Week 134: Trump Will Save Endangered Species Only When It’s Cheap

Plus, Bernhardt tries to sink offshore wind, and our first-term president takes credit for building a plastics factory that was announced seven years ago.

August 16, 2019

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

A gray wolf in Denali National Park, Alaska

Patrick Endres/Alaska Stock via Alamy

Endangered $pecies Act

Scientists warned us three months ago that as many as one million species could face extinction as a result of human failures like habitat destruction, poaching, and climate change. It was a call to action. A rallying cry for all governments, businesses, and individuals to make a heroic effort to preserve the world’s disappearing biodiversity.

This week, the Trump administration responded . . . by gutting the nation’s most important species protection law.

Interior Secretary David Bernardt announced a raft of changes to the way the administration will implement the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Perhaps the most significant change is the introduction of economic considerations into decisions on whether to list species as threatened or endangered or not to list them at all.

This proposal flies in the face of both the text of the act and decades of bipartisan practice. Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has directed the Interior Department to make listing decisions based “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available . . . after conducting a review of the status of the species.” Congressional debates and contemporary understanding make clear that “commercial data” refers not to the economic costs of listing a species as endangered, but rather to wildlife trade data.

Since the very beginning of the ESA, Republican and Democratic administrations have agreed that money has no place in the decision-making around conservation. The original rules implementing the ESA explicitly forbade the Interior Department from considering the “possible economic or other impacts” of protecting a potentially endangered species. It is that language that the Trump administration is seeking to rescind.

Putting aside the fact that costs shouldn’t figure into the scientific determination of whether a species is at risk of extinction, the ESA already has a process in place for economic considerations: cost is one of the things the Fish and Wildlife Service takes into account when it develops plans to protect plants and animals that have already been deemed threatened or endangered.

When rolling back environmental protections, the Trump administration and its supporters claim they are correcting the self-indulgences of the Obama administration. (“The ESA under the Obama Administration looked less like a preservation plan and more like blatant government overreach,” wrote Oklahoma Congressman Markwayne Mullin.) The implication is that Obama was a radical, and Trump is returning us to normalcy.

Only a fool would fall for this misdirection. By introducing economics into the science of endangerment listings, the administration isn’t repealing an Obama policy; it’s rejecting the interpretation of the Endangered Species Act that has been settled since the Nixon administration. It is rejecting a bedrock, bipartisan understanding of the law. Trump isn’t issuing a correction, he’s rewriting the 45-year-old ESA to match his radical agenda.

Trump is also seeking to limit the time frames that scientists may consider in gauging a species’ survival prospects. This is a transparent bid to bar climate change from entering into the calculus. The worst effects of climate change will begin to snowball in a few decades, placing vast segments of global wildlife in mortal danger. Trump is directing scientists to close their eyes to this well-known potential calamity.

Administration officials like Bernhardt claim that their goal is “clear, consistent and efficient implementation” to strengthen the ESA. If you believe that, I’ve got some powdered unicorn horn I’d like to sell you. The voices in Congress that have called for these changes aren’t looking for clarity—they’re looking to kill the act.

“The ESA has had a poor track record in delisting species and has become an overly bureaucratic process that has created divisions in the West,” argues Congressman Russ Fulcher of Idaho, failing to explain how weakening the act will improve its track record in saving species.

“[T]he gray wolf needs to be delisted so our farmers can stop worrying about attacks on their cattle,” adds Representative Pete Stauber of Minnesota, letting slip that he and his ideological allies aren’t concerned about endangered species, but rather have misguided perceptions about ranchers’ profitability.

It’s impossible to take a former fossil fuel lobbyist like Bernhardt seriously when he claims to be concerned about strengthening the Endangered Species Act, and it gets even harder when his supporters in Congress don’t even pretend to care about preventing the extinction of the world’s wildlife.

What Happened to Energy Independence?

When many politicians say “energy,” they really mean “oil” or “coal.” They can usually get away with this little euphemism, because renewable energy remains a tiny contributor to the U.S. grid (with about an 11 percent share). But every now and then, renewable energy becomes a live political issue. At those moments, it becomes clear that “pro-energy” politicians aren’t really pro-energy, they’re just pro–fossil fuels. That’s what happened late last week, when the Interior Department put the brakes on a proposed massive wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts, a delay that could ultimately kill the project financially.

Cast your mind back to 2016, when candidate Donald Trump promised to make the United States energy independent and railed against “phony” environmental concerns that were derailing new energy projects.

The Vineyard Wind project is exactly the kind of endeavor that Trump should be supporting if he truly seeks energy independence for the United States. The Vineyard turbines would supply enough power for 400,000 homes, the equivalent of about one-sixth of the residents of Massachusetts, at affordable rates. The massive infrastructure project has also spurred similar plans up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Many analysts believe that if Vineyard Wind succeeds, northeastern states would transition rapidly toward renewable energy.

And that’s what this is really about—stopping renewable energy before it becomes an even bigger threat to coal, oil, and gas. Once there are wind farm towns full of wind farm workers, and once people grow accustomed to cheap and renewable power with virtually no carbon emissions, renewable energy will gain a political constituency to rival coal and oil.

Secretary Bernhardt’s stated rationale for stalling Vineyard Wind is that the folks at Interior need to “dot their i’s and cross their t’s” on the environmental reviews, to make sure that marine life is protected. But if you’ve read this far, you can probably figure out that Bernhardt hasn’t shown particular concern for the survival of species, marine or otherwise. The environmental review for Vineyard wind has been extensive. Presumably, the only i’s he’s dotting and the only t’s he’s crossing are in the phrase “kill wind projects.”

Shell Game

President Trump visited a nearly completed Royal Dutch Shell plastics factory this week and proclaimed, “This would have never happened without me and us.” Except that it would have, because the plant was announced back in 2012, when Barack Obama was president and Trump was merely a reality television star. It’s also worth noting that the plant will be a massive contributor to air pollution and will produce the very same plastic that Trump has committed to save us from.

This gets my vote for Trumpiest moment of the year.

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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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