Foster: Another sad environmental chapter

Headline: “EPA defies climate warnings, gives coal plants a reprieve.”

The Associated Press story published recently in the News-Journal marks another sad chapter in the Trump administration’s efforts to undo President Obama’s environmental legacy while trying to revive the slumping coal industry.

The Environmental Protection Agency enacted a measure to scrap one of Obama’s key initiatives to rein in fossil fuel emissions. At least one state, New York, immediately said it would challenge EPA’s action in court.

Donald Trump gained traction in the 2016 election by promising to rescue the coal industry, but it now looks more like he’s whipping a dead horse. Last year saw near-record closings of coal-fired plants, including several announced in Texas.

Coal is facing competition from less expensive natural gas and renewable energy. Obama tried to lead the country toward cleaner and cheaper energy sources while Trump is clinging to dirty coal burning that fouls the air with tons of mercury poisoning. Several utility companies with coal plants also polluted rivers with uncontrolled spills from coal ash reservoirs that threaten public water supplies.

From a jobs standpoint, it’s no contest. Solar and wind energy industries now employ three times the number of coal miners in the U.S. and the ratio is only going to increase in the future despite Trump’s efforts to revive coal.

Another court battle is brewing over the recent environmental review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to green-light a massive open-pit gold and copper mine in Alaska. A Canadian company, Northern Dynastic Minerals, is proposing an operation that would threaten Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home to the world’s most prolific wild salmon run.

The mine could produce as much as 10 billion tons of toxic waste and store it forever behind precarious dams on seismically active land, reported the Natural Resources Defense Council. At stake is Bristol Bay’s economic engine — its renowned salmon runs that generate $1.5 billion in annual revenue and sustain 14,000 jobs.

The project is widely condemned by fishermen, indigenous tribes, sportsmen, businesses and conservationists. The EPA concluded in 2014 that the mine posed a “catastrophic risk” and blocked it, only to be revived by Trump’s administration.

“The Army Corps is ignoring every red flag, but we’ll keep fighting until this disastrous idea is buried for good,” said the council’s Kiekow Heimer.

Several of Trump’s cabinet members have been forced out by ethical lapses, like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt who had a taste for lavish spending and expensive travel on the taxpayers’ dime. But in some cases, their replacements aren’t much of an improvement.

Consider Zinke successor David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas industry lobbyist who is so conflicted that he carries a card in his wallet to remind him of all his conflicts of interest. The council said that instead of Trump draining the swamp in Washington, he’s promoted one of the biggest gators to a position of power.

The Los Angeles Times examined Bernhardt’s background as a partner in a large law and lobbying firm. When he was confirmed as deputy secretary in 2017, Bernhardt had to sign an ethics pledge to recuse himself in dealing with more than two dozen former clients he had represented. He was a partner in a law firm that had sued the Interior Department four times on behalf of one client alone.

Some of the pledges were for two years while others were for one year, but he’s being accused of putting policies in place that benefit some of his former clients.

His decision to open 17 million acres of federal land to oil and gas leasing won praise from Republicans, but environmentalists and Democrats call him the most conflict-riddled member of Trump’s cabinet.

The department also announced plans to open virtually all coastal waters to off-shore drilling. One notable exception was Florida because it’s a critical state for Trump’s re-election chances next year.

Bernhardt would not have been nominated under Obama’s ethics pledge that barred registered lobbyists from taking jobs in an agency that they had lobbied in the past two years. The recent resignation of Alex Acosta as secretary of labor marks the 45th member of Trump’s senior staff to resign in the last 30 months and reinforces the notion that Trump’s cabinet choices are second-rate.

— John D. Foster, a Carthage resident and former editor of the Panola Watchman, is a regular contributor to the Saturday Forum. Email

Today's Bible verse

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

— Psalm 42:11

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