Top Environmental Stories of 2017

January 9, 2018

Scott Pruitt Heads the Agency He once Challenged: President Trump voiced that his goal was to make a change, and by hiring Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, change was underway. Pruitt is fond of saying, “the future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA,” and that’s become true throughout 2017. As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, challenging its authority to regulate toxic mercury pollution, smog, carbon emissions from power plants and the quality of wetlands and other waters. Pruitt has remained aggressive even as he leads the same agency that he once challenged by reducing the agency’s reach, pausing or reversing numerous environmental rules, and shrinking the EPA’s workforce to Reagan-era levels. One of the biggest changes that Pruitt made was rolling back the Clean Power Plan allowing for less regulation on carbon emissions from power plants. Although Pruitt has become one of Trump’s most effective Cabinet members, he has received criticism from many different groups along the way.

Gulf of Mexico Offerings for Oil and Gas Drilling the Largest Ever: The abundance of drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico has allowed the fossil fuel industry to extract oil and gas for decades. In early November, however, the Trump administration announced the largest gulf lease offering for oil and gas exploration in U.S. history: 77 million acres. Trump’s goal was to push “energy dominance,” and to do so, Ryan Zinke, Interior Secretary of the U.S., and President Trump are working towards opening more land to coal excavation in the West. The U.S. has seen oil prices begin to climb after reaching record lows in recent years, but coal is struggling to make a comeback after the rise of natural gas. Drilling in the Gulf of Mexico will produce more oil, but it could spell disaster. With any offshore drilling site, the image that comes to mind is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill which was a tragedy where oil spewed into the water for months polluting beaches and marine animals. The industry has learned from this event and has put new protection methods in place thus allowing for Congress to greenlight leases for exploration in the recently passed tax bill.

Keystone Pipeline and Dakota Access Revived by Trump: Camps of protesters united in Canon Ball, North Dakota for months to fight a pipeline that they argued could threaten the drinking water and cultural sites of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Just days after President Trump took office , he signed executive orders to revivetwo controversial pipelines that the Obama administration had put on hold — the 1,172-mile Dakota Access and the 1,700-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would extend from the Canadian tar sands region to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. The company behind the Keystone XL cleared a key regulatory hurdle this past fall when it received approval from the Nebraska Public Service Commission allowing completion of the northern half of the pipeline, running from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. Trump’s statement on the recent actions was that this is “part of a new era of American energy policy that will lower costs for American families — and very significantly — reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and create thousands of jobs right here in America.”

The EPA and the Waters of the U.S.: The Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers announced that they would withdraw Obama’s 2015 “waters of the United States” – or WOTUS – regulation, which expanded the number of waterways covered by the federal Clean Water Act. The withdrawal process is only the first step as the agencies promised a broad review of which waters should fall under federal jurisdiction. “We are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation’s farmers and businesses,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said, adding that the re-evaluation would be “thoughtful, transparent and collaborative with other agencies and the public.” The debate over which waterways are covered under the Clean Water Act has dragged on for years and remains murky despite two Supreme Court rulings.

Years of Investigation Lead to Criminal Charges in the Flint Water Crisis: After four long years, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged the director of the state’s health department and four other public officials with involuntary manslaughterfor their roles in the Flint water crisis. The manslaughter charges were issued in June, and these were just the latest reckoning. Many people in the community worried that thousands of children were exposed to dangerous levels of lead due to the city’s contaminated water supply. The following investigation justified these worries by discovering the decisions that led to tainted water for nearly 100,000 people in the city. This resulted in 51 criminal charges for 15 state and local officials. It is unclear how many of the charges will stick, b  ut the crisis has even been linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that contributed to at least a dozen deaths. The Flint Water crisis still affects the people of the city today because many residents do not trust the water from the taps nor the public officials charged with ensuring it is safe.

The New Ozone Standards Are on Hold: The ozone pollution rules that are in place say that states need to lower emissions of ozone – a ground-level pollutant found in smog – or ensure stiff penalties for non-compliance. America’s air quality has steadily improved in recent decades without a more stringent standard. The Clean Air Act of 1970 grants the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate the amount of ozone in the air, but they do not directly limit emissions of pollutants. In 2008, the EPA capped the amount of ozone at 75 parts per billion. In 2015, before the 2008 regulations were even implemented fully, the agency changed the standard to 70 ppb. This standard could cause 958 counties to fail to meet the 70 ppb standard, but the House passed a bill in July delaying the implementation of these regulations. The Senate has yet to do the same.

Contributed by Harrison Haley, Marketing Associate