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Texas relaxed environmental enforcement during the pandemic, state data show

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is one of the largest and most influential environmental protection agencies in the country. With an annual budget of $400 million, it polices about 400,000 polluting businesses and conducts more than 100,000 inspections in a normal year. The agency inspects not only the state’s many large refineries and chemical plants, but also its neighborhood gas stations, dry cleaners, and public water systems.

Many of the state’s 29 million residents live in the shadow of heavy industry and in cities with smog levels that rank among the worst in the country. In short, a slowdown in TCEQ’s enforcement efforts could be deadly. So when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the country to a halt earlier this year, TCEQ’s chairman penned an open letter reassuring environmental advocates that, even though employees were going to work from home, the agency would continue to be “fully engaged in its mission to protect public health and the environment.”

But a Grist analysis of the agency’s internal data has found that, in the six weeks after the agency asked employees to work from home in response to the pandemic, TCEQ pursued 20 percent fewer violations of environmental laws than it did during the same period in 2019. The agency also initiated 40 percent fewer formal enforcement actions resulting in fines for polluters. Finally, in a move that appears in line with the Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial discretionary enforcement policy, TCEQ issued about 40 percent fewer violations to companies for failing to monitor and report pollutants emitted into the air and water.

Even as the agency reduced enforcement, it continued processing permits that allow construction companies, industrial facilities, and other businesses to pollute up to certain limits at about the same rate that it did last year.

Adrian Shelley, director of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen’s Texas office, called TCEQ’s enforcement slowdown “disappointing” and said that Grist’s investigation shows that the agency prioritizes permitting over compliance.

“There’s been a large period of very little regulatory oversight,” he said. “The implications for community health and for the workers at the facilities really concern us.”

In a 7-page response to Grist’s findings, TCEQ spokesperson Brian McGovern denied that the agency had scaled back its oversight of polluting businesses during the pandemic, listing various shortcomings of the data his own agency provided. He said that TCEQ conducted a separate analysis of its enforcement work and found that inspections had decreased by just 10 percent.

“While there have been some decreases in these [enforcement] activities as staff transitioned to working remotely and the economy has slowed suddenly and dramatically, these decreases are far more modest than you have concluded,” McGovern said.

The agency has long been criticized for lax enforcement. Analyses of TCEQ’s enforcement work by environmental advocates and journalists have consistently found that the agency rarely penalizes polluters while disproportionately issuing fines against small business owners. A 2017 Texas Tribune investigation found that the agency levied fines in fewer than 1 percent of the cases in which polluters exceeded air emission limits.

“Any further relaxation of environmental protections will keep endangering Texans who are facing this triple threat of air pollution, chemical disasters, and now COVID-19,” said Catherine Fraser, an associate working on air quality issues at the nonprofit Environment Texas.

Shifting priorities

TCEQ inspectors — both full-time employees and contractors — perform more than 100,000 inspections a year. Just 5,000 of them are in response to complaints; many of the rest are routine and dictated by federal laws. (For instance, every gas station in the state is inspected once every three years due to a mandate in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.) About two-thirds of the inspections are conducted on-site while the remainder are performed remotely by reviewing self-reported data from businesses.

Once an inspection is complete, inspectors write up any violations of environmental rules they may have witnessed. These citations range from relatively minor paperwork violations to more serious infractions, like those that cause degraded air and water quality. If a polluter does not correct the issue that led to a notice of violation — or if the agency decides the violations are exceedingly serious — then TCEQ purses formal enforcement action, which is typically accompanied by fines and an order to remediate the issue.

In order to assess TCEQ’s decision-making during the pandemic, Grist requested data about the complaints the agency received, the inspections it conducted, and violations and enforcement action it pursued from the beginning of 2019 through the end of May. Due to lag times in updates to the agency’s internal database, we limited our analysis to the six-week period starting March 16, when TCEQ employees began working from home.

We found that, across the board, the agency’s enforcement work shifted after Governor Greg Abbott directed state agencies to provide remote work options to employees in March. For one, the agency conducted far fewer inspections that led to violations. Last year, the agency conducted about 2,120 such inspections every six weeks, on average. But between March 16 and the end of April this year, that number dropped to about 722 — a nearly 70 percent decrease.

Clayton Aldern / Grist

TCEQ also issued 20 percent fewer violations in March and April, compared to the same six-week period last year, and likewise found fewer more serious violations of environmental laws. Agency staff categorize violations as “major,” “moderate,” and “minor” when calculating penalties depending on the amount of pollution, the threat to public health and the environment, and the compliance history of the business in question. Major violations are the most severe and trigger mandatory enforcement action resulting in fines, while minor violations are often over paperwork. While the types of violations fluctuate dramatically over the course of a given year, Grist’s analysis found a marked decrease in “major” and “moderate” violations after the shutdown compared to last year. From mid-March through the end of April last year, the agency issued citations for 17 “major” violations, but during the same time period this year, the agency found just three. “Moderate” violations were also down by about 20 percent.

“That’s a large shift,” said Tim Doty, a former TCEQ employee who worked in the agency’s enforcement division before retiring in 2018. “Is it because companies are coming up with excuses or a natural explanation? Maybe [inspectors] can’t get an in-person look and they’re not inclined to assign [the violation] a ‘major’.”

The agency also appears to have changed how it handles violations of routine monitoring and record-keeping requests. In March, it announced that businesses that are unable to comply with environmental rules due to the pandemic may request enforcement discretion from the agency. According to a spreadsheet that the agency has been updating on its website, it has received about 150 requests for enforcement discretion and granted about 80 percent of them. The vast majority of these requests are for extensions to reporting and monitoring deadlines.

The agency’s decision to overlook these monitoring and reporting violations may partially explain the overall decrease in violations. In March and April of 2019, the agency issued about 240 record-keeping and routine monitoring violations. This year it issued about 142 of those violations — a 40 percent decrease. Similarly, notices of enforcement — formal notification to businesses that the agency intends to seek penalties for violations — were also down 40 percent.

The decrease in enforcement activity is likely not due to businesses closing down to comply with stay-at-home orders. The vast majority of facilities that TCEQ oversees — gas stations, public water systems, and oil and gas infrastructure — were considered essential and exempted from shutdown orders.

Clayton Aldern / Grist

“This is really very bad in my view, because the plants are getting away with breaking the law now,” said Neil Carman, a former TCEQ air inspector who now works for the Sierra Club in Austin. “They’re probably less worried because they don’t think anybody’s going to come out there and call them about their violations.”

McGovern, the TCEQ spokesperson, said that the “conclusion that TCEQ is choosing to pursue less severe violations is incorrect” and that the agency “does not choose which violations it finds or pursues based on severity.” He said that TCEQ does not have a policy to not pursue violations of monitoring and reporting requirements during the pandemic and that the number and severity of violations can vary from year to year for other reasons — “sometimes dramatically” and “without our knowing or ascribing a reason.”

McGovern’s main criticism of Grist’s analysis pointed to several flaws in the data that the agency itself provided, which he said did not lend itself to an “apples-to-apples comparison between 2019 and 2020.” For one, the agency provided Grist with data on investigations that led to violations — not the entire universe of investigations. (While this might impact the accuracy of the raw numbers Grist analyzed, it would not impact the accuracy of the year-to-year changes.) McGovern also said that lag times for database updates could cause an undercount of inspections for 2020.

TCEQ publishes monthly enforcement reports outlining the number of inspections conducted and enforcement actions pursued. In response to Grist’s findings, TCEQ conducted its own analysis and found that it was conducting just 10 percent fewer inspections over the ten-week period from mid-March to the end of May, compared to last year. The discrepancy in findings is likely a result of the limitations McGovern listed as well as the agency’s method of counting inspections: According to McGovern, a single investigation report can contain multiple “investigation activities.” A count of these investigation activities is reported publicly and to the state legislature.

But Grist’s findings are also reflected in data that the agency is required to submit to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has delegated much of its permitting and enforcement authority to states. Chemical plants, steel mills, refineries, and other air polluters receive permits from TCEQ so they can emit pollutants. Then, TCEQ reports the number of inspections and fines issued to those facilities. That data show that the agency conducted about 180 inspections each month in 2019. But the inspection numbers plummeted to 88 in March 2020 before climbing back up to 156 in April and 133 in May.

“This is just further evidence that the agency is giving polluters a free pass to pollute during a pandemic, when we should really be doing everything that we can to protect our health and our environment,” said Fraser, the advocate with Environment Texas.

A downward trend

A further look back at TCEQ’s oversight of large polluting facilities also shows a downward trend in inspections over the past 10 years. At the beginning of the decade, the agency was conducting more than 7,500 inspections per year of federally-permitted facilities with limits on air emissions. Those figures have now dwindled to a little over 2,000 — despite the number of facilities the agency is overseeing remaining steady. Similarly, penalties, violations cited, and formal enforcement actions taken against these facilities have also declined significantly.

After the EPA announced its temporary relaxation of monitoring and reporting rules for polluters in March, many states and environmental groups sued. In a recent filing, they argued that the agency did not consider the effects of the policy on public health and safety — particularly on low-income communities of color that disproportionately live close to polluting facilities.

“In addition to this existing backdrop of public health concerns, mounting evidence regarding the incidence of COVID-19 in low-income and minority communities amplifies the importance of considering the Policy’s impact on public health,” the attorneys representing nine states wrote.

In Texas, too, the effects of scaling back enforcement are likely to be felt disproportionately by communities of color. An analysis by the University of Texas Health Center found that neighborhoods close to industrial facilities in Harris County — where Houston is located — are at higher risk for hospitalization and intensive care needs due to COVID-19. These neighborhoods are also already at higher risk for cancer and a slate of respiratory illnesses.

Environmental and public health advocates say that lax enforcement and poor regulatory oversight are to blame for the distressingly frequent industrial fires and explosions in the Houston area. Last year alone, two major fires at petrochemical sites near the Houston Ship Channel burned for days and blanketed the city in a plume of thick smoke. A 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation found that major chemical accidents occur in the Houston area every six weeks — and that industry being allowed to self-regulate is one major reason for the frequency of unsafe incidents.

“The lack of enforcement action taken by TCEQ is creating this culture where safety and health laws aren’t prioritized,” Fraser said. “There’s often little incentive to comply with the law.”

Clayton Aldern contributed data reporting to this story.

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Texas relaxed environmental enforcement during the pandemic, state data show

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Coronavirus myth-busting: The truth about empty shelves and toilet paper shortages

My 8-year-old daughter only began to comprehend the absolute weirdness of living in this time of coronavirus on a recent trip to a grocery store.

The line outside to get in, the employee regulating traffic at the door, the gloops of hand sanitizer, the face masks — it was all bizarre. And stranger than strange were the empty shelves. For the first time, she could see that she was living through an extraordinary moment in history.

“That was super weird,” she said quietly, when we got home.

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The abundance of food in a grocery store is every bit as much a hallmark of Americana as Bugs Bunny and Major League Baseball. So it’s eerie to see those shelves bare.

What exactly is going on here? Are people irrationally hoarding beans and toilet paper? It turns out, not so much. To find out what’s really happening, I talked to a few people who study the country’s massive chain of farms, trucks, and warehouses that deliver the nutrients we all need to survive to ask how the system is holding up, what this stress test tells us about preparing for future shocks, and just what the fresh hell is happening with toilet paper.

What has changed?

The sudden shift in the way Americans shop is stunning.

“One stat I have heard from grocery store folks is that the traffic in their stores is up tremendously, like 300 percent,” said Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University.

Grocery store sales reached the highest level in history in the week ending March 15, an eye-popping 62 percent higher than in the same week last year, according to the retail research company IRI. Americans are buying a lot of staples — bread, eggs, beans — but also just buying more of everything. Nail polish remover sales are up nearly 60 percent, too.

In turn, grocery stores have to order more from their suppliers, driving up prices. The wholesale price of a dozen eggs jumped from 90 cents at the start of the year to a recent $2.35.

We’re running out of food!

Not true. There are pigs aplenty and enough chickens for every pot. Cattle are copious.

“We’re actually on pace to produce more beef than we have in, really recorded history, this year,” Lusk said.

There’s plenty of wheat, too. But it has to be ground, baked into bread, and delivered. Before you can eat a sausage, someone needs to slaughter a pig, cut it up, and get it on a shelf. And that’s where there are bottlenecks.

“There’s only so many loading docks coming out of a distribution center,” said Shelie Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies the environmental impacts of food systems. “The system is not designed for everyone to buy everything at once, but it will catch up.”

Why are we shopping more?

If you tell people they should be prepared to stay in their house for a long time, it only makes sense that they are going to fill up their pantries. That part is no mystery. But after the first week or two, you’d think people would go back to their normal shopping patterns and grocery stores shelves would be full again. After all, it’s not like we are eating more, right?

Turns out, we are eating more groceries. A lot more. You might have noticed the same thing that I’ve noticed in my house: Food seems to run low at an alarming pace. That’s because we are no longer eating out. Instead of getting food from school lunches, company cafeterias, and restaurants, Americans are now getting the bulk of their calories from grocery stores. Normally, the meat Americans eat is split evenly — half from restaurants (and schools, and office canteens) and half from stores. That has “drastically shifted,” with 85 percent of meat running through grocery stores, a Cargill executive told Food Navigator.

And it’s not like all the trucks full of food headed for restaurants can just turn around and drive to a grocery store instead. There’s only so much space on the shelf in every store, and it takes a while for grocers who need more milk, say, to figure out who has excess and negotiate a new deal. That’s why dairies are dumping truckloads of milk into fields around the country. But pretty soon, people will figure out how to divert the food headed for restaurants so that it gets to groceries instead. It’s already beginning to happen:

“Some of the big meatpackers have already said they are doing that,” Lusk said. “They are packing more individual items, rather than big cuts that normally go to restaurants.”

As a result, prices for meat have started to go down.

Where are the strains?

Anywhere the food system relies on workers: people who pick the veggies, drive the trucks, and restock the shelves. Many farmworkers come on special work visas from Mexico — now suspended. It’s likely that melons and lettuce will rot in the fields this year.

A lot of the people who harvest and process our food can’t afford to quarantine themselves. Already a few workers at meatpacking houses have contracted the coronavirus. That’s concerning because these packing houses tend to be big; Big enough that when something goes wrong it can trigger shockwaves of shortages. If there aren’t enough workers to run any one of these food-processing links in the food chain, that could cause major problems.

“Last fall there was a lot of fervor when a fire in a Tyson meatpacking plant caused really big disruptions in the meat market,” Lusk said. “That one facility was about 5 percent of all the beef processing in the country.”

What does this stress test tell us about eating in a hotter future?

Big meatpacking plants are very good at producing affordable food. But their size also makes the country vulnerable to shocks: A single flood or fire could shut down a significant portion of the food system.

To prepare for future disasters we might want to encourage food companies to have five or six food processing plants scattered around the countryside, rather than one giant regional plant, Lusk said. That would cost more, but it would be more resilient.

Some help could come from abroad. If one giant slaughterhouse or grain-processing plant goes dark in the United States, there’s already a robust network of ships and rails to move food around the world.

“Globalized food systems require a lot more energy than local food systems, but there is also more redundancy,” Miller said. “If one part of the globe is experiencing a major climate event you have more options — there are lots of different suppliers in lots of different locations.”

But in many ways the coronavirus pandemic presents fundamentally different challenges than the slow emergency of climate change. Adapting to a hotter planet requires figuring out how to feed ourselves without releasing greenhouse gases, which means growing more food on less land, so that we can stop cutting down forests, and start growing more carbon-sucking trees.

Who gets left out?

There is a real danger that this pandemic causes many more people to go hungry, not because there isn’t enough food to go around, but because the economic slowdown leaves families without the money to buy it.

“COVID-19 is a health crisis. But it could also lead to a food security crisis if proper measures are not taken,” wrote Shenggen Fan, former director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, which is funded by governments and foundations.

Researchers at IFPRI projected that the number of desperately poor people — those living on less than $1.90 a day — could surge by 14 million because of the virus to around 750 million. If the pandemic shuts down international trade, that could rise to 22 million. That increase of 2 or 3 percent is especially significant, because the number of people living in extreme poverty has been falling for years.

Will panic buying lead to rotten food?

It’s hard to tell. Americans are buying tons of food, and some of that could end up in the trash.

“As a general rule, Americans already tend to produce a lot of food waste,” Miller said. “Estimates are 30 to 40 percent of food that is grown ends up going to waste — and a lot of that happens in our own refrigerators where we buy produce and then let it wilt and rot.”

This has big environmental consequences. Just think of all the farmland that could be devoted to wildlife, all the water that wouldn’t need to be pumped out of aquifers to farmland, if we stopped letting so much food rot.

But we are also spending so much time at home that we have time to cook, and to plan out how we will use up food. That makes this quarantine period an important opportunity Miller said: “Because if we are doing it now we might be able to keep doing it when things go back to normal.”

It’s also an opportunity to think a little differently about food waste. It’s understandable that people want to overstock their pantries even if it means throwing some things out, Lusk said, because for any one person waste is better than scarcity. Ideally we’d have a food system with some excess — that produces a little waste in normal times but can fill bellies in emergencies — rather than a system that’s so lean that leads to hunger when something unexpected happens. As we can see with masks and ventilators, there can be tragic downsides to keeping a lean supply of surplus.

OK, so what the heck is going on with toilet paper?

The explanation for those empty shelves isn’t panic buying. Sure, some people are buying too much. But people really do need more toilet paper at home because they aren’t using the bathrooms in office buildings, airports and restaurants anymore, as Will Oremus of OneZero explained in a post on Medium. The paper giant Georgia Pacific estimated that people staying at home full time would need to buy 40 percent more TP.

The larger issue is that supply chains just aren’t cut out for the shift in demand. Just like food — which is split into two supply chains for restaurants and grocery stores — toilet paper is divided between industrial and consumer markets. That toilet paper in public restrooms comes in giant rolls. And so, just like food, companies can’t just turn the trucks headed for the office parks and send them to grocery warehouses. They need to retool their supply chains to deliver household-sized products to grocery stores.

And once stores ran out of TP, Lusk thinks store managers may have prioritized other goods:

“If a grocery store has one semi-truck showing up at their backdoor from the warehouse, what do you tell the warehouse to fill that truck up with? Toilet paper is big and bulky: It doesn’t take a lot to fill up the back of a semi truck. If your choices are toilet paper or bread and pasta you are going to choose the bread and pasta. “

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Coronavirus myth-busting: The truth about empty shelves and toilet paper shortages

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Even coronavirus can’t stop Trump’s environmental rollbacks

On Thursday, political risk research and consulting firm the Eurasia Group released an updated version of its “Top Risks 2020” report to show how coronavirus has sped up the trends that worry the group the most. The new report warns that the public health crisis will pull attention and resources away from addressing climate change.

“With large-scale protest activity diminished because of social distancing, civil society actors will turn to cyber and online tools to apply pressure on companies and governments, most of which will have less appetite and ability to respond to climate change,” the report says.

In addition to climate action, environmental protection at large may be threatened. The Trump administration is in the process of implementing major environmental policy changes, such as a rule that would allow companies to kill birds without repercussions, a total overhaul of the bedrock National Environmental Protection Act, and new restrictions on the types of scientific research the EPA can use in decisions that affect public health. “The government has been trying to rush through and finalize rollbacks before the upcoming election,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit. “Trump wants to be able to say ‘I accomplished all this.’”

Even with the nation’s attention turned to a public health crisis, the administration does not appear to be slowing down. On Wednesday night, the EPA officially opened the required 30-day comment period for its proposal to limit science that can be used in regulatory decisions. Due to the coronavirus, there will be no public hearing.

On Thursday, the comment period for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act closed, despite pleas for an extension from conservation groups. Also on Thursday, the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission told reporters that he did not plan to delay the commission’s regulatory actions during the pandemic. And earlier last week, a BLM spokesperson told E&E News that the agency did not plan to postpone oil and gas lease sales.

Typically, when policy changes are proposed, they have to undergo a robust public input process, said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Policy Director for the Center for Western Priorities. Legally, he said, agencies have to take the public’s comments into account, respond to them, and incorporate them into decision-making. “If you don’t actually have the public able to attend public meetings, able to really thoughtfully put together public comments, then that’s kind of short-circuiting that feedback process,” he said, and it allows agencies “to kind of move forward with whatever they want.”

More than 80 environmental organizations sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt on Thursday requesting that the department suspend major policy and regulation changes, oil and gas lease sales, and public comment periods for the immediate future.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Interior told Grist, “All DOI actions, including comment periods and lease sales, are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis and adjustments are being made to ensure we are allowing for proper public input, while protecting the health and safety of the public and our employees.”

While the public at large may not have the mental bandwidth or physical ability to participate in rulemaking procedures right now, environmental organizations are keeping the pressure on, especially in the courts. “We’ve got about 100 active lawsuits to protect our air, water and endangered species and thus far they are proceeding,” said Suckling. “The federal courts have not stalled any of them yet.”

On Wednesday, after the Trump administration proceeded with an auction for offshore oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, environmental groups immediately filed a legal challenge to the sale. On Thursday, groups filed a lawsuit against the EPA for approving new chemicals without adequately informing the public, in violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

“[W]e are continuing to hold the Trump Administration accountable for its efforts to undermine our climate and clean air and water safeguards,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement to Grist. “The work may look different right now, but we’re still pushing forward to create the world we want to see together.”

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Even coronavirus can’t stop Trump’s environmental rollbacks

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New York City public schools will adopt ‘Meatless Mondays’

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Bye-bye, sloppy joes. Hello, tofu! Earlier this week New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that starting next school year, New York City’s public school lunchrooms will not serve meat on Mondays.

“Cutting back on meat a little will improve New Yorkers’ health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement (which was released, naturally, on a Monday.) “We’re expanding Meatless Mondays to all public schools to keep our lunch and planet green for generations to come.”

The New York City school district is the nation’s largest and includes more than 1,800 schools and  1.1 million students. The city’s “Meatless Monday” effort started out as a pilot program in 15 Brooklyn schools, where it proved to be both cost-effective and popular with students.

The fact that kids in NYC are down to munch on vegetarian or vegan meals once per week isn’t really a shocker; plant-based diets are more common among young people. Plus, the younger generation is pretty riled up about climate change, and there is no shortage of evidence that large-scale meat production plays a significant role in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Reducing our appetite for meat is one of the single biggest ways individuals can reduce their environmental impact on our planet,” said Mark Chambers, Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, in a statement. “Meatless Mondays will introduce hundreds of thousands of young New Yorkers to the idea that small changes in their diet can create larger changes for their health and the health of our planet.”

New York Public Schools is not the first district to adopt the policy — more than 100 other districts across the country have also signed on. So, so long, Monday mystery meat! You will not be missed.


New York City public schools will adopt ‘Meatless Mondays’

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Green New Deal has overwhelming bipartisan support, poll finds. At least, for now.

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This story was originally published by the HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Green New Deal is the most popular policy hardly anyone has heard of yet.

Eighty-two percent of Americans say they have heard “nothing at all” about the sweeping proposal to generate 100 percent of the nation’s electricity from clean sources within the next 10 years, upgrade the United States’ power grid, invest in energy efficiency and renewable technology, and provide training for jobs in the new, green economy.

But when asked “how much do you support or oppose” the aforementioned suite of policies, 81 percent of registered voters say they either “somewhat support” or “strongly support” the plan, according to new survey results shared exclusively with HuffPost from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University.

Ninety-two percent of Democrats supported the idea, including 93 percent of liberal Democrats and 90 percent of moderate-to-conservative Democrats. But 64 percent of Republicans ― including 75 percent of moderate-to-liberal Republicans and 57 percent of conservative Republicans ― also backed the policy goals outlined in the Green New Deal. 88 percent of independents endorsed the policies as well.

“Given that most Americans have strong support for the components and ideas of the Green New Deal, it becomes a communication strategy problem,” Abel Gustafson, a postdoctoral associate at Yale who co-authored a report on the findings, said by phone Sunday. “From here, it’s about how you can pitch it so you can maintain that bipartisan support throughout the rest of the process.”

The survey’s description of the Green New Deal’s tenets did not mention that more than 40 progressive members of Congress are championing the policy. The group includes Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a Democrat from New York), Representative John Lewis (a Democrat from Georgia) and Senator Jeff Merkley (a Democrat from Oregon).

Study after study shows Americans evaluate policies more negatively when they are told politicians from an opposing party back the ideas, and more positively when they are told politicians from their own party are in support. The findings therefore indicate that although most Republicans favor the Green New Deal in principle, they are not yet aware that the plan is proposed by the political left.

The survey ― administered online to 966 registered voters, with a margin of error of +/- three percentage points ― was performed from November 28 to December 11.

Support could erode if debate over the policy becomes more partisan, which seems likely. No Republican lawmakers have backed the Green New Deal. Most moderate and conservative Democrats have not said they support the idea, either.

“It matters how the Green New Deal is communicated in the future,” Gustafson said. “If it becomes more partisan and right-versus-left, we could see support drop from Americans on the right.”

The findings mirror survey results released Monday that found major support for a green jobs program across political ideologies, including party loyalists and those who move between parties. Those who say they support a green jobs program include:

98 percent of loyal Democrats
66 percent of loyal Republicans
96 percent of voters who cast ballots for President Barack Obama in 2012, President Donald Trump in 2016, and Democrats in the 2018 midterms
93 percent of voters who cast ballots for Obama, then Trump, then Republicans in 2018

The polling, published in The New York Times, came from Data for Progress, the left-leaning think tank behind the most comprehensive blueprint for a Green New Deal to date.

Polling also finds that Americans consider global warming a real issue and support policy changes to address it. Yale survey data from August found:

70 percent of Americans recognize global warming is happening
57 percent understand humans are causing the temperature rise
85 percent support funding research into renewable energy
77 percent support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant
63 percent support requiring utilities to generate one-fifth of their electricity from renewables

That made the latest findings on the Green New Deal ― one of the first major national surveys to use that term specifically ― “exciting but not necessarily surprising,” Gustafson said.

“The way we described the Green New Deal in our survey was by emphasizing the qualities that resonate with both sides, that it creates jobs and strengthens America’s economy and also accelerates the transition from fossil fuels,” he said. “We’re not surprised that conservatives support those things.”

Other polls show strong support for guaranteeing green jobs to unemployed Americans, a policy increasingly discussed as a vehicle for a Green New Deal but one that the Yale survey did not explicitly cite. In September, Data for Progress released polling that found 55 percent of eligible U.S. voters supported a jobs guarantee, while 23 percent opposed. When the jobs are green, that support remained the same, but the share of those outright opposed fell to 18 percent.

“Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike understand that they live on the same planet, the same country,” Corbin Trent, a spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez, said when read the Yale survey results over the phone. “We need highways, jobs, and improved infrastructure, and we need a 100 percent renewable-energy economy.”

The Green New Deal barreled into mainstream political discourse a little over a month ago after languishing for more than a decade on the fringes of policy debates. A new wave of progressive Democrats reclaimed the term ahead of November’s midterm election to describe the type of large-scale economic mobilization scientists say is required to keep global warming within 2.3 degrees F, beyond which sea-level rise and extreme weather are forecast to be catastrophic.

In November, protesters with the left-wing groups Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats occupied top Democrats’ offices to demand party leadership make climate change a top priority in the next Congress. Ocasio-Cortez, who campaigned on a democratic socialist vision of climate action, proposed establishing a select committee in Congress to shape a Green New Deal. Thirty-seven incoming or sitting House members pledged to support the plan.

On Friday, more than 300 state and local elected officials voiced their support for a Green New Deal in an open letter.

The legislative path forward remains unclear, but the Green New Deal is shaping up to be a major 2020 issue. Richard Ojeda, the failed West Virginia congressional candidate now running for president, said he supports the policy. Two likely contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination ― Senators Bernie Sanders (an Independent fom Vermont) and Cory Booker (a Democrat from New Jersey) ― came out in support of a Green New Deal. Merkley, another potential 2020 hopeful, was among the first to back the plan.

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Green New Deal has overwhelming bipartisan support, poll finds. At least, for now.

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Lisa Murkowski’s new plan for the Arctic gets a little help from … Santa Claus?

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Ho ho ho! It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas … for industries that stand to benefit from a melting Arctic. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, introduced something called the Arctic Policy Act last week, and she’s getting a boost from Old Saint Nick.

The bill is a new and improved version of the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984, which the senator says needs updating to keep up with the changing Arctic. It’s not lost on anyone that vanishing ice means more economic opportunities for Alaska. And Murkowski has been fighting hard to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. Thanks to President Trump, that dream could soon become reality.

As part of the senator’s new bill, the president would appoint nine members to the Arctic Research Commission. Seven of those members would be indigenous residents and researchers, and two would be industry representatives. (Looks like this is one list you can get on whether you’re naughty or nice.)

Speaking of Christmas, Murkowski tried to highlight the opportunities for Arctic commerce by invoking the holiday spirit. “I think Santa had this figured out a long time ago,” she said during a Senate floor speech. “Even Santa understood the geo-strategic position of the Arctic.”

Baby, it’s warm outside! Especially in the Arctic, which is warming at a rate double the rest of the planet.

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Lisa Murkowski’s new plan for the Arctic gets a little help from … Santa Claus?

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Best climate scenario is still too hot for many communities of color

It’s no surprise that the U.N.’s new major climate report has a lot to say about heat. But as average global temperatures continue to rise, certain communities are more at risk of getting burned than others.

Extreme heat already kills more people in the United States than any other weather event, including hurricanes or flooding. And when it strikes, urban low-income and communities of color often pay the highest price.

To paint a picture of how serious this is, we’ll need to get into some numbers. Scientists say that if we want to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change, we have to stop the world from reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2030. This is a hard number to hit, considering we’re currently on track to reach 3.4 Celsius by the end of the century. But even if we succeed, that moderate rate of warming would still lead to 38,000 more heat-related deaths each year compared to rates from the 1960s to 1990s.

Just how much heat mortality rates rise will depend on additional factors, including the vulnerability of specific populations, the built environment, and whether or not people have access to air conditioning. Older people, children, and people with pre-existing conditions are the most vulnerable to the heat. It can trigger asthma attacks and other complications as the body struggles to cool itself.

“You have more emergency room visits, more doctor visits, it’s just bad all around,” says Afif El-Hasan, a pediatrician and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association.

El-Hasan, who also serves on the Environmental Justice Advisory Group at the Southern California Air Quality Management District, says some of his low-income patients keep their windows open in lieu of air conditioning, inadvertently increasing their exposure to nearby sources of air pollution. Those pollutants can end up damaging their lungs, making them even more vulnerable to heat waves. The changing climate, coupled with socioeconomic inequities, trigger an avalanche of health risks, El-Hasan says. “Everything just cascades on top of each other and becomes a bigger problem than it might have otherwise been.”

Like real estate, heat vulnerability is very much about location. Not only are neighborhoods that border freeways more polluted, but they’re also actually hotter too. Plants and trees help cool the air, while dark pavement traps heat. As a result, places with more concrete and less green — often low-income, black and brown neighborhoods where there’s been a history of redlining or disinvestment — are several degrees warmer than their typically more affluent neighbors. It’s called the urban heat island effect, and in places like New York City, its consequences are stark. On average, 100 people die each year in the city — half of them African Americans, even though they only make up a quarter of the population.

“It’s becoming unlivable in urban cities,” says Cynthia Herrera, Environmental Policy and Advocacy Coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a community-based organization in Harlem. Over the summer, her organization tracked the number of weather advisories in the hopes of gathering information to help the community adapt to a warming climate. They recorded four heat waves this past summer — a number that’s likely to rise but already feels overwhelming to residents.

“Even if we just stay the same and have four heat waves every summer for the next 10 years we’re not prepared,” she said.

Heat-related deaths are entirely preventable, and there are still ways for communities to adapt — like greening cities and making sure people have places to cool down. Kim Knowlton, senior scientist and deputy director at the National Resources Defence Council, has hope that the U.N. report will be a wake-up call.

“The science about this has to do with everyone,” Knowlton says. “I hope that people start to demand protections for themselves.”

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Best climate scenario is still too hot for many communities of color

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The FDA is confused about the definition of ‘milk,’ so we talked to a dictionary expert

As a young kiddo, you probably looked up from the book you were reading to ask some version of the following question:  “Mommy, what does ‘obnoxious’ mean?”

More likely than not, a lazy adult advised you to look it up in the dictionary. That advice, while annoying, was instructive.

Perhaps the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should take a page from the dictionary, too. The agency has expressed some confusion over the word “milk,” and whether plant-based beverages like almond milk should be labeled as such.

“You know, an almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess,” FDA’s commissioner Scott Gottlieb said at a policy summit earlier this month.

The dairy industry has been begging the agency to address this topic of concern for nearly 20 years in the hopes of getting “milk” banished from the labels of non-dairy, climate-friendlier alternatives like soy, almond, coconut, and oat milk.

Big Lactose’s dreams might finally come true. The FDA released an official statement Thursday saying it was reviewing the question of what’s milk, and what’s not.

“All the lexicographers I know groaned and said, ‘Oh boy, here we go,” says Kory Stamper, lexicographer and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

“The FDA can decide whatever they want, but in terms of common usage, that use of [plant] milk is not going anywhere,” Stamper tells me. “It’s 600 years old.”

That’s right — almond milk actually dates back to the 1400s, according to Stamper.

Milk generally refers to the “fluid secreted by the mammary glands of females for the nourishment of their young,” as Merriam-Webster dictates, as well as milk from an animal “used as food by people.” The next definition, however, says that milk is also “a food product produced from seeds or fruit that resembles and is used similarly to cow’s milk,” as well as “a liquid resembling milk in appearance.”

Earlier this year, France decided to ban vegan foods from borrowing terminology from animal products (that means no more soy milk or vegan bacon). The justification? That consumers might confuse soy milk with dairy milk, for instance. There doesn’t seem to be much real confusion about whether plant-based milks are really milk milk, Stamper tells me.

The FDA seems to be taking a different tack than the French. Echoing the dairy industry, the agency’s statement suggests that when people hear “almond milk,” they might somehow think that it’s nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk. The nutritional comparison is another question in itself.

And the same discussion may soon turn to “meat.” As the debate heats up over what to call cell-cultured meat and meat alternatives, know this: While meat has referred to animal flesh since the 1300s, it was used for the flesh of a fruit or a nut (like the meat of a walnut) just a century later, Stamper tells me.

“It gets tricky when you start dealing with these general vocabulary terms that are really foundational,” Stamper says. “We think they have one clear meaning, but if you look at the history, their meanings are just not that clear. Their use goes back way further than we think.”

Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, knows he’s up against a challenge. If the FDA decides to take the milk out of almond milk, it could end up embroiled in a legal battle over commercial free speech rights.

“If you open our Standards of Identity, it talks about a lactating animal,” Gottlieb said at the policy summit, “but you open up a dictionary, it talks about milk coming from a lactating animal or a nut.”

The dairy industry’s hope seems to be that if these increasingly popular plant-based milks can no longer be billed as milk, their sales might dip. Whatever ends up on the label, at least one person is likely to keep buying almond milk anyway.

“I’m lactose intolerant, so I can’t drink dairy,” Stamper says. “I mostly drink nut milks.”

And she’ll probably keep calling it almond milk, just like the rest of us: “Trying to change general usage once it’s well established is pretty impossible, so good luck with that.”

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The FDA is confused about the definition of ‘milk,’ so we talked to a dictionary expert

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If Pruitt gets fired, the EPA is stuck with this coal lobbyist

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Senate is about to confirm the man who would take over the Environmental Protection Agency should Scott Pruitt step down. Andrew Wheeler, an energy lobbyist who has worked for the Senate’s biggest climate change denier, faces a confirmation vote for deputy administrator, the number two position at the agency, as soon as Tuesday.

Environmentalists say that having Wheeler in place would reassure the fossil fuel industry that it still has an “inside man” for the nation’s top environmental post should Pruitt finally succumb to his mounting ethics scandals.

“It would be similar to having a tobacco lobbyist heading up the American Lung Association,” Judith Enck, an Obama-era former EPA regional administrator, said in an email. “Wheeler would continue the polluting policies of Pruitt but perhaps have the good sense not to violate federal ethics rules.”

That’s because Wheeler has had decades of experience working for some of the biggest critics of environmental regulation, including Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, who has distinguished himself as the most vocal climate change denier in Congress. As a lobbyist with the firm Faegre Baker Daniel, one of his major clients has been the nation’s largest private coal company, Murray Energy, whose CEO Bob Murray has been a generous Republican donor and Trump supporter. Among his other clients are the uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources, the utility Xcel Energy, the biofuel firm Growth Energy, and the liquified natural gas company Bear Head LNG — all of which are regulated by the EPA.

Last fall, after months of speculation over who would fill the empty post, Trump nominated Wheeler. His hearing coincided with that for the Council of Environmental Quality nominee Kathleen Hartnett White, whose nomination was pulled after protests from Democrats. But Wheeler’s nomination proceeded, and after several lengthy delays, his confirmation vote advanced out of committee in February. Pruitt’s fortunes changed dramatically since then, and there is now the very real possibility he may soon exit EPA — leaving Wheeler to take over as acting administrator.

Bob Murray has been one of the most aggressive advocates for the EPA to review its endangerment finding. This finding, which forms the scientific basis for the EPA’s regulatory climate work, considers greenhouse gasses a public health threat. Shortly after Trump was inaugurated, Murray provided the administration a policy wish list in which rescinding the endangerment was a top priority. Wheeler admitted in his confirmation hearing that he was handed the same list (Wheeler was still lobbying on behalf of the company as recently as summer 2017).

Early in his career, Wheeler spent four years at the EPA during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. Afterward, he spent 14 years in the Senate working for Senator James Inhofe and his Environmental Public and Works Committee. (Inhofe is the author of a book on climate change entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.) As Wheeler’s own biography states, he worked on “greenhouse gas emissions legislation, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the Clear Skies Act and the Clean Air Interstate Rule” — but he omits that Inhofe’s staff often worked to undermine greenhouse gas regulation. According to HuffPost’s Alexander C. Kaufman, Wheeler cultivated a reputation as a “bully” for peppering environmental regulators with what they said were politically motivated congressional probes.

Wheeler takes after his former bosses. In 2010, he wrote that a controversy where climate scientists’ emails were hacked proved that the EPA’s climate endangerment finding should be reconsidered. “While the [Obama] Administration and their allies have tried to downplay this fact over the last few weeks, the fact is that this undermines their legal position as the Endangerment Finding is challenged in the courts.” And when Wheeler appeared before the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee last fall, he misrepresented the scientific consensus about human contribution to climate change. “I believe that man has an impact on the climate, but what’s not completely understood is what the impact is,” he told the committee.

His congressional experience may mean Wheeler is more adept at navigating the controversies that have diminished Pruitt’s star in the Trump White House.

Bruce Buckheit, a consultant who was the EPA’s head of air pollution enforcement during the Clinton administration, explains that in contrast to Scott Pruitt, who was “an outsider located in Oklahoma City and new on the scene in the last few years,” Wheeler brings to the post more substantial “depth of knowledge and contacts in Washington.”

But Wheeler is still vulnerable, namely over the ties to his former clients. The Intercept recently reported that he held fundraising parties for Senators John Barasso, a Wyoming Republican, and Inhofe last May, after he was rumored to be tapped for EPA, breaching the wall between political fundraising and public service.

The deputy administrator is not a public face for the agency, but the position has significant power in implementing Trump’s vision of crippling environmental protection. “He would have a lot of opportunity to do long-term damage on the personnel front,” Buckheit says. Past deputies have been involved with everything from making staffing decisions, such as appointments to the EPA’s science advisory committees, overseeing operations, working with regional offices and state agencies — all of which are issues that can affect EPA staffers’ morale and work.

“The role of deputy is kind of an inside job, at least for most deputies,” said Wake Forest University’s Stan Meiburg, who served as acting deputy administrator in the Obama administration. “Our standing joke in the deputy community is we do anything the administrator doesn’t want to do.”

Under Trump’s ethics executive order issued last year, Wheeler would not be able to participate in matters involving issues he lobbied on for at least two years. However, the White House has freely handed out waivers to officials, such as the EPA chemicals officer Nancy Beck, a former lobbyist, which allows them to work on policy that otherwise would be seen as a conflict of interest. According to ethics experts, there’s little standing in the way of Wheeler advocating for issues that may overlap with his former clients.

“Our current government ethics rules do not prevent a professional lobbyist like Wheeler from taking a leadership position in the agency that he has been trying to influence from the outside,” Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University, St. Louis, said in an email. “Wheeler’s appointment to the EPA exemplifies the motto: ‘Personnel is Policy.’”

When the Senate first held his confirmation hearing, it was in a different climate. Wheeler was the man to carry out Pruitt’s deregulatory vision. Soon, he could find himself in a very different kind of role, which is why environmental groups sounded the alarm again last week on the upcoming vote.

“Circumstances have changed,” John Coequyt, Sierra Club’s senior director of federal policy, said in an email. “[The] swift and insufficient committee process that has brought Wheeler to this point must be revisited so Wheeler’s own record and dirty dealings can be scrutinized.”

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If Pruitt gets fired, the EPA is stuck with this coal lobbyist

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Volkswagen: the scandal that never ends.

The Environmental Protection Agency relaxed regulations on some major sources of pollution on Thursday. The agency repealed its “once in, always in” policy under the Clean Air Act, which had been used to regulate major polluters since 1995.

Basically: Until just now, if you own a factory or power plant that qualified as a major polluter, but was modified to reduce hazardous output, you still had to comply with the regulations that apply to major polluters.

Why is it important to regulate sources of pollution even after they’re retrofitted to emit less? Because industry has a tendency to do the bare minimum to bring factories just below the “major polluter” threshold to subvert regulations.

The “once in, always in” rule has been effective in mitigating some of the negative effects of air pollution, which include brain damage, infertility, and cancer.

That’s why environmentalists are up in arms about the EPA’s decision to repeal the policy. It’s possible that hundreds of factories will profit from the reduced regulation.

“And those harmed most would be nearby communities already suffering a legacy of pollution,” John Walke, the NRDC’s clean air director, said in a statement.

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Volkswagen: the scandal that never ends.

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