Lawsuits Challenge Trump’s Rollback of Obama-Era Power Plant Wastewater Standards

One hallmark of the Trump administration is rolling back Obama-era environmental standards. Environmental groups fight the rollbacks with lawsuits. Nine environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in early November over its rollback of national powerplant wastewater standards limiting water pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Filed in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the lawsuit challenges the EPA’s decision to roll back the Obama-era national standard. The EPA’s rollback allows coal-fired power plants to dump wastewater filled with toxic chemicals and heavy metals into rivers and lakes. Toxic heavy metals from coal power plant wastewater cause severe health problems, including cancer, reproductive issues, and impacts on children’s IQ. Wastewater also harms aquatic life. 

The Obama-era rule enhancine power plant wastewater standards

The Obama-era rule prohibited power plants from dumping fly ash or bottom ash wastewater into U.S. waters. It also imposed strict limits on toxic metals and other contaminants in sludge from power plants. Experts projected that the rule would have reduced an estimated 1.4 billion pounds a year of toxic heavy metals and other pollutants in waterways. 

Called the Steam Electric Effluent Limitations and Guidelines (ELG) rule, the EPA issued the rule in 2015. It was the nation’s first pollution standards to limit the number of toxic chemicals and heavy metals power plants can dump into the water. The rule required power plants to achieve zero discharge of fly ash and bottom ash wastewater and set strict limits on discharges of arsenic, mercury, selenium, and nitrogen in scrubber sludge wastewater. The rule also required power plants to implement a closed-looped/zero discharge system for wastewater to remove coal ash in boilers. 

“This absurd step backward is little more than a gift to the dirty fossil fuels industry at the expense of people’s health, endangered wildlife, and water quality,” said Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Many power plants could easily adopt affordable technologies that dramatically reduce toxic discharges, but with this rule, the EPA is telling their polluter friends not to bother with these common-sense measures.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center lawsuit

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit in early November challenging the Trump administration’s rollback of the Obama-era rule. The lawsuit filed in the  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit was filed on behalf of the Stokes County Branch of the NAACP, Winyah Rivers Alliance, Appalachian Voices, and Good Stewards of Rockingham, which represent communities downstream and close to coal plants in the Carolinas. 

Two power plants represent the dangers that the rollback of the rule poses. Santee Cooper’s Winyah Plant in South Carolina is set to decommission all its coal-fired units by 2027. The company may not be required to implement pollution controls or meet the weaker limits under the new rule thanks to a loophole. Duke Energy installed new technology to limit wastewater pollution at its plants in North Carolina as required by the 2015 rule. The new rule allows the company to pollute more. Communities in North Carolina experienced increases of byproducts in their treated drinking water that cause cancer due to bromide pollution from upstream coal-fired power plants. 

“This illegal rollback of clean water protections by the Trump administration allows dirty coal-burning plants to dump more toxic substances into our rivers, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs and exposes our communities to more cancer-causing pollution,” said Senior Attorney Frank Holleman, in a statement. “ Instead of protecting people, this administration made it easier for the most polluting and worst run coal-fired plants to dump poisons into the waterways our communities depend upon.”

The good news

There is good news, not just for power plant wastewater standards, but for planet earth: on January 20, 2021, President Trump will leave office. He leaves behind an environmental mess that former Vice-President Joe Biden will be left to clean up. A glance at Biden’s environmental policies indicates he will reinstate Obama-era environmental standards.

Toxic Beaches in the U.S.

Some beaches in the U.S. are so toxic that officials had to close them and post warnings. Toxic algae and bacteria caused public officials to close at least 116 lake and ocean beaches in the U.S. this spring and summer, according to an investigation by the Environmental Working Group. Health officials and other entities in 36 states issued 278 beach closures or warnings from May 5 to September 10. Michigan had the highest amount of closures and advisories, with 69. Florida and 22 while Iowa and Ohio each had 19. 

Water monitoring is another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some government agencies reduced water quality monitoring this year because of budget cuts due to the pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn. Utah is a good example. In June, state officials announced they will not be monitoring Utah Lake for algal blooms for a month because of uncertainty about funding, the Daily Herald reported. The county health department announced on social media that “due to state budget uncertainty, the (Utah) Division of Water Quality and Utah County Health Department are not able to sample, or provide updates for Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) on Utah Lake until at least July 1, 2020.”

An uninformed public

There are problems with the notification systems, the EWG investigation found. Public agencies tend to rely heavily on posting signs at the affected beach, which means that people have no way to find out about a problem until they are at the affected beach. Some public agencies do not post warnings online. Instead, they only issue press releases to the media. “Such a press release may be reported briefly in a local newspaper when the warning is initially issued and not covered again, in spite of ongoing or recurrent contamination,” EWG notes.

There is a problem with relying on the news media to cover beach contamination and closures. Local news outlets across the country “have been hit hard in recent years by mergers, layoffs, furloughs, and newspaper closures,” according to EWG. The result is that many local stories are not covered. 

Most government databases or websites do not archive warnings. Even when states do archive warnings online, as Michigan does, they are difficult to navigate. The Michigan BeachGuard System’s website, for example, focuses on current closures, making it harder to find accurate and complete data about past closures. 

“We found a troubling mish-mash of public safety measures for toxic algae and bacterial contamination of beaches across the country,” said Anne Schechinger, EWG senior analyst of economics and a co-author of the report. “Dozens of different government agencies and other organizations issued warnings with inconsistent wording, unclear direction, and insufficient explanations of human health threats.”

Farm runoff is the major cause of water pollution in the U.S.

Although media reports about beach closures rarely mention the cause of algae or bacteria contamination. Farm runoff is a major cause of water pollution. Manure is often used as a fertilizer and it runs off fields. It contains contaminants like E. coli, salmonella, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and phosphorus, which causes algae blooms. Bodies of water become contaminated by the runoff. Runoff from farms in the upper Midwest have been linked to algae blooms in Lake Erie, throughout Iowa, and on the coast of Mississippi. 

About 40 percent of U.S. land is used for agriculture and agriculture is the leading source of contamination in the country’s rivers and lakes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Around half a million tons of pesticides, 12 million tons of nitrogen, and four million tons of phosphorus fertilizers are applied every year to crops in the continental U.S. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) contribute greatly to water contamination. A thousand or more farm animals are held in cramped conditions and produce a huge amount of waste. If that waste is released, it can end up in lakes and rivers. 

Agricultural runoff is “largely not regulated” under the Clean Water Act, according to the EWG investigation. The EWG’s investigation “points to the need to hold the agriculture industry accountable for water pollution – and even more importantly, to prevent pollution before it contaminates our waters,” said Schechinger.

There is a need for a nationwide beach monitoring program. EWG recommends that a national monitoring program provide consistent and accurate testing of bodies of water. In addition, EWG urges universal standards for contamination levels considered unsafe and triggering warnings, easy-to-access archives of past data, and multimedia public communications efforts that clearly convey the contamination issues and the risks they pose.


Photo by Cleveland.com

The Ecocide and Potential Genocide Armenians Face

While the U.S. and other countries issue messages of support but no aid, Armenians face ecocide and the potential for another genocide in their ancestral lands, lands they were forced to leave on November 15, 2020. 

Azerbaijan, with the aid of Turkey, attacked the autonomous region of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) on September 27. For 44 days, civilian populations in Artsakh, an ancient Armenian region, faced constant bombardment from cluster munitions. Azerbaijan dropped white phosphorus on the forests of Artsakh, as video evidence shows.

In the Caucuses, history impacts present-day life. In 1918, the country of Azerbaijan came into being after the Russian empire fell. The country consists of lands stolen from Armenians, Georgians, and Iranians. The name of the country comes from a region in Iran. From 1918 to 1921, Azerbaijan was an independent country. Stalin gave control of Artsakh to Azerbaijan in 1921. That same year, Armenians in Artsakh faced massacres by Azeris, and 35,000 Armenians died. This occurred just a few years after 1.5 million Armenians died during the Armenian genocide, perpetrated by the Turks. The Azeris are a Turkic people. 

Turkey and Azerbaijan: A tale of two dictators

Turkey supplied Azerbaijan with arms, including the drones used to drop cluster munitions on civilians and white phosphorus on forests. Turkey also sent thousands of mercenaries to Artsakh, mercenaries Turkey paid to fight Armenians. While Armenia is a democracy, Freedom House grades Turkey as 32 out of 100 on its Global Freedom Scores and labels it not free. President Recep Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled Turkey since 2002. A 2016 attempted coup caused Erdogan to crack down on opposition while constitutional changes in 2017 further concentrated his power. 

Azerbaijan has been ruled by the Aliyev family since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in the early 90s. Ilham Aliyev has served as president since 2003. In recent years, the Aliyev regime cracked down on civil liberties. In 2017, President Aliyev appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva as vice president, a position created with little to no public consultation or parliamentary debate. Freedom House grades Azerbaijan a 10 and labels the country not free.

Ecocide and potential genocide

Within both Artsakh and Armenia lie primeval forests which contain biodiversity unseen in the rest of the Caucasus region. The forests contain 6,000 plant species, 153 mammal species, 400 bird species. The Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC) established the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge (CWR) in 2010. Extending from the Azerbaijan border to Artsakh through two provinces of Armenia (Ararat and Vayots Dzor provinces), it is about 74,131 acres. Critically endangered species such as the Persian leopard and the Armenian mouflon are spotted there. Only about eight to 13 individuals of the Persian leopard remain in the region. Some of the oldest juniper forests remaining in Armenia are located in the CWR.

The white phosphorus Turkish drones dropped on Artsakh amount to ecocide. The Artsakh Human Rights Ombudsman noted on November 3 that 4485 acres of forest area in Artsakh had burned “but fires continue in various areas and there is a tendency for rapid growth.” The Ombudsman characterized the fires as an “environmental catastrophe, which undermines the environmental security in the region and contains long-term dangerous consequences for the life and health of the people of Artsakh.”

In early November, 50 non-governmental organizations in Armenia issued a joint statement about the use of white phosphorus weapons by Azerbaijan in Artsakh. The statement noted that the use of white phosphorus violates international humanitarian law, principles of customary law, the Geneva Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Technique, plus provisions of UN conventions and documents. The statement pointed out that the use of white phosphorus threatens the region’s biodiversity, which is recognized as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. 

While white phosphorus causes forests and other vegetation to burn, it is also toxic.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) characterizes white phosphorus as “extremely toxic to humans.” It can cause severe effects on the kidneys, liver, cardiovascular system, and central nervous system. 

War crimes

There is something else the organizations noted in their statement. During the recent war, Azerbaijan committed documented war crimes, including “beheadings of Armenian soldiers, the killing of civilians in a city square wrapped in Armenian flags, deliberate attacks on civilian infrastructures – residential buildings, churches, food markets, schools, and maternity hospitals.

The war crimes echo the Armenian genocide when the Turkish government killed Armenian men throughout Western Armenia (present day Eastern Armenia) and deported the remaining population, marching them to the Syrian desert without food or water. The author of this article is descended from people who fled the genocide.

The Armenian organizations sent the statement to 77 environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, and environmentalists like Greta Thunberg. There has been total silence from the organizations and individuals who received the statement. Silence is something Armenians all over the world expect when they face attacks from Turkic people, as history proves. 

On November 9, the news of an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan stunned Armenians all over the world. The reason for the collective shock is that Armenia agreed to hand over parts of Artsakh to Azerbaijan. What that means is that Armenian lands will be handed over to the very people that caused ecocide within the region’s forests. What remains of Artsakh will be surrounded by Azeris. If history serves as a prophet, massacres of Armenians will take place.

What you can do

The non-profit organization, Armenian National Congress of America (ANCA) urges the Trump administration to re-engage in the Minsk Group process, which brokered the agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and re-negotiate the treaty. Armenia signed the agreement without the participation of two of the three chairs of the Minsk Group (Russia and the U.S.). Only one chair (Russia) participated. 

There is something you can do. You can sign up to receive action alerts from the Armenian National Congress of America (ANCA) where you will be instructed to email or tweet to your elected officials. Stand with Armenians in condemning the attacks by Turkey and Azerbaijan and convince them that there are non-Armenians who care. 


Image courtesy of ArmenPress News

EPA Defies Court Order to Halt the Use of Dicamba

President Trump’s administration demonstrated its complete disregard for the environment and human health in a myriad of ways. One of those ways involved disregarding a court order regarding an herbicide called dicamba.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency registered two dicamba products and extended the registration for another dicamba product for applications on dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybeans. The decision allows dicamba to be in use from 2021 to 2025. Both products will expire in December 2025 “unless the EPA takes further action to amend the registration,” according to the federal agency’s announcement

The EPA’s decision to register dicamba ignores a court order on June 3, 2020 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate the use of dicamba. The court cited the EPA’s failure to acknowledge the risks the herbicide poses to the environment and conventional crops. On June 8, the EPA told growers they could continue using dicamba until July 31. 

First registered in 1967, dicamba is a widely used herbicide in the U.S. It is used on crops, pastures, fallow land, turfgrass, and rangeland to kill weeds. The herbicide is also registered for use in residential areas and other non-agricultural sites. Over 1,000 products sold in the U.S. include dicamba. 

“Protecting the pesticide industry has been a top priority of the EPA during the Trump administration,” said Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook. “Millions of acres of crops will continue to be damaged, and the health of farmworkers, children, and all those who live near farms where dicamba is used will be at risk – all in the name of appeasing chemical agriculture.”

Environmental, health effects of dicamba herbicide

The EPA claims it “conducted robust evaluations of the risks to human health and the environment.” Yet its decision to register three forms of dicamba shows it ignored the scientific evidence that the herbicide poses environmental and health threats. One of the environmental problems dicamba causes is pesticide drift. Older versions of dicamba caused pesticide drift so they were typically not used much during warm months when they could kill trees or other crops. In 2016, the EPA approved the registration of new formulations of dicamba that allowed for “over-the-top” applications on dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybean plants. 

Scientists warned that the over-the-top applications would cause damage from drift. Complaints about drift damage have increased in several farm states since the introduction of the new applications. In 2017, the EPA tallied 2,708 official dicamba-related crop injury investigations, with 3.6 million acres of soybeans affected. 

Dicamba is a threat to monarch butterflies. The Center for Biological Diversity found that the timing and the geographical distribution of dicamba use coincide with areas where monarch eggs and caterpillars are found on milkweed. The herbicide degrades milkweed which adult monarchs rely on for nectar. As monarchs travel south for the winter, nectar is their only food source. One percent of the minimum dicamba application rate is enough to reduce the size of milkweed by 50 percent. 

The EPA ignores its own evidence that dicamba presents a risk to human health. A 2016 study by the federal agency found that the biggest health risk from either drinking water or dicamba residue on food is found within children one to two years old. 

There are studies linking dicamba use with cancer and thyroid problems. The most recent study found a higher risk of liver, intrahepatic bile duct cancer, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. A 2010 study found a strong association between dicamba and cancer among those who applied it, while a 2001 study found an association between dicamba and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Dicamba is linked to thyroid problems. A 2018 study found a significantly increased risk between dicamba and hypothyroidism. Another study done five years prior found “increased odds” of hypothyroidism and dicamba.

What you can do

While it is highly unlikely the Trump administration will halt the use of dicamba, a new administration takes office in January. Start tweeting to Joe Biden and demand that his administration ban the over-the-top applications of dicamba. 


Image by Peter Miller on Flickr

Offering Up America’s Largest National Forest to Loggers

Offering up national lands to mining, drilling, and logging is a hallmark of President Trump’s presidency. A large rainforest in Alaska is no exception. The Trump administration recently opened large amounts of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to logging and development. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a final Alaska Roadless Rule exempting the Tongass from the 2001 provision prohibiting road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvests. The USDA adopted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in 2001. The roadless rule prohibits road construction, and cutting, selling, or removing timber within inventoried roadless areas. There are certain exceptions. 

Around 55 percent of the Tongass falls within the roadless rule. The State of Alaska petitioned the USDA in 2018 to consider exempting the Tongass from the roadless rule. That same year, the USDA directed the Forest Service to start evaluating a roadless rule for Alaska. The Forest Service then published a Notice of Intent to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) on a potential roadless rule for the Tongass. In 2019, the Forest Service published a draft EIS and proposed rule. 

More than 1.5 million Americans submitted comments about the removal of the roadless rule for the Tongass during the rulemaking process. Eleven tribal governments in Alaska submitted a petition to the Forest Service asking for the protection of traditional lands. Polling last summer in battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin found that voters oppose a roadless rule for the Tongass. A poll taken earlier this year found that only 43 percent of Alaskans approve of the roadless rule.

The largest national forest in the U.S.

Covering about 80 percent of Southeast Alaska, the Tongass stretches 500 miles from north to south. It is the largest national forest in the U.S. at 16.8 million acres, which is about the size of West Virginia. It is also one of the last intact old-growth temperate rainforests in the world. The Tongass is the remnant of a rainforest that ran uninterrupted through Northern California, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. Old-growth temperate rainforests contain more biomass per acre than any other ecosystem. They also hold much carbon. The Tongass holds eight percent of all the carbon stored in national forests. 

The Tongass has cultural and economic significance for Southeast Alaska. Especially for the tribes living there who use it for hunting, fishing, and gathering. The regional tourism and fishing industries generate over $480 million a year and employ over 11,000 people. The timber industry, by contrast, contributes less than one percent to Southeast Alaska’s economy.

“These pristine wildlands are vital to customary and traditional practices of the region’s Native peoples, and to climate mitigation and local economies,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director and senior attorney for the Nature program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Tongass is our largest expanse of undisturbed forest, rich with wildlife that is imperiled elsewhere in the country, and key to thriving runs of all five salmon species.”

“The Roadless Rule was one of the best proactive solutions for protecting a climate-resilient forest ecosystem—important for birds, fish, and people now and into the future,” said Natalie Dawson, Vice President and Executive Director for Audubon Alaska

The timber industry in the Tongass costs taxpayers big money

The Forest Service prepares and conducts sales for the rights to harvest millions of board feet of timber from the Tongass. The sales generate less revenue than it takes to administer them, according to a recent Taxpayers for Common Sense report. In 2019, the Forest Service lost $16.1 million. Since 1980, the Forest Service has lost around $1.7 billion. The report projects that the Forest Service could lose almost $190 million in the Tongass over the next five years from the sales. 

The Forest Service could lose even more by opening roadless areas up to logging, according to the report. The federal agency constructs roads to provide access to timber for harvesters. The costs of building roads increase the total costs of the timber program. Spending on roads in the Tongass comprised over 40 percent of all timber sale expenses from 2000 to 2019. The roadless rule expands timber sales to new areas, requiring more road construction. “This would only drive up USFS expenses and deepen taxpayer losses from Tongass timber sales,” the report states.


Image by Alan Wu on Flickr

Why the EPA Should Listen to Science, Not Pesticide Manufacturers

Pesticide resistance in crop-eating plants is the result of the Trump Administration’s EPA derogatory stance toward pesticide manufacturers

Ignoring science is a hallmark of the Trump administration. A proposed rule by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency aims to “streamline the regulation of certain plant-incorporated protectants (PIPs).” In reality, it ignores science and listens to pesticide manufacturers and biotech companies. 

The rule is a response to Trump’s executive order on modernizing the regulatory framework for agricultural biotechnology products. The rule proposes exemptions for certain PIPs under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The EPA determined that PIPs “have no risks of concern to humans or the environment.” The EPA characterized regulations governing PIPs as antiquated regulations that restrict access to the market for biotechnology products.” The hallmark of the Trump administration’s environmental policy is deregulation. 

PIPs are plants engineered to contain pesticides. Scientists create them by taking the gene for a pesticidal protein and introducing the gene into the plant’s genetic material which causes the plant to express the pesticidal protein that kills the pest when it eats the plant. The EPA regulates the protein and genetic material. The EPA registered the first Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) plant-incorporated protectant in the U.S. in 1995. Corn, cotton, and soy Bt incorporated varieties have been introduced. 

The problems with PIPs

While their purpose is to reduce pesticides, PIPs actually cause the development of pesticide resistance in crop-eating insects. A 2010 study found streams throughout the Midwest contaminated with transgenic materials from corn crop byproducts. Six months after corn harvesting, scientists tested 217 stream sites in Indiana and found that 86 percent of the sites contained maize leaves, cobs, husks, and stalks. In 2011, scientists from Iowa State University documented resistance to a Bt toxin by western corn rootworms. They found the western rootworm’s ability to adapt was strongest in fields where Bt corn was planted for three years in a row. 

A 2013 study found tremendous damage from western corn rootworms in a farm field planted with corn genetically engineered to incorporate with a Bt protein. That particular corn variety has been introduced into almost one-third of the corn planted in the U.S. Another 2013 study found that adding more than one Bt-incorporated trait does not prevent pesticide resistance. Researchers looked at caterpillars resistant to pesticides and discovered that caterpillars resistant to one pesticide survived far better than caterpillars not resistant.

Pesticide Resistance

The EPA’s rule exempts certain PIPs created by cisgenic biotechnological techniques. Cisgenic plants derive from genes from sexually compatible species. The rule makes a distinction between cisgenic and transgenic (where the genes come from any species). Les Touart, PhD, Beyond Pesticides senior science and policy manager, analyzed experiments conducted and concluded that they “confirm that cisgenesis can result in significant unanticipated changes to a plant,” and “show that a trait introduced via a cisgene can result in plants that differ in unanticipated and dramatic ways from their conventionally bred counterparts.” He concluded that the “differences observed would have important implications relevant to health and ecological risk assessments.”

The environmental organization Beyond Pesticides sent a letter to the EPA warning that “the agency’s new pesticide resistance management framework as proposed with only minor changes to existing practices will likely prove unsuccessful in the long run as well.” The organization pointed out that the changes proposed “do not address or impact the biology of pest populations developing resistance, but only the recognition and identification of such resistance.”

What you can do

Do you disagree with the EPA’s proposed rule? Sign the petition urging Congress to listen to science and not pesticide manufacturers and biotech companies. Are you outraged by the Trump administration’s environmental deregulation? Today is election day. Vote.


Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

Giving Rights to Nature

Does nature possess basic rights? It may seem like a strange concept to grant nature the same fundamental rights that a person possesses. A report by the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, Earth Law Center, and International Rivers looks at how places around the globe adopt laws giving rights to rivers. 

“Rights of Nature” is the concept that nature possesses basic rights, just as humans do. The concept arises from indigenous traditions that view humans as part of nature rather than separate from it. Although the concept is new in Western societies, the report notes that it is rapidly developing. “Most Rights of Nature legal precedent has emerged in the last 12 years as a direct response to the failures of modern environmental law to adequately address the escalating ecological crisis,” the report states. 

A rights of nature approach looks at nature as possessing basic rights that can be established by defining nature through legal terminology such as “subject of rights” or as a rights-bearing entity.” It gives nature legal standing that can be defended in court and creates duties for people to act as guardians of nature. Many of the rights of nature laws create a group or entity that is legally bound to uphold the rights of nature.

The rights of nature movement occur at a time when the deterioration of ecological systems happens dramatically. A report by the UN in 2018 found that 20 to 30 percent of assessed species are likely to be at an increased risk of extinction with a temperature rise of 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius. With a temperature rise of 3.5 degrees Celsius, the rate of species facing extinction is 40 to 70 percent. A 2019 report found that human activity drives mass extinction and global biodiversity loss and warned that “transformative change” is needed.

Bodies of water face a crisis, with seven to 77 million people expected to experience water stress due to climate change within this decade. Rivers are a central focus within the rights of nature movement. River systems globally face extreme pressure, with many suffering over-exploitation. Freshwater vertebrate species are declining more than twice as face as land-based and marine vertebrates. 

“The laws we have are not rising to the threats we face. Legal structures that treat rivers and nature as an object for human exploitation are enabling today’s crises,” said Monti Aguirre, Latin America Coordinator at International Rivers. “A Rights of Nature approach offers transformative change at a time where it could not be needed more.”

The U.S. and the Rights of Nature movement

Although in 1972, Justice William O. Douglas suggested the possibility of giving rights to nature in a dissenting Supreme Court decision, the report notes that the movement has gained little traction on a national level. However, it gained traction on a local, tribal, and state level. 

Among Native American tribes, the movement has seen its most success in the U.S. That is good for the movement. Native American rights of nature statutes stand a better chance of withstanding lawsuits due to the greater sovereignty Native American law possesses. 

At least six Native American tribal jurisdictions enacted laws giving rights to nature. Within the Navajo Nation tribal code exists a statute that “all creation from Mother Earth and Father Sky to the animals, those who live in water, those who fly and plant life have their own laws and have rights and freedoms to exist.”

The Yurok Tribal Council recognized the legal personhood of the Klamath River (located in the northwest) in 2019. The tribe passed the resolution as a reaction to the river’s decreasing salmon runs. The resolution declared that the river has the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve; have a clean and healthy environment free from pollutants; to have a stable climate free from human-caused climate impacts, and to be free from contamination by genetically engineered organisms.”

The Nez Perce General Council passed a resolution in 2020 recognizing the rights of the Snake River. The resolution establishes that the Snake River “and all the life it supports possess the following fundamental rights, at minimum: the right to exist, the right to flourish, the right to evolve, the right to flow, the right to regenerate, and the right to restoration.” The resolution calls for the development of a legal body to represent the river’s rights and interests.


Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

Judge Removes the Authority of Acting Bureau of Land Management Director

In early October, a federal judge in Montana removed the Bureau of Land Management Acting Director William Perry Pendley’s authority and indicated that actions under his leadership could be invalidated. Pendley has served as the acting director of the BLM for over a year. During Pendley’s tenure, he oversaw deregulatory efforts, unprecedented oil and gas leasing, and land-use plans that favored industry. 

The ruling by Judge Brian Morris occurred in response to a lawsuit by Montana Governor Steve Bullock and the Montana Department of Natural Resources. The plaintiffs contended that since the Senate had not confirmed Pendley, he has no authority to make decisions for the BLM. 

Management plans by Pendley leave public lands unprotected

Sixty environmental and conservation organizations sent a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt asking him to retract all management plans, decisions, rulemakings, and regulation influenced by Pendley. 

The plans and decisions the organizations asked Bernhardt to retract include the Lewistown Resource Management Plan and the Missoula Resource Management Plan. The Lewistown RMP covers 651,200 surface acres and 1.2 million acres of federal mineral estate in central Montana. It allows oil and gas leasing on 95 percent of the Lewistown area. The Missoula RMP covers around 163,000 surface acres and 268,000 acres of federal mining interests between Missoula and Avon in Montana. The plan increases grazing and timber harvesting and removes protection for environmental areas of critical concern. Both plans govern the management of the land for the next 20 years. 

Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, said that the Lewistown and Missoula RMPs are “another example of why William Perry Pendley is unfit to lead the agency that manages more than 245 million acres of public land.” She added that Pendley “has rejected what Montanans have asked for and is now advocating to hand them over to oil and gas companies at below-market prices.”

The management plans for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah are two other decisions the organizations asked Bernhardt to retract. The plans for the national monuments leave two million acres of public land unprotected. Within the two million unprotected acres are culturally significant sites for the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe, such as rock art and cliff dwellings. Leaving them unprotected opens them to looting and vandalism. 

Pendley acted as the de facto head of the BLM for over a year. President Trump nominated him in June to serve as the official head of the federal agency but withdrew the nomination in August. In September, House Democrats demanded Pendley’s removal, and Senator Michael Bennet from Colorado spoke on the Senate floor against Pendley. Bennet characterized Pendley as “by far the most extreme, anti-public lands nominee in my lifetime.” He pointed out that Pendley does not believe in the concept of public lands but has argued that the founding fathers intended for the sale of all federal lands. 

Pendley refuses to step down despite the court ruling 

William Perry Pendley refuses to step down despite a court challenge to his authority. “News of my political demise has been greatly exaggerated,” he said at the Free Roaming Equids and Ecosystem Sustainability Network conference in Cody, Wyoming. During an interview with the Powell Tribune, he said that the court decision “has no impact, no impact whatsoever.” He added that he has “the support of the president.” 

 “Taxpayers are going to be on the hook as the administration tries to save face by blindly appealing this strong rebuke of its legal charade,” said Western Values Project director Jayson O’Neill. “Challenging this decision will not only cost taxpayers more but create additional layers of uncertainty for both industry and public land users.” 

What you can do

Are you tired of corrupt presidential appointees making decisions that destroy the nation’s public lands? Vote on November 3

Why Trump Must Be Voted Out To Save the Environment

Not too long after taking office, Trump issued an executive order that for every new regulation enacted, two must be eliminated. The Brookings Institute tracked the administration’s deregulatory actions and found 74 actions, as of August 2020, taken to weaken environmental protection. The Trump environmental record has at least been consistent.

President Obama established the Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using the Clean Air Act. The plan reduced carbon emissions from the power sector. The Trump administration replaced the Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which will only result in a one percent reduction in GHG emissions from power plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Fuel economy standards are one way to reduce GHG emissions as transportation is the largest source of U.S. emissions. The Trump administration rolled back Obama-era fuel economy standards, which gave Americans $660 billion savings. The new standards take away $460 billion of those savings. The new standards increase GHG emissions by almost three gigatons of carbon, equivalent to nearly two years of emissions from the transportation sector.

In 2016, The Obama administration enacted a rule to reduce venting or flaring of methane from oil and gas production on public lands. The Trump administration rolled back the rule by releasing a replacement that rescinded most of it. Methane is a greenhouse gas with a warming potential far exceeding that of carbon. Methane accounts for 16 percent of climate change. 

The Trump administration rolled back rules designed to protect the air. One of those rules is the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) that limits the amount of mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants. Mercury is a neurotoxin that accumulates in the soil and water. Mercury concentrates in fish and is particularly toxic for pregnant women and children. 

The Trump administration refused to strengthen National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone and fine particulate matter (PM 2.5). Every five years, an independent science advisory committee reviews NAAQS. The administration packed the advisory committees with industry and anti-regulatory members, limited the scientific research the committees could consider and accelerated the process. 

In July 2020, the Trump Administration issued a rule to update the National Environmental Quality Act. The new rule aims to limit environmental reviews of projects to two years, limit climate change as part of environmental assessments, and excludes certain projects from the environmental assessment process. 

The Trump administration issued a rule that redefines and restricts the waterways the Clean Water Act protects. Under the rule, 51 percent of wetlands and 18 percent of streams lose federal protections. The streams and wetlands that lost protection serve as headwaters for rivers and lakes that provide drinking water for millions of Americans. 

The economic and health benefits of environmental regulation

The Trump administration deregulates environmental protections despite the benefits of protecting the nation’s air, water, and soil. The Office of Management and Budget looked at major regulations from 2005 to 2014 and found that the economic benefits greatly exceeded the costs every year. The benefits of environmental regulations exceeded costs by a ratio of more than 10 to one and provided net economic benefits to the U.S. of over $500 million a year. 

There are health benefits from environmental regulations. Fossil fuel-burning power plants discharge at least 5.5 billion pounds of pollution into bodies of water every year, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project. Wastewater from power plants contributed to more than 23,000 miles of contaminated rivers, polluted fish in 185 bodies of water, and the degradation of 399 bodies of water used as drinking water sources.

Perhaps the most iconic and far-reaching failure of the Trump Environmental Record rests with the Paris Agreement.

Trump and the Paris Agreement

President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, an agreement about 195 countries to reduce their GHG emissions to avoid the worst climate change impacts. The U.S. is the only major GHG emitter in the world to withdraw from the agreement and cannot withdraw until the day after the 2020 election in November. A poll taken right after the 2016 election found that seven in 10 voters (69 percent) said the U.S. should participate in the Paris Agreement. Two-thirds of voters also said that the U.S. should reduce its GHG emissions, regardless of what other countries do, and 62 percent wanted Trump and Congress to do more to address climate change.

During his announcement about the Paris Climate Agreement, Trump mentioned the “draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.” However, not doing anything to mitigate climate change will cost far more than the costs of complying with the Paris Agreement. A 2020 study found that delayed mitigation of climate change will reach 18 percent of global GDP in 2080 and further mitigation delay costs 0.5 trillion dollars a year. The damages due to delayed mitigation increase by 0.6 trillion dollars a year in 2020. In December, the House Committee On Oversight and Reform released estimates for the current economic effects of climate change. The estimates cite the data of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) which found that, as of December 2018, climate change cost U.S. taxpayers about $430 billion in disaster assistance since 2005. 

What you can do

You can do something to stop the environmental deregulation. Begin the hard road of reversing the Trump environmental record. Vote on November 3. 

Trump Administration Bails Out the Declining Oil and Gas Industry

The Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury Department began a corporate bailout in March. Since then, oil and gas companies issued $99.3 billion in new bonds, a report by Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, and BailoutWatch found. 

The Federal Reserve bought debt from 19 oil and gas companies, and those companies have since sold debt investors over $60 billion in new bonds. Their bond sales represent about 60 percent of energy debt issuance during that period. Twelve of the 19 companies received downgrades of their short-term debt, long-term debt, credit, or default ratings from major credit rating agencies since the bailouts in March. 

The total tally of new bonds issued this year by oil and gas companies is $129 million, which is a record going back at least a decade. This year marked the highest level of energy debt issued since 2010. “This surge in borrowing was made possible by the Fed’s promise to purchase large quantities of corporate debt,” the report stated. 

There is a big gap between the favorable treatment given to corporations and the treatment of municipalities, small businesses, and individuals, the report noted. States and municipalities have been offered much more restrictive loan terms than have private companies although municipal bonds are far less likely to default than corporate debt. Chevron and Wisconsin serve as good examples. The Federal Reserve bought a Chevron bond at a rate of about 0.9 percent over four years. Wisconsin has the same credit rating as Chevron but has to pay about 1.3 percent over three years. 

“This bailout is an unprecedented rescue of a dying industry,” said co-author Alan Zibel, research director of Public Citizen’s Corporate Presidency Project, in a statement.

“Instead of bailing out climate-destroying fossil fuel companies, we must assist small businesses, local governments, and individuals facing dire financial straits.”

Alan Zibel

The oil and gas industry declined until Trump’s corporate bailout

Earlier this year, before the pandemic and the oil price war between Russia and Saudia Arabia caused global demand to sink to an all-time low, the oil and gas industry “showed unmistakable signs of decline,” according to the report. Moody’s. The credit rating agency forecast in February a higher risk of default and a harder time borrowing for the oil industry. Some companies may not have made it if the Federal Reserve had not stepped in. 

Despite the intervention of the Federal Reserve, the oil and gas industry will continue to decline. The consulting firm Rystad Energy forecasts that up to 190 oil-related bankruptcies by the end of 2022 if prices stay low. The firm also warns that investors, including the Federal Reserve, are less likely to be repaid. The report by the three environmental organizations points out that “a bad investment by the central bank can harm taxpayers.”

A total of 12 fossil fuel companies that received investments by the Federal Reserve received downgrades of their debt or credit ratings from major rating agencies since March. EQT Corporation is one of those companies, and its debt was downgraded to junk by Moody’s before the pandemic. Yet the company was able to sell $500 million in bonds in the second quarter of this year. 

The Bureau of Land Management bails out a company that owes back taxes

The Federal Reserve is not the only one to give bailouts to oil companies. The Bureau of Land Management provided US Realm Powder River a 96 percent discount on 23 federal leases in Wyoming even though it owes $4 million in unpaid federal royalties and failed to pay local taxes for the last three years. According to a report by the Western Values Project, US Realm Powder River is either the sole or majority lessee on 16 Bureau of land management leases on over 7,976 acres that were given a reduced royalty rate to 0.5 percent. 

“Once again, the Trump administration has opted to put polluters over people without a second thought while taxpayers foot the bill,” said Western Values Project Director Jayson O’Neill. 

What you can do

There is something you can do if you are tired of the oil and gas industry bailout from the government. Vote on November 3. Let your voice be heard at the ballot box.


Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash