EPA and Environmental Watch

Summarized by Lorraine McCarty

The acting Environmental Protection Agency administrator and the Trump administration in general continue to support fossil-fuel use and deregulation at the risk of the health and wellness of the people and the planet. Here are some of the actions they have taken:

  • Rollback of Mercury Regulations. The EPA and the Trump administration have ordered a rollback of mercury regulations from coal plants. Those regulations have cut mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by 85% in the last decade. Environmentalists have described the regulatory rollback as snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Mercury causes brain damage, learning disabilities, and other health defects in children and enters the food chain through fish and other items people eat. The Obama administration projected that mercury restrictions would prevent 130,000 asthma attacks and 11,000 premature deaths in the United States. The rule change for mercury emissions is in the comment period.
  • Gutting of the Clean Water Act. The EPA and the Trump administration are attempting to gut the Clean Water Act by exempting ephemeral streams and wetlands that have no aboveground connection to larger bodies of water–a move that would leave half or the nation’s wetlands subject to pollution and destruction. Ohio has already lost 90% of its wetlands, and the gutting of the Clean Water Act would harm another 50% of what is left. These intermittent streams, however, are important to the health of the environment. They filter out pollutants, and the water flows to larger tributaries that provide drinking water to millions of people. Environmentalists say the administration’s move favors developers and fails to heed basic science that shows how these streams and wetlands prevent flooding by absorbing significant amounts of rainwater and snowmelt that otherwise would reach larger streams and basic scientific evidence that the streams and wetlands provide habitat for wildlife and protection from predators. Nationwide, flooding causes $8 billion in damage every year to property and crops. Agriculture already is largely exempted from the Clean Water Act (which adds to the problem of algal blooms in Lake Erie). Industrial rights groups and rural landowners, however, want to weaken the law further.
  • Carbon-Capture Rollbacks. The EPA has proposed rolling back a regulation to require cutting-edge carbon-capture techniques for new coal plants to remove what the agency calls “excessive burdens” on the energy industry.
  • Propping Up the Coal Industry. The Trump administration incorrectly blamed the coal industry’s problems on overregulation aimed at decreasing carbon and mercury emissions and finding ways to deal with coal-ash disposal issues. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual energy outlook, however, forecasts a 21% decline in coal production over the next 20 years–an even steeper decline than expected two years ago when there was more regulation of the industry. Technology developments that have led to the shale gas revolution are providing a much cheaper alternative to coal, and renewables have made faster than expected technological advances–leaving coal in the dust.
  • Fixation on Natural Gas. The U.S. Gas Infrastructure Exports Initiative has as its mission to drive sales of American natural gas by pumping dollars into pipelines and gas-producing facilities overseas. The organization is a coalition of companies, trade groups, law firms, a nonprofit think tank, and at least five federal agencies. Launched a year ago, the organization continues to market liquified natural gas (LNG) as a “clean” energy source that is clearly in U.S. economic interests. The organization has funded 13 gas projects in more than 20 countries and generated more than $1.5 billion in exports. The U.S. Trade and Development Agency (which describes itself as “an independent agency of the United States government, established in 1961 to advance economic development and U.S. commercial interests in developing and middle income countries) is considering action to fund some of the 40 international gas-related facility proposals it has received this year as part of its effort to help countries in emerging markets develop the infrastructure necessary to be long-term recipients of U.S. LNG exports. The United States has a handful of export terminals now, and plans call for a dozen more. Environmentalists’ support for LNG as a “clean” transitional alternative to coal and diesel has eroded because methane leaks at oil and gas sites are 60% over estimates and because LNG still emits a significant amount of carbon dioxide. Environmentalists say it is time to look beyond natural gas to renewables.
  • Limits on States’ Ability to Block Interstate Pipelines. And last but not least for this month, the Trump administration is considering taking steps to limit the ability of states to block interstate pipelines. This action is aimed mainly at Northeastern and Midwestern states. New York successfully blocked an interstate pipeline by denying a water-quality permit. Pipeline advocates say that states have abused their authority under the Clean Water Act to block pipelines and that even if Trump tires to use an executive order to get what he wants, real change may require legislation to alter the statute itself.

In more hopeful news, the states of California, New Mexico, New York and Washington have joined     conservationists and tribes to sue coal companies in an attempt to revive former President Barack Obama’s moratorium on new lease sales for federal lands that hold billions of tons of coal. The moratorium was issued because coal is a source of pollution that puts the climate and public health at risk. U.S. District Judge Brian Morris is expected to issue a ruling in the coming months. The National Mining Association argues that the moratorium was a voluntary step and that the Trump administration has the right to end it. Environmentalists want to resume a sweeping review of the moratorium’s environmental effects.

Also, earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the EPA’s delay in implementing the Chemical Disaster Rule was unlawful. This ruling will expedite key protections to safeguard the public and first responders from chemical disasters.

Sources: Record-Courier, December 30, 2018; Akron Beacon Journal, December 7, 2018, December 13, 2018, December 21, 2018, January 22, 2019, January 26, 2019, January 31, 1019; EarthJustice, October 30, 2018.

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