(de)regulation nation: de-accountability at the EPA

"We are still America. We know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out."

Welcome to (de)regulation nation, the newsletter tracking bad, better, good, and great environmental news in the Trump era.

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I was so excited on Tuesday to announce my first appearance on the Drilled podcast, I neglected to mention that this week and next, (de)regulation nation is coming to you from Europe.

Right now I’m in the Karelia region of Finland, reporting on an amazing environmental restoration / re-wilding project. Next week I’ll be in Lausanne, Switzerland, to speak on a panel about “journalism in the age of populists and strongmen” at the World Conference of Science Journalists.

Onward:

bad: EPA drops a curtain on public transparency 

  • Political appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency now have expanded powers to prevent the public from learning how they spend money, use their time, and makes decisions on air, water, energy, and chemical regulations, reports The Hill,.

  • That’s because the EPA has revised how it handles Freedom of Information Act requests to let appointees review and to hold back any materials they don’t want released in response, and then effectively hide from the request-maker that the agency held them back.

  • Nerd note: In FOIA lingo this would fall under the rubric of a “no records response.”

  • “Lawyers outside the agency who specialize in FOIA requests say the ‘no records’ response could lead to a situation where records seekers are being told there are no documents meeting their search criteria,” reports the The Hill, “even if they were found by EPA staffers who handle FOIA requests, with those documents ultimately withheld by political appointees.”

  • Although the EPA denied this characterization of what’s it’s up to, the agency finalized this new rule without providing the public with any opportunities to comment on it, claiming that this legal requirement didn’t apply.

  • The Society of Environmental Journalists,** North America’s largest membership organization of environmental news professionals, charges that the Trump administration designed this new rule to hide political decisions from the public, and then unlawfully prevented the public from seeing and commenting on it before finalizing it.

  • SEJ has publicly called on the EPA to put this change on hold, and give the public its legally mandated opportunity to comment on this new freedom-of-information-request process before it’s finalized.

  • ”The only good news about this rule is that it is obviously and in-your-face illegal, and we will fight it tooth and nail,” a Sierra Club lawyer told CNN.

  • Sierra Club’s FOIA-enabled investigations into Scott Pruitt, Trump’s first EPA chief, helped reveal his abuses of his power and budget.

  • This isn’t the only new Trump administration move to keep the public in the dark on its environmental policies. 

  • Last week, CNN reported that the Interior Agency “has developed a second, undisclosed internal Freedom of Information Act review policy, which requires certain political appointees to sign off on documents before releasing them publicly.”

** Full disclosure: I’m a member of the SEJ board of directors, as well as our Freedom of Information Task Force.

better: Ag Department faces growing backlash for its ongoing wildlife slaughter

  • Over the past several decades, Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency has shot, trapped, and poisoned millions of wild animals in the name of protecting food production.

  • In 2018 alone, reports Pacific Standard magazine, “its trappers and field operatives killed more than 1.5 million native animals,” ranging from “roughly 515,000 red-winged black birds” to 68,000 coyotes, 22,500 beavers, and 1,000 bobcats, and more.

  • “This sort of killing is quite normal for Wildlife Services, an opaque bureaucracy that has proven remarkably immune to reform over the decades,” PS Mag reports.

  • But publicity around the 2017 poisoning of an Idaho teenager and his Labrador retriever by a Wildlife Services cyanide bombs has contributed to a growing public backlash against the policy.

  • (The dog died. The teen was injured and remains affected by “painful migraines and other maladies.”)

  • Oregon has now banned cyanide bombs, despite heavy opposition from the state’s own Big Ag sector.

  • In California, a series of lawsuits have forced some counties to stop working with Wildlife Services.

  • “Wildlife Services is also facing a relentless barrage of federal lawsuits” by wildlife advocates, Pacific Standard reports.

  • The Department of Agriculture continues to defend Wildlife Services, saying the agency works with state and local governments to “manage wildlife damage using the best available science”

  • Read the whole story at Pacific Standard.

good-ish: a top Trump environment appointee leaves the EPA

  • The news is breaking as I type on Wednesday: top EPA air official Bill Wehrum is leaving the Trump administration.

  • Wehrum led the Trump administration’s push to replace Obama-era air and climate policies the misleadingly-named “Affordable Clean Energy” plan, an industry-friendly replacement.

  • He has also reportedly been part of the administration’s effort to freeze federal tailpipe pollution standards, and end California’s authority to set its own tailpipe pollution caps.

  • After the Washington Post reported in February that Wehrum might be favoring former private sector colleagues and clients in his government role, House Democrats launched an ethics investigation.

  • But as of Wednesday afternoon, the EPA claims his exit is part of a longstanding plan, reports HuffPost. 

  • Wehrum worked at EPA for two years during the Bush administration, then spent about 10 years lobbying in DC for clients including the American Petroleum Institute (an oil industry trade association) and Koch Industries, before rejoining the agency under President Trump in 2017.

  • “As a corporate lawyer, William L. Wehrum worked for the better part of a decade to weaken air pollution rules,” The New York Times reported last year, “by fighting the Environmental Protection Agency in court on behalf of chemical manufacturers, refineries, oil drillers and coal-burning power plants.”

my hot takes:

  • Wehrum’s exit is “goodish” because it means one more ethically dubious environment official is out of the Trump administration.

  • Also: Finding a replacement official with Wehrum’s air policy expertise and inside-the-Beltway connections may be difficult his late in Trump’s term of office.

  • The lack of a permanent replacement might blunt some of the EPA’s deregulatory momentum in the short term.

  • Still, I don’t term Wehrum’s departure outright “good” news on protecting public health and the environment, because it won’t alter the administration’s fundamental de-regulatory agenda at EPA.

  • HuffPost reports that “Anne Idsal, the principal deputy assistant administrator for the air office, will take over for Wehrum in an acting role. Idsal, who took the job in late 2017, is a well-connected Republican operative from Texas who, like Wehrum,  questions the basic realities  of climate science.”

great: citizens pack a New York city council hearing on ramping up renewable energy

  • This week the New York City city council held a public hearing on solutions to the city and state’s climate policy puzzles, especially how to sharply decrease dependency on coal- or natural-gas-fired energy.

  • The turnout was great, as Anne Barnard of The New York Times tweet-reported from the scene: 

  • NYC civic participation for the win! (Full disclosure: I’m a native New Yorker.)

  • As I recapped recently in (de)regulation nation, New York City has set its own benchmarks for slashing heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollution before 2050, and the state legislature has now passed its own Green-New-Deal-like law.

  • The city council may begin by getting experts to study how to implement large-scale battery storage in NYC, install solar and geothermal at city-owned buildings, and increase geothermal energy use in individual districts, Gothamist reports.

  • Climate activists want the city council to “declare a climate emergency,” too, reports Gothamist — a rhetorical move that they believe would help galvanize public awareness and pressure on lawmakers to act.


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

This newsletter is written by me, Emily J Gertz. I’m a veteran environmental journalist and a graduate of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism ’s annual fellowship. You’ll find links to my past reporting and more biographical goodness at my website .

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This week’s quote is by Joy Harjo, from her poem “An American Sunrise.” This month Harjo was named the new poet laureate of the United States. She’s the first Native American to ever hold the post.