.S. attorneys general, mayors and county executives, we – not federal officials in Washington, D.C. – are primarily responsible for the transportation systems upon which our residents and our local and regional economies depend. A clean, efficient and high-performance vehicle fleet is an essential component of these systems. We strongly support the current federal standards for such a modern vehicle fleet agreed to in 2012 by the automotive industry, the federal government and the State of California.” – A Coalition of 12 State Attorneys General and Over Fifty Mayors
  • “Today’s announcement by EPA Administrator Pruitt to weaken vehicle emissions standards is in direct conflict with the agency’s mandate to reduce air pollution. This decision will increase air pollution and limit innovative technology advancements that bring cleaner, more efficient cars to market. We support the current federal standards agreed to in 2012 by the automotive industry, the federal government, and the State of California.  These standards are helping to drive the global transition to more efficient transportation technologies. They also protect the health of our communities and reduce the pollution that is changing our climate.” – 17 Governors of states across the country and Puerto Rico

Labor and investment experts have also recognized that the clean car standards are essential for long-term American auto sector innovation, vitality, and jobs:

  • “The current standards have helped bring back, secure, and create jobs nationwide; they have reduced pollution; saved consumers billions at the pump; and have been integral to growing and sustaining America’s manufacturing sector over the past decade. Weakening the rules — which is indicated to be the intent of today’s decision — could put American jobs at risk today and in coming years, and would threaten America’s competitiveness in manufacturing critical technology.” – BlueGreen Alliance Director of Advanced Vehicles and Transportation, Zoe Lipman
  • “Strong national fuel economy and emissions standards spur innovation and open the door to tremendous economic opportunities. They represent an investment in technological and economic leadership. Weakening them would be a bad deal for investors, workers, car owners, and businesses—and for the American economy itself.” -­ David Richardson, Impax Asset Management
Posted in Cars and Pollution, Clean Air Act, Economics, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, Jobs, News, Partners for Change, Policy, Pruitt, What Others are Saying / Comments are closed

Why Scott Pruitt can’t be trusted

When the next Pruitt scandal breaks, he or his staff may try to provide an explanation, but as the record shows, you can count on Scott Pruitt and his EPA spokespeople being misleading in his initial response.  

Here’s the proof.

Scandal: Sweetheart deal on a lobbyist-owned condo.

Pruitt paid $50/night, only for the nights he was in town to stay at the townhouse of a prominent lobbyist.

Pruitt’s first explanation:

“When you think of the townhouse, the rent last year. The owner of that is an Oklahoman. I’ve known him for years. He… has no clients that are before this agency, nor does his wife have any clients that have appeared before this agency. I’ve had ethics counsel here at the agency, the office of general counsel and ethics officials review the lease. They’ve actually looked at the lease… If you look at the lease it’s very clear it’s market value.”

Truth:

This living arrangement seeps of corruption, including the help of a staffer to find the housing. The clients firm Williams & Jensen does have matters before the EPA. While Pruitt stayed there, the EPA cleared a hurdle to a new client’s pipeline being built, As for the ethics review, EPA’s top ethics official has since said he lacked key facts about the arrangement when making his judgment. And as the Washingtonian found, $50 a night at market rate doesn’t quite get you a room as nice as he likely had.

Scandal: Excessive raises to close staffers

The White House rejected Pruitt's request for large raises for two staffers who came to the EPA from Oklahoma with the Administrator. After the requests were declined, EPA used an obscure provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to provide the raises, totaling over $80,000 in raises to relatively junior staffers.

Pruitt’s first explanation:

He just learned about the raises, months after the request happened

Truth:

It’s almost impossible to think that Pruitt wouldn’t know about exorbitant raises given to colleagues he works with closely. The Associated Press reported that Pruitt approached the White House about the raises, and the Washington Post has confirmed he approved them.

Scandal: First class flights costing over $100,000 at taxpayers’ expense

Pruitt often flew first class or charter and military planes at very high cost to taxpayers.

Pruitt and EPA staff explanation:

“Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said security decisions made by others have dictated he fly first class or on military jets at taxpayer expense.

“Unfortunately… we’ve had some incidents on travel dating back to when I first started serving in the March-April timeframe,” Pruitt said during an interview at the New Hampshire Union Leader on Tuesday.”

Truth:

Security experts disagree that first class is any safer, and a bipartisan group of Senators including Fischer and Kennedy commented they fly coach.

Scandal: EPA cited a debunked study funded by the trucking industry in its decision to weaken rules on super-polluting trucks.

A now-debunked study composed by a Professor at Tennessee Tech with ties to industry was cited in EPA’s proposal to weaken rules on trucks that pollute at rates considerably higher than regular models.

EPA’s first explanation:

When it was revealed that the study was flawed and undertaken for political reasons, EPA said it “did not rely upon the study or even quote directly from it” in supporting the loophole for super polluting trucks.

Truth:

EPA’s proposed rule in the Federal Register said, “In support, the petitioners included as an exhibit to their petition a letter from the President of the Tennessee Technological University (‘‘Tennessee Tech’’), which described a study recently conducted by Tennessee Tech.”

Tennessee Tech has withdrawn the study after it discovered the study was sponsored by Fitzgerald, the nation’s biggest glider manufacturer, and its research was conducted at a Fitzgerald facility. The EPA may still finalize the loophole for gliders in the coming months

Scandal: $43k phone booth installed in Pruitt’s office

Pruitt had a secure communications facility installed next to his office for $43,000, despite the fact that EPA already has a secure communications facility on another floor. The EPA Inspector General is investigating.

EPA explanation:

“What you are referring to is a secured communication area in the administrator’s office so secured calls can be received and made,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in a statement. “Federal agencies need to have one of these so that secured communications, not subject to hacking from the outside, can be held. It’s called a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). This is something which a number, if not all, Cabinet offices have and EPA needs to have updated.”

Truth:

The booth was charged as a “privacy booth for the administrator,” rather than for security. However, “according to former agency employees, the EPA has long maintained a SCIF on a separate floor from the administrator’s office, where officials with proper clearances can go to share information classified as secret.”

Scandal: EPA contracted a partisan firm to monitor staffers, said they were just clipping news

A partisan political firm, Definers Public Affairs with an EPA no-bid contract to do “media monitoring” investigated the personal political leanings of EPA employees suspected of not supporting the Trump administration.

EPA’s first explanation:

An E.P.A. official vehemently defended the $120,000 contract to Definers, saying it filled a need in the media office for an improved clipping service.

“Definers was awarded the contract to do our press clips at a rate that is $87,000 cheaper than our previous vendor, and they are providing no other services,” a spokesman for the E.P.A., Jahan Wilcox, wrote in an email.

Truth:

EPA decided to drop the Definers contract after news broke that one of the company's top lawyers had previously been digging for EPA employees who had criticized the Trump administration.

Posted in Pruitt / Comments are closed

The Real Danger to Our Health from Scott Pruitt’s Scandals

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been swamped by scandal, from taking first class flights at taxpayer expense to living in a lobbyist’s condo.

Pruitt’s behavior is unethical but, even more importantly, his actions will lead to greater health risks from pollution in our air, water, and land.

We can’t ignore the public health crisis created, in part, by Pruitt’s ethical crisis.

SCANDAL: PRUITT HIRES OKLAHOMA BANKING FRIEND

IMPACT: WILL TOXIC WASTE SITES BE CLEANED UP PROPERLY?

Pruitt hired close friend and disgraced former banker Albert “Kell” Kelly to oversee the Superfund program, which is responsible for the cleanup of toxic waste sites.

As head of his family’s bank in Oklahoma, Kelly lent Pruitt — then a $38,000 a year state legislator — money for a large house and part ownership in a minor league baseball team.

Since then, the FDIC has banned Kelly from the financial services industry for life. But Pruitt gave Kelly a job “streamlining” Superfund despite no previous environmental or public health experience.

Kelly owns stock in companies responsible for contaminating some Superfund sites.

There are serious questions about whether this “streamlining” is code for doing quick, incomplete cleanup of toxic sites in order to show progress for public relations purposes. That would let polluters off the hook while saddling Americans with greater risks of illness.

SCANDAL: PRUITT GETS SWEETHEART CONDO DEAL FROM LOBBYIST

IMPACT: OIL LOBBYISTS GAIN ACCESS, CARS AND TRUCKS WILL GET DIRTIER

Pruitt received a below-market-value housing arrangement from the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist whose clients stood to potentially gain from actions taken by the Administrator.

Pruitt’s favoritism for industry led to announcements like the weakening of America’s clean cars standards – a move that will cause more pollution, smog, and asthma attacks.

Pruitt also met with executives from Fitzgerald Truck Sales and created a loophole for their high polluting trucks, which will cost thousands of lives a year from health problems due to dirtier air.

The condo deal was likely not an actual quid pro quo, but Pruitt’s coziness with industry and willingness to accept their favors creates unhealthy, unethical influence and accesses.

SCANDAL: PRUITT HIRES SENIOR OFFICIAL FROM CHEMICAL INDUSTRY LOBBYING ARM

IMPACT: UNDERMINING OF NEW CHEMICAL SAFETY LAW, ALLOWING DANGEROUS CHEMICALS ON THE MARKET

Using an obscure provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act, Pruitt hired Nancy Beck directly from the American Chemistry Council – the main trade group for the chemical industry. Because she was hired that way, she did not have to sign the Administration’s ethics pledge, which would have limited her actions on issues related to her former industry.

Beck now effectively runs the EPA office that oversees her old industry, and is charged with implementing the framework rules for the 2016 chemical safety law.

That law was a major upgrade, fixing a badly broken system that allowed tens of thousands of potentially hazardous chemicals to remain on or enter the market — and Beck’s rules are on their way to breaking it all over again.

One example: Pruitt’s EPA shelved plans to ban paint strippers that use methylene chloride, which is proven to be dangerous and has led to dozens of deaths.

SCANDAL: SECRET SCHEDULE, SECRET PHONE BOOTH

IMPACT: UNKNOWN IMPACT OF LOBBYISTS ON POLICY

Pruitt keeps much of his schedule hidden, and sometimes doesn’t allow note taking in meetings, so it’s hard to tell who he talks to about what.

He’s also being investigated by the Inspector General for spending $43,000 on a secure phone facility next to his office – even though the EPA building already has one.

But based on the information that has come out, we know he spends a great deal of time listening to corporate lobbyists.

The result is an agenda that not only leans against health and anti-pollution rules, but one marked by favors to key industries with ties to Pruitt, such as attempts to ease methane pollution rules for natural gas companies.

As William Ruckelshaus, EPA administrator under Presidents Nixon and Reagan said, Pruitt is:

“taking a meat ax to the protections of public health and environment and then hiding it.”

Some of Pruitt’s scandals are purely cases of behavior that is unethical, like his use of first class flights. Those are serious and, because they have happened repeatedly, suggest he’s unfit for his public trust.

But we shouldn’t forget the far more dangerous impact of many of his scandals: our children will inherit a less clean, less healthy world.

Posted in Health, News, Policy, Setting the Facts Straight / Read 3 Responses

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Dirty Cars Action – By the Numbers

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt just announced an attack on our nation’s clean car standards – standards that are reducing dangerous pollution and saving Americans’ hard-earned money.

We’ve reviewed Pruitt’s action. Here’s a look – by the numbers:

  • Zero – Number of times Pruitt mentions the words “children,” “health,” “air pollution” or “climate”
  • Fourteen – Number of times Pruitt directly quotes the auto industry
  • One – Number of times Pruitt quotes anyone else
  • Sixty-Three – Number of times Pruitt cites the auto industry
  • Zero – Number of cited EPA analyses that support rollbacks
  • Two – Number of automakers – Ford and Honda – who have stated they do not need a rollback of EPA’s clean car standards
  • Fifteen – Number of states that warned the Trump Administration that any effort to weaken our nation’s clean car standards would be met by a “vigorous” court challenge
  • Three – Number of auto companies whose association is represented by Steven Hart, the lobbyist whose wife owns the condo that Pruitt rented for only $50-per-night
  • Two Billion –The tons of climate pollution reductions at risk under Pruitt’s attack
  • 17.5 percentGeneral Motor’s contribution to the potential excess pollution – the single largest volume of pollution associated with any single automaker
  • $460 Billion – The fuel savings for American families at risk under Pruitt’s attack
Posted in Cars and Pollution, Clean Air Act, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy / Comments are closed