Thirsty Fossil Fuels: Potential for Huge Water Savings by Switching to Renewables


PDFClimate and EnergyClean Water

As water resources across the United States experience historic stress
thanks to perpetual megadroughts and other climate change impacts, the unsustainable relationship between water and fossil fuel electricity
generation is even more apparent. While all forms of energy production require water at some point in their life cycle, fossil fuels use an exorbitant amount compared to renewables such as wind and solar.

This underscores the need for a swift transition to a renewable electricity grid, which can cut lifecycle water use by up to 99 percent.

Food & Water Watch found:
  • If California replaced fossil fuel and nuclear electricity production with 100 percent renewable energy sources like solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind, the state could save 82 million cubic meters of water annually. This is a 98 percent reduction from current levels consumed for fossil fuel and nuclear electrical generation.
  • Similarly, California’s water withdrawals could be reduced by over 99 percent while producing the same amount of energy — amounting to nearly 6.3 billion cubic meters of water. That is equivalent to 2.5 million Olympic swimming pools of water.
  • Similar water savings are possible at the national level, with more than a 99 percent decrease in water consumption and withdrawal by replacing fossil fuels and nuclear with wind and solar PV.
  • Nationally, over two-thirds of water used in electrical generation for cooling comes from freshwater sources. Shifting to 100 percent renewable energy would free up enormous amounts of freshwater for truly beneficial purposes.

What’s The Buzz On Pollinators?


PDFFood SystemClimate and Energy

Why are pollinators so important? Our food security is intrinsically tied to the lives of hundreds of thousands of insects and animals.

The Hog Bosses: Fact Sheet


PDFFood System

The corporate hog takeover of Iowa’s rural landscape has wreaked severe economic and environmental damage. Iowa lost nearly 90 percent of its hog farms between 1982 and 2017, as factory farms squeezed out smaller, family-scale operations. Farmers are earning less (in today’s dollars) per pound of pork produced, while processors and retailers capture more profit. Meanwhile, factory hog farms pollute Iowa’s waterways and contribute to climate change.

Oregon’s Mega-Dairies, Mega-Pollution and Mega-Climate Consequences


PDFFood SystemClimate and Energy

The numerous problems that mega-dairies create and the incalculable damage that they inflict on Oregon are not going away without strong action from the state’s leaders. Touting factory farm gas as a solution is only entrenching pollution among frontline communities. Oregon’s legislature must take strong action to protect our air, water and health, beginning with a moratorium on new and expanding mega-dairies.

Food & Water Watch recommends that Oregon:
• Enact an immediate moratorium on new mega-dairies, and on the expansion of existing ones;
• Adopt regulations requiring mega-dairies to reduce their emissions of methane and other harmful air pollutants; and
• Reject the incentivizing of air pollution through factory farm gas and focus on real solutions to climate change like wind and solar.

Lab Meat Won’t End Factory Farms — But Could Entrench Them


PDFFood System

Can next-generation alternatives like lab meat actually replace factory farms, as some supporters boldly claim?

Consumers would first need to accept these novel products. They must appeal to people who enjoy meat and be comparable in taste and cost. This is a tall order. Scaling up cultured meat requires expensive facilities and equipment and sterile environments — such as those used in the biopharmaceutical industry. Moreover, consumers are increasingly interested in not just sustainability but nutrition; they are seeking fresh, minimally processed foods with short
ingredient lists. Cultured and plant-based meats are

Second, even if lab meat gains widespread acceptance, there is no guarantee that it will replace consumption of farmed meat, which is deeply embedded in Western culture. One study found that even if price and taste were equal, most consumers would still choose a beef burger over a cultured or plant-based one. This might help explain why fast food sales of plant-based alternatives are flatlining and chains are dialing back their offerings; as the novelty wears off, customers are choosing the familiar. Meanwhile, U.S. per capita meat consumption
reached an all-time high in 2020. Lab meat seems
to be complementing — not replacing — meat in
people’s diets.

Finally, factory farms are baked into the U.S. food system through various federal policies and economic incentive. This dooms any market-based solution from the very start. For instance, U.S. meat production already outstrips domestic demand, and surpluses
are exported. So even if everyone in the United States switched to lab meat, Big Ag would continue to produce meat. Likewise, reducing or eliminating meat consumption will not affect incentives to stick with the current ecologically depleting farming systems that prop up factory farms, such as the overproduction of commodity crops on monocultures. Both cultured and plant-based meat rely on many of the same commodities used in livestock feed and may further entrench these systems.

The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies: The Hog Bosses

REPORT - May 2022

What You’ll Learn From This Report

  • 1: Introduction
  • 2: The Rise of The Hog Bosses
    • Iowa becomes ground zero for factory hog farms
  • 3: Hog Farms Did Not Bring Prosperity to Rural Iowa
    • Counties with the most factory farm development score lower on numerous economic indicators
  • 4: The Factory Farm Industry Is Driving Climate Change
    • We need to support diverse family-scale farms
  • 5: Conclusion and Recommendations
    • We cannot solve this crisis without combating corporate power
  • 6: Methodology

Part 1:


In December 2019, U.S. hog slaughterhouses were operating at nearly 100 percent capacity. The system was functioning as designed; corporations profit by maximizing output and contracting with large operations to ensure a steady stream of hogs.1 But the system buckled just a few months later as the United States entered pandemic lockdown. Plummeting foodservice demand and shuttered slaughterhouses created backlogs of hogs that depressed prices and forced some farmers to euthanize their animals. Meanwhile, meat disappeared from store shelves, while processors used their reserves to export record amounts of meat abroad.

We can place some blame on the pandemic for a bad year in farm country. But the reality is that the current centralized, corporate-controlled food system was not built for resiliency, or even to support family-scale farms. Nowhere is this more evident than in Iowa’s factory hog industry. This second issue brief in our ongoing series on the Economic Cost of Food Monopolies explores how massive growth in hog production has failed to bring economic prosperity to Iowa’s rural communities.

Food & Water Watch analyzed the economic welfare of Iowa counties with the most hogs sold and the largest hog farms, from 1982 to 2017. We found that:

  • Iowa lost nearly 90 percent of its hog farms from 1982 to 2017, as rapid factory hog expansion drove out smaller, family-scale farms.
  • Overproduction — and growing corporate consolidation — pushed down the real price of hogs. Today’s farmers earn $2 less per pound of hog produced compared to 1982, while the retail price fell only $1; slaughterhouses, processors and retailers are capturing the other $1.
  • Counties that sold the most hogs and those with the largest farms suffered declines across several economic indicators — including real median household income and total wage jobs — over roughly the same time period. These counties also experienced significant population decline — twice the rate of Iowa’s more rural counties.
  • The factory farm industry depends on the overproduction of feed grain like corn and soybeans. Yet grain farmers also experienced significant real price drops between 1982 and 2017 — 52 and 39 percent per bushel, respectively, for corn and soybeans. Iowa also lost more than 40 percent of its corn and soybean farms as production shifted to the largest operations.

As we continue to manage the pandemic, we need to fundamentally transform the way we produce and process food, especially in animal agriculture. Fortunately, the path forward is clear. It starts by banning new and expanding factory farms.a We must also restore supply management in upcoming Farm Bills and improve antitrust oversight and enforcement. Only then can we build a food system that achieves both economic and climate stability.

aWe define “factory farms” as operations meeting the following size categories: 500 or more beef cattle (on feed), 500 or more dairy cows, 1,000 or more hogs, 500,000 or more broiler chickens sold annually, and 100,000 or more egg-laying hens. These are based off of inventory categories used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture and roughly align with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of a medium-sized concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). 

Part 2:

The Rise of The Hog Bosses

Iowa becomes ground zero for factory hog farms

Pig farm. Photo credit: CC-BY-2.0 / Farm Watch, Flickr

Up until the late 20th century, most hogs were raised on smaller, diversified operations. It was often cheaper to grow feed onsite, thereby limiting the number of hogs that a single farm could raise.2 But significant changes in U.S. farm policy and corporate power transformed the way we grow crops and raise livestock.

The U.S. government once had a robust food supply management system that prevented overproduction, a key contributor to low crop prices. New Deal farm policies encouraged farmers to voluntarily cut back production in exchange for price supports. These programs provided living wages to farmers of certain commodities and backgrounds, for much of the 20th century.3

But as U.S. antitrust enforcement eroded and agribusinesses amassed power, corporations lobbied to dismantle these systems to expand global commodity trading. The U.S. government embraced free trade, aiming to increase domestic production and to use expanding export markets to soak up excess commodities. In the 1970s, the agriculture secretary famously directed farmers to “plant fencerow to fencerow.” Many took heed, taking out loans to expand their operations.4

Harvesting crops in the 1970s.

But this all came crashing down in the 1980s. The export market proved volatile and grain prices crashed, leaving farmers with huge debt that they could not repay. Thousands of farms were foreclosed. Those that remained looked to new production models, including contract hog production, to save the farm.5

The death of supply management created a glut of low-priced grain, which agribusinesses purchased and processed into cheap livestock feed. It was now cheaper for farmers to purchase feed offsite and raise their livestock in confinement.6 And Iowa, with its ready supply of feed input crops like corn and soybeans,7 became ground zero for factory hog expansion.

More hogs, fewer farms

Cheap feed is one part of the equation that fueled rapid factory farm growth. Another is growing corporate consolidation within the meat slaughtering and processing industry. In 1980, the top four pork processors slaughtered one out of every three U.S. hogs. Over the past 40 years, their market share has doubled (Figure 1).8 Concentration at the local level can be even more extreme. For instance, between 2004 and 2011, the top four firms slaughtered 9 out of 10 Iowa hogs.9

Extreme market power gives corporations greater leverage to dictate farm prices and practices. Until the early 1990s, most hogs were sold in “spot markets” like live auctions, where multiple buyers competed to purchase a farmer’s hogs. Iowa alone had around 200 such facilities.10 Competition among buyers helped secure fair prices for farmers.11

But corporate consolidation reduced the number of buyers vying for Iowa’s hogs. Those that remained put pressure on the industry to expand their herd sizes, preferring to bargain with a few very large farms rather than numerous family-scale ones. Some buyers use production contracts, paying farmers to raise hogs owned by the processor — a near-universal practice in the broiler chicken industry. Marketing contracts, however, are more common in the hog industry, where farmers agree to deliver a set number of hogs at a future date. In both cases, farmers swap independence for a guaranteed income/buyer.12

In 1993, more than 80 percent of all hogs sold nationally were negotiated on the spot market. Two decades later, this had fallen to as low as 3 percent. Such a “thin” hog market prevents fair pricing and contributes to market volatility. This impacts farmers selling under marketing contracts as well, since the prices they receive are often tied to the spot market.13

A market dominated overwhelmingly by marketing contracts and with few negotiated hogs gives greater leverage to processing corporations. It is also open to manipulation. Pork processors have abused the system in various ways; one example is flooding the auction floor with their own hogs, driving down the spot market price just as a marketing contract is delivered.14

Corporate takeover of the hog industry has provided windfall profits to processing companies, but has gutted farm income.15 Nationally, farmers today are earning $2 less per pound of pork than in 1982 (adjusted for inflation). That’s a third of the value earned in 1982. But we are paying only around $1 less per pound at the grocery checkout. Pork processors and retailers are capturing the other dollar (Figure 2).16 In fact, the average net returns among Iowa’s wean-to-finish hog operations were negative for nearly half the years between 2004 and 2019.17

Part 3:

Hog Farms Did Not Bring Prosperity to Rural Iowa

Counties with the most factory farm development score lower on numerous economic indicators

Main Street in Readlyn, Iowa. Photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Orange Suede Sofa, Wikimedia Commons

Iowa’s farming landscape looks significantly different today than just a couple of decades ago. In 2017, Iowa sold 2.5 times as many hogs as in 1982. And the average number sold per farm each year has swelled nearly 20-fold, to 9,600 hogs per farm. Today, one out of every four U.S. hogs comes from Iowa. Yet the state lost almost 90 percent of its hog farms over this same period (Figure 3).

Moreover, our findings indicate that pork processors are capturing greater shares of profits, while farmers are feeling the pinch. In fact, the farmer’s share per pound of pork sold dropped two-thirds between 1982 and 2017 (adjusted for inflation). This suggests that the factory farm industry’s takeover of Iowa is not benefiting most farmers or rural communities. Instead, it shifts economic output from small, family-scale operations to a handful of very large operations — and ultimately to the pork processing corporations.

The study

A 2012 Food & Water Watch economic analysis,18 reviewed by the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC) at the University of Tennessee, is a valuable case study in what happens when governments endorse and enable factory farm growth. From 1982 to 2007, as factory farms mushroomed across the Iowa landscape, the value per hog sold to the Iowa economy actually declined. Moreover, the gains from hog sales are more unevenly distributed today, with fewer (but much larger) farms across virtually every Iowa county. This concentrates wealth among the largest farms, which in turn tend to make fewer local purchases than their smaller counterparts. This has cascading effects across the entire economy.

The 2012 study also compared the economic and social well-being of counties with the most hog sales and the largest farms to counties with fewer sales and smaller farms. We updated many of these comparisons using data from the 2012 and 2017 Censuses of Agriculture, while adding a few more. (For details, see the Methodology section.) The results suggest that failure to stop factory farm expansion and eliminate subsidies to the industry is wreaking havoc on Iowa’s farm economies. The results also counter the industry narrative that pork processors are building wealth and jobs in rural communities.

More hogs, less income

The National Pork Producers Council19 boasts that the U.S. pork industry supports over $22 billion in personal income.b We found that on a per capita basis, personal income increased in each Iowa county over the study period of 1982 to 2017. There were not significant differences in growth rates between counties with high hog sales and large farms, and those with fewer sales and smaller farms. The same is true even when comparing urban to rural counties.

However, measuring total personal income (not accounting for population) tells a different story. Iowa’s top hog-producing counties saw real total personal income fall roughly 8 percent from 1982 to 2017. In contrast, it ballooned 181 and 142 percent, respectively, among counties that sold fewer hogs and have smaller farms. Even Iowa’s more rural counties saw a 41 percent growth in real total personal income.

In other words, significant population losses (detailed below) went hand-in-hand with the drop in total personal income in counties with high hog sales and large farms. Moreover, per capita income measurements can mask economic inequality, especially when a few large earners bring up the county average. Median household income can help account for this by finding the middle point among all households in a sample.20

For instance, the real median household income among counties with high hog sales and large farms was between 6 and 7 percent less in 2017 than in 1979 (Figure 4). In contrast, it increased slightly within counties with fewer sales and smaller farms. Real median household income even increased modestly among Iowa’s rural counties. These findings suggest that the income benefits of factory hog production are not evenly shared across households living in counties with the most hog production — even though these counties collectively increased their hog production three-fold.

Job losses both on and off the farm

One of the most compelling findings of this report relates to employment. The factory farm industry likes to claim that its industrial model creates jobs — and to stoke fears about job losses to oppose regulation.21 However, the data do not support this. Instead, the rise of Iowa’s factory farms coincided with significant job losses both on and off the farm.

Statewide, total farm employment dropped 44 percent between 1982 and 2017. Every single Iowa county experienced double-digit declines in farm jobs. However, job losses among the top hog-producing counties exceeded the state average — and were even slightly higher than among rural counties overall (Figure 5).

Our previous report came to a similar conclusion: Farm size matters more than total hog output when it comes to job creation. Other studies echo this conclusion, including a 2021 analysis comparing job creation between Iowa’s conventional hog farms and those practicing pasture-based farming. (The average pasture-based farm in the study sells 600 hogs per year, compared to the state average of 9,600). The economic analysis found that the pasture-based farms created more than three times as many jobs per 100,000 hogs marketed compared to conventional farms. They also contributed more indirect and induced jobs.22

Iowa counties with high hog production lost jobs in other industries as well, including manufacturing and retail, whereas counties with low hog production and small farms gained jobs. When looking at all wage jobs, top hog-producing counties saw 30 percent declines from 1982 to 2017. Those counties selling fewer hogs and with smaller farms saw 131 percent and 102 percent growth in total wage jobs, respectively (Figure 6) — outstripping population growth rates by roughly 2:1. Even rural counties saw a 12 percent growth in jobs over the study period.

Simply put, the factory farm model is both anti-farm (pushing family-scale farms to foreclosure) and anti-job (reducing employment both on and off the farm).

Business and retail

Factory farms have cascading impacts on all sectors of the local economy. This is due in part to the different purchasing patterns between small and large farms. For instance, Iowa’s average large wean-to-finish operation purchases only $1 out of every $3 of inputs locally.23 Numerous economic analyses underscore the importance of small farms to local economies; some studies have concluded that smaller farms make more local purchases than larger farms, thereby supporting local retail and contributing to the “multiplier effect” that occurs when wealth is circulated in a local economy.24 Another study found that small, family-scale hog production models shift more profits from corporations to farmers, and induce more household spending among affected workers and farm owners.25

Our study aligns with these analyses. While Iowa experienced an estimated 2 percent decline in total retail businesses between 1982 and 2017, the counties with high hog sales and large farms saw extreme declines — 40 percent and 33 percent, respectively (Figure 7). This decline was even more severe than in rural counties. Counties with low hog sales and small farms, in contrast, saw double-digit growth in retail businesses.

Similarly, while Iowa lost nearly 60 percent of its grocery stores from 1982 to 2016,c losses among counties with high hog sales and large farms were even more stark —75 and 70 percent losses, respectively. This is even greater than losses in the most rural counties. In contrast, losses among low hog sales and small hog farm counties were lower than the state average.

The only business categories considered in this report that had positive growth among high hog-producing counties were meat slaughter and processing plants. However, growth still trailed that of the state as a whole. In fact, most of the growth in meat slaughter and processing facilities occurred in counties with low hog sales and small farms, as well as in rural counties. This could be due to a number of factors, including proximity to the workforces, transportation infrastructure and sewage treatment systems necessary to run slaughter facilities. It is also worth noting that more than a quarter of all hogs raised in Iowa are slaughtered across state lines.26

Before we commend the factory hog industry for a growth in livestock slaughterhouse and processing jobs, it is clear that the quality of these jobs has declined significantly over the past few decades. As meatpacking conglomerates rose in power, working conditions at their plants deteriorated; union representation declined, wages were cut, and conditions became more dangerous.27 In fact, today’s slaughterhouse workers suffer twice the rate of reported injuries and illnesses compared to the manufacturing sector as a whole.28 The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the willingness of pork corporations to put profit ahead of worker health and wellbeing, as corporations fought to keep plants open despite outbreaks that were killing workers.29

Population losses and net migration

Iowa’s total population grew 8 percent from 1982 to 2017. However, counties with high hog sales and large farms saw their populations decrease by 44 percent and 36 percent, respectively. In contrast, the populations of counties with low hog sales and small hog farms boomed 73 percent and 47 percent, respectively. These differences cannot be chalked up to rural and urban divides alone; population loss in rural counties was 18 percent — at least half as much as in counties with high hog sales and large farms.

Additionally, counties with high hog sales and large farms experienced greater rates of net migration compared to counties with low hog sales and small farms. We cannot make sweeping claims about why populations are leaving these counties based on numbers alone. Job losses, decline of rural services, and nuisance and public health concerns from nearby factory farms could all play a role and deserve greater attention. This negative net migration can have cascading effects on communities, including reduced retail demand and declining tax bases.30

bPersonal income includes all wages, employer-provided benefits, rental property, government benefits, and interest and dividends. It excludes capital gains from stocks. See U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of Economic Analysis. “Income & Saving.” Available at Accessed December 2021 and on file with Food & Water Watch.

cEstimate uses the U.S. Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns data, which changed reporting in the 2017 report year to no longer include data cells with three or fewer businesses. We used 2016 data instead to have a more accurate comparison across the years.

Part 4:

The Factory Farm Industry Is Driving Climate Change

We need to support diverse family-scale farms

Derecho damage seen on a grain bin in Jackson County, Iowa Photo Credit: CC BY 2.0 / Phil Roeder / Flickr

Decoupling hog and crop production has had significant consequences for Iowa’s environment and the global climate. Previously, smaller and more diverse crop-and-livestock systems could only get so big, restrained in part by the amount of cropland that they could dedicate to growing feed. Smaller farms also produce less manure, which can be sustainably recycled onsite as fertilizer and thereby reduce chemical inputs on cropland.31

But artificially cheap feed and pressure from the pork industry have incentivized farms to expand their herds to previously unthinkable sizes. This creates a surplus manure problem, with many regions of the United States, including Iowa, producing more nutrients than can be sustainably recycled. These problems, compounded in regions with high densities of factory farms, contribute to runoff that pollutes soil and water.32 In 2021, American Rivers named Iowa’s Racoon River, which receives overflows from hundreds of factory hog operations, one of the country’s “Most Endangered Rivers.”33


The Country’s Most Endangered Rivers: Raccoon River

​​American Rivers named Iowa’s Raccoon River one of the Most Endangered Rivers in the U.S. The Raccoon River supplies drinking water to over half a million Iowans. Des Moines Water Works, Iowa’s largest water utility, depends on the Raccoon River in order to provide residents of central Iowa with safe drinking water.


Photo: Raccoon River

But industrial agriculture practices are rampant in the watershed. Over 750 factory farms are located in the basin and have put our access to clean water at risk. In order to provide safe drinking water to residents in Iowa’s capital city of Des Moines, the Des Moines Water Works was forced to invest in one of the world’s most expensive nitrate removal systems — a cost borne by ratepayers, not the corporate agribusiness entities responsible for the pollution. Why?

Photo: Hog farm in Iowa.

Because E. coli, MRSA, and toxic levels of nitrates are as much a part of the water in Iowa as hydrogen and oxygen. Where are they coming from? These harmful pathogens and pollutants originate in factory farms. Each year, over 3,600 factory farms across the state produce more than 72 billion pounds of manure. That waste is then spread on acre after acre of cropland, oftentimes in amounts far greater than the soil’s ability to absorb it. From there, the excess runs off into Iowa’s waters, polluting drinking water, limiting recreation on the water, and destroying critical plant and animal habitat.

Factory farms decimate rural economies and rural life, a price no one should have to pay so that corporations can profit.

The unsustainable factory farm model is pushing our climate to the limit. Globally, livestock production contributes 14.5 percent of all human-sourced greenhouse gas emissions.34 Yet Iowa’s hog production continues to balloon, with processors profiting off this glut by expanding export markets.35 At a critical juncture where climate scientists are urging nations to reduce livestock production to sustainable levels, the pork industry is promoting U.S. pork abroad and exporting as much as one-third of all U.S. production.36

The factory farm model is propped up by a cropping system that similarly encourages overproduction.37 Crop farmers faced the same pressures to “get big or get out” in the 1970s and 80s38; in 2017, Iowa produced 65 percent more corn and 85 percent more soybeans compared to 1982, but on 40 percent fewer farms (Figure 9). This is a highly inefficient system, with the vast majority of corn bushels not directly feeding people but instead getting processed into livestock feed, ethanol and food additives.39 Corn and soybean production also contribute to climate change, given the huge amounts of land and fossil fuel-derived inputs they consume.40

Transitioning to smaller, diverse crop-and-livestock systems can curb overproduction and lessen Iowa’s ecological footprint.41 But these systems can only scale up once we have reformed the federal farm safety net to support family-scale operations and to incentivize sustainable practices. Corporate agribusinesses spend millions of lobbying dollars to keep the current polluting system in place.42 We cannot address these climate impacts without combating corporate power.

Part 5:

Conclusion and Recommendations

We cannot solve this crisis without combating corporate power

The factory hog industry is not delivering on its promises to Iowa’s rural economies. In fact, counties with the most hog production score lower across a range of social and economic indicators compared to counties with less hog production. This report complements a Food & Water Watch economic analysis that found that, as corporations tightened their hold on Iowa’s hog production, the value shared by rural communities declined.

As illustrated in our first report in this series, “The Grocery Cartels,” corporate consolidation is at the heart of our food system’s dysfunction. Lax attitudes towards antitrust, embraced by leaders on both sides of the aisle, created space for a handful of powerful corporations to amass power over each step of the food supply chain. The problem is too big for any single farmer or eater to solve; we need our elected leaders to stand up against corporate power.

Legislation for a just food system

First, we need a moratorium on new and expanding factory farms, to solve this crisis that worsens every passing year. Moratorium legislation has been introduced in the Iowa legislature for the past several sessions; federal legislation like the Farm System Reform Act would similarly stop factory farm expansion while funding a just transition for existing factory farms.43 In addition, we must halt agribusiness mergers and break up big conglomerates through comprehensive legislation like the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act.44

But unravelling the factory farm model and transitioning to family-scale farms will take additional steps. We need to overhaul the federal farm safety net and steer U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) resources into smaller, diversified farms. Fortunately, we have this opportunity every five years, through omnibus legislation known as the Farm Bill. Here’s what we recommend:

Restore supply management in the next Farm Bill and ensure the programs benefit farmers of all backgrounds. The first Farm Bill was part of New Deal legislation, and a direct response to commodity overproduction that led to plummeting crop prices and drove many farms into foreclosure. This and other bills curbed overproduction, protected vulnerable cropland and guaranteed living wages for farmers who could access these programs.45

Here’s how supply management worked: The USDA would set a price floor for grains and provide loans based on this price floor, which farmers repaid after harvest. In years when market prices dropped below the price floor, the USDA collected the harvest as collateral, essentially buying surplus grains from the market for the federal grain reserve. Then, when drought or other disasters reduced crop yield, the USDA sold grains from the federal reserve into the market,46 smoothing out market volatility and ensuring a steady supply of grain to the benefit of both farmers and consumers.

Remarkably, supply management can operate at virtually no budgetary cost to taxpayers.47 We can reinstate supply management for grain crops and extend it to dairy — while ensuring participation by farmers of all backgrounds.

Reform — rather than remove — the current farm safety net. Immediately ending current farm subsidy programs would only drive more farmers off the land. Instead, we can realign these programs with the climate reality while moving toward a system that actually manages production. Participants in programs like federal subsidized crop insurance should be required to implement organic regenerative practices such as crop rotation or reduced pesticide reliance. We must also ban factory farms from receiving public funding from conservation programs and guaranteed loans.

Expand coverage for more crops that directly feed people. Feed corn, soybeans and cotton make up a huge chunk of acreage enrolled in federal crop insurance programs,48 while many fruits, vegetables and nuts are not eligible under many programs.49 Expanding safety net coverage to more specialty crops can help more farmers shift to new production systems.

Corporate interests have fought against supply management and other common-sense farm policies that would bring prosperity to rural America. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying each year for the current agricultural system that serves their corporate interests, all while claiming that they support the family farm.50 But the COVID-19 pandemic revealed whose side they are really on — and their total disregard for workers’ lives. We must elect leaders who are willing to stand up to these hog bosses and other agribusinesses. Only then can we pass a fair Farm Bill and reshape our food system so that it works for all farmers, food chain workers and eaters.

Part 6:


Food & Water Watch compiled data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture, a comprehensive analysis of U.S. farms released every five years. We pulled data on the number of hogs sold and the number of hog farms in each Iowa county, for census years spanning 1982 through 2017. We also used the Census of Agriculture to estimate historical yields and prices for corn and soybeans.

For each census year, we sorted counties into quartiles by the total number of hogs sold. The top 50 counties were designated “high hog sale” counties, and the bottom 49 “low hog sale” counties. We used the same method to distinguish “large hog farm” and “small hog farm” counties, based on the average number of hogs sold per farm. This enabled us to compare economic outcomes between counties that saw the most factory farm development and those that saw the least. We created a third comparison based on population density (50 most-rural / 49 least-rural), using data compiled from the U.S. Census Bureau, providing a way to tease out the impacts of population density on the various economic outcomes.

The Census of Agriculture withholds county-level data on livestock numbers when there are only a handful of farms reporting, to protect farm identity. In these instances, we summed the available county-level data on hogs for a particular year and subtracted this by the state-level data to find the residual difference. We then divided this difference by the total number of farms in all counties with undisclosed data to generate a residual average. We multiplied this residual average by the number of farms in counties with undisclosed data, to derive an approximation. This method was repeated in various census years as needed.

We used many of the same economic indicators found in our 2012 report, matching the years with those of the Census of Agriculture (1982, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2002, 2007, 2012 and 2017) or the nearest approximate. We estimated total retail establishments using data from the Iowa Department of Revenue. Retail establishments by industry come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns. We used NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) data starting in census year 2002, and SIC (Standard Industrial Classification) codes for all earlier releases, matching with the closest approximation (i.e., NAICS 4451 “Grocery Stores” and SIC 541 “Grocery Stores”; NAICS 311611 “Animal (except Poultry) Slaughtering” and SIC 2011 “Meat Packing Plants”; NAICS 311612 “Meat Processed from Carcasses” and SIC 2013 “Sausages and Other Prepared Meat Products”).

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey provided data on population, county landmass in square miles and median household income. Personal and farm income, and wage jobs, came from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. We converted all monetary data into January 2020 dollars using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) Inflation Calculator provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Congress needs to know you support a transition to diverse, family-scale farms. Will you send them a message?

  1. Decision Innovation Solutions. Prepared for Iowa Pork Producers Association. “2020 Iowa Pork Industry Report.” May 2020 at 6; Sexton, Richard. “Market power, misconceptions, and modern agricultural markets.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics. Vol. 95, Iss. 2. January 2013 at 6 to 7.
  2. Clark, E. Ann. “Benefits of re-integrating livestock and forages in crop production systems.” Journal of Crop Improvement. Vol. 12, Iss. 1-2. 2004 at 3 to 5; Ayazi, Hossein and Elsadig Elsheikh. Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. “The US Farm Bill: Corporate Power and Structural Racism in the United States Food System.” October 2015 at 26 to 27.
  3. Rasmussen, Wayne D. et al. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Economic Research Service (ERS). “A Short History of Agricultural Adjustment, 1933-75.” Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 391. March 1976 at 3 to 4; Reynolds, Bruce J. USDA. “Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000: The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of Cooperatives.” RBS Research Report 194. October 2002 at 8 to 9.
  4. McGranahan, Devan A. et al. “A historical primer on the US farm bill: Supply management and conservation policy.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. Vol. 68, No. 3. May/June 2013 at 68A to 70A; Ayazi and Elsheikh (2015) at 23 to 26.
  5. Olson, Allen H. “Federal farm programs — past, present and future — Will we learn from our mistakes?” Great Plains Natural Resources Journal. Vol. 6, No. 1. 2001-2002 at 13 to 16; Freese, Betsy. “How contract feeding changed the hog industry.” Successful Farming. November 25, 2019.
  6. Ayazi and Elsheikh (2015) at 26 to 27; Clark (2004) at 3 to 5.
  7. Decision Innovation Solutions (2020) at 29.
  8. USDA. Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration. “2008 Annual Report.” March 1, 2009 at 46; USDA. Agricultural Marketing Service. “Packers and Stockyards Division: Annual Report 2019.” August 2020 at 9.
  9. Sexton (2013) at 2; Food & Water Watch (FWW) analysis of National Pork Board. “Pork Facts: The Pork Industry at a Glance.” 2009-2012.
  10. Lawrence, John D. “Hog marketing practices and competition questions.” Choices. Vol. 25, No. 2. 2nd Quarter 2010 at 2 to 3.
  11. Ajewole, Kayode et al. “Price reporting in a thin market.” Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics. Vol. 48, No. 4. November 2016 at 347 to 348 and 361 to 362; Willingham, Zoe and Andy Green. Center for American Progress. “A Fair Deal to Farmers: Raising Earnings and Rebalancing Power in Rural America.” May 2019 at 16 to 19.
  12. Lawrence (2010) at 2 to 3 and 5; Sexton (2013) at 6 to 7; MacDonald, James et al. USDA ERS. “Contracts, Markets, and Prices.” Agricultural Economic Report No. 837. November 2004 at 41.
  13. Ajewole et al. (2016) at 345 to 347.
  14. Ibid.; Lawrence (2010) at 4; MacDonald et al. (2004) at 50 to 52.
  15. Willingham and Green (2019) at 20.
  16. USDA ERS. “Pork values and spreads.” Available at Accessed August 2021.
  17. Decision Innovation Solutions (2020) at 42, figure 38.
  18. FWW. “The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies.” 2012.
  19. National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). “Pork facts.” Available at Accessed November 2021 and on file with FWW.
  20. Missouri Census Data Center. “All about measures of income in the Census.” Available at Accessed December 2021 and on file with FWW.
  21. NPPC. “Pork facts”; NPPC. [Press release]. “New economic impact study on livestock rule means rural job losses & higher meat prices.” October 21, 2010.
  22. Swenson, Dave. Iowa State University and University of Iowa. Prepared for Niman Ranch. “The Economic Contribution of Niman Ranch Hog Production in Iowa.” March 2021 at 6, table 1 and 10.
  23. Decision Innovation Solutions (2020) at 61.
  24. Andrews, David and Timothy J. Kautza. Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. “Impact of Industrial Farm Animal Production on Rural Communities.” 2008 at v to vi; Donham, Kelley J. et al. “Community health and socioeconomic issues surrounding concentrated animal feeding operations.” Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 115, No. 2. February 2007 at 317; Foltz, Jeremy D. et al. “Do purchasing patterns differ between large and small dairy farms? Econometric evidence from three Wisconsin communities.” Agricultural and Resource Economics Review. Vol. 31, No. 1. April 2002 at 37; Swenson (2021) at 9.
  25. Kelsey, Timothy W. et al. Pennsylvania State University. College of Agricultural Sciences. “Not Inconsequential: The Economic Effect of Small Farms in Pennsylvania, 2017.” 2021 at 5 to 9.
  26. Decision Innovation Solutions (2020) at 26.
  27. MacDonald, James M. et al. USDA ERS. “Consolidation in U.S. Meatpacking.” AER-785. February 2000 at 14 to 15; Fitzgerald, Amy J. “A social history of the slaughterhouse: From inception to contemporary implications.” Research in Human Ecology. Vol. 17, No. 1. 2010 at 62 to 64.
  28. U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2020 Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. Available at
  29. FWW. “Fact-checking Smithfield’s coronavirus food shortage BS.” April 22, 2020.
  30. McGranahan, David et al. USDA ERS. “Nonmetropolitan Outmigration Counties.” Economic Research Report No. 107. November 2010 at 2.
  31. Clark (2004) at 8, 19 and 24.
  32. Yang, Qichun et al. “Spatiotemporal patterns of livestock manure nutrient production in the conterminous United States from 1930 to 2012.” Science of the Total Environment. October 2015 at 14 to 20; Kellogg, Robert L. et al. USDA. Natural Resources Conservation Service and ERS. “Manure Nutrients Relative to the Capacity of Cropland and Pastureland to Assimilate Nutrients: Spatial and Temporal Trends for the United States.” Nps00-0579. December 2000 at executive summary, 1 and 89 to 92.
  33. Jones, Chris et al. “The urgent need to address nutrient imbalance problems in Iowa’s high-density livestock regions.” Agricultural Policy Review. Fall 2019 at discussion; Food & Water Action. “American Rivers has named Iowa river ‘Most Endangered’ in the country.” April 13, 2021.
  34. Gerber, P.J. et al. (2013). “Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock: A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities.” Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations at xii.
  35. USDA. Foreign Agricultural Service. “2020 United States Agricultural Export Yearbook.” 2021 at 1 to 2; Holcomb, Griffin. IBISWorld. “Meat, Beef & Poultry Processing in the US.” Industry Report No. 31161. March 2021 at 11, 14 and 20 to 21.
  36. Schiermeier, Quirin. “Eat less meat: UN climate-change report calls for change to human diet.” Nature. Corrected August 12, 2019; U.S. Meat Export Federation. “U.S. pork exports soared to new value, volume records in 2019.” National Hog Farmer. February 6, 2020.
  37. Smith, Trevor J. “Corn, cows, and climate change: How federal agricultural subsidies enable factory farming and exacerbate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.” Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy. Vol. 9, Iss. 1. March 2019 at 47 to 48 and 55.
  38. McGranahan, Devan A. et al. (2013) at 69A to 71A.
  39. FWW analysis of USDA. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Quick Stats. Available at Accessed July 2020; “Sweet corn vs. field corn: What’s the difference?” La Crosse Tribune. October 16, 2015.
  40. Koneswaran, Gowri and Danielle Nierenberg. “Global farm animal production and global warming: Impacting and mitigating climate change.” Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 116, No. 5. May 2008 at 579.
  41. Clark (2004) at 11 to 13.
  42. Ayazi and Elsheikh (2015) at 26 to 27 and 34.
  43. Cadloff, Emily Baron. “Iowa representative pushing to ban new factory farms.” Modern Farmer. February 10, 2022; S. 3221. 116th Cong. (2019).
  44. S. 1596. 116th Cong. (2019).
  45. Rasmussen et al. (1976) at 3 to 5; Reynolds (2002) at 8 to 9.
  46. Graddy-Lovelace, Garrett and Adam Diamond. “From supply management to agricultural subsidies — and back again? The U.S. Farm Bill & agrarian (in)viability.” Journal of Rural Studies. Vol. 50. February 2017 at 76.
  47. Ibid at 76; McMinimy, Mark A. Congressional Research Service (CRS). “U.S. Sugar Program Fundamentals.” R43998. April 6, 2016 at summary.
  48. Shields, Dennis A. CRS. “Federal Crop Insurance: Background.” R40532. August 13, 2015 at summary; Schnepf, Randy. CRS. [Fact sheet]. “2018 Farm Bill primer: Marketing Assistance Loan program.” IF11162. April 3, 2019 at 2.
  49. Rosa, Isabel and Renée Johnson. CRS. “Federal Crop Insurance: Specialty Crops.” R45459. Updated January 14, 2019 at 9; Smith (2019) at 43 to 44.
  50. Ayazi and Elsheikh (2015) at 15; Open Secrets. “Sector profile: Agribusiness.” Available at Accessed December 2021 and on file with FWW; Duvall, Zippy. American Farm Bureau Federation. “Your voice is essential to our country’s success.” July 21, 2021.

Carbon Capture Is Iowa’s New Problem Pipe Dream


PDFFood SystemClimate and Energy

The WATER Act: Restoring Federal Support for Clean Water Systems

REPORT - March 2022

What You’ll Learn From This Report

  • 1: Introduction
    • Fifty years after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, communities need a restored federal commitment to improve clean water systems.
  • 2: The Daunting State of Our Wastewater Systems
    • Access to clean water is threatened by aging systems, growing needs, climate chaos and an affordability crisis.
  • 3: Health Threats of Underfunded Water Infrastructure
    • Outdated systems and lack of funding are causing sewage spills, failing septic systems, polluted waters and human illnesses.
  • 4: The Water Solution for The 21st Century
    • It’s time for the WATER Act to restore the federal government’s commitment to protect clean water for every community.

Part 1:


Fifty years after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, communities need a restored federal commitment to improve clean water systems.

Across the country, outdated wastewater systems dump hundreds of billions of gallons of raw sewage into our waterways each year, polluting water resources, endangering public health, harming aquatic life and damaging our environment.1 It has been 50 years since the passage of the Clean Water Act, and an unprecedented climate emergency is overwhelming our aging wastewater systems.

Climate chaos is driving extreme weather that worsens sewage spills and dumps toxic waste in cash-strapped communities across the country, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast,2 while the Southwest suffers a megadrought, fueling fires and depleting water supplies.3 Without dedicated federal funding, many communities cannot afford to make the necessary repairs to the collection, treatment and septic systems that keep our water clean and safe. This lack of investment in water infrastructure isn’t just shortsighted; it’s dangerous. Aging systems contaminate our natural and built environments and threaten the health and safety of our water and of people everywhere.

It’s time to pass landmark water legislation for the 21st century: the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act. Our nation’s water systems need dedicated federal commitment to keep the promise of clean, safe water for everyone.

Clean Water Act

In 1972, Congress overrode a veto by President Richard Nixon to pass into law the Clean Water Act, a defining environmental victory of the 20th century. The legislation was intended to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” It has been one of our most effective environmental laws.4

To help communities comply with wastewater standards, the law dramatically increased funding for the wastewater system construction grants program, providing nearly $41 billion through 1984. According to the Congressional Research Service, it was “the largest nonmilitary public works program since the Interstate Highway System.”5

“The objective of this [Clean Water] Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

Part 2:

The Daunting State of Our Wastewater Systems

Access to clean water is threatened by aging systems, growing needs, climate chaos and an affordability crisis.

Aging Systems

Many of the nation’s wastewater treatment plants were built or improved with the federal dollars provided by the Clean Water Act.6 By 2021, however, water and sewer pipes were averaging 45 years old, and many were approaching the end of their lifespan.7 These aging wastewater systems need major updates to protect human health and the environment.8 Overall, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s wastewater infrastructure a grade of D+ in 2021.9

American Society of Civil Engineers (2021)

Growing Needs

In total, our drinking water and wastewater systems require at least $744 billion in investment over the next 20 years, or more than $35 billion a year.10 Public wastewater systems alone, as of the latest needs survey in 2012, needed at least an estimated $271 billion over two decades to improve treatment plants, sewer lines, address stormwater and stop overflows.11 But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program, the main source of federal support for wastewater projects, provided a mere $1.6 billion in 2021,12 and the infrastructure law of 2021 added only $12.7 billion over five years to this program.13 This falls far short of the total need.

Overall, federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure has plummeted since its peak in the 1970s, dropping 77 percent from 1977 to 2017 in real terms.14 That’s a per capita decrease in funding of 84 percent.15

A 2020 wastewater industry survey found that two-thirds of spending on capital improvement plans went to update aging systems and to address combined sewer overflows, and that improvement budgets had grown 24 percent over the previous three years.16 Federal support through the State Revolving Fund program, however, accounted for only 15 percent of long-term financing,17 leaving a huge gap between what communities know they need and what the federal government has provided.

Climate Chaos

Climate chaos threatens to strangle the nation’s access to clean water, causing more sewage spills and compounding the costs of urgently needed updates to aging systems.18 In 2022, the megadrought in the southwestern United States was so severe that the last two decades were estimated to be the driest period in 1,200 years, causing water shortages and fueling wildfires.19

Weather disturbances also contribute to water system disruptions, including operational outages, loss of supply or restrictions on water use, and degraded water quality.20 Extreme weather has been catastrophic to water infrastructure. Flooding and sea-level rise further threaten systems and can force infrastructure relocation. Also, heavy rainfall leads to more sewage overflows. The total costs of adapting our water and sewer systems to meet the threats of climate chaos are already high and are projected to near $1 trillion by 2050.21

Affordability Crisis

Many communities struggle to meet the costs of keeping waters clean, maintaining aging systems and grappling with climate emergencies. With meager federal support, water and wastewater systems are forced to hike customer rates.22 From 2008 to 2014, water and sewer rates nationwide increased by about 40 percent on average.23 Over the last 15 years, water bills have increased at three times the rate of inflation, but household incomes have fallen in real terms.24

Households and localities are grappling with water service costs that are increasingly unaffordable.25 This problem has become especially complex in this period of widening income inequality and reliance on regressive water billing practices, which lead low-income households to pay a disproportionate amount of their income for their water service.26

Many communities are stuck with an impossible choice: raise rates on people who cannot afford to pay, or allow aging systems to spill sewage into homes and waterways and endanger public health. Because of structural inequities, this crisis is not felt equally. Black and Brown communities are disparately impacted because of systemic racism, leading to unaffordable water bills,27 service shutoffs,28 failing wastewater and septic systems, greater pollution burdens and human illnesses.29

Part 3:

Health Threats Of Underfunded Water Infrastructure

Outdated systems and lack of funding are causing sewage spills, failing septic systems, polluted waters and human illnesses.

Outdated Systems and Sewage Spills

The EPA estimated in its last national assessment that more than 850 billion gallons of raw sewage were being spilled each year across the country.30 That’s enough to fill more than 1 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Sewer overflows can cause raw sewage to back up into basements, flood onto streets and spill into rivers, lakes and streams.31 While improvements have been made, this remains a problem in communities across the country.32

Outdated systems are vulnerable to spills during storms. When there is heavy rainfall or snowfall, outdated wastewater systems overload, and large volumes of sewage spill into local waterways.33 In 2014, nearly 1,500 different spills discharged at least 22 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the Great Lakes Basin alone.34

Climate change is making things worse.35 The storm surge caused by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy— the largest storm to hit the Northeast to date — resulted in the spillage of 11 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into waterways and city streets.36 In 2021, Hurricane Ida also caused major spills of raw and partially treated sewage, including 350,000 gallons in Panama City, Florida;37 nearly 1 million gallons in Mobile, Alabama;38 more than 130 million gallons in the Merrimack watershed, Massachusetts;39 and hundreds of thousands of gallons in New Orleans.40

Failing Septic Systems

Aging home septic systems add to the problem. Wastewater from failing septic systems is a large source of groundwater pollution in the United States.41 More than one in five U.S. households rely on home septic systems instead of a centralized sewer system. Together, these decentralized systems treat more than 4 billion gallons of sewage every day.42

Many septic tanks are aging, failing, and endangering the environment and human health.43 Households bear the burden of maintaining and updating their septic systems, but the cost is unaffordable for many low-income rural residents.44 Failing household septic systems can contaminate water supplies and endanger human health.45 A 2013 survey in Ohio estimated that 31 percent of household septic systems were failing.46 Many rural residents in central Appalachia do not have a safe way to dispose of wastewater.47

Subsurface sewage treatment systems (SSTS) — common in areas that are not connected to centralized municipal sewage systems — can fail, contaminating the soil and groundwater around them, and leaving residents with high repair or replacement costs. Photo credit: CC-BY-NC 2.0 / MN Pollution Control Agency, Creative Commons

Failing septic systems have been associated with bacterial contamination of groundwater.48 A 2003 study found that 40 percent of Alabama’s septic systems were failing or in need of repair, while bacteria contaminated 46 percent of household water wells in the state, leaving an estimated 340,000 residents with greater risks of waterborne disease.49 In Alabama’s Black Belt region, because of rural poverty, structural racism, and soil characteristics, not only do many septic systems fail but also many homes use straight pipes that directly pour raw sewage into woods or a ditch. A 2016 survey of Wilcox County, Alabama found that only 7 percent of homes had permitted septic systems, while 60 percent of homes examined had straight pipes, which together released more than half a million gallons of raw sewage every day.50 In Lowndes County, Alabama, a majority-Black county, at least 40 percent of homes lack adequate sanitation, and the cost of installing a system can exceed the average resident’s annual income.51

Climate chaos will continue to amplify these problems. More systems will fail as sea levels rise, precipitation increases and temperatures warm.52

Polluted Waters

Sewage spills harm the environment; they pollute rivers, streams, and other water bodies, and they can contain toxics and dangerous pathogens that endanger human health.53 These toxic overflows have destroyed aquatic life, killed fish and closed shellfish harvesting areas.54

Overall, because of all sources of pollution, two-thirds of estuaries in the United States have elevated risks of eutrophication55 and harmful algal blooms.56 More than a third of the shoreline area of the Great Lakes is in fair or poor biological condition (a third of the area was unable to be studied).57 Less than one-fifth of estuarine and Great Lakes waters have fish in good condition.58 In total, more than half of U.S. rivers and streams, 40 percent of lakes and 21 percent of coastal waters have excess nutrients (which can lead to excessive algal growth and cause fish kills), and 73 percent of U.S. wetlands have lost plant life, which can stress the ecosystem.59

Sewage spills have made water too polluted to swim, boat or fish.60 In 2020, one-third of the recreational beaches in the United States had at least one advisory or closing. Over the last five years, between 28 percent and 33 percent of beaches have had at least one advisory or closing each year. Aging and poorly designed sewage and stormwater systems contribute to many of the beach closures.61 In 2020, wastewater and septic systems were responsible for one-fifth of the beach closings and advisories with known causes (although nearly half of closings have unknown causes, some of which may be related to wastewater events).62 Increased funding to improve wastewater systems and address stormwater can help stop pollution of the nation’s beaches.

Human Illnesses

More than 7 million cases of waterborne diseases are reported in the United States every year.63 As a result of these illnesses, more than 100,000 people are hospitalized and over 6,000 people die a year.64 People become sick from drinking contaminated water; swimming in polluted pools, lakes and beaches; and other exposures to contaminated water.65

More than 7 million cases of waterborne diseases are reported in the United States every year.

The EPA estimated that thousands of people become sick each year just from exposure to sewage-contaminated recreation areas.66 Wastewater contains viruses, bacteria and other pathogens that can cause serious illness. Many people are exposed to raw sewage that backs up in their homes or yards from overloaded municipal sewer systems or failing septic systems.67 People exposed to sewage-polluted waters can become sick with hepatitis, gastroenteritis, and infections of the skin, lungs and ears, among other illnesses.68

Failing septic systems can also expose people to high nitrate levels in household well water, which can lead to the potentially deadly blue baby syndrome in infants.69 In Wilcox County, Alabama, researchers estimated that the raw sewage dumped from straight pipes from homes into the environment releases 10 billion viruses and 19 billion parasites every day.70 In Lowndes County, Alabama, one study found that more than 40 percent of households were exposed to raw sewage, and more than a third of adults tested positive for gastrointestinal parasites, including hookworm.71

Part 4:

The Water Solution for The 21st Century

It’s time for the WATER Act to restore the federal government’s commitment to protect clean water for every community.

The WATER Act is the landmark 21st-century legislation that we need to restore federal support and help protect clean water. The WATER Act is the only permanent solution to our nation’s water funding woes, providing $35 billion each year to restore our public water infrastructure.

In addition to funding drinking water improvements, the WATER Act will provide $18.1 billion each year to address the nation’s wastewater problems:
  • $15.7 billion a year to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to fund publicly owned wastewater system upgrades, with at least half of the funding prioritized as grants or additional subsidization to disadvantaged communities;
  • $871 million a year to help update and install household septic systems and other on-site sewage disposal systems;
  • $871 million a year for non-point-source management programs;
  • $523 million a year for pollution control programs; and
  • $174 million a year for technical assistance to rural, small or indigenous wastewater providers.72

Now is the time to fully fund our wastewater infrastructure to help clean up our waterways and protect our communities.

Tell Congressmembers to support the WATER Act now!

  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Office of Water. “Report to Congress: Impacts and Control of Combined Sewer Overflows and Sanitary Sewer Overflows.” (EPA 833-R-04-001). August 2004 at ES-2, ES-3 and ES-5.
  2. Bagenstose, Kyle and Kevin Crowe. “US sewer systems weren’t built for climate change; heavier rainfall can overwhelm systems, causing toxic spills in communities that can least afford it.” USA Today. December 7, 2021.
  3. Fountain, Henry. “How bad is the western drought? Worst in 12 centuries, study finds.” New York Times. February 14, 2022.
  4. Hines, N. William. “History of the 1972 Clean Water Act: The story behind how the 1972 Act became the capstone of a decade of environmental reform.” Journal of Energy & Environmental Law. Summer 2013 at 80, 81 and 98.
  5. Ramseur, Jonathan L. and Mary Tiemann. Congressional Research Service. “Water Infrastructure Financing: History of EPA Appropriations.” Updated April 10, 2019 at 1.
  6. Ibid. at 1; American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). “2021 Infrastructure Report Card.” 2021 at 153.
  7. ASCE (2021) at 153.
  8. EPA. “Clean Watersheds Needs Survey 2012: Report to Congress.” (EPA 830-R-15005).January 2016 at 1; ASCE (2021) at 152.
  9. ASCE (2021) at 151.
  10. EPA (January 2016) at 1; EPA. “Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment: 6th Report to Congress.” (EPA 816-K-17-002). March 2018 at 9.
  11. EPA (January 2016) at 1, 2 and 6.
  12. EPA. “FY 2021 CWSRF Allotments: $1,638,826,000.” Available at Accessed December 22, 2021.
  13. Regan, Michael. EPA. Letter to Governors. December 2, 2021 at 6.
  14. Congressional Budget Office. “Public Spending on Transportation and Water Infrastructure, 1956 to 2017.” October 15, 2018 at Supplemental Tables. Table W-8.
  15. Food & Water Watch (FWW) calculation based on Ibid.; U.S. Census, Population Estimates Program. “Historical National Population Estimates: July 1, 1900 to July 1, 1999.” June 28, 2000; U.S. Census. “Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2019.” (NST-EST2019-01). Last revised October 21, 2021.
  16. National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). “NACWA Financial Survey: Executive Highlights.” August 2021 at 7.
  17. Ibid. at 18.
  18. Bagenstose and Crowe (2021).
  19. Fountain (2022).
  20. U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). “Water Infrastructure. Technical Assistance and Climate Resilience Planning Could Help Utilities Prepare for Potential Climate Change Impacts.” (GAO-20-24). January 2020 at 2, 17 and 61.
  21. NACWA and Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies. “Confronting Climate Change: An Early Analysis of Water and Wastewater Adaptation Costs.” October 2009 at ES-1 and ES-8.
  22. National Academy of Public Administration. “Developing a New Framework for Community Affordability of Clean Water Services.” October 2017 at 25.
  23. Ibid. at 21.
  24. Ibid. at 22.
  25. National Consumer Law Center. “Review and recommendations for implementing water and wastewater affordability programs in the United States.” March 2014 at 1 and 5.
  26. Economic Policy Institute. “Income Inequality in the U.S. by State, Metropolitan Area, and County.” June 16, 2016 at 1 to 4; Mirosa, Oriol. “Water affordability in the United States: An initial exploration and an agenda for research.” Sociological Imagination. Vol. 51, Iss. 2. December 2015 at 52.
  27. Butts, Rachel and Stephen Gasteyer. “More cost per drop: Water rates, structural inequality, and race in the United States — The case of Michigan.” Environmental Reviews & Case Studies, Vol. 13, No. 4. December 2011 at 386 and 392 to 393.
  28. Foltz-Diaz, Kimberly et al. Massachusetts Global Action. “The Color of Water: A Report on the Human Right to Water in the City of Boston.” July 2014 at 1 and 5; GAO. “Water Infrastructure: Information on Selected Midsize and Large Cities With Declining Populations.” (GAO-16-785). September 2016 at 57 to 58 and 72 to 73.
  29. Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. “Flushed and Forgotten: Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the United States.” May 2019 at 12, 19 to 24 and 30; Flowers, Catherine Coleman. “A county where the sewer is your lawn.” New York Times. May 22, 2018; Okeowo, Alexis. “The heavy toll of the Black Belt’s wastewater crisis.” The New Yorker. November 23, 2020; Smith, Catherine. “‘If white people were still here, this wouldn’t happen’: The majority-Black town flooded with sewage.” The Guardian. February 11, 2021.
  30. EPA (2004) at ES-5 to ES-7.
  31. EPA. “NPDES Compliance Inspection Manual. Chapter 13.” (305-K-17-001). January 2017 at 297.
  32. EPA (2004) at ES-5 to ES-7; ASCE (2021) at 153; Bagenstose and Crowe (2021).
  33. EPA. Office of Wastewater Management. “Report to Congress: Combined Sewer Overflows to the Great Lakes Basin.” (EPA 833-R-16-006). April 2016 at 1 to 2.
  34. Ibid. at ES-2.
  35. Kenward, Alyson et al. Climate Central. “Sewage Overflows From Hurricane Sandy.” April 2014 at 3.
  36. Ibid. at 1.
  37. “Hurricane Ida — 350K gallons in raw sewage spill in area; Rains from hurricane overflowed 10 separate wastewater systems.” The News Herald (FL). September 8, 2021.
  38. Specker, Lawrence. “Hurricane Ida’s silver lining: Mobile sewer improvements are working.” Press-Register (AL). September 8, 2021.
  39. Wade, Christian M. “Lawmakers hear more pitches for relief money.” The Eagle-Tribune. September 13, 2021.
  40. Natter, Ari. “Ida leaves toxic chemicals, sewage swirling in its wake.” Bloomberg. September 3, 2021.
  41. EPA. Office of Water. “Managing Septic Systems to Prevent Contamination of Drinking Water.” (EPA 816-F-01-021). July 2001 at 2; Mihaly, Elena. “Avoiding septic shock: How climate change can cause septic system failure and whether New England states are prepared.” Ocean and Coastal Law Journal. Vol. 23, Iss. 1. January 2018 at 7.
  42. EPA. “Decentralized Wastewater Program Annual Report 2013.” (EPA-832-R-140006). August 2014 at 1.
  43. Hoghooghi, Nahal et al. “Frontiers in assessing septic systems vulnerability in coastal Georgia, USA: Modeling approach and management implications.” PLOS One. Vol. 16, Iss. 8. August 2021 at 2 to 3; Mihaly (2018) at 7.
  44. United Nations. Human Rights Council. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation on her mission to the United States of America (22 February — 4 March 2011).” August 2, 2011 at 7 to 8.
  45. Mohamed, R. “Why households in the United States do not maintain their septic systems and why state-led regulations are necessary: Explanations from public goods theory.” International Journal of Sustainable Development Planning. Vol. 4, No. 2. 2009 at 41.
  46. Ohio Department of Health. “Household Sewage Treatment System Failures in Ohio.” January 2013 at 1.
  47. United Nations (2011) at 7.
  48. Wedgworth, Jessica Cook and Joe Brown. “Limited access to safe drinking water and sanitation in Alabama’s Black Belt: A cross-sectional case study.” Water Quality, Exposure and Health, Vol. 5, Iss. 2. June 2013 at 70.
  49. Ibid. at 69 to 70.
  50. Elliott, Mark. University of Alabama. “Innovative Technologies and Approaches to Address Decentralized Wastewater Infrastructure Challenges in the Alabama Black Belt.” Presented at EPA Decentralized Wastewater Webinar Series. May 26, 2021 at 22; Elliot, Mark and Kevin White. Alabama Water Resources Research Institute. “Onsite Wastewater Management in Hale and Wilcox Counties: Failing Septic Systems, Direct Discharge by ‘Straight Pipes’ and Microbial Source Tracking.” Annual Technical Report. FY 2016 at 1 to 2; Flowers (2018).
  51. Flowers (2018); Okeowo (2020).
  52. Mihaly (2018) at 2 and 4 to 6.
  53. EPA (2004) at ES-2, ES-3, ES-7 and ES-8.
  54. Ibid. at ES-7 to ES-8; EPA. “Keeping Raw Sewage and Contaminated Stormwater Out of the Public’s Water.” 2011 at 4.
  55. Eutrophication: A process that occurs when an estuary or another body of water has an excess of nutrients that causes too many plants and algae to grow. This can lead to toxic algal blooms and low-oxygen waters that kill aquatic life. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service. “What is eutrophication?” Available at Last updated February 26, 2021.
  56. EPA. “National Coastal Condition Assessment.” (EPA 841-R-21-0001). August 2021 at 25.
  57. Ibid. at 37.
  58. Ibid. at 29 and 43.
  59. EPA. “How’s My Waterway?” Available at Accessed November 9, 2021.
  60. EPA (2004) at ES-7 to ES-8.
  61. Note: the recreational beaches that are monitored are program beaches under the BEACH Act. EPA, Office of Water. “EPA’s Beach Report: 2020 Swimming Season.” (EPA-820-R-21-004). August 2021 at 2.
  62. FWW calculation based on Ibid. at 3.
  63. Collier, Sarah A. et al. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Estimate of burden and direct healthcare cost of infectious waterborne disease in the United States.” Emerging Infectious Diseases. Vol. 27, No. 1. January 2021 at 140 and 145.
  64. Ibid. at 140 and 145.
  65. Ibid. at 140 and 145.
  66. EPA (2004) at ES-9; EPA (2011) at 4.
  67. EPA. Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “EPA enforcement: Preventing backup of municipal sewage into basements.” Enforcement Alert. Vol. 8, No. 1. (EPA 325-N-06-001). September 2006 at 1; Mihaly (2018) at 7.
  68. EPA (2011) at 4.
  69. EPA (2001) at 2; Hoghooghi et al. (2021) at 2 to 3.
  70. Elliot and White (FY 2016) at 1 to 2.
  71. McKenna, Megan L. et al. “Human intestinal parasite burden and poor sanitation in rural Alabama.” The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Vol. 97, Iss. 5. September 2017 at 1 and 2.
  72. S. 916. 117th Congress. §2 (2021); H.R. 1352. 117th Congress. (2021).

Averting Climate Catastrophe: Fossil Fuels Must End While Renewables Take Over

REPORT - March 2022

What You’ll Learn From This Report

  • 1: We Must Stop Pretending Renewables Will Automatically Displace Fossil Fuels
    • Only curbing fossil fuels will let renewables deliver on their potential.
  • 2: Renewables and Fossil Fuels Have Grown Together
    • Renewable energy is not a silver bullet for eliminating fossil fuels.
  • 3: Emphasizing Renewables Alone Will Not Displace Fracking
    • Waning consumer demand for fracked gas means frackers turn to exports, industrial uses.
  • 4: Corporations and Democrats Continue Trump’s Energy Agenda
    • The “all of the above” approach prevents us from curbing the climate crisis.
  • 5: Cozy State Regulators Will Not Choose Renewables Over Fossil Fuels Unless They Have To
    • Loopholes help fossil fuels compete against renewables.
  • 6: Leaders Must Directly Confront Fossil Fuel Production and Use
    • Supply-side energy policy is crucial for our future.

Part 1:

We Must Stop Pretending Renewables Will Automatically Displace Fossil Fuels

Only curbing fossil fuels will let renewables deliver on their potential.

Leaders of the United States are at a make-or-break crossroads. As the climate rapidly deteriorates and the impacts multiply from climate-amplified disasters — such as fires, drought, hurricanes and floods — we have a waning chance to avert the worst-case scenarios of climate chaos. It will require bold action and directly taking on the fossil fuel industry.

The science behind climate change is undeniable, and with each passing day more policy makers agree that action is required. The only real debate that remains is how to address this challenge.

There is a growing consensus that we must drastically increase the production of renewable energy, and policy makers — including President Biden — have embraced broad goals for a large percentage of electricity to come from renewable energy by 2030.1 However, these goals will fall short in addressing the climate emergency if increases in renewable energy are not coupled with immediate action to curb the production and use of fossil fuels.2

Curbing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Changes Our Future

The climate policies we enact by 2030 affect how much our climate warms by 2100.

Source: Graphic based on projections for warming over pre-industrial levels, from

The policy decisions of the past decade drove a boom in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), resulting in a massive buildout of fracked gas power plants, pipelines and petrochemical facilities. Fossil fuel corporations plan to build even more. Natural gas currently accounts for more than three times as much electricity production as renewable energy.3 Alarmingly, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that the United States will consume more fracked gas in 2050 than 2020.4 This is a recipe for disaster.

We do not have a decade or even a few years to test the idea that simply by building up renewable energy, the market will phase out the production of fossil fuels. History shows that even when renewable energy has increased, it has not significantly impacted fossil fuel production. For example, only 34 percent of the fracked gas is burned to produce electricity — meaning that most fracked gas is not even supporting our electric grid.5 To address our climate crisis, we need to thwart climate change’s main driver: fossil fuels.

President Biden and many elected leaders use catchy soundbites about moving off of fossil fuels, but the policies that they embrace (including false solutions such as carbon capture, “blue” hydrogen and offsets) will lock us in to dependence on fossil fuels for decades. Despite Biden’s promises to tackle climate change, and the iron-clad science that says we must stop approving new fossil projects, the administration has greenlit even more of them.6

Hundreds of leading scientists stated in an October 2021 letter to President Biden that “the reality of our situation is now so dire that only a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel extraction and combustion can fend off the worst consequences of the climate crisis.”7 Their urgency was mirrored in the 2021 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Following the report’s release, the UN Secretary-General said:

“This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet. There must be no new coal plants built after 2021…. Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy.”8

We still have time to fix our future, but the hour is getting late. We are already experiencing significant climate impacts, but we can and must act now to avoid truly catastrophic consequences. We are at a crossroads that will either haunt our future or redeem it. Policy makers can keep catering to the fossil fuel industry and condemn us to runaway climate chaos, or we can boldly reverse course, act for the benefit of humanity and take the necessary steps to end fossil fuels. As a society, the choice is ours.

Part 2:

Renewables and Fossil Fuels Have Grown Together

Renewable energy is not a silver bullet for eliminating fossil fuels.

Renewable Energy Is Ready to Take Center Stage

The need for urgent climate action becomes more pressing daily, and fortunately renewable energy options are cheaper than ever. Across their lifetimes, solar and wind energy projects cost $36.50 and $40 per megawatt-hour, respectively, in 2020, down from $248 and $123.50 per megawatt hour just over a decade earlier.9 These levelized costs are far cheaper than generating electricity from new nuclear or coal power plants and are often cheaper than natural gas plants.10 Over the past decade, cost reductions and public policy have more than quadrupled the share of electricity generated by wind and solar.11

Moreover, advances in storage and reliability technologies have torpedoed the fossil fuel industry’s claim that 100 percent renewable energy is not possible because “the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.” Scientific advances now mean that off-the-shelf, commercially available technology could support a power grid without any fossil fuels.12

Renewable energy’s potential has been demonstrated at scale in the real world. In 2019, a literature review of 180 scholarly papers covering the challenges associated with 100 percent (or near 100 percent) renewable systems concluded that most systems studied are technically and economically feasible.13 Moreover, when combining renewable technologies with storage, modeling shows that “enough renewable baseload potential exists across the US to meet the current electricity demand ten times over.”14

Fossil Fuel Investment and Production Still Boom

While the trends and viability of renewable energy provide reason for hope, without immediate climate action, the powerful and tenacious fossil fuel industry will doom any hope for climate stability. Despite remarkable progress in renewable electricity, the United States continues to produce and consume large quantities of fossil fuels.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. fossil fuel production fell somewhat in 2020 from an all-time high in 2019 (Figure 1). But according to EIA projections, fossil fuel production is poised to resume its rise through 2022.15 Although coal production has fallen by about half during the fracking boom, the increased production of oil and natural gas has more than offset any greenhouse gas reductions that occurred during coal’s decline.16 If these trends continue, the long-term outlook for the climate is dire. The EIA’s latest long-term projections predict that the U.S. will consume more oil and natural gas in 2050 than in 2020.17


Progress in Fossil Fuel Technology Could Doom Our Climate

Without supply constraints such as banning natural gas and oil production, there is no guarantee that fossil fuel use will end or even slow. Unfettered technological progress is likely to unlock an ever-growing supply of fossil fuels at lower prices.22


Photo: Jersey Turnpike Traffic. CCBYSA-Joiseyshowa-FLK / Wikimedia Commons

Total resources unlockable by technological improvements vastly outnumber these proved reserves (a metric used in mining that describes the amount of hydrocarbon resources that can be obtained from a site with a reasonable level of certainty). For example, if the production of oil shale (an oil-rich sand similar to bitumen tar sands, not to be confused with shale oil) became economical, it would at least triple proved reserves, and technology to extract methane hydrates (crystalized methane deep in the ocean) could more than double current gas reserves.23

Photo: Gas hydrate (white material) in marine sediments collected off the Oregon coast.

New environmentally destructive extraction methods could continue to unlock new sources of oil and gas. Currently, technological progress is finding new hydrocarbons faster than consumption is depleting existing sources. Proved reserves of oil and natural gas in the United States more than doubled between 2005 and 2018 despite high rates of extraction. In 2018, proved reserves totaled 504 trillion cubic feet of gas and 47 billion barrels oil.24 If extracted and burned, these reserves would release the equivalent of 78.7 billion metric tons of CO2.25 These reserves alone contain 15 years’ worth of U.S. energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.26

Part 3:

Emphasizing Renewables Alone Will Not Displace Fracking

Waning consumer demand for fracked gas means frackers turn to exports, industrial uses.

A single-minded focus on the promotion of renewable electricity, without addressing fossil fuel use in other sectors, will fail to adequately address climate change. Only 34 percent of the natural gas produced in the United States is burned at power plants. Buildings and industrial users each account for about 25 percent of natural gas use, and the remaining 17 percent of natural gas is exported (Figure 2).27

Even in the context of electricity, the promotion of renewables has done little to check the rise of new natural gas power plants supplying the grid. Since 2010, the contribution of renewable energy to the grid has risen from 2.8 percent to 11.5 percent (Figure 3). At this rate, the United States would only reach 100 percent renewable electricity by 2130.28

However, the main trend in the electricity sector has been a substantial shift to natural gas. Natural gas grew from supplying 22.7 percent of electricity in 2010 to supplying 39.3 percent in 2020.29 This was the result of building more than 1,100 new natural gas generators with combined nameplate capacity greater than 100,000 megawatts (about 9 percent of all power plant capacity, or enough to power around 100 million homes if running at maximum).30 These new gas plants are intentionally designed with lifespans of 40 to 50 years.31 Without new policy, natural gas plants are likely to represent 40 percent of the new electric generation built through 2050, with even more gas plants opening through mid-century.32

Buildings Continue to Use Dangerous and Outdated Natural Gas Appliances

Natural gas is used for air and water heating in 9.7 percent of commercial buildings and 14.6 percent of residential buildings in the United States.33 This use (for air and water heating) could be displaced by readily available electric alternatives, as technologies that enable full electrification eliminate the need for natural gas in buildings.34 However, current trends indicate that without policy changes, natural gas use in buildings is unlikely to end. Natural gas appliances emit dangerous pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, which are linked to respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease. Operating a gas-powered stove and oven for an hour can raise indoor pollution to levels that exceed national air quality standards.35

Long-term climate goals cannot be reached without electrification.36 Despite this, the current pace of electrification in buildings is nowhere near fast enough. Buildings have slow turnover, and owners are often reluctant to invest in retrofits. Full electrification would likely require stringent standards for new buildings combined with rolling retrofit requirements for existing buildings.37 Deep reductions in buildings’ energy use are unlikely without the mandated retrofitting of the existing building stock.38 While constructing new buildings without natural gas should be the easier task, natural gas companies have fought tooth and nail against modest measures to limit the supply of natural gas to newly constructed buildings.39

Fracking’s Petrochemical and Plastics Push

The slow-changing buildings industry, while providing a stable outlet for entrenched natural gas companies, is not large enough on its own to support the continued fracking boom. The two sectors that are best positioned to enable the ongoing rise in natural gas production are exports and industrial users.40

The use of natural gas in the industrial sector is booming. Bulk chemicals (the production of organic and inorganic chemicals, resins and agricultural chemicals) account for half of this new industrial demand, including as feedstock (for hydrogen, methanol and nitrogenous fertilizer) as well as for heating purposes. Refineries, as well as producers of paper and bulk chemicals, also use natural gas for process heating and electricity generation, often at combined heat and power (CHP) plants.41

In February 2021, the main industry group representing petrochemical companies noted nearly 350 petrochemical projects that were planned, under construction or completed were made possible as a result of fracking.42 The EIA anticipates that the use of natural gas as a feedstock and a heating source in the industrial sector will grow substantially over the next decade.43

Exporting Natural Gas: A Booming Industry

U.S. energy production hit record highs in 2018 and 2019.52 Because of the pandemic, among other things, consumption of natural gas is set to decline slightly through 2022.53 However, after a brief decline, U.S. production of natural gas is accelerating,54 mostly because of the amount being sent to other countries. The EIA projected that natural gas exports would rise from 14.4 billion cubic feet per day in 2020 to 18.3 billion cubic feet per day by the end of 2021 (equal to nearly 20 percent of total U.S. natural gas production). This new export volume would more than compensate for a slight dip in the domestic use of natural gas for electricity, keeping producers flush.55

Of this increase in exports, 80 percent will be filled by fracked gas from newly drilled wells — gas that otherwise would have remained underground.56 Some natural gas is exported by pipeline or truck to Mexico and Canada, and the rest is shipped by tanker from export terminals to reach overseas markets.57 The gas moving via tankers first gets converted into liquefied natural gas (LNG), and its transport is highly dangerous.

U.S. LNG exports rose to record levels by the end of 2020, averaging 9.8 billion cubic feet per day in December.65 Existing LNG export capacity supports exporting as much as 10.1 billion cubic feet per day, but facilities that are currently approved and under construction would expand that capacity to 42.1 billion cubic feet per day, nearly half of all natural gas produced in the United States.66 If built, this export capacity could completely offset the total elimination of natural gas from the electric power sector, enabling producers to export all of the gas that they otherwise would have sold to power plants.67

If built, this export capacity could completely offset the total elimination of natural gas from the electric power sector, enabling producers to export all of the gas that they otherwise would have sold to power plants.

LNG advocates love to argue that the export of LNG is necessary to displace coal plants abroad; however, the United States also continues to export coal.68 The switch to natural gas power in the country has actually pushed some of the domestic coal supply overseas, where international consumers burn it.69 Every 10 percent drop in U.S. natural gas prices is associated with a 3.3 percent increase in coal exports.70 As fracking boomed from 2007 to 2013, U.S. coal exports doubled, despite the economic recession.71 However, continued coal exports depend on expanding the capacity at west coast terminals or adding rail capacity to Canada — hotly contested projects that are vulnerable to public opposition.72

These rising fossil fuel exports could be the final nail in the coffin for climate stability. Under so-called “baseline” scenarios — in which no additional mitigation of fossil fuel emissions occurs —the world is on track to hit 4.3 degrees Celsius of warming this century.73

So far, modest reductions in the consumption of coal and oil in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have been largely offset by an increase in natural gas consumption domestically and by a dramatic rise in fossil fuel use in non-OECD countries.74 Exports would help enable a nearly unlimited supply of fossil fuels, meaning that any policies to mitigate climate change proposed by countries such as the United States, if implemented, would still put the world on track for 3.2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.75

Part 4:

Corporations and Democrats Continue Trump’s Energy Agenda

The “all of the above” approach prevents us from curbing the climate crisis.

U.S. state governments have seized on the momentum for climate action by championing the buildout of renewable energy. However, they have avoided confrontation with entrenched fossil fuel interests and refuse to commit to hard limits on supply. Experience shows that building more renewable energy projects is not enough to guarantee deep reductions in emissions — even within the electricity sector. The “energy dominance” doctrine of the Trump administration took the stance that welcoming renewable energy as part of an “all of the above” approach poses no direct threat to fossil fuels.76

While the Biden administration has been more vocally supportive of renewables — promising billions in new spending on technology and development — it has not committed to hard limits on fossil fuel extraction.77 The administration has made clear that it sees fossil fuels as a key part of the future energy mix.78 When pushed, Biden even says, “I’m all for natural gas.”79

Facing pressure from oil and gas interests, some Democrats have embraced carbon capture as a way to keep the oil and gas industry afloat while “complying” with climate goals. However, carbon capture is a favored misdirection tactic, posing as a climate solution. Recent drafts of federal climate legislation have even included carbon capture in a list of “clean” energy sources, elevating it to the same status as real renewable energy such as wind and solar.80 Carbon capture and storage is unproven, prohibitively expensive and, after accounting for the entire emissions lifecycle, incapable of producing deep emissions reductions. Carbon capture can even enable increased oil production by injecting the captured carbon into oil reservoirs.81

Despite the impressive-sounding goals of electricity corporations, the planned time frames for fossil fuel retirements are too slow to meet these goals. Some utility companies are adhering to their climate pledges by divesting from their coal fleets rather than dismantling them, leaving these plants in service under new owners.82 Others corporations are choosing to buy credits, certificates or offsets from renewable energy producers while leaving dirty portions of their supply chain intact.83 Meanwhile, sectors such as technology and airlines have embraced a similar approach to climate pledges, but company insiders have questioned whether these measures have any impact on overall emissions.84

Chesterfield Power Station, one of Dominion Energy’s coal-fired power stations that’s on-track to retire. Photo credit: Edbrown05, CC BY-SA 2.5 / Wikimedia Commons

Virginia’s Renewables Seem to Be Token Gestures, While Fossil Fuels Keep Trucking

Plans to build additional renewable energy plants and transition to a more renewable grid in Virginia have been shadowed by new investments in fracked gas infrastructure and a reluctance to phase out existing fossil fuels. Amid growing pressure from climate activists, in 2018 Governor Ralph Northam touted plans by the state’s biggest utility to build 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy.85 Meanwhile, from 2010 to 2020, the state added 6,500 megawatts of new natural gas capacity.86 Despite posturing in support of renewable energy, Northam’s administration supported a number of multi-billion-dollar pipelines to bring natural gas into Virginia.87 Governor Youngkin’s election in 2021 only intensifies the threat of further fossil fuel development in the state, through commitments to weaken climate and environmental protections, dismantle citizen review boards for fossil fuel infrastructure projects, and greenlight fracked gas projects in the name of grid reliability.88

Northam’s administration even won praise nationally for its “landmark” climate bill.89 While the state’s climate bill, the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), is intended to phase out fossil-fueled power plants, the law takes decades to fully take hold and is riddled with loopholes.90 A legislative effort to clean up those loopholes in 2022 didn’t make it out of Committee, signaling the shifting reality regarding climate policy under Governor Youngkin.91 It is unclear whether the VCEA will have any meaningful impact on the decision making of utilities in the state. Despite the new law, developers have pushed ahead with the environmentally destructive Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile long project which would carry fracked gas through Virginia.92

Virginia’s added renewable energy projects appear to provide cover for the business-as-usual operation of fossil fuel power plants in the state. Even as a raft of positive press statements have touted the “transformative” nature of the VCEA, long-term resource plans submitted to Virginia’s utility regulator by Dominion Energy tell a starkly different story, including plans to operate natural gas plants long after the targets set by the VCEA.93

Dominion’s plans show that the company intends to retire much of its coal power fleet regardless of the VCEA. This is because many of Dominion’s coal operations have a negative net present value. Conversely, where environmental ambitions compete with profitability, profits appear to win out. Dominion’s plans do not retire any natural gas capacity until 2035 at the earliest, and include 970 megawatts of new gas capacity to be built in the early 2020s.94 Dominion claims that these gas plants are “placeholders,” but the company gives no indication as to what might be built in their place.95 Additionally, Dominion’s plans make little reference to the company’s highly profitable coal units at the Mount Storm power plant in West Virginia.96

Between now and 2035, Dominion’s plan features only 150 megawatts of additional retirements compared to how much the company would have retired if the VCEA had not passed. The biggest change from the “no VCEA” plan is that the VCEA plan retires three 50 megawatt biomass power plants.97 Dominion notes that uncertainty exists regarding the units it plans to retire, stating that, aside from a few units, “inclusion of a unit retirement in this 2020 Plan should be considered as tentative only.”98 These power plants may operate less frequently, but without firm commitments to actually close the plants, lower emissions are not guaranteed.

California’s Renewables Are Overshadowed by Our Oil Addiction

Nationally, California is the go-to example of environmental and climate action, both positively and pejoratively.112 There is some merit to these claims — the state produces the most solar power in the country and ranks near the top in renewable energy production as a percentage of generation.113 However, California is also the largest net importer of electricity, drawing partially on out-of-state coal power plants.114 The market-oriented bias of climate policy in California has left the state vulnerable to regulatory evasion tactics such as resource shuffling (the process of transferring dirty resources out-of-state and importing from dirty sources outside of the regulatory jurisdiction).115

Despite California’s environmental reputation, the fossil fuel industry has a large and entrenched presence. Yes, the state is a leader in renewables, but it is also the seventh largest oil producer in the country.116 In refining capacity, California ranks third behind Texas and Louisiana, with a huge apparatus set up to refine primarily imported oil.117

Much of California’s oil is produced using particularly water-intensive and environmentally destructive extraction measures such as cyclic steam injection, matrix acidizing and hydraulic fracturing (fracking).118 On average, oil produced in California is among the dirtiest sources in the world, resulting in higher lifecycle carbon emissions per barrel than other sources.119

Oil production also has a huge water footprint in California. Food & Water Watch found that from 2018 to June 2021, the oil and gas industry used over 3 billion gallons of freshwater for drilling operations that could otherwise have supplied domestic systems.120 The freshwater sucked up by the oil and gas industry since 2018 could have provided everyone in the city of Pasadena with the recommended amount of daily water for an entire year, or everyone in the city of Ventura for 16 months.121

Industry-backed decision makers and state agencies have enabled widespread drilling.122 Governor Newsom’s offer of a vague plan to end fossil fuel extraction by 2045 offers no guarantee that these fuels would stay in the ground.123 Instead of banning fracking now, Newsom plans to continue issuing fracking permits until 2024.124 These long time frames will doom climate policies, as fossil fuel producers can accelerate their production schedules to extract the reserves before the deadline.125 When producers anticipate an end to permitting, they stockpile and accumulate permits before the deadline hits, sometimes in quantities big enough to neutralize the policy.126

Part 5:

Cozy State Regulators Will Not Choose Renewables Over Fossil Fuels Unless They Have To

Loopholes help fossil fuels compete against renewables.

Curtailment in California

Building new renewable energy sources is often not enough to switch off fossil fuel power plants that were built before clean energy came online. In theory, electricity producers should choose power from renewable sources, which have no fuel costs (rather than paying to burn coal or natural gas).127 But in practice, renewable power plants are sometimes disconnected while utilities continue to burn coal and natural gas.128

This practice of reducing the amount of power supplied from renewables below the amount they are capable of producing is called curtailment. It is often done by disconnecting or reducing at the electrical converter level for solar and changing the blade angle for wind.129 A review of curtailment in four key solar-producing countries found that in 2018, 6.5 million megawatt-hours of solar was curtailed.130 That electricity could have powered all the households of a city around the size of Phoenix for year.131

California leads the nation in solar installation, but the state has largely failed to kick its dependence on natural gas.132 California uses more natural gas than any state other than Texas.133 Instead of building energy storage, California imports out-of-state power and turns to gas generation to fill gaps in solar generation.134 These imports hide the fossil fuel footprint of California’s electricity. Since 2015, natural gas-fired generation has declined by 29 percent in California, but it stayed the same overall in the western U.S. as out-of-state generators picked up the slack.135

Increased solar deployment in California has coincided with increased curtailment.136 From 2014 to 2019, curtailments nearly doubled each year.137 California curtails 2 to 3 percent of its renewable energy production.138 The group that oversees the electricity market and grid, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), has curtailed more than 5 million megawatt-hours of wind and solar electricity since 2015 (Figure 4).139 That is enough electricity to cover the needs of 740,000 Californian households for a year.140

Fossil Fuels Use Loopholes to Stave Off Renewables

Negative prices, or a surcharge to produce electricity, are a key mechanism to encourage curtailment in California. CAISO enables negative prices by adjusting the price floor to levels that will push out renewable generation.141 In 2017, wholesale prices of power in California hit negative levels.142 But these negative prices are not leading to cheap energy for consumers — Californians pay electricity rates that are among the highest in the nation.143

Negative pricing occurs when plants that are expensive to restart or shutdown continue to operate in anticipation of future demand.144 Pro-renewable policies can drive prices negative, but when fossil-fueled operators continue to run, this pushes prices to the point where renewables — which cost almost nothing to operate — lose money by selling electricity.145 CAISO has directly attempted to protect gas generators from negative prices by curtailing renewable energy.146 California also offers capacity payments for idling gas plants, creating a means for them to stay afloat amid negative wholesale prices.147 These flexibility payments are effectively a handout to gas generators.148

Negative prices reflect an uneven playing field that can favor fossil fuels over renewable energy. CAISO market rules in 2017 allowed natural gas generators to forgo curtailment by appealing to contract stipulations that do not match their technical capacities — in other words, allowing gas plants to pretend to be less flexible than they are.149 FERC even allowed CAISO to contract directly with fossil-fueled power plants that would otherwise be unable to compete with renewable energy.150

Transmission congestion is often cited as a rational for renewable curtailment in California.151 However, transmission capacity often goes unused while renewables are curtailed.152 Contracts signed by the big three California utilities restrict the use of transmission capacity to back up renewables.153 This leads to situations where California continues to import energy while curtailing renewables.154

Photo credit: Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Curtailment Is a Choice

Policy decisions impact price setting and direct grid investments, which determine the prices received by energy producers. Some level of curtailment may be inevitable in a completely renewable-powered grid at times of low demand, but curtailing renewables in favor of fossil fuels is not a reflection of that dynamic.155

Curtailment rates do not correspond to a proportion of renewables as a percentage of capacity and vary significantly among electricity markets.156 For example, Germany curtails far less than U.S. states with comparable levels of solar development.157 Texas substantially reduced curtailment of wind through public investment in transmission and market design changes to properly value wind energy.158 However, Texas curtailed 8.4 percent of its potential solar output in 2018.159

Investor-owned utilities have proved resistant to building the transmission infrastructure necessary to bring renewable electricity to distant markets.160 Private utilities have gone out of their way to design transmission investments in such a way as to benefit their existing fleets and bottom lines.161 Without significant reforms, these corporations will continue to use legal means to resist change, often with the help of in-their-pocket state governments.162

An electricity policy that prioritizes renewable energy and eliminating fossil fuels from the grid would go a long way to reduce curtailment. Incorporating storage and flexibility could significantly reduce curtailment in California.163 And while natural gas apologists argue that the flexibility of gas power plants enables renewables to run more frequently, non-fossil alternatives (such as demand response and storage) are more effective at reducing curtailment than natural gas generation is.164

Part 6:

Leaders Must Directly Confront Fossil Fuel Production and Use

Supply-side energy policy is crucial for our future.

Policy makers representing fossil fuel-producing regions have signaled willingness to embrace half-hearted market-based climate policies. Even major oil producers have signaled willingness to support a carbon tax.165 These policies pose no real threat to fossil fuel producers because they do not result in deep emissions reductions.166 Not only do fossil fuel pricing schemes create political cover, the revenue streams created by these programs can entrench these industries — leaving policy makers reluctant to cut back on production.167

In Pennsylvania, rather than enact regulations to respond to the dire social and environmental consequences of fracking, lawmakers enacted an “impact fee” that returns payouts from drilling to affected communities — a move welcomed by fracking companies.168 Pennsylvania gas companies supplement their tax contributions with voluntary charity to launder their image.169 The strategies appear somewhat successful. Surveys of Pennsylvania residents find that the popularity of fracking rises in tandem with the size of impact fees.170

Would-be frackers in the United Kingdom openly extol the importance of impact fees for generating the political will to frack. In a plan modeled on the United States, the U.K. chemical company Ineos offered broad-ranging voluntary community payments as part of a comprehensive strategy to push fracking — giving an activity that depletes the environment and erodes our climate future the false patina of social good.171

The following statement captures this gaslighting tactic:

“Giving 6% of revenues to those directly above Shale gas wells means the rewards are fairly shared by everyone. It’s what they do in the USA and we think it is right to do this here. It democratises the Shale gas revolution.”172

Ineos CEO Jim Ratcliffe

Conclusion: Public Policy — Not Market Mechanisms — Is the Only Way Forward

The viability of renewable electricity provides an off-ramp from climate chaos, but if fossil fuel development continues unchecked, we will be locked in to decades of continued carbon emissions and climate crisis.173 Policies that address the fossil fuel supply are a vital component of any successful effort to address climate change. For example, reducing coal subsidies would have a much smaller impact on coal consumption than a ban on new coal mines.174

Limiting production is far easier to enforce than using market mechanisms to reduce consumption. Both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes involve complex and detailed reporting and auditing at thousands of facilities — which creates a difficult job for the government agencies that oversee them.175 In addition to financial costs, complex administration can lead to under reporting and gaming between regulated and unregulated entities, resulting in emissions.176

In contrast, supply policies are easily observable and have predictable outcomes with minimal overhead.177 That is because supply policies impact a smaller number of firms and regulate easily observed commodities rather than the resulting greenhouse gas emissions.178 Moreover, in an alternate scenario where demand reduction works, supply controls would have no additional cost and merely act as an insurance policy.179

The United States is the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, contributing 15 percent of total global emissions.180 However, some politicians argue that the country cannot substantially reduce global emissions because developing countries continue to increase their emissions.181 This is in part because the trade in carbon-intensive products has grown rapidly, undermining the effectiveness of domestic climate policy on the demand side.182 Many of these same politicians have supported lax trade policies that allow corporations to relocate to other countries to avoid complying with regulations.183 In some cases, countries export fuels that are used to produce products that they then import to consume.184

Even without global cooperation, removing the U.S. fossil fuel reserves from the world market would undermine fossil fuel generation globally.185 While investment and (to a lesser extent) labor can cross borders, fossil fuel reserves are immobile.186 By imposing limits on fossil fuel production within their own borders, countries can guarantee against the relocation of these fuels.187 International agreements that target the supply of fossil fuels are easier to negotiate, verify and enforce because they deal with fewer polluters.188


  • President Biden should use his authority to stop fossil fuel extraction on federal lands.
  • President Biden should use his authority to stop the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, including LNG exports, by denying the needed federal permits.
  • Congress should ban fracking everywhere.
  • Congress should pass legislation laying out a managed transition off fossil fuels that protects workers and communities that have depended on the industry.

We can shift right now to the power sources that will change the trajectory of humankind. It just takes the political will of clear-headed leaders working for the good of the people and not the profit margins of the fossil fuel industry.

Send a message to President Biden now. We must end fossil fuels before they end us.

  1. Milman, Oliver. “Biden’s clean energy plan would cut emissions and save 317,000 lives.” Guardian. July 12, 2021.
  2. Welsby, Dan et al. “Unextractable fossil fuels in a 1.5°C world.” Nature. Vol. 597. September 2021 at 230.
  3. Food & Water Watch (FWW) analysis of U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Energy Information Administration (EIA). June 2021 Monthly Energy Review. Available at and on file with FWW.
  4. DOE EIA. “Annual Energy Outlook 2021 with projections to 2050: Narrative.” February 3, 2021 at 7 and 22.
  5. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Natural Gas Monthly Data. Available at Accessed June 2021 and on file with FWW. Note: Figures are an average of the 12 months preceding May 2021; DOE EIA. “Fossil fuel production expected to increase through 2022 but remain below 2019 peak.” Today in Energy. January 15, 2021.
  6. Welsby, Dan et al. (2021) at 230; Kalmus, Peter et al. Letter to U.S. President Joseph R. Biden. “An open letter from U.S. scientists imploring President Biden to end the fossil fuel era.” October 7, 2021. Available at
  7. Kalmus et al. (2021).
  8. United Nations Secretary-General. [Press release]. “Secretary-General’s statement on the IPCC Working Group 1 Report on the Physical Science Basis of the Sixth Assessment.” August 9, 2021.
  9. Lazard. Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis. Version 14. October 2020 at 9.
  10. Ibid. at 8 and 10 to 13.
  11. DOE EIA. Electric Power Monthly, Net Generation All Sectors Monthly. Available at Accessed January 2021 and on file with FWW; Carley, Sanya et al. “Empirical evaluation of the stringency and design of renewable portfolio standards.” Nature Energy. Vol. 3. July 2018 at 754 and 761; Rossi, Jim. “Carbon taxation by regulation.” Minnesota Law Review. Vol. 102, No. 277. November 2017 at 302.
  12. Diesendorf, Mark and Ben Elliston. “The feasibility of 100% renewable electricity systems: A response to critics.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Vol. 93. October 2018 at 318.
  13. Hansen, Kenneth et al. “Status and perspectives on 100% renewable energy systems.” Energy. Vol. 175. May 2019 at 471 and 475.
  14. Rhodes, J. D. et al. “Baseload power potential from optimally-configured wind, solar and storage power plants across the United States.” Nature Communications. 2020 at 15.
  15. DOE EIA (January 2021).
  16. Ibid.; FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Annual Coal Report 2020. Natural Gas Gross Withdrawals and Production 2020. U.S. Field Production of Crude Oil. Available at and on file with FWW; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator. Updated March 2021. Available at and on file with FWW.
  17. DOE EIA (February 3, 2021) at 7.
  18. Gorski, Irena and Brian S. Schwartz. “Environmental health concerns from unconventional natural gas development.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia Global Public Health. February 2019 at 11 and 39.
  19. Castelli, Matthew. “Fracking and the rural poor: Negative externalities, failing remedies, and federal legislation.” Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality. Vol. 3, Iss. 2. May 2015 at 281 and 285 to 287; Zwickl, Klara. “The demographics of fracking: A spatial analysis for four U.S. states.” Ecological Economics. Vol. 161. July 2019 at 202.
  20. DOE EIA. Gas Production by Shale Play. Available at Accessed October 2021 and on file with FWW; DOE EIA. “U.S. dry natural gas production and rig count continue to grow from pandemic lows.” Today in Energy. June 17, 2021.
  21. Calculation assumes 86 (20-year) global warming potential of methane and methane leakage of 3.5 percent. From Howarth, Robert W. “Ideas and perspectives: Is shale gas a major driver of recent increase in global atmospheric methane?” Biogeosciences. Vol. 16, Iss. 15. August 2019 at 3038 to 3040; EPA (2021).
  22. Covert, Thomas et al. “Will we ever stop using fossil fuels?” Journal of Economic Perspectives. Vol 30, No. 1. Winter 2016 at 119.
  23. Ibid at 125 to 126.
  24. DOE EIA. “U.S. oil and natural gas proved reserves and production set new records in 2018.” Today in Energy. January 13, 2020.
  25. See calculation in footnote 21; EPA (2021).
  26. DOE EIA. “U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2019.” September 30, 2020 at 3.
  27. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Natural Gas Monthly Data.
  28. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. June 2021 Monthly Energy Review. Note: FWW defines renewables as solar, wind and geothermal.
  29. Ibid.
  30. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Form EIA-860 data, 2019. Available at Accessed January 2021 and on file with FWW; PJM Interconnection. [Press release]. “PJM prepared to ensure a reliable grid during August solar eclipse.” July 31, 2017.
  31. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Form EIA-860 data, 2016. Note: The average age of U.S. gas-fired power plants is 24 years, but 643 (12 percent) began operating before 1968, 50 years ago, and the oldest gas plant went online in 1915.
  32. DOE EIA (February 3, 2021) at 14.
  33. FWW DOE EIA. Natural Gas Monthly Data. Accessed June 2021.
  34. Steinberg, Daniel et al. DOE. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Electrification & Decarbonization: Exploring U.S. Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Scenarios With Widespread Electrification and Power Sector Decarbonization.” NREL/TP-6A20-68214. July 2017 at vi, 12 and 13.
  35. Zhu, Yifang et al. University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Fielding School of Public Health. “Effects of Residential Gas Appliances on Indoor and Outdoor Air Quality and Public Health in California.” April 2020 at 6.
  36. Reyna, Janet L. and Mikhail V. Chester. “Energy efficiency to reduce residential electricity and natural gas use under climate change.” Nature Communications. Vol. 8. May 2017 at 2.
  37. Onat, Nuri Cihat et al. “Towards greening the U.S. residential building stock: A system dynamics approach.” Building and Environment. Vol. 78. 2014 at 76 to 78; Mundaca, Luis et al. “Demand-side approaches for limiting global warming to 1.5 °C.” Energy Efficiency. Vol. 12. August 2018 at 4.
  38. Onat, Nuri Cihat et al. (2014) at 76 and 77.
  39. Tomich, Jeffrey. “Gas ban backlash spreads across the U.S.” E&E News. February 2, 2021.
  40. DOE EIA (February 3, 2021) at 25.
  41. Ibid. at 25 and 26.
  42. American Chemistry Council (ACC). “U.S. Shale Gas Infographic February 2021.” February 2021.
  43. DOE EIA (February 3, 2021) at 8.
  44. DOE EIA. “U.S. ethane exports rise in 2019 as China receives its first U.S. cargos.” Natural Gas Weekly Update. January 30, 2020; DOE EIA. Petroleum Supply Annual 2010, Volume 2. July 28, 2011 at table 1; DOE EIA. Petroleum Supply Annual 2020, Volume 2. August 31, 2021 at table 1.
  45. DOE EIA. “EIA forecasts resilient, growing ethane production through 2021.” Natural Gas Weekly Update. August 13, 2020.
  46. Laris, Michael. “In the shadows of Refinery Row, a parable of redevelopment and race.” Washington Post. October 21, 2017.
  47. Asbury, Martina. PetroChemical Update. “U.S. Northeast Petrochemical Industry: Market Outlook 2018.” November 2017 at 5; Blunt, Katherine. “Ethane consumption surges with petrochemcial boom.” Houston Chronicle. February 24, 2018; Blunt, Katherine. “Houston­area petrochemical producers look overseas to sell plastic.” Houston Chronicle. February 1, 2018.
  48. Jambeck, Jenna R. et al. “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean.” Science Magazine. Vol. 347. Iss. 6223. February 13, 2015 at 768
  49. Worm, Boris et al. “Plastic as a persistent marine pollutant.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources. Vol. 42. 2017 at 2.
  50. Geyer, Roland et al. “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.” Science Advances. Vol. 3. 2017 at 1.
  51. Zheng, Jiajia and Sangwon Suh. “Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics.” Nature Climate Change. Vol. 9, Iss. 5. April 2019 at 374 and 375.
  52. DOE EIA. “In 2019, U.S. energy production exceeded consumption for the first time in 62 years.” Today in Energy. April 28, 2020.
  53. DOE EIA. “EIA forecasts that U.S. natural gas consumption will decline through 2022.” Natural Gas Weekly Update. April 8, 2021.
  54. DOE EIA (June 17, 2021).
  55. DOE EIA. “U.S. natural gas exports and non-power sector demand to drive higher prices through 2022.” Today in Energy. June 22, 2021.
  56. Tuladhar, Sugandha D. et al. NERA Economic Consulting. Prepared for DOE. “Macroeconomic Outcomes of Market Determined Levels of U.S. LNG Exports.” June 7, 2018 at 21.
  57. DOE EIA. U.S. Natural Gas Exports and Re-Exports by Point of Exit. August 31, 2018.
  58. Dixon, Sean T. “Deepwater liquefied natural gas ports and the shifting U.S. liquefied natural gas market.” Ocean and Coastal Law Journal. Vol. 17, No. 1. Article No. 2. 2011 at 3, 4 and 23; Parfomak, Paul W. U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS). “Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Infrastructure Security: Background and Issues for Congress.” RL32073. September 9, 2003 at CRS-2.
  59. Clark, Nigel N. et al. “Pump-to-wheels methane emissions from the heavy-duty transportation sector.” Environmental Science & Technology. Vol. 51. December 2017 at 969.
  60. Corkhill, Mike. “Two Sabine Pass LNG tanks removed from service.” LNG World Shipping. February 13, 2018.
  61. Bousso, Ron. “LNG growth to propel oil and gas industry’s carbon emissions — WoodMac.” Reuters. September 20, 2017; Boersma, Tim and Sarah M. Jordaan “Whatever happened to the Golden Age of natural gas?” Energy Transit. Vol. 1, No. 5. August 2017 at 1 and 2.
  62. Pihl, Kristi. “Update: Evacuation radius near Plymouth plant to be reduced.” Tri-City (WA) Herald. March 31, 2014.
  63. Pihl (2014); Mandel, Jenny. “Explosive LNG issues grab PHMSA’s attention.” E&E News. June 7, 2016.
  64. Ehrenfeld, David. “The environmental limits to globalization.” Conservation Biology. Vol. 19, No. 2. April 2005 at 321.
  65. DOE EIA. “U.S. LNG exports set another record in December.” Natural Gas Weekly Update. January 7, 2021.
  66. DOE EIA (June 17, 2021).
  67. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Natural Gas Monthly Data. Accessed June 2021.
  68. DOE EIA. “Coal Explained; Coal Imports and Exports.” May 27, 2021.
  69. Feng, Kuishuang et al. “Drivers of the US CO2 emissions 1997-2013.” Nature Communications. Vol. 6. July 2015 at 5; Broderick, John and Kevin Anderson. University of Manchester. “Has US Shale Gas Reduced CO2 Emissions?” Tyndall Manchester Climate Change Research. October 2012 at 4.
  70. Knittel, Christopher et al. “Are we fracked? The impact of falling gas prices and the implications for coal-to-gas switching and carbon emissions.” Oxford Review of Economic Policy. Vol. 32, No. 2. April 2016 at 253.
  71. Feng et al. (2015) at 4 and 5.
  72. Mendelevitch, Roman et al. “The death spiral of coal in the U.S.: Will changes in U.S. policy turn the tide?” Climate Policy. Vol. 19, No. 10. July 2019 at 1316.
  73. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report.” 2015 at 8 and 10; IPCC. “IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate: Summary for Policymakers.” 2019 at 8.
  74. BP Plc. “BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019.” June 2019 at 9; BP Plc. “BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2006.” June 2006 at 12, 28 and 35.
  75. Raftery, Adrian E. et al. “Less than 2° C warming by 2100 unlikely.” Nature Climate Change. Vol. 7. July 2017 at 1.
  76. Zinke, Ryan K. “American energy dominance means Mass. wind.” Boston Globe. April 16, 2018.
  77. Penrod, Emma. “Biden proposes more than $2B for clean energy infrastructure, $14B+ increase in climate spending.” Utility Dive. June 1, 2021.
  78. Jean, Renée. “Biden’s energy secretary affirms there is a future for the oil and gas industry in a low carbon world.” Williston (ND) Herald. May 14, 2021.
  79. Aton, Adam. “Biden’s promise to unions: ‘I’m all for natural gas’.” E&E News. March 4, 2021.
  80. Hughes, Siobhan and Aaron Zitner. “Democrats in oil country worried by party’s natural-gas agenda.” Wall Street Journal. June 29, 2021.
  81. FWW. [Issue brief]. “The Case Against Carbon Capture: False Claims and New Pollution.” March 2020 at 3 and 6 to 8.
  82. Ryser, Jeffrey. “Utility emissions, renewable goals accelerate, but coal retirements may be too slow.” S&P Global. February 25, 2021.
  83. Naik, Gautam and Esther Whieldon. “Carbon offsets prove risky business for net zero targets.” S&P Global. May 12, 2021; Frazin, Rachel. “Major electric company sets goal for net-zero emissions by 2050.” The Hill. April 28, 2020; Whieldon, Esther. “Path to net zero: 70% of biggest US utilities have deep decarbonization targets.” S&P Global Market Intelligence. December 9, 2020; Danko, Pete. “Portland General Electric sets aggressive new carbon-reduction targets.” Portland Business Journal. November 18, 2020; Samuel, Molly. “Atlanta-based Southern Company commits to net zero carbon emissions.” National Public Radio (NPR). WABE–Atlanta, GA. May 27, 2021.
  84. Schechner, Sam. “Amazon and other tech giants race to buy up renewable energy.” Wall Street Journal. June 23, 2021; Naik and Whieldon (2021).
  85. Martz, Michael. “Dominion moves ahead with plan to build a pair of wind turbines off the Virginia coast.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. August 3, 2018.
  86. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Form-860 data, 2020. EIA. Available at and on file with FWW. Accessed June 2021.
  87. Leonor, Mel. “Northam lays out renewable energy goals for Virginia, calls for carbon-free electricity by 2050.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. September 17, 2019; Penn, Ivan. “Atlantic Coast Pipeline canceled as delays and costs mount.” New York Times. July 5, 2020; Vogelsong, Sarah. “More delays, cost increases for Mountain Valley Pipeline.” Virginia Mercury. May 4, 2021.
  88. Hammack, Laurence. “Gubernatorial candidates comment, or choose not to, on Mountain Valley Pipeline.” Roanoke Times. October 9, 2021; Wilson, Patrick. “Va. Senate democrats pass GOP bill to remove power of citizen environmental boards.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. February 14, 2022.
  89. Schneider, Gregory S. “Virginia becomes the first Southern state with a goal of carbon-free energy.” Washington Post. April 13, 2020.
  90. Virginia Office of the Governor. [Press release]. “Governor Northam signs clean energy legislation.” April 12, 2020; Dominion Energy. “Virginia Electric and Power Company’s Report of Its Integrated Resource Plan Before the Virginia State Corporation Commission and North Carolina Utilities Commission.” Case No. PUR-2020-00035. Docket No. E-100, Sub 165. May 1, 2020 at 2 and 18.
  91. FWW. [Press release]. “Virginia House of Delegates committee votes down the New Virginia Economy Act.” February 8, 2022.
  92. Hammack, Laurence. “Stream crossings continue to muddy the waters for Mountain Valley Pipeline.” Roanoke Times. June 28, 2021; Vogelsong (2021).
  93. Vogelsong, Sarah. “Despite Clean Economy Act, Dominion forecasts a strong role for natural gas in Virginia.” Virginia Mercury. May 8, 2020; Virginia Office of the Governor (2020); Shepherd, Walton. Natural Resources Defense Council. “How to Rev Up Virginia’s New Climate Action Engine.” March 11, 2020; Tidwell, Mike. Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “Virginia Clean Economy Act: A Big Step Forward on Climate Policy.” February 13, 2020; Francis, Lee. Virginia League of Conservation Voters. [Press release]. “Virginia News: Gov. Northam Signs Clean Economy Act.” April 13, 2020.
  94. Dominion Energy (2020) at 28, 29, 83 and Appendix 2A.
  95. Ibid. at 28 and 29.
  96. Ibid. at 83.
  97. Ibid. at 27 to 29.
  98. Ibid. at 83.
  99. Morehouse, Catherine. “Ex-FERC commissioners debate solutions to coal self-commitments said to cost millions.” Utility Dive. June 1, 2020.
  100. “More green blackouts ahead.” Wall Street Journal. February 23, 2021.
  101. Rossi, Jim. “Electricity charges, mandates and subsidies.” In Dernbach, John and Michael Gerrard (Eds.). (2019). Legal Transitions to Deep Decarbonization in the United States. Washington, DC: Environmental Law Institute at 601.
  102. Morehouse (2020).
  103. Dominion Energy (2020) at 71 to 75 and 83.
  104. Diesendorf and Elliston (2018) at 318 and 320.
  105. Gifford, Raymond L. and Matthew S. Larson. Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP. “‘Around Market,’ ‘In Market,’ and FERC at a Crossroads.” May 2018 at 11.
  106. Nemec, Rich. “California OKs PG&E plan to replace gas-fired power plants with battery storage.” Natural Gas Intelligence. November 19, 2018.
  107. Campbell, Richard J. CRS. “Electricity Storage: Applications, Issues, and Technologies.” R45980. October 9, 2019 at 19.
  108. Baumgarte, Felix et al. “Business Models and Profitability of Energy Storage.” Science. Vol. 23, Iss. 10. October 2020 at 6.
  109. Trahey, Lynn et al. “Energy storage emerging: A perspective from the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research.” PNAS. Vol. 117, No. 23. June 2020 at 12551 to 12555; BloombergNEF. [Press release]. “Battery pack prices fall as market ramps up with average at $156/kWh in 2019.” December 3, 2019; Schmidt, Oliver. “Projecting the future levelized cost of electricity storage technologies.” Joule. Vol. 3. January 2019 at 81.
  110. Australian Energy Market Operator. “Initial Operation of the Hornsdale Power Reserve Battery Storage System.” April 2018 at 7 and 8; Parkinson, Giles. “How Tesla’s big battery is bringing Australia’s gas cartel to heel.” Guardian. February 2, 2018.
  111. Thornhill, James. “Two years on, Elon Musk’s big battery bet is paying off in Australia.” Bloomberg. February 27, 2020.
  112. “California’s climate contradictions.” Wall Street Journal. February 26, 2021; Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “California leads fight to curb climate change.” Available at Accessed June 2021.
  113. DOE EIA. “California: State Energy Profile.” February 18, 2021.
  114. Ibid.
  115. Cullenward, Danny. “How California’s carbon market actually works.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Vol. 70, Iss. 5. 2014 at 38 and 39.
  116. DOE EIA (February 18, 2021).
  117. Ibid.
  118. Long, Jane C. S. et al. California Council on Science and Technology and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Prepared for the California Council on Science and Technology. “An Independent Scientific Assessment of Well Stimulation in California: Summary Report.” July 2015 at 3, 5, 16, 18 and 20; Hanzlik, E. J. et al. “Forty years of steam injection in California — The evolution of heat management.” Society of Petroleum Engineers International. Paper No. SPE-84848-MS. 2003 at 1; California Department of Conservation (DOC). “Analysis of Oil and Gas Well Stimulation Treatments in California — 6. Overview of California’s Oil and Gas Resources.” June 2015 at 6-1, 6-12, 6-14 and 6-16; California Department of Conservation (DOC). “Oil and Gas Production: History in California.” 2005 at 7.
  119. Stark, Kevin. “’Bottom of the barrel’ California oil can be far more carbon intensive than what state imports.” NPR. KQED–San Francisco, CA. June 28, 2021.
  120. FWW analysis of CA DOC. California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM). WellSTAR, Well Injection Data (BQ), 2018 — June 2021. Available at Accessed July 2021. Note: FWW calculated water injected into California wells from 2018 through June 2021 using any water source and domestic water systems (source code 03). Water volume converted from barrels to gallons.
  121. FWW analysis of Ibid. and U.S. Census Bureau (USCB). Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for Incorporated Places in California: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2019. Available at Accessed May 28, 2021. Calculation example: 3,017,856,156 gallons of freshwater injected by oil and gas operations (2018 — June 2021) / water recommendation (55 gallons/day/person) / 141,029 Population of Pasadena = 389 days.
  122. DOC (2005) at 2 and 8; California Department of Finance. “California Budget 2019-20, Natural Resources Budget.” January 2019 at 53.
  123. Gardiner, Dustin. “For environmentalists, California’s Legislature has been ‘a bloodbath’ this year.” San Francisco Chronicle. June 5, 2021; Bowman, Emma. “California Governor moves to ban fracking by 2024.” NPR. April 23, 2021.
  124. Ibid.
  125. Sinn, Hans-Werner. “The green paradox: A supply-side view of the climate problem.” Review of Environmental Economics and Policy. Vol. 9, Iss. 2. Summer 2015 at 239 to 244; de Sa, Andrade Saraly and Julien Daubanes. “Limit pricing and the (in)effectiveness of the carbon tax.” Journal of Public Economics. Vol. 139. July 2016 at 29 and 30.
  126. Magill, Bobby. “Oil, gas industry stockpiled drilling leases before Biden ‘pause.’” Bloomberg Law. January 28, 2021.
  127. Bird, Lori et al. DOE NREL. “Wind and solar energy curtailment: Experience and practices in the United States.” NREL/TP-6A20-60983. March 2014 at 2; O’Shaughnessy, Eric et al. “Too much of a good thing? Global trends in the curtailment of solar PV.” Solar Energy. Vol. 208. September 2020 at 1068.
  128. Trabish, Herman K. “Prognosis negative: How California is dealing with below-zero power market prices.” Utility Dive. May 11, 2017.
  129. Denholm, Paul et al. DOE NREL. “Overgeneration from Solar Energy in California: A Field Guide to the Duck Chart.” NREL/TP-6A20-65023. November 2015 at 1.
  130. O’Shaughnessy et al. (2020) at 1068.
  131. EPA (2021); USCB. Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for Incorporated Places in Arizona: July 1, 2019. Available at Accessed October 2021.
  132. DOE EIA. “As solar-powered generation increases in California, natural gas helps meet evening peak demand.” Natural Gas Weekly Update. November 5, 2020
  133. DOE EIA (February 18, 2021).
  134. DOE EIA. (November 2020).
  135. DOE EIA. “Natural gas-fired generation has increased in most U.S. regions since 2015.” Today in Energy. December 4, 2020.
  136. Roth, Sammy. “California has too much solar power. That might be good for ratepayers.” Los Angeles Times. June 5, 2019.
  137. Canonica, Rocco and Kassia Micek. “Rapid renewables growth brings challenges for US states: Part 1: California.” S&P Global Platts. April 8, 2020.
  138. Ibid.
  139. FWW analysis of California Independent System Operator. Wind and Solar Curtailment Totals by Month. Available at Accessed July 2021.
  140. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. 2021 Form-861 data. Available at Accessed July 2021 and on file with FWW.
  141. Bird et al. (2014) at 9.
  142. Walton, Robert. “California solar spike leads to negative CAISO real-time prices in March.” Utility Dive. April 10, 2017.
  143. DOE EIA. “Rising solar generation in California coincides with negative wholesale electricity prices.” Today in Energy. April 7, 2017.
  144. Trabish (2017).
  145. Ibid.
  146. Ibid.
  147. Ibid.
  148. Roselund, Christian. “California’s solar and wind integration challenge.” PV Magazine. July 30, 2018.
  149. Paulos, Bentham. “Too much of a good thing? An illustrated guide to solar curtailment on California’s grid.” Greentech Media. April 3, 2017.
  150. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Docket No. ER19-1641-001. Dissent. September 27, 2019 at 1 to 3 and 5; FERC. Docket No. ER19-1641-001. Order Accepting Tariff Revisions. September 27, 2019 at 1 and 2;
  151. Bird et al. (2014) at 4.
  152. Trabish (2017).
  153. Roselund (2018).
  154. Roselund (2018).
  155. Denholm, Paul et al. (2015) at i and 4.
  156. Sun, Yinong et al. DOE NREL. “2018 Renewable Energy Grid Integration Data Book.” 2020 at 10, 24 and 27.
  157. O’Shaughnessy et al. (2020) at 1070.
  158. Bird et al. (2014) at 9.
  159. O’Shaughnessy et al. (2020) at at 1069.
  160. Peskoe, Ari. Harvard Law School. “Is the Utility Transmission Syndicate Forever?” Working Paper. February 16, 2021 at 2 and 3.
  161. Ibid at 2 and 75.
  162. Ibid.
  163. Denholm, Paul et al. (2015) at iii.
  164. Ibid at 8; Dominion Energy (2020) at 71 to 75 and 83.
  165. Climate Leadership Council. “The Consensus Climate Solution.” Wall Street Journal. Paid Advertisement. June 20, 2017 at A6B; Mufson, Steven and Joshua Partlow. “Oil, gas industry says it will support carbon pricing.” Washington Post. March 25, 2021; Gray, Boyden C. “The misguided ExxonMobil climate change inquisition.” Forbes. February 11, 2016.
  166. Green, Jessica F. “Does carbon pricing reduce emissions? A review of ex-post analyses.” Environmental Research Letters. Vol. 16, No. 4. March 2021 at 2.
  167. Prasad, Monica. “Taxation as a regulatory tool: Lessons from environmental taxes in Europe.” In Balleisen, Edward J. and David A. Moss (Eds.). (2010). Government and Markets: Toward a New Theory of Regulation. New York: Cambridge University Press at 370 and 371.
  168. Wilber, Tom. “Impact fees buy goodwill in drilling communities.” USA Today. November 22, 2015.
  169. Ibid.
  170. Paydar, Naveed H. et al. “Fee disbursements and the local acceptance of unconventional gas development: Insights from Pennsylvania.” Energy Research & Social Science. Vol. 20. October 2016 at 1.
  171. Tovey, Alan. “Ineos offers £2.5bn to communities disrupted by shale gas.” Telegraph. September 28, 2014.
  172. Ineos. [Press release]. “INEOS plans £2.5 billion shale gas giveaway.” September 28, 2014.
  173. Lazarus, Michael and Harro van Asselt. “Fossil fuel supply and climate policy: Exploring the road less taken.” Climatic Change. Vol. 150. August 2018 at 4.
  174. Mendelevitch, Roman. German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin). “Testing Supply‐Side Climate Policies for the Global Steam Coal Market – Can They Curb Coal Consumption?” DIW Discussion Papers No. 1604. 2016 at 1.
  175. Green, Fergus and Richard Denniss. “Cutting with both arms of the scissors: The economic and political case for restrictive supply-side climate policies.” Climatic Change. Vol. 150. 2018 at 77.
  176. Ibid.
  177. Collins, Kim and Roman Mendelevitch. DIW Berlin. “Leaving Coal Unburned: Options for Demand-Side and Supply-Side Policies.” DIW Roundup: Politik im Fokus. No. 87. December 2015 at 3.
  178. Green & Denniss (2018) at 77.
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  181. Johnson, Luke. “Marco Rubio on climate change: ‘The government can’t change the weather’.” Huffington Post. February 13, 2013; Jaipuriar, Rashika and Sarah Bowman. “New GOP-only caucus explicitly acknowledges climate change, but keeps fossil fuels on its list of solutions.” Detroit Free Press. June 25, 2021; Friedman, Lisa and Coral Davenport. “Amid extreme weather, a shift among republicans on climate change.” New York Times. August 13, 2021.
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  183. Ahlvik, Lassi and Matti Liski. Norwegian School of Economics and Aalto University. “Carbon Leakage: A Mechanism Design Approach.” October 2017 at 2; Friedman & Davenport (2021); Office of U.S. Senator Mike Braun. [Press release]. “President Trump is closing a China trade deal that’s four decades overdue.” May 16, 2019.
  184. Asheim et al. (2019) at 325; Barret, John et al. “Consumption-based GHG emission accounting: A UK case study.” Climate Policy. Vol. 13, No. 4. June 2013 at 451 and 452.
  185. Sinn (2015) at 239 to 244.
  186. Asheim, Geir B. “A distributional argument for supply-side climate policies.” Environmental and Resource Economics. Vol. 56. 2013 at 252.
  187. Ibid.
  188. Asheim et al. (2019) at 327.

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Too Close For Comfort

REPORT - December 2021

What You’ll Learn From This Report

  • 1: Introduction
    • A special project at Food & Water Watch focuses on the people living near natural gas power plants, who tell a different story than the fossil fuel industry does when it comes to harmful effects. 
  • 2: The Fight Against Fracked Gas in New York
    • Mark Sanchez-Potter is a Newburgh, NY resident concerned about the Danskammer Energy Center.
  • 3: A California Community Member Becomes An Advocate
    • Kitty Merrill’s fight against the proposed Puente Plant in Oxnard, CA led her to become an environmental activist.
  • 4: The Ripple Effect of People Power in New Jersey
    • Bill McClelland has become a seasoned veteran in the battle between concerned residents and persistent power plants in New Jersey.
  • 5: Conclusion
    • Our future depends on us creating the political will to ban fracking and stop the buildout of more fossil fuel infrastructure.

Part 1:


A special project at Food & Water Watch focuses on the people living near natural gas power plants, who tell a different story than the fossil fuel industry does when it comes to harmful effects. 

Our dependence on fossil fuels is destroying our climate and eroding the health and safety of everyone who lives in this country. Natural gas, produced primarily from fracking (hydraulic fracturing) — a dangerous form of drilling, is being touted as a “cleaner” fossil fuel by the industry and its supporters.1 But the experiences of those on the frontline show that it is anything but clean or safe.

At a time when we need to be shifting away from fossil fuels, more and more natural gas power plants are being proposed in communities across the United States. These plants prop up the toxic fracking industry and emit significant amounts of methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, particulate matter and other pollutants.2 It is a public health and climate nightmare.

You can enter your zip code in this map to see the natural gas power plants — already built or being proposed — near you.

In this special project connecting our research with stories from the frontlines, Food & Water Watch interviewed the people living near these facilities. These stories uncover the plight of pollution plaguing communities, the health issues suffered and the victories from those who have been brave enough to fight against climate-polluting corporations.

The interviews took place in late 2020. In October 2021, New York Governor Kathy Hochul rejected a key permit that effectively blocks the proposed Danskammer Energy project, underscoring the importance of citizen activism.3

Following section divider photo credit: Gilles Uzan

Part 2:

The Fight Against Fracked Gas In New York

Mark Sanchez-Potter is a Newburgh, NY resident concerned about the Danskammer Energy Center.

The Power Plants Ravaging Neighborhoods Across The U.S.
Source Data: U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA); U.S. Census Bureau.23

Nestled in a New York suburb some 60 miles from Manhattan lies the diverse community of Newburgh, which is largely made up of Black and Hispanic people.4 Newburgh is also home to Danskammer Energy Center, a seldom-used natural gas power plant that has been the center of widespread opposition and rising tensions in the community. While New York is one of the only states to ban fracking, a dangerous proposal to turn Danskammer into a full-time fracked gas power plant would endanger the community in Newburgh and others nearby.5 The potential perils from this facility have sparked residents’ fears that the state is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to mitigating climate change.

Among these concerned residents is native New Yorker Mark Sanchez-Potter, who lives four miles from the plant in Newburgh. Mark’s involvement in volunteer work with Food & Water Watch and environmental activism naturally developed as he witnessed his community devastated by corporate pollution and, as he puts it, by “neglect” from every level of government.

For years, a military base polluted Newburgh’s main water supply with firefighting foam, and the area is now considered a Superfund site.6 Analyses found PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are toxic waste from chemical manufacturing and related products) in the community’s water— highly toxic forever chemicals that have been linked to medical issues like cancer. Outrageously, after these tests were run, state officials failed to warn residents not to drink the water.7 At the time of the interview, Mark said the community was getting its water trucked in from the Catskill Aqueduct.

The proposed expansion at Danskammer would have compounded the health and safety threats already plaguing the community. “These corporations don’t give a shit about Black and Brown folks and Indigenous folks, and that’s why they put these projects in these communities, and you know they wouldn’t put something like this in a white area of Westchester,” Mark lamented. The proposed plant would have run year-round and processed fracked gas from Pennsylvania.8 “It’s a bridge fuel to nowhere,” he says.

From being a former coal plant and now running on natural gas, Danskammer has historically polluted the community. Mark says residents have dealt with high rates of asthma and compounded pollution from vehicles and other modes of transportation. Between 2011 and 2013, the city of Newburgh had more than two times the number of hospitalizations for asthma as the entire state of New York.9 “Old folks, undocumented folks that we’ve talked to … understand ‘I don’t want to breathe that.’ So, it’s not the jargon of environmental science and the environmental movement that they understand, it’s the impact.”

The majority of the Newburgh community is staunchly against the facility’s expansion, but there are communal tensions between the plant’s union and its members that support the plant. The potential of new jobs in the area is enticing to blue-collar union members, but Mark says, “you know who these jobs are going to be for? They’re not going to be for the Black and Brown people in the city of Newburgh. They’re going to be for people outside of Newburgh who don’t have any connections or who don’t care about their company’s polluting.”

“Our energy needs will be met without Danskammer. We don’t need it.”

It’s safe to say the community won’t go down without a fight. Mark has been involved with various advocacy efforts in Newburgh, from bird-dogging elected officials to participating in a die-in (a visually stunning public action where participants represent the deadliness of a public health issue). He emphasized the importance of putting pressure on former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Governor Cuomo says he’s a climate leader, but I feel like he’s wishy-washy with a lot of climate issues.” Mark adds, “He has the executive power to stop the application process and … the plant. He has the ultimate authority.”

“We have to think of renewable energy,” Mark affirmed. “We need to be investing in renewable energy with an emphasis on a just transition for union workers.” New York has legislation in place to get the state to 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 (although 100 percent would be optimal). Former Governor Cuomo himself had been vocal about shifting the state to renewables, while creating clean energy jobs for New Yorkers.10 But to communities like Newburgh, it seems like lip-service. According to Mark, “our energy needs will be met without Danskammer. We don’t need it.” Governor Hochul’s October denial of the Danskammer permit in October 2021 shows what real climate leadership looks like. The next step for her administration is to halt all fossil fuel development.

You helped us stop Danskammer. Let’s beat the next environmental threat in NY, too! We need a ban on cryptocurrency mining powered by fracked gas!

Part 3:

A California Community Member Becomes An Advocate

Kitty Merrill’s fight against the proposed Puente Plant in Oxnard, CA led her to become an environmental activist.

The Power Plants Ravaging Neighborhoods Across The U.S.
Source Data: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); California Air Resources Board; California Department of Conservation.24

Kitty Merrill lived peacefully on the south end of Oxnard, California with her family for decades, completely oblivious to the “chemical soup” of pollution all around them. “It had this really charming feel,” Kitty described first moving to Oxnard. “You could drive and smell the strawberry fields, it’s just really cool.” And then, one day, a text message from her adult daughter changed everything.

“Did you know you’re in one of the most polluted areas in the region?” the text message read. Oxnard, California is flanked with contamination from mega agricultural operations, power plants, a wastewater treatment facility and a Superfund site — marking a history of pollution.11 “We get particulate matter from power plants; there was a recycling plant that turned out to be a Superfund site with toxic waste,” says Kitty. The strawberry fields that once enticed Kitty and her family turned out to be heavily sprayed with pesticides. “I realized this really wonderful environment that we sought out to raise our kids was really a toxic one.”

“I felt really betrayed that a community could look so perfect on the outside.”

In an area that is predominantly Hispanic and lower-income, residents are faced with terrible air quality and asthmatic conditions.12 In 2013, Oxnard had some of the worst air quality scores in all of Ventura County,13 and residents have reported feeling symptoms consistent with asthma.14 Kitty said she started hearing about asthma in the community and realized that her daughter first got asthma in elementary school. A lot of her daughter’s friends are also asthmatic. “It’s not just a statistic, it’s something that I was seeing in the real world, on a day-to-day basis.” She admits, “it never clicked with me that there was a connection.”

The pollution in the area often goes unacknowledged by the wider community, becoming an invisible threat. “People don’t really discuss pollution issues,” says Kitty. At the community college where Kitty worked, she was surprised that her students were not more passionate about the environmental issues in the community. “They were more concerned about bread and butter,” she recalls. The students “had parents that were agricultural workers” with “different levels of documentation,” which made it hard for them to focus their energy on the less obvious environmental dangers in the community. “They weren’t at the level where they could afford to start thinking about the health effects and the things … that are less immediate.”

At the same time, the community’s health issues were being exacerbated by the high concentration of existing natural gas plants in the area and threatened by repeated proposals for new ones, including power plants along the local beaches. When the Puente Plant was proposed for Oxnard, a coalition of fed-up locals, including Kitty, started rallying against the highly contentious facility.15 She began speaking out against the plant at community meetings, which was something she “had never done before.” “It was something I really felt strongly about, and I wanted to make sure that I could do what I could for my community.”

Ultimately the Puente proposal was knocked down after widespread opposition, but as California continues to be ravaged by larger and larger wildfires each year, it becomes all the more crucial to move away from fossil fuels in general. In fact, the state’s demand for electricity has declined in the past decade.16 “We’re at a point where so many things are changing in technology, that locking our community into fossil fuels for 20, 40 years … was just ridiculous.”

“I think that time is on our side, and in the same breath I can say time is against us because climate change is clearly here.”

Kitty continues to push for clean energy measures in her community, working alongside organizations like her local chapter, the Ventura Climate Hub, Food & Water Watch and other California organizers. “We’ve been putting our energy into county-level things.” She hopes that small changes on the local level will have a ripple effect at the state level. “I think that time is on our side, and in the same breath I can say time is against us because climate change is clearly here.” Despite it all, Kitty remains hopeful about “the possibility of change in our future.”

You can stand with us. Urge Governor Newsom to stop all new fracking and drilling permits in CA!

Part 4:

The Ripple Effect of People Power in New Jersey

Bill McClelland has become a seasoned veteran in the battle between concerned residents and persistent power plants in New Jersey.

The Power Plants Ravaging Neighborhoods Across The U.S.
Source Data: EPA; EIA.25

Despite the political clout and deep coffers of the fossil fuel industry, the collective action of the people can be even more powerful. Sometimes all it takes is a dedicated and passionate community unwilling to compromise. Bill McClelland has watched this play out in his diverse community in Hudson County, New Jersey where he has lived for the past four decades. “Obviously the goal is to ban and stop all fossil fuel projects,” Bill says.

Having lived in New Jersey for so long, Bill is familiar with the pollution that has plagued the state and his neighborhood in Hudson County. He says that over the decades, industrial development has resulted in “all sorts of environmental problems,” from “illegal dumping” to chromium pollution. Bill’s community is home to a large Superfund site, where for decades an oil processing plant spewed millions of gallons of contaminants into the soil and wetlands — including lead.17 “These industries, because they are in such isolated areas, can get away with anything.”

Historically, Hudson County has had air quality issues, receiving an “F” rating from the American Lung Association for ozone pollution from 2016 to 2018.18 Air pollution has also been linked to environmental justice issues in New Jersey, and one study found that particulate matter, a major natural gas plant pollutant, is associated with higher mortality among Black and lower-income residents.19 Notably, natural gas plants are a major source of particulate matter pollution.20 Yet the industry claims that these plants are “clean” and has been trying to push for new natural gas-fired power plants in New Jersey for years.

When the North Bergen Liberty Generating (NBLG) natural gas power plant was initially proposed in 201821, the community began fighting against its development. According to Bill, the plant would have been located in a pristine wetland called the Meadowlands, close to homes and a school — all of which prompted outcry from residents. Bill participated in a protest that was organized by students called March for Our Lungs, where “hundreds … maybe even a thousand people showed up,” he said. “We marched from the high school down to the site where this power plant was supposed to be.” Community organizing successfully led to the defeat of those plans at the end of 2020.

“You’ve got to be persistent … you can’t be intimidated by these people.”

On the heels of the NBLG win, the community found itself fighting yet another natural gas plant, this one proposed by New Jersey Transit. “Along came the proposal by New Jersey Transit to build another huge fracked gas power plant on the other side of the Meadowlands.” These plans were also quickly shot down after the community stood against the proposal.22 “You’ve got to be persistent and … you can’t be intimidated by these people just because they have power,” Bill emphasizes. “We’ve had two major victories in the last year, and … everyone is just high.”

What makes Bill’s story so inspiring is that he is a passionate resident committed to a better planet. “You know, I’m not a scientist — I’m a musician.” Bill’s interest in environmental advocacy started in the late 1980s when New Jersey first passed a mandatory recycling law. “I called the town, totally out the blue … and said ‘you need any help?’” The rest is history. As only a volunteer, Bill helped start up the state’s recycling program; he’s worked with North Bergen’s assemblymen on environmental issues over the years, and now stands with his community against natural gas power plants.

“A lot of these power plants … go on forever, long past time of usefulness, and they just get dirtier and dirtier and cause more problems.” But Bill remains motivated to continue to fight these natural gas proposals. “Our primary goal is to stop construction of any new power plants that plan to burn fossil fuels.” Riding the high of these wins, Bill and other community organizers and organizations are committed to banding together to fight other proposals around the state. He is now assisting in efforts to stop New Fortress Energy’s proposal for an LNG export terminal known as the Gibbstown Facility.

“I hope others seeing this say ‘wow it can be done,’” Bill says. Although it can be daunting to directly address the powers that be, the communities in New Jersey have proved to be fearless. And while he’s not sure he’ll be around long enough to witness a less-exploitive world, Bill remains hopeful for the future.

Help Bill keep NJ free from new fossil fuel infrastructure. Your voice makes a difference!

Part 5:


Our future depends on us creating the political will to ban fracking and stop the buildout of more fossil fuel infrastructure.

Our current energy system is unsustainable and dangerous to communities and people all across the United States. The continual push for more fracking has only further propped up the toxic oil and gas industry, with little regard for the communities carrying the burden of these consequences. The time for an energy system overhaul is now, and the good news is that people power can work with time and dedication. We need to ban fracking and make the shift to clean, renewable energy — because the health and safety of our communities and our very futures depend on it.

For clean energy to heal our planet, we must also ban fracking.

Add your name to the movement!

  1. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Energy Information Administration (EIA). “Natural gas explained: Natural gas and the environment.” Updated September 24, 2020. Available at Accessed March 2021 and on file with Food & Water Watch (FWW).
  2. Fard, Reza Fouladi et al. “The assessment of health impacts and external costs of natural gas-fired power plant of Qom.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research. Vol. 23, No. 20. August 2016 at 20922; Public Service Commission of Wisconsin. “Environmental Impacts of Power Plants.” June 2015 at 5.
  3. McKenna, Chris. “DEC rejects key permit for proposed Danskammer power plant in Newburgh.” Times Herald-Record (NY). October 27, 2021; FWW. [Press release]. “NY Governor Hochul rejects applications for Danskammer and Astoria fracked gas plants.” October 27, 2021.
  4. U.S. Census Bureau (USCB). QuickFacts. Available at Accessed January 2021.
  5. TRC. Prepared for Danskammer Energy, LLC. “Preliminary Scoping Statement, Danskammer Energy Center.” Case No. 18-F-0325. February 2019 at 5-11.
  6. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “What is Superfund.” Available at Accessed May 2021.
  7. McKinley, Jesse. “Military base near Newburgh is made a Superfund site over tainted water.” New York Times. August 12, 2016.
  8. Bellamy, Lana. “Danskammer Energy looks to hydrogen for future power; activists claim company is ‘greenwashing’.” Times Herald-Record (NY). August 31, 2020; FWW. “Twenty cities and towns in New York unite to oppose Danskammer fracked gas plant.” June 22, 2020.
  9. New York State Department of Health (DOH). “City of Newburgh: Health Equity Report.” February 2017 at 16 and 20.
  10. Walton, Robert. “New York expands state clean energy standard, moves to boost renewables use in the Big Apple.” Utility Dive. October 16, 2020; New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). [Press release]. “Governor Cuomo announces new competitive program to retain New York’s existing renewable energy resources.” January 22, 2021.
  11. Boyd-Barrett, Claudia. “As California’s ports expand, neighboring communities fight back against pollution.” California Health Report. March 18, 2019; Homefacts. “Ventura County, CA Environmental Hazards Report – Superfund Sites.” Available at Accessed January 2021.
  12. Boyd-Barrett(2019); USCB.
  13. “Environmental report shows Oxnard has worst score in the county.” Ventura County Star. April 23, 2013.
  14. Dignity Health St. John’s Hospitals. “Oxnard, California Latino Community Health Needs Assessment.” April 2014 at 11 and 26.
  15. Weikel, Dan. “Oxnard residents are fighting slag heaps, power plants and oil field that mar the town’s beaches.” Los Angeles Times. July 9, 2017.
  16. Penn, Ivan and Ryan Menezes. “Californians are paying billions for power they don’t need.” Los Angeles Times. February 5, 2017.
  17. D’Auria, Peter. “Who will foot $24M bill to clean up one of Hudson County’s most polluted sites?” Jersey Journal. October 8, 2020.
  18. American Lung Association. “State of the Air: 2020.” 2020 at 121.
  19. Wang, Yan et al. “Estimating causal effects of long-term PM2.5 exposure on mortality in New Jersey.” Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 124, No. 8. August 2016 at 1182.
  20. Massetti, Emanuele et al. Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Prepared for DOE. “Environmental Quality and the U.S. Power Sector: Air Quality, Water Quality, Land Use and Environmental Justice.”. ORNL/SPR-2016/772. January 4, 2017 at vii and 15.
  21. Heinis, John. “DEP grants first land use approval for $1.8B North Bergen electricity plant.” Hudson County View. July 6, 2018.
  22. Johnson, Tom. “NJ Transit opts for green energy, ending plan for gas-powered plant.” NJ Spotlight News. October 23, 2020.
  23. FWW analysis of Power Plants. US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Accessed March 2021; 2019 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. US Census Bureau. Accessed March 2021; 2019 TIGER/Line Shapefiles. US Census. Accessed March 2021.
  24. FWW analysis of TRI Explorer. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Accessed March 2021; Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) Sites with Status Information. EPA. Accessed March 2021; Pollution Mapping Tool. California Air Resources Board. Accessed March 2021; WellSTAR. California Department of Conservation. Geologic Energy Management Division. Accessed March 2021.
  25. FWW analysis of TRI Explorer. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Accessed March 2021; Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) Sites with Status Information. EPA. Accessed March 2021; Power Plants. US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Accessed March 2021; Wetlands of New Jersey. New Jersey Geographic Information Network (NJGIN) Open Data. Accessed March 2021; Proposed NJ TRANSITGRID Project Area. NJ Transit. Accessed March 2021.

Fracking, Power Plants & Exports: Three Steps for Meaningful Climate Action

REPORT - November 2021

Fracking Nightmare: The Gibbstown Explosive Liquefied Gas Export Plan


PDFClimate and Energy

Off Course: Carbon Pricing Myths and Dirty Truths


PDFClimate and Energy

Natural Gas Liquids: A Dangerous Plastic-Producing Byproduct of Fracking


PDFClimate and Energy

Planes de SoCalGas Para Expandir la Estación de Compresión de Ventura


PDFClimate and Energy

SoCalGas Plans to Expand Ventura Compressor Station


PDFClimate and Energy

Natural Gas Liquids: Fracking’s Hazardous Plastics and Pollution Scheme


PDFClimate and Energy

How Much Do Food Labels Tell You?


PDFFood System

Federal Legislation for a Just Food System


PDFFood System


REPORT - April 2021

What You’ll Learn From This Report

  • 1: A Broken Food System
    • Deciding what and how to farm should be left to farmers, not corporations
  • 2: From Extractive To Regenerative Food Systems
    • The farmers at the forefront of this movement
  • 3: Rebuilding Regional Food Hubs
    • Rebuilding regional food hubs connects farmers and eaters, and reduces the monopoly corporate agribusiness has on the food system.
  • 4: Policy Recommendations: A Roadmap To A Just Transition
    • Here are our policy recommendations on how to pivot to this much-needed systemic change.
  • 5: Conclusion
    • We can build regenerative food systems

Part 1:

Our Food System Is Broken

Deciding what and how to farm should be left to farmers, not corporations.

Corporate monopolies control food production.

Today’s supermarkets seem like the pinnacle of choice and variety. But consumers might be surprised to learn that this choice is really a façade, and that a few companies dominate the market in each food category. Your steak? Just four companies slaughter 83 percent of all U.S. cattle (see Figure 1).1 Your flour? It likely comes from Ardent Mills or ADM Milling, which together mill half of all U.S. wheat.2 And then there are companies that profit from value-added processing of raw ingredients. The jars of Gerber, boxes of Cheerios and Lean Cuisine, and tins of Fancy Feast in your shopping cart are all Nestlé-owned brands.3 Agribusinesses make consumers feel like they have ample choices, while forcing them to buy much of their food from just a handful of corporations.

Livestock Farmers Sell into Highly Concentrated Markets

Market share of top four processing firms

Source Data: USDA AMS 20184

Even supermarkets themselves have gobbled up competitors and secured huge market shares. Four companies — Walmart, Kroger, Costco and Ahold Delhaizea — control 65 percent of the grocery market.5 This stranglehold raises food prices and wipes out local grocery stores, reducing food access in both rural and urban communities (see Figure 2).6

Supersizing the Supermarket: National Market Share

Source Data: CBRE 20197

Less competition among agribusinesses means higher prices and fewer choices for consumers. But for farmers and the rural communities they support, it is a fight to survive.

Corporate agribusinesses gut rural America.

Market consolidation has wiped out competition, giving farmers fewer choices when they buy seed and feed and when they bring products to market (see Figure 3 on page 3). As a result, they face both rising costs and stagnating income.8 In fact, today’s median farm income is negative $1,840; many farms manage to stay afloat through off-farm income.9

Ironically, while farmers have little power in our industrial food system, they often receive much of the blame for that broken system. Misguided policymakers and others deride farmers for overproduction, for receiving subsidies, or for participating in contract farming when all of these are symptoms of the underlying dysfunction in the food system.

Market Share Of Top Four Seed Firms

All Source Data: ETC Group 201810

Market Share Of Top Four Agrochemical Firms

All Source Data: ETC Group 201810

Corporate consolidation also hurts rural communities. Local slaughterhouses and flour mills have shuttered as processing facilities became fewer and larger. Revenue that once circulated in rural communities and built thriving main streets is now funneled to Wall Street and far-away corporate headquarters.11

Corporate agriculture perpetuates exploitation and racism.

Our farming system rests on stolen land, stolen labor and stolen resources, including forced removal of Indigenous peoples, the enslavement of African Americans and the sharecropping model. These systems persist today in vertically-integrated livestock systems that lock farmers into abusive contracts and high debt, the patenting of Indigenous seed varieties, the freezing-out of farmers of color from federal loans and subsidies, and the exploitation of low-wage labor in dangerous conditions in our nation’s produce fields and slaughterhouses.12

Industrial agriculture is extractive.

The industrial farming system focuses on squeezing out as much profit as possible, with little regard for long-term environmental ecological or public health impacts. Planting monocultures year-after-year can impair soil health.13 So does spraying synthetic pesticides. Intensive practices also harm bees and other pollinators and microorganisms that make up healthy ecosystems.14

Factory Hog Farm Counties Produce as Much Waste as Metropolitan Areas

Source Data: Food & Water Watch analysis of USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture15
Industrial agriculture pollutes the environment and fuels climate change.

Factory farms confine thousands of animals in inhumane, unsanitary conditions. They produce more manure waste than can be sustainably disposed and increase the risk of diseases jumping from livestock to humans (See Figure 4).16 In many parts of the country, factory farms are concentrated around communities of color and low- income communities, making them environmental justice catastrophes.17

Rural communities bear the brunt of pollution from industrial farming, from pesticide exposure to toxic emissions from factory farms.18 Yet these impacts reach far beyond the farm; nutrient runoff from manure and pesticide application pollutes waterways, contributing to fish kills and aquatic “dead zones” from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.19 Pesticide residue is found on all food types of food, from organic produce that was never sprayed with pesticides to human breast milk.20

Agriculture is also one of the largest human sources of climate change; across the entire production chain, it contributes 19 to 29 percent of all human-sourced emissions. Overproduction of commodities and meat, food waste, growing crops for fuel, and use of synthetic fertilizers produced from fossil fuels all enlarge this footprint.21

Our food production chain is not resilient.

Decades of unchecked corporate consolidation has worn away our food system’s resilience.22 For instance, large, centralized processing facilities replaced the regional slaughterhouses and dairy processors that once dotted the rural landscape, leaving farmers with fewer options for marketing their products.23 When some of these large facilities closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, many farmers were left with no choice but to euthanize livestock or dump milk — gut-wrenching scenarios that would not have been as widespread if we still had networks of smaller facilities serving local markets.24

Our food system does a poor job of feeding people.

Even after accounting for commodities grown to feed livestock and produce energy, the U.S. still has roughly 4,000 calories of nutrients available per day per capita.25 Yet nearly one in seven children live in food-insecure households.26

Much of what goes into deciding what and how to farm is shaped by agribusiness, not farmers. Corporations set farm markets and policy.27 We need to join farmers and food chain workers to break Big Ag’s stranglehold and rebuild our food systems so they work for everyone. It can be difficult to imagine what alternatives to the industrial system might look like. We can start by learning from those at forefront of this movement, who are building healthy farmland and rural communities through regenerative agriculture.

Part 2:

From Extractive to Regenerative Food Systems

The farmers at the forefront of this movement

Regenerative agriculture is generating a lot of buzz today, with everyone from food activists to big agribusinesses floating the term. But with no unifying definition, the term “regenerative” can take on different meanings.28 So let’s start by defining what we mean by “regenerative food systems.”

Regenerative food systems are those that invest in the long-term health and fertility of farmland; build soil and prioritize soil health; and rely on natural rather than synthetic inputs. They embody these principles along each step of the food supply chain — investing in local economies; providing farmers and food chain workers with living wages and safe working conditions; and addressing racial and economic injustice. The regenerative movement shares roots with organic farming, a reaction against the environmental degradation caused by industrial farming. Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the National Organic Program, creating standards for the organic label and certifying compliance. Regenerative farming, on the other hand, has no federal standards or label any farmer or food company can market their products as regenerative.

Some regenerative advocates market it as a new concept that goes beyond the limits of organic agriculture.29 This is a disservice to the organic community and its decades of work in strengthening the integrity of the organic label and increasing federal funding for organic research and adoption. It also erases centuries of contributions from indigenous and other farmers of color who farmed regeneratively long before the term emerged.30

In this piece, we use the term “regenerative” as an umbrella term for sustainable farming systems. Some of the farms featured are certified organic whereas others have not sought certification. What unites them is a holistic method of farming that seeks to regenerate, rather than extract, natural resources.

Part 3:

Regional Food Hubs

Rebuilding regional food hubs connects farmers and eaters, and reduces the monopoly corporate agribusiness has on the food system.

Farms need access to open, competitive markets to thrive. However, agribusiness consolidation has all but wiped out the nation’s smaller-scale slaughterhouses, grain mills and mom-and-pop grocery stores,81 making it increasingly difficult to imagine a food system that is not dependent on highly consolidated supply chains. The truth is, agri- businesses built the industrial food system over a few decades; we can similarly rebuild this broken system to ensure justice for all farmers, food chain workers and consumers.

Building just, regenerative food systems will not happen overnight. It requires significant public investment and political will. Direct sales and farmers markets are important but insufficient; we must also connect local farms to the grocery stores and restaurants where consumers spend the majority of their food dollars.82 Regional food
hubs can play a vital role, aiding smaller farms with distribution and marketing of their products so they can reach new markets that would otherwise be difficult to enter on their own.83

Common Grain Alliance

How Food Hubs Work

The idea for Common Grain Alliance98 emerged in the winter of 2018, as a group of friends were baking bread together and discussing how difficult it is to find local grain. “If you go to the Shenandoah Valley, you see all this grain infrastructure, silos, row crops,” says founder Heather Coiner.

“The landscape suggests that grains should be growing here, so how come we can’t find any?”


Photo: Common Grain Alliance members. Photo credit: Beth Ferguson
Common Grain Alliance

Heather, who owns Little Hat Creek Farm and bakery, started by looking for growers who produced and processed grain in the mid-Atlantic. “We feel strongly that grain is a missing part of the local food table and we want to change that in this area,” she says. In just a couple of years, Common Grain Alliance grew to include over 60 members, connecting wheat growers and millers to local restaurants, brewers and distillers.

Common Grain Alliance’s mission is to revitalize the mid-Atlantic’s grain economy. “We’re trying to tap into the historical infrastructure and skills that got pushed aside by industrial agriculture in the last half of the 20th century,” says Heather. For example, some millers have restored existing stone mills while incorporating modern equipment to take advantage of recent advances in grain milling.

Photo: Murphy & Rude Malting Co. in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is part of the Common Grain Alliance. Photo Credit: Glenn Stone
Common Grain Alliance

Common Grain Alliance has received some federal funding to grow its network, including a grant through a USDA program called SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education). But while some Farm Bill programs directly target small-scale growers, Heather says that non-commodity crops are still largely off the radar of most academics and policy experts. “Even with this support, the vibe I get is, this is a fun idea but you are not going to feed millions of people.” Heather hopes that as the Common Grain Alliance grows, so will the political will of its growers and buyers who want grain that is transparently sourced, traceable and grown without chemicals.

Photo: Murphy & Rude Malting Co. in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is part of the Common Grain Alliance. Photo Credit: Glenn Stone
Common Grain Alliance

In fact, the pandemic showed the importance of local food chains like those created by Common Grain Alliance. “One thing the pandemic laid bare is the flaws in the global food supply chain. Americans saw empty grocery store shelves — that’s not something most people have seen in their lifetimes. And your local farmers are like, we have grain, we have vegetables… Our supply chain isn’t interrupted because it’s shorter.” Heather is optimistic that for some people, the trends that led people to seek out local food and support nearby farms might endure past the pandemic. “It is worth going out of your way to invest in your local food producers, because when crisis hits, they’re the ones that are still going to have food.”

Photo: Murphy & Rude Malting Co. in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is part of the Common Grain Alliance. Photo Credit: Glenn Stone

Small farms often lack the volume and consistency of products to sell directly to a retailer or foodservice institution. Larger institutions prefer to purchase from a single entity rather than several small farms. A food hub can help bridge this divide by connecting several smaller farms with regional buyers. Some food hubs even invest in infrastructure farmers need to bring products to market, like warehouses where food is stored, packed and labeled. What distinguishes food hubs from other local distributors is that they are formed with the goal of improving the economic, social and environmental health of their communities. As such, they are committed to providing farmers with fair prices and longstanding relationships rather than undercutting them in search of the cheapest alternative.84

There are many current efforts to revitalize local food systems through the food hub model. Public investment and incentives can help create similar food hubs across the country that are unique to each region’s geography and food culture.

Part 4:

A Roadmap For a Just Transition

Here are our policy recommendations on how to pivot to this much-needed systemic change.

Regenerative and organic farming are economically viable and already working to feed people, invest in local communities and create jobs. But federal farm policy is not designed to serve “alternative” or smaller-scale farming systems. Powerful agribusinesses have spent billions of dollars influencing lawmakers and regulators to serve their economic interests.126 But we can fight back against corporate control and reshape farm policy to achieve social and economic justice.

Enact Federal Legislation

Stop the growth of factory farms.

A handful of state legislatures have introduced factory farm moratoriums in recent years; the moment is growing. But to enact systemic change, we need a national moratorium on all new and expanding factory farms.

Models for federal legislation include the Farm System Reform Act (FSRA),127 introduced by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Ro Khanna. The FSRA would immediately ban all new large factory farms and the expansion of existing ones, and would phase out existing large factory farms by 2040.

Moreover, the FSRA would invest in a “just transition” by creating a $10 billion buy-out program for factory farm operators to pay off debt (an obstacle for farmers wishing to exit contract growing) or transition to more sustainable systems, such as pasture-based livestock or specialty crops. Notably, this funding would only be available to farmers for projects on land they own which ensures that corporate giants that created the problem do not pocket the funds.

Send a note to your Congressperson asking them to support the Farm System Reform Act today!

Stop further consolidation in the food industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic makes hitting the pause button on mega-mergers all the more critical, to ensure that agribusinesses do not use the pandemic recovery to buy out struggling competitors and further entrench market power.

Federal lawmakers are targeting agribusiness consolidation. This includes Senator Cory Booker and Representative Marc Pocan’s Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act.128 The legislation would enact a moratorium on all agribusiness and grocery mega-mergers and create a commission to recommend steps to strengthen antitrust and merger rules and enforcement. The moratorium would be in place until Congress passes comprehensive legislation to address market consolidation in the agribusiness sector.

End discrimination within USDA programs and support farmers of color.

Black farmers faced disproportionately higher rates of farmland loss throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. This was accelerated by systemic racism within federal agencies like USDA.129

Legislation like the Justice for Black Farmers Act,130 introduced by Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, seeks to end discrimination by establishing an independent civil rights board to review reports of and appeals to civil rights complaints filed against USDA. It would also create a number of initiatives to address Black farmer land loss, including creating a land trust to provide the next generation of Black farmers with land and resources to farm.

Overhaul the Federal Farm Safety Net

The current farm safety net is just a Band-Aid on a broken system. Crop insurance provides some economic relief to farmers, but does not address overproduction, a key contributor to price slumps. And farmers are not incentivized to implement sustainable practices that make land more resilient to future disasters in a changing climate.

Reinstate federal supply management for commodities.

The first Farm Bill enacted a federal supply management program, saving countless farmers from bankruptcy during the Dust Bowl.131 The program took marginal farmland out of production and provided farmers with living wages — until it was systematically dismantled by Big Ag.132

USDA used to set a price floor for grains that achieved parity, an income that both covers the cost of production while providing farmers with a living wage. USDA provided farmers loans based on this price floor, which farmers repaid after harvest. In years when market prices dropped below the price floor, USDA collected the harvest as collateral, essentially buying surplus grains from the market for the federal grain reserve. Then when drought or other disasters reduced crop yield, USDA sold grains from the federal reserve into the market,133 smoothing out market volatility and ensuring a steady supply of grain to the benefit of both farmers and consumers.

Remarkably, supply management can operate at virtually no budgetary cost to taxpayers.134 We can reinstate supply management for grain crops and extend it to dairy, if our elected officials stand up to the corporate agribusinesses greedy for artificially-cheap commodities.

Require farmers to implement organic practices in order to participate in safety net programs.

This would provide a huge incentive for farmers to shift from ecologically-depleting monocultures to ones that incorporate cover crops, crop rotation and no-till farming. Safety net programs should also promote crop and livestock systems that are appropriate and sustainable for each region. In turn, organic practices would build soil and help make farmland more resilient to future climate change events, reducing reliance on disaster insurance.

Expand coverage for more crops that directly feed people.

Feed corn, soybeans and cotton make up a huge chunk of acreage enrolled in federal crop insurance programs,135
while many fruits, vegetables and nuts are not eligible under many programs.136 Expanding safety net coverage to more specialty crops supports farmers in shifting to new production systems and diversifying their operations.

These crucial changes will encourage organic practices and stop propping up factory farms with taxpayer-subsidized feed. However, we must also correct past failures of safety net programs to include historically underserved farmers, including farmers of color, female and beginning farmers.137

Redirect Public Funding To Support Organic And Regenerative Agriculture

Big Ag has perfected the art of funneling public dollars into maintaining industrial agriculture’s status quo.
Money earmarked for conservation programs flows to factory farms, and agribusinesses court public universities to develop patented seeds.138 It is time to end public research for private gain and instead invest in building a food system that works for every farmer, food chain worker and consumer.

Increase funding for regenerative practices.

USDA spends billions of dollars each year on agricultural research, yet only a small slice of this goes into regenerative systems.139 Federally funded research should prioritize practices that reduce chemical inputs, build soil and help farmers adapt to a changing climate. Similarly, state legislatures should follow the example of states like Maryland and California and earmark funding for regenerative practices.140

Farmers must also have access to information on regenerative practices. State extension services have long played vital roles in sharing new practices with farmers. They can be important facilitators in connecting farmers with the growing body of research on climate-friendly practices.141 We should also provide financial and technical support to help farmers — especially those historically under-served — transition to USDA Organic certified operations.

Develop climate-resilient seeds and livestock breeds and make them publicly-available.

Land-grant universities have long been incubators of new farming practices and seed varieties that were once shared widely with farmers, with each public dollar invested paying out $10 in benefits.142 But when public funding lagged, federal policies increasingly encouraged private corporations to partner with universities. Today, agribusinesses develop new seeds at public universities which they then patent. This raises seed costs and prevents farmers from seed-saving.143 Corporations are more interested in developing seeds that lock farmers into costly, poisonous pesticides than those that adapt to climate change.

Federal dollars should instead fund research into non-GMO, patent-free seeds and livestock breeds through traditional breeding methods. We must increase funding for land-grant universities and discourage so-called public-private partnerships. Seeds should be developed to respond to specific geographical conditions and to be climate-resilient. State extension services can help distribute innovative seeds and breeds to farmers and encourage farmers to save seed in order to break free from buying expensive patented seeds year after year.

Reject false solutions and close “conservation” loopholes that fund factory farms.

Money from conservation programs flows to false solutions, such as anaerobic digesters, which generate factory farm gas from manure and other waste.144 Factory farm gas is a dirty, polluting energy. 145 Digesters built with taxpayer money simply prop up factory farms and entrench fossil fuel infrastructure. Instead, we should encourage farmers to shift to smaller, integrated crop-and-livestock systems where they can sustainably recycle manure as crop fertilizer.

Another false solution peddled by corporate interests are carbon pricing schemes for farmers. Carbon pricing — or “pay-to-pollute” schemes — allow polluting industries to avoid emissions reduction by purchasing “offsets” from another source, such as a farmer who sequesters carbon in her soil. But pollution trading doesn’t meaningfully reduce carbon emissions and instead allows companies to pay to pollute.146 The practice is unfair to farmers who have already been practicing climate-friendly agriculture and are unable to claim new offsets. Instead, we must leverage existing conservation programs to implement sustainable practices and tie their adoption to safety net participation, while investing in a rapid transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy.

Part 5:


We Can Build Regenerative Food Systems

This is a window into what regenerative farming systems and food hubs in the United States can look like. It is meant to start a conversation, not offer a prescription, as there is no “one-size-fits-all” model for regenerative farming. We can build new farming and food systems that work for everyone if we embrace a few core principles:

Communities of color are leaders — not afterthoughts — in rebuilding food systems.

Our great-grandparents modeled many of the farming systems and practices we strive for today, with diverse farms serving local markets. But we must not romanticize the past; our farm systems have largely benefitted white male farmers with the most capital. We need to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table, and work alongside communities of color that have been in this fight for generations. There is no food justice without racial justice.

Everyone must be able to afford to participate.

Food hubs that provide farmers and food chain workers with living wages should be accessible to everyone. In the short term, we must increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and extend benefits to farmers markets, co-ops and online purchasing. We must also reform labor laws to raise the minimum wage, eliminate wage theft and provide universal paid sick and family leave, so that everyone can afford healthy food.

Reform will bring choice, variety and availability.

Reforming the way we produce animal products will impact cost and availability. We can embrace a “less-is-better” approach, choosing high-quality meat, dairy and eggs produced sustainably while increasing our consumption of whole produce and grains.

Food policies must promote food sovereignty at home and abroad.

This means empowering communities to feed themselves with fresh, local, healthy food. We must also reorient our trade policies so they do not undermine the ability of farmers and rural communities in the developing world to feed themselves.147

Perhaps the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will be this generation’s “Dust Bowl” that forces a systemic overhaul. Let’s seize the moment and pressure our leaders to enact policies and make investments in food systems that work for all farmers, food chain workers and consumers.

Send a note to your Congressperson asking them to support the Farm System Reform Act today!

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  90. Moore, Kelly and Marilyn E. Swisher. “The food movement: Growing white privilege, diversity, or empowerment?” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. Vol. 5, Iss. 4. Summer 2015 at 116; Kolavalli, Chhaya. “Confronting whiteness in Kansas City’s local food movement: Diversity work and discourse on privilege and power.” Grastronomica: The Journal for Food Studies. Vol. 20, No. 1. Spring 2020 at 60 to 61.
  91. U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives (2015) at 1.
  92. Based on information taken from the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) website, and reviewed by HAFA staff on August 18, 2020.
  93. Holpuch, Amanda. “‘I almost got killed’: The Hmong refu- gees who call the US home.” Guardian. June 28, 2019.
  94. Adler, Erin. “Farm prospers by providing land, larger markets for Hmong farmers.” Star Tribune. August 16, 2016.
  95. Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA). “Our story.” Available at Accessed August 2020 and on file with Food & Water Watch.
  96. Williamson, Shawn. “How much $ does it take to become a farmer? Successful Farming. June 27, 2017.
  97. HAFA. Our story. Accessed August 2020. Available at
  98. FWW staff interview with Coiner, Heather. Common Grain Alliance. June 17, 2020.
  99. Jackson, Charlie and Allison Perrett. Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP). “The End of Tobacco and the Rise of Local Food in Western North Carolina.” March 2018 at 1 to 2.
  100. Jackson & Perrett (2018) at 2; Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP). “Appalachian Grown™ 2019 Producer Survey Report.” June 2020 at 3.
  101. Brod, Andrew. University of North Carolina—Greensboro. “The Economic Impact of RAFI-USA’s Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund since 2008.” May 2011 at executive summary and 1.
  102. ASAP. “The legacy of tobacco in WNC.” February 10, 2020. Available at legacy-of-tobacco-farming-in-wnc/. Accessed August 2020 and on file with Food & Water Watch.
  103. Jackson & Perrett (2018) at 3.
  104. Ibid. at 2 to 3.
  105. Brod (2011) at executive summary.
  106. Jackson & Perrett (2018) at 24.
  107. Basinger Tuschak, Grace. University of North Carolina– Chapel Hill. “Food Hubs as Community Economic Development: Lessons from TRACTOR Food & Farms.” April 2018 at 6 to 7.
  108. Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture. “About.” Available at Accessed August 2020 and on file with Food & Water Watch; Ham, Nathan. “High Country Food Hub sees major increases in customers sales and in food supply from local farmers.” High Country Press (NC). May 13, 2020.
  109. Viertel, Josh. “Why big ag won’t feed the world.” Atlantic. January 20, 2010; Center for Consumer Freedom. “Organic agriculture cannot feed the world.” September 18, 2013; Center for Consumer Freedom. “About us.” Available at al-agriculture-still-feeds-the-world/. Accessed July 2020 and on file with Food & Water Watch.
  110. Schrama, M. et al. (2018) at 123, 124 and 129; Ponisio, Lau- ren C. et al. (2015) at 1, 2 and 5; USDA. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “Cover Crops to Improve Soil in Prevented Planting Fields.” June 2013 at 1; Aktar, Md. Wasim. et al. “Impact of pesticides use in agriculture: Their benefits and hazards.” Interdisciplinary Toxicology. Vol. 2, Iss 1. 2009 at 1.
  111. Arneth, Almut et al. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). [Summary for policymakers]. “Climate Change and Land: An IPCC Special Report on Climate Change, Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse Gas Fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems.” August 7, 2019 at 20 to 26 and 40 to 41.
  112. Martin, Allyson. “Seed savers v. Monsanto: Farmers need a victory for wilting diversity.” DePaul Journal of Art, Technology & Intellectual Property Law. Vol. 24, Iss. 1. Fall 2013 at 96; Andrews (2012) at 2 to 5.
  113. Gonzalez, Carmen. “An environmental justice critique of comparative advantage: Indigenous peoples, trade policy, and the Mexican neoliberal economic reforms.” University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law. Vol. 32. 2011 at 755 to 758.
  114. Holt-Giménez, Eric et al. “We already grow enough food for 10 billion people…and still can’t end hunger.” Journal of Sustainable Agriculture. Vol. 36, No. 6. July 2012 at 595; FAO. “FAO’s Work on Agroecology: A Pathway to Achieving the SDGs.” 2018 at 6.
  115. FAO (2018) at 6 and 20.
  116. Hendrickson (2014) at 20.
  117. McGreal, Chris. “How America’s food giants swallowed the family farms.” Guardian. March 9, 2019; U.S. Meat Export Federation. “U.S. pork exports soared to new value, volume records in 2019.” National Hog Farmer. February 6, 2020.
  118. Clark (ND) at 7 and 29.
  119. Şentürklü et al. (2016) at abstract.
  120. Popay, Ian and Roger Field. “Grazing animals as weed control agents.” Weed Technology. Vol. 10, No. 1. Jan.—Mar. 1996 at abstract and 219.
  121. Stanley et al. (2018) at 257; de Vries et al (2015) at 286 to 287; Hillenbrand, Mimi et al. “Impacts of holistic planned grazing with bison compared to continuous grazing with cattle in South Dakota shortgrass prairie.” Agriculture, Eco- systems and Environment. Vol. 279. July 2019 at 156 to 157.
  122. University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute. “Field to fork farm: Resilience through diversification.” ND at 1 to 2.
  123. Egan, Franklin and Brooks Miller. “Scaling up pastured live- stock production: Benchmarks for getting the most out of feed & land.” Pasa Sustainable Agriculture. June 2020 at 6 to 7; Stampa, Ekaterina et al. “Consumer perceptions, pref- erences, and behavior regarding pasture-raised livestock products: A review.” Food Quality and Preference. Vol. 82. 2020 at abstract; Stanley et al. (2018) at 255.
  124. Neff, Roni A. et al. “Reducing meat consumption in the USA: A nationally representative survey of attitudes and behaviours.” Public Health Nutrition. Vol. 21, No. 10. March 2018 at abstract.
  125. Ranganathan, Janet et al. WRI. “Shifting Diets for a Sustain- able Food Future.” Installment 11 of “Creating a Sustainable Food Future.” April 2016 at 36 to 37.
  126. Ayazi & Elsheikh (2015) at 15; Mooney (2017) at 71 and 74 to 75.
  127. S. 3221. 116th Cong. (2019).
  128. S. 1596. 116th Cong. (2019).
  129. Gilbert, Jess et al. Land Tenure Center. “The Decline (and Revival?) of Black Farmers and Rural Landowners: A Review of the Research Literature.” Working Paper No. 44. May 2001 at 8 to 9; Reynolds, Bruce J. USDA. “Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000: The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of Cooperatives.” RBS Research Report 194. October 2002 at 24.
  130. S. 4929. 116th Cong. (2019).
  131. Graddy-Lovelace, Garrett and Adam Diamond. “From supply management to agricultural subsidies – and back again? The U.S. Farm Bill & agrarian (in)viability.” Journal of Rural Studies. Vol. 50. February 2017 at 76.
  132. Graddy-Lovelace & Diamond (2017) at 76; Ayazi & Elsheikh (2015) at 23 to 24.
  133. Graddy-Lovelace & Diamond (2017) at 76.
  134. Ibid. at 76; McMinimy, Mark A. Congressional Research Ser- vice (CRS). “U.S. Sugar Program Fundamentals.” R43998. April 6, 2016 at summary.
  135. Shields, Dennis A. Congressional Research Service (CRS). “Federal Crop Insurance: Background.” R40532. August 13, 2015 at summary; Schnepf, Randy. Congressional Research Service (CRS). [Fact sheet.] “2018 Farm Bill primer: Marketing Assistance Loan program.” IF11162. April 3, 2019 at 2.
  136. Rosa, Isabel and Renée Johnson. Congressional Research Service (CRS). “Federal Crop Insurance: Specialty Crops.” R45459. Updated January 14, 2019 at 9; Smith, Trevor J. “Corn, cows, and climate change: How federal agricultural subsidies enable factory farming and exacerbate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.” Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy. Vol. 9, Iss. 1. March 2019 at 43 to 44.
  137. Graddy-Lovelace & Diamond (2017) at 78.
  138. FWW analysis of EQIP payments, using data received from the Environmental Working Group; FWW. “Public Research, Private Gain: Corporate Influence over University Agricul- tural Research.” April 2012 at 1.
  139. Lehner, Peter and Nathan A. Rosenberg. “Legal pathways to carbon-neutral agriculture.” Environmental Law Reporter. Vol. 47. 2017 at 14; DeLonge, Marcia S., Albie Miles and Liz Carlisle. “Investing in the transition to sustainable agriculture.” Environmental Science & Policy. Vol. 55, Part 1. January 2016 at 267.
  140. Lehner & Rosenberg (2017) at 16.
  141. Ibid at 17.
  142. Fuglie, Keith O. and Paul W. Heisey. USDA ERS. “Economic returns to public agricultural research.” Economic Brief No.10. September 2007 at 3.
  143. FWW (2012) at 1 and 12.
  144. FWW analysis of EQIP payments, using data received from the Environmental Working Group; Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI). “Biogas: Converting Waste to Energy.” October 2017 at 1; U.S. EPA. “How does AD work?” Accessed July 2020. Available at anaerobic-digestion/basic-information-about-anaerobic- digestion-ad.
  145. Kuo, Jeff. California State University, Fullerton. “Air Quality Issues Related to Using Biogas from Anaerobic Digestion of Food Waste.” Prepared for California Energy Commission. CEC-500-2015-037. March 2015 at 2, 9 and 10.
  146. FWW. “The truth about offsets.” May 2013 at 1; Ritter, Tara and Jordan Treakle. Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC). January 2020 at 1 to 2.
  147. Gonzalez (2011) at 755 to 759; Frison, Emile A. Interna- tional Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (iPES FOOD). “From Uniformity to Diversity: A Paradigm Shift from Industrial Agriculture to Diversified Agroecological Systems.” June 2016 at 24 to 26.

Well-Fed: Fact Sheet


PDFFood System

Fair Farming: A New Deal Approach to Food Supply Management


PDFFood System

The Relationship Between Water Shutoffs and COVID-19

REPORT - March 2021

What You’ll Learn From This Report

  • 1: Report findings
    • A nationwide water shutoff moratorium might have saved more than 9,000 lives and prevented nearly half a million people from being infected with COVID-19 through the end of 2020.
  • 2: A national water affordability crisis
    • The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the pre-existing water affordability crisis in the United States.
  • 3: Water shutoff moratoria during the pandemic
    • A wave of protections and a wave of endangerment provide an opportunity to study outcomes of each approach.
  • 4: Our study
    • A small change in infection growth rate yields a significant impact.
  • 5: Conclusions and recommendations
    • 5 specific steps could save countless lives and slow the spread of contagion during public health emergencies.

Part 1:

Report Findings

A nationwide water shutoff moratorium might have saved more than 9,000 lives and prevented nearly half a million people from being infected with COVID-19 through the end of 2020.

This study finds that in states with moratoria, the growth rates for COVID-19 infections and deaths were significantly lower. Had these shutoff protections been in place nationally, it might have reduced total COVID cases by 4.0 percent and COVID deaths by 5.5 percent in the 41 states without a full coverage of a moratorium over the period from April 17, 2020 to December 31, 2020. Existing water shutoff protections have protected human health and helped slow the spread of novel coronavirus.

Since March 2020, when the outbreak of the COVID-19 was declared a national emergency, hundreds of localities and states took strong action to suspend water shutoffs to ensure households had water for handwashing and sanitation. Unfortunately, this patchwork of protections was never uniformly applied nationwide and left millions of people vulnerable to service disruptions due to an inability to pay water bills during the pandemic.

With emerging variants of the virus that causes COVID- 19, it is critical to ensure access to water services to continue to help slow the spread of the virus and prevent worsening infection rates. Food & Water Watch urges President Joe Biden to halt water shutoffs nationally for the remainder of the COVID-19 national emergency, and his administration should champion legislative solutions to cancel the water debt accrued during the pandemic and fully fund our public water infrastructure to provide long-term relief into the future.

Key Findings

From April 17, 2020 to December 31, 2020, states with moratoria on water shutoffs significantly reduced their growth rates of COVID infections and deaths, compared to states without moratoria, with the biggest reduction seen in states with comprehensive water shutoff moratoria covering all water systems in the state. A moratorium on water shutoffs was associated with a reduced daily infection growth rate by 0.235 percent, and daily death growth rate by 0.135 percent. These small reductions in the daily growth rates were significant and had a sizeable impact on the cumulative case and death numbers. Comprehensive water shutoff moratoria that apply to all water systems in a given state are associated with even lower infection and death growth rates. A nationwide water shutoff moratorium might have reduced COVID cases by 3.97 percent and COVID-related deaths by 5.51 percent in the 41 states without full coverage of a moratorium over this period. Extrapolating from model results, we estimated a nationwide water shutoff moratorium during the study period might have protected 480,715 people from COVID-19 infection and 9,052 people from death.

Report by Xue Zhang and Mildred E. Warner from Cornell University in collaboration with Food & Water Watch

Part 2:

A National Water Affordabilty Crisis

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the pre-existing water affordability crisis in the United States.

Since March 2020, one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s top recommendations to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus has been thorough and frequent handwashing,1 but tens of thousands of people have been unable to follow this simple but crucial advice because their water service was shut off over water debt.2

For years, unaffordable water bills have been a growing problem in communities across the country.3 A 2017 study found that water bills were already unaffordable for 12 percent of households, and if water charges increased at projected rates, nearly 36 percent of U.S. households would be unable to afford their water bills within five years.4 This crisis disproportionately affects low-income households and communities of color.5 A study of Michigan found that communities of color pay higher average household water bills than communities with lower percentages of racial minorities.6

Austerity underlies this crisis. The federal government has cut back support for water systems, shifting the burden onto local ratepayers. Federal funding for water and sewer systems fell by 77 percent in real dollars from its peak in 1977 to 2017.7 At the same time, water pipes are aging and need to be replaced, while treatment plants need updates to comply with stronger water quality regulations, and climate chaos creates unprecedented challenges in many parts of the country.8 With weak federal support, water systems rely on rate increases to meet these daunting challenges.9 But many people just can’t keep up with bills that outpace their wages.

Hardships and Water Shutoffs

One of the main collection practices of utilities for unaffordable water bills is service shutoffs.10 In a more typical year, 2016, an estimated 15 million people experienced a water shutoff for nonpayment.11 A 2015 national survey found only 8 percent of municipalities had programs to protect low-income consumers from water shutoffs, and publicly owned water operators were more likely to protect residents from water shutoffs.12

Water shutoffs pose a real threat to human health.13 Without water service, people cannot flush their toilets, wash their hands or bathe. Lack of adequate sanitation can cause diseases to spread and allow people to become sick. The elderly, pregnant women, children and people with diabetes and other illnesses would be especially vulnerable.14 Black and Indigenous people of color, Latinx communities and low-income populations face higher disconnection rates and are more likely to lack access to basic water services.15 Water shutoffs can be traumatic. There is a substantial, statistically significant effect of water insecurity on psychological distress.16

A January 2021 working paper from Duke University researchers, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that policies that promote housing stability through moratoria on evictions and utility shutoffs can have profound impacts on COVID death and infection rates.17

Part 3:

Water Shutoff Moratoria During the Pandemic

A wave of protections and a wave of endangerment provide an opportunity to study outcomes of each approach.

Before the pandemic, protections from water shutoffs were rare in the United States,18 but on March 9, 2020, Detroit became among the first U.S. cities to pause water shutoffs and temporarily reconnect water services for all residents.19 Advocates had fought water shutoffs in Detroit for nearly two decades before this historic decision,20 which sparked a wave of moratoria nationally. Over the next several months, more than 800 localities and states followed Detroit’s lead.21

A Wave of Protections

By June 2020, 34 states had imposed moratoria on water shutoffs, protecting the 247 million people living in those states. Twenty states imposed comprehensive water shutoff moratoria that apply to all water systems in the state, and an additional 14 states imposed partial moratoria that covered only water systems, typically investor-owned utilities, that are regulated by state public utility commissions (see Figure 1 and Appendix A).

States that regulate private water utilities through their public utility commission and states that had higher COVID-19 case rates were more likely to impose a moratorium on water shutoffs in the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic.22 Cities with higher per capita income, a higher percent of people of color, and higher income inequality and Democratic-led states were also more likely to impose moratoria on water shutoffs.23

It is clear that moratoria on water shutoffs have protected hundreds of thousands of people from disconnection. Based on limited data from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, 37,386 households — about 100,000 people — in New Jersey alone were protected from losing their water at the end of 2020 because of the state-issued moratoria.24 California found that 1.6 million households (one in eight households) were behind on their water bills, owing more than $1 billion as of January 2021.25

FIGURE 1. State Water Shutoff Moratoria as of May 2020

Source Data: See Appendix 1

A Wave of Endangerment

Many of these protections were short-lived and expired months before COVID cases peaked in January 2021. By the end of 2020, 22 states had allowed their moratoria to expire, leading to 134 million people losing protections from water shutoffs. Only 12 states still had moratoria in place by the end of 2020 (see Figure 2 and Appendix A). As of December 2020, 65 percent of the country — 211 million people — were not covered under a state- issued moratorium. This includes 75 million people of color and 2.6 million households in the lowest income quintile. These households are most at risk of water disconnection.

The length of state-imposed moratoria varied greatly across the country (see Figure 3 for the number of days that states went without a moratorium during the study period). During the study period, only nine states had a moratorium in place the entire time. Twenty-five states had a moratorium in place part of the time, and 16 states had no moratorium for the entire period.

FIGURE 2. State Water Shutoff Moratoria as of December 31, 2020

Source data: See Appendix 1

FIGURE 3. Days without a state moratorium on water shutoffs during the study period (April 17 -December 31, 2020)

Source data: See Appendix 1

In Michigan, for example, Governor Whitmer issued a comprehensive statewide water restoration order and moratorium on March 28, 2020.26 The order, as extended, was set to remain in effect until at least the end of the year, but in October, the state Supreme Court struck down many of the Governor’s COVID protections, including the shutoff moratorium.27 Figure 4 shows that cases were peaking, due to the second wave, in the days when the moratorium was not in effect. Michigan water advocates successfully passed state legislation to reimpose a moratorium, which went into effect in December 2020.28

FIGURE 4. COVID-19 cases and water shutoff moratoria over time in Michigan (February – December 2020)

Source Data: See Appendix 1 and New York Times COVID tracker (2020).

Part 4:

Our Study

A small change in infection growth rate yields a significant impact.

Study Design

We ran a multilevel mixed effects linear regression to examine the relation between water shutoff moratoria and COVID-19 daily infection growth rate and daily death growth rate between April 17 and December 31, 2020.29 This method has been used in other studies of COVID-19 health policies.30 Both the COVID-19 infection growth rate and death rate had a large fluctuation at the beginning of the pandemic in March due to the low initial denominator of cases, so we excluded these outliers.

We calculate growth rate in confirmed cases and deaths using the prior seven-day rolling average. This smooths spikes and reporting fluctuations (e.g., weekends) to more accurately estimate the trend. Our model controls for the effect of time to get an overall effect of the moratoria.

Because the infection rate is related to testing capacity which varies across states, we controlled for the daily test growth rate in the infection growth rate model. We also controlled for comprehensive coverage of the moratoria (applied to all water systems), and other confounding factors that might affect COVID case rates, including other state policies, such as mask mandates, the level of health insurance coverage and state demographic characteristics, such as minorities and essential workers.31

Results: Significant Decrease in COVID Infections and Deaths with Moratoria

Model results show that for the days when states had
a moratorium on water shutoff in place, daily infection growth had a 0.235 percent decrease and the death growth rate had a 0.135 percent decrease (see Appendix 2). In addition, comprehensive coverage of the moratorium was significantly associated with an even lower infection and death growth rate. This small change in the growth rate had a significant impact.

Protecting 9,000 Lives and Preventing Nearly Half A Million Infections

Had a national shutoff moratorium been in place during the study period, it might have protected 480,715 people from COVID-19 infection and 9,052 people from death. This accounts for 4.0 percent of the increase in confirmed cases and 5.5 percent of the increase in total deaths for the 41 states which had days without a moratorium during the study period. Using model results, we calculate the potential impacts as shown in Table 1 (see Appendix 3 for calculation). These estimates exclude the 9 states which had a moratorium in place (whether partial or comprehensive) during the entire study period. Partial moratoriums cover less of the population; but in the analysis below, we do not distinguish partial and comprehensive, we only measure days when a moratorium was not in place.

TABLE 1. Potential reduction in COVID-19 cases and deaths if water shutoff moratoria in place across all U.S. States (April 17 – Dec 30, 2020)

Source Data: Calculations based on model results (see Appendices 2 and 3) for the 41 states which did not have a moratorium in place during the entire study period

Figure 5 illustrates the number of people in each state that might have avoided contracting COVID had a moratorium been in place. Figure 6 shows the number of lives in each state that might have been saved with a nationwide water shutoff moratorium. The biggest benefits are in states with short or no moratoria, and also reflect the state’s relative population size.

FIGURE 5. Number of people who might have been protected from COVID-19 infection by a shutoff moratorium (April 17 -December 31, 2020)

Source Data: Calculations based on model results (see Appendices 2 and 3)

FIGURE 6. Number of people who might have been protected from COVID-19 death by a shutoff moratorium (April 17 -December 31, 2020)

Source Data: Calculations based on model results (see Appendices 2 and 3)

Part 5:

Conclusions and

5 specific steps could save countless lives and slow the spread of contagion during public health emergencies.

A nationwide water shutoff moratorium might have reduced COVID infections by 4.0 percent and by 5.5 percent in states that lacked moratoria. Through a patchwork of protections in states with existing moratoria on water shutoffs, the growth rate of both COVID infections and deaths was significantly lower, with the biggest protection observed in states that imposed comprehensive moratoria on both public and private water systems. A national moratorium might have saved thousands of people. To ensure protection of water access for every person in the country, Food and Water Watch recommends that President Joe Biden work with Congress to:

Enact a Nationwide Moratorium on Utility Shutoffs for the Remainder of the COVID-19 Emergency.

Enacting a nationwide moratorium on utility shutoffs is an important and urgent measure to help slow the spread of COVID-19. There should be policies in place to automatically impose a water shutoff moratorium during states of emergency in the future. Moreover, vulnerable households must be protected from shutoff at all times. This includes households with young children, seniors, and medically compromised individuals.

Cancel Water Debt

Households have accrued an estimated nearly $9 billion in water and sewer debts over the pandemic.32 Federal support is necessary to offer forgiveness of these debts to avoid a tidal wave of shutoffs when moratoria expire.

Establish Income-Based Water Affordability Programs

Federal funding should support the establishment of state and local programs to provide percentage-of-income payment plans with arrears management components for all households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Combined water and wastewater bills should not exceed 3 percent of household income, according to the United Nation’s standard of water affordability.33

Collect Better Data

Better data collection and reporting are necessary to help inform policy and solutions. Utilities should periodically report statistics about shutoffs, restorations, arrears, aging of arrears, and other metrics to inform policy. These data must be provided by zip code or census tract to allow for investigation of disparate impacts based on race and other socioeconomic factors and to better inform the outreach of low-income aid providers.

Restore Federal Funding for Water Infrastructure

National support for long-term financing for water utilities would help address systemic inequalities and create stronger, more resilient and more equitable communities. The nation’s water and wastewater systems need federal support.34 The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act is the type of sweeping legislation needed to address water contamination, affordability, job creation and justice all at the same time.

Water must be a priority for an infrastructure stimulus. With adequate water funding, we can provide immediate relief to households and fight the coronavirus, and we can also protect the health and safety of all communities. We must come out of this crisis with a newfound commitment to providing universal access to water for all.

Tell President Biden: No water shutoffs during a pandemic!


We want to thank the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future for partial funding support of the Cornell research.

Report by Xue Zhang and Mildred E. Warner from Cornell University in collaboration with Food & Water Watch.100

  1. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How
    to Protect Yourself & Others.” February 4, 2021, available
    at getting-sick/prevention.html; Thebault, Reis et al. “How to prepare for coronavirus in the U.S.” Washington Post. March 11, 2020.
  2. For example, see: Missouri Public Service Commission. “Staff report on utility data request responses.” File No. AW- 2020-0356. February 22, 2021 at 34; Tennessee American Water. “Informational filing of Tennessee-American Water Company.” Tennessee Public Utility Commission. Docket No. 20-00047. February 15, 2021 at 4 to 8; Illinois Commerce Commission. “Illinois American Water Compliance Filing.” Docket 20-0309. February 16, 2021 at 2; Grant, Robert. “‘Some families end up homeless’: Jacksonville advocacy group urges utility districts to stop disconnects during pandemic.” Action Jax News. October 8, 2020.
  3. National Academy of Public Administration. “Developing a New Framework for Community Affordability of Clean Water Services.” October 2017 at 2.
  4. Mack, Elizabeth A. and Sarah Wrase. “A burgeoning crisis? A nationwide assessment of the geography of water afford- ability in the United States.” PLoS One, Vol. 12, Iss. 1. January 2017 at 7 to 9.
  5. Montag, Coty. Thurgood Marshall Institute at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. “Water/Color: A study of race and the affordability crisis in America’s cities.” 2019 at 2 to 5.
  6. Butts, Rachel and Stephen Gasteyer. “More cost per drop: Water rates, structural inequality, and race in the United States — The case of Michigan.” Environmental Reviews & Case Studies, Vol. 13, No. 4. December 2011 at 386 and 392.
  7. U.S. Congressional Budget Office. “Public Spending on Transportation and Water Infrastructure, 1956 to 2017.” (Pub. No. 54539). October 2018 at Supplemental Table W-8.
  8. Mirosa, Oriol. “Water affordability in the United States: An initial exploration and an agenda for research.” Sociological Imagination. Vol. 51, Iss. 2. December 2015 at 41 to 42.
  9. National Academy of Public Administration at 25.
  10. U.S. EPA. Environmental Financial Advisory Board. “Afford- able Rate Design for Households.” February 2006 at 5.
  11. Food & Water Watch. “America’s Secret Water Crisis: Na- tional Shutoff Survey Reveals Water Affordability Emergency Affecting Millions.” October 2018 at 2.
  12. Homsy, George C. and Mildred E. Warner. “Does public ownership of utilities matter for local government water poli- cies?” Utilities Policy. Vol. 64. Iss. 101057. 2020 at 1 and 5.
  13. Amirhadji, Jason et al. Georgetown Law Human Rights Insti- tute Fact-Finding Practicum. “Tapped Out — Threats to the Human Right to Water in the Urban United States.” April 2013 at 31 to 32.
  14. Ibid. at 31 to 32.
  15. Holmes, Lillian et al. Pacific Institute. “Water and the COV- ID-19 Pandemic: Equity Dimensions of Utility Disconnections in the U.S.” July 2020 at 3 to 4; DigDeep and US Water Alliance. “Closing the Water Gap in the United States: A National Action Plan.” 2019 at 22; Montag, 2019 at 4.
  16. Gaber, Nadia et al. “Water insecurity and psychosocial distress: case study of the Detroit water shutoffs.” Journal of Public Health. 2020 at 1.
  17. Jowers, Kay et al. “Housing Precarity & the COVID-19 Pan- demic: Impacts of Utility Disconnection and Eviction Mora- toria on Infections and Deaths Across US Counties.” National Bureau of Economic Research. January 2021. Available at
  18. Homsy and Warner, 2020.
  19. Neavling, Steve. “As coronavirus spreads, Detroit to restore water to thousands of households, offer moratorium on shutoffs.” Detroit Metro Times. March 9, 2020; Lakhani, Nina. “Detroit suspends water shutoffs over Covid-19 fears.” The Guardian. March 12, 2020.
  20. People’s Water Board Coalition. (Press release). “People’s Water Board Coalition Applauds Detroit Mayor’s Decision to Ban Water Shutoffs and Restore Residential Water.” Decem- ber 8, 2020.
  21. Food & Water Watch. “External-Local-State Water Shutoff Moratoria Amidst Coronavirus.” Accessed March 5, 2021, available at spreadsheets/d/153Ze6RRZ-ZZ9oVkaSErhVHGMv3Z4laQDs- 0GRO7UmYnQ.
  22. Warner, Mildred E., Xue Zhang and Marcela González Rivas. ”Which states and cities protect residents from water shut- offs in the COVID-19 pandemic?” Utilities Policy. Vol. 67. Iss. 101118. September 2020 at 1, 3 to 4.
  23. Ibid. at 4.
  24. New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. “Water and Sewer Ar- rearages as of December 2020.” 2021, available at https:// and%20Sewer%20Arrearages%20December%202020%20 Summary.pdf; U.S. Census. “Quickfacts: New Jersey.” Avail- able at Accessed March 5, 2021.
  25. California Water Boards. “Frequently Asked Questions: COVID-10 Drinking Water Financial Impacts Survey Results.” January 19, 2021 at 2.
  26. Michigan. Executive Order No. 2020-28. March 28, 2020.
  27. Egan, Paul. “Michigan Supreme Court strikes down Gov. Whitmer’s emergency orders, effectively immediately.” Detroit Free Press. October 12, 2020.
  28. Michigan. Public Acts of 2020. Act No. 252. December 22, 2020.
  29. New York Times. “The COVID Tracking Project. Social Ex- plorer.” 2020. Available at Accessed January 25, 2021.
  30. Zhang, Xue and Mildred W. Warner. “COVID-19 Policy Differences across US States: Shutdowns, Reopening, and Mask Mandates.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Vol. 17. Iss. 24. December 2020 at 9520; Lyu, Wie and George L. Wehby. “Shelter-In-Place Orders Re- duced COVID-19 Mortality and Reduced The Rate Of Growth In Hospitalizations.” Health Affairs, Vol. 39. Iss. 9. September 2020 at 1615 to 1623; Lyu, Wu & George L. Wehby. “Com- munity Use Of Face Masks And COVID-19: Evidence From A Natural Experiment Of State Mandates In The US.” Health Affairs, Vol. 39. Iss. 8. June 2020 at 1419 to 1425.
  31. U.S. Census. “American Community Survey (2015–2019).” Prepared by Social Explorer. 2020. Available at Accessed January 25, 2020; Ballotpedia. “State-level mask requirements in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, 2020- 2021.” 2021. Available at mask_requirements_in_response_to_the_coronavirus_ (COVID-19)_pandemic,_2020-2021. Access on February 15, 2021; Broaddus, Matt. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “5 Million Essential and Front-line Workers Get Health Cover- age through Medicaid.” August 4, 2020.
  32. National Association of Clean Water Agencies. “Recovering from Coronavirus: Mitigating the Economic Cost of Maintain- ing Water and Wastewater Service in the Midst of a Global Pandemic and National Economic Shut Down.” 2020. Available at resources—public/water-sector-covid-19-financial-impacts. pdf.
  33. United Nations, United Nations Habitat, and World Health Organization. “The Right to Water.” Fact Sheet No. 35. August 2010 at 11.
  34. American Society of Civil Engineers. “2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.” December 2020 at 35 to 38 and 152 to 157. Available at
  35. Laws of Alaska. Enrolled SB 241. §19 and §39. (2020).
  36. Arkansas Public Service Commission. Order. Docket No. 20- 012-A. Order No. 1. April 10, 2020 at 2 to 3.
  37. California Public Utilities Commission. (Press release). “CPUC ensures essential utility services for consumers to assist in Covid-19 mitigation.” March 17, 2020.
  38. California. Executive Order N-42-20. April 2, 2020.
  39. Colorado. Executive Order D 2020-012. March 20, 2020.
  40. Colorado. Executive Order D 2020-031. April 6, 2020; Colo- rado. Executive Order D 2020-051. April 30, 2020; Colorado. Executive Order D 2020-088. May 29, 2020; Colorado. Executive Order. D 2020-098. June 12, 2020. (EO-088 expires 15 days from May 29. The June 12 order includes no moratorium).
  41. Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. Motion 1. Docket No. 20-03-15. March 12, 2020.
  42. Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. Motion 9. Docket No. 20-03-15. September 2, 2020 at 5.
  43. Delaware. Executive Order. Sixth Modification of the Declara- tion of a State of Emergency for the State of Delaware due to a Public Health Threat. March 24, 2020 at 8 to 9.
  44. Delaware. Executive Order. Twenty-Third Modification of the Declaration of a State of Emergency for the State of Dela- ware due to a Public Health Threat. June 30, 2020 at 12.
  45. Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. Order 37125. Non-dock- eted. May 4, 2020 at 4; Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. Order 37506. Docket No. 2020-0209. December 22, 2020 at 2 to 3.
  46. Illinois Commerce Commission. “Emergency Interim Order.” Docket No. 20-0309. March 18, 2020 at 7.
  47. Illinois Commerce Commission. “Staff of the Illinois Com- merce Commission’s Unopposed Motion for Entry of an Order Approving and Adopting Stipulation Resolving All Issues Between Various Parties.” Docket No. 20-0309. June 10, 2020 at 5 and 8; Illinois Commerce Commission. “Stipu- lation.” Docket No. 20-0309. June 10, 2020 at 2 and 3 (30 days after August 1 are under moratorium period).
  48. Indiana. Executive Order 20-05. March 19, 2020 at 2.
  49. Indiana. Executive Order 20-33. June 30, 2020 at 2.
  50. Iowa Utilities Board. “Order Phasing in Disconnection of Utility Service and Modifying March 27 2020 Order.” Docket No. SPU-2020-0003. May 20, 2020 at 1 to 3.
  51. Kansas. Executive Order No. 20-05. March 17, 2020.
  52. Kansas. Executive Order No. 20-28. April 30, 2020.
  53. Kentucky Public Service Commission. Order. Case No. 2020- 00085. March 16, 2020 at 3 and 8.
  54. Kentucky. Executive Order No. 2020-323. May 8, 2020 at 3.
  55. Kentucky Public Service Commission. Order. Case No. 2020- 00085. September 21, 2020 at 6.
  56. Kentucky. Executive Order 2020-881. October 19, 2020 at 2 and 4.
  57. Louisiana Public Service Commission. Executive Order. March 13, 2020.
  58. Louisiana Public Service Commission. Special Order No. 43- 2020. July 1, 2020 at 2.
  59. Maine Public Utilities Commission. Order. Docket No. 2020- 00081. March 16, 2020.
  60. Maine Public Utilities Commission. Order. Docket No. 2020- 00081. September 17, 2020 at 1.
  61. Maryland. Order of the Governor of the State of Maryland Prohibiting Termination of Residential Services and Late Fees. March 16, 2020.
  62. Maryland. Order of the Governor of the State of Maryland. No. 20-07-31-01. July 31, 2020.
  63. Maryland Public Service Commission. Order on Covid-19 emergency measures. ML 231904. PC53. September 22, 2020 at 3.
  64. Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. “Chairman’s first set of orders under G.L. c. 25, § 4B.” March 24, 2020; Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. “Chairman’s eighth set of orders under G.L. c. 25, § 4B.” February 26, 2021.
  65. Michigan. Executive Order No. 2020-28. March 28, 2020.
  66. Michigan. Public Acts of 2020. Act No. 252. December 22, 2020.
  67. Egan, Paul. “Michigan Supreme Court strikes down Gov. Whitmer’s emergency orders, effectively immediately.” De- troit Free Press. October 12, 2020.
  68. Mississippi Public Service Commission. Clarification State- ment. Docket No. 2018-AD-141. March 19, 2020.
  69. Mississippi Public Service Commission. Order Extending Order Temporarily Suspending Disconnection of Certain Util- ity Services. Docket No. 2018-AD-141. May 12, 2020 at 5.
  70. Montana. Directive Implementing Executive Orders 2-2020 and 3-2020 providing measures to limit foreclosures, evic- tions, and disconnections from service. March 30, 2020 at 4.
  71. Montana. Directive Implementing Executive Orders 2-2020 and 3-2020 and establishing conditions for Phase Two. May 19, 2020 at 3.
  72. New Hampshire. Emergency Order #3 Pursuant to Executive Order 2020-04. March 17, 2020.
  73. New Hampshire. Emergency Order #58 Pursuant to Execu- tive Order 2020-04. June 30, 2020.
  74. New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission. “Agreement.” IR 20-089. September 8, 2020 at 5.
  75. New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, Department of Environmental Protection, and Board of Public Utilities. (Press release). “All water providers asked to suspend shut- offs during Covid-19 outbreak.” March 20, 2020; Hutter, David. “Murphy orders water providers to suspend shut-offs during COVID-19.” March 26, 2020.
  76. New Jersey. Executive Order No. 190. October 15, 2020 at 3, 5 and 6.
  77. New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. Order Finding Need for the Adoption and Issuance of an Immediate Temporary Emergency Rule Prohibiting the Discontinuation of Residential Customer Utility Service. Case No. 20-00069- UT. March 18, 2020 at 5; NMAC. §17.12.760.10(B)(1). Novem- ber 10, 2020.
  78. New York Department of Public Service. (Press release). “Utilities to suspend disconnections for households facing hardships during COVID-19 outbreak.” March 13, 2020.
  79. Laws of New York State. Chapter 108. (2020).
  80. North Carolina. Executive Order No. 124. March 31, 2020 at 4.
  81. North Carolina. Executive Order No. 142. May 30, 2020 at 7.
  82. Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Director’s Final Findings and Orders. In the Matter of Public Water Systems Under ORC Chapter 6109. March 31, 2020 at 2.
  83. Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “Termination of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s March 31, 2020 State of Emergency Public Water System Order (PWS Or- der).” July 10, 2020.
  84. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. Emergency Order. Docket No. M-2020-3019244. March 13, 2020 at 2.
  85. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. Order. Docket No. M-2020-3019244. October 8, 2020 at 3.
  86. Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission. Order on Commission’s Own Motion. Docket No. 5022. March 17, 2020 at 4.
  87. Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission. Order. Docket No. 5022. July 15, 2020 at 4.
  88. South Carolina Public Service Commission. Commission Di- rective. Order No. 2020-228. Docket No. 2020-106-A. March 18, 2020.
  89. South Carolina Public Service Commission. Commission Directive. Order No. 2020-374. Docket No. 2020-106-A. May 14, 2020.
  90. Tennessee Public Utility Commission. (Press release). “TPUC Order on Service Disconnections.” March 27, 2020.
  91. Tennessee Public Utility Commission. “Order Lifting Suspen- sion of Disconnections of Service for Lack of Payment with Conditions, Effective on August 29, 2020.” Docket No. 20- 00047. September 16, 2020 at 2.
  92. Texas Public Utility Commission. Order Directing Certain Actions and Granting Exceptions to Certain Rules. Project No. 50664. March 26, 2020 at 1 and 2.
  93. Texas Public Utility Commission. Third Order Directing Certain Actions and Granting Exceptions to Certain Rules. Project No. 50664. May 14, 2020 at 1 and 2.
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  95. Virginia State Corporation Commission. Order Suspending Disconnection of Service and Suspending Tariff Provisions Regarding Utility Disconnections of Service. Case No. PUR- 2020-00048. March 16, 2020.
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Meltdown: The Dangerous Nuclear Option for Climate Control

REPORT - February 2020

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What You’ll Learn From This Report

The climate crisis grows more urgent. Droughts, floods, wildfires, food shortages, extreme weather and other threats to human life sweep the globe.1Field, Christopher B. et al. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Climate Change 2014. Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability: Summary for Policymakers.” 2014 at 4 and 6. Clear-eyed advocates and policy makers call for the only solutions that will stave off environmental catastrophe: ending the use of fossil fuels, banning fracking and making an immediate and just transition to clean, renewable energy. Others call for timid half-measures like so-called market-based solutions and dirty “renewables” like biogas. Most dangerous of all, though, are those who peddle false solutions to the climate crisis. One such false solution that supporters persistently push hearkens to the last century: nuclear power. Neither clean nor renewable, nuclear power comes at a significant cost to the environment and the public.2Montoya Bryan, Susan. “US Senate panel takes up what to do with nuclear waste.” Associated Press. June 27, 2019; Rashad, S. M. and F. H. Hammad. “Nuclear power and the environment: Comparative assessment of environmental and health impacts of electricity-generating systems.” Applied Energy. Vol. 65, Iss. 1-4. April 2000 at 211; Wealer, Ben et al. DIW Berlin. “High-priced and dangerous: Nuclear power is not an option for the climate-friendly energy mix.” DIW Weekly Report. Vol. 9. July 24, 2019 at 236; Jacobson, Mark Z. (2019). “Evaluation of Nuclear Power as a Proposed Solution to Global Warming, Air Pollution, and Energy Security.” In 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press at 5. Page numbers presented are pdf pages from draft sections of the book in press and may not reflect the page numbers after publication in 2020. Pre-published document and pages on file with Food & Water Watch (FWW).

Nuclear power is often promoted as a climate solution because it releases fewer climate-destroying emissions during electricity generation than fossil fuels. But across its full life cycle, nuclear is not emissions free.3Rashad and Hammad (2000) at 211; Pearce, Joshua M. “Limitations of nuclear power as a sustainable energy source.” Sustainability. Vol. 4, Iss. 6. June 7, 2012 at 1175; Sovacool, Benjamin K. “Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey.” Energy Policy. Vol. 36, Iss. 8. August 2008 at 2960. Nuclear plants also require large quantities of water, making the industry vulnerable to climate-related drought conditions and heat waves.4Macknick, Jordan et al. “Operational water consumption and withdrawal factors for electricity generating technologies: A review of existing literature.” Environmental Research Letters. Vol. 7, No. 4. December 20, 2012 at 1; Neuhauser, Alan. “Nuclear power, once seen as impervious to climate change, threatened by heat waves.” U.S. News. July 1, 2019. Construction is slow and expensive.5Strauch, Yonatan. “Beyond the low-carbon niche: Global tipping points in the rise of wind, solar, and electric vehicles to regime scale systems.” Energy Research & Social Science. Vol. 62. April 2020 at 9 and 10; Lazard. “Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis — Version 13.0.” November 2019 at 2, 7 and 10; “Ramp up nuclear power to beat climate change, says UN nuclear chief.” UN News. October 7, 2019. And radioactive waste poses one of the biggest threats because there are no good disposal options.6Jantz, Eric. “Environmental racism with a faint green glow.” Natural Resources Journal. Vol. 58, No. 2. Summer 2018 at 255; Montoya Bryan, Susan. “New Mexico governor says no to high-level nuclear waste.” Associated Press. June 7, 2019; Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects. Presented to The Governor and Legislature of the State of Nevada. “Report and Recommendations of the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects.” January 2017 at 17 to 20; Long, Jane C. S. and Rodney C. Ewing. “Yucca Mountain: Earth-science issues at a geologic repository for high-level nuclear waste.” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Vol. 32. May 2004 at 369 to 370, 393 and 394. To stave off the catastrophic impacts of climate change, we must — and can — shift to 100 percent clean, renewable electricity by 2030.

Nuclear Power Plants in the United States

There are currently 59 operational nuclear power plants (97 total reactors) scattered across 30 states.7FWW analysis of U.S. Nuclear Generation and Generating Capacity 2019 P. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Monthly Nuclear Utility Generation (MWh) by State and Reactor. May 2019. Available at Accessed July 2019; Sholtis, Brett. “Three Mile Island nuclear power plant shuts down.” NPR. September 20, 2019. The United States generates more electricity from nuclear plants than any other country, double that of second-place France.8EIA. International Energy Statistics Nuclear Electricity Net Generation. Available at Accessed July 2019. In 2018, U.S. nuclear power plants generated more than 800 billion kilowatt-hours of energy — 20 percent of the country’s electricity; nuclear power ranks third as an energy producer in the United States, behind natural gas and coal.9EIA. “Monthly Energy Review.” DOE/EIA-0035. May 2019 at Table 7.2b at 126.

As of July 2019, seven nuclear power plants (nine reactors) had announced plans to retire after struggling to compete with cheaper energy sources. One of these — the notorious Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania — has since retired.10EIA. “Electric Power Monthly With Data for July 2019.” September 2019 at Table 6.6 at 169 to 175; Sholtis (2019). Despite economic challenges, some plants (like Davis-Besse and Perry in Ohio) were rescued by taxpayer-funded state subsidies.11Tomich, Jeffrey. “Ohio rolls back RPS, boosts nuclear. Here’s why it matters.” E&E News. July 24, 2019; EIA (September 2019) at Table 6.6 at 169 to 175; EIA. “Electric Power Monthly With Data for May 2019.” July 2019 at Table 6.6 at 167 to 173. Two new reactors are under construction in Georgia and are projected to begin operating in 2021 and 2022.12EIA (July 2019) at Table 6.5 at 164 and 165.

The current fleet of nuclear plants is aging and plagued by crumbling infrastructure. Roughly half of the nuclear reactors in the country have been operating since before the 1980s and longer than the 40 years the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) originally licensed reactors to operate.13FWW analysis of 2017 Form EIA-860 Data — Schedule 3, “Generator Data” (Operable Units Only). EIA. Available at Accessed July 2019; U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). “Reactor License Renewal.” October 2018 at 1. Many of the plants are outrageously operating on 20-year extensions, and the NRC has started authorizing renewals that allow reactors to operate for 80 years — double the time frame that some of the structures were built to last.14NRC (2018) at 1; Balaraman, Kavya. “FPL’s Turkey Point first US nuclear plant to get license out to 80 years.” Utility Dive. December 6, 2019. The NRC dismisses aging issues and claims that safeguards are in place to ensure that facilities can safely operate for the extended periods.15NRC (2018) at 1 and 3. Evidence suggests otherwise.

Analyses by the NRC’s own researchers concluded that nuclear power plants are susceptible to cracks and corrosion; aging could become a problem for those operating on extended licenses.16Dunn, Darrell S. et al. NRC. Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research. “Containment Liner Corrosion Operation Experience Summary: Technical Letter Report — Revision 1.” April 2, 2011 at v and vi; Donn, Jeff. “Part I: AP Impact: US nuke regulators weaken safety rules.” Associated Press. June 20, 2011. In 2009, just one week after New Jersey’s Oyster Creek nuclear plant was granted a 20-year operating extension, leaks from the plant’s aging pipes were discovered in and around the facility.17Donn, Jeff. “Part II: AP Impact: Tritium leaks found at many nuke sites.” Associated Press. June 21, 2011. While Oyster Creek is no longer operating,18FWW analysis of EIA data (May 2019). other nuclear power plants continue to put the public and environment at risk under the false narrative that these plants provide clean, renewable energy.

Historically, undesirable facilities are placed in communities that are already socially and economically disadvantaged because they have less political power; expanding nuclear power will only exacerbate such injustices. Nuclear power plants are frequently located in lower-income communities and communities of color, and larger proportions of African Americans live within the emergency planning zones than outside.19Jantz (2018) at 254 to 255; Kyne, Dean and Bob Bolin. “Emerging environmental justice issues in nuclear power and radioactive contamination.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Vol. 13. July 12, 2016 at 4. From the 1950s to the 1980s, uranium mining occurred mostly on indigenous lands, disproportionately exposing indigenous peoples to toxic pollution.20Jantz (2018) at 251 to 252.

Nuclear Power Is Not Clean, Renewable or Safe

Supporters of nuclear energy have promoted its expansion as an opportunity to tackle the climate crisis, reduce air pollution and decrease our reliance on fossil fuels.21Shellenberger, Michael. “Big pro-nuclear victory in US gives momentum to global nuclear expansion.” Forbes. July 24, 2019; Montoya Bryan (June 27, 2019); “Ramp up nuclear power to beat climate change, says UN nuclear chief.” (2019). But nuclear is not a solution. Proponents must not ignore emissions from the broader life cycle, the many health impacts associated with the radioactivity, the vulnerability that nuclear power plants face in an already changing climate, and the problems associated with the continued dependence on uranium.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Nuclear power is frequently mischaracterized as carbon free, but these claims focus solely on direct emissions from electricity generation and leave out the climate-destroying emissions associated with the full life cycle of nuclear.22Sovacool (2008) at 2950 and 2951; Pearce (2012) at 1175; Cebulla, Felix and Mark Z. Jacobson. “Carbon emissions and costs associated with subsidizing New York nuclear instead of replacing it with renewables.” Journal of Cleaner Production. Vol. 205. December 2018 at 884. A fuller and more accurate accounting, which includes key components of the nuclear life cycle such as mining, milling and enriching uranium to produce nuclear fuel, as well as power plant construction, reveals that the nuclear energy sector is carbon intensive. In some cases, the nuclear life cycle emits as much carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour as natural gas plants to meet those demands.23Pearce (2012) at 1175; Cebulla and Jacobson (2018) at 884.

Several lifecycle studies found that while nuclear may produce fewer greenhouse gases per unit of energy than fossil fuels, emissions are significantly higher than from wind and solar power.24Sovacool (2008) at 2960; Jacobson, Mark Z. and Mark A. Delucchi. “Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities, and areas of infrastructure, and materials.” Energy Policy. Vol. 39, Iss. 3. March 2011 at 1156. Wind energy, for example, produces 7 to 25 times less carbon dioxide pollution compared to nuclear.25Sovacool (2008) at 2960; Jacobson and Delucchi (2011) at 1156. Despite nuclear’s carbon footprint, several states have incorporated nuclear power into their clean energy or renewable energy standards.26Mufson, Steven. “Competition drives nuclear industry to look for millions in subsidies.” Washington Post. May 24, 2018; Grossman, Karl. “New York approves $7.6 billion bailout of nuclear power plants.” HuffPost. August 3, 2016; State of New York. Public Service Commission. Cases 15-E-0302 & 16-E-0270 (2016); Ohio Admin. Code. 4901:1-40-04 (B)(4).

Public Health Threats

One of the most common concerns about nuclear power is the threat of a nuclear accident or reactor meltdown. Disasters at the Fukushima Daiichi (Japan, 2011) and Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986) nuclear power plants resulted in major releases of radioactive material, fatalities among first responders, mass evacuations, long-term abandonment of areas around the disasters and increased incidence of acute radiation syndrome, cancer and mental health impacts.27Hasegawa, Arifumi et al. “Health effects of radiation and other health problems in the aftermath of nuclear accidents, with an emphasis on Fukushima.” Lancet. Vol. 386, Iss. 9992. August 2015 at 479, 480, 481, 483, 484 and 485; Kamiya, Kenji et al. “Long-term effects of radiation exposure on health.” Lancet. Vol. 386, Iss. 9992. August 2015 at 469 and 475; Lelieveld, J. et al. “Global risk of radioactive fallout after major nuclear reactor accidents.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. Vol. 12. May 12, 2012 at 4246; Braxton Little, Jane. “Fukushima residents return despite radiation.” Scientific American. January 16, 2019. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable: the risk of thyroid cancer increased significantly in children after Chernobyl, and death rates among the elderly tripled in the three months following Fukushima due to stressors from relocation.28Hasegawa et al. (2015) at 484; Kamiya et al. (2015) at 475.

The Three Mile Island meltdown (Pennsylvania, 1979) led to the evacuation of 195,000 people after serious damage to the reactor. Fortunately, health effects from the radioactive release were found to be negligible.29Hasegawa et al. (2015) at 480 and 481; NRC. “Three Mile Island Accident.” June 2018 at 1 and 2. Based on a global analysis of incidents at nuclear power plants, uranium-related sites and storage sites for radioactive waste, scientists have predicted “a 50 percent probability of a Fukushimalike event (or more costly) every 60-150 years, and a Three Mile Island event (or more costly) every 10-20 years.”30Wheatley, Spencer et al. “Reassessing the safety of nuclear power.” Energy Research & Social Science. Vol. 15. May 2016 at 97 and 98.

Nuclear energy also poses occupational health risks to workers. Prolonged exposure to low levels of radiation, such as that faced by workers in nuclear power plants, can increase the risk of death from leukemia.31Leuraud, Klervi et al. “Ionising radiation and risk of death from leukaemia and lymphoma in radiation-monitored workers (INWORKS): An international cohort study.” Lancet Haematology. Vol. 2, Iss. 7. July 2015 at 277, 279 and 280. Mining and milling uranium has been linked to a number of health problems. Exposure to radon from uranium mining increases the risk of lung cancer: lung cancer deaths in miners have been observed at rates five times greater than in the general population.32Dewar, Dale et al. “Uranium mining and health.” Canadian Family Physician. Vol. 59, Iss. 5. May 2013 at 469; Schubauer-Berigan, Mary K. et al. “Radon exposure and mortality among white and American Indian uranium miners: An update on the Colorado Plateau cohort.” American Journal of Epidemiology. Vol. 169, No. 6. February 2009 at 719, 721 to 722; Brugge, Doug and Virginia Buchner. “Health effects of uranium: New research findings.” Reviews on Environmental Health. Vol. 26, Iss. 4. December 1, 2011 at 238.

Compounding the public health burdens, these risks come with significant economic costs. As of 2011, more than 7,000 uranium-related workers received $713 million from the U.S. government for associated health impacts such as lung cancer and silicosis.33Brugge and Buchner (2011) at 235.

Cleanup costs after nuclear disasters are also astronomical. The Fukushima disaster is estimated to cost Japan $460 billion to $640 billion.34Denyer, Simon. “Eight years after Fukushima’s meltdown, the land is recovering, but public trust is not.” Washington Post. February 20, 2019.


The relationship between nuclear power plants and water complicates the heralding of the sector as a solution to climate change. Not only does nuclear power threaten water supplies, but the operation of plants is highly vulnerable to a changing climate.35Donn (June 21, 2011); Neuhauser (2019). Nuclear power plants withdraw and consume significant amounts of water to produce electricity with steam engines and to cool process water. For every megawatt-hour of electricity produced, nuclear plants on average consume roughly 750 gallons of water, whereas solar and wind generation use on average 125 gallons and less than 1 gallon, respectively.36Meldrum, J. et al. “Life cycle water use for electricity generation: A review and harmonization of literature estimates.” Environmental Research Letters. Vol. 8, No. 1. March 12, 2013 at 13. Nuclear is consistently among the energy sources that require the most water, in some cases using more water than fossil fuels.37Macknick et al. (2012) at 6.

Heavy reliance on water makes nuclear power plants vulnerable to a changing climate where extreme weather events are more prevalent. Droughts, water shortages and increasing water temperatures can reduce electricity generation at facilities or cause temporary shutdowns.38Ibid. at 2; Neuhauser (2019). For example, Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama shut down temporarily in response to a drought in 2007.39Macknick et al. (2012) at 2. High water and air temperatures force plants to reduce electricity output, especially in the summer when demand is highest, making them an unreliable energy source.40Neuhauser (2019).

Nuclear power plants also release heat into aquatic environments. Water is used in nuclear plants to condense the steam needed for electricity generation; it is warmed during the process, then typically discharged back into rivers, lakes and oceans.41Jacobson (2019) at 4 to 5. This thermal pollution harms ecosystems.42Verones, Francesca et al. “Characterization factors for thermal pollution in freshwater aquatic environments.” Environmental Science & Technology. Vol. 44, Iss. 24. November 2010 at 9364; Jebakumar, Jebarathnam Prince Prakash et al. “Impact of coastal power plant cooling system on planktonic diversity of a polluted creek system.” Marine Pollution Bulletin. Vol. 133. August 2018 at 378 and 379. Thermal pollution from power plants can lead to declining fish populations and promote algal blooms that produce harmful toxins.43Jebakumar et al. (2018) at 378 and 379; Kowalski, Kathiann M. “Harmful Lake Erie algal blooms worsened by power plant pollution.” Energy News Network. January 25, 2016.

Climate change and warmer waters have pushed nuclear power plants to reduce their output with greater frequency to comply with temperature limits for receiving waters and limit damage to the environment.44Neuhauser (2019). But limits on how warm the water can be before being used as cooling water within the plant also restrict operations at nuclear plants. One unit at Millstone Power Station, which provides Connecticut with half of its electricity, was forced to shut down for almost two weeks in 2012 when temperatures in Long Island Sound were too high.45Singer, Stephen. “Millstone to seek permission to use warmer water for cooling.” Associated Press. February 19, 2013.

Finally, water contamination is a reality surrounding nuclear power. An Associated Press investigation found that 74 percent of nuclear power plants had leaked radioactive tritium into ground water from aging pipes.46Donn (June 21, 2011). While most leaks remained within the facility boundaries, some migrated offsite and contaminated private drinking wells.47Ibid. Officials have said that the levels of tritium posed no health threat, but the presence of tritium can often indicate that other more powerful radioactive isotopes may have leaked as well.48Ibid. Uranium mining also threatens water supplies when they become contaminated with uranium during extraction and flooding.49Dewar et al. (2013) at 469; Jacobs, Jeremy P. “Enviros claim ‘severe’ flooding at uranium mine.” E&E News. August 21, 2019.


A major factor for “renewable” energy sources is the expectation that the resource should not deplete. Fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal are finite resources. Alternatively, the sun will continue to shine and the wind will continue to blow, regardless of how much of this energy is harnessed by solar panels and wind turbines. Nuclear power plants depend on uranium which, like fossil fuels, will run out with use.

Given the size of uranium reserves and the current rate of uranium mining and use, research suggests that just 127 years’ worth of uranium remains.50Jacobson (2019) at 5. Expanding the nuclear power fleet would deplete this limited resource sooner. While alternative sources and technologies exist to delay depleting uranium reserves, they do not eliminate the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation (see advanced nuclear box on page 6).51Ibid. at 5 and 6.

Mining and enriching uranium also fails to meet the criteria for a clean energy source. For one, extraction, which includes open-pit mining, can contaminate water and emit naturally occurring radon and methane from underground into the air.52Dewar et al. (2013) at 469; Sovacool (2008) at 2955; Jacobs (2019). After uranium is mined and processed, it must be enriched before being used in a nuclear reactor; enrichment is the process that removes impurities from the mined natural uranium and increases the concentration of the uranium-235 to a level needed to fuel nuclear reactors.53Sovacool (2008) at 2951 to 2952.

Uranium-contaminated wastewater has polluted environments around mines, including aquifers and springs near the Grand Canyon.54Jacobs (2019). Spills of uranium tailings (toxic and radioactive waste produced as uranium ore is processed and enriched) and uranium hexafluoride (the form of uranium used during enrichment) around the mines have released harmful pollutants comparable to those at the Three Mile Island incident.55NRC. “Uranium Mill Tailings.” October 2016 at 1; NRC. “Uranium Enrichment.” March 2016 at 1; Brugge and Buchner (2011) at 233. A massive spill in 1979, for example, released more than 90 million gallons of radioactive wastewater and 1,100 tons of uranium waste in New Mexico, devasting Navajo lands and contaminating drinking water. Decades later, nearby residents still face widespread contamination due to inadequate cleanup and remediation.56Gilbert, Samuel. “Church Rock, America’s forgotten nuclear disaster, is still poisoning Navajo lands 40 years later.” Vice News. August 12, 2019.

Nuclear’s Radioactive Waste Problem

Radioactive waste is produced throughout the nuclear power cycle. This waste includes mine and mill tailings, spent fuel rods (which contain used nuclear fuel in slender tubes that provided fuel to the nuclear reactors) and waste produced when decommissioning plants.57International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). (2018). Status and Trends in Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste Management. No. NW-T1.14. Vienna: IAEA at 5, 7 and 10; National Research Council. (2006). Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press at 16 to 17; Sovacool (2008) at 2952. Fuel rods used in reactors generate electricity for up to 18 months before becoming “spent” nuclear waste.58Dewar et al. (2013) at 470. Spent fuel is highly radioactive and remains so for thousands of years.59Ibid. Spent fuel can quickly emit lethal amounts of radiation, making safe storage and disposal a critical challenge.60Hedin, Allan. Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Co. “Spent Nuclear Fuel — How Dangerous Is It? A Report from The Project ‘Description of Risk’” Technical Report 97-13. March 1997 at v and vi.

The global consensus for safe, long-term disposal has been to store high-level radioactive waste such as spent fuel rods deep underground in geologic repositories, but the United States has yet to establish such a storage site.61Jacobson (2019) at 14; U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). “Commercial Nuclear Waste: Resuming Licensing of the Yucca Mountain Repository Would Require Rebuilding Capacity at DOE and NRC, Among Other Key Steps.” GAO-17-340. April 2017 at 2; Ramana, M. V. “Nuclear power: Economic, safety, health, and environmental issues of near-term technologies.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources. Vol. 34. July 28, 2009 at 136; Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Moving Forward With Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste.” NEA No. 6433. 2008 at 3 and 7. Despite the absence of a safe and acceptable storage facility, nuclear power plants continue to operate.

As of 2018, spent fuel from nuclear power plants totaled over 250,000 metric tons of heavy metals like uranium and plutonium globally.62IAEA (2018) at 35 and 36. In the United States, approximately 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste is produced annually — as of 2017, roughly 80,000 metric tons of waste had been generated and was being stored with short-term measures at 75 reactor sites across more than 30 states.63Rogers, Kenneth A. “Fire in the hole: A review of national spent nuclear fuel disposal policy.” Progress in Nuclear Energy. Vol. 51, Iss. 2. March 2009 at 286; GAO (2017) at 1.The short-term measures used to store nuclear waste include spent fuel pools and dry cask storage. Roughly three-quarters of spent fuel is stored in pools never meant for long-term storage.64IAEA (2018) at 36; Alvarez, Robert. Institute for Policy Studies. “Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage.” May 2011 at 7 and 8. The pools are designed to cool spent fuel rods, prevent overheating, and protect workers and the public from radiation before being transferred to dry casks and a long-term geologic repository.65National Research Council (2006) at 20 and 38.

Because no permanent repository exists, the pools contain spent fuel rods at a higher density than originally intended and hold more than five times more radioactivity than nuclear reactor cores, but they lack the same level of containment and protection as reactors.66Alvarez, Robert et al. “Reducing the hazards from stored spent power-reactor fuel in the United States.” Science and Global Security. Vol. 11. 2003 at 1; Alvarez (2011) at 1 and 6; National Research Council (2006) at 36 and 40. Water loss in the pools can lead to dangerous radiation levels in the surrounding area or allow the fuel assemblies to overheat, catch fire and explode, as was the case during the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.67National Research Council (2006) at 38 and 39; Alvarez (2011) at 4. The lack of adequate structural protection and reliance on maintaining water levels makes spent fuel pools particularly vulnerable to natural disasters or terrorist attacks that could cause the pools to lose water and lead to devastating environmental and public health impacts.68National Research Council (2006) at 36, 38 and 57; Alvarez (2011) at 4.

Like spent fuel pools, dry casks are mostly stored onsite and are designed for temporary storage, but they are generally considered a safer option that is less susceptible to mechanistic failures (for example, water loss) or threats.69Alvarez (2011) at 61 and 68. While safer, dry casks can only accommodate older spent fuel that has already been cooled in pools.70National Research Council (2006) at 70. Still, just 25 percent of nuclear waste is stored in dry casks, and spent fuel that is older than five years could be transferred from pools to dry casks at an estimated $3 billion to $7 billion over 10 years.71Alvarez (2011) at 2 and 21.

Private companies such as Holtec International are seeking approvals to build interim storage facilities to collect spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants around the country, despite the risk of transporting waste across the country and opposition from nearby communities, governments, and agriculture, oil and gas industries.72Montoya Bryan (June 7, 2019). Even still, with licensing reviews and environmental impact studies, it would be years before these companies could start accepting waste.73Dillon, Jeremy. “NRC board to review species habitat concern for Texas site.” E&E News. August 26, 2019. Deep Isolation Inc. has proposed using horizontal drilling methods, such as those used for unconventional oil and gas extraction and fracking, to inject and bury nuclear waste deep underground in horizontal drillholes.74Muller, Richard A. et al. “Disposal of high-level nuclear waste in deep horizontal drillholes.” Energies. Vol. 12, Iss. 6. May 29, 2019 at 1, 3 and 24.

While regulators, legislators, utilities and private companies mull over how to best handle the highly radioactive waste, nuclear power plants continue to add to the problem and put nearby communities at increasing risk. Without a good solution to safely reduce and dispose of the waste, these plants cannot be allowed to operate under business-as-usual.

Nuclear Energy Economics

Beyond the fact that nuclear energy is neither carbon free nor clean, it is also expensive and uneconomical. Cheap natural gas has already undercut the competitiveness of nuclear power, and renewables such as wind and utility-scale solar are already cheaper than nuclear power.83EIA. “Nuclear Power Outlook: Issues in Focus From the Annual Energy Outlook 2018.” May 2018 at 4; Lazard (2019) at 2, 7 and 10.

Per kilowatt-hour, new nuclear power plants cost 2.3 to 7.4 times more than onshore wind or utility-scale solar.84Jacobson (2019) at 1. Fixed construction and technology costs typically decrease over time, but the cost of constructing nuclear plants has risen steadily since the 1960s.85Lazard (2019) at 7; Wealer et al. (2019) at 237. Just in the last decade, the unsubsidized levelized costs for nuclear power increased by 26 percent, while utility-scale solar and wind energy costs declined by 89 percent and 70 percent, respectively.86Lazard (2019) at 7. Battery storage costs have also dropped 84 percent in the last decade and are expected to continue falling.87Henbest, Seb et al. Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “New Energy Outlook 2019.” 2019 at Executive Summary.

Operating costs exceed revenue in more than a quarter of the country’s nuclear reactors, while low profitability and high capital costs make constructing nuclear power plants and reactors challenging and less favorable to investors.88Mufson (2018); Cebulla and Jacobson (2018) at 884; Ramana (2009) at 130. Compared to other sources of electricity generation, nuclear power is economically riskier.89Ramana (2009) at 130 and 132. Construction costs at the two most recent projects in the United States — two reactors each at the Vogtle plant in Georgia and the V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina — are more than double initial estimates, which eventually ended the V.C. Summer project.90EIA (2018) at 5; Wealer et al. (2019) at 238. Vogtle, still under construction, was originally estimated to cost $14 billion, but estimates increased to $29 billion in 2017.91Wealer et al. (2019) at 238.

Waste disposal is also costly. To construct just one permanent geological repository could cost billions.92Ramana (2009) at 136. The United States spends roughly $500 million a year storing radioactive waste from nuclear power plants; this is expected to increase as the inventory grows.93Jacobson (2019) at 9. As plants retire and revenues stall, covering the cost of storage for hundreds of thousands of years becomes even more challenging.

Spent fuel is meant to be cooled and stored temporarily in pools (see
above), but a lack of long-term disposal options have left spent fuel
pools overcrowded.

Taxpayers Subsidize Nuclear Power

High costs have forced the nuclear power industry to rely heavily on government subsidies, including insurance subsidies, loan guarantees and direct payments like zero-emission credits.94Pearce (2012) at 1179; Cooper, Mark. Vermont Law School. Institute for Energy and the Environment. “All Risk, No Reward for Taxpayers and Ratepayers: The Economics of Subsidizing the ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ With Loan Guarantees and Construction Work in Progress.” November 2009 at 1; NEI. “Zero-Emission Credits.” April 2018 at 2 and 3. Insurance subsidies ensure that the government — taxpayers — will cover the cost of a nuclear accident beyond a set “cap,” because insurance companies refuse to fully cover nuclear power plant liabilities.95Pearce (2012) at 1179; Zelenika-Zovko, I. and J. M. Pearce. “Diverting indirect subsidies from the nuclear industry to the photovoltaic industry: Energy and financial returns.” Energy Policy. Vol. 39, Iss. 5. May 2011 at 2627. Loan guarantees, such as the $8.3 billion authorized by the Obama administration for Southern Co.’s new Vogtle reactors, help limit the economic risk of expanding nuclear power.96Hullinger, Logan. “Exelon spent millions in lobbying after announcing TMI closure.” York (PA) Dispatch. April 2, 2019. Building a new fleet of nuclear power plants would require an estimated $500 billion in federal loan guarantees.97Williams, Selina. “Update: US government loan guarantees for new nuclear too small-NRC.” Dow Jones Newswires. March 10, 2008. A global study found that if nuclear plants relied solely on private investments there would be an average of $5 billion in losses for each plant.98Wealer et al. (2019) at 236, 239 and 243

Low natural gas prices have also contributed to small profit margins at nuclear power plants. Subsequently, several companies have threatened early retirement without financial support or incentives to continue operating, such as extra payments for producing “zero-emission” electricity or access to more favorable renewable energy markets where nuclear plants would not compete with natural gas.99NEI (2018) at 2 and 3; Kail, Benjamin. “Stakeholders clash over Millstone’s future.” Day (CT). January 12, 2018. The Trump administration’s Department of Energy has stated that the federal government does not have the authority to provide economic support for nuclear power plants and that they should instead look to state governments for support.100Morehouse, Catherine. “DOE has no ‘regulatory or statutory ability’ to create coal, nuclear bailout, says Perry.” Utility Dive. June 12, 2019.

In the last several years, many states have made moves to bail out nuclear power companies at the ratepayer’s expense (see Table 1 on page 8). The bailouts generally involve commitments to purchase electricity from nuclear plants as a zero-emissions or carbon-free source in an effort to save jobs and meet clean energy targets, which undermines the expansion of real clean, renewable energy such as wind and solar. Companies have secured hundreds of millions of dollars a year, amounting to billions over the length of some contracts, after lobbying campaigns that cost just a few million dollars.

In New Jersey, PSEG Power and Exelon spent a combined $2.6 million in lobbying efforts in 2017 and secured close to $300 million a year for two nuclear power plants that are still profitable.101Mufson (2018); New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. [News release]. “Lobbying Annual Reports 2017.” March 8, 2018 at 2. In 2018, FirstEnergy Solutions spent $2.7 million in Ohio on lobbying and public relations firms to pass Ohio House Bill 6.102Tobias, Andrew J. “Nuclear bailout bill shows how big money can be put to work in the Ohio Statehouse.” May 23, 2019. Millions more were spent by FirstEnergy and dark-money political groups on campaign contributions and advertising to pass the bill, which secures $1.1 billion in subsidies over six years, rescues Ohio’s nuclear power plants and weakens the state’s clean energy program.103Funk, John. “FirstEnergy Solutions moves to ditch union contracts for bailed out plants, drawing Democrats’ ire.” Utility Dive. August 5, 2019; Tobias (2019); Keller, Russ. Ohio Legislative Service Commission. Legislative Budget Office. “H.B. 6 133rd General Assembly. Fiscal Note & Local Impact Statement.” July 31, 2019 at 1, 2 and 3.

Federal and state subsidies should instead be directed to genuinely clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Studies have shown that, given the high subsidies that nuclear power plants depend on, it is more economical to replace them with clean energy and energy efficiency upgrades.104Cebulla and Jacobson (2018) at 885. In New York, continuing to support nuclear with handouts from taxpayers through 2050 could cost the state over $32 billion; replacing the plants with wind generation could save $7.9 billion.105Ibid. at 886 and 890.

Regulatory Influence

The nuclear energy industry also has important sway on the regulatory front. Take, for example, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent agency tasked with regulating the “civilian use of radioactive materials,” including nuclear power plants, to ensure safety and protect public health and the environment.106NRC. “The NRC: Who We Are and What We Do.” February 2018 at 2 and 6. Like other regulatory agencies, the NRC is compromised by the lobbyist / policymaker revolving door and is influenced by pressure from the industry it regulates. Annie Caputo, for example, is a former nuclear energy lobbyist and one of the five NRC commissioners.107Knickmeyer, Ellen. “Nuclear industry pushing for fewer inspections at plants.” Associated Press. March 14, 2019.

TABLE 1: State-Level Nuclear Power Plant Bailouts

State Nuclear Power Plants Value of  Subsidy Status Notes
Connecticut108105 Kail, Benjamin. “Millstone, utilities finalize 10-year contract.” Day (CT). September 18, 2019. Millstone 10-year energy purchasing contract Approved,  Sept. 2019 The energy price for the purchase agreement had not been made public as of September 2019. Millstone is still profitable.
Illinois109Daniels, Steve. “Does lobbying pay? Ex-Exelon exec highlights former employer as poster child.” Crain’s Chicago Business. March 28, 2018; Walton, Rod. “Illinois passes subsidy bill to save state’s nuclear power plants.” Electric Light & Power. December 2, 2016; Daniels, Steve. “Exelon’s hand is out for more nuke subsidies — and a power market referee cries foul.” Crain’s Chicago Business. March 22, 2019; Daniels, Steve. “There’s plenty of pain in store for Exelon, too, if it shutters nukes.” Crain’s Chicago Business. November 8, 2019. Clinton, Quad Cities $2.4 billion over 10 years/ $235 million per year Passed,  Dec. 2016 Exelon, the operator, is seeking additional support for four nuclear power plants that did not receive support from the 2016 deal. All of the plants are still profitable.
New Jersey110Mufson (2018). Hope Creek, Salem $280 million per year for three years Passed,  May 2018 The Hope Creek and Salem nuclear plants were profitable at the time the subsidy was approved. The agreement is to be reassessed after three years.
New York111Grossman (2016). FitzPatrick, Ginna, Nine Mile Point $7.6 billion over 12 years Passed, Aug. 2016  
Ohio112Tomich (2019); Funk (2019); Keller (2019) at 1, 2 and 3. Davis-Besse, Perry $150 million per year Passed,  July 2019 In addition to the nuclear power plant bailout, Ohio House Bill 6 (HB6) also provides subsidies for two coal-fired power plants and weakens standards for energy efficiency programs and renewables.
Pennsylvania Three Mile Island, Beaver Valley, Limerick, Peach Bottom, Susquehanna $500 million per year Died in committee, 2019 Three Mile Island retired in September 2019. Beaver Valley is set to retire by 2021. The remaining nuclear plants are still profitable.

The NRC has also allowed the leading nuclear trade association, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), to help shape and contribute to its regulatory guides, and has even delayed emergency shutdowns to avoid hurting a facility’s revenues, despite concerns about corrosion on that facility’s reactor.113Sullivan, John. “U.S. nuclear regulator lets industry help with the fine print.” ProPublica. April 13, 2011. (This facility, DavisBesse Nuclear Power Station, is the same facility recently rescued by Ohio’s nuclear bailout.) The NRC, at the NEI’s request, had proposed reducing NRC-led reactor safety inspections and replacing them with industry self-assessments, although the NRC has since walked back the proposal after pushback from the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Appropriations Committee.114Knickmeyer (2019); Dillon, Jeremy. “NRC drops bid to allow more industry self-inspections.” E&E News. August 28, 2019.

NEI’s political action committee spent nearly $570,000 in 2018 trying to influence the political process surrounding energy issues.115Center for Responsive Politics. “Nuclear Energy Institute, Summary.” Available at Accessed June 2019. The NEI has poured more than $33 million into federal lobbying since 1999.116U.S. Senate. Lobbying Disclosure Act Database. Searched registrant and client lobbying for Nuclear Energy Institute. Available at Accessed June 2019. In addition to the trade group, the NRC was lobbied by at least another 24 different entities in 2019, including Contran Corp., a holding company that includes a nuclear waste management subsidiary, and NextEra Energy, a power company that operates nuclear plants.117Center for Responsive Politics. Open Secrets Database. “Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Agency Profile 2019.” Available at https:// Accessed June 2019; Bloomberg. “Waste Control Specialists LLC.” Available at company/0005383D:US?cic_redirect=true. Accessed June 2019; NextEra Energy, Inc. and Florida Power & Light Company. Filing 10- K. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. December 31, 2018 at 7 and 8; Krikorian, Shant. IAEA. [Press release]. “IAEA bolsters partnership with Nuclear Energy Institute.” September 20, 2018.


Nuclear energy harms the environment, threatens public health and fails to address the global climate crisis. The intractable problem of storing highly radioactive waste makes nuclear energy a dangerous and shortsighted option for energy production. Instead, it is time to move forward with cleaner, safer and renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The transition to renewables has grown increasingly more affordable, technically feasible and politically acceptable, while similar factors have idled for nuclear power.118de Coninck, Heleen et al. IPCC. “Chapter 4: Strengthening and Implementing the Global Response.” In Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C. 2018 at 315.

Drastic reductions in carbon emissions are necessary to avoid a global warming increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius as early as 2030 and to curb the devastating climate-related threats that come with it.119Allen, Myles et al. IPCC. “Global Warming of 1.5°C: Summary for Policymakers.” 2018 at 4, 9 and 12. Proponents of nuclear argue that expanding nuclear power is the only way to fully and rapidly decarbonize the electricity grid and reach climate goals,120Goldstein et al. (2019); Siegel, Jim. “Ohio nuclear plant bailout plan encourages other zero-carbon energy.” Columbus Dispatch. April 12, 2019; Singer, Stephen. “Connecticut commits to nuclear power, ending debate over Millstone’s future.” Hartford Courant. December 28, 2018; Mufson (2018). but we cannot meet this timeline with nuclear. Nuclear power plants take an estimated 10 to 19 years from initial planning, permitting and construction to operation and electricity generation, compared to just 2 to 5 years for utility solar and wind, while producing up to 37 times more emissions per kilowatt-hour than wind energy.121Jacobson (2019) at 1 and 6 to 7.

New nuclear power technologies that could be constructed more quickly, cost less or reduce nuclear waste are years to decades away from being commercially available, and still require significant financial investments for development.122Stang (2019); NEA (2016) at 9, 10 and 19; Jacobson (2019) at 6. Meanwhile, technology exists to support a transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy backed up by storage and transmission at prices lower than current energy costs.123Diesendorf, Mark and Ben Elliston. “The feasibility of 100% renewable electricity systems: A response to critics.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Vol. 93. October 2018 at 318, 320 and 323; Brown, T. W. et al. “Response to ‘Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems.’” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Vol. 92. May 11, 2018 at 840; Iaconangelo, David. “Cheap batteries could soon replace gas plants — study.” E&E News. March 26, 2019; Schmidt, Oliver et al. “Projecting the future levelized cost of electricity storage technologies.” Joule. Vol. 3. January 16, 2019 at 85 and 86; Lazard (2019) at 7. At least six states each have the potential to generate as much electricity as all of the country’s nuclear power plants from wind energy alone.124Makhijani, Arjun. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “Executive Summary. Carbon-Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy.” July 2007 at 6. Redirecting the funds used to prop up nuclear plants to renewable energy can reduce carbon dioxide emissions faster and more efficiently than continuing to source electricity from nuclear power.125Cebulla and Jacobson (2018) at 890. We cannot invest more time, energy or money into supporting and expanding nuclear power under the false notion that it is a safe and clean energy source, when real solutions exist in wind and solar.

Food & Water Watch recommends:

  • Invest in a green energy public works program that fosters a rapid transition to 100 percent clean, renewable and safe energy by 2030.
  • Divert federal and state subsidies that prop up nuclear power to investments in clean energy and energy efficiency.
  • Halt further bailouts of nuclear power plants.
  • Stop state and local permitting of nuclear power plants to sell electricity as renewable energy or on renewable energy markets.
  • Demand that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission stop extending licenses on existing nuclear power plants.
  • Begin decommissioning nuclear power plants.
  • Stop the production of radioactive nuclear waste.
  • Fully fund fair and just transition programs for nuclear power plant workers.