Environment, Trump Administration

At the beach? Put down the umbrella drink and head to a public meeting about offshore drilling

(Photo: Wikicommons)

North Carolina’s coast, which has so far eluded capture by the energy companies, is again in the crosshairs for offshore oil and gas exploration. And this time, the rigs could be just three miles from the shoreline.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is preparing its 2019–2024 national Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing program, including lease sales in the mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf for exploration and drilling. The area is under consideration because President Trump issued an executive order on April 28 opening it to lease sales. Trump’s order would overrule the Obama administration’s 2017–2022 gas and leasing program, which  excluded the Atlantic and Pacific Outer Continental Shelves. The proposed new five-year lease plan (2019–2024), though, would replace its predecessor and greatly expand the ocean waters to drilling.

You can comment directly to the BOEM or via the NC Department of Environmental Quality, which is seeking public input and information on the potential impact of oil and gas exploration and development on the biological, social, economic and aesthetic values of North Carolina’s coast.

State environmental officials will hold three public hearings about the program. All of them will run from 5–7 p.m.

  • Monday, Aug. 7,  New Hanover Government Center, 230 Government Center Drive, Suite 135, Wilmington
  • Wednesday, Aug. 9, Crystal Coast Civic Center, 3505 Arendell St., Morehead City.
  • Thursday, Aug. 10, Dare County Government Complex, 954 Marshall Collins Drive, Manteo

People can also comment via email or snail mail:  timothy.webster@ncdenr.gov or   Timothy Webster, 217 . Jones St., 1601 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC, 27699-1601.: All comments are due by Aug. 15. Comments made to state officials will be forwarded to the  Bureau of Ocean Energy Management .

NCPW has featured two stories about the ecological damage caused by seismic testing, the precursor to offshore drilling, on June 26 and July 5.

Environment, Trump Administration

Clean Air Carolina, SELC sue Trump administration over rollback of pollution standards

(Photo: Creative Commons)

Four environmental groups, including two from North Carolina, are suing the Federal Highway Administration over its sudden suspension of key greenhouse gas rules. Those rules would have required states to track and reduce pollution from cars and trucks — a major source of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Clean Air Carolina, based in Charlotte, is being represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, the Natural Resources Defense Council and US PIRG. The groups filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The suit asks the court to invalidate the suspension, meaning that the pollution standard would go into immediate effect.

The reversal is emblematic of many of the Trump administration’s rollbacks of Obama-era rules. Under President Obama, the FAST Act and MAP-21, required the Highway Administration to make several rules. One of them mandated that states measure and reduce levels of carbon dioxide emitted from cars and trucks, which generate most of the pollution in the transportation sector.

The purpose of the rule is to curb carbon pollution from these sources, which have surpassed electricity-generating power plants as the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Under the rule, states must report their carbon dioxide emission totals and submit targets for reducing them to the Highway Administration.

Bu in January, two days after the Highway Administration issued its final greenhouse gas rule, Donald Trump was inaugurated. It was on that day that then-and-now-exiled White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus issued a 60-day freeze on all rules that had been published in the Federal Register but had not gone into effect. Hundreds of rules were left in limbo, including the one governing greenhouse gases.

Sixty days passed, during which time the Highway Administration twice postponed the date for the rule to become effective. In May, the agency suspended the rule altogether. It gave no public notice about the revocation of the greenhouse gas standard, nor did it solicit public comment — which the plaintiffs argue, violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

In their complaint to the court, the plaintiffs argue that under the APA an agency must provide public notice and allow public comment prior to formulating, amending or repealing a rule. Suspension of a rule’s effective date “is tantamount to amendment or repeal of the rule. Such suspensions must therefore be preceded by notice and comment,” the complaint reads.

The Highway Administration argues that it would have been “impractical” to seek public comment on the rule suspension, “as well as contrary to the public interest in the orderly promulgation and implementation of regulations.” In what has become a familiar refrain within the Trump administration, the agency indicated that it would be publishing a notice of proposed rulemaking on the greenhouse gas measure “in the coming weeks” and that the public would have an opportunity to comment on the measure “in the near future.”

Transportation is the largest single source of carbon pollution — representing more than a third of all U.S. carbon emissions. (2017 is on track to become the second-hottest year on record, a byproduct of climate change caused by global increase in greenhouse gases.) On-road vehicles are also responsible for 38 percent of US emissions of nitrogen oxides and 14 percent of the nation’s emissions of volatile organic compounds, which in turn contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, commonly known as smog.

Because of their large numbers, passenger cars and light trucks generate most of the carbon dioxide in transportation. Fuel economy, mass transit, even urban planning could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Semi-trucks rank second in carbon pollution. A 2007 NC State presentation to the EPA forecast that improvements, such as anti-idling rules and lighter loads, could reduce carbon emissions from 18-wheelers by 28 percent.

Environment, Trump Administration

With public comment period, EPA takes first step in striking the key Waters of the US rule

A wetland, key to filtering pollutants and sponging up floodwaters (Photo: LearnNC.org)

Some wetlands, intermittent streams and other small but important bodies of water could be polluted with impunity if the EPA fully rescinds the Waters of the US rule. The agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers yesterday opened a public comment period on the repeal. Next, the EPA would begin to overhaul the definition of what could be regulated under the federal Clean Water Act.

The EPA enacted WOTUS, as it’s known, in June 2015. After 31 states, including North Carolina, and agricultural interest groups sued, the Sixth Circuit Court issued a stay of the rule, and it has not gone into effect. Gov. Roy Cooper withdrew North Carolina from the lawsuit earlier this year, because President Trump had already signaled his plan to rescind WOTUS.

WOTUS would clarify the waterways to be regulated under the Clean Water Act. This doesn’t sound particularly controversial, except that economic development and agricultural interests oppose it. Farmers could no longer allow runoff from fields and livestock operations into certain waterways where they could before; builders couldn’t dump their fill there.

Opponents of WOTUS claim — erroneously — that all waters, even man-made ditches, would be subject to federal regulations. However, the updated list would include only tributaries, streams, wetlands, etc. that feed already-regulated waters.

The environmental concern is that without WOTUS, drinking water sources, such as the Cape Fear River, could be further threatened by pollution from these unregulated sources. Wetlands, for example, are key not only for wildlife habitat, but they help filter pollution and prevent flooding.

Opponents also assert that WOTUS is an example of federal overreach; they say states should determine what to regulate and to what extent. However, waterways know no political boundaries, and one state’s laxness can conflict with another’s stricter requirements; this is why federal standards are necessary.

Exhibit A has occurred here in North Carolina. In Canton in the western part of the state, Evergreen Packaging has polluted the Pigeon River, which flows into Tennessee. In 2010, North Carolina approved a discharge permit that the EPA said was too lenient. (Clean Water for North Carolina, one of the plantiffs in a lawsuit over the discharge, has a comprehensive and sordid history on its website.

The 30-day comment period opened yesterday and continues through Aug. 28. The Federal Register has the full text of the rule and more background info, along with instructions on how to comment either online, by fax or mail.

NC Budget and Tax Center, Trump Administration

Essential nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is now at risk by proposed amendment

Nonpartisan federal government agencies that often go unnoticed but are vital for good government include the U.S Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The CBO, for example, has provided Congress with budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process for over 40 years.

The concept of good government has always been vital to our democracy. Good government at its core promotes principles such as accountability, openness, integrity, transparency, and reliability. When good government, including agencies such as the CBO and GAO, is supported, the nation and its entire people thrive.

Unfortunately, in Congress, House lawmakers have now introduced an amendment to eliminate CBO’s entire Budget Analysis division (cutting 89 positions) and cut CBO’s budget by $15 million.

Just for reference, CBO currently has a staff of about 235 people. In other words, the proposed amendment would cut CBO’s staff by 38 percent. And from a budget standpoint, the amendment means CBO would lose a third (33 percent) of its funding next year.

A cut of this magnitude would severely damage effective and long-standing good government processes that have helped the U.S. for decades, as professional staff would no longer be able to analyze federal spending or provide formal cost estimates for nearly every bill approved by Congressional committees.

Rep. Mark Meadows

North Carolina’s U.S. House Representative, Mark Meadows (R-District 11), who supports this amendment to cut CBO has stated he would use a rule called the Holman Rule, which allows Congress to cut salaries for individual federal workers, for the first time since 1983. The concern here is that if the House succeeds in doing this to CBO, they could replicate this type of cut at other agencies. [Note: The Holman Rule which was removed in 1983 was reinstated by House Republicans earlier this year.]

All of this is ironic and unfortunate considering that just last Friday every former CBO director signed a letter to congressional leadership that stated: “We write to express our strong objection to recent attacks on the integrity and professionalism of the agency and on the agency’s role in the legislative process.”

No matter which political party one belongs to, it is important to know that these types of devastating budget and staffing cuts to a government agency that is grounded on upholding good government principles are wrong. The CBO has consistently proven that it takes a number of steps to ensure that all of its work is objective, impartial, and nonpartisan—the importance of which was emphasized by CBO’s founding director, Alice Rivlin, in a 1-page memo to CBO staff in 1976 and is posted on CBO’s website.

Luis A. Toledo is a Public Policy Analyst for the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

CBO Memo to Staff (1976) by LT on Scribd

Commentary, Trump Administration

Senate to vote today on mystery health care bill

President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell aren’t giving up on passing damaging legislation to repeal and (maybe) replace the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. Despite McConnell delaying the Senate’s August recess to give his caucus more time for deliberations, the GOP has not been able to agree on a health care bill.

Now, McConnell is pushing a last ditch effort to move GOP healthcare plans forward against the wishes of the American public and nearly all provider and patient groups. Senators are expected to vote Tuesday on a “motion to proceed,” which, if passed, would allow the Senate to debate the future of the Affordable Care Act and Medicare and vote on amendments. However, many Senators are concerned because they have been left in the dark about which bill they will actually be voting on. There’s no shortage of bills that could possibly make up the motion to proceed, including: the Better Care Reconciliation Act, the Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act, or the House-passed American Health Care Act.

The fact is, each of the proposed health care plans would do irreversible harm to millions of Americans. What’s more, each proposed bill would wreak havoc on health insurance markets nationwide.

Here’s what we know about the proposals on the table:

  • Over 20 million Americans risk losing health care coverage altogether.
  • Medicaid funding—which covers 1.4 million North Carolina children, as well as people with disabilities and seniors in long-term care—would be slashed by 26 percent over ten years.
  • Protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions would be weakened, if not outright eliminated.
  • Plans may no longer be required to cover essential health benefits, such as hospitalization, maternity care, mental health, and medication.
  • Premiums would increase, especially for people with low-incomes and older adults.
  • Health insurance marketplaces would be destabilized as healthy consumers leave the risk pool.

The mystery bill needs to get past the motion to proceed before it can be discussed and signed into law. If the vote is unsuccessful the bill is considered dead…for now. That doesn’t mean the GOP will give up on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. Since the ACA was passed in 2009, the House has held more than 50 votes to repeal former-President Obama’s signature legislation. Prior to May of this year, none of the bills were considered by the Senate. In the last month, however, the Senate had attempted to vote on a health care bill four times. Both the public and legislators are becoming impatient with the incessant focus on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. A recent report from Axios states that many Trump supporters do not view repealing the Affordable Care Act a priority. Another report shows that 71% of the public favor a bipartisan effort to improve-not repeal- the Affordable Care Act.

We will see later today whether voters will get their wish.

Sydney Idzikowski is an MSW intern at the NC Justice Center