by Susan Hellauer
There’s a dark side to some environmental victories.
Remember the Pacific Northwest “Save the Spotted Owl” controversy of the 1990s? It pitted environmentalists against the logging industry, their workers, and all of the other businesses that depend on logging, right down to the local cafe which, at one point, featured “fried or ‘broasted’ spotted owl” on its menu. Similar struggles have been erupting between environmental watchdogs and business interests since the 1973 Endangered Species Act became law. The Tennessee snail darter case made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1978. Endangered piping plover chicks regularly close down popular Cape Cod beaches in high summer season, to the chagrin of the local tourist industry.
Instead of uniting Americans in an eco-conscious quest to protect and preserve Earth, some of these battles have been deeply divisive. On one side are business owners and their blue collar workers who worry mainly about paying the bills. On the other are environmental advocates, whom their adversaries might see as urban, liberal, privileged elites with enough money and spare time to worry about some stupid fish or bird.
Now, we have elected the only first-world leader who denies climate change, claiming it’s a Chinese hoax. He has pledged to unravel pesky environmental regulations and let job-creating businesses flourish how and where they will. From a brief exchange at the end of the second presidential debate, along with tweets, red-meat rally statements, and his Gettysburg “first 100 days” plan, it’s clear that our president-elect considers federal regulations that protect the environment from industrial exploitation to be nothing but a choke chain on job-creating American enterprise.
In response, environmental watchdog groups sent urgent, even frantic, post-election emails to supporters. While these groups never viewed Hillary Clinton as a passionate defender of the ecosystem—she has a spotty record on fracking, for one thing—considering the alternative, she was their only tolerable choice.
So, what can environmentalists expect from Donald J. Trump—the intolerable choice—as he cobbles together his cabinet, chooses agency heads, and prioritizes his promised changes? And how might his actions affect the Obama Administration’s conservation initiatives, and the battle for our own clean air, water and land?
The future of the EPA: business-friendly leadership
The US Environmental Protection Agency sets federal minimum action levels for a variety of harmful chemicals (not nearly enough of them, if you ask most environmental advocates), which are normally used by states for local enforcement standards. The EPA also promotes and enforces climate-change policies.
Trump’s choice to head the EPA transition team? Climate-change skeptic Myron Ebell, Energy and Environment director at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute. Ebell, an infuriating choice for pollution watchdogs, is proud to be featured in a Greenpeace “Field Guide to Climate Criminals.” He’s also chairman of the Cooler Heads Coalition, a group of nonprofits that “question global warming alarmism and oppose energy-rationing policies,” according to ClimateWire.
Expect a business-friendly attitude adjustment and a reduction in enterprise-hampering regulations at the EPA. Hudson Valley residents who complain about a polluting factory, or about industrial contaminants in their soil, air or water, may find that their federal watchdog has lost its bark, its bite, and several of its teeth.
And speaking of climate change. . . .
In a 2014 tweet, Trump called global warming “bullshit.” He has vowed to pull the U.S. out of the legally binding 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which features 197 countries, including China. There are a number of ways to abandon the agreement, ranging from shady and fast, to legal and slow–just in time for the 2020 presidential election, in fact. Or Trump could simply choose to ignore the agreed-upon carbon emissions reductions.
Any abandonment of the accord, formal or informal, now or later, will raise the ire of America’s allies in the global climate-change battle, discourage smaller, poorer countries from holding up their ends of the bargain, and, ultimately, confound the hoped-for outcome. (The U.S. is second only to China in global greenhouse gas emissions.)
In or out of the Paris Agreement, Trump’s first-100 day plan aims to “cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs and use the money to fix America’s water and environmental infrastructure.”
At home, expect federal grants, subsidies and tax breaks for climate-preserving clean energy options to be cut or eliminated. Going solar or geothermal won’t be as attractive—perhaps not even possible for lower-income property owners.
Perhaps most troubling, Trump’s shortsighted thinking ignores perils that actually aren’t too far in the future. Climate change-related sea rise will lead to massive, global displacement of coastal dwellers, on the order of hundreds of millions, which could bring political destabilization, even war. The most isolationist policies won’t be able to insulate the U.S. from these negative effects in an economy that, like it or not, is globally interdependent.
Drill, baby, drill!
The Trump energy transition team includes industry lobbyists who share the president-elect’s passion for petroleum and will put the EPA and the Departments of Energy and Interior on a path to undo President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which restricts emissions from coal-fired power plants.
I will lift the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars’ worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal. [And I will] lift the Obama-Clinton roadblocks and allow vital energy infrastructure projects, like the Keystone Pipeline, to move forward.
Clean coal has been tried before: it’s expensive to clean up, and requires sequestration of the extracted carbon. Left unexplained is how it could compete against the cheap fracked natural gas that has put many coal mines out of business.
The Obama Administration has imposed requirements and restrictions on offshore oil drilling, which, industry analysts say, will save companies money by preventing expensive breakdowns and leaks, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. But the industry itself chafes at the regulations, calling some of them “costly and unnecessary.” With an oil-friendly president on deck, some of these—especially restrictions on drilling in protected Arctic wilderness areas—will undoubtedly be history.
In your own backyard, increased fossil fuel production will send even more of those mile-long, potentially deadly crude oil “bomb trains” through the heart of Rockland County, and it will multiply the number of crude oil barges, moving and anchored, on the Hudson River. More oil and gas pipelines—and, yes, they can leak or blow up—will crisscross populated or environmentally sensitive areas of New York State. The proposed crude-oil bearing Pilgrim Pipeline is set to plunge through the groundwater well fields of western Rockland County—the source of most county drinking water.
Who watches over all these trains, barges and pipelines? More federal agencies: the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). They’ll all be getting a regulatory haircut from the Trump energy team.
A silver-ish lining: re-energizing the movement
Perhaps the environmental justice weapons have lost their edge, and the war chest is a little low, after eight years of an eco-progressive President Obama, who has pretty consistently come down on the side of conservation and green energy. And it’s been a while since the heady days of the snail darter and spotted owl.
Paul Gallay, president of the local Hudson River environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper, was first out of the gate with a post-election alarm:
Last night’s events have made one thing clear: our environment faces an unremitting assault from fossil fuel interests, polluters, and industrial actors, backed by the full force of the federal government over the next four years.
Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, was not yet capable of full sentences:
End of Paris Climate deal. End of the EPA. End of Federal Clean Energy. More drilling. More coal. More pipelines. Lives destroyed. Wildlife bulldozed. And so much more.
They, and many other advocacy groups, are pleading for emergency donations and volunteers, as they gear up for an all-out, four-year fight.
In a strange twist, the only shred of comfort for eco-activists may have come from the normally laconic Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) who, in the midst of all the Trumpian glee, sprinkled some cautionary ice water on the proceedings:
I think it’s always a mistake to misread your mandate, and frequently new majorities think it’s going to be forever. Nothing is forever in this country. We have an election every two years right on schedule. We have had since 1788. And so I don’t think we should act as if we’re going to be in the majority forever.
“Donald Trump Could Put Climate Change on Course for ‘Danger Zone’” (New York Times, 11/10/16)
“Trump Victory Deals Blow to Global Fight Against Climate Change” (Bloomberg News, 11/9/16)
Donald Trump for President: Policies
Sustainable Saturdays, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.