Robert Verchick on CPRBlog {Bio}
[ Next ]

Support CPR on Giving Tuesday

In August I commemorated the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by pedaling along the self-guided "Levee Disaster Bike Tour." I began beneath the muscular oaks along New Orleans' Bayou St. John and threaded my way around potholes and waterfowl to pay my respects at three prominent levee-breach sites. 

The ride gave me a chance to reflect on many problems that my adopted hometown of New Orleans faces, as well as countless opportunities for improving the policies that will take advantage of my neighbors' incredible resilience and keep us heading toward a more just and sustainable future.

Full text

Dear Jeb: Crippling Federal Agencies Will Not Keep America Safe!

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush released a plan meant to make it harder for federal agencies to make rules that protect public health and the environment. That might help some big corporations. But it makes everyday Americans much less safe.

The idea is to jam up the federal rule making process with so many requirements that hardly anything important would get done. Safeguards that keep the air clear, the water clean, and the workplace safe would be put on the back burner. Bush’s plan would empower congressional members who do not believe in climate change to stall rules crafted by scientific experts in response to statutes that Congress has already passed, like the Clean Water and Air Acts. New rules meant to prevent another Wall Street meltdown would also be at risk. 

Full text

VW Scandal: Can Anyone Still Doubt the Need for Regulation?

Center for Progressive Reform President Robert R.M. Verchick issued the following statement today in response to the burgeoning Volkswagen emissions scandal:

With the Volkswagen emissions scandal, hard on the heels of the GM settlement, can anyone doubt the importance of strong regulation and tough enforcement? One automotive giant let a safety problem fester for a decade while more than 120 people died as a result. Another conspired to cheat on state emissions tests, pumping outrageous loads of pollution into the air we breathe so that they could make their cars peppier, and advertise them as such. We hear conservatives say all the time that regulation is unnecessary because the market is self-correcting. The scope of these scandals proves just the opposite: We need vigorous regulation and enforcement to keep Americans safe from companies that think they can increase their profits by endangering us all.

Full text

How Does the Clean Power Plan Measure Up?

Against intense pressure from the coal industry to tie Americans to dirty fuels forever, the Obama administration has surged forward in the battle to fight climate change. The Clean Power Plan rule, released today by the EPA, promises serious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, while giving states the flexibility and incentives they need to reduce pollution, keep the grid humming, and save consumers money. The challenge, as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy put it, was “wicked hard.”  But polls show Americans want action on climate change.

Last week, CPR Scholars released a white paper on a number of key issues to watch on the Plan, offering insights on what to look for and on how states could implement it. Some of the key questions the report raises are included below with my reactions after reading the final rule for the first time. This is the beginning of an on-going discussion. CPR Scholars will continue to monitor the implementation of this rule and will closely examine the final rule’s implications for both states and citizens alike.

Full text

CPR President Rob Verchick on BP's Settlement Today

Today’s BP settlement is great news for the Gulf Coast economy, which still suffers mightily from the damage BP and its contractors caused. The President and his Department of Justice deserve credit for hammering out this deal, and keeping their focus on the victims of what the President rightly calls the "worst environmental disaster America has ever faced." 

If the settlement is to have the impact on the region that we all hope it will, we’ll need to be sure that the money is well spent, not siphoned off for political favors or otherwise misused. 


Full text

Michigan v. EPA: Still Hope for the Mercury Rule

Today the Supreme Court blocked a key effort by the Obama administration to keep unsafe levels of mercury and other toxins from spilling into our air. The ruling, issued in Michigan vs. EPA, is a loss for the EPA and public health advocates. But the damage can be contained and will hopefully not prevent the agency from re-issuing its so-called Mercury Rule under a rationale that can satisfy the Court’s newly divined decision-making standards.

At issue was whether the Clean Air Act required the EPA to consider costs to industry when it made the decision to regulate mercury, a known neurotoxin. Because the Act does not mention cost considerations at this early stage of rulemaking, the EPA reasoned such review was unnecessary. At any rate, the EPA had explicitly considered costs in the second stage of analysis when it chose the actual numeric pollution limit. And what it found was that the benefits of the Mercury Rule would exceed the costs by tens of billions of dollars.

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia found that the EPA’s failure to consider costs in the early stage of the rule doomed the whole enterprise. The EPA’s decision-making process, according to the Court, did not meet the Act’s requirement of considering all “appropriate and necessary” information.

That’s disappointing, but the loss could have been much worse. In the briefing, opponents of the mercury rule argued to require full cost-benefit analysis rather than simply considering costs. Opponents had also argued that EPA should not be able to count all the indirect health benefits (from reductions in accompanying pollutants) that come from mercury limits. Funny those opponents of the rule had no problem counting the indirect costs that come from mercury limits. The Court’s decision did neither of these two things.

And that leaves open the possibility that the Obama Administration can still keep mercury out of our air. If the courts allow the Mercury Rule to stand until EPA is able to revise its analysis, the agency can then insert a consideration of costs at the earlier stage of its examination. That’s only fair.

Regulations to protect Americans from mercury pollution have been in the works for a long time. Rules to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and their co-pollutants were first proposed by the EPA under the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration’s efforts to move the mercury rule would result in between 4,200-11,000 fewer premature deaths a year, 4,700 fewer heart attacks and 130,000 fewer asthma attacks, among other public health benefits.

The Court’s decision was narrow enough to preserve the rule and its vital contribution to public health and the environment.

Full text

Why the Climate Movement Needs a Green Pope, and a Super Voucher

ROME—On my first visit to Vatican City, before my meeting with Michelangelo, I greeted the Pope via the city’s ubiquitous souvenir stands. I love this stuff. You can try on the “Papa Francisco” kitchen apron and imagine the pontiff’s smile beaming over your Spaghetti Bolognese. Or gently joggle the pate of a Pope Francis bobble-head. Postcards are everywhere, of course. And for €10 you can score the annual “Hot Priests Calendar,” featuring hunky young men of the cloth. In this “G-rated” feature, priests from all over the world help promote the Eternal City and breathe into the Catholic brand a wisp of hipness, to say nothing of hotness.

But back to the Pope. This week Pope Francis released the much anticipated encyclical on the environment and climate change. And there’s a connection between that, the souvenir aprons, and even the hot priests. I’ll leave it to others to examine the language of this compelling and lyrical document. Suffice it to say that, in terms of substance, the edict says nothing we don’t already know. For a generation, experts and activists have hammered the shackles of climate, pollution, and poverty within earshot of anyone willing to hear. What is new—and very exciting—is that now the head of the Roman Catholic Church, an extremely popular and charismatic figure, is calling out this injustice and demanding that world leaders take action. 

Full text

Katrina Ruling Breaches Sovereign Immunity

Almost a decade after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans-area residents are still trying to hold their government accountable for mistakes that allowed a monstrous flood to devastate their city. Last week, in a case called St. Bernard Parish v. United States, a federal judge helped their cause.

In a dispute involving a major navigation channel controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, Judge Susan G. Braden of the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., found that the Corps’ negligence in maintaining that passage caused flooding of such consequence that it amounted to a “taking” of homeowners’ property under the federal constitution, thus requiring the payment of “just compensation.”

The facts behind the Katrina flood—perhaps the most expensive engineering failure in American history—are well known to experts. After Hurricane Katrina had passed over New Orleans, a series of levee breaches caused flooding to 80 percent of the city. Independent investigations blamed shoddy design and construction on the part of the Army Corps. A deteriorating navigation channel, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or MR-GO (pronounced “Mr. Go”), also maintained by the Corps, amplified the damage by increasing the storm’s surge and funneling it toward the heart of the city. Four years after Katrina, MR-GO was finally de-authorized and closed. (See previous posts hereherehere, and here.)

Describing the MR-GO fiasco in a 2009 court ruling, the federal trial judge Stanwood Duval nearly blew a fuse. “It is the court’s opinion that the negligence of the Corps, in this instance by failing to maintain the MR-GO p

Full text

Remember the Gulf Walrus! One Big Lesson from the BP Oil Spill

Nearly five years ago, BP introduced a flippered mammal Americans never knew we had: the Gulf Walrus! If you don’t know the story, you should, because the tale of the Gulf Walrus tells you everything you need to know about what was wrong with deepwater drilling back in 2010, and worse, still is. 

The story goes like this: After the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, leaving 11 workers dead and a gusher of oil billowing a mile under the sea, a watchdog group called the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility unearthed the regional oil spill response plan BP had submitted to the Department of Interior as part of the process to begin drilling. The document was riddled with omissions, errors, and implausible assumptions. There was no plan for a failed “blowout preventer,” no plan for oil reaching the coast, no plan for oil-soaked turtles and birds.  But, BP’s regional plan did pay lip service to such “Sensitive Biological Resources” as “Sea Lions, Seals, Sea Otters [and] Walruses.” The media howled. Congressional hearings were held. And in New Orleans, “Save the Gulf Walrus” t-shirts sold like fried oysters. What had happened, it turned out, was that BP had been so eager to gets its rig in the water, that it had cribbed from an earlier plan intended for Arctic drilling. No one had bothered to change the details, and the Department of Interior was happy to give its rubber stamp of approval. And thus an imaginary, large-flippered, sea mammal was born.

Full text

Dangerous dust and deadly delay: OSHA's proposed silica rule

 It’s not easy to stare into the eyes of a dying man. But that is what David Michaels, the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), wants you to do.

A video called, “Deadly Dust,” featured on OSHA’s website, introduces Bill Ellis, a retired painter and sandblaster. After years of exposure to fine particles of blasted rock, he developed a respiratory disease called silicosis and died, leaving behind his wife, children, and grandchildren. Ellis’s final months were painful. For a silicosis patient, just drawing breath is an ordeal—like sucking air through a straw.

Thousands of laborers are exposed to the tiny stone particles, called silica, that killed Ellis. Any time workers blast sandstone, saw concrete, or cut brick, that dust is in the air. Because of the broad danger and the availability of relatively inexpensive protective gear, OSHA has released proposed rules updating worker safety standards for silica.  The current rules have not been revised in over forty years.

The proposal would lower the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of silica dust from 100-250 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 50 micrograms. The rule could save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year. After including costs of implementation, average net benefits are estimated at $1.8 to $7.5 billion per year.

The potential benefits of the rule are truly remarkable. The result seems like a dream situation, where a government agency can protect people and save money. Isn’t that what regulatory agencies are supposed to do?

Full text