By: Nico Regoli
Staff Writer and Editor-in-Chief
We all live on planet Earth. The people of China might live a different lifestyle from the people of Spain, or Canada from Australia, or New Zealand from Zimbabwe, but where common ground is found is the planet we call home. Yet, in the case of America, it feels like we’ve stopped caring about home maintenance, and we’re just willing to let our neighbors suffer if it’s convenient for us.
On January 28, 1969, Union Oil experienced a blowout that leaked tens to hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the Santa Barbara Channel waters. Public response to the incident, as well as potential political gain brought noted enemy of hippie culture, President Richard Nixon, on board the American conservation movement.
The National Environmental Policy Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, all exist either directly or indirectly thanks to President Richard Nixon. Regardless of the reasoning and intentions that led to these, we as a nation are much better off than we were before they existed. If you don’t believe that, you can ask a family member who was alive in the ‘60s what the air quality was like in Pittsburgh, New York, and other industrial areas during that time period.
However, since the presidential election of Donald Trump, America’s environmental progress appears to be moving backwards. Certain policies that protect various aspects of the environment are either being scrapped or are facing proposals to be scrapped, mostly in the name of money.
For example, on February 2, Congress voted to repeal former President Obama’s “Stream Protection Rule,” which prevented mining companies from dumping their waste into streams. As he signed this rule out of law on that same day, President Trump said numerous times in various ways that the rule was a major job killer, according to The Hill. One of the rule’s opponents, Republican Rep. Jim Renacci of Ohio’s 16th District, shared Trump’s opinion of the SPR, writing a full opinion editorial to list the many reasons why he was against the rule, and even nicknamed it the Obama Administration’s “parting shot” in the War on Coal.
“Coal mining is already one of the most heavily regulated industries in America in order to protect the local environment,” Renacci states in an Op-Ed he wrote. “Previous to this rule, the Department of the Interior (DOI) already mandated that no surface area within 100 feet of a stream could be disturbed by mining or used for dumping mine waste unless it was determined the stream’s environmental quality would not be compromised in accordance with the Clean Water Act.
Renacci also states that 80,000 American coal jobs were lost and 400 mines were closed during the Obama era, and that his “parting shot” would cost the nation anywhere from $3.1 billion to $6.4 billion in annual tax revenue. He goes on to mention that the Fort Frye and Wolf Creek school districts have already felt the repercussions of revenue loss caused by the closures of plants, such as the Muskingum River Power Plant.
It should be noted however that in his op-ed, Renacci does not once mention the rise of the natural gas industry as a possible reason for the coal industry’s declines. Referring to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, Robert Rapier of Forbes reports that between 2014 and 2015, coal-generated power decreased by 226,000 gigawatt-hours while natural gas-generated power rose by 208,000 gigawatt hours. Rapier also notes on the second page of his report that from 2000 to March of 2016, the market share for coal had dropped by 18 percent while natural gas saw an 18 percent rise in its market share.
What’s also interesting is that according to a Congressional Research Service report, while the SPR would cause an average loss of 260 coal jobs annually, the rule would also create an annual average of 250 new jobs in engineering, biology, and bulldozing. The math is just slightly off from being an exact eye-for-an -eye tradeoff. And according to CNBC, the CRS had already predicted the coal industry will lose 15,000 jobs between 2020 and 2040, so by that logic more jobs would have been saved by keeping the SPR in place than by killing it.
However, rather than make those connections and accept that the coal industry’s days as America’s leading source of energy are over, Renacci puts all blame on Obama and attacks a rule that was put in place with the intention of protecting the American public from contamination of the water that they drink and bathe in. Given that Flint, Michigan is still dealing with a water crisis – and its devastating, lead-based side effects – (though CNN reports that the water quality is improving according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) that started because public officials were trying to save money, a rule preventing mining companies from putting the health of the American people at risk in the name of cheapness sounds very reasonable. Several proponents of the rule agree with that sentiment.
“The #StreamProtectionRule isn’t about a war on coal, it’s about protecting communities near coal mining from cancer & birth defects,” tweeted the League of Conservation Voters on February 1.
“All Americans, from Alaska to Appalachia, deserve common sense protections for clean water, and that’s why we just can’t send our nation back in time and let the coal industry do whatever it likes to local communities’ water and natural areas,” stated Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse.
“You can protect the coal industry here with special interests and the amount of lobbying they do, or you can step up in a process and have a regulation that works for the United States of America so the outdoor industry and sportsman and fishermen can continue to thrive,” said the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s leading Democrat, Washington Senator Maria Cantwell during a Senate floor debate on the SPR (quoted by The Hill).
The scrapping of the SPR was only one of the first straws in this rise of American environmental unfriendliness. On the eve of Saint Patrick’s Day, President Trump released a $1.1 trillion budget outline that would increase defense spending by $54 billion in pots of gold while simultaneously delivering Conor McGregor levels of damage to the EPA.
Just to list some of that damage, Salon reports that under Trump’s budget proposal, the EPA’s budget would be slashed by $2.5 billion, and its staff slashed by over 3,000 workers. NASA’s climate research funding and the Superfund toxic cleanup program would see significant reductions.
Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce power plant emissions of carbon dioxide would be financially starved to death and potentially rewritten, and any State Department or EPA-run international climate change programs or Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay restoration programs would be killed.
And what is the president’s reasoning for making these cuts? Much like the repeal of the SPR, the EPA’s budget is being cut to save money.
“With our nation’s debt spiraling out of control, we simply must take a look at the way we’re spending taxpayers’ dollars,” said Press Secretary Sean Spicer at a February 27 briefing regarding the president’s budgetary desires. “Families across the country are being forced to make difficult choices, because for too long the federal government has not treated their money with the respect they deserve.”
“Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward. We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that. So that is a specific tie to his campaign,” said Office and Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to CNN and other outlets.
Mulvaney also stated that, “core functions of the EPA can be satisfied with this budget,” but head of the EPA employees union, John O’Grady strongly disagrees. In the same CNN report, O’Grady questions how the Trump Administration expects the EPA to ensure America has clean air and water when over a quarter of their budget is being cut. In his opinion, this is an example of millionaires and billionaires telling the average American what’s best for their health and the environment’s health.
“The US EPA is already on a starvation diet, with a bare-bones budget and staffing level. The administration’s proposed budget will be akin to taking away the Agency’s bread and water.”
Despite that, President Trump thinks these decisions are okay, and the main reason why he thinks this is okay is because he does not believe in climate change or the dangers it presents. He’s made that very clear over the past few years, having tweeted said opinion multiple times long before he even announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.
“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” Trump tweeted on November 6, 2012.
Still under his first 100 days in office, the Trump-led United States government has chosen to put the environmental cart before the horse, cutting open the nation’s green thumb and letting it bleed out just to spite itself. In the minds of the Trump Administration, short-term profiteering by the auto industry and the already dying coal industry is worth risking an increase in cases of asthma, mental and behavioral disorders, and cancer (and the healthcare costs that come with treating those ailments) that would be created by allowing excess pollutants back into our air and water. For the sake of regular Americans who will experience the brunt of the financial and health-related consequences of these decisions, we can only hope that our current government changes its mind before it’s too late.