Keystone XL Pipeline Canceled. Here’s What It Means for the Future Fight Against Fossil Fuels

Keystone XL Pipeline Canceled. Here’s What It Means for the Future Fight Against Fossil Fuels

No KXL sign held up at a 2011 rally in front of the White House
Keystone XL protest at the white house in Washington D.C, on November 6, 2011. Credit: Emma Cassidy, via tarsandaction.

 

President Joe Biden, in one of his first actions after entering the White House, signed an executive order Wednesday canceling the permit for the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. The move blocks construction of the 1,200-mile pipeline, and puts an end to a saga that has persisted for more than a decade.

The cross-border pipeline would have carried 830,000 barrels per day of Canadian tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be refined and exported, providing a crucial outlet for landlocked oil from Alberta. But the mundane infrastructure project became a symbol of the broader fight against climate change, sparking a sustained campaign against drilling and fossil fuel infrastructure across the continent.

“We only achieve huge wins like this by speaking out together,” Madonna Thunder Hawk of the Lakota People’s Law Project said in a statement. “Rescinding KXL’s permit is a promising early signal that the new administration is listening to our concerns and will take issues of climate and Indigenous justice seriously. We have to insist that it not stop there.”

The cancelation of Keystone XL cements a legacy of climate activism, a movement that has grown into a powerful force in American politics. The end of the pipeline is also a major victory for the many Native American tribes who have consistently been at the forefront of battles against fossil fuel infrastructure.

At the same time, many more pipelines are under construction or are on the drawing board, having eclipsed Keystone XL long ago in terms of importance to the industry.

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama denied a key permit for the project, citing the need to lead on climate, a move that at the time seemed like the final word on the matter. However, President Donald Trump immediately revived the pipeline proposal when he assumed office in 2017.

Despite the backing of the U.S. government, the pipeline project faced some legal hurdles during the Trump era that delayed construction. President Biden’s executive order issued on January 20 once again puts the project on ice. TC Energy, the pipeline’s sponsor, said it would suspend operations and “consider its options.”

We applaud President Biden’s swift action to rescind Keystone XL’s improperly obtained permits and stop this disastrous project in its tracks yet again,” David Turnbull, Strategic Communications Director at Oil Change International, said in a statement. “Keystone XL would be a disaster for our climate, a disaster for First Nations communities at the source of the tar sands in Canada, and a disaster for communities across a broad swath of our country along its route.”

The Power of Activism

The fatal blow to Keystone XL is a major victory for a coalition of opponents who have fought the fossil fuel project for well over a decade. The fight defined a new era for the environmental movement.

In the early Obama years, national environmental groups placed a lot of faith in legislative efforts at the federal level without building power at the grassroots — a strategy then symbolized by the failed cap-and-trade bill in 2009. In the wake of that defeat, and with the legislative route cut off after Republicans swept the House of Representatives in 2010, the Obama administration turned to executive action. One of those key moves included introducing in 2014 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to regulate climate emissions from power plants, though its implementation was eventually blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court as the plan was ensnared in legal challenges.

At that point, environmental groups took the climate fight to the grassroots level. And instead of looking at market-based solutions like cap-and-trade, they turned to a “keep it in the ground” strategy, focusing on blocking new supplies of oil, gas, and coal, as well as fossil fuel infrastructure.

And the science supports activists’ calls to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The United Nations says that governments need to wind down fossil fuel production at a rate of six percent per year over the next decade in order to have a shot at meeting a 1.5-degree Celsius warming target and avoiding catastrophic climate impacts.

This anti-fossil fuel development push, however, was not embraced universally by all environmental groups, and conflicted with President Obama’s “all of the above” mantra when it came to the types of energy actions and solutions he would pursue, but the keep-it-in-the-ground strategy became increasingly mainstream for activists in the second Obama term and into the Trump era.

Amid this rising grassroots action to stop the Keystone XL pipeline came an increasing awareness and recognition on behalf of environmental groups of the importance of Indigenous Rights and concepts related to environmental justice, broadening the narrow focus on greenhouse gases that had characterized many prior efforts.

This awareness, however, did not always come easily. “It has always been a challenge for folks to understand the strategic value of an Indigenous Rights framework when it comes to protecting land and water,” Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environment Network, told DeSmog via email.

Indeed, Indigenous peoples have been at the forefront of pipeline resistance since the earliest days of Keystone XL. Goldtooth pointed out that the fight against Keystone XL began with First Nations Dene families in Northern Alberta who lived close to toxic tar sands operations.

And the campaign against the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016 was led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe along with other Indigenous peoples and, to a lesser extent, non-Native allies. Today, some of the largest campaigns against pipelines are also led by Indigenous peoples, including opposition to Line 3, the Trans Mountain Expansion, and the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

More Projects in the Pipeline

But while the defeat of Keystone XL is historically momentous, it raises questions about other routes for Canadian tar sands. After sitting on the drawing board for years, Canada’s oil industry has already turned to alternative pipelines, such as Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement through Minnesota and, even more importantly, the Trans Mountain Expansion from Alberta to British Columbia.

With Line 3 and TMX [Trans Mountain Expansion], Alberta has sufficient capacity to get its oil to market,” Werner Antweiler, a business professor at the University of British Columbia, told DeSmog.

In fact, scrapping Keystone XL arguably makes these other projects more urgent. “For the federal government of Canada, which has a vested interest in the commercial success of TMX, the cancelation of the KXL project may ultimately be good news because it ensures that there is sufficient demand for TMX capacity,” Antweiler said. “This means it is more likely now that TMX will become commercially viable and can be sold back to private investors profitably after construction is complete.”

This at a time when Keystone XL proved to be an expensive gamble. In 2019, Alberta invested $1.1 billion in Keystone XL in order to add momentum to the controversial project, funding its first year of construction. Now the province may end up selling the vast quantities of pipe for scrap, while also hoping to obtain damages from the United States.

Others are less convinced that the cancelation of one project is a boon to another. Even the Trans Mountain Expansion faces uncertainties in a world of energy transition. “Looking back a century ago, as one-by-one carriage manufacturers shut down as car manufacturers expanded production, prospects for the remaining carriage manufacturers didn’t improve,” Tom Green, a Climate Solutions Policy Analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation, told DeSmog.

Canada can take its cue from Biden: recognize the costly Trans Mountain pipeline isn’t needed or viable, it doesn’t fit with our climate commitments, and instead of throwing ever more money into a pit, government should invest those funds in the energy system of the future,” he said.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Oil Change International.

U.S. and Canada underestimating climate risk from abandoned oil and gas wells: study

U.S. and Canada underestimating climate risk from abandoned oil and gas wells: study

Nichola Groom                      January 20, 2021

FILE PHOTO: An abandoned natural gas well stands on the property of Hanson Rower in Salyersville

 

(Reuters) – Methane leaking out of the more than 4 million abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States and Canada is a far greater contributor to climate change than government estimates suggest, researchers from McGill University said on Wednesday.

Canada has underestimated methane emissions from its abandoned wells by as much as 150%, while official U.S. estimates are about 20% below actual levels, the study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, found.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment and Climate Change Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the study.

More than a century of oil and gas drilling has left behind millions of abandoned wells around the globe, posing a serious threat https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-drilling-abandoned-specialreport/special-report-millions-of-abandoned-oil-wells-are-leaking-methane-a-climate-menace-idUSKBN23N1NL to the climate that governments are only starting to understand, according to a Reuters special report last year.

Methane has more than 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

In 2019, methane emissions from abandoned wells were included for the first time in U.S. and Canadian greenhouse gas inventories submitted to the United Nations.

But the McGill study found there are about 500,000 wells in the United States that are undocumented along with about 60,000 in Canada. It also found that the EPA and ECCC had come up with emissions estimates that were far too low – a conclusion the researchers said was based on their own analysis of emissions levels from different types of abandoned wells in seven U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

Emissions measurements were also not available from major oil and gas-producing states and provinces like Texas and Alberta, adding to uncertainty around the official data, the study said.

The study was co-authored by McGill professor Mary Kang, who in 2014 was the first to measure methane emissions from old drilling sites in Pennsylvania.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Biden to yank Keystone XL permit on first day of presidency

Biden to yank Keystone XL permit on first day of presidency

Lauren Gardner and Ben Lefebvre                     January 17, 2021
The Keystone XL Pipeline: Everything You Need To Know | NRDC

President-elect Joe Biden will rescind the cross-border permit for TC Energy’s Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office, three sources confirm to POLITICO.

The move is billed as one of Biden’s Day One climate change actions, according to a presentation circulating among Washington trade groups and lobbyists, a portion of which was seen by POLITICO. The decision was not included in incoming chief of staff Ron Klain’s Saturday memo outlining Biden’s planned executive actions during the first days of his presidency.

Two lobbyists confirmed that Biden plans to yank the project’s permit on Inauguration Day, a development first reported by CBC News. It’s the latest development in a decade-long fight over the controversial pipeline and solidifies a campaign promise the Canadian government had hoped was negotiable.

“The only question has always been whether labor can stave off the death sentence,” said one oil and gas lobbyist who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. “And they never had a chance.”

A Biden transition spokesperson declined to comment.

Canada’s ambassador to Washington Kirsten Hillman would not confirm reports. “The Government of Canada continues to support the Keystone XL project,” she said in a statement to POLITICO on Sunday evening. “Keystone XL fits within Canada’s climate plan. It will also contribute to U.S. energy security and economic competitiveness.”

Rescinding Keystone XL would negate one of President Donald Trump’s own first actions in office and kill a project that had become a political totem in the fight between climate activists and the oil industry. Despite many analysts saying the boom in U.S. shale oil made new sources of Canadian crude less important, TC Energy has fought years of legal challenges against it obtaining the needed state permits that would all it to build the pipeline.

The reaction: TC Energy announced Sunday that Keystone XL would achieve net-zero emissions across operations once it begins running in 2023. A spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on Biden’s executive order plans.

Environmentalists applauded the decision. “President-elect Biden is showing courage and empathy to the farmers, ranchers and tribal nations who have dealt with an ongoing threat that disrupted their lives for over a decade,” said Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, a grassroots group focused on scuttling the project.

Canada-U.S. relations: TC Energy first proposed the $8 billion pipeline in 2008, saying the 1,200-mile project was crucial to deliver crude from Western Canada to refineries in the Midwest. The Obama administration in 2015 denied a cross-border permit for the pipeline, however, saying the oil it would deliver would exacerbate climate change.

Keystone XL was one of the few issues on which Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed. The Liberal government had planned to continue to advocate for the pipeline.

During a congratulatory call with Biden on November 9th, Trudeau told the incoming president he looked forward to joining forces to fight climate change while co-operating on energy projects like the Keystone XL.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney bet Biden would not cancel a project already under construction when he announced in March that his government had taken a $1.1 billion stake in Keystone XL. Preliminary construction started last fall in Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.

The provincial government openly mulled a legal intervention last year into a court case that had put pipeline construction on hold and reportedly hired American lobbyists to make its case in Washington.

Stef Feldman, a policy director for Biden’s campaign, told POLITICO in May that the Democrat would “proudly stand in the Roosevelt Room again as President and stop it for good.”

What’s next: In a statement Sunday night, Kenney vowed to work with TC Energy “to use all legal avenues available to protect” Alberta’s interest in the pipeline.

Bitter Cold Means Chaos as Global Energy Systems Show Strain

Bitter Cold Means Chaos as Global Energy Systems Show Strain

Rachel Morison                           January 15, 2021

In Asia, extreme cold prompted record-high power demand and a scramble for natural gas to keep the lights on in China, Japan and South Korea. In Sweden, a utility is paying for hotels for its customers after heavy snow brought down sections of the power grid cutting supplies while French households were advised to delay doing their laundry to save energy.

The extreme, widespread cold took markets by surprise. The spikes in energy demand during the bitter winter, coupled with weak wind generation, power plant closures and liquefied natural gas tanker delays highlighted the shortcomings of global energy systems in weather conditions that are only set to get more volatile.

There could be more to come. A relatively rare weather phenomenon with the potential to disrupt the polar vortex — the winds that usually keep cold air contained in the far north — is threatening to send an Arctic blast across North America, Europe and Asia from late January.

“The distortion of the polar vortex appears to be prolonging the severe winter conditions in some northerly areas and potentially Europe,” said David Thomas, independent adviser and former head of LNG at Vitol Group. “It may not be over just yet. Several companies are feeling the pain and the elevated power prices must be hurting large consumers.”

The extreme conditions left some energy traders and utilities flat-footed, sending prices for electricity, fuel and vessels to record highs.

In Asia, LNG spot rates jumped 18-fold from last year’s lows and helped send European gas prices to a 12-year peak. Britain’s national grid was forced to issue numerous appeals for generators to increase output as low wind generation coincided with the cold snap and pushed wholesale electricity prices for peak periods to more than 1,000 pounds ($1,367) a megawatt hour.

European gas markets like the U.K. and Spain, which don’t have large amounts of gas storage, and are more dependent on the “incredibly tight global LNG market are more exposed if below normal temperatures are sustained,” said James Huckstepp, manager for EMEA gas analytics at S&P Global Platts.

Lights Out

China is struggling to keep the lights on after some of the lowest temperatures since 1966 boosted domestic demand just as manufacturing ramped up after the pandemic. Ice is also wreaking havoc on grid infrastructure, while the frigid weather disrupted transport and delayed LNG tankers at Qingdao.

Big industrial users are first in line to have electricity supplies cut, followed by commercial buildings, in order to keep supply safe for residential consumers.

Meanwhile in Japan, its utilities have asked consumers to conserve electricity, and the government has ordered independent producers to boost output to maximum capacity.

Tohoku Electric Power Co. bought several cargoes of low-sulfur fuel oil for oil-fired power plants that are utilized only when gas-fed facilities have been maximized. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has begun speaking to refiners and urged them to help supply local utilities with LSFO supplies.

Wrap Up Warm

Earlier this week, the French grid operator issued a red alert for high power demand and appealed to households to put on a jumper rather than turn the heating up. Electricite de France SA advised customers to delay doing their laundry while power demand was high.

Parts of northeastern Sweden got the biggest snow dump since 2012, with 60 centimeters in just one day, according to the nation’s Meteorological and Hydrological Institute. The storm overwhelmed grids and has left many thousands of customers without power this week.

EON SE is paying for hotel rooms for Swedish customers as it struggles to restore power supplies that have been down since Jan. 11. Vattenfall AB, the Nordic region’s biggest utility, hired a helicopter to clear snow and ice from power lines, using a long pole to shake snow off cables or a grip claw to lift trees from the line.

In Spain, the government is considering ways to intervene in the electricity market when there are sharp price increases, as happened when demand surged during the cold spell that blanketed Madrid in a rare snowfall. Some consumer bills in the regulated market are linked to wholesale prices that are at the highest in a decade.

With natural gas shortages, power plants in Iran are burning low-grade fuel oils that create toxic smog, or switching off entirely, triggering blackouts.

Pakistan is facing a gas shortage, too, despite running its two LNG terminals at full capacity in January. The Asian nation has cut gas supplies to industries and limited flows to compressed natural gas stations to a few days a week as residential demand more than doubled compared to the summer and was higher than in previous winters.

How cold the rest of the winter gets is likely to be the key driver for whether higher energy prices will be sustained.

Even if temperatures ease, the impact of tighter LNG supplies is likely to be felt into the summer and to feed into other markets. As north Asia, the biggest consumer of LNG, restocks supplies that demand will support price benchmarks throughout 2021. What was expected to be a finely balanced summer just a month ago, is now looking increasingly tight, according to Wood Mackenzie Ltd.

Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage

Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage

Isabella O’Malley                       January 12, 2021
Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage
Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage

While pollution is an omnipresent issue that is impacting essentially every ecosystem on Earth, the problem is not always visible to the naked eye. However, footage of Serbia’s Potpecko Lake depicts a jarring scene — several thousand cubic metres of plastic containers floating on top of the water.

The footage was first published online on January 4, 2021 and environmental activist, Sinisa Lakovic, says that the extent of the plastic pollution is due to decades of accumulating trash at “unsanitary landfills,” as reported by Reuters. Marko Karadzic, a local resident, described the situation to Reuters as “an ecological disaster.”

Several landfills are located upstream from the lake along the Lim River. Potpecko Lake is connected to the waterbody that the dam at the Višegrad Hydroelectric Power Plant uses, and officials are concerned that it could become clogged with garbage.

Serbia’s Environment Minister, Irena Vujovic, said a clean-up would soon commence and stated that several landfalls that contributed to the pollution in Potpecko Lake have been invited to develop a solution that would have long-term benefits.

AQUATIC POLLUTION, NOT JUST AN OCEAN PROBLEM

Images of ocean animals entangled in plastic pollution are the most common impacts that many people think of when considering how the waste we generate impacts aquatic ecosystems. Given that oceans cover more than 70 per cent of Earth’s surface, it is understandable that the spotlight lands on these marine ecosystems, but some experts say that plastic pollution in freshwater lakes and rivers is a topic that is often neglected in research.

lake pollution Credit: Justin Wilkens via Unsplash
lake pollution Credit: Justin Wilkens via Unsplash.  A discarded beer can in Eagle Lake, Mississippi, USA. Credit: Justin Wilkens via Unsplash

 

A 2019 survey conducted by scientists Martín C. M. Blettler and Karl M. Wantzen reviewed 171 published studies that analyzed animal plastic entanglement and found that over 98 per cent focused solely on oceanic environments. Blettler and Wantzen stated while ocean plastic pollution remains a considerable concern, they emphasize the importance of the limited insight we have about freshwater pollution.

In freshwater environments, researchers have documented an increasing trend of plastic becoming part of birds’ nests, which can reduce the survival rates of both the parents and chicks. Microplastics are also being consumed by fish in growing amounts leading to adverse effects. The researchers say that the effects of plastic pollution in water bodies inland are important to study because the waste that is dumped in lakes and rivers ultimately travels to the oceans.

With files from Reuters

Deal reached on project to protect lakes from invasive fish

Deal reached on project to protect lakes from invasive fish

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Michigan, Illinois and a federal agency have agreed on funding the next phase of an initiative to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes by strengthening defenses on a Chicago-area waterway, officials said Thursday.

The two states and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will share pre-construction engineering and design costs for the $858 million project at Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Illinois. The structure on the Des Plaines River is a choke point between the Illinois River, which is infested with the invasive carp, and Lake Michigan.

A plan approved by the Corps in 2019 calls for installing a gantlet of technologies to deter approaching fish, including electric barriers and underwater speakers that would blast loud noises, plus an “air bubble curtain.” A specially designed “flushing lock” would wash away carp that might be floating on the water as vessels pass through.

The next step is developing design and engineering specifications, expected to take three to four years and cost about $28.8 million.

Under the new agreement, the Corps will pay $18 million and Michigan $8 million. Illinois will chip in $2.5 million and serve as the “non-federal sponsor” required for such projects.

The federal share of the design and engineering funds still needs to be provided through annual Corps work plans, said Col. Steven M. Sattinger, commander of the Corps’ district office in Rock Island, Illinois.

Both states will collaborate with the Corps as it designs the complex mechanism, which will require thousands of pages of drawings.

Extensive research is still needed for some features, which never have been built to the scale that will be required at Brandon Road, Sattinger said.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” he said during an online news conference.

Four species of carp were imported from Asia in the 1960s and 1970s to clear algae from Deep South sewage ponds and fish farms. They escaped into the Mississippi River and have moved north into dozens of tributaries in Middle America.

Government agencies, advocacy groups and others have long debated how to prevent them from reaching the Great Lakes, where scientists say they could out-compete native species for food and habitat. The lakes region has a fishing industry valued at $7 billion.

“If Asian carp invade the Great Lakes, they would have a devastating impact on our fisheries, tourism and outdoor recreation economies, and way of life across the region,” said Marc Smith, policy director for the National Wildlife Federation.

A shipping canal that forms part of the link between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan has a network of fish-repelling barriers, which the Corps says is effective but critics consider inadequate. The Brandon Road project will provide another layer of protection further downstream.

“Long in planning, we’re pleased to finally put these agreements into action, allowing us to move the project to its next steps – planning and design – and, ultimately, construction,” said Colleen Callahan, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Once design is complete, building the system will take six to eight years, Sattinger said.

The deal between states that have sometimes quarreled over how to stop the carp is “a model of partnership that we hope to see more of in the future as we work toward a common goal of securing the health and longevity of our states’ greatest natural resource,” said Molly Flanagan, chief operating officer of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Where did COVID-19 come from?

Where did COVID-19 come from?

Elizabeth Weise and Karen Weintraub,         January 16, 2021

 

The coronavirus that conquered the world came from a thumb-sized bat tucked inside a remote Chinese cave. Of this much, scientists are convinced.

Exactly how and when it fled the bat to begin its devastating flight across the globe remain open questions.

In just one year, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has infected 100 million people and killed 2 million, 400,000 of them in the U.S. Answers could stop such a calamity from happening again.

Researchers in China, under government scrutiny, have been investigating since January. This week, a World Health Organization delegation of scientists from 10 different nations finally was allowed in the country to explore the virus’ origins.

“This is important not just for COVID-19, but for the future of global health security and to manage emerging disease threats with pandemic potential,” Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, said just after the team left for China.

A worker in protective coverings directs members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team on their arrival at the airport in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. A global team of researchers came to the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.

 

It’s not clear how much evidence will remain a year later, and what the team will be able to learn. The Wuhan fish market, seen as a likely breeding ground for the virus, has been scrubbed and shuttered.

But the effort is worth it, infectious disease experts say. Understanding the journey of SARS-CoV-2 may provide insights into how the relationship between humans and animals led to the pandemic, as well as other disease outbreaks including Ebola, Zika and many strains of flu.

A member of the World Health Organization team is screened on arriving at the airport in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. The global team of researchers arrived Thursday in the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.

 

“These are emerging diseases that breach the barrier between animals and humans and cause devastation in human populations,” the WHO’s Mike Ryan said at a Monday news conference. “It is an absolute requirement that we understand that interface and what is driving that dynamic and what specific issues resulted in diseases breaching that barrier.”

The international team is not looking to assign blame, said Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme. If it were, there would be plenty to go around.

“We can blame climate change. We can blame policy decisions made 30 years ago regarding everything from urbanization to the way we exploit the forest,” he said. “You can find people to blame in every level of what we’re doing on this planet.”

Beginnings in a cave

The chain of events that led to the worst global pandemic in a century started with a tiny, insect-eating mammal with the mundane name, Intermediate Horseshoe bat.

The species is part of a family of bats that act as natural reservoirs for coronaviruses, notorious for how easily they mutate and how well they can be transmitted from species to species. The bats aren’t bothered by the viruses. The animals they pass them onto aren’t always so lucky.

Humans are one of those animals.

This happens all the time – a virus harmlessly infects one creature then finds its way to another, mutates and becomes something new. The newly mutated virus can be insignificant but annoying (think common colds, some of which are caused by coronaviruses) or devastating and deadly (think smallpox.)

SARS-CoV-2 is a little of both.

A Horseshoe bat hangs from a net inside an abandoned Israeli army outpost next to the Jordan River in the occupied West Bank, on July 7, 2019.
A Horseshoe bat hangs from a net inside an abandoned Israeli army outpost next to the Jordan River in the occupied West Bank, on July 7, 2019.

 

As many as 40% of those who test positive for COVID-19 have no symptoms at all but 2% of people who get sick die. It’s especially deadly in the elderly.  COVID-19 has killed 1 of every 66 Americans older than 85. Among those infected, some percentage — we don’t yet know how many — cope with crippling long-term symptoms that plague them for months. Future health impacts remain unknown.

The group of related coronaviruses giving rise to SARS-CoV-2 has existed for decades in bats and likely originated more than 40 years ago, said Dr. Charles Chiu, a professor and expert in viral genomics at the University of California, San Francisco.

SARS-CoV-2 shares 96% of its genetic material with a sample of coronavirus taken in 2013 in Intermediate Horseshoe bats from Yunnan province in China, which suggests the Yunnan virus is its ancestor. How the virus traveled the 1,200 miles from Yunnan to Wuhan remains unknown.

Because the 2013 sample is the only one available, scientists had to undertake genetic analysis to estimate when the bat strain and the strain now circulating among humans diverged. They put the split sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, said Maciej Boni, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, who spent almost a decade working in Asia.

“There’s really not a clear tree where we have forensic evidence to point to exactly where it came from,” said John Connor, a virologist at Boston University who studies emerging infectious diseases. “It looks like it’s a bat-derived virus, and there’s a big question mark after that.”

Scientists simply don’t do enough surveillance of bats and coronavirus to tell.

“We just don’t know because we don’t have any data — we weren’t looking,” said Boni. “Over the last 20 years we haven’t been doing enough sampling.”

Boni is among those who think the virus most likely came directly from bats, possibly infecting miners who work in bat-infested caves or people exposed to bat feces. Others say it more likely spent some time infecting another animal species before leaping to humans.

The original SARS virus, identified in China in 2003, is believed to have passed through civets – a type of nocturnal mammal native to Asia and Africa – though other animals may have been involved.

SARS underwent only a few genetic changes between bats and people, which made its animal roots easier to trace, while SARS-CoV-2 has changed a lot more, Connor said.

With SARS-CoV-2, a suspect is the frequently trafficked scaly anteater, also known as a pangolin. Other possibilities include civets or ferrets or even cats.

“SARS-CoV-2 may originate from live animal markets, but it may also have emerged from any setting in which people come into contact with animals, including farms, pets, or zoos,” Chiu said.

Whatever its path, sometime before November 2019 it became a virus that could easily – far too easily – infect humans.

Not Made in China

Despite a persistent conspiracy theory that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a lab, perhaps an infectious disease lab in Wuhan, there’s no evidence to support the claim and plenty to counter it.

In March, a group of researchers found the virus most closely resembled existing bat viruses and was not man-made.

“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” they wrote in the prestigious journal Nature.

No new details have emerged since to change the author minds, said Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, one of the co-authors and a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

“Can we exclude the possibility that there was a virus that was present in this lab that somehow got out into either animals or people? No, we can’t do that,” he said. “The only thing we can say is that there’s no evidence that suggests it was deliberately engineered through some sort of gain-of-function experiments.”

Connor said he’s also dubious the virus originated in a lab rather than in nature.

The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus, sits closed in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.
The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus, sits closed in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.

 

“What laboratory people are really good at doing is making viruses weaker,” said Connor, who is also an investigator at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratories.

Viruses, especially RNA viruses like coronaviruses, make tiny mistakes as they reproduce. One person’s nose might contain 10 to a 100,000 copies of the virus, and with so many replications and so many mistakes, it’s plausible chance mutations led to SARS-CoV-2, he said.

“I don’t think we need to look for man-made. I think we see the viruses that we know assaulting us all the time,” Connor said. “We look back to Zika. That wasn’t man-made. Neither was Ebola. Flu keeps coming after us.”

It’s possible to bioengineer a virus, but it’s extremely hard. Anyone doing so would have used a pre-existing virus as the template. The virus that’s now killing millions has novel mutations, many of them, said Chiu.

“We barely know how to manipulate even a few base pairs in a single viral gene,” he said. “The difference between Chinese bat coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2 is more than 3,000 base pairs.”

In some ways, it doesn’t matter where the virus came from, said Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. What matters is how we deal with the current situation, which is at a crisis state in the United States.

“When the house is burning down is not the time to start looking for where the matches were,” he said.

Investigation and prevention

If SARS-Cov-2 had been a type of bird flu instead of a coronavirus, the world would have been alerted within days of the first infections. A global surveillance system was established in the 1990s and has been expanded and strengthened, Boni said.

“If a single poultry farmer in Southeast Asia comes down with severe respiratory symptoms, samples are taken and sequenced. That week you know which avian influenza virus it is,” he said. “Farms in neighboring regions are immediately quarantined and the birds may be depopulated. It takes days.”

Setting up something similar for bats and coronaviruses would cost several billion a year globally, said Boni. “It’s not expensive for the benefit we’d get.”

To track SARS-COV-2 as it transferred among species requires analyzing blood collected from the animals, as well as samples from their airways.

Distinguishing between closely related viruses isn’t always so easy.

“We have a special test that can do this if we could get samples out of China,” said Lipkin. He’s been trying for months to do so, and when he attempted to send his own sampling tools into the country the U.S wouldn’t allow it.

“We now have obstruction on both sides,” said Lipkin, who’s been working to get into China himself since early in the outbreak. “I don’t know when that’s going to let up. I’m hoping the Biden administration will feel differently.”

Lipkin’s March paper explored key features of the new virus but nothing more has been learned since about SARS-CoV-2’s earliest days, he said.

Staff move bio-waste containers past the entrance of the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
Staff move bio-waste containers past the entrance of the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

 

“We still haven’t had a full post-mortem on what went wrong in China,” said Lipkin, who caught COVID-19 in March in New York and was recently vaccinated.

The U.S. has a very good system of reporting outbreaks, and rapidly publishes information in the CDC’s journal, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly. The Chinese are not as transparent at reporting their public health information.

Increased transparency is one of several changes Lipkin recommends to avoid a repeat of the 2020 disaster.

Wild animal markets and consumption of wildlife continue to pose dangers, he said.

And the world needs to have the ability to respond faster to novel viruses like SARS-CoV-2. Global surveillance would help, as would drugs that can treat a wide spectrum of viruses – maybe one that can address all coronaviruses and another to tackle influenzas.

“These drugs might not be ideal but we should think of them as a finger in the dike,” Lipkin said, so outbreaks won’t get out of hand, the way this one did.

Connor, at Boston University, agrees that effective and transparent public health systems around the world are essential for detecting and preventing outbreaks like COVID-19.

In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 file photo, people wearing face masks walk down a deserted street in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province.
In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 file photo, people wearing face masks walk down a deserted street in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province.

 

While Wuhan may have had a good health care system, that was not the case in West Africa, where a 2014-2016 epidemic of Ebola infected more than 28,000, killed over 11,000 and terrified the world.

“It would be nice for all people to have good health care, not just because it would be nice for them … but for everybody else,” Connor said. “It would be nice to be able to identify: Oh, all of a sudden, five people in one area got sick with something we didn’t know what it was.”

Connor said it’s pointless to try to predict all the ways in which a virus now infecting animals could make the leap to humans. A much better approach, he said, is to focus on the viruses that do emerge.

“What matters is how good we are at responding quickly,” he said.

The race is now between the speed of mutations and the speed of vaccination, said Chiu.

Even for a typically slow Sunday afternoon Grand Central Terminal in New York City was quieter than usual March 15, 2020 as Coronavirus concerns kept travelers and tourists off the streets and away from popular destinations in the city.

 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says it may take up to 85% of Americans being vaccinated to protect the population. Reaching those numbers will be challenging considering pervasive vaccine hesitancy and a slow, complicated roll out.

In the meantime, public health measures to stop the spread – masking, social distancing and handwashing – are essential, experts repeat.

“We have to reduce the number of infections before the virus has a chance to mutate in such a way that it can evade drugs and vaccines,” said Chiu. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Contact Elizabeth Weise at eweise@usatoday.com and Karen Weintraub at kweintraub@usatoday.com.

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

Nearly 100 million Chinese people supplied drinking water with ‘unsafe’ levels of toxic chemicals

Nearly 100 million Chinese people supplied drinking water with ‘unsafe’ levels of toxic chemicals

Echo Xie                                 

Drinking water provided to nearly 100 million people in China has levels of toxic chemicals that exceed safe limits, researchers have found.

A team from Tsinghua University monitored the levels of per and polyfluoroalkyls (PFAS) – man-made chemicals used in everything from fabrics to pesticides – using data from previous studies.

By analyzing data from 526 drinking water samples across 66 cities with a total population of 450 million, the study found that the concentration of PFAS in more than 20 per cent of the studied cities – 16 in total – exceeded safe levels.

Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.

China has no national safety standards, so the study used the US state of Vermont’s regulations as the benchmark.

A chemical factory is dismantled along the Yangtze River in Yichang City as part of an effort to reduce pollution in the area. Photo: Xinhua alt=A chemical factory is dismantled along the Yangtze River in Yichang City as part of an effort to reduce pollution in the area. Photo: Xinhua

The cities with high levels included Wuxi, Hangzhou and Suzhou in eastern China and Foshan in the southern province of Guangdong. Major cities including Beijing and Shanghai were under the limit.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe last Tuesday and was the first comprehensive study reviewing PFAS levels in Chinese drinking water.

In general, eastern, southern and southwest China had higher levels of PFAS compared with other regions.

The mean concentration of PFASs in eastern China was 2.6 times that of the country’s north, which the report’s authors attributed to intensive industrial activity and high population density.

Roland Weber, a co-author of the study and German consultant on persistent organic pollutants, said that some PFAS were more dangerous than others, especially the chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS, which have been linked to a variety of health risks.

“The European Food Safety Agency recently highlighted four PFAS – including PFOA and PFOS – as particularly problematic and set a low tolerable intake limit [the daily amount deemed safe] ,” he said.

The study found extremely high levels of PFOA and PFOS in three Chinese cities in the Yangtze River Basin – Zigong, Jiujiang and Lianyungang – which were attributed to the presence of fluoro-chemical plants and industries that use multiple PFAS, such as leather, textile and paper manufacturing.

Weber said more toxicity assessment needs to be done on the thousands of PFAS in use, because there are still many unknown risks and scientists suggest limiting them to essential uses.

The toxic chemicals can be found in everything from stain-resistant textiles, greaseproof food packaging, firefighting foam, personal care products, pharmaceuticals and pesticides.

“Many PFAS are water soluble and do not degrade possibly for centuries and longer and are therefore called ‘forever chemicals’. If you have contaminated ground water used for irrigation, it will go into your plant, your food and your cattle,” said Weber.

The two toxic chemicals – PFOA and PFOS – do not break down in the human body or environment and can accumulate over time, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

They were listed in the annex of the Stockholm Convention as persistent organic pollutants, or “forever chemicals”, since they are considered to be harmful to health and the environment.

China is now one of the largest manufacturers and consumers of PFAS but it has no guidelines for their presence in drinking water.

But it is a party to the Stockholm Convention, which aims to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants and is working to phase out the use of PFOS.

But Weber said PFOA had only been listed under the convention in 2019 – a decade after PFOS – and China has not yet ratified this section.

In plans released in June, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment vowed to step up the monitoring of new pollutants in surface water.

Weber added that China needs to analyze drinking water as well as groundwater and contaminated sites to understand the scale of the problem and then draw up plans to tackle it.

“Europe and the United States are facing large challenges with monitoring and controlling PFAS contaminated sites and I think it is now the right time that China is moving forward, making science based limits and then cleaning the drinking water and control emissions from industries and other uses,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century.

President Trump’s wildly expensive border wall policy will leave a lasting legacy

President Trump’s wildly expensive border wall policy will leave a lasting legacy

President Trump vowed vowed to build 450 miles of border “wall” — which is more of a series of barriers erected by a succession of U.S. presidents, by the end of his first term.

Trump can say he fulfilled that promise, according to information provided to Yahoo Finance by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), establishing one of the more expensive and permanent aspects of his legacy.

“As much as the Trump administration is able to construct is going to be the amount that’s there pretty permanently,” Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, told Yahoo Finance. “This is a serious permanent infrastructure project that’s going to remain. And while many of the other actions that Trump has taken on immigration can be rolled back through executive action, this is something that it looks like is not going to be rolled back anytime soon.”

US President Donald Trump tours a section of the border wall in Alamo, Texas, on January 12, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump tours a section of the border wall in Alamo, Texas, on January 12, 2021. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

 

According to the latest CBP data, 453 miles of “new primary and secondary border wall system” were built during Trump’s term — though much of that construction involved replacing “dilapidated of outdate designs” as opposed to building wall where it had not been built previously. Another 211 miles are under construction while 74 miles are in the pre-construction phase.

Overall, the $15-billion initiative was a key promise of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and became a point of contention with Congress — a funding dispute over the border wall led to a 35-day government shutdown in 2018 — and landowners whose properties have been greatly impacted by the construction.

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to freeze construction of the wall, a move that would save roughly $2.6 billion.

453 miles of wall have been completed so far. (Source: CBP)
453 miles of wall have been completed so far. (Source: CBP)
‘It’s a gigantic waste of government resources’

Experts have argued the entire project was a waste of taxpayer money (in addition to being a magnet for alleged fraud).

“It’s a gigantic waste of government resources, taking billions of dollars away from other priorities and has zero benefit to the United States,” David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, told Yahoo Finance. “The difference between the Trump law and the existing fences that he replaced is the Trump wall is more expensive and that’s pretty much it. It’s certainly more intrusive to the environment and to the landowners and to the residents of the areas in which the border wall is being built as well.”

The wall built under Trump has been incredibly costly, particularly compared to other presidencies.

Between 2007 and 2015, CBP spent a total of $2.4 billion constructing 535 miles of the border wall. Part of the reason for that, she explained, is because Trump’s wall is a taller, more fortified wall being constructed in a lot of areas. Bolter noted that fencing under the GWB administration cost an average of $3.9 million per mile. Under Trump, it averaged about $20 million per mile.

There are approximately 701 miles of primary barriers along the border. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
There are approximately 701 miles of primary barriers along the border. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

 

Another reason for the exorbitant cost is that it’s “not clear that building a wall in all of these places was necessary,” Bolter said. “A report from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general found that when CBP was setting its border wall priorities, it didn’t consider alternatives.”

Ohio State University Professor Ken Madsen, who tracks border wall progress, noted that when we “see new fences or walls going in those very rugged areas, it seems to me it really is for show. It’s not really doing anything to stop anybody because very few people were crossing there in the first place.”

Gil Kerlikowske, who served as CBP commissioner during the final three years of the Obama administration, has argued that the money would be “much better invested in technology than barriers.” He noted that much of the cost for the barriers stems from maintenance and repair.

“I mean, it’s really significant,” Kerlikowske told Yahoo Finance. “You have flooding, you have other kinds of damage, people, of course, cutting them. So people shouldn’t look at this just as the cost of this fixed wall or barrier. They should look at the long-term costs. They are going to be replaced over the years, plus maintenance costs, so it’s incredibly expensive.”

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a picture of border wall being installed along the U.S.-Mexico border as he participates in a roundtable briefing on border security at the U.S. Border Patrol Yuma Station in Yuma, Arizona, U.S., June 23, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

 

The former CBP leader suggested technological alternatives like integrated fixed towers, which have infrared and camera sensors. But according to Bier, the Cato analyst, it’s still just another form of wasted taxpayer money.

“It’s certainly better than taking people’s land but it’s another gigantic sinkhole of government money that you spent billions upon billions, spending more money on technology, whether it’s border journals or surveillance cameras,” Bier said. “Really at the end of the day, you have reports from the OIG, the GAO, the drones and balances are ineffective. That virtual fence they tried to build with the cameras and sensors was useless, a waste of taxpayer money. I don’t support any more money for this effort.”

Biden freezing construction of the wall is just one of the several necessary steps needed to fix this, Bier argued.

“A freeze is better than continuing to waste taxpayer money on something that we’re getting no benefit from,” he said. “But I think that we should go further than that and transfer that land and the structure as well — if the people who own the land want the structure, let them keep it, but it should really be their decision and not the decision of Border Patrol to foist a structure on somebody else’s property.”

New sections of the border wall are in process of being built in Hidalgo, Texas on January 11, 2021. - Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, announced he was resigning January 11 as worries rose over more violence during President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration next week. Wolf's resignation came a day before Trump is to travel to the US-Mexico frontier near Alamo, Texas to inspect the border wall he has had built. (Photo by Mark Felix / AFP) (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)
New sections of the border wall are in process of being built in Hidalgo, Texas on January 11, 2021. (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)
‘New’ versus ‘old’ wall

Trump’s CBP claimed that 453 miles of border wall were built since January 2017, though less than 100 miles of the wall is actually new and not replacing outdated structures.

“[Former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security] Chad Wolf and CBP are counting anything as new that’s new construction,” Madsen told Yahoo Finance. “But most people are making a distinction between new versus replacement. There was a wall there before and yes there’s a new wall now, but it’s the same place that’s covered. But then you can even narrow that down more.”

Much of the construction is to replace existing barriers, many of which are old and/or dilapidated in quality.

“Once you distinguish new from replacement, then you have to distinguish if it’s a pedestrian barrier, or replacement pedestrian barrier,” Madsen said. “In other words, is it just a newer model that’s taller, more see-through, more durable, stronger foundation? And then there’s some places where they’re replacing vehicle barriers with pedestrian barriers.”

That makes sense since pedestrian barriers are much more effective at stopping people than vehicle barriers so “that’s quite an upgrade. That’s substantially changing the dynamic. And again, because it’s all new, it’s being counted by CBP as new. I’ve heard the vast majority is replacing barriers that are already there. That’s for sure. So most of what’s being constructed is just replacing what’s already there.”

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott as he tours a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall in San Luis, Arizona, U.S., June 23, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. President Donald Trump talks with U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott as he tours a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall in San Luis, Arizona, U.S., June 23, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
‘Building a wall will do little to deter criminals’

President-elect Biden has been critical about the border wall, singling out Trump for the wall’s lack of efficiency.

“His obsession with building a wall does nothing to address security challenges while costing taxpayers billions of dollars,” Biden’s immigration plan states, noting that most illegal drugs come through legal points of entry, that asylum seekers are asking for refuge legally, and that nearly half of undocumented immigrants are in the U.S. because they overstayed their visas.

“Building a wall will do little to deter criminals and cartels seeking to exploit our borders,” his plan says. “Instead of stealing resources from schools for military children and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, Biden will direct federal resources to smart border enforcement efforts, like investments in improving screening infrastructure at our ports of entry, that will actually keep America safer.”

JACUMBA, CA - DECEMBER 01: Construction crews work on the United States-Mexico border wall on December 1, 2020 in Jacumba, California. President-elect Joe Biden wants to stop construction of the border wall, but the departing Trump administration is rushing to complete as much wall as possible in its last weeks in power. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
Construction crews work on the United States-Mexico border wall on December 1, 2020 in Jacumba, California. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

 

Biden’s decision to halt construction of the wall will save billions of dollars, but could still cost roughly $700 million, according to the Washington Post. This is because withdrawing crew, materials, and equipment can be billed as “demobilization fees.”

But, it will come as a relief for those whose lands were seized by the government through eminent domain to be used as part of the border wall. According to the New York Times, the Trump administration brought 78 lawsuits against landowners along the southern border, with 30 of them in 2020.

Despite the havoc along the border soon coming to an end, the project still leaves behind a lasting legacy.

“I think that the border wall is one of the most permanent parts of President Trump’s legacy after he leaves the office,” Bolter said. “President-elect Biden has said that he’s not going to construct any additional border wall, but he’s also said that he’s not going to take down any of the wall that President Trump has built.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at adriana@yahoofinance.com.

Biden picks geneticist as science adviser, puts in Cabinet

Biden picks geneticist as science adviser, puts in Cabinet

January 15, 2021
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In this Sept. 7, 2010, file photo, Eric Steven Lander, head of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, gestures as he delivers a speech during the forum Mexico XXI Century, organized by the Telmex Foundation, in Mexico City. President-elect Joe Biden picked a pioneering geneticist to be his science advisor and elevated the job to his Cabinet. Friday’s announcement of Lander won wide praise (AP Photo/Claudio Cruz, File)

 

President-elect Joe Biden announced Friday that he has chosen a pioneer in mapping the human genome — the so-called “book of life” — to be his chief science adviser and is elevating the top science job to a Cabinet position.

Biden nominated Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who was the lead author of the first paper announcing the details of the human genome, as director of Office of Science and Technology Policy and adviser on science. He is the first life scientist to have that job. His predecessor is a meteorologist.

Saying “science will always be at the forefront of my administration,” Biden said he is boosting the science advisor post to Cabinet level, a first in White House history.

The president-elect also said he is retaining National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, who worked with Lander on the human genome project, and named two prominent female scientists to co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Frances Arnold, a California Institute of Technology chemical engineer who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry, and MIT vice president for research and geophysics professor Maria Zuber will co-chair the outside science advisory council. Lander held that position during Obama administration.

Collins, in an email statement, called Lander “brilliant, visionary, exceptionally creative and highly effective in aspiring others.”

“I predict he will have a profound transformational effect on American science,” Collins said.

The job as director of science and technology policy requires Senate confirmation.

Science organizations were also quick to praise Lander and the promotion of the science post.

“Elevating (the science adviser) role to member in the President’s Cabinet clearly signals the administration’s intent to involve scientific expertise in every policy discussion,” said Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society.

Biden chose Princeton’s Alondra Nelson, a social scientist who studies science, technology and social inequality, as deputy science policy chief.

Lander, also a mathematician, is a professor of biology at both Harvard and MIT and his work has been cited nearly half a million times in scientific literature, one of most among scientists. He has won numerous science prizes, including a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and a Breakthrough Prize, and is one of Pope Francis’ scientific advisors.

Lander has said in talks that an opportunity to explain science is his “Achilles’ heel”: “I love teaching and more than that, I firmly believe that no matter what I do in my own scientific career, the most important impact that I could ever have on the world is going to be through my students.”