THE LIGHTBULB

The Trump administration is moving forward with easing restrictions on air pollution even as the novel coronavirus — and the deadly respiratory disease it causes — grips the country. 

Many of the moves were a long time coming. But the timing has incensed President Trump critics, who accuse the administration of taking steps that will reduce air quality at a time when scientists are beginning to consider whether pollution increases the risk of coronavirus infection and intensifies the symptoms of covid-19. 

“Air pollution reduces our body’s ability to fight infection,” Moms Clean Air Force co-founder Dominique Browning said. “Pollution from power plants and trucks and cars is also one of the causes of the underlying heart and lung problems that make people more vulnerable to covid-19.”

Over the past few days alone, the Trump administration has taken action on: 

  • Cars: The Environmental Protection Agency is set to finalize on Tuesday one of the biggest rollbacks on environmental regulations in Trump's first term — a loosening of Obama-era mileage standards for cars, pickup trucks and SUVs.
  • As Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report, the government’s own analysis “shows that the new standards would lead to between 440 and 990 premature deaths each year” due to the increase in air pollution from tailpipes.
  • Oil and gas drilling: The Trump administration has continued its push to drill for oil and gas amid the outbreak. Last week, the Bureau of Land Management sold off the right to drill on a total of about 87,000 acres in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.
  • Not only do the lease sales lock in more oil- and gas-related pollution, officials went forward with the auction even after oil prices plummeted by more than 60 percent since the start of the year because of a decline in oil demand and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia — both of which have been triggered by the pandemic.
  • Environmental enforcement: The EPA issued a memo on Thursday telling petrochemical plants, power companies and other major industries "they could determine on their own if they can report their operations’ air and water pollution levels during the virus outbreak.” 
  • Cynthia Giles, a former EPA enforcement official under President Barack Obama, told Eilperin and Dennis it will be nearly impossible to tell whether operations pose a public health threat without any data on file.

That decision came after the American Petroleum Institute, a major oil lobby group, called for an easing on enforcement during the pandemic. “It’s unfortunate that some partisan groups have chosen to peddle a fictitious narrative in the name of scoring a few political points," API spokesman Scott Lauermann said. "The natural gas and oil industry, faced with limited personnel, is seeking short-term flexibility for reporting requirements."

But easing pollution rules now may end up being a problem in certain pockets of the country. While the agency said the enforcement policy is “temporary and will be lifted as soon as normal operations can resume," public health experts warn that virus hot spots are also historically regions with high air pollution levels, as well as higher rates of respiratory illness, according to E&E News

The Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group founded by former EPA enforcement attorneys, put it this way in a letter: “Excusing the potential release of excess toxic air pollutants and other pollution that exacerbates asthma, breathing difficulty, and cardiovascular problems in the midst of a pandemic that can cause respiratory failure is irresponsible." 

That's because air pollution has been linked to a generally greater risk of respiratory infection. While there are no large scale studies yet specifically connecting bad air with acute covid-19 symptoms, and not every not public health expert is convinced a link will be established, there are a few smaller studies that hint at a connection, as Chris Mooney reported earlier this month.

“Given what we know now, it is very likely that people who are exposed to more air pollution and who are smoking tobacco products are going to fare worse if infected with covid than those who are breathing cleaner air, and who don’t smoke,” Aaron Bernstein, the interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Post.

Paulina Firozi contributed to this report.

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Health
The rule will require the U.S. car and light truck fleet to improve its average fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent per year between model years 2021 and 2026, compared to a nearly 5 percent annual increase under current law.
Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis

POWER PLAYS

— Plans for the next coronavirus stimulus: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters lawmakers are considering an infrastructure component in the next coronavirus package. “In particular, Pelosi signaled to her caucus that infrastructure would likely be part of the ‘phase 4’ package, specifically ticking off priorities like water systems, broadband and the energy grid,” Politico reports.

— Oil watch: Prices in the United States yesterday dropped to their lowest levels in nearly two decades. Both major crude benchmarks have lost about half their value since the beginning of the month, the Wall Street Journal reports.

  • The details: “West Texas Intermediate futures, the main U.S. crude gauge, were down 6.5% at $20.11 a barrel after hitting their lowest level since February 2002 on Monday,” per the report. “Brent crude, the global benchmark, fell 6.4% to $26.18 a barrel.”

— GM’s moves: General Motors has been hustling to turn its automaking business into one that manufactures ventilators, and company officials predicted that the production will take four weeks from when GM chief executive Mary Barra phoned a Trump official about pitching in to help, Bloomberg News reports. Meanwhile, the president has been criticizing the company for moving too slowly.

  • GM execs surprised at Trump’s remarks: “They felt the company was being unfairly targeted by the president, say people familiar with their thinking,” WSJ reports. “GM had begun collaborating with a ventilator company a couple of weeks earlier. It had mobilized more than 1,000 employees and nearly 100 auto suppliers to start making the machines, which can be used to help patients with the disease caused by the new coronavirus….GM said it would start producing ventilators at one of its facilities in Indiana and eventually ramp up to 10,000 of the machines a month, although only a few thousand will be made in the first several weeks."

— GE’s workers demand to make ventilators: Meanwhile, General Electric factory workers who normally make jet engines are staging protests to demand that the company start manufacturing ventilators to help address the shortage, Vice News reports. “GE’s Healthcare Division is already one of the country’s largest manufacturers of ventilators, so union members believe that other factories could be converted to produce the life-saving devices,” the report adds.

In non-coronavirus news:

  • Before the pandemic derailed a competition, a physicist and his friend were working on turning carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that warms the planet, into vodka. They were part of a five-year competition meant to incentivize the creation of a profitable way to capture carbon, the New York Times reports.
  • A “Kona storm” brought serious downpours and major flooding to parts of Hawaii for the second time in as many weeks, Matthew Cappucci reports.
  • The gas-fired Redondo Beach power plant from AES Corp. in California will shutter by 2023, the Los Angeles Times reports, the latest in the state’s moves away from fossil fuels.
  • The Supreme Court ruled Citgo is liable for a 2004 oil spill in the Delaware, a decision that comes after the case bounced around lower courts for more than a dozen years, Courthouse News reports.