October 20, 2020

Environmental Backtracking

By Stephen Tuttle | March 11, 2017

“I'm a very big person when it comes to the environment. I have received awards on the environment.”  That's what President Donald Trump said in a meeting with business leaders on January 23.

We'll just ignore the fact that no one can find any awards he's ever won “on the environment,” and let’s check to see how his environmental bigness is playing out.

He nominated, and the Senate confirmed, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, who made a political career out of suing, more than a dozen times, the agency he now leads, wants to work with business on environmental issues. 

He did that in Oklahoma by cozying up to the oil and natural gas industries, fighting for more fracking despite Oklahoma's crazy earthquake clusters and denying the connection between fossil fuels and climate change. 

His harshest critics believe his intent, and that of the president, is to dismantle the agency. 

Trump doesn't have to count on Pruitt. He's been plenty busy himself.

He ordered completion of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Delays caused by the Army Corps of Engineers, the State Department and protesters are over (he also insisted the unfinished segments use only American steel. TransCanada, the Alberta-based company that owns the pipeline, uses and has stockpiled steel made in India).

Proponents applauded the decision as a job creator and economy booster. Opponents decried the decision as a step backward in reducing greenhouse gasses – the process of extracting sand tar oil that will flow through the pipeline emits about 15 percent more greenhouse gasses than traditional oil drilling methods – and because of the risk of pipeline spills into nearby water supplies. 

Trump also ordered expedited procedures and approval of environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects. That's especially odd since major projects have the greatest environmental impact and typically require the most careful reviews to mitigate that impact. 

He reversed the clean water rule that extended EPA authority from major bodies of water and waterways to include smaller rivers, streams and wetlands. He said the old rule hindered business development and infringed on private property rights. 

Environmentalists said those little waterways and wetlands are significant ecosystems in their own right and nourish the larger ecosystems into which they typically flow.

Trump reversed regulations that would have prevented coal mines from continuing the practice of dumping their significant waste adjacent to and into creeks and streams.  According to the EPA, such dumping has already destroyed 2,000 smaller waterways in coal mining regions.

Additionally, Trump has pledged to increase coal production, the open pit version of which is the most environmentally destructive form of fossil fuel extraction. Now coal powered energy will continue to befoul the air while the mines continue befouling the surrounding landscape and waterways.

Perhaps most troubling for us in Michigan was the preliminary budget proposal, first reported in The Oregonian, to slash funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative from $300 million to just $10 million, a staggering 97 percent.

That's money to find, stop, clean up and prevent pollution. Money to prevent even more invasive species from gaining a foothold. It's the primary source of funding for Great Lakes protection.

Even if those numbers, as we're being told, are very preliminary, every member of Michigan's congressional delegation, every legislator and every local official should be appalled and saying so. Surely they can at least be bipartisan on this issue. 

Failure to protect that resource would have potentially catastrophic consequences here. We have a $9 billion fishing industry, a $16 billion boating industry, and a $25 billion tourism industry, predicated at least in part on having nice water, that supports more than 200,000 jobs.

Not to mention the Great Lakes provide drinking water for nearly 35 million people, including more than 24 million Americans. That's important enough to wonder why this administration would even consider any decrease in funding designed to protect such a resource.      

We abused the environment when we didn't know better. Now that we do, but we're backtracking anyway. Part of that abuse is responsible for climate change.

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists tell us climate change is a reality we caused. The only solution is reducing our use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions; Trump's actions will increase both. 

The Trump Administration is either willfully ignorant of the importance of the environment or delusional, dreaming of a time when smokestacks belched and important men gathered in wood paneled rooms to smoke cigars after a nice steak dinner.

The business-first-environment-be-damned path we're suddenly traveling might gain a few short-term jobs, some returns for shareholders and more parties at Mar-a-Lago. But ignoring the environmental tipping point on which we're now perched will surely shorten the celebrations.

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