(de)regulation nation: selective shutdown staffing at Interior

"He had grown up in a country run by politicians who sent the pilots to man the bombers to kill the babies to make the world safe for children to grow up in."

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

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If you feel a slight twist of the gut reading these words, it might be because I’m writing this week from the belly of the beast: Washington, D.C. I’m here to attend the “2019 Journalist’s Guide to Energy and Environment,” an enviro-nerd-fest featuring a half-dozen of D.C.’s best policy and politics reporters (this year including the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, The New York Times’ Eric Lipton, and The Guardian’s Emily Holden).

This afternoon, starting at 3:00 p.m. ET, these and other expert truth-tellers of the Trump era will discuss what Congress and the White House are likely to do (or fail to do) over the coming year on regulations, science, climate denial, and enviro-related public health. If you’re local to D.C., there may still be a few open seats, so RSVP here. If you’d rather watch from your own comfy chair or couch, connect to the live web stream just before 3:00 p.m. ET on Friday.

Rolling back environmental protections, fulfilling industry’s deregulatory wish lists, wish lists, and severing good science from policy-making are among the few arenas where the Trump administration has proven itself effective. So it should be a super-interesting discussion.

Just fyi, this event is organized annually by the Society of Environmental Journalists, where I’m a longtime member and current board member.

This year’s panel will also feature an interview with Bill Wehrum, the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. As an industry lobbyist Wehrum fought the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. As a Trump appointee, he’s guided the administration’s re-write of that plan, which rolls back mandates to reduce climate-heating carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, and in the process allows a lot of other toxic spew into the air. As WIRED reported last year, the EPA itself estimates that by 2030, the air pollution allowed under this plan will cause an uptick of 470 to 1,400 premature deaths a year due to respiratory illnesses.

Will moderator Emily Holden hold Wehrun’s feet to the fire on these and other Trump rollbacks? Tune in to find out.

Onward:

bad: the shutdown’s environmental toll

  • The Trump administration continued to keep national parks open a month into the federal shutdown, an action that “has risked the safety of people and parks,” a national parks scholar writes in Slate Future Tense. By contrast, By contrast, during the 2013 shutdown Obama ordered all parks closed. Around 21,000 National Park Service employees have been furloughed by the shutdown.

  • The National Science Foundation has distributed $0 in research grants since Dec. 22, the day the federal shutdown began, compared to $127.3 million over the same span of days a year ago. Scientists report that they cannot hire research assistants, pay for ongoing work, or plan ahead for time-sensitive field work. “The impact on science is a slow strangling of the American scientific enterprise,” a science advocate told HuffPost.

  • House Democrats told Politico Pro ($) that the shutdown has been a distraction from focusing on developing bills to grapple with climate change.

  • I usually avoid links to raw politicking by lawmakers in (de)regulation nation. But an exception seems warranted for these tweets from the Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, highlighting news coverage of shutdown-driven lulls in environmental enforcement that have put the public’s safety and health at risk:

also bad

  • In late December this major investigation by The New York Times revealed how the Trump administration’s industry-friendly deregulation is sickening farmworkers in California, increasing heavy metal pollution of inland waters in West Virginia, and allowing polluters to spew more toxic air pollution in Virginia and North Dakota.

  • The federal government’s own Energy Information Agency reports this week that the U.S. is lagging far behind at slashing reliance on fossil fuels to power energy generation and transportation, as Utility Dive explains. Failure to cut carbon pollution from these sources will make climate change even worse.

  • E&E News reports that Trump’s climate change rollbacks, according to researchers across multiple disciplines, will intensify something he claims to care about stopping: flows of refugees from the global South to the North. DJT in 2017 nixed an Obama-era order for agencies to study and plan for climate change-driven mass migration.

  • President Trump may issue executive orders to push through pipeline projects opposed by states, along with other boosts for oil and gas, reports Politico

  • Scientists and beekeepers say a pesticide called dicamba is devastating wild plants that honeybees need for food, reports Reveal. Last fall the EPA extended its approval for the pesticide, claiming it wouldn’t harm bees or other pollinators.

  • The Pentagon’s latest report to Congress about the impacts of climate change on U.S. armed services largely failed to analyze the effects of climate change on U.S. armed services. JustSecurity pokes a sharpened pencil through the holes.

  • Civil fines for breaking environmental regulations fell 85 percent during the first two years of the Trump administration, reports the Washington Post. Compared to about $500 million a year for the two decades prior, Trump’s environmental enforcers collected just $75 million a year, according to the EPA’s own record-keeping.

better: more newborn right whales sighted off Florida

  • Last week I noted that whale researchers and fans had seen a North Atlantic right whale calf off the coast of Florida, the first known newborn in over a year to this critically endangered whale species.

  • Well, it’s gotten better: Now they’ve seen two more calfs, for a total of three newborns.

  • The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute photographed the third mother-calf pair via aerial survey on Jan. 17.

  • “It’s a spark of hope” for the species, whose numbers hover just above 400 individuals, a research scientist told the Daytona Beach News-Journal, although “not even quite to the point of guarded optimism.”

good: federal judge hoists Trump administration by its own petard on oil and gas permits

  • On Friday a federal judge blocked federal permitting for seismic testing off the Atlantic coast, as Reuters reported.

  • It was part of a decision to delay court proceedings on a lawsuit seeking to block the administration’s offshore drilling plans.

  • Federal Judge Richard Gergel of the U.S. District Court in South Carolina granted the delay at the request of the Justice Department, which argued it didn’t have the resources to respond to the suit during the federal shutdown.

  • But Gergel applied the same reasoning to the Interior department, ordering a stop to drilling-related work until all furloughed federal employees have returned to their jobs.

  • Interior had selectively recalled staffers during the shutdown to continue work on permitting for offshore seismic testing.

  • “It’s common sense that if the federal government is shut down and doesn’t have the resources to perform most of its normal functions then it doesn’t have the resources to start this proposed seismic testing offshore,” South Carolina Attorney General, a party to the suit, told a McClatchy papers reporter.

  • The Trump administration has green-lit seismic testing off several East Coast states, in waters on or near the migratory route of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

  • How does seismic testing affect whales and other marine life? “Imagine that some time mid-May, or maybe in June, there is a spaceship flying back and forth over western Long Island, all the boroughs of New York, and extending into New Jersey,” a bioacoustics expert told me in 2016 for a story at TakePart.com. “Every 10 seconds that spaceship sets off a massive explosion, and that extends all summer, about 300 feet above you.”

related good

A public employees advocacy group has filed a complaint against the Department of Interior, reports The Revelator. PEER charges that the agency broke the law by continuing to pay staffers tasked with advancing permits and planning for two favored stakeholders, oil and gas drillers and wildlife hunters. Those jobs were not covered by the shutdown law’s sole exception for who to pay during a shutdown: employees whose work involves protecting human life or property.

great: a “Trump bump” drives recognition that climate change is a real problem we need to solve

  • A record 48 percent of U.S. citizens surveyed say they believe climate change is a real and present problem in their own backyards, rather than a quandary for polar bears now, and no one else for decades to come.

  • “That is up 9 percentage points since last spring and double the response recorded for the same question in early 2010,” reports InsideClimate News.

  • Citizens “come to really expect real solutions to be put forward by our national and our community leaders” when concern about climate hits this level, said one researcher who worked on the survey.

  • Other survey findings:

    • 73 percent of adults surveyed say global warming is happening

    • 62 percent understand that human activities are the main driver of the warming

    • 69 percent are at least "somewhat worried" about climate change

  • “I’ve never seen jumps in some of the key indicators like this,” another survey researcher told The New York Times, adding that President Trump may be a factor in driving higher public recognition of the realities.

  • “Every time he talks about climate change he drives more media attention to the exact issue,” said the researcher, and “he tends to drive a majority of the country in the opposite direction.”

  • Go to the source: “Climate Change and the American Mind,” at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.


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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, on how living with political doublespeak creates a mild kind of insanity, is by novelist, author and poet Ursula K. Le Guin, who died one year ago this week. It’s from her 1971 novel, “The Lathe of Heaven.”

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