What to do About Pruitt at the EPA

I was very saddened and shocked to hear that Scott Pruitt was confirmed yesterday as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.  This man has no business running an agency he has threatened to dismantle.  I was very upset, but emotions are not going to solve this problem.   Even though I actually started crying, I soon realized there are three things we need to do now to overcome this problem and protect our environment.

One:  Don’t despair, and don’t give up.  It’s just politics, and as you can see from the immigration issue, often the Justice Department or some other force interferes in even the most difficult problem to help resolve things.

Two:  Donate, fight, call, write your representatives, keep up the fight.  This is not over yet.

Three:  Take care of yourself.  Getting depressed will not help.  Eat right and keep your spirits up.  This will be a long haul to fight everything that is going wrong in the political realm right now, and it is going to take all our strength, prayers, guts, head and heart to prevail, but prevail we will.  We must.

Trump vs. Tu B’Shevat

When I think of Tu B’Shevat, I think of my childhood.

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, and went to elementary school in the Hollywood Hills. At 3 o’clock, we’d get driven home, and as we started down the San Diego Freeway, we would see a layer of brown gunk on top of the Valley. It was just the way it was. During the summer, our eyes would sting, and sometimes we couldn’t even see the hills. “First-stage” smog alerts were common, and sometimes we would have second-stage alerts. I got asthma, as did many of my friends.

That doesn’t happen anymore: the Valley hasn’t had even a first-stage alert in years. No one would mistake the air for that of a national park, but it is a lot cleaner than it used to be. Seniors can walk outside now. Meanwhile, popular songs about contaminated water (like Tom Lehrer’s “Pollution” or The Standells’ “Dirty Water”) have become relics of a past age.

There is a reason why things have changed for the better: the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA wrote the rules that cleaned up the Valley’s air and healed my lungs. It created and enforced the regulations that saved rivers around the country. And Donald Trump wants to destroy it.

This is not hyperbole. Trump’s choice to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is currently suing the agency, and has expressed contempt for its work. Trump’s initial budget indicates that he will seek to cut the EPA by 50 percent — purposefully eviscerating its capacity and crippling it in the future. Within hours of taking the oath of office, the administration placed a gag order on all of its personnel, and began to alter content on its website. The agency’s scientific reports must now be vetted by political appointees before being made public. And last week, Trump issued a probably illegal executive order mandating that for every regulation enacted, two must be withdrawn — with no attention to whether any of the regulations are beneficial, or even crucial. It essentially enshrines ignorance as a matter of national policy.

The president embodies this ignorance. When asked by Fox News host Sean Hannity which federal departments he wanted to eliminate, Trump replied, “The Department of Environmental… I mean, the DEP is killing us environmentally.” No one bothered to tell him that the “DEP” does not exist, and it is not clear whether he knows now. But he knows he wants to kill it.

For Jews to support these policies represents a repudiation both of Tu B’Shevat and the values it stands for. Tu B’Shevat is not simply “the birthday of the trees” (as I also learned growing up). Rather, it celebrates humanity’s relationship with nature, and thereby with God. The rabbis declared it as an important day because it established the day on which produce counted for a new year for sacrifices. Later, Kabbalists constructed a Tu B’Shevat seder, now becoming more popular. Some ultra-Orthodox writers argue that we celebrate it because humanity is the “tree of the fields” — a purposeful and creative misinterpretation of a passage from Deuteronomy chapter 20.

Tu B’Shevat’s genius relies in no small part on its recognition that the spiritual humanity/nature relationship is also empirical. When the environment is destroyed, so is human health. We cannot detach ourselves from nature. Thus, the Hebrew name of Israel’s leading environmental advocacy organization, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (on whose U.S. supporting board I serve), is Adam Teva V’Din — Humanity, Nature, and Justice.

The Trump administration’s war on the EPA, then, is a war on Tu B’Shevat. People who support Trump’s and the GOP’s efforts to gut and incapacitate the agency aren’t stopping some faceless bureaucrat: They are helping to destroy ecological resources and thus guaranteeing that thousands of children, maybe theirs or others, will get respiratory diseases or waterborne illness. That’s what these actions are: the Make Children Sick Act of 2017. And that is profoundly un-Jewish.

That’s what these actions are: the make children sick act of 2017. And that is profoundly un-jewish.

This is not a standard policy debate about the amount, character or pace of regulation. Reasonable people can disagree about such things. Indeed, environmentalism began as a conservative impulse and contained deeply sacred aspects. The great conservative writer Russell Kirk noted that:

“If men are discharged of reverence for ancient usage, they will treat this world, almost certainly, as if it were their private property, to be consumed for their sensual gratification; and thus they will destroy in their lust for enjoyment the prosperity of future generation…. The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining … is evidence of what an age without reverence does to itself and its successors.”

Reverence. Destroying nature destroys humanity, in both its physical and its spiritual aspects. Both Judaism and conservatism properly understood have always known this.

The administration’s program, however, represents a rejection of the entire enterprise of environmental protection — not conservatism, but rather the materialistic philosophy of Ayn Rand. Rand’s “Fountainhead” hero, Howard Roark, expresses contempt for nature, saying that when he looks at mountain peaks, all he thinks of is tunnels and dynamite. Not surprisingly, the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein suggested that the most un-Jewish philosophy was Rand’s. And, not surprisingly, Trump and many members of his Cabinet are big Rand fans.

The administration’s policy on climate change — or lack thereof — reveals its deepest contempt for the Jewish idea that humanity’s and nature’s fate are intertwined. Climate change represents the greatest ecological threat the planet has ever faced, but the White House home page was scrubbed of all climate change-related material a few hours after inauguration, and Trump has made clear that he will attempt to withdraw President’s Obama Clean Power Plan. There is no pretense of repealing and replacing — it is repeal outright. Again, this is not a difference of degree: It rejects the entire concept of wanting to know about the problem. Science, and truth, are to be subordinated to political needs.

No one with a commitment to Judaism can accept this. The rabbis knew it thousands of years ago. A midrash noted that when, in Genesis, God tells Adam to rule over the earth, the word used — radah — is equivocal: It can mean either “ruling” or “descending.” The message was clear: Unless humanity accepts genuine stewardship over the planet, it will “descend” to a lower level and betray its calling. But it required a stronger statement, and so they provided it, connecting our dependence upon nature, and the consequences of forgetting that dependence. As the midrash to Ecclesiastes relates:

“When God created the first human beings, God led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

My lungs saved by the EPA remember this statement daily. Does anyone else?

Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches, among other things, property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Stop Scott Pruitt as Head of EPA

Although this blog’s focus is not political, at times something happens that just cries out for action.  Trump’s nominee Scott Pruitt as the potential head of the Environmental Protection Agency is one such matter.  Mr. Pruitt’s disastrous record in Oklahoma, his strong ties to polluting corporations, and erroneous views on the environment make Trump’s choice not only a poor one, but a dangerous one for everyone on the planet.  Anyone who wants to breathe clean air and drink pure water should sign this petition as soon as possible, or take some other action to tell Congress to stop this nominee now!


U.S. rule to cut toxic emissions at refineries

U.S. oil refineries will face tighter standards in coming years on toxic emissions that cause lung problems and increase cancer risks, environmental regulators said on Tuesday.

The Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule, to be fully implemented in 2018, that aims to reduce emissions of benzene and other toxic emissions.

The EPA said the capital cost to refiners will be about $283 million, with an annualized cost of $63 million, but that the standards will have a “negligible impact on the costs of petroleum products,” like gasoline and diesel fuel.

Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, said the pollution cuts will lower the cancer risk from refineries for more than 1.4 million people and are a “substantial step forward in EPA's work to protect the health of vulnerable communities located near these facilities.”

The standard will require continuous monitoring of concentrations of benzene and other pollutants at the fence line of refineries. The EPA said it would strengthen emissions controls at flares, storage tanks and delayed coker operations that will cut thousands of tons of hazardous air pollutants.

The American Petroleum Institute industry group said the EPA had made “substantial improvements” in the rule, but estimated that the regulation could still cost up to $1 billion.

“Despite these improvements, regulators need to be thoughtful about the additional impacts of new regulations and added costs to delivering affordable energy to U.S. consumers,” said Bob Greco, an API refinery issues official.

U.S. unveils sweeping plan to slash power plant pollution

The U.S. power sector must cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels under federal regulations unveiled on Monday that form the centerpiece of the Obama administration's climate change strategy.

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposal is one of the most significant environmental rules proposed by the United States, and could transform the power sector, which relies on coal for nearly 38 percent of electricity. It also set off a political backlash likely to run well into next year.

Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator, said on Monday that between 2020 and 2030, the amount of carbon dioxide the proposal would reduce would be more than double the carbon pollution from the entire U.S. power sector in 2012.

States will have flexible means to achieve ambitious but attainable targets, regardless of their current energy mixes. States which rely heavily on coal-fired power plants are thought to have the toughest tasks ahead.

“The flexibility of our Clean Power Plan affords states the choices that lead them to a healthier future. Choices that level the playing field, and keep options on the table, not off,” McCarthy said in remarks at EPA headquarters on Monday.

The plan had come under pre-emptive attack from business groups and many Republican lawmakers as well as Democrats from coal-heavy states like West Virginia before it was unveiled.

But the 645-page plan looked less restrictive than some had feared, with targets easier to reach because emissions had already fallen by about 10 percent by 2013 from the 2005 baseline level, partly due to retirement of coal plants in favor of cleaner-burning natural gas.

The plan gives states multiple options to achieve their emission targets, such as improving power plant heat rates; using more natural gas plants to replace coal plants; ramping up zero-carbon energy, such as solar or nuclear; and increasing energy efficiency.

States can also use measures such as carbon cap-and-trade systems as a way to meet their goals.

Share prices for major U.S. coal producers like Arch Coal , Peabody Energy and Alpha Natural Resources closed at or near multi-year lows on Monday.


Monday's rules cap months of outreach by the EPA and White House officials to an array of interests groups.

The country's roughly 1,000 power plants, which account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, face limits on carbon pollution for the first time.

Climate change is a legacy issue for President Barack Obama, who has struggled to make headway on foreign and domestic policy goals since his re-election.

But major hurdles remain. The EPA's rules are expected to stir legal challenges on whether the agency has overstepped its authority. A 120-day public comment period follows the rules' release.

The National Association of Manufacturers, a long-time EPA foe, argued on Monday that the power plant plan was “a direct threat” to its members' competitiveness.

The electric utility industry, encompassing plants that use resources from coal and natural gas to wind was more circumspect about the plan.

“While the 2030 reduction target is ambitious, it appears that utilities may be allowed to take advantage of some of their early actions,” the Edison Electric Institute said.

Lawmakers representing big coal states lashed out.

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, termed the rules a “dagger to the heart of the middle class” that would damage the economy.

Republicans are trying to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats in November's elections. Four of the states with Senate seats in play are among the top 10 coal producers nationally: West Virginia, Kentucky, Montana and Colorado.

Obama, on a conference call with public health groups, said Americans' electricity bills would shrink, not rise, as the rules spur investment in new technologies.

The EPA's McCarthy also forecast that the regulations could yield over $90 billion dollars in climate and health benefits.

Soot and smog reductions that would be achieved through the plan would translate into a $7 health benefit for every dollar invested in the plan, she said.

The EPA estimates that reducing exposure to particle pollution and ozone could prevent up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children and as many as 3,300 heart attacks by 2030, among other impacts.

The rules, when finalized, could give Washington more clout in international talks next year to develop a framework for fighting climate change. The United States is eager for emerging industrial economies such as China and India to do more to reduce their emissions.

Reporting By Valerie Volcovici and Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Ros Krasny and Alden Bentley