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‘We Knew They Had Cooked the Books’

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Robinson Meyer has in the Atlantic an article worth reading. It was referenced by Jonathan Chait in a post I blogged yesterday, but Meyer’s entire article is worth reading. It begins:

On a drizzly day in January 2018, Jeff Alson, an engineer at the Environmental Protection Agency’s motor-vehicles office, gathered with his colleagues to make a video call to Washington, D.C.

They had made the same call dozens of times before. For nearly a decade, the EPA team had worked closely with another group of engineers in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, pronounced nits-uh) to write the federal tailpipe-pollution standards, one of the most consequential climate protections in American history. The two teams had done virtually all the technical research—testing engines in a lab, interviewing scientists and automakers, and overseeing complex economic simulations—underpinning the rules, which have applied to every new car and light truck, including SUVs and vans, sold in the United States since 2012.

Their collaboration was historic. Even as SUVs, crossovers, and pickups have gobbled up the new-car market, the rules have pushed the average fuel economy—the distance a vehicle can travel per gallon of gas—to record highs. They have saved Americans $500 billion at the pump, according to the nonpartisan Consumer Federation of America, and kept hundreds of millions of tons of carbon pollution out of the air. So as the call connected, Alson and the other EPA engineers thought it was time to get back to work. Donald Trump had recently ordered a review of the rules.

Speaking from Washington, James Tamm, the NHTSA fuel-economy chief, greeted the EPA team, then put a spreadsheet on-screen. It showed an analysis of the tailpipe rules’ estimated costs and benefits. Alson had worked on this kind of study so many times that he could recall some of the key numbers “by heart,” he later told me.

Yet as Alson looked closer, he realized that this study was like none he had seen before. For years, both NHTSA and the EPA had found that the tailpipe rules saved lives during car accidents because they reduced the weight—and, with it, the lethality—of the heaviest SUVs. In 2015, an outside panel of experts concurred with them.

But this new study asserted the opposite: The Obama-era rules, it claimed, killed almost 1,000 people a year.

“Oh my God,” Alson said upon seeing the numbers. The other EPA engineers in the room gasped and started to point out other shocking claims on Tamm’s slide. (Their line was muted.) It seemed as if every estimated cost had ballooned, while every estimated benefit had shrunk. Something in the study had gone deeply wrong.

It was the beginning of a fiasco that could soon have global consequences. The Trump administration has since proposed to roll back the tailpipe rules nationwide, a move that, according to one estimate, could add nearly 1 billion tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere. Officials have justified this sweeping change by claiming that the new rules will save hundreds of lives a year. They are so sure of those benefits that they have decided to call the policy the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule—or SAFE, for short.

SNAFU may be a better moniker. To change a federal rule, the executive branch must do its homework and publish an economic study arguing why the update is necessary. But Trump’s official justification for SAFE is honeycombed with errors. The most dramatic is that NHTSA’s model mixed up supply and demand: The agency calculated that as cars got more expensive, millions more people would drive them, and the number of traffic accidents would increase, my reporting shows. This error—later dubbed the “phantom vehicles” problem—accounted for the majority of incorrect costs in the SAFE study that the Trump administration released in 2018. It is what made SAFE look safe.

Once this and other major mistakes are fixed, all of SAFE’s safety benefits vanish, according to a recent peer-reviewed analysis in Science. If SAFE is adopted into law, American traffic deaths could actually increase, carbon pollution would soar, and global warming would speed up.

In other words, SAFE isn’t actually safe—and the Trump administration based its rollback on flawed math.

Extensive interviews with key participants and a review of emails and documents reveal how this happened: The Trump administration kept the government’s top tailpipe-pollution experts from working on the tailpipe-pollution rule. For two years, rival bureaucrats at NHTSA and overworked Trump political appointees stonewalled the EPA team, blocked it from learning of the rollback, and prevented it from seeing analysis of the new rule. When the EPA engineers finally saw the flawed study and identified some of its worst errors, the same Trump officials ignored them.

This may have been a series of legally fatal blunders. The EPA team identified the phantom-vehicles problem early in the process. Within weeks of SAFE’s publication in August 2018, analyses from outside economists and the Honda Motor Company vindicated the EPA team’s assessment. Those groups found that the SAFE study was a turducken of falsehoods: it cited incorrect data and made calculation errors, on top of bungling the basics of supply and demand. Not since 1999—when NASA engineers accidentally confused metric and imperial units when building and navigating the Mars Climate Orbiter, leading to the spacecraft’s eventual destruction—have federal employees messed up a calculation so publicly, and at such expense and scale. And the EPA team saw it coming.

My reporting directly contradicts what EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told members of Congress last year. In a June letter to House Republicans, Wheeler said it was “false” that “EPA professional staff were cut out” of the rollback’s development.

In a statement, an EPA spokesman did not directly deny my reporting. “As we’ve stated multiple times before, career and professional staff within EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation were involved in the development of this proposal and continue to be involved in the final stages as we work with NHTSA to finalize this rule,” said Michael Abboud, the agency spokesman. He added that the old rule was “unworkable” and rushed into law at the end of the Obama administration.

A NHTSA spokesman declined to comment because the proposed regulation is under agency review. He referred me to older statements that said the EPA and NHTSA had reviewed “hundreds of thousands of public comments” and undertaken “extensive scientific and economic analyses” in the course of reworking the SAFE rule. A final version of the rule is expected in the next several weeks. But that new version of the SAFE study recognizes that the benefits of the rollback do not exceed its costs, according to a letter from Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, obtained by The Washington Post.

If Carper’s allegation is true, that could doom the proposal in court. In fact, several legal issues could hinder SAFE. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act “requires” the EPA to regulate carbon pollution “from new motor vehicles.” But my reporting has found that NHTSA employees—and not EPA staff—actually wrote the first version of the rollback, raising questions about whether the rule is legally valid.

Either way, the SAFE rollback has already caused chaos. Major automakers—some of which once begged Trump to weaken the rules—now despise SAFE, according to reporting in The Wall Street Journal. When Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, and Honda began negotiating a compromise version of the standard with California last year, the Trump administration smacked them with an antitrust investigation. (It dropped the probe last week.) A fifth automaker, Mercedes-Benz, also considered joining the truce with California, The New York Times reported over the summer. (Mercedes did not respond to a request for comment.)

That chaos might have comforted Alson, who retired in 2018, and the other EPA engineers two years ago, as they sat slack-jawed in their conference room in Ann Arbor. Soon after unveiling the analysis, Tamm asked if anyone had questions. No one spoke. The meeting, originally scheduled to last an hour, adjourned after 30 minutes.

“We couldn’t even bring ourselves to try to engage,” Alson told me. “We knew they had cooked the books so bad that there wasn’t any reason to talk about it.”

Republicans will often claim that one federal rule or another meddles with an essential part of the economy. The tailpipe-pollution rules live up to the hype. They govern the place where the auto industry and the oil industry—two massive, planet-spanning businesses that together make up about 11 percent of American GDP—most often meet: the humble car engine.

There’s no way around this. In recent years, nearly one-fifth of the country’s climate-warming carbon pollution has come from cars and light-duty trucks, according to the EPA. It’s inevitable: If you burn gasoline in an internal-combustion engine, you release carbon dioxide; if you want to release less carbon, you must burn less gasoline. Some car regulations—such as those addressing traffic-safety issues—require only that some new technology, such as an airbag or backup camera, simply be affixed to a car’s frame. But any carbon-pollution rule must go to the heart of a motor vehicle: the engine, power train, and air conditioner.

Yet for decades, NHTSA—the traffic-safety arm of the Department of Transportation—set the nation’s fuel-economy rules. It was given that power for “purely political” reasons, says Lee Vinsel, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies American car regulation. “It had nothing to do with expertise.”

Congress first established the fuel-economy standards during the 1970s oil embargo as a “panic mode” policy that would reduce cars’ use of fuel and, by extension, American dependence on foreign oil, Vinsel told me. But lawmakers split on which agency should set the rules.

The EPA, then a young office, had already started measuring fuel efficiency as part of a broader campaign to defend the new Clean Air Act. Yet neither the EPA nor the other agencies in contention, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce, won the support of Representative John Dingell, a powerful New Deal Democrat from Detroit. Although Dingell was an environmental champion who helped write the Endangered Species Act, his Michigan ties meant that he was “rabidly anti-regulation of the automobile,” Vinsel said. If fuel-economy rules had to pass, Dingell wanted to keep an eye on them. And he could do that through the Department of Transportation, whose purse strings he held via his seat on the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (which he later renamed the Energy and Commerce Committee).

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 February 2020 at 12:01 pm

Good news via bad news: Obama Auto Standards May Survive Because Trump Staff Can’t Do Math

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

One of the Obama administration’s most effective climate initiatives was tightened regulations of auto emissions, which will reduce carbon emissions by billions of tons. Trump, of course, is trying to roll it back. The good news is that he is almost certainly too incompetent to pull it off in his first term.

When regulatory agencies write new rules, they have to follow some fairly complicated legal procedures, which often have to hold up under judicial scrutiny. Historically, agencies win about 80 percent of the time against legal challenges. But Trump’s regulations lose about 90 percent of the time, because his administration is staffed with incompetent hacks.

The courts will soon be fighting over Trump’s plan to weaken auto-emission standards. Trump is highly likely to lose, because, as two new reports show, the incompetence of his regulators reached almost mind-boggling proportions.

The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer has a deep dive into how Trump’s political appointees circumvented all the nonpolitical experts and tried to come up with cost-benefit studies justifying their decision. Meyer’s account of the bureaucratic car wreck should be read in whole, but here are a few highlights. They mixed up supply and demand, assuming higher prices would cause more cars to be driven:

The agency calculated that as cars got more expensive, millions more people would drive them, and the number of traffic accidents would increase, my reporting shows. This error—later dubbed the “phantom vehicles” problem—accounted for the majority of incorrect costs in the SAFE study that the Trump administration released in 2018. It is what made SAFE look safe.

Their own roster of economists dismissed their numbers:

In December 2018, 11 economists—including some whose research was cited by NHTSA in its flawed study—published a scathing assessment of the NHTSA-led analysis in Science. “The 2018 analysis has fundamental flaws and inconsistencies, is at odds with basic economic theory and empirical studies, is misleading, and does not improve estimates of costs and benefits of fuel economy standards,” they wrote.

They even failed arithmetic. (“At one point, the NHTSA team forgot to divide by four.”) Oof.

The New York Times’ Coral Davenport adds even more detail. Any new policy that affects the environment needs an environmental impact study, but “no such document has been completed or sent to the White House,” she reports. The document is “sprinkled with glaring numerical and spelling errors (such as ‘Massachusettes’), with 111 sections marked ‘text forthcoming.’”

The main problem, in a nutshell, is that regulations have to show they pass some rational cost-benefit analysis. Trump’s actual goals — humiliating Obama, increasing short-term employment in the auto sector — can’t actually be included in the analysis. So they’re left trying to fudge the numbers to make it look like Americans win by buying less-efficient cars that spew more pollution into the atmosphere. It’s a hard case to make even if you’re good at spelling words and adding correctly, which Trump’s political staffers clearly are not.

However, if Trump wins a second term,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 February 2020 at 6:31 pm

Could Small Still Be Beautiful?

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Bryce Bauer writes in Craftsmanship magazine:

In the mid-1970s, an economist named E.F. Schumacher argued that our push for endless growth was doomed to fail. His book, “Small Is Beautiful,” soon became a classic, inspiring a generation of idealists. While largely forgotten since then, Schumacher’s ideas might speak to the working class’s troubles today more than ever.

Section 1. “Economics as a Form of Brain Damage”
Section 2. The Schumacher Center For a New Economics
Section 3. The New Economics of Land Ownership
Section 4. The New Economics of Business Financing
Section 5. The New Economics of Currency
Section 6. The New Economics of Entrepreneurship
Section 7. Challenges To The New Economy

Four decades ago, just as some of the forces that have caused today’s problems with globalization and inequality began to take hold, a British economist by the name of E.F. Schumacher took America by storm with a set of contrary ideas about how an economy should work.

Schumacher aimed squarely at supporting everyday people and the communities where they lived. For a brief period in the mid-1970s, his name enjoyed headline status — and his book, “Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered,” joined a pantheon of powerful, call-to-action works of the time. Schumacher’s book was taken so seriously that, a few years after its publication, it was listed alongside such enduring critiques as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Paul R. Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb.”

While “Small Is Beautiful” hasn’t endured with quite the same power those works have enjoyed, its ideas have still seeped into the thinking of some of the nation’s latter-day acolytes of social and environmental sustainability, including Wendell Berry, Jane Jacobs, and Bill McKibben. Schumacher’s work also inspired a small think-tank focused on turning the small towns and bucolic countryside of the Massachusetts Berkshires into a laboratory for further exploration of his theories.

Given how rarely Schumacher’s once-popular ideas are discussed today, one can’t help but wonder—were his perceptions all wrong? Or, as the director of the institute focused on sustaining his ideas, and as Schumacher himself also said, was their time yet to come? If the latter, might that time be now? Every day, it seems, more and more experts join the argument that the accelerating dominance of global companies — in a world struggling with income inequality, resource depletion, and the growing ravages of climate change — has put us on an unsustainable path. If that bleak outlook is correct, maybe it’s time to give Schumacher’s ideas a second look.

“ECONOMICS AS A FORM OF BRAIN DAMAGE”

When “Small Is Beautiful” came out, in 1973, Schumacher had already worked for several decades as an economist. In the years after its publication, he toured the United States speaking to crowds across the country and meeting with political leaders, including an address before 50 members of Congress and a meeting with President Jimmy Carter. At the time, America was being wrenched by many of the ills he said modern economics would cause. The 1970s was a decade marked by oil and gas shocks, labor unrest and stagflation, a growing concern over the environment, and the discord of the Vietnam War. Schumacher was attuned to what it all portended. (In fact, the first use of the term “global warming” occurred just two years after Schumacher’s book was published.) Schumacher wrote “we do well to ask why it is that all these terms — pollution, environment, ecology, etc. — have so suddenly come into prominence…is this a sudden fad, a silly fashion, or perhaps a sudden failure of nerve?”

Born in Bonn, Germany, Schumacher had fled Nazi Germany to England in 1937. During the Second World War, when Great Britain began interning Germans, including Jewish refugees, Schumacher and his family moved to the countryside, where he worked on a farm until his writing caught the notice of John Maynard Keynes, the British economist who launched the 20th century’s activist alternative to unfettered, free-market economics.

The core of Schumacher’s argument lay in his book’s subtitle: “Economics as if People Mattered.” For far too long, economists had approached the problem of development in a way that focused too much on goods over people, emphasizing the elimination of labor instead of job creation. He accused these experts of treating consumption as the end itself, always to be maximized.

In Schumacher’s view, the economy would not benefit from the standard methods of stimulation; if anything, it should be de-intensified. If this could be managed, Schumacher believed, it would allow time “for any piece of work — enough to make a really good job of it, to enjoy oneself, to produce real equality, even to make things beautiful.”

The opportunity to work this way — which is central to any artisan or tradesman, and to his or her ability to produce top-notch, innovative work — clearly has only declined further in the years since Schumacher made this observation. And if anything, his critique might be even more timely today. In a new book, “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” veteran New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue that the growing scarcity of jobs that offer such visceral satisfactions is part of what’s plunged America’s working class into unprecedented levels of despair, drug addiction, and suicide.

To be truly helpful, Schumacher argued, development funds in poor areas should be spent on “intermediate technology” — that is, technology that’s cheap, resilient, and simple enough to be used by workers in areas that lack access to education, ready capital, and sophisticated infrastructure. Technology that’s too expensive, and too complex to be readily used in developing economies, he said, destroys “the possibilities of self-reliance.”

Whenever he traveled to speak about these ideas in the U.S., crowds met his stops — 2,000 in Chicago, 500 in Minneapolis, 200 at the Colorado School of the Mines in Golden, 600 in an overflow crowd at the Helena, Montana Civic Center — and his book was, at one point, reportedly selling 30,000 copies a month. His ideas also inspired a government “Office of Appropriate Technology” in California, where then-governor Jerry Brown introduced Schumacher during a 1977 tour of America. (That organization is still in existence, in slightly altered form in Montana, as the National Center for Appropriate Technology.) During Gov. Brown’s more idealistic days, he once said, “if you want to understand my philosophy, read this,” as he brandished a copy of “Small Is Beautiful.”

“The 60s was a generation that wanted to do things different…and there was Schumacher saying I was a conventional economist and I was mistaken,” says Susan Witt, who became the executive director and co-founder of what’s now called the E.F. Schumacher Center for a New Economics. “I didn’t take into account human beings. I didn’t take into account their spiritual lives. I didn’t take into account concern for the earth and I’ve had to re-think my economics. Those essays in ‘Small Is Beautiful’ touched a generation.”

One of those touched by Schumacher’s ideas was the entrepreneur and author Peter Barnes, who discovered Schumacher when he reviewed his book for the The New Republic, where Barnes was on staff at the time. A few years after doing so, Barnes quit his job to found a worker-owned solar cooperative; and, later, the Working Assets telephone company (now Credo Mobile). “I changed my life because of Schumacher you could say,” Barnes told me.

Unfortunately, a few months after Schumacher ended his U.S. tour, he died while traveling in Switzerland. In the wake of his death, the decade seemed to rush past him. The 1980s ushered in the “greed is good” era;  Governor Brown, swept up in California-sized ambitions, walked back his original praise; international tension over oil eased; and Carter was replaced by Reagan, who tore his predecessor’s solar panels off the White House roof. The new economic creed was Reaganomics and Thatcherism. Schumacherism, such as it was, suddenly seemed quaint — an ideology not of future sustainability, but of antediluvian thinking and defeat.

THE SCHUMACHER CENTER FOR A NEW ECONOMICS

Schumacher’s ideas didn’t go away entirely, however. In some areas they continued percolating, spinning into a number of institutions in the United Kingdom and the U.S. One was an eponymous organization called the E.F. Schumacher Center.

Located in the undulating hills of the Southern Berkshires, off the charmingly named Jug End Road near Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the center is a living emblem of Schumacherian modesty and elegance.  . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2020 at 9:21 pm

How the Environmental Lawyer Who Won a Massive Judgment against Chevron Lost Everything

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Corporations, legally “persons” who fit the diagnostic criteria for sociopaths, control too much. Sharon Lerner reports in the Intercept:

LAST AUGUST, DURING the second-hottest year on record, while the fires in the Amazon rainforest were raging, the ice sheet in Greenland was melting, and Greta Thunberg was being greeted by adoring crowds across the U.S., something else happened that was of great relevance to the climate movement: An attorney who has been battling Chevron for more than a decade over environmental devastation in South America was put on house arrest.

Few news outlets covered the detention of Steven Donziger, who won a multibillion-dollar judgment in Ecuador against Chevron over the massive contamination in the Lago Agrio region and has been fighting on behalf of Indigenous people and farmers there for more than 25 years. So on August 6, Donziger left a Lower Manhattan courthouse unnoticed and boarded the 1 train home with an electronic monitoring device newly affixed to his ankle. Save for the occasional meeting with his lawyer or other court-sanctioned appointment, he has remained there ever since.

“I’m like a corporate political prisoner,” Donziger told me as we sat in his living room recently. The attorney, who is 6-foot-3, graying, and often used to be mistaken for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio when he was able to walk the city streets, was surprisingly stoic and resigned about his predicament during my two visits to the apartment he shares with his wife and 13-year-old son. But on this particular Wednesday, as the winter sunlight in his living room was dimming and the charger for his spare ankle bracelet battery flashed on a nearby shelf, his optimism about his epic battle against one of the biggest oil companies in the world seemed to be flagging. “They are trying to totally destroy me.”

Donziger is not exaggerating. As he was arguing the case against Chevron in Ecuador back in 2009, the company expressly said its long-term strategy was to demonize him. And since then, Chevron has continued its all-out assault on Donziger in what’s become one of the most bitter and drawn-out cases in the history of environmental law. Chevron has hired private investigators to track Donziger, created a publication to smear him, and put together a legal team of hundreds of lawyers from 60 firms, who have successfully pursued an extraordinary campaign against him. As a result, Donziger has been disbarred and his bank accounts have been frozen. He now has a lien on his apartment, faces exorbitant fines, and has been prohibited from earning money. As of August, a court has seized his passport and put him on house arrest. Chevron, which has a market capitalization of $228 billion, has the funds to continue targeting Donziger for as long as it chooses.

In an emailed statement, Chevron wrote that “any jurisdiction that observes the rule of law should find the fraudulent Ecuadorian judgment to be illegitimate and unenforceable.” The statement also said that “Chevron will continue to work to hold the perpetrators of this fraud accountable for their actions, including Steven Donziger, who has committed a litany of corrupt and illegal acts related to his Ecuadorian judicial fraud against Chevron.”

The developments that led to Donziger’s confinement were, like much of the epic legal battle he’s been engaged in for decades, highly unusual. The home confinement is his punishment for refusing a request to hand over his cellphone and computer, something that’s been asked of few other attorneys. To Donziger, who had already endured 19 days of depositions and given Chevron large portions of his case file, the request was beyond the pale, and he appealed it on the grounds that it would require him to violate his commitments to his clients. Still, Donziger said he’d turn over the devices if he lost the appeal. But even though the underlying case was civil, the federal court judge who has presided over the litigation between Chevron and Donziger since 2011, Lewis A. Kaplan, drafted criminal contempt charges against him.

In another legal peculiarity, in July, Kaplan appointed a private law firm to prosecute Donziger, after the Southern District of New York declined to do so — a move that is virtually unprecedented. And, as Donziger’s lawyer has pointed out, the firm Kaplan chose, Seward & Kissel, likely has ties to Chevron.

Making the case even more extraordinary, Kaplan bypassed the standard random assignment process and handpicked someone he knew well, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, to oversee the case being prosecuted by the firm he chose. It was Preska who sentenced Donziger to home detention and ordered the seizure of his passport, even though Donziger had appeared in court on hundreds of previous occasions.

A Tainted Witness

Despite Donziger’s current predicament, the case against Chevron in Ecuador was a spectacular victory. The twisted legal saga began in 1993, when Donziger and other attorneys filed a class-action suit in New York against Texaco on behalf of more than 30,000 farmers and Indigenous people in the Amazon over massive contamination from the company’s oil drilling there. Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001, has insisted that Texaco cleaned up the area where it operated and that its former partner, the national oil company of Ecuador, was responsible for any remaining pollution.

At Chevron’s request, the legal proceedings over the “Amazon Chernobyl” were moved to Ecuador, where the courts were “impartial and fair,” as the oil company’s attorneys wrote in a filing at the time. The move to Ecuador, where the legal system does not involve juries, may have also appealed because it spared Chevron a jury trial. In any case, an Ecuadorian court ruled against Chevron in 2011 and ordered the company to pay $18 billion in compensation, an amount that was later reduced to $9.5 billion. After years of struggling with the health and environmental consequences of oil extraction, the impoverished Amazonian plaintiffs had won a historic judgment from one of the biggest corporations in the world.

But Donziger and his clients never had a moment to savor their David-over-Goliath victory. Even though the ruling was subsequently upheld by the Ecuadorian Supreme Court, Chevron immediately made clear that it would not be paying the judgment. Instead, Chevron moved its assets out of the country, making it impossible for the Ecuadorians to collect.

That year, Chevron filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, suit against Donziger in New York City. Although the suit originally sought roughly $60 billion in damages, and civil trials involving monetary claims of more than $20 entitle a defendant to a jury, Chevron dropped the monetary claims two weeks before the trial.

In its statement, Chevron wrote that the company “focused the RICO case on obtaining injunctive relief against the furtherance of Donziger’s extortionate scheme against the company.”

Instead, that case was decided solely by Kaplan, who ruled in 2014 that the Ecuadorian judgment against Chevron was invalid because it was obtained through “egregious fraud” and that Donziger was guilty of racketeering, extortion, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. The decision hinged on the testimony of an Ecuadorian judge named Alberto Guerra, who claimed that Donziger had bribed him during the original trial and that the decision against Chevron had been ghostwritten.

Guerra was a controversial witness. Chevron had prepped him on more than 50 occasions before his testimony, paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars, and arranged for the judge and his family members to move to the United States with a generous monthly stipend that was 20 times the salary he received in Ecuador. In 2015, when Guerra testified in an international arbitration proceeding, he admitted that he had lied and changed his story multiple times. According to Chevron, Guerra’s inaccuracies didn’t change the thrust of his testimony. For his part, Judge Kaplan wrote that his court “would have reached precisely the same result in this case even without the testimony of Alberto Guerra.” In its statement, Chevron said that Guerra was relocated to the U.S. for his safety and noted that the court found that the company’s contacts with the Ecuadorian judge were “proper and transparent.”

Lawyers for Donziger said the changes in Guerra’s testimony completely undermined his original bribery allegations, which Donziger has consistently denied. In any case, that evidence emerged after the trial, and an appeals court declined to consider the new information and ruled against Donziger in 2016.

Had Donziger been criminally charged with bribery, a jury would have assessed Guerra’s credibility. Instead, in the RICO case, which was civil, the decision about a key witness came down to one person — Kaplan — who chose to believe him. That choice has set the stage for the legal losses Donziger has suffered since, according to some close watchers of the Chevron case.

“On the basis of Kaplan saying, ‘I believe this witness; I find Donziger guilty of the crime of bribery of the judge’ — on the basis of that, he’s been destroyed. That is the pinnacle element of all of the other claims against him. And if you take that one out, the rest of them — they’re just not there,” said Charles Nesson, an attorney and Harvard Law School professor. “He has effectively been convicted of bribery by the finding of a single judge in a case in which bribery wasn’t even the charge,” Nesson said of Donziger. “I teach evidence, that you have to prove what you assert. But the proof in this case is the thinnest.”

Nesson, who represented Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case and the plaintiffs in the suit of W. R. Grace featured in the book and film “A Civil Action,” teaches Donziger’s case in his “Fair Trial” course, using it as an example of a decidedly unfair trial. “Donziger epitomizes a person in asymmetric civil litigation who can now be denied a fair trial,” he explains to his students.

Nesson is one of several legal scholars who have opined that Kaplan has a soft spot for Chevron, which the judge once described as “a company of considerable importance to our economy that employs thousands all over the world, that supplies a group of commodities, gasoline, heating oil, other fuels, and lubricants on which every one of us depends every single day.”

In contrast, the judge has exhibited antipathy for Donziger, according to his former lawyer, John Keker, who saw the case as a “Dickensian farce,” in which “Chevron is using its limitless resources to crush defendants and win this case through might rather than merit.” Keker withdrew from the case in 2013 after noting that “Chevron will file any motion, however meritless, in the hope that the court will use it to hurt Donziger.”

Donziger’s current prohibition from working, traveling, earning money, and leaving his home shows how successful Chevron’s strategy has been. But even as his fate hangs in the balance, Donziger’s case matters far beyond the life of this one lawyer.

“It should be nothing short of terrifying for any activist challenging corporate power and the oil industry in the U.S.,” said Paul Paz y Miño, associate director of Amazon Watch, an organization devoted to the protection of the rainforest and Indigenous people in the Amazon basin. “They’ve made it clear there’s no amount of money that’s too much to spend on this case,” he said of Chevron. “They will stop at nothing.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2020 at 12:11 pm

Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet

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George Monbiot writes in the Guardian:

It sounds like a miracle, but no great technological leaps were required. In a commercial lab on the outskirts of Helsinki, I watched scientists turn water into food. Through a porthole in a metal tank, I could see a yellow froth churning. It’s a primordial soup of bacteria, taken from the soil and multiplied in the laboratory, using hydrogen extracted from water as its energy source. When the froth was siphoned through a tangle of pipes and squirted on to heated rollers, it turned into a rich yellow flour.

This flour is not yet licensed for sale. But the scientists, working for a company called Solar Foods, were allowed to give me some while filming our documentary Apocalypse Cow. I asked them to make me a pancake: I would be the first person on Earth, beyond the lab staff, to eat such a thing. They set up a frying pan in the lab, mixed the flour with oat milk, and I took my small step for man. It tasted … just like a pancake.

But pancakes are not the intended product. Such flours are likely soon to become the feedstock for almost everything. In their raw state, they can replace the fillers now used in thousands of food products. When the bacteria are modified they will create the specific proteins needed for lab-grown meat, milk and eggs. Other tweaks will produce lauric acid – goodbye palm oil – and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – hello lab-grown fish. The carbohydrates that remain when proteins and fats have been extracted could replace everything from pasta flour to potato crisps. The first commercial factory built by Solar Foods should be running next year.

The hydrogen pathway used by Solar Foods is about 10 times as efficient as photosynthesis. But because only part of a plant can be eaten, while the bacterial flour is mangetout, you can multiply that efficiency several times. And because it will be brewed in giant vats the land efficiency, the company estimates, is roughly 20,000 times greater. Everyone on Earth could be handsomely fed, and using a tiny fraction of its surface. If, as the company intends, the water used in the process (which is much less than required by farming) is electrolysed with solar power, the best places to build these plants will be deserts.

We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.I know some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I believe it comes in the nick of time.

Several impending disasters are converging on our food supply, any of which could be catastrophic. Climate breakdown threatens to cause what scientists call “multiple breadbasket failures”, through synchronous heatwaves and other impacts. The UN forecasts that by 2050 feeding the world will require a 20% expansion in agriculture’s global water use. But water use is already maxed out in many places: aquifers are vanishing, rivers are failing to reach the sea. The glaciers that supply half the population of Asia are rapidly retreating. Inevitable global heating – due to greenhouse gases already released – is likely to reduce dry season rainfall in critical areas, turning fertile plains into dustbowls.

global soil crisis threatens the very basis of our subsistence, as great tracts of arable land lose their fertility through erosion, compaction and contamination. Phosphate supplies, crucial for agriculture, are dwindling fast. Insectageddon threatens catastrophic pollination failures. It is hard to see how farming can feed us all even until 2050, let alone to the end of the century and beyond.

Food production is ripping the living world apart. Fishing and farming are, by a long way, the greatest cause of extinction and loss of the diversity and abundance of wildlife. Farming is a major cause of climate breakdown, the biggest cause of river pollution and a hefty source of air pollution. Across vast tracts of the world’s surface, it has replaced complex wild ecosystems with simplified human food chains. Industrial fishing is driving cascading ecological collapse in seas around the world. Eating is now a moral minefield, as almost everything we put in our mouths – from beef to avocados, cheese to chocolate, almonds to tortilla chips, salmon to peanut butter – has an insupportable environmental cost.

But just as hope appeared to be evaporating, the new technologies I call farmfree food create astonishing possibilities to save both people and planet. Farmfree food will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale. It means an end to the exploitation of animals, an end to most deforestation, a massive reduction in the use of pesticides and fertiliser, the end of trawlers and longliners. It’s our best hope of stopping what some have called the “sixth great extinction”, but I prefer to call the great extermination. And, if it’s done right, it means cheap and abundant food for everyone.

Research by the thinktank RethinkX suggests that proteins from precision fermentation will be around 10 times cheaper than animal protein by 2035. The result, it says, will be the near-complete collapse of the livestock industry. The new food economy will “replace an extravagantly inefficient system that requires enormous quantities of inputs and produces huge amounts of waste with one that is precise, targeted, and tractable”. Using tiny areas of land, with a massively reduced requirement for water and nutrients, it “presents the greatest opportunity for environmental restoration in human history”.

Not only will food be cheaper, it will also be healthier. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2020 at 6:50 pm

Going 100% Green Will Pay For Itself in Seven Years, Study Finds

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Will Wade reports in Bloomberg:

A Stanford University professor whose research helped underpin the U.S. Democrats’ Green New Deal says phasing out fossil fuels and running the entire world on clean energy would pay for itself in under seven years.

It would cost $73 trillion to revamp power grids, transportation, manufacturing and other systems to run on wind, solar and hydro power, including enough storage capacity to keep the lights on overnight, Mark Jacobson said in a study published Friday in the journal One Earth. But that would be offset by annual savings of almost $11 trillion, the report found.

“There’s really no downside to making this transition,” said Jacobson, who wrote the study with several other researchers. “Most people are afraid it will be too expensive. Hopefully this will allay some of those fears.”

Some of Jacobson’s past findings have been questioned, notably a 2017 journal article that criticized his methodology on measuring the cost of phasing out fossil fuels.

The biggest challenge of ditching fossil fuels may not be economic. Even some clean-power advocates acknowledge technology isn’t available yet to run power grids entirely on renewables without jeopardizing reliability.

The report published Friday looked at 143 countries that generate more than 99% of the world’s greenhouse emissions. The savings would come from . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 January 2020 at 9:39 am

We Need a Massive Climate War Effort—Now

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Kevin Drum writes at Mother Jones:

I’ll take a wild guess that you don’t need any convincing about the need for action on climate change. You know that since the start of the Industrial Revolution we’ve dumped more than 500 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere and we’re adding about 10 billion more each year. You know that global temperatures have risen 1 degree Celsius over the past century and we’re on track for 2 degrees within another few decades.

And you know what this means. It means more extreme weather. More hurricanes. More droughts. More flooding. More wildfires. More heat-related deaths. There will be more infectious disease as insects move ever farther north. The Northwest Passage will be open for much of the year. Sea levels will rise by several feet as the ice shelves of Greenland and the Antarctic melt, producing bigger storm swells and more intense flooding in low-lying areas around the world.

Some of this is already baked into our future, but to avoid the worst of it, climate experts widely agree that we need to get to net-zero carbon emissions entirely by 2050 at the latest. This is the goal of the Paris Agreement, and it’s one that every Democratic candidate for president has committed to. But how to get there?

Let’s start with the good news. About three-quarters of carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels for power, and we already have the technology to make a big dent in that. Solar power is now price-competitive with the most efficient natural gas plants and is likely to get even cheaper in the near future. In 2019, Los Angeles signed a deal to provide 400 megawatts of solar power at a price under 4 cents per kilowatt-hour—including battery storage to keep that power available day and night. That’s just a start—it will provide only about 7 percent of electricity needed in Los Angeles—but for the first time it’s fully competitive with the current wholesale price of fossil fuel electricity in Southern California.

Wind power—especially offshore wind—is equally promising. This means that a broad-based effort to build solar and wind infrastructure, along with a commitment to replace much of the world’s fossil fuel use with electricity, would go pretty far toward reducing global carbon emissions.

How far? Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that by 2050, wind and solar can satisfy 80 percent of electricity demand in most advanced countries. But due to inadequate infrastructure in some cases and lack of wind and sun in others, not all countries can meet this goal, which means that even with favorable government policies and big commitments to clean energy, the growth of wind and solar will probably provide only about half of the world’s demand for electricity by midcentury. “Importantly,” the Bloomberg analysts caution, “major progress in de-carbonization will also be required in other segments of the world’s economy to address climate change.”

This inevitably means we have to face up to some bad news. If existing technologies like wind, solar, and nuclear can get us only halfway to our goal—or maybe a bit more—the other half would seem to require cutting back on energy consumption.

Let’s be clear about something: We’re not talking about voluntary personal cutbacks. If you decide to bicycle more or eat less meat, great—every little bit helps. But no one who’s serious about climate change believes that personal decisions like this have more than a slight effect on the gigatons of carbon we’ve emitted and the shortsighted policies we’ve enacted. Framing the problem this way—a solution of individual lifestyle choices—is mostly just a red herring that allows corporations and conservatives to avoid the real issue.

The real issue is this: Only large-scale government action can significantly reduce carbon emissions. But this doesn’t let any of us off the hook. Our personal cutbacks might not matter much, but what does matter is whether we’re willing to support large-scale actions—­things like carbon taxes or fracking bans—that will force all of us to reduce our energy consumption.

Solutions depend on how acceptable these policies are to the public. To get a rough handle of what a significant reduc­tion means, the Nature Conservancy has a handy app that can help you calculate what it would take to cut your household carbon footprint in half.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 December 2019 at 9:41 am

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