Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.
A Win! A Win!
In a week of big surprises and dramatic twists in Washington, D.C., the defeat of the Republican-led effort to repeal President Obama’s methane emissions rule went largely unnoticed. But don’t discount its significance.
Oil and gas producers often allow large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to escape from wells. Methane leaks are an obvious environmental concern, but when the well is on federal land, it’s also a fiscal issue, because taxpayers aren’t compensated for the methane that is lost. Between 2009 and 2015, the methane wasted on federal lands could have powered 6.2 million homes per year, and its escape cost taxpayers as much as $23 million annually. The Obama administration’s rule to limit such emissions would have kept 180,000 tons of methane out of the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking nearly every car in Kansas off the road.
The emissions rule benefits taxpayers and the environment, but because the oil industry didn’t like it, Trump and his allies in Congress fought to repeal it. The Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to revoke administrative rules up to 60 legislative days from their passage, was the administration’s last chance. For the first three months of the Trump era, legislators worked furiously to gather the necessary votes.
On Wednesday, they failed. Republican senators John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lindsey Graham joined every Democrat in rejecting the bill to repeal the methane rule. It’s not yet clear what motivated the trio to do the right thing. For now, let’s just accept this piece of good news. There’s still plenty to wring our hands about.
Show Her the Money
President Trump tried to eliminate the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in his budget proposal last month. ARPA-E, as it is known, was the brainchild of the National Academies of Science and modeled on the agency within the U.S. Department of Defense that brought us ideas like computer networking and GPS. George W. Bush signed ARPA-E into existence in 2007, and within its first decade, it made breakthroughs in biofuels, carbon capture, and energy storage technology. It’s exactly the kind of research initiative the government should be funding.
Trump’s justifications for abolishing ARPA-E were nutty and revealed the president’s ignorance of science funding. Trump argued that “the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research and development.” In fact, the government has historically funded approximately half of the basic science research conducted in the United States—and sometimes substantially more than that. Because attracting capital is difficult for ambitious ideas in their early stages—when research is simply too speculative, or too far from profitability—other investors aren’t interested. “ARPA-E does not compete at a stage at which the private sector does R&D,” explained Ellen Williams, the agency’s former director. Through ARPA-E, high-risk ideas are given a shot.
Congress, thankfully, declined to eliminate the agency. Reports suggest, however, that Trump has basically refused to accept Congress’s continued ARPA-E funding. According to Politico, the Energy Department has withheld funds for research that has already been approved—a move disruptive to both the research and university-based scientists, many of whom cobble together their salaries from a combination of research grants. To make matters worse, the DOE forbade its grant managers from communicating with researchers about the status of the promised funds.
The Energy Department claims there is no funding embargo, but some researchers are still unfunded and in the dark. This week, Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democratic congresswoman from Texas, waded into the controversy. Johnson wrote to the U.S. comptroller general, arguing that agencies cannot legally refuse to spend the money provided by Congress. Johnson is asking the comptroller to sue the DOE to force its hand.
Or the Energy Department could simply do its job and save the government the trouble of prosecuting a lawsuit against itself.
There’s the Door, Scientists
Speaking of hostility to researchers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fired a bunch of them this week for no apparent reason. The EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors reviews the work of agency scientists, and several of its 18 members were let go this week after being told weeks ago that they would be kept on. (The Board of Scientific Counselors is not to be confused with the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, the group of outside scientists tasked with providing sound science advice to the EPA administrator. It can be easy to confuse them, though, because the Trump administration is trying to destroy both. Trump’s budget proposed cutting Science Advisory Board funding by 84 percent.)
The administration didn’t even pretend the move had anything to do with scientific integrity. An EPA spokesman said the scientists might be replaced by representatives from industries the agency is supposed to be protecting us from. “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” he said.
For those who don’t speak Trump, please allow me to translate. “Understand” means “oppose,” “impact” means “limits,” and “regulated community” means “polluters.”
The smoke coming from the White House remains black, as there appears to be no decision on whether the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement. The most recent reports indicate the president will keep us waiting until after the next G7 meeting on May 26–27.
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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