Trump administration's handouts bolster big oil companies amid coronavirus crisis, but what about public health?

If polluters like factories and power plants are able to claim that violations of routine monitoring and reporting obligations were caused by the pandemic, they can ignore environmental laws


                            Trump administration's handouts bolster big oil companies amid coronavirus crisis, but what about public health?
(Getty Images)
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In the midst of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which has affected more than 170 countries, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended its enforcement of environmental laws -- industrial companies and others likely won’t be penalized for failing to comply with certain pollution control laws due to the coronavirus outbreak.

On March 26, the EPA released a statement, saying, "Under the policy EPA does not expect to seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations that are the result of the COVID-19 pandemic."

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To make it clear, if polluters like factories and power plants are able to claim that violations of routine monitoring and reporting obligations were caused by the coronavirus pandemic, they will be able to ignore the environmental laws. In the event of an imminent threat to public health, the EPA will defer to the states and “consider the circumstances” over whether it should intervene. The development is significantly more disturbing considering that the EPA has not set an end date for the "temporary" measures.

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Cynthia Giles, who was head of EPA enforcement during the Barack Obama administration, disagrees with the EPA's move. She told The Guardian, "EPA should never relinquish its right and its obligation to act immediately and decisively when there is threat to public health, no matter what the reason is."

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She also said, "I am not aware of any instance when EPA ever relinquished this fundamental authority as it does in this memo. This memo amounts to a nationwide moratorium on enforcing the nation’s environmental laws and is an abdication of EPA’s responsibility to protect the public.”

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

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The American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry group, sent the EPA a letter last week calling for the suspension of rules requiring repair of leaky equipment as well as monitoring of pollution. The EPA’s move goes even further than this request, although the regulator said it expects businesses will comply with laws “where reasonably practicable” and that it will not tolerate flagrant, intentional breaches of the law.

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Moreover, the Trump administration is also on the verge of rolling back more of the Obama-era rules on vehicle mileage and carbon emissions guidelines, according to a Reuters report. The standards adopted in 2012 while Obama was the president sought to raise fuel efficiency standards to an estimated 46.7 mpg by 2026, which officials said would save motorists $1.7 trillion in fuel costs and eliminate 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide over the life of the vehicles but cost the auto industry about $200 billion over 13 years.

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Last week, the administration also published a final review of a proposed 211-mile road that would cut through a portion of Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and open up an area rich in copper, zinc and other minerals. 

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This would not be the first time the Trump administration had repealed environmental regulations. A New York Times analysis found that the Trump administration had rolled back nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations. 

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The administration's move to relax pollution regulations is concerning as air pollution, mainly from fossil fuel emitting sources which accelerates climate change and worsens any given virus' impact on human health. A study of the 2003 SARS outbreak noted that “people exposed to the highest level of air pollution were twice as likely to die from the disease as those who were not."

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Unfortunately, this is not where it ends. In the past two weeks, states have quietly passed laws that criminalize protests against fossil fuel infrastructure, especially pipelines.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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On March 16, Governor Andy Beshear (D) of Kentucky signed legislation that designated “natural gas or petroleum pipelines” as “key infrastructure assets” and made causing damage that totals more than $1,000 or tampering “in a manner that renders the operations harmful or dangerous” felony charges of “criminal mischief in the first degree.” 

On March 18, Governor  Kristi Noem (R) of South Dakota signed a bill that expanded the definition of “critical infrastructure” to include virtually any oil, gas or utility equipment and raised the charges for causing “substantial interruption or impairment” of such facilities to felonies. Five days later, on March 23, the governor approved a second measure defining a felony “riot” as “intentional use of force or violence by three or more persons” that causes “any damage to property.” 

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West Virginia followed suit when Governor Jim Justice (R) greenlighted legislation assigning the same critical infrastructure status to a wide range of oil, gas and pipeline facilities, slapping fines as high as $20,000 on anyone found guilty of causing “damage, destruction, vandalization, defacing or tampering” that totals $2,500 or more.

Many have been looking for the silver lining during the pandemic, with some suggesting that social isolation and self-distancing measures are helping the planet. However, global emissions this year will probably fall by 0.5 to 2.2% from 2019 levels, assuming the global economy recovers in the third and fourth quarters of 2020, which will prove fleeting as the emissions will surely rise once the pandemic slows its pace.

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The Trump administration's and individual states' moves ensure that while there may be a temporary relief for the planet, the pandemic does not serve to reduce global warming. In fact, these moves would only exacerbate climate change while helping big oil companies weather the storm.

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