Environmental journalists shouldn’t try to be “fair and balanced” when Trump is unfair and imbalanced

  • Published on May 22nd, 2020

The Society of Environmental Journalists had a webinar last week with Columbia University’s Earth Institute that discussed how the Trump administration has ramped up efforts to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to further roll back regulations to benefit polluters.

Fox news

By Climate Denier Roundup

Western Wire, the Western Energy Association’s blog, wrote about the event, and it’s actually worth the read, if you can get past the oil group’s feigned outrage of a tongue-in-cheek reference to the old Orwellian FoxNews tagline “fair and balanced” not necessarily being part of journalists’ mission.

One quote, from UCLA law professor Ann Carlson, stood out as particularly relevant right now. The Trump administration’s deregulatory efforts have been one of its few priorities, so they’ve rushed the revisions or rollbacks to the rules out the door at an impressive pace. But that may actually be their downfall. “It is true that they acted very speedily,” Carlson said, but we must also remember “it is true that the wheels of justice roll slowly.”

And in fact, the administration’s haste will likely prove key to courts striking down many of these attempts to deregulate.

Take, for example, a recent story from Jean Chemnick at E&E about how a new proposed guidance document from Trump’s EPA will change how the agency calculates the costs and benefits of a proposed rule, eliminating the counting of co-benefits, among other things.

Co-benefits are sort of the surprise bonuses of a policy, reductions in pollutant Y that comes from a regulation on pollution AND reducing the use of something that produces both X and Y. For example, Trump’s “Affordable Clean Energy” rule, the EPA is counting the benefits of cutting ozone and particulate pollution that will occur alongside the targeted cuts in CO2 emissions. It needs to do so in order to appear to have more benefits than costs.

But that’s exactly the sort of co-benefit counting that Wheeler’s pending proposed guidance would do away with, no doubt because it shows the billions of dollars more that the Obama policy it’s replacing would save.

That contradiction is going to cause problems in court though, as James Goodwin of the Center for Progressive Reform told Chemnick. “If they have a finalized rule out for cost-benefit analysis saying the precise opposite of how they did the [cost-benefit analysis] rule, that’s going to look really weird to a reviewing judge. If it’s not carefully written, they could be shooting themselves in the foot.”

But self-sabotage is something the Trump administration is particularly good at. For example, in Tuesday’s signing of an Executive Order to waive any regulations that might get in the way of the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, Trump said it gave agencies “tremendous power to cut regulation,” and that “we want to leave it that way. In some cases we won’t be able to but in other cases we will.”

At some point in the future, a judge will be tasked with deciding if some regulatory change made as a result of this executive order was warranted to address a short-term emergency or if it was using the emergency as a pretext to give industry an illegal deregulatory gift. Trump admitting that the changes are intended to be permanent and are therefore not at all specific to the emergency will no doubt be a key piece of evidence.

No doubt that if/when changes are made, there will be lawsuits. Per NRDC’s reaction: “we will see them in court when they break the law.”

With a 90 percent win rate so far it seems the scales of justice are, like SEJ’s journalists, exactly as balanced as is fair.

(Crossposted with DailyKos.)

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