Has our nation hit rock bottom yet?

Chicago Suntimes

Has our nation hit rock bottom yet?

Why do Trump supporters ignore the ruin he inflicts on the country? Try viewing it through the lens of addiction.
By Neil Steinberg              September 20, 2020

Drug use on Lower Wacker Drive in late 2016.
Drug use on Lower Wacker Drive in late 2016. Using drugs on a street off Lower Wacker Drive in late 2016. Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Almost four years ago I was tagging along with medical workers from the Night Ministry. We found ourselves standing before three people sprawled in a nest of blankets and sleeping bags off Lower Wacker Drive.

At first I held back. Then, I gingerly nudged forward, afraid they’d clam up as soon as I took out my notebook. But they didn’t. They answered whatever question I asked — their names, what drugs they were taking. I could take pictures. They weren’t embarrassed. They didn’t care about anything except getting those drugs inside themselves.

Addiction does that. You are locked into feeling that pleasure, or relief, or passing sense of normality. End of the story. You don’t care about the damage you’re inflicting upon yourself or others. You don’t care that the addiction is killing you. You could shake this emaciated woman and ask what her younger self would think of what she’s become. She’d stare back at you, hollow-eyed and uncomprehending. She doesn’t bother to eat food; what does she care about lost dreams?

That’s why I have to laugh when my somehow still idealistic friends wonder when Donald Trump’s base will abandon him. When they will finally see the ruin his presidency has caused this country and regret their role in supporting it. That’s easy: never. They’ll never give him up, just as many addicts never quit their substances, except by dying.

The concept of addiction is the best way to make sense of our country today. Trump makes his followers feel good. He soothes the ache in their broken parts. Like heroin, he makes them feel safe and secure even while doing the exact opposite. They’re not safe and secure, but on the street, endangered, living in a country wracked by a pandemic that their drug of choice trivializes and ignores. They’re teetering on an economic cliff, while shivering at pipe-dream fears about socialized medicine.

What do they care of deterioration of American democratic institutions? They’re in denial. That’s like asking a drunk driver whether his tires are properly inflated. All he cares about is how much is left in the half pint.

Sure, change is possible. I got sober 15 years ago next week, for those keeping score. But it took a life-jolting crisis. As to why 200,000 Americans dying from presidential incompetence isn’t such a crisis, and why his supporters don’t turn from his confused chaos, well, they’re still lost in their addiction. Anything can be rationalized away. Your friend shoots up, walks into the bathroom and dies. You’re sorry, but you’re still going to shoot up yourself in two hours, because that’s what you do.

Crowd members cheer toward cameras before the arrival of President Donald Trump to a Make America Great Again rally on September 19, 2020 in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Crowd members cheer toward cameras before the arrival of President Donald Trump to a Make America Great Again rally on September 19, 2020 in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
A crowd waits for President Donald Trump to arrive for a rally Saturday in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Getty

Trump fans can still brush away the whole pandemic: no worse than the flu, numbers exaggerated, whatever Fox News told them last night, lodged in their brain and vibrating. I don’t try to tell Trump fans they’re dupes suckered by a fraud. Why bother? Interventions usually fail. Al-Anon teaches relatives of the addicted to disengage. Let the sufferer figure it out. The addict has to want to change, and for that, they usually have to hit bottom.

Has our country hit bottom yet? I sure hope so, though hope is of very little value here. There are hells below this one, and we may be heading there.

Unless we’re not. If Joe Biden manages to both win the election and keep Trump from holding onto power anyway — and I can’t say which is the greater challenge — Trump supporters won’t automatically reform. Just the opposite. They’ll spend years smearing their faces against liquor store windows, gazing at their lost passion, licking their lips and wishing for just one more slug of Make America Great Again. Hating those who took away the man who made them feel alive. Give them time. Meanwhile, we must care for ourselves, and the United States, and look forward to the day when our fellow citizens may recover clear-eyed love of country and rejoin us at dinner. That day may never come.

Trump supporters will howl, but I’ll share a secret: When you’re an addict, you stop mattering, eventually. That’s the worst fate. You sit there with your barfly friends, complaining about the raw deal you got, or take your drugs huddled in some grimy lower rung of hell, while your far-off family picks itself up and goes on without you.

Thank you, Justice Ginsburg.

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Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook.
“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, she was first in her class – and she couldn’t find a job. So she did what brilliant, ambitious women have done throughout history when the doors of power slammed in their faces: she found another way.
Thousands of state and federal laws treated women like second-class citizens. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, I will change that, even if I have to do it one case at a time.
She argued and won FIVE landmark gender equality cases before the Supreme Court. So many women have been able to pursue our dreams and exercise our rights as equal citizens because of her.
As a Supreme Court justice, she went even further. LGBTQ equality. Voting rights. The rights and dignity of immigrants. Access to healthcare. Protecting the environment. She was principled, passionate – and she fought to the end.
I don’t know what my life would look like without Ruth Bader Ginsburg fighting for me and all women. More than anything else, tonight, I am grateful.
Thank you, Justice Ginsburg.
Democrat’s  War Room
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Bruce Lindner
When the announcement came that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away yesterday, my iPad went berserk. Over a hundred Facebook friends sent me private messages within the first few minutes. They ran the gamut from “We’re so screwed now,” to “It’s all over for America,” to “It was nice while it lasted.” I read the first few and decided that I needed a few hours of space, lest I lose a few friends. So I played some music. I still haven’t even read most of them, and probably won’t for a few days. I have little appetite for negativity.
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Ruth Bader Ginsburg led a life of constantly swimming upstream. Everything from institutionalized sexism, misogyny, ignorance, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and for her final curtain, five bouts with various types of cancer. FIVE.
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Throughout it all, never did she throw up her hands and say; “That’s it, I’m so screwed.” or “My life was nice while it lasted.” To the contrary, she never, EVER complained. Instead, she fought. Because she knew the ultimate beneficiaries of her battles weren’t just herself. They were us.
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I realize these are depressing times, and I confess that I get depressed too. But I have ZERO tolerance for defeatism. Do *NOT* message me to tell me how bleak your world is. What makes you think I want to hear it?
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If RBG showed us anything, it’s that defeatism is for the meek. And the meek are the lambs that conservatives eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
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Don’t be meek. Be like RBG. Be STRONG. She was all of 5’1” tall, and maybe 110 pounds soaking wet. Yet never in her eighty-seven years did she say to herself or anybody else; “It’s pointless to fight on.”
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Now is the time for Democrats to assume the role of the wolf. No more lambs. And Goddamnit, don’t you DARE message me with your “woe is me” attitude.
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Be like Ruth. If for no one else’s sake, do it for our daughters.
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Image may contain: 12 people, text that says 'R.B.G.'

Doctors alarmed by surge in hospital visits as toxic smoke engulfs west coast

The Guardian – Health

Doctors alarmed by surge in hospital visits as toxic smoke engulfs west coast

Erin McCormick in Berkeley, California   
<span>Photograph: Philip Pacheco/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Philip Pacheco/Getty Image

 

A month after hundreds of wildfires started spewing toxic smoke along the west coast, doctors are seeing the alarming health effects of air pollution.

In northern California’s Stanford Health Care system, hospital admissions have jumped by 12% in recent weeks, including a stunning 43% increase in cerebrovascular conditions such as strokes. In Oregon, health officials reported nearly one out of 10 people visiting the emergency room had asthma-like conditions due to the smoke. And in San Francisco, doctors had to cancel their clinics for recovering Covid-19 patients, because the air was so unhealthy that just getting to their appointments could make patients more sick.

Related: What is California’s wildfire smoke doing to our health? Scientists paint a bleak picture

A growing body of scientific evidence paints a dire picture of the effects of wildfire smoke on the human body. Experts told the Guardian earlier this month that the smoke can have an almost immediate effect on people’s health, causing asthma, heart attacks, kidney problems and even mental health issues to surge.

Now, as the west coast reckons with an unprecedented stretch of hazardous air, scientists and health experts are growing even more concerned about the immediate and long-term consequences of continuous exposure to the harmful pollution.

In the Bay Area, despite firefighters gaining control of the nearest blazes started by lightning strikes in August, smoky conditions have persisted, turning the sky orange and keeping people inside their homes.

“We’re on the 30th consecutive day of our ‘Spare the Air’ alerts,” said Kristina Chu of the Bay Area air quality management district on Wednesday. “That’s an all-time record,” she explained; the previous longest was 14 days.

<span class="element-image__caption">A pedestrian walks past the Willamette Bridge and downtown Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Don Ryan/AP</span>A pedestrian walks past the Willamette Bridge and downtown Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday. Photograph: Don Ryan/AP

After a month steeped in orange-brown air filled with dangerous tiny particles emitted by the wildfires, patients with pre-existing lung or heart conditions were at particular risk for hospitalization or even premature death, health officials in California said.

“We’ve now had a month of severe exposure to smoke and the levels have been very high,” said Dr Mary Prunicki, director of research for Stanford’s Sean N Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research.

At Stanford’s health centers, doctors told the Guardian they had seen a troubling rise in overall hospitalizations, as well as an increase in specific conditions.

Bibek Paudel, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford’s asthma clinic, has been following the rise in hospitalizations. In the first two weeks after smoke pollution permeated the Bay Area’s air, he calculated an extra 500 people had been admitted to Stanford’s hospitals compared with what would normally be expected – 12% more than the two weeks before the fires. After three weeks of bad air, he could detect an 14% increase in the number of heart patients hospitalized, an 18% percent increase in kidney conditions and a 17% increase in asthma hospitalizations.

Fine particles go to the bottom of your lungs, then can cross over to the bloodstream and go anywhere in your body

Mary Prunicki, Stanford doctor

“The smoke and the number of intense fires has gone up and up,” he said, noting that the California fire season has just begun. “I expect it will go up even more.”

The most alarming finding was the 43% increase in strokes and other cerebrovascular hospitalizations, which could be related to inflammation brought on by the pollution, the researchers said.

The research also shows a 15% increase in hospitalizations for substance abuse disorders and a small uptick in other mental health hospital intakes.

“People were already dealing with the stress of Covid-19,” said Prunicki. “And I read that there has been an increase in alcohol use. This just may be a tipping point.”

Prunicki said researchers were just beginning to understand the many detrimental effects that the smoke ingredients, known as particulate matter 2.5, have on the body.

“Fine particles [in the smoke] go to the bottom of your lungs, then can cross over to the bloodstream and go anywhere in your body,” said Prunicki. She co-authored an earlier study that showed even healthy teenagers see an increase in the markers of inflammation in their bloodstreams during periods of wildfire smoke exposure.

“I don’t know that we have it figured out on a cellular level, but we see dysregulation and we know that pollution is causing inflammatory changes throughout your body,” she said.

Scientists are still working to understand the long-term effects of wildfire smoke exposures, but studies of firefighters have shown they face a higher rate of cancer than the general public, despite being otherwise healthier than the average person.

In Oregon, residents were facing air pollution so severe that the air quality index readings were “literally off the charts”, according to Gabriela Goldfarb, a spokesperson for the Oregon health authority, which has been monitoring an increase in people seeking emergency treatment for asthma symptoms. While any air quality index over 300 is considered “hazardous”, numerous communities bordering the wildfires near Salem and the Portland suburbs have experienced readings of over 500, she said.

<span class="element-image__caption">Smoke from wildfires fills the sky over Pasadena, California, on 12 September.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: John Antczak/AP</span>Smoke from wildfires fills the sky over Pasadena, California, on 12 September. Photograph: John Antczak/AP

Goldfarb says the health authority has spent years studying how to combat the health toll of more frequent wildfires, which have been intensified by the climate crisis. Its recommendations have included proposals to distribute air purifiers to low income families and renters. But this year, legislation to do that was put on hold when the Oregon legislature disbanded early due to the pandemic. Now, she said, it is hard to recommend safe alternatives for the public, other than staying home – and people facing evacuation don’t even have that option.

“Traditionally people could go to their public library or a local shopping center to escape the smoke. But those aren’t available this year because of Covid,” she said.

Dr Neeta Thakur, a University of California, San Francisco, pulmonologist who heads both the chest clinic and the clinic for recovering Covid-19 patients at San Francisco general hospital, said the smoke pollution had presented a catch-22 for those concerned about the risks of the coronavirus.

She said one of her lung patients called the hospital complaining of breathing problems and was told to come immediately to the emergency room. But the patient, an older person, waited, fearing exposure to coronavirus. Two days later, the patient’s lung problems became so severe that they had to be brought in by ambulance and intubated in the ICU, she said.

“There was definitely a delay in seeking care because of fear of the pandemic,” said Thakur, noting that the patient was recovering at home.

“We could see more of this,” added Thakur, who has had to cancel recent clinics for people recovering from Covid and asthma patients because of the poor air quality. “Trying to navigate these two health crises and tell people what to do is very difficult.”

She said residents of low income communities bore the brunt of the health risks because of poor-quality housing.

“I can go inside and get clear air,” she said. “But when you live in poor-quality housing, the bad air outside can come inside.”

On Thursday, air quality experts predicted west coast residents would finally get a break as offshore winds blew the clouds of smoke inland, spreading them all the way to the east coast.

Still, “we do not feel we’re in the clear for this fire season yet,” said Goldfarb. She predicted rain storms might bring lightning and the prospect of more fires to Oregon; California air quality officials noted that the state might not see rain until November and smoke pollution could return as early as this weekend.

“If there are people who need to leave the house and get some fresh air, we recommend they do it now,” said Chu, of the Bay Area air quality district. “It’s a new normal that we’re getting used to.”

As smoke lifts on California’s coast, it lingers in Central Valley, where farm-workers have no refuge

Yahoo News – U.S.

As smoke lifts on California’s coast, it lingers in Central Valley, where farm-workers have no refuge

David Knowles, Editor      September 17, 2020

Scientists say satellite images show smoke from U.S. wildfires reaching Europe.
Hazardous smoke from wildfires across the West is presenting the latest danger for the men and women who pick America’s fruit and vegetable crops in a year when record heat and the coronavirus pandemic have already put their lives at risk.

 

On Thursday, while air quality improved in the San Francisco Bay Area, throughout much of California’s Central Valley it remained classified as “unhealthy” or worse. Under those conditions, residents are advised to stay indoors — but farm-workers don’t have that option.

“To be out in the fields, it’s like you can’t breathe,” Herman Hernandez, director of the California Farm-worker Foundation, told NPR.

The United Farm Workers, the nation’s largest farm-workers’ union, has been highlighting the poor working conditions caused by wildfires like the Basin Complex Fire, which has burned more than 162,000 acres near Big Sur, Calif.

The state requires employers to provide particle respirators or face masks when the air quality index reaches the “unhealthy” level of 151 parts per million, but thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic, personal protective equipment is in short supply and many farm-workers have been going without it.

Oregon has no such mask regulations, but on Sept. 11 the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration sent a letter to employers urging them to halt outdoor work when the air quality index exceeds 151 and to allow “workers with underlying health conditions to stay at home.”

On Monday, the air quality index in Oregon topped 500 in many parts of the state, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality said, prompting prompting Gov. Kate Brown to order the National Guard to distribute 250,000 Chinese-made KN95 masks to farm-workers and tribal communities, the Oregonian reported.

“Governor Brown’s goal is to make sure agricultural workers are protected from the health impacts of hazardous air quality, which is why she directed Oregon OSHA to issue guidance to employers last week,” Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, told the Oregonian.

Farm laborers in California work in smoky conditions. (Courtesy of United Farm Workers)
Farm laborers in California work in smoky conditions. (Courtesy of United Farm Workers)

 

The short-term health effects of breathing wildfire smoke include chest pain, headaches, sore throat, fatigue, asthma attacks and an elevated heart rate. The longer-term effects haven’t been studied yet.

“Smoke from wildfires contains chemicals, gases and fine particles that can harm health,” California’s Department of Industrial Relations says on its website. “The greatest hazard comes from breathing fine particles in the air, which can reduce lung function, worsen asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing.”

As in California, the majority of farm-workers in Oregon are Hispanic, a population that has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus.

“This makes this important and sizable population of our workforce potentially more vulnerable to the adverse effects of combined wildfire smoke and COVID-19 risks,” Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist at the Oregon Health Authority, said in a press release.

Since the wildfires began in Oregon, OSHA has filed 425 complaints on behalf of workers that allege working conditions in the fields are unsafe.

A farm in Colton, Ore., is engulfed by polluted air from the wildfires. (Stanton Sharpe/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A farm in Colton, Ore., is engulfed by polluted air from the wildfires. (Stanton Sharpe/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

 

In May, California allocated $125 million in aid to undocumented immigrants, many of whom work in the state picking the nation’s crops.

“Whether it’s wildfire, pandemic, drought or storm, farm-workers are out in the field,” Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, told the Guardian. “It’s largely an immigrant workforce, many undocumented. Many are from indigenous communities from southern Mexico who face even greater barriers to accessing services and reporting labor issues.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 57 percent of farm-workers employed in the U.S. are Hispanic and of Mexican origin. The average total yearly income for farm-workers working full time is between $15,000 and $17,499, according to a report published by the U.S. Department of Labor.

In recent months, farm-workers have faced an unprecedented number of health risks, including the coronavirus pandemic and record-breaking heat across much of the West.

July survey conducted by the California Institute for Rural Studies found that agricultural workers in Monterey County were infected with COVID-19 at rates three times that of the population at large, National Geographic reported.

California, which has more scorched acreage this year than in any year in recorded history, is little more than halfway through what is now regarded as “fire season.” That means farm-workers in the Golden State will likely be dealing with smoke for months to come.

Gas Companies Are Abandoning Their Wells, Leaving Them to Leak Methane Forever

Bloomberg – U.S.

Gas Companies Are Abandoning Their Wells, Leaving Them to Leak Methane Forever

Mya Frazier               

 

(Bloomberg) — The story of gas well No. 095-20708 begins on Nov. 10, 1984, when a drill bit broke the Earth’s surface 4 miles north of Rio Vista, Calif. Wells don’t have birthdays, so this was its “spud date.”

The drill chewed through the dirt at a rate of 80 ½ feet per hour, reaching 846 feet below ground that first day. By Thanksgiving it had gotten a mile down, finally stopping 49 days later, having laid 2.2 miles of steel pipe and cement on its way to the “pay zone,” an underground field containing millions of dollars’ worth of natural gas.

The drilling rig arrived two months later, in early January. While 1985 started out as a good year for gas, by its close, more than half the nation’s oil and gas wells had shut down. How much money the Amerada Hess Corp., which bankrolled the dig, managed to pump out of gas well No. 095-20708 before that bust isn’t known. By 1990 the company, now called simply Hess Corp., gave up and sold it. Over the next decade or so, four more companies would seek the riches promised at the bottom of the well, seemingly with little success. In 2001 a state inspector visited the site. “Looks like it’s dying,” he wrote.

Gas wells never really die, though. Over the years, the miles of steel piping and cement corrode, creating pathways for noxious gases to reach the surface. The most worrisome of these is methane, the main component of natural gas. If carbon dioxide is a bullet, methane is a bomb. Odorless and invisible, it captures 86 times more heat than CO₂ over two decades and at least 25 times more over a century. Drilling has released this potent greenhouse gas, once sequestered in the deep pockets and grooves of the Earth, into the atmosphere, where it’s wreaking more havoc than humans can keep up with.

Well No. 095-20708 is also known as A.H.C. Church No. 11, referring both to Hess and to Bernard Church, who like so many in California’s Sacramento River Delta sold his farmland but retained the mineral rights in the hope that they’d make his family rich. The Church well is a relic, but it’s not rare. It’s one of more than 3.2 million deserted oil and gas wells in the U.S. and one of an estimated 29 million globally, according to Reuters. There’s no regulatory requirement to monitor methane emissions from inactive wells, and until recently, scientists didn’t even consider wells in their estimates of greenhouse gas emissions. With the pandemic depressing demand for fossil fuels and renewable energy development booming, why should owners idle or plug their wells when they can simply walk away?

In the past five years, 207 oil and gas businesses have failed. As natural gas prices crater, the fiscal burden on states forced to plug wells could skyrocket; according to Rystad Energy AS, an industry analytics company, 190 more companies could file for bankruptcy by the end of 2022. Many oil and gas companies are idling their wells by capping them in the hope prices will rise again. But capping lasts only about two decades, and it does nothing to prevent tens of thousands of low-producing wells from becoming orphaned, meaning “there is no associated person or company with any financial connection to and responsibility for the well,” according to California’s Geologic Energy Management Division.

“It’s cheaper to idle them than to clean them up,” says Joshua Macey, an assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago, who’s spent years studying fossil fuel bankruptcies. “Once prices increase, they could be profitable to operate again. It gives them a strong reason to not do cleanup now. It’s not orphaned yet, although for all intents and purposes it is.”

The life cycle of the Church well exemplifies this systemic indifference. Hess’s liability ended when it sold more than 30 years ago; the last company to acquire the lease, Pacific Petroleum Technology, which took over in 2003, managed to evade financial responsibility entirely as the well’s cement and steel piping began to corrode. Letters from state regulators demanding that the company declare its plans for the well went unanswered. In November 2007 the state issued a civil penalty of $500 over Pacific’s failures to file monthly production reports on the well. Instead of paying, Pacific requested a hearing, at which a representative testified that there was still $10 million worth of natural gas waiting to be pumped and promised the company would secure funds, make necessary repairs, and start producing again. The state was unconvinced and demanded Pacific plug the well. Another decade passed. The company never pumped a single cubic foot of gas and made no effort to plug the well. (Representatives of Pacific couldn’t be reached for comment.)

If Church were the only neglected well, it would be inconsequential. But these artifacts of the fossil fuel age are ubiquitous, obscured in backyards and beneath office buildings, under parking lots and shopping malls, even near day-care centers and schools in populous cities such as Los Angeles, where at least 1,000 deserted wells lie unplugged. In Colorado an entire neighborhood was built on top of a former oil and gas field that had been left off of construction maps. In 2017 two people died in a fiery explosion while replacing a basement water heater.

These kinds of headline-grabbing episodes are anomalies, but all this leaking methane also has dire environmental consequences, and the situation is likely only to get worse as more companies fail. “The oil and gas industry will not go out with a bang,” Macey adds, “but with a whimper.” As it does, the wells it orphans will become wards of the state.

Days before the 33rd anniversary of Church’s spud date, in November 2017, Eric Lebel, a researcher with the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford, arrived at the wellhead. The rusted 10-foot structure—a “Christmas tree,” as it’s called in the industry—loomed over him.

While Lebel knew the well’s depth, it was still hard for him to envision its scale. “If you don’t see it, you don’t think about it,” he says later. “What’s underground is impossible to imagine.” The Earth’s interior has been unfathomably scarred by hydrocarbon infrastructure, he says. For almost two centuries, since the drilling of the first gas well in 1821, the fossil fuel industry has treated the planet like a giant pincushion. The first U.S. gas well in Fredonia, N.Y., extended only 27 feet underground, but drilling since has gone ever deeper. Ten-thousand-foot wells like Church are common today.

Now imagine each of those pins in the global pincushion is a straw inside a straw. In Church’s case, the outer straw is 7.625 inches in diameter and made of steel, encased in cement; inside is a 2.375-inch-wide steel tube. The deeper the well, the more the heat and pressure rise. At Church’s deepest point, 10,968 feet, the temperature likely exceeds 200F. The weight of the Earth exerts more and more pressure as the well goes deeper—reaching about 5 tons per square inch at the bottom. That’s the equivalent of four 2,500-pound cars on your thumb. All of this puts a huge amount of stress on that underground infrastructure. As it breaks down, eventually it begins to leak.

Astonishingly, no one had even bothered to ask how much until the past decade. In 2011, Mary Kang was a Ph.D. student at Princeton modeling how CO₂ might escape from underground storage vessels after being captured and buried. She looked for similar models on methane and came up with nothing; some of the industry sources she spoke with were confident that it wasn’t much—and that even if it was, technology existed that could fix it. “It’s one thing to assume,” Kang remembers thinking to herself. “It’s another thing to go get empirical data.”

Kang went to Pennsylvania, where boom and bust cycles over the years have left a half-million gas wells deserted. Of the 19 she measured, three turned out to be high emitters, meaning they released three times more methane into the atmosphere than other wells in the sample. “There were no measurements of emissions coming out of these wells,” she says. “People knew these wells existed, they just thought what was coming out was negligible or zero.” By scaling up her findings, Kang was able to estimate that in 2011, deserted wells were responsible for somewhere from 4% to 7% of all man-made methane emissions from Pennsylvania.

Those findings inspired Lebel and other researchers in the U.S. and worldwide to start taking direct methane measurements. The industry responded by ignoring them and fought fiercely against the Obama administration’s efforts to start regulating methane emissions. (A 2016 rule requiring operators to measure methane releases at active wells and invest in technology to prevent leaks was summarily overturned by the Trump administration at the beginning of August.)

Meanwhile, scientists trudged on. So far researchers have measured emissions at almost 1,000 of the 3.2 million deserted wells in the U.S. In 2016, Kang published another study of 88 abandoned well sites in Pennsylvania, 90% of which leaked methane.

Internationally, researchers tracked increasingly bad news. German scientists discovered methane bubbles in the seabed around orphaned wells in the North Sea. Taking direct measurements of 43 wells, they found significant leaks in 28. In Alberta, researchers estimated methane leaks in almost 5% of the province’s 315,000 oil and gas wells. In the U.K., researchers found “fugitive emissions of methane” in 30% of 102 wells studied. Such findings are both a threat and an opportunity, says Lebel, who considers abandoned wells the easiest first step to cutting methane emissions globally. That’s what brought him to Church in the first place.

According to his field logs, Lebel spent his first hour on site building a secure air chamber using a Coleman canopy tent draped in tarps, which he held in place with sandbags. Inside the tent, fans effectively created a convection oven of rapidly circulating air. As he worked, a farmer who leases the land wandered over. Be careful, he warned Lebel. Sometimes fire comes out of that well. Just yesterday he’d seen a plume of flames erupt from it, he said.

At 3:41 p.m., using an instrument that resembles a desktop computer with an abundance of ports, Lebel took his first methane measurement. “We knew right away it was a major leaker,” he recalls. It exceeded the instrument’s threshold of 50 parts per million almost immediately. Lebel collected air samples in tiny glass vials to take back to his lab. The analysis was damning: Two hundred and fifty grams of methane were flowing out of the well each hour. A rough calculation shows that over a decade and a half the Church well had likely emitted somewhere around 32.7 metric tons of methane, enough to melt a sizable iceberg.

Despite the flurry of recent research, the full scale of the emissions problem remains unknown. “We really don’t have a handle on it yet,” says Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell who’s studied methane leaks from active oil and gas wells for decades. “We’ve poked millions of holes thousands of feet into Mother Earth to get her goods, and now we are expecting her to forgive us?”

There’s no easy way to bring up the thousands of feet of steel and cement required to carry gas out of a well as deep as A.H.C. Church 11. That means the only way to keep the well from leaking is to fill it up. Plugging a well costs $20,000 to $145,000, according to estimates by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. For modern shale wells, the cost can run as high as $300,000.

On a Wednesday morning near the end of June 2018, a crew of workers from the Paul Graham Drilling & Service Co., hired by the state of California after Pacific Petroleum failed to respond to years of notices, arrived at the well site. As they would on any job, they first dropped a “string,” a lengthy metal cable, into the well; in ideal circumstances, it’d be a straight shot to the bottom. But not that day.

Well records indicate that a “packer,” a ring-shaped device used to create a seal between the outer and inner straws of gas wells, had been installed about 7,000 feet down. It would have to come out first, or they wouldn’t be able to get the cement all the way to the bottom. When they tried to pull out the packer, the string broke.

The tiny packer, just 2.5 inches wide, stayed stuck for weeks. As the crew tried to get it out, tubing inside the well broke—“structurally compromised due to corrosion,” they told California’s Department of Conservation in the work log they submitted. They were forced to go “fishing,” using specialized tools to retrieve the tubing, piece by broken piece. But the packer was still in there. Eventually they used even more specialized tools to grind it away.

It wasn’t until July 26, almost a month after workers arrived at the Church site, that they were able to start “running mud,” the industry term for pumping cement into the outer straw. This straw had been purposely perforated to allow oil and gas to flow from the pay zone into the well. The plugging cement is supposed to accumulate upwards as more gets pumped in. But if it leaks off into that porous pay zone, no matter how much mud the team runs, it simply disappears. Unless the cement and other sealants reached every nook and cranny, the site might continue to leak.

Thankfully, Church filled easily, requiring 36,500 pounds of cement. The unforeseen difficulties added $171,388 to Paul Graham’s original estimate, raising the total bill to $294,943, more than double the crew’s $123,555 bid. (Neither the cleanup company nor the state representatives who oversaw the work responded to interview requests.) Ingraffea examined the myriad work orders from the job and called it a “well from hell.”

By late August, almost two months after they arrived at the Church site, the crew had cut off the Christmas tree and welded a half-inch-thick steel plate to the top of the wellhead. It had taken nine days longer to fill the well than it had to drill it in the first place. Looking across the landscape today, it’s as though Church never existed.

The atmospheric evidence, of course, shows otherwise.

The cost to plug just California’s deserted wells—an estimated 5,500—could reach $550 million, according to a report released earlier this year. While not an insignificant price tag, the real shock would come if the industry collapses and walks away for good. In that doomsday scenario, the costs to plug and decommission 107,000 active and idled wells could run to $9 billion. And yet so far in 2020, California has approved 1,679 new drilling permits.

“We make the same mistake over and over again,” says Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford who oversees Lebel’s work. “Companies go bankrupt, and taxpayers pay the bills.”

Congressional efforts to create a well-plugging program for cleanup are stalled. Meanwhile, oil and gas companies have made trillions of dollars in profits over the past century and a half while enjoying relative impunity. On federal lands, where oil and gas companies actively drill, bond levels haven’t been adjusted for inflation since 1951, when they were set at $10,000 for a single well and $150,000 for however many wells a single operator controls nationwide. In California a company drilling 10,000 feet or more needs only $40,000.

Even spending all the billions of dollars required to plug the world’s millions of deserted wells won’t stave off environmental catastrophe. The vast heat and pressure of the Earth’s subsurface—the same forces that crushed dinosaur bones into hydrocarbons in the first place—mean that no plugging job lasts forever. Scientists and engineers debate how long cement can survive in the harsh environment of the Earth’s interior. Estimates typically fall from 50 to 100 years, a long enough time horizon that even some of today’s biggest oil and gas companies may no longer exist, but short enough to be uncomfortably within the realm of human comprehension. No regulations require states or federal agencies to measure emissions after wells are plugged.

While little is being done to prevent methane from creating catastrophic warming, less is being done to prevent water contamination. Researcher Kang, now an assistant professor of civil engineering at McGill University, worked as a groundwater monitoring consultant before getting her Ph.D. In 2016 she published a paper with Jackson showing that California’s Central Valley, where a quarter of the nation’s food is produced, has close to three times the volume of fresh groundwater as previously thought. Such good news came with an urgent caveat: Nineteen percent of the state’s wells came close to these aquifers. “It’s definitely a threat and something that needs protection,” Kang says. “There’s so much we don’t know.”

What we do know is scary enough. “The cement will deteriorate,” says Dominic DiGiulio, a senior research scientist for PSE Healthy Energy, an Oakland, Calif.-based public policy institute, who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for more than three decades in subsurface hydrology. “It’s not going to last forever, or even for very long.” A.H.C. Church lies in the Solano Subbasin, part of the Sacramento Valley Groundwater Basin. Almost 30% of the region’s water comes from subsurface sources, according to a 2017 report from the Northern California Water Association. “Given sustained droughts, groundwater resources are going to be very important in the coming decades,” DiGiulio says. “California is going to need these resources.”

Among the hundreds of pages of records chronicling the well’s spud, activity, and plugging, the one consistent name was Bernard Church. One afternoon this summer, I called the phone number listed on the most recent document, from a 2004 inspection, and reached his wife, Beverly Church. She now lives in Walnut Creek, Calif., about 40 miles southwest of the well site, and she told me her husband had died nine years earlier.

He and their family never became rich. Holders of mineral rights can lease them back to oil and gas companies and receive royalties on what their wells produce. But because so little had been pumped from Church, none of the 20 or so family members who eventually held a stake wound up with much. “We didn’t make any money off of it,” Beverly says.

That’s not an uncommon outcome, explains Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “Every once in a while someone might” get rich, she says. “But it’s not a thing. Big Oil is getting rich. For individual, ordinary people, it’s all risk and no reward.”

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

McEnany has the wrong answer on Trump’s secret health care plan

MSNBC – MaddowBlog

McEnany has the wrong answer on Trump’s secret health care plan

Asked about health care policy, McEnany said those seeking meaningful answers should “come work here at the White House.”
By Steve Benen      September 17, 2020
Image: White House Press Secretary McEnany holds the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany at the daily press briefing at the White House on Aug. 4, 2020.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

Donald Trump has spent literally telling Americans he has a terrific health care plan, which will deliver better results at a lower cost, that’s nearly ready for its release. At a town-hall event on Tuesday, the president went so far as to boast, “I have it all ready. I have it all ready…. I have it all ready.”

But there’s still no plan, no blueprint, no outline, no bill, and no reason to believe anything the Republican has to say on the subject.

At a Capitol Hill hearing yesterday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked several leading Trump administration officials, each of whom work directly in the health care field, whether they had any idea what the White House’s health care plan entails. Federal testing czar Brett Giroir, Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, and CDC Director Robert Redfield all answered the same way: they had no idea.

Soon after, during a press briefing, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany fielded some questions about this elusive plan and who’s working on its creation. The former Trump campaign aide didn’t seem to appreciate the line of inquiry.

“I’m not going to give you a readout of what our healthcare plan looks like and who’s working on it. If you want to know, come work here at the White House…. As I told you, our Domestic Policy Council and others in the White House are working on a healthcare plan, the President’s vision for the next five years — and if you want more, come join us here.”

Part of the problem with such a posture is that journalists aren’t the only ones who want to know about Trump’s secret health care plan. There’s an election coming up, and millions of American families need to know what kind of health security — or lack thereof — they’ll have in the coming years.

They can’t all get jobs in the White House, just to understand what the president’s secret plan may or may not entail.

But the other part of the problem is that McEnany and Team Trump may be losing sight of why White House press briefings exist.

Decades ago, the White House fielded the same questions from different reporters about basic daily developments: What’s the president’s opinion about x? What does the president intend to do about y? Is the president prepared to support z? And so on.

In 2020, however, press briefings are … different. Kayleigh McEnany introduces propaganda videos. She calls on representatives of fringe websites to ask politically satisfying “questions.” She heckles actual journalists. She shows a clip of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a hair salon — and plays in a loop, over and over again.

But ask the president’s principal spokesperson a question about health care policy, and the answer is simple: those seeking meaningful answers should “come work here at the White House.”

ABC News’ Jonathan Karl, a former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, recently made the case that White House press secretaries should hold regular briefings, “but not like this.”

An ominous map shows the entire West Coast with the worst air quality on Earth as historic wildfires spew smoke

Insider

An ominous map shows the entire West Coast with the worst air quality on Earth as historic wildfires spew smoke

A thick layer of wildfire smoke tints the skies orange in San Francisco, California, on September 9, 2020. <p class="copyright">Katie Canales/Business Insider</p>
A thick layer of wildfire smoke tints the skies orange in San Francisco, California, on September 9, 2020.  Katie Canales/Business Insider.
  • The US West Coast has the worst air quality in the world due to wildfire smoke across California, Oregon, and Washington.
  • Maps of air-quality index measurements show hazardous levels of particulate matter from wildfire smoke across the entire West Coast.
  • Research has linked particulate matter from wildfires to heart and lung problems, increased hospital visits, and worse flu seasons.
  • The EPA recommends residents stay indoors with filtered air, keep physical activity levels low, and wear an N95 respirator if they have to go outside.

The West Coast has the worst air quality on Earth right now, as nearly 100 active wildfires — including three of California’s four biggest ever recorded — spew smoke.

Particulate matter from the smoke has made the air unhealthy to breathe all along the coast, as this map from air-quality monitoring company PurpleAir shows.

<p class="copyright"><a href="https://www.purpleair.com/map" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:PurpleAir" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">PurpleAir</a></p>PurpleAir

The numbers in the colored circles indicate the air quality index (AQI) detected by various monitoring sensors across the country. AQI is a metric measuring the level of pollutants in the air and how hazardous those levels are to human health, as determined by guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency.

A higher AQI indicates more pollutants in the air and a greater health hazard. The EPA considers any AQI above 150 to be unhealthy for all people. Anything above 300 is considered a “health warning of emergency conditions.”

The EPA does not make recommendations for AQI levels above 500, since they’re “beyond index.”

But PurpleAir’s monitors around Salem, Oregon, reported AQIs as high as 758 on Friday morning.

Those levels are comparable to some of the worst days for air quality in Dehli, India — the world’s most polluted city, according to the nonprofit Berkeley Earth.

Satellite imagery shows fires and smoke along the US West Coast, September 8, 2020. <p class="copyright"><a href="http://rammb.cira.colostate.edu/ramsdis/online/loop_of_the_day/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:CIRA/NOAA GOES-West" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">CIRA/NOAA GOES-West</a></p>Satellite imagery shows fires and smoke along the US West Coast, September 8, 2020. CIRA/NOAA Goes – West

None of PurpleAir’s monitors at other locations across the globe were reporting AQIs anywhere near 400 on Friday morning.

Fires have burned millions of acres and forced mass evacuations

California has been battling blazes for several weeks following a dry lightning storm on August 16 that ignited hundreds of fires. The state’s Doe Fire in the Mendocino National Forest is now the biggest in history at more than 471,000 acres. California’s third- and fourth-biggest fires ever are currently burning, too.

Firefighters keep an eye on the Creek Fire along state Highway 168, September 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, California. <p class="copyright"><a href="https://newsroom.ap.org/detail/CaliforniaWildfires/18fc201319634de9b82eb2b6148e2186/photo?Query=creek%20AND%20fire&mediaType=photo&sortBy=arrivaldatetime:desc&dateRange=Anytime&totalCount=718&currentItemNo=11" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo</a></p>Firefighters keep an eye on the Creek Fire along state Highway 168, September 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, California. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo.

In California, more than 3.1 million acres have burned so far — an area more than 100 times the size of San Francisco and far more than any other year on record. Fire season doesn’t normally peak until late September.

In Oregon, meanwhile, fires spanning more than 1 million acres have forced about 40,000 people to evacuate. Flames encroaching on the Portland metro area prompted Mayor Ted Wheeler to issue a Fire Emergency Order on Thursday evening.

More than 500,000 acres have burned in Washington.

In total across the West Coast this fire season, at least 25 people have died.

The fires have spread quickly because forests are dried out by years of record heat. Some blazes are emitting so much smoke that they create their own weather systems, and the haze has tinted the skies orange and red over San Francisco and other parts of the coast.

Particulate matter from smoke has serious health consequences

The AQI numbers on PurpleAir’s map refer to the quantities of tiny particulate matter in the air — specifically, particles that measure 2.5 micrometers across or less. These are known as PM2.5.

Wildfire smoke carries many of these invisible particles, which come from the buildings and vegetation fires burn as well as chemical reactions in the gases it produces.

When humans inhale these particles, they can penetrate deep into the lungs and even the bloodstream. Research has connected PM2.5 pollution to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and premature death. In healthy people, it can irritate the eyes and lungs and cause wheezing, coughs, or difficulty breathing.

The map below, from the EPA’s air-quality monitoring website, shows a band of dangerous PM2.5 pollution along the West Coast (similar to what PurpleAir is reporting). The circles are color-coded by AQI ranges: Green indicates good air quality, while maroon indicates “hazardous” conditions with an AQI above 300.

<p class="copyright"><a href="https://gispub.epa.gov/airnow/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:AirNow.gov" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">AirNow.gov</a></p>AirNow.gov

“Decades of research have shown that elevated air pollution exposure is associated with a number of adverse health impacts, including compromised immune systems,” Erin Landguth, an associate professor at the University of Montana’s School of Public and Community Health Sciences, told The New York Times.

She added that research indicates that “after bad fire seasons, one would expect to see three to five times worse flu seasons.”

A 2017 study found that hospitals saw a 7.2% increase in admissions for respiratory issues following wildfire smoke events that produced two or more days of moderate PM2.5 pollution.

To reduce exposure to particulate matter, the EPA recommends people stay indoors with filtered air (ideally in a room with few windows or doors and an air purifier), keeping windows and doors closed. Physical activity levels should remain low, and those who must go outside should wear an N95 respirator. Those masks have been in short supply this year, however, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Devastating consequences’: At least six dead as wildfires rage across West Coast

NBC News

Devastating consequences’: At least six dead as wildfires rage across West Coast

David K. Li and Matteo Moschella and Whitney Lee and Tim Stelloh and Sarah Kaufman                      September 10, 2020.
Scenes of devastation as two wildfires merge in Northern California

Wildfires continued to rage out of control throughout California and the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday, killing at least six people and devastating half a dozen towns in Oregon.

 

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said that in the last 24 hours, the state had “experienced unprecedented fire with significant damage and devastating consequences.”

“This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” she said at a news conference.

In Washington State, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said that a child had died in one of the state’s largest wildfires, the 163,00-acre Cold Springs fire. The blaze is burning mid-way between Spokane and Seattle. Franz didn’t offer details but said she was devastated by the death.

“The pain that family is going through is unfathomable,” she said.

In Oregon, wildfires burning east of the state capital tore through the small city of Lyons, killing Wyatte Tofte, 12, and his grandmother, Peggy Mosso, according to the boy’s father, Christopher Tofte. The boy’s mother, Angela Mosso, suffered severe burns and is in critical condition, he said.

And in Butte County, California, where the state’s deadliest fire on record killed 85 people and all but destroyed the town of Paradise two years ago, the remains of three people were found Wednesday after a wildfire burned through the area, Sheriff Kory Honea told reporters.

Two people were found at the same location, Honea said. The third was found elsewhere. Honea declined to provide additional details until the remains are identified.

In Southern Oregon, officials in the town of Talent told their 6,600 residents to stay outside the city limits because there’s scant electricity and it’s not safe stepping around fallen power lines.

While City Hall, the police department and other government buildings survived, there were whole neighborhoods and blocks of businesses completely gutted by the blaze.

“The fire ripped through the core of our (Oregon Route) 99 corridor,” the main stretch of town, Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood told NBC News. “Where it burned, it burned completely and totally. I’m exhausted and shocked by it.”

City officials were hoping that their fast-acting residents, who evacuated Tuesday and Wednesday, would keep deaths at zero.

“I believe that most everyone is safe, it could have been far worse,” Ayers-Flood said.

Brown enacted a fire conflagration act for the first time in state history, with at least 35 fires scorching more than 300,000 acres of land in Oregon.

“Our number-one priority right now is saving lives,” Brown said on Twitter Wednesday. During the news conference, she said that six towns in Marion, Lane, and Jackson counties have been “substantially destroyed.”

Meanwhile, up the road in Medford, residents in the southern end of the city were ordered to evacuate on Wednesday as the Almeda Fire made its way north.

And to make matters worse, another blaze dubbed the Obenchain Fire was gaining strength north of Medford, according to Jackson County Emergency Management, prompting more evacuation orders.

“Level 3 (evacuation order), that’s as serious as it gets,” Rudy Owens, spokesman for the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal, said of the emergency actions taken in and around Medford.

Huge swaths of tinder-dry brush across the western U.S. were ablaze on Wednesday as firefighters battled flames, hot weather and high winds.

There were 14,000 firefighters on the lines in California as 28 wildfires burned out of control, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

Near the Oregon border, a fire that began Monday had exploded to 30,000 acres by Wednesday and destroyed an estimated 150 homes in the small community of Happy Camp, the U.S. Forest Service said.

In the central part of the state, the Creek Fire had consumed nearly 167,000 acres by Wednesday evening, officials said. In Butte County, the blaze that killed three people, the Bear Fire, prompted evacuation warnings for part of the town of Paradise.

Remarkably, three other fires still burning on Wednesday — the August Complex, SCU Lightning Complex and LNU Lightning Complex blazes — were classified as the second, third and fourth biggest wildfires in state history, firefighters said Wednesday.

Before Wednesday, wildfires had killed eight people in California, including five during the LNU fire, which was sparked by a rare summer thunderstorm last month. The state has seen a record 2.5 million acres burn this year.

While these flames were burning well outside the state’s biggest cities, their smoke had enveloped large urban cores.

An eerie orange and brown glow filled the sky above the Bay Area, a mixture of fog and smoke from the fires that cast San Francisco in a perpetual rust colored haze on Wednesday.

Citing the “unprecedented” and “historic fire conditions” in California, 10 national forests were ordered closed on Wednesday, meaning that all 18 national forests in the state were shut down.

“These temporary closures are necessary to protect the public and our firefighters, and we will keep them in place until conditions improve and we are confident that National Forest visitors can recreate safely,” Regional Forester Randy Moore said in a statement.

Wildfires in the state of Washington also continued to burn on Wednesday, with more than 576,400 acres charred since a series of blazes were touched off on Labor Day, said state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Joe Smillie.

In the small community of Malden, near the Idaho state line, most of the town was destroyed by a fast-moving blaze that swept through the area Monday. Larry Frick, who stayed and fought the fire as it surrounded his home, compared the scene Wednesday to a war zone.

“There were explosions going off non-stop and some really big ones where I could feel it shake the ground,” he said in an interview.

Frick said he tried to save his neighbor’s house, but the wind-whipped flames roared through its facade, reducing the structure to rubble in what seemed like minutes. The fire, which has destroyed 98 buildings, had grown to nearly 18,000 acres by Wednesday, fire officials said.

The ugly numbers are finally in on the 2017 Trump tax rewrite

Salon

The ugly numbers are finally in on the 2017 Trump tax rewrite

David Cay Johnston, Salon                     September 7, 2020
Donald Trump; Tax Forms
Donald Trump; Tax Forms.      Getty/Salon 

The first data showing how all Americans are faring under Donald Trump reveal the poor and working classes sinking slightly, the middle class treading water, the upper-middle class growing and the richest, well, luxuriating in rising rivers of greenbacks.

More than half of Americans had to make ends meet in 2018 on less money than in 2016, my analysis of new income and tax data shows.

The nearly 87 million taxpayers making less than $50,000 had to get by in 2018 on $307 less per household than in 2016, the year before Trump took office, I find.

That 57% of American households were better off under Obama contradicts Trump’s often-repeated claim he created the best economy ever until the pandemic.

The worsened economic situation for more than half of Americans contradicts Trump’s frequent claims that he is the champion of the “forgotten man” and his vow that “every decision” on taxes “will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

The figures in this story come from my annual analysis of IRS data known as Table 1.4. The income figures are pre-tax money that must be reported on tax returns.  I adjusted the 2016 data to reflect inflation of 4.1% between 2016 and 2018 (slightly more than 2% a year).

This is the first data on the first full year when Trump was president. It also is the first year of the Radical Republican tax system overhaul, passed in December 2017. The Trump tax law, the most significant tax policy change since 1986, was passed without a single public hearing or a single Democratic vote.

High income households multiply

Trump policies overwhelmingly favor the top 7% of Americans. And, oh, do they benefit!

Prosperous and rich people, the data reveal, include half a million who are not even filing tax returns. Yet they are not being pursued as tax cheats, a separate report shows.

The number of households enjoying incomes of $200,000 or more soared by more than 20%. The number of taxpayers making $10 million or more soared 37% to a record 22,112 households.

Who saves on taxes

The Trump/Republican tax savings were highly concentrated up the income ladder with hardly any tax savings going to the working poor and only a smidgen to the middle class.

Those making $50,000 to $100,000 for example, paid just three-fourths of 1 percentage point less of their incomes to our federal government. People making $2 million to $2.5 million saw their effective tax rate fall by about three times that much.

Now let’s compare two groups, those making $50,000 to $100,000 and those declaring $500,000 to $1 million. The second group averaged nine times as much income as the first group in 2018.

Under the Trump tax law, the first group’s annual income taxes declined on average by $143, while the second group’s tax reduction averaged $17,800.

Put another way, a group that made nine times as much money enjoyed about 125 times as much in income tax savings.

This disparity helps explain Trump’s support among money-conscious high-income Americans. But given the tiny tax benefits for most Americans, along with cuts in government services, it is surprising Trump enjoys significant support among people making less than $200,000.

But realize none of the biggest news organizations do the kind of analysis you are reading, at least not since I left The New York Times a dozen years ago. Instead, the major news organizations quote Trump’s claims and others’ challenges without citing details.

Understating incomes

The figures I cite here understate actual incomes at the top for two reasons. One is that loopholes and Congressional favors allow many rich and superrich Americans to report much less income than they actually enjoy. Often they get to defer for years or decades reporting income earned today.

Second, with Trump’s support Congress has cut IRS staffing so deeply that the service cannot even pursue growing armies of rich people who have stopped filing tax returns. The sharp decline in IRS auditing means tax cheating—always a low-risk crime—has become much less risky.

Trump ignores rich tax cheats

In the three years ending in 2016, the IRS identified 879,415 high-income Americans who did not even bother to file. These tax cheats owed an estimated $45.7 billion in taxes, the treasury inspector general for Tax Administration reported May 29.

Under Trump more than half a million cases of high-income Americans who didn’t file a tax return “will likely not be pursued,” the inspector general wrote.

One of the Koch brothers was under IRS criminal investigation until Trump assumed office and the service abruptly dropped the case. DCReport’s five-part series last year showed, from a thousand pages of documents, that William Ingraham Koch, who lives one door away from Mar-a-Lago, is collecting more than $100 million a year without paying income taxes.

Borrowing to help the rich

Trump’s tax law will require at least $1.5 trillion in added federal debt because it falls far short of paying for itself through increased economic growth even without the pandemic. Most of the tax savings were showered on rich Americans and the corporations they control. Most of the negative effects will fall on the middle class and poor Americans in the form of Trump’s efforts to reduce government services.

The 2017 income tax law caused only a slight decline in the share of adjusted gross income that Americans paid to Uncle Sam, known as the effective tax rate. Adjusted gross income is the last line on the front page of your tax return and is in the measure used in my analysis.

The overall effective tax rate slipped from 14.7% under Obama to 14.2% under Trump.

Curious anomaly

In what might seem at first blush a curious development, Americans making more than $10 million received a below-average cut in their effective tax rate. The effective tax rate for these 22,000 households declined by less than half a percent.

The reason for that smaller-than-average decline is that these super-rich Americans depend less on paychecks and much more on capital gains and dividends that have long been taxed at lower rates than paycheck earnings.

The new tax data also show a sharp shift away from income from work and toward income from investments, a trend which bodes poorly for working people but very nicely for those who control businesses, invest in stocks and have other sources of income from capital.

Overall the share of American income from wages and salaries fell significantly, from almost 71% in 2016 to less than 68% in 2018.

Meanwhile, if you look just at the slice of the American income pie derived from business ownership and investments, it expanded by nearly one-tenth in two years. Income from such investments is highly concentrated among the richest Americans.

Infuriating fact

There’s one more enlightening and perhaps infuriating detail I sussed from the IRS data.

The number of households making $1 million or more but paying no income taxes soared 41% under the new Trump tax law. Under Obama, there were just 394 such households. With Trump, this grew to 556 households making on average $3.5 million without contributing one cent to our government.

Again, Trump seems to have forgotten all about the Forgotten Man. But he’s busy doing all he can to help the rich, then stick you with their tax bills.

Federal Report Warns of Financial Havoc From Climate Change

The New York Times

Federal Report Warns of Financial Havoc From Climate Change

Coral Davenport and Jeanna Smialek                     September 9, 2020
Southern California Wildfires
Fountain Valley, Caif., firefighters extinguish hot spots at a structure destroyed by the El Dorado wildfire on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, near Yucaipa, Calif. A couple’s plan to reveal their baby’s gender went up not in blue or pink smoke but in flames when the device they used sparked a wildfire east of Los Angeles. The fire started Saturday morning in dry grasses at El Dorado Ranch Park, a rugged natural area in the city of Yucaipa. (Cindy Yamanaka/The Orange County Register/SCNG via AP)

 

WASHINGTON — A report commissioned by federal regulators overseeing the nation’s commodities markets has concluded that climate change threatens U.S. financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions.

“A world wracked by frequent and devastating shocks from climate change cannot sustain the fundamental conditions supporting our financial system,” concluded the report, “Managing Climate Risk in the Financial System,” which was requested last year by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and set for release Wednesday morning.

Those observations are not entirely new, but they carry new weight coming with the imprimatur of the regulator of complex financial instruments like futures, swaps and other derivatives that help fix the price of commodities like corn, oil and wheat. It is the first wide-ranging federal government study focused on the specific impacts of climate change on Wall Street.

Perhaps most notable is that it is being published at all. The Trump administration has suppressed, altered or watered down government science around climate change as it pushes an aggressive agenda of environmental deregulation that it hopes will spur economic growth.

The new report asserts that doing nothing to avert climate change will do the opposite.

“This is the first time a government entity has looked at the impacts of climate change on financial markets in the U.S.,” said Robert Litterman, the chairman of the panel that produced the report and a founding partner of Kepos Capital, an investment firm based in New York. “Rather than saying, ‘What’s the science?’ this is saying, ‘What’s the financial risk?’ ”

The commodities regulator, which is made up of three Republicans and two Democrats, all of whom were appointed by President Donald Trump, voted unanimously last summer to create an advisory panel drawn from the world of finance and charged with producing a report on the effects of the warming world on financial markets. The initial proposal for the report came from Rostin Behnam, one of the panel’s two Democrats, but the report is written by dozens of analysts from investment firms including Morgan Stanley, S&P Global and Vanguard; oil companies BP and ConocoPhillips; and agricultural trader Cargill, as well as academic experts and environmental groups.

It includes recommendations for new corporate regulations and the reversal of at least one Trump administration policy.

“It was shocking when they asked me to do this,” Litterman said. “This is members of the entire community involved in financial markets saying with one voice, ‘This is a serious problem, and it has to be addressed.’”

A White House spokesman, Judd Deere, declined Tuesday to comment on the report because the White House had not yet seen it.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a conservative research organization, who served as economic adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said: “This was initiated by the Trump administration. It is the only document of its type.”

He added, “If you’re denying this exists, you don’t ask for a report on it.”

The Republican chairman of the CFTC, Heath Tarbert, acknowledged the risk of climate change, but he noted that the report also detailed what the regulators called “transition risk” — the financial harm that could befall the fossil fuel industry if the government enacted aggressive policies to curb carbon dioxide pollution.

“I appreciate Commissioner Behnam’s leadership on convening various private sector perspectives on the important topic of climate risk,” Tarbert said in a statement. “The subcommittee’s report acknowledges that ‘transition risks’ of a green economy could be just as disruptive to our financial system as the possible physical manifestations of climate change, and that moving too fast, too soon could be just as disorderly as doing too little, too late. This underscores why it is so important for policymakers to get this right.”

The authors of the report acknowledged that if Trump is reelected, his administration is all but certain to ignore the report and its recommendations.

Instead, they said they saw the document as a policy road map for a Joe Biden administration.

Biden’s climate policy proposals are the most ambitious and expensive ever embraced by a presidential candidate, and most of them would meet resistance in Congress. But even without legislation, he could press forward with regulatory changes. Lael Brainard, a Federal Reserve governor who is seen as a top contender to be Treasury secretary in a Biden administration, has called for financial regulators to treat climate change as a significant risk to the financial system.

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, speaks in Wilmington, Del., Sept. 2, 2020. (Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times)
Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, speaks in Wilmington, Del., Sept. 2, 2020. (Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times)

 

In calling for climate-driven policy changes, the report’s authors likened the financial risk of global warming to the threat posed by the coronavirus today and by mortgage-backed securities that precipitated the financial crash in 2008.

One crucial difference, they said, is that in the case of climate change, financial volatility and loss are likely to be spread out over time, as they hit different regions and markets. Insurance companies could withdraw from California in the wake of devastating wildfires, and home values could plummet on coastlines and in floodplains. In the Midwest, banks could limit loans during or after extended droughts that drastically lower crop yields. All of those problems will be exacerbated by climate change, but they are unlikely to hit all at once.

“Financial markets are really good at managing risk to help us provide credit, so that the economy can flourish,” said Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, an editor of the report who served as senior official at the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. But, he added, the system breaks down “when it’s no longer able to manage risk, when it’s invisible, it’s not captured by the price of stocks.”

“That’s what we saw in the financial crisis of 2008, and it’s as relevant now on climate change as it was then on mortgage-backed securities,” he said.

Among the first of those risks already pervading the markets, the report’s authors say, are falling home prices and rising mortgage default rates in regions where wildfires and flooding are worsening.

“Climate change is linked to devaluing home values,” said Jesse Keenan, an editor of the report and a professor of real estate at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“If in your town, your house is devalued, that makes it harder for your local government to raise money,” he said. “That’s one set of risks that could lead to a contagion and broader instability across financial markets.”

Extreme weather could cause swings in agricultural commodity prices, the report warns, and climate-spurred market volatility could afflict pension and retirement funds, which invest across a range of asset classes.

“Climate change is one of the top three risks to our fund,” said Divya Mankikar, an author of the report and an investment manager at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the country’s biggest public pension fund. “We pay pension and health benefits to over 2 million current and former state employees. So the payout is decades out.”

The report makes several concrete recommendations for inoculating the financial system against potential harm.

It emphasizes the need to put a price on carbon emissions, which is often done either by taxing or through an emissions trading system that caps carbon emissions and allots credits that polluters can buy and sell under that cap.

The report calls for the reversal of a proposed rule being put forward by the Trump administration’s Labor Department that would forbid retirement investment managers from considering environmental consequences in their financial recommendations.

“If there’s any class of investors that should be thinking about the long run, it’s retirement funds and pension funds,” said Nathaniel Keohane, an author of the report and an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group.

The report suggests that the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a Treasury Department-led body created in the wake of the 2008 crisis, incorporates climate risks into its annual report and its communications with Congress. It suggests that the Federal Reserve and other major financial regulators join international coalitions that focus on climate threats.

The report also suggests that bank regulators should roll out a climate risk stress testing pilot program. Such stress tests, which assess how bank balance sheets and the broader system would fare in bad climate-related economic scenarios, have been under development in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

The authors also recommend that another financial regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission, strengthen its existing requirements that publicly traded companies disclose the risks to their bottom lines associated with climate change.

Coca-Cola has noted in its financial disclosures that water shortages driven by climate change pose a risk to its production chains and profitability. But many other companies “just check the box” on that requirement, Keohane said.

Such disclosures should also include the risk to companies’ bottom lines posed by future policies designed to mitigate climate change, such as taxes or regulations on carbon dioxide pollution, which could hurt fossil fuel producers.

“If carbon risk is priced, this will add cost to the oil and gas industry,” said Betty Simkins, a report author and professor of finance at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. “But they need to be prepared for this. It’s better for the companies to disclose the risk and be as financially fit as possible.”