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Pruitt listens to industry — not the public — on important decisions that affect public health

My EDF colleagues and fellow attorneys won an important victory for public health this month when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an effort by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to suspend vital limits on oil and gas pollution. 

There’s an important detail to this story that you might have missed. Turns out the public got no opportunity to provide any feedback on Pruitt’s decision, even though it put their health at risk. Instead, Pruitt abruptly declared he was granting this suspension through a letter to industry, with no formal notice given to the public until well afterwards — and no opportunity provided for public input.   

Unfortunately, this is just one example of a consistent pattern of conduct. Again and again, Pruitt has shut the public out of key decisions while giving a direct line to industry laggards and their allies.

Public safeguards undermined without public input 

Early in his tenure, one of Pruitt’s very first actions was to withdraw a request for information on pollution levels from oil and gas facilities — acting unilaterally, with no advanced notice and no opportunity for public input.

Most of what we know about Pruitt’s decision comes from Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas, who has battled pollution safeguards while fundraising from fossil fuel interests, mirroring Pruitt’s approach as Oklahoma Attorney General.

Paxton openly bragged about his role in driving Pruitt to eliminate this information request:

I personally handed him the letter, and the next day the rule was personally withdrawn.

While Paxton got an opportunity for input, the public never had a chance to weigh in on this decision. Not surprisingly, Pruitt’s announcement hailed the withdrawal’s benefits for the oil and gas industry while ignoring Americans’ right to know about harmful pollution from oil and gas facilities.

A pattern of shutting out everyday Americans

This practice has been repeated across different sectors and different safeguards.

Pruitt delayed the implementation of health-based limits on ground-level ozone, commonly called smog, without any opportunity for public input. The standards would prevent 230,000 childhood asthma attacks every year.

Pruitt delayed toxic wastewater standards for power plants without public input. Same for a program to manage risks of accidents at petroleum refineries and other major chemical plants.

A recent rollback request from the landfills industry called for a delay to important improvements to pollution standards that had not been substantially updated in 20 years. The request was granted via a letter from Pruitt to industry representatives with no opportunity for public comment — and formal public notice wasn’t provided until more than two weeks after the delay was granted.  

Who is guiding Pruitt’s decisions? The public is in the dark

Pruitt has made the unusual and troubling decision to end public access to his calendar and the calendar of senior EPA managers in spite of a bipartisan EPA history of making those calendars public. Without access to the calendars, it’s impossible to know who is meeting with the Administrator or his senior staff — and who is informing their decision-making.

What little information we’ve learned about his calendar is that it’s been “filled” with meetings with industry interests. Many of these meetings are with the same individuals or companies benefiting from his rollbacks. In just one example, Pruitt gathered with the American Petroleum Institute board of directors behind closed doors early in his tenure, soon before rolling back oil and gas protections.

Pruitt’s intertwined relationship with major industry interests goes back to before he became EPA Administrator to his time as the Attorney General of Oklahoma. In a 2014 exposé, he was documented copying and pasting industry requests and sending them to EPA, nearly word for word, on Oklahoma Attorney General letterhead. Pruitt has defended this conduct as “representative government in my view,” begging the question of who Pruitt thinks he’s supposed to represent.

Industry representatives in senior leadership

Pruitt isn’t only hearing from industry voices outside the agency. Within EPA, his leadership team is filled with former industry representatives.

In just one recent example, the agency’s new senior deputy general counsel, Erik Baptist, was previously a top lawyer at the American Petroleum Institute — which has been lobbying, among other things, to repeal EPA safeguards that reduce harmful methane pollution from oil and gas operations. Baptist is just the latest example of the pervasive conflicts of interest among Pruitt’s senior staff.

Accountable to the law 

Fortunately, Pruitt’s practice of leaving the public in the dark is getting pushback. The recent D.C. Circuit decision in the oil and gas methane case is an important step in holding him accountable to the law. Pruitt must listen to all voices — including those of members of the public — as he makes decisions with serious implications for public health and welfare. 

 

Posted in EPA litgation, News, Policy, Setting the Facts Straight| Comments are closed

Huge Antarctic iceberg breaks off. Here's why it worries scientists.

The massive rift in the Antarctic Peninsula's Larsen C ice shelf, photographed by NASA scientists in November 2016. Photo by Stuart Rankin.

This post was co-authored by Mason Fried, a Ph.D. student of glaciology at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics. It originally appeared on EDF Voices.

Scientists watched with alarm this week as the fourth-largest ice shelf in Antarctica rapidly broke apart, causing an enormous, Delaware-size iceberg to float into the Southern Ocean.

Scientists had been observing the anomalous rift widening across a section of the so-called Larsen C ice shelf for the past several years. Now they’re left with some critical questions: What are this event’s broader consequences for the Antarctic ice sheet, what happens next, and – importantly – what role did climate change play here?

Antarctica: A frontline for climate change

So far, scientists have been hesitant to attribute the Larsen C ice shelf breakup to rising global temperatures.

Indeed, such events – known to scientists as “calving” – occur naturally and are essential for maintaining ice shelf balance. Without them, ice shelves would grow unabated to cover large swaths of the Southern Ocean.

Still, the magnitude and timing of this ice loss warrants attention.

The Antarctic Peninsula, where the Larsen ice shelves reside, has long been viewed as a frontline for climate change. Warming in the peninsula exceeds the global average, glaciers there are retreating, and two other ice shelves on the peninsula already collapsed over the past couple of decades after being stable for thousands of years.

Such changes will help raise global sea levels by 3 to 6 feet by 2100, projections show, affecting dense coastal communities along our Eastern seaboard and across the globe.

Ice breakup starts chain reaction

We do know that this latest ice separation could set in motion a string of chain reactions that further destabilize the ice shelf and surrounding glaciers, and ultimately contribute to global sea level rise.

Ice shelves are floating extensions of grounded glaciers and ice sheets that, importantly, buttress and impede inland ice flow. When an ice shelf collapses or becomes weaker, this defense disappears, allowing inland glaciers to accelerate downslope and transport more ice to the ocean, which can quickly affect sea level.

Scientists worry that the remnant Larsen C ice shelf will now be at considerable risk of further breakup.

The new ice berg reduced the ice shelf area by more than 12 percent when it broke off, leaving behind an ice shelf that is inherently unstable. This can, in turn, trigger new ice cracks and rifting, and cause more icebergs to break off – further increasing the possibility of runaway ice loss amid rising global temperatures.

Whether or not this latest calving event will be attributed to climate change, it’s safe to say that it will make the region more vulnerable to the impacts of global warming.

Climate change caused 2002 ice shelf collapse

The Larsen C ice shelf, named for a Norwegian whaling vessel captain who sailed the Southern Sea in the late 1800s, has two smaller northern neighbors known as Larsen A and Larsen B – both of which collapsed in the past 23 years.

Those events taught us that ice sheets, landscapes we used to think of as stable and slow to change, can actually transform rapidly.

The Larsen B collapse was particularly dramatic, with nearly the entire ice shelf disintegrating during a three-week period in 2002 after remaining stable for at least 10,000 years.

The speed of that event was unprecedented and attributed directly to increasing atmospheric warming, although rising ocean temperatures and long-term ice loss from surrounding glaciers may also have played a role.

A hint of what’s to come?

After the Larsen B shelf collapse, researchers observed dramatic increases in glacier speed, thinning and ice transfer to the ocean.

Some researchers are already drawing parallels between this week’s Larsen C collapse and the series of events that led to the eventual collapse of Larsen B. The latter experienced a similar large calving event in 1995 that foreshadowed further retreat and widespread disintegration in 2002.

While it remains to be seen if and when Larsen C will meet the same fate, warning signs are already in place. What’s happening to the Larsen ice shelves could, in fact, be a proxy for what’s to come across even larger sections of the Antarctic ice sheet unless we take action to slow warming.

Posted in Arctic & Antarctic, News, Science| Comments are closed

Cleaning the air saves lives and creates an engine for job growth

The Clean Air Act has a long, well-documented history of reducing pollution, and thus improving – and often even saving – lives in America.

This bedrock law represents one of the greatest environmental and health success stories in the world. Gross Domestic Product in the U.S. has grown 246 percent over the life of the Clean Air Act while at the same time pollutants have been reduced 71 percent.

The Clean Air Act has led to enormous innovation in technology

The Clean Air Act has helped launch innovation in technologies that reduce pollution –technologies which in many cases can be exported around the world.

We know from previous experience with standards we adopted to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants in 1971 and 1979 that pollution standards can reduce emissions substantially, and that the more the technology is deployed to meet the standards the more costs go down. The Clean Air Act helped create a market demand for various pollution control technologies by creating standards for pollutants, including for sulfur dioxide. (Read more from technology experts who filed a legal brief in support of carbon standards for power plants)

Source: The Effect of Government Actions on Technological Innovation for SO2 Control. The EPA/DOE/EPRI Mega Symposium, August 20-23, 2001.

America’s homegrown environmental protection industry

The U.S. is the single largest producer of environmental technologies in the world, capturing 29 percent of the world’s $1.05 trillion market.

In 2015, there were an estimated 1.73 million jobs in the U.S. environmental industry, with projected growth of 3 to 4 percent over the next several years.

According to the U.S. government, 99 percent of the businesses in this industry were small to medium-sized. U.S. environmental companies exported about $48 billion in goods in 2013. At the same time, 2005 data from U.S. manufacturers indicate that their expenses for reducing pollution account for less than one percent of the value of the goods they ship.

Environmental protection standards can drive jobs in a myriad of sectors including manufacturing, engineering, construction, operations, and more.

Some examples of jobs and industries created by specific EPA clean air protections include:

Clean air saves lives and improves productivity

Cleaner air saves lives and protects the health of American families.

According to a landmark analysis, in 2010 alone the Clean Air Act prevented 160,000 deaths.

It also prevented 13 million lost workdays and 3.2 million lost school days because of illnesses and diseases caused or exacerbated by air pollution. The value of avoiding those lost work and school days in 2010 was approximately $2 billion.

That same landmark analysis estimates that the central benefits of the Clean Air Act outweigh costs by more than 30 to one.

The evidence is clear – environmental protection helps improves lives and grow the economy.

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Scott Pruitt keeps Americans in the dark on his activities

In the few months of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s tenure, we’ve already seen ample cause for concern when it comes to how he spends his time – a steady stream of meetings with major industry, together with rollbacks that harm communities and put children’s health at risk.

Last week, we learned that Administrator Pruitt gathered with the American Petroleum Institute board of directors at the Trump Hotel early in his tenure, just weeks before carrying out a host of actions to benefit oil and gas polluters. Just one of those actions — delaying implementation of a national smog health standard — will alone will result in 230,000 more asthma attacks for kids.

These actions have been taken with no meaningful public input or engagement. Meanwhile, the intermittent information we glean about Administrator Pruitt’s calendar and his schedule underscores his extensive meetings and visits with major industry.

Underlying these distressing developments, there’s something even more fundamental at play. How has the American public learned how Administrator Pruitt, a taxpayer-funded public servant, spends his time? How have we gotten information on the company he keeps?

Under past EPA Administrators, the calendars of senior managers — including the Administrator — were released to the public via accessible, concurrent platforms.

Troublingly, Scott Pruitt has ended this practice. We’ve only gotten information about his activities through intermittent information shared with the press, or months after the fact through time-consuming, burdensome Freedom of Information Act requests.

EDF calls on Pruitt to follow long-standing EPA practice and make his calendar public

EPA has an important job to do on behalf of the American public — protecting our health and welfare from dangerous pollution. Without timely information on the activities and schedule of Administrator Pruitt and his senior staff, members of the public cannot have full confidence that EPA’s leadership is working on their behalf.

Administrator Pruitt’s lack of transparency raises serious questions about potential abuse of EPA’s limited resources for activity that contravenes or is in serious tension with important legal and ethical requirements.

That’s why today EDF called on Pruitt to make his schedule, and that of his senior officials, available to the public on a widely accessible platform. Administrator Pruitt should immediately carry out this fundamental transparency practice, followed by EPA administrations of both parties. EDF is simultaneously submitting a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain this information — a public record — in order to assure that the public at least obtains more up to date information on Pruitt’s activities.

EPA is supposed to operate “in a fishbowl”

The important transparency practice of sharing senior policy leaders’ schedules has a long history at EPA.

In 1983, William Ruckelshaus — the first EPA Administrator — was brought back to lead EPA by President Ronald Reagan in order to restore public trust after the scandal-plagued tenure of Administrator Anne Gorsuch. One of Administrator Ruckelshaus’ first actions was to issue was his “Fishbowl Memo,” which vowed that EPA would “operate in a fishbowl” and “attempt to communicate with everyone from the environmentalists to those we regulate and we will do so as openly as possible.”

Ruckelshaus’ Fishbowl Memo adopted as EPA policy a number of specific activities that are the hallmark of fair and transparent government. In particular, Ruckelshaus included a commitment to share senior leadership schedules as the Memo’s very first transparency directive:

In order to make the public fully aware of my contacts with interested persons, I have directed that a copy of my appointment calendar for each week be placed in the Office of Public Affairs and made available to the public at the end of the week. The Deputy Administrator, and all Assistant Administrators, Associate Administrators, Regional Administrators, and Staff Office Directors shall make their appointment calendars available in a similar manner.

This commitment to transparency and public access to EPA calendars has continued across administrations. For example, Administrator Lisa Jackson echoed this commitment upon her arrival, writing that “[t]o keep the public fully informed of my contacts with interested persons,” she would make available to the public, every day via the EPA website, “a working copy of my appointment calendar, showing meetings with members of the public.” She directed her senior staff to do the same. Administrator Gina McCarthy and Acting Administrator Catherine McCabe similarly continued this practice.

Yet Administrator Pruitt has ended the foundational transparency measure of making his and his senior policy leaders’ schedules readily available to the public. The policy change is illustrated by these two snapshots of EPA’s website from six months apart.

EPA’s website on January 19, 2017:

And the same page today:

A true back to basics approach

Pruitt has recently made a show of focusing on “EPA Originalism” and getting EPA “Back to Basics.” We suggest he follow long-standing EPA practice and the guidance of EPA’s original Administrator, William Ruckelshaus. Pruitt should make his calendar, and those of his senior leadership, widely and promptly available to the public.

Posted in Health, News, Policy, Setting the Facts Straight| Read 1 Response

Delaying smog standards risks lives, jeopardizes Americans’ health

Twenty-six. That is how many smog-related air quality alerts were forecast across our country for one single day earlier this week.

From Pennsylvania to Rhode Island, “action days” were called urging “sensitive groups” (including children, people who are active outdoors, older Americans, and people with heart or lung disease) to reduce their time spent outdoors.

Smog is a dangerous air pollutant linked to premature deaths, asthma attacks, lower birth weight in infants, and serious heart and lung diseases.

Smog forms when industrial emissions from power plants, factories, cars, and other sources react with heat and sunlight in the atmosphere.

There have already been many alerts across the U.S. this year for smog pollution, and “smog season” has just begun. That shows we have more work to do to clean the air and protect our families and communities.

That is why it is disturbing to hear that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has decided to delay implementation of the updated smog standards by one year.

According to the American Lung Association’s 2017 State of the Air Report [PDF], more than one-third of all Americans live in areas with unhealthful levels of smog. More than 116 million people live in counties that received a grade of “F” for smog levels.

A one-year delay in the implementation of anticipated pollution from the smog standards would mean:

  • 660 more deaths
  • 230,000 asthma attacks among children
  • 180,000 missed work or school days

These are real lives being affected by Administrator Pruitt’s irresponsible actions.

The smog standards are driven by medical science. Here are some of the medical and health associations that supported strengthening the ozone standards:

  • The American Thoracic Society
  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • American Medical Association
  • American Heart Association
  • American Lung Association
  • American Public Health Association
  • Children’s Environmental Health Network
  • National Association of County and City Health Officials
  • Trust for America’s Health
  • Health Care Without Harm
  • Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
  • American College of Chest Physicians
  • American College of Preventive Medicine
  • American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
  • American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation
  • National Association for the Medical Direction of Respiratory Care
  • Society of Physicians for Social Responsibility

EPA’s mission is to protect public health and the environment. Administrator Pruitt’s decision to delay the smog standards runs counter to that bi-partisan, four-and-a-half decade mission. It also runs counter to the recommendations of leading medical and public health associations.

The successful history of implementing the Clean Air Act shows that states have the flexibility to design tailored solutions to address smog pollution, and that dramatic pollution reductions go hand-in-hand with a strong economy.

We need to reduce the amount of smog in our air – and to achieve that goal, we need EPA to lead.

Posted in Clean Air Act, Health, Partners for Change, Policy| Read 1 Response
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