Abusing Planet Earth – December 2017

A sampling of assaults on the environment

Funding international research on climate change

President Trump’s 2018 budget would end funding for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is the international body established in 1988 to provide policymakers with periodic assessments of the scientific basis for climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation. President Trump’s planned withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty raised questions about the organization’s future funding. About 25 countries contribute to IPCC’s relatively small annual budget of roughly $4.3 million, and the U.S. has been contributing about 45% of that.

In mid-November, President Macron of France announced that his government would cover any shortfall in funding for the IPCC. “I propose that Europe replace America, and France will meet that challenge,” Macron told delegates at the climate conference in Bonn. “I would like to see the largest number of EU countries at our side, all together we can compensate for the loss of US funding but I can guarantee from the start of 2018, the IPCC will have all the money that it needs and it will continue to support our decision-making.” Vive la France!

Oil pipelines – leaks and approvals

Last March President Trump approved the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, reversing a decision by the Obama administration. Crude oil would flow through the 1,180-mile pipeline from Canada to Nebraska and then through existing pipelines to refineries on the Gulf Coast. “It’s a great day for jobs and energy independence,” Trump said, calling the pipeline “the greatest technology known to man or woman.” During the presidential campaign, Trump tweeted about the pipeline: “thousands of jobs, good for the environment, no downside!”

On November 16 about 210,000 gallons of oil leaked from an existing pipeline in northeast South Dakota, operated by the same company, TransCanada. Then four days later Nebraska regulators granted TransCanada the final permit needed to begin construction on the Keystone XL pipeline. However, the regulators approved an alternative route rather than the pipeline company’s preferred route. TransCanada had said the alternative route was unworkable, and they asked the regulators to reconsider their decision. While the approved alternative route would largely avoid the ecologically fragile Sandhills, it would still cross small shallow parts of the Ogallala aquifer, the main source of drinking and irrigation water in Nebraska and much of the Great Plains.

Almost two weeks after the November 16 pipeline accident, regulators allowed TransCanada to resume operation of the Keystone pipeline in South Dakota but at a greatly reduced capacity. About a fifth of the spilled oil has been cleaned up.

Saving African elephants

Speaking out works! Reacting to widespread criticism, President Trump on November 17 abruptly reversed his decision of the day before to allow elephants shot for sport in Zimbabwe and Zambia through 2018 to be imported to the United States as trophies. The administration will now “review” the matter.



African Elephants


The administration and advocates of big-game hunting contend that the money raised from trophy hunters could be used to improve the conservation programs in African countries, thereby helping the survival of the elephants. In other words, the more elephants you kill, the more elephants you save. However, officials in Kenya claim that wildlife-viewing tourism generates for more money than does trophy hunting. So if you want to shoot an elephant, use your camera. Furthermore, lifting the ban on trophy imports would actually encourage more poaching and illegal trade in elephant ivory.

President Trump makes decisions solely from a personal perspective; the merits of an issue are irrelevant for him. In this case, he was bruised by the public outcry from Republic politicians, animal rights groups, and others, so he backed down. If it works for elephants, it can work elsewhere.

And there is more good news for African elephants. China has been the world’s biggest ivory market, and its demand kept the illegal ivory trade humming. Ivory carving in China is a centuries-old craft, and ivory items are prized as a part of Chinese cultural heritage. But China has announced it will ban all ivory sales at the end of 2017. China’s commitment to close down its ivory industry has thrown a lifeline to African elephants and brought new hope in the battle to end the poaching of tens of thousands of animals every year for their tusks. However, Save the Elephants, a conservation organization, say the battle is not over. Vietnam and Laos have fast-growing ivory markets. But experts say China will persist in its policy, especially given President Xi Jinping’s personal support for the ban.

Fox guarding the henhouse

Brian Steed, chief of staff to a Utah Congressman, was named interim director of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that manages 245 million acres of federal land, mostly out west. Steed is an advocate for transferring ownership or control of federal lands to local authorities and allowing greater access to ranchers, miners, and the oil industry.

President eliminates an advisory panel of climate experts

The Trump administration has terminated the Community Resilience Panel, a group of experts created several years ago to help local officials protect their residents against extreme weather and natural disasters. Jesse Keenan, the unpaid chairman of the panel and a climate researcher from Harvard said: “It was one of the last federal bodies that openly talked about climate change in public.” The group advised local officials on making buildings, communications, energy systems, transportation and water more able to withstand severe weather and climate change.

Quote of the month: During a speech in Missouri on November 29, when asked to comment on the fact that the Republican tax bill would benefit him personally, Trump responded: Hey, look, Im president. I don’t care. I don’t care anymore.”

Good news

In a break with most in the Trump administration, Barry Myers, nominated to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said at his confirmation hearing on November 29 that he believes humans are the main cause of climate change. He also said he would not condone any guidance from the White House that would discourage the mention of climate change by NOAA scientists in their work. Myers is a lawyer with no background in the sciences relevant to NOAA’s multiple missions, but some hope his experience as a chief executive officer of AccuWeather since 2007 will be valuable in leading the agency.

Texas Representative Joe Barton will not seek re-election after lewd photos of him were circulated online. He is a climate change denier and earned the nickname “Smokey Joe” because of his environmental record of defending industries against tighter pollution controls. He once said that global warming is a net benefit to humans. Bye Joe.

President Trump decimates two national monuments

On December 4th President Trump announced he is drastically reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. More than 1.1 million acres were removed from Bears Ears, about an 85% reduction in size. Grand Staircase-Escalante was reduced by about 46%, or 800,000 acres.

Appeals from almost three million Americans, including SIAN members responding to our action alerts, fell on deaf ears. Local ranchers will get greater access to public land for personal gain, and it’s likely that some areas removed from the monuments will be made available for new coal mining and oil drilling. Although Interior Secretary Zinke recommended that the areas removed from the monuments remain federal lands, most of the areas with the highest potential for oil and gas resources are outside the boundaries of the new, smaller Bears Ears National Monument.

The lands within the original boundaries of both monuments are rich with irreplaceable fossils of plants and animals that are millions of years old. Paleontologists warn that many of those fossils will now lose federal protection because they are outside the boundaries of the new monuments. As one scientist said, “When you have a loss of protection for fossils, its not just a loss for science. Its a loss for all Americans. This is part of our countrys story; this is part of our planets story.”

You can read the President’s lengthy proclamations for each monument under “briefing room” on the White House website. Native American Tribes and non-profit organizations have filed lawsuits to try to block the proclamations.

Offshore Oil Drilling

Any day now the Trump administration will announce it is developing a new offshore oil and gas program that will allow the oil industry access to Atlantic waters. It was almost a year ago that the Obama administration removed the East Coast from the current program in response to strong opposition from every coastal community.

Once again opponents will make a convincing case to prohibit drilling for oil and gas off our coast. The debate will be contentious for years. The government will not select the specific offshore areas to be leased to oil companies for several years. While harmful seismic surveying could start soon, drilling would not take place until well after the 2020 election.

Butterflies and the wall

The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) is suing the Trump administration over its plans to build a border wall through its 100-acre Butterfly Center in South Texas along the Rio Grande. NABA said construction of the proposed wall would cut off two-thirds of its property, effectively destroying the Butterfly Center and leaving behind a 70-acre no man’s land between the proposed border wall and the Rio Grande.

The group said the wall will eliminate $450 million in ecotourism for this economically disadvantaged area. “The Butterfly Center is the premier place in the United States to see and learn about wild butterflies,” NABA said in its lawsuit. ”It is visited by tens of thousands of people each year, including thousands of local school children. On a given day, one can see 100 species of wild and as many as 200,000 individual butterflies, none of which is held in captivity at the Butterfly Center.”

NABA is now asking the court to block the administration from building the wall until it complies with applicable environmental laws and regulations.

Brain drain

France recently held a “Make our planet great again” competition for climate scientists that attracted 1,822 applicants, about two-thirds of them from the United States. The results are in and French President Emmanuel Macron announced that research grants totaling $70 million have been awarded to 18 climate scientists, including 13 from the U.S.

One grant recipient, Louis A. Derry, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell, lamented a “devaluing of science by (the Trump) administration” and said Congress’s tax plan would have a “catastrophic” effect on graduate students.

Many applicants were attracted by France’s offer of five-year contracts, noting that research programs cannot be shut down every year and then started again on short notice when new funding is available. Some of the contest applicants said it is currently difficult to conduct innovative scientific research in the U.S. because of cuts in government funding and the general political climate. They believe France is providing a much more “fertile environment” to conduct innovative research.

Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, said, “The news of some U.S. scientists choosing to move to France to conduct their research is troubling.” Some of the researchers will split their time between France and the United States.

Climate change and national security

President Trump unveiled a new National Security Strategy on December 18 outlining his foreign policy priorities, and the threat of climate change to national security was conspicuous by its omission. This is in stark contrast to the views of Defense Secretary Mattis and is a reversal from the Obama Administration.

Other world leaders recognize that the floods, extreme weather events, droughts, and sea level rise caused by a rapidly changing climate bring about humanitarian crises, failing coastal infrastructure, and food and drinking water shortages that lead to economic instability and conflict.

The President said his strategy “embraces a future of American energy dominance and self-sufficiency.” It’s not clear what “energy dominance” means or how it benefits the country. Who do we need to dominate, and why? Trump ignores the fact that a healthy, resilient economy requires sustainable and diverse energy sources. And “self-sufficiency” in a global economy is an oxymoron.





Posted in Environment, News and Alerts