Op-Ed: March's egregious environmental policy

Thursday, April 6, 2017 - 4:49pm

President Donald Trump’s second month in environmental policy has continued down a dangerous path. Policies that prioritized clean energy, environmental health and sustainable business practices during former President Barack Obama’s administration are being dismantled step by step.

On March 24, Trump announced the granting of a permit for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Obama had stopped this construction in 2015, acknowledging the pipeline would carry crude oil from tar sands, which requires a particularly energy-intensive process to extract and ultimately contributes to climate change. A 2015 study conducted by the Department of Energy found this extraction process emits 18 percent more greenhouse gases than traditional U.S. crude oil when processed into gasoline.  

Additionally, the Trump administration’s promise of the pipeline’s job creation is deceptive. After the pipeline was projected to be completed in 2019, it was calculated that only 35 permanent employees and 15 temporary contractors will be needed to operate the pipeline. The disturbing neglect of scientific facts regarding climate change is predicted to continue as Trump has noted the pipeline will be “the first of many infrastructure projects” he plans to approve in an effort to create more jobs.

The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is also now well underway. Though a federal judge denied a motion brought by the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, who sought to prevent the flow of oil through DAPL, the $3.8 billion project has continued to face significant opposition. Chase Iron Eyes, the lead counsel of the Lakota People’s Law Project, acknowledged the motion, saying that “once again, the federal government and the Army are treating the original inhabitants of this land as though we are less than human, as though our lives and lands are something to be ignored and discarded in the never-ending quest for profit.”

While March 22 brought the annual celebration of World Water Day, there have already been numerous dramatic changes in water policy during the second month of the Trump administration. Trump has been planning a 97 percent cut to the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding, which has been central to over 3,000 projects tackling issues like wetland restoration, algae blooms in western Lake Erie, invasive Asian carp in the lakes and improving shoreline habitats. This initiative has spent over $2.2 billion since 2010 on improving and restoring the Great Lakes. The proposed budget includes a 30 percent cut to EPA funding for state-level enforcement of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other federal environmental laws.

John Stine, a commissioner for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, says cuts to programs like the Great Lakes restoration project "would drive up the costs of water treatment, which in turn will be passed on to consumers." U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D–Mich.) highlighted the flaw in Trump’s attempt to save money and generate jobs, explaining that the Great Lakes sustain 1.5 million jobs in the boating, fishing and tourism industries, bringing in billions of dollars each year. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D–Mich.), who represents Ann Arbor, added "(the Great Lakes) are vital for clean drinking water, jobs and our economy. This shortsighted attempt to zero out funding for the GLRI is unacceptable."

Also of importance to Michigan residents, on March 17, three years after Flint River water started flowing into the city and beginning the water crisis, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded $100 million to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in a package signed off on by Obama in 2016. The funds will go toward making critical changes to Flint’s crumbling water infrastructure, specifically to contribute to the city’s goal of replacing 6,000 pipes by the end of 2017. Though this funding is a critical first step in Flint’s recovery process, it fails to provide an immediate solution to residents who do not have access to safe drinking water.

While Flint has benefitted, the general pattern of budget cuts has extended beyond the EPA, as Trump announced his plan to cut 18.3 percent of the National Institutes of Health budget, accounting for a nearly $5.8 billion reduction. This cut is premised on reducing administrative costs. However, over 80 percent of the NIH’s current budget goes toward funding biomedical research projects, training programs and science centers. In 2016 alone, the NIH was able to award 832 research project grants. Additionally, the NIH partnered with the EPA to create five new research centers focused on improving health in communities that face health disparities brought about by pollution and other environmental factors. Funding to the NIH will be critical to continuing this groundbreaking research and supporting scientific advancement.

Trump’s attempts to create jobs by undermining environmental regulations continued as he signed the "Energy Independence Executive Order" on March 28. The order launched a review of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a policy proposed by the EPA in 2014 that puts a cap on the number of greenhouse gases that can be emitted from power plants. This executive order is predicted to have significant adverse effects on both the environment and the economy. A 2006 study by Nicholas Brown, the former chief economist at the World Bank, detailed that human-caused climate change could result in the “equivalent to losing at least 5 percent of global GDP each year, now and forever.” Moreover, deregulating our existing climate policies will compromise our position and credibility as a global leader in climate change issues.

After another tumultuous month, funding for vital environmental protection programs and agencies has been threatened and cut, while plans for projects that threaten long-term environmental health are underway. In light of these changes, in a meeting with the University’s chapter of College Democrats, state Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D–Mich.) and former state Rep. Jeff Irwin highlighted that it will be essential to actively remain in contact with our local elected officials and educate ourselves about these environmental issues. This community-level involvement will be critical in the months ahead as we continue the fight to protect our planet and our quality of life.

EnviroDems is the environmental justice committee in College Democrats at the University of Michigan.