Week 99: Trump Waters Down Wetlands Protections

Plus, hawking coal at a climate summit and selling out polar bears to Big Oil.

December 14, 2018

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

Wetland photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS

Wetlands: From “No Net Loss” to “Pave It Over”

Wetlands protection became a national priority during the presidency of the recently deceased George H. W. Bush. The 41st president established a “no net loss” program, recognizing that all wetlands are vital to the larger ecosystem and should be preserved. So this week, when the Trump administration proposed to rescind clean water protections by replacing the Clean Water Rule, it wasn’t rolling back Obama-era rules, it was rolling us back into the last century.

First, another history lesson. The Clean Water Act of 1972 contains a significant vagueness: Its drafters decided that the statute should protect “waters of the United States,” but they didn’t say much about which waters that includes. As a result, the Clean Water Act stands as a sort of Rorschach test for how an administration thinks about the environment. Presidents who prioritize clean water interpret “waters” broadly. The first President Bush, for example, understood that because waterborne pollution is difficult to contain, polluting wetlands and streams in any place is a threat to clean water everywhere. President Obama also recognized this reality, ensuring that most wetlands and ephemeral streams received protection under the act.

President Trump likes to talk about clean water. In interviews, he demands “crystal clean water,” sometimes repeating that phrase to emphasize just how important clean water is to him. But, when confronted with a real test of his commitment to clean water, he takes a historically narrow view of the Clean Water Act. The Trump administration believes, for example, that wetlands should receive federal protection only if they are connected to a larger body of water via a surface artery. That’s absurd, because water doesn’t flow only on the surface. It can move through underground channels and via groundwater, transmitting industrial and other pollution into the waterways that lead to our taps.

Donald Trump has also portrayed President Obama’s Clean Water Rule as an attempt to control puddles and ditches. That’s a lie. The real debate is over how to treat massive swaths of wetlands. According to the administration’s own internal data, if Trump’s proposal becomes law, it would leave 51 percent of U.S. wetlands unprotected by the Clean Water Act.

But that’s a big “if.” Obama’s version of the Clean Water Rule is still tied up in litigation. And the Trump rule will become the subject of many lawsuits as well. There’s a long way to go.

Stop Trump’s assault on drinking water supplies

A Tangled Web of Industry Influence

As chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, Tony Cox will oversee a major review of national air quality standards. With advanced degrees from MIT and an undergraduate diploma from Harvard alongside decades consulting on environmental risk analysis, Cox’s credentials are outstanding. But his coziness with industry raises many red flags.

The most troubling example of this relationship was a paper on particulate matter pollution Cox published last year in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology. As the paper acknowledged, Cox allowed the American Petroleum Institute (API), the leading oil industry association, to review and comment on his work before publication. It’s common for a corporation or industry group to provide funding for a study, and the researcher must disclose this, but the disclosure almost always comes with a promise that the funder did not participate in the study’s design, analysis, or drafting. Allowing industry to review and comment on the results before publication is incredibly unusual.

It gets worse. Here’s what Cox wrote about the oil industry’s involvement in his research: “This paper benefited from close proof-reading and copy-editing suggestions from API, but these reviews and suggestions were provided for the author’s consideration without constraints that any of them be incorporated.”

This claim doesn’t pass the laugh test. (I LOL’d when I read it. I hope you did, too.) Why would a researcher open the door to allegations of ethical impropriety in exchange for nothing more than copyediting and proofreading? I’ve been writing for many years, and I can assure you that excellent copyeditors and proofreaders are available for a reasonable fee—and there’s no need to rely on the American Petroleum Institute for the service.

Further, why would any self-respecting research journal publish an article edited by a self-interested industry? It’s hard to say, but it’s worth noting that the editor of Critical Reviews in Toxicology, Roger O. McClellan, was the longtime president and chief executive officer of the Chemical Industry Institute of Technology, another industry-affiliated organization.

Hot Coal for Sale!

In Katowice, Poland, environment ministers from around the world are wrapping up their two-week meeting to determine the way forward on climate change, amid reports that the world is not on pace to meet the goals set at the Paris climate summit. How did the Trump administration behave at the meeting? By extolling the virtues of fossil fuels, like a cigarette hawker in a cancer ward.

“We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability,” insisted Wells Griffith, Trump’s international energy and climate adviser at a pro–fossil fuel event organized by the administration.

Easy for him to say. While Griffith got all high and mighty about the United States’ right to burn, baby, burn, Ralph Regenvanu, the foreign minister of the island nation of Vanuatu, reminded the world that sea level rise is slowly shrinking his country.

“Whether you welcome, or note, or shamefully ignore the science altogether, the fact remains that this is catastrophic for humanity,” said Regenvanu in a speech to the assembled officials.

One more thing about Griffith’s defense of fossil fuels: He suggests that we have to choose between sustainability and economic prosperity, and he chooses economic prosperity. But his framing of the issue is bogus. Sustainability concerns aren’t what’s killing coal in America. Coal simply isn’t financially competitive with lower-carbon energy sources. That’s why the administration has been trying desperately to prop up coal through government mandates and price supports.

In reality, the administration is faced with a choice between coal and economic prosperity, and it’s choosing coal.

Tell President Trump we demand immediate action on climate change

I Said What About Polar Bears?

Earlier this fall, while the Trump administration was planning to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sounded an alarm: there was no way to conduct exploratory seismic tests without jeopardizing the polar bear population and violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act. A four-page memo was circulated within the Trump administration (and you can probably guess where they filed it). Testing for oil deposits could begin as early as next month.

Well, that internal memo leaked this week, forcing the administration to minimize its significance. Even the author is trying to walk back his own warnings, clearly aware of the career implications of being pro–polar bear in a pro-oil administration.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


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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