Week 45: A Mountain of Resistance

EPA gets an earful in West Virginia, a Trump appointee has a lying problem, and Trump undoes lots of rules.

November 30, 2017

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

Can You Hear This, Scott Pruitt?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held a hearing this week on the fate of the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era regulation intended to limit carbon emissions from electricity generation. The agency intended to send a message by locating the hearing in Charleston, West Virginia, the historic center of American coal country.

It backfired. Although West Virginia’s economy has revolved around coal mining for decades, the crowd was still overwhelmingly in favor of the Clean Power Plan. Maybe there’s more support for a clean energy future in the Mountain State than Donald Trump realizes.

Stanley Sturgill, a former coal miner who now suffers from black lung disease, stole the spotlight. He argued that the Clean Power Plan is necessary to protect his children and grandchildren from diseases like the one that now afflicts him.

“Now, to be realistic, do I really think that the administration cares what this old worn coal miner has to say?” asked Sturgill. “I don’t know. I really doubt it. But I had to be here, and as long as I can draw a breath, I’m going to keep working to fight climate change and protect the land and country I love.”

Proponents of coal were there, of course, slinging the same nonsense as always. Cartoon villain Bob Murray, the owner Murray Energy, claimed that the Clean Power Plan would “devastate coal-fired electricity generation in America” and “impose massive costs on the power sector and on American consumers.” That’s completely untrue. Coal is steadily becoming America’s most expensive energy source, and a mountain of analyses have shown that the cost of reducing emissions from power plants—usually by reducing coal consumption—is dwindling to near negligible levels.

Patrick Morrisey, the West Virginia attorney general who questions climate change science, said that repealing the Clean Power Plan isn’t enough. He wants Congress to pass legislation barring the EPA from regulating how states generate electricity. In other words, he doesn’t want the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the environment.

Morrisey and Murray, however, were in the clear minority at the hearing. Climate change activists and advocates for the Clean Power Plan stayed long after the merchants of doubt had left the stage. When it was all over, Allan Tweddle, an 85-year-old engineer who tried to force EPA officials to look at photos of communities affected by climate change, summed it up nicely.

What a farce,” he said.

 Was he talking just about the hearing, or about Scott Pruitt’s leadership of the EPA?

Climate Liar

On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted to advance the nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, over the objection of more than 300 scientists who warned Congress that White isn’t merely unqualified but also dangerously dishonest.

“This is not a partisan issue; it is a matter of defending scientific integrity,” the scientists wrote, adding this killer line: “One thing more dangerous than climate change is lying.”

While it’s somewhat taboo to accuse a public figure of lying, some of White’s arguments for coal are so outlandish that even she can’t really believe them. She has, for example, attributed the downfall of slavery to fossil fuels. As head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, White allegedly underreported radiation levels in drinking water in certain parts of Texas, in flagrant violation of federal law.

Amanda Lynch, a Brown University climate scientist, decided to draft the scientists’ letter to Congress after watching White’s recent Senate testimony, in which she refused to answer questions about fundamental laws of science. For example, when asked whether seawater expands when heated, White replied, “I do not have any kind of expertise or even much layman study of the ocean dynamics and the climate change issues.”

It’s worth pausing to remember that White was testifying in support of her nomination to lead the White House’s environmental policy initiatives. How could she plead ignorance on climate change issues? Besides, knowing that matter expands when heated doesn’t require “expertise”—it’s part of a middle-school science education.

White’s proponents argue that the head of the Council on Environmental Quality needn’t be a scientist. And indeed, many people who held the position have not been scientists. But that’s not the problem here. White is willfully ignorant about issues she would be responsible for in this job. She doesn’t understand climate science or ocean acidification, for example, and she seems to wear her lack of interest in those critical concepts as a badge of honor. (“I have not read widely or deeply,” she told the Senate.)

Perhaps we don’t need a credentialed scientist in charge of the Council on Environmental Quality. But we need someone who cares enough to read a book or two.

Ruling Without Rules

In his first few months, President Trump withdrew more federal rules than any other president since recordkeeping began in 1995, according to an analysis by the consumer rights group Public Citizen.

Trump officials have characterized the rules as “ineffective, duplicative, and obsolete,” but this week’s analysis suggests otherwise. For example, the administration withdrew at least seven U.S. Food and Drug Administration anti-tobacco measures. President Trump also rescinded a mandate that same-sex spouses receive equal rights in Medicare facilities—a rule that might be required under recent Supreme Court precedent.

In the environmental realm, the administration withdrew standards that addressed unhealthy air pollution levels on a Utah reservation and limited methane emissions from oil and gas extraction facilities. The U.S. Department of the Interior rescinded approximately 40 rules that protected endangered species or their habitats, as well as one that protected coal miners from work-related injuries.

If you breathe, or if you enjoy stable climate patterns, these rules were not ineffective, duplicative, or obsolete.

Taxing the Wind

Clean energy groups sounded the alarm about the Senate’s tax bill on Wednesday. Wind and solar producers think the bill, as currently written, would impose a 100 percent tax on tax credits that promote the installation of new renewable energy facilities. Banks have signaled to clean energy companies that they may no longer provide the financing necessary to continue the expansion of wind and solar. (The House version of the tax bill is even worse, slashing the value of the tax credit.)

Republican legislators often rail against tax hikes, but apparently they’re not so concerned when the tax hike undermines energy progress.

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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