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March, 2017:

California Upholds Auto Emissions Standards, Setting Up Face-Off With Trump

California’s clean-air agency voted on Friday to push ahead with stricter emissions standards for cars and trucks, setting up a potential legal battle with the Trump administration over the state’s plan to reduce planet-warming gases.

The vote, by the California Air Resources Board, is the boldest indication yet of California’s plan to stand up to President Trump’s agenda. Leading politicians in the state, from the governor down to many mayors, have promised to lead the resistance to Mr. Trump’s policies.

Mr. Trump, backing industry over environmental concerns, said easing emissions rules would help stimulate auto manufacturing. He vowed last week to loosen the regulations. Automakers are aggressively pursuing those changes after years of supporting stricter standards.

But California can write its own standards because of a longstanding waiver granted under the Clean Air Act, giving the state — the country’s biggest auto market — major sway over the auto industry. Twelve other states, including New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Washington, D.C., follow California’s standards, a coalition that covers more than 130 million residents and more than a third of the vehicle market in the United States.

“All of the evidence — call it science, call it economics — shows that if anything, these standards should be even more aggressive,” said the board member Daniel Sperling, a transportation expert at the University of California, Davis.

The board’s chairwoman, Mary D. Nichols, an assistant administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton, was even more pointed, admonishing automakers for milking Mr. Trump for favors.

“What were you thinking when you threw yourselves upon the mercy of the Trump administration to try to solve your problems?” she asked. “Let’s take action today, and let’s move on.”

Long a forerunner in environmental regulation, California worked with the Obama administration on joint standards that became a crucial part of the country’s effort to combat climate change. Officials said the regulations would reduce the country’s oil consumption by 12 billion barrels and eliminate six billion metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution over the lifetime of the cars affected. That amounts to more than a year’s worth of America’s carbon emissions.

Adopted in 2012, the standards would require automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks by 2025, to 54.5 miles per gallon, forcing automakers to speed development of highly fuel-efficient vehicles, including hybrid and electric cars. Mr. Trump intends to lower that target.

Friday’s unanimous vote by the 14-member board, which affirmed the higher standards through 2025, amounted to a public rejection of Mr. Trump’s plans.

Now, the question is how — or whether — the Trump administration will handle California’s dissent. The administration could choose to revoke California’s waiver, at which point experts expect the state would sue.

California sued the George W. Bush administration after it challenged California’s waiver in 2007. Mr. Obama reversed the federal challenge.

The White House and the E.P.A., which have not yet determined their plans for the California waiver, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Several states that follow California’s rules raced to its defense. “We’ve come a long way together,” said Steven Flint, director of the air resources division of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. “We’re with you, and we believe in what you’re doing.”

Environmentalists and public health experts have criticized the automakers’ resistance to emissions rules under the Trump administration as an about-face. All major automakers previously voiced support for the more stringent standards.

After the election of Mr. Trump, a group representing the nation’s biggest makers of cars and light trucks urged a reassessment of the emissions rules, which the group said posed a “substantial challenge” for the auto industry.

Automakers now complain about the steep technical challenge that the stringent standards pose. They have estimated that only about 3.5 percent of new vehicles are able to reach it, and that their industry would have to spend a “staggering” $200 billion by 2025 to comply.

A separate study by the International Council on Clean Transportation, a think tank supporting emissions controls, has estimated that the cost of meeting those standards could be overstated by as much as 40 percent. And auto industry experts have warned that a slowdown in America’s shift toward efficient cars could leave its auto market a global laggard.

John Bozzella, chief executive of Global Automakers, an industry trade group, said before the California vote that companies agreed on the need to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve fuel economy. But he urged California to fall into line with federal rules.

“There is a more effective way forward than regulatory systems that are different,” Mr. Bozzella said. He also suggested that demand for clean cars remained relatively tiny.

What was required, he said, were standards that “balance innovation, compliance and consumer needs and wants.”

Automakers have also been critical of a California’s zero-emission vehicle program, which requires automakers to sell a certain percentage of electric cars and trucks in California and nine other states. The board voted on Friday to continue that program.

Politicians in California, one of the country’s most Democratic states, have embraced acting as a bulwark against Mr. Trump’s policies, promising to defend the state’s laws on immigration, health care and the environment. Many cities in California have broad “sanctuary” policies aimed at protecting the rights of undocumented immigrants. State law also provides some protections for immigrants from being turned over to federal authorities for deportation.

In addition, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, declared that California would continue to work toward its legally required target of reducing carbon emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. And the state has retained Eric H. Holder Jr., the former United States attorney general, to advise on potential legal fights with the White House.

Even at the federal level, the president’s announcement alone will not be enough to immediately roll back emissions standards, a process expected to take more than a year of legal and regulatory reviews by the E.P.A. and the Transportation Department. The Trump administration would then need to propose its own replacement fuel-economy standards.

Still, the Trump administration’s move to ease emissions rules is the first part of an expected assault on Mr. Obama’s environmental legacy. In the coming weeks, Mr. Trump is also expected to announce that he will direct the E.P.A. to dismantle Obama-era regulations on pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, has said he does not think carbon dioxide is a primary cause of global warming, a statement at odds with the scientific consensus on climate change.

Bonnie Holmes-Gen of the American Lung Association of California, one of many health and environmental groups that spoke at the board meeting, said moving away from strict emissions standards would hurt public health and the health of the planet. She urged the state to stay its course.

“The public is bearing a huge cost — billions of dollars in health expenses and damage from climate,” Ms. Holmes-Gen said. “I urge California to keep us on track.”

Correction: March 25, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated Steven Flint’s position. He is director of the air resources division of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, not the director of the department.


The fossil fuel industry’s invisible colonization of academia

Corporate capture of academic research by the fossil fuel industry is an elephant in the room and a threat to tackling climate change.

On February 16, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center hosted a film screening of the “Rational Middle Energy Series.” The university promoted the event as “Finding Energy’s Rational Middle” and described the film’s motivation as “a need and desire for a balanced discussion about today’s energy issues.”

Who can argue with balance and rationality? And with Harvard’s stamp of approval, surely the information presented to students and the public would be credible and reliable. Right?


The event’s sponsor was Shell Oil Company. The producer of the film series was Shell. The film’s director is Vice President of a family-owned oil and gas company, and has taken approximately $300,000 from Shell. The host, Harvard Kennedy School, has received at least $3.75 million from Shell. And the event’s panel included a Shell Executive Vice President.

The film “The Great Transition” says natural gas is “clean” (in terms of carbon emissions, it is not) and that low-carbon, renewable energy is a “very long time off” (which is a political judgment, not a fact). Amy Myers Jaffe, identified in the film as the Executive Director of Energy and Sustainability at the University of California, Davis, says, “We need to be realistic that we’re gonna use fossil fuels now, because in the end, we are.” We are not told that she is a member of the US National Petroleum Council.

The film also features Richard Newell, who is identified as a Former Administrator at the US Energy Information Administration. “You can get 50% reductions in your emissions relative to coal through natural gas,” he says, ignoring the methane leaks that undermine such claims. The film neglects to mention that the Energy Initiative Newell founded and directed at Duke University was given $4 million by an Executive Vice President of a natural gas company.

Michelle Michot Foss, who offers skepticism about battery production for renewables, is identified as the Chief Energy Economist at the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas at Austin. What’s not said is that the Energy Institute she founded at UT Austin is funded by Chevron, ExxonMobil, and other fossil fuel interests including the Koch Foundation, or that she’s a partner in a natural gas company.

You may notice a pattern. The very experts we assume to be objective, and the very centers of research we assume to be independent, are connected with the very industry the public believes they are objectively studying.

Moreover, these connections are often kept hidden.

To say that these experts and research centers have conflicts of interest is an understatement: many of them exist as they do only because of the fossil fuel industry. They are industry projects with the appearance of neutrality and credibility given by academia.

After years conducting energy-related research at Harvard and MIT, we have come to discover firsthand that this pattern is systemic. Funding from Shell, Chevron, BP, and other oil and gas companies dominates Harvard’s energy and climate policy research, and Harvard research directors consult for the industry. These are the experts tasked with formulating policies for countering climate change, policies that threaten the profits – indeed the existence – of the fossil fuel industry.

Down the street at MIT, the Institute’s Energy Initiative is almost entirely funded by fossil fuel companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron.

MIT has taken $185 million from oil billionaire and climate denial financier David Koch, who is a Life Member of the university’s board.

The trend continues at Stanford, where one of us now works. The university’s Global Science and Energy Project is funded by ExxonMobil and Schlumberger. The Project’s founding and current directors are both petroleum engineers. Its current director also co-directs Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, which is named after (and was co-founded by) the CEO of a natural gas company (now owned by Shell). Across the bay, UC Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute is the product of a $500 million deal with BP – one that gives the company power over which research projects get funded and which don’t.

Fossil fuel interests – oil, gas, and coal companies, fossil-fueled utilities, and fossil fuel investors – have colonized nearly every nook and cranny of energy and climate policy research in American universities, and much of energy science too. And they have done so quietly, without the general public’s knowledge.

For comparison, imagine if public health research were funded predominantly by the tobacco industry. It doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to understand the folly of making policy or science research financially dependent on the very industry it may regulate or negatively affect. Harvard’s school of public health no longer takes funding from the tobacco industry for that very reason. Yet such conflicts of interest are not only rife in energy and climate research, they are the norm.

This norm is no accident: it is the product of a public relations strategy to neutralize science and target those whom ExxonMobil dubbed “Informed Influentials,” and it comes straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook. The myriad benefits of this strategy to the fossil fuel industry (and its effects on academic research) range from benign to insidious to unconscionable, but the big picture is simple: academia has a problem.

As scientists and policy experts rush to find solutions to the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, our institutions are embroiled in a nationwide conflict of interest with the industry that has the most to lose.

Our message to universities is: stop ignoring it.

We are not saying that universities must cut all ties with all fossil fuel companies. Energy research is so awash with fossil fuel funding that such a proposal would imply major changes. What we are saying is that denial – “I don’t see a conflict,” MIT’s Chairman told the Boston Globe – is no longer acceptable.

Two parallel approaches can help. First, mandatory standards should be established in climate policy and energy research for disclosing financial and professional ties with fossil fuel interests, akin to those required in medical research. And second, conflicts of interest should be reduced by prioritizing less conflicted funding and personnel.

One way or another, the colonization of academia by the fossil fuel industry must be confronted. Because when our nation’s “independent” research to stop climate change is in fact dependent on an industry whose interests oppose that goal, neither the public nor the future is well served.

Dr. Benjamin Franta is a PhD student in the Department of History at Stanford University, an Associate at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a former Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He has a PhD in Applied Physics from Harvard University.

Dr. Geoffrey Supran is a Post Doctoral Associate in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Post Doctoral Fellow in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University. He has a PhD in Materials Science & Engineering from MIT.

China’s premier unveils smog-busting plan to ‘make skies blue again’

Li Keqiang promises to intensify battle against air pollution as he unveils series of measures at annual people’s congress

The Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, has promised to step up his country’s battle against deadly smog, telling an annual political congress: “We will make our skies blue again.”

China’s cities have become synonymous with choking air pollution in recent years, which is blamed for up to 1 million premature deaths a year.

Speaking at the opening of the national people’s congress in Beijing on Sunday, Li admitted his country was facing a grave environmental crisis that had left Chinese citizens desperately hoping for relief.

Li unveiled a series of smog-busting measures including cutting coal use, upgrading coal-fired power plants, slashing vehicle emissions, encouraging the use of clean-energy cars and punishing government officials who ignore environmental crimes or air pollution. “Key sources” of industrial pollutants would be placed under 24-hour online monitoring in an effort to cut emissions.

The premier vowed that levels of PM2.5 would fall “markedly” over the coming year but did not cite a specific target.

“Tackling smog is down to every last one of us, and success depends on action and commitment. As long as the whole of our society keeps trying we will have more and more blue skies with each passing year,” he said.

PM2.5 is a tiny airborne particulate that has been linked to lung cancer, asthma and heart disease.

Despite his buoyant message, Li’s language was more cautious than three years ago when he used the same opening speech to “resolutely declare war on pollution” and warn that smog was “nature’s red light warning against inefficient and blind development”.

There has been public frustration – and protest – against Beijing’s failure to achieve results in its quest to clean up the environment. Tens of thousands of “smog refugees” reportedly fled China’s pollution-stricken north last December as a result of the country’s latest pollution “red alert”.

Wei Song, a Chinese opera singer who attended Li’s speech, said it was inhuman to “achieve development goals by sacrificing the environment” and called for tougher measures against polluters.

“The government should increase the penalties in order to bankrupt the people and the companies responsible. Otherwise, if the punishment is just a little scratch, they will carry on polluting,” said Wei, one of China’s “three tenors”.

Zhang Bawu, a senior Communist party official from Ningxia province, defended China’s “much improved” record on the environment.

He claimed the number of smoggy days in Beijing was now falling thanks to government efforts and he said his province, which is building what could become the biggest solar farm on Earth, was also doing its bit.

Ningxia’s frontline role in a Chinese wind and solar revolution meant 40% of its energy now came from renewable sources, Zhang said.

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen