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Lake Mead, which stores Colorado River water, shows a bath tub ring from low water levels. Photo credit: Bureau of Reclamation

Conservation group American Rivers released its annual "Most Endangered Rivers" list on Tuesday, highlighting how 2017 is a "critical year for rivers and clean water."

In the announcement of this year's top 10, the non-profit noted how the Trump administration's proposed budget cuts pose a threat to rivers and communities nationwide.

"President Trump has abandoned critical river protections including the Clean Water Rule, leaving small streams and wetlands—sources of drinking water for one in three Americans—vulnerable to harmful development and pollution," the organization stated.

According to the list, the Lower Colorado River—which runs through Arizona, Nevada and California—is the country's most endangered river.

Matt Rice, Colorado Basin director for American Rivers, told USA Today that "the Lower Colorado is the lifeblood of the region and grows food for Americans nationwide, but the river is at a breaking point."

The river provides drinking water for 30 million Americans, including those who live in major cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix, and helps grow 90 percent of the nation's winter vegetables.

Its main threats are water demand outstripping supply and climate change.

"Water is one of the most crucial conservation issues of our time," said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, in a statement. "The rivers Americans depend on for drinking water, jobs, food and quality of life are under attack from the Trump administration's rollbacks and proposed budget cuts."

"Americans must speak up and let their elected officials know that healthy rivers are essential to our families, our communities and our future," he continued. "We must take care of the rivers that take care of us."

The annual list was first created in 1984. The rivers are selected based upon the following criteria: A major decision (that the public can help influence) in the coming year on the proposed action; The significance of the river to human and natural communities; The magnitude of the threat to the river and associated communities, especially in light of a changing climate.

Here are America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2017 (via National Geographic):

1. Lower Colorado River, Arizona, California, Nevada

Threat: Water demand and climate change.

2. Bear River, California

Threat: new dam

3. South Fork Skykomish, Washington

Threat: new hydropower project

4. Mobile Bay Rivers, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi

Threat: poor water management

5. Rappahannock River, Virginia

Threat: fracking

6. Green-Toutle River, Washington

Threat: new mine

7. Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers, North Carolina

Threat: pollution from hog and chicken farms

8. Middle Fork Flathead River, Montana

Threat: oil transport by rail

9. Buffalo National River, Arkansas

Threat: pollution from massive hog farm

10: Menominee River, Michigan, Wisconsin

Threat: open pit sulfide mining

Politics
Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Photo credit: Flickr

A supervisor at the Department of Energy's Office of International Climate and Clean Energy told staff to stop using the phrases "climate change," "emissions reduction" and "Paris agreement" in any official written communications, according to POLITICO's sources.

The instructions were reportedly given at a Tuesday meeting held shortly after President Trump's latest controversial executive order that reversed Obama-era climate policies.

Senior officials apparently told DOE climate office staff that the climate-related words would cause a "visceral reaction" with Energy Sec. Rick Perry, his immediate staff and the department's White House advisers.

While a department spokeswoman denied any official language ban in the climate office or in the department as a whole, POLITICO's sources said that there is a general sense among DOE employees that such hot-button terms should be avoided in favor of words like "jobs" and "infrastructure" in light of the Trump administration's anti-environmental agenda.

Environmental groups have balked at POLITICO's report. The Sierra Club noted that the DOE only just emerged from a storm of controversy regarding climate change after its staff purge during the transition period.

"What exactly is this office supposed to call itself now? The international C****** office?" Sierra Club Climate policy director Liz Perera said. "Ignoring the climate crisis will not make it go away, will not create jobs in the booming clean energy economy, and will not make our country great."

"Rick Perry lied to Congress about climate science to get a job at an agency he wanted to eliminate, and he has started things off with a blatant dereliction of duty. The only place the climate is not changing is in the minds of those in the Trump administration," Perera added.

The former Texas governor told Congress during his confirmation hearing that "science tells us that the climate is changing, and that human activity, in some manner, impacts that change." In a 2011 presidential debate, Perry famously forgot the name of the agency he would abolish.

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Professor Stephen Hawking could one day realize his dream of space travel thanks to Virgin founder and space-enthusiast Richard Branson.

"I have already completed a zero gravity flight which allowed me to float weightless, but my ultimate ambition is to fly into space," Hawking told host Piers Morgan of "Good Morning Britain" on Monday. "I thought no one would take me but Richard Branson has offered me a seat on Virgin Galactic and I said yes immediately."

Branson's spaceflight company aims to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists. However, the venture has faced a number of delays, including a fatal explosion in 2007 during a ground test and test flight crash in 2014. (Might I suggest that if Branson cannot offer the stars to Hawking, maybe Elon Musk's SpaceX can?)

"My three children have brought me great joy—and I can tell you what will make me happy, to travel in space," Hawking said.

The 75-year-old theoretical physicist and cosmologist was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis lateral sclerosis (ALS) when he was 21.

Hawking actually wrote about Branson's offer in a 2016 article published in the Guardian:

"I believe in the possibility of commercial space travel—for exploration and for the preservation of humanity. I believe that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as a sudden nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers. I think the human race has no future if it doesn't go to space. We need to inspire the next generation to become engaged in space and in science in general, to ask questions: What will we find when we go to space? Is there alien life, or are we alone? What will a sunset on Mars look like?"

Also in the interview, Hawking discussed President Donald Trump and climate change.

The renowned scientist said that Trump's promise of the controversial border wall and the sanctioning of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines are designed to "satisfy [Trump's] electorate, who are neither liberal nor that well-informed."

Not only that, Hawking said that Trump should replace Scott Pruitt as the head of the U.S. Environment Protection Agency because he is "a man who does not believe that carbon dioxide causes climate change."

"Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it's one we can prevent," Hawking said. "It affects America badly, so tackling it should win votes for [Trump's] second term—God forbid."

Hawking commented that the current administration's seemingly anti-science agenda has made him feel unwelcome.

"I have many friends and colleagues [in the U.S.] and it is still a place I like and admire in many ways," he said, "but I fear that I may not be welcome."

Hawking has said similar remarks before. He called then-candidate Trump a "demagogue, who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator."

And during a lecture last year, he predicted that humanity has only 1,000 years left on Earth and we must find another planet to live on.

"[W]e must ... continue to go into space for the future of humanity," professor Hawking said. "I don't think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet."

Fracking
A fracking site in the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania. Photo credit: EcoFlight.

The Trump administration intends to scrap and rewrite an Obama-era rule designed to make fracking on federal lands safer.

Drilling has taken place on federal lands for years, with more than 100,000 wells in existence. In 2015, the Interior Dept. issued new standards aimed at making the process safer, including stricter and higher design standards for wells and waste fluid storage facilities to mitigate risks to air, water and wildlife. Companies would also be required to publicly disclose chemicals used in fracking.

However, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl blocked the Obama rule in June after accepting the argument from energy companies and several states that federal regulators lack congressional authority to set rules for fracking.

The Obama administration appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit, but the rule could be killed for good. The Trump administration said in court filings Wednesday it is withdrawing from the lawsuit.

Justice Dept. lawyers representing Interior and the Bureau of Land Management asked the court to "continue the oral argument and hold these appeals in abeyance pending a new rulemaking" on the issue.

"As part of this process, the Department has begun reviewing the 2015 Final Rule (and all guidance issued pursuant thereto) for consistency with the policies and priorities of the new Administration," the motion reads. "This initial review has revealed that the 2015 Final Rule does not reflect those policies and priorities."

A spokeswoman for Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke confirmed with the Associated Press that the administration intends to submit a new rule.

Neal Kirby of the Independent Petroleum Association of America praised the withdrawal of the rule, calling it "unnecessary, duplicative and would further drive away independent producers from federal lands."

"Every energy-producing area has different needs and requirements, which is why the states are far more effective at regulating hydraulic fracturing than the federal government," he said.

Many environmental advocates felt that the 2015 rule was already too lenient, but the Trump administration's latest action could be even more worrisome to fracking opponents.

"This disturbing decision highlights Trump's desire to leave our beautiful public lands utterly unprotected from oil industry exploitation," said Michael Saul, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Backing away from these modest rules is doubly dangerous given the administration's reckless plans to ramp up fracking and drilling on public lands across America."

Other environmental organizations spoke out against the announcement.

"Today's news demonstrates the degree to which Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration are in the pocket of the oil and gas industry," said Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman.

Earthworks policy director Lauren Page said: "By moving to overturn these common-sense protections, the Trump administration is positioning itself against the disclosure of toxic chemicals, protecting clean water and preserving our public land."

Groundwater contamination is one of the biggest concerns about unconventional oil and natural gas production. While the industry maintains the safety of the process, in December the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its highly anticipated final report identifying cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.

The disposal of fracking wastewater into underground wells has also been linked to the alarming increase in seismic activity in states such as Oklahoma and Kansas.

"With [Wednesday's] decision, Trump is making it clear that he thinks we need more fracking operations contaminating our drinking water, causing earthquakes and polluting our environment, not less," Sierra Club Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign director Lena Moffitt said. "The Sierra Club will continue to defend this rule, ensuring that our publicly-owned lands remain protected from fracking and Donald Trump."

President Trump has plans to open up federal lands for more energy development. As a candidate, Trump campaigned on a promise to "unleash America's $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, plus hundreds of years in clean coal reserves."

He accused President Obama of "denying millions of Americans access to the energy wealth sitting under our feet" by restricting leasing and banning new coal extraction.

Incidentally, the actions of the current administration go against the sentiments of the majority of Americans, who are opposed to fracking and drilling of public lands, according to a new Gallup poll.

The poll, released on Tuesday, determined that 53 percent of Americans oppose fracking as a means of increasing the production of natural gas and oil in the U.S. Only 46 percent support for opening up federal lands for oil exploration, compared to 65 percent who favored it in 2014.

"Americans Tilt Toward Protecting Environment, Alternative Fuels"Gallup

The Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans support spending more government money on energy alternatives such as solar and wind power. About two-thirds of Americans favor more strongly enforcing federal environmental regulations and setting higher emissions standards for business and energy.

Public opposition to fracking has grown in recent years, as counties and cities across the country are passing resolutions and ordinances to ban the practice.

Even states are getting behind the action. The Maryland House of Delegates passed a milestone bill earlier this month that would ban fracking statewide.

Fracking opponents are now urging the Maryland Senate to pass the same legislation. On Thursday morning, a group of protesters‚ including including faith leaders and western Maryland residents, barred the entrance to the State House in a peaceful act of civil disobedience. Thirteen were arrested.

"As stewards of God's creation, United Methodists are opposed to hydraulic fracturing because of the serious consequences for the environment, including damage to water and geological stability," said Rev. Julie Wilson, chair for the Board of Church and Society for the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. "We support a ban on fracking."

Garrett County in western Maryland is likely to be the first area targeted if fracking is allowed. The demonstrators say that fracking would threaten the area's local economy, which relies heavily on tourism and agriculture.

"Western Maryland would be targeted first by fracking, and western Marylanders overwhelmingly know that we can never allow it to take place," said Ann Bristow, Garrett County resident and member of Gov. O'Malley's Marcellus shale advisory commission.

"The more we learn about fracking, the more we know we need a ban. Our water, health and climate are far more important than short term gain for the natural gas industry. Once free of worrying about fracking in Maryland, we can all turn our attention to a renewable and sustainable future."

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By Alexandra Rosenmann

American astrophysicist, celebrated author and director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York's Natural History Museum, Neil deGrasse Tyson, joined Stephen Colbert on Tuesday night. DeGrasse Tyson weighed in on claims made by Trump's new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head.

Scott Pruitt "said he does not believe CO2 is the control knob for climate change," Colbert reminded his guest. "What is the present consensus of CO2 and climate change?"

"It's a greenhouse gas," deGrasse Tyson answered.

"People just talk," he continued. "I can't chase what people say because it flutters with the breeze."

DeGrasse Tyson warned that if Pruitt "puts down some legislation that requires that everyone [must go along with his beliefs], oh! Oh, my God! Hold me back!" he exclaimed.

"I'll hold you back," Colbert offered. "He's going to blow," he told the audience. "He's a crystal geyser!"

Watch here:

Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.

Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel at Our Children's Trust, stands with some of the youth plaintiffs from the landmark lawsuit Juliana v. United States. Photo credit: Robin Loznak

The Trump administration filed a motion Tuesday seeking an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on a federal judge's Nov. 10, 2016 order in Juliana v. United States. The Trump administration also filed a motion to delay trial preparation until after its appeal is considered.

Further, the Trump administration asked for expedited review of both motions, arguing the plaintiffs' Jan. 24 letter requesting the government to retain records relating to climate change and communications between the government and the fossil fuel industry was overly burdensome. The excerpt from the government's stay motion said:

"Plaintiffs … intend to seek discovery relating to virtually all of the federal government's activities relating to control of CO2 emissions ... Compounding the United States' burdens, Plaintiffs have indicated that their intended discovery has a temporal scope of more than sixty years ... Absent relief, there will most certainly be depositions of federal government fact witnesses ... that will explore the extraordinarily broad topic of climate change and the federal government's putative knowledge over the past seven decades."

Yet, in another complex case regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and BP, the U.S. produced more than 17 million pages of documents from April to September of 2011. Plaintiffs maintain that their requests are limited, reasonable and aimed at getting to trial this fall.

Appeals typically do not occur until a trial court has issued final rulings following the presentation of evidence, but the Trump administration is asking federal Magistrate Judge Coffin to exercise his discretion to allow the case to proceed to the Court of Appeals before final judgment.

Attorneys representing fossil fuel industry defendants are expected to file papers supporting the government's motions on Friday.

"The Trump administration argues that this is a big case and so the burdens of preserving government documents warrant an expedited review," Julia Olson, plaintiffs' counsel and executive director of Our Children's Trust, said. "They're right. It is a big case. We have a classic example of the government's misplaced priorities: They prefer to minimize their procedural obligations of not destroying government documents over the urgency of not destroying our climate system for our youth plaintiffs and all future generations?"

In the government's answer to the youth plaintiffs' complaint, they admitted that "the use of fossil fuels is a major source of [carbon dioxide] emissions, placing our nation on an increasingly costly, insecure and environmentally dangerous path."

The case was brought by 21 young plaintiffs who argue that their constitutional and public trust rights are being violated by the government's creation of climate danger. Judge Ann Aiken's November order denied motions to dismiss brought by both the Obama administration and fossil fuel industry defendants.

"This request for appeal is an attempt to cover up the federal government's long-running collusion with the fossil fuel industry," Alex Loznak, 20-year-old plaintiff and Columbia University student, said. "My generation cannot wait for the truth to be revealed. These documents must be uncovered with all deliberate speed, so that our trial can force federal action on climate change."

Other pre-trial developments

  • During Wednesday's telephonic case management conference between attorneys for the parties and Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) took the view that the Trump administration, will have the opportunity to use executive privilege to prevent the release of evidence in the possession of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
  • DOJ attorneys said they recently informed the White House that NARA was in the process of gathering documents requested by the plaintiffs. It is the DOJ's view that former Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, will have the opportunity to bar release of the records of their respective administrations, but President Trump will ultimately have the authority to bar release of any and all NARA records.
  • The next Juliana v. United States case management conference with Judge Coffin is scheduled for April 7 and will be telephonic.
  • Attorneys for youth plaintiffs are in the process of compiling a list of prospective witnesses to be deposed, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and expect to provide that list to defendants next week.

Juliana v. United States is one of many related legal actions brought by youth in several states and countries, all supported by Our Children's Trust, seeking science-based action by governments to stabilize the climate system.

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Politics

The Oklahoma County Court on Thursday found Trump's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nominee Scott Pruitt in violation of the state's Open Records Act. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) filed a lawsuit against Pruitt for improperly withholding public records and the court ordered his office to release thousands of emails in a matter of days.

In her ruling, Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons slammed the Attorney General's office for its "abject failure" to abide by the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

The judge gave Pruitt's office until Tuesday, Feb. 21, to turn over more than 2,500 emails it withheld from CMD's January 2015 records request and just 10 days to turn over an undetermined number of documents responsive to CMD's five additional open records requests outstanding between November 2015 and August 2016.

Thursday's expedited hearing was granted after CMD, represented by Robert Nelon of Hall Estill and the ACLU of Oklahoma, filed a lawsuit that has driven unprecedented attention to Pruitt's failure to disclose his deep ties to fossil industry corporations. On Friday, Pruitt is expected to face a full Senate vote on his nomination to run the EPA.

On Feb. 10, Pruitt's office finally responded to the oldest of CMD's nine outstanding Open Records Act requests but provided just 411 of the more than 3,000 emails they had located, withholding thousands of emails relevant to the request and still failing to respond to CMD's eight other outstanding requests. On Feb. 14 CMD filed a status report with the judge detailing the scope of missing documents, including 27 emails that were previously turned over to The New York Times in 2014.

"Scott Pruitt broke the law and went to great lengths to avoid the questions many Americans have about his true motivations," said Nick Surgey, CMD's director of research. "Despite Pruitt's efforts to repeatedly obfuscate and withhold public documents, we're all wiser to his ways and the interests he really serves. The work doesn't stop here to make sure communities across the country have the information they need to hold him accountable to the health and safety of our families."

Ahead of Thursday's hearing, Senators Carper, Whitehouse, Merkley, Booker, Markey and Duckworth—all members of the EPW committee—weighed in on the case, urging the Oklahoma court to require the Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General to release documents relevant to CMD's open record requests as a matter of "federal importance." In a letter to the Oklahoma Court, the Senators stated:

"We are providing this information to the Court today because we have concluded [the] pending Open Records Act requests may be the only means by which the Senate and the general public can obtain in a timely manner critical information about Mr. Pruitt's ability to lead the EPA."

"We need to understand whether ... Mr. Pruitt engaged with the industries that he will be responsible for regulating if he is confirmed as administrator in ways that would compromise his ability to carry out his duties with the complete impartiality required."

Pruitt's continued lack of transparency extends from a difficult nomination process in which research from CMD demonstrated Pruitt's repeated pattern of obfuscating ties to deep-pocketed, corporate interests.

At his hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, Pruitt faced a series of questions about his private meetings with major fossil fuel companies while chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association and fundraising for the Rule of Law Defense Fund. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse concluded his questioning telling Pruitt his testimony "just doesn't add up." Despite failing to respond to any records requests for the past two years, Pruitt told U.S. Senators last week to file more open records requests with his office to answer 19 outstanding questions from his confirmation hearing.

After Democratic Senators twice boycotted the EPW Committee vote due to concerns over Pruitt's conflicts of interests and failure to fulfill open records requests, Republicans resorted to suspending Committee rules to advance his nomination.

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