The Environment in Focus | WYPR

The Environment in Focus

The Environment in Focus is a weekly perspective on the issues and people changing Maryland's natural world.  There's a story behind every bend of the Chesapeake Bay's 11,684 miles of shoreline, in every abandoned coal mine in the Appalachian Mountains, in every exotic beetle menacing our forests and in every loophole snuck into pollution control laws in Annapolis.  Tom Pelton gives you a tour of this landscape every Wednesday at 7:46 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.

Tom Pelton is a national award-winning environmental journalist, formerly with The Baltimore Sun.  He is now director of communications at the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations.   The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation, which is working to enhance the quality of life in Baltimore and in Maryland.  The views expressed are solely Pelton's.  You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com

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Yesterday, Republicans in the U.S. House Science Committee held a hearing titled, “Making EPA Great Again!”  It was for a bill that would, ironically enough, cripple the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by limiting its ability to use scientific data to create new regulations.

Last week, U.S. Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida went further, introducing legislation that would literally “terminate” EPA – an agency that, over the last half century, has saved more than 13 million American lives by reducing air pollution that triggers heart attacks and lung disease.

Along the same lines, President Trump signed an executive order calling for a rollback in all kinds of regulations – from environmental to financial.

 


The New York Times

With the increasing political polarization of Congress these days, it is sometimes hard to imagine anything positive coming out of Washington – especially with regard to environmental programs.

But there is at least one area where not only many Republicans and Democrats agree, but also – surprisingly -- environmentalists and oil industry lobbyists. And that is the need reform or repeal the Energy Policy Act signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005. The act and a follow-up law mandate that about 10 percent of vehicle fuel in the U.S. be composed of corn-based ethanol.  As a result, 40 percent of the corn grown in America today is used for fuel instead of food, up from just 9 percent in 2001.

According to a new report by the National Wildlife Federation, higher corn prices created by the mandate inspired farmers to plant more than 7 million acres of crops from 2008 to 2012 alone – an area larger than the state of Massachusetts. That meant the plowing under of many natural grasslands and wooded areas, causing the destruction of wildlife habitat. More acres of corn also led to more water pollution from increased spraying of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.


The Denver Post

Last week, the U.S. Senate held a confirmation hearing for President Donald Trump’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt.

Maryland Senator Ben Cardin questioned Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General and anti-regulatory activist who, seven years ago, filed a legal action against EPA to challenge the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan. Cardin, a Democrat, wanted to know whether Pruitt, a Republican, would actually enforce the bay cleanup agreement as EPA Administrator.

The 2010 agreement between EPA and six Chesapeake region states is called the Bay “Total Maximum Daily Load” or TMDL, and it threatens federal penalties against states that do not meet goals of reducing their nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by about a quarter.


Artie Raslich/The New York Times

This week, my program is a musical one.   Here is a song by singer, songwriter, and environmentalist Sean Madden about the amazing and unexpected resilience of nature in the face of political turmoil and trouble.

The Maryland General Assembly’s annual session opens today in Annapolis.  By far the most important environmental issue that lawmakers will be debating over the next three months is a proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Fracking and horizontal drilling techniques have transformed rural parts of neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia into oil and gas industrial zones over the last decade.  But Western Maryland, which has the same gas-rich shale rock formations, has not yet experienced any fracking.

Lawmakers in 2015 passed a two-year moratorium on the high-pressure injection of water and chemicals into shale formations to release natural gas. But that moratorium on fracking will run out in October, and then the drilling could start here in Maryland if state legislators fail to act this winter.


Last month, Michigan’s lieutenant governor signed into law a bill that will prohibit cities or towns from banning plastic grocery bags, Styrofoam cups or other non-biodegradable fast-food containers that all too often end up as litter.

It’s not a ban on this trash. As The Washington Post reported, it’s ban on banning the trash.

The backstory on this bizarre anti-environmental law is that the Democratic-led county that includes Ann Arbor wanted to reduce the amount of plastic debris cluttering up its streams, streets and parks.  And so Washtenaw County, Michigan, followed the lead of San Francisco, Washington D.C., Montgomery County, Maryland, and other progressive communities and voted to impose a fee on plastic bags in an effort to discourage their use. 

This episode originally aired on October 17, 2016  

At the far southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, Jonathan White, a former rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, was helping to lead a tour of the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk.

While some dismiss climate change as a hoax, Admiral White described the very real threat that sea-level rise caused by global warming poses even to the military.

“If we just did nothing with this base, it’s easy to see that in a worst-case scenario of a couple of meters of sea level rise by the end of the century, much of this base would not be usable,” said White, an oceanographer and former director of the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change. “You wouldn’t even be able to get to the ships to even pull the ships in to the piers here. So you are going to have to do something to respond to that level of sea level rise.”


The Washington Post

Donald Trump’s selection to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General, has made a career out of arguing that environmental regulation should be the responsibility of the states, not the federal government.

Here’s Pruitt testifying before a Congressional committee on why he sued President Obama’s EPA to block federal greenhouse gas regulations – one of at least seven active lawsuits Pruitt has pending against the agency he may soon be leading.

Pruitt:  “The EPA was never intended to be our nation’s foremost environmental regulator.  The states were to have regulatory primacy.  That construct –a construct put in place by this body – has been turned upside down by this administration.  That’s why I’m here today. I’d like to explain to you why I so jealously guard Oklahoma’s sovereign prerogative to regulate in both a sensible and sensitive way.”


President elect Donald Trump recently announced that his selection for the U.S. Secretary of State is the CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson.  His pick for EPA Administrator is the Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, a litigious foe of the EPA and lobbyist for his state’s large oil and gas industry.

Trump argues that unleashing American drilling and coal mining companies will create jobs. “Energy is under siege by the Obama Administration. Under absolute siege,” Trump said on the campaign trail. “The EPA, environmental protection agency, is killing these energy companies.”

That’s not factually accurate. A recent glut of natural gas, produced by technological innovation and hydraulic fracturing, is allowing gas to outcompete coal because gas is now much cheaper; and those same low prices are hurting the profits of oil and gas companies. 


Last month, the Maryland Department of the Environment petitioned EPA to try to get the federal agency to force coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia to stop releasing so much air pollution, which drifts downwind and contributes to smog in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland.

The action was not unprecedented, because about 70 percent of the air pollution in Maryland comes from out of state. 

But here’s what was amazing:   Many of these power plants invested hundreds of millions of dollars to install air pollution control systems to filter out the pollutant of concern, nitrogen oxides.  And these plants, for years, successfully ran these filtration systems (which use a technology called Selective Catalytic Reduction).  But then a few years ago, they stopped. The plants just turned off the filters and let the pollutant, also called NOx, flow out freely.


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