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Trump’s Anti-Environment Agenda for 2020: When Opportunism Knocks

Trump’s Anti-Environment Agenda for 2020: When Opportunism Knocks
A desolate scene at the typically popular Washington Monument in Washington, DC on April 8. Xinhua / Liu Jie / Getty Images

By Jeff Turrentine

The COVID-19 pandemic has redefined our priorities. Everyone right now is — or should be — concerned first and foremost with keeping themselves, their loved ones, and their communities safe. And when nearly the entire world shifts into triage mode, as it has over the past several weeks, it's hard for many of us to focus on anything else beyond making it through the day and preparing for the next one.

But there are some people who look out at a nation of frightened, grief-stricken, or otherwise preoccupied souls and see an opportunity to get away with something they otherwise wouldn't be able to. A fair number of these opportunists, alas, work within the Trump administration. And over the past few weeks, these officials have been busy checking items off of the fossil fuel industry's wish list — and hoping that most of us won't notice.

It's hard to pick the most egregious example of recent administrative wrongdoing; each is horrible in its own special way. So let's just start with the most brazen. On March 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would be easing enforcement of a wide swath of legally mandated environmental protections during the COVID-19 crisis, citing "consequences [that] may affect the ability of an operation to meet enforceable limitations on air emissions and water discharges, requirements for the management of hazardous waste, or requirements to ensure and provide safe drinking water." Henceforth, if a regulated business can plausibly blame the pandemic for its noncompliance with monitoring or reporting obligations, the EPA will waive any fines and/or civil penalties for violators. Rules that require the monitoring, recording, and reporting of emissions and pollution data have for decades been one of the few ways that Americans could learn about how industrial activity is affecting their communities and their health. Now, should a facility decide that it would rather not be so transparent, it doesn't have to be.

For how long, you ask? Well, for as long as the pandemic lasts. And how long might that be — from an official, governmental standpoint? Right now, we have no idea. Meanwhile, the scientific and public health communities are buzzing over an alarming new report from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health that suggests COVID-19 may be more deadly in populations that have faced higher long-term exposure to fine-particle air pollution. Inviting industry to spew more air pollution into our communities right now certainly isn't the best way for the EPA to respond to this historic public health crisis.

The agency's announcement of this indefinite relaxation of environmental protections came only three days after the American Petroleum Institute — the ridiculously powerful trade association that lobbies for the interests of our nation's oil and gas industry — sent a letter to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler pleading for the same. Other industries with oversize carbon footprints that received similar "relief" weren't even necessarily asking for it. Five days after the EPA's move, on March 31, President Trump decided that the time was right to finalize his rollbacks of Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. Even though most automakers had already come to terms with the previous mandate of increasing fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 — several were even embracing a similar plan — the president saw fit not only to lower the annual increase in fuel efficiency from 5 percent to 1.5 percent, but also to give automakers more time to reach this weaker threshold.

So, what's in it for consumers? Higher fuel costs, lower air quality, and more climate change. By the Trump administration's own estimates, the rollback could result in drivers purchasing nearly 78 billion more gallons of gas per year, increasing atmospheric CO2 by 867 million metric tons.

That the U.S. government is taking advantage of the public's distraction to push through agenda items that would, under normal conditions, be hotly debated or even aggressively opposed is what makes these anti-environment stunts so galling. In Alaska, where Governor Mike Dunleavy has issued a stay-at-home order and cracked down on travel within the state, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proceeding as planned with a major expansion of the ConocoPhillips Willow project. This would add up to five new drilling sites and more than 260 miles of pipeline to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on land adjacent to the Native Alaskan Nuiqsut community, which is already surrounded on all sides by oil fields. The next stage of the project, as it happens, is the public review process. With workplaces shuttered, travel banned, schools closed, grocery-store shelves depleted, and everyday life for Alaskans massively disrupted, the BLM (with the hearty support of ConocoPhillips) has nevertheless seen fit to place this expansion in the "business as usual" category.

"As we look to public and private health experts to end this pandemic, the BLM recognizes that it has important, statutory duties to perform," a spokesperson for the agency recently told E&E News. It would be one thing if the White House was sincerely trying to conduct the people's business while the people themselves were temporarily incapacitated. But in a handful of agencies, at least, that's not what seems to be happening. What's being conducted during this terrible crisis seems to be more along the lines of unfinished business — or even funny business. Memo to the executive branch: Bad faith is a bad look.

Reposted with permission from onEarth.

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France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.

The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.

"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."

Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.

By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.

The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.

"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.

While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.

"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.

Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.

Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.

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