Environmentalists Are Spreading Wildfires. It’s Time to Rethink Forest Management.

Massive wildfires continue to rage out of control in Northern California, causing historic loss of life and billions of dollars in damage.

The images coming out of California towns, which look like bombed-out cities from World War II, are a sobering reminder of man’s occasional futility in the face of nature unleashed.

Stopping these huge blazes is, of course, a priority. The firefighters who have been battling these infernos have at times done a miraculous job under extremely difficult circumstances.

However, policymakers should also look at ways to curtail the long-term trend of growing numbers of major wildfires. While some argue that climate change is to blame for the uptick in fires, it’s also worth grappling with the drastic alterations in forest management that have occurred over the last four decades.

Many have argued that this is driving the surge in huge fires.

As a Reason Foundation study noted, the U.S. Forest Service, which is tasked with managing public wildland, once had success in minimizing widespread fires in the early 20th century.

But many of these successful methods were abandoned in large part because of efforts by environmental activists.

The Forest Service became more costly and less effective as it increasingly “rewarded forest managers for losing money on environmentally questionable practices,” wrote Randal O’Toole, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

Spending on the Forest Service has risen drastically, but these additional resources have been misused and haven’t solved the underlying issues.

“Fire expenditures have grown from less than 15 percent of the Forest Service budget in [the] early 1990s to about 50 percent today. Forest Service fire expenditures have increased from less than $1 billion in the late 1990s to $3.5 billion in 2016,” O’Toole wrote.

Perhaps now, Americans will begin to re-evaluate forest management policies.

In a May congressional hearing, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said, “Forty-five years ago, we began imposing laws that have made the management of our forests all but impossible.”

He went on to say that federal authorities have done a poor job of implementing methods to reduce the number of deadly fires, and that this has been devastating for America’s wildlands.

“Time and again, we see vivid boundaries between the young, healthy, growing forests managed by state, local, and private landholders, and the choked, dying, or burned federal forests,” McClintock said. “The laws of the past 45 years have not only failed to protect the forest environment—they have done immeasurable harm to our forests.”

In a recent House address, McClintock pinned the blame of poor forest management on bad 1970s laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. He said these laws “have resulted in endlessly time-consuming and cost-prohibitive restrictions and requirements that have made the scientific management of our forests virtually impossible.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has promoted a change to forest management policies, calling for a more aggressive approach to reduce the excess vegetation that has made the fires worse.

Congress is also moving to address the problem.

Members of the Western Caucus have proposed legislation to dramatically change the way forests are managed. If passed, this bill would give power back to local authorities and allow for more aggressive forest thinning without subjecting them to the most onerous of environmental reviews.

While state and federal governments can take measures to enhance forest and wilderness management, private management can also get involved to improve conditions.

One idea is to adopt a policy popularized by the school choice movement: create charter forests that are publicly owned, but privately managed. This would allow forest management to move away from top-down, bureaucratic control to a decentralized and varied system that may better conform with local realities.

As professor Robert H. Nelson wrote for The Wall Street Journal, the charter forest “would be exempt from current requirements for public land-use planning and the writing of environmental impact statements. These requirements long ago ceased to perform their ostensible function of improving public land decision making.”

Similar privatizing efforts have succeeded in the past.

No measure can truly prevent all fires, but reasonable steps can be taken to reduce the incidence of huge blazes like the ones currently engulfing California.

It’s time for lawmakers to redouble their efforts to protect American lives and property from nature’s most devastating ravages.

Commentary by Jarrett Stepman. Originally published at The Daily Signal.

EPA Pushes Back on Practice That Environmentalist Groups Used to Dictate Agenda

When environmental pressure groups can promote their agendas through closed-door rule-making with the Environmental Protection Agency, something has gone seriously wrong with the regulatory process.

This is precisely what has been happening at federal agencies in recent years—but not for much longer at the EPA. On Monday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a directive to put an end to this process, which is called “sue and settle.”

On the surface, sue and settle doesn’t sound bad. An organization sues a federal agency to compel it to issue regulations, which the agency was already required to do under the law. Instead of litigating, the agency just settles the dispute.

If only that was how it worked in practice. In reality, sue and settle has many problems. Under sue and settle, environmental pressure groups have been able to file cases, meet with the agency in private, and then settle with the agency, effectively dictating the agency’s agenda.

Even when the agency is merely agreeing to meet a deadline as required by law, the agency and the environmental group will enter into agreements that create unrealistic timelines that can lead to bad policy. They can set deadlines to avoid many of the regulatory safeguards that exist, such as proper cost-benefit analysis.

In many of these cases, there is often a question of whether a federal agency is even required to issue regulations—yet the agency simply caves to the environmental group and does as the group desires.

Even worse, agencies have worked with these environmental groups to develop the substance of regulations before they are even proposed to the public.

And very often, the public is not even aware that the agency is being sued, and will find it very difficult to intervene or have any real voice in providing a different perspective on the lawsuit.

This closed process stands in stark contrast to how the federal regulatory system is supposed to work.

The Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the federal rule-making process, was designed to provide notice to the public, allow for public participation, and give the public a meaningful voice in the regulatory process. Sue and settle circumvents this entire process.

The EPA, though, is taking action. Here’s what the EPA directive says:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with the states, serves a vital role in protecting human health and the environment. When conducting agency action to achieve these objectives, the EPA must strive to promote transparency and public participation to provide the American public with due process, accountability, and a sense of fair dealing.

To stop sue and settle, the EPA explains it will do the following, among other things:

  • Inform the public that the agency is being sued.
  • Reach out to affected parties about proposed settlements.
  • Provide sufficient time for rule-makings, including to receive public comments.
  • Allow the public to comment on any proposed settlements and request public hearings.
  • Ensure that the EPA is actually required by law to issue regulations as requested by the special interests. The agency won’t take what isn’t a requirement and make it one through a settlement agreement.
  • When settling a case, seek to exclude the payment of attorney’s fees and costs to plaintiffs.

The EPA should be commended for taking this much-needed action against sue and settle. Other agencies, such as the Department of Interior, need to follow the EPA’s lead.

Congress also needs to pass legislation to do away with this sue and settle abuse so that it can’t happen in the future.

Commentary by Daren Bakst. Originally published at The Daily Signal.

This state considering banning combustion-engine vehicles

California regulators are exploring ways to eventually ban the sale of vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines, a top official told Bloomberg News.

California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols said the state, led by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, is interested in following the example set by China, which said earlier this month that it would move toward banning internal-combustion engines in the country.

“I’ve gotten messages from the governor asking, ‘Why haven’t we done something already?’” Nichols said, adding that any potential ban would be a decade or more away.

“The governor has certainly indicated an interest in why China can do this and not California.”

Read more at The Hill.

Exxon calls NY prosecutor’s climate change probe ‘harassment’ in filing

By Ernest Scheyder and Emily Flitter

(Reuters) – Exxon Mobil Corp asked a New York court on Friday to reject another subpoena request from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, arguing the prosecutor’s recent claim to have found evidence Exxon misled investors was false and that he was abusing his investigative powers.

The company said Schneiderman’s allegation it had neglected to estimate the impact of future environmental regulation on new deals was “frivolous” and that no “legitimate law enforcement need” would be served by giving his office more documents.

“For a prosecutor proceeding in good faith, the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing is grounds for closing an investigation, not expanding it,” Exxon wrote in its filing with the court.

Schneiderman’s office denied the allegations.

“As detailed in our filing last week, the Attorney General’s office has a substantial basis to suspect that Exxon’s proxy cost analysis may have been a sham,” said Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the New York attorney general. “This office takes potential misrepresentations to investors very seriously and will vigorously seek to enforce this subpoena. We look forward to next week’s hearing.”

Schneiderman sought more materials from the oil producer as part of an ongoing probe that has already reviewed nearly 3 million documents. He is examining whether Exxon misled the public about its understanding of the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the earth’s climate.

The probe has already revealed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who until December was chief executive of Exxon, used a separate email address and an alias, “Wayne Tracker,” to discuss climate change-related issues while at the company.

Testimony Schneiderman made public on June 2 offered more details about how the company handled the “Wayne Tracker” account, which was first created in 2007. Exxon employee Connie Feinstein, an information technology manager for the oil company, told prosecutors changes in the email program Exxon used, along with an automatic process that deleted internal emails after 13 months, may have erased years’ worth of “Wayne Tracker” emails.

“We realized that the automated file sweeper had not been disabled for a period of time as it should have been,” Feinstein said in the April 26 interview.

Exxon has been fighting Schneiderman’s requests for information about its climate change policies in both state and federal court, claiming it should not have to turn over records because the New York prosecutor’s probe is politically motivated.

The case is People of the State of New York v PricewaterhouseCoopers and Exxon Mobil Corporation, New York State Supreme Court, New York County, No. 451962/2016.

 

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder in Houston; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

 

Ahead of Exxon’s annual meeting, climate activists gain ground

More proof appeasement doesn’t work. — ABE

By Ross Kerber

BOSTON (Reuters) – Shareholder activists focused on climate issues are gaining traction in their push to have large energy companies and utilities take account of the impact rising global temperatures could have on their businesses.

Proponents ranging from giant New York and California state pension funds to Wespath Investment Management of Illinois scored a number of victories this month.

Those include a resolution at PPL Corp <PPL.N> approved by 57 percent of votes cast calling for the utility holding company to publicly report how it could be affected by policies and technologies aimed at limiting global warning.

The PPL result comes on the heels of a vote at Occidental Petroleum Corp <OXY.N> on a similar resolution, backed by two-thirds of votes cast. Also, top proxy advisers recommended votes in favor of a third such resolution set for Exxon Mobil Corp’s <XOM.N> annual meeting on May 31.

Activists say the developments suggest they are at an inflection point after years of seeking support from big institutional investors like BlackRock Inc. <BLK.N> The giant New York asset manager switched sides in this year’s vote at Occidental, citing concerns about the company’s pace of disclosures to date.

The reports the activists have sought through the advisory shareholder resolutions are sometimes known as “2 degree scenario analysis” reports after the goal of the 2015 Paris climate accord to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from preindustrial levels by phasing out fossil fuels.

The limits could hit companies’ bottom lines such as by reducing the revenue they can expect from extracting fossil fuel reserves. Activists hope that having the companies lay out plans for dealing with future regulatory, technology and market changes will smooth their transition to cleaner energy.

Edward Kamonjoh, executive director of the 50/50 Climate Project in Washington, which supports the resolutions, said actions by U.S. President Donald Trump like the dismantling of Obama-era climate policies may have moved big investors to take on a more active role.

While Trump has not so far followed through on a campaign promise to take the United States out of the Paris deal, investors cannot count on strong environmental regulations in the future, he said.

“Investors who feel that climate is a risk now realize they just have themselves to manage this risk in the next few years,” Kamonjoh said.

MOOD TEST

Most energy company and utility boards have urged their investors to oppose the measures, some arguing they already take climate change seriously.

A key test of investors’ mood will come at the end of May at Exxon. The largest U.S. oil & gas producer argues a climate report is unnecessary because it already conducts reviews that sufficiently test its business for impacts from changing technology and energy demand.

Exxon has offered other arguments including that it supports the Paris agreement, Exxon Secretary Jeffrey Woodbury told investors in a May 18 letter, and that it has invested nearly $7 billion since 2000 on emissions-reduction technology.

At PPL, spokesman Ryan Hill said via e-mail that its board “will carefully consider the results and determine the best path forward.” PPL is committed to sustainable energy, he said, noting steps it has taken such as retiring coal plants and building Kentucky’s largest solar power facility.

Some companies have made changes even without votes. Activists including Wespath on May 2 said they withdrew a call for a climate-change report from Chevron Corp, <CVX.N> citing an 18-page document Chevron issued in March titled “Managing Climate Risks” as a good first step.

While it did not analyze all the scenarios sought by activists, the report went further than past efforts to outline how climate change could affect its profitability.

Chevron CEO John Watson said in the report he “shares the concerns of governments and the public about climate change risks.”

Also, Danielle Fugure, president of California nonprofit As You Sow, said last month it withdrew a shareholder resolution calling for a climate risk report from Anadarko Petroleum Corp.<APC.N>. In return, she said, the Texas company agreed to continue to work with her group and others to develop methods for reporting on climate risks that would be practical for the company but still convey to investors the full extent of the risks it could face.

Anadarko spokesman John Christiansen confirmed the agreement. “We are consistently looking for ways to further enhance sustainability in our operations, as well as improve transparency regarding these efforts,” he said via e-mail.

Fugure said the high vote totals such as at Occidental show how climate change is becoming an accepted business issue. “The market itself is moving to take carbon risk into account, and the market itself will be pricing carbon risk into the value of companies,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Gary McWilliams and Ernest Scheyder in Houston; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

31 PHOTOS: Environmental protesters swarm outside White House as Trump hits milestone

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By Lacey Johnson and Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A sea of protesters swarmed in front of the White House on Saturday to voice displeasure with President Donald Trump’s stance on the environment and demand that he rethink plans to reverse the climate change policies backed by his predecessor.

The Peoples Climate March, the culmination of a string of Earth Week protests that began with last Saturday’s March for Science, coincides with Trump’s 100th day in office, the end of the traditional “honeymoon” period for a new president.

As temperatures rose above 90 degrees Fahrenheit under hazy skies in the nation’s capital, tens of thousands of people marched from the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and passed the White House en route to the Washington Monument for a rally.

Many of the protesters carried signs with slogans such as “The seas are rising and so are we” and “Don’t be a fossil fool.” As the procession passed the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, marchers booed and chanted “shame.”

“Enjoy the day, enjoy the weather,” Trump, speaking to reporters ahead of a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania commemorating his 100th day in office said when asked what he would tell those rallying on climate change.

While a good-natured mood prevailed and there were no signs of violence, many demonstrators said they were angered by the prospect of Trump carrying through on his vow to roll back protections put in place by his predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama.

“We’re going to rise up and let them know that we’re sick and tired of seeing our children die of asthma,” said Rev. Leo Woodberry of Florence, South Carolina, who spoke during a press conference before the march. “We’re sick and tired of seeing people with cancer because of coal ash ponds. We’re sick and tired of seeing sea-level rise.”

Trump’s administration is considering withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, which more than 190 countries including the United States signed in hopes of curbing global warming. Trump has also proposed deep cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency and the elimination of many environmental regulations.

In his campaign, Trump called climate change a hoax. Last month he kept a promise to the coal industry by undoing climate-change rules put in place by Obama.

Tom McGettrick, 57, an electrical engineer who drove up from the Florida Keys to attend the march, said his main concern is the weakening of the EPA.

“Forty years of environmental protection has done wonders for the environment, especially in the Midwest,” said McGettrick, who spent most of his life in Michigan.

“When I was a teenager and went to Lake Erie, it was one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country,” he said. “Now when you go to Lake Erie it’s really beautiful.”

The Washington event, which coincided with Trump’s 100-day milestone, followed an exclusive interview with Reuters in which the president reflected wistfully on his life as a billionaire real estate developer that he left behind after his Jan. 20 inauguration.

“This is more work than in my previous life,” Trump told Reuters. “I thought it would be easier.”

Saturday’s march was part of an effort to build support for candidates with strong environmental records in the run-up to next year’s midterm elections and the 2020 presidential race, organizers said.

“We’re using this as a tactic to advance the strategy of building enough power to win on climate over the course of the long haul,” said Paul Getsos, national coordinator for the Peoples Climate Movement. Sponsors of Saturday’s events include labor unions, the Sierra Club and civil rights groups.

As a side theme, marchers will protest Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigrants and other issues he has championed.

Since Trump’s inauguration, there have been national protests focused on issues ranging from abortion rights to immigration and science policy.

Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, said the march would have little impact on the administration.

“The real decisions are made in this country in elections, and we have now a president and a House and a Senate that are determined to pursue a pro-energy agenda,” he said by telephone.

Environmental activists believe public opinion is on their side. A Gallup poll this month showed 59 percent of Americans agreed environmental protection should take priority over increased U.S. energy production.

Dozens of “sister” marches are planned for other North America locales, from Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, to Dutch Harbor in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Overseas, about three dozen events range from a protest in Vienna to a tree-planting event in Zambia.

(Additional reporting by Patrick Rucker in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Franklin Paul, Bernard Orr)