News analysis: Trump damaging EPA & globe to benefit favored industries

Last month, President Trump defended his administration’s role in protecting the environment, remarks observers say were needed after a year of controversies concerning the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and climate change – and recent moves sparking even more criticism.

“President Trump’s leadership and policies have made the air, water and environment cleaner,” exclaimed Deputy White House Press Secretary Judd Deere, but Washington Post fact-checker Jacqueline Alemany responded, “There is little substantiating that statement and Trump’s repeated claims the U.S. has the cleanest air and water ‘in the world’ and that his administration is ‘setting records, environmentally.’”

Indeed, Trump scoffs at the existence of climate change and withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change, his administration has deleted references to climate change in global agreements and government websites despite overwhelming scientific consensus, and in July he dramatically relaxed federal regulations on coal plants – weeks after weather stations in Alaska recorded 90-degree temperatures for the first time in a century, and, on the opposite side of the globe, sea ice was measured at record low levels in Antarctica.

Trump’s actions and attitudes, the controversies and chaos, have been consistent, and the reputation and purpose of the EPA – tasked with safeguarding the environment and public health – is in tatters and in doubt.

It started being obvious a year ago this month, the Trump administration started low-balling the financial consequences of climate change derived from greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants and vehicles. Instead of about $50 in economic damage from each ton of carbon dioxide released by a coal plant or car (the previous EPA’s estimate), the administration said it would only cause between $1 and $7.

New York Times environmental journalist Brad Plumer reported that Trump’s EPA is now confining its analysis to the United States instead of the planet, and is de-emphasizing the impact climate change will have on future generations.

There’s much more, underscoring that elections have consequences.

• A year ago this month, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt resigned after months of questions about his spending, housing arrangements, raises for political appointees, security team and apparent ethics violations.

• A State Department science report by senior analyst Rod Schoonover was blocked by the White House from a House Intelligence Committee hearing in June. His 12-page prepared testimony described in detail how greenhouse-gas emissions are raising global temperatures and acidifying the oceans, warning that contributes to the frequency and intensity of storms.

* Four former EPA administrators, Democrats and Republicans, in June publicly criticized Trump and his EPA. Gina McCarthy (Obama’s EPA chief), William Reilly (in the George H.W. Bush administration), Lee Thomas (Ronald Reagan’s head of the EPA), and Christine Todd Whitman (George W. Bush’s EPA Administrator) told a House Energy and Commerce hearing that they’re alarmed by the direction Trump’s EPA is going.

“EPA is supposed to pay attention to the economic benefit of its regulations, but the environment and health come first,” Reilly testified.

McCarthy added, “EPA’s success is measure in human lives saved.”

• The EPA in May changed how it calculates how many people could die from pollution.

“The Trump administration analyzed the cost of replacing the 2015 Clean Power Plan with a new plan that lightens restrictions on the coal industry,” reported newsman Ryan Bort in Rolling Stone magazine. “The administration found that doing so would increase fine particulate matter in the air – which causes respiratory issues and other health problems – and that the increase could result in up to 1,400 deaths per year by 2030. The new plan, the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, will not include this death estimate, as the administration is using a “new analytical model” based on the false idea that there are no public health benefits to making the air any cleaner than what federal law requires.

• Current EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler – the former lobbyist for the Murray Energy Corp. coal company who’s attacked environmental regulations for years – on June 19 announced the deregulation of rules controlling pollution from coal, permitting states to exempt coal plants from doing anything to cut greenhouse-gas pollution. (The EPA concedes that under Trump’s plan, carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants will drop just 0.5 percent by 2035.)

• EPA Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum – the Washington attorney who represented fossil-fuel interests for years and led efforts to roll back clean-air and carbon-emission regulations – resigned June 26 amid a Congressional inquiry about whether he improperly helped former industry clients.

Meanwhile, if “it takes a village” to raise a child, maybe it will take a state to help protect an environment abandoned by the federal government. Illinois is one of 18 states where Obama-era targets for decreasing carbon dioxide emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 have been achieved.

“State legislatures across the country during 2018 accepted the reality and energy consequences of closing coal and nuclear power plants and the desire by many to transition to ‘green’ energy sources,’” reported the Boston-based Nixon Peabody law firm, which specializes in government relations and regulatory issues.

For example, last year Grayslake Democrat Melinda Bush introduced the Illinois Energy Transition Zone “to explore ways of stimulating the growth of green energy in the State and to foster job growth in areas depressed by the closure of coal energy plants, coal mines and nuclear energy plants.

“Depressed areas in this State have lost jobs due to the closure of coal energy plants, coal mines, and nuclear energy plants and need the particular attention of government, labor and the citizens of Illinois to help attract green energy investment into these areas and directly aid the local community and its residents,” said her bill, which died in committee during Gov. Rauner’s last year in office.

Bush re-introduced the measure in January as SB 29 with nine co-sponsors including State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, and it unanimously passed the Senate in April and was assigned to the House Rules Committee.

Elsewhere in Illinois, even as Trump orders industry-friendly rollbacks of environmental protections to shore up the declining coal sector, Illinois officials are backing away from the legacy energy. For instance, in June the Pollution Control Board unanimously approved amendments to the Multi-Pollutant Standard that, if approved, would decrease caps, require the reduction of at least 2,000 megawatts of electric generation by coal-fired electric generating units no later than Dec. 31; and require the Illinois EPA to reduce the annual mass caps if Vistra retires any units prior to the effective date of this rule.

Vistra’s coal-fired plants include the E.D. Edwards plant operated by Ameren near Bartonville.

Despite steps toward progress, a stubborn White House and a cabinet of industry sycophants makes challenges more difficult – and illogical.

Howard Learner, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, told Chicago Tribune environmental reporter Michael Hawthorne that Trump’s attempts to bail out fossil-fuel corporations is like “subsidizing landline telephones while the cellular market grows bigger and bigger.”

Except, of course, that the United States is Earth’s second-biggest polluter (China is the worst), and pollution and climate change are far more harmful than phones.

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