Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.
See No Evil
According to documents reviewed by The New York Times, the Trump administration is on the verge of repealing two rules limiting the amount of methane that oil and gas wells can release into the atmosphere. Each year the industry emits approximately 3.5 million tons of methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases. But oil and gas companies have been complaining that the existing requirement to test their operations for leaks is burdensome and that the practice of methane flaring is necessary. A spokesperson for an industry group is calling the Trump proposals “neat.” At the risk of pedantry, I don’t agree that allowing companies to spew dangerous gas into our atmosphere is “neat.”
Pound for pound, methane has 30 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. It is clear, colorless, and odorless. But what if the gas were something we could see and smell—like oil?
The current annual tonnage of leaked methane is the equivalent by weight of more than 23 million barrels of oil. To put that into perspective, the Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled almost 5 million barrels. In terms of pure weight of pollutant, oil and gas wells are producing the equivalent of 5.75 Deepwater Horizons per year. If we could actually see the results, I doubt we would tolerate the industry’s complaints about being forced to keep track of their emissions.
You might say oil and methane releases aren’t the same thing, and you’d be right—to a point. Oil spills present a greater threat to our lives in the here-and-now. They upset the food supply, kill wildlife, and render coastlines unusable. But think about the long-term consequences of unchecked methane emissions: They would do all of the above plus bring superstorms, more frequent and intense heat waves, drought, and more.
Our relative indifference to methane spills shows how bad we are at conceptualizing things that are difficult to see, touch, and smell in the present moment. When oil spills, we convene a presidential commission, because it affects our lives in an easily recognizable way. When methane continuously spills, we shrug (and some people even call it “neat”). That’s embarrassing.
Hear No Good
President Trump is planning to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the most significant effort to reduce carbon pollution from power plants in order to help combat climate change. So of course the administration wants to make its case to Americans and hear our thoughts on a proposal that will affect all of our lives and those of our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on.
Well, if you want to participate in a public hearing, you better be willing to fly to Chicago in three weeks. Otherwise, you can stick your opinions where the sun doesn’t shine—which, incidentally, will be most places once Trump is done fouling the air. (Submitting a public comment is also an option.)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that it plans to hold only a single public hearing on its proposed Affordable Clean Energy rule, which is neither affordable nor clean. (By contrast, the Obama administration held four hearings when it was drafting and adopting the Clean Power Plan.) Were it not for the Clean Air Act’s requirement that a public hearing be held, one can only assume the administration would have skipped the hearing altogether and simply posted the new rule on the EPA’s front door, above a sign that says “Out to lunch.”
Follow the Money
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced late last week a plan to open 251,000 new acres of wildlife refuges to hunting and fishing. There are a couple of important points to consider regarding this move. First, before opening federal refuges to hunting and fishing, the administration must first determine that this will not negatively affect conservation efforts. Do you really trust Ryan Zinke, who has proposed to severely slash conservation budgets, to make that determination?
Second, in Zinke’s defense of the proposal, he claims, “Without hunters and anglers, we wouldn’t be able to conserve wildlife and habitat.” This is true to an extent—some hunting groups do conservation work—but suggesting that hunting licenses and fees are absolutely necessary for conservation is a stretch.
Those who argue that hunters pay disproportionately into our conservation system are cherry picking what funds to categorize as “conservation money” in an effort to inflate the hunters’ share. Various forms of federal funding support conservation, and a comprehensive view of those funds shows that hunters contribute only 6 percent of our total budget to support land and wildlife.
There is a legitimate debate to have over whether and how much hunting should occur on public lands. But the argument that hunters and fishermen should get maximum access to these lands because they’re paying the bills is exquisitely incorrect. In fact, all taxpayers are paying to maintain these lands—and those tax dollars are subsidizing the recreation of a relatively small number of people. Giving hunters extra weight in our conservation decisions is letting the tail wag the dog.
These Guys . . .
Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord in June 2017 was bad, but journalist Bob Woodward rubbed some salt in the wound this week. The longtime Washington Post reporter’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, details the early stages of the administration’s debate over whether to leave the landmark climate agreement.
According to the book, the decision appears to have started with an unscheduled meeting in April 2017 between then EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, and President Trump (with Trump aide Rob Porter looking on in surprise). Pruitt hands Trump a news release for the proposed withdrawal, which hadn’t been legally reviewed, while Bannon chants, “Yes, yes, yes.”
So the United States’ rejection of arguably the most consequential environmental agreement in history began with a meeting between a petty scandal merchant (who has since been fired), a professional race-baiter (who has since been fired), an accused domestic abuser (who has since been fired), and the man who famously believes climate change is a hoax perpetuated by China. We live in amazing times.
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.