Overnight Energy: Critics warn latest environmental rollback could hit minorities, poor hardest | Coalition forms to back Trump rollback | Coal-fired plants closing at near-record pace

HAPPY MONDAY! Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill’s roundup of the latest energy and environment news.

Please send tips and comments to Rebecca Beitsch at rbeitsch@thehill.com. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccabeitsch. Reach Rachel Frazin at rfrazin@thehill.com or follow her on Twitter: @RachelFrazin.

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NEW WARNINGS ABOUT TRUMP’S LATEST ROLLBACK:  President TrumpDonald John Trump Democratic challenger on Van Drew’s party switch: ‘He betrayed our community’ Rand Paul pledges to force Hunter Biden vote if GOP backs Dem impeachment witnesses Trump plans to divert .2 billion from Pentagon for border wall construction: report MORE‘s proposed overhaul of a bedrock environmental law aims to streamline project reviews, but those changes are likely to hit minority communities and those with high poverty rates the hardest, experts warn.

The White House on Thursday detailed a sweeping proposal to revamp the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which requires environmental reviews for big proposed projects like highways or pipelines, as well as when polluting industries plan to discharge into the air or water.

The changes eyed by the Trump administration would limit the scope of the environmental analysis required for such projects, including allowing greater industry involvement in environmental reviews and diminishing the role climate change plays in those assessments.

Why opponents are worried: Critics of the plan say that with polluting industries already more likely to set up shop in minority communities as well as those with poverty, those same areas will bear the brunt of the changes to NEPA dealing with pollution and climate change.

“The most vulnerable communities are going to pay with lives and their health. They always have,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali with the National Wildlife Federation, who was previously a senior advisor for environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Moving forward with this is reckless and will endanger the lives of black and brown communities and indigenous communities. It’s really that simple.”

The data: A slew of studies confirm the environmental harm affected communities already experience on a daily basis. 

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The EPA found black Americans are subjected to higher levels of air pollution than whites. Another study found that communities of color and low-income populations are disproportionately exposed to chemical releases. Others have found that minority and low-income communities were more likely to be near hazardous waste sites. Advocates often collectively refer to these towns as environmental justice communities. 

The Trump administration’s NEPA proposal would make a number of changes, including limiting study of the “cumulative” effects of new projects. Courts have largely interpreted that as studying how a project might contribute to climate change.

But Kym Hunter, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has helped many minority and low income communities battle polluting projects in their areas, said the scope is much broader.

“The focus has been on climate change, but it’s not just that,” Hunter said. “Cumulative impacts is if you have 10 different facilities dumping pollution into a river, that’s something you need to know about, and that’s no longer going to have to be disclosed.”

If Trump’s NEPA proposal is finalized, ignoring cumulative effects could also mean ignoring the numerous polluting industries that have already set up shop nearby poor or minority neighborhoods.

“I’m just thinking of a client of mine in Charlotte who lives adjacent to five different highways, has COPD, and lives in this African-American community that just been cut off by all these different highways,” Hunter said, pointing to the pollution that accumulates from exhaust.

“If an additional highway or polluting thing went in there, there’d be no need to review the cumulative impact on their health, maybe it wouldn’t need any environmental review at all.”

Read more about the proposed changes here. 

 

The proposal, though, is already gaining support from industry…

 

A SUPPORT GROUP: A new coalition aims to garner support for President Trump’s plans to overhaul the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a major environmental law.

GOP operative Phil Cox is the chairman of the coalition, named Building a Better America. The former executive director of the Republican Governors Association also led Trade Works for America, a pro-trade group that pushed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

“The president is a builder, he understands these issues and I think he’s shown great leadership in reforming NEPA. Now we’ve just got to go ahead and make sure it gets done,” Cox said in an exclusive interview with The Hill.

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NEPA requires agencies to review infrastructure projects on how they would affect the environment and nearby communities, including for climate impacts. But Trump’s plan to roll back the law would limit the projects that require environmental assessments, allow industry more input in the process, and also scale back the role climate change plays in those reviews.

Business groups have cheered the proposal, which the administration says is needed to reform the decades-old law. Trump and supporters have long criticized NEPA’s rules, saying they unnecessarily delay needed infrastructure and energy projects. And the changes come as the White House and Congress have failed to move on bipartisan legislation on infrastructure.

Green groups and Democrats have blasted the NEPA changes, floating legislation or court challenges to limit Trump’s moves.

The proposed overhaul published in the Federal Register on Friday will go through a 60-day comment period, which will close in March.

“The goal in short term is to make sure the White House is hearing a lot of supportive voices over the course of the next 60 days,” Cox said. “I would not be at all surprised if you saw the House act during that time period. You have the backdrop of the presidential campaign which lends itself to the possibility of a bigger fight.”

The coalition plans to spend a minimum of $5 million but will increase its budget if it involves a congressional fight.

Read more about the coalition here. 

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COAL UPDATE: Coal-fired power plants closed across the U.S. last year at the second-fastest pace on record, according to Reuters. 

Power companies retired or converted about 15,100 megawatts of coal-fired electricity generation in 2019, Reuters reported Monday, citing federal data that included preliminary statistics from the Energy Information Administration. 

That amount was second only to 2015, when 19,300 megawatts’ worth of coal power was shut down under the Obama administration. 

The sharp decline in coal-fired power plants comes despite President Trump’s vocal efforts to defend the industry. 

An estimated 39,000 megawatts of coal-fired power plant capacity has shut down since Trump took office in 2017, according to Reuters. 

Read more about coal here. 

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EMINENTLY QUOTABLE: Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopRepublicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel Overnight Energy: Critics warn latest environmental rollback could hit minorities, poor hardest | Coalition forms to back Trump rollback | Coal-fired plants closing at near-record pace Top Natural Resources Republican won’t run for Utah governor MORE (R-Utah), who is retiring from Congress at the end of this term, announced Monday that he won’t run for governor of Utah.

“I don’t need to be governor. I don’t need it to validate my feeling of self-worth,” Bishop told Salt Lake City radio station KSL, adding that he was “too old” to run.

Read more about his decision here. 

 

ON TAP TOMORROW

On Tuesday,  the House Energy and Commerce Committee will examine legislation to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), heat-trapping chemicals that are used in air conditioners and other products. 

The House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife will hold a hearing on a series of bills. 

 

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OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY: 

Minnesota court rules against permits for new mine, we report

At least 24 Utah cities, counties pledge to use renewable energy by 2030, The Salt Lake Tribune reports

Ocean temperatures hit record high as rate of heating accelerates, The Guardian reports

Minnesota governor: $293M needed to make water infrastructure more resilient to climate change, MPR News reports

 

ICYMI: Stories from Monday and over the weekend…

Critics warn Trump’s latest environmental rollback could hit minorities, poor hardest
Canadian officials say nuclear plant warning ‘sent in error’

Interior planning to halt use of drones over concerns about Chinese tech: report

Coalition forms to back Trump rollback of major environmental law

Coal-fired power plants closing at near-record pace: report

Top Natural Resources Republican won’t run for Utah governor

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