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The Interior axed climate change policies right before Christmas

This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Just before Christmas, the Interior Department quietly rescinded an array of policies designed to elevate climate change and conservation in decisions on managing public lands, waters, and wildlife. Order 3360, signed by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, explains that the policies were rescinded because they were “potential burdens” to energy development.

The order echoes earlier mandates from President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to Interior’s 70,000 employees: Prioritize energy development and de-emphasize climate change and conservation. The order is another in a long string of examples of science and conservation taking a backseat to industry’s wishes at the Interior Department under Zinke.

The sweeping order, which Bernhardt signed Dec. 22., affects a department that manages a fifth of the nation’s land, 19 percent of U.S. energy supplies, and most of the water in the 12 Western states. It fulfills a high-profile executive order by Trump and a secretarial order from Zinke, both announced in March. Interior did not publicize the order but posted it on its website with other secretarial orders. The Interior Department refused to answer questions about order 3360 on Thursday. “Sorry, nobody is available for you,” Heather Swift, the department spokesperson, wrote in an email.

Environmental groups were surprised that the agency failed to tout the policy decisions. “We’ve been waiting for it. We thought they would do it with some sort of great pride,” said Nada Culver, who directs the Wilderness Society’s BLM action center.

The Bureau of Land Management last week did announce a related policy change that makes it easier for companies to develop oil and gas in core sage grouse habitats that were protected in 2015 as part of an unprecedented conservation initiative. The BLM replaced six instructional memoranda that direct field staff on how to manage 67 million acres of prime sage grouse habitat across 10 Western states. Among other things, the new instructions relieve BLM staff from the requirement that they prioritize drilling outside of prime sagebrush habitat areas.

David Hayes, President Barack Obama’s then-deputy secretary of Interior, said the policy rescissions were very significant because these policies guided the agency’s field staff in how to manage the nation’s vast resources at a time when climate change is already impacting public lands in many ways. “It would be irresponsible as land managers not to take into account these risks, such as drought, fire, invasive species, potential sea-level rise, storm surge impacts, wildlife impacts — all of which already are being felt,” Hayes said.

In his March order, Zinke directed staff to scour their agencies to find policies that hamper energy development.

A report published by the Interior Department in October outlined dozens of policy changes in the works to remove barriers to energy development. The report says that even some of the nation’s most treasured areas — including national monuments, national conservation lands and wild and scenic rivers — won’t be spared from Trump administration efforts to promote energy development.

The new order, which was effective immediately and does not require congressional approval, stems from Zinke’s March directive. It did not specify how the rescinded policies hindered energy or what policies, if any, will take their place.

Among the policies erased by the December order was the climate change chapter of the Interior Department’s manual. This chapter stated that it was the department’s policy to “adapt to the challenges posed by climate change to its mission, programs, operations, and personnel. The department will use the best available science to increase understanding of climate change impacts, inform decision-making, and coordinate an appropriate response to impacts on land, water, wildlife, cultural and tribal resources, and other assets.”

This 2012 policy required national parks and other public lands to consider climate change when developing resource management plans and when permitting various activities. It instructed them to consult the departments’ new Climate Science Centers and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives so they can be guided by the best science available. The policy responded to a 2009 executive order by Obama, which Trump rescinded in March.

Joel Clement, who was the Interior Departments top climate change official before he quit in October, was a main architect of the policy. He says it gave agencies the authority to plan for the myriad of challenges public lands face from climate change. Without the policy they no longer have clear authority. “All of these agencies will fail at their missions if they don’t plan for the impacts of climate change,” Clement said.

Another policy erased by Bernhardt’s order was a chapter added in 2015 that encouraged land managers to look beyond the small parcels of land impacted by a single project when considering mitigation. Instead, it asked them to see how mitigation efforts fit into the conservation goals for larger areas surrounding the projects. This applied to permitting various activities such as mining, drilling for oil, or building a solar power plant. The BLM, National Park Service, or Fish and Wildlife Service would require the company to first avoid and minimize any impacts to natural resources. If impacts were unavoidable, a company would have to “compensate” by designing a mitigation project that would have to reflect broader conservation goals. For instance, if they had to fill in a wetland or build a road through sagebrush habitat, they’d have to invest in restoration projects that replaced the habitat lost.

Hayes said traditionally land managers only looked at the areas impacted by the project or perhaps inside the borders of their own park or refuge. But because climate change is impacting resources across large regions, it became important to start managing across jurisdictional boundaries. The department set up eight regional Climate Science Centers and 22 Landscape Conservation Cooperatives to help land managers study how the broad impacts of climate change should impact their work. (The Trump administration has proposed slashing funding the Climate Science Centers and eliminating the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, but so far Congress has continued to fund both.)

The new order also rescinded BLM’s 2016 mitigation manual and mitigation handbook. These policies guidelines built on the principles of the Interior Department’s mitigation policy and were much more detailed and specific to the kinds of projects BLM authorizes. The handbook both describes how to assess the impacts projects will have on natural resources and outlines how to devise mitigation projects to offset those impacts. BLM is the agency that manages the nation’s energy resources on public lands, including those overseen by the Forest Service.

The agencies are still legally required under the National Environmental Policy Act to mitigate the harmful effects of development and consider climate change. Now they’ve been told not to let climate change considerations or mitigation burden energy development. And they have no guidebook to help them navigate these competing mandates. That confusion could leave the door open for a lot of lawsuits. “That takes you down a very dangerous road for other resources and uses of public lands,” Culver said. “I think it’s going to make the situation worse both for the resources on the ground and for whatever projects they approve.”

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The Interior axed climate change policies right before Christmas

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Scott Pruitt allegedly wants to be attorney general, and maybe president someday.

On Thursday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke held a press conference to discuss the Department of the Interior’s intentions for drilling rights in American-controlled waters. In brief: The Arctic, Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and possibly parts of the Pacific are pretty much all fair game now. The new policy would encompass “the largest number of lease sales ever proposed,” Zinke said.

It’s a direct take-back of the plan that the Obama administration finalized in November 2016. Those rules, which protected the Arctic and Atlantic seas from new drilling, were supposed to hold until 2022. But President Trump has long claimed the legal authority, and intention, to reverse it.

Conservation groups will almost certainly challenge this new draft plan in court. And a bipartisan group of local and state officials also oppose new drilling in some of these areas. In June, 14 House Republicans issued a joint letter opposing drilling off the Atlantic. Florida Governor Rick Scott joined the opposition Thursday, saying that his “top priority is to ensure that Florida’s natural resources are protected.”

Overall, more than 100 lawmakers — along with plenty of governors, attorneys general, and the U.S. Defense Department — oppose the plan.

Just last week, the Interior Department’s rollback of drilling safety regulations after the 2009 Deepwater Horizon spill cited their “unnecessary … burden” on industry.

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Scott Pruitt allegedly wants to be attorney general, and maybe president someday.

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This major coal company is done with climate denial.

Donald Trump’s White House is using some alarming tactics to keep people quiet about climate change and other scientific matters. Over the past few days, investigations have brought some of them to light:

No more climate tweets: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke summoned Joshua Tree National Park’s superintendent to his office last month to reprimand him for tweeting about climate change, The Hill reported on Friday. Zinke made it clear that it was no longer OK for any national park to share climate change facts on official social media accounts.

Joshua Tree’s Twitter account had sent out a thread devoted to climate change:

“Science-based” gets banned: Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration has forbidden health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies from using words such as “fetus,” “transgender,” and “science-based” in official documents for next year’s budget.

EPA employees targeted: A lawyer with the Republican campaign group America Rising (which helps find damaging info on political opponents) submitted requests for emails written by EPA staffers who had criticized the agency, the New York Times reported on Sunday. The request calls for emails that mention EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt or President Trump, along with any email correspondence with congressional Democrats who had criticized the EPA.

America Rising is affiliated with Definers Public Affairs, a communications company founded by two influential Republicans that promises to help its clients “influence media narratives” and “move public opinion.” The EPA recently signed a $120,000 contract with Definers for media monitoring.

Things are getting pretty Orwellian in here.

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This major coal company is done with climate denial.

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President Trump’s national security strategy omits climate change.

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President Trump’s national security strategy omits climate change.

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2 national monuments in Utah are about to lose most of their land

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2 national monuments in Utah are about to lose most of their land

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Singing protesters interrupt a White House presentation at COP23.

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Singing protesters interrupt a White House presentation at COP23.

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The Clean Power Plan’s health benefits are better than ever, Trump’s EPA discovers.

Poor dumb turtles and fish, always chomping on the ubiquitous plastic in the water by accident — or so the story went, until a handful of recent studies suggested sea creatures may actually be choosing to eat plastic.

In one of these experiments, researchers took single grains of sand and particles of microplastic — both around the same size and shape — and dropped them onto coral polyps. The tiny creatures responded to the plastic the same way they would to a tasty piece of food, stuffing the bits of trash into their mouths like so many Snickers Minis.

“Plastics may be inherently tasty,” Austin Allen, a study coauthor and marine science doctoral student at Duke University, told the Washington Post.

Coral polyps rely on chemical sensors — taste buds, essentially — to determine whether something is edible or not. And they were repeatedly chosing to swallow plastic during the study. Only once in 10 trials did a polyp make the same mistake with sand. In fact, the cleaner and fresher and more plastic-y the plastic was, the more readily the coral gulped it down.

While the long-term effects of the plastic-saturation of the planet are still unknown, this research suggests that accidentally tasty microplastics could pose an extra hazard to already beleaguered corals around the world.

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The Clean Power Plan’s health benefits are better than ever, Trump’s EPA discovers.

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Trump wants to to keep the largest coal plant in the West, built on Navajo land, open.

You’d think that, in an era of increasingly extreme weather and disasters that render whole regions of the country nearly uninhabitable for months, maintaining a weather service in tip-top shape would be a priority.

Turns out, under President Donald Trump, that hasn’t been the case. Shifting priorities and uncertainty over funding at the National Weather Service have led to as many as 700 current staff vacancies, according to a report in the Washington Post. That’s about 15 percent of its mandated positions.

“Given our staffing, our ability to fill our mission of protecting life and property would be nearly impossible if we had a big storm,” Brooke Taber, a weather service forecaster in Vermont, told her local paper.

Some offices, like the one in Washington, D.C., are missing a third of their workforce as hurricane season winds down ahead of winter, traditionally one of the busiest times of the year for storms. Although a weather service spokesperson denied the problem was hurting the quality of its forecasts, the service’s employees union said in a statement that the organization is “for the first time in its history teetering on the brink of failure.”

The report follows a Grist cover story this week that looked at how Trump’s proposed cuts to the National Weather Service are already making the country less safe.

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Trump wants to to keep the largest coal plant in the West, built on Navajo land, open.

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A tiny energy company got in a big feud with San Juan’s mayor.

A new Chicago Tribune investigation found that residents in black and Latino communities are charged water rates up to 20-percent higher than those in predominantly white neighborhoods.

The Tribune examined 162 Chicagoland communities with publicly managed systems using water from Lake Michigan. While only 13 percent of the cohorts surveyed are majority-black, those groups included five of the 10 areas with the highest water rates.

Water bills are soaring across the country. A recent USA Today report of 100 municipalities found that over the past 12 years, the monthly cost of water doubled in nearly a third of cities. In Atlanta, San Francisco, and Wilmington, Delaware, the price of water tripled or more.

Low-income residents and communities of color are bearing the brunt of surging water rates, which have buried families in debt, causing some to lose their homes. In Flint, Michigan, more than 8,000 residents faced foreclosure because of unpaid water and sewage bills.

This year, Philadelphia launched an income-based, tiered assistance program to aid low-income residents. City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez spearheaded the bill because residents in her district — which includes some of Philly’s largest Puerto Rican communities — bore 20 percent of the city’s unpaid water debt despite only being a tenth of its population.

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A tiny energy company got in a big feud with San Juan’s mayor.

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Nearly half of the country thinks Donald Trump is handling hurricane season well.

Those trips — 49 to 61 percent of all rides in metro areas — would otherwise have been made on foot, bike, or public transit, according to new analysis from UC Davis.

Sustainability-inclined urbanists — including us — often credit car- and ride-sharing services for reducing the overall number of cars in cities. After all, if people know they can get a ride when they need one, they will presumably be less likely to invest in a car of their own.

But the UC Davis study shows that the vast majority of ride-sharing users — 91 percent — have not made a change in their personal vehicle ownership as a result of Uber or Lyft. Meanwhile, these ride-share users took public transit 6 percent less.

That means that ride-hailing services aren’t necessarily taking people out of their cars — they’re taking them off of buses and subways.

There’s still lots of evidence that shows car ownership is an increasingly unappealing prospect for young people in America’s cities (after all, a big chunk of that 91 percent may not own a car in the first place).

Taxi apps may help kill the private car, but they won’t fix all our traffic and transit problems, either. That will take more work.

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Nearly half of the country thinks Donald Trump is handling hurricane season well.

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