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After intense lobbying from polluting industries, President Barack Obama today abandoned badly needed plans to reduce smog and improve public health around the country. In a statement this morning, the president told the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw its draft Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which had been in the works for years.
"This is a new low for President Obama," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which works to curb air pollution and global warming. "He sold out public health and environmental protection to appease polluters. Mr. Obama's shortsighted political decision will have long-term health consequences for millions of Americans."
The EPA was proposing to tighten ozone standards set during the Bush era in 2008. The Bush standards had ignored the advice of EPA's own scientists and were set at a level too high to protect public health. The Obama administration announced its intent to bring the standards more closely in line with science in early 2010, specifically recognizing that children were especially at risk from the higher standard. Today's decision reaffirms the Bush administration's standard and delays action to protect children and others from the serious health risks of ozone pollution until at least 2013.
The National Association of Clean Air Agencies says that EPA's own data shows that today's delay will result in more than 8,500 premature deaths, more than 45,000 cases of aggravated asthma, at least 1.5 million missed work or school days, and more than 5 million cases where citizens will need to restrict their activities.
"Americans deserve clean air and a White House that takes public health seriously," Suckling said. "Instead, President Obama today caved to the demands of big polluters and walked away from his obligation to protect the people."
At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.(520) 623-5252
"Democrats were elected on the promise that they would defend Social Security against Republican attacks. Now is the moment of the truth."
A coalition of progressive advocacy groups on Monday launched a campaign urging every member of Congress to pledge to "never vote to cut Social Security or Medicare under any circumstances," an effort that comes as House Republicans are weighing attacks on the two programs as part of their sweeping austerity spree.
Led by Social Security Works and More Perfect Union, the new campaign highlights the massive stakes of the ongoing showdown over the U.S. debt ceiling, which House Republicans have said they will refuse to raise unless congressional Democrats and the Biden White House agree to major federal spending cuts—including damaging changes to Social Security and Medicare.
"To be clear, the debt ceiling legislation is not about new spending; it's about paying our bills," the progressive groups said Monday. "Failure to raise the debt limit will not only wreck the nation's economy; it will wreck the economy of the whole world."
In a launch video for their campaign, the progressive coalition includes footage of Republican lawmakers expressing support for raising the retirement age—a move that would cut Social Security spending across the board—and falsely blaming "entitlements" for the ballooning national debt as Congress hurtles toward another round of debt ceiling brinkmanship.
"Democrats were elected on the promise that they would defend Social Security against Republican attacks," said Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works. "Now is the moment of the truth. Democrats must refuse to cut Social Security. And they must refuse to create a mechanism—such as a closed-door commission—to cut Social Security down the road."
The campaign was launched ahead of President Joe Biden's planned Wednesday meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has joined the far-right flank of his caucus in pushing for federal spending cuts as a condition for raising the borrowing limit.
In a Sunday appearance on "Face the Nation," McCarthy suggested that he won't insist on cuts to Social Security or Medicare in talks with the president, saying, "Let's take those off the table."
But the Republican leader went on to say that while Biden has expressed opposition to including Social Security or Medicare changes in any debt ceiling legislation, "we've got to make sure we strengthen those." When pressed, McCarthy declined to elaborate on what he meant by "strengthen."
In response to McCarthy's comments, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said that McCarthy's "slip—and his evasiveness after—is the latest giveaway that House Republicans have been telling the truth over the last year as they reiterate time and again that they want to cut Medicare and Social Security."
"For years, congressional Republicans have advocated for slashing earned benefits using Washington code words like 'strengthen,' when their policies would privatize Medicare and Social Security, raise the retirement age, or cut benefits," Bates added. "It's like saying, 'You're not being laid off—we just want to make a change.' House Republicans refuse to raise revenue from the wealthy, but insist they will 'strengthen' earned benefits programs. You do the math. They have—they just won't show you."
While many congressional Democrats have publicly said they would join the White House in opposing any proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, at least one lawmaker—Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—has floated the possibility of cutting a deal with the GOP on the programs, an idea adamantly rejected by the progressive groups behind the new pressure campaign.
"It is critical for the Democrats to stay united and stand their ground against this latest effort to gut Social Security and Medicare," said Faiz Shakir, executive editor at More Perfect Union.
On their new website, the progressive groups will keep a running tally of the lawmakers who have taken the pledge to oppose Social Security and Medicare cuts, as well as those who are "equivocating" or outright "refusing" to make the promise.
"The only way that Democrats can win this game of chicken is if they stay united and do not blink," the groups said. "Standing with the overwhelming majority of the American people against all cuts to Social Security and Medicare should be the easiest promise any politician can make, so let's make them promise."
"The utility industry's custom of shutting off power punishes people for being poor," said the authors of a new report.
Energy justice campaigners on Monday called for "a permanent ban" on energy shutoffs by utilities as they released a report showing that major power companies have shut off millions of struggling customers' electricity and heat due to missed payments—while raking in record profits and spending billions of dollars on executive compensation, shareholder dividends, and stock buybacks.
"The utility industry's custom of shutting off power punishes people for being poor," reads a new report by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Energy and Policy Institute, and BailoutWatch. "This barbaric practice—and related punitive measures, like resale of debt to predatory private companies—must end."
The authors of the report, titled Powerless in the United States, analyzed shutoff data from 30 states between January and October 2022, finding that utilities cut power to households more than 1.5 million times. Based on the rate of shutoffs recorded, 4.2 million households suffered utility shutoffs across the country in the first 10 months of 2022.
Combined with data gathered in the groups' earlier energy justice reports, they found "a staggering 5.7 million electricity shutoffs against U.S. households from January 2020 through October 2022."
\u201cNEW RELEASE: Utilities shutoff power to families over 5.7 million times since 2020 while raking in billions. #NoShutoffs\nRead our new report @CenterforBioDiv @EnergyandPolicy @bailoutwatchorg: https://t.co/oS4Rc5cZ28\u201d— Jean Su \u8607\u5b89\u541b (@Jean Su \u8607\u5b89\u541b) 1675088291
The vast majority of shutoffs between 2020 and 2022 were perpetrated by just a dozen companies, the groups said, including NextEra Energy Inc., Duke Energy Corporation, Exelon Corporation, FirstEnergy Corporation, and Ameren Corporation.
The 12 "Hall of Shame corporations," as the report calls them, were on average less profitable than other utilities profiled in the report, but were still "prone to rewarding executives with lavish pay." They were behind 37% of the dividends paid out to shareholders and 32% of disclosed CEO pay between 2019 and 2021.
They collectively paid their top 70 executives $1.2 billion—about $5.9 million per executive each year.
On average the 12 worst-offending companies spent about $4 billion on dividends each, but the customer debt they were owed by households struggling to pay accounted for about 1% of that amount.
"These 12 companies could have forgiven all 4.9 million documented shutoffs 90 times over using their dividends from 2020 through the third quarter of 2022."
"These 12 companies could have forgiven all 4.9 million documented shutoffs 90 times over using their dividends from 2020 through the third quarter of 2022," reads the report.
Selah Goodson Bell, an energy justice campaigner with CBD who co-authored the study, toldThe Guardian that the research shows how "a small scrape of the amount of money that utilities are shelling out to shareholders... could really change lives in millions of households."
FirstEnergy, which serves customers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, shut off power nearly 240,000 times between 2020 and October 2022, punishing households for their inability to pay bills totaling about $25 million. Meanwhile, the company was able to afford spending $2.3 billion on dividends for its shareholders.
Similarly, Duke Energy cut power more than 600,000 times over that period. Customers owed them about $63 million, while shareholders were lavished with $8.3 billion.
As utility companies have enjoyed record profits, rising fossil fuel prices have driven inflation and have resulted in higher heating and electricity bills as household budgets have been stretched thin. Extreme weather like the winter storm that plunged millions of Texans into darkness in 2021 and the deadly heat wave in the Pacific Northwest that same year could also increase "energy insecurity among poor households and communities of color, which are 'less able to prepare for, respond to, and recover
from disaster events,'" the report reads.
"Heating a house with fossil gas this winter is expected to cost 66% more than it did two years ago," reads the report. "Electricity prices have also risen approximately 12% compared to 2020. The average family could pay more than $1,200 to heat their home this winter—$175 more than last winter and $300 more than the 2020 winter."
As households continue to struggle to afford necessities, utilities' punitive shutoffs and rewards for executives and investors show no sign of slowing down, according to the report. Researchers found a 29% increase in power disconnections and a 76% rise in gas shutoffs between January and October 2022, compared to the same period in 2021.
To address the shutoffs crisis, said the authors, the U.S. Energy Information Administration and Congress could require reporting on utility disconnections, while Congress "should vastly increase" funding for energy assistance programs for low-income households. Addressing the "underlying conditions"—reliance on fossil fuels for energy—and phasing out the use of oil, gas, and coal is also key to stopping punitive shutoffs.
Congress must also "enact a nationwide ban on utility shutoffs and other punitive collection practices for unpaid household utility bills for households meeting poverty criteria," said the authors, expanding on pandemic-era legislation.
"Access to electricity is a basic human right," reads the analysis. "People rely on electricity for water, physical safety, food security, medical care, and telecommunications. When these essentials are taken away, the harm spreads like ripples across a pond."
"The preventable practice of disconnections keeps millions of Americans in poverty and narrows their avenues of escape," the authors added. "By giving utility companies the power to penalize poverty, we license them to perpetuate it."
Allowing Sultan al-Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, to preside over the next U.N. climate conference "risks undermining the very essence of what is trying to be accomplished."
More than two dozen members of Congress have called on top U.S. climate diplomat John Kerry to push the United Arab Emirates to replace Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as president-designate of the United Nations COP28 meeting set to begin this November.
In a Friday letter to Kerry, 27 U.S. lawmakers wrote that "the decision to name the chief executive of one of the world's largest oil and gas companies as president of the next U.N. Climate Change Conference risks jeopardizing climate progress."
The U.A.E.'s move earlier this month to appoint al-Jaber as leader of the upcoming round of international climate negotiations has been widely condemned. So too has Kerry's celebration of the pick as "a terrific choice."
Led by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the lawmakers wrote: "To help ensure that COP28 is a serious and productive climate summit, we believe the United States should urge the United Arab Emirates to name a different lead for COP28 or, at a minimum, seek assurances that it will promote an ambitious COP28 aligned with the 1.5°C limit and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings and take concrete steps to demonstrate domestic and regional leadership toward this end."
"Having a fossil fuel champion in charge of the world's most important climate negotiations would be like having the CEO of a cigarette conglomerate in charge of global tobacco policy."
Like the 26 annual U.N. climate gatherings that preceded it, COP27 ended last November with no commitment to a swift and just global phase-out of oil, gas, and coal. Despite scientists' repeated warnings that expanding fossil fuel production will intensify the deadly impacts of the climate emergency, hundreds of corporations—including several based in the U.S. and the U.A.E.—are planning to ramp up planet-heating pollution in the years ahead.
Progressive critics have connected the dots between policymakers' ongoing failure to directly confront the fossil fuel industry—whose drive to maximize short-term profits is putting the future of humanity at risk—and Big Oil's corrupting influence at U.N. climate talks. While climate justice activists were heavily policed throughout the resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt during COP27, more than 630 fossil fuel lobbyists were granted access to the meeting.
In their letter to Kerry, members of Congress argued that allowing al-Jaber to preside over debates about the scale and pace of decarbonization threatens to exacerbate this untenable situation, leading to further delays in needed climate action.
"The appointment of an oil company executive to head COP28 poses a risk to the negotiation process as well as the whole conference itself," wrote the lawmakers. "Having a fossil fuel champion in charge of the world's most important climate negotiations would be like having the CEO of a cigarette conglomerate in charge of global tobacco policy. It risks undermining the very essence of what is trying to be accomplished."
"Future COPs should require any participating company to submit an audited corporate political influencing statement that discloses climate-related lobbying, campaign contributions, and funding of trade associations and organizations active on energy and climate issues," they continued.
"COPs should not provide a stage for greenwashing," the members of Congress added. "They should be convenings for serious climate actors and actions. Such commonsense reforms to help restore public faith in the COP process will obviously be impossible with an oil company executive at the helm."
Signatories include Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as Democratic Reps. Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.).
The lawmakers' letter to Kerry came one day after a global network of more than 450 climate justice organizations wrote in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres that "no COP overseen by a fossil fuel executive can be seen as legitimate."