The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Trump to waive environmental rules to construct border wall

with Paulina Firozi


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said on Tuesday that it will use its authority under a George W. Bush-era law to bypass environmental rules in order to construct a section of President Trump's promised border wall.

The announcement underscores the commitment from DHS -- now without a permanent leader after John Kelly's ascended to become White House chief of staff -- and theTrump administration more broadly making good on the president's signature campaign promise, despite not yet having a plan for the wall in place nor funding for its construction approved by Congress (though that  is in the pipeline).

DHS issued the environmental waiver for a 15-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, starting at the Pacific Ocean and extending eastward, that the department describes as one of the busiest for illicit border crossings.

"The sector remains an area of high illegal entry for which there is an immediate need to improve current infrastructure and construct additional border barriers and roads," DHS said in a statement.

The department's decision is poised to further unite activists and lawyers opposed to Trump policies on environmental deregulation and immigration enforcement.

"If the Trump administration can’t reconcile their xenophobic border wall with dozens of environmental safeguards meant to protect our communities," Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement, "that’s yet another reason Congress should deny funding."

Under normal circumstances, a federal agency must complete an environmental impact study before beginning a major infrastructure project on public land. But a 2005 law grants the federal government broad authority to waive such environmental examinations and other legal requirements in order to expeditiously build a border barrier. Michael Chertoff, homeland security secretary under Bush, used the waiver five times, the department said.

In this case, the waiver will be used to construct prototype walls, along with roads and other infrastructure, called for in a January executive order signed by President Trump. 

Brian Segee, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said his organization "will definitely pursue any judicial avenues we have available to us however limited they may be."

The center — along with Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee — sued the Trump administration last month for failing to analyze the environmental impact of erecting a wall that they say will slice ecosystems in half. Last week, House Republicans approved a $1.6 billion down payment on the border wall over the objections of Democrats.

Segee admits that Congress has granted DHS sweeping authority.

"It's an uphill battle," he said. "It's a broad waiver." He added the center will review its options once DHS's decision is officially published in the Federal Register.

The center has identified 93 at-risk species along the entire southern border that could be adversely affected by the construction of a border wall, including jaguars, Mexican gray wolves and, in the case of the San Diego section, Quino checkerspot butterflies.

Any legal or political challenge to the prototype project near San Diego is likely prelude to a bigger fight over building a barrier in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge situated along the Rio Grande in Texas, which is home to two endangered cats, the Texas ocelot and Gulf Coast jaguarundi. Trump's budget proposal called for the border wall to extend in the refuge. 


-- By the numbers: Respondents to a new Pew survey of people around the world collectively finger the Islamic State and climate change as the top two global threats.

Concern over the two issues are practically neck-and-neck: 62 percent of people around the world said the terrorist group is among the major threats to world stability while 61 percent said the same of climate change. 

There's relatively less concern about climate change in the United States: Only 56 percent (still a majority) of U.S. residents consider climate change a top global threat. But the partisan divide on the issue is vast. The survey found that 86 percent of left-leaning respondents in the United States were concerned about climate change while only 31 percent of right-leaning respondents felt the same way.

-- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke "has been raising his own profile," writes GQ in a recent profile. And with a raised profile comes more political scruntiny.

A new six-figure ad buy from the Center for Western Priorities this week attempts to make political hay out of the Trump administration review of national monuments approved by previous presidents that is now being overseen by Zinke. Watch the ad below: 

-- Loan forgiveness: The EPA has approved plans for the state of Michigan to forgive more than $20 million in loans owed by the City of Flint over water infrastructure, the Detroit News reported.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said on the decision: “Forgiving the city’s debt will ensure that Flint will not need to resume payments on the loan, allowing progress toward updating Flint’s water system to continue.”

For once, Democrats agree with a decision from Pruitt.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said in a statement: "The state of Michigan forgiving Flint’s outstanding loans will free up money to make much-needed investments as the city recovers from the ongoing water crisis."

-- Elizabeth Southerland, a 30-year veteran of the Environmental Protection Agency, becomes the latest in a series of federal employees who have publicly resigned over Trump environmental policies. She left her post as the director of the science and technology in the EPA’s Office of Water.

Southerland told The Post's Joe Davidson that while the EPA “has been the guiding light to make the ‘right thing’ happen for the greater good, including public health and safety." Now "that will not be possible under the current administration.”

Her announcement follows Interior Department scientist Joel Clement, who wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post charging that the Trump administration reassigned him to another job for speaking out “about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities.”

In a letter, the outgoing EPA scientist warned of the administration’s proposed budget cuts and other changes to the EPA: "The best case for our children and grandchildren is that they will pay the polluters bills through increased state taxes, new user fees, and higher water and sewer bills. The worst case is that they will have to live with increased public health and safety risks and a degraded environment."

-- The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld on Tuesday protections for gray wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The federal appeals court upheld a 2014 decision by a U.S. District judge to overrule that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s call to remove the wolves from endangered status, the Associated Press reported. The wolf population is now back up to 3,800.

The federal appeals court ruled, the AP noted, that the service had not “adequately considered a number of factors in making its decision, including loss of the wolf's historical range and how its removal from the endangered list would affect the predator's recovery in other areas, such as New England, North Dakota and South Dakota.”

The ruling will mean wolf hunting and trapping will be prohibited in the three states.


-- Oil leaders weigh in on transgender bathroom bill: Dozens of business leaders in Texas, including those at oil companies with a significant corporate presence in the state, sent a letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) denouncing the state’s controversial "bathroom bill” that targets transgender people.

Leaders of more than 50 businesses, including executives from ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Halliburton, issued the letter urging the governor not to sign the bill, reports The Post’s Travis M. Andrews. The business leaders wrote they “believe that any such bill risks harming Texas’ reputation and impacting the state’s economic growth and ability to create new jobs.” The bill would restrict access to bathrooms based on people’s birth-certificate listed sex.

Some context: ExxonMobil has not always had the best reputation on LGBT issues, though it improved under former chief executive (and current secretary of state) Rex Tillerson. When Exxon and Mobil merged in 1999, the newly formed company eliminated domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian employees. Tillerson reversed that decision, made by his predecessor, in 2013. 


-- Nukes for sales (not those kind): The South Carolina-based utility owner may be looking to sell its two unfinished nuclear reactors, Bloomberg reports, hoping to “keep the equipment in operating condition in case someone in China, India, or the U.K. wants to buy it.”

How likely is a sale? “The Chinese are developing a competitive product, the Brits are in trouble with their nuclear projects and the Indians want to develop their own supply chain,” said Chris Gadomski, a nuclear industry analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, according to the report, which adds Gadomski said it’s more likely the project is “mothballed.” 

-- Art imitates life? Interest in this month’s solar eclipse has skyrocketed, county-level data from Google shows. And more specifically, as The Post’s Christopher Ingraham explains, the searches are concentrated in the very path the eclipse will follow, and decreases as you divert from the path. People in counties that will fall in the shadow of the eclipse are searching for information on the eclipse five to 10 more times than those that fall outside the path, according to the report, which you can see plainly in the below graphic:

And The Boston Globe asks... "Is the eclipse throwing shade at Clinton supporters?"

It appears so.


-- Death and All His Friends Part I: So-called “ghost forests” are popping up on coastlines where sea levels are rising and salt water is creeping into areas with once thriving trees. It’s one global example of climate change that, the Associated Press reports, is evident along the U.S. East Coast from Canada, down to Florida and to Texas.

How bad is it for ecosystems? The answer isn’t cut and dried. The AP writes: “The intruding salt water changes coastal ecosystems, creating marshes where forests used to be. This has numerous effects on the environment, though many scientists caution against viewing them in terms of ‘good’or ‘bad.’ What benefits one species or ecosystem might harm another one, they say.”

There are winners and losers: Ghost forests diminish the land migratory birds need as habitat. And nitrogen from the dying trees contributes to algae growth, depleting oxygen that fish breathe. On the other hand, the wetlands produced from the forests-turned-marshlands feed and shelter some fish and shellfish.

-- Death and All His Friends Part II: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to announce the largest recorded “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where low oxygen levels cause marine life to suffocate and die. The culprit is believed to be toxins from manure and fertilizer from the meat industry flowing into waterways, The Guardian reports, based on a new report by environmental group Mighty.

The pollutants from meat production flowing into the water causes algae overgrowth, which then decomposes and depletes the oxygen.

“This problem is worsening and worsening and regulation isn’t reducing the scope of this pollution,” Lucia von Reusner, campaign director at Mighty told The Guardian. “These companies’ practices need to be far more sustainable. And a reduction in meat consumption is absolutely necessary to reduce the environmental burden.” The report identifies Tyson Foods as a “'dominant' influence in the pollution, due to its market strength in chicken, beef and pork.”

In a statement, a Tyson spokesman said: "It’s true the livestock and poultry industry is a major buyer of grain for feed, however, the report fails to note that a large percentage of corn raised in the US is used for biofuel and that a significant portion is used for human consumption."



  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power holds a  hearing on water security and drought preparedness.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearingon the FBI Headquarters Consolidation Project.
  • The Interior Department holds a program on reviewing advances in oil spill responses since the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill on.
  • The CRES Forum holds an event on the future of job growth in the solar industry and free trade.

Coming Up

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to “examine federal and nonfederal collaboration, including through the use of technology, to reduce wildland fire risk to communities and enhance firefighting safety and effectiveness” on Thursday
  • The UPROSE holds its 6th Climate Justice Youth Summit is on Thursday.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on the border wall: "Let's get it done." 

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan released this video promoting a physical barrier along America's southern border on Aug. 1. (Video: Speaker Paul Ryan)

Watch a great white shark try to bite a camera: 

Scientists at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries caught underwater footage of a curious shark near Monomy Island, Mass., on July 31. (Video: Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries)

Jimmy Fallon with an idea for a LinkedIn for people ousted from the Trump administration: 

From The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, "The Purge: White House Edition":