The Environment in Focus | WYPR

The Environment in Focus

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 step 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.


In a laboratory at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, zoologist Rob Aguilar examines bottles containing preserved specimens of an astonishing array of different varieties of aquatic life.

“We have speckled swimming crabs, long finned squid, jackknife clam, ponderous arc,” said Aguilar, scrutinizing a thick mussel with a serrated shell.  “This is a fish-gill isopod.  And this is a big marine leach that prefers to be on skates and rays.”

Aguilar is engaged in a project to study the genetic codes of numerous species in the Chesapeake Bay. He and colleagues record them in public databases called GenBank and the Barcode of Life Database, so that researchers around the world can use the information to identify fish and other critters.


With the election of President Donald Trump – who has called climate change a “hoax” created by the Chinese – and Republicans in both the U.S. Senate and House, federal policy on controlling greenhouse gases is likely to be rolled backwards.

Trump’s Electoral College victory sent stock prices for coal companies, like bankrupt Peabody Energy, skyrocketing, while recently-thriving solar and wind power companies were punished by Wall Street.

But efforts to address climate change are not dead in the U.S.  Action for pollution control regulations is now shifting to the state level, with legislators in California, Maryland, Washington, Vermont, and other blue-leaning states vowing to press forward.


Last week’s Presidential election had little or nothing to do with environmental issues. And yet, even though voters didn’t vote on it, the environment is now squarely in the crosshairs of the incoming Trump administration.

In the few instances when the environment did come up during the campaign, Trump made it clear that he thinks global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and that about 70 percent of regulations should be eliminated.

Here’s Trump talking about slashing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during a Republican primary debate in March.  "Department of Environmental Protection: We are going to get rid of it in almost every form.  We’re going to have little tidbits left.  But we’re going to take a tremendous amount out."


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