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Equilibrium & Sustainability — Fully self-driving vans could come to San Francisco

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Vans without steering wheels — or any other manual controls — could soon be cruising the streets of San Francisco.

California regulators are currently reviewing an application from General Motors’ (GM) driverless-car division to begin testing the electric Origin shuttle, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

A successful application would be a significant step for Cruise LLC, an autonomous vehicle startup in which GM holds a majority share.  

Cruise aims to operate a $50 billion robotaxi business by 2030, Bloomberg reported. These taxis — built from converted Chevy Bolts — are expected to begin operating in Phoenix and Austin, Texas, by the end of the year, according to Reuters. 

The startup is billing these forthcoming rollouts as part of a “repeatable playbook” it can bring to other markets, Reuters reported.  

“You’ll likely see us expand the number of markets in a large number next year,” Cruise chief operating officer Gil West told Reuters. 

But while GM is making an ambitious play, Honda — another big investor in Cruise — is more pessimistic about full self-driving, the Journal reported. 

Honda will roll out new partially autonomous features in 2024 — but its cars will still fall far short of full autonomy. 

Executives have said full autonomy “would be a result, not a goal” of its other research and development initiatives, the Journal reported.

Welcome to Equilibrium, we’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Today we’ll survey the damage from the enormous thunderstorms that blanketed the Southeast, followed by a congressional move to avert disruption to the nation’s rail system. Plus: Why a trade war could soon break out between the U.S. and Mexico. 

Tornadoes kill at least 2 in Alabama

At least two people are dead in Alabama after intense storms swept the Southeast on Tuesday night, our colleague Zack Schonfeld reported for The Hill. 

Fatal tree: A tree knocked down by Tuesday night’s region-wide outbreak of tornadoes killed a 39-year old woman and her 8-year old son in Montgomery, Ala., according to the Montgomery Advertiser. 

The father was taken to the hospital, the newspaper reported.

  • Parts of southwest Georgia, southeastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle were still at risk for severe thunderstorms on Wednesday, the National Weather Service reported.
  • More than 13,000 people in Alabama are without power, according to grid tracking site PowerOutage.us.

Region-wide storm: The effects of the storm have spread across the South, with more than 25 million people in the region at risk Tuesday night, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

  • Thunderstorms pounded a region stretching from Indiana to the Gulf and from east Texas to Georgia.
  • The storms featured tornadoes, heavy lightning and hail the size of tennis balls. 

Many towns have no public tornado shelters, Mississippi State University meteorologist Craig Ceecee told the AP. 

Giving thanks: “The fact that there were SO MANY tornadoes in this area today makes me thankful everything is okay here. To think of what could have been,” Ceecee tweeted from Mississippi. 

House votes to ban rail strike over sick leave

The House voted on Wednesday to force railroad unions to accept a White House-brokered deal with rail carriers. 

  • The bill — which passed 290-137 — would forbid union members from going on strike on Dec. 9, at the height of both the Christmas shipping season and demand for fuels.
  • A second bill — which also passed on Wednesday — would guarantee rail workers seven days of paid leave per year. 

Both bills will need 60 votes in the Senate to advance and be implemented — and there is little Republican support for the sick leave portion, our colleague Alexander Bolton reported. 

Tough decisions: “We are now forced with this kind of terrible situation where we have to choose between an imperfect deal that has already been negotiated or an economic catastrophe,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass) told the AP on the eve of the vote.

Roots of the dispute: The deal in question — which President Biden oversaw in September — included reforms to railroad workers’ health care coverage and their biggest pay raise in four decades, according to the AP. 

But it left worker complaints around paid time off — particularly sick time — largely unaddressed, as our colleague Niall Stanage writes. 

  • Under the deal, workers received an additional day off, as well as three additional days for scheduled medical procedures.
  • However, these appointments must be scheduled 30 days out and can only happen on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, according to supply chain news site FreightWaves. 

Unworkable concessions: These restrictions made the new scheduled-appointment days largely impossible to use, union representatives told The Guardian.

  • They also do nothing to protect workers suffering from unplanned illness, representatives said.
  • A representative of one of the unions criticized Biden for failing “to advocate for a lousy handful of sick days.” 

Profit source: The two largest railroad companies in the U.S. — BNSF and Union Pacific — reported record profits in 2021.

  • One key factor making railroads so profitable was cuts in employment, according to FreightWaves.
  • The lower staffing levels meant additional pressure on remaining employees — leading to the current dispute over sick-time. 

Much of these profits went into stock buybacks, according to The Guardian. 

On to the Senate: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will brief senators on Thursday ahead of a vote on the legislation in that chamber, Bolton reported.  

  • Progressive senators like Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said they would call for a vote on sick time.
  • But they would not say whether they would make passage of the anti-strike bill dependent on sick leave. 

“Look, I don’t care what your politics are, America can’t have a rail shutdown,” Buttigieg told Fox News on Wednesday.  

Interrupting fossil fuels: Business groups in the mining, agriculture and oil sectors called on the White House and Congress to force the unions not to strike, our colleague Zack Budryk reported.

  • The coal, ethanol, propane and gasoline industries are highly reliant on rail transportation, Marianne Kah of Columbia University said.
  • While most ethanol and propane aren’t moved by train, even small disruptions can send prices surging, Kah added. 

Difficulty in removing sulfur and accessing legally required ethanol would constrain the activity of oil refiners as well.

US-Mexico tensions popping up over corn 

A potential conflict is brewing between the U.S. and Mexico over the southern neighbor’s recent proposal to ban genetically modified corn.  

What’s the proposal? Mexico is planning to prohibit genetically modified corn by 2024, according to The Wall Street Journal.  

Why is that a problem? More than 90 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mexico was the second-largest market for U.S. corn exports last year — second only to China.

Enforcing legal rights: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met on Monday with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to try to settle the dispute, the Journal reported.  

  • But if a compromise isn’t reached, Vilsack said, “the U.S. Government would be forced to consider all options, including taking formal steps to enforce our legal rights” under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
  • That agreement, which took effect in 2020, aims to ensure a level playing field in trade among the three nations. 

Budging a bit: On Tuesday, López Obrador said Mexico would follow through with its ban on genetically modified corn for human consumption, but he offered to extend the deadline on yellow corn for livestock feed by two years. 

“We’re self-sufficient in white corn and we’re not going to allow imports of yellow corn for human consumption,” he said.  

Why does Mexico oppose genetically modified corn? The country contends that imported transgenic corn will put local ancestral varieties at risk, according to the Mexico Daily Post.  

Most U.S. corn is also designed to be used with glyphosate — the active ingredient in Roundup and a chemical that López Obrador has moved to ban by 2024, the Journal reported.  

Choosing health: López Obrador cited concerns about “whether it’s harmful to health, even when it’s used as fodder,” Mexico News Daily reported.  

“If we have to decide between health and trade, we choose health,” he said. 

💦 PILOT PROGRAM GAUGES EFFECTIVENESS OF SMART METERS

The use of smart meters to enforce water restrictions could encourage widespread conservation — but not without local backlash, a new study has found.  

Conservation vs. complaints: Amid California’s ongoing drought, researchers partnered with the city of Fresno in summer 2018 to identify water violations via household meter data.

  • While a resulting surge in fines brought a dramatic reduction in both water use and violations, a barrage of complaints thwarted the program’s survival.
  • The researchers released their findings on Wednesday through the University of Chicago’s Energy & Environment Lab.  

A careful balance: “The urgency of the water challenge in the West requires such highly efficient tools,” co-author Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, said in a statement.  

Yet policymakers “will need to carefully balance improved monitoring with community expectations and enforcement efforts,” Greenstone acknowledged.  

Testing out automation: From July to September 2018, authors piloted the automated enforcement of outdoor water restrictions for nearly 100,000 households in Fresno.

  • The city’s utility was a national pioneer in universal smart meter adoption. 
  • Before the trial run, enforcement largely remained in the hands of “water cops” — workers who look for lawns that are being watered at prohibited hours.  

What did they find? During the three-month pilot program, the share of households fined for non-compliance increased from 0.1 percent to 14 percent, according to the study.

The ensuing shifts were drastic: a 17-percent decrease in total infractions and an 8-percent reduction in the number of households violating restrictions each month.  

Water consumption declined by 3 percent decline, while households continued to conserve even after the program concluded.  

Huge potential savings: Had the policy been scaled-up, Fresno could have saved 394 million gallons of water annually — helping achieve the 20 percent reductions in water use that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has encouraged statewide, the study found.

Too much of a good thing: But this long-term program failed to materialize, leading the researchers to conclude that the program may have worked “too well.”

  • During the three-month pilot, the number of households calling the local utility increased by 654 percent, while identifiable customer complaints rose by 1,102 percent.
  • The resultant dissatisfaction ultimately led municipal officials to terminate the program.  

For more on the report and its recommendations for future smart meter integration, please click here.

Water Wednesday

Marine microfibers host harmful bacteria, Cape Cod toilets may need an upgrade and new phase in the fight over the Jackson, Miss., water system. 

Mediterranean microfibers host bacteria that are harmful to human health

  • Almost 200 species of bacteria — including those that cause food poisoning — colonize microfibers floating in the Mediterranean Sea, according to a new study in PLOS One. These tiny particles are consumed by marine organisms because they smell like dinner, and can then swiftly move up the food chain, the authors warned.

Cape Code homeowners may need to replace their septic systems

  • Thousands of homeowners in Cape Cod, Mass., may soon need to replace their septic systems due to state regulations aimed at reducing nitrogen contamination around the coast, Boston.com reported. Nitrogen — which stimulates algal growth — can come from fertilizers, stormwater runoff and our toilets, according to Boston.com. 

Jackson environmental justice push to get new leader

  • The Justice Department will appoint an independent manager to oversee its overhaul of the beleaguered municipal water season in Jackson, Miss., The Hill reported. “We will continue to seek justice for the residents of Jackson, Mississippi. And we will continue to prioritize cases in the communities most burdened by environmental harm,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said. 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Tags California drought drought Electric vehicles extreme weather General Motors rail strike Tornado

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