Week 89: If You’re Reading This, Ryan Zinke Probably Thinks You’re Un-American

Zinke doesn’t think Americans should cross state lines to protest, and the EPA leaves kids to fend for themselves.

October 05, 2018

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

Stars and Stripes and Pipes

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lashed out against anti-pipeline protesters late last week, calling the demonstrations “simply un-American.” His primary gripe seems to be that some protesters came from other states to block pipeline development in places like Pennsylvania, where he was speaking. The argument is clearly silly. Pipelines cross state borders, so protesters can, too. Zinke himself argues that the whole point of a natural gas pipeline is to bring the fuel to other states, proving that pipelines are demonstrably not a purely intrastate issue. Moreover, building out fossil fuel infrastructure for decades into the future exacerbates climate change, which is also not a local issue. Why shouldn’t Americans be entitled to protest the construction of pipelines wherever they wish?

But there’s a larger problem with Zinke’s comments. The Interior secretary calls things he doesn’t like un-American a lot. This is at least the fourth time he’s done it since taking office. In June 2017 he called compensatory mitigation—the rule requiring drillers to offset environmental damage with restoration projects in other locations—un-American. In January he lamented what he perceives as the politicization of national lands as un-American. In March he called long permitting processes un-American. There are probably more examples, but you get the idea.

Zinke seems to think of himself as Captain America and all his views as quintessentially American. Therefore, any point of view that differs is, by definition, un-American. It’s the height of arrogance. He doesn’t get to decide what is American.

Zinke isn’t the first politician to tar his opponents as unpatriotic, but I’ve never seen someone use this tactic over such ludicrously small disagreements. To suggest that thoroughly reviewing permit applications somehow contradicts our national principles is laughable. And protesters traveling across state lines to stand up for their beliefs is quintessentially American.

Seriously though, Secretary Zinke, stop wrapping yourself in the flag to insulate yourself from criticism. Some might call that kind of behavior . . . un-American.

Sink or Swim, Kids

As discussed last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency placed the director of its Office of Children’s Health Protection on administrative leave, suggesting that the Trump administration is taking steps toward shuttering the office. (The administration now claims that it is investigating allegations against the director, although it refuses to disclose any details.) In case last week’s personnel decision failed to drive home the point that the Trump administration just doesn’t really care about the safety of children, it emerged this week that the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs removed a paragraph about children’s health from a draft proposal on hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs—a powerful type of greenhouse gas.

“Certain populations and life stages, including children, the elderly and the poor, are most vulnerable to climate-related health effects,” the original document read. “Impacts to children are expected from heat waves, air pollution, infectious and waterborne illnesses, and mental health effects resulting from extreme weather events. In addition, children are among those especially susceptible to most allergic diseases, as well as health effects associated with heat waves, storms and floods.”

The passage was cut in its entirety. At any scientific or policy conference in the world, the deleted language would have been utterly noncontroversial, not even meriting any form of debate. I liken it to a physics policy document mentioning that gravity tends to draw objects toward the earth. But the climate change passage didn’t jibe with the administration’s head-in-the-sand approach to global warming, so out it went.

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler defended his agency’s child health policies in an appearance on Monday, claiming that the EPA holds health-based standards sacrosanct and that its deregulatory agenda is entirely separate. That’s nonsense. Rescinding rules that clean the air our children breathe and the water they drink cannot be segregated from a child health agenda. Pollution is hazardous to children’s health. I think I read that in a draft proposal once.

Climate change denial is one thing, but ignoring the government’s special responsibility to protect children from dangers brought upon them by decades of misguided energy policy is a new low.

Mercury Rising

Speaking of children’s health, the Trump administration has completed a proposal to dramatically weaken protections against mercury emissions. Mercury is a neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to fetuses and young children.

The central disagreement with regard to the mercury rule rollback revolves around the concept of co-benefits. That is, when assessing the costs and benefits of regulating a pollutant, must the government consider only the benefits associated with that particular pollutant? Or should it also consider other health benefits that the rule would bring, even if not directly related to the target pollutant? Reducing mercury emissions has a number of important side benefits, including lowering soot and nitrogen oxide pollution, which come with their own serious health impacts. The Trump administration insists that none of those benefits should count in the rule’s favor.

This is a hypocritical position, because when it comes to assessing the costs of a rule, the administration turns over every rock in the known universe looking for even the most attenuated societal damage. Take, for example, the decision to roll back the automotive fuel efficiency standards. The administration claimed that tightening standards would make cars more expensive, discouraging people from buying newer, safer cars, which would increase highway fatalities. It is an imaginative causal chain but one that lacks any credible analysis. Somehow the administration put on a straight face and used it to justify freezing efficiency standards for years to come.

Mercury is a potent poison in the brains of young children. Soot contains particulate matter linked to respiratory and cardiovascular disease as well as premature death. Nitrogen oxide exacerbates asthma, a condition that affects 8 percent of the U.S. population. If we could reduce all of those pollutants with a single regulation, why wouldn’t we?

Stop Ryan Zinke


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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