Week 4: Bribes, Lies, and Hypocrisy

Week 4: Bribes, Lies, and Hypocrisy

President Trump and the Republican-led Congress steal from endangered species and give to oil companies.

Senate Confirms Pruitt

The Senate confirmed Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a predominantly party-line vote. “He’s exceptionally qualified,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Pruitt, who has no significant experience in environmental science or managing a large organization, and who has shown nothing but disdain for the agency that protects our air and water. Pruitt’s first task will be to resolve the many lawsuits that he, himself, filed against the agency he now runs. I wonder how those will turn out…

Bribing for Barrels

Donald Trump is finally delivering on his promise to give a voice to the voiceless—and he’s starting with perpetrators of bribery.

On Tuesday, President Trump signed a bill repealing a Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring disclosure of payments made to foreign officials. The rule was designed to prevent companies from engaging in bribery abroad—publicizing the payments makes it harder for the recipient to cover up the amount diverted from public coffers.

Oil and gas companies lobbied hard against the rule. In 2016, just as Rex Tillerson’s ExxonMobil was urging the SEC not to adopt the rule, the Guardian revealed that the company was under investigation in Nigeria after winning rights to drill in the West African country despite not submitting the highest bid. In 2010, six oil and gas companies, along with a freight company, paid $236 million in criminal and civil penalties in one of the largest corruption cases to affect a single industry. (One of the countries that received the bribes was Nigeria; Russia was another.)

The problem is systemic. In its most recent Bribery Index, Transparency International ranked only three industries (utilities, real estate, and public works) as worse than oil and gas. The consulting company EY publishes a handbook of tips to help oil and gas companies avoid bribery, which I guess is harder than it sounds.

To repeal the anti-bribery rule, Trump and allies in Congress invoked the Congressional Review Act, a tool used successfully only once in the past 20 years, but twice since Sunday. It allows Congress to revoke recently enacted regulations and demand that the administration never again attempt to enact a similar rule.

Which presents a slight problem. Some concerned Republican legislators want the SEC to try again, applying the disclosure requirement everywhere except countries that forbid companies from disclosing their payments to foreign officials by law. It’s not clear, however, that a slightly altered version of the rule would be legal under the CRA. So breathe easy for now, bribers.

Stream of Consciousness

Shortly after the Congressional Review Act was deployed to nullify SEC’s anti-bribery regulations, it was used again to repeal an Obama-era rule against dumping mining waste into streams.

When coal companies blow the tops off mountains to access the coal underneath, that mountaintop has to go somewhere. One method is to dump tons upon tons of toxic debris into streams. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the process has buried more than 2,000 miles of headwater streams in Appalachia. A 2008 study showed that 90 percent of Appalachian streams below mountaintop removal sites failed to meet Clean Water Act standards, while all the streams in non-mined valleys were compliant. Epidemiological studies show that communities clustered around mountaintop removal sites have increased rates of cancer, heart disease, and birth defects.

The recently repealed rule aimed to address these problems. It provided detailed guidance on what mining companies could and could not do to local waterways, and it forced the miners to do a baseline assessment to describe the state of the water before operations began. A baseline assessment is a crucial prosecutorial tool in the event of legal action, because it stops the company from claiming that the area was already polluted.

The mining industry did not like the stream protection rule, to put it mildly. Many characterized it as a backdoor attempt to end coal mining altogether. Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association claimed that the rule is both redundant and will cost thousands of jobs—two arguments that are somewhat difficult to reconcile.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement estimated that the rule would cost 124 jobs per year. That’s unfortunate, but the real job losses in the coal industry are the result of fundamental noncompetitiveness, not environmental regulations.

Getting Politics Out of Science

Last week we reported on a disagreement between former scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over a paper published in 2015. No serious scientist has claimed that the paper is wrong on its merits; in fact, several independent studies have confirmed the results.

But that’s not good enough for Republican congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Smith is demanding more documents from NOAA regarding the study, because Smith claims he is worried about “political interference” at the agency.

Pause on that for a moment.

Smith—a lifelong politician who has served in Congress for 30 years, has accepted more money from oil and gas interests than from any other industry, and has made an art out of denying climate change—is concerned that a career scientist is exerting inappropriate political influence on government research.

Send your letters to Congressman Lamar Smith, 2409 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515. Avoid irony—he won’t get it.

Gunning for Wildlife

The Senate held a hearing to “modernize” the Endangered Species Act on Wednesday. Modernize probably isn’t the right word, though, so much as undermineeviscerate, or possibly slander. One of the attendees, Utah congressman Rob Bishop, claimed that the act “has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used to control the land.”

For an act that “hasn’t been used to rehabilitate species,” it has been pretty lucky. Fewer than 1 percent of protected species have gone extinct. The longer a species receives protection, and the more funding provided to save it, the more likely the population is to recover. A 2005 analysis showed that species with ESA recovery plans and/or habitat protections were more than twice as likely to be recovering as those that didn’t enjoy such measures.

If you’re not comfortable with “data” and “research,” the Center for Biological Diversity offers a colorful map showing 100 success stories under the Endangered Species Act. Some of them, like the Utah prairie dog, are even located in the home state of Representative Bishop.

Want to have an honest discussion about how to improve the Endangered Species Act? Fine, let’s have it. But we should start with the truth: The ESA has helped many creatures in imminent danger of extinction.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch.