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Equilibrium/Sustainability — Amazon rainforest turning into savanna: study

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Today is Monday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

Much of the lush Amazon rainforest may eventually become a grassy savanna — due to a longstanding combination of logging and burning, a new study has found.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, observed that the Amazon’s resilience — its ability to recover from events like droughts or fires — has been plummeting consistently in more than three quarters of the rainforest since the early 2000s.

Such reduced resilience could trigger widespread tree and shrub death, leading to major impacts on biodiversity, global carbon storage and climate change, according to the authors.

“Many researchers have theorized that a tipping point could be reached, but our study provides vital empirical evidence that we are approaching that threshold,” coauthor Niklas Boers, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Technical University of Munich, said in a statement.

Today we’ll look at a push for U.S. and European countries to include Russian oil and gas bans in a growing list of sanctions against the country. Then we’ll turn to a new study that examines how childhood exposure to leaded gasoline decreased the IQs of about half of Americans alive today. 

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin.  

Let’s get to it. 

Russian energy sanctions risk financial toll 

As the U.S. weighs the idea of sanctioning Russian energy imports, experts agree that while the global economy could persist without these supplies in theory, doing so would carry a major financial toll.

First words: “Does it mean that prices will rise even higher? Probably,” Gernot Wagner, a climate economist and visiting professor at Columbia Business School, told Equilibrium about gas prices.

“There is a massive risk premium built into the oil price that is essentially along the lines of — nobody has any idea what’s going to happen next week or tomorrow,” Wagner said.

Over the weekend…Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that the U.S. was engaging in an “active discussion” with European partners about the possibility of banning Russian oil imports.

“We are now talking to our European partners and allies to look in a coordinated way at the prospect of banning the import of Russian oil while making sure that there is still an appropriate supply of oil on world markets,” Blinken told Jake Tapper in a Sunday interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “That’s a very active discussion as we speak.”

What do these European allies say? Opinion among leaders remains divided. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose country gets about 55 percent of its natural gas from Russia, made clear on Monday that he opposed such a ban — noting the “essential importance” of these supplies, according to Bloomberg.

The same day, however, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for a “step-by-step” move away from Russian oil and gas, stressing that things that would not have been considered weeks ago are “now very much on the table,” the BBC reported.

A 13-year high: Brent crude — the international benchmark for global oil prices — topped $130 per barrel in a 13-year high overnight in Monday’s early hours, hovering around $125 per barrel midday eastern time, according to MarketWatch.

In comparison, Brent was trading at about $75 per barrel in mid-December. Across the board, experts attributed Monday’s surge to tidings of a possible embargo on Russian oil. 


Russia is one of the world’s largest oil producers, with a 12 percent global market share and almost half of its oil and condensate exports going to Europe, according to a Friday analysis from JPMorgan

“While the U.S. and its allies have so far stopped short of imposing penalties directly on Russian oil and gas, it has become increasingly clear that Russian oil is being ostracized,” the JPMorgan analysis stated.

Prior to the invasion, Russia had been exporting about 6.5 million barrels of oil and oil products daily, with 4.3 million barrels per going to Europe and the U.S., and 2.2 million barrels going to Asia and Belarus.

But preliminary reports for March indicated a 1 million barrel per day drop in crude oil loadings from Black Sea ports, a 1 million barrel per day plunge from the Baltics and a 500,000 barrel per day decrease in the Far East, according to JPMorgan.

Making up for shortfalls: If the U.S. and other Western nations do enact energy sanctions, the reality remains that they will need to make up for supply shortfalls.

One potential supply boost could come from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), although there has been no indication thus far that these countries would alter their current export plans, the JPMorgan report noted.

“The Biden team is already calling Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others I imagine,” Morgan Bazilian, director of the Colorado-based Payne Institute for Public Policy, told Equilibrium. “But their diplomatic leverage on those countries is limited, and they have shown very little appetite to be influenced by Biden and the U.S.” 

Domestic options: Another possibility would be to increase U.S. shale production, although that growth would be limited by the necessary labor and infrastructure demands, according to the JPMorgan analysis.

While the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, Bazilian maintained that a ramp-up in domestic production would face a variety of hurdles, such as the time it takes to start pumping, financial restrictions imposed by Wall Street and an insufficient workforce. 

And then there’s Iran: There may be another wildcard in the global oil arena, if ongoing negotiations to restore a 2015 nuclear deal come to fruition: Iran. If such diplomatic moves do advance, the U.S. would waive sanctions on Iranian oil, enabling Tehran to ramp up its crude supplies by 1 million barrels per day over the next two months, the JPMorgan analysis stated. 

“Could Iran deliver more oil after we conclude our talks with them, essentially undoing the Trump damage?” Wagner asked. “Yeah, they could deliver more oil.” 

Rife with uncertainty: Overall, the impact of Russian oil sanctions on the U.S. economy remains unclear, according to Bazilian. What does remain clear, he said, is that such an embargo “is very politically attractive right now.”

Last words: “This is why it is being considered — and looks inevitable,” Bazilian added. “That said, it is my belief that the same politicians and voters that are ‘supporting’ it now, will come back and hammer Biden if U.S. gasoline prices rise further as a result.”  



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Lead exposure tied to lower IQ scores: study 

Exposure to car exhaust from leaded gas slashed hundreds of millions of collective IQ points from about half of the Americans alive today, a new study has found. 

Leaded gas, first used in 1923 to maintain engine integrity, reached peak usage in the 1960s and 1970s before being banned in 1996, according to the study. Yet despite that ban, Americans born before 1996 may be at increased risk for lead-related health issues, including faster aging of the brain, the authors revealed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on Monday.

First words: “Millions of us are walking around with a history of lead exposure,” co-author Aaron Reuben, a clinical psychology PhD candidate at Duke University, said in a statement.

No safe level: Lead, a neurotoxin, can erode brain cells once it enters the body, the authors noted, stressing that there is no safe level of exposure at any point in life. But young children are particularly vulnerable to lead due to the chemical’s ability to hinder brain function and decrease cognitive ability.

“Lead is able to reach the bloodstream once it’s inhaled as dust, or ingested, or consumed in water,” Reuben said. “In the bloodstream, it’s able to pass into the brain through the blood-brain barrier, which is quite good at keeping a lot of toxicants and pathogens out of the brain, but not all of them.”

“Lifelong burden”: Reuben, together with colleagues at Florida State University, looked at childhood blood-lead levels from 11,616 small children tested between 1976 and 2016, using data available from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They combined these figures with leaded gas consumption data, as well as population statistics, to ascertain the “lifelong burden of lead exposure” of every American in 2015.

Drawing from these different data streams, they calculated that more than 170 million Americans had clinically concerning levels of lead in their blood when they were children.

Reduced IQs, smaller brain size: This reality, according to the researchers, likely reduced IQs and put these individuals at heightened risk for long-term health effects, such as smaller brain size, increased incidence of mental illness and greater chance of cardiovascular disease in adulthood. 

Childhood exposure to leaded gasoline likely led to collective plummet of 824 million IQ points — nearly three points per person — among Americans, the authors found. At its worst, they observed, individuals born in the mid-to-late 1960s may have lost up to six IQ points. 


While a drop in just a few IQ points could seem negligible, the authors stressed that such changes are influential enough to shift a person with below-average cognitive ability (IQ score less than 85) to being categorized as having an intellectual disability (IQ score below 70). 

“Essentially everyone born during those two decades are all but guaranteed to have been exposed to pernicious levels of lead from car exhaust,” the authors said. 

What’s next? After unearthing these findings, Reuben said that he now plans to examine the long-term impacts of past lead exposure on brain health in old age, citing previous studies suggesting that such exposure might quicken brain aging.

McFarland, meanwhile, said that among his next steps will be to analyze the racial disparities that have played into lead exposure, as Black children have historically been exposed more often to lead in comparison to their white peers.

Although no longer in gasoline, lead is still an American problem: In fact, aging infrastructure still conveys water via lead pipes in various parts of the country.

November’s bipartisan infrastructure bill allocated $2.9 billion toward replacing such pipes, while the Biden administration announced further removal plans in December.

Urgent need to address lead exposure: In response to the latest findings in Monday’s study, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who has long been championing a fight to reduce childhood lead exposure, stressed the urgency in hastening these efforts.

Last words: “We know lead exposure causes immense suffering in our communities, especially for children and people of color,” Dingell told Equilibrium in a statement. “But we haven’t done nearly enough to rid our communities of this poison.” 

To read the full story, please click here

Motor Monday

Tailpipe emissions, a boost in battery production and a call to ramp-up nuclear energy

EPA proposes new limits on tailpipe emissions 

  • For the first time in more than 20 years, buses, delivery vans and other heavy vehicles may face new restrictions aimed at cutting down tailpipe emissions, The New York Times reported. The draft rule, proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, would require heavy-duty trucks to reduce nitrogen dioxide emissions — linked to lung cancer, heart disease and death — by 90 percent by 2031, according to the Times.  

GM announces battery materials plant in Canada

  • General Motors Co. and South Korea’s POSCO Chemical are planning to build a $400 million facility to manufacturer battery materials in Canada, as part of an overall effort to boost electric vehicle production, Reuters reported. The plant, located in Becancour, Quebec, will produce “cathode active material” for vehicle batteries, according to Reuters.

Tesla CEO calls for nuclear energy expansion in Europe  

  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk called on Monday for an increase in European nuclear power — suggesting that the continent restart its dormant nuclear power stations to grapple with the an ongoing energy crisis, our colleague Joseph Choi reported for The Hill. Despite his leadership at one of the world’s leading electric vehicle companies, Musk also called for a ramp-up in U.S. oil and gas production, stressing that “extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures.”


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

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