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The president won’t subject his offensive border project to environmental review, but his administration will subject the EPA museum to censorship.
Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.
Wall of Shame
The Department of Homeland Security announced on Tuesday that it would waive environmental safeguards in order to expedite the building of Trump’s enormously controversial wall along the U.S.–Mexico border. The decision came in the wake of reports that the border wall’s construction would begin in a wildlife refuge and threaten endangered species that regularly cross between the two countries.
Jaguars, for example, have tentatively begun to reestablish themselves north of the border after their complete disappearance from the United States in the 1960s. The existing wall along portions of the border has already blocked the big cat’s movement. Extending the wall would virtually preclude the jaguar’s return, while also constricting the ranges of many other fragile southwestern species, such as ocelots, pronghorn, Mexican gray wolves, and even ferruginous pygmy owls.
The Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act require the federal government to review the impact on endangered species and natural resources of most prospective construction projects. In 1996, however, Congress passed a law allowing the attorney general to waive those two laws in the case of the border wall. President Clinton, to his great shame, signed the bill into law. Dissatisfied with the pace of wall construction, Congress passed another bill in 2005 that went even further, allowing the administration to waive any law that might impede the construction of the border fence. The bill grants the executive branch such sweeping powers that the Congressional Research Service openly pondered whether a president could legally use child labor to build the wall. (The CRS concluded he probably could not.)
Why Trump couldn’t submit his border wall to environmental review is unclear. Voters would learn how the wall would affect flooding and other aspects of the natural world, and there’s plenty of time to do the analysis. This wall isn’t exactly on a fast track. The United States began building a border fence 27 years ago, the money for what could be as much as a $40 billion project hasn’t been appropriated, and senior members of Congress remain skeptical about its worthiness. Pretending that environmental laws are the main impediment to construction is nothing but a distraction.
You’ll Never Guess Who’s Rewriting the Clean Power Plan
EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has called the Clean Power Plan “an effort to kill jobs across the country.” He is apparently unaware of both the intent of the Clean Power Plan (reducing carbon pollution from power plants) and the 75 consecutive months of job growth under the Obama administration. If President Obama was hell-bent on killing American jobs, as Pruitt implies, he failed pretty spectacularly.
Anyway, President Trump signed an executive order in March directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to repeal and replace the Clean Power Plan. While Trump didn’t describe what its replacement would look like, the president’s group of informal advisers gives us a pretty good idea. According to a report in E&E News, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) have held a series of meetings with administration officials about the fate of the CPP.
The positive spin: Industry leaders reportedly want the administration to “fix” rather than gut the Clean Power Plan. But positive spin is still spin. Trump and Pruitt know they have to replace the Clean Power Plan with something that would at least superficially reduce greenhouse gas emissions from utilities, because the Administrative Procedures Act forbids an administration from throwing out valid regulations without a good reason. So, of course, they’re looking for a toothless plan that vaguely resembles the CPP.
That the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are seriously interested in significantly cutting carbon emissions is highly doubtful. Chamber of Commerce leadership has consistently refused to acknowledge the human contribution to global climate change and is so vehemently opposed to sensible environmental regulations that many of its largest corporate members have quit the organization in protest. The National Association of Manufacturers has similarly tarred environmental rules as “anti-growth,” driving away major members like Duke Energy with its overheated rhetoric. NAM also intervened in a lawsuit in which children sued the federal government over its inaction on climate change. Then NAM attempted to withdraw from the case when it became clear the organization could be forced to hand over internal documents relating to its knowledge of and (possibly) its attempts to discredit the realities of climate change.
If these are the groups counseling Trump on climate change regulation, things are . . . exactly as bad as we thought.
The Trump administration has worked hard to erase mentions of climate change from government communications such as websites, press releases, and tweets. But it missed a spot. A mini-museum about the history of the EPA, opened at the end of the Obama administration, extols the agency’s successes. The little exhibit celebrates, among other things, the Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate agreement.
That’s about to change. Trump officials have become aware of the museum, and they’re preparing to expunge its mentions of climate action. They might even take it one step farther—the administration is reportedly considering adding an homage to coal to the museum.
Tell Trump we won't stop fighting global climate change
“It should be no surprise that there may be changes,” Nancy Grantham, an EPA public affairs employee, told the Washington Post.
It may be unsurprising, given the president’s many affronts to both the environment and the truth, but it’s still disturbing. Tyrants invariably censor museums in their attempts to alter history. Augusto Pinochet, Nicolae Ceaucescu, and Francisco Franco, among others, censored museums to alter the historical record.
It is, I concede, slightly hyperbolic to compare the alteration of a tiny museum outside the EPA credit union to the censorship habits of some of the worst dictators of the 20th century. But Trump is attempting the same basic trick: to limit public discussion of a major issue by erasing it wherever he can. Pruitt and Trump say they want discussion and debate about climate change, but they obviously don’t. If they did, they would leave the museum intact as a historical record, and possibly add the administration’s own views as a counterpoint. Instead, they want to pretend the Paris climate agreement never happened and that climate change is a fairy tale parents (and teachers and scientists) tell children.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Courts put the brakes on the administration’s rollbacks while the House heads home with nothing to brag about.
These days, the Trump administration may be feeling like the singers in the old pop song, “I fought the law, and the law won.”
That’s because Trump’s pro-polluter rollbacks of our health and environmental safeguards are hitting choppy judicial waters.
On August 4, the Natural Resources Defense Council and partners asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to overturn Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s suspension of standards curbing methane and other harmful emissions from the nation’s landfills.
“Scott Pruitt’s suspension of EPA’s landfill pollution standards is a carbon copy of his illegal attempt to block methane standards for the oil and gas industry,” reasons David Doniger, director of NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air program. “The court threw out Pruitt’s illegal stay of the methane rules last month, and we’re asking it to do the same here.”
Indeed, on July 3, the appeals court overturned Pruitt’s effort to stay separate methane oil and gas standards, and on July 31 the full court ordered them into effect by a 9-2 vote.
Pruitt backs down
Pruitt lost another fight with the law this week. Under pressure from lawsuits brought by NRDC, its partners, and 16 states, Pruitt on August 2 abruptly reversed field on ozone standards, dropping a one-year delay he’d announced in June. That means the standards cutting emissions of smog-causing air pollutants will stay on track for their implementation date of October 1.
“It is no wonder Scott Pruitt beat a hasty retreat from holding up these important health standards,” said John Walke, NRDC’s clean air director. “He's been blatantly violating the law by obstructing legally required reductions in smog pollution.”
In a handful of environmental cases now, the Trump administration has been forced—in the face of lawsuits brought by NRDC and partners—to follow the law. They involve ozone, mercury and methane pollution, the rusty patched bumble bee, and energy efficiency standards.
More legal challenges ahead
Up ahead: a number of other lawsuits are pending on clean air, safe water, and climate action. Will Trump triumph, or will the law win? “For all of these things, now we may be able to hold the government to account,” Doniger says.
Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault
NRDC files suit to reinstate transportation climate safeguards
Also this past week, NRDC and partners sued the Federal Highway Administration to defend a key clean air standard. The lawsuit takes the department to task for illegally suspending, in May, Obama-era standards intended to reduce climate-changing pollution in the nation’s transportation sector.
Transportation is now the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, having surpassed those from power plants. The standards ask state highway and metropolitan transportation planners to track and try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their transportation plans and systems. This could give rise to cleaner air and smarter transportation options such as more bikeways and better public transit.
“The Trump administration broke the law by hitting the brakes on sensible transportation clean-air standards. We need them to protect our health today and to reduce climate chaos tomorrow,” says Deron Lovaas, an NRDC senior policy adviser.
What’s next? Perry proving Earth flat?
On July 27, the U.S. Department of Energy issued, from its official Twitter account, this curious tweet: “In the fight between @SecretaryPerry and climate scientists — He’s winning.” It linked to an editorial attacking the American Meteorological Society for its June letter blasting Perry for asserting in a television interview that “carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to climate change.”
Well, hundreds, if not thousands, of leading scientists say that it certainly is.
House heads home with some ’splaining to do on clean energy cuts
Members of the House of Representatives have headed home for their August break with little to brag about, but with a need to explain why they’re pushing a misnamed “Make America Secure Appropriations Act.”
“It’s in stark opposition to the set of values shared by millions of Americans—one of clean air and clean water, equity and prosperity, and innovation and progress,” notes Elizabeth Noll, legislative director in NRDC’s Energy & Transportation program.
That’s this week’s Real Lowdown. NRDC has prepared a list of other far-ranging threats. And we’re vigilantly reporting on the administration’s assault on the environment through Trump Watch.