(de)regulation nation: Trump takes a sledgehammer to expert advisory panels

"I find these days that a wistful form of time travel has become a persistent political theme, both on the right and on the left."

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

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The Trump administration this week finalized its rollback of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, in favor of its own coal-industry-friendly air pollution rules.

According to mainstream reporting as well as EPA’s own analyses, the plan’s “Affordable Clean Energy” moniker is on par with other Orwellian offerings from this administration, because the plan will do much less than the Clean Power Plan would have done to cut heat-trapping CO2 pollution (the leading driver of climate change), small particle pollution, and other toxic emanations from coal-fired power plants.

A coalition of 25-or-so Republican-led states and the coal industry sued to block Obama’s plan, which never went into effect.

Now, a coalition of Democrat-led states, cities, and communities, allied with environmental and public health groups, has formed to take this one to court.

More on that below, after a bad news item that the Trump team tried to bury on a Friday afternoon.


bad: Trump orders agencies to abolish hundreds of expert advisory panels

  • Late last Friday, the White House announced that President Trump has ordered agency chiefs to slash the number of expert committees advising federal agencies by a third.

  • Agencies must terminate “obsolete” panels or those with costs “excessive in relation to the benefits to the Federal Government,” by September 30, reads Trump’s Executive Order.

  • A White House spokesman told the AP that “the president believes it is time to once more review and eliminate ones that are not relevant and providing valuable services so that we are good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”

  • But the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science countered that “advisory committees help the government become better informed, and making smart decisions should not be seen as optional or dispensable.”

  • Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy criticized Trump’s order more directly to InsideClimate News, as “another extension of this administration’s attack on science, an attack on transparency, and an attack on anything that can get in the way of this administration doing what it wants to do without need for experts to intervene in any way.” 

  • McCarthy also told a reporter that “if we don’t continue to  have real scientists engaged” on federal climate policies in particular, it could cripple the nation’s responses to “what is the most significant public health and economic challenge of our time.”

  • The EPA under Trump has been steadily weakening the independence and involvement of its expert advisory panels.

also bad

EPA assistant administrator Bill Wehrum, the Trump administration’s top air pollution official, gave a presentation last year at a meeting of the Cooler Heads Coalition, according to emails that the Sierra Club obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request.

The Cooler Heads Coalition is an industry-funded non-profit umbrella for groups trading in climate science denial and opposition to regulating carbon emissions.

“It removes any illusion that the EPA is acting in good faith to ensure the public trust,” environmental sociologist Robert Brulle of Drexel Univ. told HuffPost, which reported on the emails.

U.S. air quality has gotten worse under Wehrum’s watch. The number of days with heavy air pollution in the U.S. have risen 15 percent since Trump took office, compared the 2013-2016 average, according to an analysis of EPA data by the AP.

better: the Trump administration’s expensive, dirty power plan is on its way to court

  • A multi-state coalition is vowing to take the Trump administration to court over it’s newly finalized “Affordable Clean Energy” rule, a replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

  • Connecticut “wasted no time” in declaring that it intends to sue to block the “Affordable Clean Energy” plan, reports the Connecticut Mirror.

  • Other states in the coalition include California, Illinois, Iowa, Oregon, Minnesota, and New York, according to Courthouse News.

  • “Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said his state bought in to Obama’s plan and was able to ditch coal and ramp up wind power generation,” Courthouse News notes. “In 2018, Miller said 34 percent of the state’s electricity came from wind farms. He says the state will fight Wednesday’s rule change and continue focusing on renewable energy.”

  • The Trump energy plan omits Obama-era mandates such as putting a price on CO2, or capturing it to keep it out of the atmosphere. But it does encourage “heat rate efficiency,” meaning that plants should aim to get more power from the same amount of fuel.

  • This would “lower the carbon intensity” of burning coal, reports Vox, and “could lead to a rebound effect where utilities end up burning more fuels like coal and natural gas” because of the improved cost-to-power ratio.

  • Recent research suggests that “the ACE rule would lead to 28 percent of the power plants modeled in the study to emit more carbon dioxide by 2030 compared to a scenario with no policy at all,” Vox notes.

  • The plan will also be expensive. “When benefits from the ACE rule’s modest cuts in ozone and particulate matter aren’t counted in its favor—something the Trump administration has advocated in other rules—the costs of the plan exceeded its benefits by as much as $980 million over 15 years,” reports E&E News, much more than implementing the Obama plan would have cost.

  • An EPA analysis also shows that there will be as many as 1,400 more early deaths a year from air pollution under the Trump plan, as The New York Times reported last August, along with “up to 15,000 new cases of upper respiratory problems, a rise in bronchitis, and tens of thousands of missed school days.”

looking for a legal eagle’s take on the Trump energy plan?

At the UCLA law blog Legal Planet, environmental law professor Nick Bryner explains in detail why “Affordable Clean Energy” is less an energy plan and more of a “legal defense maneuver.” Writes Bryner: “At first glance, the final rule has been carefully crafted in an attempt to avoid several glaring legal vulnerabilities of the rule, and to obscure the obvious inadequacy of the Administration’s response to climate change.”

good: bipartisan protests save a Forest Service job training program

great: scientists and communities unite to restore species-rich southeastern grasslands 

  • The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative is working to save and restore native grassland ecosystems in the North American coastal plain: a 1.13 million -square-kilometer (about 436,000 square miles) swath of the United States stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

  • Although only 10 percent of the region’s pre-Euro-colonial native prairies and savannas remain, “the remaining scraps include more grassland plants and animals than the Great Plains and Midwest combined.”

  • The SGI’s expanding network of volunteers and partner projects look for those scraps along roadsides, at the edges of farm fields, and in other isolated bits of the region.

  • Scientists recognized the North American coastal plain as a global biodiversity hotspot—a region with at least 1,500 endemic vascular plants and greater than 70 percent habitat loss—in 2016.

  • “In a world full of shattered grasslands — grassland is the largest and most threatened of the planet’s four major terrestrial biomes, as well as the largest in North America — SGI is ‘charting a new course for conservation in the 21stcentury,’” field botanist Dwayne Estes, the SGI’s director, tells a reporter.

 Read all about it at Yale360.

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

This newsletter is written by Emily J Gertz. I’m a veteran reporter who’s covered environment, climate, energy, and technology for HuffPost, Audubon, PopSci, The Guardian, Men’s Journal, Reveal, and many other publications. From 2014-2016 I was an associate editor of environment and wildlife news at Participant Media’s digital magazine, TakePart.com.

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 writer Zadie Smith, from a 2016 address she gave in Germany when she accepted the Welt-Literaturpreis literary award. Read more about it at Brain Pickings.