Trump seizes on pandemic to speed up opening of public lands to industry

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The Trump administration has ratcheted up its efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic to overhaul and overturn Obama-era environmental regulations and increase industry access to public lands.

The secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt, has sped efforts to drill, mine and cut timber on fragile western landscapes. Meanwhile, the EPA, headed by the former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, has weakened critical environmental laws and announced in March that it would cease oversight of the nation’s polluters during the Covid-19 crisis.

The rollbacks appear to follow a playbook put forth by influential conservative thinktanks, urging the White House to use the pandemic as justification for curtailing, or eliminating, environmental rules and oversight. President Trump should have “the ability to suspend costly regulations without extensive process”, according to a recent report by the Heritage Foundation.

Critics, such as Melyssa Watson, executive director of the Wilderness Society, accuse the administration of using the pandemic as a smokescreen to further its pro-industry agenda. “From rolling back EPA’s pollution standards, to pushing for more oil and gas drilling and stifling the public review process, the federal government is fast-tracking rollbacks that deserve public scrutiny,” she said.

While millions of acres of public lands across the country have been shuttered to visitors, they remain open to oil and gas companies. And despite plummeting oil prices, the Bureau of Land Management has announced no plans to cancel, or even scale back, upcoming auctions that would make hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands across the western US available to energy companies.

One of the most controversial sales would offer up 150,000 acres in southern Utah to energy companies. Some of the parcels are located within a half-mile of Canyonlands national park. The bureau did not respond to requests for comment.

Environmentalists, however, say that the push to drill near the iconic red rock landscapes of Arches and Canyonlands is not only destructive but also unnecessary in light of an oil glut that has swamped storage capacity, driving oil prices last week into negative territory for the first time in history.

“The idea that it would be ‘critical’ work to speed up oil production on public lands while the planet drowns in oil tells you all you’d ever want to know about the corruption, both intellectual and actual, of the Trump administration,” said the climate activist and author Bill McKibben.

In addition to ramping up oil and gas development on public lands, the Department of Energy announced plans last week to “revitalize” the US uranium mining and processing industry. Such a scheme, say environmentalists, puts uranium-rich Grand Canyon national park and Bears Ears national monument at extreme risk.

“Enriching special interests with taxpayer resources so they can plunder national treasures like Bears Ears and the Grand Canyon will harm our land, water and public health,” said America Fitzpatrick, a spokeswoman for the Wilderness Society. “To do so in the face of a global pandemic is an abuse of public trust.”

The water demands of the uranium industry are significant. Depending on the method of extraction, a mine can require hundreds, even thousands, of gallons per minute. Those requirements are particularly onerous considering that the largest uranium deposits are found in some of the most water-starved parts of the country.

Another rule change takes aim at the western forests. In March, the BLM announced a proposal that would allow the BLM and US Forest Service to destroy large parcels of pinon and juniper forests across the western US with minimal environmental review.

Changes to EPA regulations could lead to a dramatic increase in carbon emissions.

Other recent Trump administration actions threaten air and water quality and herald a drastic increase in carbon emissions. At the end of March, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to roll back Obama-era automobile fuel efficiency standards that would have increased the average fuel efficiency of the American vehicle fleet by more than 6 miles per gallon. Referred to by the EPA as “the largest deregulatory initiative of this administration”, the reduction in fuel efficiency standards will result in close to a billion additional tons of carbon emissions per year.

Days earlier, the EPA announced that it would suspend enforcement of environmental regulations during the Covid-19 outbreak, allowing industrial firms – from oil refineries to small manufacturers – to self-monitor and avoid penalties for violations if they can prove that those violations somehow resulted from the pandemic.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a nationwide phenomenon,” the EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, wrote in a letter to Congress. “Diverting EPA staff time to respond to individual questions about routine monitoring and reporting requirements would hinder EPA’s ability to focus on continued protection of human health and the environment.”

Others see it differently: “This is an open license to pollute,” said the former EPA administrator and current National Resources Defense Council president Gina McCarthy. “The administration … is taking advantage of an unprecedented public health crisis to do favors for polluters that threaten public health.”

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