A typical day of Los Angeles traffic before the stay-at-home order in the city and state of California. Curimedia/Wikimedia Commons

Welcome back to TRNN’s Climate Crisis News Roundup. In the coming weeks, this column will increasingly focus on the intersection between COVID-19 and the climate crisis. If you have a story you think deserves a spot in the roundup, get in touch with me at steve@therealnews.com or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read last week’s edition here.

Pollution Plummets As COVID-19 Spreads

One of the weirdly positive planetary side effects of the COVID-19 outbreak is the accidental case study of humanity’s daily greenhouse gas and pollution footprint. By essentially turning off the economic machine for days at a time and forcing people to work from home—while also shutting most public and private gathering spaces to maintain “social distancing”—we get clearer air and a rare view of how much pollution daily activity produces in the United States. 

This is a topic we previously covered at TRNN. Reporter Kim Brown interviewed Bryan Duncan, an atmospheric scientist with NASA, who looked at similar data in China.

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“…We’ve been able to use these satellites to look at how air pollution has been changing over time in China, and we’ve never seen such a very sharp decrease as this, over this short period of time, on the matter of just a few weeks,” Duncan said.

Scientists have already found similar trends in the United States since COVID-19 began spreading. Examining data from Descartes Labs Platform, The New York Times reported decreasing pollution during this time period in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Atlanta.

New York, for example, saw levels of carbon monoxide drop over 50% compared to normal on March 13. Researchers have linked the decrease to a drastic reduction in traffic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, vehicular emissions are over 29% of all emissions in the United States.

“We’ve never seen anything like the drop,” Roisin Commane, an assistant professor at Columbia University, told The New York Times. “We often see dips during weekends or over holidays, but this is completely different.”

Los Angeles is notorious for having some of the worst traffic in the country and also some of the highest levels of smog. The city has seen an unprecedented drop in nitrogen dioxide levels in recent weeks.

Traffic data firm INRIX shows that nationally, “car traffic dropped a shocking 30 percent at the end of last week compared to the same day of the week,” Streetsblog USA reported.

Of course, this doesn’t mean humanity should rely on a global pandemic as a mechanism for lowering emissions. But perhaps this crisis, as United National Environmental Program Director Inger Anderson pointed out recently to The Guardian, can serve as a wake-up call for people about the impact we are having on the planet.

Congress, however, still appears asleep at the wheel.

No Green Stimulus

Climate justice activists have called for a $2 trillion Green Stimulus in response to the ever-worsening recession COVID-19 has triggered in the United States. They see it as an opportunity, as with the Green New Deal, to tackle two crises at once: jobs and climate. When all is said and done, the United States could see six million jobs lost by the end of March.

The eight-pronged Green Stimulus proposal calls for building more green public housing, scaling up the US public transit system, more production and installation of green energy, financing of family and community sustainable farms, and a green foreign policy. It’s a comprehensive plan, and would plant the seeds of a Green New Deal. But it was dead on arrival in the Senate.

After extensive meetings between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, the Senate and White House brokered a deal for a $2 trillion stimulus plan that got a unanimous 96-0 vote (including support from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren). House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she expected the bill to get a “strong, bipartisan vote” in that chamber, as well. It did, and Trump signed the stimulus bill on March 27.

The plan is the largest monetary stimulus in history. But it includes nothing from the Green Stimulus proposal except for $25 billion for public transit agencies. Climate activists had also called for the stimulus to leave out the aviation industry, which contributes 2.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, unless it came with environmental regulations attached.. None of that is in the Senate version of the bill.

Instead, the stimulus gives $58 billion to the aviation industry, $500 billion to megacorporations, and $350 billion to small businesses. The one-time cash payment to individuals of $1,200 per person, plus $500 per child, is estimated to cost only $300 billion—less than what’s allocated for industry and corporations, but more than what’s going to public health or food assistance.

Big Oil Gets The Deregulation It Wants

On March 26, the EPA announced a halt to civil enforcement laws during the coronavirus outbreak.

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a press release. “This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment.”

The oil industry has tried to use the coronavirus crisis to its advantage, seeking deregulatory policies and other favorable measures. Last week’s roundup tackled the Trump administration’s push to buy oil from distressed companies for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. At one point the coronavirus stimulus bill included money for buying up that oil, even though financial woes for those companies long pre-date the global pandemic. The money wasn’t included in the final stimulus breakdown, nor was the Strategic Petroleum Reserve proposal.

So Big Oil tried a new route, with some success. The industry’s most powerful lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, sent two separate letters to President Trump and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, asking them to relax regulations around its activity.

The first letter asked for a slew of regulatory relaxations from agencies including the Department of Transportation, Department of Interior, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, and the EPA.

“[T]he oil and natural gas industry needs to maintain safe and reliable operations, taking into consideration that there may be limited personnel capacity to manage the full scope of the current regulatory requirements,” reads the letter. “As such, we will be requesting assistance in temporarily waiving non-essential compliance obligations from the relevant agencies and departments within your Administration and/or their state counterparts, and may include recordkeeping, training or other non-safety critical requirements.”

Among other things, API requested a lessening of “nonessential inspections” and “nonessential training,” lowering the bar for “reporting and auditing requirements,” and less “routine testing.”

The second letter made more specific demands of the EPA. The industry lobbying hegemon wrote in that letter that it “remains committed to prioritizing safe and reliable operations” but that it might have “limited personnel capacity to manage the full scope of the current regulatory requirements” during this time of crisis.

“As such, we are requesting assistance from your agency in temporarily waiving non-essential compliance obligations, and we request coordination with your state agency counterparts as necessary,” API continued. “Industry is seeking temporary relief through enforcement discretion, waivers or revised compliance timeframes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The two letters were sent on March 20 and March 23. The EPA’s announcement was made on March 26.

Caroline Henderson, a senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace USA, denounced the EPA’s decision.

“We cannot let our government’s response in this moment be driven by lobbyists at the American Petroleum Institute looking to exploit a crisis for their own gain,” Henderson said in a press release. “The EPA should be focused on protecting the health of those most vulnerable in the middle of a pandemic, not easing requirements for corporate polluters.”

A Win And A Loss On The Dakota Access Pipeline

Lastly, a rare bit of good news for the climate justice movement. In the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge James Boasberg ruled on March 25 that the environmental review that helped greenlight the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 2020 is the 50th birthday of NEPA, a bedrock environmental law that’s faced attacks from both the Obama and Trump administrations (you can watch TRNN’s story on Obama’s fight to weaken NEPA here).

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The Dakota Access Pipeline, which opened for business in 2017, brings oil obtained from fracking in the Bakken Shale in North Dakota across four different states, ending in Illinois. Obama used a process called the Nationwide Permit 12 to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to separate the pipeline into smaller segments, avoiding a comprehensive environmental review for the entire proposed pipeline. In response the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said the expedited review process violated its rights under NEPA, which covers both the protection of cultural heritage sites and potential water impacts. The anti-pipeline standoff and protest at Standing Rock has become iconic, the largest in United States history.

In essence, Judge Boasberg validated the Standing Rock movement’s grievances.

“The Court acknowledges that in projects of this scope, it is not difficult for an opponent to find fault with many conclusions made by an operator and relied on by the agency. But here, there is considerably more than a few isolated comments raising insubstantial concerns,” wrote Boasberg in his ruling. “The many commenters in this case pointed to serious gaps in crucial parts of the Corps’ analysis—to name a few, that the pipeline’s leak-detection system was unlikely to work, that it was not designed to catch slow spills, that the operator’s serious history of incidents had not been taken into account, and that the worst-case scenario used by the Corps was potentially only a fraction of what a realistic figure would be—and the Corps was not able to fill any of them.”

Boasberg has sent the review back to the Corps for a more thorough review. And he has said that there will be a follow-up hearing in April to determine whether the pipeline currently operating and open for business should be shuttered as the revamped environmental review takes place. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe called it a victory which ideally sets a new legal precedent.

“After years of commitment to defending our water and earth, we welcome this news of a significant legal win,” Mike Faith, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said in a press release. “It’s humbling to see how actions we took four years ago to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices ultimately affect this planet. Perhaps in the wake of this court ruling the federal government will begin to catch on, too, starting by actually listening to us when we voice our concerns.”

Boasberg’s ruling was a win in the anti-pipeline fight. But two days later, Iowa approved a proposal to double Dakota Access’s capacity, one of many states that would need to do so for the plan to go forward. The increased capacity would be instrumental in bringing oil to the global export market.

That’s it for this week. Stay safe out there, and if you can, stay at home. Thank you for reading and please come back next week for another edition of the Climate Crisis News Roundup.

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Steve Horn

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website DeSmog.com, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.