The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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The Environmental Protection Agency

This week I set out to write an article about what the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) does. As often happens, I had discovered that I knew much less than I thought I should about an important topic, and set out to fix the problem and share the results with you.

Once I started looking online, though, I very quickly found out that there are LOTS of articles on what the EPA does, not least being the one on the EPA’s own website. Would mine be superfluous? Not necessarily. The EPA site did not answer a lot of my questions, being quite general in tone. The Wikipedia article has a lot more detail, but Wikipedia is not a reputable source in a scholarly sense. The summary on Scientific American redirects to  website called quickanddirtytips.com, and while it seems to be well-written, the name is hardly reassuring. I wasn’t really sure where to go to get information without simply repeating EPA’s own content.

So I did as I often do, when I hit an impasse; I called my mother.

My mother, Kass Sheedy, happens to be a former contractor with extensive experience working with the EPA. She headed the clean-up of a lot of Federal Superfund sites, including several Cold War era Air Force bases. She spoke to EPA personnel often for many years.

So, here is what she said. I’ve written this article so as to largely avoid repeating information easily found on the EPA’s site. I recommend reading that, also.

What the EPA Does

Congress passes environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act. These laws are typically short and simple, essentially stating objectives, such as “the air shall be clean.” You can look up the actual text of the Clean Water Act and other legislation online fairly easily. The EPA then implements those laws.

Implementation begins with writing regulations and guidance. Regulations define, for example what “clean” means with respect to water, listing maximum allowable levels of various contaminants, and list necessary permits for various regulated activities relating to the law. Guidance documents specify how to apply to those permits, what documents need to be sent in, what kind of monitoring needs to be done. These regulations and guidance documents are subject to a lengthy review process, including public comment periods.

These documents are written at EPA Headquarters, but enforcement is handled by nine regional offices.

If you are cleaning up a Superfund site, or if you are a polluter in need of regulation, it is your responsibility to contact the EPA’s regional office. A project officer will then act as your liaison, answering questions, touring your site, and so forth. If you fail to contact the EPA–if, for example, your pipeline leaks and you fail to report it and initiate a clean up, or if you fail to apply for a necessary permit in the first place, the EPA can come looking for you. It has enforcement officers who are full-fledged police, able to enforce any Federal law, environmental or otherwise. EPA personnel can inspect sites, ask to see necessary documentation, conduct investigations, and patrol for evidence of possible violations. Since some environmental lapses count as felonies, other law enforcement agencies could also get involved in the case.

In practice, because the EPA is chronically under-funded, it relies on tips from the public, especially from citizen watchdog groups, to identify most violations. The EPA also has national enforcement initiatives, which bring added resources to bear on a particular type of problem for  period of three years.

If someone is found to be in violation, the regional office will issue a consent decree, which is a document stating the nature of the problem, any necessary corrective action, and a timeline for that action. Failure to meet that timeline could result in fines or jail time, depending on the nature of the problem.

What the EPA Doesn’t Do

In theory, the EPA is responsible for implementing and enforcing US Federal environmental law, as well as for conducting related scientific research and helping to educate the public about environmental matters. In practice, there are many activities that fall under the above categories where the EPA isn’t in charge.

First, the EPA often acts in partnership with state, local, or non-government groups of various kinds, and it offers grants for various kinds of scientific research and pro-environment work. All of this is explained clearly on their website, and seems fairly straight-forward. Simple case of getting more bang for the limited buck through cooperation.

Where it gets complicated is that there are various other agencies and entities with environmental responsibility, and who does what turns out to be hard to predict or explain.

Begin with the fact that Indian* lands are not under the EPA’s jurisdiction at all, but instead have their own environmental regulations and their own enforcement authorities. These may invite the EPA in to help, if they want additional expertise. Or, a problem may come under joint jurisdiction–an oil spill half on and half off a reservation, for example–and require one of several types of cooperative agreement.

Second, states are free to pass their own environmental legislation, enacted by their own state-level agencies, and there are several different ways the two bodies of regulations can interact.

States may not maintain less-stringent environmental regulations that the Federal government does. Or, rather, they can, but it won’t make any difference because entities doing business in the state must still follow the Federal regulations. The state may not prevent the EPA from maintaining its standard.

States are, however, quite free to maintain an equal or higher standard. California often does, for example. When such disparities occur, the state law doesn’t automatically eclipse the Federal; the EPA could continue enforcing its own regulations alongside the state, meaning that everyone would have to apply for two sets of permits and fill out two sets of documentation. More often, the EPA will either delegate authority to the state–although there are some authorities the EPA is not allowed to delegate–or the Federal and state authorities will sign some form of cooperative agreement, sharing responsibility.

Local authorities can also have environmental regulations, to some extent, again requiring cooperative agreements or delegation.

It is important to recognize that the EPA never gives up authority on environmental issues, only delegates it or shares it, and always retains the right to take it back when necessary–unless it didn’t have the authority to begin with.

The EPA is not the only Federal entity in charge of aspects of environmental protection. Its website lists the Department of Energy, which is in charge of radioactive waste, as an example of one of the others. There are others. In some cases, these assignments may also be the result of delegation. Generally, responsibility rests where it does because that is where the enabling legislation put it. “Enabling legislation” being the initial law, passed by Congress, which the regulations and guidance enacts. There appears to be no simple way to guess which Federal entity is going to be responsible for what without looking up the relevant law.

Or just ask the EPA. They do answer public questions. Contact them through their website.

Why the EPA Is not a Problem

In practice, environmental regulations can be complicated. It doesn’t help that in this realm of human endeavor, enabling legislation, required permits, review processes, legal agreements, and organizations all tend to be referred to by acronym. My mother, when she is talking shop, sometimes comes up with sentences in which every noun is an acronym. I have some sympathy with the phrase “regulatory burden,” and I can well imagine that self-regulation would be simpler and easier.

But by and large, self-regulation doesn’t happen. Assertions to the contrary should be seen for the con-jobs they are.

There are exceptions. I have a friend who found himself in the bizarre position of having to fight the Endangered Species Act as a conservation scientist. The way the law was being enacted actually encouraged ranchers to kill endangered animals that they otherwise would have happily coexisted with. But the anecdote differs from self-regulation scenarios in one important way; the Endangered Species Act was not a response to the activity of those ranchers, whereas we have pollution controls because people polluted.

Seem in terms of narrow self-interest, fossil fuel companies want to pollute. So do several other kinds of companies. Pollution is an intrinsic part of the activity that earns them money, and anything that reduces pollution also reduces profit. There are ways to soften the blow, but the conflict is real; the good of the many is at odds with the needs of the few in these cases. The “burden” of regulation is not incidental to environmental protection, it is fundamental to it, which is why environmental legislation exists in the first place–to protect the public against those who have an interest in harming us, and to do it in a fair and measured way.

If these people were going to regulate themselves, they would have done it a long time ago, and we would not be in this mess that we are now. When industry groups and their allies ask for relief from regulation, be very clear; what they want is the freedom to damage your world so they can make a buck.

Don’t let anyone tell you different.

 

 

 

  • “Indian” meaning Native American, a much more straight-forward term, but not only does the Federal government often seem to prefer “Indian,” but so do many of the Indians themselves, hence, the American Indian Museum in Washington.


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The Taj Mahal Lie: Why Donald Trump Isn’t Our Problem

If you ask a random person on the street “who built the Taj Mahal,” I suspect you’ll get either of two interestingly wrong answers.

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Some prince in India

Different buildings, of course. The one in India is my concern at the moment, though we’ll get back to Mr. Trump later. Whenever I’ve heard the original Taj Mahal brought up in casual contexts (as seems to happen about once a decade, for whatever reason), the description has been something like “the Taj Mahal is a beautiful building complex built by an Indian prince for his beloved.”

Really? He built the whole thing himself?

The standard description is more or less accurate. According the the website of The History Channel, in 1632, the Muhgul emperor, Shah Jahan, ordered the design and construction of a mausoleum to honor his favorite wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, who had died in childbirth (on her 14th child). She was known as Mumtaz Mahal, or “The Chosen One of the Palace,” so her tomb complex was named the Taj Mahal. The remains of both her and Shah Jahan rest at the site, although he had intended to have a separate, equally magnificent complex built for himself. He was deposed by one of their sons before he could have it built.

Of course, everybody knows that the Shah did not literally build the Taj Mahal himself (the labor required over 2000 humans and roughly 1000 elephants and took 20 years). It is an easy guess he didn’t design it himself, either. Sometimes you do hear more accurate verbs in the story, like “commissioned,” or “had built.” It’s not like the truth is being hidden in any way, here. But the convention of speaking as if people who give orders accomplish things all by themselves–as if everyone else involved were simply an extension of the Great One’s body–is so ingrained that we seldom notice we’re doing it.

Who, for example, built the first mass-produced car? Henry Ford did.

Who defeated the army of Robert E Lee? Ulysses S Grant did.

Who burnt Atlanta during the Civil War? William Tecumseh Sherman did.

These answers are such common knowledge that I’m not bothering to cite any of them with links–you know they’re all true. Who were the other people involved in any of these endeavors and what were their contributions? I have no idea. And I doubt you have any idea, either. We don’t know because we don’t care–it is the action of the real person, the one who gave the orders, that matters.

All this is not simply semantic play. Proper attribution of who does what matters. Consider the statement “Hitler killed six million Jews.” It’s true as far as it goes, I’m not trying to say that people who give orders are less responsible, though focusing on the Fuhrer does tend to let thousands of co-conspirators and trigger-men off the hook in the popular imagination. But the phrasing consistently inspires people to fantasize about killing Hitler, as if doing so would avert all those other murders. And the fact of matter is, since Hitler didn’t kill those people alone, it is very possible that, without him, those others would have gone on to have the Holocaust anyway.

And this is where President Trump comes back in the story, not because he’s being compared to Hitler (he has been, but so has virtually every other public figure with at least one naysayer), but because he’s being compared to Richard Nixon.

Mr. Nixon was, of course the one US president who was most unequivocally a crook. He was crude, paranoid, and corrupt. But he also created the EPA and signed more landmark environmental legislation than almost anybody else.

Unlike our other stand-out environmentalist presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama, President Nixon was not an environmentalist personally. Aside from some largely empty rhetoric, he provided no real leadership on the subject, and in some cases he actively threw up roadblocks. He thought tree-huggers were stupid at best.

But the anti-environment campaign had not yet begun, so signing those laws carried no political cost. A lot of the young people who were angry about the Vietnam War also cared about trees and whales, and so forth. The President threw them a couple of bones so he could get back to matters that really mattered. And those “bones” have formed the backbone of environmental protection for the past 50 years.

So much of the Anti-Trump sentiment I hear sounds a bit like the kill-Hitler fantasies in that they rest on the assumption that Mr Trump personally is the problem. As though, were he removed (impeachment, resignation, tragic accident), all the problems and threats associated with his presidency would be removed. And they wouldn’t be. Because we already know what a crude, paranoid, and crooked man does when installed in the presidency and confronted with a functional environmental movement–he creates the Environmental Protection Agency, he doesn’t muzzle it. He enables environmental regulations, he doesn’t undermine it. Richard Nixon didn’t care any more about the planet than Donald Trump does, but he acted like he did because the public made him do it.

I’m not saying that the individuality of leaders is irrelevant. There are occasions when the course of history turns on a single person, for good or for ill. Arguably, Adolph Hitler was such a person. So was Abraham Lincoln. So might Donald Trump be, though it’s too early to tell.

But leaders do what they do because others help him, or because others force them, or because others let them. They never act, nor fail to act, alone.

Donald Trump is part of a movement, both of popular sentiment and of political machinations. I don’t mean he’s popular, I mean that he isn’t alone. He is being helped, forced, or at least allowed to do as he is doing. And that help, force, or permission will continue even if he’s removed. It will continue until it meets a countervailing force.

Why do we keep hearing that Americans, when polled, support environmental protections, including climate action, by a solid majority, yet we keep watching ant-environmentalists and climate deniers taking office? If we forced Mr. Nixon to do the right thing on these issues, why can’t we force anyone else?

Why does the opposition continue to virtually ignore environmental issues and why has it been so ineffective on the topics that it does care about?

Donald Trump could not have become a bother to anyone other than his immediate circle without a lot of help–and an absence of true, effective opposition. Whether the Trump presidency lasts eight years or one year, that is the problem we have to solve.


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Meanwhile, in Congress

For a while, now, I’ve been seeing vague references to the idea that there is a bill in Congress that would end the EPA. Honestly, I was too overwhelmed and depressed over the issue to do anything about it for a few days, which is why I decided to write this week’s post on the issue–make myself accountable for at least finding out what’s going on.

Fortunately, I quickly learned that this bill, by itself is not the problem. Not that we don’t have problems.

H.R. 861 is quite real. You can look up its current legislative status here. But it is essentially a stunt. Not that there aren’t legislators who want the Environmental Protection Administration to go away, but this bill cannot accomplish it. The issue is that several other laws (such as the Clean Air Act) require the Federal Government to do the things that the EPA does. If Congress terminates the EPA without also either repealing all of those other laws or creating some other mechanism to comply with them, the Federal Government will immediately be in violation of a lot of laws. Without the EPA in place, it will also get paradoxically easier to sue polluting companies, so actually removing the EPA probably doesn’t have much corporate support.

H.R. 861 contains no such provisions for dealing with the other laws.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all raise an immediate hue and cry to protect the EPA. Stunt legislation could well function as a test, a way to gauge public interest in an issue. Call your Congressmembers, and especially call the members of the House Subcommittee on the Environment, and the House Committees on Energy and Commerce, on Agriculture, on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Science, Space, and Technology (that’s four separate committees) as these are the people currently considering the bill. Tell them NO, protect the EPA.

But there are a couple of other problems. Basically, there are other, less dramatic and attention-getting, ways to put the EPA out of commission. It’s budget can be cut to the point that it can’t function, for example, or many of its rules and guidelines can be replaced with much less stringent ones. Or, Congress can pass laws that hamper the EPA in various ways without actually removing it. Here is a good article on what some of those possibilities are. Here is an article on at least one of the measures that has already been proposed. And of course, there was the “muzzling” of the EPA that occurred by Presidential fiat shortly after the inauguration. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any current information on that. The measures were, supposedly, temporary, but I can’t get confirmation that they are still in force–nor can I find anything suggesting they aren’t. It’s like the issue just fell off the news cycle and hasn’t been back. The Twitter accounts, RogueEPA and AltEPA both still function, and I have sent a Tweet to the former asking for information, but, so far, no word.

Read both articles I just linked to, keep abreast of these issues, and be prepared to raise a big stink as often as necessary. Because I’m willing to bet that the strategy here is going to be to do as much damage to environmental regulation as possible while nobody is looking. Remember that Donald Trump’s backers do not benefit directly from changes to immigration policy or healthcare–all of that is smoke screen and political posturing. The name of the game is to undo environmental regulation.

But I have an even deeper concern.

Many people are comparing President Trump to President Nixon, based on suspicions that the former may be equally a paranoid crook. The comparison between the two men may or may not be apt, as far as it goes. But remember, Richard Nixon created the EPA and signed into law most of the powerful environmental legislation we have. Now, I’ve never heard Richard Nixon himself described as an environmentalist, but he signed those bills because at the time the environmental movement was strong enough that it was the expedient thing to do. Somehow, we’ve lost that.

I keep hearing about how much the American people, including many conservatives, support environmental regulation, including greenhouse gas emission reductions–ok, well, why then can’t we elect climate-sane public officials? Donald Trump ran on an explicitly climate-denier platform and he won. He has since been able to install the most environmentally egregious cabinet picks, mostly without any real opposition.

Something we’re doing isn’t working. We need to regroup and try something else.

 

 


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6 Steps to Save the World from President Trump

This post includes a lot of material that actually showed up in the last two posts, but as my list has evolved and gotten more useful, I thought I’d share the updated version. It’s less a discussion and more of a simple to-do list. These items are listed in rough order of priority, since some have deadlines coming up soon. Please pass this around. Thank you.

1. Maybe Keep Mr. Trump Out of Office

No, getting Trump impeached is a bad idea. For one thing, that would give us President Pence, and that would be worse. But there are other options–all long shots, but still viable.

  1. Demand a recount. Jill Stein is organizing recounts in several key states. The Clinton campaign has joined the effort. Neither Dr. Stein nor Ms. Clinton expect to change the outcome of the election this way (and Dr. Stein does not care whether Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton is president), the objective is only to stand up for fair play. But there is a chance. Check Dr. Stein’s website to see if she needs money or other assistance.
  2. Ask Republican electors to vote for Hillary Clinton instead. So-called “faithless electors” must pay a fine or other penalty in some states, but their votes are still valid, and this flexibility is exactly why the Electoral College exists. There is no official process for contacting the electors, but many are public figures and do have offices. Since the electors don’t have a responsibility to listen to “constituents” anyway, I don’t think it matters whether you live in their state or not. Just call as many as you can. Be polite and friendly, and focus on talking points likely to appeal to Republican party leaders, since that’s what most electors pledged to Mr. Trump are. Remember, a lot of Republican leaders don’t like Mr. Trump, anyway. It’s a long shot, but if we can get just 40 of them to switch, Mr. Clinton will be president. Here is a partial list of current Electoral College members.

2. Block the More Extreme of  Mr. Trump’s Appointees

I discussed how and why to block political appointees last week.  The short version is to sign whatever petitions you want to, but the real power lies in calling your senators and also those senators on the relevant committee. Start with Myron Ebell, the climate denier Mr. Trump wants to head the EPA. If your focus is on human rights, remember that it is always the disenfranchised who bear the brunt of pollution and climate change, and that of all the mistakes our government could make, allowing environmental disaster would be far the hardest to un-do.

Here’s the process, in brief:

  1. Look up Mr. Trump’s appointees. Here is a list that looks like it’s being regularly updated. Focus on those appointments that require Senate confirmation.
  2. Identify appointees you want to protest.
  3. Look up which Senate committee (or committees) has jurisdiction over that person’s prospective job. Use this link.
  4. Do an internet search for that committee’s web page. It will list the committee’s current membership with links to each member’s page—which will list the phone numbers for his or her office. Remember to CALL, not email. Remember that each Senate committee has its counterpart in the House. Don’t get the House committee by mistake. The US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has jurisdiction over the EPA. Here is a link to its page.
  5. Make a call list with all the members of the committee and your two Senators on it. Remember to remove any Senators who are leaving office in January and remember to call their successors when they come in. Fortunately, none of the members of the Energy and Natural Resources committee are leaving, so you can call all of them now.
  6. Make your phone calls.

3. Call the House Oversight Committee and Ask for a Bipartisan Review of Mr. Trump’s Financials and Conflicts of Interest

Honestly, I’m not sure if this will do anything useful, but since we are fairly sure Trump is slimy, knowing the exact depth of his slime probably can’t hurt. The number is (202) 225-5074

4. Attend Protest Marches, Especially Large Ones

There is a big demonstration planned on women’s rights in DC for just after inauguration. So far, the organizers seem to be communicating largely through Facebook, and the details are not set yet. Stay tuned. The objective here is to demonstrate that women and their allies DO matter politically and DO have power—both to put Trump and his cronies on notice and to let women who are afraid right now know they aren’t alone. Men and genderqueer folk are apparently welcome. I’m going.

I do hope to see a similar large demonstration on environmental issues soon, especially since Trump has signaled he’s open to having his mind changed on that one.

5. Donate Money

Mr. Trump has more or less promised to use his power to try to do horrible things to the environment, to Latinx and Muslim immigrants, and to anyone who needs affordable healthcare. Women, LGBT folk, and people of color are justifiably worried as well. And, since the election, bigots of all stripes seem to have felt emboldened, making everything many of us do that much harder already. Fortunately, there are groups already established that know how to fight this sort of thing and they are gearing up to respond. They need cash.

If you want suggestions and handy links, here are a few:

  1. The Environmental Defense Fund is currently matching donations two-to-one AND is focusing particularly on protecting President Obama’s climate legacy against Mr. Trump.
  2. The Sierra Club Foundation  funnels donations into a variety of conservation and environmental education-related projects and has an excellent rating from various charity-watchdog groups.
  3. The Natural Resources Defense Council  supports various conservation projects with a particular focus on pursuing polluters through legal challenges.
  4. Earthjustice works through the courts to push for environmental progress.
  5. The League of Conservation Voters supports the election of pro-environment candidates at every level.
  6. The Union of Concerned Scientists supports independent conservation science and stands up for climate scientists currently facing harassment.
  7. The ACLU defends the civil rights of individuals in court.
  8. Planned Parenthood is famous for its contraceptive services and controversial for its abortion services, but it provides much more, from basic gynecological care to cancer screenings and anonymous HIV testing to periodic men’s sexual health clinics, whether or not the patient can pay. The tragedy about attempts by Congress to de-fund Planned Parenthood for its abortion services is that the law already bars Federal money from going to abortion; “de-fundin Planned Parenthood” has no impact on abortion, but will deny low-income people life-saving healthcare.
  9. The Southern Poverty Law Center fights hate and extremism in court, supporting LGBT and immigrant rights, among many others, and works for criminal justice reform.
  10. The Delaware Alliance for Community Action. Yes, this organization is pretty local, but local organizations do important work. If you don’t live in Delaware and want to find something closer to home, go ahead.
  11. The Newspaper. Seriously, high-quality journalism is under threat right now, largely for economic reasons. Buy a subscription to a high-quality paper that still does true investigative journalism. A free press is not free and needs our collective support.

6. Be Kind and Be Brave

This is a BIGGIE. As I said there are a lot of newly emboldened deplorables out there now who think it’s ok to treat other people badly. We have to show them otherwise. If you see someone being treated badly, say something. If you are treated badly, fight back. If you see someone who is hurting or afraid, ask how you can help. Find the people in your community you don’t normally talk to and ask them what’s going on. There’s a lot of information online about how to do this. Seriously.

 


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What to Do Next, Part II

It’s easy enough to say, as I did last week, that we should ask the Senate to block President-Elect Donald Trump’s EPA pick, on the grounds that Myron Ebell is a raging climate denier. But how, exactly, does one actually do it?

If you’re like me, you may have a vague idea of how these things work, but still have an overwhelming number of questions that sap your confidence when you try to get on the phone with elected officials. In the interests of giving us both courage, I’ve done some research that should clear up a few points.

There has been a lot in the news lately about Mr. Trump picking, or considering picking, a lot of people recently, and some of those picks are being contested. Some of these–cabinet positions and others–require Senate confirmation (these are called “presidential appointees with Senate confirmation,” or PAS), but others don’t. The transition team members do not require approval, nor do staffer positions like senior adviser, the position to which Steve Bannon has been appointed.

Now, Steve Bannon is a well-known racist and anti-Semite and his appointment has raised vociferous objections both within Congress and elsewhere, but there is little anyone can do because this is just Mr. Trump’s call to make. There are ways to apply political pressure to get Mr. Trump to change his mind. Besides petitions addressed to the President-elect himself, the Senate can hold one or more of Mr. Trump’s cabinet appointments hostage until Mr. Bannon is fired and replaced by someone better. You have the option of asking your senators to do just that, although personally I think that may be a waste of political capital. Your call.

But the head of the EPA is a PAS, as are several other key spots, and your senators are responsible to you for whom they approve and how and why. The electorate has a lot of leverage, here.

You can sign petitions, like this one, and this one, against Myron Ebell, but don’t rely on petitions alone. For one thing, petitions aren’t always delivered. There was a petition on the White House site against Mr. Ebell that had collected a lot of signatures but which the White House has simply taken down–that site is designed as a way to communicate with the current President, not the next one, and the current President cannot appear to resist the peaceful transfer of power in any way. Besides, petitions do not have half the impact of phone calls. You just need to know whom to call about what.

(There are actually well over a thousand PAS positions, most of which doubtless either get rubber stamped or left unfilled. Our energy needs to focus on the most important).

The Process in the Senate

The Senate confirmation process begins for each PAS with an investigation and vetting process within the executive branch. After that process chooses a nominee, the president sends written notification to the Senate, where the nomination is read on the Senate floor, assigned a number, and passed into a committee for discussion.

Which committee handles the nomination depends on the position. For example, anything within the US Department of Defense goes through the Senate Armed Services Committee. Some positions must go through more than one committee. You can find a list of which committees have jurisdiction over what, here.

Committees may conduct their own investigation of the nominee if they need additional information and, following discussion, can report to the Senate on the nominee favorably, unfavorably, or without recommendation. The committee also has the option to take no action at all. Committees do not have the authority to actually halt the nomination process, but the full Senate rarely acts against the recommendation of the committee.

The nomination for head of the EPA is handled by the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. I am unclear on whether the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works might have jurisdiction also–it looks like it might.

After the nomination passes out of committee, the Senate must unanimously agree to the date and time for the confirmation hearing. A single senator can stall the process by refusing to agree–I don’t know whether that is ever actually done deliberately. Once the hearing begins, debate can continue until the Senate votes to stop. That vote requires a super majority (two-thirds), but the actual confirmation vote is by simple majority (half plus one). The Senate may confirm, reject, or take no action on the nomination. Confirmations are sent to the President for signature. Any nominations left pending when the Senate goes on a recess of over 30 days automatically expire. The President may resubmit the nomination later.

So, to block a nomination, there are a couple of options: the relevant committee can report unfavorably on the nominee; the Senate as a whole can reject the nomination; or the entire process can be delayed until the next long recess by means of various obstructionist methods (filibuster, excessive investigation, arguing over scheduling, and possibly others).

The Senators

All senators have a voice in the process, so call your senators and voice your opinion. However, it’s worth also calling the senators on the relevant committee–they might not listen to you if you’re not a constituent, but a large number of calls should still mean something. The membership of each committee is easy to look up online.

Now, the confirmation process won’t start until after the inauguration, but you can start calling senators now–except remember some current senate members will lose their seats come January. Strike them from your call list and call their successors once they take office. Remember, also that committee appointments do not automatically get passed down with the senate seat, so the person who beat a committee member in the election will not necessarily take that spot on the committee. You’ll just have to look it up when the time comes.

If all this sounds like a lot to look up, don’t worry–I’ve done some of the grunt-work for you. Notice that the names of both the committees I mentioned earlier are hyperlinks. Those links go to the websites of those committees, which list current committee membership–and each name on that site is in turn linked to that Senator’s website, which includes contact information. “Contact me” links on the site likely lead to email forms. You want phone numbers, so look up the senator’s office locations instead. If you are a constituent, call the office closest to where you are registered to vote–your call will have a bigger impact that way.

And I can tell you that nobody on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is leaving office this time. You can call all of them now. On the Committee on the Environment and Public Works (which may or may not have jurisdiction, remember), two are retiring, Republican David Vitter, and Democrat, Barbara Boxer. You can call everybody else now.

The Nominees

Since the nomination process hasn’t officially started yet, technically, there are no nominees. Myron Ebell is simply the likely nominee.  Other names being discussed for the position are Robert E. Grady and Jeffrey Holmstead. I have not yet looked either of them up, but since Mr. Trump has been rather vocal about wanting to gut the EPA, it’s a safe bet that whomever he wants for the job should not have it.

There are other nominations also worth taking a look at, for both environmental reasons and otherwise. The Secretaries of the Interior (whose responsibilities include the National Park Service), of Agriculture, and of Commerce (whose responsibilities include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which carries out a lot of climate research), plus the US Trade Representative and the UN Ambassador all bear special attention and should not go to climate deniers.

You can find a list of appointees and potential nominees here. It is current as of this writing, though I don’t know how frequently it will be updated. Note that the list includes both PAS and non-PAS positions.

A Few Closing Words

First, if you hate using the telephone, you have my sympathy, but we really need to just do it this time. If the idea of calling a senator specifically worries you (and it does me!), take heart. You won’t talk to the senator personally–a staffer will write down what you are calling about and whether you are for or against, and if you got tongue-tied or awkward, that friendly staffer will never mention it to anyone. Seriously, staffers are, as a rule, helpful, friendly people who will do whatever they can to help you get your message through as long as you are friendly with them. And that’s true even when you’re calling to disagree with the senator in question. Seriously, staffers are cool people.

Second, since the push to block Myron Ebell and others is most likely going to be led by Democrats, some people may cry foul, saying that the Democrats didn’t like it when Republicans blocked President Obama’s nominations. I want to be very clear that I am not advocating that sort of blockage. The Republican leadership has repeatedly attempted to block Mr. Obama’s actions simply because they were Mr. Obama’s. This included promising to block certain appointments before even finding out who the nominee was. We shouldn’t do that.

I am not advocating blocking Mr. Ebell because Mr. Trump may nominate him but because Mr. Ebell is a climate denier and thus unfit for the job. Barring action from the Electoral College, Mr. Trump will be President, and thus will have to appoint someone to head the EPA. The EPA needs a head. We gain nothing whatever from preventing the president–any president–from doing his or her job. But it is our job to make sure the president’s duties are executed in a sane, legal way, and that includes retaining a functional EPA capable of doing something about climate change.


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Traveling

Hi, everyone.

I’m traveling this week, which means insanity and no time for doing anything, including keeping up with my blogs. HOWEVER, some weeks ago, one of my free-lance clients gave me an assignment near and dear to my heart–fuel economy and how the trucking industry is actually working to reduce its emissions. The piece I wrote for them has now been published on their website. So please, hop on over to my client’s website, where you can read my work in a brand-new context. And I’ll be back with an original post later this week or early next week. Thanks!

Click here to go to the article.

And as the Eagles said,

Take It easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels
drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
and take it easy.


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A Keystone Timeline

The issue with the Keystone Pipeline has been going on for about six years now. As the story approaches what may be its climactic conclusion, this seems like a good time to review everything that has happened thus far.

In 2008, TransCanada applied for permission from the U.S. State department to build a pipeline across the border from Canada into the United States. The pipeline was to be one segment of a network of pipelines designed to carry both American and Canadian crude to American refineries and ports in Texas. The other pipelines in the network did not cross international boundaries, so they didn’t require State Department permission, only approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. The critical southern portion, from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast, received approval without incident. The ongoing political struggle concerns only the northern leg.

Initially, the U.S. State Department was supportive. In April of 2010, it issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that predicted only “limited adverse environmental impacts during both construction and operation.” In October of that year, Secretary of State Clinton indicated she was leaning towards granting approval.

From a certain perspective, the Keystone XL Pipeline looked like a win/win. Canada would benefit from better access to market for its oil and the U.S. would benefit from buying oil from a friendly neighbor. And since American companies could also use the pipeline, the project would benefit the domestic oil market as well. Construction of the pipeline was predicted to create over a thousand temporary jobs (a number drastically inflated in some rosy estimates). In the depths of the Great Recession, the U.S. needed extra economic muscle badly.

But there were problems. Most tangibly, oil pipelines leak. They are not supposed to leak, of course, just like cars aren’t supposed to crash and houses aren’t supposed to catch fire. Accidents happen. We can minimize risk, but sooner or later the accident will happen. That’s why we have fire departments. Among other problems, the proposed route for the pipeline crossed some of the most important groundwater reserves in the country. The consequences of a serious leak into the Oglala Aquifer would be horrific.

The pipeline would also facilitate exploitation of the Alberta Tar Sands, one of the largest remaining oil deposits in the world. Tar sands mining is extremely environmentally destructive and seriously threatens the health and livelihood of nearby First Nations communities. Because of the size of the Alberta deposit, tar sands oil could also dramatically lower the price of fossil fuel, to the point where sustainable power sources wouldn’t be able to compete.

By 2010, widespread protest had erupted across both the United States and Canada.

In 2011, the State Department issued a second and final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and solicited public comment. Massive protests erupted, including ten thousand people who turned up at the White House in November. President Obama indicated that he would not approve the pipeline if it would damage American drinking water or American farmland. The State Department announced that it would not make a determination until it could assess alternative routes for the pipeline. The DOS wanted to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sandhills of Nebraska.

In December, Congress passed, and President Obama signed, a law requiring a decision on the pipeline within sixty days. A month later, the State Department rejected the pipeline because the deadline did not allow adequate time to look at alternate routes. However, the Administration encouraged TrtansCanada to reapply. A month after that, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have taken the pipeline out of the president’s hands entirely.

March of 2012 found Present Obama actively lobbying the Senate not to strip his power over the pipeline. At the same time, the President also attempted to claim political credit for construction of the southern leg of the pipeline, which he described as a boost to the American economy. He was frustrating both supporters of the pipeline and protestors. 2012 was an election year, and many of the people who supported Obama in his first presidential campaign considered withdrawing their support over the pipeline issue. In May of 2012, TransCanada reapplied for permission to build the northern leg of the pipeline along a new route.

The new route avoids the Sandhills, but still crosses rivers that flow into Native American communities. It also crosses areas that may contain important archeological sites and culturally important sites. While TransCanada has expressed interest in working with tribal leaders to find and avoid sensitive sites, the company might not be allowing enough time for leaders to make a full review of the area. For this and other reasons, some indigenous groups in the United States, like those in Canada, decide to treat opposing the pipeline as an important battle for their rights and sovereignty.

More protests erupted, including large marches in multiple parts of the country and deliberate civil disobedience by high-profile activists. I was at one of those protests, though I did not participate in civil disobedience.

In March of 2013, the State Department released a report saying that the new route would cause “minimal” adverse impact. Protestors cry foul. Congress passes laws urging the prompt approval of the pipeline.

In June of 2013, the president announced that he will not approve the pipeline if it would have an adverse effect on climate change. His use of the word “if” makes protestors scoff.

Protest leaders begin making plans for massive acts of civil disobedience to stop the pipeline even if the President does grant approval. A series of high profile oil train wrecks and pipeline leaks galvanize both sides. Protestors see the leaks as proof of the danger of transporting bitumen crude while supporters argue that a new pipeline would be a safer form of transport than the trains.

Meanwhile, the Southern leg of the pipeline has been built and went into operation in January of 2014. A week later, the State Department issued its final EIS on the new route, saying that the pipeline will not directly increase global warming because the tar sands will be exploited either way. Massive coordinated protests erupted across the country and received no mention whatever in the media.

The EPA questions whether the report has fully taken into account the risks associated with possible spills. There are definite hints of conflict of interest and other ethical issues that have not been thoroughly investigated yet. Not all landowners along the proposed route are willing to grant permission for the pipeline to cross their land and Nebraska, at least, cannot use eminent domain to force them to do so.

Those who object to the pipeline are still a minority, but they are a sizable minority, almost a third of the total U.S. population, according to some polls. The relative quiet of the media on the subject is disturbing, as is the fact that a Google search on anything related to Keystone yields mostly neutral or negative results but the accompanying paid-for results are all pipeline-positive. Somebody is spending a lot of money on this.

The State Department is accepting public comments until March 7th. Let’s make some noise.