Week 129: Interior Secretary David Bernhardt Chooses a Pseudo-Italianate Urban Planning Nightmare Over an Endangered Bird

Plus, the USDA stops counting bees, and Rick Perry is wrong on carbon emissions.

July 12, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for OnEarth (Landscape photo: Shawn Harquail via Flickr)

I Know What You Did Last Summer, David Bernhardt

In the fall of 2016, Mike Ingram had a problem: His plan to build a massive, pseudo-Tuscan planned community with “literally limitless” amenities near Tucson was on hold. A scientist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had determined that the proposed 28,000-unit exurban behemoth would drain so much groundwater that it could threaten the existence of an endangered bird, the southwestern willow flycatcher, of which only about 3,000 remain.

But Ingram didn’t get to be one of the biggest developers in the West and a co-owner of a Major League Baseball team by letting tiny birds get in his way. Recognizing an opportunity, he cozied up to Donald Trump. Ingram donated to Trump-associated political groups and served on a pro-hunting advisory council for the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

Then, in 2017, Ingram allegedly made his move. According to a CNN story this week, he had a previously undisclosed sit-down with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Other outlets report that Ingram also called Bernhardt to protest the FWS finding on his proposal. That decision had been made by FWS scientist Steve Spangle, who says he eventually received a vaguely threatening phone call about the matter. The scientist says he was told that a high-ranking Interior official disagreed with his assessment of the mega-development’s water consumption and that Spangle would be “wise to reconsider it.” With his retirement approaching, Spangle complied. 

But now the retired scientist is talking. He says that in his 30 years with the FWS, he had never experienced that kind of political pressure. Now lawmakers are asking questions about Bernhardt. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva has demanded to see all documents concerning the FWS decision, as well as any records relating to the interior secretary’s discussions with Ingram.

When people talk about the Trump administration’s interference with the work of scientists, they’re usually referring to climate change. The administration has refused to publicize studies on the impacts of climate change and regularly attempts to cut funding for climate research. But there’s so much more to these attacks on science. The administration puts industry ahead of scientific research at every turn (see, e.g., Andrew Liveris of Dow Chemical), even down to local decisions made about big houses and little birds.

The idea that Bernhardt or Ingram is in a position to weigh in on whether the water demands of 28,000 new homes will threaten an endangered species is ludicrous on its face. Just like the administration’s treatment of scientists.

Bee Crisis? What Bee Crisis?

Speaking of cutting scientific research, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced this week that it would temporarily suspend its honeybee census, which for decades has been tracking how these important pollinators are faring. The agency blames a budget shortfall for the cut, but CNN reports that it would not say just how much money it was saving by suspending the bee research. Regardless, it’s troubling that the USDA would deprioritize these invaluable insects, given their current plight.

We rely on honeybees more than most people realize. They pollinate an estimated $20 billion worth of U.S. crops annually. About a third of the food you eat depends on their pollination work. Indeed, your diet would be very boring without honeybees.

The USDA increased scrutiny of the buzzy little insects in 2016 after several years of acute losses in their population numbers. In 2015 an astonishing 42 percent of U.S. honeybee colonies died off. 

There are probably several factors contributing to the sudden bee declines, but many scientists believe a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics, play a major role. Neonics are neurotoxins that dissolve into the plants on which they are sprayed, making the plant itself toxic to insects like bees and butterflies. The use of these pesticides is extremely common in U.S. agriculture—which means very big business for their manufacturers, like Bayer, Monsanto, and Syngenta.

Last year, the European Union voted to ban the outdoor spraying of neonics, and several U.S. states, such as Maryland and Connecticut, have instituted their own bans. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not followed suit

The USDA’s decision to stop counting bees looks suspiciously like an attempt to create gaps in the data that would support a neonicotinoid ban. After all, if no one is keeping track of the bee population, no one can blame, with certainty, the ubiquitous pesticides for causing the crisis.

Not Quite, Rick

Energy Secretary Rick Perry (remember him?) tweeted this week that “America continues to lead the world in reducing our carbon footprint and overall energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, with every one of the Paris signatories lagging behind us.”

That’s a major stretch. Since 1990, the United Kingdom has cut energy-related carbon emissions by 38 percent. For the European Union as a whole, emissions dropped 31 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. emissions have been practically flat over that same period.

In his calculations, there might have been some way that Perry manipulated the numbers to make them seem good—maybe he changed the time frame’s start and end dates, then excluded from the equation sectors like transportation, then physically tilted the data sideways and squinted to make it look like the United States leads the world in carbon emissions reductions, It’s hard to say because, of course, Perry didn’t even bother to justify his suspicious claim with actual data, so we don’t know exactly what he’s basing it on. 

But here’s the most important stat to remember: In 2018, after years of decline, the United States saw its second-highest increase in carbon emissions in two decades. Don’t expect to see that figure in Perry’s Twitter feed, though.

Stop David Bernhardt

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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.

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