Selected category: Science

Less Science, More Cost: Why the Misguided “Secret Science” Bill Is Bad Policy

shutterstock_3243574012It’s a good idea for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to rely on the best, most up-to-date science in making its decisions.

Seems like a fairly basic point — but recent legislation aims to thwart EPA’s ability to do so.

Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) “Secret Science Reform Act” will reportedly be back again this year and soon be on the move.  The bill would prohibit EPA from finalizing an action unless “all scientific and technical information relied on to support” the action is “publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”

Like so many misleadingly-named bills of the past, this bill tries to sound like common sense – but in fact, it would do great damage to human health and the environment, as well as to a predictable regulatory environment for business.

A Blindfolded EPA

Here’s the first problem: to make informed decisions, some of the data EPA needs to use can’t be made public without doing damage to real people or to businesses.

Almost all of EPA’s work touches on issues of human health — relying, for example, on research that uses health records of asthma sufferers and their asthma attacks to see if they are associated with air pollution.

Data that involve private medical records of individual patients cannot – ethically or legally – be made fully public.

Here’s another example: businesses sometimes claim that information about their operations is legally protected from public release because it is “confidential business information.”

But under this legislation, EPA would be barred from relying on any study or any analysis unless they made all the underlying information publicly available.

What would be the real-world result for the safety of our air and water and the products we use?

Under this legislation, EPA decision-making would grind to a halt. For instance:

  • EPA would no longer be able to establish limits on emissions of hazardous air pollution into our air if a business claimed that any of the information EPA used to create the Clean Air Act protection was “confidential business information” that could not be released.
  • EPA could no longer issue national air quality standards that rely on studies about the health impacts of pollution if the studies relied in any part on confidential patient health data.
  • EPA could not make decisions about the safety of chemicals because such decisions would necessarily rely on information representing industry trade secrets.

EPA properly relies on peer-reviewed scientific research, and industry studies and data, to inform its efforts to protect public health and the environment. Particularly for health research, studies often involve confidential data that researchers are prohibited by law from disclosing. This legislation would force EPA to pretend that none of this valuable research exists when making substantial agency decisions.

The end result? Our health and environment is put at risk.

Congressional Budget Office Says It Will Cost Hundreds of Millions of Dollars to Implement

Here’s a second problem: even setting aside the enormous confidentiality problems in this legislation, it would be extremely costly to implement.

The “Secret Science” bill authorizes just $1 million in expenditures per year. But the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that implementing this bill would cost approximately $1 billion to implement over the next four years — and that’s their middle estimate.

CBO estimates that EPA relies on about 50,000 scientific studies every year to accomplish its mission — so providing public online access to all of the underlying data and information is an expensive proposition.

Alternatively, if EPA presses ahead on the basis of a smaller number of studies, EPA protections would be less well-informed and may not reflect the latest science. They could also be inaccurate or incomplete — and thus more vulnerable to legal challenges that would delay the implementation of important public health protections or timely decisions affecting industry operations.

CBO’s own predicted result?

  • “CBO expects that EPA would modify its practices, at least to some extent, and would base its future work on fewer scientific studies, and especially those studies that have easily accessible or transparent data.”
  • “On balance — recognizing the significant uncertainty regarding EPA’s potential actions under the bill — CBO expects that the agency would probably cut the number of studies it relies on by about one-half … CBO estimates the incremental costs to the agency would be around $250 million a year initially, subject to appropriation of the necessary amounts. In our assessment that figure lies near the middle of a broad range of possible outcomes.”
  • “If EPA continued to rely on as many scientific studies as it has used in recent years, while increasing the collection and dissemination of all the technical information used in such studies as directed by H.R. 1030, then implementing the bill would cost at least several hundred million dollars a year.”

The challenges of meeting these huge expenses are enormous. They’re even more daunting in light of simultaneous efforts by EPA’s opponents in Congress to dramatically curtail the agency’s budget.

Bedrock Safeguards Subject to Delay and Uncertainty

Here’s a third problem: the bill would prohibit EPA from finalizing an action unless all information relied on is “publicly available in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.” Yet for many key health studies, it could take years — decades even — to “reproduce” some key research.

Some of the most rigorous, crucial health studies are based on health data that is collected over many years — for example, studies that follow a group of people over time to understand how their health is affected by environmental conditions. Such data is how we recognized that smoking causes cancer, to cite just one example.

By their very nature, results from such “longitudinal studies,” which may involve thousands of people, cannot be readily and rapidly “reproduced” as a laboratory study on mice might be. Yet such studies, when carefully designed and executed, can be among the most powerful in shedding light on how pollution impacts our health.

The troublingly vague language in this bill could be interpreted to mean that research results can only be used if time has been allowed for reproduction of research results. This presents EPA with an array of bad options: incurring enormous delay and expense to reproduce even the most sound, rigorous studies, even when other research already supports their findings; moving ahead on the basis of limited science and ignoring crucial health insights from the latest research and from longitudinal studies; or moving ahead with the benefit of insights from these studies—but facing needless uncertainty and litigation risk due to the troublingly vague language in the bill. Whichever way, EPA’s ability to protect human health and the environment would be undermined.

Best Available Science

Why would anyone support this legislation that would force EPA to rely on less science at more cost to taxpayers?

Well, it would benefit big polluters who would be handed more ways to pick apart EPA safeguards in court — or stop their creation in the first place. But for the rest of America’s businesses, it could increase uncertainty and economic challenges, because EPA would be hindered in using the industry’s own information in making decisions. And for American families, who would be put at risk by less informed safeguards, the “Secret Science” bill is a bad idea for science and for public health.

It’s just plain wrong to suggest that EPA relies on “secret” data. EPA depends on the best, most up-to-date science – including university research and industry analyses that are available to the public, but that rely on confidential data and information properly protected from disclosure under the law and under common decency.

Update: The new version of the bill has been introduced, with very small changes, under a new title – the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act (HONEST Act)

Also posted in Health| Comments are closed

These Critical Disaster Safety Efforts Will Be at Risk if Trump Eliminates the Climate Action Plan

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy brought 14-feet storm surges to the unprotected New Jersey shore and billions in damages. Photo: State of New Jersey

As you’ve probably heard by now, President Trump has replaced the Obama administration’s Climate and Energy web page with a new one that reiterates our 45th president’s promise to tear down the Climate Action Plan and expand our reliance on fossil fuels.

What you may not know is that this 180-degree policy shift will also undermine efforts to prepare for climate change disasters that are already upon us – at a great cost to public safety and our nation’s economy.

By rescinding Obama’s plan for turning the corner on climate change – in which a main pillar was to prepare the United States for its impacts – President Trump would make it harder for:

  • businesses to manage extreme weather-related disruptions to their supply chains
  • infrastructure developers to account for changes in extreme weather and coastal flooding from sea level rise, and to be able to withstand climate surprises
  • farmers to become adept at managing continually changing precipitation patterns
  • states to manage their water resource operations more effectively
  • state and local emergency preparedness personnel to effectively manage safety risks

In 2016 alone, the hottest year on record, we experienced no fewer than 15 weather and climate change-related disasters – at a total cost of $46 billion in damages.

Storms and other such climate disasters with costs exceeding $1 billion have increased in the U.S. over the last 37 years.  These are hard dollar facts nobody can deny.

Economically responsible leaders today continue to build resilience in the face of a changing climate. Critical elements of our society – including businesses, infrastructure, agriculture, and essential water resources – depend on such action.

Keeping citizens safe

I watched President Trump express his condolences to the families who lost loved ones to the severe weather in the South in late January. But we can do more than just express empathy when American communities are torn apart by disasters.

We can also mitigate such disasters by improving our resilience to climate change and by advocating for climate-smart policies.

One of the most important ways to increase our preparedness for extreme climate events is to continually improve and refine our understanding of how climate variability and change is linked to extreme weather.

Obama’s Climate Action Plan aimed to do just that by helping federal climate science research break new ground and continue to advance our understanding of impacts from both short-term climate anomalies – such as how El Niño and La Niña affect severe weather – and from impacts related to warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Throwing out the this plan is not how we protect the safety of our citizens, which, after all, should be the primary goal of any administration and the first way to keep America great.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, Policy| Comments are closed

As Earth Gets Hotter, Scientists Break New Ground Linking Climate Change to Extreme Weather

So here we are again with yet another annual global temperature record. That’s right, 2016 will go down as the warmest year globally since record-keeping began, with preliminary reports indicating that 2016 was 1.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.

If it feels like you’ve heard this song before it’s because you have. The last three years have all smashed the previous year’s record for highest globally averaged temperature, a clear signal that the Earth continues its unprecedented rate of warming.

For sure, the 2016 record was helped along somewhat by one of the strongest El Niño events on record, but we also know that over many years, such cycles have very little to do with the overall global warming trend from rising greenhouse gas emissions. The trajectory is clear.

But there’s more to the story. As temperatures rise, we’re also learning more about how these rising temperatures affect our weather – and extreme weather events, in particular.

With the help of new and evolving climate research, we’re detecting a stronger link between warming and changing weather patterns.

Rapid response: Climate analysis in real time

Until recently, all studies on climate attribution were typically published a year or more after a big storm or heat wave, long after news headlines and public attention had waned.

But the science of climate attribution – an emerging and rapidly advancing branch of climate science that separates out the greenhouse gas cause from naturally occurring causes to quantify the human impact – is becoming nimble.

The World Weather Attribution project, an international effort “to sharpen and accelerate the scientific community’s ability to analyze and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme-weather events,” now conducts initial analyses in near real time.

In 2016, this project covered the March coral bleaching in the Pacific Ocean, the May European rain storms, the August Louisiana floods, the extreme Arctic warming during November and December, and the December cold air outbreak over the United States – all significant weather events.

In four of the five events, scientists found links to human-caused climate change, with the December cold air outbreak being the only event without a discernible human fingerprint.

The next step for climate science: to project how future weather events will change under different scenarios spelled out by the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Extreme weather in a 1.5° or 2° degree world

Scientists are engaged in a new international research effort trying to predict differences in weather extremes under both a 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsius warmer world, the targets discussed during the Paris climate talks.

Although climate change impacts on weather extremes are already underway, as 2016 has shown, it is critical to understand potential socioeconomic consequences under these two policy scenarios.

We’ve already experienced more than 1 degree Celsius of global warming and its impacts. The big question now is to what extent the next degree will be worse than the first.

As we continue to break heat records, quicker climate analyses and better predictions will be critical as we adjust to our rapidly changing climate – and science is on the case.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, News| Comments are closed

A Holiday Gift for the Environment – New Tools to Fight Invasive Species

images

Kudzu in Atlanta, GA – one of many invasive species in the U.S. Photo by Scott Ehardt through Wikimedia Commons

The environment got an early gift this holiday season.

The Obama Administration has just released an update to an Executive Order first developed in 1999 on safeguarding the nation from the impacts of invasive species.

If you’ve ever lived in Florida, like I used to, you’ve seen the danger of invasive species first-hand. Whether it’s the nasty bites of fire ants, or the incessant need to control weedy invaders that threaten to overtake the landscape, or the menace of invasive snakes in the Everglades, invaders interfere everywhere.

Florida is just one of the many places around the U.S. where it’s hard to ignore the impacts of invasive, non-native species on everyday life. If you are a farmer or a rancher or enjoy fishing or boating or birdwatching, invaders can be an expensive problem, a health threat, and a substantial inconvenience. Invaders cost the U.S. billions of dollars annually and pose significant threats to our health and livelihoods.

As a plant ecologist, I started by learning where these non-native species are coming from. They can arrive accidentally – as hitchhikers on other imports or the packing material those imports are shipped in – or purposely – for food, ornamentals, pets, or other uses like erosion control. My investigation into plant invaders showed that the vast majority – perhaps 90 percent – were purposely introduced.

That information led me to focus on how we might prevent the introduction of new invaders, through risk analyses and other methods. Over the years, our ability to identify the likely bad actors – whether they are plant, animal, insect, or disease – has really improved.

That brings me back to the updated Executive Order.

The main emphasis of the original Executive Order was to ensure coordinated action among the federal agencies to prevent new invaders and control existing ones, as well as to work in partnership with the private sector to achieve these goals.

In addition to reinforcing and strengthening the original intent of the Order, this update emphasizes that human and environmental health need protection, and that those efforts will be impacted by climate change. The updated Order also recognizes that the need to seek and take advantage of technological advances for both prevention and management or control of invaders.

The updated Executive Order was announced on the same day that an Innovation Summit on new potential options for addressing invasive species was held. I had the chance to attend that summit.

In addition to hearing about approaches to control species ranging from fish to plant and human diseases (including some very cool new methods for detection and control), presenters discussed how to incentivize innovation around this issues. Summit presentations showed that the advances called for in the updated Executive Order are emerging, providing an optimistic outlook for all of us concerned about this issue.

Because invaders don’t respect property boundaries and don’t stay put, we need everyone to join the effort to stop their import and movement. News of the Zika virus in the U.S., carried by a non-native mosquito that also carries at least four other diseases, is a clear indicator of the need to take aggressive action. So the Obama Administration’s decision to update the Executive Order is a great holiday gift for all of us.

Also posted in News, Plants & Animals| Comments are closed

Congressman Gives Trump a Plan to Erase Health, Safety, And Environment Safeguards

At Risk: The Air We Breathe, Water We Drink, and Food We Eat

The conservative House Freedom Caucus has provided President-Elect Trump a “recommended list of regulations to remove.” Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC), chair of the all-Republican Freedom Caucus, identified 228 federal rules they hope Trump will help eliminate.

Thirty-two of the proposals would roll back safety, health and environmental standards that protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and our nation’s infrastructure (from pipelines to airports). By rolling back these regulations, the plan would essentially prevent the agencies responsible for protecting us from doing their job.

Another 43 proposals are aimed at undermining America’s progress on clean energy and climate change, pushing us away from energy efficiency and renewable energy sources toward more reliance on fossil fuels. This includes eliminating two dozen Department of Energy energy efficiency standards that save families money on energy bills, reduce energy waste, and prevent pollution.

Environmental Defense Fund has posted a copy of the Freedom Caucus document online (first obtained by the Washington Post) and added highlights to show the 75 health, safety, environment, and energy rollbacks.

The leading targets for these attacks are the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy, but other agencies targeted include the Federal Aviation Administration, the State Department, the Department of Interior and others.

Trump’s Pick to Lead EPA Is An Added Threat

The danger of this regulatory ‘kill list’ is compounded by Donald Trump’s picks for key cabinet positions that would traditionally be the first to defend their agencies from political interference. Many of the recommendations are favorites of the fossil fuel lobby, which will have unprecedented power in Trump’s cabinet.

Trump’s decision to entrust Scott Pruitt with running the Environmental Protection Agency is especially dangerous. EPA is responsible for protecting our families from air and water pollution as well as toxic chemicals. Pruitt, however, has repeatedly and systematically teamed up with fossil fuel companies to sue the Environmental Protection Agency to prevent EPA action on regulating toxic mercury, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In a 2014 investigative report, the New York Times exposed Pruitt’s “secretive alliance” with oil and gas companies while Attorney General of Oklahoma.

Breaking Down the Regulations at Risk

Here is a summary of some of the most alarming Freedom Caucus proposals that Pruitt and others in Trump’s cabinet will be looking over. The Freedom Caucus list has inaccuracies, and it seems to be based on the premise that Trump can erase rules with a stroke of the pen in the first 100 days. For most of these, he cannot, because the agencies have responsibilities to implement laws and are subject to oversight by the courts. But that does not mean that these regulations are safe from diversion of funds, lack of enforcement, legislative attacks, and other efforts to weaken them.

In the following list, the numbers in parentheses match the numbers in the House Freedom Caucus plan.

  • Eliminate air pollution standards for smog-forming ozone (174), lung-damaging soot (fine particles, 178), and rules to reduce air pollution from tailpipes (175, 181) and smokestacks (182, 183)
  • Reverse course on climate change, including: erasing carbon pollution regulations for power plants (173, 182, 183), tailpipes (175, 181), and airplanes (194); cancelling the Paris agreement (161); and eliminating the Green Climate Fund (172).
  • Roll back Clean Water standards that protect the Great Lakes (186), Chesapeake Bay (185), and to prevent pollution of wetlands (13) and rivers (199) across the nation.
  • Block regulations to prevent dangerous chemical accidents that release toxic chemicals into surrounding communities (189).
  • Jeopardize Worker safety, including repealing standards to prevent lung cancer among workers exposed to silica dust (135).
  • Repeal two dozen energy efficiency standards for appliances and industrial equipment (28-53).
  • Repeal natural gas pipeline safety standards passed in response to gas pipeline disasters, including the 2010 San Bruno disaster in California (153).
  • Repeal fuel economy and tailpipe standards for cars that are saving consumers money at the pump, reducing our dependency on oil, and reducing air pollution (175, 181).
  • Eliminate food safety regulations, including fish inspections (3).
  • Strip FDA’s authority to regulate the tobacco industry (55).
  • Repeal an FDA rule to safeguard our food supply against tampering by terrorists (83).
  • Eliminate the State Department agencies responsible for environmental science, protecting our oceans, and addressing climate change (162, 170, 171).
  • Block FAA regulations aimed at improving the safety of air traffic management at airports (156).
Also posted in Cars and Pollution, Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy| Comments are closed

Smithfield Foods, World’s Largest Pork Producer, Sets Goal to Reduce Its Carbon Footprint

A lot has changed since I first started working to reduce pollution from hog farms in North Carolina. That was back in the 1990s, during my early years at Environmental Defense Fund.

Back then, industry wasn’t exactly eager to sign on to new, environmentally-friendly technologies to manage hog waste. So it’s gratifying now to work with Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, as it voluntarily commits to reduce its carbon footprint in a meaningful way.

Hog farms have long created both environmental and health problems for residents in the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina. Manure in the farms’ waste lagoons produces methane, ammonia, and other gases that contaminate both the air (causing respiratory problems as well as accelerating climate change) and the water (where nitrogen contributes to algae blooms, and at times, large-scale fish kills).

I collaborated with North Carolina State University for many years in evaluating possible technologies that can reduce pollution from pork production. This work led to 2007 legislation in North Carolina that banned new permits for lagoon and sprayfield hog manure treatment systems and established environmental performance standards for alternative treatment systems.

Now it’s 2016, and Smithfield has decided to take the lead in the animal protein industry by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025. That’s more than 4 million metric tons, or the equivalent of removing 900,000 cars from the road. But in order to succeed, it first had to understand its baseline emissions footprint. That kind of assessment required a thorough lifecycle analysis — a careful look at emissions produced throughout the company’s supply chain, from raw materials to disposal to retail to in-home consumption.

Smithfield graphic

Smithfield graphic

Companies’ individual lifecycle assessments are critical to developing plans to reduce greenhouse gases. The quality of the data collected for the assessment determines how useful the results will be in planning the changes companies will undertake to meet their goals. Company-specific data illuminates individual emissions hotspots in supply chains — those critical points where companies can focus their energy and attention to reducing negative impacts most effectively.

Smithfield contracted with the University of Minnesota’s NorthStar Institute for Sustainable Enterprise to create a custom greenhouse emissions inventory for the company, and EDF agreed to review the analysis.

Let’s take a look at the two major greenhouse gas emissions hotspots the lifecycle analysis identified, and how Smithfield plans to reduce greenhouse gases:

  1. Pigs consume a great deal of corn (as well as soy) which requires a large amount of nitrogen and other nutrients often provided by industrially-produced fertilizer. When applied to the land, the nitrogen in the fertilizer results in the release of nitrous oxide from soils, which is a potent greenhouse gas. In fact, feed production accounts for about 20 percent of Smithfield’s greenhouse gas emissions. The solution? EDF is working with Smithfield to optimize its fertilizer use, so it can get the crop yield required to feed the pigs while minimizing the surplus nitrogen which fuels nitrous oxide emissions.
  2. The other dominant emission hotspot comes from manure management. In Smithfield’s case, this accounts for more than a third of its greenhouse emissions. Hog manure is typically flushed from the barn into an open earthen lagoon. Smithfield now plans to cover lagoons to reduce the methane that’s released into the air on 30 percent of its company-owned farms. Smithfield is also committing to help its contract growers do the same. Those lagoon covers will also prevent ammonia from being lost to the air — a huge benefit because atmospheric ammonia losses result in public health and environmental risks. By capturing ammonia under the lagoon covers, Smithfield can use it as fertilizer, offsetting some of the inorganic fertilizer the company otherwise would have to purchase.

While these commitments by Smithfield Foods will not solve all (or even a majority) of the public health and environmental impacts of hog farms, this is a meaningful step by the company. It is also promising that NorthStar’s work with Smithfield can be readily adapted to other companies to develop their own lifecycle analysis.

I’m encouraged that Smithfield is taking a leadership role in this endeavor, and proud of the roles that EDF has played. EDF will continue to work with Smithfield to make this commitment a reality, and to address the remaining issues associated with pork production.

It is my hope that the commitment by Smithfield Foods will encourage other livestock producers to step up and take the actions necessary to reduce the public health and environmental impacts of their operations.

Also posted in News, Partners for Change| Comments are closed
  • About this blog

    Expert to expert commentary on the science, law and economics of climate change and clean air.

  • Get blog posts by email

    Subscribe via RSS

  • Categories

  • Meet The Bloggers