Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.
National Emergency! National Emergency!
President Trump is preparing to declare a national emergency. No, we’re not under attack. No, it’s not a natural disaster. The “national emergency” in question is—deep breath—the gradual, long-forecast evolution of our national electricity grid away from coal.
As natural gas and renewable energy output ramps up, coal and nuclear plants have lost market share in our national power portfolio. This is a problem for Trump, who campaigned on a promise to save the coal industry come hell or high water (and come they may, given the climate change implications of coal combustion). Late last week, the president directed the U.S. Department of Energy to use emergency powers to stop the retirement of economically noncompetitive coal-fired power plants.
Even politicians with little affinity for the environment are heaping scorn on Trump’s plan. Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, for example, describes the plan as “just another example of picking the winners and losers.”
The former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff, who is a Democrat but centrist enough to have been appointed to the commission by George W. Bush (also no great friend to the environment), calls the Trump plan “a Soviet-style system.”
Nora Brownell, another Bush-era FERC commissioner, is even less charitable. “The putrid fumes of the swamp are causing hallucinations,” she says of Trump’s plan. “They've tried everything else to help their friends. They are now subverting national security.”
Grid operators agree. The PJM Interconnect, the nation’s largest electricity market, where many of the coal plant retirements are happening, states in a press release, “There is no need for such drastic action.” The electricity behemoth says there is ample supply capacity in the system to shutter aging coal plants in an orderly manner.
President Trump and Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s plan to rescue these coal plants is patently unwise. The facilities pollute our environment and can’t compete with other energy generators. (If they could, they wouldn’t be retiring.) But it’s also worth noting that this is an abuse of power. The statute on which Trump and Perry rely is designed for emergencies. An emergency is something sudden, unforeseen, or dangerous. The retirement of coal plants is none of those things.
I Said What?
On the day last June when President Trump announced his plan to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, nine cabinet officials released statements praising the move. It was an odd show of support, considering that some of the officials, like the secretaries of education and labor, have virtually nothing to do with climate policy.
We learned this week that the Trump administration ordered those officials to praise the withdrawal, and some of them did so unknowingly. The office of U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, for example, appears to have released her statement without her explicit approval. And when a U.S. Department of Labor staffer received the order to laud the Paris withdrawal, she wondered in an email whether her boss, Secretary Alexander Acosta, even had an opinion on the subject. No matter—they all praised the president anyway. Because apparently that’s job number one in the Trump administration.
Pruitt Scandal Watch
It’s time again for our weekly Scott Pruitt scandal roundup. This week it emerged that the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directed a staffer to help him find a new apartment last summer, because the wife of a top energy lobbyist whose condo Pruitt had been renting at below-market rates was begging him to leave. (She reportedly had to change the locks to rid herself of Pruitt’s malign presence; if only we could do the same with the EPA’s front door.)
Using federal government employees to handle your personal affairs isn’t just disrespectful and icky, it’s also illegal. The Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch explicitly forbids such behavior. And asking a subordinate to manage your private business during her free time, as Pruitt reportedly did, is no defense, according to the standard, which states: “[D]irecting or coercing a subordinate to perform such activities during nonduty hours constitutes an improper use of public office for private gain.”
Is there a humiliating twist to this abuse of power? Why yes, yes, there is. Pruitt not only directed his staffer to apartment hunt but also asked her to find him a used mattress from a Trump hotel. In addition to the overall weirdness of the request, we have to ask ourselves why Pruitt is so hard-up for cash. If he can’t afford a mattress on a $200,000 salary, he shouldn’t be overseeing an agency with a $6 billion budget.
We also learned this week that Pruitt’s executive scheduler contacted the chairman and president of poultry peddler Chick-fil-A to discuss the possibility of Pruitt’s wife opening a franchise. Marlyn Pruitt never completed the franchise application, but Pruitt’s abuse of position still raised the ire of his biggest backer on the Hill. When informed of the Chick-fil-A story, snowball-throwing Senator James Inhofe commented dryly, “It is not going to help his career.”
Just three weeks after being sworn in as EPA administrator, Pruitt said on television, “I would not agree that [CO2 is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” That statement has come back to bite him. On Tuesday a federal judge ordered the EPA to produce the opposing body of science on which Pruitt’s statement relied.
The order comes as part of a Freedom of Information Act dispute between Pruitt’s EPA and the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. The group has demanded that the EPA produce data in support of Pruitt’s claim, while the agency denies that it has any responsibility to buttress the administrator’s science denial with evidence.
In siding with PEER, Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia noted, “Particularly troubling is the apparent premise of this agency challenge to the FOIA request, namely: that the evidentiary basis for a policy or factual statement by an agency head, including about the scientific factors contributing to climate change, is inherently unknowable.”
In other words, the courts intend to hold Pruitt accountable for the nonsense he spews on television. Good on you, judiciary branch.
The walls are closing in on Scott Pruitt. He is enveloped by scandals. Judges are questioning his openness and honesty. And his regulatory rollback agenda has broken on the rocky shores of judicial scrutiny. Can it be much longer until he’s gone? Stay tuned.
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.