Washington, D.C. 24 April 2017
Like a bad check, Congress bounced back to Capital City this week from their Easter vacation. Numero uno on their priority list is keeping the federal government open for business—at least a little longer.
This week’s funding story, however, is not just about money. It is about promises made, but still to be kept.
While politicians fiddle, citizens are again being left to suffer--perhaps none more than the nearly 23,000 coal miners in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and elsewhere, facing the loss of healthcare benefits.
Coal industry employees and their families are provided retirement, disability and survivors benefits through the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan, which is vouchsafed by the federally funded Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). On April 30th—two days after the current funding resolution lapses and the 101st day of the Trump administration—the fund will be insolvent should Congress fail to act.
With this article, I am asking the sustainable energy and environmental communities to demand of President Trump and their congressional delegations their doing what’s right by those suffering from black lung and other diseases caused by exposure to coal and rock dust.
We--supporters of sustainability--have consistently placed human health effects near the top of our list of grievances with fossil fuels. Do we walk away from those now suffering these illnesses and facing shortened lives--often tethered to oxygen tanks.? Or, do we stand with them, in the pursuit of environmental justice?
President Trump and congressional leaders like Senator McConnell (R-KY) and Speaker Ryan (R-WI) have promised to stop the war on coal and to put miners back to work. But what of the miners who’ve done their time and are no longer able to work? Are they to be ignored—cast off as collateral damage?
What will happen to those they’ve promised to return to the mines? Are they to expect relaxed regulations that will increase their exposure to carcinogens and lead more quickly to their contracting black lung and other diseases?
The incidence of black lung, by any historical measure, is at an unprecedented high. Over the past three years, 644 cases have been diagnosed. A number likely lower than the actual incidence, as miners are frightened of being fired should their companies become aware of their illness.
These are not men and women of faint heart nor necessarily of advanced age:
Mackie Branham, 39, of Elkhorn Creek, Ky., spent 19 years mining coal until he was
diagnosed with complicated black lung. He ran monstrous mining machines and drilled
bolts into mine roofs…He worked double shifts… seven-day weeks every chance he had.
His gallbladder was removed one day and he says he was back at work the next.
He took two days…after knee surgery, before working a 12-hour shift drilling bolts…severe breathing
problems [finally] forced him to leave work in March…he struggles for every breath now.
'My dad has got it. Everybody… has got it…. The more I talk, the more I get out of breath. It's
like I ain't got no capacity.’
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) sent out letters on March 1st informing the 23,000 recipients the Health and Retirement Fund would soon be insolvent and warning their benefits would lapse in 60 days. This was not the first time such letters were mailed. Similar notices were received by these same miners just four months earlier; and, in the year before, 16,000 were mailed.
Clean energy and environmental advocates may oppose the uncontrolled extraction and combustion of coal; but, I know of none who would consider themselves an enemy of the miners.
Our communities have always stood in support of the health and welfare of society—and each of its members. It is the essence of who we are. As President Trump and Republican Congressional leaders appear unwilling to keep their promises of protection, it is up to us and to all fair-minded Americans to remind then of their obligations to the miners.
Theirs’s is a story of broken promises and betrayal.
Unwilling To Fund The Health and Retirement Fund
Traditionally, the coal companies have borne responsibility for funding the miners’ health and pension funds. Because of declining market demand, coal companies have been claiming bankruptcy in greater numbers. These filings, however, are not fully reflective of the situation.
Because of lost revenues—particularly during the Great Recession—miners have been willing to accept lower wage packages in order to help the mines stay open and the benefits fund stay solvent over their lifetimes.
It seemed a fair bargain, a fine illustration of a win/win situation. Now, however, companies are seeking the protection of bankruptcy courts--asking to be relieved of their health and pension fund obligations. The courts are complying. Now it is only a win for the mine owners.
Yet A Willingness To Pay For Politicians
The proffered financial problems have not prevented mine owners, executives and the companies themselves from making political contributions during the 2016 elections. The day before it sent layoff notices to 4,400 miners, Murray Energy’s PAC gave $100,000 to Trump’s joint fundraising committee. Bob Murray, the company’s owner, invested $300,000 of his own money in Trump’s run for the roses. Are these the actions of insolvents?
Murray Energy handed a total of: $1.5 million to political candidates, party committees and outside groups over the 2016 cycle, a record high for the company and tops for the industry. It was not alone in its largesse: (Source)
The willingness of coal companies to support politicians, before honoring their health and pension promises, is the more reprehensible given the game of musical bankruptcies played by several of them.
Through a series of setups, Arch, Peabody and Patriot managed to pass the benefits of the hapless miners back and forth between the companies and in advance of their bankruptcies. Once declared bankrupt—legally not morally—they ceased being responsible for the fate of the miners, who once worked for them and were now facing the loss of coverage.
Arch Coal, having cleared $5 billion of its debt off its books through bankruptcy, was one of several companies given the Restructuring Deal of the Year award. The honor was presented to them at the annual Distressed Investing Summit, hosted by The M&A Advisor and held at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
A Case of Double Jeopardy
Retired miners in need of their healthcare benefits are between a lump of coal and a really hard place. Without a federal funds transfer into the Multiemployer Health Benefit Plan, they will be forced to rely on the only other federal assistance available.
A senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation had this to say about the situation: it's unfair that miners won't receive the benefits they counted on, but that's not the government's job to fix. These people are going to have to go to Medicare, [Medicaid] and the Affordable Care Act…tough. (emphasis mine) Given efforts by Trump and the many Republican members of Congress to repeal Obamacare—whether it's replaced or not—the dismay, anger and fear of 23,000 miners is understandable.
Few in Congress and the White House seem willing to use the budget resolution that is to re-fund the federal government as the vehicle with which to solve permanently the healthcare problem faced by retired mine workers. A stand-alone bill has been introduced.
Where Things Stand: The Miners Protection Act and The Next Budget Resolution
There is growing bi-partisan support for the Miners Protection Act of 2017 (S. 175/H.R. 179). Within Congress and the states. Leading senate supporters in addition to Manchin D-WV) include: Moore Capito (R-WV); Warner (D-VA); Brown (D-OH), Portman; Heitkamp (D-ND); Casey (D-PA); McCaskill (D-MO); Kaine (D-VA); and Donnelly (D-IN).
House members in addition to the bill’s chief sponsor McKinley (R-WV) include: Doyle (D-PA); Bost (R-IL); Fudge D-OH); Johnson (R-OH); Cook (R-CA); Welch (D-VT); Bucsh (R-IN); and, Lujan (D-NM). Joining them are Governors Wolf (D-PA) and Justice (D-WV).
Senate Majority Leader McConnell has introduced his own bill known as the HELP for Coal Miners Health Care Act (S. 176). Although similar, McConnell’s bill points a legislative finger of blame at environmental regulation, preventing most Democrats from joining on as co-sponsors. The Manchin/McKinley bill stands the greatest chance of passage.
The Miners Protection Act requires the federal government and the coal operators to honor their obligation of lifetime pensions and health benefits for the miners. The pension issue is more problematic—given the greater number of miners involved.
The issues are separable, however. It is possible for Congress and the President to provide the funds necessary to continue miners’ health benefits beyond the April 30th deadline, without addressing the matter of pensions.
Should the final spending resolution presented to Congress for passage and the President for signature not include funding for miners’ healthcare, Manchin and other senators have expressed a willingness to block its passage and to trigger a shutdown of the federal government.
The entire question of a government shutdown is yet to be settled. Trump and members of his senior staff, e.g. Mulvaney, are currently taking a hard line on the border wall--demanding its initial funding. Whether this is real or a bluff is impossible to know as of this writing. As the funding deadline draws near, there will be a lot of dealmaking going on. The miners and their supporters are not likely to have such leverage again.
The time to make a stand is now. Even at the risk of a government closure, I urge all in the clean energy and sustainable environment communities to support the 23,000 miners facing the loss of their healthcare benefits, in violation of the promises made them by President Trump and Republican Congressional leaders.
What's a boy to do?
The Paris Climate Agreement
Should We Stay or Should We Go?
Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip.
–Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part I
Predictably there’s been a lot written over the last few weeks about the Paris Climate Agreement and whether the Trump administration will continue to sit with other nations. There has been a substantial increase in tweets, polls, studies, press conferences, anonymous reports and mutterings going into and coming out of the Easter weekend.
Driving the increased media traffic is speculation Trump’s senior staff will begin meeting this week to develop a U.S. position on the Agreement. The ultimate decision will remain for The Donald to make.
It is important to be clear about what is really being decided. It is being reported that the question to be answered is whether the U.S. will continue to honor the obligations made by President Obama. It’s not.
While technically that might be right—in reality that train has left the station. Given the slew of executive orders Trump has signed directing EPA to cancel, suspend, roll back and reconsider dozens of environmental regulations, the administration has already declared its intentions.
Add to this: the Secretary of Energy’s recent order to prepare a study report about base load generation and whether the system is too supportive of wind and solar, the proposed slash and burn of federal clean energy and climate change programs, and the administration’s widespread purging of any references to climate change or suggestion of human culpability. These are not the actions of an administration intending to continue the commitment of the previous administration.
Although no one has asked me for my opinion—in particular any one of the Trumpians—I figure having given over 30 professional years to the clean energy sector and in support of climate action, I can forgo the invitation and just jump right in.
I realize I may be an outlier on this. The fact is I can’t imagine any good coming from the U.S. continuing to have a place at the table.
Let me rephrase that—only the Trump administration stands to benefit. It’s not as if the administration intends to keep the commitments Obama made.
Should the decision be to remain seated, Trump will get to claim that he has always been and environmentalist and perhaps succeed in fooling some of the people at least some of the time.
Now, I do understand that others are thinking The Donald’s Trumpettes might alter their—and his– opinions about climate change and the need to combat it.
I am guessing the reason for such hope is a belief that by keeping the company of climate defenders from other nations, the likes of Pruitt, Mulvaney, Bannon, Zinke, Sessions and others will gradually come to believe.
This might be called the “company you keep” theory of conversion. Both my professional and personal opinion on that is: it’s a load of crap—and not the good kind.
—It has about as much chance of succeeding as my turning into a Prius by standing next to one for a while—even a very long while--
Conversion by osmosis doesn’t happen in the real world. The denier’s chorus has already indicated nothing will convince them that the Earth is under threat by anything we do. Why else refuse to discuss it, by erasing references to even the possibility?
I wrote back in October an article suggesting that there was no comfort to be found in the finer points of law and diplomacy should Trump be victorious in November. Once in office, He Donald could still mess with the Paris Agreement.
At the time I wrote:
The real threat to combat global climate is Trump’s vow to:
Can he do any of these things? You bet he can. What should be most frightening to we climate advocates is the dark irony of it all. Very little of what Donald promises he will do, can he do. These things he can—and quickly.
What I wrote then was speculative, now it’s true. Being right is no consolation. The reason I am again raising what I had written earlier is to illustrate that Trump has an easy way forward to keep his promised recall of America.
A way forward is not itself determinative of what Trump will decide to do. There are good political and practical reasons why he will go down that path—whether he decides to stay or go from the Paris Accords.
Trump’s decision to stay at the table in Paris, while doing next to nothing at home, is a win-win forTrump. That it’s a loss for the rest of the world is of little matter to him. If ever a president needed a victory to show his supporters, The Donald do.
He has cellar popularity numbers and is facing a conservative Republican rebellion because of failed healthcare reforms, engagement in Syria, an implied willingness to cooperate with Democrats, and a seeming preference for the Wall Street crowd—including Gary Cohn. Cohn is Director of the National Economic Council, on the record in support of Paris, an ally of Jared Kushner and thought by Bannon as a conservative antichrist.
Within the next several weeks, pressure from the right is only going to increase. Trump is likely to need the support of Senate Democrats—House if possible—to keep the government open the day after the current continuing resolution expires. Inevitably, that will require some concessions to Democratic demands
These next few weeks will also begin to bring forth a clearer picture about what The Donald’s tax and infrastructure proposals will be and whether Ryan and McConnell have even a snowball’s chance of getting through the Congressional gauntlet without being eviscerated by members of their own party.
So, what’s a boy to do? Particularly if that boy has orange hair and is the 45th President of the United States? He’ll reach out and try to keep his base happy long enough to figure out something else to do to take their minds off his not living up to his campaign promises.
One of the most galvanizing phrases in the Republican lexicon is: we don’t need no lousy environmental regulations. For a president in need of proving to his core he still has it, dismantling federal clean energy and environment programs is a sure winner.
The White House asked business and industry for recommendations of regulations they would most like to see abolished or weakened. Environmental and labor regulations were the overwhelming favorites. With Pruitt at EPA and possessed of executive directives to go forth and rescind, Trump can fairly well assure business and industry their will be done.
Interestingly some major players in the oil, gas and coal industries are urging continued support for Paris. As reported in the Daily Caller, Peter Trelenberg, Exxon’s manager for environmental policy, wrote in a letter:
It is prudent that the United States remain a party to the Paris agreement to ensure a level playing field, so that global energy markets remain as free and competitive as possible.
Joining Exxon are BP and Royal Dutch Shell. Chevron is more circumspect indicating it will withhold judgement until it better understands the impact of a yes on the administration’s domestic policies and programs. The American Petroleum Institute, has not taken a formal position on the Paris agreement.
Natural gas is playing a prominent role in carbon reduction efforts around the world. Their support for Paris is not particularly surprising, therefore. Cheniere and other natural gas suppliers also see staying seated at the table as a useful instrument for fostering demand for America’s energy resources…
A bit quizzical is the willingness of Cloud Peak Energy Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp. to publicly favor the Agreement. This being politics everyone wants something in return for even a gracious gesture.
In the case of coal, the companies are of a mind that support for Paris increases the likelihood the federal government will be more willing to support carbon capture research and demonstration.
They may be right. Although the argument for further development of capture systems can stand on its own as a means for Trump to show he is earnest about helping to keep coal on life support. Equally, the world actually needs to figure out how to capture and keep carbon before it is emitted into the atmosphere; there are significant business opportunities to be had should it achieve commercial viability.
Endorsement of the Agreement by oil, gas and coal companies is a gesture. As long as you are confident the Trump administration isn’t really going to do anything other than continue a carbon-as-usual policy, what the hey? Why not be gracious?
Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute actually has an answer to that:
Big corporations and Wall Street did not elect President Trump and are out of touch with the economic realities that face people who
in resource and energy-intensive industries.
The Heritage Foundation, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the usual stage right cast all agree. Bloomberg quoted Mike McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist, putting it this way: This is a campaign promise — a specific promise the president made repeatedly. He’s not just going to be able to walk away from it.
All of these folks have a lot of skin the game. I certainly don’t blame them for expecting The Big Guy to make good on his promises. Trump may be made of Teflon—others aren’t.
A few weeks ago there were reports of Pruitt being targeted as a turncoat for having advised the president not to order him to revoke the endangerment finding outright. I’d commented at the time that Pruitt was right—as a matter of legal strategy—to recommend what he did. It was a much sounder way to begin to kick out the struts holding up the Clean Power Plan.
The attack seemed disingenuous at the time. Pruitt is not just one of the most outspoken of deniers; as the Oklahoma Attorney General, he led the charge against Obama’s environmental efforts over a dozen times. His challenges are still working their way through federal courts. Why attack the poster boy of deniers?
I now think the answer to that is fairly obvious. Pruitt was the crash dummy used by the deniers to send Trump a message. It’s gotta be hell to be a Trump surrogate.
Let’s review the players and their positions–
There is good reason for the more moderate of Trump’s senior staffers, e.g. Kushner, Cohn and Tillerson, to be supportive. They likely believe what they are saying and it buys them some points with moderates—both Rs and Ds—to be used at a later date.
Seniors that are deniers, i.e. Bannon, Pruitt, Mulvaney, et. al, get to say what they believe. They also earn points with the Ebell’s of the world, along with the House Freedom Caucus and others.
Coal, oil and gas interests in support spruce up their images and, who knows, maybe it will lead to improved sales abroad.
For the fossil folks opposed– it’s what they do and as long they do it, they get to continue to do it.
The clean energy and environmental communities are a bit of a mixed bag. The enviros will never be happy with Trump and Trump really doesn’t give a shit.
Renewables are business people. The market is there and growing whether the U.S. stays or goes. Could it be better? Sure, but it will go on, no matter what.
Renewables straddle between the environmental community and the business community. My personal feeling is—that’s as it should be. The communities do work together, even if it’s not always. Neither can really afford to be too aligned or they will have trouble maintaining the needed discipline of their base.
Trump is going to be far better off with his core supporters, if he pushes back from the table. He has little—if anything—to gain by staying.
Climate defenders won’t believe him if he relents. Conservatives won’t forgive him if he does.
The man has a reputation for flippery, whatever he says today is likely to change with the winds tomorrow. Staying is the hollowest of gestures, as long as he continues along the course set by the executive orders and his proposed budget.
Remaining at the table is outright hypocrisy. Worst of all it will slow down other nations, which for deniers is victory.
The recent G-7 meeting was a glimpse into the future. Six of the seven nations were ready to do something positive and Secretary Perry said sorry guys, we’re still thinking about it.
No, I’m sorry. What the hell’s there to think about? His denial is as clear as his executive orders.
It is truly a shame that leadership—business leadership—may well fall to China and India because they are ready to fill the void created by the U.S. pulling back efforts. U.S. companies will still participate in the market.
Who knows, maybe that will be what convinces Trump to change his mind yet again. Whether he can convince enough Republicans in the Congress and elsewhere is a question for another day.
If all of this doesn’t suggest to you that the world would actually be better served by an honest and timely U.S. answer—as unfortunate as that might be—I will leave you with this last scenario and you can make the call.
A boat is stranded on the Poyang Lake in east China, site of one of the world’s biggest sand mines. Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Images
SAND MINING IN ASIA, AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
THE STORY OF A CONFLICT MINERAL
What happened to the River Manimala?” I asked.
“Sand mafia,” Thambichan answered.
The expanding economies of Asia, Africa and the Middle East are placing such great demands on global sand supplies that scarcity could soon prove to be an hyperbole. The sand spoken of here is that used for fracking, construction and industrial processes, e.g. glass and silicone manufacture.
In the first part of this series sand mining in the United States was discussed. Fracking sands were highlighted, along with growing demand and decreasing supplies. Environmental impacts were identified.
Mining operations outside the U.S., in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, pose a different set of problems, although the market driver for sand worldwide is much the same--urbanization.
According to the UN, cities are expanding at an historic rate. Half the world’s population now lives in an urban area. Since 1950, city populations have grown by 400 percent. Today there are 4 billion metropolitans.
Over the next 30 years, another 2.5 billion will be moving in. Serving their needs will require concrete—a lot of it. Housing, office and retail spaces, roads, schools, hospitals, stadiums and more all require sand.
Global demand for mined materials stands today between 47 to 59 billion tons. Gravel and sand comprise 68 to 85 percent of the total. As people move into cities, the demand for sand and aggregates moves with them.
The explosive growth of the global sand market comes with consequences. Mining’s impact on the environment and society is surprising—more than that it is disturbing. What I hope to accomplish, in some small way, with this series on sand mining is to suggest that: sand is not just sand, after all.
In list form, the environmental consequences of sand mining in countries like India, China, Vietnam and Sierra Leone may appear little different from those in the U.S. Respiratory problems stemming from air born particulates, stressed bridges and roads from the increased hauling of heavy loads between the mines, fracking fields and construction sites, increased demand for gasoline and diesel fuels that emit carbon and lead to more drilling, the loss of native flora and fauna and so on.
To equate the environmental experiences of these nations to the U.S. is to compare the common cold to cancer. Both can rightly be termed an illness; but, they are hardly comparable.
I am not suggesting that the environmental consequences of sand mining in the U.S. are any less deserving of consideration or solution. I am simply saying that sand mining in other regions of the world are orders of magnitude more destructive and complicated--their solution more problematic.
As will be explained shortly, sand mining in Asia and Africa is more violent and violative of societal order than in the U.S. A seemingly ubiquitous and benign material, sand in some nations is spoken of in terms reserved for illicit trades in: drugs, diamonds and minerals.
I began this series relaying a friend’s response to a cordial inquiry about a recent visit to Wisconsin. She expressed surprise that some neighbor were selling or leasing farmland to a frac sand miner operating in the Dairy State. Her Uncle Zeke, she said, knew a farm owner who had just sold 130 acres to the mining company for a considerable premium above its appraised agricultural value.
Compare her response to why Thambichan was asked about the Manimala River:
I was shocked: The great river had become a trickle. In a few places had pooled into puddles big enough for people to wash their clothes.
Otherwise it was barren, the stone steps now leading to a gouge-out ravine of boulders baking in the sun.
Others commented: no one listened when…warned of the dangers of sand mining. When the monsoons came, the water whooshed away…ordinary wells ran dry…tube wells were dug…now some of those are running dry…local rice paddies were long gone…several major bridges faced collapse…the loss of sand…weakened foundations.
Figure 1 illustrates just how fast the demand of nations around the world has grown since 2004. With India, China and other nations far outstripping the U.S. and Europe.
Countries included in the category other, in the Figure, might surprise you. Coals to Newcastle is yesterday’s news. Today, it is sand to the United Arab Emirates..
The UAE imported $456 million worth of sand, stone and gravel in 2014. It turns out the sands of Arabia are too fine to be good for anything other than lying there.
All 2,722 feet of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper was built using sand carted from Australia. According to the Economist:
Sand is being extracted at a far greater rate than…it is naturally replenished…depletion of existing reserves is damaging the environment.
Dredging in rivers and seas pollutes natural habitats, affecting local fishing and farming industries. Mining in China’s Poyang Lake…is thought to have lowered water levels.
Beaches in Morocco and the Caribbean have been stripped of sand, lowering their capacity to absorb stormy weather.
Thambichan, her family and neighbors in the Indian village on the Manimala River are not alone in suffering the environmental and economic consequences of sand mining.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, world cement production nearly tripled between 1994 and 2012, when it totaled 3.7 billion metric tons. China alone built 90,000 miles of road in 2013; and, its demand for cement has risen by 437.5 percent in just 20 years.
If these numbers don’t impress, then maybe this will: in the past few years, China has used more cement than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century.
Big numbers are hard for me to wrap my head around; so, when size matters, I think in visuals.
For a hundred years, the U.S. stood atop other nations looking down on cities made largely of concrete. In the midst of wars when steel grew scarce and time of the essence, ships fabricated of concrete were built, showing how versatile this material, made largely of sand and gravel, can be.
What the U.S. did in decades, China did in single years. Years in which the U.S. and other countries continued to grow their economies, demanding evermore materials.
The price for a measure of sand is set by supply and demand, just as it is for any commodity. Prices will remain high far into the future, as demand shows little evidence of retreat and supplies are drawn down faster than nature can replenish them.
This situation begins to exhibit all the signs of a zero-sum game that can only end with the environment and economic-well-being the losers. In the meantime, there is money to be made—legally or otherwise.
Sand trading is a lucrative business. Unlike the sand miner in Wisconsin, who bought 130 acres of prime agricultural land from Uncle Zeke’s friend, the sand markets in China, India, Sierra Leone and elsewhere resemble more the gold fields of Alaska.
Anyone with a shovel, a basket, access to a beach or river bottom and indifferent or dismissive of mining laws is now a sand miner and merchant. From Rollo Romig’s exceptional account of sand mining in India:
He told me he started sand mining around 2002, to raise money for a new business. They worked in groups of four or more….Some would pilot the
rowboat and other would dive as deep as 15 feet to fill their baskets with sand.
His previous job, at a bank, paid 400 rupees a day, roughly $5. A good night’s work mining sand earned him 2,000 rupees.
Another Indian miner makes about $16 for his 200 dives a day--more than the workers up top in the boats—more than he can make elsewhere. He’s been doing it for 16 years but thinks the river’s sand will soon be mined out.
When I started, we only had to go down 20 feet…Now it’s 40. We can only dive [to] 50 feet.
A Laotian woman, making $10 a day working for a dredging company, knows gouging sand from the river threatens the lives of the hundreds of thousands dependent upon its waters for the food they grow and the fish they catch.
Whatever else may be said of it, sand mining is, in the aggregate, big business. Individuals and small partnership groups of friends and neighbors are not the only ones mining for profits. With four boats and a crew of 12, a small miner working a river in China admits to dredging up 850 cubic meters of sand a day.
At today’s exchange rate, he grosses a bit over $11,000 USD any day he works; he admits to annual earnings of $225,000 USD. Bigger competitors—working that same river-- can suck up 5,000 or more cubic meters a day. Using the same 90 CNY/cu. meter rate, that amounts to over $65,000 per boat load/day.
Not a bad day’s take for the boat owner--not so good, perhsps, for the river, the environment and others living and working along it. Still, it is nothing compared to what India’s sand mafia is estimated to be raking in.
According to the Times of India, the sand mafia, the one Thambichan blamed for the virtual draining of the Manimala River--hauls in around $2.3 billion a year. That’s a lot of sand--enough to fill 50,000 lorry loads a day.* Tons that will be smuggled into nearby states, according to the Economist and other sources.
Given the very large sums of money involved and the promise of increasingly higher prices for a diminishingly available resource, an illicit trade in sand should not surprise. Both surprising and disturbing is how widespread the illegal mining operations are and the violence they provoke. Reading the accounts conjures pictures of Capone’s Chicago in the 1930s and drug cartels today in Ciudad Juárez.
There is very little I could add to make the headlines and stories of violence and corruption to make them any more real. The accounts speak for themselves.
Those that follow are merely illustrative of the situation—not exhaustive of it. Others can easily be called up--simply click on illegal sand mining.
Today criminal gangs in at least a dozen countries, from Jamaica to Nigeria, dredge up tons of the stuff every year to sell on the black market. (Wired)
One of Israel’s most notorious gangsters, a man allegedly involved in a spate of recent car bombings, got his start stealing sand from public
Dozens of Malaysian officials were charged in 2010 with accepting bribes and sexual favors in exchange for allowing illegally mined sand
to be smuggled into Singapore. (Wired)
A number of importers, including Singapore, consider the details of their sourcing to be confidential... It is a form of appropriation that differs
rather dramatically from traditional seizures of territory, through war or colonial expansion… sand has become a matter of national security; it is the
key currency in a new geopolitics of risk. (Harvard Magazine)
Half the sand used for construction in Morocco comes from illegal coastal sand mining (IMF)
Battles among and against “sand mafias” there have reportedly killed hundreds of people in recent years—including police officers, government officials,
and ordinary people” (Beiser)
As local people approached the barge to confront the miners, those on board appeared indifferent and unmoved, only saying they worked for a man
named “Chin Ha.”…Police arrived at the scene nearly an hour later, only to retreat after calling a superior for directions, without checking the operating
license of the miners.
Local people riding on motorized sampans showed the reporters metal bars they had prepared beforehand, saying, “We have got everything
prepared. If they push it, we won’t back away anymore…Not only do authorized miners exploit the banks to their full extent, but illegal ones
also sneak in to have their share, turning our once peaceful land into a constant fear of land submersion,” a local resident said.
The project…began in January…aimed to dredge 70,000 cubic metres of sand …to facilitate passage of boats and re-sanding the badly eroded
Cửa Đại Beach…just 16,500 cubic metres had been pumped onto the Cửa Đại beach …the remaining 50,000 cubic metres are “missing.” (Vietnam News)
Deputy Prime Minister Trương Hòa Bình yesterday admitted that some local authorities covered up for or even offered immunity to illegal sand
miners. (Vietnam News)
In the dark of the night of 20 December, two Kenyan truck drivers met a blazing death. The men were loading up their vehicles at around 2am on
the bank of the Muooni river, about 60 miles south-east of Nairobi, when a mob of local youths descended on them. The attackers torched the
lorries, burning the drivers “beyond recognition”, police told a local newspaper. A third truck driver was shot with arrows. (The Guardian)
The victims include an 81-year-old teacher and a 22-year-old activist who were separately hacked to death, a journalist who was burned to death,
and at least three police officers who were run over by sand trucks.
The mine operators[East Java, Indonesia] threatened to kill them if they kept interfering; the farmers reported the threats to the police and asked
for protection. Soon after, at least a dozen men attacked Tosan, ran him over with a motorcycle and left him for dead in the middle of the road.
Salim was battered and stabbed to death. His body was left on the street with his hands tied behind his back. (The Guardian)
Sand mining has been banned in much of Makueni County in recent years, but the trade continues. “Between tonight and 7am tomorrow
morning you can stand on the highway and count 100 lorries heading to Nairobi [full of sand],” (The Guardian)
Sandhya Ravishankar, an independent journalist based in Chennai, has two policemen stationed outside her home to protect her
from possible harm….All hell has broken loose since Ravishankar published a four-part series on illegal beach sand mining along the
Tamil Nadu coast in online news platform (Huffington Post)
Many of the potential environmental consequences of sand mining in the U.S. are realities in other nations. Deadly bridge collapses in Taiwan, Portugal and India have occurred. Lost are mangrove forests, seagrass beds, animal species dependent upon these ecosystems. These are not matters of speculation or possibility; they cannot rightly be dismissed.
While the dredger, clearing $225,000 a year, with four boats is profiting, others suffer:
The boats are destroying our fishing areas…the dredging destroys fish breeding grounds, muddies the water and tears up…nets…these days,
she’s lucky to make £1,200 a year.
Problematic in its own right, sand mining exacerbates other problems. Vietnamese farmers in the Mekong Delta are plagued by the increased salinity of river waters killing rice production. The cause of increased salinit is the confluence of at least three factors: rising seas, more extreme weather patterns that bring both drought and torrential rains; and, the lowering of the Mekong River caused by the dredgers.
Added to these causes is the uncoordinated construction of dams by the six countries along the river’s length. That there are several causes to the problem
does not diminish the negative impact of sand mining; it speaks to the fact that we humans threaten the sustainability of our own economies by the
many things we do.
Poyang Lake, China’s largest body of freshwater, is now considered the world’s largest sand mine. A study by a group of American, Dutch, and Chinese researchers estimates that 236 million cubic meters of sand are taken out of the (Poyang) lake annually — 30 times more than the amount that flows in from tributary rivers.
Beyond the obvious problem of a lake with no water in it for substantial periods of the year, is the impact mining the lake has on the Yangtze River. Dredging has deepened and widened the lake’ spillway—nearly doubling the amount of the water it discharges into the Yangtze.
It doesn’t take a hydrologist to understand what rapid dumping of twice the inflow—as typical of monsoons--will do to the lands down river. To demonstrate, place an 8-ounce glass on the counter and then rapidly pour a 24-ounce pitcher of water into it—mop and repeat, should you think it can’t happen again.
The Poyang historically cycles between wet and dry seasons. Last year the lake entered its low season 54 days earlier than in previous years. At the end of February, the water level, according to reports, was two meters lower than normal and down to a fourth of what it is in flood season, covering an area of 351 square kilometers.
Poyang’s cumulative problems are causing concern that the lake will be unable to adequately supply the tens of millions of Chinese dependent upon it for drinking and irrigation water. Significantly lower water levels compromise the lake’s ability to accommodate the waste water flowing into it. Less water, same waste, results in higher concentrations of contaminant more difficult to filter out.
The environmental consequences of sand mining are too easily touched to be denied. Crumbling foundations, lake bottoms once hosting thriving fishing industries but now grazed by cattle, lost crop lands, dry wells and lost species are only a portion of the price paid for the seemingly insatiable demand for a diminishable resource.
The societal costs of sand mining are every bit as real as the environmental. Lives lost to violence, communities broken apart because their people can no longer earn a living or count on potable water and productive farm land, along with government corruption are all a portion of the price being paid for unsustainable building practices, manufacturing processes and energy systems.
Sustainability is not solely about reducing carbon emissions through regulation and the development of clean energy alternatives. It must also be about the wise use of resources—all resources.
Had this story been about a rare earth element like molybdenum, terbium or neodymium or blood diamonds it would on its face make sense. It is the seeming simplicity and ubiquity of sand that gives this tale its power.
If sand can become scarce with all the attendant harms identified in this article, what are the consequences of an increasing scarcity of the molybdenum essential for the manufacture of high-grade stainless steels or the lithium for batteries or the antimony used as a flame retardant and in computer screens? The U.S. Department of Defense already predicts future conflicts will likely be fought over water resources made scarce by climate change.
Whether a denier or defender of climate change, the reality of resource scarcity is impossible to dismiss. Even if global warming should prove the hoax President Trump and members of his cabinet say it is, something still needs to be done to control the ravages of sand mining on available resources, e.g. available water supplies, collapsing bridges and societal violence.
If sand sources are matters of national security for Singapore, are they not as well for China, Vietnam, India, Australia, Cambodia, the U.S. and others? The problem of resource depletion is too often lost in today’s debate about climate change.
As intractable a problem as it seems, steps can be taken by governments and industry itself. If not suddenly to solve, then to begin ameliorating the situation in the near-term, while seeking better answers in the longer-term, including:
Recognizing the problem and the role we play is only a first step. I don’t know what steps will be taken tomorrow to solve this and other problems. I do know with confidence will can never again look at a beach or even the neighbor boy’s sand box and think--it’s just sand after all.
*Note I had questioned this number as it seemed quite high to me. An internet search confirmed it—or it didn’t disprove it. The number is either true, or it is a number that once used was simply repeated by successive authors/organizations. Whether 50K loads per day or not, the amount of illegally taken sand is significant.
Tamil Nadu is a southern state of India having a population of over 67 million.
Kerala, the state in which Tambichan lives is also a southern state in India. It is on the Malibar Coast and west of Tamil Nadu.
Singapore/Harvard Design Magazine
Dried up: The level of Poyang Lake varies hugely depending on the season/ DAILY MAIL
CAIXN NEWS SERVICE/CHINA
Sand mining boats work illegally on the Thane Creek in Maharashtra, India, on March 20, 2015. Workers dive to the bottom with a metal bucket to scoop sand; the boat crew hauls it to the surface. ADAM FERGUSON
SAND MINING IN AMERICA
It's Not Just About The Sand
The other day I bumped into a friend who’d just returned from a visit home to Wisconsin. Naturally enough, I asked how the trip was.
It’s always great to catch up with family and friends, but I was really surprised—and not in a good way-- by the number of farmers in the
area leasing or selling their agricultural lands to a sand miner operating in the area.
Can’t really blame ‘em, I suppose. Checks in the mail from leases must be a welcome change from the uncertainties of the weather
and commodity prices.
My Uncle Zeke said a friend of his around Tunnel City sold 130 acres for $1.5 million to a mining company, when its farm value was only
somewhere around $225,000.
Sand mining--really? I was too embarrassed at the time to ask her to elaborate; fortunately for me, she had to dash and never saw that look of duh-umb
on my face.
Of course, I was aware sand is used by frackers to unlock oil and gas deposits in rock formations. I’ve penned warnings of down-the-line dangers of reliance on natural gas as a bridge to somewhere sustainable; I’ve even listed some of the environmental threats posed by mining operations.
Beyond its use by drillers and its presence at the beach, I’ve never really given sand much thought.
Wanting to have something clever to say should the topic ever come up again I spent time a few days later wandering the net. What I learned was surprising. Much more than that- it was disturbing.
It is impossible to cover in any real depth the ins, outs and otherwise(s) of sand and sand mining in an article like this. If I can increase understanding of
the relationship between this ubiquitous resource and a sustainable and just world economy--in even a minor way—it will be time well spent.
To state the obvious, sand mining is—mining. Whatever one might be digging for at the end of their personal rainbows—coal, gold, a short cut to China, or
sand—it involves a violation of earth’s surface.
In kind, sand mining isn’t much different from bulldozing mountain-tops to get to the coal beneath them. It poses many of the same risks to nearby
aquifers, streams and rivers. Like other large mining operations, it can stress community infrastructure, e.g. roads, and diminish air quality through
release of particulate matter.
Mining has always struck me as the earthy equivalent of invasive surgery. Before rolling your eyes at my anthropomorphizing Earth, let me tell you I am
not alone in ascribing personhood to our Mother.
The New Zealand government recently accorded the Whanganui River the right to counsel in a court of law. An Indian High Court, within the past month or so, declared the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers persons, giving them legal standing to seek remedies for harms done.
This same court subsequently added to the list of potential plaintiffs two of the Himalayan glaciers feeding these same sacred streams. So, I advise you to be careful of what you say and do to the ground you might be standing on, lest you become a defendant in a tort case. (see also K. Cobb)
Sand is as essential to the built environment as bulk elements are to animate beings. Modern mortar was invented in 1794 by Joseph Aspdin. Cements of some sort, however, date back tens of thousands of years--at least to 6500 BCE and the Neolithic community of Mehergarth in Pakistan’s Indus Valley.
Every civilization, kingdom, empire, developed and developing nation--almost since the first construction--has relied on sand. Without it, Donald’s beloved wall would tumble faster than Jericho’s—no trumpets needed.
Rarely in history has the cash value of this ubiquitous commodity ever been greater and the potential supplier lower. On sand stands much of Singapore; it is currently the biggest importer. Expansion of the island-city-state’s territory by 130 square kilometers has erased two dozen Indonesian islands in the process.
Singapore is far from the only Asian nation whose future is being built on shifting sands. According to a 2016 article in The Sydney Morning Herald:
Just two years ago a small sandbar could be seen jutting out of the narrow straits separating Singapore and Malaysia's Johor
Then the barges came, disgorging tonnes of sand, the beginning of a $60 billion, 20-year Malaysian development of four man-made
islands designed for 700,000 residents and 25,000 workers, called Forest City.
Sand is an integral element in a tremendous array of manufactured products and industrial practices, ranging from cement to the production of silicon chips
for PV panels, other electronics, glass manufacture and, of course, fracking. Currently, the sale of an estimated 40 billion tons of the stuff generates around
$70 billion globally.
Demand for industrial silica is expected to grow worldwide, in excess of 5.5 percent over the next several years. Sand sales for construction and fracking purposes will grow by much larger percentages. *
Frac Sand in the U.S.
Fracking sands are primarily mined in an open pit process. The mining cycle starts with the removal of top soils—called overburden—and ends with backfilling the left-over materials. The smoothed over surface is not the same fertile field it was before it’s violation.
In between, a series of processing steps occur. These include: successive washings, drying, storage and transport out of the mine.
As a referent, 130,000 tons of frac sand would fill 40,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. An Olympic pool measures 82 feet wide by 164 feet long with a minimum depth of 6.5 feet, for a calculated volume of 88,263 cubic feet.
Not all frac sand is created equal. Great Lakes and Texas sands are highly prized for their chemical purity, grain size, shape, and distribution. These areas of the country are the nation’s largest suppliers.
Raymond James, in a January investor’s note, estimated demand in 2017 would hit roughly 55 million tons and likely to exceed 80 million tons in 2018. The 2018 number equates to a 60 percent increase above previous 2014 records.
Companies are worried the demand for frac sand will soon outstrip supply. Today’s rising prices reflect these concerns.
In the second half of 2016 the price for a ton of frac sand was between $15 and $20. Already in 2017 prices are heading to the $40/ton mark, with a promise of going much higher should demand begin to outstrip supply.
The $40/ton price is still considerably lower than the $65/ton average paid peak price fetched in the last half of 2014. The current discounted price is proving an incentive for companies to purchase in advance of a tightening markets over the next several years. The Trump administration’s desire to expand U.S. fossil fuel production is also being factored into the supply/demand equation.
Although frac and construction sands are not in direct competition because of their different properties, should Trump succeed to wall Americans in and Mexicans out, it would place significant pressure on U.S. sand supplies. A vigorous national infrastructure program—either alone or in conjunction with border security--would only compound pressures.
In the first half of 2016, demand for frac sand was down. It recovered rapidly later that year. Relatively rapid shutdowns and startups is a characteristic of the sand mines. Several years back, for example, Cadre Proppants ramped production from 0 to 1 billion pounds of shipments to the Eagle Ford and Permian Basin fields in less than a year.
The U. S. Geological Survey estimates that between 3,000 to 10,000 or more tons of sand are used per natural gas fracking well. Sand volumes per well are on an upward track due to improved methods allowing access to deeper wells.
These advances are offsetting decreases in the number of operating drill sites. There were around 1500 operating wells in 2014, when frac sand prices reached an apogee, today the count is 591 and may rise to as many as 1000 in 2018.
The biggest U.S. shale fields get fracked with about 30 percent more sand every year, according to Phillip Dunning, a technical adviser at Drilling info, which tracks oil-field supply use.
The record of 50.2 million pounds of sand down a gas hole is held by Chesapeake Energy Corporation for a 1.8-mile-deep horizontal well in Louisiana. Not to be outdone, other oil and gas producers are now revisiting their estimates of the wells that can still profitably produce because of deep fracking.
Recall, Uncle Zeke had mentioned a fellow farmer who sold his 130 acres—likely without the mule—for an estimated $1.5 million dollars. Noble Energy recently acquired 71,000 acres in the Delaware Basin.
The company considered the new acquisition proximate enough to the 47,200 acres it already owned in the area to realize substantial economies of scale. In addition, Noble took ownership of another ~100,000 net acres in other parts of the Permian Basin. At a base assumed price of $50/bbl for 2017 and with modest price acceleration through 2020, Noble anticipates a pre-tax rate of return on capital of 60 percent for its Delaware Basin properties.
Construction Sands and Aggregates in the U.S.
Sand and gravel for industrial and construction purposes is a multi-billion dollar industry. Like frac sands construction and industrial demand is pegged to economic cycles. The more houses built and roads constructed and repaired the more is sold.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that $4.2 billion worth of the stuff was produced by just 118 companies with operations in 33 states in 2015. In order of tonnage produced, the leading states were: Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, Minnesota, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Iowa. Together these states accounted for almost 80 percent of the U.S. production.
To offer a visual of the numbers:
To sharpen the picture a bit more: [the concrete] used in the Hoover Dam would build a monument 100 feet square and 2-1/2 miles high; would rise higher than the 1,250-foot-tall Empire State Building if placed on an ordinary city block; or would pave a standard highway 16 feet wide, from San Francisco to New York City.
In the U.S., as elsewhere in the world, sand and other aggregates are being extracted at a much faster rate than they can be replenished. Sand isn’t something that can be artificially manufactured. It as specific and depletable a resource as gold, lithium or precious resource. Like precious metals and minerals there is only so much usable sand to go around.
The best sands are those left in the wake of glacial meltwaters that act to clear away the clay and silt. Granular size and shape, along with the purity of the silica and resistance to crushing, are some of the characteristics distinguishing one sand from another.
Even a sluggish economy places significant pressures on available sand supplies. Although construction during the great recession of early in the 21st century slowed, road repairs, infrastructure build-out and maintenance continued. In the face of diminishing supplies these activities continue to be stressed.
The sands used for fracking, construction and industrial manufacture can’t just be whipped up in the laboratory. It takes eons and the right mix of chance factors and secret ingredients, e.g. glacial movements, water supply and the presence of base minerals, in the right proportions, for Nature to create the various types of sands so highly valued for their individual properties.
Rising prices, diminishing supplies and increasingly limited landfill space encourage recycling of construction and demolition materials in the U.S. and other developed nations. According to Britain’s Mineral Products Association, for example, recycled materials accounted for 28 percent of building materials used in Britain in 2014.
Recycling helps to lower the environmental impact of sand and aggregate mining. Laws, policies and financial incentives have a long way to go, however, before recycling can compensate much for diminishing supplies.
The environmental consequences of sand and aggregate mining are reasonably straightforward and typical of mining operations for other commodities like coal. As many of the operations are in rural areas, large mines can create typical boomtown problems associated with oil and gas drilling and exhibited in place like
the Bakken shale fields and Canada’s oil sands communities. (See Table 1)
Source: http://www.greenfacts.org/en/sand-extraction/l-2/index.htm, note, however, author has added additional information.
A number of communities in prime sand states like Minnesota and Wisconsin are engaged in efforts to limit or prohibit sand mining operations. Winona County, Minnesota has successfully banned mining in the county after seventeen months of debate and at least one lawsuit challenging the decision.
Mining companies are not the only ones opposing such restrictions, however. Landowners whose right to sell or lease their properties for sums much greater than they might be worth as agricultural lands are understandably at odds with such decisions.
As the value of sand rises in response to market demands and supplies, community conflicts are likely to escalate. Environmental organizations like the Land Stewardship Project are making sand mining a priority and themselves available to assist local residents resist new and expanded mining operations.
Although sand is not a direct source of carbon emissions, it enables the fossil fuel industry and threatens water supplies, the natural defense against rising ocean levels. Low-carbon economies are not just about energy sources.
Construction—throughout its cycle—is a major contributor. Concrete is the most common man-made material on earth and a substantial component of the built environment. It is estimated that 10 percent of world carbon emissions come from concrete.
Sand as a major component of concrete, glass and other silicon based materials should not be ignored for its carbon contributions. Neither should the extraction and delivery process be left out of the climate change equation nor the effort to seek low-carbon alternatives.
Sand has societal implications beyond just its carbon contributions. Sand in the U.S. represents a potentially scarce and non-renewable resource, carrying with it significant environmental and economic consequences.
Elsewhere in the world sand’s societal impact goes beyond these two consequences to enter the arena of conflict minerals and illicit drugs.
Check for the second part of this article which will be posted soon. In that installment I will be discussing the sand wars of Asia and why it is not just sand,
*Note there are inconsistencies in the statistics I have used in the article and chosen not to reconcile. Although sources are generally noted, they should be considered as representative weights and measures.
Photo: Hart Mining
CLEAN ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT (1)
VICTOR OR VICTIM OF A MOST UNCIVIL WAR?
That was some weird sh*t.
---George W. Bush
Welcome to the whacky and wonderful world of Washington politics.
President Trump and Speaker Ryan lost the first big test of their budding bromance as Tryancare, their answer to Affordable Health Care failed to make it on to the House floor after a long night of negotiations.
In the wake of the goings-on lurk important insights into a still young, little known and less understood administration. The back and forth negotiations between the White House and the several factions of the Republican congressional majorities, overheard chats in hallways and restrooms and backstories reported by marauding gangs of reporters, are all being mined for any light they may shed on the next time.
Trump and company have been in power long enough now that patterns are beginning to emerge. Much has been said and much written about The Donald’s agenda and those of other Republicans—either alone or shared by like-minded cohorts.
It is useful, from time to time, to step back from the substance of things to consider the play of emotions surrounding them.
Politics is personal--people emotional. Politicians are no more able to check their feelings at the door, before sitting down to business, than a 16-year-old on a first date with the one of their dreams.
In the supercharged air of Capital City, emotions are running particularly hot these days. Above, is a wedge of black swans. Tryancare was only the first to land.
The Agony of Defeat
The President has made no secret of his dislike of losing nor of his willingness to disassociate himself from any failure. It could not have been easy for him to order Speaker Ryan to pull the Tryancare bill off the calendar.
The Donald showed a much greater willingness to do a bit of swamp diving than his predecessor. Donald the Dealmaker spoke with over 120 Republican representatives, including the much-vaunted House Freedom Coalition (HFC)—keepers of the conservative flame.
Somewhat surprisingly, Trump accepted the need to compromise. To avoid a very contentious public airing of some nasty laundry, he made the call to pull the bill.
Tryancare was expected to lay the foundation of a triumphal arch commemorating fulfillment of the promise to repeal and replace the much-maligned Obamacare. Unfortunately for the President and the Speaker, the bill pleased no one—not insurance companies, not the medical professions, not AARP, not even a majority of Trump’s own supporters.
The death of Tryancare may yet be one more example of fake news. It’s being reported that Pence, Preibus and Bannon met with the HFC and offered new compromise language more in line with its demands.
For many, the non-vote was a wise decision. If even half of what the Congressional Budget Office predicted happen once the bill have became law, Mr. Trump and the Republican Party would have had a lot of explaining to do.
Many have already been asked to explain themselves—and none too politely—in town hall meetings. It is somewhat surprising why Trump seems to further placate the HFC, especially considering his twitted threats.
How exactly the Tryancare debacle is impacting the multipartite relationships—either existing or emerging--between the White House, the Speaker, the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), Republican moderates, various Republican governors and conservative think tanks—is not entirely clear. That it’s having an impact is hard to dispute.
Tryancare and Federal Clean Energy and Environment Programs/Policies
Nothing in politics is ever unrelated to something else. Think of the connectedness of political events as a less subtle butterfly flapping its wings in China causing a tornado in the Great Plains sort of thing.
The Tryancare failure is the claimed catalyst for the President’s changing the order and timing of his next gaggle of initiatives. It may also have changed his relationship with Speaker Ryan.
Trump’s tweets in the days immediately following the failed vote attacked HFC and its members. Ryan had convinced the White House to make healthcare the first item on the administration’s agenda and stood shoulder to shoulder with the President through it all.
Having had seven years to craft an Obamacare replacement, his leadership post and the relative cordiality of Republican House members to that point, it seemed reasonable for The Donald to defer to Ryan’s recommendation. Having kissed and made up just prior to November’s vote, Trump may also have been looking to protect the Speaker from suffering the same fate as Boehner and Cantor.
An early ouster of Ryan from the Speaker’s chair would certainly complicate things and strengthen HFC’s bargaining position vis-à-vis Trump. The outsized influence of fewer than 40 members is not entirely appreciated by more moderate Republican colleagues.
Still, Trump’s nearly manic dislike of losing and Bannon’s previously expressed enmity towards Ryan had many thinking that Trump’s twits would be aimed at the Speaker. Given the recent travels of Pence, Preibus and Bannon to the Hill and their meeting--sans Ryan—with the HFC, there still may be a shift in the offing—a lot will depend on how well Ryan ushers other initiatives, e.g. tax reform, through the House and if an acceptable Plan B replacement can be convinced to sit in the hot seat.
The willingness of the White House to make additional concessions may simply reflect the repugnance of losing—in which case it confirms what is already known.
However, should these new overtures be based on Trump’s defense of self, it suggests a much greater attachment to the deal than the dogma. In which case, his talk of reaching out to Democrats may well be real. If so, it opens a door to a whole new set of possibilities.
Democrats have a lot of reasons to mistrust The Donald—a penchant for spouting alternative truths and dictator-envy being but two of them. Arguably, however, his egocentricity may be relied upon.
Any real possibility of collaboration with Trump immediately gives Democrats something they currently lack--leverage! The Donald’s desire to deal has already been thwarted by the HFC. Should the latest proposed changes to Tryancare prove unacceptable, Trump is unlikely to ask these little caesers a third time.
Whether motivated by a desire for revenge, simple spite or a genuine desire to get something done, Trump is intent on getting things done his options are limited. Even should the White House and the HFC make some accommodation in the matter of healthcare, Trump will need to reach out to Democrats—if for no other reason than to maintain an upper hand in future negotiations with the Caucus.
Kelsey Snell recently wrote in the Washington Post:
Democrats in Congress have a new and surprising tool at their disposal in the era of one-party Republican rule in President Trump’s Washington: power.
It turns out that Republicans need the minority party to help them avoid a government shutdown at the end of April, when the current spending deal to
fund the government expires. And Democrats have decided, for now at least, that they will use their leverage to reassert themselves and ensure the
continued funding of their top priorities — by negotiating with Republicans.
What better to use its possible leverage for than pushing back the Republican assault on federal clean energy and environmental programs and policies?
Although it is unlikely the full panoply of cuts will prove acceptable even to many congressional Republicans, the sheer magnitude of proposed gutting bodes badly for maintaining even minimally sufficient federal involvement.
In response to a standard Scott Pruitt defense of the administration’s proposed anti-regulation campaign on Fox News, Chris Wallace commented:
You're talking about regulatory overreach… But the question is, there are 166 million people living in unclean air, and you're going
to remove some of the pollution restrictions, which would make the air even worse.
Emotion as a motivator of political action was very visible in the overwhelming opposition of voters to Tryancare. People are often passionate in their resistance to being screwed. It was a similarly significant factor contributing to Trump’s upset victory.
I’ve written before of my qualms about waving opinion surveys around to prove how much the public cares about clean energy and environmental protection. I don’t doubt the sincerity of respondents, the gap between what people say and what they do, however, can be difficult to explain.
Today, I believe such surveys represent a deep pool of support that can be tapped in the coming battles to keep the federal government engaged in defense of the planet. Wallace’s response to Pruitt’s attempt to justify the administration’s massive deregulation effort based on the alleged over-regulation reflects the common sense most of us possess to one degree or another.
The excess of effort expended by climate deniers to gut federal clean energy and environmental programs may well prove to be its Achilles heel. Such exuberance blinds the far-right to the power potential of left-side progressives. Despite differences in their objectives, populists and progressives share a mistrust of the establishment.
Sanders’ campaign tapped into the passion and willingness of voters to act on their environmental concerns. Populist and progressive voters in 2016 let it be known in large numbers they would no longer be cowed by the establishment.
Why far right politicians peddle the idea that left to their own devices, fossil fuel companies and other heavy industrials will protect the environment before their bottom lines is a mystery to me. I will leave my suspicions why for another day.
It now appears that Trump wants Congress to address--simultaneously-- tax reform AND infrastructure. Issues the equal of healthcare in both complexity and an absence of Republican single-mindedness. Add to this Donald’s beloved border wall and he has to make one helluva three-cushion shot.
Quite frankly, I doubt The Donald, Ryan, McConnell and Pence can pull it off—particularly without reaching out to Democrats. Then, I didn’t much believe I would be sitting here in April typing Trump after the title President.
Clearly there is reason to believe that federal clean energy and environmental programs and policies will not be as decimated as the Administration and congressional climate deniers would wish. What and how much will be left standing depends upon the next cards played and the players’ ability to resist being over played. It will especially depend upon Trump’s desire to prove he is the brilliant dealmaker he says he is.
Like a coin, this story has two sides. It is certainly possible to consider many of these same events and conclude that federal clean energy and environment will be among the victims of these same circumstances.
CLEAN ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT (2)
VICTOR OR VICTIM OF A MOST UNCIVIL WAR?
Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was straightforward. We’re not spending money
on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.
--Mick Mulvaney, OMB Director
No politician—not even The Donald—can expect to stay in power without being able to point to some accomplishments. Dystopian visions will only get you so far. Surrogates can only rationalize for so long.
Seeing pictures of The Donald walking around the White House grounds the other day, I found myself wondering if he might not be having second thoughts about being the 45th President of the United States. It was a sunny Spring day here in Capital City and, for whatever reason, he just didn’t look very happy.
I don’t know that I blame him. Less than a hundred days into his first term and his problems seem to be growing at a much faster clip than his accomplishments. Tryancare’s failure to make it on to the House floor after weeks of negotiation couldn’t have pleased him.
Add to this: the intrigues surrounding Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 elections; the involvement of Trump advisors and nominees with Russia; a likely second refusal of Tryancare by the House Freedom Caucus or perhaps a first by the Tuesday Group; the circling of hostile Democrats; and cellar
When totaled, these factors paint a pretty dismal picture. Clearly The Donald needs a victory if doubts of his deal-making abilities aren’t to grow.
Put yourself in Kellyanne’s Jimmy Choo’s, Bannon’s New Balance sneakers or Ivanka’s silver slippers. What would you recommend?
If your answer didn’t include phrases like smoke screen or finding and focusing on something most of Trump’s supporters, alt-righters, conservative think tanks and blue dog-Democrats might all be convinced to rally ‘round, don’t dream of standing at the right hand of The Donald any time soon.
The one promise Washington policymakers—rookies and veterans alike-- can make with conviction and confidence is effective obstructionism. Although in this case, the more appropriate word is probably undoing--as in any and all of Obama’s executive orders remotely related to the problem of climate change. A problem Trumpsters contend is fake science wrapped in the guise of phony predictions of Earth’s early demise.
One of the most galvanizing phrases in the Republican lexicon is: we don’t need no lousy environmental regulations. For a president in need of proving to his supporters he still has it, dismantling federal clean energy and environment programs is a sure winner.
When Negatives Are Positive
Environmental deregulation by executive orders is pretty much the perfect solution from the White House’s perspective.
Even the recent plethora of promised law suits play into the hands of deniers. For those dismissive of the accepted science of global warming, a delay is nearly as good as deregulation or the actual dismantling of the multitude of federal programs and policies.
Environmental deregulation offers a platform from which clean energy regulations may be struck from the books. Consider the recent ordering of EPA to reopen its mid-term review of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards.
Right out of the gate The Donald earns points with his base, including a significant number of industries, e.g. fossil and automotive, and the House Freedom Caucus (HFC). In the case of the Caucus, it offers the opportunity to maintain cordial relations even after their scuttling of Tryancare. It is in both their interests to continue the search for common opportunities.
Neither NRDC, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Earthjustice nor anyone else will have an easy time suing EPA, the State Department or other federal agencies, over the next year or more, for what they may be thinking. Thoughts are rarely actionable offenses.
Even before presidential orders are executed, the administration can earn political points for putting antagonists on notice of what may be coming. Pruitt’s evasiveness when asked if California will still be allowed to set tougher mileage standards than the federal government stirs the political pot.
Standard operating procedure for Trump and his administration is invocation of the five-year old’s refrain of for me to know and you to find out. As I had stated at the very beginning of this article, emotions should not to be dismissed but considered for what they may say about the next time.
An odd addition to the list of reasons why attacks on clean energy and environmental programs and policies has cropped up. Within the last few days, reports of Pruitt’s being attacked by the right have been coming out. According to reliable sources:
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is coming under fire from conservatives amid a simmering behind-the-scenes fight
over how far to take President…Trump’s push to undo his predecessor’s climate agenda.
It appears Pruitt prevailed upon the President to refrain from ordering the Agency to reverse the 2009 endangerment finding--fearing it would immediately trigger a series of federal law suit. Suits not unlike those filed by West Virginia, Oklahoma and others in the wake of the Clean Power Plan. As I’ve written before, these challenges would be the mirror opposites of those made to the CPP.
Rather than claiming the EPA is overreaching its authority, plaintiffs in these cases would be charging that the Agency is [under-reaching] its authorities given it by the Clean Air Act, thereby, shirking its responsibility of protecting citizens from legitimate threats to their health, welfare and safety.
Pruitt may also have had another reason for asking Trump to spare the endangerment finding. His leadership of the pack in the unsuccessful case Coalition for Responsible Regulation v EPA challenging the original declaration now puts him in a very awkward position as the EPA Administrator; his involvement taints any possible claim of neutrality.
Should the Agency rescind or even attempt to change substantially the earlier declaration while Pruitt occupies the corner office opens the Agency, the Administrator and the President to charges of rigging the system.
The original finding was based upon a preponderance of mainstream scientific evidence. Any change of the finding—based on the research of deniers—would be immediately suspect and quite possibly struck down as a preconceived conclusion.
Myron Ebell,Trump’s EPA transition team leader and the Director of Global Warming and International Environmental Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), is a leading critic of Pruitt’s position on endangerment. There is more than a bit of truth in Ebell’s claim that anything other than outright rescission requires coming up with a Trump Clean Power Plan.
The reason Ebell’s right is courts are unlikely to give much credence to denier science. Simply in terms of the preponderance of mainstream scientific findings and opinion, climate change and its consequences are real. Any evidence to the contrary is going to be labelled as an outlier.
Whether they will ever give voice to it, deniers are at a significant disadvantage in courts of law, because of well-established precedents. As a result, they much prefer to plead their case in public or in Congress.
Ebell is not alone in his resentment of Pruitt’s position. James Delingpole, one of Breitbart’s bright boys, ranted the other day that the new Administrator is more interested in building his political career than he is taking on the Green Blob.
There is an odd angle to Ebell and the alt-right’s assault on Pruitt. It gives The Donald an opportunity to claim he is an environmentalist after all. Were he not, the story will go, he would have ordered an outright reversal of the endangerment finding.
Think about it. For the price of stationary, a few faux leather folders and 20 bucks worth of engraved Bics, Mr. Trump would accomplish pretty much of what he promised on the campaign trail, without ever having to leave the Oval Office or hearing how he failed to close the deal.
That’s some powerful incentive to persist in the victimization of federal clean energy and environment programs and policies!
A couple of final thoughts:
My reason for presenting the victor/victim discussion is the importance I place on clean energy and environment advocates and defenders having as good an understanding of what might be going on as possible. Consider this as a “can’t know the players without a program” thing.
Washington tends to engage in torturous reasoning that can be very confusing to anyone not tainted by political experiences. The more advocates know, the more likely they are to be able to present their points in a way the members of Congress and their staff can relate to.
Which brings me to the point of being careful of what you ask for. In the article, it was discussed a bit in relation to Pruitt’s reasons for asking the President not to include a directed reversal of the endangerment finding.
My admonishment is this: don’t let decisionmakers get off cheaply in response to your requests. Is the administration’s willingness to remain a signatory on the Paris Accords a meaningful response in relation to its attacks federal climate and clean energy policies and programs?
Before answering, consider that several major coal companies are asking Trump to stay on the Accords—particularly if the administration is willing to fund clean coal research. Other coal companies disagree.
No matter. My opinion on this:
OPPOSE THE U.S. REMAINING AT THE TABLE IF THE ADMINISTRATION CONTINUES ITS EFFORTS TO RAPE FEDERAL CLEAN
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENSE PROGRAMS AND POLICIES
lest the adjective HIPPOCRITE be added to the list of things other nations may say about us.
That’s my opinion, yours may be different. All I am asking is for you to think about it.
Finally, don’t let D.C. shenanigans make you forget that whatever The Donald and his doyen of deniers might say or do, clean energy and environmental protection is here to stay.
Yes, it would be better for a lot of people and a lot of countries if our federal government stayed engaged. Just remember, as the preponderance of science recognizes the existence of the climate change problem and the need to do something about it, so do a preponderance of people and nations.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.