Environment and Energy News Outlook for 2019

January 23, 2019

Analysis: Environment and Energy News Outlook for 2019

EDITOR'S NOTE: This analysis from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis provides an overview of our series of special reports that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2019 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report, and check out the SEJournal stories linked below, for more.

The year 2019 is likely to bring more environment and energy events than news junkies and journalists can keep up with. We live in interesting times.

The human impact on the planet has never been clearer. Climate is changing. Extreme weather — hurricanes, wildfires, floods and droughts — is more disastrous. Bits of plastic are in the oceans and in our bodies. Forests are vanishing. Fisheries are dwindling. Some people’s tapwater is brown. Chemicals in the air and water are causing diseases we are only beginning to understand. Population is booming in nations least able to feed themselves.

Yet in the United States and many other countries, industries and governments are loosening environmental controls. The Trump administration, at the urging of the coal, oil, chemical, mining, agricultural and timber industries, is trying to mount a regulatory rollback of a scale never before seen in this country’s history. That rollback has not fully succeeded yet, and the coming year or two may tell whether it will.


It will certainly be a year of epic conflict

in the courts, the Congress

and the country at large.


We are today witnessing enough political pushback to make 2019 a potential turning point. It will certainly be a year of epic conflict in the courts, the Congress and the country at large. At a time of deadlock and division, a new generation is calling for a “Green New Deal.”

For environmental journalism itself, it is possibly the best and worst of times. Print newspapers and traditional newsroom jobs continue to decline. Yet there has never been more to report, and new media, nonprofits and digital natives are popping up and stepping in to fill many of the newly created gaps.

Great reporting is everywhere in media big and small, but it is struggling to keep up. There are still too many secrets, there is always too much news and there is never enough space and time.


Issues to watch in the year ahead


COURTS IN SPOTLIGHT: After two years of aggressive deregulatory efforts under President Donald Trump, the federal courts have become the place where many outcomes will be decided. Key aspects of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act will be reforged, even as Trump and Senate Republicans are remaking the courts. The extent to which the country controls greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and HFCs is still undecided as we enter 2019. Which streams and lakes the nation controls pollution in is another question that remains up for grabs.

Read more on environment showdowns in the judicial branch.


CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT: The newly empowered Democrat majority in the House will soon be demonstrating what it can — and can’t — do with its power. The record government shutdown over funding and the stalemate over the border wall is a portentous test case of what can be done with divided government. It does not augur well. Yet the House majority gives Democrats the power of the purse, of oversight, of subpoena and, yes, messaging, with which they intend to do a lot of.  

The past two years have seen overreach, scandal and the departures of Scott Pruitt as head of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Ryan Zinke as secretary of the Interior Department. Both agencies are now being run by “acting” former deputies, still unconfirmed by the Senate. The Trump administration has, in the past two years, put forward most of the policy changes it hoped for, without final success on many. The question for 2019 is whether Andrew Wheeler, now running EPA, and David Bernhardt, now in charge at Interior, can avoid the inevitable conflict-driven scandals and convert the field goals that seem to lie just beyond their reach.

Read more on aggressive oversight initiatives expected from the House and its new Democratic committee chairs.


POLITICAL ‘CLIMATE’: At the same time, politics are being reconfigured. It is not, at this moment, any less divisive or partisan. But the shift in the House to Democrats in November 2018 was seismic. It is still true that Dems’ grip is tightest on the higher-population coastal states, while Republicans hold much of the flyover center of the continent. But Dems in the House are increasingly diverse: female, ethnic and younger. Demographically, they are the future. The “Green New Deal” is pushing the party’s center leftward. Efforts like this are turning decarbonization into a jobs issue, and detoxification into a justice issue.

Read more about how the climate change issue will heat up in 2019.


ENVIRONMENTAL (IN)JUSTICE: Environmental injustice happens — has long been happening — in both red states and blue states. The people who need safe water to drink, and don’t have it, have long been just out of sight for the mainstream media. The green energy economy, even today, is providing far more jobs than coal. “Infrastructure” has long been a bipartisan staple in Congress. Water resources bills, highway bills and farm bills have all been produced regularly by Congress — because distributive politics works … even under Trump, who discovered there was no need to cut EPA’s sewer and water revolving funds. Whether Democrats and Republicans can find new agreement on even larger infrastructure programs — and enough real money to pay for them — remains an open question as the new Congress begins.

Read more about growing environmental justice coverage, about the contamination threats to drinking water and about the need to reform flood insurance.


FOIA BLOCKBUSTERS: It’s a little-noticed truth that many of the scandals that filled major newspaper headlines in 2018 were fed by troves of documents unearthed by Freedom of Information Act lawsuits by environmental groups. Expect more. A Sierra Club FOIA lawsuit will in 2019 yield a new, just-as-big trove (subscription required) of EPA documents. In time, these will likely produce multiple blockbuster stories — some by people reading this now.

Track FOIA issues with our WatchDog TipSheet.


AUTO EMISSION STANDARDS: “Overreach,” a term used reflexively by conservatives, is still a thing. But today it may apply as readily to the conservative agenda as the environmental agenda. Candidate Trump once vowed to essentially eliminate EPA. He did not succeed — unless you count the shutdown. The Trump-Pruitt-Wheeler EPA has been trying to roll back the progressively tightening standards for auto fuel-efficiency and emissions of greenhouse gases. Now some carmakers seem to be saying that Trump gave them more than even they asked for — so we will have to see.

Read more on the rocky road ahead for the emissions rollback.


ENERGY FUTURES: Still, overreach may be getting bad press. Two major climate reports in late 2018, the National Assessment and the IPCC 1.5 Degree report, warned of catastrophic consequences of climate change and urged immediate, drastic action — decarbonizing and repowering our industrial economy. Very fast. The legal and regulatory wrangling over the Clean Power Plan and similar schemes in the U.S. — and over the Paris climate agreement internationally —  may prove too little too late.

Help is on the way. There are multiple technological revolutions underway that promise to change the equation. Advances in solar photovoltaic and wind turbine technology, along with breakthroughs in battery storage to make them useful, are clearing away old-fashioned coal technology by sheer market power alone. Green is cheaper.

Read more about the renewable revolution underway.


WAR ON SCIENCE: Science and truth are emerging as the new battlegrounds. This is not exactly a new thing. Chris Mooney’s book “The Republican War on Science” came out in 2005. But the EPA “secret science” rule, which seemed poised to be a triumphal celebration for those who would corrupt and silence science for economic gain, has still not been finalized. Will it happen in 2019? Or have some Republicans calculated that a win would not be a win? One thing you can count on is that it will get no help from the House Science Committee. The world we live in today is one where science can sometimes be bought and sold. Does glyphosate cause cancer? Just as important as the answer to that question is the way we ask it and the way we explain and justify an answer.

Read more about the squalls over science.

Politicians have always lied. But we live in a new era where secrecy, distortion and the assault on truth are at a new level. The Washington Post now catalogues (subscription required) the president’s thousands of “false or misleading claims.”

This poses an unprecedented challenge for journalists, because untangling lies is now a major part of our job. And yes, the standards of truth are different at outlets like the Post than they are at the National Enquirer and the cable nets.

But the challenge is especially hard for environmental journalists in 2019 — not only to hold others to the highest standards of truth, accuracy, fairness and humanity, but to hold ourselves to those high standards as well.

For more, visit the full “2019 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, 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.

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