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Welcome to (de)regulation nation, the newsletter tracking environmental news in the Trump era.
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The Trump administration didn’t take much of a holiday break on environmental deregulation. It doesn’t look like the Trump-instigated shutdown of several federal agencies is slowing things down, either.
What the shutdown has accomplished is taking thousands of federal park and forest rangers, public health inspectors, environmental investigators, and regulatory enforcers off the job. The longer these federal workers are on furlough, the higher the chances rise of enduring damage to public lands, a food safety emergency, or a pollution crisis.
So, fair warning: There’s a lengthy section of bad in this week’s newsletter. But of course I’ve made sure to include the better and good news, and here’s a hint of the great news you can look forward to:
bad: oil leasing in the Arctic Refuge took a big step forward in December
On Dec. 20, the Department of Interior issued its draft report on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a virtually unspoiled 19 million-acre wilderness.
Interior took less than a year to create the study, which includes four proposals for leasing and development on the refuge’s 1.6 million-acre coastal plain.
The coastal plain is habitat for dozens of wildlife species and millions of animals, from polar bears and migratory birds to the Porcupine caribou herd.
The Gwich’in, an Indigenous people of Alaska and Canada who have relied on and revered the Porcupine caribou for millennia, are fighting the leasing and drilling efforts.
Results from seismic testing for oil and gas on the coastal plain in the mid-1980s have never been publicly released. But as The New York Times revealed last year via new photographs, a vast grid of decades-old track-marks from the vehicles is still visible today, and likely altering the fragile arctic environment.
Interior Department scientists warned colleagues last year that seismic testing for oil and gas deposits in the refuge would harm the area’s already-struggling polar bears, which are spending more time on the coastal plain as Arctic sea ice diminishes due to climate change.
The draft report, meanwhile, terms exploration and drilling for oil or gas in the refuge “potential indirect impacts of leasing,” because awarding a federal oil and gas lease “by itself...does not authorize any on the ground oil and gas activities.”
Despite the shutdown, Interior staffers are continuing to work on leasing seismic testing in the Arctic Refuge.
Find links to the report (the “Draft Coastal Plain Leasing Program EIS (Environmental Impact Study)” at https://www.blm.gov/programs/planning-and-nepa/plans-in-development/alaska/coastal-plain-eis
Interior’s Bureau of Land Management “has continued working on the Trump administration’s pro-drilling agenda…despite being shuttered,” reported the Anchorage Daily News on Monday.
The Washington Post gave a comprehensive overview of the report as well as reactions to it, along with the overall state of oil production on other federal land in northern Alaska.
The New York Times added more political context to the report’s release, noting for instance that “some personnel with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, [were] feeling marginalized as the Bureau of Land Management oversaw the process.”
House Democrats as well as environmentalists criticized the Trump administration for rushing out the study, as well as letting a former oil lobbyist manage the process, reported E&E News.
Someone leaked the memo containing the government scientists’ polar bear warning to Mother Jones, shortly before the environmental report came out in December.
Around the same time, 15 tribal nations (including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Navajo Nation, and the Lummi Nation) announced an alliance with the Gwich’in in opposition to energy testing or drilling in the refuge, as Earther reported.
“The Trump administration is working overtime to make sure the shutdown doesn’t halt oil drilling,” reports Bloomberg, “in ways critics say may flout federal law.”
With more than 13,000 Environmental Protection Agency staffers on furlough, environmental regulatory enforcement is at a standstill. “Many routine activities such as checks on regulated businesses, clean-ups of toxic superfund sites and the pursuit of criminal polluters have been paused since 28 December,” reports The Guardian.
With hundreds of FDA inspectors also idled, inspections of about 80 percent of the food supply have also sharply declined, as The Washington Post broke on Wednesday evening. “That puts our food supply at risk,” a regulatory expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. told The Post. “Regular inspections, which help stop foodborne illness before people get sick, are vital.”
The new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), told radio host Brian Lehrer that he won’t stop committee members from taking contributions by fossil fuel firms or other industries, despite the committee’s power over energy and climate policies.
Pallone took in $178,000 from energy and natural resource interests in the 2017-18 election cycle, according to Sludge.
better: federal court denies Trump administration’s move to delay children’s climate suit
A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court on Monday told the Trump administration that it has until Feb. 1 to file an opening brief in its appeal of the Juliana v. United States lawsuit.
The Trump administration argued for extending the deadline, citing the government shutdown as the reason.
A group of 21 children and youths brought the lawsuit in 2015.
They contend that the federal government has violated their Constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by continuing to promote the burning of fossil fuels for energy, which is worsening the effects of climate change.
A win for the government on this appeal would narrow the legal arguments available to the plaintiffs.
good: Supreme Court denies Exxon’s appeal in climate fraud investigation
In April, the highest court in Massachusetts told Exxon to hand over company records on what it knew about the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change, and when it knew it, to the state’s attorney general.
In September, Exxon appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.
The carbon major argued that because Exxon isn’t headquartered in her state, Mass. A.G. Healey didn’t have the legal authority to subpoena the records.
On Monday the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, which lets the lower court ruling stand.
Since 2016, Massachusetts has been investigating whether Exxon spent decades misleading investors and consumers on the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change.
If history is a guide, Exxon will look for other ways to delay producing the records.
Two 2015 news investigations spurred the Massachusetts investigation into Exxon’s alleged climate fraud, as well as a similar investigation by New York State. Both are worth your time:
great: one of the world’s most endangered whale species greets a newborn
The first North Atlantic right whale calf of the year has been seen off the Florida coast.
Whale advocates, scientists, and fans went wild at the sighting, because no new calves were seen last year.
They’re also excited that five of the six first whales seen off Florida this season appeared to be pregnant.
The nearly-newborn whale, about two weeks old, joins the ranks of one of the world’s most endangered whale species.
There are only around 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world.
North Atlantic right whales were nearly wiped out by commercial whaling, and have never fully recovered. Contemporary threats to the species’ survival include being hit and killed by vessels, getting tangled in fishing gear, and human-caused underwater noise from seismic surveys for oil and gas deposits below the seafloor, as well as ship noise.
bad: In December the Trump administration authorized seismic surveys within 200 miles of the U.S. Atlantic coastline from Delaware to Florida, right on the migration route for North Atlantic right whales.
better: On Monday the first Republican state attorney general joined a suit against the Trump administration, brought by a coalition of Democratic state attorneys and others, to block seismic surveys and energy drilling off the Atlantic coast.
good: On Monday nine Democratic state lawmakers from several coastal states (New Hampshire, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island) announced that they will work in the coming year on passing new laws to limit or ban offshore drilling.
“To have five out of the six first whales seen down here possibly being pregnant females, that’s very hopeful,” Julie Albert, coordinator of the right whale sighting hotline for the Marine Resources Council, told the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
The Orlando Sentinel also briefed readers on the calf sighting.
Charleston, S.C.’s The State reports on the lawsuit against the Trump administration’s decision to open about one thousand miles of Atlantic coastline to offshore drilling.
“It’s time to transition away from dirty fossil fuels to renewable energy,” Hawaii Sen. Mike Gabbard told the AP.
The photo up top, of the newborn Right Whale calf and its mother, is credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife and Conservation Commission.
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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.
This week’s quote comes from geographer Maria Caffrey, the author of a recent government report on climate-change-driven flooding in national parks.
As Elizabeth Shogren reports in the latest Reveal radio/podcast episode, Park Service officials pressured Caffrey to delete all mentions of “anthropogenic climate change” (meaning the human-caused heating of the climate and its effects on the environment) from her report, because it conflicted with Trump administration policies. “Maria Caffrey told me she was instructed that the Park Service works for Trump, and not the American people,” says Shogren.
I welcome your feedback, questions, and story tips: email@example.com