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Trump’s Global Resorts Put Profit First, Environment Last, Critics Say

Trump’s environmental record is abysmal.

The Tanah Lot Temple in Bali, Indonesia, which is about to become a next-door neighbor to a Trump resort. During the campaign Trump declared: "[W]e'll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can't destroy businesses." (Photo: Fabio Gismondi / Flickr)

Who doesn’t like a luxury resort and 18-hole golf course set atop a sheer cliff with breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean? Revered Hindu Gods that inhabit the temple nearby, according to the local Balinese concerned over plans to open the Trump International Hotel & Tower Bali. Local environmentalists aren’t keen on the resort either.

The Balinese worry that the Trump development will loom over the centuries-old Tanah Lot, a temple that sits upon a rock off the west coast of the wildly Instagrammed and oft visited Indonesian island.

This particular holy site is one of the most venerated temples of the “Island of Gods.” And while the Balinese are ever welcoming to tourists — important to the island’s economy — their religion, and laws, stipulate that all non-religious buildings not exceed 15 meters, or the height of temples, and more or less the height of a coconut tree.

The Trump tower, resort and golf course, now still in the planning stage, also pose environmental concerns. Suriadi Darmoko believes the island does not need more hotel suites and jacuzzis. Darmoko is executive director of the Indonesian NGO, Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (WALHI) / the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, Eksekutif Daerah Bali.

A 2010 study by Indonesia’s Culture and Tourism Ministry, he notes, found Bali had a surplus of 9,800 hotel rooms. And according to a report by the HVS consulting firm, the average occupancy of upper luxury hotels in 2013 in Bali achieved only 60 percent.

Darmoko is especially worried about the Trump project’s plans to expand the property around the existing Pan Pacific Nirwana Bali Resort. The amount of “farmland in Bali drops” when land is transferred to “becoming tourist accommodations and supporting facilities” he told Mongabay. “What Bali needs is a tourism accommodation moratorium,” during which the government could “conduct a study to calculate the supporting capacity and supporting ability of the environment in Bali.”

The Trump tower project will be developed by MNC Group, Indonesia’s leading investment firm, and will be managed by the Trump Hotel Collection. As reported by Reuters last February, Herman Bunjamin — the vice president director at PT MNC Land Tbk (MNC Group’s property unit) — has assured the Balinese that the company would follow local government environmental regulations, and respect the Hindu religion.

However, this is not the first time a Trump construction project has experienced a swirl of controversy around its potential environmental impacts. And that worries local Balinese communities and conservationists, even though Trump himself has claimed many times that he is an award-winning environmentalist — a claim we’ll explore in some detail later in this article.

Ever since the 70-year-old billionaire was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States in January 2017, watchdog organizations have paid extra close attention to the past, and ongoing, international environmental record of Trump’s companies, especially considering that Trump has largely retained his ownership interest in his businesses.

Trump: Mixing Politics, Golf and the Environment

According to Investopedia, before becoming president, Donald Trump had amassed a net worth of an estimated $3.5 billion. The Trump Organization LLC acts as the primary holding for Trump’s firms, and serves as an umbrella company for his investments in real estate, brands and other businesses, ranging from golf courses to hotels.

Among its key executives are two of his sons: Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, who last March told Forbes he will not talk business with his father in order to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest, but will only pass financial reports to him. Ivanka Trump, the President’s elder daughter, resigned from her father’s company in January and today works as an unpaid adviser to him in the White House.

Golf is one of the many businesses that made Trump rich. According to the financial disclosure form published last June by the Office of Government Ethics, Trump’s golf courses alone reported $288 million in income from January 2016 through April 15, 2017.

In recent years the sport has increased wildly in popularity, and today golf is a multi-billion dollar industry: as of year-end 2016 there were golf facilities in 208 of the 245 countries in the world. However, the perfect manicured green color of the globe’s 33,161 courses comes at a high price to the environment.

A study by Kit Wheeler and John Nauright of Georgia Southern University found that golf course construction often consists in “clearing of natural vegetation, deforestation, destruction of natural landscapes and habitats and changes in local topography and hydrology” in order to roughly replicate the barren Scottish Highlands in which the game originated. That unnatural landscaping often leads to erosion and habitat loss, not to mention the fact that the maintenance of a standard 9-hole needs a great deal of synthetic chemicals — many deemed hazardous to wildlife — to keep it lush and green, including fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and fungicides.

The environmental problems associated with golf, the authors note, are particularly acute in Southeast Asia due to the sudden boom of the sport there and due the fact that golf course maintenance in the tropics is far more difficult than in other parts of the world because of the higher levels of rainfall, greater numbers of pests, diseases and weeds.

According to UNEP, golf course maintenance can also deplete freshwater resources — an average course in a tropical country needs 1,500 kilograms (3,307 pounds) of chemicals annually, and uses as much water as 60,000 rural villagers. This astronomical use of resources is hard to justify in the developing world where competition for water and cropland, amid soaring populations, is intense. The problem is further complicated by weak environmental regulation and enforcement plus corruption, all too typically seen in developing countries.

Today, Trump Golf boasts a portfolio of 17 courses across the globe stretching from the jagged California cliffs to the (previously) barren desert of Dubai. This empire is expanding, and 2018 will see the opening of Trump International Hotel & Tower Lido, a 700-hectare (1,730 acre) development including a six-star luxury resort, theme park, country club, spa, luxury villas, condominiums, and, of course, an 18-hole signature championship golf course.

This new Trump-branded property will be set in the mountains of West Java, around 65 kilometers (40 miles) south of Jakarta and beside the Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park, one of the island’s last virgin tropical forests.

The project has become a major concern to RMI, the Indonesian Institute for Forest and Environment, an NGO whose goal is the promotion of community-based natural resource management and biodiversity conservation in the region.

“[T]here are major concerns from the local villagers on [how much of the] water supply that will still be available to them because the project is estimated to demand [lots] of water for their luxury facilities,” RMI’s Executive Director Mardha Tillah told Mongabay, pointing out that the Trump facility will be built in an important water catchment area.

After “a public discussion that was organized by local youth, the local sub-regency government officials stated that the environmental impact assessment was not complete yet, although some construction had been undergone — e.g. a reservoir,” she said.

The Associated Press reports, that the development is causing concern among Indonesian environmentalists, who fear for the nearby national park and its threatened animals, including the Critically Endangered Javan slow loris (Nycticebus javanicus), the Endangered Javan leaf monkey (Presbytis comata), the Vulnerable Javan leopard (Panthera pardus melas), and Endangered Javan silvery gibbon (Hylobates moloch).

Tillah shares these fears. “I am very much keen on looking at the EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] document that shows how this resort does not affect any wildlife in this area,” she said.

Considering the President’s abysmal environmental record and his anti-environmental pro-business views, it is hard not to imagine that this anti-regulatory philosophy permeates Trump’s companies. During the election, Donald Trump stated that, “[W]e’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.”

Both Trump’s Balinese and Javan projects will be developed in partnership with MNC Group, who is also building the new Bogor-Sukabumi toll road, scheduled for completion at the end of 2017 which will provide direct access to Lido Lakes, reducing the drive time from Jakarta.

The highway, like tropical pavement around the world, is transforming the pastoral region. “The toll road has changed the landscape of rural areas of Bogor — paddy fields are replaced by the toll road projects,” said RMI’s Tillah. “If only it was not for this resort project, [the] toll road might not be constructed, because it was neglected due to lack of investors for more than a decade.”

“On the other hand,” she added, “improvement in [regional] train service and an increase of [operating] frequency [could] already [have served as an alternative] solution for [moving] people.”

ABC revealed that Donald Trump personally lobbied for the road with senior Indonesian politicians in September 2015 at Trump Tower in New York, when he was both in negotiations over the Lido development and running for the presidency. According to ABC, the meeting was not authorized by the Indonesian Government, and was held with the direct assistance of Trump business partner Hary Tanoesoedibjo, President Commissioner and Founder of the MNC Group.

Tanoesoedibjo, a media mogul who created his own Indonesian political party in 2015, attended Trump’s inauguration last January. As the Nikkei Asian Review pointed out, he is the subject of a police investigation for allegations of intimidation and corruption, which he claims are politically motivated.

Trump’s resistance didn’t end there. The U.S. president-elect exhorted the leader of UK Independence party (UKIP) Nigel Farage and key associates to lobby against the Scottish windfarms. However, none of this aided Trump’s crusade against the turbines, and in December 2015 he lost a Scottish Supreme Court battle against the installation of an windfarm located several miles offshore of his course.

Last July the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the country’s principal environmental regulator, also raised formal objections to the Trump company’s proposals for a second 18-hole course in Aberdeenshire. Now the organization will have to revise its plans to make sure its project does not violate sewage pollution, environmental protection and groundwater conservation rules.

A statement by Trump International Golf Links published by the BBC reads in part:

The recent correspondence between Trump International, the local authority and statutory consultants is a normal part of the planning process and the regular ongoing dialogue conducted during the application process. SNH and Sepa always reference a range of policy considerations and factors which is standard practice and nothing out of the ordinary. Our application is making its way through the planning system and this dialogue will continue until it goes before committee for consideration. The Dr Martin Hawtree designed second golf course is located to the south of the Trump estate and does not occupy a Site of Special Scientific Interest therefore is not covered by any environmental designations.

We are extremely confident in our proposal and that this process will reach a satisfactory conclusion acceptable to all parties on our world class development.

What’s Good for Trump Is Good for the US and World…

During his campaign Donald Trump said he wanted to get rid of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “in almost every form.” Now that he is President, Trump appears to be moving toward that goal, and some of his businesses are among the institutions that could benefit from a dramatic roll back in environmental regulations. A look at Trump’s attacks on the U.S. EPA, and the business rationale for those assaults, is enlightening when studying the actions of Trump businesses around the world.

For instance, Trump issued an executive order commanding the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to review the Obama-era Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the United States rule (WOTUS) — a rule that greatly irks golf course developers.

Last March, Bob Helland, director of congressional and federal affairs of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), issued a statement that makes clear why his association opposes the Clean Water Rule as written: “Under the rule, golf courses could likely be required to obtain costly federal permits for any land management activities or land use decisions in, over or near these waters, such as pesticide and fertilizer applications and stream bank restorations and the moving of dirt. The impact on golf course management could be dramatic.”

In 2016, the GSCAA praised Trump as “a president who understands the value of the game of golf, both as a golfer and golf course owner,” who “is also familiar with the H-2B Visa program that a number of golf facilities utilize, including one of his own in Florida.” This visa program allows U.S. employers, or agents who meet specific regulatory requirements, to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs. “This could lead to a breakthrough in the red tape that makes using the program so frustrating,” said GSCAA. These statements shine a bright light on the imbalance between the administration’s business, environmental and immigration policies.

World-class hotels form another cornerstone of the Trump financial empire. So when the president proposed cutting all funding to EPA’s very successful 25-year-old Energy Star Program, a program meant to save energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions, CNN launched an investigation to see how Trump businesses might benefit from its elimination.

It turns out that the government’s Energy Star for Hotels ranking process provides an assessment of the energy performance of a property relative to its peers, taking into account local climate, weather and business activities at the property. Energy Star claims these ratings can affect the value of a property — the media investigation discovered that Trump’s properties tend to receive low ratings.

According to CNN, “[t]he most recent scores from 2015 reveal that 11 of his 15 skyscrapers in New York, Chicago and San Francisco are less energy efficient than most comparable buildings. On a scale of 1 to 100 for energy efficiency, Manhattan’s old Mayfair Hotel, which Trump converted into condos, rated a 1,” the lowest rating possible.

The House Appropriations Committee rejected the Trump’s administration proposal to eliminate Energy Star, but its spending bill for 2018, which came out in early July, proposed reducing funding by roughly 40 percent, a cut to $31 million.

Critics say that such a deep reduction will be significantly harmful to the environment. “We appreciate that the committee has rejected the administration’s proposal… but a 40 percent cut would be crippling as well,” said the President of the Alliance to Save Energy Kateri Callahan in a press statement.

In 2014, EPA estimated that Energy Star has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2.5 billion metric tons since 1992, while also providing energy cost savings to consumers, hotels and other industries.

“I have to wonder where this is coming from,” Callahan said, stressing the fact that Energy Star is one of the most popular government programs in U.S. history and has enjoyed broad bipartisan support since it was created under President George H.W. Bush.

Donald Trump, Award-Winning Environmentalist?

Donald Trump has been claiming he is an environmentalist at least since 2011, when he told Fox & Friends that “I’ve received many, many environmental awards”.

“I am a big believer in clean air and clean water. I’m a big believer. I have gotten so many awards for the environment,” Trump said during a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa. “I won many environmental awards, I have actually been called an environmentalist, if you believe it,” he repeated at a rally in Atkinson, New Hampshire.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross echoed that assessment on NBC’s Today show. Trump, he said, “is an environmentalist. I’ve known him for a very long time. He’s very pro-environment.”

Politifact found a grain of truth in Trump’s statements. A decade ago two local groups did award Trump for specific projects. In 2007, he received the Friends of Westchester County Parks’ inaugural Green Space Award for donating 436 acres to the New York state park system, and in the same year his Bedminster New Jersey Trump National Golf Course received the first annual environmental award of the The Metropolitan Golf Association (MGA).

MGA’s press statement reads: “Through the leadership of Donald J. Trump, [director of grounds] Nicoll has implemented an environmental strategy that has resulted in the preservation of a dedicated 45 acre grassland bird habitat on the property, as well as intensive erosion control and stream stabilization management plan. The impacts of golf construction and operations on this land have resulted in a significant environmental net gain from the previous land use. Trump National has made itself readily available to Bedminster Township officials by way of monthly meetings to keep them up to date on the club’s environmental monitoring activities.”

MGA also said that, while planning the construction of an additional course, the club integrated environmental awareness into their golf course maintenance and construction plans by maintaining more stringent standards than those required by state and local regulations.

However, critics note, if Donald Trump is an environmentalist, he is not an orthodox one. In his tweets, he has referred to global warming as “a canard,” something “mythical,” “based on faulty science and manipulated data,” “nonexistent” or “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” and also as “a total, and very expensive, hoax,” not to mention “bullshit.”

Nor does he show his environmentalism in the associates with which he surrounds himself. When choosing someone to lead his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump picked climate science denier Myron Ebell, who believes the environmental movement is “the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world.” His EPA head is the former Oklahoma attorney Scott Pruitt, a climate change skeptic whose LinkedIn profile says he is “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” Pruitt in the past sued EPA 14 times to block clean air and water safeguards, and recently denied that carbon dioxide causes global warming.

However, big business can save big bucks by being environmentally friendly, and that is something that did not go unnoticed at Trump’s environmental award-winning New Jersey golf courses. The Wall Street Journal reported that both of them qualify as a farmland because they are not only sports fields, but also home to activities associated to farming such as hay production and woodcutting. The Bedminster golf course is even home to a small goat herd that grazes overgrown grass. It is not clear exactly how much the tax breaks save Trump, but the Journal estimates the courses pay less than $1,000 in annual taxes instead of the $80,000 that would be standard for such properties.

Still, experts note, anyone saying that Donald Trump always puts profit and his assets ahead of the environment would be wrong. In truth, Trump’s policies could do serious harm to his businesses. As Buzz Feed News notes, Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement likely means continuing rising sea levels and more extreme storms, which both threaten his low-lying properties, including the Trump National Doral in the Miami suburbs, a luxury golf resort that could end up submerged. Indeed, had Hurricane Irma tracked east of Florida instead of west, as originally expected, it’s likely the storm, supercharged by some of the warmest Caribbean waters on record, would have made a direct hit on Mar-A-Lago, the so-called Winter White House.

Conflict of Interest?

The U.S. Congress has exempted the president and vice president from conflict-of-interest laws Title 18 Section 208 of the U.S. code. This decision was based on the premise that the presidency wields so much power that virtually any possible executive action might pose a potential conflict of interest (COI).

Last November, during his first news conference since his election, Trump declared: “I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president, which is — I didn’t know about that until about three months ago, but it’s a nice thing to have, but I don’t want to take advantage of something.”

Many watchdog organizations have been less complacent than Congress and the President concerning COIs — including those involving presidential power, the Trump companies, and the environment. These NGOs are watching to see if Trump international and domestic business deals have political implications, or if any policies promoted by his administration seem designed to benefit Trump businesses.

The President’s just proposed tax reforms are a case in point — watchdog groups, the media and financial experts began looking for COIs and policy points benefiting Trump’s tax bracket and his businesses within hours of the announcement of the merest sketch of a tax reform plan.

“Presidents have historically understood that there can be a conflict of interest even if the law doesn’t technically apply, and they have followed the same standards that apply to other federal employees,” Clark Pettig, American Oversight’s Communications Director, told Mongabay.

American Oversight (AO) is a watchdog organization that is investigating numerous COIs across the Trump administration. For instance, it sued EPA to force the release of communications between regulators and industry groups, and to uncover the role investor Carl Icahn has played in setting policy. AO has also launched a broad investigation of the administration’s payments to Trump-owned businesses, and has submitted FOIA requests for documents related to the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Pettig believes Trump clearly has a conflict of interest as he serves as President while also owning and profiting from a global business empire.

“Rather than “draining the swamp,” the Trump administration has brought unprecedented conflicts of interests to Washington,” he said. “From rolling back environmental regulations that could impact his golf courses, to using diplomatic events to promote his own resorts, President Trump seems determined to use his power to enrich himself and his business empire,” Pettig said.

Laura Friedenbach, Deputy Communications Director of Every Voice, a Washington-based watchdog organization whose aim is to reduce the influence of money in politics, is concerned as well. “When a public official is making decisions on behalf of the American people and also has a large personal stake in the outcome, it presents a conflict of interest,” she told Mongabay.

“The conflicts of interest facing President Trump and his cabinet raise real questions about where the Trump administration’s priorities lie,” Friedenbach said. “Are they doing what’s best for the American people, or are they letting their own interests and the interests of their business partners get in the way?”

“If President Trump and his cabinet are more concerned with boosting profits for companies they have a stake in, and personal ties with, including fossil fuel companies, then the result will be slowing down progress on combatting the effects of climate change,” she declared.

The Trump Organization, Trump Hotels, Trump Golf, and MNC Land did not reply to Mongabay’s multiple requests to comment for this article; nor did they answer questions sent to them concerning their projects’ environmental impacts, Energy Star ratings, Trump’s environmental awards, and steps to reduce project carbon footprint.

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