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Agencies Pursue Advanced Research Agenda To Help Drive Pollution Cuts

EPA, the Energy Department and other agencies are stepping up their research for the year ahead into technologies that could dramatically cut industrial pollution and waste, ranging from carbon capture to biotechnology and advanced manufacturing methods.

Inside EPA’s Environment Next has exclusive coverage of the new government and private-sector research into technologies that could transform environmental protection in 2020 and beyond.

Environment Next is a free service to our subscribers featuring wide-ranging looks at coming developments for environmental protection and policy, including interviews, in-depth reporting and profiles of key figures, companies and other groups that are reshaping regulation and private governance on air, water, waste and climate change. The features offer a new way of reporting about the shift from command-and-control regulation to innovative, market-based measures and other efforts, including voluntary programs and government action outside EPA’s orbit.

This week, we had an exclusive interview with William Peter, director of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, on the lab’s use of industry partnerships to improve existing materials and applications for 3D printing systems that ultimately could transform manufacturing and supply chains:

Interview: DOE Researcher Eyes 3D Printing’s Environmental Protection Benefits
Emerging 3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) technology could boost environmental protection including through reduced energy and waste, says the director of the Energy Department’s (DOE) first research facility focused on advancing manufacturing efforts.

New AM approaches fundamentally differ from traditional “subtractive” manufacturing, Peter said. AM is “net shape” fabrication, a manufacturing technique that uses 3D printing to add material layer-by-layer to create a product close to the “final” or “net” shape a manufacturer wants, with the detail already created, thereby eliminating the traditional extra finishing steps to get a “net shape” and saving significant money, material, and energy.

For example, he said, manufacturing in the aircraft sector might carve away 9 pounds of a 10-pound titanium block to produce a 1-pound “net shape component.” That raises costs and wastes “embedded energy” both in the energy used to machine the titanium and to re-melt the titanium chips for future reuse.

By contrast, Peter continued, net fabrication allows a far more efficient manufacturing process that includes between 60 and 90 percent of feedstock into the final product. The localization or “decentralization” of manufacturing through AM also has led MDF to begin exploring the recyclability of different feedstocks, “something we’ll do more of as we go forward,” Peter said.

We also looked at the immediate impacts of the fiscal year 2020 spending deal enacted Dec. 20, and its potential to boost both existing carbon-capture technology and development of new, more efficient models:

CCS Supporters See Momentum With FY20 Budget, Global Projects
Supporters of carbon capture and storage (CCS) say there is fresh momentum for CCS projects thanks to funding boosts for federal research in the fiscal year 2020 spending bill signed by President Donald Trump signed Dec. 20 and a growing number of international projects analyzing the use of CCS to tackle climate change.

Boosting CCS development could aid the push by some House and Senate members for a “net-zero” carbon neutral economy by 2050, as advocates for the technology argue such a goal is unachievable without using carbon capture.

Carbon 180, a non-governmental organization that advocates removing atmospheric CO2 using direct air capture technology and converting it to useful products within a “circular carbon economy,” in a statement celebrated the FY20 funding deal as “a doozy."

If all the money allocated in the FY20 deal is spent as planned, it would be responsible for “more than doubling the total spent to date” for the technology, says Erin Burns, Carbon 180’s policy director.

Meanwhile, proponents of aggressive GHG cuts are touting commitments from state and local governments as well as the private sector to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement even after President Donald Trump pulled out of the accord. In particular, the group America’s Pledge says those promises now represent more than half of the country’s population:

Paris Agreement Advocates Tout Support From Majority Of U.S. Population
An organization representing states, cities, businesses and others supporting the Paris climate agreement is touting a new report that finds more than half the U.S. population representing almost three quarters of gross domestic product (GDP) back the pact, even as the Trump administration works to implement the president’s withdrawal from it.

The new report from America’s Pledge “is the most comprehensive assessment to date of how these real economy leaders are driving the U.S. toward a low-carbon future,” according to a statement from the group. “This report illuminates a pathway to a comprehensive and ambitious American climate strategy for 2030, using expanded bottom-up leadership as the foundation of a comprehensive ‘All-In’ climate strategy” as nations around the world consider “how to strengthen their climate targets and raise global ambition,” it says.

Despite that momentum, other advocates see the Trump administration’s rollbacks of Obama-era climate policies as a mounting reason for pessimism on new technology that could cut GHGs, with the Columbia University Center for Global Energy Policy warning in a new study that growth in the electric vehicle (EV) sector is slowing:

'Negative’ Federal Policies Spur Pessimism On Electric Vehicle Growth
The federal government’s “negative” policies on electric vehicles (EVs) and fuel efficiency are spurring a pessimistic outlook on potential growth for EVs and costs for further deployment remain high, according to a study by Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy.

The study, “Electric Vehicle Penetration and Its Impact On Global Oil Demand: A Survey of 2019 Forecast Trends,” is part of a multi-year research effort by the non-partisan center on the prospects for and timing of peak oil demand, including the impact of EVs, which the new study says is an “essential piece of the puzzle” in predicting how fossil fuels will be used in the future.

The new analysis compares the results of a 2018 study that also examined all available global electric passenger vehicle penetration forecasts to relate the different underlying assumptions and the resulting conclusions about the impact of EVs on oil demand. The 2019 analysis notes that this year’s forecasts “were less optimistic about the pace of electrification than the 2018 survey, due in part to weaker economic projections resulting in fewer new vehicles sold, weaker U.S. policy drivers, and less optimistic views about when battery costs will fall to a level that competes without subsidy to the internal combustion engine.”

In the midst of those rollbacks, EPA is looking to facilitate new technologies in areas outside the climate debate, starting with a new ramp-up of its joint initiative with the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to coordinate their work on biotechnology:

EPA Launches ‘One-Stop-Shop’ Biotech Site With USDA, FDA
EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are launching a joint website that consolidates their actions to research and regulate genetic engineering and other biotechnology, an early step in the White House’s plan to “modernize” rules governing the technology and its use in agriculture.

The agencies unveiled “The Unified Website for Biotechnology Regulation” on Jan. 9, touting the project as “a one-stop-shop for information about the actions the federal government is taking to oversee the development of agricultural biotechnology products."

Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, EPA regulates many aspects of the production and sale of pesticides including bioengineered substances, as well as plants engineered to resist either chemicals or pests. But it also has authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act to regulate many engineered microorganisms, and in recent years has seen a rise in the number of bioengineered substances or organisms that fall under the toxics law.

USDA and FDA are also responsible for regulating other aspects of biotechnology’s production and use, and last year President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the three agencies to work together on ways to “streamline” regulations on the sector. Those efforts included an October summit on the “bioeconomy” focused on federal support for research into the private-sector applications of biology and genetic sciences, and now the unified website on regulatory matters.

Finally, industry groups are continuing to call for reductions in plastic waste from their sectors even without a federal mandate. This week, the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) put forward a four-point list of “principles” for minimizing plastic use and disposal that would apply to businesses, consumers, regulators and waste handlers alike:

Sustainable Business Group Calls For Zero-Waste Packaging Agenda
The American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) is floating four principles for manufacturers, retailers and regulators that it says will help make product packaging more sustainable and ultimately part of a zero-waste “circular economy,” calling for sweeping action to remedy a waste problem it says “has reached the level of global catastrophe."

ASBC, representing companies that favor increased environmental protections, on Jan. 8 unveiled its principles for the design and manufacture of packaging materials, along with methods to spur “a circular market” in reused or recycled materials, sharing responsibility for waste reductions between public and private actors, and transparency on both the problem and potential solutions.

“We believe that a systems-level overhaul is necessary, and that it must prioritize circularity and sustainability with the ultimate goal of a zero-waste economy. The first step is this set of principles that can guide the intense collaboration necessary to successfully redesign our packaging waste systems,” Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of ASBC, said in a release announcing the principles.

Keep reading Environment Next for coverage of the latest efforts to push technology and regulation forward at the state, local and federal level.