I have a confession—I am moderately addicted to reading negative stories about President Trump. I think it’s because I loathe him as a human being and because negative stories about him support my internal narrative. In this, I think, I am far from alone. Before I go on, I would like to say that I know several intelligent and kind people who are Trump supporters. To blindly assign negative labels to all his supporters is unfair. I’ve found, for the people I know anyway, that their support is more a reflection of their frustration with the economy and perceived corruption in Washington than any crazy alt-right ideology.
But I digress. While following stories on Trump, I began to notice curious similarities in his environmental policies and our own government’s here in Newfoundland and Labrador. To be honest, this didn’t surprise me at all. Our government’s policies rightly belong in the 1950s during the “Develop or Perish” years. As the months went on and the similarities grew, I became compelled to share my observations. Read on and decide for yourself.
Oil and Gas Exploration in Marine Protected Areas
I’ll start with this one as it has been in the news lately. One of Trump’s campaign promises was to open previously protected marine areas to oil and gas exploration. For example, in December 2016, then-President Obama signed an Executive Order to establish the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience, a 291,000 square kilometre marine protected area. In April 2017, Trump signed an Executive Order which re-opened the area to oil and gas exploration. Environmental groups were naturally aghast and, surprisingly, oil companies did not unequivocally embrace the move. For one thing, off-shore drilling is expensive. For another, the companies recognizes that drilling in marine protected areas would be a public relations nightmare.
Such a reasonable concern does not appear to be a factor in our lovely province. Take the Laurentian Channel Marine Protected Area as an example. In the summer of 2017, the Government of Canada announced the establishment of this new MPA but then shocked almost everyone when the regulations allowed for oil and gas exploration in about 80% of the area. The industry successfully lobbied to have the area opened. But, few people realized that the Government of NL also lobbied to have the area opened to exploration. As Premier Ball recently said to a panel on marine protected areas, “… (w)hen you look at a process over six or seven years, and when you are at the table, our officials were there and decisions were made, we now see decisions being reversed and processes changed.” He also lamented that “…people we do not know, people who do not have a connection to Newfoundland and Labrador…” were responsible for this change.
Well, I am a Newfoundlander and have lived here all my life and I think the stance of the Government of NL is obsolete, destructive and embarrassing and I am not alone.
Rodolphe Devillers, a geography professor at Memorial University, said it plainly. “If there is not even any reserve, why are you leaving the door open to the industry?” The truth is that allowing this kind of development severely weakens an MPA. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (the UN agency which also identifies World Heritage Sites) has established seven categories of marine protected areas. An area which permits oil and gas exploration, like the Laurentian Channel MPA, would not qualify for the top four strictest categories. If the area is sensitive enough to prohibit fishing, weakening the MPA by allowing these activities is self-defeating. But then, as the Government of NL revealed when it refused the federal government’s offer to conduct a feasibility study to establish a marine protected area along the south coast of the Island, they consider these areas to be a nuisance and an impediment to development – not an essential component of marine conservation. In this regard, Premier Ball has taken a play straight from President Trump’s playbook.
Premier Ball’s cuts to Wildlife and Parks actually exceeds Trump’s cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency
Another front in Trump’s attack on the environment is his administration’s punitive actions towards the Environmental Protection Agency. In spring 2017, Trump cut the EPA by 23 percent. Virtually no corner of the EPA remained untouched. What is more jaw-dropping are the actions of Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt. Appointed by Trump to dismantle environmental programs and shackle the agency, Pruitt has become a laughing stock. He has a very public proclivity to waste taxpayer’s money, as evidenced by the $43,000 soundproof phone booth installed in his office – Get Smart anyone? Pruitt does not believe human activity contributes to climate change. My response to him (and anyone else who believes this) is to turn on your car in a sealed garage and wait 30 minutes. That should provide a rough demonstration of how climate change operates.
Around the same time, the Government of NL under the leadership of Premier Ball, cut the number of managers in Wildlife Division by at least 63% and literally dismantled the venerable Parks and Natural Areas Division. This was nothing less than an ideological attack against the provincial government’s premier conservation organizations. The cuts to Wildlife Division saw internationally renowned scientists, including one who worked on our poor beleaguered caribou, unceremoniously let go. The loss of so many qualified biologists will impede conservation in this province for years. But, that was the point.
The cuts to Parks and Natural Areas Division were meant to dismantle the agency planning for new protected areas with the intended effect of reducing or eliminating those pesky protected area proposals. This is despite the fact that the “mandate” letter to the minister responsible for lands includes the task of “releasing a natural areas system plan.” This plan, which is quite literally more than 20 years overdue, has been a campaign promise for virtually every government since the 1990s (when every other province in Canada had already released their plans). With the destruction of Parks and Natural Areas Division, I hold little hope that this administration will keep their promise, either.
Both Ball and Trump have plans to weaken environmental legislation
Trump made many campaign promises, from building a “big, beautiful” wall between the US and Mexico to canceling “…every needless job-killing regulation.” And, boy, has he moved forward on his anti-environment crusade. The National Geographic has been keeping a running list of his efforts to roll back environmental regulations – and it is a long list. Here are a few examples.
• Weakening protection for threatened species
• Rolling back car emission standards
• Virtually eliminating any reference to climate change in government policy
• Cutting environmental research
I could go on, but you get the point. Now, I wouldn’t go as far to say that the Ball administration is making as many sweeping changes. But, as I will show you, they are certainly targeting provincial environmental assessment legislation.
I’ll begin this story on July 22, 2016 when then-Minister of Environment and Conservation Perry Trimper announced that the Grieg mega-salmon farm proposal would be released without going through the environmental assessment process. This explosive news raced across Canada and beyond. Every nation on planet Earth has some form of environmental assessment. The accepted definition of the EA process “…is a process of evaluating the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development, taking into account inter-related socio-economic, cultural and human-health impacts, both beneficial and adverse.” The key phrase here is “…evaluating the likely … impacts.” This is important because, when challenged by virtually everyone with any knowledge of environmental protection, now-disgraced MHA Eddie Joyce said, “We felt at the beginning that the regulatory reforms that were in place and the regulatory process would cover a lot of the mitigating factors in the whole Grieg proposal.” This displays an astonishing ignorance – if existing regulations are sufficient, why even have EA legislation? Besides, the purpose of an environmental assessment is to predict and avoid. Joyce would blindly approve the project and deal with negative consequences later. Fortunately, several organizations challenged government’s decision and the courts ordered a full environmental assessment.
Here’s the scary part – Joyce, obviously frustrated, said that government will be reviewing environmental assessment legislation. He certainly didn’t plan on strengthening the legislation. Like Trump, the laws put in place to protect our environment (from ourselves) are nothing but an obstacle for people like Joyce and our provincial government.
It’s embarrassing, actually, when your provincial government attacks marine protected areas, dismisses legitimate concerns, dismantles government conservation agencies and ignores their own environmental legislation. And this from a Liberal government. Sadly, when it comes to environmental policy, there’s really no difference between the two major parties. And, for that matter, between our current government and the Trump administration. Both, in the end, will be on the wrong side of history.