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OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA declines to tighten air quality standard for smog | Green groups sue over Trump bid to open Alaska's Tongass forest to logging

OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA declines to tighten air quality standard for smog | Green groups sue over Trump bid to open Alaska's Tongass forest to logging
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HAPPY WEDNESDAY!!! Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill's roundup of the latest energy and environment news.

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Programming note: Today will be the last edition of Overnight Energy this year. We’ll be back on January 4, 2021! Have a great holiday season!!! 

 

AT THE LAST MINUTE: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday declined to tighten air quality standards for smog, despite calls from environmental and health advocates for a stricter standard. 

The EPA finalized its decision to retain the Obama-era air quality standard for ozone, the main component of smog, of 70 parts per billion (ppb).

In the stratosphere, the ozone layer protects the Earth from ultraviolet light from the sun, but at ground level it can worsen health conditions like bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.

“This decision fulfills the Trump administration’s promise to streamline the [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] review process,” EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerBiden 'freeze' of Trump rules could halt environmental rollbacks 15 states sue EPA over decision not to tighten pollution standard for smog 13 states sue EPA over rule allowing some polluters to follow weaker emissions standards MORE told reporters. 

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Environmental advocates have called for tightening the standard to 60 ppb or lower, and have pointed to studies linking adverse health impacts of exposure to ozone at concentrations lower than the current standards. 

“Air pollution kills thousands of people each year and failing to set a more protective standard means that the health of millions of Americans is threatened,” said Paul Billings, the American Lung Association’s national senior vice president for advocacy. 

When the standards were first proposed during the Obama administration, an EPA analysis showed that the 60 ppb ozone standards could have prevented 3,900 deaths linked to long-term exposure while just 680 deaths would have been prevented under the 70 ppb standard. 

Wheeler argued, however, that the current standard for ozone is in line with the science.  

“I looked at it just like Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyBiden faces tall order in uniting polarized nation Biden to rejoin Paris agreement, revoke Keystone XL permit  Biden to sign flurry of executive actions in first hours of presidency MORE did in 2015,” he said, referring to the EPA administrator at the time who has recently been named a climate adviser to President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenFive examples of media's sycophancy for Biden on inauguration week Drastic measures for drastic times — caregiver need mobile health apps Boycott sham impeachment MORE. “I think the 70 is in keeping with where the science is today."

Billings said that setting the right standard is key because it sets goals for pollution cleanup efforts and also allows the public to be informed about the levels at which smog is harmful to their health. 

Read more about the EPA’s decision here

 

SPEAKING FOR THE TREES: A coalition of environmental groups is suing the Trump administration after it lifted protections for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, expanding logging in the nation’s largest old growth forest.

The October rule from the U.S. Forest Service exempts the Tongass from the so-called Roadless Rule, a Clinton-era regulation designed to limit logging by restricting road access within forests.

Under the Trump administration’s changes, the nearly 9.4 million acres of inventoried roadless land in the Tongass would once again be considered suitable timberlands. 

“The large roadless areas of the Tongass provide outstanding habitat for a remarkable diversity of wildlife. Stripping protections from this forest to allow for road construction, clear cut logging, and other destructive activities will degrade water quality, accelerate climate change impacts, and threaten local economies,” Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, said in a release announcing the suit. 

“The U.S. Forest Service ignored public input from Indigenous tribes, local communities and tens of thousands of people across the country, and it violated the law. The administration left us no choice but to go to court to protect this remarkable place for future generations.” 

The suit, filed by a coalition of 13 environmental groups on behalf of several tribes, argues the Forest Service did not properly consult with Alaska tribes when making their decision or fully weigh the environmental consequences of the decision.

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“The need for this litigation is a mark of shame upon the federal government for violating the trust and responsibilities it has to the Indigenous peoples of the Tongass. It is equally a stain upon the State of Alaska which colluded with the Trump Administration to circumvent scientific analysis to achieve a desired political outcome,” said Robert Starbard, tribal administrator of the Hoonah Indian Association. 

Starbard said his association stopped coordinating with the Forest Service “when it became clear that our involvement was purely to provide political cover and lend legitimacy to a corrupted process with a preordained outcome. The Roadless Rule decision is fatally flawed and ignores the advice and expertise of the Tribal cooperating agencies and omits significant issues and concerns.”

Read more on the suit here

 

AND ANOTHER LAST MINUTE DECISION: A Tuesday order from Interior Secretary David Bernardt seeks to combine the department’s review of both the environmental and cultural impacts of their decisions — a move some say could force the department to move too quickly in assessing impacts on Native American sites.

The order from Bernhardt attempts to link reviews under the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It requires employees to seek permission from the assistant secretary for more time if reviews of how department actions will impact historic places will take 90 days longer than environmental reviews.

Interior Department spokesman Ben Goldey said the move “prevents unnecessary delay and duplication by directing DOI’s bureaus and agencies to better coordinate historic preservation reviews and reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.”

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Interior’s purview over historic places ranges from historic homes on public lands to Native American cultural sites.

“They’re different things, they're different laws, and Bernhardt is trying to combine them here for the sake of abandoning legal responsibility to do meaningful tribal consultation,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog group. 

Weiss alleged that the administration has repeatedly rushed NEPA reviews, and the new order would then constrict the timeline for completing the historic preservation assessment.

“If this was good, defensible action, they wouldn't bury it on Dec. 23,” Weiss said.

Goldey said the order was designed to target “a process that too often has been used to slow job creation.” 

 

WHAT WE’RE READING:

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Scientists descended into Greenland’s perilous ice caverns — and came back with a worrying message, The Washington Post reports

Zinke, experts assess Trump's 'energy dominance' legacy, E&E News reports

An endangered wolf was shot to death in California. Then the armed agents showed up, The Sacramento Bee reports

 

ICYMI: Stories from Wednesday…

Court orders EPA to step up asbestos data collection

EPA declines to tighten air quality standard for smog

Green groups sue over Trump bid to open Alaska's Tongass forest to logging