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How TikTok catapulted Louisiana climate activists into the political spotlight

In January, the Biden administration announced a pause on approvals of proposed liquefied natural gas projects after one popular TikTok creator traveled to southwest Louisiana to capture some of the residents’ stories.

Biochar Is ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’ for Sequestering Carbon and Combating Climate Change

Made from heating wood and other biomass at high temperatures with no oxygen, biochar mixed in soils dominated the carbon offset marketplace last year in tons of warming gases absorbed from the atmosphere.

Parents concerned over poor health impact on children caused by climate change

“I brought them into this world. And so it’s incumbent on me to make sure that this is a world worthy of them,” said Dr. Lisa Patel, executive director for the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.

Growing wildfire problem requires new response strategies, lawmakers told

“Our planet is on fire. It’s not just the western part of this country, our planet is on fire,” said Sen. Carper (D-Del.).

Senators hear ways to have companies curb plastic pollution, other waste

The approach, which has already been implemented in four states, could have positive economic and environmental results.

U.S. will continue strong exports of natural gas, Biden official tells senators, in spite of pause on new projects

WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans on Thursday attacked the Biden administration’s pause on reviewing liquefied natural gas export applications, saying it will harm the energy security of the U.S. and its allies, even as officials say the move will not prevent the U.S. from more than doubling its exports by 2030. 

During a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, David Turk, deputy secretary of the Department of Energy, said this pause will not halt the eight terminals currently exporting LNG nor the five under construction.

The move, however, would keep the Department of Energy from assessing over a dozen pending project applications to export LNG, a gas used to heat homes and generate electricity until the review is completed. 

“DOE has the responsibility to assess additional proposed exports using the most complete, the most updated and the most robust cost analysis possible,” Turk told lawmakers. “I would find it irresponsible if we weren’t taking a step back and undertaking this rigorous analysis.”

President Joe Biden’s announcement in late January of the pause cites environmental concerns, potential energy cost increases to Americans and health risks to communities that “disproportionately shoulder the burden of pollution from new export facilities.” The last time the DOE updated its analysis was 2018, when the country’s export capacity was less than a third of what it is now.

But several Republicans and some Democrats, like committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), criticized the decision, citing national security and global demand.

Calling Biden’s decision “political theater,” ranking member John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said “the world needs and wants more American energy, not less.”

Republicans said the move could shift energy markets to competitors like Russia and Iran and reduce potential economic growth in the U.S.

“We need to be able to send a message to our friends and allies, you can actually trust the United States to be true to their word,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). 

Two groups interrupted the hearing to protest the use of LNG, which contributes to global warming, before being escorted out. 

The U.S. had the world’s largest export capacity of LNG in 2023. Russia came in fourth, with around a third of the capacity of the U.S., and Iran did not make the top 10. 

The pause does not affect exports to countries that have free trade agreements with the U.S., which constitute around 20 percent of the country’s total exports. It also exempts national security emergencies.

“The European Commission has said publicly that the pause will not have any short- or medium-term impact on EU security of supply,” Turk noted.

He added that U.S. LNG exports will continue to increase while Europe’s demand goes down.

Turk also said global LNG demand must fall 75% by 2050 in order to reach net zero emissions. 

An NYU study found that the estimated climate costs of continuing to export LNG outweigh the economic benefits for American households.

“Under all scenarios evaluated, we found the gross climate damage greatly exceeded economic benefits,” said Minhong Xu, an economist who co-authored the study.

Charlie Riedl, executive director of the Center for LNG, a group that represents oil and gas companies, said future projects will benefit local economies by creating jobs and boosting revenue. 

In an interview with Medill News Service, Manchin warned that workers could lose their jobs if the DOE does not extend contracts for existing facilities.

All 23 Republican attorneys general signed a letter Tuesday urging Biden and DOE to resume review of export applications, claiming the pause is unlawful, economically damaging and “detrimental to our national security.” 

In a back and forth debate, Manchin said Biden “put the cart before the horse” by announcing the pause before discussing it with interested parties. 

But Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) replied: “I think just the opposite,” adding that it was the Energy Department’s legal responsibility “to see that export projects are in the public interest, not in the interest of the oil and gas industry. Isn’t what you’re doing here – simply looking before we leap?”

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Senators demand accessible, affordable flood insurance as Congress looks to reauthorize a federal program

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers on Thursday stressed the urgency of renewing the National Flood Insurance Program, with reforms to rein in ever-increasing premiums that are becoming harder for homeowners to afford.

The Senate Banking Committee is working to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program before its March 8 expiration date, which has already been extended multiple times as Congress has struggled to pass the budget and other legislation. The latest version of the bill proposes to limit price increases, provide swift payments for homeowners and increase oversight for insurance vendors.

“Congress cannot allow the NFIP to lapse,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). “Whether you’re in Ohio or California or the New Jersey/New York area, the number of flood insurance policies in place is essentially nonexistent. Floods don’t simply happen when you live near the water. Floods today happen throughout the country.”

Destructive hurricanes and torrential rainfall and other weather disasters are adding to the urgency to provide affordable insurance across all coastal and inland states. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) pointed to drastic flooding events from coast to coast just this month, including in Rhode Island, California and Louisiana.

The insurance program, funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, serves residents with rates based on their property’s elevation within a zone on a Flood Insurance Rate Map.

Homeowners with a federal mortgage living in designated flood zones must buy flood insurance, while those living outside of the mapped areas may opt into a federal or private plan.

The proposed legislation intends to counter the increase in premiums from FEMA’s Risk Rating 2.0, implemented in April 2023. The new program incorporates more factors in calculating premiums, including how close a home is to a body of water and the estimated cost of rebuilding after damage. Of the 3.4 million single-family homes with policies under the federal program, only about 625,000 homeowners would see rates decline.

Since the introduction of the risk-rating change, senators have expressed concern of policyholders dropping their coverage because of higher rates, even as flood risk for all homes is increasing as a result of climate change. 

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) noted that the program has lost 100,000 policyholders so far, and FEMA estimates it could lose one million policyholders by the end of the decade.

“Families who are forced to drop their flood insurance coverage due to rising costs and later suffer damage in future disasters, that’s the ultimate disaster for them,” Menendez said.

FEMA caps rate increases at 18% per year, as informed by flood mapping data and catastrophe models. The proposed reauthorization would implement stricter rate caps at 9%, protecting policyholders from hasty price spikes.

Senators on both sides of the aisle criticized the increase in premiums, noting that they are becoming less affordable for working, middle-class American families.

“This is just an excuse to raise premiums,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), adding that he has seen price increases of between 300% and 500% in various counties of Louisiana. “The whole purpose of the National Flood Insurance Program is to provide a product that people can afford. FEMA lied, and they’re not going to do any better.”

In response to a lawmaker’s question, Michael Hecht, the president of the economic development agency Greater New Orleans Inc., said only about 4% of U.S. homeowners have flood insurance, “though that number should be much, much greater.”

Dr. Daniel Kaniewski, managing director at insurance company Marsh McLennan, also called for the legislation to get ahead of flood damage by including incentives for building in areas with less flood risk in the first place.

“Hazard avoidance is at the center of our universe,” he said.

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To win youth vote, Republican Party needs to address the group’s concerns about climate

MANCHESTER, N.H. – The frontrunner in the GOP presidential race, Donald Trump, is continually vowing that if he becomes president, he will “drill, baby, drill” for oil and gas. 

Such a message, however, runs counter to efforts by the Republican Party to attract young voters, many of whom say they want to see the candidates talk about stronger solutions to tackling climate change. So far, the GOP’s strategy has been to change the delivery of its messages rather than the content.

“We’re young conservatives, we’re young Republicans. But we also believe that we need to protect the environment and that climate change is an issue that we need to be addressing,” said Chris Barnard, president of American Conservation Coalition Action, an environmentally focused group. “Both because it is an important issue, but also because it’s an issue that more and more voters care about, and Republicans will lose elections if they don’t seriously address it.”

To discuss winning over young voters, the established leadership of the Republican National Committee and New Hampshire Republican Party hosted a Youth Advisory Council Roundtable on Monday, the day before the New Hampshire primary. The roundtable, lasting just over 20 minutes, emphasized messaging as the solution for low youth engagement with GOP politics. 

The party still has a long way to go toward peeling off votes from Democrats.

Generation Z, born 1997-2012, combined with millennials will make up the majority of eligible voters by 2028, and Biden won voters under 30 by 24 points in 2020.

A 2023 poll by Circle at Tufts, a nonpartisan research group that focuses on youth civic engagement, found that climate change is among the top three priorities for voters ages 18 to 34. And according to a 2022 Pew survey, 69% of Americans support the United States taking steps to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Rick Loughery, national chair of the Young Republicans, said during the roundtable that one way his group has increased contact between young voters and the Republican party is with social media guides explaining its policies. 

Younger voters themselves are also thinking about the party’s outreach. The environment was one of three discussion points at a Future of Conservatism Roundtable on Jan. 16, co-hosted by New Hampshire Young Republicans, New Hampshire College Republicans and the American Conservation Coalition Action.

Barnard said his group asks Republican candidates to discuss their climate policies, with the goal of bringing the environment into mainstream political conversations.

“For Republicans, it’s not about either choosing climate extremism or climate denial,” Barnard said. “There’s a middle path there that we can take that is rooted in conservative principles.”

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley’s climate stance is the most progressive compared to her main rival Trump as well as candidates who have since dropped out including Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis and Chris Christie, according to the American Conservation Coalition Action website

Haley promotes an “all of the above” energy policy, which would ramp up the country’s fossil fuel production while also investing in nuclear power. She also plugs her role in pulling the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which calls on nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the widespread impact of climate change.

At a rally in Exeter a few days before the primary, Haley was confronted by a protester holding a sign reading “oil sellout” before he was dragged out of the auditorium.

Haley did address the generational divide within the Republican Party on climate policies. 

“I also know that we have a lot of young people in the audience, and I know that y’all care about the environment,” Haley said. “But you know what I want to tell you? Everybody in this auditorium cares about the environment.” 

Rally attendee Molly O’Connell, who said this year will be her first time voting, said she is excited about Haley, viewing her as a moderate choice between Trump and President Joe Biden. 

“I like that she’s acknowledging that there’s the younger generation that wants to help the climate,” O’Connell said. “But she just didn’t really seem to have that big of a plan or anything.”

She added that Haley’s plan to increase fossil fuel production, which is the root cause of global warming, is “counterintuitive” if she wants to address climate change. 

Dartmouth College government and politics professor Russell Muirhead said the generational divide in mainstream political parties – be they Republicans, Democrats or independents – concerns him. 

He said first-time voters “want to look out at their country and see someone who ideally inspires them, but short of that just speaks to them.” 

A lack of enthusiasm for participation is a problem all parties have to address. A 2023 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that 56% of young Republicans say they are “definitely voting” in this year’s presidential race, down 10 percentage points from 66% in the fall of 2019. The percentage of young Democrats who responded that they are “definitely voting” fell slightly to 66%, from 68%, in the same period. 

Muirhead said that when young voters do not vote because they are uninspired by the candidates, they could get into a habit of not voting. This could lead them to rally behind “demagogues” who reject the political system, he added.

“I’m really worried about the attachment of young people to our political system and to our political institutions,” Muirhead said. “I really, really worry about losing a whole cohort of young voters.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Generation Z was the country’s second-largest voting block in 2022. 


Haley’s climate policy elicits appreciation from her supporters

SEABROOK, N.H. – Presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s climate policy is viewed as a middle ground between the “extreme” positions of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump according to some of her supporters, but her approach could prove to be counteractive.

Customers welcomed Haley to a meet and greet at Brown’s Lobster Pound in Seabrook on Sunday. Supporters stood to catch a glimpse of the presidential candidate as she made a loop around the packed New Hampshire restaurant, greeting attendees.

Voters here say they are drawn to Haley because of her novelty, charm and “moderate” policies in comparison to President Joe Biden and Former President Donald Trump.

That includes her approach to the climate crisis, which Haley classifies as an “all of the above energy approach” where the energy sector becomes an “economic powerhouse,” while also bolstering “clean energy.” 

“That means nuclear, that means talking to India and China about burning coal,”  said attendee Elizabeth Childs. “It means not forcing people to make choices like, ‘you have to drive an electric vehicle,’ but helping people understand how that’s valuable as a part of the solution.”

Childs said she appreciates how Haley allows voters to make educated choices about how to approach the climate crisis as opposed to the more “extreme” mandates by the current president. Childs views climate change as a real problem, so Trump’s “hoax” claims seem extreme, too.

While Haley has said she supports environmental protection, her actions point toward a more economically-focused executive branch, should she take office. After proudly dropping out of the Paris Climate Agreement, she has said throughout her campaign that the bigger threats are international powers like India and China. 

“I think what she is saying is very rational,” Haley supporter Jennifer Nassour said. “We can do everything that we can in the United States, but unless the biggest victimizers in China and India are changing their policies, it’s not going to change anything. And so at the end of the day, we need to become energy independent.”

As the top three emitters, the United States, India and China pollute 15 times the emissions of the bottom 100 countries, with energy as the largest factor. 

Two-thirds of Americans back climate-positive policies, according to a 2020 poll, but voters differ on how strict they think the rules should be.

“I’m a mom,” Nassour added. “I want to make sure that this Earth is here for a long time for my kids and my future grandkids, but I don’t want to do it at our expense and then people around the world are not doing their part to change anything.”

Conservative-leaning voters and candidates alike are wary of forfeiting personal freedoms for environmental protection, claiming Biden’s policy is too restrictive. Haley did not address how she intends to pressure China and India to implement a more environmentally conscious policy. But the impacts of pollution are visible on a domestic scale, calling into question how much more time we can afford to wait before taking action.

Supreme Court poised to limit federal agency power

WASHINGTON – Conservative justices on The Supreme Court seem poised to overturn a doctrine that allows federal agencies to interpret ambiguous legislation, after oral arguments Wednesday.

The doctrine came under threat from two separate cases involving small fishing companies, Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce and Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, but the Court’s holding will impact more than how many herring the companies’ vessels can catch. 

The plaintiffs asked the justices to overturn the Chevron Doctrine, one of the most cited Supreme Court rulings, which is meant to ensure that federal agencies can implement laws passed by Congress. An overturn of the 1985 ruling would drastically limit the power of the bureaucracy. 

This is a major administrative law case,” said Julie Marie Blake, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom. “One of the most important questions that the Supreme Court is going to consider this term with huge implications for fundamental freedoms, the separation of powers, federal agencies and everyday Americans.”

Despite Chevron limiting judicial activism by deferring interpretation to experts, it has helped expand executive power via federal agencies. This includes rulings regarding climate protection, Medicare, Medicaid and public safety. 

But it wasn’t always only supported by the pro-regulation camp. The doctrine came from a case that reduced pollution regulation

Only in the past decade has Chevron come under question after a conservative movement to restrict the administrative state gained prominence, according to Ian Fein, senior counsel at the National Resource Defense Council. This is why many small-government proponents support overturning the deference, and why almost 70 briefs have been filed to add insight to the case.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh have each previously opposed deferring interpretation to agencies. Their questions to defense lawyers on Wednesday indicated their willingness to overturn the 40-year precedent.

Justice Kavanaugh said he feared “unchecked executive power,” and Justice Alito said the deference forces courts to favor the federal government at citizens’ expense, even when the court disagrees with an agency’s interpretation of rules. 

Stressing the inevitable ambiguity of some legislation, Justice Elena Kagan offered the rapid development of A.I. as an example where Congress cannot account for future development. She called this the “limits of language.”

The defense said courts could act as “neutral umpires” to decipher such ambiguity, but Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said resolving legislative ambiguity is better left to experts than the courts. 

“When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” she said, adding that deferring decision-making power to judges would result in an “impractical and chaotic” world.

“The stakes in this case are pretty high,” Fein of NRDC said. “But to me, what’s of greater concern is how this case fits into those other arguments that regulatory opponents are making.”

The plaintiffs went to court after the National Marine Fisheries Service updated its regulations to require vessels to contract with and pay third-party observers, who would ensure the companies complied with conservation guidelines and not overfish. 

They argued that NMFS overstepped by making herring vessels pay for the monitors when Congress’s legislation did not specify that herring companies were to cover these costs.

Paying the observers could reduce a vessel’s take-home pay by 20%, but government waivers and exemptions made the program more affordable. 

NMFS ended the industry-funded monitoring program two years after it started and offered a 100% reimbursement to the companies affected. 

According to the respondents’ brief, “[i]n practice, the 2020 rule’s monitoring provisions have had no financial impact on regulated vessels.”

The plaintiffs argued that the lower courts’ rulings, which both cited Chevron, gave federal agencies the power to make and interpret the law. 

“Chevron deference is a way for agencies to flip through the rule books, push the most radical aggressive interpretation of law, and then cross their fingers that the courts won’t actually look at the law itself,” Marie Blake said in support of overturning the doctrine.

In an amicus curiae brief, the U.S. House of Representatives contended that this case did not invoke the Chevron doctrine. 

But it said: “treating statutory silences standing alone as delegations of power would make it extraordinarily difficult for Congress to constrain agency authority.”

The Department of Commerce argued that Chevron stabilizes decision-making when Congress fails to create specific laws.

But the prosecutors said statutory silence on certain issues does not signal “hours of deliberation” in Congress. Rather, it could mean members of a divided Congress were unable to pass bipartisan legislation, so they relied on “friends” in executive agencies to further particular agendas.

The New York Times recently reported that the nonprofits representing the Loper Bright and Relentless plaintiffs have each received millions of dollars in funding in recent years from the Charles Koch Foundation — a right-libertarian network funded by its namesake, Bloomberg’s 21st wealthiest individual

The increasing power of large corporations — many of which, like Koch’s, engage in practices such as oil refining — speaks to Fein’s concern that limiting the administrative state will result in “more harm occurring to individual humans,” who benefit from agency protections.

But according to Fein, any limitation on Chevron will “end up with a lot more probably disarray in the law in terms of what agencies can and can’t do.”

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House subcommittee members clash over methane emission regulations

WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency’s new methane emission regulations drew rebuke from House Republicans on Wednesday when they said small and midsize oil and gas companies would struggle to survive, while Democrats and environmental advocates called to further tighten the regulations to limit pollutants and protect human health. 

In August, the EPA expanded the Clean Air Act’s emission regulations of greenhouse gases for the oil and gas industries, including adding a methane emission reporting program. The rule was created in response to the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act and President Joe Biden’s executive order on the first day in office in 2021 calling for federal agencies to take necessary actions to “immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis.” 

The regulations require companies to report their emissions and includes provisions that facilities releasing above a certain amount of methane must pay for each metric ton above this level. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas responsible for one-third of global warming that poses severe public health risks. 

House Republicans labeled the fee a “methane tax” and brought in several small oil and natural gas producers who testified that they cannot afford to stay in business if the fees are enacted. GOP members emphasized that the U.S. is an energy production leader, advocating for a reduction in regulation. 

“We have achieved this while also reducing emissions more than any other nation,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said at the hearing. “We should be celebrating this legacy and building on our achievements.”

Drew Martin, a cofounder of Miller Energy Company, a small Michigan company with 56 employees, said in prepared testimony that if the EPA regulations “are implemented as written, my business and the business of many of my peers in Michigan will end abruptly.” He explained that mature oil wells like the ones his company operates “simply don’t have the volume, pressure, and associated emissions to be burdened with the energy, effort, and cost associated with complying with these regulations as written.”

McMorris Rodgers told the Medill News Service her greatest concern with the regulations is their impact on small and midsize businesses, like Martin’s. She referenced the statistic that 300,000 of 750,000 small oil and gas businesses could be put out of work as a result of the regulations. 

Other Republicans added that the challenge of interpreting and implementing the regulation will burden companies and consumers alike. 

Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel pushed back on such criticism. “Today’s hearing was an attempt by industry cheerleaders to prioritize profits over people,” Pagel said in a statement to Medill News Service. 

But Joseph Goffman, principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at the EPA, said in his written testimony that the new rule will yield the equivalent of “$7.3 to $7.6 billion a year from 2024 to 2038, after accounting for the costs of compliance and savings from recovered natural gas.”

“Any increases in the sales price for crude oil and natural gas are expected to be small,” he said.

Democrats argued that firmer regulations are necessary to combat the current climate emergency and invest in the planet’s future. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said protecting the environment and preserving industry is “not a zero sum game.”

Democrats for their part pointed to the benefits that controlling pollutants would have on Americans’ health. Many of Rep. Nanette Barragán’s (D-Calif.) constituents have asthma, which is associated with living near oil and gas production facilities, she said. According to Goffman, the methane controls the EPA is setting are projected to prevent up to 97,000 cases of asthma symptoms.

Similarly, Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) said he was disappointed with Republicans opposing all regulation and said collaboration could make it possible to come up with a mutually beneficial solution.

“I really want to work on this in a bipartisan way, and this is what I get: not a discussion of how to get better regulations,” Peters said. “But an idea that we should just get rid of all the regulations entirely, and I am really frustrated by this.”

Environmental advocates warn that Biden’s plans for border wall in Rio Grande valley violate treaty on water rights

Environmentalists are raising alarms about the environmental harms of a proposed 20-mile stretch of border wall construction in the lower Rio Grande valley that experts say will intensify flooding in an area that is already flood prone. 

President Biden recently approved the construction in Starr County, Texas. The move may violate a 1970 treaty that the United States signed with Mexico. 

The pact, called the Treaty To Resolve Pending Boundary Differences and Maintain the Rio Grande as The International Boundary, outlines the use of the Rio Grande and Colorado River. The treaty cautions against actions that would undermine the determined boundaries, with both nations agreeing to prohibit construction that “may cause deflection or obstruction of the normal flow of the river or of its flood flows.” 

“Anytime you build a structure in the floodplain, that could conceivably deflect water, especially as much water as a border wall would, that could constitute a treaty violation,” said Laiken Jordahl, a southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

The Biden administration also waived 26 environmental laws to expedite the building of the wall, citing “an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers”, drawing scrutiny from environmental advocates and border community residents. 

“The whole waiver authority, the idea that the DHS Secretary can waive all laws to further border wall construction, that really treats people who live here as, as you know, unequal members of society, second-class citizens,” said Ricky Garza, border policy counsel for the Southern Border Communities Coalition. 

Environmental activists warn that the proposed plans for the border wall in Starr County could pose a threat to the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico as outlined in the binational treaty. 

“The walls are going to be repeatedly in the floodplain according to the maps that have been released so far,” said Scott Nicol, a member of the board at the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. “That’s a treaty violation right off the bat.” 

According to Nicol, putting the border wall on the floodplain would worsen floodwaters in Mexico during major flooding events, a clear violation of the binational treaty.

“If the U.S. or Mexico put anything in the floodplain, we get a big flood, the Rio Grande spreads out, and it hits that wall or other deflection, bounces to the other side, and the flooding is worse on the other side of the border,” said Nicol. 

The 1970 treaty states that the boundary has to be maintained in its location even in the worst flood imaginable, said Stephen Mumme, a political science professor at Colorado State University who studies water and environmental management along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“You have to think about the extreme or worst case,” Mumme said. 

Starr County has had major flooding events in 2008, 2010, and 2020. The county is also subject to smaller flooding events during heavy rainfall.    

Plans to build a wall in Starr County date back to the George W. Bush administration. In 2008, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection “quietly concluded that building a wall in Starr County was too dangerous.” 

C. W. Ruth, then-commissioner of the U.S. section of the International Water and Boundary Commission, wrote a letter in 2009 to the CBP rejecting the plans for a wall in the floodplains due to treaty violations.

In 2012, the U.S. section of the IWBC responded to a letter from Antonio Rascón, then-chief engineer of the Mexican section of the commission, in which he stated that the wall would deflect water and violate the 1970 treaty. 

More recently, in an interview with NPR in 2017, Rascón expressed concerns about Trump’s proposed border wall in the county, saying that parts of the wall would violate the treaty by blocking trans-border water movement. 

Rosario Sanchez, a senior research scientist for the Texas Water Resources Institute, noted that while the magnitude of the impacts on the sections of the wall Biden has approved is yet to be seen, it is likely to have devastating effects. 

“It’s going to have an impact as any other infrastructure development that we have put on the river or any other stretch of the wall that has been built over the river or around the river in a way that it stops the movement, the natural movement of water, of species or even, you know, conservation,” Sanchez said. 

CBP held a public comment period until Sept. 15 for people to express their concerns about the proposed plans for the wall in Starr County. 

Border residents and environmentalists say that’s not enough. 

In coalition comments submitted to CBP regarding proposed border wall construction in Starr County, more than 10 environmental organizations highlight that “up to now there has been no meaningful consultation with communities, landowners, or other local stakeholders regarding border walls in Starr County.” 

In a stakeholder feedback report published on Oct. 30, CBP provided a summary of the comments submitted, highlighting the main concerns of the public, which included worries about flooding and erosion control. 

A statement CBP emailed to Medill News Service said “CBP is committed to environmental and cultural stewardship while performing our core missions of border security and the facilitation of legitimate trade and travel. CBP works hand-in-hand with other Federal, Tribal, state, and local agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to fulfill environmental compliance regulations and to ensure protection of the Nation’s natural and cultural resources. Additionally, CBP works diligently to integrate responsible environmental practices – including incorporating sustainable practices – into all aspects of our decision making and operations.” 

Biden’s wall differs from the design of the Trump administration in that metal bollards will be embedded on the top of blocks of cement, so that the wall is movable

Still, those blocks will effectively block the water if they reach the wall, said Alex Mayer, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas-El Paso. “Whereas with just the bollards then at least there’s space for water to go inland, and so now the problems can be that for any kind of design that there, if it’s a big flood, there might be downed trees, tree branches, junk, flowing in the river, and those things might be caught by the fence,” Mayer said. 

Mayer emphasized the need for further studies to be done by the federal government in order to truly assess the effects of building this border wall. 

One of the laws waived is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the federal government to perform environmental reviews on any federal action that could affect the quality of the environment. 

NEPA is a “rulebook” the government has to follow, said Jordahl, highlighting that at the center of the act is public outreach, such as holding hearings and taking comments on the public’s analysis and sentiments around the action. He also emphasized that NEPA would require a look at alternatives that would also accomplish the project’s goals and further articulate what the potential impacts could be. 

“I think if the government did proper NEPA analysis on this project, it would be pretty clear that it is not worth the severe economic costs but also the cost to human livelihoods and wildlife,” said Jordahl.  

Jordahl highlighted the danger of not performing the proper analysis.   

“Because the government’s waived laws, it’s not doing any of the studies, that threat becomes a lot more serious,” said Jordahl. 

After a meeting with U.S. officials in early October, Mexico rejected the plans to build the wall, with Mexico’s Foreign Minister Alicia Barcena saying at a press conference, “we believe in bridges, not walls.”  

Biden has said that the funds laid out for this construction were appropriated in 2019, before he took office, and only Congress could rescind the funding. 

Environmental advocates have called on Biden to rescind the waivers and use the appropriated funds to mitigate damage done by past border wall construction. 

“Out of $1.375 billion appropriation, there’s something like 190 million left. That money should be spent to mitigate the damage that was done by the other border wall construction, not to inflict more damage,” said Nicol. 

Sanchez said she is frustrated with the continuation of border wall construction, even as Biden himself claims that the wall doesn’t work. 

“I don’t know how many stretches they have to build to acknowledge that this doesn’t really help,” said Sanchez. “It hasn’t helped in the past. It’s been recorded. So I don’t know why they keep doing something that they think is gonna help. And it’s just causing more trouble to the already very stressed Rio Grande.” 

For Garza, the Rio Grande is more than just a body of water separating the U.S. and Mexico. 

Garza is one of many residents who grew up by the river. 

“What we’ve seen, you know, time and time again is just a disrespect for human rights or disrespect for really the shared resource, the river, and the communities on both sides of the border that call the region home,” said Garza. 

Video: Climate activists nervous about presidential election, call on Biden to do more

WASHINGTON – With the presidential election less than a year away, some voters are apprehensive about the future of climate policy. 

Many young climate activists have mixed feelings on President Biden’s climate progress, citing the Inflation Reduction Act as a win, but also noting some of Biden’s actions that have furthered the fossil fuel industry, such as approving the Willow Project in Alaska.

Watch the video report here:

Congress extended Farm Bill for a year but must tackle partisan debates now

WASHINGTON – Congress believed it delayed fights over funding the wide-ranging Farm Bill by working in a one-year extension in the temporary budget deal in November. In reality, the debate over the biggest component of the bill – providing money for food and nutrition programs – is already gearing up. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the biggest part of any Farm Bill, making up nearly 80% of the allocation. SNAP provides benefits that help people in low-income households to purchase food. But already some Republicans, notably House Speaker Mike Johnson, are calling for cuts to the program and an increase in the age for  work requirements for people reliant on SNAP benefits. 

Although SNAP is funded through the annual budget appropriations process, the Farm Bill helps determine who qualifies for the program and it is implemented.  

According to the Pew Research Center, as of April 2023, 12.5% of the population relies on SNAP benefits. To qualify, households have to be at or below 130% the poverty line in their area, which, for fiscal year 2024, comes to an average of $2,072 a month for a family of three, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  

“Historically, some conservatives have criticized SNAP along the lines that it it discourages work, so, in other words, it breeds a certain group of people who aren’t working,” said Craig Gunderson, a economics professor at at Baylor University who has studied SNAP for more than 25 years. 

Conservatives already had a major win in June after President Joe Biden compromised with then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to agree to a deal to lift the debt ceiling

Previously, able-bodied adults from 18 to 49 dependent on SNAP had to work or participate in other activities at least 20 hours a week. Republicans raised the age requirement, which will reach 54 by next fall.  

These caps are legislated to stay in place through 2030, with some Republicans wanting to raise the age cutoff even further to 65

Gunderson said the notion that SNAP discourages work is a myth. Unlike some governmental programs that may cut benefits once someone meets a certain threshold, SNAP progressively transitions participants off the program, he said. 

Some Republicans also look to cuts to SNAP as a means of finding funds for programs they champion. For example, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) wants to increase subsidies for three crops by cutting food aid benefits, as well as $20 billion in funding for conservation programs. 

The Farm Bill primarily goes to nutrition programs, but it covers many other areas as well, such as commodity revenue supports, agricultural conservation, trade and foreign food assistance, farm credit, research, rural development, forestry, bioenergy, horticulture, and domestic nutrition assistance. 

Democrats, meanwhile, oppose cuts to the program and want to keep SNAP benefits generally at the same level or expand benefits. On Monday, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) introduced bipartisan legislation to allow SNAP recipients to buy hot foods and not just groceries with the benefits. 

“Millions of Americans rely on SNAP benefits to put food on the table,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told the Medill News Service in an email.  “A family’s ability to eat should not be used as a political bargaining chip.” 

These ideological differences held up the renewal of the Farm Bill after it expired on Sept. 30. 

Patrick Creamer, press secretary for Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), who is the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he hopes lawmakers will renew the bill before the September 2024 deadline before next year’s elections so as not to prolong deliberations into the election months. 

September is not the only important deadline as the Farm Bill approaches, the outlays for the Farm Bill over 10 years could top $1 trillion for the first time

Republican lawmakers on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry have pointed out that agriculture and nutrition related programs account for only 2.4% of the budget. Even the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, an organization with a primary goal to decrease the deficit, stated that the Farm Bill is not a primary driver of national debt. 

Still, Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said programs dependent on the Farm Bill should keep an eye on the baseline – which are projects for spending revenue and debt. If the baseline dramatically rises, Hoagland said some lawmakers will be looking to find offsets to lower government spending. 

A key component of the funding allocated by the Farm Bill are mandatory vs. discretionary funds

Discretionary funds are subject to annual appropriations, while mandatory funds are not constrained by annual spending limits. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website, “once program expenditures reach the level appropriated for that year, no additional funds can be spent unless Congress provides new appropriations.” 

To fund the extension of the bill, Congress found alternative sources of funding that do not rely on January appropriations. Those sources include internal Agriculture Department money and funds from a biorefinery program that are normally allocated during fiscal year budget appropriations.

However, this temporary fix does not solve the debates expected in the coming year.    

With the Farm Bill extension set to expire next September, Congress has a little less than a year to work in a bipartisan manner, as the GOP-controlled House must compromise with the Democratic-majority Senate, to pass this crucial piece of legislation. But even with the fights ahead of them, the leaders of the four Agriculture Committee at least, pledged to get the bill done.  “This extension is in no way a substitute for passing a 5-year Farm Bill,”  leaders said in a joint statement in November. “We remain committed to working together to get it done next year.”

U.S. Botanic Garden holiday exhibit features model trains and plant-based U.S. landmarks

WASHINGTON — The United States Botanic Garden’s annual holiday exhibit is now open, spotlighting model trains and D.C. landmarks made from plant materials. Upholding the tradition requires a large undertaking.

“We close the holiday show every year on January 1, and we immediately start having meetings right after that in January where we talk about each year’s show: what went well, what we want to do differently next year, deciding the theme for next year’s show,” said Devin Dotson, public affairs specialist for the USBG. “It’s a year-round endeavor to make the magic happen.” 

This year’s theme is pollinators, which are featured throughout the outdoor train display, ranging from the familiar bird and bee to the less commonly known: a pygmy possum, a lemur, and a bat. 

Applied Imagination designs and creates the train display and new models for the USBG every year. The elements of the exhibit are made ahead of time at its workshop in Alexandria and Kentucky and are shipped and assembled onsite at USBG over a week with staff from Applied Imagination as well.

“Over 30 years, the concept of botanical architecture has evolved through the hands of our artisans, each building taking 100 to 1000 hours to complete, and sometimes much more,” said Laura Busse Dolan, president and CEO of Applied Imagination, in an email interview.

The USBG and Applied Imagination began working together in 2004. One of the first models created for the USBG by Applied Imagination was the U.S. Capitol. 

The D.C. landmarks collection now encompasses 22 models. The newest additions to the collection are the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the National Gallery of Art East Building, and the Summerhouse on Capitol Grounds.

Dotson encourages visitors to explore the plant-based models closely to see how artists have captured the fine details.

“You’ve got the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian Castle, which themselves are very ornate and have a lot of detail in real life,” Dotson said. “Our sculptural models have so many different seeds and cinnamon sticks and wheat and acorn caps, all sorts of stuff. I mean, there’s several hundred different plant parts that are used to create these.”

There will be extended hours for live holiday music in the evenings on three Thursdays in December: Dec. 14, Dec. 21, and Dec. 28. The U.S. Botanic Garden is free and open every day except Christmas.


The U.S. Capitol model took more than 600 hours to build, featuring materials like acorn caps and wheat. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The Lincoln Memorial model is made of seagrape leaves, corn husks, gourd, and more. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The Jefferson Memorial model has a gourd dome and Jefferson’s figure includes lichens for his hair and cinnamon for his coat. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The White House model’s construction materials include palm frond stems, cinnamon curls, and pine cone scales. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial model, one of the newer additions, is made of horse chestnut bark, breadfruit leaf, and more. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The U.S. Supreme Court model includes beech nuts and shelf fungus. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The model of the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson building includes pistachio shell in the façade and bamboo in the columns and windows. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The outdoor train display put a spotlight on 10 pollinators, including the pygmy possum. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)



Climate experts implore lawmakers to pursue solutions to increased extreme weather conditions

WASHINGTON – Climate experts warned lawmakers about the effect of climate change on extreme weather during the first-ever congressional hearing on extreme event attribution, a field of climate science. They offered solutions to help Congress navigate more frequent and intensified weather events, like storms, droughts and heatwaves. 

“We’re the first generation to suffer from climate change, but the last generation which can do anything about it, so that’s our challenge,” said Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). 

Instances of extreme weather events are on the rise. This summer, Phoenix set a record of 31 consecutive days of temperatures at or above 110 degrees. On the other side of the country, Florida experienced severe rainfall, leading to flooding in the streets. 

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said extreme event attribution, which detects the extent to which man-made global warming influences extreme weather, can be an “important tool,” as Congress takes steps to manage and prepare for severe weather events.  

“These questions matter because the human harms and costs of climate change are massive, and sadly, they are growing,” Carper said. “We are going to focus on how it’s fueling extreme weather and what we can do about it.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) stressed the importance of finding bipartisan solutions over debating the causes of extreme weather, highlighting that extreme event attribution can’t tell whether global warming “caused” a specific event. 

Michael Wehner, a climate scientist at the Applied Mathematics and Computational Research Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, also emphasized the economic consequences of extreme weather. He estimated that global warming was responsible for about $50 billion in damages from flooding during Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that made landfall in Texas and Louisiana in 2017.

Extreme weather disproportionately impacts younger, older and low-income populations, Wehner added. Poor people are among the most vulnerable, as they are the least able to recover from these kinds of events, he said. 

“These damages were not equally distributed within socioeconomic groups,” Wehner said. “The most vulnerable portion of the local population was disproportionately affected, and climate change exacerbated this injustice.”

Paul Dabbar, a former Department of Energy official, advocated for “technology-neutral innovation” and open strategies, which would further the competition of discovery. 

“The right strategy for the world today is to continue discovery, innovation and deployment of new options,” Dabbar said. “While we certainly need to understand the drivers of climate change, we should focus on solutions also.” 

Carper asked how attribution science could inform the designing and engineering of infrastructure, such that roads, bridges and pipes could better withstand severe weather. In response, Wehner described his experience working with the San Francisco city government on their waste management system, which had raised concerns about extreme precipitation. He quoted one city official, who said: “There ain’t no pipe good enough.”

“That has sent the engineers and designers back to the drawing room, saying ‘How will we accommodate these storms in a world that might be considerably warmer,’” he testified. 

Wehner told the Medill News Service that cities need to adapt to increased extreme weather conditions by being more proactive, like adding green roofs or rethinking wastewater management systems. 

“In order to avoid more dangerous climate change, we have to have the entire planet go to zero emissions to stabilize the climate — that’s not going to happen in my lifetime,” Wehner said. “So then, we have to adapt.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked how insurance companies were dealing with extreme flooding in Florida, to which Jennifer Jurado, the chief resilience officer for Broward County, Florida, replied that some local insurance companies in Florida are going bankrupt, while others are pulling out of the state altogether to avoid future risk. 

Lawmakers stressed the importance of working together to find solutions to mitigate the effects of extreme weather events in the future. 

While climate change is driving extreme weather, we are not helpless. This situation is not hopeless,” Carper said. “Working together, we can prevent the worst impacts of global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Published in conjunction with Planet Forward logo

Experts debate solutions to the single-use plastics crisis from bioplastics to improved recycling

WASHINGTON – “I’ll show you what I dug out of one [camel] skeleton,” said marine scientist Marcus Eriksen as he unearthed a roughly 40-pound mass that he estimated held 2,000 plastic bags. 

Eriksen’s display came as he and other experts testified on potential solutions to single-use plastics pollution, encompassing varying perspectives from new materials to improved recycling, during a subcommittee hearing for the Senate Environment and Public Works on Thursday.

Eriksen, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, said he has also pulled plastic bags out of hundreds of bird skeletons, and he’s had colleagues find them in whale guts too. He emphasized the global abundance of plastic waste that has risen exponentially in the last 15 years and resulted in serious health impacts for numerous species.

“These small, even nanoscale, particles are found in your bloodstream,” Eriksen said in an interview with the Medill News Service before the hearing. “They get into the placenta of mothers. It gets into the organs of humans. It even crossed the brain barrier in studies of rats and mice.”

There was also an intermittent back and forth on whether plastic bags can be recycled, illustrating the larger confusion on the country’s present recycling system and its limited efficacy. 

Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., asked about the proliferation of plastic bags in the 40-pound mass, saying that it was his understanding that plastic bags can be recycled. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said plastic bags cannot be recycled and that the recycling rate in general “stinks,” calling it “very, very much a failed system.” 

In response, Mullin maintained that there are ways to recycle plastic bags to which Whitehouse said he had meant you can’t dispose of plastic bags in a mixed-use recycling bin. 

Erin Simon, vice president and head of Plastic Waste and Business at the World Wildlife Fund, said plastic bags are technically recyclable but not recycled. Some recycling facilities do not accept plastic bags, wraps, and film in recycling bins because they clog machinery and cause safety hazards.

During the discussion, Mullin cautioned against “a knee-jerk reaction” and called for “innovation, not misguided regulation.” He highlighted the work of witness Humberto Kravetz, the founder and CEO of GSF Upcycling, a Spain-based company that recycles plastic with less energy and environmental cost by using nanomaterials.

Eriksen called for biodegradable plastics as a solution. He noted his organization’s 18-month field study that measured how 22 bioplastic items broke down in different land and marine environments with most samples degrading significantly within the timespan. 

“A lot of these biomaterials, they are functional replacements, especially as a thin film,” Eriksen said in an interview before the hearing. 

Eriksen also discussed the potential of regenerative materials such as seaweed and mushrooms as feedstocks for biobased materials as an alternative to plastics made from fossil fuels.

Simon noted the need for caution when considering the tradeoffs of switching to alternative materials, emphasizing that steps can be taken when sourcing alternatives to ensure there are more environmental and social benefits compared to conventional plastic.  

Whitehouse argued that an economic component needs to be added to the technical conversation to provide incentives by reaching a point where recycled materials are cheaper than virgin plastic. 

“If that economic signal shifts, then suddenly recycling works,” Whitehouse said, “because if there’s one rule of capitalism, it’s the profits imperative.”

According to Simon, it’s the responsibility of governments and industries to make systems work for consumers while also addressing current trends. 

“All of the science tells us that, whether you’re talking about this from a pollution issue or from human health, first we need to produce less,” Simon said in an interview before the hearing. “We can’t manage what we have, let alone what we’re projected to grow to.”

Published in conjunction with Planet Forward logo



Medill Today | March 14, 2024