Week 136: Trump Gives a Pass to One of the Nation’s Worst Polluters

Also, the self-styled environmentalist-in-chief skips a climate summit, and the EPA’s Science Advisory Board misses a big, big deadline.

August 30, 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 (Martin Lake power plant photo: Mario Villefuerte/Bloomberg via Getty)

Fuzzy Math, Hazy Air

If you want to see the practical difference in environmental stewardship between the Obama and Trump administrations, take a trip to Tatum, Texas. The small city in the eastern portion of the state is home to the Martin Lake coal plant.

In 2011 the Sierra Club used a combination of air quality monitors and modeling techniques recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to show that the coal plant was emitting so much sulfur dioxide that the surrounding areas were well outside the legal parameters for clean air. Concentrations of the pollutant, which inhibits lung function and contributes to heart disease, were in some cases double the levels prescribed by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. During the waning months of the Obama administration in 2016, the EPA reviewed and accepted the calculations, then gave the plant’s owner one year to develop a plan to reduce air pollution.

The company stalled. Over the past three years, the plant owner’s parent company, Vistra Energy, has spent well over $1 million on lobbying and begged the EPA to reconsider its case. The agency accommodated Vistra by declining to press the company or penalize its failure to improve. Earlier this month, the Sierra Club finally filed an intent to sue over the EPA’s inaction. Rather than enforce its initial order, the agency reversed its three-year-old finding of non-attainment of air quality standards and let the coal plant off the hook. The EPA now claims it shouldn’t have relied on Sierra Club’s modeling work, even though the models were done in accordance with the agency’s own recommended procedures.

According to the Sierra Club, the only new air quality data to emerge from the area since 2016 confirms that the plant continues to expose nearby residents to unhealthy air. The Martin Lake coal plant is now the single largest source of sulfur dioxide in the entire country.

It cost Trump nothing to do this favor for the owners of a coal plant. The cost will be borne entirely by the families surrounding the pollution-spewing behemoth, whose children will experience greater incidence of bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. Trump claims he’s ending the war on coal, but in fact he’s waging a new war on our health.

Even Big Polluters Say Trump Has Gone Too Far

The EPA this week announced a rule that would free oil and gas producers from the obligation to inspect for and repair leaks of methane, one of the world’s most potent and plentiful greenhouse gases. Even large fossil fuel companies, including Shell, Exxon Mobil, and BP America, have cautioned the EPA against this rollback, acknowledging that there must be some limit to allowable methane emissions.

As the New York Times points out, the move resembles the administration’s auto emissions standards rollback, another anti-environment, pro-pollution decision that even industry has opposed. In both cases, Trump’s sometime allies in industry are worried that the rollbacks might not survive legal challenges, leaving them in limbo for years. The methane rollback has an additional wrinkle: Natural gas producers have marketed their product as environmentally superior to coal, a publicity push they now stand to lose. If natural gas is constantly leaking into the atmosphere—as it did catastrophically in California in 2016—the case for natural gas as a bridge to renewables weakens considerably.

Broad majorities of Americans support tighter greenhouse gas limits, and even the largest polluters understand the value of environmental protections. Decisions like this raise questions about who, exactly, Trump thinks he is serving.

An Empty Chair at the Climate Summit

President Trump’s contempt for the environment shines especially brightly when he travels abroad. While every other leader at this week’s G7 conference in France was meeting to discuss climate change, Trump was nowhere to be found. When asked about the climate meeting, Trump told reporters, “We’re having it in a little while.” Informed by a journalistthat the meeting was already over, Trump had no response. His press secretary later claimed Trump couldn’t attend because he was in meetings with India and Germany, but that’s not possible because the leaders of both of those countries were at the climate meeting. Next excuse, please.

Trump went on to tell reporters that he considers himself an “environmentalist,” just before bragging about how much he’s doing to ensure that we extract and burn as much fossil fuel as possible. He even name-checked the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a treasured landscape that his administration is fighting to destroy on behalf of oil and gas interests.

The president bloviated about how he wants “the cleanest water on earth,” which is presumably intended to distinguish climate change—fake news, in Trump’s view—from “real” environmental issues like clean air and water. But even if you grant Trump this distinction, he’s not an environmentalist by any measure. Rolling back auto emissions standards and promoting coal combustion are incompatible with clean air and water.

There’s also the issue of the Amazon rainforest being ravaged by record-breaking fires. While other leaders were pressuring the Brazilian president to stop the conflagration of an ecosystem that’s considered to be the planet’s lungs, Trump shrugged off the matter. Instead, he took the opportunity to share his excitement over trade prospects between Brazil and the United States.

Science Delayed: Science Denied?

Back in June, the Trump administration’s effort to eliminate science from government decision making suffered a blow. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board roused itself from a long slumber and announced it would review some of the administration’s most controversial initiatives and publish its findings by the end of September. The decision to review rollbacks of auto emissions standards, mercury limits, and the use of scientific studies in new regulations surprised many onlookers, given that Trump’s handpicked board chair, Michael Honeycutt, has a history of relying on some very fringe science in his own government service. (Honeycutt once said that tightening ground-level ozone standards would increase pollution-related deaths, a grave misinterpretation of the data.)

But this week, hopes dimmed that the Science Advisory Board would save us from Trump’s worst decisions. Honeycutt announced that the results would not be announced until late October, potentially several weeks after the administration finalizes some of the rules being reviewed.

Honeycutt claims the review process is humming along splendidly, and his staff just needs a few extra weeks to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. But a fellow board member disputes that claim, telling E&E News that the postponement “seems to be intended to delay the public posting of information about weaknesses in the [administration’s] analysis and the rule until after the rule is finished.”

It’s also probably no coincidence that the terms of several board members appointed during the Obama administration will expire in early October. What a great convenience for Honeycutt: He’ll be able to brush their objections to whatever report he issues right under the proverbial rug.

Demand real leadership at the EPA

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.

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