Efforts to hold private companies responsible for their contribution to climate change just took a big step forward, thanks to researcher Rick Heede. For the past eight years, Heede has painstakingly compiled the historical contribution of fossil fuel companies to today’s concentrations of greenhouse gases. According to Heede’s study ”Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010,” which was published in Climatic Change, just 90 enterprises have accounted for over sixty percent of total industrial carbon dioxide and methane emissions. And just five private oil companies-- ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and ConocoPhillips—have accounted for more than 12 percent of such emissions.
This data is a potential game-changer in how we think of responsibility for climate change. The fossil fuel industry would like us to believe that we are all equally culpable every time we turn on an ignition or a light bulb. But we are not all equally responsible for decisions that have led to climate change—and we certainly have not all benefited from climate change the same way that the five oil companies have. In addition, several of the top emissions contributors actively promoted climate change denial campaigns.
This data is legally significant as well because it gives courts a fair and defensible way for allocating responsibility for damages caused by climate change. Courts need no longer fear that it would be impossible to untangle the private sector’s historical contributions to climate change or unfair to make oil companies, for example, pay for all climate-related damages. A clear formula now exists for allocating at least a significant percentage of the costs of climate change to those companies that benefited most from the public nuisance created by their emissions. Take, for example, the costs of moving the Inuit village of Kivalina, which attempted to sue several of the top polluters for the anticipated costs of relocating their village as a result of climate change. Those costs could now be allocated to the major fossil fuel companies based on their historical contributions to the problem.Full text
A video called, “,” featured on OSHA’s website, introduces Bill Ellis, a retired painter and sandblaster. After years of exposure to fine particles of blasted rock, he developed a respiratory disease called silicosis and died, leaving behind his wife, children, and grandchildren. Ellis’s final months were painful. For a silicosis patient, just drawing breath is an ordeal—like sucking air through a straw.
Thousands of laborers are exposed to the tiny stone particles, called silica, that killed Ellis. Any time workers blast sandstone, saw concrete, or cut brick, that dust is in the air. Because of the broad danger and the availability of relatively inexpensive protective gear, OSHA has proposed rules updating worker safety standards for silica. The current rules have not been revised in over forty years.
The would lower the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of silica dust from 100-250 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 50 micrograms. The rule could nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year. After including costs of implementation, average net benefits are estimated at $1.8 to $7.5 billion per year.
The potential benefits of the rule are truly remarkable. The result seems like a dream situation, where a government agency can protect people and save money. Isn’t that what regulatory agencies are supposed to do?Full text
I’ve spent a lot of time and energy talking about the need to adapt to climate change, but I’ve also become increasingly uneasy about “adaptation” as a way to think about the situation. One of the things I don’t like about the term “adaptation” is that it suggests that we actually can, at some expense, restore ourselves to the same position we would have been in without climate change. For any given amount of climate change, we can do things that decrease the resulting harms (at a cost), but we can’t eliminate those harms. Adapting to climate change is like “adapting” to a serious chronic disease — you can get by, with luck, but it’s still not like being healthy.
But there’s also an important conceptual issue. The idea of adaptation assumes that the world will go along more or less as it always has, except that we’ll take some specific actions due to climate change to neutralize its effects. This makes sense if we think global warming is just a marginal change. But given our current trajectory, climate change, adaptation, and mitigation may go beyond marginal impacts. Climate change may well have wide societal effects, and mitigation efforts themselves could be major enough to shift the economy. Moreover, both mitigation efforts and actions to address climate-based risks will have environmental impacts of their own. ”Adaptation” suggests a marginal quality to climate change that may be quite misleading.
When it comes to OIRA’s antiregulatory meddling, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) pilot fatigue rule provides as textbook an example as you could ask for. Following Congress’s instruction that the rule be based on the best available science regarding human sleep patterns, the agency drafted a rule that set minimum rest standards for all commercial pilots. But, the rule couldn’t take effect without the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs’ (OIRA) review and final approval. After more than four months, the rule that emerged from the OIRA review gauntlet had been significantly weakened. The minimum rest standards now applied only to commercial passengerpilots, while commercial cargo pilots were completely exempted. The change was based not on sleep science, as Congress mandated. What’s the justification? Fatigue generally affects all pilots the same, no matter what they happen to be hauling behind them. Against logic, OIRA justified the changes on the basis of an irrelevant, and arguably illegal, cost-benefit analysis: According to OIRA, the benefits of protecting cargo from fatigue-induced plane crashes, unlike the benefits of protecting passengers, simply did not justify the costs of abiding by the minimum rest standards. Not coincidentally, during the months-long review, a parade of cargo airline industry representatives marched through OIRA’s doors arguing for the change, relying on this very same cost-benefit analysis argument.
The story above is a familiar one, and most accounts of OIRA interference typically stop with the weakened and delayed final rule’s issuance. In reality, though, OIRA interference usually sets off a chain reaction of negative consequences—in the form of real harms to real people and to the effective functioning of our system of governance—that are worth taking a close look at. Indeed, the FAA’s pilot fatigue rule provides a glaring example of these negative consequences, as several recent developments have demonstrated.
Most dramatically, this past August a UPS cargo plane crashed while attempting an early morning landing at Birmingham–Shuttlesworth International Airport in Alabama, killing both crewmembers on board. In addition to the two fatalities, all of the cargo on the plane was destroyed in the crash, and some homes located near the airport were also allegedly damaged. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) expects that its investigation into this incident will take several months to complete. At this point, however, the NTSB has found no evidence of mechanical failure and is now looking into whether the crash was a result of pilot error—including whether pilot fatigue was a contributing factor. The incident does provide a vivid illustration of what OIRA has put at stake with its meddling. It also provides a cautionary warning of the kinds of needless tragedies we can potentially expect if commercial cargo pilots remain exempted from the FAA’s minimum rest standards.Full text
Lately, press releases from the Maryland Department of Agriculture read like a broken record:
MDA Withdraws Phosphorus Management Tool Regulations; Department to Meet with Stakeholders and Resubmit Regulations
-- August 26, 2013
MDA Withdraws Phosphorus Management Tool Regulations; Department to Consider Comments and Resubmit Regulations
--November 15, 2013
The second headline is from this past Friday when MDA withdrew a proposed regulation aimed at cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay by restricting the use of manure to fertilize crops.
Manure is full of phosphorus, one of the nutrients choking the Bay. Indeed, manure runoff accounts for 26 percent of the phosphorus in the estuary. The proposed “phosphorus management tool,” developed at the University of Maryland, would have helped determine which fields were over-saturated with the nutrient. If the soil contained too much phosphorus, the farmer could not apply manure to fertilize that field.
As the agency’s press releases show, this is the second time MDA has pulled back its attempt to limit manure usage. An emergency regulation that was supposed to have gone into effect this fall was withdrawn in late August after the farm lobby complained that it could cripple the state’s poultry industry. MDA withdrew the rule this time after agricultural groups once again complained of its economic impact.
The abandonment of the manure-management tool comes at the same time that a new CPR report warns that the state’s regulation of industrial animal farms is lagging. According to CPR President Rena Steinzor, the two are closely connected.Full text
When we all sit down for Thanksgiving dinner next week, we hope that the food we are feeding our families is wholesome and that the workers who produce it are safe. Thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), ever the mindless booster of corporate profits, that turkey at the center of the table already disappoints both expectations, and if USDA has its way, matters are about to get much worse. Hiding behind disingenuous promises to “modernize” the food safety system, USDA has decided to pull federal food inspectors off the line at poultry processing plants across the nation. No new preventative measures to ensure that poultry is free of salmonella would happen. And already crowded, bloody, stinking lines would speed up dramatically—to as many as 175 birds per minute, or three birds/second. Workers who suffer grave ergonomic injuries from the repetitive motions of hanging, cutting, and packing the birds would endure conditions that are two or three times worse than the status quo.
The consequences of USDA’s de-regulatory scheme are well documented. Back in 2001, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found significant food safety concerns in pilot plants authorized to test the new system and just this past summer slammed the USDA’s data in justifying the program. The Agency is using data cherry-picked from two-year snapshots over a 15-year period of the piloted system to justify the program and relying on old and inaccurate economic analysis.
Yesterday, Catherine Jones, CPR's Operations and Finance Manager, received Public Citizen's 11th annual Phyllis McCarthy Public Service Award, in recognition of her contributions to the organization and the nonprofit community.
Catherine's been with CPR for eight of our eleven years, and she's been a lynchpin of the organization for most of that time. CPR began small — first as an idea shared by a group of scholars around a restaurant table — then morphed into a somewhat more formal gathering of scholars, and then over the course of a few years grew out of its "garage band" phase into the full-fledged organization that's now making a real difference.
Anyone who's ever built an organization of any type — a nonprofit, a small business, a theater company, you name it — will recognize the challenges inherent in organizational evolution of that sort. Catherine made — and makes — it possible. She figured out how to navigate the challenges of tax filings and unemployment, she built the scaffolding for our fundraising efforts, she devised ways for us to function as the virtual organization that we are with staffers scattered across the region and scholars across the nation.
As CPR Executive Director Jake Caldwell said in nominating her for the award, "Catherine handles every such task with an incredible amount of good humor, patience and persistence, giving our virtual group a strong sense of cohesiveness and structure…. Catherine is the foundation that enables all of us to work at our full capacity at CPR. She truly amplifies our effectiveness and voice with her talents and support. And because she shares our values, we also benefit from her enthusiasm and sense of purpose."
The award is named for Phyllis McCarthy, a 24-year employee of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, who passed away in November 2002. She worked for 24 years as a managing editor and office manager, playing an integral part in the development and preparation of publications, reports, medical journal articles and petitions to government agencies. The award recognizes individuals who have worked long and hard for a public interest group, performing critical functions as did McCarthy, but who have not received public credit commensurate with their contributions.
Catherine said in her remarks accepting the award that "service to a worthy cause is its own reward." She's exactly right about that, of course, and she brings to the task a palpable sense of joy and fulfillment that makes everyone else's job more fulfilling, too.
We're all incredibly proud of her, and grateful to Public Citizen for recognizing her outstanding work.Full text
Maryland’s effort to limit pollution from massive industrial animal farms in the state is falling behind. A new CPR Issue Alert finds that the state has not registered 26 percent of Maryland’s concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and Maryland animal feeding operations (MAFOs), missing out on tens of thousands of pounds of pollution reduction in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay is in trouble. Years of half-hearted interstate efforts to check polluting emissions and restore the nation's largest estuary have failed. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan for the Bay represents the Chesapeake's last, best chance of recovery. The TMDL requires all major polluting sectors—including massive industrial farms—to reduce their discharges into the Bay.
Maryland is home to at least 588 of these massive animal farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and state-regulated Maryland animal feeding operations (MAFOs). To meet the TMDL, Maryland has committed to eliminating the discharge of 248,000 pounds-per-year of nitrogen and 41,000 pounds-per-year of phosphorus from all animal feeding operations in the state by 2025. Meeting this goal will require robust government oversight.
Three years into the program, however, and Maryland has fallen far behind in permitting these facilities, missing a crucial opportunity to reduce pollution to meet the TMDL. Issuing permits is the only way to compel these facilities to follow certain best practices to limit pollutants flowing into the Bay. Specifically, the CPR Issue Alert reveals:
The permit writers are behind: 87 out of a total of 506 complete applications have yet to be processed, leaving operators with no clear requirements to reduce pollution and MDE with no enforceable conditions.
The CAFO program is understaffed, relying on three permit writers and the same number of inspectors. A loss of even one employee can cut the program’s productivity in half, as occurred in 2012.
Many of the applications MDE receives are incomplete: 65 of 540 CAFOs lack the required comprehensive nutrient management plans (CNMPs) that dictate how the facility is to operate to protect water quality.
MDE has so far given the industry a free ride: It has yet to collect application and annual fees for CAFO permits, which are $120 for small CAFOs, $600 for medium CAFOs, and $1,200 for large CAFOs. Collecting these fees would ensure that the program has sufficient resources to hire additional permit writers and inspectors.
The Food and Drug Administration recently announced its tentative determination that most of the trans fatty acids in our diets – specifically, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) – are not “generally recognized as safe” within the meaning of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and thus must be regulated as food additives. If the FDA finalizes this determination, then food manufacturers would need to obtain the approval of the FDA before selling PHOs in any food or as food ingredients. Approval would then depend, in turn, on a determination by the FDA that PHOs were safe after all. In this way, a final determination by the FDA that PHOs are not “generally recognized as safe” would effectively amount to a ban on their use in food.
The FDA’s proposed finding is a huge deal for public health. The agency estimates that eliminating PHOs from the food supply could prevent as many as 7,000 fatal heart attacks each year, plus up to 20,000 nonfatal heart attacks. Numerous scientific studies and expert review panels have drawn a link between dietary intake of trans fatty acids, blood cholesterol levels, and coronary heart disease. Additional studies have found that consumption of trans fatty acids may have other adverse health effects as well, perhaps even including an increased risk of diabetes.
There will be plenty of scrutiny of the FDA’s proposal in the weeks to come. For now, I want to point out one aspect of the proposal that might not be obvious. Although the determination of whether PHOs are “generally recognized as safe” is a strictly scientific one, one that demands “a reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that the substance is not harmful under the intended conditions of use,” the FDA nevertheless appended a cost-benefit report to its preliminary scientific finding.Full text
CPR Member Scholars Rena Steinzor Lisa Heinzerling, Tom McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, and I submitted comments to the FDA on two food safety rules—one on raw produce, and one on preventive controls for human food (which applies to food manufacturers and processors).
In separate blogs posted today, we address issues of regulatory design and how the costs of both these rules would be significantly smaller than suggested in the FDA’s economic analyses. Here, we explain why these rules offer much greater benefits than those presented in the agency’s analyses. (The analyses for both rules essentially rely on the same benefits methodology.)
The FDA estimates that the produce rule would prevent about 1.75 million foodborne illnesses, representing an annual benefit to society of $1.04 billion. For the preventive controls rule, the FDA calculates the annual burden of illnesses attributed to processed foods—nearly one million illnesses, which cost society about $2 billion—without estimating how effective the rule would be in reducing them (presumably because it is difficult to predict how each facility would design and implement its own unique food safety plan).
As we explain in our comments, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) does not call for the use of a “cost-benefit standard” that involves quantifying and monetizing all the potential benefits of the proposed rules (an inherently flawed task) and finding the optimal balance between costs and benefits. Instead, given the relevant statutory mandates, the FDA should base the rules’ standards on the best available methods for preventing food safety hazards, while ensuring that the overall costs remain reasonable.
Nevertheless, to the extent that the FDA continues to use these economic analyses, either as a decisionmaking tool or as a way of expressing the rules’ impacts, they should at least be made as comprehensive and accurate as possible.Full text