Week 132: America First! (with the United Arab Emirates’ Permission)

Plus, Andrew Wheeler holds story hour at an oil refinery, and the new Bureau of Land Management director doesn’t believe the B should be M-ing L.

August 02, 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

America First . . . if That’s OK with You?

Donald Trump and his coterie love to tout their “America First Energy Plan,” in which the president basically promises to extend his stubby middle finger to foreign interests who would prioritize their own energy dominance ahead of U.S. development. What a patriot.

But this week we learned that this posturing is all a sham. Before Trump made his big “America First” energy speech during his campaign in 2016, a Trump associate passed the text to officials at the United Arab Emirates, who then suggested edits that were ultimately incorporated into Trump’s address. In other words, the Trump campaign asked the United Arab Emirates for its feedback before promising to put America first.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in international diplomacy to figure out what parts the UAE added to the speech. After asking his audience to “imagine a world in which our foes, and the oil cartels, can no longer use energy as a weapon,” Trump eventually conceded that “we will work with our Gulf allies to develop a positive energy relationship as part of our anti-terrorism strategy.” Of course, he neglected to add, “This message has been approved by foreign oil interests.”

We have no idea, at this point, whether Trump was aware that his underlings were passing drafts back and forth with foreign officials. But, for reasons that don’t require articulation, it’s safe to assume that Trump’s campaign staff had no reason to believe that the candidate would have objected to working with a foreign government.

There’s another delicious wrinkle to this story. The scandal has come to light thanks to the House Oversight Committee, the chairman of which is none other than Representative Elijah Cummings—the same man whose Maryland district Trump recently called a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” In hindsight, Trump may regret insulting the chairman of the House committee tasked with investigating his many misdeeds.

Tell Me a Story, Andy

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler touted the administration’s environmental record at the Monroe Energy oil refinery this week because, according to Wheeler, the refinery has “a good story to tell.”

Wheeler is sort of right—the Monroe refinery has a story to tell. It’s just that Wheeler leaves out the most important parts. Thankfully, the news outlet E&E fills in the blanks for us.

In 2012, Delta Air Lines bought an aging oil refinery on the shores of the Delaware River near Philadelphia. The company updated the plant so that it could process 185,000 barrels of oil per day, focusing primarily on jet fuel production. The Monroe refinery has filled a need for the airline.

But here comes the part Wheeler doesn’t like to talk about. The refinery has been out of compliance with the Clean Air Act in 11 of the past 12 quarters. In the past five years, the EPA has taken 20 informal and eight formal enforcement actions against the refinery. Over that same period, the plant has run up more than $650,000 in fines. The violations run the gamut, from neglecting to report releases of pollutants to failing to keep maintenance records to inappropriately handling pipeline inspections and repairs.

Under previous administrations, the Monroe refinery would be a cautionary tale about siting a source of dangerous pollutants along a river just a few miles from a major population center and failing to adequately control hazardous emissions such as hydrocarbons, hydrogen sulfide, and volatile organic compounds. For Wheeler, it’s a twisted story of triumph, because he isn’t focused in the least on his nominal job—enforcing environmental laws and protecting public health.

Where Does He Find These People?

If you’re a climate change denier or minimizer and you don’t have a job in the Trump administration, you need a better career coach. This week, the president continued his push to fill every federal position with someone who doesn’t understand climate science—or worse, just doesn’t care.

First up is Trump’s nomination of Texas Representative John Ratcliffe for director of national intelligence. Most of the press coverage of Ratcliffe has so far focused on his hyper-partisan rhetoric, which has even given Republicans pause. Leading the nation’s intelligence agencies was designed to be a nonpartisan role to ensure that the president gets the best intelligence, not just the intelligence he wants to hear.

Ratcliffe also has been consistently opposed to any measures to combat climate change. When the Trump administration announced last year that it would not enforce the Clean Power Plan, Ratcliffe congratulated the president for reversing “Obama’s radical agenda on climate change.” Ratcliffe also earned a score of zero from the League of Conservation Voters during his career in Congress. He hasn’t even accidentally cast a pro-environment vote.

This is a problem, because past intelligence directors have uniformly agreed that climate change is a major threat to national security. Climate change is already causing mass displacement, spurring migrations around the globe and raising security implications for the United States. Last year a Danish cargo ship completed the first trip through a new shipping route from Europe to Asia via the Russian Arctic, brought to us courtesy of global warming. Those new maritime passages could cause significant friction between countries as they compete for dominance in previously ice-locked stretches of sea. Climate change could also decrease agricultural output in already impoverished regions, presenting yet more security challenges as famine creates political instability.

This is just a small sampling of the ways climate change will impact national security in years to come. Appointing an intelligence director who doesn’t think climate change is a problem is crazy.

Speaking of crazy, William Perry Pendley has been appointed acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. In an administration full of, let’s say, colorful characters, Pendley stands out as particularly zany, but you can see how he landed his new gig. Pendley loves Twitter, race baiting, and climate change denial. Among Pendley’s tweet-zingers are “How many have died and how many more will die because of diversity and race-based decision making?” and (in an apparent homage to Wayne’s World) “#ClimateChangeIsReal NOT!”

But there are other traits that make Pendley particularly ill suited for his duties of managing government land for the BLM. For instance, he does not believe the federal government should own land in the West, and 99 percent of BLM land lies west of the Mississippi River. Maybe he’ll pull a Ron Swanson and refuse to do his job in protest. More likely, his hiring is just another attempt to dismantle the BLM from within.


Update: August 2, 2019: Shortly after the publication of this story, President Trump dropped his nomination of Texas Representative John Ratcliffe for director of national intelligence.

Demand Climate Action

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


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.

onEarth Story

President Trump revokes the Clean Water Rule and doubles down on his fake weather forecast, while the Bureau of Land Management hitches up its wagons to move west.

onEarth Story

The forced relocation of hundreds of staffers is seen by many as a precursor to the agency’s dissolution—and a sell-off of public lands to the states.

onEarth Story

If Scott Pruitt gets booted from his EPA post, his new deputy, a former coal-industry lobbyist, could take his place.

onEarth Story

Seriously. It’s asking American taxpayers to fund a 60-mile seawall along the refinery-heavy Texas Gulf Coast.

Former EPA administrators
Latest News

These environmental protectors of the Reagan and Bush eras have some things to say about the state of Trump’s EPA.

onEarth Story

The agency aims to stop citizens from challenging pollution permits—while continuing to allow challenges from polluters who want to pollute more.

onEarth Story

The White House is doing all it can to scrub any mention of global warming from government documents. But the Pentagon may end up pushing back.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.