Scott Pruitt wants to end his own Clean Power Plan lawsuit—but can’t set aside EPA’s duty to protect the public from climate pollution

By Martha Roberts

(This post was co-authored by Tomas Carbonell)

Before he became Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt was relentless in suing to oppose the Clean Power Plan, America’s first-ever nationwide limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

So relentless, in fact, that as Attorney General of Oklahoma he brought suit four times to block these common sense, cost-effective protections—including litigating to block the proposal, before the Clean Power Plan was even finalized.

Given that history, you’d think that Pruitt would be eager to for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court to continue the current litigation over the Clean Power Plan, which Pruitt helped initiate when he was Attorney General.

Instead, the Trump Administration launched a full-court press to stop the court’s deliberations in their tracks.

The administration filed a motion on March 28 asking the court to suspend the litigation indefinitely – almost a year after the last briefs were filed in the case, and more than six months after oral argument took place before the full en banc court.

Why the sudden aversion to the court considering the case, after such a long history of litigating?

Perhaps Pruitt was afraid that the court would see the Clean Power Plan for what it is – a common sense and achievable plan, firmly grounded in the law and in science, which responds to the most urgent environmental challenge of our time.

Pruitt repeatedly argues that the reason to repeal the Clean Power Plan is because it is “illegal.” Without a D.C. Circuit opinion, all we have are his own claims on that point – and maybe Pruitt prefers it that way, given his poor record in past legal challenges to common sense EPA safeguards.

Whatever the reason, Pruitt pressed ahead to stop the very same case he was instrumental in creating. Last week, the D.C. Circuit partially granted his request. The court put the Clean Power Plan litigation on hold for 60 days, and asked for more information so it can decide how to handle the case going forward.

EPA has a duty to protect Americans from dangerous climate pollution

While last week’s order is disappointing, it has not changed the fact that EPA has a clear duty to act under our nation’s clean air laws to protect the public from harmful climate pollution. That duty is enshrined in three separate Supreme Court opinions that confirm EPA has the authority and responsibility to address climate pollution under the Clean Air Act.

EPA’s obligation to address climate pollution under the Clean Air Act is a settled question in American law. And EPA’s history of successfully addressing climate pollution from cars and other sources speaks for itself.

The Clean Power Plan itself has a rock solid legal and technical foundation – as recognized by a huge and varied coalition of supporters including former Republican EPA Administrators, the attorneys general of eighteen states, legal experts who helped draft the Clean Air Act, and the nation’s leading experts on the power grid.

As these experts recognize, the Clean Power Plan relies on strategies that are already being deployed successfully across the power sector—continuing and amplifying a transition to low- and zero-carbon energy that is reducing climate-destabilizing pollution while bringing jobs and economic opportunities to communities across the country. America’s clean energy sector is a rapidly growing $200-billion industry that employs 3.3 million Americans.

Regardless of any legal maneuvers, the fundamental truth remains – EPA has a duty to act to protect the public from dangerous climate pollution. Given the clear and present threat that climate change poses to the well-being of communities across America, this duty is urgent.

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There’s nothing modern about overfishing

By Monica Goldberg

A recently-filed bill with the upbeat title “The Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act,” H.R. 2023, would unfortunately do just the opposite.  By gutting one of the most important improvements of modern fisheries law, we believe that this bill would move us backwards to a time of widespread overfishing.

Congress first banned overfishing in 1976, but a provision permitting “optimum” yield above sustainable levels led to widespread declines in fisheries.  Lawmakers eliminated that loophole in 1996 with the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA).[1]

A decade later, the Senate Commerce Committee described the results:

“The SFA attempted to address overfishing by capping fish harvests at maximum sustainable yield (MSY) …. However, recent evaluations of stock status have shown that ten years after enactment of the SFA, overfishing is still occurring in a number of fisheries, even those fisheries under a rebuilding plan established early in the SFA implementation process.

“Establishing a scientifically-based total allowable catch (TAC) for each managed fishery was a unanimous recommendation from all of the Council chairs, a recommendation of the Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries Conference II final report, and a recommendation of the U.S. Ocean Commission. Requiring routine adherence to an annual catch limit or TAC is a well-known management approach that has been utilized effectively by several Councils, but failure to adopt this technique more broadly has contributed to continued overfishing.”[2]

Following this advice, the 2007 Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act established three innovations that greatly strengthened the longstanding ban on overfishing:

  1. Putting scientists in the driver’s seat by requiring regulators to respect the overall biological limits established by each regional council’s science and statistical committee;
  2. Requiring TACs or quotas, known as annual catch limits (ACLs), on virtually all managed species; and
  3. Ensuring catch stays below the ACLs.[3]

The results have been striking. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) most recently reported that 91% of species are fished at sustainable levels41 have recovered to a healthy population size after having been driven below the overfished level. Ten years after the 2007 reauthorization, we have achieved significant progress.

Despite the demonstrated value of ACL management, some recreational fishermen have contested its use in their portion of the fishery.  H.R. 2023 would amend the MSA to make clear that:

“Recreational fishing and commercial fishing are fundamentally different activities, therefore requiring management approaches adapted to the characteristics of each sector”[4]

and specify that regulators:

“have the authority to use alternative fishery management measures in a recreational fishery (or the recreational component of a mixed-use fishery) in developing a fishery management plan, plan amendment, or proposed regulations, which may include extraction rates, fishing mortality targets, harvest control rules, or traditional or cultural practices of native communities.”[5]

It is abundantly clear that (1) recreational and commercial fishing are different undertakings and (2) managers can and do use different methods to regulate them.  But under current law those different approaches play out under the auspices of sustainable quotas that form a backstop against overfishing.  H.R. 2023 would remove those safeguards, exempting every fishery which the Secretary determines is not subject to overfishing.[6]  And since ending overfishing has been the goal of fisheries management for the last 40 years, that category includes 286 stocks –the vast majority.

The bill also would exempt stocks where fishing takes place below the target threshold (i.e., overfishing is not occurring) and there has been no peer-reviewed stock assessment and stock survey in the last five years.  This provision appears redundant, but in any event would be nearly as problematic; for example 30 of the 199 high priority stocks tracked by NOAA were last assessed in 2010 or earlier.  While frequent stock assessments and surveys are valuable, lack of them should not waive fundamental safeguards against overfishing.

Similar to previous bills, H.R. 2023 also includes an exception for so-called “ecosystem component” species, a category defined broadly as to include every “non-target, incidentally harvested stock of fish in a fishery.”[7]  This provision would remove protections for key species like sharks that are caught while fishermen target other species.  Nor does the bill clarify whether the exception covers a species like yellowtail flounder that is bycatch for scallopers but targeted by other fishermen.

The bill contains other problematic provisions,[8] but H.R. 2023’s most striking feature is its wholesale rejection of quota management without any indication of what we would use in its place to prevent overfishing.  This approach, which risks a return to considerable overfishing and accompanying harm to fisheries and the Americans who depend on them, is not one we should take in the name of “modernizing” a very functional fishery management law.

Citations:

[1] Pub. L. No. 104-297, 110 Stat. 3559 (1996).

[2] S. Rep. No. 109-229 at 6 (2006).

[3] 16 U.S.C. §§ 1852(h)(6) (ACLs may not exceed recommendations of SSCs), 1852(a)(15) (fishery management plans must include ACLS and measures to ensure accountability with them).

[4] Sec. 3(a)

[5] Sec. 102(b)

[6] Sec. 105 (establishing new section 302(m)(2)(D))

[7] Secs. 105 (establishing exception and defining “ecosystem component species”).

[8] Precluding fishery management councils from adopting specific management measures, as section 103 would, runs counter to the regionally-based logic of the MSA as a whole.  And putting up roadblocks in front of exempted fishing permits (section 106) would stymie fishermen-driven innovation.

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New report offers long-awaited answers about reusing oil and gas industry’s wastewater

By Holly Pearen

A new report from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s (OWRB) Produced Water Working Group indicates that oil and gas companies looking for ways to dispose of large volumes of wastewater should focus on recycling those liquids within the oil and gas fields, and not – as some suggest – use it for irrigation or other surface applications where human and environmental exposure is a risk.

The Produced Water Working Group, a panel of 17 state experts convened by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin in December, 2015, to study various options for wastewater reuse, determined that treating wastewater for use outside of the oil field is not economical, nor are the environmental and health risks well understood.

In fact, the Working Group didn’t evaluate health and environmental risks for any of the 10 alternative uses evaluated. While research into reducing the cost of desalination, by powering treatment facilities with solar or excess lease gas, for example, may be promising, it won’t be sufficient to green light uses that introduce oil and gas wastewater into contact with communities and ecosystems.

To that end, the OWRB recommends that scientific efforts should be devoted to “identifying toxicological risks and protective water quality targets to ensure that the environment and public health are adequately protected under various reuse scenarios.” This is exactly right.

Evaluating the real health and safety impacts of using produced water outside the oilfield will take time and accurate information.

Oklahoma has the time. Governor Fallin wisely convened the Produced Water Working Group to begin identifying and developing potential alternative water sources needed to supply the state with “Water for 2060.” For oil and gas wastewater, it may take a decade to identify and answer the fundamental questions needed to assure the public that new uses don’t cause more problems than they solve.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s long-term state-wide energy and water planning gives operators, regulators, researchers and the public enough lead time to meaningfully evaluate wastewater reuse options, and implement policies that protect the public and the environment. The state should take advantage of this lead time to fully address environmental and health risks prior to permitting alternative uses outside the oilfield.

But the report suggests that Oklahomans don’t yet have the necessary data. If the state is serious about considering produced water as a potential new water resource, basic data regarding what is in the water, how much is produced, where it’s produced, and where it goes, should be collected, reported and analyzed. The OWRB report is a good first step. The next step is getting serious about meaningful public health and environmental impacts analysis by collecting basic, readily available, detailed information about this potential resource.

Until then, the Working Group report makes it clear that the most promising near term options for oil and gas wastewater management involve more efficient use of existing infield recycling and disposal techniques.

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New studies: Methane emissions from Canadian oil & gas industry are worse than reported

By Drew Nelson

Two studies released this week make it clear that Canada’s push toward methane regulations for the oil and gas industry is a smart move. And, while data of Canada’s oil and gas methane problem is still limited, these studies reinforce what research of the U.S. oil and gas industry found: oil and gas facilities are leaking far more than the industry reports — and more than it would like us to believe.

The first study, focused on Alberta and released by the Canadian environmental action organization Environmental Defence, concluded that industry is underreporting the amount of equipment located at their facilities, which means they emit more than official emission inventories report. Additionally, the study found that Alberta’s oil and gas facilities average about one large emission source per well.

The second, conducted by the David Suzuki Foundation and focused in British Columbia, measured methane emissions at existing oil and gas facilities and found that emissions are large and widespread. In fact, in just one development area of British Columbia, facilities could leak 111,800 tons of methane each year – the climate pollution equivalent of burning more than 4.5 million tons of coal or more than two million cars over the next two decades. Further, methane emissions from this area were shown to be at least 2.5 times higher than reported by the B.C. government but may be much higher.

This new research is troubling for several reasons.

First, methane’s not a usual pollutant. Because methane is the primary ingredient of natural gas, every ton of avoided emissions is a ton of natural gas that can be sold. In 2015, more than $320 million USD of methane (95 billion cubic feet) escaped from oil and gas operations in Canada. That amount of wasted fuel was enough to serve all the households in Edmonton and Calgary combined for the entire year.

In addition to being wasteful, these emissions are also exacerbating global warming. Methane is over 80 times more potent a heat trapper than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years in the atmosphere.

Finally, the oil and gas industry is the largest source of man-made methane emissions in Canada. If its methane emissions are dangerously under-reported, the country’s other attempts to reduce its climate emissions are severely undercut.

Together, these two studies underscore the importance of Canada’s effort and Alberta’s action to stem methane emissions from its oil and gas industry. They also expose the folly of industry’s seemingly contradictory claims that (1) there’s no problem, and (2) regulations aren’t necessary because they’ll fix the problem voluntarily. But if industry can’t even report accurate emission figures, how are we to believe it will reduce them?

Economic analyses have shown that methane reduction is extremely cost effective and one of the most powerful short-term climate strategies at our disposal. In the last few years, leaders in Canada and Alberta have demonstrated they agree by committing significant reductions of oil and gas methane emissions by 2025. For context, a 45% reduction worldwide would have the same 20-year climate impact as closing one-third of the world’s coal plants.

These new studies — and the research that must follow — show that policy makers in Ottawa and Edmonton must reduce these emissions, even in the face of growing pressure from industry to walk back their commitments. Methane emissions are a problem around the world, specifically in the oil and gas industry. These new Canadian studies add to the growing body of research that show the problem is worse than we once thought. Fortunately, there are many simple and affordable solutions available to reduce these emissions and, in turn, cut needless energy waste and climate pollution. The need for strong methane rules in Canada and Alberta has never been clearer, and neither has the opportunity for Canada and Alberta to make their oil and gas industry cleaner, more efficient and more responsible.

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American leaders support clean air and climate progress — regardless of Trump’s executive order

By EDF Blogs

A sample of the diverse groups that have come out against President Trump’s Executive Order on climate change.

By Charlie Jiang

President Trump’s executive order seeking to unravel critical public health and climate protections — including the Clean Power Plan — is being met with strong rebuttals and a clear demonstration of ongoing climate leadership from across the country.

An extraordinary diversity of American faith and justice leaders, businesses, health and security experts, and elected officials have spoken out against Trump’s actions or vowed to continue reducing carbon pollution and move towards a low-carbon future.

The overwhelming response to these recent attacks on our vital climate safeguards shows that Americans are coming together to protect our communities. Millions of Americans — a majority of adults in every congressional district — support limiting carbon emissions to guard against climate instability.

Here are some highlights from the many powerful statements made in the last week:

Leaders from at least 15 faith communities raised alarm at the dangerous impacts rolling back climate progress would have on America’s most vulnerable communities:

  • The United Church of Christ’s national leadership said: “Because climate change makes all other injustice worse, now is the time for us to step up.”
  • “The Clean Power Plan [gives] states a framework for progress in the sacred work of safeguarding our earth’s natural resources,” affirmed Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner on behalf of Reform Judaism
  • “The absence of a strong climate policy means more dangerous pollution that harms the unborn and children,” warned Evangelical Environmental Network President and CEO Mitch Hescox.
  • “This is a challenge for us,” said Vatican leader Cardinal Peter Turkson, a chief architect of the Pope’s “Laudato Si” encyclical on climate change. “Fortunately, in the United States, there are dissenting voices, people who are against Trump’s positions.”

Health associations representing more than 500,000 doctors and medical experts emphasized the public health imperative of reducing air pollution and addressing climate change:

  • “Implementing the Clean Power Plan alone would prevent 90,000 asthma attacks and 3,600 premature deaths every year once fully in place, wrote the American Lung Association. “Our nation needs these lifesaving protections.”
  • The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health said “As medical professionals, many of our members know firsthand the harmful health effects of climate change on patients.”
  • “Clean air should not be a luxury, and it should not be determined by ZIP code,” said the American Academy of Pediatrics.

At least 75 mayors, state governors, and attorneys general who represent more than 149 million people — nearly half of the U.S. population — reiterated the need to combat climate change and protect the communities they serve:

  • Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said: “The science of climate change is settled and the President’s actions today turn the federal government’s back on Pennsylvania’s environment and our economy.”
  • Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said: “We will keep building a clean energy future that creates Colorado jobs, improves our health and addresses the harmful consequences of a changing climate.”
  • A coalition of 23 attorneys general and local legal counsels from states including California, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, and Virginia wrote: “We won’t hesitate to protect those we serve—including by aggressively opposing in court President Trump’s actions that ignore both the law and the critical importance of confronting the very real threat of climate change.”
  • Mayors from 47 cities including Houston (TX), Knoxville (TN), Durham (NC), Fayetteville (AR), Los Angeles (CA), Chicago (IL), and New York City, released a letter reading, “Climate change is both the greatest single threat we face, and our greatest economic opportunity for our nation.”

 

Power companies owning generating capacity able to power roughly two-thirds of all homes in the U.S. spoke out to recommit to providing ever more clean energy in the wake of the executive order. Here is a sample:

  • “We intend to keep moving forward with a low-priced, clean energy strategy that provides the economical, clean energy our customers want,” said Ben Fowke, CEO of Xcel Energy.
  • “Going forward, we anticipate an increase in renewable generation capacity and declining utilization of coal,” said Southern Company spokesperson Terrell McCollum.
  • “We will continue our transition to more natural gas and renewables as we balance out our generation portfolio and provide cleaner energy,” said a spokesperson for American Electric Power.
  • “Because of the competitive price of natural gas and the declining price of renewables, continuing to drive carbon out makes sense for us,” said Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good.

 

Reducing carbon emissions and moving to cleaner sources of energy is good for business, say Fortune 500 companies including Apple, General Electric, and Walmart.

  • “We’re disappointed the administration has decided to roll back climate regulations such as the Clean Power Plan and others,” said Edward Hoover, a senior executive at Mars Inc.
  • Fighting climate change is “good for the business, our shareholders and customers,” said a Walmart
  • “We believe climate change should be addressed on a global basis,” wrote General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt. “We hope that the United States continues to play a constructive role in furthering solutions to these challenges.”
  • “We believe that strong clean energy and climate policies, like the Clean Power Plan, can make renewable energy supplies more robust and address the serious threat of climate change while also supporting American competitiveness, innovation, and job growth,” a group of tech companies including Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon said in a statement.

Leading national security experts warned of the impact President Trump’s order will have on American security.

  • The non-partisan American Security Project said: “While energy independence is a credible goal, the actions suggested will not lead to real energy security. Rather, the order removes basic programs, such as the Clean Power Plan and climate resilient development, which bolster the security of our country.”
  • Alice Hill, a former resilience policy advisor to the National Security Council under President Obama said: “Deliberately ignoring the devastation brought by climate change will leave us anything but secure.”

Officials who served administrations in both parties criticized moving backwards on climate:

  • “This is not just dangerous; it’s embarrassing to us and our businesses on a global scale to be dismissing opportunities for new technologies, economic growth, and U.S. leadership,” said Gina McCarthy, former EPA administrator under Barack Obama.
  • Asked about rumors the Trump Administration could abandon the Paris Agreement, Christine Todd Whitman, an EPA administrator under George W. Bush, said, “We lose any ability, any moral authority, to say to any other country, ‘You have to clean up your act.’”
  • Trump’s order “is reckless, arrogant policy that ignores the safety and well-being of our country and our children,” said former Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, who helped broker the Paris Agreement.

 

Community organizers working for environmental justice condemned President Trump’s attacks on America’s most vulnerable communities:

  • “The decision by President Donald Trump to roll back the hard fought progress made on clean air and clean energy is extremely disappointing and dangerous,” said NAACP President & CEO Cornell William Brooks. “We are now on a dangerous path that puts workers, communities and the planet in harm’s way.”
  • Former Kentuckians for the Commonwealth chairperson Dana Beasley Brown said: “As Kentuckians, we have to work for the kinds of solutions we know can provide good jobs, allow people to stay and live in their communities, take care of their families, and not have to make the choice between being healthy and having a good job.”
  • Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network said “Indigenous peoples will not stand idle as we tell the world the Earth is the source of life to be protected, not merely a resource to be exploited and abused.”

President Trump’s executive order will only take us backwards to an era of more pollution and more disease.

But it is clear from the overwhelming pushback that community leaders, businesses, and health and security experts, as well as millions of Americans across the country, support maintaining strong climate and public health protections and moving forward on clean energy — not turning back the clock.

Read more responses to last week’s Executive Order here.

 

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Recent Methane Success in California Offers Blueprint for Mexico’s Energy Boom

By Drew Nelson

Following energy reform in 2013, oil and gas industry expansion in Mexico is moving full steam ahead. The first round of bidding for Mexico-owned deep-water oil leases wrapped last December, ushering in a slew of private companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron for the first time since the 1930s. Additional leases for land that will become hotbeds for oil and gas activity on and offshore are planned later this year.

All of this is happening while Mexico is demonstrating remarkable climate leadership, and while countries and energy companies around the world are beginning to act on controlling methane, a harmful pollutant that routinely escapes from the global oil and gas industry. In other words, the Mexico energy boom couldn’t come at more critical time. Mexico ranks as the world’s fifth largest oil and gas methane emitter. Absent strong rules for future development, these emissions could steadily rise as more oil and gas production comes on line as a result of the energy reform.

Conversely, getting the rules right in Mexico before the energy boom happens makes sense – it’s a lot smarter to require a clean industry from the start rather than trying to clean it up years after it arrives. Mexico taking the steps now to implement strong regulations that support responsible energy development would help ensure important protections for its citizens and growing economy.

The good news is that policies to reduce methane are incredibly cost-effective, and many jurisdictions have already begun to develop and implement regulations to address this powerful pollutant. Recent progress in California is an example of best-in-class oil and gas methane regulations and are an important reference as Mexico seeks to develop similar regulations of its own.

Prevention Underpins California’s Methane Rules

Last week, California finalized the strongest oil and gas regulations to rein in methane pollution anywhere in the U.S., joining other red and blue states that are continuing to act (see here, here and here). California’s new rules require oil and gas companies to curb emissions at both new and old facilities operated on and offshore, and will save millions worth of lost gas every year. This is the first major environmental regulation issued since the new U.S. Administration took office, and it sends a clear message that states are charting their own future as leaders in Washington dismantle vital energy and environmental policies that protect all Americans.

Central to California’s methane journey was Aliso Canyon, a mega gas-leak in Southern California that captured worldwide attention. Caused by a well blowout deep underground at a natural gas storage facility, the disaster became the poster child for how bad the oil and gas industry’s methane problem can get when requirements for routine leak inspections, equipment maintenance and operation is lacking.  Case in point: documents demonstrate the facility wasn’t required to inspect for well-casing thickness or for gas leaks at the surface even though it had experienced an increasing number of infrastructure integrity problems in recent years and was operated without secondary containment systems.

Aliso Canyon – and California’s lesson learned from it– stands as an example for Mexico. It is squarely in Mexico’s interest to ensure that all oil and gas companies operating within its borders meet the same environmental safety standards required elsewhere. Without consistent policies, companies can exploit differences in national and subnational safeguards and ultimately hurt Mexico’s economy and citizens.

Methane: An Urgent Climate Pollutant

To appreciate the significance of Mexico’s situation, you have to consider what’s happening around the world regarding climate science and policy. In March, the World Meteorological Organisation released its State of the Climate Report, and the news was alarming. Global temperature broke records again in 2016, while sea-level rise accelerates. WIRED Magazine concluded, “we have surpassed our understanding of our changing climate and have stepped into truly ‘uncharted territory’”.

There is also growing understanding of the powerful role methane plays in global warming. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas over 80 times more damaging than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years it sits in the atmosphere. Scientists say methane accounts for about 25 percent of current warming and that emission levels are spiking worldwide. Globally, the oil and gas industry is among the largest emitters of methane through accidental or intentional releases.

A climate scientist at Simon Frazer University put it simply: “We need to mitigate both [methane and carbon dioxide] as soon as possible. There are no trade-offs.”

This urgency has a silver lining. Because methane is so potent, reducing it will have quick and powerful climate impact. For example, cutting global oil and gas methane emissions 45 percent by 2025 would have the same short-term climate benefit as closing one-third of the world’s coal plants. In addition, analyses have shown that reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector can be achieved affordably with existing technology.

Mexico’s Energy Boom is Methane’s Next Big Venue

Mexico has been a reliable and visible climate leader – even before its methane pledge last year. And it has a long history of working with leaders in California on a variety of environmental and climate related initiatives.

Now, with new and strong methane model from California, Mexico has a great chance to leverage its pending energy boom to help, rather than hinder, its efforts to meet its international methane pledge. By establishing fair and sensible rules for its growing energy industry, it can not only bolster the boom’s economic impact, but further demonstrate the international climate bone fides it earned in recent years.

Image source: Wokandapix, Pixabay

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The hidden – and potentially dangerous – chemicals in your diet

By Tom Neltner

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

While picking up groceries for the week, a shopper may compare brands, prices, and nutritional information to ensure they make economical and healthy choices for their family. Unfortunately, there’s much more to our food than meets the eye – or makes the label.

Approximately 10,000 food additives are allowed in our food. Food additives are substances used to flavor, color, preserve, package, process, and store our food. While some of the chemicals added to food or used in packaging are harmless, others are downright dangerous and linked to health concerns. Certain additives are linked to reproductive problems, developmental issues, and even cancer.

Perchlorate was approved in 2005 as a component of plastic packaging for dry food despite the fact that it is a known endocrine disruptor that impairs infant brain development. Benzophenone – an artificial flavor added to baked goods, dessert, beverages, and candy – is classified as a possible human carcinogen. The list goes on. No matter where you shop, your family’s health may be at risk.

Check out the cupboard below to see what else could be lurking in your food.

How did we get here?

The Food Additives Amendment of 1958 was intended to better protect the public by giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate food additives. Unfortunately, the flawed, 59-year old law, coupled with weak enforcement, has allowed thousands of chemicals to be added to food with little oversight and limited safety information.

Moreover, the law exempts ingredients “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) from formal FDA review and approval. Originally intended for common ingredients like vinegar and olive oil, industry now abuses the loophole by bypassing FDA review and making safety determinations without oversight.  FDA has never reviewed an estimated 1,000 GRAS substances for safety. And many of the 10,000 additives allowed in our food today were authorized by the FDA or industry decades ago.

This broken system leaves both FDA and consumers in the dark. Under the 1958 law, FDA has no way to know what chemicals are actually being used in which food or in what quantities—even in baby food.

How can we make food safer?

The food regulatory system does not ensure the safety of our food. To fix our broken food system, we must:

  • End secrecy: Companies should no longer be permitted to decide the safety of their own ingredients without FDA’s review or the public’s knowledge. Congress needs to create a more streamlined, public process for FDA to make decisions and encourage safer innovation.
  • Update the science: When FDA reviews chemicals in our food, it makes our food supply safer. But the agency needs to update its guidance to industry to use modern scientific methods to better protect us.
  • Ensure existing chemicals are safe: Thousands of chemicals were approved by FDA decades ago, when we had far less understanding about their impacts on human health. FDA needs to reassess their safety. Congress needs to provide FDA with the tools so the agency can get the information it needs to set priorities and make decisions about the 10,000 chemicals in our food.

Ultimately, to solve the problems in the food system and protect public health, industry should not wait for action by FDA or Congress. Companies should lead on removing the worst chemicals of concern and ensure that FDA reviews all chemicals used for safety.

Consumers are increasingly concerned about chemicals in food. It is long past time for the food regulatory system to do its job and ensure the safety of all the food we give to our families.

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