(de)regulation nation: fringe science in the capitol

"I want you to panic."

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Penguin porn in honor of World Penguin Day. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Christopher Michel CC BY 2.0

If you need reminding why we need strong and enforced environmental regulations, based on solid science, read journalist Joshua Sharpe’s intense, gripping, and important account of the rare cancers that have struck family after family (including his own) in his hometown of Waycross, Georgia.

“The legacy of [toxic] contamination is hiding in plain site here,” Sharpe writes in Atlanta Magazine, “from the shuttered operations rusting on polluted land to the less visible, like the nearly 200 lawsuits by former railroad workers filling boxes at the clerk of court’s office. It’s also hidden from view, permeating the dirt silently—a few hundred feet from Lexi Crawford’s house.”

Georgia Health News offers additional perspective on the town’s cancer cases, and the efforts of a state public health commissioner to quash testing of toxic contamination linked to the illnesses.


bad: under Trump, the EPA is dismantling anti-air pollution regulations from the basic science upwards

  • This one’s kind of complicated, so bear with me.

  • In 2017, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt changed the rules for who would be appointed to the agency’s key scientific advisory board for air pollution, the CASAC (Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee).

  • Pruitt banned researchers who had received EPA grants from joining the panel, which allowed him to ditch most of the nation’s top experts on air pollution and public health from the CASAC.

  • Pruitt allowed researchers who receive funding from regulated industries to be on the CASAC, however.

  • He appointed as chair a Dr. Anthony Cox. Cox is a Denver-based risk analysis consultant whose clients have included both government agencies and parties from regulated industries, like the American Petroleum Institute (the flagship lobby group for the oil and gas industry), and the American Chemistry Council (the flagship lobby group for the chemical industry).

  • Cox has also done some work on pollution regulations for the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, a nonprofit think tank linked to ultra-conservative entities including the American Enterprise Institute, the Scaife Foundations, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

  • So call me shocked but not surprised that at the CASAC’s March 28 public meeting, Cox stated he was “‘actually appalled’ at the lack of scientific evidence” that tiny particle pollution created by burning oil, gas, and coal (called PM 2.5 in the lingo) harms human health, as reported NPR at the time.

  • Back in factland, there is firm consensus among experts worldwide that tiny particle pollution is a lethal and global environmental health problem. EPA says so itself on its own website, as Pacific Standard notes.

  • “During their 28 March [2019] meeting…CASAC members remained divided on the link between fine particle pollution and premature death,” reported Nature News.

  • The new head of EPA, Andrew Wheeler, last year disbanded entirely the agency’s expert panel on PM 2.5. Agency officials “declined to say why the EPA intends to stop convening the panel,” when asked by The New York Times.

  • Anthony Cox is “pushing a narrow statistical approach that would exclude most epidemiological studies from consideration by the EPA in reviews of clean air standards,” wrote John Balmes, a University of California professor of medicine and environmental health sciences, and former member of the CASAC, in an opinion essay for The New York Times.

  • This week, Cox and his committee sent their review of tiny particulate pollution threats to EPA Administrator Wheeler.

  • But the agency’s overall “legacy of scientific integrity has broken down under President Donald Trump,” writes Vijay Limaye, a former EPA PM 2.5 researcher who is now a fellow at the non-profit enviro group Natural Resources Defense Council.

  • The evidence Limaye and other experts helped gather points directly at making stronger anti-pollution moves on tiny particle spew. But, he writes, “Cox now argues through the CASAC that the exhaustive ISA [the scientific analysis of PM 2.5’s threats] does not follow ‘widely accepted scientific methods’ and does not comprehensively consider the available science on air pollution impacts on health. I know from my experience at EPA that this couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

  • In Anthony Cox, the Trump administration has elevated fringe science to the top echelons of our pollution regulatory process, and is using it to justify dismantling clean air and water protections.

  • There’s a glimmer that some of these moves are alienating even DJT’s most ardent supporters, however. Today “over 145,000 pro-life Christians from across the country—including over 94,000 from states that voted for President Trump,” called on his administration to leave in place strong mercury pollution standards enacted by President Obama, rules “that defend children in the womb.”

  • “Dismantling these protections is wrong, and it does not square with our faith or the faith of millions of pro-life Americans,” writes Rev. Mitchell C. Hescox for The Hill.

  • As the Washington Post reported in late 2016, “107,000 votes in three states effectively decided the election” for Trump.

better: federal judge rules that Trump’s coal leasing restart is illegal, but doesn’t outright stop it

  • When then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lifted the Obama-era moratorium (as reported in The Hill) on federal lands coal leasing in 2017 (along with ending the Obama-initiated review of the ever-below-market rates firms paid for coal leases), several states and enviro groups sued.

  • On April 22, a federal judge ruled in their favor, saying that Interior broke national law by not identifying the environmental impacts of lifting the moratorium.

  • Judge Brian Morris didn’t kabosh federal coal leasing, however. Rather, he has ordered the Trump administration to “negotiate a remedy with the environmentalists and blue states that brought the lawsuit,” according to Politico Morning Energy.

  • “Negotiate a remedy” probably means, do some degree of environmental impact study that satisfies the states and enviro groups.

  • If the sides can’t agree on just how much enviro impact analysis that is, which seems likely to Politico Morning Energy and to me as well, then the judge said he’ll ask for more information and consider additional actions.

  • This is just one of several recent legal reversals to hit Trump’s pro-fossil-energy policies, as I’ve noted in recent (de)regulation nations. So far federal judges have restored Obama’s withdrawal of the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas leasing, blocked oil and gas leasing in Wyoming (a decision on Obama-era leases that may affect Trump-era programs as well), blocked Trump’s attempt to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and reversed the administration’s permission for road-building in an Alaska wildlife refuge.

good: some federal land managers have continued to work on climate change despite Trump administration hostility

  • (de)regulation nation readers know how avidly Donald Trump and his political appointees have demolished Obama-era climate policy and practice reforms.

  • But, quietly, some employees of lands-management-related agencies "are continuing to take training courses in climate change mitigation, collect climate data, and participate in climate change and lands protection collaborations, among other efforts,” reports Bobby Magill in Bloomberg Environment.

  • Although hostility from above has chilled new projects, some ongoing programs “continue to move forward quietly underneath,” a source told Bloomberg, such as one continent-wide landscape conservation program that also includes parks officials in Mexico and Canada.

  • Federal public lands need to be part of any reality-based national climate action plan because

    1. They are a quarter of all U.S. land

    2. They provide habitat for plants and soils that soak up carbon, as well as

    3. Hundreds of plant and animal species (i.e., biodiversity) that are crucial to environmental health generally, and

    4. Are the generating stations for breathable air and drinkable water, as well as

    5. You get the idea. We need health public lands more than they need us.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is the first contender for her party’s presidential bid to tackle public lands questions head-on. In mid-April she pledged that as president, she would set a “total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases, including for drilling offshore and on public lands,” revive the Obama-era cap on methane pollution from oil and gas operations, and reinstate clean water rules dumped by the Trump administration.

also good

An important NASA earth science gadget will enter planetary orbit on April 26, reports Earther: the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3, which will collect data on carbon dioxide cycles in our atmosphere as well as other climate health/sickness indicators, from a perch on the International Space Station. The Trump White House attempted to kill OCO-3 twice by zeroing it out of the federal budget, but Congress declined to play along.

great: breakthrough new climate laws passed in New York City, Washington state

Lawmakers on opposite sides of the country approved a series of powerful anti-carbon bills in the past two weeks:

  • In Washington state, lawmakers set a 2025 deadline for Evergreen State utilities to remove all coal-fired power from their supply, and all natural gas-fired power by 2045.

  • The bill also “requires both electrical and gas utilities to include a social cost of carbon emissions as they plan for future [power generation] resources,” according to the The Seattle Times, which noted that coal and natural gas add up to about 26 percent of that state’s current power mix.

  • Washington legislators also passed a bill mandating the phase-out of hydrofluorocarbons, a class of powerfully heat-trapping gas used in industrial refrigeration, air conditioners, insulation, and fire-fighting foams.

  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) will likely point to these and other recent climate action bills in Washington state as he seeks to emerge from his party’s pack of presidential hopefuls as the climate candidate of 2020. Last week Inslee called for a climate-change only Democratic debate, as the Daily Beast reported.

In New York City, meanwhile:

  • The city council last week passed the “Climate Mobilization Act,” a collection of 10 bills aimed at slashing the city’s climate-heating pollution along the lines of targets set in the Paris Climate Agreement.

  • Most reporting has focused on the act’s chewy centerpiece: a carbon tax on the city’s fifty thousand largest buildings, which make up around 2 percent of the built environment but spew about half its heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollution.

  • (Bloomberg News bid for eyeballs with this headline: “NYC Climate Bill Targets Trump Tower, Other Skyscrapers.”)

  • These largest NYC buildings (with some carve-outs for non-profits, religious locations, hospitals, rent-controlled housing, and select others) must cut carbon pollution 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.

  • Older structures will have to retrofit to meet the mandate, while new construction will need to factor it into architectural plans and material choices.

  • As Popular Science lays out, buildings create about two-thirds of NYC’s total carbon pollution, so targeting them for aggressive retrofits (for old structures) or energy-sipping new construction makes strategic sense.

  • Even inside-the-industry supporters like The Architectural League of New York have copped that it’s going to cost lots—”billions,” according real estate industry types who talked to Crain’s New York Business. Even the most recently-built, extremely eco-sensitive skyscrapers face big retrofits to meet the law’s requirements.

  • Put another way, everything’s complicated. But this is a powerful and hopeful policy move by my hometown, one that’s likely to influence other megacities for the better.

  • Grist has the most detailed news rundown I’ve seen so far of “New York City’s Green New Deal,” which also includes a resolution opposing a fracked natural gas project called the Williams Pipeline, a green roof mandate, and more.

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. Learn more about me and see some of my work at my web site.

I love story tips. Send ‘em to: emily@deregnation.com

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This week’s quote is by Greta Thunberg, the teen activist from Sweden who’s sparked millions of children worldwide to go on school strikes for climate action. Thomas Gaulkin of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a fan.