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Trump Is Rewriting the Rules to Favor the Pipeline Industry

Fossil fuel pipelines are the real-life point of conflict in the debate over our climate and our energy future.

Activists rallying for Native American rights march past the U.S. Treasury Department during the Native Nations Rise protest on March 10, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Domestic oil and gas production is soaring, and nowdays, it’s not enough to simply pull the stuff from the ground. With the fossil fuel boom comes demand for new pipelines and refining infrastructure, putting the expanding industry on a collision course with communities across the country. Major pipeline projects are facing resistance from a public worried about accidents and climate disruption, so President Trump wants to rewrite the rules in the industry’s favor.

On Wednesday, Trump announced two executive orders designed to speed up approvals for fossil fuel infrastructure and make it easier for energy firms to transport oil and gas from the nation’s booming fracking fields to domestic and international markets. One order seeks to limit the role of state governments in approving federal clean water permits, a move that environmentalists say undermines states’ ability to delay or block fossil fuel projects that threaten wetlands and waterways, as New York and Washington have done.

“This executive order shows the administration’s commitment to states’ rights is hollow; once again, the administration is putting profit above all else,” said Marc Yaggi, executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance in a statement on Wednesday.

Trump announced the new executive orders in Texas, where the oil and gas industry has a long history of dominating economies, landscapes and politics. Texas lawmakers are currently considering legislation that environmentalists say is designed to intimidate environmental protesters and landowners fighting a pipeline company’s attempt to seize their property under eminent domain. Similar legislation passed last year in neighboring Louisiana, allowing police to charge water protectors with felonies for visiting pipeline construction zones in pristine swamplands.

Welcome to the pipeline wars. The U.S. is simultaneously poised to dominate oil and gas production for decades to come and coming under heavy political pressure to stave off the worst impacts of climate disruption and switch to renewables. As the encroaching fossil fuel industry enriches some communities and tramples over others, new pipelines and other infrastructure projects are becoming the real-life points of conflict in the debate over the nation’s energy future.

From the Native-led resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016 to an emerging fight over a gas pipeline proposed off the shores of New York City, major fossil fuel projects nationwide have been blocked or delayed by state and tribal governments, legal challenges, grassroots climate activists and landowners who refuse to give up their property for pipeline construction. The industry is fighting to jam them through anyway, before investors lose interest and competitors in the clean energy sector gain the upper hand.

Fossil fuel firms have found a close ally in Trump, whose administration has systemically rolled back environmental regulations, placed industry insiders at the head of federal agencies and reneged on the nation’s international climate commitments. When announcing his fossil fuel orders before an audience of Texas oil workers on Wednesday, Trump boasted about pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and promised to speed up pipeline approvals.

“And that means jobs, jobs, jobs, and it’s a lot of additional product, it’s a lot of stuff,” Trump said.

Trump’s push for “energy dominance” via fossil fuels comes as much of the country moves in the opposite direction. Solar and wind energy production have tripled in recent years, lowering costs for renewable energy and creating as many jobs as the fossil fuel and nuclear industries, according to the Environmental Working Group. Hundreds of political and community leaders have committed to building a 100 percent renewable energy grid. The Green New Deal proposal in Congress has electrified progressives, and the threat of climate disruption is inspiring mass action by young people worldwide.

The debate is pitting fossil fuel-rich states in the nation’s interior with those on the coast, where many voters are excited about renewables and environmental activists routinely oppose expansion of any new fossil fuel projects. Laura Shindell, an organizer with Food and Water Watch fighting a controversial gas pipeline proposed off the shores of New York City, said communities from Long Island to Buffalo have come out against fossil fuel projects. For many activists, the climate crisis is one central motivation, Shindell said.

“If we have any chance of curbing the worst impacts of climate change, we need to stop locking ourselves into decades more fossil fuel use with these projects,” Shindell said in an interview with Truthout.

Shindell said pipeline opponents are also worried about “immediate impacts” to their communities. Fossil fuel plants cause air pollution, and oil and gas pipelines have a dismal record of accidents, leaks, explosions and spills — an average of about 300 per year, according to federal data. Even in industry-friendly Pennsylvania, a long list of violations and growing concern over safety have turned public opinion against the Mariner East 2 liquid gas pipeline, and the state attorney general has launched a criminal investigation into the project.

“You’ve got folks fighting both on the climate angle and for the surrounding community,” Shindell said.

Politicians are responding. Democratic attorneys general from 26 states have challenged Trump’s rollback of Obama-era carbon emission rules in court. In Washington, regulators blocked a controversial coal terminal on the Columbia River. In New York, activists pushed Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking, and regulators denied a crucial permit under the Clean Water Act for a 124-mile natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania, where widespread fracking created a gas glut.

“Cuomo has been very vocal in the past about opposing Trump and his agenda, so in some regard we hope this puts fire under Cuomo to more vigorously and reliably deny these projects, because it’s a rebuke to the Trump agenda,” Shindell said when asked about Trump’s executive orders.

The pushback is angering the industry, which claims the economy lost $91 billion and thousands of jobs last year due to public opposition to pipelines and other fossil fuel projects. (Analysts say these figure are inflated and ignore the fracking industry’s poor financial performance.) Trump has responded by ordering federal reports on rates of fossil fuel delivery and energy prices in New England and the West Coast.

Trump is also ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider guidance and regulations under a section of the Clean Water Act that allowed state regulators in Washington and New York to block crucial permits for fossil fuel projects over environmental concerns. The blocked permits have forced applicant companies to reapply and frustrated investors. According to senior administration officials, changing the rules to limit the amount of time a state can consider water permits would speed up the approval process rather than rob states of oversight authority.

Environmentalists disagree; arguing any change to the rules would undermine a state’s ability to protect its rivers, lakes and wetlands.

“As Congress recognized in the text of the Clean Water Act, it is the states that are best positioned to determine what a project will mean for their waterways and the communities that rely on them,” Yaggi said.

EPA officials are already updating a 2010 guidance on the Clean Water Act rules, but any regulatory changes would require a public comment period that could take months. Environmental groups are expected to challenge those changes in court, just like they have challenged pipeline projects across the country. Whether Trump’s orders will truly speed up pipeline approvals or simply provide the president with red meat for his pro-industry base remains to be seen. Either way, the president has once again signaled his commitment to a fossil fuel agenda that is deeply dividing the nation.

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