I like to focus (de)regulation nation on the laws and policies that protect (or fail to protect) our health and the environment, not on the Trump administration’s infighting or intrigues.
But never say never, right? Because self-dealing and ethical lapses at the very top of the Environmental Protection Agency have become part of the Trump administration’s deregulatory story.
Developments are accelerating so fast that things are changing even as I type. So let’s get right down to this week’s bad, better, good and great in Trump-era environmental news:
The EPA has announced it’s reversing strict rules implemented by the Obama administration to make cars and trucks much more fuel-efficient, and as a result much less polluting.
The Obama-era fuel-efficiency rule was an important piece of national action on climate change, and gave automakers long runway for automakers to engineer it.
Aimed primarily at slashing heat-trapping tailpipe emissions, it mandated that new cars and trucks get an average of 54.5 miles per gallon of fuel by 2025, just about double the current miles-per-gallon rate.
The Obama EPA estimated that over their useful lifetimes, the vehicles built and sold under this standard would use much less fuel, and produce about 6 billion fewer tons of climate-heating carbon dioxide pollution, compared to the same number of cars and trucks built to meet the previous fuel-efficiency rule.
Rolling it back could undercut efforts to slash U.S. and global carbon pollution for decades.
Along with weakening the Obama-era fuel efficiency rules, the EPA will for the first time fight the “California waiver,” a 48-year old exemption written into the Clean Air Act that lets smog-prone California set tougher tailpipe pollution standards than the federal government’s. A dozen other states follow the California standard, collectively forming a third of the U.S. car market and afflicting around 130 million Americans with cleaner air than they would have had under most federal emissions standards.
The car industry didn’t argue much against the 2012 emissions rule, perhaps because some automakers had recently taken about $80 billion in federal bailout funds. Reports suggest the industry has been lobbying the Trump administration to roll it back, however.
"This is another step in the president's de-regulatory agenda,” said Pruitt at a Tuesday morning press conference. “The president has shown tremendous courage to say to the American people, ‘America is going to be put first.'”
The New York Times (on the pending battle between EPA and California)
The New York Times (on rollback of stricter tailpipe emissions regulations)
The Atlantic (from 2017, on signs that Pruitt was seeking ways to end the California waiver)
A group of Democratic senators, including California’s Kamala Harris and Diane Feinstein, has demanded that the EPA produce the evidence it used to justify weakening the fuel economy standard, along with a list of all meetings he has taken with the oil or auto industries.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt apparently had a sweetheart deal for rental of a Capitol Hill condo owned by the wife of energy industry lobbyist and fellow Oklahoman J. Steven Hart. Pruitt paid $50 per night that he was physically present in the condo during several months in 2017, and didn't have to pay for nights he spent elsewhere during the same period of time.
(By way of comparison, $50 would get the average traveler to D.C. a night in a hostel, while hotels in D.C. start at considerably higher rates, according to guidebook publisher Lonely Planet.)
Pruitt paid $6,100 to use the condo over six months, according to the EPA, while upscale one-bedroom apartments in the same area go for around $3,000 a month.
At the time Pruitt was using Hart’s wife’s condo:
Canadian energy firm Enbridge Inc. was lobbying for permission to expand its Alberta Clipper pipeline.
Hart's law firm represents Enbridge.
The EPA informed the State Department in March 2017 that it had no major environmental objections to the expansion, a big step forward for the plan.
The Obama EPA had sought to fine Enbridge $61 million for a 2010 pipeline failure that allowed hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil to flow into U.S. waterways including Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.
The EPA ethics office signed off on the condo arrangement, and there’s no evidence of an explicit quid pro quo arrangement between Pruitt and Hart’s firm, or any of the firm’s clients. But coming on top of an ongoing investigation into Pruitt’s excessive spending on taxpayer-funded travel, this latest round of embarrassing press has by some accounts angered the White House enough to consider firing him. Some D.C. insiders counter that Pruitt’s zeal for enacting Trump’s deregulatory agenda will keep him on the job.
But wait, there’s more: Scott Pruitt used a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act to give two favorite political appointees hefty salary increases. After the White House turned down his formal request for the raises, Pruitt found a means via a staffing provision in the act to hike senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt’s federal salary from $107,000 to $164,000; and scheduling director Millan Hupp’s pay from $86,460 to $114,590. “This whole thing has completely gutted any morale I had left to put up with this place,” says one agency staffer.
The Department of Interior appears to be dropping chief Ryan Zinke’s proposal to raise peak-season entrance fees from $25 to $70 for the most popular national parks.
The department was swayed by the more than 100,000 members of the public who spoke out against the hike in public comments.
A much more modest increase in fees is now on the table, which the agency says it needs to help pay for parks maintenance projects.
Critics, including major outdoor industry companies, have said that making it harder for people to access the national parks is not the way to fund the bulk of the Park Service’s massive repair backlog.
Philadelphia is spending billions on a massive infrastructure network to slash the how much untreated sewage flows into Delaware and Schuylkill rivers during heavy rainfall via combined sewer overflows. But it's not building new and bigger tunnels:
The fifth-largest city in the U.S. is laying in a “mosaic of green stormwater infrastructure” that range from old-fashioned rain barrels to water-absorbing rain gardens, tree pits, green roofs and urban wetlands.
Fully realized, this green stormwater infrastructure will replicate the area’s natural water features and be the largest of its kind in the country.
It is projected to cost billions less than what the city would spend to enlarge traditional underground sewers.