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With the stroke of his pen, President Donald Trump on Jan. 30 unleashed the biggest assault ever made by a president on the government regulations that protect Americans and nature.

In an executive order, he mandated that two existing regulations be eliminated for every new regulation issued—and he dictated that the costs of any new rule be offset by savings from the regulations that are repealed.

Sitting in the Oval Office, surrounded by people he described as small business owners, Trump boasted: “This will be the largest ever cut by far in terms of regulation.”

The president’s actions coincide with a legislative blitz by congressional Republicans to remake the basic system under which government regulates a whole slew of industries, from banks to auto manufacturing to mining and drilling companies. Environmental regulations and rules limiting pollution on public lands are among their prime targets. These rules, mostly mandated by Congress, are intended to safeguard people and natural resources like air, water and land. But many Republicans argue that regulations have gone too far, and prevent businesses from starting up and thriving.

The president’s action, while monumental in scope, presents practical challenges.

“This is overthrowing the history of regulatory procedures that were initiated by Ronald Reagan,” says Robert Stavins, professor of environmental economics at Harvard University.

What makes the order potentially unachievable is that most rules aren’t written at agencies’ discretion, but are mandated by Congress or courts. Statutes drafted by Congress and signed by presidents often direct agencies to write regulations and set deadlines. If agencies fail to do so, courts often step in and order them to meet certain deadlines. Once implemented, a rule is quite durable.

“An agency could not undo it unless a statute allowed that,” says William Buzbee, professor at Georgetown University Law Center. “Often, it will not allow it.”

Even if a regulation is not protected by legislation, an agency cannot just simply strike it from its books. It must go through a lengthy new rulemaking process required by the Administrative Procedure Act to undo it, including seeking public comment. The agencies also must find justifications for undoing regulations that agencies already have analyzed thoroughly and justified as beneficial to the public. Buzbee says court challenges are likely.

“They will probably meet with a lot of rejections,” Buzbee adds.

The idea of streamlining regulations is not new. Since the 1970s, presidents, including Barack Obama, have directed agencies to review their rules and simplify or strike cumbersome or outdated ones.

But Trump’s executive order goes further, reframing the way government looks at regulations. Presidents since Ronald Reagan have required that government weigh the cost and benefits of major rules. Reagan, for instance, decided to take lead out of gasoline because a rigorous analysis found that although it was costly for some refineries, the health benefits—such as reduction of blood lead levels in children—were far greater.

Trump’s executive order, however, looks only at costs. It requires that in 2017, the total cost of regulations be “no greater than zero.” It responds to Republican objections that rules are expensive for business and overburden them with delays and red tape. Environmental regulations carry an especially heavy price tag. A 2011 study by Obama’s White House Office of Management and Budget found that major rules issued over 10 years by the Environmental Protection Agency cost $23 billion to $28 billion. At the time, that was more than the combined costs of regulations from the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Labor, Justice, Transportation, Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development. But those same EPA rules had benefits to society that outweighed the costs by at least three times. For instance, President Obama’s 2011 rule to slash mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants was estimated to cost the electric power industry $9.6 billion—but the agency calculated that Americans would receive health benefits from the rule valued at three to nine times as much.

Longtime regulators predict that the executive order will create chaos in agencies and stymie the important work agencies do. Margo Oge headed the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of transportation and air quality from 1994 to 2012. Under both Republican and Democratic presidents, her office issued scores of rules that cleaned up the exhaust from cars, trucks, trains, ships and other vehicles, significantly improving Americans’ health. She predicts the order, which she called “ridiculous,” will shut down that work.

“It will be legally impossible to remove an existing regulation, because all the existing actions have been based on protecting public health and environment,” Oge says. And if they can’t get rid of old rules, they can’t write new ones. “No new action will take place to protect public health, environment or safety.”

Courts won’t let agencies just sit on their hands, some experts say, creating a huge mess for the new cabinet. Trump’s own appointees may find it difficult to write new regulations. For example, Trump’s EPA head nominee Scott Pruitt says he’s “concerned about high blood (lead) levels in children.” He told a Senate committee in answers to written comments: “I will make issuing revisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act Lead and Copper Rule a priority.” The EPA has been reviewing the science and planning to revise its lead and copper in drinking water rule. But under Trump’s two-for-one order, Pruitt may have to identify two existing rules to eliminate before he could move forward.

“(Republicans’) only thought is: ‘We need less government, and this is how we’ll get it,’” says Holly Doremus, a professor at the UC Berkeley Law School. “They’ll find the job of governance requires regulations.”

Elizabeth Shogren is a correspondent for High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in National/International

One week after the presidential election, on a summery November day, I phoned Denver-based climate activist Jeremy Nichols.

Nichols has pressured the government to keep its fossil-fuel reserves in the ground, with some success: In January, the Obama administration put a moratorium on federal coal leasing, something unimaginable during the heady drilling years of Bush and Cheney. I called to ask what Nichols expected from the next president. He remarked on the unseasonably warm weather, then lamented, “I’m going to yearn for the George W. Bush days.”

Environmentalists have good reason to worry about President-elect Donald J. Trump. In 2012, Trump tweeted that climate change was a “concept” ginned up by the Chinese. Now, he’s appointed a prominent critic of climate science and policy to oversee the Environmental Protection Agency’s transition. On his new website, Trump promises to grease the permitting skids for fossil fuel production, end the “war on coal,” support renewable energy and scrap the Clean Power Plan. At the same time, he professes a commitment to “our wonderful natural resources.”

The energy industry is delighted. “I think what we’re looking for right off the bat is simply having an administration that is not openly hostile to us,” says Kathleen Sgamma, of the Western Energy Alliance.

Meanwhile, conservationists expect to spend the next four years defending their Obama-era gains. But Obama’s environmental achievements are considerable, and Trump can’t vanquish them with a snap of his fingers. Many power plants have already taken steps to rein in toxic mercury emissions and pollutants that cloud parks and wilderness with brown haze. Obama’s clean car rules have already stood up in court. So far, Obama has designated 27 national monuments—more than any other administration—and the new president has no clear legal authority to erase those protections.

Still, the carbon-cutting Clean Power Plan, one of the president’s most significant accomplishments, is in peril. And the rarely used Congressional Review Act allows Congress to weigh in on any rule finalized after May 30 of this year, according to a Congressional Research Service estimate, by giving it 60 days in session to pass something called a “joint resolution of disapproval.” If the president signs the resolution, the rule is nullified, and agencies are forbidden to issue similar rules.

Here are some of the Obama administration’s achievements and Trump’s position on them, if known, and explain how Trump could attempt to undo them.


Federal Coal Leasing Moratorium

What Obama did: In January, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a “secretarial order” directing the department to stop leasing federal coal reserves, pending a review of the program. Environmentalists like Nichols had pushed for this, arguing that leasing federal coal was inconsistent with Obama’s climate goals, and that the program didn’t deliver fair returns to taxpayers.

Trump’s take: One of the few specific promises Trump has made is to lift the moratorium.

Trump’s options: Trump’s administration can scrap the moratorium with the stroke of a pen—the same way the Obama administration created it.


BLM and EPA Methane Rules

What Obama did: Both the EPA and Bureau of Land Management finalized rules this year to limit the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, vented or flared by oil and gas drilling. The rules would limit those emissions at both new and existing facilities and funnel additional royalties to taxpayers, who don’t currently earn revenue on methane that’s burned as waste.

Trump’s take: We don’t know. However, Trump has positioned himself as a staunch ally of the industry, which vigorously opposes the rules. The BLM’s rule, finalized on Nov. 15, was met immediately with an industry lawsuit. Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, released a statement saying he looks forward to helping the new administration rescind the rules.

Trump’s options: Congress could use the Congressional Review Act to ask Trump to nix the rules, or include language in appropriations bills temporarily prohibiting the agencies from using funds for implementation or enforcement. Whatever happens, Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, of the Western Environmental Law Center, notes that waste prevention is a core principle of federal oil and gas law, and says his group will continue to ensure that BLM fulfills its legal obligations.


Oil and Gas Leasing Reforms

What Obama did: In the early days of the George W. Bush administration, The Wilderness Society’s Nada Culver says, you had to visit BLM field offices in person to keep tabs on oil and gas lease sales. Coordinates for parcels up for auction were posted, but you had to map them yourself and protest within a short window. As public-land drilling intensified, encroaching on places like Dinosaur National Monument, environmentalists protested more and filed more lawsuits. The result, says Culver, frustrated everyone: Environmentalists felt that the BLM put too little thought into leasing, and some offices became burdened with multi-year backlogs, a burden for industry.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar sought to break the gridlock by increasing public participation and including more upfront planning. Public comment periods now precede lease sales, and the BLM is starting to give citizens more insight into its thinking before it drafts management plans. Master leasing plans, which try to resolve conflicts between industry and others ahead of leasing, are another product of Salazar’s reforms.

Trump’s take: We don’t know. Trump has promised to “lift restrictions” on energy development on public lands, but the Western Energy Alliance says it’s hard to know exactly what that means. Litigation still bogs down leasing and protests continue, Sgamma says, pointing to a WildEarth Guardians lawsuit challenging all leases sold in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming since the start of 2015. She hopes for changes that speed up leasing and permitting.

Trump’s options: The reforms were created through memoranda issued by Salazar, and they could be changed in the same fashion. But whether the new administration will do so is anyone’s guess. Culver notes that the reforms have been incorporated into BLM’s management handbooks, and that reducing public involvement could be politically tricky. “It’s going to be hard to say, ‘Never mind; don’t pay attention to that man behind the curtain making all of the oil and gas decisions.’” Culver contends that there aren’t that many restrictions on development anyway; the market is the primary limiting factor.

Nichols expects some change: “I think we will see Interior move to limit BLM’s discretion to reject leases,” he says.


Waters of the U.S. Rule

What Obama did: This supremely wonky rule allows the feds to regulate pollution in small and intermittent wetlands and streams under the Clean Water Act.

Trump’s take: Trump has promised to eliminate what he calls a “highly invasive” rule, opposed by energy companies, agriculture groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many Republicans, who say it represents an egregious expansion of federal regulatory power.

Trump’s options: Since the rule is currently tied up in court, Trump could let the legal system decide its fate. It’s likely to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which may soon tilt in the GOP’s favor. He could also ask the court to send the rule back to the EPA for revision. However, that process would be open to public comment and ultimately to more litigation.


Offshore Oil Leasing

What Obama did: On Nov. 19, the Obama administration finalized its five-year plan for offshore oil leasing, which determines where leases will be offered through 2022. It canceled proposed lease sales in the Arctic Ocean and put the Atlantic and Pacific coasts off-limits to new leasing.

Trump’s take: We don’t know, but industry groups and Alaska Republicans aren’t happy, and an “infuriated” Sen. Lisa Murkowski has promised to fight the decision.

Trump’s options: The new administration could write a new plan, but probably not quickly. Obama’s plan was developed over two years, and industry interest in Arctic drilling has cooled amid low oil prices. Shell abandoned its exploratory efforts in the Chukchi Sea in 2015, citing disappointing results.

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

The more things change, the more those changes echo on into the future. Today, we need to listen more carefully than ever to a voice from the mid-20th century—that of writer and Western historian Bernard DeVoto.

At the recent Republican National Convention, the party faithful approved a platform that directs Congress to give “certain” public lands to the states. It’s an old strategy, trotted out like a broken-down show horse at a county fair.

In the mid-1940s, Western policymakers, mainly Republicans, sought to eliminate the federal Bureau of Land Management, remove grazing areas from Forest Service control, and put public land on the path to state control and private ownership. One privatization bill passed the House in 1946, and even enjoyed the support of Interior Secretary Julius Krug, a Democrat.

Sounding the alarm against these terrible proposals came DeVoto’s prescient voice from his “The Easy Chair” column in Harper’s magazine. His warnings are still relevant seven decades later.

The noted writer knew something of the West; he was born and raised in Ogden, Utah, and later wrote prize-winning regional histories. To DeVoto, the land-divestment scheme amounted to a full-frontal assault on the country’s entire conservation program. He was right: The naked power grab he warned us about continues today, with stockgrowers now joined by powerful oil and gas interests. They bristle at any restraints on their self-interests and argue that what they call “local control” is always the answer.

But DeVoto identified a deeper problem that had—and still has—the potential to eat away at democracy itself. In the summer of 1947, the House Subcommittee on Public Lands began holding hearings in picturesque Western towns. Its short-term objective was to stop the Forest Service from reducing the number of grazing permits on public lands, even though overgrazing had seriously compromised many of those rangelands.

The legislative hearings were stacked with sympathetic audiences who had been primed by stock-grower trade journals to believe the worst of any federal agency, and to disbelieve “long-haired scientists” who showed that overgrazing was a problem in the West. A slew of so-called experts, ranchers and their politicians made the case again and again for giving free reign to the stock industry. Conservationists and witnesses who agreed with the Forest Service were allotted 10 percent of the time for testimony.

Unfounded rumors that the agency planned to disallow all grazing were permitted without rebuttal. Entered into the record without clarifications or corrections, these fabrications circulated like crumpled dollar bills. Inflammatory rhetoric and showmanship overcame evidence, much as it does in our time. In trying to expose the plot and set the record straight, DeVoto demonstrated that public hearings—just like party conventions—work as political theater.

Back then, as now, national monuments were in the news. In the mid-1940s, Rep. Frank Barrett, a Wyoming Republican who chaired the traveling public-lands subcommittee, hoped to abolish the Jackson Hole National Monument, which is now mostly protected in Grand Teton National Park. Today, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, hopes to prevent the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument by establishing two national conservation areas instead, a designation that offers less protection from development.

Bishop and his supporters like to tout their Utah Public Lands Initiative, which includes an alternative that they call the Bear Ears National Conservation Area. The bill’s proponents like the collaborative process it enacts, yet the initiative in its flexible management plans clearly favors grazing and energy producers. The Nature Conservancy, long a partner in the process, recently announced that it cannot back this bill. In addition, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, representing dozens of tribes, has declared that it wants the area protected by a national monument. Meanwhile, Bishop has proposed a “Partner Act” that would end the president’s power to use the 110-year-old Antiquities Act to create a national monument for the Bears Ears area.

DeVoto saw this coming. There is a clear line from those hearings in 1947 to the ones we’re seeing now, in 2016. The ultimate goal then was not just to stop grazing reductions or stymie national monuments; it was to discredit the federal government and its rightful concern for conservation. “The future of the West hinges on whether it can defend itself against itself,” DeVoto said.

During this presidential campaign, we can expect the Republican candidate and his followers to cite the party platform and offer yet more half-truths about public-lands management. As DeVoto showed 69 years ago, lies told often enough erode public discourse and weaken governance. “Against such psychology as this,” DeVoto implored, “only the force of the ballot can defend the public interest.”

Adam M. Sowards is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared. He is an environmental historian at the University of Idaho.

Published in Community Voices

More than 40 percent of our national parks, from Arizona’s Saguaro to Wyoming’s Grand Teton, contain inholdings. Those privately owned chunks of land complicate management, block public access and present a risk of development—as when a luxury home was built in the middle of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado, five years ago.

Now, the main source of funding for buying such inholdings, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, is in serious jeopardy: At the end of September, Congress let it expire, failing to reauthorize it despite widespread bipartisan support.

The LWCF does a lot more than buy inholdings, too. Roughly half of it goes to providing conservation easements on private land, conserving privately owned timberlands, developing urban parks and ball fields, and funding endangered species projects on nonfederal lands.

Since its inception in 1964, the LWCF has protected more than 7 million acres. The fund draws no taxpayer dollars; most of it comes from royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling.

“There’s poetry in the idea that we can use revenue generated from the depletion of one resource to enhance another,” says John Gale, conservation director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Since 1978, the fund has been authorized to receive up to $900 million annually, though in recent years, Congress has appropriated less than a third of that.

But even as Congress cut LWCF’s funding, members on both sides of the aisle were trying to use it for projects in their own districts. According to a 2014 investigation by Greenwire, 16 Republicans, 48 Democrats and three independents had pushed for land acquisition, conservation easements and grants for local parks and trails over the previous five years.

LWCF’s primary foe is Republican Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who has refused to even allow hearings on the bipartisan reauthorization bill that’s been sitting in his committee since April. He’s vowed to continue blocking LWCF until it’s been reformed, citing his opposition to an increase in federal lands for any reason. (Just more than two years ago, though, Bishop had proposed that Utah counties negotiate to get more congressionally designated wilderness, as a bargaining chip for increased energy development.)

“We are not going to blindly reauthorize a fund with inherent flaws,” says Bishop spokeswoman Julia Slingsby. “This law needs to be updated to reflect the 21st century.”

The fund that Bishop wants to update has provided $48 million to his state for local projects like soccer parks and swimming pools. It’s also paid for more than 7,000 acres of private inholdings within Zion National Park, plus nearly 5,500 acres in Dinosaur National Monument. Bishop’s reforms would put an end to such purchases. He has suggested the program’s money could instead cover shortfalls in PILT, “payments in lieu of taxes,” to counties with large amounts of federal land, or pay for the education of future energy-industry workers. He and other critics also say the fund should be used to cover the $12 billion maintenance backlog at national parks.

The LWCF has accumulated a $20 billion IOU thanks to the gap in appropriations, giving Bishop another excuse to stop funding it. But it’s disingenuous to claim this money is available to be spent, says Lynn Scarlett, managing director of public policy for The Nature Conservancy, and deputy Interior secretary under George W. Bush. “There is no magic $20 billion waiting around, or even one dollar,” she says. “It’s a paperwork credit for funds long ago used for other purposes.”

Now that the program has been allowed to sunset, the royalty money meant for it is going to the general treasury. Under the continuing budget resolution that expires Dec. 11, the House and Senate could pass an extension of the LWCF and maintain that funding link. If they don’t, though, re-establishing it will take an act of Congress.

Fund supporters are now scrambling to find a must-pass piece of legislation to which they can attach reauthorization. The most promising is a compromise by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that would make the program permanent and balance state and federal spending, giving each 40 percent of the annual appropriation, and allowing the remaining 20 percent to be spent flexibly. It would also create a separate fund to address the national park maintenance backlog. Other Western representatives have sponsored similar legislation, including Montana Sens. Steve Daines, R., and Jon Tester, D, as well as Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.

Meanwhile, environmental and sportsmen’s groups are lobbying mightily for the fund’s resurrection.

“It’s hard for us to see something like LWCF that has broad support become a political chip,” Gale says. “Congress should be able to function and move things that are good for the American people and absolutely a clear winner.”

This story originally appeared in High County News.

Published in Environment

Aaron Mair in May became the first African-American president in the Sierra Club’s 123-year history.

Mair, most recently a research analyst with the New York State Department of Health, has been an advocate for the preservation of natural spaces and for equal access to public land for decades. One of Mair’s primary goals as president is to address critical socio-economic issues often neglected by the conservation community.

An expert in spatial epidemiology with a degree in Southwest Asian and North African studies from New York’s Binghamton University, Mair is well-versed in the complex relationships between people and the environments in which they live. Mair is known as an advocate for thriving natural landscapes, not only in remote national parks and wilderness, but also in the metropolitan areas where most of the world’s population now lives.

At a time when the Sierra Club struggles to remain relevant to the cultural interests of a population that is growing younger, more urban and more diverse, Mair hopes to shift the club’s mission toward policies that better include the needs and values of under-represented minorities.

James Edward Mills recently spoke to Mair about his background and vision for the Sierra Club.

How did your experiences growing up inform your interest in protecting the natural world?

I’m the son of Ellis Island immigrants from Jamaica, where my family owned land. They were always free people of color, urban dwellers of an agrarian background. Having a garden was part of their life. Going back and forth from Jamaica (with my family), it was going from the concrete jungle of Harlem to the island where it was green.

Most people don’t realize that there were great migrations and structural, political and social economic issues that were forces on blacks of the land throughout the South. Blacks went from having land to being landless and then to being defined by the ghettos that we were placed in when we got to urban settings.

But where we grew up in Northern Westchester, that environment, that green space, made the difference in your life choices and your life outcomes. So if you have that enrichment or that investment and that base, your possibilities and your potential increases.

That diverse community made me stronger. I could network and share and see what other people’s dads—black, white, Hispanic—were doing, or how hard-working they were, and was mentored by that sharing and exchange of values. If you look at nature, when you go into any green space, it’s not monoculture. It’s a diversity of plants and organisms, holistically diverse and connected. So I grew up in one of those suburban middle class blue-collar communities where that type of diversity was organic and informed. Again, it still reflects the divisions and fissures that is America, but it is the core underpinning of my American self.

Was there a particular moment in your career when you became an environmental activist?

When I was doing graduate work at the (State) University of New York at Binghamton, we had to do a project in my master’s thesis class. Ours was basically trying to connect a community to a park. This was right along the Susquehanna River. That was my first time understanding class analysis, access to open space, looking at a community use pattern and actually realizing the impact of urban planning and urban design.

In our society, we look at our government and the places where we live, and we think that nothing is connected. Either you’ve got a park or a road or this or that. But what I realized was that these things are connected; they are designed, and they absolutely shape whole communities. And so one of the things you notice is how the black population was settled in certain portions of (New York City), alienated from this green space … (to which) middle class whites would have access. So even though theoretically, everybody would have access by law, the actual design and plan made the properties that were near this green space more valuable. You start to see the institutional forms of how racism is reinforced and maintained by planning departments, municipal departments, zoning departments, and you realize that this is the power of the vote. This is how political pressure can be brought to bear on the outcome of an environmental system. And that’s when I had the epiphany, in about 1984—that ah-ha moment that just hits you like a ton of bricks.

The Sierra Club has a longstanding tradition of preserving wilderness areas for recreation and the protection of endangered species. What can the Sierra Club and you as its president do to make these environmental issues more relevant to the poor, the socially disenfranchised, the perpetually urbanized and people of color?

What John Muir had recognized was that as our nation was consuming itself, all those natural wonders, all those wild places—we were losing them. That movement then was: If we’re going to rape everything, then we should save these postage stamps of what it used to be. But this preservation occurred among elites who had elitist values, and one could make the case that not all Americans had access to these places and these spaces. These natural wonders were often preserved for the use and exploitation and sport of the top 10 percent of families.

Today, the environmental justice movement is recognizing and taking ownership of the values that people of color hold with respect to their use of the environment. They can play a significant role in protecting it, but things cannot be only from the perspective or point of view of whites. It must include all points of view so that when laws and regulations are fashioned, they’re not advantaging one group over another. The environmental justice movement has affirmed the rights of people of color with regard to their access to clean land, clean air and clean water, and that minority communities cannot, should not, be the dumping ground.

Being the first (black) president, I’m in a position where we’re reshaping club policy. So we’re going after a massive strategic plan about how this organization is operating and making sure that it’s a diverse, equitable, inclusive and welcoming environment. The Sierra Club, in the past, has been a club: You either get in or you get out, and the little localities are very tight and close-knit, and still many are not welcoming places. Now we’re going to the stage of how people of color can step in and become a part of this organization and really shape the culture internally and facilitate that change.

What kind of policies can the Sierra Club create or support to more directly address the issues of environmental justice?

There is some serious intentional and deep work that we have got to do. From the mid ’80s to now, I’ve seen significant change, but it’s still not fast enough or deep enough. We cannot wait for these goals by 2020 and 2050. If they can right now invest a few billion dollars in weapon system programs or a couple of billion dollars in off-shore drilling, they can easily provide those same incentives for the retrofitting and the greening of jobs in urban areas. You would wind up having full employment of the marginalized and underemployed, earning at least living-wage jobs and putting America on the positive side of the feedback loop of taxpayers and homeowners.

President Obama should be as intentional about green jobs as he has been with the “all of the above” carbon strategy by which he has allowed more drilling for oil and natural gas. He should have also been putting in the same amount, buck for buck—in fact, even more—into the green economy, and we would not be seeing the same levels of disparity in a number of our urban centers. But this is where the Sierra Club and powerful old organizations like it—networking with labor and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—can work together through climate-justice initiatives.

The Sierra Club right now is at the ground floor of networking and tying these things together. It’s now working and advocating in places it never traditionally did. You just did not have the Sierra Club doing civil rights marches, because people thought a civil rights march was something different from protecting the environment. But the right to vote shapes land-use policy that protects the environment. In fact, to this day, a lot of the pushback within the Sierra Club is people saying we’re straying away from our mission. My argument is educating them to understand that, no, protecting civil rights and labor rights is critical to our mission. It’s by having a voice from the left, the blue-collar labor and civil rights community, being at the helm of an environmental organization where you are able to see how that all comes together. If you want to know what environmental success looks like, it’s multi-ethnic.

Through your tenure as president of the Sierra Club, how will you define your own success?

What would be success for me is if I could get a hold of the president’s ear to shift him from the “all of the above” strategy that is still fueling our series of climate catastrophes. If I could shift his investment in the re-gridding of America, the retooling of America that provides clean and green jobs for all Americas.

My measure of success is when the voting rights of all citizens are protected so that we have a say in the planning and zoning and land use that allows for sustainable communities. Will I be able to do that within the arc of a year? The answer is no. But what I can do is model the values and belief in the real experience that I have grown up with. And that’s what I bring to this post. I bring a deeper shade of green.

James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist and author of the book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors. This piece originally ran in High Country News.

Published in Environment

There are around 760 million acres of public land scattered across the 11 Western states and Alaska, managed by several different entities, each with its own set of rules and regulations. This can be a bit confusing, even for experienced wanderers, so we've put together these (general, playful, by no means set in stone) guidelines to help you figure out what kind of public land you're on, and exactly what you can do on it.

All you have to do is look around!

This originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski opened her first legislative meeting as chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources by using talks on the Keystone XL pipeline to hint at a broader agenda.

The statement helps inaugurate the political season, with a new Congress controlled by Republicans, many of whom aim to upset President Obama’s climate and environment agendas. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee—which legislates energy development, mining, public lands, water and other resources—is a key front where that fight could take place, especially as far as Western lands are concerned, so Murkowski’s comments are worth reading for the upcoming season.

Putting Keystone XL aside, Murkowski, a longtime member of the committee who is considered one of the more progressive Republicans in Congress, told a Jan. 8 business meeting that she sees an opportunity “to embrace all aspects of the energy sector,” including nuclear-waste disposal, efficient energy infrastructure and grid security.

The statement was a nod toa larger project for Murkowski, who wants a comprehensive update to the nation’s energy policy, something that hasn’t happened since 2007.

Much of her thinking on energy can be found in a 2013 position paper, “Energy 20/20: A Vision for America’s Energy Future.” It’s a huge document, with an overall message to push for an energy mix that includes both hydrocarbons and renewables, and seeks greater development of U.S. resources—from oil shale to fracking to geothermal energy. The goal is to have energy independence by the year 2020—a different kind of goal than, say, reduced carbon emissions.

For Western states, that could mean Murkowski will push for deregulation, more fracking, more drilling—including offshore and in pristine parts of Alaska—and an attempt to cut through red tape. It could mean more hydropower, more nuclear and, according to Murkowski, a nuanced view of “clean” energy.

“Too often, ‘clean’ is treated as an absolute, but it is better regarded as a comparison,” Murkowski wrote in the paper. “A better definition of clean is: less intensive in global lifecycle impacts on human health and the environment than its likeliest alternative.”

Most of Murkowski’s Jan. 8 remarks had to do with this energy agenda. But also embedded in the statement was a hint at her attitude toward federal public lands. “It isn’t just natural resources that we deal with,” she told the meeting. “The public lands piece is huge. Especially for those of us in the West.”

Whether she was pointing toward a policy is unclear, but the fact that she mentioned the public lands at all is pretty interesting, because Murkowski, now in a position of power over Western issues, has shown at least some support for the movement to have federal lands transferred to the states.

In “Energy 20/20,” she noted federal lands are “now heavily restricted by regulation … which has caused significant harm to many rural communities.” Invoking some of the same rhetoric as the pro-transfer camp, Murkowski wrote: “At the same time, many of these communities are watching forests on public lands be destroyed by wildfires, insect epidemics and outbreaks of forest disease.”

“This causes the public to question if state or county governments wouldn’t be better stewards of the land,” she wrote.

However, she stopped short of calling for a transfer of lands, and instead pointed toward the need for policy shifts.

“It is imperative that (the Department of Interior) partner with states to achieve the best possible use of public lands,” she wrote. “Current federal regulations pit DOI against the states in never-ending legal and political battles over land use. This arrangement is wasteful and contrary to DOI’s mission. DOI should develop agreements with state and local governments to determine the best management practices to improve economic activity and development, where acceptable, in and around federal land units.”

In earlier speeches, however, she has nodded more deeply toward land transfers—or at least sought to wield them as a Plan B to failed federal reform.

“Federal government’s broke here,” she told Congress in 2013. “We can’t continue to pay counties to not utilize the lands within their boundaries. … We either need to use our federal lands to generate the revenue and the jobs for our rural communities, or we should divest the federal government of those lands and let the states, or the counties or boroughs manage them.”

To Daven Hafey, a spokesman for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Murkowski’s policies add up to a more extractive style of management that gives too little attention to other uses of the public lands and its resources.

“Since taking office, Senator Murkowski has been eager to give away the Tongass National Forest to state management and private business, for the purpose of increased clear-cut, old-growth logging,” he said in an email. “Senator Murkowski has the opportunity to focus her support on the real money-makers in Southeast Alaska—fishing and tourism. But given her repeated support for outdated logging practices, we’re geared up to protect the Tongass from rapid exploitation.”

It’s too early to tell what legislation will move and what won’t with Republicans in charge of Congress, but Murkowski has proven herself a good political operative with an ability to make deals, get bills sponsored and get bills passed. That much we do know.

This story was originally published by High Country News.

Published in Environment

The current House of Representatives may be one of the most environmentally unfriendly legislatures in U.S. history, but at least its lawmakers know how to make a bill sound good.

As a farewell gesture to the 113th House, we’ve rounded up some of its most egregious measures and translated them to reveal what they’d actually mean for public lands and wildlife in the West.

For the record, all of these are currently stalled in the Senate.


Lowering Gasoline Prices to Fuel an America That Works Act

H.R. 4899. Introduced by Doc Hastings, R-Wash.; passed June 26, 2014.

What It Claims

To decrease foreign energy dependency and lower gas prices “for the American family.”

What It Would Actually Do

Open the Arctic to mandatory annual petroleum leasing and nullify the historic 2013 decision to set aside key parts of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska for migratory shorebirds, polar bears and other wildlife.


The Water Rights Protection Act

H.R. 3189. Introduced by Scott Tipton, R-Colo.; passed March 13, 2014.

What It Claims

To give ski areas on public lands more control over their water rights and prevent Forest Service overreach.

What It Would Actually Do

Potentially undermine Endangered Species Act protections by stripping federal agencies of their power to maintain minimum stream flows for fish and wildlife.


Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act

H.R. 1526. Introduced by Doc Hastings, R-Wash.; passed Sept. 20, 2013.

What It Claims

To reduce wildfire risk and create thousands of timber-related jobs.

What It Would Actually Do

Require the Forest Service to designate “revenue areas” in each national forest, and log at least half of each area, absent of public input or environmental review. In Montana, for example, more than 14 million acres of forests, including Wilderness Study Areas and roadless areas, could be opened to new logging projects.


Responsibly and Professionally Invigorating Development Act

H.R. 2641. Introduced by Tom Marino, R-Pa.; passed March 6, 2014.

What It Claims

To create construction and development jobs by setting hard deadlines for environmental reviews.

What It Would Actually Do

Fast-track National Environmental Policy Act requirements, and limit environmental lawsuits on new development.


Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act

H.R. 1459. Introduced by Rob Bishop, R-Utah; passed March 26, 2014.

What It Claims

To ensure that cost-benefit analysis is considered in the designation of national monuments.

What It Would Actually Do

Highly restrict the president’s authority to designate national monuments—a right, originally granted in 1906, that’s helped permanently protect millions of acres of public land.


Waters of the United States Regulatory Overreach Protection Act

H.R. 5078. Introduced by Steve Southerland, R-Fla.; passed Sept. 9, 2014.

What It Claims

To ensure that water-quality regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency don’t hamstring farmers.

What It Would Actually Do

Revoke Clean Water Act clarifications passed earlier this year to protect tributaries and ephemeral rivers from industrial and agricultural pollution.


Electricity Security and Affordability Act

H.R. 3826. Introduced by Ed Whitfield, R-Ky.; passed March 6, 2014.

What It Claims

To provide cheaper electricity.

What It Would Actually Do

Roll back long-awaited EPA regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new coal-burning power plants.


Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act

H.R. 935. Introduced by Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio; passed July 31, 2014.

What It Claims

To “reduce burdensome regulations without rolling back any environmental safeguards,” according to Gibbs.

What It Would Actually Do

Allow farms to discharge regulated pesticides into navigable waterways without a permit.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

They’re as common as U.S. House bills repealing Obamacare, but far more successful: Earthjustice v. BLM. WildEarth Guardians v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Natural Resources Defense Council v. EPA.

They’re lawsuits brought by conservation groups against federal agencies when, environmentalists say, the agencies fail to enforce the law. A polluted river falls through the cracks; a species in peril remains unprotected; a Clean Air Act deadline for air-quality standards passes without action.

Sometimes, federal lawyers fight back all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, as in Massachusetts v. EPA, the blockbuster 2007 case that forced the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Other times, they surrender and hammer out the details of a settlement.

Some of those agreements represent conservation milestones: In the 1990s, scores of environmental groups settled cases with EPA over water pollution from diffuse sources; the agreements hatched hundreds of plans to clean up polluted lakes, rivers and beaches. In 2011, WildEarth Guardians got the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to agree to a six-year plan for protecting imperiled plants and animals with Endangered Species Act listings, establishing a systematic process to address the decade-long backlog of petitions.

None of these settlements have rewritten any laws; only Congress can do that. Instead, they’ve refined and put teeth into existing legislation. Still, they rankle industry and its conservative allies. In recent years, House Republicans, aided by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have likened “sue-and-settle” agreements to mob tactics. Former Arizona Rep. Ben Quayle, introducing a bill to address the issue, told Congress the settlements amount to “backroom regulation” that robs environmental policy of “transparency and fairness.”

Quayle lost his seat in the 2012 elections, but his Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act lives on: A new version was recently approved by the House Judiciary Committee. Meanwhile, legislators in 12 states, including Arizona, Utah and Wyoming, have filed two Freedom of Information Act requests, demanding all EPA documents pertaining to settled lawsuits between citizen groups and the agency. The EPA rejected the first request as too broad, so the states requested documents “that discuss or in any way relate to” communication anyone in the agency’s 16 offices had with any of 17 nonprofits concerning atmospheric haze. The EPA rejected the second request, too, citing legal precedent that says the law “was not intended to reduce government agencies to full-time investigators on behalf of requestors.” Rather than narrow the request, on July 16, the states, led by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, sued

Eric Biber, a University of California at Berkeley environmental law professor, suspects federal regulators do sometimes welcome environmentalist pressure to enforce neglected laws. “Sometimes, an agency wants to do something but not take the political hit for it,” he says. If you have a settlement agreement in place, and Congress calls you into an oversight hearing, “You can say, ‘If you want a different outcome, change the law.’”

But the dynamic isn’t unique to environmental groups. “A lot of these lawsuits went in the other direction during the (industry-friendly) Bush administration,” Biber says. Earthjustice lawyers complained in 2003 of a “sue-and-settle pattern” when timber companies sued the government for access to northern spotted owl habitat. The settlement would have increased old-growth logging fourfold if environmental groups hadn’t fought it––and won.

“It’s increasingly used as a tool on both sides,” Biber says.

It should be noted that neither the Sunshine Bill in the House nor the document requests themselves allege collusion. Any such accusation would be fantastical, says John Walke, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has also litigated for both the EPA and industry. “Attorneys at the EPA uphold the interest of the United States government. They litigate vigorously, and that’s true whether they’re being sued by environmental groups, industry or states and cities.”

Only in public statements and press releases do lawmakers promote the notion of a secret environmentalist conspiracy within federal agencies. “If the EPA is making backdoor deals with environmental groups to push their agenda on the American people while bypassing the states and Congress,” Pruitt said in a press release, “we need to know.”

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s spokesman, Renny McKay, is more circumspect: “We’re concerned about the practice,” he says. “We’re trying to verify whether this concern is valid or not.”

Walke thinks that’s a little “like submitting a request to the IRS to reveal a campaign to torture puppies. The value of the lawsuit is the PR value of leveling charges for which there are no facts. When the lawsuit is quietly dismissed later, they won’t care.” The message is out.

A similar dynamic unfolded when solar technology startup Solyndra went bankrupt after receiving a $550 million loan guarantee from the Energy Department, launching a congressional investigation into possible conflicts of interest. The dustup yielded nothing and ultimately faded—but not before damaging Obama’s renewable energy campaign.

It’s still worth asking, though, whether taking federal agencies to court and forcing settlements is the best way to enforce—or roll back—environmental laws. In a better world, would another process accomplish the same goals? Biber doubts it: “Unless you pass a law saying people can’t sue to enforce the law, I don’t know if you can avoid having the problem.”

Says Walke: “The most obvious alternative would be for agencies to be funded adequately by Congress to carry out the law. In the meantime, we live under a system that’s governed by a rule of law. And that law that anoints citizens with the right to hold government accountable.”

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

For nearly six hours last week, members of the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee gathered to hear comments about a bill that could overhaul the EPA’s ability to regulate toxic chemicals.

Hailed by a panelist from West Virginia as “the best, perhaps last, chance to reform” the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the new Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) is the first such proposal to have won bipartisan support since the original law passed in 1976—and thus has a chance at becoming law.

However, critics say that, as currently drafted, the CSIA could actually be detrimental to the cause of regulating toxins.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris joined the attorneys general from eight other states to submit a letter on July 31 to the Senate committee, raising concerns that the new bill will make it impossible for states to continue regulating chemicals themselves. They worry that existing regulations could become null and that future EPA designations might not be as strong as individual states might like, if the CSIA is passed.

For instance, Oregon currently limits the presence of certain chemicals in arts-and-crafts supplies. Similarly, Washington has banned plastic bottles and cups that contain BPA and restricts the amount of lead, cadmium and phthalates in children’s products. The states' attorneys general are concerned the CSIA would override those regulations.

Currently, the EPA regulates toxic chemicals under the TSCA, which is, by all accounts, deeply flawed. Though the law is the strongest federal piece of legislation guiding oversight of chemicals, it severely limits the EPA’s ability to test new chemicals on the market or even regulate known toxins. TSCA’s extreme limitations were highlighted in 1991, when an EPA ban on asbestos was overturned by a circuit court. The ruling maintained the EPA’s regulation on new uses of asbestos in the market, but allowed existing uses to remain unregulated.

For years, lawmakers, health advocates and watchdog groups have sought ways to give the EPA more latitude in regulating chemicals in the environment and consumer products. In 2011, the EPA made some headway against the TSCA’s provision that allowed manufacturers to keep chemical formulas private as trade secrets. In the absence of adequate federal regulations, several states have taken the oversight of toxins into their own hands.

In 1986, California determined that its citizens had a right to know about the chemical toxins in the environment around them and in products they brought into their homes. The state enacted a law, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, more commonly known as Proposition 65. The law requires companies to label products containing any of the roughly 800 toxic chemicals listed in the bill. Rather than list, many manufacturers chose to change the formulations of their products to comply with legal limits.

Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana), who co-sponsored the CSIA with the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) in May, recognized the states’ concern in his opening statements at the hearing. However, he indicated that those were either “misimpressions or willful distortions” of the bill. “In no way did we intent to remove the authority of any state to protect their water, air or citizens,” he said.

Still, he agreed that the wording would be clarified to “make that even more crystal clear.”

There is widespread agreement that the TSCA is desperately in need of reform, but what shape that should take, and how far reform should go, is far from settled. The proposed CSIA does, in fact, move to fix some of TSCA's major failings: giving the EPA more latitude to require testing for new chemicals, providing more public information about potential exposure, and giving the EPA broader abilities to ban chemicals that do not meet safety standards. Proponents say the new bill will shift the burden of proof from the EPA and onto industry, making it far easier for the EPA to require testing.

Still, the bill’s opponents say it does not go far enough. Among the complaints are concerns that it doesn't outline any deadlines for reforms, doesn't include specific language for protecting vulnerable populations, and would be inefficient, tying up the EPA with redundant requirements.

In closing the hearing on July 31, Chairwoman Barbara Boxer of California looked at Nancy Buermeyer of the Breast Cancer Fund and asked if the fund thought that the CSIA is better than current law. Buermeyer replied frankly, “We think, all told, this bill actually takes us a step back.”

“I can’t ignore that,” Sen. Boxer responded.

While some warn that moving too far from the current proposal could upset the bipartisan support, members of the Senate and the morning’s panelists agreed to continue working to draft suitable language.

“This means we have a lot of work to do,” Sen. Boxer said, “and I am ready to do it.”

Katie Mast is an editorial intern at High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

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