With or Without Pruitt, Don’t Expect Environmental Protection from the EPA

pruitt photo

By the time you read this sentence, Scott Pruitt might be gone as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (or he might be Attorney General; stay tuned!).

The man who the New York Times’ Gail Collins anointed the Worst Member of the Trump Administration is now more famous for his ethically-challenged management of the Agency – from his sweetheart condo deal to his legally suspect staff pay raises to his lavish office furnishings to his abuse of his security detail in the service of grantinee a l’oignon  – than for the policies he’s tried to implement.

Should Pruitt get the axe, there’s no doubt the environmental community will rejoice. Pruitt made a name for himself as Oklahoma attorney general by suing the very agency he now leads. His fervent opposition to EPA’s core mission of protecting the environment was clear from the start. And in his time at the helm, he’s overseen the gutting of numerous rules designed to keep the air and water clean (not to mention his successful campaign to get President Trump to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accords).

The reality is that Scott Pruitt has been a remarkably effective political appointee – perhaps the most successful high-level Trump pick, measured by the extent to which he has fulfilled Trump’s campaign promises. Even as scandal has swirled around him, Pruitt is hard at work pulling back fuel mileage standards for cars and trucks, threatening Clean Water Act regulations, and rescinding Obama’s climate change-fighting Clean Power Plan.

No wonder that a lot of folks who oppose his policies would likely breathe a sigh of relief at his departure. But make no mistake: Scott Pruitt is not the reason the Trump administration has been a boon to polluters. It all starts at the top.

Remember that Donald Trump himself made antagonism towards the environment one of his core campaign features, from his longstanding belief that climate change is a Chinese hoax to his vow to revive the coal industry. Scott Pruitt may be a particularly effective foot soldier in Trump’s war on environmental protections, but he’s far from the only one.

Even if Pruitt goes, the others remain, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who is determined to bail out the coal industry at any cost; and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is a one-man natural resources wrecking crew. And let’s be honest: it’s not likely that Donald Trump would select a committed environmentalist as his next EPA head should Pruitt go. There are plenty of mini-Scotts ready to take the battle to the planet.

True, a less skilled politico than Scott Pruitt may have a harder time in getting his or her way on rolling back environmental policies. But those skills simply aren’t as necessary anymore, as the President purges his inner circle of anyone who tries to moderate his policy whims. Consider that when Scott Pruitt was lobbying Trump to exit the Paris accords, he was going up against, among others, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.

Both are now gone, and it’s a safe bet to say that their respective successors, Mike Pompeo and Larry Kudlow, would be more likely to agree with Pruitt. In fact, most of the policy guardrails are gone, leaving an administration of appointees who’ve learned that catering to Trump’s extreme whims is the fastest ticket to job security. Should Pruitt leave, the next EPA Administrator will likely find that accelerating Pruitt’s work is the best way to stay on Donald Trump’s good side.

In fact, the newt EPA administrator will face a pretty low bar on a host of fronts. So long as he or she doesn’t turn on the sirens every time they get a craving for escargot and opts for slightly less expensive office decor, they will come off as an improvement over Pruitt, giving them more leeway to pursue Trump’s agenda out of the spotlight.

Ultimately, that is the biggest reason why Pruitt’s possible departure won’t mean a brighter future for environmental protection: so long as the chaos emanating from the administration on everything from Russia to Stormy Daniels to the border wall sucks up attention, the real work of dismantling the environmental safety net that took half a century to build can move ahead in the dark.

Scott Pruitt may soon be gone, but his legacy will live on.

Photo: Gage Skidmore


Rick Perry’s Holy War


Rick Perry’s War on the War on Coal continues.

The Energy Secretary, who last fall declared that among fossil fuels’ many noble attributes is the power to stop sexual assault, recently told a Texas audience this week that the worldwide shift away from fossil fuels is “immoral.” Said Perry: “Look those people in the eyes that are starving and tell them you can’t have electricity. Because as a society we decided fossil fuels were bad. I think that is immoral.”

Perry has emerged as a fairly evangelical holy warrior for fossil fuels: in addition to testifying to their morality, he also has said that the U.S. is “blessed” to be able to provide fossil fuels to the poor peoples of the planet. In discussing the rape-preventing power of fossil fuels, Perry cited the “light that shines, the righteousness, if you will” that coal-powered illumination provides.

Apparently, in Perry’s Bible, when one is anointed with oil, it’s light sweet crude.

Perry’s rhapsodizing about the piety of coal and oil would be little more than a distraction – and another testament to the quality of Donald “I Will Hire the Best People” Trump’s cabinet choices – were it not accompanied by troubling policy choices that are designed to prop up the fossil fuel industry at the expense of renewables.

As noted previously in this space, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously rejected Perry’s plan earlier this year to subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants, rejecting DOE’s argument that safeguarding the nation’s electric guard necessitated letting coal and nuclear plants charge more for power.

But Bloomberg is now reporting that Perry is not letting go. Now the Energy Department is contemplating letting Perry “use his authority as U.S. energy secretary to spur emergency compensation for coal plants run by FirstEnergy Solutions that may be at risk of shutting.” According to Bloomberg, Perry has the authority under the Federal Power Act to order a power company to keep a plant online and provide compensation, if doing so would “serve the public interest.”

And Perry has allies in his battle: a number of lawmakers from Ohio and surrounding states – from both parties – are now pushing the administration to trigger the FPA’s provisions to save FirstEnergy. As the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reports, their argument rests on national security: “[O]ne argument links the nation’s current competitive edge in nuclear weapons to the health of its commercial atomic energy industry.”

To sum up: fossil fuel is not only a moral imperative that protects young girls from sexual assault, but bailing out struggling coal plants also protects us from our nuclear annihilation.

That’s a pretty powerful argument. It is also ridiculous and, worse, dangerous.

To suggest that keeping coal plants open serves the public interest ignores the reality that coal severely harms the public’s health. Coal production releases toxins into the air and water – poisons that are widely known to cause cancer, delayed childhood development and other health issues. And burning coal adds tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, making the effects of a changing climate even worse. As for national security, the Pentagon itself maintains that “climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security.”

The only thing worse than Perry’s effort to save coal is the fact it’s happening at the very same time the Trump administration wants to slash DOE’s energy efficiency and renewable energy programs by a whopping 65 percent, while increasing spending on fossil fuel programs. At a time when the rest of the world is investing in the energy technologies of the future, the White House’s budget looks like something from the 18th century.

If Rick Perry is truly concerned about the well-being of all those “starving” people lacking electricity, he would direct his Department to double down on supporting energy technologies that don’t worsen climate change and poison the environment – particularly at a time when the cost of renewables continues to drop.

Policymakers can identify ways to help the developing world with the costs of transitioning to a low-carbon economy. What the U.S. government should not do, however, is go to battle on behalf of polluting sources of energy. That’s a war we ultimately will lose.

Missing from the Infrastructure Plan: Resilience

1280px-Road_damage_from_Hurricane_Nate_in_Jackson_CountyAs you might have heard, President Trump released a “$1.5 trillion” infrastructure plan on Monday, a topic the President himself finds “sexy.”

Sexy or not, the plan doesn’t deliver what it promises. The $1.5 trillion in funding is really $200 billion, with the hope that it spurs an additional $1.3 trillion from cash-starved states, localities and the private sector. It’s not unlike handing your betrothed a lump of coal and telling her there’s a diamond ring in there somewhere.

In fact, it’s not even $200 billion, since the budget proposal the White House also released this week envisions cutting almost that exact same amount from transportation and other infrastructure programs. So the plan to devote an additional $1.5 trillion to fix our roads, bridges, rails and more is really a plan to add . . . zero.

Nonetheless, it is a plan, and since Congress these days is in a deficit-be-damned mood, we very well may see a real plan to spend more on infrastructure. Taken at face value, the Trump plan has some good elements, notably strengthening existing loan and bond programs that have a track record of working, and some not-so-good ones, such as allowing the Interior Department to approve natural gas pipelines that cut through national parks.

But the one thing that’s missing from the plan is nearly any recognition that the nation’s infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change. In fact, the words “resilience” and “disaster” are not mentioned once in the document.

This is the case despite the fact that weather-related events in 2017 alone cost the country a record $306 billion, a good chunk of it in damaged or destroyed infrastructure.

And despite the fact that the threats to infrastructure due to a changing climate are already well-known, as the 2014 National Climate Assessment points out:

Sea level rise, storm surge, and heavy downpours, in combination with the pattern of continued development in coastal areas, are increasing damage to U.S. infrastructure including roads, buildings, and industrial facilities, and are also increasing risks to ports and coastal military installations. Flooding along rivers, lakes, and in cities following heavy downpours, prolonged rains, and rapid melting of snowpack is exceeding the limits of flood protection infrastructure designed for historical conditions. Extreme heat is damaging transportation infrastructure such as roads, rail lines, and airport runways.

And despite the fact that research shows that investing in resilient infrastructure can save money; a 2018 study from the National Institute of Building Sciences found that “mitigation funding can save the nation $6 in future disaster costs, for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation.”

True, the White House plan is just that: a plan, and not fleshed-out legislation. It is by design a starting point in the discussions, and not every little detail was included.

But it’s long past time to think of resilience as a “little detail.” It makes absolutely no sense to spend trillions of dollars to fix roads, bridges, water systems, schools and more without making sure that they can withstand whatever nature throws at them.

Hopefully Congress can see its way to weaving resilience into the plan, by requiring federal dollars be spent on projects that take climate adaptation into account and prioritizing projects that address threats from rising sea levels, drought, forest fires and other hazards.

If not, the plan really will be nothing more than a lump of coal.

Image: Damage from 2017’s Hurricane Nate in Mississippi. Source: Wikipedia

A Watershed Moment for Renewables?

solar2Despite the Trump administration’s hostility towards renewable energy, momentum is increasingly on its side.

Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously rejected a plan from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants, giving them a competitive advantage over other sources of energy.

DOE’s proposal argued that recent natural disasters and extreme weather events exposed threats to the nation’s electric grid that need to be addressed by allowing coal and nuclear plants to “[recover] fully allocated costs and thereby continue to provide the energy security on which our nation relies.” In essence, Perry’s department argued that ensuring the reliability of the electrical grid demands letting coal and nuclear plants charge more for power, helping them stay on line.

Putting aside for a moment the irony that dependence on coal and other fossil fuels increases greenhouse gases, which in turn makes extreme weather events more extreme, the plan was viewed by many energy experts as a blatant effort to give the struggling coal industry a leg up over natural gas and renewables. As the Washington Post noted:

The plan, however, was widely seen as an effort to alter the balance of competitive electricity markets that federal regulators have been cultivating since the late 1980s. Critics said it would have largely helped a handful of coal and nuclear companies, including the utility FirstEnergy and coal-mining firm Murray Energy, while raising rates for consumers.

Surprisingly, that view was apparently shared by the FERC – including four members appointed by President Trump – which rejected the proposal, opting instead to maintain competition in energy markets.

It’s no secret that President Trump wants to help coal country; during the 2016 campaign he promised to bring coal jobs back. The fact that DOE’s plan to achieve this was so roundly rejected by the FERC shows how hard it will be for Trump to keep that promise. If Perry’s proposal was Plan A, Plan B must not be any more realistic. The fact is, if coal cannot remain competitive in electricity markets without artificial government subsidies, its path forward is bleak.

Meanwhile, the cost of renewables continues to decline. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that the costs of wind and solar projects in the western U.S. are so low that that

. . . it is cheaper to build a new wind or solar project than to operate most existing coal plants in the West. It’s also significantly cheaper than the cost of a new gas plant, often considered the most significant competitor of coal, and renewables provide long-term price stability that gas plants don’t.

At the same time, elected officials increasingly are seeing the policy and political benefits of talking up renewables. This month, New York Governor (and possible 2020 Democratic Presidential contender) Andrew Cuomo announced his “2018 Clean Energy Jobs and Climate Agenda,”  which seeks to end the use of coal in the state’s power plants by 2020 while expanding renewable energy through wind and solar investments and “clean energy” workforce development.

In other words, while President Trump is feverishly working to save jobs in the coal industry, New York is looking to create jobs in renewables. It’s as if in the early 1800s the federal government tried to prop up canal building while the railroads were taking over.

None of this is to suggest that it’s smooth sailing for renewables: White House budget proposals continue to go after clean energy programs, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is continuing his crusade to undermine climate regulations. And around the world, far too much carbon is being spewed into the atmosphere. But the tide is turning.

Opponents of federal investments in clean energy have always argued that policymakers should let the market work. Hopefully they won’t abandon that principle when the fossil fuel industry comes knocking.

Ignoring Threats is Bad for Our Health


Here’s a scenario to chew over:

It’s 8 a.m. on a chilly December morning. President Trump at his desk in the Oval Office, hard at work watching Fox and Friends. The first of his 12 daily Diet Cokes is in one hand, the twittering fingers of his other hand perched over his phone.

Suddenly, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster bursts in with Vice President Pence, CIA Director Pompeo and, what the heck, Jared Kushner. McMaster informs the President that the NSA has picked up chatter about an ISIS plot to attack a major U.S. city in the coming days with a powerful nuclear device. The death toll could be in the tens of thousands, millions left homeless, the economy rocked.

The Vice President asks McMaster what the odds are that this chatter is real. McMaster responds that, of 100 security analysts he asked, 97 believe the ISIS plot is likely to happen. Only three cast doubt on the intel.

What does the President do?

After tweeting out something in ALL CAPS about KEEPING AMERICA SAFE and BUILDING THE WALL, one would expect him to direct his administration to do everything in its power to stop the attack.

In fact, were it to get out that the President was informed of the high probability of an attack and did nothing, the calls for his impeachment would grow louder. And arguing that he did not act because the security assessment was not unanimous won’t hold water. After all, if there is one thing that (most) Americans can agree upon, it’s that protecting the public from serious, genuine threats to their safety and security is a legitimate role for the federal government.

This is why this week’s announcement that the Trump Administration is removing climate change as one of the global threats to the country’s national security is so absurd.

In essence, the White House has made the decision that a serious, genuine threat to the country’s safety and security is not a real problem at all. (Just imagine for a moment if former President Obama had removed ISIS from the list of threats to the country. We can name at least one compulsive Twitter user who would’ve gone nuts over that.)

There really should be no dispute that climate change is a serious, genuine threat. Serious, in that the Defense Department itself has identified it as something that keeps them up at night, stating in a 2015 report to Congress that:

climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time.

And the threat is genuine, demonstrated by the fact that 97 percent (if not more) of climate scientists agree that the climate is changing due to human activity.

No, 97 percent is not 100. But if 97 out of 100 firefighters told you your house was on fire, will you listen to the three naysayers and go back to watching The Voice?

Apparently, the Trump Administration is. And while the public (and hopefully Congress) would revolt if they learned that the President had rejected the view of 97 percent of security analysts, the White House’s rejection of the consensus of 97 percent of climate scientists is met with a shrug.

Partly that’s due to the fact that terrorism is more visceral. We can more easily tie a terror attack to the perpetrators than we can attribute a natural disaster like the California forest fires or Hurricane Harvey to climate change. And while hearing of a terror cell broken up provides an immediate (albeit short-lived) sense of relief, we don’t get the same feelings from efforts to slow the impacts of a changing climate.

But it’s also due in part to a certain level of timidity by those who believe the science in pointing out the impacts. Nobody should ever falsely attribute any one weather event to “climate change.” But the science behind the assertion that  climate change will lead to more extreme weather events is solid.

Perhaps it’s time, then, for some reframing.

In 2006, journalist Ron Suskind released The One Percent Doctrine, a book about the Bush administration’s fight against al-Qaeda. The title came from an anecdote in the book where then-Vice President Cheney articulated his approach to dealing with the threat of terrorism:

“If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”

The administration was criticized for the notion of taking decisive (and probably deadly) action based on just a one-percent risk; substituting a “hunch” for clear-eyed analysis and concrete evidence has disastrous ramifications (see “Iraq, 2003-?”).

But most sensible observers would agree that the consequences terrorists building nukes necessitates action even when 100-percent certainty is unattainable. If there was a 25 percent chance that a terrorist group was planning a devastating attack, would that be a high enough risk to take action? What about a 50-percent chance?

Or, more to the point, what about a 97-percent chance?

We understand the impacts of climate change – rising sea levels, more ferocious storms, droughts, resource deprivation, loss of life and property, and ultimately political instability – as well as we know the ramifications of a major terrorist attack.

So perhaps in the future, those who believe climate change is a threat need to adopt the “97 Percent Doctrine.”  Let the public know that there is a 97-percent likelihood that in 20 years their favorite beach destination will be underwater. A 97-percent chance that their community will be devastated by a Category 5 hurricane. A 97-percent chance that their children will inherit a lifestyle crippled by violent storms, political instability, and food shortages. If the public is willing to endure long lines at the airport to guard against a small chance of a terror attack, they should be willing to accept changes based on a 97-percent chance of an unstable climate.

If it sounds like fear-mongering, it’s not. The threat is real. It’s time to talk frankly and vividly about it.