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A House subcommittee examined whether recent provisions passed by the EPA to regulate the methane emissions of energy companies are too restrictive.read more
Environmental advocates warn that Biden’s plans for border wall in Rio Grande valley violate treaty on water rights
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Congress has a few months to renew the Farm Bill in a bipartisan manner. Already, partisan fights are breaking out.read more
WASHINGTON — The United States Botanic Garden’s annual holiday exhibit is now open, spotlighting model trains and D.C. landmarks made from plant materials. Upholding the tradition requires a large undertaking.
“We close the holiday show every year on January 1, and we immediately start having meetings right after that in January where we talk about each year’s show: what went well, what we want to do differently next year, deciding the theme for next year’s show,” said Devin Dotson, public affairs specialist for the USBG. “It’s a year-round endeavor to make the magic happen.”
This year’s theme is pollinators, which are featured throughout the outdoor train display, ranging from the familiar bird and bee to the less commonly known: a pygmy possum, a lemur, and a bat.
Applied Imagination designs and creates the train display and new models for the USBG every year. The elements of the exhibit are made ahead of time at its workshop in Alexandria and Kentucky and are shipped and assembled onsite at USBG over a week with staff from Applied Imagination as well.
“Over 30 years, the concept of botanical architecture has evolved through the hands of our artisans, each building taking 100 to 1000 hours to complete, and sometimes much more,” said Laura Busse Dolan, president and CEO of Applied Imagination, in an email interview.
The USBG and Applied Imagination began working together in 2004. One of the first models created for the USBG by Applied Imagination was the U.S. Capitol.
The D.C. landmarks collection now encompasses 22 models. The newest additions to the collection are the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the National Gallery of Art East Building, and the Summerhouse on Capitol Grounds.
Dotson encourages visitors to explore the plant-based models closely to see how artists have captured the fine details.
“You’ve got the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian Castle, which themselves are very ornate and have a lot of detail in real life,” Dotson said. “Our sculptural models have so many different seeds and cinnamon sticks and wheat and acorn caps, all sorts of stuff. I mean, there’s several hundred different plant parts that are used to create these.”
There will be extended hours for live holiday music in the evenings on three Thursdays in December: Dec. 14, Dec. 21, and Dec. 28. The U.S. Botanic Garden is free and open every day except Christmas.
WASHINGTON – Climate experts warned lawmakers about the effect of climate change on extreme weather during the first-ever congressional hearing on extreme event attribution, a field of climate science. They offered solutions to help Congress navigate more frequent and intensified weather events, like storms, droughts and heatwaves.
“We’re the first generation to suffer from climate change, but the last generation which can do anything about it, so that’s our challenge,” said Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.).
Instances of extreme weather events are on the rise. This summer, Phoenix set a record of 31 consecutive days of temperatures at or above 110 degrees. On the other side of the country, Florida experienced severe rainfall, leading to flooding in the streets.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said extreme event attribution, which detects the extent to which man-made global warming influences extreme weather, can be an “important tool,” as Congress takes steps to manage and prepare for severe weather events.
“These questions matter because the human harms and costs of climate change are massive, and sadly, they are growing,” Carper said. “We are going to focus on how it’s fueling extreme weather and what we can do about it.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) stressed the importance of finding bipartisan solutions over debating the causes of extreme weather, highlighting that extreme event attribution can’t tell whether global warming “caused” a specific event.
Michael Wehner, a climate scientist at the Applied Mathematics and Computational Research Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, also emphasized the economic consequences of extreme weather. He estimated that global warming was responsible for about $50 billion in damages from flooding during Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that made landfall in Texas and Louisiana in 2017.
Extreme weather disproportionately impacts younger, older and low-income populations, Wehner added. Poor people are among the most vulnerable, as they are the least able to recover from these kinds of events, he said.
“These damages were not equally distributed within socioeconomic groups,” Wehner said. “The most vulnerable portion of the local population was disproportionately affected, and climate change exacerbated this injustice.”
Paul Dabbar, a former Department of Energy official, advocated for “technology-neutral innovation” and open strategies, which would further the competition of discovery.
“The right strategy for the world today is to continue discovery, innovation and deployment of new options,” Dabbar said. “While we certainly need to understand the drivers of climate change, we should focus on solutions also.”
Carper asked how attribution science could inform the designing and engineering of infrastructure, such that roads, bridges and pipes could better withstand severe weather. In response, Wehner described his experience working with the San Francisco city government on their waste management system, which had raised concerns about extreme precipitation. He quoted one city official, who said: “There ain’t no pipe good enough.”
“That has sent the engineers and designers back to the drawing room, saying ‘How will we accommodate these storms in a world that might be considerably warmer,’” he testified.
Wehner told the Medill News Service that cities need to adapt to increased extreme weather conditions by being more proactive, like adding green roofs or rethinking wastewater management systems.
“In order to avoid more dangerous climate change, we have to have the entire planet go to zero emissions to stabilize the climate — that’s not going to happen in my lifetime,” Wehner said. “So then, we have to adapt.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked how insurance companies were dealing with extreme flooding in Florida, to which Jennifer Jurado, the chief resilience officer for Broward County, Florida, replied that some local insurance companies in Florida are going bankrupt, while others are pulling out of the state altogether to avoid future risk.
Lawmakers stressed the importance of working together to find solutions to mitigate the effects of extreme weather events in the future.
“While climate change is driving extreme weather, we are not helpless. This situation is not hopeless,” Carper said. “Working together, we can prevent the worst impacts of global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
WASHINGTON – “I’ll show you what I dug out of one [camel] skeleton,” said marine scientist Marcus Eriksen as he unearthed a roughly 40-pound mass that he estimated held 2,000 plastic bags.
Eriksen’s display came as he and other experts testified on potential solutions to single-use plastics pollution, encompassing varying perspectives from new materials to improved recycling, during a subcommittee hearing for the Senate Environment and Public Works on Thursday.
Eriksen, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, said he has also pulled plastic bags out of hundreds of bird skeletons, and he’s had colleagues find them in whale guts too. He emphasized the global abundance of plastic waste that has risen exponentially in the last 15 years and resulted in serious health impacts for numerous species.
“These small, even nanoscale, particles are found in your bloodstream,” Eriksen said in an interview with the Medill News Service before the hearing. “They get into the placenta of mothers. It gets into the organs of humans. It even crossed the brain barrier in studies of rats and mice.”
There was also an intermittent back and forth on whether plastic bags can be recycled, illustrating the larger confusion on the country’s present recycling system and its limited efficacy.
Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., asked about the proliferation of plastic bags in the 40-pound mass, saying that it was his understanding that plastic bags can be recycled. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said plastic bags cannot be recycled and that the recycling rate in general “stinks,” calling it “very, very much a failed system.”
In response, Mullin maintained that there are ways to recycle plastic bags to which Whitehouse said he had meant you can’t dispose of plastic bags in a mixed-use recycling bin.
Erin Simon, vice president and head of Plastic Waste and Business at the World Wildlife Fund, said plastic bags are technically recyclable but not recycled. Some recycling facilities do not accept plastic bags, wraps, and film in recycling bins because they clog machinery and cause safety hazards.
During the discussion, Mullin cautioned against “a knee-jerk reaction” and called for “innovation, not misguided regulation.” He highlighted the work of witness Humberto Kravetz, the founder and CEO of GSF Upcycling, a Spain-based company that recycles plastic with less energy and environmental cost by using nanomaterials.
Eriksen called for biodegradable plastics as a solution. He noted his organization’s 18-month field study that measured how 22 bioplastic items broke down in different land and marine environments with most samples degrading significantly within the timespan.
“A lot of these biomaterials, they are functional replacements, especially as a thin film,” Eriksen said in an interview before the hearing.
Eriksen also discussed the potential of regenerative materials such as seaweed and mushrooms as feedstocks for biobased materials as an alternative to plastics made from fossil fuels.
Simon noted the need for caution when considering the tradeoffs of switching to alternative materials, emphasizing that steps can be taken when sourcing alternatives to ensure there are more environmental and social benefits compared to conventional plastic.
Whitehouse argued that an economic component needs to be added to the technical conversation to provide incentives by reaching a point where recycled materials are cheaper than virgin plastic.
“If that economic signal shifts, then suddenly recycling works,” Whitehouse said, “because if there’s one rule of capitalism, it’s the profits imperative.”
According to Simon, it’s the responsibility of governments and industries to make systems work for consumers while also addressing current trends.
“All of the science tells us that, whether you’re talking about this from a pollution issue or from human health, first we need to produce less,” Simon said in an interview before the hearing. “We can’t manage what we have, let alone what we’re projected to grow to.”
Native leaders highlight shortcomings in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act implementation
WASHINGTON — Native leaders expressed frustration with the implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), citing a lack of communication and technical assistance from the federal government.
A roundtable held by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday discussed the rollout of the IIJA and IRA in Native communities.
Included in the bills are allocations for grants that tribes can apply for. However, tribal leaders expressed the different obstacles they face when applying to these grants, including but not limited to, a lack of broadband access, challenges with citing a physical address and inconsistent communication with government agencies.
“Right now, the biggest challenges are access to these grants, access to the tools to utilize these grants,” said Jasmine Boyle, chief development officer for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program.
Additionally, for tribes in rural Alaska, not having a physical address further complicates the grant application process, where a mailing address is required in order to complete.
Susan Masten, interim executive director of the Native American Finance Officers Association, called on Congress to authorize the Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service to provide the technical assistance and tax advice that tribal communities need.
“It’s wonderful to see Congress be like, this money is to empower tribes, and tribes being like, okay, but how do I get it?” said Heather Tanana, initiative lead at the Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribal Communities Project, in an interview with Medill News Service.
Timothy Nuvangyaoma, chairman of the Hopi Tribe in Arizona, noted a delayed response time when his tribe applied to waive a $10 million cost match for a project, which asked that the tribe put forth more than half of their general fund budget.
“Communication needs to get better, and they shouldn’t be leaving any tribe, a sovereign tribe, holding their breath and wondering what’s going on,” he said.
Shawn Malia Kana’iaupani, president and CEO of Partners in Development Foundation in Honolulu, emphasized the long history of stewardship in Native communities and existing strong relationships. She said it is important to fund Native organizations which mitigate significant crises but also safeguard their traditions and way of life.
“Even when a program is fully on the agency to implement and the tribe doesn’t have to apply for it, that consultation and engagement is really critical to make sure their needs are identified and included,” said Tanana.
During the discussion, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) emphasized that this is not a policy problem, highlighting that the IIJA and IRA are very clear in their legislative intent to empower Native communities. He said the problem stems from agencies not experienced in working with Native communities.
“It’s sort of, for [agencies], square peg, round hole so what they do is they try to get you to resemble the thing that they’re accustomed to,” said Schatz. “That is not what they’re supposed to do.”
Boyle said she was told by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Inspector General that tribes can face a permanent loss of access to further federal grant funding opportunities if they miss compliance deadlines that were extended. She and other Native leaders feel that, at large, agency expectations do not account for present capacity.
“Sometimes there’s one staff person and they are wearing many hats in some of the smaller tribes,” said Masten. “The requirements for reporting and the application process are all different and sometimes they’re everchanging. So, to stay on top of that, it almost makes it impossible for a tribe. So then you’re not helping out the very communities that you intended to help out.”
WASHINGTON – A House oversight hearing on Wednesday became a lightning rod for partisan criticism on immigration, with Republicans using the forum to ostensibly showcasing their concern for how the Biden administration border policies have led to environmental degradation in national parks.
Democrats called their criticism a political stunt.
The hearing by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources was organized by Republicans, who control the House. One of their main lines of attacks was New York City’s plan to use national parkland at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn as a site to house migrants. A bipartisan group of New York lawmakers has sued to block those efforts, but New York Mayor Eric Adams announced this week plans to move forward with the effort.
“That’s not my vision of the national park or the purpose of the national park, and I don’t think it’s what many Americans consider that to be,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chairman of the full House Natural Resources Committee.
Typically, federal actions that could affect the quality of the environment require environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). But by having the mayor declare an emergency, the need for environmental impact statements and public hearings were waived. Some panelists were critical of that shortcut.
By overlooking the process required by NEPA, “the environmental effects of the open border will continue, and Americans across the interior will continue to feel the effects of overcrowding in their daily lives,” said Julie Axelrod, director of litigation at the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit that pushes for a lower number of immigrants to the U.S.
When asked whether there were additional requests to use other national park sites to house migrants, Michael Reynolds, deputy director of the National Park Service, said that there were not.
Witnesses invited by Republicans also tried to link the migrant crisis to illegal marijuana trade and asserted that the flow has led to increased crime from cartels.
“The cartels from Mexico, along with other worldwide transnational criminal organizations, what we call TCOs, have become the biggest domestic public safety threat and some of the greatest destroyers of our natural resources throughout America,” said Lt. John Nores Jr., a member of the marijuana enforcement team at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats argued that implementing stricter border policy and building a wall “doesn’t deal with the root cause” of the migrant crisis.
“Today’s hearing is about using this platform and this forum to continue to talk about immigration as perceived by the majority, by the Republican majority, as the definitive political issue going into 2024,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
“The target is not only the security of the border, but managing what is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis before us,” said Grijalva on what is needed at the border.
Despite the partisan tensions at the hearing, Westerman urged lawmakers to work together to secure the border.
“If there were ever a time for bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, it is now.”
Senators Clash on the Limits of Federal Power in Water Regulation After a Recent Supreme Court Decision
WASHINGTON – Partisan discord over the federal government’s regulatory powers was on full display Wednesday during a Senate committee hearing on the implications of a Supreme Court ruling in May that drastically scaled back wetland protections and forced the Biden administration to revise its policies.
At the outset, Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, slammed the Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, saying that scientists estimate half of the nation’s wetlands no longer have protections under the Clean Water Act after the ruling. Carper also cited the important role of wetlands as natural sponges and habitats in addition to sequestering carbon.
“Removing protections for wetlands is especially shortsighted as climate change continues to fuel more extreme weather events, which we witness almost daily,” Carper said.
Carper also noted that Wednesday was the 51st anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which he said has been successful in cleaning up the country’s waters and slowing the loss of wetlands.
The Supreme Court ruling related to the so-called waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS, which defines what kind of bodies of waters that the federal government can regulate. Experts say the Supreme Court ruling in Sackett essentially gutted the Biden administration’s first take on that definition, forcing the EPA to rework its rules.
The agency released its revised rule in late August, and it took effect in early September. The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Shelley Capito (R-W.Va.), however, contended that the Biden EPA had not correctly revised the definition of WOTUS in accordance with the ruling, thus inviting more litigation.
The hearing included a pointed exchange between Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) and Carper.
Mullin spoke of his experience as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and said that tribes have been continuously fighting for water rights and don’t need more government involvement. He pushed back on the idea that all waters, including wetlands, should be subject to federal regulation.
“Are you not afraid of the overreach of the federal government at this point because I am very skeptical,” Mullin said to Mažeika Patricio Sulliván, director of the Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology, who had just testified.
When Carper later gaveled to signal the end of Mullin’s time, Mullin retorted that Carper did not do the same to a Democratic senator on the committee who had gone over time. Carper said he only gaveled lightly as a reminder and invited Mullin to continue his remarks. Mullin declined and then left the hearing.
Carper later requested to submit into record an amicus brief in the Sackett v. EPA case by 18 federally recognized tribes who said a narrower definition of Clean Water Act protections would harm their ability to protect against cross-border pollution.
Other environmental advocates also oppose the court decision, which eliminates protections for tens of millions of acres of wetlands and paves the way for further development.
Susan Bodine, a partner at Earth & Water Law, however, contended the Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett is consistent with the history of the CWA. She agreed with Capito’s contention that the Biden administration’s rule revision doesn’t fully implement the court decision.
Bodine also said that there are already protections for wetlands in effect and that states can adopt their own definitions of WOTUS. But advocates for a more expansive definition of WOTUS say that the other protections are not enough and the narrow interpretation contradicts scientific evidence.
“The Court bludgeons science to render an opinion that is catastrophic for water protection across the United States,” Sulliván said in his written testimony. “The Court’s primary conclusion requiring a permanent hydrological surface connection demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how natural waters function and connect across space and time.”
Kourtney Revels, who is a water justice organizer at Bayou City Waterkeeper in Houston, testified on the repeated flooding in her community. In an interview before the hearing, she said policies need to center the community first and foremost.
Decisions “have to be really strategic, but the only way that they can be thought out and strategic is to talk to the people that are going to be the most impacted,” Revels said. “Go and look where these prairie wetlands are and you’ll see what we mean. All you have to do is get in a car and take a ride, and you’ll see the difference.”
WASHINGTON — The White House announced plans to fund $7 billion in seven hydrogen hubs across 16 states on Friday — one of its largest investments in clean manufacturing. The hydrogen hubs are estimated to bring public and private investments of almost $50 billion.
“Our investments in infrastructure and energy are a core tenet of Bidenomics,” said Ryan Berni, a White House infrastructure advisor, during a press call. “Advancing clean hydrogen is essential to achieve the President’s vision for a strong, clean energy economy.”
Hydrogen hubs are clusters of companies in the same region that produce, process and use hydrogen fuel.
Mary Repko, the Deputy National Climate Advisor, said clean hydrogen is a crucial component of the Biden administration’s strategy to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Clean hydrogen can be produced from resources, like solar energy, wind, nuclear, and biomass, which create minimal greenhouse gasses, Repko said.
“The hubs will also accelerate the commercial-scale deployment of clean hydrogen, helping generate clean dispatchable power, creating a new form of energy storage and decarbonizing heavy industry and transportation,” Repko said.
Not all forms of hydrogen energy benefit the environment. The production of hydrogen can release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, depending on how it was made.
One form, called “gray hydrogen,” is derived from natural gas, which is considered a fossil fuel. “Blue hydrogen” is created the same way, but also captures and stores the carbon dioxide, which mitigates environmental damage. Even with blue hydrogen, methane emissions, or leaks from drilling, extraction and transportation, are inevitable, according to CNBC.
But “green hydrogen” doesn’t produce emissions, since it’s produced from electrolysis — a process where water is split into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity. The problem is that green hydrogen comes with a bigger price tag.
White House officials said they evaluated the emission footprint of each hub, which they took into account when deciding the seven hubs for investment.
Three of the hubs the Biden administration selected will rely on natural gas at least in part. Two hubs will rely solely on renewable sources to produce hydrogen energy.
Once in full operation, the proposed hubs will reduce 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in end-use annually — the equivalent of 5.5 million gasoline powered cars, Repko said. The project will soon enter the first design phase, while most of the investment will be in the third phase of construction.
The Biden administration wants to produce 10 million metric tons of hydrogen by 2030. These seven hubs will contribute 3 million metric tons each year, Repko said, bringing the White House closer to reaching that goal.
David Crane, an official at the Department of Energy, compared hydrogen energy to the “Swiss army knife of clean energy,” but with a catch.
“It’s a Swiss army knife made in America,” Crane said. “The thing about all of this hydrogen production is it’s all going to be purely domestic.”
The White House stated the hydrogen hubs will support local economies by supplying jobs in construction and manufacturing, anticipating to create tens of thousands of jobs.
Several of the hubs were developed in close partnerships with unions, Berni added. Each hub submitted a community benefits plan describing the steps it will take to engage with community labor groups.
The seven hydrogen hubs will cross state lines, and in some cases, cover hundreds of miles. For example, the Appalachian hydrogen hub spans parts of West Virginia, southeast Ohio and southwest Pennsylvania.
Other hubs include a California hub, a Texas hub, a Midwest hub reaching parts of Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, another Midwest hub encompassing Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota and a Pacific Northwest hub covering parts of Washington, Oregon and Montana.
“These are geographic regions of the country that will move towards the hydrogen economy first,” Crane said. “Our hope over time is that as a second step and the third step, they all get linked together into a national hydrogen economy.”
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has been touting the success of the Inflation Reduction Act since its passage one year ago, but whether it has reduced the country’s reliance on China has been hotly debated.
The law, which passed solely with Democratic votes, created a $490 billion pot of federal tax incentives to encourage companies to invest in clean, renewable energy. At the heart of the legislation is a push to build new, emissions-free electricity sources, like wind and solar farms, and electric vehicle manufacturing plants, with the goal of creating more good-paying jobs and bolstering the U.S. economy.
But the law has been a favorite target of Republican criticism during committee hearings, stump speeches on the campaign trail and press releases. One central argument is that the policies shift dependence on the Middle East to China, which dominates the supply chains for many of the components used in clean energy technologies.
John Podesta, senior adviser to Biden for clean energy innovation and implementation, disputed the notion that the law is having that effect.
“We’re working with our allies around the world — from the E.U. to South Korea — to secure reliable supplies of critical minerals,” he said on Wednesday during a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution. “We need to friend shore sustainable, secure, resilient global supply chains for clean energy that breaks our collective reliance on China for production of those, particularly those upstream technologies.”
But Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow emeritus of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said the U.S. must engage with China rather than cut the country off to fight climate change.
He acknowledged that China has used unfair trade practices and hidden subsidies in the past, but added it was important to build on the advances it has made.
“For us to go [into this climate work] and not deal with the Chinese — cooperate with them where we can buy from them or license technology from them when we must — is simply to delay our transition and our capacity to deal with these problems more on our own,” Lieberthal said.
One of the Biden administration’s goals under the IRA is to reach 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. To reach that target, the U.S. needs to deploy high-performance transmission lines at twice the current pace. This requires permitting – like environmental reviews and technical analysis – which can take anywhere from four to 10 years.
“We need to build a lot of infrastructure to actually materialize those gains that the IRA is promising,” said Sanjay Patnaik, an economist and director of the Center on Regulation and Markets at Brookings. “And if you really want to build a lot of these infrastructures, like transmission lines and power generation, you need to speed up [the permitting process] much more.”
Podesta said the Biden administration is using every tool at its disposal to accelerate the federal permitting process but agreed that the process needs to be improved.
The labor shortage in the United States has also presented challenges. The White House says the IRA has already created over 170,000 clean energy jobs and could create more than 1.5 million over the next decade, but there is a lack of money committed to training people to fill these roles, said Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro.
“America is multiple decades deep in an education system that really overpromoted four-year degrees at the expense of other skill development, and we’re now seeing the deserts of that,” Tomer said. “We need new kinds of metropolitan scale or regional scale partnerships between local government workforce intermediaries and employers, from both the public and private sector.”
But he noted that the federal government, including the Department of Labor, is setting up regional workforce training that can address that issue.
Yet despite the partisan criticisms, Podesta was quick to point out the long-term benefits of the IRA.
Podesta said the IRA is expected to drive down the cost of clean energy technologies by as much as 25% worldwide, which will help make “every dollar go further across the globe.”
“These are real results for the economy, for our planet, and for the American people,” Podesta said.
WASHINGTON – Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) led a subcommittee hearing on Thursday that explored the need for a national policy on deposit return for beverage containers to help decrease packaging waste, such as plastic.
“More and more, it makes that blue bin in my kitchen look to me like a prop,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), referring to the state of the current recycling system in the United States. “That is a prop in an essentially fraudulent scheme to make American consumers think that they can buy all the plastic they want for as long as they want.”
A deposit return system would mean that when consumers buy a beverage container, part of the cost is a refundable deposit that they can get back when they return the empty container to be recycled.
“The inability to effectively recycle beverage containers in most states is increasingly contributing to our plastic pollution, marine debris, and climate crises,” said Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute. She pointed to a national deposit return system as the best solution that would address these issues.
Deposit return systems, or bottle bills, are currently in place in ten states. Oregon, Merkley’s home state, is behind the most successful one with a nearly 90% redemption rate.
Oregon’s Bottle Bill was created more than 50 years ago and included a 5-cent refund for empty beer and soda containers. There is now a 10-cent refund and glass, metal and plastic beverage containers are accepted.
“The challenge is that no federal system can be one-size-fits-all,” said Jules Bailey, president and CEO of the Oregon Bottle Recycling Cooperative (OBRC), in an interview before the hearing. “I think the principle here is that the government needs to set an outcome that it wants and assign the responsible parties and then leave the rest to individual states and the private market to figure out how to best meet those outcomes.”
A deposit return system emphasizes extended producer responsibility. OBRC, owned by beverage distributors, operates the return system spanning redemption centers, trucking, material processing, and marketing. The program uses no taxpayer money and is instead funded by industry.
“I like the bottle bills where the bottlers pay for the handling and processing of their material and not the consumers because it makes them have to think about what it is they’re doing,” said Jackie Nuñez, the founder of The Last Plastic Straw and advocacy and engagement manager for the Plastic Pollution Coalition. “If plastic is the only thing they can make their bottles out of and they think that’s a feasible thing, well, they have to pay for the true cost of that.”
Nuñez said that she is reminded of when, in 1956, Modern Packaging magazine editor Lloyd Stouffer said in an industry gathering that “the future of plastics is in the trash can.”
“If you convince people to throw it away, you have a whole other market. And look at where we are today,” Nuñez said.
She wants more significant action. She said that single-use plastic should be taken out of the recycling system altogether and instead be regulated and handled as the toxic waste that it is.
“[Industries] like to focus the conversation on ‘plastic waste’. It’s always a ‘waste’ or a consumer compliance problem for recycling, focusing on the downstream,” Nuñez said. “It’s a wasteful plastic problem, and pollution by design. The whole system and its profit model is based on waste. That’s where it needs to change.”
Near the end of the hearing, Merkley said he challenges each of the witnesses to later lay out the basics of what a national framework would look like, one that leaves flexibility to the states.
“I know that there’s a number of my colleagues across the aisle who really have started to see the impact of plastics, especially on the ocean states, and would like to ponder if there’s a framework that could make sense, both as good policy and perhaps good politics,” Merkley said.
WASHINGTON – Native American communities are still woefully behind in reliable access to water, a public health problem that is exposing populations to an array of issues, from personal hygiene to respiratory illness.
In an effort to ensure that the federal government is meeting the needs of tribes, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday held an oversight hearing to examine what still needs to be done to bridge the gap.
“According to the IHS (Indian Health Service), 1 in 10 Native Americans lack access to clean water,” vice chair of the committee, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), said in her opening statement. “It should shock us as Americans that basic, basic matters, like safe water, basic sanitation are still so unmet in many places.”
Prior legislation seeking to bring access to water in Native communities includes, but is not limited to, water rights settlements. Congress is now examining where money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act can be spent to address Native communities’ water needs.
Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland praised the more than $3.1 billion the administration has allocated for enacted water rights settlements, in which the government intervenes to settle disputes over water rights. Newland also cited the more than $2.2 billion from the Indian Water Right Settlement Completion Fund established by the infrastructure law.
But the lack of water access is particularly acute on Native American reservations, where nearly half of households don’t have access to reliable water sources, clean drinking water or adequate sanitation, said Heather Tanana, initiative lead of the Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribal Communities Project.
Tanana stressed the U.S. government’s responsibility to provide access to clean water on reservations it established, mostly through treaties, as homelands for Native Americans.
“A permanent, livable, and prosperous homeland cannot exist without this minimum requirement of life—access to an adequate and healthful supply of drinking water,” Tanana said in written testimony. “Unfortunately, the federal government has largely failed to fulfill its duty to ensure clean water access for Tribes.”
One other complication has been the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. Navajo Nation on June 22, in which the Navajo Nation asked for a court order requiring the federal government to assess the needs of the Navajo nation and come up with a plan to meet those needs. However, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court determined that the U.S. government has no “affirmative duty” to provide water.
“In other words, the United States does not have to help the Navajo Nation access water it is legally entitled to despite the promise of a permanent and viable home,” said Tanana.
Approximately 30% of Navajo Nation homes lack running water. Crystalyne Curley, speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, emphasized that a lack of access to water isn’t simply about domestic water supply. It also impedes economic development as water is needed to sustain farming, industrial development and municipal development.
While leaders of Native communities thanked lawmakers for previous passed legislation to bring access to water in their communities, they emphasized the need for the U.S. government to reaffirm its trust responsibility to Native communities.
Solutions presented by leaders focused on building capacity, which would allow Native Americans themselves to assess the needs of their own communities. They also pushed for the continuation of the partnership between the federal government and Native communities to enact new laws as well as allocate existing money to aid more Native communities.
“It’s imperative that the federal government remedy harms inflicted, but even more so, just hold up its end of the deal and honor healthy, permanent homelands,” said Tanana.
In a press release after the hearing, Murkowski said the issue requires a “whole-of-government response,” and particularly cited the usually bipartisan Farm Bill, which expires on Sept. 30 and is up for renewal this year, as a way to “optimize tribal water programs and extend the life cycle of tribal water and sanitation infrastructure.”
WASHINGTON – Members of the Senate Budget Committee heard from climate experts and stakeholders at a hearing Wednesday about the economic costs of climate change on coastal communities, continuing the debate over how – and whether – to distribute funds to sustainability projects.
The hearing came amid a push by chairman Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) to examine how climate change affects the economy. Democrats pressed the witnesses on how rising sea levels affect property owners on the coasts, while Republicans urged that climate change is not a large enough threat to warrant high spending.
Whitehouse, who is from coastal Rhode Island, warned of a cascade of economic effects of climate change.
“As homes and businesses in coastal communities face more frequent sunny day flooding and wetter and more violent ocean storms, insurance will become more expensive and harder to find,” Whitehouse said. “Mortgages depend on insurance, so lending will suffer.”
Sean Becketti, a principal at mortgage analytics firm Elliot Bay Analytics, testified that coastal homeowners’ properties make up a significant share of their wealth, which will decline when coastal flooding increases.
He added that lenders may be more reluctant to offer standard 30-year mortgages on coastal homes.
“Unlike the experience with [the 2008 housing crisis], these homeowners will have no expectation that the value of their homes will ever recover,” he said.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said he is concerned that the U.S. would be “wasting limited resources” if it pours money into climate change solutions. He said that as a long as China and India don’t join in on climate change efforts, the U.S. will have little impact on global climate.
“I’m not a climate change denier,” Johnson said. “I’m just not a climate change alarmist.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee’s ranking member, questioned the effectiveness of a carbon tax, which Whitehouse has pushed for. In 2019, Whitehouse sponsored the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act, which imposes fees on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. The bill never reached the floor.
Marlo Lewis Jr., a fellow at libertarian think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute, agreed. He said that the U.S. should focus on adapting to rising temperatures rather than “basically [crippling] the United States economically.”
“A carbon tax is either pain for no gain or it’s a cure worse than the disease,” Lewis said.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) cited the Quinault Indian Nation’s plan to relocate residents who live seven feet above sea level to higher grounds as an example of threats to coastal communities in her state.
Matthew Eby, the CEO of the nonprofit First Street Foundation, responded that relocation projects are extremely costly.
“I can tell you that it’s much, much more expensive to try and do these things retroactively than to actually manage these things from the beginning,” Ebay said.
Democrats emphasized that the federal government needs to assist local municipalities with funds to combat climate change. However, this may not be in the budget committee’s hands. The panel creates budget resolutions that guide the allocation of funds, but policy decisions are delegated to other committees.
Whitehouse invited Kate Micahud, the town manager of Warren, Rhode Island, to highlight how rising sea levels affect small coastal towns.
Michaud said that Warren has experienced flooding that threatens coastal homes and roads. She described Warren as a “microcosm” of hundreds of coastal towns nationwide.
“There’s definitely a difference between surviving and living, and people want to live,” Michaud said. “Climate change is really a threat to that.”
WASHINGTON — Senators on Wednesday grappled with the already-existing and looming-future economic costs of climate change, and how to prevent them.
At a Budget Committee Hearing, experts delivered testimony that revealed a concerning state that America is in: unmitigated climate change could lead to economic chaos worse than the 2008 financial crisis and further strain budget deficits.
Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) kicked off the hearing by discussing how the climate crisis is different from others that have stressed the economy in the 21st century.
“Look at our national debt. One thing that stands out is how much of it was incurred as a result of exogenous shocks to the economy,” he said, adding that both the 2008 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic added $10 trillion to the debt. “Headlights, and better attention to what they illuminated, could have helped… Now we have all these warnings.”
Dr. Mark Carney, former governor of both the Banks of England and Canada, said coastal erosion will weaken property values in those regions. Extreme weather will increase food costs. And increased flooding will damage infrastructure not built to withstand the new environment.
“The hit to GDP growth from unmitigated climate change is expected to be significant,” Carney said. He added global GDP per capita could fall between 10 to 20% without efforts to curb climate change.
Dr. Robert Litterman, the chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s Climate-Related Market Risk Subcommittee, made the case that pushing incentives is the way to get action on this issue.
“We need to create incentives to reduce emissions, we all understand this,” he said. “People respond to incentives. If we get the right incentives, we’ll get the right behaviors.”
He added those incentives need to also be applied on a global scale, as the U.S. needs to work diplomatically with other nations to “harmonize” the incentives across the world and therefore hopefully yield stronger emission reductions.
The need for a global push was echoed by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). He voiced frustration that those engaged in the climate debate often forget the U.S. isn’t the leader in emissions.
“We have to do things that have a global impact,” he said. But Romney also listed policy proposals he’d be supportive of. “Research and technology and a price on carbon are the things that would make a difference.”
A carbon tax has long been an idea to address climate change, but it failed to make it into the Inflation Reduction Act last year.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) questioned the panelists about how a carbon tax could impact American households. Former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin explained his case for pricing.
“The literature says very clearly that the right way to do this is a revenue-neutral carbon tax.” He explained that means taking the revenues from a carbon tax and using it to offset corporate and income taxes so people don’t feel the burden of it.
But Graham was skeptical and went back and forth with the panelists about what the tax could mean for utility bills, gas prices and other services.
Overall, both sides acknowledged there is a need to take action, but differ on its urgency and how to do so.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) summed up the general sentiment in his remarks: “We know that the cost of doing nothing is huge.”