Latest in Environment News

Get up-to-date environment news from our reporters

Climate change pushes Washington’s cherry blossoms to bloom earlier

Warmer springs are making cherry blossom trees bloom earlier than before. Cherry blossoms are sensitive to temperature change and experts say they are strong indicator of climate change.

Presidential power is big question on climate emergency

Climate activists have been calling on the next president to declare a national climate emergency within his first 100 days in office. But the legality of such a move will be tested when the Supreme Court rules on whether President Donald Trump can proceed with his wall on the southern border. 

BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT Official UNABLE TO ANSWER REPUBLICANS, DEMOCRATS’ QUESTIONS IN NATURAL RESOURCES HEARING

WASHINGTON—Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director of Operations Michael Nedd was rebuked from several Democratic and...

Republicans, Democrats combine to fight Interior Department on land and water conservation fund

The proposed budget includes what House Natural Resources Committee Vice Chair Rep. Gregorio Sablan, a Democrat from the North Mariana Islands, called an “unprecedented reduction in funding”, particularly for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which would see a 97 percent reduction in funding under the proposed budget.

INDUSTRY LEADER, ECOLOGIST CLASH ON Global Tree Planting Proposal

A bill that would pledge U.S. participation in a global plan to plant 1 trillion trees by 2050 endorsed by President Donald Trump at Davos had environmental stakeholders split Wednesday at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing.

Nature-Based Infrastructure Could be an Effective Way to Manage Flooding

Head to Houston’s Willow Waterhole and you’ll find picturesque marshes dotted with brown reeds and green plants, leaves raised to the sun. Try a little bird-watching, stroll along a trail or enjoy a picnic on the wide expanses of grass.

But the 279-acre area is more than just a park.

Officially the Willow Waterhole Stormwater Detention Basin, it’s actually a nature-based flood damage reduction facility that can hold up to 600 million gallons of stormwater. Channels slowly drain the water away, which would otherwise have moved downstream, flooding homes and businesses.

The site is part of the Brays Bayou Flood Damage Reduction Project, a massive collaboration between the Harris County Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers. Project Brays’ 75 elements primarily include widened and deepened channels, which will be able to hold more stormwater, alterations to the bridges crossing those channels and the construction of four stormwater detention basins. Willow is one of them.

Stephen Benigno, an environmental quality section leader at the flood control district’s Environmental Services Department, said that most park-goers have no idea that spaces like Willow are multi-purpose. It’s an example of hybrid infrastructure, which combines both nature-based and traditional solutions to problems like flooding.

Sarah Murdock, director of U.S. climate resilience and water policy at The Nature Conservancy, said, “When you invest in nature, you can lessen the impact that you’re trying to address, but you also get a host of other benefits.”

Not only does Willow manage flood risk and provide a recreational space for Houston residents, it also helps conserve wildlife and restore the endangered coastal prairie ecosystem upon which Houston was built.

Willow’s trees will grow into forest, so workers don’t have mow as much grass. Plants within the waterhole help filter the stormwater, which otherwise would be carried, along with its contaminants, into the Brays Bayou and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.

“When [hybrid infrastructure] is applicable, the district uses it every chance they get,” said Benigno.

And in August 2017, Project Brays prevented over 10,000 homes from being flooded by Hurricane Harvey, which dumped about a trillion gallons of water on Harris County alone. All of the county’s channels and its four detention basins, which can hold a combined 3.5 billion gallons of stormwater, were at full capacity sometime during the storm.

Traditional gray infrastructure — like pipes or pumping stations — alone would have resulted in greater damage.

Norma Jean Mattei, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 president, said that typical structures like pumping stations are designed to collect water and actively move it out of the area as quickly as possible, but are susceptible to damage in comparison with passive alternatives like Willow.

In addition, she said, any hazards that take the systems offline during extreme weather events, even temporarily, will lead to flooding.

“That’s what the problem is with gray infrastructure,” said Mattei. “Big rainstorms [like Hurricane Harvey] are a lot of water.”

Climate change could make weather events more intense, putting traditional projects under more stress. A 2017 National Oceanic and Air Administration study projected more severe rainfall and hurricanes for Texas as the climate warms.

The fourth National Climate Change Assessment, released in 2018 by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, found that sea level rise along the Texas Gulf Coast is twice as high as the national average. A storm surge in Galveston Bay could put the entire country’s petroleum and natural gas refining ability at risk. During Harvey, surges in the area measured from one to four feet high.

Nature-based elements could be part of a comprehensive approach toward these developing challenges. That’s something the Army Corps of Engineers’ dedicated Engineering with Nature initiative is taking to heart. In the organization’s Galveston Bay district, located right by Houston, it’s using a strategy called “multiple lines of defense” to take some of the strain off engineered features.

Edmond Russo, deputy district engineer for programs and project management at the Corps.’ Galveston District said, “In the case we only had engineered solutions, the system is more brittle and prone to failure.”

A snapshot of the Army Corps of Engineers’ “multiple lines of defense” approach to storm and flood risk management. Source: Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

Russo described an example in which using miles of wetlands in front of an earthen levee would reduce the daily battering the structure would take from the waves. The project would remain effective for longer.

More engineers are recognizing the potential advantages that nature can bring to infrastructure.

“[Engineers] would try to control nature, but we know we can’t,” he said. “There’s always a bigger disaster than what you design for.”

Fossil fuel industry begins moving on climate change

WASHINGTON — Americans are increasingly concerned that climate change is both real and manmade, and major fossil fuel industries are heeding the change in public sentiment by investing in green energy.

In 2019 alone, BP and Glencore agreed to investor demands to set business policy to limit greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the 2016 Paris Accords and disclose the results to their stakeholders.

According to Yale’s Climate Change Communication December survey, 73 percent of Americans think global warming is happening, while 62 percent think it is caused by humans. This concern stems from an increase in intensity and frequency of natural disasters as well as increased discussion among politicians, especially President Donald Trump, according to Yale research affiliate John Kotcher.

“Over the last five years, we’ve seen a pretty substantial upward trend about people’s concern with climate change,” Kotcher said.

Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord and eliminated many Obama-era environmental policies and regulations even as his administration released the 2018 National Climate Assessment, a 13-agency report calling for swift action on human-induced climate change. He plans to appoint a new climate change commission headed by William Happer, a climate change denier who argues that more carbon dioxide emissions are positive for the Earth.

Meanwhile, progressive Democrats decided it was time to harness the public concern and proposed the Green New Deal, a sweeping resolution to reduce carbon emissions by 2030.

And some of the leading companies in the energy industry, except for coal, also heeded the public concern by changing their practices.

Following the 2015 Paris agreement, oil, natural gas and coal industry investors urged companies to reform their practices. In late 2017, industry investors created the Climate Action 100+ as an initiative to ensure the largest greenhouse gas emitters act on climate change, according to its website.

With over 300 investors totaling $33 trillion in assets, the group has persuaded over 100 companies to set policies that comply with the Paris agreement.

In February, British Petroleum announced that it would heed its investors’ calls for wider reporting on its climate change initiatives and join the initiative. “BP is committed to helping solve the dual challenge of providing more energy with fewer emissions,” said BP Chairman Helge Lund in a statement.

About 20 years ago, BP invested nearly $10 billion in clean energy sources, though it faced criticism at the time that it was a public relations stunt. Just 10 years later, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill cost the company any credibility of environmental stewardship it had gained . The latest move to join this organization is in part driven by competition from the industry’s major players, according to Axios.

But BP’s commitment to the initiative goes beyond lip service. To join Climate Action 100+, energy companies must commit to help limit the increase of global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius, while also disclosing corporate information on what they are doing to achieve that goal.

“Going forward, investors will expect full and transparent disclosure, and will hold the board and company executives accountable for BP’s progress against this critical commitment,” said Mindy Lubber, Climate Action 100+ global steering committee vice chair, and Ceres CEO and president.

Glencore joined signed on to the initiative in late February and committed to its investors to limit emissions and increase disclosures. In addition to helping limit global temperatures from increasing above 2 degrees Celsius, Glencore is also examining its relationship with trade associations that could undermine its goals, including those that lobby for deregulation, according to a Glencore statement.

Shell has also led the industry’s gradual shift toward clean energy, albeit with its bottom line in mind, a practice common in the industry. CEO Ben van Beurden predicts that U.S. policy in line with Paris will be enacted, and that it “has to be delivered through business,” he said. “And I intend to fully benefit from that.”

The energy giant has already moved much of its business into natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel, and plans to make coal and oil a smaller part of its budget, according to an investor earnings call at the end of January.

Van Beurden also said Shell has set short-term targets to help the company fulfill its long-term goals of limiting the increase of global temperatures and aims to invest $1 billion to $2 billion in clean energy this year.

There are still many in the energy industry opposing the realities of climate change.

The American Coal Council does not support any regulation to force companies to reduce carbon emissions nor is it interested in joining in voluntary efforts like those of BP and Shell.

“We want to utilize the rich energy reserves that we have in coal,” ACC Chief Executive Officer Betsy Monseu said. “We think that there is a better path to doing that through the use of advanced coal technology rather than not using coal or using less of it.”

In a section of the ACC website that characterizes the reporting of climate change as part of “the era of misinformation,” the company touts the increase of carbon dioxide as a positive because plants need it to survive.

Although some notable Republicans have acknowledged that climate change is happening, especially after the Trump administration released the National Climate Assessment, many argue that the market should solve the issue.

For Anne Simpson, chair of the Climate Action 100+ steering committee, there is no time to wait for government action.

“Keeping global warming to well below two degrees demands bold and urgent action from the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters,” she said. “Our collaborative engagements with the largest emitters will spur actions across all sectors as companies work to avoid being vulnerable to climate risk and left behind.”

Diesel Emission Reductions Attract Bipartisan Support

WASHINGTON –– A bill to renew a diesel emissions reduction law is one of the few successful climate initiatives with bipartisan support and should get quick congressional approval, senators on the Environment and Public Works committee said Wednesday at a hearing on the legislation.

“One of the benefits of this program is that it reduces greenhouse gas emission,” said Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who argued that it dispelled the “false narrative” that Republicans haven’t proposed legislation to combat climate change.

Members of both parties touted the law that has funded 10 years of environmental programs to improve air quality through limiting diesel in vehicles, a regulation executed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The law is set to expire unless Congress renews it.

“We have a great bipartisan coalition supporting [the bill],” said Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the committee. “This is another great example of how we can work together and get stuff done.”

Experts who testified at the hearing joined the strong support of the bill, including Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, who said ports often struggle to keep air clean because so many vehicles and pieces of equipment use diesel fuel.

“Seaports are working to identify solutions that enhance our coastal resources and reduce environmental impact, not just air emissions,” Nagle said. “(The Diesel Emissions Reduction Act) has been especially helpful in supporting larger ports’ clean truck programs,” which help truckers buy trucks that are both more fuel efficient and reduce emissions.

According to Corning Inc. executive Timothy Johnson, the International Agency for Research on Cancer designated diesel to a “known human carcinogen,” which is one reason he supports DERA.

“It provides seed money to clean up diesel exhaust using a wide range of verified technology without breaking the owner’s wallet,” Johnson said. “The federal government can have a major role in helping current diesel owners clean up their engines.”

Carper noted that President Donald Trump’s proposed 2020 budget would cut funds for the law from $87 million to $10 million.

Johnson argued the program could use more money because there are diesel-emitting truck drivers who want to upgrade to cleaner engines but don’t receive grants from the EPA because of lack of funds.

Carper sees the next step as a gas fee and, eventually, a fee based on miles traveled per vehicle as more electric vehicles come into use, which would increase revenue and promote more fuel-efficient vehicles.

In a recent meeting with lawmakers, Trump rejected Carper’s proposal for a four-cent gas tax.

“He said, ‘That’s not enough. We need 25 cents and we need it right now.’ He called on us to support that level of funding in one fell swoop,” Carper said following the hearing. “This is a situation where presidents need to provide leadership” because Barrasso and House Republicans have opposed gas tax increases.

Barrasso plans to finalize the legislation soon, although no meeting date has been set.

Lawmakers Call to Speed Up Infrastructure Projects, Minimize Environmental Impacts

WASHINGTON – Federal regulations are a roadblock to completing federally funded highway projects quickly and cheaply, several senators said Wednesday, but others cautioned against streamlining the process at the expense of environmental protection.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said waiting for federal approval costs states and towns time and money.

“It shouldn’t take years to permit projects that take only months to complete,” he said.

Patrick McKenna, vice president for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, agreed.

Completing projects more quickly is “really impactful” for states, said McKenna. “Even when we shave [off] a week, a month, two months, in a lot of states, that’s the whole construction season.”

Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the committee, said he would not support streamlining legislation that weakened environmental protections.

“The benefits of highway infrastructure will be impeded, if not downright nullified,” said Carper, “if we don’t address the threats of climate change and extreme weather events that are increasingly disrupting our nation’s transportation system.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., echoed Carper, saying he supported simplification “as long as it’s not protection for crummy environmental protection.”

To cut down on environment-related regulations, some witnesses suggested using more categorical exclusions to federal review. Typically, the White House Council on Environmental Quality will confirm that a group of actions doesn’t have a significant impact on the environment, and therefore doesn’t require assessments or impact statements., McKenna suggested allowing federal agencies to use exclusions in place at other federal agencies.

Additionally, federal, state and local agencies could make permitting for routine projects easier and faster, suggested Michael Replogle, deputy commissioner for policy at the New York City Department of Transportation. He also said the Federal Highway Administration could give more design and certification authority to states, reducing federal involvement, or increase direct funding to cities, reducing state involvement.

Lawmakers also called for long-term reauthorization of federal highway funding, which expires in September 2020. Former President Barack Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, into law in 2015. It was the first multi-year surface transportation bill enacted in over a decade.

If the funding authorization expires, the Federal Highway Administration will not be able to reimburse states for their projects.

States support a five-year reauthorization rather than just extending it for a year. McKenna explained that state departments of transportation plan for 10, and make projections for 20 to 30 years.

“Without knowing how much we can invest, all of those plans are for naught,” said McKenna, who is also director of the Missouri Department of Transportation.

He said that when states can’t count on federal reimbursement for infrastructure projects, they stop taking financial risks. Missouri itself is running two capital programs to prepare to pay for projects in case FAST Act reauthorization fails.

If the federal government does not pitch in, said McKenna, “that will literally take 35 to 40 percent of our capital programs right off the books.”

Even if the act is reauthorized, funding remains uncertain. The money comes from the Federal Highway Administration’s national Highway Trust Fund, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the fund will not be able to meet state demand as early as fiscal 2021.

The fund is financed mostly by the gas tax, which is 18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon on diesel. The tax has lost much of its value since 1993, the last time it was increased—18 cents then would be 31 now. If the fund hits zero, states will have to wait for the gas taxes to trickle in.

REPUBLICANS LEAVE HEARING ON CLIMATE CHANGE DISINFORMATION

WASHINGTON — Democrats tried to hold a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing Tuesday on industries’ use of disinformation to deny climate change, but Republicans walked out, saying the topic was beyond the subcommittee’s jurisdiction.

The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee has eight members, but only four Republicans and two Democrats showed up for the meeting. The meeting became a Democratic forum after Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, called for a vote to adjourn, which was approved on party lines.

“Climate denial is not a matter of scientific disagreement but rather a set of tactics used by the fossil fuel industry to distort science to further their own agenda,” Subcommittee Chairman Rep. T.J. Cox, D-Calif., said.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the fundamental reasons it has been so difficult to achieve comprehensive policy solutions to global warming is disinformation. Unlike misinformation, which is unintentionally false, disinformation purposefully attempts to mislead people into believing untruths by advancing false reports, distorting accurate reports and influencing policymakers.

A UCS report found that between 1998 and 2005, ExxonMobil spent tens of millions of dollars on a deception operation that involved raising doubts about scientific evidence, promoting spokespeople to misrepresent scientific findings to the media, paying lobbyists to thwart environmental regulations and supporting more than 40 anti-climate advocacy organizations. During this same period, ExxonMobil was one of the world’s largest polluters, emitting roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide in 2005 as the entire country of India.

A 2018 analysis by the same group found that while ExxonMobil now supports a plan for a federal carbon tax and says it is committed to reducing its methane emissions, the company continues to stress the uncertainty of climate science and remains closely tied to industry groups like the Western States Petroleum Association, which opposed Washington state’s Clean Air Rule in 2016 and says it is against “direct command-and-control regulations.”

Climate accountability profiles of other companies like BP and Chevron show that they too are often publicly supportive of sustainable industry practices but privately less willing to actually follow through on those practices.

“The science of climate change has been settled for years now,” Citizens’ Climate Lobby Communications Coordinator Flannery Winchester wrote in an email interview. “We know that it’s real, it’s bad and it’s without a doubt caused by human activity. Anyone saying otherwise is contradicting the consensus of the world’s scientific community.”

As Green New Deal Gains Traction, House Panel Emphasizes Equity in Energy Transition

WASHINGTON — Transitioning to a clean energy economy is more than just a necessary step to address climate change, Just Energy Director Chandra Farley told lawmakers on Tuesday. According to Farley, it also offers an opportunity to address issues of racial injustice, economic disinvestment and other equity issues.

Topics of equity and human impact were in the spotlight at the first House Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee hearing Tuesday, which discussed both the benefits and the pitfalls of a transition to clean energy in response to climate change.

Farley pointed to the increased health risks associated with proximity to coal-fueled power plants as an example of the structural racism of current U.S. energy infrastructure. Nearly 70 percent of black Americans live within 30 miles of such power plants, she said, and because of the disproportionate effect of these emissions, questions of racial justice must be at forefront of the energy transition.

“Any solution meant to limit the effects of climate change on lower-income, under-resourced communities must be centered in equity and must be centered in a reckoning with the reasons that these disparities exist,” Farley said.

Other witnesses, including business leaders and academics, underscored the importance of addressing climate change in a way that assists local economies.

Sarah Shrader, the co-founder of Bonsai Design, an outdoor recreation and adventure company in Mesa County, Colorado, said the area has historically felt the burden of extracting natural resources from the land. When commodity prices are high, she said, the development has provided jobs and prosperity. However, when they fall, the loss can be devastating to the local economy.

Because of that boom-and-bust cycle, Shrader said, “we are trained to believe that economic prosperity is fleeting and temporary.”

As the U.S. transitions away from mineral extraction as an energy source, Shrader said protecting lands will be key because of its importance to local industries like hers.

The hearing follows the introduction of a resolution outlining the Green New Deal by Democratic lawmakers last week. The resolution proposes a sweeping package of environmental policies designed to respond to accelerating climate change, and would rapidly transition the United States away from carbon-based energy sources.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., took aim at the Green New Deal during the hearing, as did Rep. Paul Gosar, the ranking member of the subcommittee.

Gosar described the proposal as a “socialist fairytale,” while Cheney questioned witnesses about the idea of eliminating air travel. The idea is not outlined in the Green New Deal itself, but was briefly included in a draft FAQ released by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. The draft has since been retracted.

Rep. Jared Huffman, a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, said Cheney’s assertion was “disingenuous” and clarified that the elimination of air travel is not a tenet of the resolution.

However, the particulars of the Green New Deal were not the hearing’s primary focus.

The witnesses were not all in agreement about the effects of climate change legislation. Bill Bissett, the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Huntington, West Virginia, expressed concern about climate change policy leading to job losses in Appalachia.

Others argued that policy change could facilitate economic equality. Peter Hille, the president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, said that Appalachia has been struggling for decades, and diversifying the economy would be integral to its survival.

“The question is not: ‘How do we replace those [lost] mining jobs and get back to where we were?’” he said. “The question is: ‘How do we go forward? How do we build a new economy for Appalachia?’”

DEMOCRATS HOPE TO BE CARBON NEUTRAL IN 2030 IN GREEN NEW DEAL RESOLUTION

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., rolled out their plan for the already famed Green New Deal in a joint resolution and press conference Thursday, calling for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The highly anticipated resolution specifies some of the agenda’s vaguer goals, including meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the US through clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources within 10 years.

“This is a big day for activists all over the country and a big day for frontline communities all over the country,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “This is a big day for people who have been left behind.”

Both Ocasio-Cortez and Markey stressed the plausibility of the lofty policy goals that urge legislators to create sustainable infrastructure for “generations to come.”

“There will be cynics who will say this does not go far enough or that this cannot be done,” Markey said as he recalled those who thought global climate agreements like the Paris accords would never occur. “I have been really comforted by their consistency – they have been consistently wrong.”

In what Ocasio-Cortez called the “first step” in a longer policy agenda, the bicameral support has over 60 cosponsors between the two chambers, including five potential presidential candidates who have supported the agenda, despite still lacking specific policies on issues like a carbon tax.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a freshman who has made herself an important social media presence as she leads a new progressive wing of the Democrats, and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a champion of previous climate bills, plan to introduce the Green New Deal into the House and Senate soon. (Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff/MNS)Onlookers and supporters of the Green New Deal capture the press conference Thursday. (Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff/MNS)Members of the Sunrise movement held up signs that read, “We need the Green New Deal,” as they watched the press conference Thursday. (Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff/MNS)Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., was one of many cosponsors in attendance at the Green New Deal press conference Thursday. (Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff/MNS)Members of the Sunrise Movement, a founding movement of the Green New Deal that consists of many young progressives, praised the joint press conference, calling it an important first step. (Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff/MNS)Founder of the Sunrise Movement, Varshini Prakash interviews Rep. Ocasio-Cortez in a livestream after the press conference on Thursday. Prakash and the Sunrise Movement are planning to visit key Congressional offices next week in hopes of influencing additional sponsors of the Green New Deal.

Just before the press conference, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she had not yet read the resolution of what she has called a “green dream.”

“It is a green dream,” Ocasio-Cortez, emphasizing Democrats’ unity on the issue, which she and Markey repeatedly said is a priority of Pelosi’s. “This issue faces all of us and we are not going to get divided over it. Period. We leave no one behind on our solution.”

The rolling out of the resolution comes with strong pushback from Republicans who have called the GND impossible and a “socialist manifesto,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wy., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.

With the Democrats controlling the House, the GND’s sponsors will need support from several Senate Republicans.

“I am very confident that this movement is going to grow so large and so powerful that we are going to find Republican senators who are going to want to work across the aisle to produce some solutions,” Markey said. “And if not, it is going to become a voting issue in the 2020 election.”

Ocasio-Cortez and Markey said the next step is to find additional cosponsors in the House and Senate before they come out with a more specific policy plan, though they did not give a definitive timeline for when that would be.

 

House Natural Resources Committee holds first climate change hearing in a decade

Gov. Charlie Baker, R-Mass., and Gov. Roy Cooper, D-N.C., testified before House lawmakers on Wednesday about the necessity of federal leadership to combat climate change.

“Climate change is an existential threat,” said Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., who plans to co-sponsor the Green New Deal, a progressive policy to combat climate change that is expected to be jointly introduced as early as this week.

House Republicans aimed to refute federal jurisdiction and urgency a day after President Trump lauded oil and gas production in his State of the Union address.

“Climate change is real,” Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said. “The emissions we produce from fossil fuels are making it worse.”

Trump, who has publicly questioned the effects of climate change, did not mention the issue in his address.

“We need our federal partners to step up on this issue and make the United States a leader in the world again on climate change,” said Cooper, a leader of the governor-led U.S. Climate Alliance.

Baker, a moderate Republican in a liberal state that has taken action on climate change, especially in wind energy, argued that the federal government must support local government by establishing a clear bipartisan vision for climate policy and incorporating climate science into planning and legislating.

“On a number of issues around mitigation, adaptation and resiliency, there’s a lot of common ground there,” said Baker, disagreeing with members of his own party who deny the human impact on climate change.

House Republicans, who entered their first hearing on the Natural Resources Committee as the minority, questioned the human role in climate change and GND.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, argued a lack of human impact in the ice caps melting on Mars and a natural disaster that wiped out dinosaurs should be evidence that humans have played no role in climate change on this planet.

Gohmert’s fellow Republican called out Democratic 2020 candidates for supporting their younger peers’ climate policies.

“It sounds too much like a Soviet 5 year-plan, which is simply not going to work,” Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo. said of the GND. “I think I can understand if someone who doesn’t have a life experience and they’re proposing something that is extremely unrealistic – impossible. But what I don’t understand is adults and grown ups and older and more mature [leaders] who are also advocating something that is impossible.”

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who has earned a zero in 2017 from the League of Conservation Voters’ congressional scorecard, argued against federal interference because he said that states have different industry needs and energy resources.

But for the Democrats on the committee and a majority of the witnesses, there is a clear relationship between humans and climate change.

“Climate change has forced us to live in a new normal, in which fires and floods, droughts and hurricanes break our communities and natural heritage,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, D-Ariz. “It’s now time for us to act.”

The hearing is part of a month-long effort by the Democrats leading the committee to draw attention to climate change.

Houston Neighborhood Shows Who Bears the Brunt of Climate Change

As climate change increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters, experts predict that the effects of hurricanes, floods, and other disasters will be much worse for low-income communities.

Houston’s Manchester neighborhood is a symbol of the problem.

On one edge of the neighborhood is the Houston ship channel, one of America’s busiest ports. Railroad tracks lay on another side of the neighborhood. Oil refineries surround the area, littering smokestacks across the sky. The community is 98 percent Latino and high school graduation and median income rates are low, but asthma and cancer rates are comparatively high.

The National Climate Assessment, jointly released by 13 federal agencies in November, affirmed this risk, noting that across all climate risks, “low-income communities, some communities of color, and those experiencing discrimination are disproportionately affected by extreme weather and climate events, partially because they are often excluded in planning processes.”

At a press conference for Justice First, a coalition of various organizations fighting for environmental justice like the Hip Hop Caucus, the Sierra Club and others, Rep. Donald McEachin, (D-Va.,) called it “one of the most urgent civil rights issues of our time.

“People who are socially vulnerable are also more physically vulnerable to disasters,” Jennifer A. Horney, the founding director of the epidemiology program at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center said.

According to Horney, people who live in less expensive houses or mobile homes are more likely to live in floodplains — areas of low-lying ground near a body of water and likely to experience flooding. As a result, when natural disasters or heavy rain storms hit, low-income communities are often devastated by flooding and damage to houses they can’t afford to fix while wealthier households more often have insurance or savings to pay for damages to houses.

Shannon Van Zandt, a fellow in the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M pointed out the issue of aid that lower income families have to deal with after disaster, noting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency gives money to rebuild homes damaged by disasters, but there often is a cap on the amount of aid.

“That may be enough for a higher income [families], but it doesn’t come anywhere close to what a low-income family needs — typically it’s their whole house that gets damaged,” she said.

According to Van Zandt, lower income families often don’t have savings or insurance to supplement the FEMA support. Many of their claims for support from FEMA are rejected because FEMA can’t determine if the damage was from the disaster or “deferred maintenance.”

As a result, the post-disaster homeless rates are higher in low-income communities.

But the problems go even deeper.

In addition to the destruction caused by natural disasters, the risk of exposure to pollutants increases following disasters in neighborhoods like Manchester.

“In the areas where we weren’t seeing pollution … all of a sudden, we were,” said Garett Sansom, a professor of environmental and public health at Texas A&M.

“PAHs (potentially harmful pollutants) were showing up in locations that we hadn’t seen before, which suggests that the water was moving some of these exposures around in a way that wouldn’t have happened had there not been major flooding.”

Studies found there was a greater percentage of open ditch drainage systems found in communities of color than other areas of Houston.

“That means there is a lot more surface water causing localized flooding and exposing the water to pollution,” Van Zandt said, which can harm drinking water following disaster.

These issues, seen throughout the nation, are exacerbated by the fact that low-income communities often are not represented, both in terms of municipal upkeep and federal support, in government decision-making.

“The recovery funds [after Harvey] went first and foremost to subsidize work going on in industry, energy, oil, gas to make up for lost profits,” said Yvette Arellano, senior staff for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. “We no longer have someone who can speak Spanish within the [Environmental Justice] Department.”

“This isn’t an issue of Houston, it’s an issue of the whole country,” Sansom said.

Published in conjunction with Sojourners logo

Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler faces questions over deregulation, coal industry

WASHINGTON — Democrats on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works criticized acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler over his ties to the coal industry, his support for loosening mercury regulations and what they considered lackluster support for addressing climate change.

Two potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Cory Booker of New Jersey, were especially vocal in their criticism during the hearing on whether to confirm Wheeler as permanent EPA administrator.

“It seems there is a consistency in your actions to weakening rule, to undermining the sense of urgency that (other) agencies are telling us we face not just now, but over the next 25 years,” Booker said.

Minutes into the hearing, protestors sitting in the back chanted, “Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA!” before being walked out by the Capitol Police, showing some of the public’s discontent amidst the fourth week of the government shutdown.

Wheeler defended his controversial record, pointing to the economic growth he has overseen while reducing lead exposure and making water safety a priority.

Sanders, a prominent voice in combating climate change, questioned whether Wheeler believes it is a “global crisis.” “I believe it is a global issue that must be addressed by every country,” Wheeler said.

When Sanders asked if climate change was the biggest culprit in the California wildfires, Wheeler said no. “The biggest issue is forest management,” he said, echoing a position often taken by President Donald Trump.

As Sanders emphasized that “we have 12 years in order to stop the worst impacts of climate change,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said he wasn’t sold that Wheeler would take the needed immediate action.

“I’m looking for a sense of urgency. I think this agency needs this kind of leadership,” Carper said. “I’m looking for some passion here, and I don’t feel it.”

Carper and other Democrats on the committee asserted that if the EPA, which is one of the agencies shut down during the partial shutdown, had diverted the resources to prepare Wheeler for the hearing, the consequences of the shutdown could be greater.

“I do not believe that giving the acting administrator a speedy promotion is more urgent and more important than protecting the public from contamination of our air and water and land,” Carper said.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., wrote in an op-ed published Wednesday by USA Today that Wheeler was qualified because of his “common sense policy,” policies which are rollbacks of Obama-era regulations that protect drinking water, as well as the easing of auto emissions regulations that limit air pollution.

But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said Wheeler does what the coal and oil industries want.

“I believe you have your thumb, wrist, forearm and elbow on the scales in virtually every determination that you can in favor of the fossil fuel agency, and I think that is very unfortunate,” Whitehouse said.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., questioned him on proposed loosening of mercury regulations, which Wheeler’s opposition is concerned about due to mercury poisoning, increasingly a global health issue. “I don’t understand EPA’s position,” Cardin said. “It seems the mercury standards have worked.”

In response, Wheeler explained that the EPA had reassessed an Obama-era cost-benefit analysis of the rules. “I do not believe a single piece of mercury technology will be removed,” Wheeler said.

According to committee staffers, there is currently no timetable in place for a confirmation vote.

10 House Republicans join Democrats to approve USDA funding

WASHINGTON – House Democrats, joined by 10 Republicans voted Thursday to pass a bill that would fund the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, which have been shut down for nearly three weeks, though the measure is unlikely to get Senate approval.

Two Republicans Thursday joined eight who earlier had decided to break from the president’s policy of opposing any federal agency funding that does not include $5.7 billion for a border wall.

After a failed negotiation meeting between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders Wednesday, House Democrats continue to roll out bills this week to open various agencies in an attempt to ease the effects of the partial federal government shutdown.

While some USDA agencies are “essential,” most are closed, halting functions such as announcing agricultural statistics, inspecting animals and plants and providing subsidies to farmers.

“[The effects] have been profound, and it’s only going to get worse,” said Michael Marsh, President and CEO of the National Council of Agriculture Employers. “If [farmers] need to get an operating loan [from Farmer Services], that is going to be delayed,” which means an insecure future for the farmers trying to plan and hire employees.

For example, farmers who rely on the subsidies to buy seeds have been unable to do so, which could mean lower crop yields. Further, should food stamps — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — funding stop, millions of American consumers will be affected, which affects farmer’s bottom lines.

Agricultural research has been halted during the government shutdown, which has long-lasting implications, according to National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition spokeswoman Reana Kovalcik.

“All farmers do research,” she said. “Research trials could be ruined or lost,” including the simple task of watering plants in a greenhouse.

In their arguments, House Democrats emphasized the impact failing to pass the agriculture bill would have on families and farmers, while House Republicans continued to back Trump.

“Our food supply is at risk. When you go to the grocery store, you can’t be sure that the product you are buying is safe,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D – Conn., said, because routine food-safety inspections are not occurring.

Although the USDA has announced that SNAP will continue to be funded in February, Rep. Barbara Lee, D – Calif., speaking from her own experience relying on food stamps, argued that it might not be enough.

House Republicans argued that the Democrats were simply rehashing a bill that was passed in the Senate.

“By bringing forth the Senate version of this bill, it completely ignores all of the work (the House agriculture) subcommittee has done over the past year,” Rep. Steve Palazzo, R– Miss., said.

Kovalcik, representing farmers, simply wants the new Congress to approve the bill that that Senate approved last year. “If it was good enough at the end of 2018, it should be good enough now,” she said.

The bill now moves on from the House to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not bring a bill to a vote unless it is certain that Trump will sign it.

Washington argues salmon case in US Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – Washington state argued to the Supreme Court on Wednesday that replacing hundreds of stream culverts blocking salmon migration is onerous and too expensive.

In the 1850s, the federal government signed the Stevens Treaties with Indian tribes, granting them the “right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

In 2001, some 21 northwest Washington tribes, joined by the United States government, asked a federal judge to rule that Washington state had a treaty-based duty to protect salmon habitat.

In 2013, the court ordered the state rebuild clogged culverts that had the greatest impact on salmon flow by 2030.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in 2016.

Now the issue is before the Supreme Court.

The Justice Department wants a declaration that the state had a treaty-based obligation to refrain from degrading the fishery resources.

“When the United States promised the tribes federal protection for their pre-existing right to fish, that included more than just the hollow promise of access to fisheries that could be blocked off and emptied of their salmon,” Assistant Solicitor General Allon Kedem told the justices.

But Washington State Solicitor General Noah Purcell argued that the lower court rulings ignore the fact that the salmon harvests affected by the culverts have declined less than 5 percent.

The justices repeatedly questioned Purcell on what the state considered substantial degradation of salmon population.

“A decline of half or anything approaching half would obviously be a large decline, a substantial decline,” Purcell said. “But certainly, something between 1 and 5 percent is not a substantial decline.”

“We have to replace culverts when no salmon can reach them,” he said. “And that is an utter waste of public funds.”

The state estimates that cost at $2.4 billion.

The district court told Washington state to defer culverts that had less than 200 meters upstream of useful salmon habitat.

“Those are culverts that will make extremely little difference to be replaced, and each one costs several million dollars,” Purcell said. “The court did not exclude ones even where there’s another barrier 10 yards upstream or 10 yards downstream that the state does not control.”


Published in conjunction with Spokesman logo

 


 

Medill Today // March 19, 2020