Week 88: Trump’s Runaway Train of Deregulation

Oil trains won’t get better brakes, air conditioners won’t get safer chemicals, and children lose their EPA advocate.

September 28, 2018

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

Oil tanker cars burning after a major derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013

Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Bombs Away!

After several tragic rail accidents, the Obama administration adopted a rule in 2015 requiring trains carrying crude oil and ethanol to have modern braking systems. At the time, many people (like me) argued that the rules didn’t go far enough: The phase-in time was too long, putting the environment and people living near oil train routes in potential danger for years into the future.

For the Trump administration, though, it seems like every rule goes too far—by its mere existence. So, this week, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration rescinded the brake requirements.

Let’s be clear on what kind of trains we’re talking about. Oil trains can stretch more than a mile in length, with 100 cars full of extremely flammable crude. Many of those cars, by the way, were not designed to carry hazardous liquids and are susceptible to puncture. There’s a reason why critics call these rolling disasters “bomb trains.”

The worst oil train accident so far was the 2013 crash in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people and nearly destroyed the entire town. But oil train crashes happen all the time, and they’re always environmental and health disasters.

The 2015 brake standards would have shaved precious seconds off braking time, though industry groups argue that better brakes might not have prevented the most notorious accidents, like the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe. It’s an absurd argument. That better brakes prevent many crashes is self-evident. Why wait until we can prove that a new terrible disaster would have been preventable before doing what we can right now?

Speaking of absurd arguments, I’m getting pretty tired of hearing the following from industry groups: “We’re happy with getting a direction and some consistency with the regulation,” said Robert Benedict, senior director of petrochemicals, transportation and infrastructure at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. We already had direction and consistency with the oil train regulation. The rule was clear: Operators had to gradually upgrade their braking systems, with all of the antiquated brakes off the rails by 2034.

The only uncertainty came from industry groups lobbying and complaining about the rules until they finally got their way. “Regulatory uncertainty” is just industry code for “any rule we don’t like.”

Here’s something that is certain: The rescinding of the oil train brake rule will leave the environment and towns situated near oil routes vulnerable to more disasters.

Children’s Health Has Left the Building

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has placed the head of its Office of Children’s Health Protection on administrative leave. Ruth Etzel has worked in the field for 30 years, including a stint at the World Health Organization. In the absence of any explanation, the most reasonable assumption is that the agency doesn’t want a highly credentialed, experienced pediatrician and epidemiologist roaming around the halls advocating on behalf of children and babies. That sort of behavior is very off-putting when you’re rolling back rules against toxic chemicals and powerful greenhouse gases.

KXL Is Back (and Still Terrible)

Donald Trump’s State Department finished its environmental review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline this week, and it has decided the tar sands conduit would have “no significant direct, indirect or cumulative effects on the quality of the natural or human environments.”

This conclusion isn’t surprising, because Trump promised to approve the pipeline long before he had even considered the potential environmental impacts—and also because the administration is divorced from science, facts, and reality in general.

Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline

KXL would deliver Canadian tar sands crude, arguably the world’s most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, to American refineries. Because the pipeline would make transporting tar sands cheaper, it would help the dirty fuel displace less carbon-intensive energy sources.

You don’t have to be a Nobel laureate to understand how this simple chain of cause and effect would exacerbate global warming. But just to be sure, a group of Nobel laureates has explained it anyway. “You stand on the brink of making a choice that will define your legacy on one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced—climate change,” the 10 super-geniuses wrote in a 2014 letter to Obama, urging the United States to reject the pipeline.

That same year, more than 100 scientists also signed a letter opposing KXL. They wrote, “The Keystone XL pipeline will drive expansion of the energy-intensive strip-mining and drilling of tar sands from under Canada’s Boreal forest, increasing global carbon emissions. Keystone XL is a step in the wrong direction.”

The Trump administration doesn’t fret much about climate change, but it at least pretends to care about clean water, which KXL clearly threatens. The State Department review assures us that any spills could be easily and quickly cleaned up, but this flies in the face of the scientific evidence. In 2015, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine confirmed that tar sands spills are even harder to clean up than spills of conventional crude (which aren’t exactly machine washable themselves).

The good news is that, despite the State Department’s blessing, the Keystone XL pipeline remains tied up in legal battles in both Nebraska and federal courts. Stay tuned.

HFCs Are Back (and Still Terrible)

In a sign that the Trump administration is out of step even with Republicans on environmental issues, the EPA announced a plan to rescind a rule phasing out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, as refrigerants in appliances. Forecasting the administration’s plan to embrace these powerful greenhouse gases, a bipartisan group of senators proposed a bill in February specifically authorizing the EPA to regulate the chemical. Republican senator John Kennedy of Louisiana introduced the bill, and his fellow Republicans Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Maine’s Susan Collins signed on as cosponsors, along with three Democrats. The bill even attracted the support of industry groups, including chemical manufacturers. Eliminating HFCs is a bipartisan issue.

That wasn’t enough for Trump, whose contempt for climate change regulation seems to have no bounds. HFCs are extraordinarily potent greenhouse gases, with global-warming potentials as high as 10,000 times that of carbon dioxide. Research is already moving us toward refrigerants that work just as well as HFCs without the terrifying potential to destroy our climate. So . . . why are we keeping them around again?

Tell government and business leaders to keep stepping up climate action


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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