Week 73: Six Out of Seven Global Leaders Fight Climate Change—the Other Promotes Coal

Trump won’t sign the G7 climate commitment, Pruitt doesn’t have time for smog limits, and Zinke cancels science.

June 15, 2018

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Trump, Out!

President Trump skipped out of the G7 meeting early last weekend, pointedly missing the sessions on climate change and clean energy. With Trump gone, the leaders of Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Japan got to work, reaffirming their commitments to mitigate global warming. The signatories plan on “reducing emissions while stimulating innovation, enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening and financing resilience and reducing vulnerability; as well as ensuring a just transition, including increasing efforts to mobilize climate finance from a wide variety of sources.”

While that statement seems unobjectionable, the Trump administration objected—and drafted its own paragraph for the G7 communiqué (which Trump didn’t end up signing anyway after launching into a Twitter tantrum on trade).

The United States will endeavor to work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently. The United States believes in the key role of energy transitions through the development of market-based clean energy technologies and the importance of technology collaboration and innovation to continue advancing economic growth and protect the environment as part of sustainable, resilient and clean energy systems.

Note that there’s nothing in the joint communiqué that is inconsistent with the U.S. position. All seven countries envision an orderly transition away from fossil fuels with an emphasis on technological innovation. The sole difference is that United States insisted on mentioning fossil fuels by name.

Instead of going along with our country’s closest allies, Trump and company made a spectacle of themselves, seemingly out of spite. The G7 drama, though, is just political theater. In that way, it mirrors Trump’s approach to workers in fossil fuel industries: Put on a miner’s hat, make big promises, but deliver very little. For all of Trump’s bluster, coal-fired power plants are still closing at a record pace, and his sloppily drafted environmental rollbacks are being reversed by federal judges. The Trump administration’s record in court on environmental issues is laughable. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has prevailed in only one of the 21 cases that have reached resolution.

But, hey, at least the presidential Twitter account supports coal.

Smog Stall

Speaking of the EPA’s litigation messes, Administrator Scott Pruitt is begging a federal judge for yet more time to figure out the agency’s position on ground-level ozone, the toxic substance that results from automotive tailpipe and power plant emissions.

The ozone rules are Exhibit A in the disorganized, make-it-up-as-you-go-along way Pruitt is running the EPA. The Obama administration adopted the new limits in 2015, finally acknowledging the science that proved the prior standards were inadequate. Researchers had estimated that ground-level ozone and particulate matter combined contributed to 10 percent of the deaths in Los Angeles in 2006. Studies out of Atlanta and New York City showed that ozone was increasing hospital visits and asthma attacks, and infants were the most severely affected. Obama’s lower limits were, if anything, still too high to satisfy health experts.

But Pruitt is emphatically not a health expert. When he took office, he announced that he was extending deadlines for states to develop plans to meet ozone limits by one year, from 2017 to 2018. States and a coalition of environmental groups (including NRDC) immediately sued. Recognizing that he was acting beyond his legal authority, Pruitt quickly retracted the extension last August.

In perhaps his most ironic comment to date, Pruitt then said with a straight face, “We take deadlines seriously.”

If there’s one thing Scott Pruitt doesn’t take seriously…OK, it’s ethical standards. But if there’s a second thing Pruitt doesn’t take seriously, it’s deadlines. Pruitt’s EPA has asked judges to delay deadlines so many times that he’s running out of excuses.

In the ozone case this week, Pruitt’s EPA explained to the judge that it needs time to make “a final decision on its expected administrative path forward, which in turn will provide a more solid foundation to decide the appropriate litigation path forward here.” In other words, they’ve been so busy trying to explain the administrator’s ethical and financial misconduct that they haven’t had time to develop a plan for ozone regulations.

The litigation has now been on hold for 14 months. Surely that is enough time for the EPA to have developed an ozone policy. Nevertheless, Pruitt wants you to know that he takes deadlines seriously. So, so seriously.

See No Heart Disease, Hear No Heart Disease

The U.S. Department of the Interior canceled a study on the public health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining last August. This week, after a thorough review, the department’s inspector general reported that Secretary Ryan Zinke and his staff have failed to offer a convincing explanation for the cancellation. The department couldn’t even produce any evidence of a formal review prior to making its decision.

Hey, I have a theory. Perhaps Zinke didn’t want the venerable National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to tell the public how terrible mountaintop removal mining is for the people living in Appalachia. Blasting the top off of a mountain sends particulate matter and chemicals into the air. The “overburden”—i.e. everything blown off the mountain that isn’t coal—ends up in drinking water and streams where people fish and swim.

The Interior’s claim that the proposed study was duplicative is plainly false. A review of the literature through 2016, conducted by the National Institutes of Health, found indications that mountaintop removal mining could be linked to heart disease and early death but identified “a critical need for studies” that explore the association more deeply. That’s why the National Academies had already spent $455,110 researching the issue before Zinke canceled the grant.

The Pacific Standard reported this week that an Interior official pushed for the cancellation after meeting with coal industry groups. Do you think Big Coal was afraid the study was too duplicative? Neither do I.

This Explains So Much

This isn’t environmental news, but I think it just might be the biggest story of the week.

Discussing a luncheon at the Heritage Foundation in October, Scott Pruitt’s scheduler told organizers, “[Pruitt] typically does not eat, so we may have him arrive as they are finishing up.”

In April, the same scheduler told the National Mining Association, “The Administrator [will] not eat and he will probably only request coffee.”

Several other newly disclosed email chains emphasize that the man who runs the EPA does not eat in the presence of others. I’m not saying Pruitt is a cyborg developed by the oil industry to destroy the environment, but I’m not saying he isn’t, either.

Stop Andrew Wheeler

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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