Year in review: PIRG and The Public Interest Network’s 2022 highlights

Media Contacts
Taran Volckhausen

Former Communications Associate, The Public Interest Network

PIRG, Environment America, their state groups celebrate national, state, local victories for the public interest

DENVER – Throughout the past year, the Public Interest Network’s advocates spurred important progress toward a healthier, safer and happier world today and a better future for generations to come. It has been a year of extraordinary positive change at the state, federal and local levels. 

“Building on decades of environmental, consumer and public health advocacy, this year has seen historic action toward ensuring Americans have a more safe, secure future,” said PIRG President Faye Park. “While we celebrate important victories and landmark federal legislation to address climate change and other key issues, we see more opportunities ahead to achieve our vision for a better country and world.”

Environment America, PIRG and the Public Interest Network’s state groups, together with our partners and supporters, celebrated the following highlights and milestones in 2022:

Big steps toward a healthier climate

In 2022, the United States took a major step toward addressing climate change by giving Americans and their local and state governments crucial support to transition to a climate-friendly future. Environment America and PIRG advocates made an especially strong push for clean energy tax credits and energy efficiency programs. By the end of August, President Joe Biden signed the landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the country’s largest-ever investment in clean energy and climate solutions. While not all of the compromise legislation was helpful and some policies do not go far enough, overall, the legislation goes in the right direction.

Beyond this encouraging federal accomplishment, clean energy expanded rapidly across the country. A report released by Environment America Research & Policy Center and its partner research group Frontier Group found that the United States’ production of renewable power tripled over the past decade. The Renewables on the Rise 2022 dashboard showed that seven states now produce enough electricity from wind, solar and geothermal energy to cover half of their electricity consumption. In 2016, five years earlier, not one state had achieved this level of renewable energy capability. 

In the Bay State, Environment Massachusetts helped win a major statewide climate law in August that will reduce energy waste and help transition buildings and transportation away from fossil fuels. Rhode Island became the 10th state to make a commitment to 100% clean or renewable energy. Environment Connecticut-backed clean electricity bills passed out of the state legislature and were signed into law. 

California maintained its status as the country’s leading clean energy champion. In August, following a campaign by Environment California, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an ambitious commitment for 45 gigawatts of offshore wind power. Then, in September, Gov. Newsom signed SB 1020 into law, building on the state’s 2018 commitment to achieve 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045. The new clean energy law set benchmarks of 90% clean energy by 2035 and 95% clean energy by 2040. 

Washington also scored a big win for our climate when the Washington State Building Code Council (SBCC) adopted new codes that will make new residential homes healthier for Washingtonians and more climate-friendly. Advocates and activists at Environment Washington and WashPIRG helped secure this victory by organizing people to testify in support of the code updates at the SBCC’s two public hearings and to submit comments.

Clean, healthy transportation

Incentives are rapidly accelerating electric vehicle (EV) adoption. With the passage of the IRA, individuals will now receive up to $7,500 in tax credits for new electric vehicles and up to $4,000 for used EVs. The new climate law also allocated $1 billion for electric heavy duty vehicles, such as school buses and garbage trucks; $3 billion for zero-emission technology at U.S. ports and $3 billion for electric U.S. Postal Service trucks.

Just before year-end, the Postal Service committed to using that investment wisely by electrifying its mail delivery fleet. The agency announced that 75% of new vehicles purchased in 2023 will now be electric and beginning in 2026, all new vehicle purchases will be electric, and USPS will invest in charging infrastructure at hundreds of their facilities. This announcement comes after a wave of opposition to the USPS’ initial plan, which only would have electrified 10% of new vehicles. PIRG joined tens of thousands of concerned citizens, President Biden, members of the U.S. House and Senate, and many states in calling on the USPS to deliver.

The 2022 clean transportation victories built on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021, which enacted the Clean School Bus Program and gave it $5 billion over five years to replace harmful diesel buses with cleaner alternatives. Although school districts could use their allocation to replace diesel buses with propane and other fossil fuel-based transportation, PIRG and Environment America affiliates successfully campaigned to raise demand for electric buses in school districts across the country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the first $913 million in Clean School Bus funding in October: 90% of the first round’s applications were for electric school buses, suggesting that environmental and public health advocates’ efforts are paying off.

States are also kicking the expansion of electric transportation into overdrive. In August, the California Air Resources Board voted to require all new cars sold in California to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035. The shift to zero-emission vehicles in the Golden State will likely extend beyond state lines because more than one dozen states follow California’s lead when setting their auto-emissions standards.

Reduce plastic pollution

In California and Colorado, CoPIRG and CALPIRG advocates pushed lawmakers to pass bills holding plastic packaging producers financially responsible for cleaning up the waste their products create. The California law also requires all single-use foodware and packaging to be recyclable or compostable and orders companies to reduce their single-use packaging by 25% over the next decade.

At the federal level, U.S. Interior Sec. Deb Haaland issued an order to phase out single-use plastic products from national parks and other public lands by 2032. Prior to the announcement, PIRG and Environment America supporters sent thousands of messages calling on the Biden administration to reduce plastics in national parks. Now, network advocates are urging the administration to expedite its timeline. 

In the fall, shareholders at both General Mills and Sysco voted on resolutions calling on the companies to reduce plastic packaging. Environment America and PIRG supported both resolutions, which were filed by Green Century Capital Management°, PIRG’s affiliated environmentally responsible mutual fund company. 

Wildlife, wild places

President Biden designated in October his first national monument — the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument — in Colorado. The classification, which protects 53,804 acres in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, came after advocacy from Environment America and thousands of Coloradans including surviving 10th Mountain Division veterans who trained at Camp Hale during World War II. 

Environment America got more than 80,000 Americans to sign a petition in support of protecting Chaco Canyon in New Mexico from oil and gas drilling. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has proposed to protect roughly 350,000 acres of public lands surrounding Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. The BLM proposal would prevent new federal oil and gas leasing for the next 20 years. 

On Earth Day, President Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to develop policies to protect mature and old-growth forests. Environment America played a key role in building a coalition of more than 100 organizations to stand up for the country’s threatened old-growth forests. The spotlight is now on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) to develop a policy that can stand as a global model on how to protect mature forests and big trees from threats such as logging. 

Salmon in the Pacific Northwest and the orcas that feed on them once they reach the ocean are dwindling in population. Taking an important step to save this species, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray outlined a clear path for breaching dams. The elected leaders’ plan came after tens of thousands people submitted comments in support of saving salmon and orca by breaching the Lower Snake River dams. Environment Oregon, Environment Washington and Environment America all submitted comments. 

At the start of the year, the Biden administration canceled two leases for hard rock mining next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. The cancellation reversed a 2019 Trump administration decision to renew leases for Antofagasta’s Twin Metals copper and nickel project.  The U.S.’ most-visited wilderness area, the Boundary Waters is composed of lakes, ponds, fens and cliffs that are home to everything from old-growth pines to moose, wolves and hundreds of bird species.

Broke down barriers against repair 

Too many companies make it difficult for consumers and independent repair professionals to fix their products — from cell phones to tractors. That’s why we need the “right to repair.”

On April 8, Google announced that it will allow new user repair access for its Pixel line of smartphones. The commitment came after PIRG’s “Failing the Fix” scorecard gave Google a “D+” on the repairability of its smartphones. The move to open repair access marks a major reversal in Google’s policy, which has historically been hostile to the right to repair. Green Century Capital Management filed a shareholder resolution with Google calling for increased repair access last January. 

Also this year, PIRG made headway in the ongoing fight to allow farmers to repair their tractors without having to make the often lengthy trip to a manufacturer-owned or approved repair shop. After PIRG’s research exposed how John Deere restricts access to repair resources that farmers need, the company announced that it would remedy the situation. But Deere has made similar commitments before –, with no follow-through — so PIRG’s consumer advocates are not declaring victory until national legislation is passed that guarantees farmers and consumers the right to repair their things.

Colorado wheelchair users won a landmark victory that eventually could affect every U.S. consumer’s right to repair. Gov. Jared Polis signed HB22-1031 into law in June, requiring manufacturers of powered wheelchairs to make available parts, tools, repair manuals and digital access to owners and independent repairers at fair and reasonable prices. The new Colorado law also marks the first time a state has passed a right-to-repair bill since Massachusetts voters approved an automotive repair ballot measure in 2013. 

Action against toxic threats

Twenty-seven years ago, Congress failed to reauthorize the “polluter pays” taxes that fund cleanups of the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites. Not surprisingly, cleanups lagged. Starting in 2021, President Biden and Congress started to rectify that error, infusing new resources into the federal Superfund program, thanks in large part to PIRG’s advocacy and action. The IRA reinstated a polluter-pays tax on the oil industry similar to a tax on the chemical industry that passed with IIJA in 2021. 

Public awareness is rising about the toxic PFAS, often called “forever chemicals” because of how long it takes for them to break down. PIRG and Environment America affiliates won state actions against PFAS in California, Colorado and Maryland this year. Columbia Sportswear told PIRG and a coalition partner that the company is working to phase out all PFAS by 2024. PIRG is continuing to push Columbia to make a public announcement to their customers and to be transparent about where they are in the process.

Consumer defense against predatory practices

On July 8, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that airlines must eliminate a set of consumer-unfriendly fees, including their egregious extra charges to seat children 13 years and younger with an accompanying adult. The DOT also released a “Bill of Rights” to help passengers with disabilities. These actions came a week after PIRG and other consumer advocacy groups sent a letter urging Congress to tell airlines to prioritize passengers in their policies. 

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) this fall finally started shutting down a handful of phone service providers for allowing scam robocalls on their networks. The FCC has also proposed new rules to crack down on scam robotexts, a year after FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel brought up the problem. A PIRG report in July showed how scam texts have increased 12-fold in a year: PIRG has been relentless in calling for a crackdown on phone companies, since the bad actors don’t seem to care that scam texts are illegal. 

PIRG has worked to protect young children for decades, notably through 37 years of our “Trouble in Toyland” report. In a victory for toy safety, Reese’s Law, passed in August, sets new requirements on products containing button batteries. In addition, new rules were approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in September that essentially ban tiny, high-powered magnets. Such magnets have caused 26,600 children to require emergency room treatment from 2010 through 2021, according to the CPSC. PIRG also has rung alarm bells on the danger of inclined baby sleepers since 2019, leading to the Safe Sleep for Babies Act being signed into law in May.

In the states, advocates worked to expose ways that companies are failing or overcharging their customers. Illinois PIRG State Director Abe Scarr, for example, has been a leading voice on behalf of consumers as the state grapples with the disastrous Peoples Gas pipe replacement program — which has consistently failed to make Illinois utility customers safer while Peoples Gas rakes in record profits. MASSPIRG’s Janet Domenitz and Deirdre Cummings helped consumers navigate rising heating costs and get access to key resources on saving money, weatherizing homes and transitioning to more efficient sources of energy.

Under pressure from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), PIRG and its allies, more big banks have modified their harsh overdraft policies. However, more needs to happen. For the first time, the bipartisan Overdraft Protection Act passed out of the House Financial Services Committee, adding momentum for next year. Following up on the CFPB’s investigations, which PIRG helped generate, the president also announced a campaign to crack down on “junk fees.”

Clean water

Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund had joined several other groups in sending a letter urging the EPA to issue guidance to states to reign in release of toxic per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Earlier this month, the EPA called on state agencies issuing permits under the Clean Water Act to restrict the discharge of these highly toxic, mobile chemicals.

PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center released its “Lead in the Water” report in February, which showed 98% of Philadelphia public schools that were tested had lead contamination. The report generated widespread media coverage. By a unanimous vote, the Philadelphia City Council passed legislation in June requiring the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) to replace all of its old drinking fountains with lead-filtering hydration stations by 2025. Houston Independent School District (HISD) announced a plan in October to get the lead out of its school drinking water after Environment Texas Research & Policy Center and TexPIRG’s report looked at 250 water quality testing reports in January. The report had found that lead was found in at least one water tap at 84% of schools tested.

Health care

Following relentless pressure from PIRG and coalition partners, the “Big 3” credit rating bureaus bowed to pressure, making “voluntary” changes to their medical debt reporting. The new policy announced in March by the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — changed how paid medical debt would be reported on credit reports starting in July. The credit bureaus also agreed to delay medical debt reporting for one year, up from six months — which will allow consumers more time to clear up errors by insurance companies, providers and hospitals. In early 2023, medical debt less than $500 will not be counted against consumers’ credit scores.

PIRG spread the word about new rights under No Surprises Act, a new 2022 law that prevented more than 9 million surprise medical bills in its first nine months in effect. PIRG advocates represented consumer interests on other elements of the law including giving patients upfront cost estimates and are working closely with the federal government on the design of its new website to help patients use their new protections. Providers who opposed the law have filed lawsuits to gut it but PIRG has joined as an amicus to protect the strong patient billing protections against these legal attacks. Recognizing PIRG’s strong consumer voice, Senior Health Care Campaign Director Patricia Kelmar will be serving on the Ground Ambulance and Patient Billing Advisory Committee to make recommendations to extend surprise billing prohibitions to ambulances. 

PIRG joined a large coalition of consumer and patient groups to win the right for the federal government to negotiate fair and reasonable prices for certain high-cost prescription medication for the 62 million Americans on Medicare. The IRA gives Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices for the first time in history. Additionally, the Inflation Reduction Act sets a limit on how much a drug company can raise its prices in any given year. 

PIRG sounded the alarm which led to the reversal of a decision by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. CMS had proposed to hide from the public important patient safety data submitted by hospitals during the COVID pandemic. The information reveals how well hospitals have prevented serious patient injury and death which are responsible for about 24,000 deaths a year. The reversal meant the government stood on the side of patients and their families by continuing to publicly report important information about how well our hospitals have prevented injuries. These protocols should be so baked-in that even amid a public health emergency, hospitals keep patients safe. 

Other important victories

  • A highway boondoggle project in Colorado was taken off the table for the time being after the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) voted on its new 10-year plan and left out the I-25 Central expansion.
  • New Jersey and New York passed new laws to restrict harmful neonic pesticides and save the bees. 
  • A proposal to build the world’s largest plastics-to-fuel facility is officially dead after Environment Georgia campaigned against its construction.
  • The Arizona Corporation Commission rejected the Salt River Project’s proposed $1 billion expansion of 16 gas units.
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