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Fool's rules

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Anyone following the train-wreck known as the Trump administration is familiar with its combination of internal chaos, ham-fisted policy-making, childish diplomacy, and wilful, revenge-motivated rollback of Obama-era policy. Perhaps this cabal's most insidious hallmark, however, can be seen in its continued efforts to dismantle environmental regulations-some of which go back decades to previous Republican administrations. Since Trump took office, he has gutted more than 90 of them, including high-profile tantrums like walking away from the Paris Climate Accord, and more workaday decrees to roll back emissions standards, pesticide bans, and clean-water rules.

Now, even with a pandemic decimating the nation, federal agencies in the U.S. are on an accelerated timeline to repeal numerous additional regulations amidst the crisis and distraction. While tens of thousands die around them, Trump et al. are literally working overtime to institute as many anti-environment policy changes as possible before (likely) losing power in the next election.

Comprising a criminal litany of reckless endangerments that will further erode the health of the environment and those dependent on it, these new targets include weakening fuel-efficiency standards and the regulation of emissions of ash, mercury, and other toxins, and freeing all federal infrastructure projects from climate-change accounting. The Interior Department is also attempting to ram through a rule change that will eliminate protections for migratory birds-i.e., lifting enforcement penalties for "incidental" bird kills caused by oil and gas operations. One of the most pernicious agenda items is limiting the science the EPA can cite while creating public health rules to only those studies with publicly available data. Shockingly, much of the science that addresses COVID-19 wouldn't qualify as it has been carried out for proprietary sources or under privacy rules (e.g., patient trials and studies). Like many Trump directives, this seems like pure madness. As David J. Hayes, director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law, told the New York Times. "The administration is essentially taking advantage of the fact that the public is distracted and in fact disabled from fully engaging against this ideological push."

And it gets worse. On March 27, Trump announced a halt to all enforcement of U.S. environmental laws amid the COVID-19 crisis. Feigning innocence with an appeal to economics (and positioning itself to assist in a rapid return to the fossil-fuel status quo), the administration claimed it as a necessary lifeline for the (much-beloved-by-Republicans) oil industry as it dealt with its greatest existential threat since the oil crises of the 1970s. This in the wake of a whiny cry for help from industry lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, which sought clemency from all penalty-payments over past air- and water-pollution violations, deferral of any requirements on wastewater handling from fracking, and a total pass on reporting GHG emissions and other pollution.

Though the EPA portrayed this and other moves as posing no threat to human health or safety, experts were justifiably alarmed. "Air pollution leads to respiratory distress in downwind communities and respiratory distress in turn makes you more susceptible to the coronavirus," said former EPA official Betsy Southerland. Judith Enck, who served as an EPA regional administrator under Obama, calls this carte blanche for the oil and gas industry irresponsible. "This is a get-out-of-jail-free card-and don't think that the industry won't play it to their fullest advantage."

Not to be outdone by their ideological hero, Alberta's own UCP petrocracy followed suit, signing a similar order for a three-month suspension of environmental reporting requirements under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the Water Act, and the Public Lands Act-except with regard to drinking water and wastewater facilities.

Portraying it as meaning to "cut back on paperwork, not standards," the move fooled few. University of Calgary law professor Shaun Fluker told the Edmonton Sun that while the rule change obviously didn't apply to major spills or hazardous leaks, potential effects of a blanket order could see companies take advantage of things like water use that aren't necessarily hazards, but contribute to cumulative environmental risks unlikely to be reported after the fact.

Marlin Schmidt, the opposition NDP's environment critic, pointed to Albertans' need for continual environmental protection, particularly those living near industrial sites, and that not reporting on even minor problems until July could mean it was "way too late to take any meaningful action."

In the same article, Cameron Jefferies, an expert in environmental law at the University of Alberta, noted that environmental regulation is enforced through routine paperwork. "If we turn a blind eye to it, that's quite problematic ... a very un-environmental thing for an environment minister to put forward."

Indeed, it seems that in some jurisdictions, there are two pernicious diseases raging together: COVID-19 and conservatism.

Leslie Anthony is a science/environment writer and author who holds a doctorate in reversing political spin.

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