Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.
Not Quite Seeing the Light
President Trump pitched a new idea this week to get his border wall funded: cover it with solar panels. He reportedly told Republican legislators the wall could be 40 to 50 feet high—unlike “most walls,” which the president curiously estimates to be around 14 or 15 feet (!)—with solar panels that would generate enough electricity to pay for the project (which, by the way, would still be an offensive, un-American, ecological mess). Trump didn’t say whether he’d still try to send Mexico the bill for the solar wall, though we wouldn’t put it past him.
But wait, maybe this is a great political strategy. I think Trump should pitch renewable energy capacity for all his terrible ideas. All those new nuclear warheads? Equip them with tiny wind turbines so that they generate a little electricity on their way to destroying civilization as we know it.
The Boom Before the Spill
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is barely recognizable as a science and conservation agency under President Trump, proposed on Monday to allow seismic research off the Atlantic coast. “Seismic research” is a euphemism for firing incredibly loud air guns underwater to identify areas of seafloor where oil and gas might be hiding.
This proposal is wrongheaded for at least two reasons. First, seismic exploration is terrible for marine life, especially mammals. Imagine if someone blew an air horn in your ear every few seconds. But wait, it’s actually worse than that, because whales and other deep-ocean creatures rely on sound more than any of their other senses. It’s how they find food and mates and identify threats to their safety.
There’s ample research to show how stressful and dangerous this situation is for ocean life. The North Atlantic right whale, for example, has been pushed to the brink of extinction by a variety of human activities in its habitat. Blasting air guns drives them from their feeding grounds and disperses pods when they should be meeting and breeding. At just around 500 individuals, the population is teetering on the brink. A population decline of just 10 percent could drive reproduction to unsustainably low levels.
Even if you don’t care about whales (in which case you have no soul), there’s no good reason to allow oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic coast, because drilling for oil along the Atlantic coast is bad for humans. The coast supports 650,000 jobs and $44 billion in tourism, recreation, and fishing. The inevitable oil spill would threaten all of that economic activity, and we are still woefully unprepared for that kind of mess. For some reason, after the initial shock of an oil spill fades, industry manages to prevent the government from improving spill response. After the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, independent experts proposed a panoply of sensible reforms to offshore drilling regulation, but the government’s response was painfully slow and incomplete. In addition, federal caps on liability would protect oil companies from paying for more than a fraction of the damage they cause.
What Does the President Know and When Does He Know It?
The only good thing to come out of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement is that we’re finally finished with the will-he-or-won’t-he stories that dominated environmental news for nearly six months. That small consolation has been snuffed out, however, by a new series of stories attempting to divine whether the president accepts and/or understands climate change science. Trump surrogates fanned out across media channels last weekend trying not to answer this question.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, for example, refused to answer questions about Trump’s views on climate change science, which Pruitt called “an effort to get off the point.” Only in the wild world of the Trump administration could questions about climate change science be considered a red herring in the discussion of the Paris climate change agreement.
U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry agreed, telling reporters that asking about the president’s views on a policy is akin to “chasing a rabbit down a hole.”
Believe me, I don’t want to chase Trump down any kind of hole, but something tells me we have no choice. I assume Trump will soon let us know what he thinks about climate change—at least what he thinks right now, which could change at any moment—in a series of late-night tweets.
Trump Hearts Gag Orders
A top White House lawyer ordered executive branch agencies not to cooperate in oversight requests that come from Democrats, according to a story about a springtime meeting published this week in Politico. The accusation, if true, takes Washington to a new level of partisan bitterness. As any child of divorce will tell you, once they stop arguing, you know it’s over.
The Trump administration is reportedly concerned that responses to oversight requests could expose the president to attacks. In fairness, that’s true—but only because so many of Trump’s decisions are maddeningly irrational. Does the administration want to curtail criticism? Rather than giving the public the silent treatment, it could just do a better job.
Cooling to Budget Cuts
Rick Perry extolled the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories this week, calling them the main reason his job as energy secretary is “the coolest.” He also said that the people working at the DOE research labs are making a difference in the world.
President Trump doesn’t seem to agree. His budget proposes funding cuts of up to 17 percent to said laboratories, including reductions in renewable energy research.
In reference to the proposed cuts, Perry said, “Hopefully we will be able to make that argument to our friends in Congress that what DOE is involved with plays a vital role, not only in the security of America but the economic well-being of the country as we go forward.”
Well said, Rick Perry. (Never thought I’d write that.) But you don’t need to convince Congress; you need to convince your boss.
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.