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“The worst ever”: Trump administration environmental policies under attack
Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline demonstrate on the Dodge Street pedestrian bridge during rush hour in Omaha, Nebraska, in November. Nati Harnik/AP

The Trump administration’s environmental policies were in the crosshairs this week, as conservationist groups and others took the executive branch to task for its tactics on issues including climate change, wildlife, contaminants and the Keystone XL pipeline.

The National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers are among those urging the Trump administration to change its ongoing environmental positions from recent days, as the administration continues to move forward with plans that stymie climate change efforts and target wildlife and natural lands.

The administration’s environmental policies have long been a source of concern. The New York Times reported in March that state attorneys general had filed more than two dozen environmental lawsuits against the administration since January 2017, targeting everything from the administration’s failure to enforce smog standards to its violation of the Clean Air Act’s requirement to establish guidelines for limiting methane emissions.

“This is a real threat to public health,” Judith Enck, who served as a regional Environmental Protection Administrator under former President Barack Obama, told Syracuse.com about the Trump administration’s policies.

“I think we’re going to look back and see that our drinking water will be dirtier and our air will be dirtier,” Enck added, saying the administration was “the worst ever” for the environment.

Migratory birds

A coalition of conservationist groups, including the National Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Federation and Natural Resources Defense Council, filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Trump administration over the White House’s policies on migratory birds.

The lawsuit takes aim at the administration’s recent legal guidance issuing changes to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which broadly prohibits killing, hunting, capturing, transporting or selling migratory birds, along with their eggs and nests. The MBTA’s broad language has traditionally meant that incidental bird killing has also been prohibited. This includes cases where birds have been harmed from oil spills or the operation of waste treatment lagoons, power lines or wind turbines.

In December, however, the Trump administration issued legal guidance removing these “incidental or accidental actions” from being prohibited under the MBTA, saying the law’s prohibitions “apply only to affirmative actions that have as their purpose the taking or killing of migratory birds, their nests, or their eggs.”

Conservation groups say that in making the change, the administration has put birds at risk, removing the incentive for oil and gas companies, among others, to consider the impact of their actions on migratory birds. Previously, companies could be prosecuted for any detrimental effects their business had on bird populations. BP, for instance, paid $100 million in fines under the MBTA as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“The new policy makes it much harder to protect birds from major bird traps —threats like oil pits, wind turbines and communication towers in bird migration hot spots,” Mike Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy, said in a statement. “Leaving these threats unattended is like leaving manhole covers off along the sidewalk during rush hour — it’s negligent, irresponsible and guaranteed to cause harm.”

The lawsuit comes at the end of a week marked by the Trump administration’s attacks on wildlife. The administration proposed to remove Obama-era prohibitions on hunting in Alaska on Tuesday, which include bans on shooting bear cubs and hunting bears using dogs, artificial light and bait. The U.S. Department of Interior also announced its intention to expand hunting and fishing within wildlife refuges in 21 states; Wyoming has also approved the hunting of Yellowstone grizzly bears after the Trump administration removed their federally protected status in June.

This isn’t the first time that the Trump administration has come under fire for its treatment of birds. Earlier in May, environmental groups filed two lawsuits against Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over approved oil and gas leases that threaten the habitat of the sage-grouse, a bird species found in the American West whose population has been steadily declining.

Sage-grouse
Sage-grouse David Zalubowski/AP

Keystone XL Pipeline under fire

Environmental groups also took aim Thursday at the Trump administration over its support of the Keystone XL pipeline, as a U.S. district court in Great Falls, Montana, heard arguments in a legal challenge to the administration’s approval of the controversial pipeline.

The nearly 1,200-mile pipeline, which Trump approved in March 2017 after it had been blocked by former President Barack Obama, will begin in Canada and go through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs argued the administration had not conducted an adequate environmental review of the pipeline prior to its approval, relying on an outdated environmental impact statement from 2014.

Obama blocked the pipeline over concerns it would exacerbate the effects of climate change. Environmental groups have also expressed concern about potential contamination and damage to habitats from the pipeline, which would cut through wildlife habitats and water sources to transport oil from Canadian tar sands to Texas refineries.

The Trump administration has instead pointed to the potential jobs created by the pipeline. In a response to the lawsuit, U.S. government attorneys wrote that “the interests of energy security and economic development outweighed” concerns about climate change.

“In approving Keystone XL, the Trump administration unlawfully ignored that it would be a disaster for our climate, wildlife and clean water,” Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

Demonstrators against the Keystone XL pipeline march in  August in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Demonstrators against the Keystone XL pipeline march in August in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nati Harnik/AP

Carmakers sound alarm on climate change

Since assuming power, the Trump administration has frequently set back efforts on climate change — and now, even the automobile industry is having to remind them that “climate change is real.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes General Motors, Ford and other major auto companies, sent a letter earlier this month to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget over the administration’s proposed changes to vehicle emission requirements, Bloomberg reported.

In the letter, which was sent May 3 but made public this week, the auto groups urged the administration to reconsider its recent decision to roll back Obama-era fuel standards that would increase efficiency and limit greenhouse gas emissions. The proposed changes would also seek to impose a “national harmonized program” for vehicle emissions, taking aim at a regulation that allows California to set its own stricter air pollution guidance, which other states often follow.

“Automakers remain committed to increasing fuel efficiency requirements, which yield everyday fuel savings for consumers while also reducing emissions -- because climate change is real and we have a continuing role in reducing greenhouse gases and improving fuel efficiency,” David Schwietert, executive vice president of federal government relations at the Auto Alliance, wrote in the letter.

As of earlier this month, 17 states are suing the Trump administration over the proposed emission changes, arguing in favor of keeping the Obama-era regulations intact. After the auto alliance’s letter was sent, Trump met with 10 auto CEOs and senior executives, who urged him to work with California as the administration considers changing the emissions standards. In a statement issued after the meeting, the group noted Trump’s “openness to a discussion with California on an expedited basis.”

Contaminants

According to the Environmental Defense Fund on Thursday, more than 200 people signed a letter to EPA head Scott Pruitt urging him to take steps to follow through with a ban on the carcinogenic chemical trichloroethylene. The EPA moved to ban certain uses of the chemical — which has contaminated water and air across the United States — in the final months of the Obama administration. But the Trump administration has delayed taking action on the proposed ban.

“We didn’t know about the chemicals in our town’s drinking water when I grew up here with my family,” Hope Grosse, a cancer survivor from Warminster, Pennsylvania, who signed the letter, said in a statement. “In the years since, we have learned about the contamination and begun to understand the health impacts and human cost involved. EPA should stop stalling on this dangerous chemical — we need to see action from the agency.”

This has been a contentious time for the EPA regarding contaminants. In a speech Tuesday at a national summit, Pruitt announced a plan for addressing various water contaminants, but his appearance was marked by the summit’s initial decision to bar journalists, and did not count independent scientists or many people from contaminated communities among its attendees.

The EPA and White House had previously tried to block the publication of a federal health study on water contamination, which found that chemicals pose a risk to human health at a far lower level than the EPA had previously determined.