I submit articles to Watts Up With That on New York’s net-zero transition plan when the topic is relevant for other jurisdictions. In September Resources for the Future released Prioritizing Justice in New York State Climate Policy: Cleaner Air for Disadvantaged Communities which is described as an investigation of local air quality impacts on disadvantaged communities from implementation of the New York Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act (Climate Act). It will be of interest to readers here for two reasons. Firstly, environmental justice is a component of the Climate Act and many other current GHG emissions reduction initiatives, and this document explains the rationale behind its inclusion. Secondly, it is a disturbing example of the machinations and cherry picking associated with the scientific justification of the demands of environmental justice advocates.
The Climate Act established a New York “Net Zero” target (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) by 2050. It includes an interim 2030 reduction target of a 40% reduction by 2030 and a requirement that all electricity generated be “zero-emissions” by 2040. The Climate Action Council (CAC) is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that outlines how to “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda.” In brief, that plan is to electrify everything possible using zero-emissions electricity. The Integration Analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants quantifies the impact of the electrification strategies. That material was used to develop the Draft Scoping Plan. After a year-long review, the Scoping Plan recommendations were finalized at the end of 2022. In 2023 the Scoping Plan recommendations are supposed to be implemented through regulation and legislation. Environmental Justice advocates are providing input to the development of the regulations and legislation.
The report was prepared by Resources for the Future (RFF). They are an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. The mission for Resources for the Future is to “improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement.” They claim to be committed to being the “most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.” RFF is a 501(c) non-profit organization and has to file a Form 990 Return of Organization Exempt fFrom Income Tax report. According to the 2021 report, they employed 98 people, had a total revenue of $13 million, had a payroll of $10.7 million, and had fundraising expenses totaling $1.2 million in fiscal year 2021.
The publication announcement for the report says:
Our country and New York State (NYS) in particular are striving to meet the interrelated challenges of decarbonization and environmental justice. Historically unjust systems and policies have led to a disproportional air pollution burden on low-income communities and communities of color. As a result, the federal and NYS governments have resolved to meet their climate goals while improving air quality conditions in disadvantaged communities.
Bringing together leading environmental justice advocates, economic researchers, public health scientists, and air quality modelers, Resources for the Future (RFF) and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA) along with researchers at Yale, UC Davis, and Northeastern University have partnered to investigate local air quality impacts on disadvantaged communities from implementation of the NY Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). Specifically, we compare two sets of policies, both in line with the statutory requirements of the law but differing in their ambition and the degree to which they focus on aiding disadvantaged communities, with a business-as-usual (control) case in 2030. One policy case (inspired by recommendations of the Climate Action Council, CAC) models what the New York State government may implement, which includes policies discussed in other jurisdictions and proposed by New York policymakers. The other case (representing what many stakeholders recommend) was crafted by a team led by NYC-EJA and included many environmental and climate justice advocates in New York, who prioritized community protection and directing benefits to marginalized communities. We modeled the impact of policies on the electric power, on-road transportation, ports, and residential building sectors; the effects these policies have on emissions of direct fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and its precursors nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds (NOx, SO2, and VOCs); and the resulting PM2.5 concentrations experienced by disadvantaged communities and nondisadvantaged communities alike.
In the last few years environmental justice considerations have been incorporated into many proposed environmental policies. Addressing the alleged existential threat of climate change is embroiled in politics and proponents for political net-zero transition legislation incorporate components designed to appeal to specific constituencies. For example, every press release associated with the Climate Act touts all the well-paying jobs created to appeal to trade unions. New York’s Climate Act included the environmental justice component to cater to its advocacy constituency. The Section 1 introduction to the report explains:
One of the most prominent examples of justice-oriented climate policy is New York State’s recent climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). As the state moves to implement this groundbreaking law, rigorous research and analysis are needed to shed light on policy design options that can achieve the dual goals of cutting GHG emissions and improving air quality and other public health outcomes for “disadvantaged communities,” as defined by the state. This requirement is the motivation for this study.
The Introduction to the report lays out the environmental justice problem:
As a result of historically unjust systems and policies, the neighborhoods where low-income communities and communities of color live, work, learn, and play are often sites for or affected by polluting infrastructure, vehicle congestion, and other environmental hazards.
Racist systems and policies along with economic discrimination continue to diminish the health and quality of life of communities of color and low-income communities and make them more at risk to other hazards like climate change (Peña-Parr 2020; Donaghy et al. 2023).
As fossil fuel consumption and pollution have increased exponentially over the past century, not only has the climate change outlook worsened, but vulnerable communities have also disproportionally suffered injury, disease, death, displacement, and loss of property because of these same trends (Resnik 2022).
I do not dispute that disadvantaged communities have suffered historically disproportionate impacts of environmental pollution. I agree that something should be done about it, but I worry that the only thing that will placate the most vocal of the environmental justice advocates is zero impacts without any consideration of tradeoffs. The last sentence exemplifies my concern. Conflating fossil fuel consumption and pollution increases with vulnerable community impacts ignores all the health and quality of life improvements that accompanied the increased use of fossil fuels over the last century. There is no acknowledgement of the tremendous improvements in environmental quality over the last 50 years nor are there any reservations that the “zero-emissions” solutions bandied about simply move the emissions elsewhere and that those impacts could be much worse than the impacts described in this report. Unfortunately, I think this is normal for environmental justice advocacy so similar arguments will eventually influence environmental policy elsewhere.
New York Climate Policy and Environmental Justice Landscape
Section 2 of the document notes that the Climate Act “explicitly sets goals for environmental and climate justice— addressing the disinvestment and disproportionate environmental burdens that communities of color and low-income communities have experienced.” The preamble to the Act states that “actions undertaken by New York State to mitigate GHG emissions should prioritize the safety and health of disadvantaged communities, control potential regressive impacts of future climate change mitigation and adaptation policies on these communities and prioritize the allocation of public investments in these areas.”
Importantly the Climate Act requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) but also refers to co-pollutants. It specifically directs the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to “ensure that activities undertaken to comply with the regulations do not result in a net increase in co-pollutant emissions or otherwise disproportionately burden disadvantaged communities”. Advocates claim that this requires state regulations to prioritize air quality in disadvantaged communities. Environmental burdens are not supposed to be shifted from wealthier communities to lower-income, minority communities. The Act also established the Climate Justice Working Group (CJWG) that was tasked with establishing criteria for identifying disadvantaged communities and representing environmental justice priorities throughout the various stages of CLCPA implementation. Finally, there is a stipulation that 35 to 40 percent of the benefits and investments go to disadvantaged communities.
The EJ sub-section notes:
Historically, low-income communities and communities of color have been systematically disinvested from, with racist policies and practices such as redlining used to value certain neighborhoods and residents above others (Hoffman et al. 2020). These policies and systems have caused wealth and resource gaps that endure to this day, investing in quality-of-life improvements in wealthier areas while pushing polluting industries into lower-income communities (Hoffman et al. 2020; Nardone et al. 2020; Schell et al. 2020). We see these disparities reflected in the location of power plants, transportation depots, and city parks. The impacts of this unequal investment are clear in public health data, with environmentally driven poor health outcomes like asthma most prevalent in EJ communities (New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene 2020).
I have concerns with this summary. On the face of it, it appears that the solution for these policies is to shut down the power plants and transportation depots and replace them with parks. Needless to say, space is at a tremendous premium in New York City. It is easy to say shut down the power plants and transportation depots, but they serve critical support functions. There are no viable replacement technologies available that do not require space so it is not clear how this can be accomplished to comply with this.
The primary analysis in this report is related to air quality health outcomes with an emphasis on asthma and other respiratory problems. The presumption is that the poor health outcomes are driven by outdoor environmental burdens. However, there are so many confounding factors associated with asthma and respiratory illnesses (e.g. smoking) that this is a weak presumption. Nonetheless, EJ stakeholders are demanding that the climate change solutions be done in “a way that centers racial and
economic justice, addressing this history of abuse” and are focusing on air pollution.
The RFF research “seeks to inform” the policies that phase out behaviors and technologies that generate GHG emissions. Their analysis analyzed the GHG and air pollution impacts of three policy cases:
- A business-as-usual (BAU) case, meant to represent what would happen to emissions and air quality without the actions contemplated in the two policy cases;
- The stakeholder policy case (SPC), meant to reflect EJ policy priorities; and
- The Climate Action Council-inspired policy case (CPC), meant to reflect a plausible set of policies coming out of the state’s scoping plan process, which defines the policy goals and tools that ought to be used to meet the legal requirements of the Climate Act.
The RFF analysis evaluates policy outcome differences between disadvantaged communities and non disadvantaged communities. They calculated a metric they call the climate health and vulnerability index and compare that to a map of EJ impacts. The primary air quality metric used is Particulate Matter with diameters that are 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5) also known as inhalable particulates.
RFF summarizes the approach: “Using this EJ screen and map, we track the effects of changing PM2.5 concentrations on disadvantaged and other communities.” They go on to claim:
Several characteristics of our research set it apart from other research efforts. Our contribution to examining the outcomes of decarbonization policies on EJ communities at a state level is unique. Additionally, we use a combination of behavioral models and one of the most sophisticated air quality models to assess and trace the consequences of the two policy cases for disadvantaged communities (DACs) and non-DACs. Further, mapping these results visually at the 4km2 scale gives readers an unprecedented ability to assess and understand the geographic distribution of results.
Figure 1 from the document outlines the evaluation process. I noted that this document is a disturbing example of the machinations and malfeasance associated with the scientific justification for the environmental justice impacts advocates are using to justify their demands. Each one of these components has flaws that make the results questionable at best.
My primary concern with machinations is related to the assumptions and biases of the modelers used to differentiate between the policy cases described before. Each of the policy cases includes numerous control strategy policies. The report notes:
Not all these policies are explicitly mentioned in the scoping plan. Our modeling work is based on behavioral responses to economic policies, so we had to add detail and specificity to policies where none existed. The CAC-Inspired Policy Case represents one reasonable interpretation of how the priorities in the scoping plan may be executed. The details were established using a mix of New York policy proposals, examples from other state and federal climate policy proposals, and feedback from New York policy experts.
There are concerns with this description because there are so many opportunities to tailor the results to the desired outcome. The modeling is based on “behavioral responses” which boils down to someone saying, for example, there is a fuel price increase that will make public transit attractive to commuters. The choice of that price point and the number of affected commuters is pure speculation. Even the choice of policies makes a difference and adding policies not explicitly addressed in the scoping plan is problematic. The scoping plan policies were developed over a couple of years, so it is unlikely that the scooping plan missed any viable options. Finally, the stakeholder policy case includes policies that appeal to the advocates but have little connection to reality. For example, “more ambitious ZEV goals for 2030 in the medium and heavy-duty vehicle sector” sound nice but converting trucks is so difficult that doing it faster is unlikely.
Model Emission Changes
The RFF analysis addressed the emissions projections with three analyses. The report describes the: Economic Modeling Results, which describes estimated changes in energy demand and technology adoption across our modeled sectors; Greenhouse Gas, PM2.5, and Precursor Emissions Results, which describes estimated emissions changes in our modeled sectors; and Location of Emissions Changes, which describes the location of estimated changes in PM2.5 emissions. If projected emissions are wrong. then the air quality impacts cannot be correct. Developing an inventory of emissions for the modeling domain is an enormous effort and there are many opportunities to tailor results to a desired outcome.
The economic modeling results illustrate how behavior presumptions affect the results:
Compared with the BAU, the policy cases also increase the average fuel economy of on-road vehicles by about 15 percent. The largest difference between the policy cases is in fuel consumption, which is driven by the different prices on carbon emissions. Fuel consumption is about 6 percent lower in the CPC and 12 percent lower in the SPC compared with the BAU. The SPC reduces fuel consumption more than the CPC because of its higher carbon price.
This another example of model assumption bias affecting the results. The elasticity of fuel consumption relative to higher carbon price is certainly open to a wide range of interpretations.
Another opportunity for biased reasoning comes when emission rates are chosen for GHG emissions. The report addresses carbon dioxide and methane GHG emissions not only within the state but also upstream. The document states “This methane leakage rate for natural gas implies that approximately 2.4 percent of natural gas leaks.” That quote references a study from 2013, and then claims that the number has stood up well considering other (more recent) reports. That number is typically of emissions reported by the Environmental Defense Fund from research they did in the Permian Basin, which is the leakiest of all the basins because the main output of the wells is liquid, and the gas is just an annoying byproduct that gets (poorly) flared. The Appalachian shales like the Utica and the Marcellus have much lower leakage rates, and the National Energy Technology Lab (NETL) estimates that 88% of the natural gas burned in the Northeast U.S, comes from those two shale plays. NETL shows Appalachian leak rates for the entire value chain at about 0.5%. Furthermore, ONE Future companies collect and report data that shows that total value chain numbers are also less than 0.5%. This means that RFF air quality projections associated with methane are 3.8 times higher than projections using the appropriate values for New York.
To its credit, the report emphasizes the difference between emissions and air quality impacts. EJ advocates frequently overlook the distinction. The report explains:
To get at this geography of pollution (and related disparities in pollution exposure), we begin by studying where emissions occur—emissions from burning fossil fuels (and some waste and biomass) to generate electricity, heat homes, and power heavy trucks and passenger vehicles on New York roads. Identifying the location of emissions is a prerequisite for determining where pollution ultimately settles (after being mixed and morphed in the atmosphere), which is how we determine the geography of air quality and associated public health implications, discussed below. It is important for the reader to make a clear distinction between emissions and air quality—a distinction we will continue to discuss.
Model Air Quality
Even though the report appropriately describes the difference between emissions and air quality impacts, I have problems with the analysis. The purpose of the analysis is to determine impacts to disadvantaged communities, but the spatial scale used for the inventory and modeling analysis is too coarse to accurately represent what is happening at the neighborhood level. The report admits that this is a problem:
We also acknowledge that important boundaries to our research may influence the interpretation of the results. For example, our air quality modeling is at a 4km2 grid resolution, which in some cases is larger than a DAC boundary. We use one of the most advanced air quality models for our estimates, which incorporates detailed representations of atmospheric science and chemical processes. We have selected a spatial resolution that preserves the accuracy of that model. To aid in the interpretation of our work, we describe the limitations and caveat for our analysis in Appendix G, including a small error in the transportation emissions used as an input in the air quality model.
The authors can brag all they want about the capabilities of the model and its detailed representation, but the fact is that it is not suited to projecting what is happening on a neighborhood level. The model they use predicts regional air quality impacts at a 32 km2 grid cell resolution, they interpolated those observations down to a 4km2 grid, and claim to be able to reasonably predict down to a disadvantaged community neighborhood. Also note that they are only predicting annual averages. For the reasons mentioned and many others, I do not accept that this only affects interpretation of the results. Based on decades of air quality modeling experience I think the analysis uses an invalid methodology so I am not even going to present the results.
Here is the thing, the report admits as much. Appendix G. Research Limitations and Caveats in the report admits that there are limitations to the analysis. It notes that “When modeling community exposure to air pollution, it is ideal to have the most geographically granular analysis possible, given that actual pollution exposure may vary at a level as granular as a city block. Nonetheless, they present results.
The level of effort necessary to accurately estimate representative air quality burdens in disadvantaged community neighborhoods is immense. The air quality model used by RFF is appropriate for regional analyses but that is just one component of localized air quality burdens. At the neighborhood level, emissions and air quality impacts must be broken down to small spatial and temporal scales. When predicting emissions at the community level details that cannot be incorporated into regional models for particulates must be included. For example, on a regional level the emissions from a char-grilling restaurant do not matter but in the neighborhood they might. Because of the justified importance of this issue this is an area of active research. I am confident that there will be surprises coming for the advocacy community when improved source attribution results are incorporated into policy making. Spoiler alert – it is not the peaking power plants so vilified by the advocates. Unless the problem sources are correctly identified, the problem cannot be solved.
I published this here because it foreshadows what I believe will be used to justify EJ demands elsewhere. The RFF report explains the rationale behind the inclusion of EJ considerations. While I acknowledge that it is appropriate to minimize impacts to disadvantaged communities that have disproportionate impacts, I suspect that resolution is going to be more about emotional arguments than air quality impact science. As a result, trying to get any new source permitted or renewing existing source permits is going to be more difficult.
I also wanted to highlight the machinations needed to justify the proposed responses. I described a few of the issues with the modeling approach used but could have provided many more. RFF all but admits that their modeling approach is inappropriate, but the caveats will not be mentioned when the results are used by the EJ advocate audience. In addition, there is an inordinate opportunity for modeling assumptions to tailor the results to the preconceived answer desired including cherry picking input references. As a result, I think the results have no value and did not describe them. Nevertheless, this report will be referenced and used as justification for onerous permit requirements for any facility that might affect EJ communities.
Roger Caiazza blogs on New York energy and environmental issues at Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York. This represents his opinion and not the opinion of any of his previous employers or any other company with which he has been associated.