Environment, News, Trump Administration

Critics warn Trump EPA’s coal ash plan will let polluters off the hook

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration wants to give electric utilities a pass on proving they could finance a hazardous waste cleanup in the event of a Superfund disaster.

The proposed rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says electric utilities should not have to make “financial assurances” to cover the risk the industry will produce pollution it cannot afford to clean up.

The rule comes in response to a decade-long push and legal battle with environmental groups, who petitioned the EPA to write the rules during the Obama administration. But under the Trump administration, EPA decided electric utilities do not pose a significant risk and can forego the requirement.

The decision calls into question who will be on the hook to pay for and clean up old waste sites with lagoons of coal ash, the toxic byproduct that is left when coal is burned in power plants to produce electricity. Stored in pits, coal ash can contaminate drinking water or blow into nearby communities. It went largely unregulated until EPA issued rules in 2015 to address the problem.

Earlier this year, the NC Department of Environmental Quality determined that the Duke Energy must remove all coal ash from its remaining nine impoundments at six plants in North Carolina: Allen, Belews Creek, Cliffside/Rogers, Marshall, Mayo and Roxboro.

According to the order, Duke can move the coal ashroughly 100 million tons in total — to lined, dry landfills, either onsite or offsite. The utility can also recycle the ash at beneficiation plants, which prepare the material to be reused in concrete. Three such facilities are planned for North Carolina: in Wayne, Chatham and Rowan counties.

Some advocacy groups are concerned EPA’s proposal could open the door for coal-fired power plants to abandon toxic coal ash pollution or leave consumers to foot the bill.

“We know there is coal ash pollution across the United States that will cost billions of dollars to clean up, and the question becomes who is going to pay for it,” said Sarah Saadoun, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, an international human-rights advocacy group that is tracking the regulation.

The obscure federal rule has gone mostly overlooked since its proposal in July. The public comment deadline closes Sept. 27, but there are currently only seven comments filed — while other environmental regulations garner hundreds of submissions.

“This regulation is a little technical-sounding … but it can have very real repercussions in terms of whether or not coal ash will be cleaned up and whether consumers will be saddled with that expense, or whether the companies that have been polluting will pay to clean it up,” Saadoun said. Read more

News

U.S. House votes to ban new offshore drilling

NC delegation splits along part lines, with one curious exception

WASHINGTON — North Carolina Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry voted this week to ban drilling off Florida’s Gulf Coast, but he voted against a bill to prohibit drilling off of the coasts of North Carolina and other Atlantic states.

The votes came as U.S. House lawmakers approved bipartisan legislation Wednesday that would block new offshore drilling off the majority of the U.S. coast — despite pushback from many Republicans.

The legislation would put in place far-reaching new protections, blocking drilling off most of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Lawmakers are scheduled to vote Thursday on a similar ban for drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

Rep. Patrick McHenry

The efforts take aim at the Trump administration’s push to open up vast new areas of the U.S. coasts to oil and gas exploration.

But the sweeping proposals face an uncertain future. It’s unlikely that Republican leadership in the Senate will act on the legislation and the White House has threatened to veto the bills.

Congress voted 238-189 to pass H.R. 1941, the Coastal and Marine Economies Act, which blocks the Interior Department from seeking any new drilling off the Pacific or Atlantic coasts. Twelve Republicans voted for the bill; five Democrats voted against it.

The House also voted 248-180 in favor of H.R. 205, a proposal from Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) that would block oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida. There is already a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico that expires in June 2022. This bill would permanently extend it.

Twenty-two Republicans, including McHenry, voted in favor of Rooney’s bill dealing with the Florida coast; five Democrats voted against it.

“Rep. McHenry has long been a supporter of energy exploration of our nation’s coasts and continues to believe it can be an important resource to ensure American energy independence,” a spokeswoman for McHenry said in a statement. “However—because of concerns raised by military leaders and the Department of Defense on the impact drilling will have on vital national security operations in the eastern Gulf of Mexico—Rep. McHenry supported the moratorium on drilling there.”

Without any new protections in place, states including Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland and other coastal states could see a number of new lease sales in the coming years.

Rep. David Price

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pushed for measures that would limit drilling along their own state’s shorelines. With the exception of McHenry’s vote on H.R. 205, however, all North Carolina representatives voted along party lines, with Democrats Alma Adams, G.K. Butterfield and David Price voting “yes” on both measures and Republicans Ted Budd, Virginia Foxx, George Holding, Richard Hudson, Mark Meadows, David Rouzer and Mark Walker voting “no.”

In response to the vote, Congressman Price issued a statement that included the following:

“Deepwater Horizon was the largest oil spill in American history and the second largest in the world. The Trump administration’s proposal to roll back key safety regulations puts all of the nation’s coastlines at risk of another Deepwater Horizon level catastrophe. This amendment puts the interests of American workers, coastal communities, and marine wildlife first, rather than prioritizing the pocketbooks of large oil corporations. It would ensure that carefully crafted regulations are protected from arbitrary executive actions that would seek to undermine safety and jeopardize our environment. I take pride in North Carolina’s beautiful and abundant coast, and I will continue to do everything I can in Congress to protect all 300 miles of the North Carolina coastline. I am extremely pleased that this legislation passed the House of Representatives, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to take it up without delay.”

GOP opposition

The Trump administration has pushed for massive new oil and gas exploration in ocean waters, as part of the administration’s “all of the above” energy policy. The Interior Department regularly drafts new five-year plans for oil and gas leasing.

The Trump administration’s proposal for 2019-2024 would open drilling up and down the West Coast and Atlantic Seaboard, including some areas that have been closed for decades. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt put a pause on those plans while the administration litigates whether some areas should be open to drilling. But in the meantime, opponents of drilling want to block future development. Read more