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Farmers Are Cheering Trump’s Repeal of an Environmental Rule That Doesn’t Affect Them

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump rose to power amid solid support from the agricultural heartland—he gained endorsements from dozens of farm-state pols and agribiz execs and polled well among farmers. Since the inauguration, however, things have been rocky. Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee machinations amount to an attack on Big Ag’s labor pool, and his moves to kill trade pacts endanger much-needed export markets. But with the stroke of a pen on Tuesday, the new president delivered a gift that delighted his ag supporters.

But did Trump serve a real policy triumph, or an empty gesture?

To answer that question, you’ll need a bit of background. What the president did was sign an executive order commanding the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the Waters of the United States Rule, a policy put into place by the Obama administration. WOTUS, as it is known, is a kind of addendum to the Clean Water Act of 1972, designed to define the kinds of waterways that are under EPA regulation. It was triggered by a split 2006 Supreme Court decision called Rapanos v. United States over whether a developer could fill in a wetland to build a shopping center.

WOTUS has emerged as a major bête noire in some ag circles. Agribiz lobbyist Larry Combest, a former US rep from Texas, declared it “one of the biggest land grabs in American history.” The American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents the interests of Big Ag, has vilified WOTUS since its inception, charging that it gives the EPA massive power to regulate farms.

At his signing ceremony, Trump gave voice to these complaints. Deeming WOTUS “one the worst examples of federal regulation,” Trump insisted that “it has truly run amok” and is “prohibiting farmers from being allowed to do what they’re supposed to be doing.” Echoing the Farm Bureau, he said WOTUS meant that the EPA can regulate “nearly every puddle and every ditch on a farmer’s land,” and vowed that his executive order would “pave the way for the elimination of this very destructive and horrible rule.”

Just one problem with that rhetoric: WOTUS has very little to do with farming. The original Clean Water Act exempted agriculture, and WOTUS maintains that status, notes Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group. “What’s so bizarre about the fight over WOTUS is that the only sector of commerce that’s clearly exempt from the rule has kicked up the most dirt about it,” Faber said. Granted, defining what constitutes a waterway worthy of regulation is a complex process, and even WOTUS’s supplementary introduction is 299 pages. But concerns about ag are dispensed with on page 8:

This rule not only maintains current statutory exemptions, it expands regulatory exclusions from the definition of “waters of the United States” to make it clear that this rule does not add any additional permitting requirements on agriculture.

In a January 2017 report, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service analyzed the WOTUS and came to the same conclusion as the EPA: The final rule “makes no change to and does not affect existing statutory and regulatory exclusions: exemptions for normal farming, ranching, and silviculture activities such as plowing, seeding, and cultivation.” The report notes that the Obama administration at one point proposed an interpretive rule that triggered confusion in the ag world about whether farm ditches might fall under regulation. But the EPA withdrew that particular proposal way back in January 2015, the CRS report states.

What’s more, says Faber, replacing WOTUS will be a long slog, requiring a lengthy rulemaking process. And once that process is done, he adds, the new rule will itself be subject to lawsuits from environmental groups that it’s deemed too weak.

So why did Big Ag fight so hard to kill WOTUS, and cheer so much when Trump moved against it? Faber declined to speculate.

I put the question to William Rodger, a spokesman for the Farm Bureau. He declined to talk but pointed me to brief the group filed in 2016 urging a federal court to overturn the rule. The document lists examples of farmers who, it insists, would run afoul of WOTUS.

One, in Oklahoma, had planned to clear a 50-acre plot next to his property for cattle grazing and farming. “But because the property contains a small creek bed—which is usually about 5-6 inches deep but ‘will often go dry’—the creek is likely to be deemed a ‘tributary’ under the Rule,” the doc states. As a result of the rule, the farmer “has therefore been forced to halt all plans for improving his property because the new regulation, if allowed to go into effect, will require him to obtain a costly jurisdictional determination from the Army Corps of Engineers and, depending on the outcome, a permit from EPA.” But an EPA fact sheet on WOTUS makes clear that such intermittent streams aren’t in fact regulated.

The Farm Bureau document also notes a farmer whose land has drainage ditches “that would also likely count as ‘tributaries’ under the Rule if it were allowed to come into effect.” But the EPA fact sheet states that “farmers, ranchers and foresters continue to receive exemptions from Clean Water Act Section…when they construct and maintain irrigation ditches and maintain drainage ditches.”

Even so, at an event after Trump signed the executive order, the Farm Bureau treated EPA Director Scott Pruitt to a “hero’s welcome” for his role in Trump’s WOTUS move, Bloomberg reports. In a statement, the group’s executive director, Zippy Duvall, insisted that the “flawed WOTUS rule has proven to be nothing more than a federal land grab, aimed at telling farmers and ranchers how to run their businesses,” and praised Trump for delivering a “welcome relief to farmers and ranchers across the country.”

Seems to me that by celebrating Trump’s attempt to dismantle a rule that so little affects agriculture, Big Ag is being a pretty cheap date—especially given what’s going on with trade and immigration.

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Farmers Are Cheering Trump’s Repeal of an Environmental Rule That Doesn’t Affect Them

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Trump Expected to Sign Executive Orders Hitting the EPA

Mother Jones

Scott Pruitt will almost certainly be the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Oklahoma attorney general’s nomination is expected to sail through Senate—possibly as soon as Friday—despite Democrats’ protests that he is unfit to lead an agency that he has repeatedly sued. The administration has already imposed a freeze on the EPA’s social media, halted its rulemaking, and reportedly mandated that all agency research be reviewed by a political appointee before being released to the public. But next week, once Pruitt is sworn in, the real frenzy will begin.

According to Reuters, President Donald Trump plans to sign between two and five environmental executive orders aimed at the EPA and possibly the State Department. The White House is reportedly planning to hold an event at the EPA headquarters, similar the administration’s roll-out of its widely condemn travel ban after Defense Secretary James Mattis took office. While we don’t know what, exactly, next week’s orders will say, Trump is expected to restrict the agency’s regulatory oversight. Based on one administration official’s bluster, the actions could “suck the air” out of the room.

Trump may have hinted at the forthcoming orders in his unwieldy press conference on Thursday. “Some very big things are going to be announced next week,” he said. (He didn’t make clear whether or not he was referring to the EPA.)

Former President Barack Obama’s array of climate regulations, including the Clean Power Plan limiting power plant emissions, are certainly high on conservative activists’ hit list. So too is the landmark Paris climate deal, in which Obama agreed to dramatically cut domestic carbon emissions and provide aide to other countries for clean energy projects and climate adaptation. The EPA’s rule that defines its jurisdiction over wetlands and streams is also a prime target. As attorney general, Pruitt launched lawsuits against a number of these regulations.

“What I would like to see are executive orders on implementing all of President Trump’s main campaign promises on environment and energy, including withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty,” said Myron Ebell, who headed Trump’s EPA transition and recently returned to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in an email to Mother Jones.

H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow the Heartland Institute, which rejects the scientific consensus on climate change, says Trump could start by revisiting the Obama administration’s efforts to calculate a “social cost of carbon“—and by forbidding its use to determine costs and benefits of government regulations. He also wants to see broader restrictions on how the EPA calculates costs and benefits. In particular, Burnett hopes Trump will prohibit the agency from the considering public health co-benefits of regulations—for example, attempts by the EPA to argue that limits on CO2 emissions from power plants also reduce emissions of other dangerous pollutants.

Or Trump could take a cue from Republican Attorneys General Patrick Morrisey (W.V.) and Ken Paxton (Texas), who recommended in December that Trump issue a memorandum directing the EPA to “take no further action to enforce or implement” the Clean Power Plan. (The Supreme Court halted implementation of the rule a year ago while both sides fight it out in federal court).

The holy grail for conservatives would be reversing the agency’s so-called “endangerment finding,” which states that greenhouse gas emissions harm public health and must therefore be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The endangerment finding is the legal underpinning for the bulk of Obama’s climate policies, including the restrictions on vehicle and power plant emissions. Undoing the finding wouldn’t be an easy feat and can’t be accomplished by executive order alone. The endangerment finding isn’t an Obama invention; in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA must regulate greenhouse gasses if it found they harmed public health. Pruitt said during his confirmation hearing that the administration wouldn’t revisit the finding, but he also launched an unsuccessful lawsuit against it in 2010. Neither Ebell nor Burnett expects to see Trump to tackle the endangerment finding just yet.

Environmentalists are already planning their response. Litigation is certainly an option, but it would of course depend on the details of Trump’s executive actions. Several groups, including EarthJustice and Natural Resources Defense Council, have already sued to block Trump’s earlier executive order requiring that every new regulation be offset by scrapping two existing regulations. Their case: The administration can’t arbitrarily ditch regulations just because the president wants fewer of them on the books.

They could be making a similar case soon enough. “A new president has to deal with the record and evidence and findings,” EarthJustice’s lead attorney, Patti Goldman, said. “If you take climate and the endangerment finding, that is a scientific finding that is upheld by the court. That finding has legal impacts. If there’s a directive along those lines, there will have to be a process.”

Of course, anti-EPA Republicans disagree about what is constitutional, which is one reason the agency is in for a tumultuous ride over the next four years. For many conservatives, no EPA at all—or at least one that has no regulatory powers—is the best option. “I read the constitution of the United States, and the word environmental protection does not appear there,” said Heartland’s Burnett. “I don’t see where it’s sanctioned. I think it should go away.” A freshman House Republican recently introduced a bill to do just that, but there’s no sign that it’s going to pass anytime soon.

And while Burnett acknowledges that the EPA probably won’t be vanishing in the near future, he’s been happy with the direction Trump has taken so far. He’s pleased with the president’s moves to restart the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, and he’s hopeful that the administration will move toward an EPA with “smaller budgets and a smaller mission, justified by the fact that you’ll have fewer regulations.”

Depending on what Trump does next week, that could be just the beginning.

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Trump Expected to Sign Executive Orders Hitting the EPA

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Why Dylann Roof’s Death Sentence May Never Be Carried Out

Mother Jones

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On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof entered a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot and killed nine worshippers after reading Bible verses with them. As it was later revealed, the 22-year-old Roof was a white supremacist. After an eight-day trial in the Charleston federal district court, on December 15 the jury found Roof guilty of all 33 federal counts—including hate crimes and obstruction of exercise of religion—18 of which carry the federal death penalty. This week, after less than three hours of deliberation, the jury sentenced Roof to death, making him the 63rd person who will be held on federal death row.

Federal law classifies the jury’s decision as a binding “recommendation,” which means, according to Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, “there’s likely a decade worth of appeals.” Roof could be well into his 30s before he is executed.

He likely will not be executed at all, because a federal death sentence often does not result in a lethal injection. To be eligible for federal death row, the defendant’s crime has to have a national angle, such as bombing a federal building. Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death in 2015 for his role in the 2013 attack, but his appeals process is likely to extend for years. Today, 23 people on death row have exhausted their appeals and are eligible to be executed. Three co-defendants who have been on federal death row for the longest period of time were convicted in a series of drug-related murders: Richard Tipton, Corey Johnson, and James H. Roane Jr. have been awaiting execution since 1993.

Contrast this with executions on the state level. Between 1988, when the federal death penalty was reinstated, and 2016, the government only put three inmates to death. States have carried out 1,439 executions since the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that capital punishment does not violate the Constitution. Gulf War veteran Louis Jones Jr. was the last person to be executed by the government, in 2003, for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of 19-year-old Tracie McBride. His was a federal case because the 1995 crime took place on the federal property of a US Air Force base.

There have been no federal executions during President Barack Obama’s two terms. Obama’s efforts to reduce the federal prison population during his presidency and his discomfort with the death penalty, which he described as “deeply troubling,” coincided with the long appeals process and recent questions about the efficacy of lethal injection drugs. The effect was a halt to federal executions. Nationwide support for capital punishment has been dropping steadily over the last two decades. Today, only 49 percent of Americans support the death penalty for murderers, down from 80 percent in 1994. Among Republican voters, however, 72 percent support the death penalty for violent murderers.

President-elect Donald Trump is one of those death penalty supporters. On the campaign trail in December 2015, Trump announced that as president, he would sign an executive order mandating the death penalty for convicted cop killers. As attorney general, Jeff Sessions—who has supported the death penalty—could move this pledge forward by addressing a number of institutional and practical problems that have been obstacles to federal executions.

“It takes a long time and it takes a lot of money to execute folks,” says Monica Foster, a lawyer whose clients include defendants on federal death row. The average cost of defending a federal death penalty case is $620,932. Inmates typically spend more than a decade in the appeals process before entering death row and awaiting execution.

Opponents of capital punishment believe that it’s immoral, racially biased, and not a deterrent for crime. Sixty-two percent of those awaiting death in federal prisons are nonwhite. “The federal death penalty reflects the state penalty system’s problems of racial bias, poor lawyering, and unreliable evidence,” says Miriam Gohora, a law professor at Yale Law School. But Trump’s pick for attorney general disagrees. At a 2001 congressional hearing on racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty, Sessions stated he was against a moratorium on the federal death penalty for several reasons, one of them being that “the death penalty deters murder, as studies as recent as this year have found.” A 2008 Death Penalty Information Center survey published in 2009 found that 88 percent of criminologists do not consider the death penalty a deterrent to violent crime.

“I would expect that the incoming administration would be more aggressive in seeking the federal death penalty,” says William Otis a professor of law at Georgetown law school.

If the Trump administration wanted to aggressively pursue the death penalty and carry out more executions, it would have to address the issue of lethal injection drugs. In 2011, the only American manufacturer of lethal injection drugs, Hospira, announced it would no longer produce sodium thiopental, a key ingredient in the serum used to carry out executions. The company originally intended to resume production at its Italian plant, but Italian officials refused to export the drug if it were to be used for executions. Other companies followed suit, leading to a massive shortage. Many states and the federal government were left with no method of execution, forcing a lull in carrying out capital punishments.

Some states sought to use different drug combinations that haven’t been widely tested. In Oklahoma, a new drug combination led to the botched execution in 2014 of Clayton Lockett, who writhed and moaned during the procedure. In the wake of this incident, Obama announced that the government, through the Department of Justice, would be reviewing its death penalty protocols leading to an effective moratorium. The move was considered a victory for opponents of the death penalty.

The state of Texas recently sued the Food and Drug Administration over the withholding of a shipment of lethal injection drugs that the FDA maintains are illegal to import because they haven’t been tested for safety. “Drugs used in executions are not supposed to be safe—they’re supposed to be lethal,” Otis says, adding that the safety requirements would likely be one of the first areas the Trump administration might seek to change.

In death penalty cases like Dylann Roof’s, where there is no question about guilt or innocence, opponents of capital punishment believe that a life sentence without the chance of parole would provide justice. Roof wanted to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but federal officials rejected the offer. Many family members of the victims opposed the death penalty for Roof. The morning after the jury decided on its verdict, Judge Richard Gergel formally sentenced Roof to death, saying, “This trial has produced no winners, only losers.”

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Why Dylann Roof’s Death Sentence May Never Be Carried Out

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Fake news is old news to climate scientists

Think fake news is a recent plague, borne of the presidential election? It’s not.

“The notion of ‘fake news’ is hardly new to climate scientists like myself,” Penn State climatologist Michael Mann told Grist. “We’ve known about it (and written about it) for years.”

Thanks to researchers like Mann — the originator of the famed “hockey stick” chart and a frequent target of fake news himself — the science behind climate change is settled. And yet there remains a vocal contingent of ideologues who refuse to accept the connection between carbon emissions and a warming planet. For example, Donald Trump and a good portion of his proposed cabinet. For years, right-wing news organizations like Breitbart, Infowars, the Daily Caller, and Climate Depot have fed their denial, publishing stories that misinterpret, misrepresent, or distort scientific findings — or just outright lie.

This kind of fake news has set progress back years, if not decades, Mann said. It’s a “crime against the planet,” he told Grist, and a “crime against humanity.”

All the news that’s unfit to print

There are many flavors of fake news. Some of these stories push the idea that, yes, the climate is changing, but it’s just a natural effect of changes in the sun’s activity and humans have nothing to do with it. This theory has been a favorite of deniers for three decades, and even though it’s been widely discredited, Breitbart reported it in again in 2014, under the headline, “Solar Activity Could Cause Global Warming, New Paper Says.” Of course, this runs contrary to actual science, but Breitbart never lets that stop them.

Other fake stories claim that carbon dioxide is good because it increases plant growth, as the ever-optimistic Breitbart declared again last year. But while it’s true that CO2 can be beneficial for plants, it doesn’t outweigh the fact that increasing concentrations in the atmosphere are toasting our home planet. Good for plants does not equal good for people.

Bogus climate stories also allege that a so-called “pause” in global warming undermines established climate science. Although climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that temperatures are rising and climate change is real, there has been debate over whether the rate of temperature increase slowed in the early 2000s — which climate deniers refer to as the “pause” or “hiatus.” Fake media outlets have seized on this debate and tried to spin it as proof that climate change isn’t real: Breitbart even claimed that Mann jumped on the pause bandwagon, deserted his scientific colleagues, and decided that there’s been no global warming since 1998. This was likely news to Mann himself.

There’s also the classic seasonal variety of stories alleging that cold, snowy weather disproves climate change. This reached a fever pitch in 2015, when Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe threw a snowball on the Senate floor. What Inhofe and his fellow deniers don’t get is that weather is not climate. Climate change is about long-term warming trends, not individual weather events, and so snow and climate change just aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, a warming climate could actually lead to an increase in snowfall in some places as melting sea ice in the Arctic alters jet streams.

And, of course, some deniers claim that this whole thing is a vast conspiracy perpetrated by scientists hungry for government research money. (They have never, apparently, seen what climate scientists drive.) Others — like our president-elect — say it’s a hoax created by China to crush U.S. manufacturing. Still other deniers insist that it’s a scheme cooked up by Al Gore to make himself rich — but, not to worry, they also tell us that Al Gore was sued by 30,000 scientists for his global warming fraud.

Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are hard to combat. Research shows that when presented with evidence that contradicts our beliefs, instead of reconsidering those beliefs, we humans tend to double-down on our preconceived notions. So if you already believe climate change is the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American public or that the Earth hasn’t warmed in 17 years or that this is all a big Communist plot, it’s unlikely that evidence to the contrary will dissuade you.

Some deniers — perhaps those who really believe Al Gore was sued by 30,000 scientists — think climate science is a lie because of the misinformation they absorb every day on TV and through social media. But other deniers have a more base motivation: money. The most high-profile deniers — people like Inhofe and Climate Depot’s Marc Morano — are backed by the fossil fuel industry. Exxon alone spent over $30 million to fund climate-denying organizations between 1998 and 2014, and an investigation by Carbon Brief found that nine of the 10 most prolific authors of papers skeptical of climate change have ties to Exxon. The industrialist Koch brothers, too, have spent a fortune on climate denial, donating nearly $50 million between 1997 and 2008 to groups that work to undermine climate science.

The money, it seems, was well-spent. Right-wing media outlets spread those groups’ misleading messages far and wide. So while the rest of the world has long since accepted the reality of climate change and humanity’s role in causing it, in the U.S., not only are we still debating its existence, but a climate change denier is about to occupy the White House.

Reality strikes back

Soon, however, there may be a cost to spreading misinformation about climate scientists, if not about climate change itself. The D.C. Court of Appeals recently ruled that Mann can proceed with a defamation suit against two bloggers who called his work fraudulent — and worse.

“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science,” wrote Rand Simberg in a 2012 post on the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s blog, “except for instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in service of politicized science that could have dire consequences for the nation and planet.” The National Review’s Mark Steyn then quoted these comments in a post of his own, writing that Simberg “has a point” and calling Mann’s work “fraudulent.”

For this, the court has ruled that Mann can sue both bloggers as well as their institutions — but you wouldn’t know that from the headlines in the climate-denying press. Climate Depot reported, “Court dismisses Michael Mann defamation lawsuit against National Review.” This is a clear manipulation of the truth: While the court did dismiss Mann’s claims against one National Review editor, its ruling clearly says that Mann can proceed with his suit against Steyn and National Review itself. But if we learned anything from the election of 2016, it’s that truth no longer carries much weight.

In the court’s ruling, Judge Vanessa Ruiz wrote, “Tarnishing the personal integrity and reputation of a scientist important to one side may be a tactic to gain advantage in a no-holds-barred debate over global warming.” It’s not a new tactic, but tarnishing reputations and publishing lies has proved to be an effective one. As for how destructive, we’re soon to find out.

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Fake news is old news to climate scientists

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Leaked Document: Trump Wants to Identify Officials Who Worked on Obama Climate Policies

Mother Jones

Donald Trump aides are attempting to identify Department of Energy staffers who played a role in promoting President Barack Obama’s climate policies, according to details of a leaked transition team questionnaire published by Bloomberg Thursday night.

According to Bloomberg:

The transition team has asked the agency to list employees and contractors who attended United Nations climate meetings, along with those who helped develop the Obama administration’s social cost of carbon metrics, used to estimate and justify the climate benefits of new rules. The advisers are also seeking information on agency loan programs, research activities and the basis for its statistics, according to a five-page internal document circulated by the Energy Department on Wednesday. The document lays out 65 questions from the Trump transition team, sources within the agency said.

Bloomberg goes on to say the document was confirmed by two Energy Department employees, who said agency staff were “unsettled” by the request. Someone in Trump’s transition team also confirmed the authenticity of the document to Bloomberg.

Leading Trump’s energy transition team is Tom Pyle, who is currently the president of the American Energy Alliance. Pyle was previously a policy analyst for former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) before becoming director of federal affairs for Koch Industries.

The president-elect isn’t a fan of climate action: He has promised to end America’s involvement in the Paris climate agreement and cancel financial contributions to UN climate programs, and he has claimed that global warming is a scam invented by the Chinese. (He later suggested he was joking about China’s role, but regardless, he has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax.”) You can read an entire timeline of Trump’s various—and at times contradictory—statements on climate change here.

Trump has also assembled a team of climate change deniers, including Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, who Trump nominated to run the Environmental Protection Agency. Read a full list of the global warming deniers and opponents of climate action who are vying for positions in the Trump administration here.

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Leaked Document: Trump Wants to Identify Officials Who Worked on Obama Climate Policies

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