National Geographic has thoughtfully put together a running account of the damage the regime of Don Trump, il Culo, and his famiglia has done and will do to the environment of the nation and the world. -- wmh
A Running List of How Trump Is Changing the Environment
The Trump administration has promised vast changes to U.S. science and environmental policy—and we’re tracking them here as they happen.
By Michael Greshko, Laura Parker and Brian Clark Howard
The Trump administration’s tumultuous presidency has brought a flurry of changes—both realized and anticipated—to U.S. environmental policy. Many of the actions roll back Obama-era policies that aimed to curb climate change and limit environmental pollution, while others threaten to limit federal funding for science and the environment.
It’s a lot to keep track of, so National Geographic will be maintaining an abbreviated timeline of the Trump administration’s environmental actions and policy changes, as well as reactions to them. We will update this article periodically as news develops.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 31, 2017, and was last updated on May 11, 2018.
WHITE HOUSE CUTS NASA CLIMATE MONITORING PROGRAM
May 9, 2018
Science magazine reports that the Trump administration has ended NASA's Carbon Monitoring System, a $10-million-per-year effort to fund pilot programs intended to improve the monitoring of global carbon emissions.
Congress directed the CMS's creation in 2010, but as Science reporter Paul Voosen notes, the March 2018 spending deal didn't specifically dedicate funds to the program—giving the White House sufficient latitude to wind it down. Researchers say that CMS-supported work is particularly relevant to the global Paris Agreement, especially for verifying whether the nations of the world are actually meeting their pledges to reduce carbon emissions.
“If you cannot measure emissions reductions, you cannot be confident that countries are adhering to the agreement,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a Tufts University climate policy expert, in an interview with Science.
The move marks the latest efforts of the Trump administration, which has rejected the Paris Agreement and an array of prior U.S. climate policies, to downsize NASA's climate science program. The White House has repeatedly called for the elimination of CMS and several other NASA climate missions, including the planned PACE, OCO-3, and CLARREO Pathfinder instruments. Trump officials also advocate the shutdown of the Earth-viewing instruments aboard DSCOVR, which have taken high-res pictures of our planet's sunlit half nearly every hour since July 2015.
Despite the closure of CMS, NASA will continue to operate severalclimate-monitoring satellites, and the agency is scheduled to launch two climate instruments to the International Space Station by the end of 2018. “The winding down of the CMS research program does not curb NASA’s ability or commitment to monitoring carbon and its effects on our changing planet," said NASA spokesperson Steve Cole in a statement to National Geographic.
Yet researchers contend that without CMS's support, research into how to make sense of these data will slow.
“The topic of climate mitigation and carbon monitoring is maybe not the highest priority now in the United States,” said University of Maryland climate scientist George Hurtt, the CMS science team leader, in an interview with Science. “But it is almost everywhere else.”
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly attributed a quote to Harvard University scientist Daniel Jacob. The quote is actually from University of Maryland scientist George Hurtt.
EPA ISSUES CONTROVERSIAL RULE ON SCIENCE 'TRANSPARENCY'
April 24, 2018
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed a rule Tuesday that would only allow the agency to consider in its rule making scientific studies for which the underlying data are made available publicly. “The science that we use is going to be transparent. It’s going to be reproducible,” Pruitt told reporters.
Industry and conservative groups have called for this change for some time, while some environmental groups warn that it could reduce the EPA's ability to consider all the evidence available when making rules on tough questions like power plant emissions and the safety of everything from pesticides to consumer products.
In a letter, nearly 1,000 scientists (many of whom used to work at the EPA) asked Pruitt to abandon the proposal, which they said “would greatly weaken EPA's ability to comprehensively consider the scientific evidence.” Much of the data that would be excluded is based on reviews of personal health information, which is often not publicly available because of privacy laws or practical challenges.
“This proposal would mean throwing out the studies we rely on to protect the public, for no good reason,” said Betsy Southerland, a longtime EPA scientist, in a press release from the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This would have an enormous and negative impact on the EPA’s ability to enforce the law and protect people’s health. Administrator Pruitt can’t carry out the basic responsibilities of his job if he insists that his agency ignore the evidence.”
The rule change is subject to a 30-day public comment period.
THREATENED SPECIES PROTECTION RULE UNDER REVIEW
April 2, 2018
The White House is currently reviewing a regulation that some environmental groups fear could nix protections granted to nearly 300 threatened species.
In a surprise rule change submitted on Monday, the U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed removing what's called the “blanket section 4(d) rule.” Since the 1970s, this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) policy has stated that by default, threatened species receive the full protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The ESA affords wide-ranging protections to species on the brink of extinction, barring everything from outright poaching to coming too close to the species in the wild. These restrictions don't automatically apply to threatened species, but section 4(d) of the ESA says that departments can protect threatened species at their discretion.
Historically, different departments have used this discretion in different ways. By default, FWS's blanket section 4(d) rule gives threatened species every ESA protection, which regulators then clarify and whittle down. When the National Marine Fisheries Service lists a threatened species, however, it adds protections bit by bit.
The proposed removal of the blanket section 4(d) rule concerns environmental groups because it's possible that the move would jeopardize protections for hundreds of threatened species, which aren't yet facing the threat of extinction but could in the future.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, 294 species listed as threatened by the FWS are afforded protections only because of the blanket rule. The affected species include the northern spotted owl, the southern sea otter, the spotted seal, as well as eight species of coral and numerous plants.
“How are they going to deal with the species that are already listed as threatened?” asks Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “I think that's pretty critical, because there's no way they can publish 300 individual rules ... This certainly looks like a regulatory rollback.”
That said, the rule change's impact remains unclear. The proposed regulation hasn't been released, and once it is, it will be subject to a period of public comment. The Interior Department has not yet responded to National Geographic's emailed questions about the proposed rule change.
“The Center for Biological Diversity thinks it's the worst-case scenario—it's hard for me to assume that,” says Defenders of Wildlife vice president Bob Dreher, an FWS associate director during the Obama administration. “We are of course concerned, and we're going to be watching it very, very carefully.”
In gearing up for the rule change, the Trump administration appears to be responding to two legal petitions filed in 2016 by the Pacific Legal Foundation—a conservative public-interest law firm—on behalf of the Washington Cattlemen's Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
The groups argue that by giving threatened species all ESA protections as a default, the blanket rule functionally eliminates the distinction between endangered and threatened species. They say the arrangement illegally flouts Congress and penalizes private landowners.
Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, maintains that rescinding the blanket rule won't hurt conservation. He argues that if threatened species have fewer protections than endangered species, then private landowners have an incentive to help endangered species recover to threatened status—since the upgrade in status removes onerous regulations. (Read more about the debate over the Endangered Species Act.)
“Recovery for endangered species is abysmally low ... By varying the protections, you better align the incentives of the property owners with the incentives of the endangered species,” he says. “Ideally, we boost that recovery rate.”
Environmental groups and Wood disagree vehemently on the ESA's efficacy. But they agree on one major point: the text of the regulation may take months to be released, and until then, it's unclear how threatened species will be treated.
“Without seeing the proposed rule and the reasons it gives, it's hard to say too much,” says Wood.
That said, Dreher offers a word of caution to the Department of the Interior: “If they take an approach which leaves threatened species arbitrarily unprotected, you can be sure that we and other organizations will sue.”
EPA STARTS ROLLBACK OF CAR EMISSIONS STANDARDS
April 2, 2018
In a press release, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the U.S. government would revisit the Obama administration's fuel efficiency standards for cars and light-duty trucks—the first step in a rollback of one of the U.S.'s biggest efforts to curb carbon emissions.
In July 2011, President Obama announced he would tighten regulations of vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, with rules that were first finalized in August 2012. Under Obama-era policy, cars and light-duty trucks would be required to have average fuel efficiencies equivalent to 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025.
About a sixth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 came from passenger cars and light-duty trucks. Overall, the Obama program would've reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 6 billion metric tons—more than the total CO2 the U.S. emitted in 2016.
The EPA committed to finishing a midterm evaluation of the 2022-2025 standards by no later than April 1, 2018. On January 12, 2017, outgoing Obama EPA administrator Gina McCarthy finalized the evaluation and reaffirmed the stringent emissions standards.
At the time, car manufacturers argued that the 2022-2025 standards were unrealistic, expensive, and politically rushed. The Trump administration has enthusiastically echoed these sentiments; it restarted the midterm evaluation in March 2017.
“The Obama administration's determination was wrong,” Pruitt said in a statement. “Obama’s EPA cut the Midterm Evaluation process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality, and set the standards too high.”
Automakers struck a guardedly pleased tone in releases about the announcement, seemingly leery that they may be getting more rollbacks out of the Trump EPA than they originally bargained for. Already, environmental and public health groups are voicing fierce opposition.
“Starting a process to weaken clean car standards marks yet another step backward from the fight to curb climate change,” said Harold P. Wimmer, the national president and CEO of the American Lung Association, in a statement. “Climate change poses serious threats to millions of people, especially to some of the most vulnerable Americans, including children, older adults and those living with chronic diseases such as asthma.”
“Pruitt’s rollback of the EPA clean car standards is a U-turn in the fight against climate change. We don’t know exactly how far the agency will back-track until they publish new standards, but we can be sure that it will make achieving a low-carbon transportation system more difficult and likely more expensive,” wrote Luke Tonachel, the clean vehicles director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement.
Globally, lowering U.S. emissions standards could bolster other countries to weaken their own emissions standards. Within the U.S., a rollback would set up a legal trench war between the EPA and the state of California. Under a waiver it received at the dawn of the EPA, California has the authority to set its own, more stringent emissions standards. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia—in all, a third of the U.S. population—follow California's lead.
“We’re ready to file suit if needed to protect these critical standards and to fight the administration’s war on our environment,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement. “California didn’t become the sixth-largest economy in the world by spectating.”
ZINKE OFFERS SUPPORT FOR GRIZZLIES IN NORTH CASCADES
March 23, 2018
In a move that pleased conservationists and infuriated cattlemen, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced his support for efforts to return the grizzly bear to the North Cascades ecosystem.
"The grizzly bear is part of the environment, as it once was here. It's part of a healthy environment," he said according to The Seattle Times.
Zinke said that by the end of 2018, U.S. officials would complete a plan for returning the grizzly bear to the North Cascades, a rugged ecosystem that straddles the U.S. state of Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that fewer than 50 grizzly bears now live in the region, which is isolated from other grizzly populations in North America.
In 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the North Cascades grizzly bear warranted an endangered listing under the Endangered Species Act. The following year, the Seattle Times reports that the Obama administration announced a three-year recovery study. In 2017, the study was halted; now, with Zinke's support, it will presumably continue.
FEMA EXPELS "CLIMATE CHANGE" FROM STRATEGIC PLAN
March 16, 2018
NPR reports that the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has stricken “climate change” and associated verbiage from its strategic plan, on the heels of one of the most expensive years of natural disasters in modern U.S. history.
The plan, published on March 15, says that one of the agency’s major strategic goals is to “ready the nation for catastrophic disasters.” As NPR noted, it does discuss the potential for rising disaster costs:
Disaster costs are expected to continue to increase due to rising natural hazard risk, decaying critical infrastructure, and economic pressures that limit investments in risk resilience. As good stewards of taxpayer dollars, FEMA must ensure that our programs are fiscally sound. Additionally, we will consider new pathways to long-term disaster risk reduction, including increased investments in pre-disaster mitigation.
In a statement to NPR, FEMA Public Affairs Director William Booher said that “this strategic plan fully incorporates future risks from all hazards regardless of cause.”
In the plan, FEMA does not elaborate on the causes of “rising natural hazard risk,” which include human-caused climate change. As National Geographic previously reported, two recent studies found that the record rainfall from Hurricane Harvey—which cost roughly $125 billion—got a 15-percent boost thanks to climate change. The studies also found that climate change roughly tripled the odds of a storm of Harvey’s intensity.
The threats of climate change featured in FEMA strategic plans drafted under the Obama administration, as well as earlier ones. In a 2008 strategic plan drafted under the George W. Bush administration, then-FEMA director R. David Paulison said that future years “will likely present our nation with equally challenging events, including technological incidents, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or extreme weather events spawned by global warming.”
EPA MULLS SHAKE-UP TO ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH PROGRAM
February 26, 2018
The Trump administration is thinking about reorganizing an EPA group that funds research on children’s health and environmental health disparities affecting minorities and the poor.
According to the proposal, the EPA would consolidate its National Center for Environmental Research (NCER), a branch of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, with two other offices related to grant-making. The combined office would field Freedom of Information Requests, manage EPA records, and administer grants.
In a statement to Earther, EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman said that the move is intended to make the agency more efficient. She added that the management of research grants would continue and that none of NCER’s current staff would be fired.
When news of the reorganization first broke, some raised concerns that NCER’s work would fall by the wayside. Currently, NCER oversees EPA’s STAR (Science to Achieve Results) program, which issues grants and fellowships to outside environmental researchers. STAR funding helps support the U.S.’s Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers, which examine pollution’s effects on children’s health.
In 2017, STAR earned acclaim from the National Academies—the U.S.’s preeminent scientific body—for its support of high-quality science, including work showing that infants could be exposed to arsenic via rice cereal. Yet from 2002 to 2016, STAR’s budget declined by more than 70 percent (adjusting for inflation) to $36 million, E&E Newsreports. In its FY2019 budget request, the Trump EPA called for STAR’s elimination.
In an interview with National Geographic, a senior EPA official said that the reorganized office would continue STAR if Congress funds it. The official added that new STAR grants would probably dovetail with the EPA’s priorities under administrator Scott Pruitt, which the agency laid out in its 2018-2022 strategic plan.
Pruitt’s “back-to-basics” plan calls for a focus on maintaining air quality, implementing recent chemical-safety reforms, funding infrastructure for drinking water, and accelerating the cleanup of Superfund sites. Missing from the document is any mention of climate change or carbon dioxide, points of emphasis in Obama-era EPA strategic plans.
TRUMP PROPOSES CUTS TO CLIMATE AND CLEAN-ENERGY PROGRAMS
February 12, 2018
In its FY2019 budget and addendum, the Trump administration has proposed sweeping rollbacks to U.S. programs designed to study and mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as cuts to research on renewable energy.
At this point, the budget is merely an opening bid in negotiations with Congress; last year, lawmakers largely ignored similar proposed cuts. Nevertheless, the budget provides insight into the White House's priorities.
For instance, the EPA budget suggests eliminating the environmental agency's climate-change research program, which currently costs the agency $16 million per year. In addition, the EPA has proposed axing several voluntary emissions-reductions programs and STAR, which funds environmental research and graduate student fellowships.
Other parts of the budget trim environmental services, such as the EPA's Report on the Environment, and cut the agency's Human Health Risk Assessment program by nearly 40 percent.
As it did in 2017, the Trump administration has proposed axing several NASA Earth-science missions, including PACE and OCO-3. (Read more about the targeted missions.)
The budget also calls for shutting down the Earth-facing instruments aboard DSCOVR, which is already flying. These instruments include EPIC, which continually photographs Earth's sunlit half to measure the planet's energy budget.
The White House has proposed eliminating the U.S. State Department's Global Climate Change Initiative, which in 2017 received $160 million in funding. The program primarily aims to help other countries better weather the impacts of climate change. Though most developing countries did little to contribute to ongoing climate change, developing countries will be more severely affected.
The Trump administration's 2019 budget also advocates for a 55-percent cut in spending on the Department of Energy's applied R&D programs. The cuts would shrink the agency's $3.77-billion budget to slightly less than $1.7 billion. In its justification, the White House says that the move would refocus R&D efforts from late-stage development to early-stage research.
At the same time, the budget cuts investments in early-stage research by axing ARPA-E, the Department of Energy's $305-million advanced research program. The budget also calls for nearly a 40-percent cut to the department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, even after accounting for the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA), which recently increased FY2019 spending levels.
At the same time, the budget calls for increases in spending on fossil fuels. Including the BBA, the Department of Energy's budget calls for an extra $281 million on fossil-fuel R&D, $200 million of which would be spent on “clean coal.” (Can coal ever be clean?)
Unlike last year, the Trump administration is no longer proposing the destruction of the popular ENERGY STAR program, which certifies energy-efficient appliances. Instead, it wants to charge companies that seek the labeling, using those “user fees” to make the program financially self-sufficient.
REPORT: TRUMP MULLING MAJOR CUTS TO CLEAN ENERGY RESEARCH
January 31, 2018
The Washington Post reports that in its 2019 budget, the Trump administration is seeking to slash Department of Energy funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives by 72 percent.
Congress would likely oppose such steep cuts in any future budget negotiations, but the move further signals the Trump administration's avowed support of fossil-fuel industries.
News of the proposed cuts comes the day after President Trump praised “beautiful clean coal” in his State of the Union address, and several days after Trump announced steep tariffs on imported solar panels. (Find out more about the myth of “clean coal.”)
According to Post reporters Chris Mooney and Steven Mufson, leaked budget documents reportedly show that the administration is seeking to cut funding for the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by more than 70 percent, from an enacted 2017 budget of $2.04 billion to $575.5 million. The Post also reports that the budget suggests staffing cuts, from 680 staffers in 2017 to a proposed 450 in 2019.
“I will not comment on a budget that has not been released. However, I will suggest that anyone who questions this administration’s commitment to an all-of-the-above energy approach simply look at our record," Department of Energy spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes said in a statement. "Last year the Energy Department awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to solar and wind energy.
"Though it may not fit into the narrative of the environmental lobby and their pundits, the truth is that Secretary Perry believes that there is a role for all fuels—including renewables—in our energy mix.”
This would not be the first time that the Trump administration has attempted to slash this sort of funding. In its 2018 budget, the Trump administration sought cuts of more than two-thirds for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which Congress rejected.
EPA LOOSENS REGULATIONS ON TOXIC AIR POLLUTION
January 25, 2018
In a brief legal memo, the Trump EPA has dropped “once in, always in” (OIAI), a Clinton-era EPA policy that aimed to lock in reductions of hazardous air pollution from industrial sources.
Industry lawyers and Senate Republicans have long argued that eliminating OIAI will actually provide a stronger incentive for businesses to reduce emissions, since they can now more easily lower emissions and avoid the regulations that major pollution sources must endure.
However, environmental activists and lawyers are concerned with the abrupt change, saying that it may actually increase exposure to hazardous air pollution—especially among vulnerable populations, who live near major industrial polluters more often.
“They’re really going to be killing people,” said Hip-Hop Caucus vice president Mustafa Ali, the former environmental justice head at EPA, in an interview with Earther. “You’re going to have all types of public health problems.”
To see how OIAI worked, imagine a business that emits 11 tons of a given hazardous air pollutant (HAP) per year. Under EPA regulations, facilities that emit more than 10 tons of one HAP, or 25 tons of HAPs in total, are reclassified from area sources to major sources.
By law, major sources must retool their processes to get their emissions down to the lowest levels set by peers within the industry. These benchmarks are called the Maximum Achievable Control Technology, or MACT, standards.
By hewing to MACT standards, let's say the company's HAP emissions go down from 11 tons per year to three tons. According to OIAI, the company would have to abide by MACT standards permanently, locking in eight tons of annual emissions reductions.
Under the new EPA policy, however, the company could do just enough to reduce emissions from 11 tons to nine. By dropping below the 10-ton threshold, the company goes from being a major source to being an area source—thereby jettisoning the MACT requirement.
While going from 11 tons of emissions to nine is technically a reduction, it's actually more pollution relative to what the facility could have achieved by complying with MACT standards. This phenomenon, called “backsliding,” is what OIAI aimed to prevent.
Environmental groups are poised to sue the EPA to block the policy change.
“This is among the most dangerous actions that the Trump EPA has taken yet against public health,” said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in a statement. “NRDC will fight this terrible decision to unleash toxic pollutants with every available tool.”
MOST OF NATIONAL PARKS ADVISORY BOARD RESIGNS IN PROTEST
January 15, 2018
Nine of the 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Boardresigned on January 15, the Washington Post reported on January 16, in protest of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's refusal to meet with them.
First chartered by Congress in 1935, the civilian group is required to contain academic experts, experienced park managers, and at least one former elected official from an area adjacent to a national park.
The board advises the National Park System, the National Park Service, and the Secretary of the Interior on a wide range of matters, and it also helps to select national historic landmarks. Its members are unpaid.
"I wasn't voted in, but I realize I represent people beyond myself," says Carolyn Finney, a University of Kentucky geographer who had served on the board since 2010. "When you slam the door in the face of me and the board, you're also slamming the door on a whole lot of other people."
In a joint letter, Finney and other departing board members expressed frustration at Secretary Zinke's refusal to meet with them.
"For the last year we have stood by waiting for the chance to meet... We understand the complexity of transition but our requests to engage have been ignored, and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new Department team are clearly not part of its agenda," wrote Tony Knowles, the board's departing chair and a former Alaska governor, in a resignation letter co-signed by Finney and seven other board members.
"I wish the National Park System and Service well and will always be dedicated to their success," Knowles's letter continued. "However, from all of the events of this past year I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside."
In May, the Washington Post reported that the Interior Department began a sweeping review of more than 200 advisory boards and other entities associated with the department. Around the same time, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt dismissed several members of the agency's Board of Scientific Counselors.
REPORT: CLIMATE CHANGE WEB SITES 'CENSORED' UNDER TRUMP
January 10, 2018
A new report finds that in the first year of the Trump administration, U.S. government websites have been systematically altered to cut mentions of climate change. However, there is no evidence of tampering with climate data.
The report, published by the nonprofit Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), says that several government agencies—notably the EPA—have removed or reduced their web content about climate change.
Since Trump's inauguration, the group has monitored thousands of government web pages for changes or deletions. In some instances, "climate change" is replaced with the vaguer words "sustainability" or "resiliency." In others, some climate change webpages are taken down entirely.
For instance, the Bureau of Land Management's web page on climate change was taken down between May and November 2017, the report states. The EPA's "Student's Guide to Global Climate Change" went offline sometime between February and April 2017.
"While we cannot determine the reasons for these changes from monitoring websites alone, our work reveals shifts in stated priorities and governance and an overall reduction in access to climate change information, particularly at the EPA," the group says.
EDGI emphasizes that, so far, it hasn't seen evidence of the removal or deletion of climate data sets, as some scientists and activists had feared.
(Full disclosure: the National Geographic Society has given grants to Data Refuge and the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange, which are archiving U.S. climate data.)
TRUMP INTERIOR DEPARTMENT DECLARES THAT ACCIDENTAL BIRD DEATHS ARE LEGAL
December 22, 2017
Reversing Obama-era policy, the Trump administration has decreed that it will no longer consider the accidental killing of birds—from eagles colliding with wind turbines to ducks zapped on power lines—a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).
“It reverses decades of precedent over 20 administrations,” says Sarah Greenberger, the National Audubon Society’s vice president of conservation policy. “It’s a shocking step to break with that kind of tradition, and it’s of great concern.”
The law, which turns a hundred years old in 2018, is among the United States’ oldest and widest-reaching environmental protections. Originally envisioned to save birds from overhunting, the law now safeguards more than 1,025 migratory bird species and their eggs, feathers, and nests. Illegally killing a protected bird can result in a $15,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
The law—which prohibits harming protected species "at any time, or in any manner"—had been interpreted as forbidding “incidental takes,” the accidental yet foreseeable deaths of birds from industrial activity. But the phrase itself does not appear in the law. Through the years, some U.S. courts had questioned whether the MBTA really does cover incidental takes.
In a memo published on January 10, 2017, Hilary Tompkins—the outgoing solicitor for the Obama Interior Department—found that all forms of incidental take were prohibited under the MBTA. In her memo, she cites the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s longtime interpretation of the law and decades of successful prosecutions.
Tompkins also notes that Canada—the co-signer of the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916, which sparked the MBTA—interprets it as requiring the prohibition of incidental takes.
But on February 6, the incoming Trump administration rescinded Tompkins’ guidance, pending a review. On December 22, it was replaced entirely by a memo reaching the opposite conclusion, relying in part on some U.S. courts’ skeptical rulings.
The analysis, penned by Daniel Jorjani—one of the Trump Interior Department’s highest-ranking lawyers and a former adviser to the Koch brothers—instead finds that the word “take” describes a willful, deliberate act. What’s more, he says that for industry, the threat of being prosecuted for incidental takes is an undue burden.
“Interpreting the MBTA to apply to incidental or accidental actions hangs the sword of Damocles over a host of otherwise lawful and productive actions,” Jorjani wrote in the new memo.
Conservation groups are outraged by the decision. If the MBTA no longer covers incidental take, some experts fear that industry may not invest in systems that save many birds’ lives, such as covers for oil pits, more widely spaced power lines, or camera systems that slow wind turbines when birds are present.
"The statement made by this administration basically says that the real problem...is poaching birds for feathers for ladies' hats," says Defenders of Wildlife vice president Bob Dreher, who served as associate director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Obama. "They're turning this thing into an antique."
Energy companies, in particular, have been regularly penalized for incidental takes. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the largest in U.S. history, federal officials used the MBTA to secure $100 million in fines from BP that went toward bird conservation efforts.
One 2014 study found that the spill killed anywhere from 600,000 to 800,000 birds in the Gulf of Mexico, including a third of the northern Gulf’s laughing gull population.
Renewable energy and fossil-fuel groups alike have praised the MBTA reversal. “This commonsense approach ensures that lawful activities are not held hostage to unnecessary threats of criminalization,” the National Ocean Industries Association said in a statement.
“We don’t dispute the need for energy,” says Greenberger. “It just seems so unnecessary to have taken this step.”
News of the reversal comes as National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology kick off the Year of the Bird. The joint effort will explore and celebrate birds, as well as document the threats facing them.
“I think we will celebrate, but we also intend to use this partnership to remind people how much of a part of our lives birds are—and what it takes to protect them,” says Greenberger.
This entry has been updated to include comment from Bob Dreher.
TRUMP DROPS CLIMATE CHANGE FROM LIST OF NATIONAL SECURITY THREATS
December 18, 2017
President Donald Trump has announced that the United States will no longer regard climate change by name as a national security threat.
The stance marks an abrupt turn from the Obama administration, which in 2015 described climate change as “an urgent and growing threat to our national security,” given its effects on natural disasters, conflicts over food and water, and refugee crises.
In contrast, the Trump administration’s national security strategy, published Monday, discusses climate change only within the context of U.S. energy policy.
“Climate policies will continue to shape the global energy system, [and] U.S. leadership is indispensable to countering an anti-growth energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy security interests,” the report reads. “Given future global energy demand, much of the developing world will require fossil fuels, as well as other forms of energy, to power their economies and lift their people out of poverty.”
As National Geographic has previously reported, humans’ dramatic alteration of the global climate is not only scientific fact, but it also poses numerous security threats to the United States and the world.
Depending on the region, extreme weather events—such as droughts, wildfires, heatwaves, and torrential rains—may become more frequent and intense under climate change, posing threats to military installations and civilian communities alike. As weather patterns change, some disease-bearing creatures such as mosquitoes will enjoy longer active seasons over wider areas, exacerbating threats to public health.
In addition, rising seas threaten to cripple coastal military infrastructure, an ongoing concern at the U.S. Navy’s installation in Norfolk, Virginia. Melting ice means that the normally ice-clogged Arctic is poised to transform into a major shipping route, altering regional geopolitics. Warmer, more acidic waters will kill off many coral reefs, which supply food and income to millions. And as sea levels rise, flooding will displace coastal populations.
“We’ve seen that 700,000 refugees coming from Syria have shaken the European Union to its core. Take that number and multiply it by 100 who would be forced to leave the coasts, and that’s the kind of change we are going to unleash upon ourselves,” said David Titley, a climate scientist at Penn State University and retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, in a previous interview.
“The impacts of that on security or economics are fundamentally unknowable,” he added. “But anybody who thinks that’s not a huge risk is probably smoking something.”
Despite Trump’s change in emphasis, it’s possible that U.S. government research on climate change will continue—under an assumed name. Since Trump’s inauguration, U.S. government websites seeking to scrub “climate change” from their records have opted to swap out the phrase for the word “resilience.”
For instance, a division within the Department of Defense’s environmental research programs that had been named for climate change is now named for “resiliency.” An EPA web page devoted to “climate ready” water management now discusses “resilient water utilities.”
What does President Trump’s national security strategy say about “resilience,” then?
“Resilience includes the ability to withstand and recover rapidly from deliberate attacks, accidents, natural disasters, as well as unconventional stresses, shocks, and threats to our economy and democratic system,” the report states. “Through risk-informed investments, we will build resilient communities and infrastructure to protect and benefit future generations.”
TRUMP UNVEILS PLAN TO DRAMATICALLY DOWNSIZE TWO NATIONAL MONUMENTS
December 4, 2017
In a speech delivered in Salt Lake City, President Trump announced his intention to sharply reduce two Utah national monuments established by his predecessors.
In a move presaged by leaked government documents, Trump announced that he would reduce the 1.35-million acre Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama in late 2016, by 85 percent. The president also said he would cut the 1.88-million acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996, nearly in half.
Indian nations, conservation groups, and paleontologists have filed suit over the expected changes, among the most sweeping efforts taken by a U.S. president to downsize national monuments.
(For more, read our extensive coverage of the proposed changes—and what they actually mean.)
INTERIOR DEPARTMENT PROPOSES LARGEST-EVER OIL AND GAS LEASE AUCTION
October 23, 2017
The U.S. Department of Interior has proposed auctioning off oil and gas leases for 77 million acres of federal waters within the Gulf of Mexico—the largest lease auction of its kind ever announced.
In an October 23 statement, the Interior Department says that it will auction off the oil and gas leases for all available unleased areas on the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf, in waters off the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The auction is about a million acres larger than the most recent auction of its ilk, which occurred under the Obama administration in August 2016.
“In today’s low-price energy environment, providing the offshore industry access to the maximum amount of opportunities possible is part of our strategy to spur local and regional economic dynamism and job creation and a pillar of President Trump’s plan to make the United States energy dominant,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in a statement.
The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates that the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf contains over 48 billion barrels of oil and 141 trillion cubic feet of gas that are technically recoverable. EPA estimates suggest that if these fossil fuels were burned completely, they would add the equivalent of more than 28 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—more than five times the United States’ total carbon footprint in 2016.
The announcement comes days after an oil pipeline off the coast of Louisiana spilled some 672,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the largest oil leak in the Gulf since the 2010 Deepwater Horizondisaster, which was more than 300 times bigger. Forecasters say that the oil, which dispersed under 5,000 feet of water, is not expected to impact the shoreline, according to an ABC report.
Mounds of unsold coal stand above ground at ERP Compliant Fuels' Federal No. 2 mine near Fairview, W.Va., April 11, 2016. With Donald Trump's win in the race for the White House, scores of regulations that have reshaped the contours of corporate America over the last eight years suddenly seemed vulnerable.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LUKE SHARRETT, THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX
TRUMP EPA POISED TO SCRAP CLEAN POWER PLAN
October 9, 2017
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to withdraw the Clean Power Plan, the lynchpin of the Obama Administration's effort to combat climate change, the New York Times reported Monday.
In a speech delivered in Hazard, Kentucky, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt declared that he will sign a proposal on Tuesday that would eliminate the Clean Power Plan (CPP), claiming that “the war on coal is over.”
Unveiled in 2015, the Clean Power Plan mandated that the U.S. power sector's carbon emissions be cut by 32 percent from 2005 by 2030 (870 million tons of CO2), slashing the single biggest contributor to the country's overall carbon footprint.
Utility companies and 27 states sued the EPA over the rule, arguing that because the CPP encouraged a broader shift away from coal-fired power plants, the EPA had overstepped its authority under the Clean Air Act. The rule remained in legal limbo as a result.
President Trump campaigned on repealing the CPP, decrying it as an unfair burden on the coal industry and overall economy. EPA Administrator Pruitt, a longtime ally of fossil-fuel interests, advocated for the CPP's repeal when he was Oklahoma's attorney general.
A new report by the Rhodium Group, a policy research firm, finds that the U.S. power sector is now on track to reduce its 2030 emissions by 27 to 35 percent relative to 2005, in line with the CPP's initial goal. However, as the New York Times noted, that same report finds that the CPP would have required up to 21 states to cut their emissions more deeply than existing regulations call for. As a result, the CPP likely would have reduced U.S. power-sector emissions even further.
Beyond the potential climate hazards, experts and advocates have criticized the CPP's repeal on public health grounds. Not only do coal-fired power plants emit carbon dioxide, but they also emit sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulate matter—all potent respiratory irritants. The Obama Administration's EPA had estimatedthat the CPP would bring up to $54 billion in climate and public health benefits, avoiding 1,500 to 3,600 premature deaths and 90,000 asthma attacks in children.
The EPA under Trump has taken a different tack. In a leaked draft obtained by POLITICO, the cost-benefit analysis for repealing the CPP at times assumes that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels below the National Ambient Air Quality Standards pose no health hazard. There is little scientific evidence to support this claim, says George Thurston, an expert on air pollutants' health risks at the New York University School of Medicine.
“It's just as specious as saying people are at absolutely no risk of a car accident below the legal speed limit,” Thurston said in a teleconference organized by the American Lung Association.
MINING HEALTH STUDY HALTED; CLIMATE ADVISORY PANEL DISBANDED
August 22, 2017
The Trump administration has suspended a study of health risks to residents who live near mountaintop removal coal mine sites in the Appalachian Mountains. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine was asked by the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in an August 18letter to “cease all activities” involved in the two-year, $1 millionresearch project while the department undertakes a review of projects costing more than $100,000. The review was prompted by “the department’s changing budget situation,” the letter said.
The academies undertook the study last year at the request of West Virginia’s state government, after researchers at the University of West Virginia and other institutions found increased risks of birth defects, cancer, and premature death, according to reporting by Ken Ward, Jr. of the Charleston, West Virginia Gazette-Mail.
President Trump proposed cutting $1.6 billion—or 12 percent—from the Interior budget in 2018. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told a Senate committee in June that he supports the budget cuts, which includes cutting 4,000 jobs. “This is what a balanced budget looks like,” he said.
The academies went ahead with previously planned meetings in Hazard and Lexington, Kentucky communities to hear from coal country residents.
“The National Academies believes this is an important study and we stand ready to resume it as soon as the Department of Interior review is completed,” William Kearney, the academies executive director said in a statement. The academies are private, nonprofit institutions that conduct independent analysis and provide advice on complex public policy issues related to science, technology, and medicine, the statement says. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter signed by President Lincoln.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration also disbanded a federal advisory panel for the National Climate Assessment. The 15-member group was created in 2015 to help businesses and state and local governments understand and prepare for the government’s next National Climate Assessment. That report, required by law to be issued every four years, is due in 2018. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman said the disbanding of the advisory panel, whose charter expired August 20, will not affect completion of the National Climate Assessment.
TRUMP REVOKES FLOOD STANDARDS ACCOUNTING FOR SEA-LEVEL RISE
August 15, 2017
President Trump has signed an executive order revoking federal flood-risk standards that incorporated rising sea levels predicted by climate science.
Trump’s new executive order claims to improve federal infrastructure decisions by quickening and streamlining the environmental review process. A single sentence takes the additional step of revoking Executive Order 13690, signed by President Barack Obama on January 30, 2015.
That executive order required that federally funded projects hew to a Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, to reduce the risk of future flood damage. Specifically, the order required that floodplains had to be based on the “best-available, actionable hydrologic and hydraulic data and methods that integrate current and future changes in flooding based on climate science.”
From 1993 to 2016, global average sea level has increased by about 3.25 inches and is projected to rise one to four feet by the end of the century. Higher sea-level rise cannot be ruled out, due to incomplete data on Antarctic ice-shelf stability. Since the 1960s, tidal flooding has increased at least fivefold in several U.S. cities.
U.S. cities are predicted to see more floods in the coming years. A recent Union of Concerned Scientists report found that chronic flooding—a flood roughly every two weeks—will come to affect more than 170 U.S. coastal communities in less than 20 years and some 670 communities by 2100.
REPORT: EPA ENFORCEMENT LAGS UNDER TRUMP
August 10, 2017
A newly published report asserts that in its first six months, the EPA under the Trump administration is off to a slow start enforcing environmental laws.
The report, published by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, examined lawsuits filed by the EPA from January 20 to July 31, 2017, roughly the Trump administration’s first six months in power. Over that time, the EPA has filed fewer lawsuits against companies for breaking pollution control laws than the agency had during the opening months of the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations.
The Trump EPA also lags by other key metrics, the report finds. So far, its actions against violators have avoided 22 estimated premature deaths, and it has collected $12 million of civil penalties. In comparison, the Obama administration had avoided some 229 premature deaths and collected $36 million in penalties—and in its first six months, the EPA under George W. Bush had avoided some 618 premature deaths and had collected $30 million in penalties.
“This is the weakest start any of us has seen in at least 24 years,” says Eric Schaeffer, the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and the EPA’s former director of civil enforcement.
In a press call, Schaeffer and the report’s other coauthors expressed concern that the Trump EPA will not make enforcement a priority—a fear they say is only reinforced by proposed budget cuts. The Trump administration has called for a 23-percent cut to the agency’s enforcement budget and an agency-wide budget cut of 31 percent.
In a statement, EPA deputy assistant administrator Patrick Traylor emphasized that the report’s short time window can’t account for the months to years it can take to police possible violators.
“This ‘snapshot’ assertions (sic) say much more about enforcement actions commenced in the later years of the Obama administration than it does about actions taken in the beginning of the Trump administration,” he adds. “Despite this unfair report, EPA is committed to enforcing environmental laws to correct noncompliance and promote cleanup of contaminated sites.”
INTERIOR DEPARTMENT RELAXES ASPECTS OF SAGE GROUSE PROTECTION
August 7, 2017
The Department of the Interior has released the results of a 60-day review of the Obama administration’s conservation plan to protect the greater sage grouse. The review, ordered in June by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, was intended to determine if that plan interferes with Trump administration efforts to increase energy production on federal lands.
In light of the newly published review, Secretary Zinke recommends reprioritizing oil development within the broader 2015 plan, among other changes. Environmental groups have rebuked the overhaul, arguing that changes to the 2015 plan could dilute protections for the species.
“Today, the administration’s review opens the door to significant changes to the sage-grouse plans, which could undercut the sound science used to develop those plans and jeopardize what we know the bird needs to live and thrive,” said Eric Holst, the associate vice president of working lands for the Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement. “By reopening the federal plans, we risk undermining and undoing one of the greatest collaborative conservation efforts in our nation’s history.”
The Obama plan was drawn up as an alternative to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to list the sage grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The approach, which involved a five-year negotiation between 1,100 ranchers, environmental groups, and state and federal agencies, was hailed as an unprecedented collaborationthat had reduced the threat to sage grouse habitat while avoiding a more stringent regulatory intervention that might hinder economic development. Fish and Wildlife declined to list the sage grouse after the collaborative conservation plan was unveiled in 2015.
The sage grouse habitat spans 173 million acres in 11 western states, including the Dakotas, and three Canadian provinces. Before the West was settled, the sage grouse once roamed over 290 million acres. In launching the 60-day review, Zinke said: “While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to responsibly manage wildlife, destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor.” Rewriting the Obama plan could extend beyond President Trump’s term, when public comment periods, new proposals and legal challenges are taken into account.
EPA DROPS DELAY OF OBAMA-ERA OZONE STANDARDS
August 2, 2017
In an about-face spurred by a 16-state lawsuit, the Trump administration EPA has dropped its decision to delay Obama-era regulations on ozone. The potent lung irritant forms when strong sunlight irradiates emissions from vehicles, power plants, and other sources.
In October 2015, the Obama administration tightened the ozone national standard from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion, citing ozone’s toll on public health. The Obama administration estimated that the reduction would yield $2.9 to $5.9 billion worth of health benefits in 2025, outweighing its estimated annual cost of $1.4 billion.
Few were entirely thrilled with the 2015 regulations. Environmental and public-health groups criticized the regulation as not stringent enough, citing evidence that ozone still poses a public health threat at 70 parts per billion, the upper end of the ozone standards recommended by scientists advising the EPA. Meanwhile, industry groups and their allies in Congress criticized the rule for the costs it would inflict.
In June, the EPA announced its intent to delay the implementation of the rule from October 1, 2017, to October 1, 2018, citing lingering questions and the regulation’s complexities. In response, 16 Democratic state attorneys general and the District of Columbia petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to review the one-year delay.
In its reversal the next day, the EPA cited its “commitment to working with the states.”
NOAA CANCELS RULE TO PROTECT WHALES FROM FISHING NETS
June 13, 2017
The Trump Administration this week cancelled a rule that would have helped prevent endangered whales and sea turtles from becoming entangled in fishing nets off the U.S. West Coast. Proposed in 2015, the rule would have closed the swordfish gill net fishery for up to two years if any two individual endangered whales or sea turtles were killed or seriously hurt within a two-year period. The same penalties would have applied if any combination of four bottlenose dolphins or short-finned pilot whales were injured or killed within a two-year period.
This week, however, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division announced that the rule is no longer necessary because other protections have reduced the number of marine mammals entangled in gill nets. “What changed is that our more detailed analysis demonstrated to us that the hard caps would likely impose significant additional cost on the fleet without much additional conservation benefit,” says Michael Milstein, a NOAA fisheries spokesman.
Entanglements were common in the 1990s. But only two gray whales have been killed or seriously injured since 2012, according to NOAA. The short-beaked dolphin is the most frequently entangled marine mammal, and the number of annual entanglements of this species has declined from 200 killed in the early 1990s to fewer than 10 injured or killed in 2015.
New net design has helped reduce casualties, NOAA says. But environmentalists say that a more likely explanation for the reduced entanglements is the significant drop in the number of fishermen working the waters. The swordfish fleet has declined by almost 90 percent since the 1990s—from 141 boats in 1990 to just 20 boats in 2016. Leatherback turtles, humpback whales, and sperm whales are still being killed in gill nets, a spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity told the Los Angeles Times.
INTERIOR SUGGESTS SHRINKING BEARS EARS
June 12, 2017
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah’s red rock country be shrunk by President Trump. Zinke declined to say at a press conference how much Bears Ears’ boundaries should be downsized. But he suggested the rich cache of ancient tribal artifacts inside the monument—one of the largest collections in the nation—could be protected in a much smaller area surrounding the Bears Ears twin butte formation and another section to the north of what is now a 1.3-million-acre expanse.
The boundary details will be forwarded to Trump later this summer, Zinke said, along with his review of 26 other national monuments. Zinke says legislation will also be proposed so that Congress determines how areas inside national monuments are managed. Bears Ears, for example, also contains wilderness areas inside its boundaries.
The president had asked Zinke in April to review large monuments as part of an effort to increase development on federal lands. Bears Ears is one of two controversial Utah national monuments that drew the ire of Utah lawmakers, who asked Trump to consider rescinding or shrinking them. Bears Ears, created by President Barack Obama last December after several years of negotiations with state and tribal leaders, was singled out by Trump as a “massive federal land grab.” The other is Grand Staircase Escalante, created by President Clinton in 1996, with little public involvement.
Zinke said the Utah delegation and state lawmakers, including Gov. Gary Herbert, support his recommendations. But supporters of Bears Ears existing boundaries expressed disappointment as well as doubts that Trump’s efforts to shrink Bears Ears would survive a court challenge. Randi Spivak, spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, Arizona, said the recommendation to downsize Bears Ears contradicts the intentions of the Antiquities Act, which enables presidents to set aside federal land for protection and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. “It’s time for Zinke to stop pretending he’s a Teddy Roosevelt kind of guy,” Spivak said.
INTERIOR TO REVIEW GREATER SAGE GROUSE PROTECTION
June 8, 2017
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Wednesday ordered a review of an Obama administration conservation plan to protect the greater sage grouse to determine if that plan interferes with Trump administration efforts to increase energy production on federal lands. The Obama plan was drawn up as an alternative to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to list the sage grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The approach, which involved a five-year negotiation between 1,100 ranchers, environmental groups, and state and federal agencies, was hailed as an unprecedented collaboration that had reduced the threat to sage grouse habitat while avoiding a more stringent regulatory intervention that might hinder economic development. Fish and Wildlife declined to list the sage grouse after the collaborative conservation plan was unveiled in 2015.
The sage grouse habitat spans 173 million acres in 11 western states, including the Dakotas, and three Canadian provinces. Before the West was settled, the sage grouse once roamed over 290 million acres. In launching the 60-day review, Zinke said: “While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to responsibly manage wildlife, destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor.” Rewriting the Obama plan could extend beyond President Trump’s term, when public comment periods, new proposals and legal challenges are taken into account.
U.S. PULLS OUT OF PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT
June 1, 2017
President Trump said that he will pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, steering away from a group of 194 other countries that have promised to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. The news came just days after he attended the G7 Summit in Italy, where the six other member countries—Germany, Italy, Canada, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom—reaffirmed their commitment to the 2015 climate pact.
As part of the accord, the U.S. had agreed to cut its emissions between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. In abandoning that promise, the U.S. effectively cedes leadership on the issue to other countries, including the world’s top emitter, China. Chinese President Xi Jinping has stood by the agreement in the face of a wavering U.S., calling it a “hard-won achievement” that should be honored. Still, plummeting prices for wind and solar energy and corporations’ support of clean energy are among the reasons why climate progress will likely continue.
TRUMP BUDGET PROPOSES STEEP CUTS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
May 23, 2017
President Trump’s 2018 budget, sent to Congress Tuesday, calls for massive cuts in scientific research and in a slew of environmental programs that protect air and water. The proposed budget, titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” slashes the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31 percent – a steeper cut than any other agency. Those cuts could translate into a $2.7 billion spending reduction and the loss of 3,200 jobs, according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute. The proposed budget eliminates major programs to restore the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Puget Sound. It ends the EPA’s lead-risk reduction and radon detection programs and cuts funding for the Superfund cleanup program.
The budget proposal does, however, retain funding for grants and financing to states and cities for drinking water and wastewater programs. S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, told the Washington Post that he “was amazed” that the final EPA budget is nearly identical to the preliminary budget released in March, despite strong opposition at the time from many members of Congress. In addition, the Interior Department would undergo a 12 percent funding cut, and the Energy Department a six percent cut.
OBAMA METHANE RULE REMAINS LAW OF LAND
May 10, 2017
In a surprise 51-49 defeat, the U.S. Senate rejects a measure that would have repealed Obama-era regulations on methane emissions. That regulation, which the House of Representatives voted to rescind on February 3, limits the venting and flaring of natural gas from oil and gas facilities on U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands. The Obama administration had argued that the practices wasted tens of billions of cubic feet of natural gas annually—and also posed a climate threat. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with 25 times the warming capacity of carbon dioxide.
EPA DISMISSES SCIENCE ADVISORS
May 5, 2017
The EPA dismisses several members of the Board of Scientific Counselors, an 18-member advisory board that reviews the research of EPA scientists. Some of the dismissed scientists had been assured that their three-year terms on the board would be renewed. In a May 7 story by the New York Times, critics assailed the move, casting it as a gift to business interests at the expense of science. An EPA spokesperson said the decision allowed the agency to consider a more diverse pool of applicants, including industry representatives, for the board.
In addition, the Washington Post reported on May 8 that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has started reviewing more than 200 advisory boards and other entities associated with the Interior Department.
EPA SCRUBS CLIMATE CHANGE WEBSITE
April 28, 2017
The EPA announces that it is reviewing its web content related to climate change. An immediate casualty of the review: the agency’s longtime website devoted to explaining climate change. (The new page, which says it’s being updated “to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt,” prominently links to an archived version of the page.) On May 2, 2017, the EPA also purged the Spanish-language version of its climate change web page.
ORDER AIMS TO EXPAND OFFSHORE DRILLING
April 28, 2017
President Trump signs an executive order that orders a review of Obama-era bans on offshore oil and gas drilling in parts of the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans. The Obama policies under review include a five-year oil leasing roadmap that excluded Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and a December 2016 attempt to permanently ban drilling on wide swaths of Arctic and Atlantic waters. NPR reports that the order also halts the designation or expansion of National Marine Sanctuaries, unless the move includes an Interior Department estimate of the area’s “energy or mineral resource potential.” Conservation groups immediately announce their intent to defend Obama’s December 2016 effort in court.
TRUMP INNER CIRCLE DISCUSSES PARIS AGREEMENT
April 27, 2017
Key Trump advisers and Cabinet officials meet to discuss whether the U.S. should stay in the Paris Agreement, according to an April 27Bloomberg Politics report. The global climate pact was absent from Trump’s March 28 executive order on climate, and debate over whether the U.S. should leave the agreement has divided the White House. Bloomberg Politics and Politico report that Trump is expected to make a final decision on the global climate pact by late May.
TRUMP ORDERS REVIEW OF NATIONAL MONUMENTS
April 26, 2017
In a sweeping executive order with few precedents, Trump instructs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review as many as 40 national monuments created since 1996 to determine if any of Trump’s three predecessors exceeded their authority when protecting large tracts of already-public land under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The review targets monuments that are at least 100,000 acres in size and reaches back to Utah’s 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which President Bill Clinton created in 1996 in the face of intense opposition. (Read more about the executive order’s potential repercussions.)
SCIENTISTS MARCH ON WASHINGTON
April 22, 2017
On a drizzly Earth Day, thousands of scientists and science enthusiasts march through Washington, D.C., to the U.S. Capitol, voicing support for science’s role in society. The sign-toting crowds—many wearing lab coats and crocheted hats resembling brains—also protest the Trump administration’s environmental and science policies. Satellite events of the March for Science held around the world, more than 600 in all, draw tens of thousands more attendees.
INTERIOR DEPARTMENT SCRUBS CLIMATE CHANGE WEBSITE
April 19, 2017
An Interior Department official updates the department’s climate change website, deleting much of its content in the process, Motherboard reports. The page now carries a sole mention of “climate change”—and does not explain what the phenomenon is, how it affects the U.S., and what the department is doing about it. (The Interior Department has eight regional Climate Science Centers, which work under the direction of the U.S. Geological Survey “to help resource managers cope with a changing climate,” according to the archived web page.)
PRUITT CALLS FOR EXITING PARIS AGREEMENT
April 14, 2017
In an interview on “Fox & Friends,” EPA administrator Scott Pruitt says that he’s personally opposed to the Paris Agreement, the international pact to fight climate change negotiated in 2015. While Pruitt calls the pact “a bad deal for America,” the Trump administration has remained noncommittal on withdrawing from the agreement, reports the Washington Post.
EPA ANNOUNCES “BACK-TO-BASICS” AGENDA
April 13, 2017
With Pennsylvania’s Harvey coal mine as his backdrop, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announces a “back-to-basics” agenda for the environmental agency, which he describes as “protecting the environment by engaging with state, local, and tribal partners to create sensible regulations that enhance economic growth.” The agenda includes reviews of the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule, two key Obama-era environmental regulations, as well as promises to clear the backlog of new chemicals awaiting EPA approval. (Read the whole agenda here.)
CLIMATE CHANGE STAFFERS REASSIGNED
April 7, 2017
News outlets report that several staff members at EPA’s headquarters who specialized in climate change adaptation have been reassigned. However, an EPA official interviewed by The Hill emphasizes that the agency’s regional offices “have always taken the lead on adaptation and will continue to do so.” An EPA official interviewed by National Geographic says that the staff—four employees in all—will continue at the agency’s Office of Policy, bringing their knowledge to a broader set of issues.
TRUMP DONATES TO NATIONAL PARKS
April 3, 2017
The White House announces that President Trump has donated the first quarter of his salary ($78,333.32) to the National Park Service. The gift will reportedly chip away at the $100 to $230 million in deferred maintenance backlogs that the nation’s battlefields currently bear. (The National Park Service’s total deferred maintenance backlog is valued at $12 billion.) Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint calls for a $1.5-billion cut to the U.S. Department of the Interior, to which the National Park Service and its $3.4-billion budget belong. Among other things, the 12-percent cut would eliminate funding for unspecified National Heritage Areas—lived-in, cohesive landscapes deemed by Congress to be nationally important. Several National Heritage Areas containpreserved battlefields.
SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY OFFICE REVIEWING PRUITT
March 31, 2017
In response to inquiries from the Sierra Club, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General refers Scott Pruitt’s March 9 CNBC interview to the agency’s scientific integrity office for review. In that interview, Pruitt had downplayed carbon emissions’ central role in driving Earth’s changing climate—a position at odds with scientific consensus. EPA spokespeople defend Pruitt, claiming that the administrator is within his right to have a differing opinion. As of April 6, 2017, the Office of Inspector General said that the review had no specified timeframe.
EPA SCIENTIST RETIRES WITH A BANG
March 31, 2017
Environmental scientist Michael Cox retires from the EPA after more than 25 years with the agency, penning a scorching farewell letter to agency administrator Scott Pruitt. The letter, which garners significant media coverage, lambasts the Trump administration for “working to dismantle EPA and its staff as quickly as possible.”
PESTICIDE AVOIDS TOTAL BAN
March 29, 2017
Against the advice of the EPA’s chemical safety experts, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt rejects a decade-old petition asking that the EPA ban all use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. In 2000, the EPA banned its use in most household settings, but the pesticide is still used on some 40,000 farms, which EPA scientists recommended stop. Research suggests that chlorpyrifos may be associated with brain damage in children and farm workers, even at low exposures—though Dow Chemical, chlorpyrifos’ manufacturer, argues that it is safe when properly used. The U.S. Department of Agriculture welcomes Pruitt’s decision as helpful for U.S. farmers.
CLIMATE ACTIONS UNDONE
March 28, 2017
President Trump signs an executive order that seeks to dismantle much of the work on climate change enacted by the Obama administration. The order takes steps to downplay the future costs of carbon emissions, walks back tracking of the federal government’s carbon emissions, rescinds a 2016 moratorium on coal leases on federal lands, and strikes down Obama-era executive orders and memoranda aimed at helping the country prepare for climate change's worst impacts, including threats to national security.
Most notably, the executive order begins the process of rescinding the EPA's Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era regulation designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants. (Read more about the order—and how China may take up global leadership on climate change.)
DAKOTA ACCESS PIPELINE PREPARED FOR USE
March 27, 2017
Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, notifies a federal court that it has pumped oil into the pipeline laid underneath North Dakota’s Lake Oahe. The pipeline, which aims to connect North Dakota’s shale oil fields with pipeline networks in Illinois, runs near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and through land promised under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie but later taken away. The pipeline sparked protests over its potential to contaminate water and damage a sacred tribal site—a movement that grew into the largest Native American protest in recent history. (Meet the defiant “water protectors” of Standing Rock.)
KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE APPROVED
March 24, 2017
The Trump administration’s State Department grants a permit for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The 1,200-mile pipeline would connect Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in Texas. President Obama had rejected the project in late 2015, amid concerns that the pipeline’s economic benefits were hype—and fears that the pipeline would exacerbate future carbon emissions. In 2014, the U.S. State Department found that the project would increase emissions but no more than other transport methods.
U.S. BUMBLEBEE OFFICIALLY LISTED AS ENDANGERED
March 21, 2017
The rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) officially becomes listed as an endangered species, the first bumblebee and eighth U.S. bee species to receive federal protection. Originally, its listing was to be finalized on February 10—but a January 20 executive order delayed it by over a month, as the Trump administration reviewed Obama-era regulations that hadn’t yet taken effect. (Read more about the bumblebee listing.)
FLINT FUNDING CONTINUED
March 17, 2017
The EPA issues a news release saying that the agency has awarded $100 million to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. The money—provided in a law signed by President Obama in December 2016—will fund drinking water infrastructure upgrades in Flint, Michigan, where drinking water remains contaminated with lead. (These intimate portraits of Flint’s citizens reveal their frustration, fear, and perseverance.)
FUEL EFFICIENCY STANDARDS RECONSIDERED
March 15, 2017
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announce that the EPA will reconsider the Obama-era emissions requirements for vehicles with model years between 2022 and 2025. The move may presage a rollback of Obama’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, regulations that aim to improve cars’ fuel economy. On January 12, 2017, the Obama EPA attempted to lock in its CAFE standards, which require light-duty vehicles to have average fuel efficiencies of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The Trump administration and automakers have argued that this goal is unachievable.
SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENT BUDGET THREATENED
March 13, 2017
The White House releases its first preliminary budget under President Trump. Confirming weeks of speculation, the budget outlines deep cuts to U.S. science and environmental agencies—notably EPA and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—and a vast array of social programs, in an effort to increase defense spending by $54 billion. Congressional and public opposition to the budget crystallizes almost immediately. (Read more about the budget cuts’ potential effects on the environment.)
EPA CHIEF DOWNPLAYS CLIMATE
March 9, 2017
In a sharp break with scientific consensus, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt says in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that carbon dioxide’s role in the Earth’s changing climate remains unclear. U.S. and international scientists have repeatedly connected rising carbon emissions to the Earth’s changing climate. A 2014 review by the National Academy of Sciences, the United States’ preeminent scientific advisory body, observed that the Earth’s warming since the 1970s “is mainly a result of the increased concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.”
March 7, 2017
The New Republic reports that the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology removed the word “science” from its mission statement, based on information provided by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. The updated language, which instead emphasizes "economically and technologically achievable performance standards," marks the latest change to the EPA’s website under Trump, as website updates downplay the Obama administration’s previous climate initiatives.
EMISSIONS INFO REQUEST NIXED
March 2, 2017
The EPA withdraws an Obama EPA request for more detailed information on oil and natural-gas facilities. That request, finalized by the Obama administration on November 10, 2016, had aimed to better track the industry’s methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. (Oil and gas facilities are the country’s largest industrial emitters of methane.) The Trump EPA had criticized the rule for its estimated $42-million cost on oil and gas industries.
FEDERAL LANDS WON’T BE UNLEADED
March 2, 2017
After riding to work on a horse, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spends his first day on the job rescinding an Obama-era prohibition of lead ammunition on federal lands and waters. The Obama Administration’s Fish and Wildlife Service had issued the ban on January 19, 2017, the day before Trump’s inauguration. The National Rifle Association and hunting groups laud Zinke’s move as supportive of hunting’s economic contribution, while conservation groups decry it, noting that lead ammunition can poison wildlife. (Learn how a ban on lead ammunition could save California’s rare condors.)
WATER PROTECTION MAY DRY UP
February 28, 2017
President Trump issues an executive order formally asking the EPA to review the “Waters of the United States” rule, an Obama-era rule meant to clarify which U.S. waters fall under federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction. The rule had extended federal protections to some headwaters of larger waterways, wetlands, and isolated lakes. (Read more about the controversy surrounding the rule.)
SCOTT PRUITT CONFIRMED AS EPA CHIEF
February 17, 2017
The U.S. Senate confirms Scott Pruitt as the head of the U.S. EPA. In his prior role as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt frequently sued the EPA over its regulations, notably leading a 27-state lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan. Emails released days after Pruitt’s confirmation show that in his time as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt’s office maintained a cozy relationship with oil and gas companies.
STREAMS REOPENED TO MINING WASTE
February 16, 2017
President Trump signs a joint resolution passed by Congress revoking the U.S. Department of the Interior’s “Stream Protection Rule.” That rule, finalized shortly before President Obama left office, placed stricter restrictions on dumping mining waste into surrounding waterways. Congressional Republicans characterized the rule as redundant and onerous. (Read “Why Trump Can’t Make Coal Great Again.”)
FOSSIL FUEL CEO BECOMES CHIEF DIPLOMAT
February 1, 2017
The U.S. Senate confirms ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Tillerson’s extensive ties to fossil fuels—and difficult-to-pin-down stance on climate science—sparked fierce opposition to his nomination among environmentalists. Questions linger over what Tillerson and the Trump administration will do about U.S. involvement in the Paris Agreement, the international climate pact negotiated under the Obama administration.
MARCH FOR SCIENCE MATERIALIZES
January 25, 2017
After news that the Trump administration had removed all references to climate change from the White House’s website, online commenters begin calling for a “Scientists’ March on Washington,” styled after the record-breaking Women’s March on January 21. Momentum quickly builds, resulting in plans for the March for Science, scheduled for April 22.
January 24, 2017
President Trump issues several memoranda aiming to hasten permitting for the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. Trump also calls for the U.S. Department of Commerce to come up with a plan ensuring that pipelines built across the United States are made with U.S. steel. However, later reports clarify that the memo does not apply to the Keystone XL pipeline.
PARK SERVICE #RESISTS
January 20, 2017
Trump is inaugurated president. Minutes later, the National Park Service posts a photo on Twitter comparing Trump’s crowds with the much larger crowds at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Trump’s subsequent criticism of the National Park Service triggers an unofficial “resistance” movement of social media accounts that claim to be run by U.S. government officials. (Read more about the “science rebellion” blossoming under Trump.)
SCRAMBLE TO SAVE SCIENCE DATA
December 10, 2016
Fearing that the incoming Trump administration may attempt to delete or bury U.S. climate databases, meteorologist and climate journalist Eric Holthaus asks on Twitter for suggestions of important databases to back up. His query sparks a movement across academia to back up key databases, resulting in “data refuges” and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.
TRUMP TAKES ALL
November 8, 2016
Real estate developer Donald Trump wins the 2016 U.S. presidential election. His upset victory comes after a months-long campaign that focused little on environmental issues, but did denounce the Obama administration’s climate policies and champion the U.S. fossil fuels industry.