A Time for Reflection and Action

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The violence in our country last week has shocked us all.  Two African American men were killed by police officers, bringing the total of African American men in the US killed by the police since January 2015 to 175 (24 of those men were unarmed).  Women of color are at disproportionate risk of police violence as well. Then, the shooting of police officers by a lone gunman in Dallas compounded the horror.  We join Americans nationwide and President Obama in decrying these senseless killings and calling for a healing of divisions in the United States.

Green America is committed to a planet where all people are valued and treated equally. We are part of many movements and recognize that the sooner we build on our shared values and interconnectedness, the stronger we will all be. In the United States, advancement of social and environmental justice is tied to the success of movements that promote the rights of people of color, the LGBTQ community, and economically disadvantaged groups.  We support these groups in their calls for justice and equality.

The Black Lives Matters movement has created awareness of racial disparities in the criminal justice system and has highlighted the environmental justice issues facing people of color as well.  Black Lives Matter activists are bringing attention to the ways that institutional racism is still prevalent in the US, and the recent mass arrests of these activists nationwide is deeply troubling.  Social protest movements are at the heart of advancing civil rights in the US, and peaceful protests should be allowed to flourish and, as a nation, we would do well to listen to the protesters instead of shutting them down.

The message of Black Lives Matter, and many other social justice movements nationwide, is clear and urgent: we cannot solve the problems facing our country, including gun violence, climate change, and our broken food system, unless we address our nation’s social and economic inequalities head on.  Too many lives are lost in the US to violence and imprisonment.  Too many people don’t have access to healthy foods or economic opportunity.  All of our communities are threatened by climate change, and it is our poorest communities that are most impacted by the burning and extraction of fossil fuels.

We must all stand together with people who are disadvantaged and support equality and justice. We must work together to heal the divides in our society and recognize that we need to create solutions that lift up all Americans and allow everyone to realize their full potential.  At Green America, we continue to join with the thousands of organizations and millions of people nationwide to work towards a nation and a world where we can all live our lives in dignity, where all communities are healthy, and where we all have enough to meet our needs.

House budget bill would gut regulations on methane emissions

The House Appropriations Committee has recommended that action be taken on H.R. 5538, a bill that would prohibit federal agencies from regulating methane emissions in the oil and gas sector.

On June 21st, the House Appropriations Committee recommended that action be taken on H.R. 5538, also known as the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. If signed into law, the act would make funding appropriations for the EPA, Department of the Interior, and other agencies related to environmental regulation. While this is a budget bill, it includes a long list of anti-environmental riders that would drastically reduce the ability of the federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, including prohibiting agencies from developing and implementing regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Methane is a hydrocarbon,greenhouse gas, and the primary component in natural gas. It is often found alongside petroleum sources, which means it can make its way into the atmosphere during the production, processing, and transport of natural gas and petroleum. According to the EPA, natural gas and petroleum systems account for33 percent of U.S. methane emissions (other major sources include agricultural practices, landfills, and coal mining). While methane is shorter-lived in the atmosphere than CO2, its warming effects are 87 times more powerful over a 20-year period.  Additionally, climate models predict that methane emissions can result in increases in stratospheric water vapor, which contributes significantly to climate change.

According to the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, over a five-year period more than 375 billion cubic feet of natural gas was lost to flaring, venting, and leaks– enough to power 5.1 million U.S. homes for a year. Major players in the oil and gas industry report that only about 0.13 percent of natural gas produced in the U.S. is wasted, but a report by the Government Accountability Office shows that the amount of gas wasted could be up to 30 times higher. The EPA estimates that about 40 percent of lost natural gas could be captured economically and with existing technology. In terms of effects on climate, this is the equivalent of 16.5 million metric tons of CO2, or the annual emissions of more than three million cars.

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Methane emissions have fallen by 6% since 1990, but remain high enough to contribute significantly to climate change. Current annual emissions are around around 730 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents. Source: EPA.gov

In addition to the climate change effects of methane emissions, these practices also lead to increased global and regional pollution. Venting, flaring, and leaking of natural gas give off a variety of dangerous pollutants, such as benzene, ethyl benzene, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde, which have been linked to a variety of health effects including some cancers, respiratory diseases, birth defects, anemia, and neurological disorders. Gases such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are also released, contributing to the formation of acid rain. Acid rain can decrease soil health and acidify lakes and streams, damaging local ecosystems and croplands. It also accelerates the breakdown of building materials, increasing the costs of houses and infrastructure. Reduction of these pollutants has the potential to save lives and reduce healthcare costs in addition to cost-savings associated with ecosystem services preserved by mitigating climate change and reducing pollution.

Methane emissions from oil extraction present an additional problem: existing regulations allow companies operating on federal and tribal lands to waste a natural resource without paying royalties on the value of lost natural gas. This amounts to a loss of government revenue as well as an additional subsidy for oil companies that are not interested in investing in the infrastructure needed to capture natural gas at the extraction site.  Existing oil and gas subsidies already put an unnecessary burden on taxpayers and incentivize the extraction of oil and gas in lieu of more sustainable energy sources. A study by environmental group Friends of the Earth found that the Bureau of Land Management subsidized the flaring of $524 million worth of natural gas in the state of North Dakota alone, resulting in lost royalties of nearly $66 million. Regulation of methane emissions would generate revenue for the federal government and tribes, which could be used to fund government programs, lower the deficit, and reduce the tax burden on the general population.

Early this year, the EPA finalized new rules to regulate the amount of methane wasted for existing oil and gas systems, and the Bureau of Land Management proposed similar rules for regulating future oil and gas systems on federal and tribal lands. The proposed rules would prohibit venting of natural gas, limit flaring at oil wells, require companies to detect and repair leaks, and require operators to submit comprehensive gas capture plans when they apply for drilling permits. Evident in H.R. 5538, these proposals have come under attack by industry leaders and members of Congress who believe the additional regulations amount to federal overreach and would have a negative impact on the economy. The bill explicitly prohibits the EPA and Department of the Interior from developing and implementing regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Many environmental organizations oppose the gutting of these regulations that will occur if H.R. 5538 is passed. Green America and 37 other environmental organizations have signed on to a letter to Congress explicitly stating our opposition. We believe that strong federal regulation of greenhouse gases is paramount to furthering the goals of climate change mitigation, a healthy population, and a sustainable energy future.

TSCA Overhaul Falls Short on Protecting Human & Environmental Health

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The House and Senate have now both passed the reconciled toxic chemical control legislation – the House bill on May 24, 2016 by a vote of 403 to 12 and the Senate bill on June 7, 2016 by voice vote.  The legislation will next move to the President’s desk for signing.

Advocates for human and environmental health, environmental justice, worker safety, sustainable business, cancer organizations, parent groups, and many others have been working for years to strengthen the ineffective Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. TSCA has been an abject failure at controlling toxins in the marketplace and protecting communities. It failed even to regulate asbestos despite mounting evidence of its danger. With approximately 85,000 chemicals in use, TSCA has banned only five of them.

With such an egregious record and with strong coalitions in support of fundamental reform, many hoped that the policy changes needed would finally be forthcoming. The new legislative comprise, however, has several shortcomings that undermine our nation’s ability to protect people and the planet from dangerous chemicals. These weaknesses include:

* Reducing states’ authority to regulate toxins;

* Limiting the regulation of toxics in imported consumer products;

* Funding that still falls short of what the Environmental Protection Agency needs to review a higher number of chemicals in a more timely way.

“Effective toxic chemical control is long overdue, leading to unnecessary illness, suffering, and death. Despite that, tremendous effort has been needed to get toxic chemical control on Congress’ agenda. The new toxic chemical control policy, while making some improvements, falls short of what’s fully needed to protect people and the planet,” said Fran Teplitz, Green America’s executive co-director for business and policy. She added, “Green America will continue to mobilize consumers and businesses in support of the strongest safeguards against toxic exposures and in support of green chemistry innovations.”

“Consumers increasingly understand that products we use every day, including those we put on our bodies and on our children, are not safe. U.S. policymakers have taken some steps, but more is needed if our nation is serious about regulating dangerous chemicals,” said Todd Larsen, Green America’s executive co-director for consumer programs.

Improvements in the current legislation include:

* Requiring the EPA to take into account chemicals’ impact on vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women;

* Removing the role of “cost effectiveness” in evaluating whether a chemical is safe.

Human and environmental health, not chemical industry profits, must drive control of toxic chemicals while businesses innovate and develop safer alternatives.

Organic Standards: Not Perfect but Definitely Better

by Anna Meyer, Food Campaigns Associate

The organic sector is one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry with over $30 billion in annual sales. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium price for food that is grown in a more sustainable manner and produced without artificial ingredients. This is good news, since a shift towards organic production is essential for building a sustainable food future. But as organic food continues to grow in popularity, are federal organic standards really fostering a food system that’s better for people and the planet?

The organic movement versus the USDA organic certification?

The organic movement was born out of a desire to shift away from industrialized farming and to be more connected with the land and communities. Industrial agriculture took off in the 1920s but really gained momentum in the 1970s thanks to USDA Secretary Earl Butz’ mantra of “get big, or get out.” The modern US organic movement is often linked with the publishing of Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring, which brought to light the many dangers of chemical intensive industrialized agriculture. Ultimately, this resulted in a government certification managed through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since the introduction of the certification, in 2002, the USDA has received much criticism calling into question the integrity of the standard.

The major differences between the movement and the standard lie in the attention to issues of social justice and in the exceptions made to allow for large-scale organic farming and additives. The movement aimed to build a standard that not only addresses the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture but the social aspects as well.

What does USDA Organic get right?
A lot! The USDA Organic standard regulates the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and additives, just to name a few.

blueberryUnder the organic standards you cannot use synthetic fertilizers. This is hugely important as synthetic fertilizers continue our dependence on fossil fuels and are responsible for the pollution of waterways and mass die offs of oceanic life. Organics also regulates the use of pesticides. While there are some pesticides allowed under the organic standard, the most common and hazardous ones, such as glypohsate, 2,4-d and dicamba, are prohibited. The regulation of pesticide use is key to maintaining pollinator health, ensuring biodiversity, and protecting the health of on-farm workers and neighboring communities.

Organic certification prohibits the use of artificial additives and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If you are purchasing something organic it is guaranteed non-GMO. The main difference between USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified is that organic verifies the process and the Non-GMO project tests for the presence of GMOs.

The standard also encourages more sustainable practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and composting. All of these are extremely essential to building back the health of the soil. Healthy soil can provide a number of ecosystem services, such as sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere, which is essential in mitigating climate change. Improved soil quality also leads to stronger plants that are more resistant to shifts in weather and are better able to handle attacks from pests.

With regards to animal production the organic standard regulate how much time animals can spend confined indoor and the use of antibiotics and artificial growth hormones. For example, organic requires that dairy cows spend the vast majority of their time being grass-fed and when they are fed supplementary feed it must be non-GMO. Both antibiotics and artificial growth hormones are prohibited under the organic standard.

This is just a glimpse as to all the things that organic regulates and monitors, the list goes on and on. You can check out an exhaustive breakdown of the standard here.

What are the main drawbacks with USDA Organic?

farm rowsWhile USDA organic does get a lot of things right and is ultimately helping to decrease the negative impacts of industrial agriculture, there are areas where it is found lacking. One major downside with the less stringent standards of the USDA’s Organic certification is that it has made room for industrial organic farming. Though the intention of the organic movement was for smaller scale farms, current organic production oftentimes happens in large-scale monocultures or industrial animal operations. There is a world of difference between smaller scale farmers selling at farmer markets and large scale farms producing for grocery store private labels. When you bring agricultural production to that scale there will always be impacts on the environment, simply by shifting the biodiversity of a region as well as the impacts of any concentrated amount of inputs and waste.

In industrial animal operations there is a high tendency to give low daily doses of antibiotics to all the animals in order to promote growth and prevent diseases, unsanitary living conditions and a poor diet make animals industrial operations more prone to disease. Organic aims to tackle this by prohibiting the use of antibiotics altogether. While decreasing the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics is a good thing, the down side is that farmers are unable to treat genuinely sick animals that could benefit from antibiotics; this becomes an animal welfare issue. Should a farmer choose to treat their sick animal, they will then have to be removed from the organic supply chain and sold to conventional production. Some dairy farmers are hesitant to get organic certification because of the inability to treat their sick cows and keep them in the organic supply chain.

The other major downside to organic is that the transition process from conventional is timely and expensive. The required three-year transition period is intended to protect the integrity of the certification. During the transition period farmers are forced to pay the extra expenses for organic, and are not yet receiving the premium price for their product. It is imperative that the government focus more funding through the farm bill to organic programs and transition.

So is Organic better?

It most definitely is! While USDA Organic is by no means perfect it is the best option currently on the market. Any increase in organic is drastically decreasing the negative impacts of agriculture on people and the environment. While we do need to continue to push towards an even more sustainable system of agriculture moving as much of our production to organic is a necessary step to mitigating climate change, protecting biodiversity, and protecting farm communities. Ultimately, what we need is a shift in the entire agricultural production system with the intention of undoing the post WWII era thinking of “get big, or get out.”

Still the very best way to know how your food is produced is to buy from local farmers with whom you have had a chance discuss farming practices, just because a farmer isn’t certified doesn’t mean that they aren’t using organic practices. In fact lots of small-scale farmers are going beyond organic and are focused on agroecological methods of farming such as increased diversification, intensive composting, cover cropping, and a particular attention to carbon sequestration. Regenerative agriculture aims to rebuild soil health and farm ecosystems in attempt to reverse the damage done by industrial agriculture over the last hundred of years. These practices are essential for preserving biodiversity and soil, as well as for preparing for climate change. Healthy soil can serve as one of the largest collectors of carbon, helping to mitigate climate change. Stronger more diverse farms are more able to handle the impacts of climate change and ensure that we have a sustainable food future.

 

Follow updates on sustainable agriculture and Green America’s work on food issues on Facebook and by visiting GreenAmerica.org/food.

 

 

Genetically Engineered Trees: A New Frontier or Climate Catastrophe?

By: Kat Battaglia, Fellow, Green America’s Better Paper Project

Most consumers in the United States are now aware of genetically engineered foods, but far fewer realize that, beginning formally in 1988, biotech scientists have been working on the next frontier of genetic engineering: trees. While the biotech industry claims GE trees could be a natural solution to deforestation, it’s far more likely that a shift to GE monoculture forests, heavily dependent on chemical inputs, would further pollute our soil, air and waterways, and exacerbate the problems of climate change.

Not All Forests Are Created Equal

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Natural forest in Putney Vermont

Natural forests are more than a collection of trees. They are rich, biodiverse habitats for millions of species of plants, animals, and microorganisms that are essential to life. Forests protect soil and waterways from pollution, and even protect humans from heart and respiratory diseases. Perhaps most miraculously, the earth’s forests also store 289 gigatons of carbon in biomass, making forests one of the greatest contributors to slowing the rate of climate change.

Enter genetically engineered trees. The biotech industry is in the process of developing GE trees for a number of aims, including lower lignin content to ease processing. Lignin, a structural component of wood, must be removed from wood pulp before it can be used to make paper. GE trees with lower lignin content stand to save the paper industry a great deal of money by cutting out the expensive removal process. GE trees also promise faster growth, ease of converting wood into biofuels, protection from pests and resistance to herbicides. These developments would surely increase the profits of biotech companies, but at what cost to the planet and future generations?

Genetically Engineered Trees Threaten the Health of an Already Fragile Planet

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GE eucalyptus plantation Credit: StopGEtrees.org

The risks of GE trees are grave. From current GE trees evaluations and experiments as well as studies assessing the environmental impact of GE trees, several large issues were identified. Lower lignin content trees decompose faster and release more carbon dioxide than non – GE trees, greatly contributing to climate change.
Additionally, GE trees require repeated and wide dousing of chemicals to eliminate pests and weeds, which furthers an industrial and chemically- driven approach to agriculture. This approach causes pollution to soil, waterways and air as well as heavy emissions of greenhouse gases.

The development of GE trees will likely bring about massive, single-crop plantations, which can hardly replace natural forests. Monoculture plantations have already devastated natural forests around the world, leaving former inhabitants—mainly indigenous communities—without a home, among many other things, as detailed in Center for Food Safety’s 2016 Report on Genetically Engineered Trees.

Native species contamination is also a risk, as pollen and twigs are likely to blow from GE plantations to natural forests where they can mate with native trees, impacting the way that those species function in their environment. Due to the interconnected nature of an ecosystem, when one factor changes it can set off a chain reaction, permanently changing our environment in unpredictable and often harmful ways.

A Way Forward for Trees, People, and the Paper Industry

Despite these risks, the biotech industry is spending millions in research and development of GE trees. Why? Because beyond being essential to life on Earth, trees are an extremely valuable resource, used for paper, lumber, and even fuel. The paper industry, however, would be wise to take a look at what sustainable businesses across the country are doing to meet demand for paper, while still protecting forests. Banana leaves, hemp, agricultural waste, recycled content, and even elephant poop are worthwhile explorations for the paper industry to pursue that can take the place of trees as the major victim of paper production.

It’s not the trees that need to change, but rather the actions of those who interact with them. Natural forests need to be protected, and commercial forests must be managed sustainably. Organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council exemplify the standards of proper forest management in a competitive and economically beneficial manner. Until the risks of GE trees to our forests, climate, and future can be eliminated, funds for GE tree development and field trials should be reallocated to proper forest management and research on new and different conventional breeding techniques

With the immeasurable importance that forests and their ecosystems play in our natural world, each solution must be evaluated extensively to ensure a holistically beneficial approach for our communities, our forests, and our climate. To learn more about forests, check out Green America’s Better Paper Project at betterpaper.org or follow us on twitter @BetterPaperProj!

 

Big News: The EPA publishes essential new rules on methane leaks

Breaking: EPA Will Cut Methane Pollution

Today, the EPA published its final rule regarding methane leaks from new, modified, and reconstructed oil and gas sources.  This is an important step forward for the US, especially in light of our climate commitments from the Paris Agreement.  Thanks to the thousands of Green America individual and business members that took action to support the rule.

The rule is a long-time coming and very necessary.  Huge amounts of dangerous methane and toxic air pollution are leaking from oil and gas industry sources, and it was recently announced that those leaks are 34% worse than previously reported. Increased methane leaks may be undermining the progress that the US has made in reducing CO2 emissions over the past decade.

Methane pollution represents one of the most significant threats to Americans’ air, environment and public health.

  • Climate: Methane pollution is to blame for a quarter of man-made climate change. Pound for pound, the gas traps more than 80 times as much heat on our planet in the short term as carbon dioxide does. The oil and gas industry are leading source of methane emissions in the US and much of those emissions are due to waste that can be captured.
  • Health: Methane not only drives climate change, it impacts the health of communities nationwide. Methane pollution and toxic chemicals from the oil and gas industry worsen smog, trigger asthma attacks in children, and cause cardiovascular disease and even premature death. The health impacts of methane often hit low-income communities and communities of color the most.
  • Waste: We could heat over 7 million homes each winter with the more than $1 billion in natural gas that the oil and gas industry recklessly wastes by leaking it into the air. Capturing methane leaks will also create jobs, and many of those jobs will be provided by innovative small businesses.

Green America applauds the EPA for the steps it is taking to regulate methane emissions from new oil and gas sources, and urges the EPA to now address methane leaks from existing sources.

Clean Energy Victory Bonds — Now’s the Time

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The following guest blog post is from Sandra McCardell, President, Current-C Energy Systems, Inc. Albuquerque NM. The Clean Energy Victory Bond campaign is a project of Green America.

When I was born (in the 1950’s), my grandmother gave me the gift of a United States Savings Bond –what would have been called a “Victory Bond” or a “Liberty Bond” if I had been born 10 years earlier, when WWII was still being fought. It was an investment, I always felt, in the future she wanted me to have.

Well, I don’t have any grandchildren (yet – a really subtle hint to my children!) but if I did, I too would want to invest in the future I want them to have. That future would be one where they enjoy rushing rivers, silent winter landscapes, the canals of Venice, mountain passes, coral reefs, whispering pines, a fresh tomato straight from the garden.  It would not be one where they struggle with asthma, where deserts and famine expand, where islands, peoples, and species disappear.  It would be a world where solar farms and dairy-based bio-digesters are seen from the air, not a pall of particulates.  It would be a world where energy is clean, and the US is a world leader in developing and deploying that energy.

It would also be a world where all of us can invest in a clean energy future, can feel that we are doing our part to bring Victory, no matter where we live or whether or not local regulations permit wind turbines. We in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, salute our own Senator Udall for introducing an amendment to the Senate Energy Bill (S.2012) to advance Clean Energy Victory Bonds (CEVB).  It is a bi-partisan effort, with a vote of 50 – 47 the first time it was introduced last month (just short of the 60 votes required) – a result that is almost unheard of in Washington DC these days!  In the House, Representatives Matsui and Lofgren are working to advance a similar bill, and there too sponsorship is increasing. (Read more here.)

It’s a future I believe in, and to which I am committed. For my unborn grandchildren – and for my children and for myself.  If they were available I would invest in those Clean Energy Victory Bonds NOW, because they:

  • Help create 1 million clean energy jobs nationwide
  • Enhance US security by decreasing reliance on foreign oil
  • Provide a safe investment to all Americans starting at $25, because they would be Treasury bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the US government
  • Build US businesses, including here in New Mexico, that manufacture and install clean energy & energy efficiency technologies
  • Maintain the US’ competitive advantage in clean energy technologies
  • Provide a “revenue neutral” way for the US Government to support clean energy and energy efficiency, since all programs supported by the bonds will be repaid
  • Build the clean energy economy without raising taxes

Once they become available, CEVBs will also provide a good and easy way we can act in the present, to bring that good future closer for all of us. Or at least we will be able to act as soon as Congress allows them to be created!

Join me. Invest in our shared future.  Contact your Congress-people and tell them this is a good idea, no matter which side of the fence they sit on.  Then, (as soon as you can) buy some CEVBs – for yourself, for your children, for your grandchildren – and for people you will never meet who also share this complicated and beautiful world.