Week 87: You Don’t Want to Live Downwind with Trump Around

The EPA lets states pollute other states’ air, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline fails and fails again to follow the law, and Ryan Zinke actually says the government works for oil companies.

September 21, 2018

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

Excuse Me—Can You Put That Out?

Back in 2016, Maryland and Delaware asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect them from air pollution blowing in from neighboring states. The EPA ignored the requests, made under the Clean Air Act’s “good neighbor” provision, until a federal judge ordered the agency to at least come to a decision. This week, the EPA finally told Maryland and Delaware that it would do nothing to help them.

Anyone who remembers when restaurants had smoking and nonsmoking sections can easily understand this problem. Many establishments would pretend that a row of ferns magically prevented clouds of cigarette smoke from crossing between the two areas. In reality, anyone sitting within 25 feet of the smokers was getting the full smoking-section experience.

An astonishing 70 percent of Maryland’s air pollution originates in upwind states like Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. A large proportion of that pollution comes from 36 coal-fired units at 19 power plants, which have appropriate emissions controls but don’t always run them in an attempt to cut costs. All Maryland and Delaware were asking the EPA to do was force those power plant operators to use the pollution controls that were already installed.

This is not only an air quality issue for Maryland and Delaware. One-third of the nitrogen that winds up in the Chesapeake Bay drops into the water from the air, and power plant pollution is a major contributor. That nitrogen causes algal blooms that prevent sunlight from reaching the grasses growing on the bay floor that are the base of the local food chain. And when the algae die, their decomposition absorbs oxygen, creating dead zones where virtually no marine life can survive.

Air pollution acknowledges no borders, but the Trump administration certainly does (often in unfortunate ways). So why would its EPA allow certain states to damage the air, water, and economies of others?

Pipeline opponents at a meeting of Virginia’s State Water Control Board in August 2018

Joe Mahoney/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP

Thank You, Judge. May I Have Another?

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has announced its intention to restart construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, after a federal court ordered a stop to the project last month.

Pipelines are often messy affairs (even before they leak). Look, for example, at the on-again, off-again Keystone XL pipeline, in development for more than a decade but still lacking key permits. The Dakota Access pipeline was eventually completed, but only after law enforcement officials bombarded people with water cannons and rubber bullets.

The 600-mile-long Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would carry natural gas through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, crossing waterways hundreds of times, is weaving its own sad tale. In August, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the permit issued by the National Park Service for the pipeline to cross under the Blue Ridge Parkway, noting that the NPS hadn’t thoroughly considered the pipeline’s effect on endangered species such as Atlantic sturgeon.

“[T]he agency decision is not accompanied by any explanation, let alone a satisfactory one,” the court wrote. “We find this lack of explanation particularly troubling given the evidence in the record indicating that the presence of the pipeline is inconsistent with and in derogation of the purposes of the parkway and the park system.”

This slap-down by the Fourth Circuit was the second time the court had invalidated a key ACP permit. (Incidentally, the court also revoked permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, another ill-considered gas conduit proposed for the same region.)

Defending FERC’s decision to restart construction this week, a spokesperson for the pipeline’s builders said (not ironically), “The additional scrutiny we’ve recently received from the courts and the agencies are further evidence of the high standard that is being applied to the project.”

Come again? The courts provided “additional scrutiny” (twice) only because the builder and its allies in the government weren’t taking the review process seriously. That’s not evidence of high standards. It’s evidence of either stunning incompetence or abject disinterest.

It remains to be seen whether the appeals court will accept the government’s new permits, or if it will require “additional scrutiny.”

The Royal “You”?

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke swung by the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association’s fall meeting on Tuesday. According to the group’s Twitter account, the secretary said, “Our government should work for you, the #oilandgas industry.” (I assume he didn’t actually say “hashtag oil and gas industry,” but who knows—maybe he thought integrating hashtags into his oratory would ingratiate him to President Trump.)

Instead of later disavowing the comment, Secretary Zinke placed a cryptic spin on them, tweeting: “Government should work for you. Period.”

But here’s the thing about periods: They indicate the end of a sentence; they don’t resolve ambiguity. You need to add either some context or a few additional words to do that work. So perhaps Zinke should #explain whether he puts the oil and gas industry on the same plane as citizens of the republic when he says things like “Government should work for you.”

Tape Up the Leaks Then, Please

Also this week, Zinke’s Department of Interior finalized its long-rumored move to reverse a rule limiting methane leaks from oil and gas operations. I covered this incoming development in my last column but didn’t discuss the administration’s repeated references to the rollback as an effort to reduce “red tape.” That’s ludicrous. The rule requires fossil fuel companies to check for leaks of a potent greenhouse gas, which the industry currently emits at a rate of 3.5 million tons a year. Calling that “red tape” denigrates the humanity of people who currently live on the front lines of climate change and of future generations, who will all suffer if we continue to just let the gas spill.


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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