Analysis: Environment, Energy Issues Will Make Headlines in 2020
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 “2020 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report, and check out the SEJournal stories linked below, for more.
The year 2020 is likely to witness a glut of important developments on the environment and energy beat. We here at the SEJournal anticipate reporting on a long list of “known unknowns.” Surprises may be expected. Good news may be sparse.
Looking back, the first three years of the Trump administration have amounted to a revolution (or an attempted one) in environment and energy policy. The fourth year may tell whether that revolution may be consolidated — or reversed and undone. A lot depends on the November election.
Much of the key news in 2020
will come from the real world
rather than partisan Washington.
The overarching themes that have characterized the first three years of the Trump administration are familiar now: go-go deregulation, energy development and friendliness to private industry backing the administration.
But with Democrats now controlling the House, and many of Trump’s rollbacks stalled in the courts, many final outcomes remain to be decided.
Much of the key news in 2020 will come from the real world rather than partisan Washington. Climate change is happening — and is likely to cause newsworthy fires, floods and disasters. A transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewables looks economically inevitable as well.
Issues to watch in the year ahead
THE FUTURE OF EPA: The future of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been contested ever since then-candidate Trump promised in March 2016 that he would reduce the agency to “little tidbits.” If he hasn’t succeeded yet, it’s not for want of trying. He has succeeded in reducing its staff, if not its budget, and starting rollbacks of many of its key regulations. But many more environmental health rollbacks are still being challenged in the courts, and 2020 may reveal decisions on some of these. Other destruction — staff morale, scientific credibility, institutional memory — may take years beyond 2020 to restore, even if the election goes against Trump.
Read more on how the EPA is resisting the squeeze, but for how long?
HIGHWAY BILL: The expiration of the periodic federal authorization of highway and transportation aid just happens to coincide with the 2020 election year — presenting an opportunity for Congress to win votes with pork barrel — er, infrastructure — politics. And perhaps even to set some greenish and climate-friendlier policies. Brave talk of ambitious “infrastructure” programs that would be a win-win for both parties as well as Trump failed to materialize during his first three years. The sticking point was how to pay for it. The highway bill comes with funding mechanisms like the gasoline tax. Unanimous approval of a $287-billion highway bill by the Senate Environment Committee in summer 2019 was a solid start. Eyes now turn to the House Transportation Committee.
BAD NEWS FOR COAL: In 2020, in the United States at least, the news will be bad for the coal industry and good for the act-on-climate forces trying to phase it out. Worldwide? Not so much. It’s a safe prediction that 2020 will see a continuation of the “energy transition,” as coal keeps on declining as a fuel in the United States and renewables like wind and solar keep gaining market share. Lest anybody celebrate early, we must note that’s as much the result of cheap natural gas as the falling price of wind and solar. But it’s now a historical fact that a big part of the U.S. fleet of coal-burning electric power plants has retired or faces retirement. Worldwide coal demand will not fall appreciably in the next five years, according to the IEA, largely because of growing Asian demand.
Read more on another bad-news year ahead for U.S. coal.
ARCTIC REFUGE AND DRILLING ON PUBLIC LANDS: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine area on Alaska’s North Slope, will surely make news in 2020 as the Trump administration rushes to lease drilling rights there. Key habitat for a major caribou herd, not to mention polar bears, ANWR had been battled over for decades before Congress finally made drilling there legal in 2017. But while ANWR is the headline-grabber, it exemplifies the much wider conflict between environmentalists and energy hawks over drilling on public lands. Another reason the issue is sure to make news in 2020 is the election. While public lands drilling is a keystone of Trump policy, a number of Democratic primary candidates have vowed to halt it altogether.
Read more on the Arctic refuge in the spotlight for 2020 over a “license to drill.”
NUCLEAR POWER’S UNCERTAIN PROSPECTS: Safety has historically been the core question around nuclear power, with concerns around everything from operations, inspections, fire prevention and fitness for duty to training, flooding and “what if” meltdown risks. And while safety remains paramount, there may now be an equally pressing concern surrounding the nuclear industry's future — economics. As the relatively low carbon-footprint industry tries to reinvent itself as a tool to help tackle the climate change crisis, looming over it are the legacy of its high-cost plants, the need for bailouts and questions over replacing remaining reactors, not to mention competition from renewable energy sources.
Read more on how the future of nuclear power hangs in the balance of climate and costs.
FOIA CONFLICT: The battle over open information at federal environment and resource agencies will continue in 2020 — despite Trump administration efforts to obscure it. The year 2019 saw major efforts to throttle Freedom of Information Act responsiveness at the Interior Department and EPA, and 2020 will be the year some public information advocates see them in court. A proposed FOIA rule change at Interior was somewhat defanged in October 2019 after many protests from journalism groups (including the Society of Environmental Journalists). But that fight is not over. The EPA, too, is facing challenges from environmental groups in court over recent FOIA rule changes. Why does it matter? FOIA documents were largely the basis for scandals that led to the resignations of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The Trump administration’s FOIA changes would give political appointees, like Pruitt and Zinke, more say over keeping documents secret.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY: Congressional appropriations are the fuel of government. Both chambers of Congress must agree on them, but the Constitution says funding bills must originate in the House. It’s a powerful lever for House Democrats. In recent years, even before Dems took over the House, Appropriations Committees have been resisting the more radical Trump-proposed cuts at EPA, Interior and other environmental agencies. Appropriations are rarely vetoed. Because of their “must-pass” aura, appropriations become the vehicle for policy “riders.” Those have included things like offshore drilling, BLM relocation or sage grouse habitat conservation. The 2020 EPA-Interior bill has survived cuts because it contains funds for things like sewage and drinking water loans, which are widely distributed among districts.
Read more on how as the fiscal year ends, local stories can often be found in appropriations bills.
GRAZING AND PUBLIC LANDS: It may not be a surprise that public lands will be controversial in 2020, but be assured they will be. Just consider the current administration’s move of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington, D.C. to Grand Junction, Colo. Although House Democrats are still kicking and screaming, it seems largely to be a fait accompli. Moreover, it seems poised to significantly destroy, in the BLM, a central, controlling force in federal land management. At a minimum, a large fraction of D.C.-based BLM employees have decided to quit rather than move. The tenure of William Perry Pendley as head of BLM (although “acting”) has just been extended by Trump, guaranteeing ongoing controversy.
Read more on how grazing on public lands is still a source of controversy … and stories.
FARMS AND RANCHES: Agriculture will continue to be an important environmental story in 2020, perhaps even more than in years past. The struggles over pesticides like glyphosate, chlorpyrifos, atrazine, dicamba and others go on. The issue of nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer in agricultural runoff will be important as well. The regulation (or non-regulation) of large-scale animal feeding operations remains controversial. But ag is emerging as an environmental solution as well — as conservation practices allow healthy soil to become a sink for carbon storage.
Read more on how farms and ranches are both a possible cause and cure of climate change.
ALGAE MENACE: If trends continue, blooms of algae in water bodies will get bigger as an environmental story in 2020. Algal blooms in Lake Erie threatened the drinking water supply of some 500,000 in Toledo in 2014, and the problem has not really been solved. Red tide, another form of harmful algal bloom, became a pervasive problem along Florida beaches in 2018, causing fish kills and disrupting tourism — and it’s been hanging around in some form ever since. Part of the solution is reducing nutrient runoff, but the warming of waters from climate change is making the problem worse.
Read more on algae — society’s big, green … and emerging menace.
CLIMATE AND HEALTH: The health consequences of climate change will become more noticeable in 2020. Health harms from climate change take many forms. The increasing incidence of wildfires is one glaring example. The 2018 Camp Fire in California killed some 85 people outright. But the smoke from other fires caused respiratory distress for tens of thousands. As climate changes the distribution of insects, vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease, West Nile, cholera and malaria are more common. During heatwaves, the heat itself can cause death or illness. And climate is implicated in other health problems like food insecurity and harmful algal blooms.
Read more on how ongoing climate change will bring more bad news on health in 2020.
CLIMATE AND ELECTIONS: The big story as 2020 rolls on is going to be the election. What’s new this year is that the environment and climate change will play a much bigger role in the voter’s thinking than in past years. Polls have been showing this for a while, although many other issues are important to voters as well. Many of the top Dems, especially progressives like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have embraced the “Green New Deal.” But the billionaires-come-lately, like Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, have staked both money and clout on the climate issue in their campaigns over years. The biggest decision point, though, will be the general election. Four more years of President Trump in the White House, or even two more of GOP control in the Senate, would likely mean further consolidation of the current deregulation of environmental protections.
Read more on how climate and environment are sure to reverberate in the 2020 elections.
For more, visit the full “2020 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 3. 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.