(de)regulation nation: a federal court speaks for the trees

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”


Welcome to (de)regulation nation, the newsletter tracking environmental news in the Trump era.

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Readers have told me that they would like some practical tips on how to solve environmental problems.

But I don’t endorse the “50 simple things you can do to save the Earth” mode of solving environmental problems. Systemic problems won’t be solved by random acts of goodwill by scattered individuals etc etc. Claiming otherwise, against the evidence, tends to guilt trip people into passivity or despair, in my experience.

Still, I empathize with the request. It can become disheartening to go about our highly consumption-driven daily lives as usual, while knowing what the science tells us about resource depletion, climate change, toxic pollution, and biodiversity loss. And truth to tell, I do do a few little things to try and live lighter on a stressed-out planet. Among them:

  • I knit some of my own clothes. It slows down my acquisitive impulses, and as a bonus, is scientifically proven to reduce free-floating anxiety.

  • I also buy used clothing rather than new when possible, since new clothing is a huge source of toxic pollution and water use. Often I turn to eBay as a good source of used or after-market clothes in excellent condition.

If this gives you your own ideas for how to rationalize the contradictions of daily life, I’d love to hear them!

Onward:

bad: Interior’s pro-industry bias endures despite ouster of its’ ethics-challenged chief

  • ICYMI: Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke resigned last week.

  • The White House had been after him for weeks to jump ship.

  • The reason? Interior’s ethics watchdog referred its investigation of Zinke’s “use of taxpayer resources to advance land developments” in a Montana real estate deal, one that would enrich himself and his wife directly, to the Justice Department for criminal investigation.

  • Along with ethics lapses rivaling those of former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, Zinke leaves behind the biggest reduction in national monuments boundaries in American history, surging oil and gas development across 17 million acres of public land, reduced agency funding, and overworked and demoralized career staff.

  • Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, is now acting chief of the agency.

  • D.C. insiders expect him to maintain Zinke’s pro-industry priorities, while avoiding his former boss’s grandstanding and ethics missteps.

  • According to a lawsuit filed by the environmental group Western Values Project, “many of the deputy secretary’s former clients began receiving sudden and dramatic windfalls only months after his swearing in.”

  • Bernhardt is also leading the agency’s attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

  • Read more about David Bernhardt in Bloomberg.

  • InsideClimate News describes Bernhardt as “the former fossil fuel lobbyist running Trump’s Interior Dept. behind the scenes.

  • The Washington Post reports that Bernhardt “walked into the No. 2 job at Interior with so many potential conflicts of interest he has to carry a small card listing them all.”

  • Read more about the criminal investigation of Zinke's land deal in HuffPost.

  • Zinke is taking his legal problems back to Montana with him, according to The New York Times.

also bad: The oil industry ran a stealth campaign to get rollbacks in car fuel efficiency standards, and succeeded. Read Hiroko Tabuchi’s groundbreaking investigation into the dark money driving Trump energy policies, in The New York Times.

better, sort of: Exxon is asking the Trump administration to regulate methane from gas and oil operations

  • The world’s biggest publicly held petrocorporation has sent a letter to the EPA, asking the agency to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas wells.

  • EPA has been working to roll back Obama-era rules that would force operators to sharply cut their methane spew, which contributes to climate change and can sicken nearby humans and wildlife.

  • Exxon’s request to EPA probably has a lot to do with enlightened self-interest:

    • Since smaller companies would likely find it harder to meet strong regulations than industry-dominant Exxon, sharp methane curbs could thin out the petro-giant’s competition.

    • Exxon also faces growing shareholder discontent over its slow reactions (or outright inaction) on climate change. According to As You Sow, a nonprofit that promotes shareholder activism on climate, Exxon’s ask to EPA “came two weeks after the company received a letter sent on behalf of 61 investors representing $1.9 trillion in assets under management [requesting that] ExxonMobil follow through on its commitment to advocate for sound methane policy.”

  • However its come about, slashing emissions of methane, a powerful heat-trapping gas, would be very good for the climate, human and environmental health.

  • Read more about Exxon’s request to EPA in Axios.

  • Read more about the shareholder activism on methane rules, as well as the letter sent to Exxon and dozens of other energy firms, at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

good from a certain point of view: Trump administration defends Obama-era ozone standard in court

  • The EPA this week defended a 2015 air quality regulation in federal court.

  • The Obama-era rule, the first revision to the ground-level ozone air quality standard since 2008, lowered the allowable level from 75 to 70 parts per billion.

  • But several Republican-led states as well as industry groups sued to block the change, and for the past year the Trump EPA seemed to be moving towards trying to roll it back. Environmental and public health advocates also sued, saying the rule wasn’t strong enough.

  • But government lawyers argued for the 2015 rule during a federal appeals court hearing in Washington, D.C.

  • Confusingly, ground-level ozone isn’t the same thing as the upper-atmospheric ozone layer that protects life on earth from solar UV radiation. It’s a mix of gases and tiny, tiny particles of burnt matter, created by burning fossil fuels. High levels of ground-level ozone are a leading cause of respiratory ailments like asthma, as well as heart disease.

  • At the hearing on Dec. 18, the three-judge panel seemed skeptical of industry’s arguments that EPA had not followed the law in setting the 70 ppb standard.

  • As for the greens’ case, one judge dug into “why the EPA didn’t follow some advice of its panel of external advisers” to set the level even lower with the Justice Dept. attorney representing EPA.

  • Read more about EPA’s day in court in The Hill.

  • E&E News also has a good write-up of the hearing.

  • The enviro-law nerds among us will enjoy this dense but informative take from last year on EPA’s legal moves in the case, in Lexology.

great: Quoting “The Lorax,” federal court blocks Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s planned route across a national forest in Virginia

  • The construction permit approved by the Trump administration would have allowed the 604-mile-long, $7 billion proposed underground pipeline to cross 21 miles of national forest, including a section of the Appalachian Trail.

  • But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond found that the U.S. Forest Service (part of the Department of Agriculture) “ignored federal law and its own agency rules in granting the permit, which will clear a 125[-square-mile] swath of habitat during construction and leave a 50-foot-wide lane in perpetuity for maintenance.”

  • The court’s ruling quoted a famous line from Dr. Seuss’ ecological fable, “The Lorax”:

We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.’ A thorough review of the record leads to the necessary conclusion that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources. This conclusion is particularly informed by the Forest Service’s serious environmental concerns that were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines.


Thanks for reading (de)regulation nation, a production of Brooklyn Radio Telegraph LLC.

This newsletter is written by me, Emily J Gertz. I’m an environmental journalist. Learn more about me and see some of my work at my web site.

This week’s quote is from “The Lorax,” natch.

If you’ve received (de)regulation nation from a friend and like it, please subscribe.

I welcome your feedback, questions, and story tips: emily@deregnation.com