Backgrounder: Charting the Year Ahead in Environment, Energy News
As part of our “2018 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment,” SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis has prepared a special report looking ahead at key issues to watch in the coming year. Read below for the overview and visit the full guide here with all dozen stories.
By Joseph A. Davis
For 2018, the environment and energy beat will be a year of confrontation, a year of deepening challenges, a year of do-or-die and a year of decision.
While President Donald Trump’s first year in the White House might be given a pass as “just getting started,” 2018 will be the year when results will be looked for and judged — ultimately at the ballot box. The “clueless noob” defense (may require subscription) will no longer work.
“If 2017 was the Trump administration’s year of grand pronouncements declaring an end to environmental regulations,” Lisa Friedman wrote in the New York Times (may require subscription), “2018 will be the year of trying to finish what it started.”
As Friedman pointed out, there were many news events where Trump signed an executive order or an agency head such as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced his intention to repeal some regulation.
It will take the phalanx of
specialized environmental reporters
and investigative journalists to detail
the technical import and broad impact of deregulation.
But the cold legal and bureaucratic reality is that few of those intentions have been consummated — and 2018 will be the year when the administration must try to convert them to reality.
For example, despite Trump’s televised Rose Garden announcement that he was withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, the United States remains in the agreement, and U.S. states, cities and businesses continue trying to meet its goals.
Here are some other issue areas to watch carefully:
2018 Elections Could Be a Game-Changer
As if politics had not dominated the stories of the EPA or Interior and Energy departments before, they will do so even more as the Nov. 2018 midterm elections approach. Any legislative projects will become more difficult as the year wears on. Congress’ actions will be consequential: The 2018 election could easily change the balance of power in Congress, and the balance of power between Congress and the White House as a result. Environment and energy may be important (or even deciding) issues in some races. In Atlantic and Pacific coastal states, for example, Trump’s five-year offshore drilling plan may have impact. But in coal states like West Virginia and Wyoming, the issues may cut the other way. READ MORE
Conflict Concerns Over Trump Appointments
After a year in office, Trump administration agencies are beginning to learn how to pull some of the levers of power. But hardly all of them. While Trump has gotten appointments for many of the top slots at EPA confirmed, he failed to get Michael Dourson (may require subscription) confirmed as EPA’s chemical safety chief. The nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to head the Council on Environmental Quality, as of this writing, also remains unconfirmed. A good number of second- and third-tier appointments at EPA, DOI and DOE also remain unfilled, or filled by acting officeholders. An example is the National Park Service, which still lacks a permanent director. READ MORE
Reorganizations May Stymie Agency Missions
At some agencies, reorganizations, although proposed in the name of efficiency, offer the prospect of chaos, paralysis and decimation. Secretary Ryan Zinke’s plan to remake the Interior Department, for example, is barely off the ground — but could end up forcing tens of thousands of Interior employees (may require subscription) to move or quit. The reorganization at the Energy Department could leave science (one of the agency’s most important functions) in the doghouse. At EPA, reorganization may prove a synonym for staff cuts. READ MORE
Clean Power Plan Showdown Ahead
Repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature climate mitigation plan — lowering emissions from coal-burning power plants — has been a key objective of the Trump-Pruitt EPA. Through a series of regulatory and legal moves, the coal industry and Pruitt have largely succeeded in stopping the Clean Power Plan. The question now is what they will do to replace it. The replacement process has barely started, and such major rulemaking normally takes years. But the Trump EPA has marching orders to finish a replacement by the end of 2018. Such an unusual rush seems an effort to outrace the inevitable legal challenges. Or perhaps to outrace the election. READ MORE
Litigation Ahead Over Deregulation
The number of court cases already challenging the deregulatory and energy-development moves of only the first year of the Trump administration is large and growing. Not only will new lawsuits be filed in 2018, but the ones already filed will be grinding forward in federal courts across much of the country. There will be lawsuits over national monuments, ozone pollution, methane rules, fracking rules, pipeline approvals, what waters are subject to the Clean Water Act, implementation of the new toxics law and more. Some of these cases may be decided; most probably will not. All will make news in 2018. READ MORE | PLUS MORE
Energy a Big Issue on Public Lands
Interior and other federal agencies administer hundreds of millions of acres of public lands. These lands are administered by a number of agencies for purposes spanning conservation, recreation, wildlife, fishing, watershed, flood control, mining, logging, grazing, the interests of Native Americans and very often drilling for oil and gas. The “lands” include offshore tracts on the continental shelf. Supported by energy industries, Trump campaigned on a “drill, baby, drill” platform that put oil, gas and coal first. His agencies’ decisions aimed to do that in 2017, but 2018 will show whether these policies gain traction. Will the offshore drilling plan survive politically, with so many coastal states against it? Will the lands subtracted from Bears Ears National Monument be given over to uranium mining? Can the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be drilled without ruining it? Will the oil price go high enough to support offshore Arctic drilling? The year 2018 may start to provide answers, and that would be news. READ MORE
Federal Investigations Underway
If we knew all the scandals ahead of time, it would be boring. But if 2017 is any guide, we may see more than a few in 2018. One reason is that there are already a dozen or so investigations underway into various activities of Trump’s Interior and EPA. Another is that many of the top brass at these agencies took office with profound, baked-in conflicts of interest which seem likely to prove at odds with public health and welfare. And journalists seem likely to continue turning over rocks in 2018, finding more things for federal watchdogs to investigate. READ MORE
Battle Over Science Integrity
Ever since Trump took office after calling anthropogenic climate change a Chinese hoax, the administration has been largely at war with science. EPA boss Pruitt’s purge of acknowledged experts from the agency’s many science advisory panels — to replace them in many cases with scientists working for regulated industries or anti-regulatory states — will continue to make news as these panels adopt findings. Ten Senate Democrats have called for an investigation. That’s one story. But the Trump administration’s battle to contravene or ignore sound science has been growing considerably wider than that. The Union of Concerned Scientists put out a report in January 2018 saying the Trump administration was abandoning scientific advice government-wide. That the office of the White House Science Advisor remains unfilled is another signal of the administration’s stance on science. READ MORE
Predicting Disasters, Planning Resilience
The year 2017 saw unprecedented devastation from extreme weather events — hurricanes, wildfires and floods — often attributed to climate change. Year-ahead predictions can be cloudy, but to the degree that these disasters are climate-related, we might expect more of the same. The science of attribution has improved. Increasingly, the media discussion is turning to how humans might limit the devastation — or how they make it worse. Could the Hurricane Maria electric grid destruction in Puerto Rico be made less likely by resilient renewable microgrids? Could the post-Harvey flood damage in Houston have been alleviated by different zoning and development policies (may require subscription)? Could the deaths and destroyed homes of California wildfires have been reduced by a different approach to the urban-wildland interface? The story in 2018 may be about finding different answers to those questions. READ MORE
Markets Offer Clues on Energy Transition
A steady, profound shift from fossil fuels to renewables is happening, despite and without intervention by government, politicians, corporations and lobby groups. Markets and technology are making it happen. Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord or blowing up the Clean Power Plan really won’t do that much to stop this tidal shift. The technologies of fracking and horizontal drilling have made natural gas cheaper than coal for electric generation. Maturing technologies for wind and solar are quickly making those energy sources cheaper than fossil fuels. Advances in electricity storage have made renewables even more competitive. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in January rejected Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s plea to subsidize the failing, and expensive, coal and nuclear industries — choosing instead to seek solutions via competitive markets (may require subscription). READ MORE
Specialized Watchdog Reporting Needed
While environmental news in 2018 may not be all so significant, it would be a mistake to underestimate or ignore the extent or severity of the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks at EPA and other agencies that protect environmental health.
Beyond the sound bites and photo ops that populate the networks nightly, it will take the phalanx of specialized environmental reporters and investigative journalists to detail the technical import and broad impact of deregulation.
The challenge for many journalists, however, will be to observe an EPA that is now trying hard to operate in secret. As Administrator Pruitt continues to keep his schedule secret, they will have to work hard to inform the public about his meetings with the industries he regulates, and his efforts to steer agency rules in their direction (may require subscription).
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's Issue Backgrounders and TipSheet columns, directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet and also compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 4. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.