Week 35: Trump Throws His Weight Behind the Valley Lateral Pipeline

FERC gets federalism wrong, Zinke gets monuments wrong, and Pruitt gets babysat.

September 22, 2017

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

Cuomo portrait: Mark A. Herman/MTA NYCT
Trump portrait: Gage Skidmore

3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . Pipeline!

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—under the stewardship of newly confirmed Trump appointee Neil Chatterjee—announced late last week that it would overrule New York’s decision to reject the construction of a proposed natural gas pipeline through the state’s Hudson River Valley. Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act requires projects that could potentially affect water quality to receive certifications from state governments, and last month the Cuomo administration exercised its authority under that law to block the Valley Lateral pipeline.

FERC claims it can override New York’s decision because the state took longer than a year to make it, but that story is incomplete. Although Millennium Pipeline Co. first submitted its application in November 2015, more than a year before its rejection, New York determined at the time that the company hadn’t provided enough information. Millennium didn’t submit a complete application until August 2016, giving the state until August 2017 to make its decision.

FERC justified its action by claiming that starting the clock in August 2016 would “allow state agencies to indefinitely delay proceedings by determining applications to be incomplete.”

This argument flies in the face of the facts. New York did not attempt to delay proceedings indefinitely—it asked for a single clarification, then made a decision. Moreover, FERC’s reasoning opens the door to companies purposely submitting incomplete applications in an attempt to run the state’s clock down. The agency didn’t bother to address this obvious problem in its announcement.

If you believe that states are in the best position to protect the environment, then you should love Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, because it puts states in control. The attempt to override this authority through a disputed scheduling technicality is an implicit admission that the Trump administration’s paeans to state authority are a smoke screen.

Get Off Your High Horse

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke insisted that his review of 27 national monuments was thorough and comprehensive. The Interior Department’s press release back in August called his assessment “extensive” and noted that Zinke held 60 meetings with more than 100 people, though most were politicians and fossil fuel executives. (Zinke also bragged at every opportunity that he rode horseback for parts of his tour out West. We get it: You can ride a horse. That doesn’t make you Teddy Roosevelt.)

However, after the inevitable leak of Zinke’s report this week, critics are claiming that the secretary got basic facts wrong. For example, he recommended altering the management plan for New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte National Monument to “prioritize public access . . . [and] traditional use,” which is a nice way of saying that the monument should be more open to cattle grazing. Zinke claimed that the monument’s current management has blocked off roads that ranchers once used to get their bovines on and off public land.

Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico is calling bullsh*t on this. According to staff at the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the monument, there have been no road closures that affect ranching. Which leads us to wonder how comprehensive Zinke’s review could have been if he didn’t even bother to confirm his facts with his own subordinates, the very people who carry out the management he wants to change.

Zinke also advised consulting with the Department of Homeland Security about the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument because it “abuts” the U.S.–Mexico border. This recommendation, however, comes with a but, because the meaning of abut, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to border on; to touch along an edge.” In fact, the monument does not abut the border. Rather, it ends five miles away, based on . . . wait for it . . . a previous recommendation of the Department of Homeland Security.

You can ride a horse, Secretary Zinke, but do you know how to use a phone? It seems like that would have cleared up a lot of your confusion.

Feeling Insecure, Scott?

I’ve written in the past about U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s unprecedented request for 24/7 personal security to protect him from his own aggrieved employees. Then I wrote about the cost of that security, more than $800,000 in the first quarter alone. It doesn’t take a PhD in mathematics to figure out that, without a major budget increase (haha), Pruitt’s security was going to divert resources from environmental protection.

“That will have a significant impact on the ability of EPA to enforce criminal regulations,” Fred Burnside, a former director of the EPA’s Department of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics, and Training, told E&E News when Pruitt originally made his request.

We now have confirmation that protecting Pruitt is hampering the EPA’s ability to carry out its mission. Michael Hubbard, who used to lead the agency’s Criminal Investigation Division office in Boston, told the Washington Post this week that enforcement agents from his old office, in Denver, and other regional offices have been rotated out of their normal duties to watch over Pruitt. Current EPA staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Hubbard’s account, and an internal June 17 memo from a security official acknowledged that guarding Pruitt is “pulling [criminal investigators] away from their core mission of investigating environmental crimes.”

Pruitt’s security detail includes 18 people, triple the number required by Obama-era administrator Gina McCarthy. It doesn’t help that Pruitt spends so much of his time traveling to and from Oklahoma, dragging his security entourage with him. Pruitt spent at least 43 of the 92 days between March and May in his home state.

Maybe the next time security officers accompany Pruitt to Oklahoma, they can just leave him there―saving the environment and money in one heroic Irish good-bye.

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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