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Senate Budget Committee hears testimony on coastal costs of climate change

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pushed for more climate spending but Republicans remained skeptical.

Senators hear how climate change could lead to economic pain

At a hearing on Wednesday, experts said that climate change’s effects could lead to an economic crisis that rivals the great recession.

Video: Judges name cleanest rural water in US

State-winning rural water samples were judged in Washington to find the cleanest water in the United States.

Members of congress call for expansion of American energy, but disagree on how to do it

In a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, Democrats and Republicans debated whether to expand fossil fuels or prioritize renewable energy in order to make America energy independent

Harris touts clean energy project during speech in Arizona

Vice President Kamala Harris addressed climate change, clean energy and union jobs in Tonopah, Arizona, as part of a speech promoting the Ten West Link transmission line Thursday. 

Lawmakers: speeding up land valuation, acquisition vital to conservation

WASHINGTON — The valuation process needed to acquire land under the Land and Water Conservation Fund has become increasingly and unreasonably time consuming, both Republican and Democratic senators said during a Senate hearing on Wednesday. 

“Appraisals that literally used to be completed in a few months are now under the department’s appraisal and valuation services office taking as much as two years or more,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “How do we fix that?” 

The Great American Outdoors Act funds up to $1.9 billion a year for up to five years to provide maintenance and upgrade infrastructure in national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas and American Indian schools. Funding for GAOA comes from energy development revenue, specifically royalties from offshore oil and gas. Under the act, the LWCF is permanently provided $900 million annually for conservation and recreation. 

Heinrich reminded the subcommittee on National Parks that in order to realize the full potential of the law, funds from the LWCF must be distributed in a timely manner. He said the bottlenecks in this process are testing the patience of “well meaning, willing sellers with a conservation ethic.” 

“It ultimately may lead them to sell their properties to be developed as opposed to being conserved,” Heinrich said.

Subcommittee Chairman Angus King (D-Maine) reminded the panel that the Senate will begin considering whether to reauthorize the GAOA next year.

“We have to apply one of my favorite maxims about government, which is ‘does it work and how do you know?’” King said. “I hope you are thinking about the evolution of the definition of success in order to help us in our consideration.”

Advocates Call For Renewed Congressional Waterway Funding

WASHINGTON –– Advocates called for renewed funding for American waterways, ports and ecosystems and continued work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during a House hearing on Tuesday.

“Water infrastructure is central to prosperity in California and the West, and the Army Corps of Engineers plays a key role,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. “We are aligned with the Corps to help communities improve their resilience to weather whiplash, to build capacity and partnerships with local communities, to enable environmental justice in underserved and rural communities and to align both engineering and natural processes.”

The speakers, which included local, tribal and business leaders from throughout the country, told lawmakers on the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee that re-authorizing the Water Resources Development Act could have far-reaching, positive impacts.

Several states rely on goods transported through the port of Houston like electronics, construction materials, furniture and food and drink, according to Mayor Michel Bechtel of Morgan’s Point, Texas. He said funding projects in coastal Texas could drastically reduce the threat of supply chain issues should a major storm hit the region.

“A big part of the country is impacted by products that go through the port of Houston,” said Bechtel. “We need to protect the port of Houston and the ship channel area. There’s no question about that.”

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) said also that he plans to advocate for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take over operation and maintenance of the Houston shipping channel as part of the legislation. He also said he would work to authorize studies and projects about coastal Texas, calling the extent of the projects’ impacts wide-ranging and “extraordinary.”

Other advocates highlighted how funding would play an important role in mitigating climate disasters. Crowfoot said previous funding from WRDA has been beneficial in addressing California’s water challenges and continued funding would be helpful for reducing flood risks. 

“We need to make better utilization of our dams and reservoirs to better protect for flood safety and for water supply,” Crowfoot said. “The good news is, thanks to the Army Corps’ leadership and partnership with the state, dam reservoir operations are being upgraded… We need to do more of that across our state and dams and we need to do it quickly.”

Similarly, Jim Middaugh, executive director at Multnomah County Drainage District, said federal funding has been key to updating the levee system in Portland that dates back to the 1930s. The levees protect 42,000 people, two airports and three highways from flood waters, according to Middaugh. But the region still needs more federal funding to adequately protect citizens and infrastructure, he said.

“Our own work and the Corps study document the ongoing risk of increasingly frequent rain-on-snow events in the Northwest and unprecedented rainfall events and the severe impacts they will create without more investment in our system,” Middaugh said. 

Some lawmakers said they are optimistic WRDA will pass with bipartisan support. “The more people hear about what is happening in Washington or not happening, the more they think it’s broken (and) it simply doesn’t work here,” said ranking member Rep. David Rouzer (R-N.C.), noting that the legislation has been passed every two years since 2014. 

“This has been a real exception and a real bright spot for Congress,” he said.

Native American repatriation act still faces compliance issues after 31 years

WASHINGTON — Inadequate funding and unclear responsibilities have slowed the return of Native American remains and cultural objects to traditional caretakers, experts and lawmakers agreed during a hearing on Wednesday.

“After more than three decades of [the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] we again consider amendments to strengthen Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations’ ability to protect gravesites and reclaim their ancestors and objects, all basic human rights that somehow we’re still fighting for,” said Valerie Grussing, the executive director of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs panel met to revisit NAGPRA, which requires Native American human remains and cultural items that have been removed from federal and Indian tribal land be returned to lineal descendants, tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations with “dignity and respect.”

Carmen Hulu Lindsey, chair of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, shared with the panel why bones have an elevated status in Hawaiian culture.

“We identify each other by literally the bone. Not only do the iwi (bones) possess the spiritual power and essence of the individual, they are also our direct connection to our ancestors for communication and guidance. For we do not bury our dead, we plant them back into the earth from where they continue to nourish, heal and guide future generations,” Lindsey said. “This critical cycle has been disrupted.”

Under NAGPRA, over 84,000 ancestral remains and over 1.5 million funerary objects have been repatriated to Native American tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations, according to Joy Beasley, associate director of Cultural Resources, Partnerships, and Science at the National Park Service.

“While progress is certainly being made, the journey continues for tens of thousands of ancestors, and millions of cultural items to find their way home,” said Chairman Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

In 31 years, fewer than half of the Native American remains in collections have been returned to their traditional owners. The remains of more than 117,576 Native Americans are still in the collections of museums and federal agencies. Of those, 94% have not been affiliated to any present-day tribes or organizations, complicating the repatriation process, according to Beasley.

When repatriating items from the possession of universities and museums under NAGPRA, there are often lengthy consultations with the Bureau of Land Management, according to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev. Cortez Masto said some Nevada tribes’ efforts to recover their ancestral property have led to long and costly litigation.

Bureaucratic interruptions to the repatriation process also prevent cultural healing, according to Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute.

“In addition to halting the repatriation process, what was also halted was dealing with the trauma of the removal of our ancestral remains, dealing with the removal of our sacred objects,” Worl said.

The Department of the Interior hopes to remedy these issues via an upcoming new regulation proposal for NAGPRA, which Beasley said will clarify the roles, responsibilities and timeline that agencies should be working under in accordance with the law.

Though $15 million in grants were issued in the first 30 years under the law, countless items still need to be repatriated.

“Realistically, what type of funding would be needed to finally see the goals of this model realized?” Cortez Masto asked the panel, emphasizing that inadequate funds are delaying efforts.

After a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office determined that key federal agencies had not fully complied with NAGPRA, the Natural Resources and Environment team within GAO, asked agencies how much time and money would be needed to properly implement the act.

Anna Maria Ortiz, director of the NRE team, said most agencies estimated they would need eight to 10 years, with some going as high as 28 years.

“In many cases, agencies estimated that it would cost hundreds of thousands or even millions more than they currently had appropriated,” Ortiz said.

Grussing said her team only receives enough federal funding to cover an average of one staff member and that funding is not allowed to be used for NAGPRA duties.

“A system that makes tribes compete for unlimited funding for the most sacred and foundational restorative work is re-traumatizing,” Grussing said.

The DOI is trying to remedy some of these issues with proposed regulatory changes drafted after receiving 71 written comments from Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations across the country. The proposal is set to be published for public comment early this year.

In the 30 years since NAGPRA was enacted, the GAO has grown to appreciate the challenges agencies face in implementing the law, as well as the importance of doing so, Ortiz said, adding that it embodies the unique relationship the U.S. has with Native Americans.

“NAGPRA seeks to address a small portion of the many wrongs that federal policies have cost over time,” she said.

Experts: Increasing U.S. Recycling and Composting Accessibility Vital to Climate Progress

WASHINGTON –– Increasing availability of composting and recycling programs benefits both the climate and economy, experts said Wednesday at a Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works hearing. 

“The U.S. spends $218 billion a year, growing, processing, and transporting food that is not consumed,” said composting advocate Pashon Murray. 

As the chief executive officer for Detroit Dirt — an organization recovering organic waste to produce compost for local urban farmers — Murray has led the effort to divert more than 90 million pounds of waste from landfills. 

“Composting is actually helpful for soils, our urban landscapes, our water runoff, etc.,” she said. According to her, high rates of soil erosion and depletion have impacted harvest yields and lowered productivity. 

The Senate hearing addressed two pieces of drafted legislation meant to push for concrete steps following last November’s significant allocation of funds to national recycling programs included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

Chairman Tom Carper’s Recycling and Composting Accountability Act, which the Delaware Democrat drafted alongside Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), seeks to improve the Environmental Protection Agency’s recycling and composting data collection. 

The act calls on the EPA’s administrator to prepare an inventory of U.S. public and private materials recovery facilities, focusing in part on calculating the number of community curbside recycling and composting programs. 

In the U.S., recycling and composting rates remain low, with the EPA reporting a rate of only 32% in 2017. 

Nevertheless, ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) — who proposed a Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act that would create a new EPA pilot program — said the recycling industry constantly “ebbs and flows” due to facilities’ capacities and municipal governments’ funds. This makes data ever-changing. 

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pointed out industry inconsistencies that make improving recycling difficult. 

“It’s cheaper to buy new levels of plastic and put out your single-use plastic items than to be able to buy recyclable plastic,” the Rhode Island Democrat said during the hearing. “We ought to be accountable for those, I would say, catastrophic failures verging on being a fraud on the public.”

The Inaccessibility Obstacle

The Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act would create a new EPA pilot program aimed at increasing recycling’s accessibility in rural and disadvantaged communities. 

Senators and experts alike agreed that expanding accessibility is key to increasing composting and recycling overall. 

“Many Americans in disadvantaged communities want to recycle and compost, but are unable to do so because they live in neighborhoods that lack curbside pickup, bottle return, and other necessary recycling infrastructure,” Carper said. 

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) asked Ben Harvey, who chairs National Waste and Recycling Association, to expand upon the costs these communities experience when faced with the hard decision to either ship recyclables far distances for processing or end recycling programs altogether. 

“I think that the biggest issue facing us is certainly the cost to collect, transport, and process,” Harvey said. 

He identified the “collapse” of the global recycling market following China’s decision in 2018 to set new purity standards, banning most recyclables from importation.

For decades, the U.S. sent millions of recyclables to China to be processed, but significant portions were contaminated and thus diverted to China’s countryside and oceans instead of being processed.

“There was no value in the materials that we were collecting,” Harvey said about this change. “We need the support of the federal government to come in and subsidize, maybe, in some of these situations where it’s costing the municipality too much money to transport and process those recyclables.” 

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) emphasized the challenges of collection specifically in large geographic areas. 

“My state is a very big state in terms of size, but with a pretty small population,” Sullivan said. “So far 70% of households do not have access to curbside recycling.” 

Education can contribute to expanding access, Murray told the senator. 

“Education is key in households, but also mandating the ordinances with the local government I think will be key,” she said. 

House Coalition Launches Climate Task Forces On Agriculture, Security and Energy

WASHINGTON — The House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC) launched three task forces confronting the climate crisis Wednesday. 

“There isn’t one silver bullet to solve the current climate crisis, but through innovation and bold action we may yet be able to preserve our planet and future,” said coalition member Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.) in a statement

Schrier, along with more than 70 House Democrats advocating for environmental reform, unveiled the special panels to address climate change’s intersection with agriculture, national security and energy. 

Climate & Agriculture 

Schrier co-chairs the coalition’s Climate and Agriculture Task Force, which will focus on the upcoming reauthorization of the Farm Bill, directing food and farm policies. The previous measure, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, will expire in 2023. 

The task force is expected to engage American farmers in discussion on climate issues so that next year’s bill reauthorization is as climate-friendly as possible. 

Ten percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 came from agricultural activity, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. These emissions come from both livestock and nitrous oxide-producing fertilizers. 

“As an organic farmer for more than 40 years, I know that farmers can be some of the strongest allies in the fight against climate change,” co-chair Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said in the release. 

Climate & Clean Energy

The coalition’s task force centering clean energy in the U.S. power sector will work to build on November’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and continue to push for the House-passed Build Back Better Act. 

President Biden signed an executive order in December directing the federal government to achieve a carbon pollution-free electricity sector by 2035 and a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. 

Illinois representatives and task force co-chairs Sean Casten and Raja Krishnamoorthi will lead the group in identifying steps needed to reach this goal. 

Having come to Congress after two decades helping companies profitably reduce emissions in the private sector, I know first-hand that you can expand access to cleaner, cheaper energy, create jobs, and lower carbon emissions at the same time,” Casten said in a statement. 

The task force will specifically examine how to expand transmission systems, which can deliver renewable energy across the country to areas without clean energy resources. 

Climate & The U.S. Military

The coalition’s final new task force will address how the U.S. military can become more resilient in the face of climate crises.

“There are direct risks to U.S. national security infrastructure, whether it’s military bases on the Gulf Coast that have faced billions of dollars of damage from hurricanes in recent bases, or bases in California that have to evacuate due to wildfires or curtail training days,” climate expert Erin Sikorsky told Medill News Service. 

Sikorsky is the director of both the Center for Climate and Security and The International Military Council on Climate and Security. She identified climate change’s contribution to political instability in countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and South Asia. 

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who co-chairs the Climate and National Security Task Force alongside Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), authored an amendment to 2018’s National Defense Authorization Act identifying climate change as “a direct threat to the national security of the United States.”

The special panel will prioritize reducing U.S. armed forces’ emissions given that military pollution makes up about 56% of federal emissions overall, according to Biden administration estimates

Sikorsky highlighted President Biden’s December executive order, which requires the Defense Department to move to an all-electric fleet by 2035. 

“Congress has a big role to play in this, because an executive order can be overturned by a new president,” she said. “One thing this task force could do is provide oversight of the many climate security provisions that have been in previous Defense Authorization Acts, making sure that the federal agencies are implementing them.”

Offshore Drilling Harms Communities in Gulf of Mexico, Warn Climate Scientists

WASHINGTON — Climate experts urged skeptical lawmakers Thursday to consider the environmental impact of new oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I want you all to remember that economic gain does not outweigh the devastation we are feeling right now,” climate scientist Kristina Dahl told the House Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee Thursday.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pressed the experts who appeared before them about whether reducing oil and gas drilling on the Gulf Coast could reduce overall global emissions.

Subcommittee Chairman Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., began by asking Max Sarinsky, an attorney from the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University, what he thinks of the argument that not drilling in the U.S. would simply increase drilling in other countries and therefore increase emissions.

“That is simply not how economics works,” Sarinsky said. “It violates basic supply and demand principles, and in reality while there would be some substitution effect, what we see is that extraction on federal land leads to a very large increase overall in total combustion and production. So as a result you have a very large increase in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Dahl pointed out that the United States has disproportionately contributed to emissions since the Industrial Revolution by producing 25% of emissions in history but only containing 4% of the world’s population.

“For every ton of emissions we’ve reduced in the United States, China’s gone up by four. This doesn’t make sense,” said Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., who argued that stopping domestic production in the U.S. only increases dependence on foreign energy sources with greater emissions.

“Are any of the witnesses aware of any evidence that shows restricting oil and gas production in federal waters will actually result in decreasing total consumption of oil in the U.S.?” asked fellow GOP Rep. Jerry Carl of Alabama.

In response, Sarinsky said reducing fossil fuel extraction domestically is substituted in part by renewable energy consumed in the U.S.

Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, said it is hard to understand how the economic impact of reducing drilling outweighs the health of people in states like Louisiana, which has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation.

“The fact that we are thinking about leasing more land is something that boggles my mind because we already don’t know how to deal with the pollution right now,” she said. “It’s hard for us to understand how more of something that’s bad for you is better for all of us.”

Davos: private sector cooperation propels global climate efforts

Rallying ambition within the private sector to fund zero-emission technologies is key to climate change mitigation, leaders said at a World Economic Forum meeting held virtually on Wednesday.

“I think most of us feel very strongly that no government in the world has the amount of money we need to effect this transition,” said John Kerry, the chief U.S. climate envoy, during the online panel, normally held every January in Davos. “This has to happen by virtue of the private sector being engaged.” 

COP26, the United Nations’ climate conference held last November in Glasgow, provided such an opportunity. 

“Glasgow was exciting, not because we actually solved the problems, but because the breadth of private sector companies showed up with the willingness to get involved in solving those problems,” said Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. 

Gates’ climate investment fund Breakthrough Energy — which raised $1.5 billion over the past six months for green technology — is part of the First Movers Coalition. Launched at COP26, the coalition is a public-private partnership between the U.S. State Department and the WEF. 

“We need all the leading companies to come into First Movers,” Gates said. “It really does come down to economics. The dirty way of making things is very mature, whether it’s steel or cement or aviation fuel.”

WEF president and panel moderator Børge Brende cited the fund’s Global Risks Report 2022 to contextualize the importance of private sector involvement. The report outlines that climate action failure is the most severe global risk over the next 10 years. 

“Emissions have gone up actually in 2021,” Kerry said. “The world used 9% more coal than we did in 2020…and coal is the dirtiest fuel.” 

Arguably the most notable COP26 advance — the Glasgow Climate Pact requiring countries to report environmental progress — culminated in a controversial compromise about coal specifically. In a last-minute change, China and India softened language, opting for a “phase down” instead of a “phase out” of coal. 

This move was one of several reasons climate activists like Greta Thunberg criticized COP26 for being “business as usual.”

“We have to help countries be able to wean themselves from coal,” Kerry said. “It’s not enough just to sit here today and say ‘hey, you got to get off coal.’ How are they going to do that?”

According to Egypt’s Minister of Environment Yasmine Fouad, it’s essential to bridge the gap between governmental policy and private sector innovation. 

“There are some success stories that could be further replicated,” Fouad said. “One story is [of] Egypt and its transition to renewable energy.”

The host country of COP27 this November, Egypt has made recent strides in clean energy. In December, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi inaugurated the Benban Solar Park, the largest solar power plant in the world. 

Anna Borg, president and CEO of the Swedish-based electrical giant Vattenfall, said it’s in companies’ best interests to adapt to clean energy’s rising prominence. 

“As business leaders, we are used to managing and taking risks,” Borg said. “Every time I talk to my colleagues in the First Movers Coalition, for example, we, in addition to discussing how to solve this from a global perspective, also end up talking about the business opportunities.”

Vattenfall and Fred. Olsen Seawind were awarded the rights this week to develop a floating offshore wind farm off Scotland’s east coast. The project could produce enough electricity to power more than 700,000 UK homes.

Kerry ended the panel by emphasizing that the price of world inaction exceeds the cost of carbon. He linked black carbon — formed from fossil fuel combustion — to the high rates of environmentally-induced asthma among children that cost the U.S. billions each year.

“We’re paying a price for carbon,” Kerry said. “Solar and wind are, in every form of accounting, net cheaper than coal and cheaper than gas.”

Global Temperatures In 2021 Among Hottest On Record, Agencies Say

WASHINGTON –– Global average temperatures reached their sixth highest of all-time in 2021, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Thursday.

“We’ve reached a point where this global warming data that we’re talking about is no longer an esoteric or academic measure of what’s going on, but it’s been reflected in the weather,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

The agencies conducted separate, independent analyses, both finding that last year’s temperatures rose above their baseline averages – NASA by 1.52 degrees Fahrenheit, NOAA by 1.51. The past eight years now rank among the eight hottest on record, according to NOAA and NASA data.

“We expect to see more of these types of extremes in a warming world,” said Russell Vose, chief of climate monitoring at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, referring to weather events such as an above-average hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean, intense summer heat waves in the northwestern U.S. and Europe and destructive cyclones Rai and Surigae in Asia.

The U.S. alone had 20 climate disasters that recorded at least $1 billion in damage, according to Vose. Additionally, 680 people lost their lives during climate events – the highest in a decade.

“Some of the events this year were probably not even possible without global warming,” he said.

However, global temperatures fell from 2020 to 2021, which Schmidt said was likely the result of several factors. The year began with a La Niña event which scientists estimate may have cooled the Earth by .06 degrees Fahrenheit during 2021. But La Niña alone didn’t cause the reduced temperatures. Schmidt said unrelated weather events and resumption of aerosol-producing activities following lockdowns in 2020 may also have driven temperatures down.

Among the most affected regions in 2021 was the Arctic Circle, he said. Over the past 30 years, temperatures in the Arctic have increased at over three times the rate of the rest of the world. But these changes aren’t isolated. Schmidt noted that melting glaciers and ice sheets can contribute to rising sea levels and thawing permafrost leads to greater carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere.

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, and the changes there are extremely dramatic,” Schmidt said.

Looking forward, Vose said there is a 99 percent chance that 2022 will rank among the top 10 hottest years and a 50 percent chance it will place in the top five. Increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will drive this, he added.

Both Schmidt and Vose said it would be difficult to make predictions about what exactly extreme weather events will look like or where they will occur over the next two years. But they agreed that these events are likely to increase in frequency as global temperatures continue to rise.

“We can predict with some confidence that we will see more and more extreme heat waves and intense rainfall and coastal flooding,” Schmidt said. “Exactly where those will happen and what the impacts will be are unclear, but in a statistical sense, I think we can make those predictions.”

FEMA’s flood insurance program is at risk of insolvency, making communities more vulnerable to flood damage

WASHINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance program is at risk of financial insolvency due to outdated flood risk mapping and an unsustainable business model, putting communities around the country that experience flooding at risk of damages and reduced home values, federal investigators say.

The National Flood Insurance Program, a federal program managed by FEMA that provides participating communities with federally funded flood insurance, is over $20.5 billion in debt, according to the Congressional Research Service — a financial status that has landed the program on the Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List.

Congress established NFIP because private insurance companies generally don’t cover floods, which are costly, said Chris Currie, director of homeland security and justice at the GAO. Currently, FEMA requires members of communities at high risk of flooding to pay premiums, but the rates have never accurately reflected flood risks since it began in 1968, and the program has not been able to cover the costs of the claims it has to insure, Currie said.

In October, FEMA implemented a new flood insurance rate system that increased premiums for new policy holders in an effort to better reflect hazards. While this is intended to increase revenues for the program, the higher rates are unaffordable to lower-income people, who become more likely to drop their policies, said Alicia Cackley, director of financial markets and community investment at the GAO. Cackley said the GAO recommends Congress appropriate more money for those who cannot afford the higher premiums.

Homeowners in areas that experience frequent flooding, especially those who live in an area with outdated or inaccurate flood maps, risk seeing their property value decrease and flood insurance rates increase, which can drive people out of their homes and leave the federal government to cover the costs, Cackley said. While FEMA is taking steps to address the financial problems, she said there’s still much at risk.

“It is a program in trouble,” she said. “Unless something changes, it’s not sustainable. It’s just going to continue to be a drain on the budget.”

Flooding is the most common and costly disaster in the United States. The average cost per flood event is around $4.6 billion and because of climate change, more severe weather events are increasing the frequency and intensity of flooding, according to Adam Smith, a lead scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Center for Environmental Information. The U.S. experienced more billion-dollar flood events in the last decade than it did during the three previous decades combined, Smith said.

Graphic by Delaney Nelson/MNS. Source: Association of State Floodplain Management

“Both inland and coastal flooding events can be quite costly at destroying homes, businesses, and many forms of infrastructure while also disrupting commerce across many industries,” Smith said.

Throughout the last five years, the GAO has released several reports detailing the problems with NFIP. In an October study, the agency reported that FEMA’s flood maps — which identify areas at high risk of flooding and inform which communities FEMA will require or recommend buy flood insurance — are outdated and do not reflect current increased flood hazards like heavy rainfall from climate-related weather events.

There is no consistent or definitive timetable for when FEMA will update a community’s flood maps, according to CRS, leaving some communities across the country with maps that have not been revised for decades.

More than half of the country remains unmapped for flood hazards and around 15% of the communities that participate in NFIP have maps over 15 years old — many have maps over 30 years old, according to Jerry Hancock, stormwater and floodplain programs coordinator for the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Because flood mapping is funded through the financially distressed NFIP, FEMA doesn’t have the money to update maps quickly enough for communities to best defend themselves against severe storms, Hancock said.

Until recent years, the flood maps of Mohave County, Arizona, an NFIP participant that FEMA has designated to be at a relatively high risk of riverine flooding, had not been updated since the 1980s, according to Kat Fish, the county’s floodplain programs manager. Fish said the county has been able to update its maps through FEMA’s Cooperating Technical Partners program, through which the county received grants to study flood conditions in the area. Those conditions look a lot different now than four decades ago, Fish said.

Flood maps shape community planning and flood-mitigation efforts, Hancock said, by influencing the design and location of critical infrastructure like hospitals, transportation systems and storm drains. Local governments also use this information to create and update building codes, which can dictate the plots on which buildings can be built and how elevated a structure must be.

FEMA’s flood maps are a snapshot of the risk at the time the map becomes effective, according to a FEMA spokesperson. The agency includes sea level rise that has already happened in a community, for example, but it does not include how the sea level might rise in the future, the spokesperson said. If a community wants its flood map to show future conditions based on projected-land use, it must give FEMA information about land-use changes.

While developing and updating flood maps is time-consuming and costly, the agency is developing a new insurance pricing program designed to adapt to climate change, the spokesperson said. But if FEMA’s maps don’t accurately portray a community’s risk of flooding, Hancock said, the damages — which ultimately have to be covered by the federal government — will be more costly.

“Rules and regulations haven’t prevented people from building in harm’s way so there are more structures that can get damaged,” he said.

Currie from the GAO said the agency has urged Congress to dedicate more money to flood mitigation projects, including constructing levees and elevating homes, which would reduce the damages.

“The problem is, if you wait until after a disaster, then you really don’t have a choice in how much (money) you allocate because you’ve got to clean up the disaster,” Currie said. “It’s beforehand when you can help mitigate it and make it less worse the next time it floods.”

Biden signs off on millions for electric school buses. Here’s what that could look like.

WASHINGTON — Every morning, more than 20 million American children catch a school bus. Soon, many will be boarding electric buses, part of a $5 billion federal investment in clean school buses in the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill.

The bill, which President Joe Biden signed into law Nov. 15, earmarks $2.5 billion of the landmark $5 billion for clean school buses for electric school buses specifically. This money could bring electric school bus technology to the most polluted communities, whose residents are disproportionately living on low incomes and people of color, advocates say.

Around 95% of school buses in the U.S. run on diesel, which pollutes residential areas and can increase risks of bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia for young children, according to the Journal of Health Economics.

Orville Thomas, a lobbyist for electric school bus manufacturer Lion Electric, said electric school buses look the same as diesel buses, but release significantly less greenhouse gases. Electric school buses also ride smoother and quieter, Thomas said.

Until now, the greatest barrier for schools to buy electric buses has been the price tag. Biden’s investments could change that, Thomas said, because school districts will have access to federal funds, and manufacturers will be able to ramp up production and research new technologies.

Thomas predicts electric school buses will be the same price as diesel school buses in the next five to 10 years.

Athena Motavvef, legislative director at Earthjustice, an advocacy group fighting climate change, said she has fought for electric school bus funding because she had asthma growing up, which can be complicated by diesel pollution.

“You would expect a vehicle that takes you to school would protect you from those sorts of things,” Motavvef said.

Black Americans are 40% more likely to have asthma than white Americans, and Hispanic Americans are twice as likely to visit the emergency department for asthma compared to non-Hispanic whites, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Motavvef said that demand for electric school buses largely comes from wealthy white school districts, but the federal government needs to ensure the communities most impacted by diesel pollution, which tend to be Black, brown and low-income communities in urban cores, get their share of the money.

To ensure the money reaches communities that need it most, Gilbert Rosas, energy education specialist at the Stockton Unified School District in California, said the federal government needs to partner with school districts that have experience in school bus electrification.

“Time is money,” Rosas said. “And the government, in my opinion, the longer they touch it, the more they waste it. We need to get in, get out and get it done.”

Gilbert said government officials and activists in other districts should turn to Stockton United — a majority-Latino school district where 78.8% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch — as a roadmap for electrifying fleets across the country.

With a $5 million grant from the state of California, Stockton Unified bought four buses and 24 chargers, which were out on roads in less than a year. Rosas has continued to electrify the fleet: The district now has 11 electric school buses and is on track to convert a third of its fleet in three years.

He said he has brought in $16.8 million in electric school bus funding through grants and other incentives programs.

But, Rosas said, the journey wasn’t all smooth sailing. The district had issues with DC chargers and had to return the original chargers they ordered. Another hurdle was learning how to work with utility companies, which he said have complicated bureaucratic processes that set his timeline back by 6 months.

But Rosas pushed through, he said, because the work is all for the kids.

“These are kids in lower income places,” Rosas said, “and they don’t get a chance to see new things, let alone new things that help their health…I’m fighting for these kids to know all about what they can achieve.”

Alongside the new electric school buses, Rosas has expanded curriculum and community outreach efforts, including an “Energy Patrol” video with elementary school students explaining ways the district can combat climate change, and an apprenticeship program with San Joaquin Delta College to put high school graduates in green engineering jobs.

“I want to leave this story as our legacy,” Rosas said, “and I want our kids to take up the baton of green career paths.”

Offshore oil drilling regulations would strengthen under federal legislation

WASHINGTON — Despite state and federal drilling bans along most of Florida’s western shoreline, the state’s coastal communities are still at risk from oil spills because of inadequate enforcement of drilling elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, according to environmental researchers and federal investigators.

The federal government doesn’t enforce essential monitoring and decommissioning standards on the offshore drilling industry, making it hard to detect and track leaks in oil and gas pipelines, according to an April report by the Government Accountability Office.

Two bills awaiting a U.S. House vote would strengthen offshore drilling regulations and impose annual fees on pipeline owners.

One of the bills would impose stricter pipeline oversight and require pipeline owners to pay an annual fee to raise revenue for oil spill cleanup efforts. Another would require drilling operators to report any equipment failures to the Interior Department rather than the Transportation Department, which has little to do with drilling issues; the reports also would be made public.

The legislation aims to discourage continued investment in fossil fuels by making it more expensive for pipeline owners to operate, said Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa.

“Anything that actually requires them to own up to the true costs of their dirty operations is important,” Castor said.

The legislation would not directly affect federal waters off Florida’s gulf coast because, 15 years ago, Congress banned the leasing of federal waters in the gulf’s eastern region through next year. Last year, President Donald Trump extended that ban until 2032 through an executive order.

Florida voters in 2018 permanently banned oil drilling in state waters, which extend 9 miles from the state’s shoreline in the gulf.

Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster of Clermont, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, opposes oil drilling off Florida’s gulf coast. But he voted against sending the bills to the House floor because they won’t directly affect Florida due to the current moratorium, spokesperson Jaryn Emhof said in an email.

Environmental advocates say the state still must be protected against oil spills caused by drilling in other regions of the Gulf of Mexico.

“When there’s an oil spill off of Louisiana, that oil is still going to end up on Florida beaches,” said Valerie Cleland, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit. “Oil doesn’t care what state you’re a part of.”

After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which released millions of barrels of oil into the gulf, tourism in coastal communities plummeted, said Robin Miller, president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.

Miller said the oil spill caused the largest number of business closures she’s seen in her 15 years with the organization.

Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota co-sponsored the bill that would strengthen the requirement for drilling operators to report equipment failures, his office said in an email. He supports a permanent drilling moratorium to protect Florida’s coastal communities, which depend on a clean and healthy ocean, his office said.

Steve Murawski, a professor at the University of South Florida, said the federal government has done little to investigate how offshore drilling is degrading Florida’s coastal ecosystem.

“For the magnitude of this industry and its potential for environmental catastrophe, which we’ve seen, the current level of (government) accountability is not up to the job,” said Murawski, who studies population dynamics and marine ecosystem analysis within the College of Marine Science.

Florida legislators from both parties have been attempting to pass a permanent ban on offshore drilling in the eastern gulf so that the state is protected regardless of who is in the White House, Castor said. These bills are another attempt to protect the state’s environmental resources and combat climate change, she added, but pushback from oil and gas companies has made it hard to pass federal legislation.

Justin Williams, vice president of communications at the National Ocean Industries Association — which advocates for the offshore oil and gas industries — said the proposed bills would interrupt current safety operations at drilling sites by imposing burdensome regulations that don’t consider the structural, geological and other differences between different locations. Reporting requirements would rush investigations into equipment failures, Williams said.

The legislation is “duplicative” of existing frameworks and creates “redundant regulation complexity,” a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute said in an email.

Without regulations, though, Miller of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce said, area residents and businesses are at risk of an oil spill.

“If we don’t continue to advocate that this is not good for the environment, marine life and then the potential impacts of catastrophe on businesses, we will slowly keep losing sight of what Deepwater did,” Miller said. “That horrific situation has not stopped just because we don’t see fire and oil oozing out right now.”

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Pipeline safety experts urge government to invest in pipeline research

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration should spend more money for research on pipeline leaks because a majority have gone undetected due to outdated data collection technology, leaving people unaware whether hazardous substances may be endangering their health, pipeline safety experts said Tuesday.

At a forum on pipeline safety research and development hosted by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the Department of Transportation, the chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, Steven Hamburg, said pipelines emit greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen gas through drilling, processing, transmission, storage and distribution operations, but there isn’t sufficient data tracking the quantity of these emissions. Because of that, it is hard to determine which changes pipeline operators need to implement to improve safety and reduce environmental impact.

Last year, the DOT reported that there are over 2.6 million miles of gas pipelines, which transport hydrogen, propane, natural and other types of gases, across the U.S. More than 229,500 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines across the country move carbon dioxide, crude oil and biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel.

The installation of pipelines has been a source of controversy for at least a decade. A decade-long battle over the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would have spanned around 1,200 miles from Canada to Nebraska, ended this year when the developer terminated the project. Environmental and Indigenous activists protested for years against the Line 3 pipeline, which began carrying oil from Canada to northern Minnesota in October.

Over the past 20 years, there have been 695 pipeline incidents, causing over 1,140 injuries and 256 deaths, according to PHMSA. The new bipartisan infrastructure law will provide PHMSA with $195 million a year over the next five years for pipeline repairs and rehabilitation; it does not include new spending to improve data collection.

Massoud Tahamtani, deputy associate administrator for policy and programs at PHMSA, said the agency, which records pipeline mileage, performance and incidents, only receives methane data from pipeline operators when it is paired with a pipeline accident report. Andy Miller, associate director for climate at the Environmental Protection Agency, said in the virtual forum’s chat function that the EPA, whose emission data are mainly based on information provided by the states, faces the same challenges of insufficient data.

Hamburg said more federal spending on technological improvements in data collections would allow experts to better understand which pipeline materials corrode the quickest, how much gas is emitted into the atmosphere, where leaks are occurring and more.

“We’re not going to understand these systems unless we really expand the data that we have,” Hamburg said. “We’ve got to create a much more robust data system and then we can answer these questions far more effectively.”

Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, which advocates for pipeline safety standards and environmental protection, said extreme climate change-related weather events, including floods, landslides and permafrost, make it more difficult to transport these substances safely through pipelines.
“Climate destabilization is one of the greatest risks posed to public safety by pipelines,” Caram said. “It is getting harder and harder to separate climate issues from safety issues as climate change threatens the integrity of pipeline infrastructure.”



Medill Today | March 2, 2023