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The Energy 202: Climate change terms altered in another corner of EPA’s website

with Paulina Firozi


Numerous mentions of “climate change,” “greenhouse gasses” and other phrases related to global warming have been found to be altered or deleted from another portion of the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, according to a new environmental watchdog report.

At the beginning of President Trump's term, the EPA’s SmartWay program, designed to help businesses looking to lower their impact on the environment find ways of doing so when shipping goods, told visitors that “many companies monitor their carbon emissions and establish inventories or overall 'carbon footprint' to help decision makers identify the best strategies for reducing climate impacts."

But by May, those descriptions had been replaced by more generalized terms. Instead of tracking carbon emissions, firms could monitor “fuel consumption.” Instead of shrinking their carbon footprint, companies could address their "environmental footprint." Instead of reducing climate impacts, they were told they could “improve sustainability.” 

Elsewhere on SmartWay’s website, other phrases used in climate science were deleted without replacement, with “climate change” and “greenhouse gas emissions” being dropped from a paragraph describing the environmental effects of freight transport. In one instance, the sentence “The science is clear — greenhouse gas emissions from all sources must decrease” was struck entirely from the website. 

The changes were detailed in a report released Friday by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a group of nonprofits and academics who among other activities have monitored changes to federal government websites during the Trump administration.

According to EDGI, the alterations occurred sometime between late March and early May. In April, the EPA announced an overhaul of the agency’s website that included a review of “content related to climate and regulation.” 

“We want to eliminate confusion by removing outdated language first and making room to discuss how we’re protecting the environment and human health by partnering with states and working within the law," J.P. Freire, agency’s associate administrator for public affairs, said in April.

Since at least 1997, the EPA’s website has served as a hub for information for the public on the causes and consequences of climate change, including the human contributions to the observed warming. Scientists largely agree that human activity is contributing to the warming.

EPA chief Scott Pruitt, like several other Cabinet officials and President Trump himself, has expressed doubts about that conclusion. In February, Pruitt famously said carbon dioxide was not the “primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” 

At the time, an EPA webpage on the causes of climate change indicated otherwise. But since coming under review, that webpage reads: “This page is being updated.” Recently, Pruitt said he believes humans contributed to global warming but was uncertain as to what degree.

This isn't the first administration under which the EPA's website has been scrutinized: During the George W. Bush administration, updates to the site were frozen, and then required to undergo White House review before being published.

What Pruitt is trying to do now: Seeking to unwind the Clean Power Plan and other Obama-era policies meant to reduce climate-warming emissions, Pruitt has repeatedly said he wants to bring a “back-to-basics” approach to the agency. 

The Nixon administration created the EPA in 1970 to execute new clean-air laws meant to reduce the buildup of smog-forming pollutants. Some of the newly revealed changed language on the agency’s website reflect that original statutory purpose, such as in one instance “climate change” being replaced by “cleaner air.”

Other changes to SmartWay’s webpages are consistent, according to EDGI, with another push under Trump’s "America First" banner: bringing jobs back onshore. One webpage that acknowledged that increasingly “U.S. consumer products are manufactured” was changed to read that “U.S. manufacturing relies upon multiple sources and modes of transportation.” A description of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition was also removed.

On Monday morning, the EPA said the website changes were "cosmetic" and the mission of the program remains the same.

“EPA career staffers proactively made cosmetic changes to the Smartway Program website," spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in a statement. "There have been no changes to the program and EPA continues to support efforts to improve supply chain efficiency, and cut air pollution."

The EPA is hardly alone when it comes to the rebranding of Obama-era language under Trump. 

Such alterations have been made to the websites of the Energy Department, the State Department and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a unit of the National Institutes of Health, according to EDGI and Post reporting.

According to Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, these efforts to tamp down on climate-change language emulates, writ large, pushes in Florida, Wisconsin and other states to do the same.

"This isn't new," Leiserowitz said. "This is something you've been seeing in Republican-controlled states. We're not just seeing it exercised at the national level."

As The Post’s Chris Mooney and Lisa Rein reported in May, other programs have reframed their missions to de-emphasize Obama-era priorities. Domestic violence programs have been recast as a part of Trump’s fight against crime. An international aid organization highlighted its work as a counterweight to violent extremism.

As is the case here, it’s often (though not always) career employees, not political appointees, doing the rebranding.

As Chris and Lisa reported, career staffers make public-facing changes to protect programs from scrutiny from agency higher-ups. Or as one career employee at the Energy Department put it to them: "They’re in their keep-their-head-down, ‘maybe they won’t cut our budget’ mode."


-- What’s the climate game plan? Based on this latest report from Politico, the Trump administration seems to still be trying to figure that out. Members of the administration met at the White House this week to “chart a more cohesive energy and environmental policy strategy, including a game plan for communicating its position on climate change."

The meeting included several deputy-level officials from the White House policy councils and members of various agencies including the EPA and Energy Department.

Some of the main goals of the meeting, per Politico:

  • Develop a strategy that includes efforts beyond repealing and rolling back Obama-era regulations

  • Framing the president’s energy and environmental goals

  • Combating the perception that the administration is “out of touch with climate science”

One source told Politico the meeting focused on “ 'big picture climate strategy,' and had less to do with the nitty-gritty policy details of the Paris climate change agreement or Obama’s climate regulations for power plants."

Taking that reporting at face value, Trump officials are overlooking the fact that the Paris deal largely didn't have "nitty-gritty policy details" — that is, it let nations voluntarily develop their own ways of meeting their own emissions-reduction targets.

-- Anti-leaking effort leaked: EPA employees are being required to attend anti-leaking training sessions this week to “reinforce their compliance with laws and rules against leaking classified or sensitive government information."

We know this because information about the meetings was leaked to the Associated Press.

Unlike federal employees with security clearances, who go through extensive training, EPA staffers rarely come into contact with classified information. The hour-long training session is instead meant to emphasize avoiding the leak of “Controlled Unclassified Information,” according to leaked raining documents. EPA employees also received a three-page warning of the loose-lips-sink-ships consequences. 

“Enemies of the United States are relentless in their pursuit of information which they can exploit to harm US interests,” one document reads.

-- HUD huddles on climate report: A 50-page report that’s meant to act as a guideline for the Department of Housing and Urban Development on how to factor climate change into grant distribution is being kept under wraps, Bloomberg News reports. The “Community Resilience Toolkit,” which HUD officials received in April, was commissioned under President Obama. But the department has not yet indicated if or when it will release the guide, which a spokesman told Bloomberg is still "under review."

Harriet Tregoning, who led the project as head of HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development during Obama's tenure, said the current administration is looking to “tone it down” and that officials “didn’t want to directly contradict some of the other messages coming out of the administration.”

-- What do a "long-haul truck driver, a country club cabana attendant and the owner of a scented-candle company" have in common? Lots of scrutiny has been given to one appointee in particular at the Agriculture Department — Sam Clovis, the former talk radio host who has challenged the scientific consensus that human activity is driving climate change.

But Trump's lower-level USDA picks also include a "long-haul truck driver, a country club cabana attendant and the owner of a scented-candle company," according to a report from Politico.

Jenny Hopkinson has the goods:

A POLITICO review of dozens of résumés from political appointees to USDA shows the agency has been stocked with Trump campaign staff and volunteers who in many cases demonstrated little to no experience with federal policy, let alone deep roots in agriculture. But of the 42 résumés POLITICO reviewed, 22 cited Trump campaign experience. And based on their résumés, some of those appointees appear to lack credentials, such as a college degree, required to qualify for higher government salaries.

-- Survey says: We've seen many scientists and journalists tread carefully when discussing the link between climate change and hurricanes — with good reason since, as The Post's Chris Mooney explains here, the debate among scientists is fraught.  

We finally got our first look at what effect that public discourse might have had. A new CNN poll found there are deep party divisions about whether climate change exacerbated recent hurricanes. Nearly half of Americans overall say they believe climate change plays a major role in the increase of storms, according to the survey, an uptick from 36 percent in 2005. While 78 percent of Democrats believe global warming plays a major role, just 15 percent of Republicans agree. And 28 percent of Americans overall and 55 percent of Republicans say it plays no role at all.

What does the science say?: While scientists think that climate change makes hurricanes rainier and more intense, the jury is still out about what effect it will have on the number of storms per year.


-- Solar tariff's big day in the sun: On Friday, the International Trade Commission will decide whether U.S. solar manufactures have been hurt by cheap panels coming from China and elsewhere abroad. If the commissions rules in favor of Suniva and SolarWorld, the domestic manufactures, that kicks the can up the road to Trump, who would have to decide whether or not to impose a tariff on solar imports.

Trump's official energy policy calls for an "all-of-the-above" strategy to building the nation's energy portfolio. But the president likes to talk more about coal than any other fuel. Trump, though, embraces solar energy when it aligns with his other policy goals — like when he said he wanted to put solar panels on his proposed border wall with Mexico.

With the solar tariff decision, Trump's protectionist instincts could kick in again. So in anticipation, anti-tariff advocates have geared up arguments this week:

  • The conservative Heritage Foundation published an op-ed titled "The Absurdity of Propping Up 2 Favored Solar Companies." Heritage's Katie Tubb wrote: "The truth is, neither subsidies nor tariffs will make the solar industry more competitive in the long term. Both approaches tie industry success to the whims of politicians."
  • And a bipartisan group of governors — Brian Sandoval (R-Nev.), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Charlie D. Baker (R-Mass.) and Roy Cooper (D-N.C.) wrote in a letter to the ITC that the "requested tariff could inflict a devastating blow on our states’ solar industries and lead to unprecedented job loss, at steep cost to our states’ economies."

-- The drip-drip of bad nuclear news continues: Nuclear giant Westinghouse is slashing more than 1,500 jobs, E&E News reported. This follows the company’s earlier announcement of layoffs after the cancellation of construction of two new nuclear reactors in South Carolina this summer. The bankrupt company will notify employees of layoffs by Dec. 30.

So for new nuclear construction in the United States, that leaves just one new project in Georgia, which has already overrun costs. 

Right now, the U.S. nuclear industry faces a chicken-and-egg problem: To bring down the cost of building nuclear power plants, firms like Westinghouse need to build up economies of scale. But to build up economies of scale, nuclear companies need the business in the first place.

Residents of Cataño, Puerto Rico, contended with homes destroyed by wind and flooding after Hurricane Maria passed over the island on Sept. 20. (Video: Hector Santos Guia, Mardelis Jusino Ortiz, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

-- How likely is it that Hurricane Maria will hit the East Coast? The weekend path, and whether Maria will affect the U.S. East Coast remains uncertain, reports Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow. As of Thursday morning, Maria had swirled over the Turks and Caicos as a Category 3 storm and was moving toward the Bahamas before it shifts into the Atlantic.

Samenow notes that the National Hurricane Center forecasts “ have the hurricane moving between Bermuda and the U.S. coast, but other weather systems are at play on whether Maria strays closer to the Atlantic seaboard.”

He continues:

Most forecast models suggest that the storm will turn away from the East Coast early next week. As the remnants of Hurricane Jose stall near New England, its counterclockwise winds will help push Maria to the east.

However, it’s still too soon to say Maria is not a threat to the East Coast. If Jose weakens very quickly, or if it doesn’t stall the way forecast models are suggesting, Hurricane Maria would have the opportunity to track closer to the East Coast midweek.

-- "Absolutely obliterated:"Trump said Thursday he plans to travel to Puerto Rico after the island was heavily damaged by Maria.

"Puerto Rico is in very, very tough shape," Trump said Thursday. "Their electrical grid is destroyed. It wasn't in good shape to start off with, but their electrical grid is totally destroyed, and so many other things."

He said his administration was “starting the process now” to work with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on recovery for the U.S. territory, which he called “absolutely obliterated.”

“All you have to do is read or turn on the television and you'll see a place that was practically leveled. It's incredible, the power of that wind. That was a very unique — not for many decades has a storm hit a piece of land like that."

It's early days, but the fallout might be worse than Harvey and Irma: Officials in Puerto Rico are anticipating that the island is completely “destroyed” and that people will be without electricity for up to six months.

“The San Juan that we knew yesterday is no longer there,” Carmen Yulín, the city's mayor, told MSNBC Thursday morning. “We're looking at four to six months without electricity” in Puerto Rico, home to nearly 3.5 million people.


-- The Navajo Nation has threatened to sue the Trump administration if it attempts to decrease the size of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Reuters reported.

“We are prepared to challenge immediately whatever official action is taken to modify the monument or restructure any aspect of that, such as the Bears Ears Commission,” Attorney General of the Navajo Nation Ethel Branch told Reuters.

The lawsuit threat follows a report from The Post that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that Trump modify 10 monuments.

Bran told Reuters that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did not request enough input from the governments of the five tribes on the Bears Ears Commission. Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for Zinke, told the wire service that “multiple tribal listening sessions were held throughout the review period” for the national monuments.



  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on forest management to mitigate wildfires on Sept. 27.

Hurricane Maria leaves Puerto Rico, regains strength:

Hurricane Maria moved off Puerto Rico’s northwestern coast Sept. 20. The storm is expected to hit the northern coast of the Dominican Republic as a Category 3 hurricane Sept. 21. (Video: CIRA/RAMMB/NOAA)

Aerial footage shows Maria flattened houses in the U.S. Virgin Islands:

Hurricane Maria's center passed several miles south of St. Croix on the night of Sept. 19 on its way to Puerto Rico. (Video: Casp3r/Facebook)

Watch a firefighter helping with Irma recovery hydrate a distressed deer: 

A firefighter who was helping with Hurricane Irma recovery efforts in Monroe County, Fla., came to the aid of a dehydrated deer on Sept. 18. (Video: Monroe County BOCC)

Vice President Pence says President Trump is "deeply concerned" about the Iran nuclear deal: 

Vice President Pence said that President Trump was "deeply concerned" about the Iran nuclear deal. (Video: Reuters)