Stuff that matters

out with the old

It’s even easier than you thought for Republicans to repeal President Obama’s environmental protections.

President-elect Trump has promised to undo all of Obama’s climate-related regulations, from the Clean Power Plan to methane rules. Historically, a new president had to spend years creating new rules to scotch regulations put in place by a predecessor.

Any new rules can usually be challenged in court. For example, when Trump gets around to unravelling the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule from last year lowering the amount of smog, public health organizations could sue to stop him. They would argue that the stricter standard fulfilled an EPA obligation under the Clean Air Act, so abolishing it would violate the law.

Republicans have a way around this. Back in 1996, Newt Gingrich and his House Republicans passed the Congressional Review Act. It lets Congress overturn a new regulation within 60 days on the legislative calendar of the rule getting finalized. Since Congress is rarely in session, 60 legislative days can span more than 6 months, so Republicans will be able to scrap any agency rule put in place since late May.

When Republicans tried to use the procedure in recent years, Obama would always veto it. Trump surely won’t.

More than 150 recently finalized rules are vulnerable. They include stricter fuel-efficiency rules for trucks and a new rule limiting methane leakage in oil and gas drilling operations on public lands.

Get Briefly in your inbox every weekday

Triassic Park

Paleontologists discovered a huge ancient fossils trove in Bears Ears National Monument.

The Triassic-period fossils were found on land that is no longer federally protected, thanks to President Trump.

The remains of three large, intact phytosaurs — crocodile-like creatures that covered the globe 200 million years ago — were found by a team of 14 researchers excavating a rich fossil bed in Utah called the Chinle Formation in 2017.

Rob Gay, a paleontologist at the University of Western Colorado and leader of the expedition, announced the results at the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists conference in Utah. Gay noted that his team discovered that the site had been previously looted; rookies made off with a chunk of a phytosaur skull before the site was given protected status by President Obama in 2016.

Looting may become more common in fossil-rich areas now that the Trump administration has begun shrinking monuments. Last December, Trump reduced Bears Ears by 85 percent, opening up the land for uranium mining and fossil fuel extraction.

Luckily, paleontologists aren’t burying their heads in the, er, soil. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, alongside five Native American tribes, is suing Trump over Bears Ears and a number of other proposed rollbacks of national monuments. Way to go, fossil nerds!

Got your back

The people most afflicted by pollution have new champions.

At least those living in California do. The state’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, announced on Thursday that he was forming a bureau of environmental justice with lawyers working full time “to protect people and communities that endure a disproportionate share of environmental pollution and public health hazards.”

There are laws on the books protecting people from pollution, but those laws aren’t always enforced, especially in the places where people don’t have the money to hire lawyers. A recent study found that poor people are more likely to be exposed to air pollution, and that being black was an even greater risk factor than being poor.

“Justice should not be reserved for communities who can afford to investigate and litigate parties that break the law,”said California Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia in a statement.

The lawyers in the new office will focus on using the legal system to help communities clean up lead, fix up contaminated drinking-water systems, and penalize polluters.

Becerra has 30 ongoing lawsuits against President Trump’s administration, and about half of those have to do with the White House’s attempts to roll back environmental regulations. More on Becerra and his efforts here.

trucked up

University pulls research on truck pollution that was funded by a local trucking company.

Facing backlash from professors, Tennessee Technological University president Philip B. Oldham sent a letter to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt on Monday asking him to ignore the results of a study produced by his own university.

Here’s what happened.

Tennessee Republican Representative Diane Black, who has been pushing the EPA to adopt looser regulations for big trucks, asked Pruitt to roll back regulations on a certain kind of freight truck called a glider last July.

Previous EPA tests found gliders produce somewhere between 40 and 50 times more pollution than new trucks, but a study from Tennessee Tech published in 2016 found that gliders produce about the same levels of emissions as other trucks.

It turns out that the largest manufacturer of gliders, Tennessee-based Fitzgerald Glider Kits, funded the study and offered to build the university a spanking new research center to boot.

In November, Pruitt cited the study when he announced plans to ease up regulations on gliders. Faculty at Tennessee Tech asked the university to denounce the study on Friday, arguing that, among other things, it was a) conducted by a graduate student and b) unverified. Then, on Wednesday, the EPA said in a statement that Pruitt’s decision didn’t have anything to do with the controversial study. … OK.

Back to black

It’s 2018, and black lung disease is on the rise in Appalachia.

Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) looked at three federally funded clinics between 2013 and 2017 and documented the largest cluster of advanced black lung disease — ever. In that time period, the clinics treated 416 coal miners primarily from Virginia and Kentucky with complicated black lung, the most advanced stage of the disease.

Not only are coal miners experiencing an uptick in the most fatal form of black lung, they’re also being diagnosed at a younger age.

“There’s an unacceptably large number of younger miners who have end-stage disease,” lead researcher David J. Blackley told the New York Times. “The only choice is to get a lung transplant or wait it out and die.”

This new study follows a 2016 NPR investigation revealing that the number of cases of black lung in central Appalachia was likely much higher than NIOSH’s official count.

The disease declined throughout the 1990s, but now the clinics’ black lung specialist says that within two weeks, he’s seeing the same number of cases he used to see in an entire year.

Why? After exhausting thicker seams, today’s miners have to dig more deeply into rock to unearth coal. The combination of coal dust and silica dust from cutting into rock is a deadlier concoction than what plagued miners in the past.


3M pays up after Minnesota sued over poisoned drinking water.

The Post-it note company settled an eight-year-long suit over the health effects of perfluorochemicals (PFCs) for $850 million on Tuesday.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson had sued 3M Co. for $5 billion, alleging that it dumped massive amounts of PFCs into Twin Cities landfills for half a century — while aware its actions could contaminate groundwater and pose “a substantial risk to human health and the environment.”

The conglomerate — which manufactures Scotch tape and Ace bandages, among thousands of other items — maintains that its actions did not endanger people’s health. But the money will go toward drinking water and water sustainability projects for local communities affected by PFCs.

3M was one of the biggest manufacturers of PFCs, which were widely used in nonstick cookware, stain-resistant repellents, and other products until 2002. Recent studies have linked PFCs to cancer and adverse birth outcomes. The Minnesota suit went so far as to say that 3M intentionally suppressed scientific research into the negative health effects of the chemicals in question.

come what mayor

Hundreds of mayors stand up to Scott Pruitt over climate change.

EPA chief Scott Pruitt received an unusual letter Tuesday morning. Two hundred and thirty-six mayors from 47 U.S. states and territories had sent him a clear message: Stop dismantling the Clean Power Plan.

Last October, Pruitt announced his intentions to repeal and replace the Obama-era plan, the nation’s first attempt at regulating harmful greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. So far, Pruitt has done a bang-up job of repealing the policy, but the “replace” part has yet to materialize.

Now, mayors of cities already hit hard by climate change, like Houston and New Orleans, are banding together with mayors from across the country to take a stand. “We strongly oppose the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan,” they wrote. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential to protect our citizens against the worst impacts of climate change.”

After 2017’s brutal hurricane and wildfire season, it’s easy to see why mayors are worried. In their letter, they point out that coastal storm damage is projected to cost the U.S. $35 billion per year by 2030.

Cities are taking independent action to reduce emissions, but they want the federal government’s help. “[W]e cannot act alone,” the mayors wrote.

clean coal

An old coal-fired plant in North Dakota is trying to go green.

The Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Milton R. Young station got a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to design a carbon capture model that would reduce the plant’s carbon emissions by 90 percent.

The project is one of seven funded by the Energy Department’s new $44 million Design and Testing of Carbon Capture Technologies program.

The 40-year-old Minnkota station has two coal-powered units that together produce roughly 700,000 kilowatts of energy. Its larger unit is slated to get retrofitted with carbon capture technology — when CO2 is sucked from the air and stored underground so it doesn’t enter the atmosphere.

But the project will take more than a year to design, and at the end of that period, Minnkota Power might decide that the project isn’t economically feasible.

It’s a very real possibility. The woe-begotten Kemper Power plant, the nation’s first “clean coal” carbon capture facility, stopped work on clean coal last summer and reported billions of dollars in losses.

Then again, the Trump administration passed a budget this month that contains enormous incentives for clean coal tech, and researchers say carbon capture could be key to keeping global temperatures under the 2 degrees C limit.

Wait, hold up: Are scientists and the Trump administration in agreement for once?

from Russia with love

Rex Tillerson is caught in a love triangle with Russia and the U.S.

“The relationship that I had with Putin spans 18 years now,” the secretary of state said during a 60 Minutes interview with CBS’ Margaret Frank. “It was always about what I could do to be successful on behalf of my shareholders, and how Russia could succeed.” A true deal-maker.

But as U.S. secretary of state, the ex-CEO of ExxonMobil is supposed to put the United States’ interests first. That should ostensibly put some pressure on the relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tillerson, which was commemorated with a Russian friendship medal in 2013 after ExxonMobil signed deals with Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil company.

Russia is one of the world’s top exporters of both oil and gas. As Alex Steffen and Rebecca Leber have written, the country stands to benefit from procrastinating on climate change action that would limit fossil fuel extraction.

In the 60 Minutes interview, Tillerson recounted his first meeting with the Russian president after becoming U.S secretary of state. “Same man, different hat,” is how he recalls reintroducing himself.

“What he is representing is different than what I now represent,” Tillerson elaborated. “And I said to him, ‘I now represent the American people.’”

Convincing! And now, on to the SNL skit that apparently made Tillerson laugh out loud:

pedestrian crossing

It’s more dangerous to cross a street if you’re black. Here’s why.

Sure, walking means fewer emissions and a healthier you. But have you ever spent an annoying amount of time trying to cross a busy street? For black people, the wait is usually even longer.

Recent studies show that drivers’ racial bias lengthens wait times for black pedestrians. Along with poor infrastructure, bias could explain why black Americans and other people of color have significantly higher rates of pedestrian deaths. Watch the video to learn more.