Week 139: Trump Wants to Turn the Golden State a Hazy Shade of Gray

Plus, NOAA deletes important renewable energy research, and the border fence steamrolls a national monument.

September 20, 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 (Trump photo: Gage Skidmore)

Smog of War

Federal clean air standards are supposed to be a floor, not a ceiling, because when it comes to air, there’s no such thing as “too clean.” That’s why the 1970 Clean Air Act specifically permits California to enact air quality standards stricter than those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other states are able to follow California’s lead for their own air’s sake. This might be hard for younger readers to imagine, but Congress was once ambitious about environmental quality.

The Trump administration takes a different approach—the president thinks everyone should be stuck with the weaker standards that his administration is imposing. This week, Trump’s EPA announced that it will formally revoke California’s right to set its own air quality standards.

A series of scientific and political missteps brought President Trump to this ignominious decision. First he revoked President Obama’s automotive tailpipe emissions limits, despite having no plan whatsoever to replace them. Then, as carmakers themselves begged Trump to reverse course, and as government lawyers and scientists struggled for a legal justification for Trump’s rollback, the administration dithered for more than a year without offering its own standards. Finally, when California stepped into the breach, reaching a deal with automakers on emissions standards that were stricter than what Trump wanted, the president became “enraged” and started threatening his erstwhile car-manufacturing allies. To save face, he saw no choice but to rescind California’s right to its own pollution standards.

It’s worth reemphasizing that the EPA has been unable to formulate its own standards. In effect, Trump is saying to California, I don’t know what emissions standards should be, but yours are definitely wrong.

The move is also legally suspect, to put it mildly. There are specific circumstances under which the EPA may deny California’s right to enact its own emissions limits, but trying to save the president from a political humiliation is not among them.

Dude, Where’s My Research?

In 2016 a team of government scientists proposed a no-cost method, using currently available infrastructure, to reduce U.S. carbon emissions from electricity generation by almost 80 percent. The idea was to replace our regional grid system with a single national grid that would allow different parts of the country to share electricity produced by renewable sources such as solar and wind. The report solved the knotty problem of fluctuations in generation caused by changes in weather. With a single grid, high-energy wires could transport electricity from windy or sunny areas all over the country nearly instantly. It was basically a risk-spreading maneuver: While there are always some places that are neither sunny nor windy at any given moment, there is usually somewhere in the United States capable of producing renewable energy.

The study, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), mapped a path to 79 percent reliance on wind, solar, and nuclear energy, up from the country’s current 19 percent.

The big losers would be coal and natural gas—which is probably why the Trump administration deleted the study from government servers. Christopher Clack, one of the study’s authors (who no longer works for the government) noticed about a month ago that the study had vanished from NOAA’s website. He made the disappearance public late last week.

When Clack asked NOAA about the study’s removal, the agency said that it had deleted the study to free up resources. I somehow doubt that the agency responsible for the massively data-intensive job of tracking weather systems around the globe can’t spare the digital bandwidth required to host a single scientific paper and the supporting evidence on its website.

The far more reasonable explanation is that someone in the administration noticed that NOAA had published a road map for immediately and dramatically reducing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels. Most significantly, it could be done without costing any money, thereby undermining President Trump’s claims that a shift toward renewables would either bankrupt the nation or subject us to rolling blackouts.

Indeed, it has been a bad few weeks for science at NOAA.

Trump Makes His Mark on History—Ancient History

If President Trump were to list his priorities, I think it’s fair to say that “border wall” would be several spots above “archeological preservation.” So it’s little wonder that he has chosen to ignore a report from his own National Park Service warning that the breakneck pace of border fence construction in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument threatens 22 archaeological sites.

There is already a five-foot vehicle barrier running through the monument, but that’s not high enough for King Yertle. To satisfy Trump’s demand that a 30-foot steel fence be completed before election day next year, bulldozers and excavators are steaming across the sensitive terrain, trampling artifacts left by ancient Sonoran Desert peoples.

The National Park Service warned the administration of the risks in as 123-page report in July, but there is no indication that the administration has slowed or altered its construction practices in response. To the contrary, Trump has bragged about the speed of construction on Twitter.

The administration knew this project would imperil all kinds of sensitive lands, habitats, and artifacts, which is why it waived requirements that fall under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Endangered Species Act (since the fence also threatens the migration of imperiled species.)

I suppose the only thing that would give Trump pause would be if the border fence threatened something he actually cared about. His smartphone, perhaps?

Don't let Trump and the EPA undermine clean car standards

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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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