US Set to Produce Most Oil Next Decade

The reputable Global Witness web site (based in the UK) has an excellent analysis of projected oil and gas production for the next ten years which predicts that 60% of the new global oil and gas production for that period will come from the United States.

Future global oil and gas production - Pie chart

This remarkable state of affairs has massive implications for US global energy policy, especially as our oil and gas production is used (or NOT) to support actions that affect global climate change.

The link below will download a short factsheet that summarizes the Global Witness analysis,and the URL for the Global Witness web site above provides additional links:

US_oil_and_gas_Factsheet_GlobalWitness

Finally, it needs to be emphasized that projections of large scale oil and gas production are notoriously unreliable because of commercial and international political manipulation (or hiding) of the source data. Nonetheless, the Global Witness data are important because they imply a range of US policy drivers that may be new to many policy managers.

Posted in Climate Change, energy, Fracking

Knee-Capping Core Responsibilities of Critical Federal Agencies (yet again)

From Catherine Rampell’s column in the on-line Washington Post <https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-is-draining-the-swamp–of-needed-experts/2019/08/08/7ec457e4-ba12-11e9-a091-6a96e67d9cce_story.html> , print edition on August 9th, 2019.

Opinions

For Trump and his cronies, draining the swamp means ousting experts

NZAXFDF2DII6TOWWMCPXLP6ZP4.jpg

Mick Mulvaney at the Justice Department in Washington on July 11, 2018.
(Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

By Catherine Rampell
Columnist
August 8 at 5:42 PM

Once upon a time, President Trump pledged to “drain the swamp.”

This resonated with lots of Americans, who resented the ecosystem of interest groups rigging government in their favor: corrupt officials, revolving-door lobbyists, palm-greasing executives and the network of pseudo-think tanks and analysts funded by industries trying to pass off propaganda as impartial research.

In other words, those who use money and access to accumulate more money and access.

It’s been hard to square these promises with Trump’s recent interest in commuting the prison sentence of pay-for-play poster child Rod Blagojevich, the corrupt former Illinois governor who tried to sell Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat. Or Trump’s appointment of so many industry executives and lobbyists to senior government positions.

Or why so many people seeking favors from this administration — a Federal Reserve Board appointment, a merger approval, forbearance of murder — conspicuously stay at Trump-owned properties.

At last, the mystery of this apparent broken swamp-drainage promise has been solved. Turn outs what Trump and his cronies meant by “the swamp” wasn’t regulatory parasites or crooked officials, but experts.

When the Forgotten Man expressed rage at “swamp creatures,” he probably wasn’t envisioning civil servants with subject-matter expertise — career diplomats who speak Persian, say, or scientists who evaluate water quality. And yet the Trump administration has celebrated brain drains at the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and other agencies and advisory councils.

The latest, most egregious example involves the Economic Research Service, an independent statistical agency at the Agriculture Department.

The small-but-mighty ERS is arguably the world’s premier agricultural economics agency. It produces critical numbers that farmers rely on when deciding what to plant and how much, how to price, how to manage risk; and that other stakeholders and public officials use to evaluate agricultural policy.

However, because it is independent, the ERS produces research that the Trump administration sometimes finds inconvenient, such as who has really been helped by his tax cuts, how climate change might affect agriculture or how his trade wars hurt farmers.

The administration’s solution to these inconveniences? Blowing up the agency altogether.

In June, the Agriculture Department informed employees at the ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which manages $1.7 billion in scientific funding, that they were moving to “the Kansas City Region,” precise location TBD. Employees had 30 days to decide whether to uproot their families or lose their jobs.

As of July 26, only 116 employees agreed to relocate, according to a USDA spokesperson. That’s about 20 percent of those initially asked. Representatives from the employees’ union, the American Federation of Government Employees, told me they expect even fewer to ultimately move, since some employees who said they’d relocate are searching for other opportunities.

The Trump administration is celebrating.

“You’ve heard about ‘drain the swamp,’ ” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said to cheers at a Republican Party gala last week, while recounting the departures of scientists, statisticians and economists. “What you probably haven’t heard is what we are actually doing.”

Mulvaney’s comments, alas, have caused some problems for the USDA, which officially justified the abrupt move as a way to “attract and retain” talent, be closer to “stakeholders” and reduce costs by moving to a less expensive city.

That explanation was always laughable, of course. The union was told the relocation will require three separate moves (from D.C. to the current temporary office, then to another temporary one and finally to a permanent location). Right now, managers are being flown back and forth from Washington to Kansas City in 2½-day shifts to oversee a handful of new hires. None of this seems particularly cost-efficient or talent-friendly.

This purported “swamp draining” may cause legal problems, too.

Days after Mulvaney’s remarks, a new report from the USDA’s inspector general found the move might have violated budget law (since Congress never appropriated relocation funds) as well as internal department regulations.

The many departures also look likely to leave the ERS unable to produce reports required by statute. For example, this fall the ERS is slated to update its estimates for the input costs needed to grow wheat; Congress uses these estimates to determine how to help farmers become more competitive with counterparts overseas. But the entire existing team that produces such reports is either retiring or otherwise departing.

Again, maybe that’s the goal.

“We do research that’s apolitical, unbiased, comprehensive, good-quality,” an ERS employee told me, under condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation. “When we’re not there, Congress relies on other sources of information — think tanks and lobbyists, whoever’s got the biggest donor. That’s who they listen to because there’s no authoritative source for them to go to.

In other words, who benefits from draining the fake “swamp”? The real one.

Read more:

Mitch Daniels: Get Washington out of Washington. Put it in Omaha.

The Post’s View: Moving USDA research agencies is part of Trump’s war on science and statistics

Catherine Rampell: The Trump administration’s war on statistics isn’t slowing down

Gale A. Buchanan and Catherine E. Woteki: At Trump’s Agriculture Department, science is being plowed under

Robert J. Samuelson: The rise and fall of America’s ‘policy entrepreneurs’

Posted in Governance

No-take marine areas help fishers (and fish) far more than we thought

[Good overview of current research in a fast changing theme, but neglects the importance of rigorously enforced MPAs as “seed stock” in post disaster recovery after massive events such as mega hurricanes — this effect is being observed in some of the Eastern Caribbean areas affected by the hurricanes of 2017.]

The Conversation < https://theconversation.com/no-take-marine-areas-help-fishers-and-fish-far-more-than-we-thought-119659 >
Academic rigor, journalistic flair (check URL above for pretty pictures)

No-take marine areas help fishers (and fish) far more than we thought

July 3, 2019 3.58pm EDT

Authors

Dustin Marshall, Professor, Marine Evolutionary Ecology, Monash University

Liz Morris, Administration Manager, Monash University

Disclosure statement:

Dustin Marshall receives funding from Australian Research Council.

Liz Morris does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Partners

Monash University

Monash University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation AU.

One hectare of ocean in which fishing is not allowed (a marine protected area) produces at least five times the amount of fish as an equivalent unprotected hectare, according to new research published today.

This outsized effect means marine protected areas, or MPAs, are more valuable than we previously thought for conservation and increasing fishing catches in nearby areas.

Previous research has found the number of offspring from a fish increases exponentially as they grow larger, a disparity that had not been taken into account in earlier modelling of fish populations. By revising this basic assumption, the true value of MPAs is clearer.

Read more: Protecting not-so-wild places helps biodiversity
Marine Protected Areas

Marine protected areas are ocean areas where human activity is restricted and at their best are “no take” zones, where removing animals and plants is banned. Fish populations within these areas can grow with limited human interference and potentially “spill-over” to replenish fished populations outside.

Obviously MPAs are designed to protect ecological communities, but scientists have long hoped they can play another role: contributing to the replenishment and maintenance of species that are targeted by fisheries.

Wild fisheries globally are under intense pressure and the size fish catches have levelled off or declined despite an ever-increasing fishing effort.

Yet fishers remain sceptical that any spillover will offset the loss of fishing grounds, and the role of MPAs in fisheries remains contentious. A key issue is the number of offspring that fish inside MPAs produce. If their fecundity is similar to that of fish outside the MPA, then obviously there will be no benefit and only costs to fishers.

Big fish have far more babies

Traditional models assume that fish reproductive output is proportional to mass, that is, doubling the mass of a fish doubles its reproductive output. Thus, the size of fish within a population is assumed to be less important than the total biomass when calculating population growth.

But a paper recently published in Science demonstrated this assumption is incorrect for 95% of fish species: larger fish actually have disproportionately higher reproductive outputs. That means doubling a fish’s mass more than doubles its reproductive output.

When we feed this newly revised assumption into models of fish reproduction, predictions about the value of MPAs change dramatically.
Author provided

Fish are, on average, 25% longer inside protected areas than outside. This doesn’t sound like much, but it translates into a big difference in reproductive output – an MPA fish produces almost 3 times more offspring on average. This, coupled with higher fish populations because of the no-take rule means MPAs produce between 5 and 200 times (depending on the species) more offspring per unit area than unprotected areas.

Put another way, one hectare of MPA is worth at least 5 hectares of unprotected area in terms of the number of offspring produced.

We have to remember though, just because MPAs produce disproportionately more offspring it doesn’t necessarily mean they enhance fisheries yields.

For protected areas to increase catch sizes, offspring need to move to fished areas. To calculate fisheries yields, we need to model – among other things – larval dispersal between protected and unprotected areas. This information is only available for a few species.

We explored the consequences of disproportionate reproduction for fisheries yields with and without MPAs for one iconic fish, the coral trout on the Great Barrier Reef. This is one of the few species for which we had data for most of the key parameters, including decent estimates of larval dispersal and how connected different populations are.

No-take protected areas increased the amount of common coral trout caught in nearby areas by 12%. Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/Flickr, CC BY

We found MPAs do in fact enhance yields to fisheries when disproportionate reproduction is included in relatively realistic models of fish populations. For the coral trout, we saw a roughly 12% increase in tonnes of caught fish.

There are two lessons here. First, a fivefold increase in the production of eggs inside MPAs results in only modest increases in yield. This is because limited dispersal and higher death rates in the protected areas dampen the benefits.

However the exciting second lesson is these results suggest MPAs are not in conflict with the interests of fishers, as is often argued.

While MPAs restrict access to an entire population of fish, fishers still benefit from from their disproportionate affect on fish numbers. MPAs are a rare win-win strategy.

It’s unclear whether our results will hold for all species. What’s more, these effects rely on strict no-take rules being well-enforced, otherwise the essential differences in the sizes of fish will never be established.

We think that the value of MPAs as a fisheries management tool has been systematically underestimated. Including disproportionate reproduction in our assessments of MPAs should correct this view and partly resolve the debate about their value. Well-designed networks of MPAs could increase much-needed yields from wild-caught fish.

Before you go…

The Conversation aims to rebuild trust in experts and promote more informed public debate. Our independent fact-based journalism is essential for a healthy democracy. Your support enables us to keep our content free and accessible.

Beth Daley

Editor and General Manager
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Posted in Fun

Even Worse News about the Bureau of Land Management

Climate and Environment
Trump’s pick for managing federal lands doesn’t believe the government should have any

Weashington Post Online < https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/trumps-pick-for-managing-federal-lands-doesnt-believe-the-government-should-have-any/2019/07/31/0bc1118c-b2cf-11e9-8949-5f36ff92706e_story.html >

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By Steven Mufson
July 31

President Trump’s pick for managing federal lands doesn’t think the federal government should have any.

This past week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order making Wyoming native William Perry Pendley the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley, former president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, was a senior official in President Ronald Reagan’s administration.

The appointment comes at a critical time for the BLM, which manages more than a tenth of the nation’s land and oversees the federal government’s oil, gas and coal leasing program. Weeks ago, Interior officials announced that the department would reassign 84 percent of the bureau’s D.C. staff out West by the end of next year. Only a few dozen employees, including Pendley, would remain in Washington.

After more than 2½ years in office, Trump has yet to nominate a permanent director for the BLM. By placing Pendley in charge of the agency, Bernhardt has installed a longtime crusader for curtailing the federal government’s control of public lands.

In the three decades since serving under Reagan, Pendley has sued the Interior Department on behalf of an oil and gas prospector, sought to undermine protections of endangered species such as the grizzly bear, and pressed to radically reduce the size of federal lands to make way for development.

“The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold,” he wrote in a National Review magazine article in 2016. “Westerners know that only getting title to much of the land in the West will bring real change,” he said.

His views differ sharply from those articulated by former interior secretary Ryan Zinke, who said, “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land.” Asked whether Pendley’s appointment marks a change in policy, an Interior Department spokesman said Tuesday said that “the administration adamantly opposes the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands.”

[‘If I wanted to dismantle an agency, this would be in my playbook’]

Pendley’s legal ties, as well as his policy positions, have attracted scrutiny. Environmental groups are pressing Interior to formally recuse Pendley from any involvement in a court case in which he is still the counsel of record representing aging businessman Sidney Longwell and his small company, Solenex.

Solenex leased 6,247 acres in northwestern Montana in 1982 during the Reagan administration for about $1 an acre. Long­well wants permission to build a six-mile service road and bridge over the Two Medicine River on lands considered sacred by the Blackfeet tribe. Interior wants to cancel the lease. He would use the road to bring in drilling rigs and other oil exploration equipment.

“The Department’s career ethics professionals are working closely with Mr. Pendley and will advise him as necessary,” an Interior official said.

“Oil wells do not fit our traditional knowledge system of taking care of the land,” said John Murray, the historic preservation officer of the Blackfeet tribe. “A lot of our origin stories are right in that area.”

The exploration leases cover an area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest where the Badger Creek and Two Medicine River have their headwaters. The expanse is surrounded by Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness area and the Blackfeet Indian reservation.

Administrations that succeeded Reagan’s sought to block development, arguing that the leases were issued improperly in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.

Obama officials proposed buyouts, and in November 2016, Devon Energy took one. That left just two leases: held by Solenex and by oil driller W.A. Moncrief Jr.

The Obama administration offered to give Solenex enough money to cover expenses to date, while a private philanthropy offered additional funding. The Blackfeet tribe, which says the current leases are in particularly sensitive places, offered a swap for 26 parcels of tribal land already producing oil. The tribe said other parts of its reservation do not have the same sensitivity.

Longwell and Pendley refused.

Murray called it all part of “a big chess game.”

When Zinke — a Montana native — took the helm of Interior in 2017, he said he would keep pressing for the cancellation of the leases. But earlier this year, the department said it would drop efforts to cancel Moncrief’s lease while still trying to terminate the Solenex lease.

Pendley’s ties to the most conservative networks run deep. Pendley’s Mountain States Legal Foundation, founded in 1977 and initially run by Reagan’s controversial first interior secretary, James G. Watt, has received backing from ultraconservative groups and individuals such as the Koch-linked Donors Trust and beer tycoon Joseph Coors.

Pendley will once again oversee a coal leasing program he was found to have mismanaged.

Pendley followed Watt into the Reagan administration and was cited in a 1984 report from the Government Accountability Office, then the General Accounting Office, on ethical missteps among leaders of the federal coal leasing program and an “incomplete and unreliable” review by the agency’s inspector general.

The GAO report highlighted a dinner that Pendley, then head of the Minerals Management Service, and another Interior official and their wives attended with two coal company attorneys on March 19, 1982, the same day Pendley and his colleague had made a favorable decision regarding bids on Powder River Basin coal leases. The coal company officials picked up the entire $494.45 tab, or $1,343 in today’s dollars.

Pendley, who had moved from Interior to the Department of the Navy, resigned the year after the GAO’s findings became public.

“By fixing this pivotal deal in 1984 — and getting away with it — Mr. Pendley may be one of the most important faceless functionaries in the expansion of coal use in the United States,” said Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, in an email. He said the report showed “a much wider pattern of high-ranking employees and administration officials cutting deals with the industry without regard for laws.”

As a result, he said, “billions of tons of coal could come to market from the Powder River Basin for the next now 40-plus years at below market prices due to what was done at the time.”

Since Pendley joined the Mountain States Legal Foundation in 1989, the group has represented a variety of clients in political cases. One was racecar driver Bobby Unser, who was fined $75 for straying into federal lands on a snowmobile. Unser said he and a friend got lost in a blizzard.

The group also joined an amicus brief on limiting the use of union dues in political campaigns if individual members don’t approve.

In 2007, the foundation, represented by Pendley himself, filed a suit seeking to narrow protections for grizzly bears on national forest lands. It sought to reverse a U.S. Forest Service ruling that barred motorized access to park land to protect grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act. The filing called the ruling “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion.”

Pendley, who wrote a book on Reagan’s legacy called “Sagebrush Rebel,” has become a pundit on the conservative circuit. His other books include “Warriors for the West: Fighting Bureaucrats, Radical Groups, and Liberal Judges on America’s Frontier” and “War on the West: Government Tyranny on America’s Great Frontier.”

During an appearance at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, Pendley said that “you can’t understand the battle against fossil fuels without understanding what is at the core of the environmental movement and the environmental extremists. . . . They don’t believe in human beings.”

Pendley also expressed sympathy for Cliven Bundy, who ended up in a heavily armed standoff over whether he could graze his cattle on federal land in violation of federal conservation efforts.

More recently, in a September 2017 article in the National Review magazine, Pendley attacked then-Interior Secretary Zinke for failing to do enough to reduce the size of the country’s national monuments. Zinke, while approving reductions in the size of four national monuments, favored the protection of the Badger-Two area Solenex wanted to explore.

“Secretary Zinke recommended decreasing the size of only four of the most blatantly illegal national monuments while leaving the boundaries of all the others standing with mollycoddle language, which will soon get stricken by environmentalists,” Pendley wrote. He urged Trump to “heed his own pugnacious and not Zinke’s pusillanimous counsel.”

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

Posted in Conservation, Governance, Resource Management

Insights into our current Governance Crisis

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Posted in Fun

[Bad] TV Really Does Turn Your Brain to Mush

[from the July 20th on-line Washington Post.]

How trashy TV made children dumber and enabled a wave of populist leaders

Monitors at RAI television studios in Rome display Silvio Berlusconi’s message announcing his political debut on Jan. 26, 1994. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

By Andrew Van Dam.                             July 20

This is a story about how the lowest common denominator of popular media paved the way for the lowest common denominator of populist politics. And it’s got data.

It begins with the opening of Italy’s airwaves, long the dominion of the highly regarded public broadcaster RAI. In the 1980s, an aggressive and unabashedly unsophisticated channel called Mediaset elbowed its way into the market and spread across the country, buying up small local channels and countering RAI’s educational mission with a heavy dose of cartoons, sports, soap operas, movies and other light entertainment.

By 1990, 49 out of 50 Italians could watch Mediaset — half of the country had gained access in just five years. These unusual events allowed a team of Italian economists to compare towns that initially had Mediaset with otherwise equivalent towns that didn’t get reception until later, and thus calculate how a few extra years of lowbrow TV can shape a society’s politics.

The results are bleak. In the American Economic Review, Ruben Durante of Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Paolo Pinotti of Bocconi University in Milan and Andrea Tesei of Queen Mary University of London analyze detailed broadcast-transmitter data to show that more exposure to Mediaset’s vapid programming was followed by an enduring boost in support for populist candidates peddling simple messages and easy answers.

You may think this relationship has an obvious explanation, presumably because you’re aware that Mediaset’s founder and controlling owner is noted populist politician and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. But the researchers go to great lengths to prove this isn’t just a Berlusconi effect. For starters, the bump extends to his populist competitors, particularly the Five Star Movement. Founded on a comedian’s blog a decade ago, the anti-establishment movement became the biggest single party in Italy’s Parliament after last year’s election.

[The testy marriage at the center of Italy’s government]

Television’s role in populist success apparently lies in entertainment, not in political messaging. During the period when certain areas had greater Mediaset exposure than others, neither Mediaset nor Berlusconi had entered the political fray. The researchers digitized years of old newspaper television listings to show that Mediaset offered almost three times as many hours of movies and entertainment as RAI and avoided almost all news and educational programming.

Benjamin Olken, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who pioneered the broadcast-tower analysis used by the Italian team, said the research added to evidence that “TV that’s not explicitly about politics can have an effect on politics.”

In a 2009 analysis published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Olken analyzed differences in TV and radio signals in 606 villages on the Indonesian island of Java to show how greater access to broadcast media corresponded with lower civic participation and lower levels of trust.

In Italy, the economists also used critics’ reviews, as well as ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America, to show Mediaset’s programming was of lower quality and less suitable for a general audience.

They found that lowbrow television’s electoral effect came with a bump of almost 10 percentage points between the two groups that watched it most: those under age 10 and those 55 and older. As they aged, the two groups would both come to support populists, albeit for different reasons.

Young people who watched Mediaset during their formative years would, Durante said, grow up to be “less cognitively sophisticated and less civically minded” than their peers who had access only to public broadcasting and local stations during that period.

Durante describes it as a matter of opportunity cost: Every hour you spend watching TV is an hour you aren’t reading, playing outside or socializing with other kids. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but that may have long-term effects on what kind of person you will become.”

On a battery of psychological and cognitive tests administered to military conscripts, young men from areas with more Mediaset exposure were between 8 percent and 25 percent more likely to earn the lowest scores. On an international test conducted in 2012, Italian adults from places where they first would have been exposed to Mediaset under age 10 had math and reading scores that were significantly worse than those of their peers. They were also less civically minded and less politically active.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that these men and women were attracted to Berlusconi and later the Five Star Movement, both of whom were more likely to use simple language in their speeches and platforms, the researchers show.

Trashy TV’s brain-numbing effects weren’t as pronounced for Italians exposed to Mediaset later in life ⁠ — researchers found their test scores were similar to their peers. Instead, their populist leanings were influenced by the news. By the time Mediaset offered regular news programming, in the early 90s, many older viewers had been hooked on the channel’s cheap entertainment and were much more likely to watch news offered by Mediaset than by other broadcasters.

Coverage at stations tilted toward Berlusconi in the 1994 election, soon after scandals felled the conservative government and inspired the entrepreneur turned populist demagogue to throw his hat in the ring. Older TV watchers were glued to the news and swept up in the campaign.

[Yes, watching Fox does make you more conservative]

This result echoes a 2017 analysis in the same academic journal by a separate team that used variation in channel listings to calculate that Fox News gave Republicans a half-point boost in 2000, building up to a six-percentage-point advantage in 2008 compared with a baseline scenario in which the channel didn’t exist. They did not find a similar significant effect for MSNBC.

[What makes Fox News so powerful? Maybe its channel number.]

In Italy, it’s not that television made voters more conservative. Instead, Durante said, it seems to have made them more vulnerable to the anti-establishment stances favored by the country’s populist leaders of all persuasions.

In the ’90s and early 2000s, Berlusconi was “well positioned to benefit from the decline in cognitive skills and civic engagement,” they write, but by 2013, he was outflanked by the insurgent Five Star Movement, whose strong rhetoric won over the Mediaset-affected voters who had once broken for Berlusconi.

Posted in Civil Society, Futures, Information, Media, politics

Possible Need for a Tweak to “Pure” Capitalism

[Washington Post, page A15, July 25, 2019, < https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/07/24/private-equitys-role-retail-has-decimated-million-jobs-study-says/?utm_term=.6bc7148b27ac > Graphics at the website.]

Private equity’s role in retail has killed 1.3 million jobs, study says

Women and people of color have been disproportionately affected by closures at debt-saddled stores

[Photo caption: More than 33,000 Toys R Us workers lost their jobs when the company filed for bankruptcy and liquidated its stores. All told, more than 1.3 million U.S. workers have lost their jobs in the past decade because of private equity ownership in retail, data show. (Julio Cortez/AP)]

By Abha Bhattarai

She’s been looking for more than a year, but Giovanna De La Rosa has yet to find a job.

After 20 years with Toys R Us in San Diego, she was one of 33,000 workers laid off last summer when the company filed for bankruptcy and liquidated its stores. The retailer, which in 2017 had $11.5 billion in annual sales, had struggled to pay down billions of dollars in debt stemming from a 2005 leveraged buyout.

“It’s been really, really tough,” said De La Rosa, 39, who has a son with autism. “Losing my health insurance has been a big deal.”

More than 1.3 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past decade as a result of private equity ownership in retail, according to a report released Wednesday. That includes 600,000 retail workers, as well as 728,000 employees in related industries. Overall, the sector added more than 1 million jobs during that period.

[Read the report here < https://www.washingtonpost.com/context/report-on-private-equity-s-role-in-retail/3ca628da-aeb8-4509-898f-af46e6d0a196/?utm_term=.646fcac7decb >]

Women and people of color have been disproportionately affected by the layoffs as debt-ridden retailers closed thousands of stores, according to the report by six progressive nonprofit organizations and workers’ advocacy groups, including Americans for Financial Reform and the Center for Popular Democracy.

Wall Street has become the new boss for an ever-growing number of workers across the country,” said Charles Khan, organizing director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, a group of labor unions and community groups in New York that was involved in the study. “That’s meant layoffs, shrinking paychecks and benefits cuts for millions of people.”

Ten of the 14 largest retail bankruptcies since 2012 have been at private-equity-owned companies, such as Payless ShoeSource and Claire’s, according to the study.

More than 1 million of the nation’s 15.8 million retail workers continue to work for private-equity-backed companies, including Michael’s, J. Crew and Neiman Marcus, according to the study.

[Elizabeth Warren, in detailed attack on private equity, unveils plan to stop ‘looting’ of U.S. companies]

Private equity firms and hedge funds have been aggressively buying up retailers since the mid-2000s, when a booming economy and low interest rates made leveraged buyouts particularly attractive. The firms pooled money — often from pension funds, wealthy investors and financial firms — and relied on large swaths of debt to acquire companies like Mervyn’s and Linens ‘n Things, with the goal of turning them around.

In practice, though, they routinely sold off real estate holdings, cut workers’ pay and benefits, and jettisoned jobs to turn a quick profit for investors, according to Heather Slavkin Corzo, a senior fellow at Americans for Financial Reform and the director of capital markets policy for the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions.

“When a private equity firm steps in, it’s a classic case of ‘Heads I win, tails you lose,’” Corzo said. “They have a real short-term focus on extracting as much cash as possible, as quickly as possible.”

That often means selling off a company’s most valuable asset, its real estate, she said. Retail is a notoriously difficult industry, with intense competition and razor-thin profit margins. Owning their own buildings is one way for companies to shield themselves from economic uncertainty. For private equity firms, such holdings can translate into quick profits. But selling them forces retailers to rent out buildings they used to own.

The study comes a week after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that would stop private equity firms from gutting companies and loading them with debt. Her plan would require such firms to shoulder those liabilities themselves instead of foisting them onto their acquisitions.

“For far too long, Washington has looked the other way while private equity firms take over companies, load them with debt, strip them of their wealth, and walk away scot-free — leaving workers, consumers, and whole communities to pick up the pieces,” Warren said in a statement last week.

The industry, she and others contend, faces few regulations that others, including mutual funds and investments banks, do. When a private-equity-backed company files for bankruptcy, executives are typically rewarded over workers, pension funds and other creditors. As a result, 100,000 workers and retirees have missed out on $128 million in pensions because of bankruptcies from 2001 to 2014, according to data from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

Industry groups say private equity firms make significant investments to help businesses grow, and that their returns help support pension funds for teachers, first responders and other government workers. They say such factors as increased competition and the shift to online shopping also have contributed to retail bankruptcies.

“This report is biased and is focused on a sector that experienced tremendous disruption over the past decade,” said Drew Maloney, president of the American Investment Council, which lobbies on behalf of the industry. “Private equity has a clear record of supporting millions of jobs across all sectors and investing in communities across America.”

But critics say large debt loads from leveraged buyouts make it difficult for otherwise profitable retailers to adapt to industry changes. When Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy in 2017, court documents showed that it had been paying $400 million a year toward its debt, often at the expense of profitability. The retailer’s three companies — Bain Capital, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Vornado Realty Trust — did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

[Analysts: Toys R Us might have survived if it did not have to deal with so much debt]

In November, Bain Capital and KKR set up a $20 million fund for laid-off Toys R Us employees. The retailer’s bankruptcy, the firms said, was caused by “an extraordinary set of circumstances,” including changes in the retail landscape and a push by creditors to liquidate operations. Although workers groups say the amount is less than the $75 million they were owed under the retailer’s severance policy, they say it could set a new precedent for future bankruptcies.

Private equity firms and hedge funds have made major investments in at least 80 retailers in the past decade, including household names such as Brookstone, David’s Bridal and Gymboree. All three companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past year.

When the hedge fund ESL Investments took over Sears in 2005, employees like Terry Leiker said the impact was nearly immediate: The company did away with workers’ 401(k) benefits and shifted to commission-based salaries. Leiker’s pay dropped from $13 an hour to nearly half of that, and there were repercussions if she didn’t get at least three customers to sign up for Sears credit cards each week. Full-time workers were replaced with part-timers, and there were changes in merchandise.

“Power tools weren’t made in the United States anymore,” said Leiker, who worked in Sears’s tools department for 18 years. “Clothing quality wasn’t what it used to be.”

Leiker, 65, was laid off in October, days before Sears filed for bankruptcy. She has applied for multiple retail jobs since — at Macy’s, JC Penney, Family Dollar — but has yet to find work.

In all, more than 260,000 Sears and Kmart workers have lost their jobs since ESL took over, according to Wednesday’s report, which is co-authored by Hedge Clippers, the Private Equity Stakeholder Project and United for Respect. Representatives for ESL Investments and Sears did not respond to requests for comment.

“It’s been horrible, absolutely horrible,” said Leiker, who is working with the advocacy group United for Respect. “We’re struggling. Most weeks we can either buy food or we can pay our bills. That shouldn’t be a choice anybody has to make.”

Retail jobs tend to be among the country’s lowest-paying and most volatile. Roughly 1 in 4 retail workers lives below or near the federal poverty line, which is $25,750 for a family of four.

[Toys R Us workers are training Sears workers to fight for severance]

Ann Marie Reinhart had been with Toys R Us for 29 years when its bankruptcy and liquidation left her without a job.

She said she’d applied for more than 100 positions before she finally found work at Belk, a Charlotte-based department store chain that had been acquired four years ago by the private equity firm Sycamore Partners.

On Monday, Reinhart, who had just returned from a family vacation to Ocean City, learned that her job fulfilling online orders at a Durham, N.C., store was being eliminated as part of a broader effort to cut costs. She isn’t sure what she’ll do next.

“It’s been a nightmare, honestly,” said Reinhart, 60. “It’s like private-equity deja vu.”

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