Consolidation of power into the federal government will make it harder for states to oppose pipeline construction for environmental reasons, says Tamara O’Laughlin, North America Director of 350.org (http://350.org).
DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.
President Trump signed two executive orders on Wednesday that aim to make it easier for companies to build new oil and gas pipelines, and harder for states to block them because of environmental concerns.
Speaking to members of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Texas, Trump said the move would cut unnecessary red tape to boost the American economy and create jobs.
DONALD TRUMP: Too often, badly needed energy infrastructure is being held back by special interest groups, entrenched bureaucracies, and radical activists. Shocking to hear that. It’s so true. The two executive orders that I’ll be signing in just a moment will fix this dramatically, accelerating energy infrastructure approvals. So we’re going to get these approvals done quickly.
DHARNA NOOR: But those “radical activist” movements to block pipeline construction are still in full swing. New Yorkers will march over the Brooklyn bridge on Thursday to demand Governor Andrew Cuomo reject the Williams fracked gas pipeline. And this all comes just a month after Trump issued a presidential permit, the second of its kind, for the Keystone XL pipeline. An earlier permit was overturned by a U.S. district judge.
Now joining me to talk about all this is Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the brand new North American director for the environmental advocacy group 350.org. She previously led the Maryland Developmental Health Network here in Baltimore. Congrats on the new position, and thanks for being here.
TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN: Thank you. I look forward to doing the same thing in a slightly different place.
DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, absolutely. So I guess we should start by unpacking what exactly these two executive orders will do. One limits state power to stop pipeline construction. And the other seems to give the president the exclusive power to approve or deny permits for pipelines to cross international borders. So I guess I’ll start with the latter. Has anybody but the president actually wielded the power to deny permits for infrastructure that crosses international borders?
TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN: So this question is really an important one because it looks at some constitutionally held separation between what the federal government does, what states do, and what the president does. The president’s powers are pretty clearly lined up to focus on things like treaties, and executive orders, and issues of foreign affairs. So a lot of that top-line messaging around these executive orders has attempted to move a bunch of things that belong across the way the government actually works and consolidate it into the very limited powers of the president.
So yes, people have tried. This president has tried. And just recently those attempts have been rebuffed by the courts, because the branches together and and everybody has to stay in their lane.
DHARNA NOOR: So I do want to come back to how that’s played out on the national stage. But of course the other executive order limits state rights, which is kind of ironic, given the supposed tenets of the Republican Party. But that aside, it tells the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to revisit the amount of time states have to review fracked gas pipelines, and it limits the scope of water quality reviews. Talk about what the impact of that could be.
TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN: I am not certain that the impact of that will be as as threatening as it seems, but I don’t think that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about it. Having spent the last few decades of my life working in and out of several branches of government at multiple levels, I can assure you that an expedited order that comes from the EPA only deals with one of the multiple agencies that deal with these issues. So we are talking about the federal pipeline safety administration for scores of state agencies and city level agencies that work together to make sure that when we talk about energy all of the bases are covered at multiple levels.
So I think by ordering this thing, even if it were to have appropriate legal precedent, even if it were to expedite the powers that are vested squarely in the president, there would be pretty significant trouble trying to colocate how the specific constraint of the EPA and the federal government would affect the way this happens in this state. Because it doesn’t work that way. Checks and balances require more relationships than that, and a bureaucracy doesn’t move just because of an executive order.
DHARNA NOOR: And I guess maybe we should back up a little bit, because of course Trump says that these executive orders will boost the American economy and create jobs. It’s probably obvious to most viewers, but just to recap, what are the dangers that oil and gas pipelines pose to public health and to the planet?
TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN: Sure, thanks for asking. There are folks from Lusby, Solomons, Garrett County, Howard County, all over the state of Maryland who are representative of what communities are experiencing all over the country. They will tell you that by virtue of compressor stations, pipelines, well pads, and every other form of natural gas infrastructure specifically, and the coal universe that happened before it, and the dangers of nuclear energy, is a pretty hot space for talking about public health, because the environmental impact of a lifetime of being exposed to these sorts of physical difference makers, magnifiers of existing inequality, and creators of pollution. We are really in a space where we’re talking about the overlap between health equity and environmental justice, because environment and health come together to create the conditions of people’s lives. Actually a lot. There’s a lot. There’s so much overlap that it is difficult for me to talk about health without talking about the environment.
DHARNA NOOR: And in two specific instances, Trump signed these orders after officials in Washington blocked a new coal terminal from being built, and officials in New York blocked a new natural gas pipeline from being built. In both cases they cited concerns for environmental safety for regulations, to potential pollution in the water, in the air. And both of those moves on the state level drew some ire from Republicans and from industry. Would these executive orders have ensured that those projects and permits got built? And how will this impact current pipeline proposals?
TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN: It’s difficult to say that in a specific instance where things happen that a policy that is this, we think, has not been tested, has not yet been substantiated by the other branches that have to test whether or not a desire for the executive to move something can actually happen will change the circumstances on the ground. But when we’re talking about public health we are essentially talking about this the closest level to where harm is happening, and the right to be able to protect people who are closer to you. So while the federal government has overlapping capacity with the state it will never have more ability than a state level entity to be concerned with the health of citizens, because it’s closer to the heart. It’s where Department of Environment and Department of Natural Resources, Department of Health come together. These agencies are tasked with really being close to the work. And if you go down a level below that you’re talking about community health workers and health officers, all of whom carry the weight for things that seem amorphous and for systems like energy delivery.
So when people talk about having higher rates of asthma, when people talk about having incontrovertible evidence that in the history of living in a specific place they have specific kinds of cancer or they have larger amounts of COPD, there’s an increase in cardiac arrest, and all of those things being tapped to what’s happening around the energy space, I do think that it will be fairly difficult to make bureaucracies that are built to delay things so that we have a long time to think about them, respond so quickly.
DHARNA NOOR: So in 2012 President Obama signed an executive order, one criticized by 350.org founder Bill McKibben at the time, to expedite pipeline permits. And that order made way for the federal infrastructure projects permiting dashboard, which is essentially expedited permitting for fossil fuel infrastructure. Obama made that order while standing in front of pieces of pipe which became part of the Keystone XL. How much easier has it been for companies to get these permits to build pipelines under Trump, and how much easier again, I guess do you think that these executive orders could could make it than it was during the Obama administration?
TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN: I think it’s difficult to to say that one strategy versus another is useful, because one thing that happens when an executive order happens, regardless of whether it stands or whether it lasts, that it sends a message to folks who are investors, it sends a message to people who are in the business of destroying people’s health and continuing to divert our investments that we could making in renewable energy and in clean energy and the things that actually protect people’s health. It sends a message to them that a pathway is being paid by the power of the executive in favor of continuing to make these horrifying investments in fossil fuel.
So ultimately whether or not we are in a presidency that I feel comfortable about, or a presidency that I abhor with every fiber of my being, we’re not in a different position when it comes to opening the floodgates of permiting, of measurements for health quality, for health and water. And one of the things that this, that one of the executive orders points to, is the power of tribes and state agencies and the state to regulate what happens in wetlands. Wetlands are ecosystem space that is so much bigger than just one order demanding that people look at this stuff with less care. Because the different overlapping interests of state agencies and communities that are invested requires time. So it works against the work. And whether or not we’re talking about 45 or 44, we are not in a different state as far as the power people to interrupt a bureaucracy that isn’t focused on supporting them.
DHARNA NOOR: And many people have said that the reason that this bureaucracy isn’t interested in supporting people is because obviously the fossil fuel industry has the ear of many people in the Trump administration. Could you talk a little bit about that? Like the interests that are at play that would encourage a President Trump to sign something like these two executive orders?
TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN: I will, but I’ll start off by talking about the president’s own words when he talked about the special interests. I was really excited that you pointed out that the president pointed to wanting to get more people out of the swamp, or get more–to make the discussion more transparent, and make the work of the people happen. That was the framework that he set up with these executive orders. Well, the people that he’s talking about are people whose lives are in jeopardy. Advocacy communities that have sprung up in response to how quickly he’s rolling back every protection we could care for. So it is not difficult to draw a line from how the rapid onslaught of continual attacks on the strongest environmental laws ever built in the country are coming from people who benefit from the dissonance there.
So while it would be easy to name a couple of folks who clearly benefit from this, because you can just follow the money, it’s more important to look at the larger scale messaging that comes from some of this. And I actually think there’s some hope in it for those of us who work at the protection of our health to help by making humans healthy, to support a healthy environment. I think part of what’s happening there is a sign that the focus on divestment is because divestment is working. People, when having the choice, recognize that where their money goes matters. And so what this order is trying to do is get people who have large amounts of money to continue to investing in dead technology, because folks who have small amounts of money are working really hard to take it away from things that are oppressing them.
DHARNA NOOR: Sure. And 350 is an organizer of, again, an action in York City on Thursday, by the time viewers are saying this it might have already happened, demanding that Governor Andrew Cuomo reject the Northeast supply enhancement, or the Williams fracked gas pipeline. Again, there’s concern that that pipeline could impact drinking water. It’s set to run through the Raritan Bay and lower New York Bay. Talk a little bit about that coming action and what impact these executive orders could have on permiting for that pipeline; what the next move could be from Governor Cuomo.
TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN: Well it’s our sense that this kind of executive order, whether or not it stands, is designed exactly to come at strong executives at the state level, governors who are focused on protecting the health of their communities. Coming out against Williams as the smartest thing you could do, because as a person who wants to remain in office you probably have to have people who are able to vote for you.
And so ultimately it will be really silly for anyone who cares about the health of their community, the strength of their state, and the people who are coming out in the state of New York to support this, all over. There are organizations led by people of color, communities rural and urban, who are finding their place in this discussion because they are being pushed out when the executive is pulling back all of the undercover levers, all the regulations that we’ve used to get a status quo. Love Canal and what happened there didn’t happen so far away from where we’re talking about. So it isn’t so many generations ago. It isn’t even one generation ago when we had to fight for these kinds of protections just to give people baseline health.
So fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground, dealing with Keystone and dealing with Williams as a part of a larger conversation about what we have to be doing everywhere from Canada to West Virginia to stop this work where it’s showing up. And the action in New York is just another thing that is happening because communities are aware that they have a say. And the power of people is more important than the power of even the the current resident of the White House.
DHARNA NOOR: And I guess I want to wrap up by asking you what else 350 plans to do to block pipeline construction, what else viewers can do to get involved. I know that you’re working with a coalition of Indigenous leaders and farmers and ranchers to launch a tour to train people to fight against Keystone.
TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN: Yes. I’m super excited that you asked about the Promise to Protect tour. Thousands of people in ten cities across the U.S. are participating in the Promise to Protect tour. It’s our promise to continue to stay in this fight and to do what 350 is really great at, which is resourcing engaged people to push for what they need, and to make it possible for them to work on this work from a place of strength, not a place of deficit. The trainings support people so that they can double down on intimidation. It teaches them how to deal with nonviolent activism and persisting when there are so many different levers of power being pushed against them. Indigenous leaders from tribal nations who’ve been fighting to stop Keystone are a part of these trainings. So they’re going all around the country to help see future actions against TransCanada pipeline. Also to strengthen local resistance efforts that include Williams in New York, Line 3 in Minnesota, and Phillips 66 in the Bay Area.
So we have our work cut out for us, and the Promise to Protect tour is an amplifier that’s going to help us to bring more people who are asking for agency in this work and for a voice. We want to help [tool] them up. So if you are looking for–we are also looking to expand it. So reach out to us at 350.org if you are interested in having us bring this information, these resources, and support to your community.
DHARNA NOOR: All right. Well, as y’all continue this fight against these pipelines in the face of all of this coming from the Trump administration, please stay in touch. Again, we’ve been speaking with Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the brand new North American director of 350.org. Thank you so much for being with us today. And we’ll talk to you soon.
TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN: Thanks so much.
DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.