Is the Trump Administration ‘Gaming the Shutdown’ to Serve Energy and Hunting Special Interests?
By Tara Lohan
Two years into the Trump administration, its attacks on environmental regulations, policy and science are already well documented. But the current partial government shutdown, now more than a month long, provides a unique lens through which to view the administration's priorities. The list of what isn't being done is long and troubling, but equally concerning is what is being done during the shutdown.
Over the past several weeks national parks have been trashed, climate change research stalled and crucial wildfire prevention work halted—all while oil and gas drilling efforts continue to cruise along and national wildlife refuges are reopened to hunters.
Lawmakers and nonprofits are calling out the administration for using the shutdown to cater to special interests like the oil and gas industry while there's limited oversight, and with possible suspect use of funds.
Several moves by the Interior Department to bring back furloughed staff to attend to oil and gas activities aren't sitting well with some elected officials.
Arizona's Rep. Raúl Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, wrote a letter to David Bernhardt, acting director of the Interior Department, admonishing the agency for making sure it's business as usual for oil and gas industry while ordinary Americans and the environment bear the brunt of the shutdown impacts. The letter was also signed by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.).
The Trump administration is doing everything possible to shield the oil industry from the impacts of the… https://t.co/ixBgBDp2iI— Nat Resources Dems (@Nat Resources Dems)1547669828.0
"Your department has continued to hold public meetings on oil and gas development on the North Slope of Alaska, refused to extend the comment period for leasing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and opened up Bureau of Land Management field offices to allow drilling permits to continue to be issued," the letter said.
Dozens of furloughed workers from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management were brought back to work on January 15 in order to complete plans for a major sale of oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf Mexico, which is scheduled for March. They were also processing applications for seismic testing for offshore oil and gas exploration but a judge put an end to that on January 18.
"If you are an oil and gas company awaiting a lease, there is a big open sign at the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, where federal workers are being brought in—without pay—to service the oil and gas industry," Lowenthal, who's also the incoming chairman of the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. It was telling, he said, that staff members of the same agency who deal with renewable energy are still furloughed.
It's not just offshore waters, either. The Bureau of Land Management has continued to issue drilling permits on public lands during the shutdown, and some environmental groups are calling into question the legality of those actions, since the public is blocked from participating in the process and can't even reach agency staff on the phone or file public comments.
"It's not at all reasonable to completely shut the public out from any access to agencies like the BLM while allowing private industry—the oil and gas industry—to have apparently full access to the agencies," Connie Wilbert, director of the Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, told U.S. News and World Report. "The public has no way to get access to the agency to find out what's going on, yet right in our local newspapers, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming is saying, 'We're working with BLM to get this stuff open again.'"
One area of particular concern is oil and gas lease sales planned for February and March that would put more than 2 million acres of public lands across six western states up for auction, even when staff members who would review any environmental issues or cultural concerns from tribes are likely furloughed.
All of this stands in stark contrast to the 2013 shutdown, when drilling permits and leases were halted, Bloomberg News reported. President Trump has exempted the activity during this shutdown.
Gaming the Shutdown
It's not just federal workers concerned with oil and gas activities that are being brought back to work. A partial restaffing of 38 national wildlife refuges was ordered "to make sure hunters and others have access despite the government shutdown," the Associated Press reported after obtaining an email from Margaret Everson, principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The view from the top of Mount Scott at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. Nenortas Photography / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit that advocates for public employees who work on environmental issues, said he's also concerned by information they uncovered that other nonessential staff from six regional offices of the Fish and Wildlife Service were being brought back from furlough to prepare National Environmental Policy Act assessments for more than 60 wildlife refuges that could open hundreds and thousands of acres of refuge lands to hunting and fishing.
Ruch's organization wrote to the U.S. Government Accountability Office urging it to examine the legality of these staffing moves and what source of funding is being using to finance it and other nonemergency work, like the oil and gas lease sales preparation.
The Interior Department has said that workers are being paid with carryover funds, but Ruch said his organization has no idea where that money is coming from.
"We don't believe that there are carryover funds," he said. "We think they are operating in violation of the Antideficiency Act, which is why we are asking the Government Accountability Office to find out what it is they're doing. In the shutdown, people who are working on life and property protection are brought back as excepted workers to work without salary. But these people are doing nonemergency work on salary."
It doesn't add up, he said, and the Bureau of Land Management doesn't typically have significant surpluses. "We're in the second quarter of the new fiscal year. Where are they getting this money?"
Ruch said the administration appears to be "gaming the shutdown" and that activities are taking place in violation of the Antideficiency Act for political purposes. But, he admits, it's hard to fully understand what's going on because Freedom of Information Act requests aren't being processed and the shutdown has created a new veil of secrecy.
"A decision has been made at high levels to try to minimize the inconvenience of the shutdown for favored groups," he said. "And while we understand the politics of it, that doesn't mean it's right or it doesn't bear examination."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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