January 8, 2018 by
The American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. The American Museum of Natural History has long been on the front lines of the climate change discussion, as its scientists study the potential damage and its educators try to alert new generations to the dangers of global warming. The depth of that mission is evident in the numerous exhibitions at this Manhattan museum, like the film “Wonders of the Arctic,” which is on view through March 2. “The polar bear has always been the symbol of the Arctic,” the narrator intones. “Now it’s become the face of climate change and the threat it poses.” But one of the museum’s leaders, a trustee who is also an important donor to the institution, Rebekah Mercer, has been using her family’s millions to fund organizations that question climate change, a cornerstone of the conservative agenda she is advancing as an influential member of President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition team. In recent years the Mercer Family Foundation — which Ms. Mercer operates with her father, the New York investor Robert Mercer — has given nearly $8 million to organizations including the Heartland Institute in Illinois, a group that rejects the scientific consensus on climate change. She is also on the board of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that is skeptical of whether human behavior causes climate change. The connection of Ms. Mercer, the museum and the Mercer Family Foundation’s donation history came to light during an analysis by The New York Times of activities by cultural leaders who donated to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. Several of them are board members at New York City arts organizations, including John Paulson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Mercedes T. Bass at the Metropolitan Opera. But none are as unusual a fit as Ms. Mercer and the American Museum of Natural History. Continue reading the main story On one level, she is the sort of trustee museums and other nonprofit arts groups compete for: a deep-pocketed donor whose board membership could lead to more contributions. Museums regularly ask major donors to become trustees — particularly those as generous as Ms. Mercer, whose foundation has donated at least $3 million to the museum over the past few years. Museum leaders generally do not vet donors and trustees for their personal or political views or apply ideological litmus tests. But more often than not, trustees champion the missions and philosophical underpinnings of their museums. Since Ms. Mercer has only recently emerged as a high-profile player in the Republican Party, bringing her charitable giving new public attention, it’s likely that the museum’s trustees were unaware of her philanthropic history — and specifically, her generous funding of organizations on the forefront of climate change skepticism — when she joined the board in 2013. About a dozen other trustees at the American Museum of Natural History contacted for comment declined or did not respond. Moreover, institutions with boards as large as the museum’s (which numbers 49) are typically run by a core group of highly active trustees, with others often being less knowledgeable about the detailed backgrounds of fellow members. It is unclear what, if any, influence Ms. Mercer has had at the museum beyond her financial leverage and her power as a board member. Ms. Mercer did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Ellen V. Futter, the museum’s president, declined to comment about Ms. Mercer. But Ms. Futter was emphatic that it is the museum’s scientists, not its trustees, who make decisions about the substance of what is presented at the museum. “The scientists at the museum are the ones who are responsible for the interpretation and presentation of scientific content,” she said. Rebekah Mercer, left, and her parents Robert and Diana Mercer. “We’ve done several exhibits on climate change, we’ve done numerous education offerings on climate change,” she added, “and it is the scientists who make all of the decisions about science.” Ms. Futter would not comment on the calls for Ms. Mercer to step down or what brought her to the board, declining to discuss the activities of a specific trustee. Told of Ms. Mercer’s role on the museum board, several scientists and environmental organizations said that she should resign or be removed from her position because, they said, she was working at cross purposes with its mission. “There is no room for promoters of anti-science on the board of a science museum, let alone arguably the greatest science museum in the world,” said Michael E. Mann, a leader in the climate field who directs the Earth System Science Center at Penn State. He added that Ms. Mercer “has actively funded the climate change denial and disinformation campaign.” The climate change positions of people surrounding Mr. Trump are being closely scrutinized as he takes office, partly because the president-elect has described climate change as a hoax, and vowed to “cancel” the Paris climate accord and to undo President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. During the campaign, Ms. Mercer was one of Mr. Trump’s biggest donors, eventually joining his 16-person transition team, in which she played a significant part in pushing forward one climate change skeptic for the cabinet: Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general. “She’s certainly a force,” the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a top Trump adviser, said. “She’s one of the people whose phone calls get taken.” Environmental concerns prompted climate scientists and other groups last year to call for removal of the conservative philanthropist David H. Koch from the museum’s board. He stepped down, though the museum said the reasons were unrelated to the protests. Ms. Mercer is not known for publicly speaking out on the climate change issue. But her generous support of organizations that raise doubts about global warming drew criticism from environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. “To politicize science is shameful; to politicize the institutions that are designed to foster greater learning is even worse,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said. The museum’s executives “should acknowledge that they have a healthy endowment — a steady stream of funding — and they should thank Ms. Mercer for her service and talk about a reasonable plan for her to resign,” he said. Jesse Coleman, a researcher with Greenpeace, called Ms. Mercer’s role on the board troubling. “They’re an educational institution and they are trying to present the truth,” he said, “and now they have people in important positions on their board who are actively funding misinformation and they know that.” A 2008 exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History explaining the shrinking Arctic ice cap. In addition to the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation, the Mercer foundation has made significant donations to the Cato Institute and the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, both of which also challenge aspects of climate change. The Oregon Institute, which does research on biochemistry and diagnostic medicine, was co-founded by Arthur B. Robinson, a chemistry professor who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Oregon and received $15,000 in campaign contributions from Ms Mercer. In 1997, Mr. Robinson was co-author of an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, “Global Warming Is a Myth,” which called rising levels of carbon dioxide “a boon for the environment.” The article was a rebuttal to the Kyoto Protocol, which embraced the existence of human-caused global warming and set goals for worldwide emissions reductions. “There is not a shred of persuasive evidence that humans have been responsible for increasing global temperatures,” the piece said, adding, “So we needn’t worry about human use of hydrocarbons warming the Earth.” Mr. Robinson also directed the Oregon Institute’s Petition Project, which said “that the human-caused global warming hypothesis is without scientific validity and that government action on the basis of this hypothesis would unnecessarily and counterproductively damage both human prosperity and the natural environment.” Ms. Mercer has science bona fides, having earned a master’s degree in management science and engineering from Stanford University, where she studied biology and math as an undergraduate. Her father worked for IBM before joining the successful hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, where he became a chief executive in 2010. Though she briefly worked on Wall Street, Ms. Mercer — along with her sisters, Jenji and Heather Sue (their mother is Diana) — in 2006 purchased the Manhattan bakery Ruby et Violette, which now operates online. During the recent presidential campaign, Ms. Mercer started as a leading supporter of Ted Cruz, who also argued that the threat of global warming was overstated. She and her husband, Sylvain Mirochnikoff, a managing director at Morgan Stanley — they have four children — hosted a fund-raiser for Mr. Cruz in 2015 at their Upper West Side triplex in Heritage at Trump Place. Among the biggest Mercer beneficiaries is the Heartland Institute, to which their foundation has given nearly $5 million. In 2011, Joseph Bast, president and chief executive of the institute, wrote that liberals accept global warming as true because stopping it “requires higher taxes, more income redistribution” and other “policies already on the liberal political agenda.” “Liberals have no reason to ‘look under the hood’ of the global warming scare, to see what the real science says,” he added. “They believe in global warming because they feel it justifies their ideological convictions.” Beka Economopoulos is founding director of a mobile project called the Natural History Museum, which in 2015 drafted a letter signed by scientists calling for institutions of science and natural history to “cut all ties” with fossil fuel companies. She said she found it troubling that Ms. Mercer held a governing role at the museum despite her support for groups that oppose its efforts. “How can a science museum reconcile placing a climate denier in a leadership position?” she said. “It’s incomprehensible.” “In the anti-knowledge era,” Ms. Economopoulos added, “the role of our most trusted institutions of science is more important than ever.” By Robin Pogrebin  

January 1, 2018 by
Wind turbines near Whitewater, California. Ultimately, the work on climate change is done on the ground and is up to each of us. That is why America’s Pledge on climate is so important, as former U.S. President Barack Obama told city leaders in Chicago last week at the inaugural Global Covenant of Mayors North American Climate Summit. Policymakers from around the world met at the conference to look for ways to do more to tackle climate change, a drive we’re also seeing from states and businesses. At a time when the Trump administration is abdicating the U.S. position as a climate leader, a growing number of U.S. states, cities and businesses are stepping up to take strong climate action. A report released this fall from America’s Pledge, an initiative co-chaired by Michael Bloomberg, UN special envoy on cities and climate, and California Governor Jerry Brown, shows how these non-federal actors can do more, including these four key opportunities: 1. Boost Renewable Energy States can boost renewable energy by setting tougher renewable portfolio standards that require utilities to generate an increasing share of their power from solar, wind and other renewable sources. New York and California have already done so. Utility customers – including cities, businesses and other consumers – can go beyond what’s required by participating in the voluntary clean power market. This market accounts for more than a quarter of all renewable energy sales in the United States. States can encourage cities and businesses to buy more renewable power by investing in grid infrastructure to benefit wind and solar producers. In states with Community Choice Aggregation, which allows individual customers to pool their purchasing power, cities can choose to buy clean energy for entire communities. Big energy buyers such as large tech companies and universities can also send strong market signals to utilities by investing in clean energy to power their operations. There’s plenty of room for growth in this area, since voluntary purchases – those made beyond what regulations require – still only represent about 3 percent of total annual electric utility sales. Voluntary renewable PPAs signed by sector, by year (MW) The tech industry has led the PPA market (with the largest purchases coming from Google, Amazon, and Apple), with a spike occurring in 2015 amid uncertainty over federal tax incentives for renewables. (Source:NREL 2017). 2. Tighten building energy codes While building energy codes have improved the efficiency of new and modified buildings, there’s potential to do more. For new buildings, stronger codes to foster energy efficiency need to be put in place, implemented quickly – most states now rely on less rigorous, outdated codes – and effectively enforced. Existing buildings need to be brought into the mix, with building energy codes tailored to them. Taking the lead, New York City recently announced a plan to reduce emissions of its existing buildings by 7 percent by 2035 through mandated energy standards. 3. New Policies to Cut Vehicle Emissions Private sector innovation and a movement toward zero-emission vehicles could shift the growing transport sector away from fossil fuels, and auto-makers are already on board. States can help accelerate this trend through stronger mandates for zero-emission vehicles and support for development of next generation technologies and recharging and hydrogen refueling stations. Policies now on the books in eight states could put an estimated 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles on the road in 2025. If all 50 states followed these policies, there could be more than four times that many. 4. Capture Methane To help cut down on methane emissions, which contribute approximately 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, states could offer financial incentives to encourage methane capture from landfills and dairy and hog farms to produce renewable natural gas through landfill gas projects and biogas recovery systems. In addition, states could encourage research and development to find better ways to curb livestock emissions. To ease repair of methane leaks from natural gas pipelines, cities are starting to use data gleaned by Google Street View Cars fitted with special air quality sensors that show where the leaks are. Public-private collaboration lets gas utilities identify and prioritize the leakiest sections of their infrastructure, with benefits for customers and the environment. Example output of a methane-sensing technology for the City of Boston created by the Environmental Defense Fund, Google, and Colorado State University (Source: Environmental Defense Fund) Other Opportunities to Step Up Boost efficiency and distributed generation for manufacturers through financing, regulation and other support to enable U.S. industries that rely mostly on fossil fuels to upgrade facilities with more efficient equipment, renewable energy and lower-carbon energy. Cut back on hydrofluorocarbon use and emissions by banning sales of refrigerants, foams and aerosols that contain these climate-warming chemicals, using less harmful alternatives where available and encouraging development of alternative technologies. Expand carbon pricing networksby adopting policies in individual states or joining  existing markets such as California’s or RGGI’s, as Virginia has recently proposed. Existing carbon markets can expand to cover emissions from more sectors, and private companies can adopt internal carbon pricing to manage climate risk. States, cities and businesses are already tackling GHG emissions and the opportunities listed above show that non-federal actors can go even farther. Over the next year, America’s Pledge will build on these opportunities by analyzing the greenhouse gas emissions reduction potential from both existing and more ambitious non-federal actions. By  Kristin Igusky, Karen Chen and Tom Cyrs

January 1, 2018 by
These four strategies can help cities foster environmentally friendly urban renewal while avoiding gentrification. The New York City High Line is a section of the New York Central Railroad, an elevated freight rail line, located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. It was under threat of demolition until 1999, when the community-based organization Friends of the Highline began a campaign to preserve it. Today the Highline is an iconic urban green space that has inspired cities around the world to incorporate the built as well as the natural environment in their economic development plans, allowing them to combat blight and foster urban renewal while at the same time being environmentally friendly. Indeed, the High Line, the Atlanta BeltLine, the 606 in Chicago, and many other projects have all documented economic improvement in the surrounding area. However, there’s another side to the story. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who will state openly that combining economic development with sustainability is bad. But we need to ask: What is “good” — and for whom? In too many of these cases, supposedly sustainable urban economic development projects have led to gentrification. Instead of improving the neighborhood for the people already living in the area, the project improved the neighborhood for people moving into the area. Environmental gentrification is broadly defined as the process whereby efforts to improve urban sustainability drive up property values and displace low-income residents. In the case of the High Line, a gritty neighborhood with locally owned businesses was replaced with shiny, reflective high-rises and boutiques, and property values soared 103 percent in the vicinity. In Atlanta, property values rose 50–60 percent within a half-mile of the BeltLine from 2012 to 2015, compared with 30 percent elsewhere in the city. And for Chicago’s 606, property values have grown more than 45 percent since the project broke ground. In all cases, local residents were displaced because demand for housing outpaced supply, resulting in increases in rent and other expenses that exceed what they could afford. Fortunately, there are strategies we can use to ensure that urban areas affected by blight and economic downturn can implement environmental projects without resulting in environmental gentrification. First and foremost, developers should engage community members to include their needs and wants. In the case of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Brooklyn, New York, a community-based organization called the Newtown Creek Alliance ensured the historically Polish neighborhood retained its character and culture. Second, social justice needs to be explicit. The impetus to conduct environmental projects has not corresponded with an impetus for socioeconomic justice in the same areas. The same effort given to capital financing and marketing strategies should also be given for inclusion. Contractors and the like should set up offices within the neighborhood to make themselves accessible to the community. Furthermore, participation should not be limited to paint color or other binary decisions. Local people should be included in decisions beyond design aesthetics. Third, in implementing projects we need to distinguish between economic development and economic growth. Economic development is a policy intervention to raise the economic and social well-being of people, whereas economic growth is market productivity and rise in GDP. As Harvard economist Amartya Sen says, economic growth is one aspect of the process of economic development. Projects need to align with economic and social needs of the area — for example, to favor childcare and supermarkets over gallery space and artisanal coffee shops. Planners and developers should understand and incorporate the needs of those who live there and that of investors, not just those who visit because the project makes somebody’s trendy top 10 list. Finally, developers need to keep front and center two questions: “What is the intended result?” and “For whom?” In the case of Newtown Creek Nature Walk, the project was for the neighborhood, not for tourism or the cover of a landscape architecture magazine. Environmental gentrification is a new twist on an old problem. When designing and implementing green development projects, we must consider carefully who will be affected and how, and make sure those who live there benefit the most. By Manohar Patole

January 1, 2018 by
Lower Manhattan and Battery Park area. Image via Climate Central On more than a few occasions, we’ve asked the question: what would New York City look like if sea levels drastically rose? In the past, these old maps — which depict a sea level rise of 20 feet and of 100 feet — helped us to imagine such a scenario. Now, a new map created by Climate Central, a nonprofit organization that analyzes and reports on climate science, takes the process of visualization to another level, showing what famous landmarks like New York City’s Battery Park or Washington D.C.’s National Mall might look like completely submerged in water. Called “Surging Seas Extreme Scenario 2100,” this interactive map can be downloaded as an overlay for Google Earth’s 3D maps, allowing users to zoom in and see renderings of what neighborhoods in the United States would look like if global sea levels were to rise eight feet. As you can imagine, coastal areas, including huge portions of lower Manhattan, would be mostly flooded over. Image via Climate Central Chelsea, home to the Chelsea Piers and the High Line, wouldn’t fare so well — and neither would the Untapped offices in the Starrett-LeHigh Building (seen above). Parts of Chelsea, including the High Line, would be submerged. Image via Climate Central In addition, New York City’s famous islands, would almost be entirely obliterated: The Statue of Liberty. Image via Climate Central Ellis Island. Image via Climate Central lthough shocking, this 3D map is certainly an eye-opener. Seeing familiar places being completely covered by water might just be the visual we need to understand the consequences of climate change and its impact on our day-to-day lives. Learn more about Climate Central here. By  Susan Xu  

December 31, 2017 by
People walk through a frigid Manhattan on Dec. 28, 2017. The winter of 2017-18 has recently become a throwback to the winters of yore — the ones your parents told you about. You know, back when they had to walk uphill both ways to school in the blinding snow and 0-degree temperatures?  This time around, it's not just the severity of the cold that's getting to people. It's also the duration. The most reliable computer model projections show round after round of Arctic air moving from northern Canada down into the Midwest and then crashing into the Eastern U.S. through at least Jan. 10. There's the possibility of a warmup of sorts dancing like a mirage on the long-term horizon after that, but that's a less reliable extended-range forecast.  The peak of the cold outbreak may not come until early in 2018, with New Year's Day potentially becoming the coldest such holiday on record for many locations, from Chicago to Boston and northward to Montreal and Toronto.  In fact, millions of Americans ringing in the New Year may do so in the coldest weather on record for that night, with temperatures bottoming out at 50 degrees Fahrenheit below average in some areas from the Plains to the East Coast.  Computer model animation showing continued colder than average temperatures (blue and purple) in Canada and the Eastern U.S. into early 2018. Alaska-based climatologist Brian Brettschneider said it will be the coldest start to the new year in at least 70 years for the Eastern U.S. The famous Times Square ball drop could be the second-coldest on record, behind Jan. 1, 1962, when it was just 1-degree Fahrenheit.  Some cities in the U.S. and Canada are canceling outdoor New Year's Eve festivities, including the Canadian capital.  Even after this bone-tingling cold, there are signs of still more severe cold moving in after a potential East Coast storm around Jan. 4 or 5.  In other words, it's not just you — this cold snap is noteworthy, both for its severity and its duration. In many areas, it's one of the sharpest cold waves to hit in between Christmas and New Years — period. Here are some of the cold temperature records that have been broken so far (H/T to weather.com for rounding up several of these records). This list will be updated throughout the event: Dec. 29, 2017: Many locations in and around New York City set or tied record daily lows on Friday morning including Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK Airports, as well as Islip, Long Island, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. Dec. 28, 2017: Boston set a record for the lowest maximum temperature for the date, with the high only reaching 12 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous record for the date was 18 degrees.  Flint, Michigan set an all-time December record-low temperature of minus-18 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday morning. This broke the existing all-time December low of minus-14, which was recorded the previous day. It's possible that the new monthly record will fall again before this cold snap ends. Alpena, Michigan, reached a low temperature of minus-19 degrees Fahrenheit on Dec. 28. This was the second-coldest December temperature on record there.  There were about 30 daily record lows set or tied in the lower 48 states on Thursday, including Watertown, New York, which hit minus-32 degrees Fahrenheit.  Daily records were also set in Syracuse, New York City, Baltimore, and Boston, among other locations.  Toronto, Ontario, reached minus-22 degrees Celsius, or minus-8 degrees Fahrenheit, on Thursday morning, which established a new daily record.  Muskoka Airport, Ontario, set a record low temperature of minus-36.4 degrees Celsius, or minus-34 degrees Fahrenheit, beating the old record of minus-28.3 degrees Celsius, set in 1963.  Montreal, Quebec, set a daily record low on Thursday, at minus-20.5 degrees Celsius, or minus-5 degrees Fahrenheit, beating the old record of minus-19.5 degrees, set in 1993.    Dec. 27, 2017: International Falls, Minnesota, known as the "nation's icebox" set a daily record low on Wednesday when the actual air temperature reached minus-36 degrees Fahrenheit. This beat the previous daily record of minus-32 degrees. Embarrass and Cotton, Minnesota, were even colder that morning at minus-40 and minus-41 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. However, those were not record lows for those locations, believe it or not.  Lincoln, Nebraska, reached 17 below on Wednesday, setting a new daily record, and Norfolk, Nebraska set a daily record with minus-15 degrees.  In Boston, National Weather Service meteorologists are tracking temperatures there to see if a particularly impressive record is rivaled or broken: the most consecutive days with highs at or below 20 degrees above zero Fahrenheit. The record currently stands at 7 days, which lasted from Dec. 29, 1917 to Jan. 4, 1918.  Computer model projections don't show a high temperature occurring in Boston that rises above 20 degrees Fahrenheit until Jan. 3 or Jan. 4 (which would be closely followed by a high in the single digits on Jan. 5). Assuming this projection is correct — which is a big assumption given how much uncertainty is involved in weather forecasting — then Boston would equal its century-old record cold streak.  No, this cold snap does not contradict global warming While some climate deniers, including President Donald Trump, are using the Arctic blast to argue that global warming is a hoax, keep in mind that this is a short-term weather event, not a long-term climate trend.  Global average surface temperature anomalies on Dec. 29, 2017, as forecast by the GFS model. IMAGE: CLIMATE REANALYZER Also, large portions of U.S. and Canada are currently experiencing the most unusually cold air of anywhere on the planet, with warmer-than-average air dominating the globe.  In just a few weeks, in fact, we'll find out that 2017 was for sure one of the top five warmest years in recorded history for our planet. This is a sign, scientists say, of the growing influence of greenhouse gases stemming from burning fossil fuels, chopping down rainforests, and other human activities. Global average temperature change since 1880. IMAGE: CLIMATE CHANGE SPECIAL REPORT As a November climate report stated, we are now living in the warmest period in the history of modern human civilization. The report, which is part of the National Climate Assessment put together by federal science agencies, unequivocally said global warming is here, is occurring because of us, and is already having widespread impacts: This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.  For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.  So, while many Canadians and Americans may be wishing for a bit of warmer weather right now, perhaps it's the perfect time to marvel at the fact that on an increasingly warm planet, it can still get pretty darn cold.  Climate model projections show that as we get toward the middle of the century and later, such cold events will get more rare, and are already becoming less likely to occur. BY Andrew Freedman  

December 30, 2017 by
No part of the government has been untouched by the Trump revolution. Multiple Cabinet departments are headed by people opposed to their core missions, the judiciary is being transformed at an unprecedented rate, and thanks to the new tax cut, even the sacred cows of Medicare and Social Security are now in line for legislative slaughter. But nowhere is the takeover clearer than at the Environmental Protection Agency, now headed by Scott Pruitt, who made his name suing the watchdog on behalf of fossil-fuel interests. In one year, Pruitt has destroyed the foundations of the agency, firing scientists and replacing them with industry lobbyists; undoing critical regulations that protect our air and water; and favoring industry interests over public health. The trajectory is clear: Prioritize polluters’ freedom over personal freedom, health, and environmental protection. Here are the top 10 worst actions Pruitt’s EPA has taken in 2017: 10. Corruption Pruitt is probably the most suspect member of the Trump administration, which is saying a lot. At his confirmation, he lied to Congress (a felony) about his private email account, which he used for communicating with industry representatives. When he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt was discovered to have simply cut and pasted a letter written by oil giant Devon Energy onto his own stationery. And then there’s the money. Since taking office, Pruitt racked up $58,000 in taxpayer-paid travel bills for flights to and from Oklahoma (where he is rumored to be mulling a Senate run in 2020), often on the flimsiest of pretexts. The EPA’s inspector general is investigating. Pruitt also spent $40,000 of taxpayer money to fly to Morocco to promote fossil fuels. (How that counts as “environmental protection” is anyone’s guess.) And he retained a shady PR firm that has previously done “opposition research” on journalists, at the cost to taxpayers of $120,000—a contract voided when the news of it broke. 9. Slashing the Budget to “Tidbits” The EPA is, in large part, a law-enforcement agency. Yet can you imagine any other law-enforcement department slashing its budget by more than 30 percent in one year? The result is a deliberate anarchy as polluters know the EPA can’t (and doesn’t want to) do its job. Enforcement actions have dropped by more than 30 percent from Obama administration levels, and more than 20 percent from George W. Bush levels. Demands that polluting factories clean up their act have plummeted nearly 90 percent. The cops are just not walking the beat. For example, Superfund enforcement—i.e., making polluters pay for cleaning up the toxic messes they’ve made—has been cut 37 percent, causing many cleanups to simply stop altogether (PDF). In 2017 alone, programs that have been completely eliminated include those that reduce radon in schools, control runoff pollution from roads, and certify lead-paint-removal contractors, among many others. And that’s by design: Candidate Trump promised to eliminate all of the EPA, leaving only “tidbits.” Pruitt is his hatchet man. But even these budget cuts don’t include the largest shrinking of the agency... 8. Hollowing Out the Agency It’s not just EPA’s budget being cut—it’s the agency itself. More than 700 employees have left or been forced out. That’s just the beginning: Congress is set to appropriate $60 million to buy out the contracts of EPA staff, whose positions will be eliminated. Many high-level enforcement jobs remain vacant. Other key posts have been filled by former industry shills, like Nancy Beck, a chemical-industry lobbyist who’s now ostensibly in charge of regulating toxic chemicals. Whistleblowers have reported a culture of fear and suspicion, with longtime staffers assumed to be disloyal to the new regime. Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at Environmental Defense Fund, told The Daily Beast these cuts are motivated not by budgetary concerns but by opposition to the EPA’s core mission. “It’s easy to think of it as reducing bureaucracy,” Holstein said, “but when you consider the fact that EPA is such a small agency to begin with, with a budget that’s basically what it was in the 1970s (adjusted for inflation), it’s pretty clear that further reductions in staff is all part of a strategy to undermine and hollow out EPA as an effective public health agency.” 7. Disaster Failure One of the most stark examples of the EPA’s incapacity came after Hurricane Harvey, when the unfolding storm disaster caused factories to release nearly 6 million pounds of pollution into the air. The EPA was slow to respond, but quick to issue a press release congratulating itself. In one case, a chemical plant exploded, triggering evacuations, and the EPA was found to have simply not shown up at the scene until after the explosion happened. By coincidence, the EPA had just withdrawn the Chemical Disaster Rule, which would require companies to disclose which hazardous materials they had on site. That withdrawal didn’t affect the Houston response, but it indicated that the next such disaster might be even worse; the EPA is not a disaster-response agency—its value comes from monitoring risks over the long term, which now it won’t do as efficiently. This will only get worse. Global climate disruption has already increased the frequency of extreme weather events. If the EPA’s budget is slashed by a third, and if climate change is not allowed to be spoken of, let alone factored into risk analysis and resource allocation, Harvey is just a tiny taste of what is to come. 6. Secrecy You wouldn’t know the EPA is a public agency from Pruitt’s unprecedented secrecy. He has demanded that employees not take notes at meetings with him, ordered a denial of Freedom of Information Act requests, and implemented gag rules that ban staffers from talking about a host of environmental issues. Until pressured, he refused to release his meeting calendar—not surprisingly, given what it reveals (see No. 5). And once again, there’s the enormous waste of money. Pruitt has retained his own round-the-clock security detail, costing taxpayers $830,000. No EPA administrator has ever done that. He also installed a secure phone booth in his own office for $33,000, and special locks that cost $6,000. The reason for all this secrecy is obvious… 5. The EPA Is Now an Industry Puppet As he did in Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt is taking his orders from the polluters he’s meant to regulate. The New York Times recently tracked who Pruitt met with on a single day, April 26: top executives from a coal-burning utility, the board of a huge coal-mining company, and lobbyists from General Motors. No environmental or public health groups. The remainder of the six-month period the Times examined was similar: chemical manufacturers, Shell Oil, truck manufacturers, the National Mining Association, Oklahoma oil lobbyists; not to mention the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council and CropLife America, a trade association run by pesticide manufacturers. The effects of these close contacts have been obvious. Sometimes, they’ve been plums handed out to specific companies, like the aforementioned Devon Energy, which had agreed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties for illegally emitting 80 tons of toxic pollution each year—until Pruitt simply voided the settlement and let it go with a slap on the wrist. More often, the effects are far broader... 4. Regulatory Rollback Pruitt’s EPA has eliminated regulations that: Verified emissions from a company’s industrial expansion are what the company says they are. (Now the EPA will simply take estimates at face value.) (PDF) Blocked a potentially disastrous mining operation in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. (The mine will now go forward, though a single leak could devastate the world’s largest sockeye salmon population.) Required the tracking of methane emissions (this decision was overturned by the Supreme Court). Required data collection of emissions from oil and gas companies. Monitored fracking. Required companies to disclose which hazardous chemicals they’re storing. Protected tributaries of sensitive bodies of water (even though the EPA’s analysis showed it would cost less to prevent the pollution than to allow it). (PDF) Set tighter emissions standards for trucks. Banned the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos.   Still under rollback review are restrictions on smog, coal ash, mining waste, mercury, and benzene pollution. Even the popular Energy Star appliance certification program has been slated for reduction. 3. The Clean Power Plan Power plants account for approximately 35 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. Without tackling power plants, you can’t address climate change. And without unified federal action, you can’t address power plants. The “Clean Power Plan” was born on Aug. 3, 2015, when it was finalized by President Obama’s EPA, and it died on March 28, 2017, when President Trump called for a “review.” To no one’s surprise, in October, the EPA recommended a total repeal. It’s hard to overestimate how important and game-changing the Clean Power Plan was. It called for a 32 percent reduction in power-plant carbon emissions by 2030. It offered incentives for investment in renewable energy, creating thousands of jobs. It set state-by-state targets that took into account each state’s unique needs. And now it’s dead. 2. The War on Science In the era of alternative facts, it’s no surprise that science, the scientific method, and scientists have all come under attack at Pruitt’s EPA. To take one example, Pruitt’s climate denialism (more on this later) defies the unanimous consent of the scientific community, choosing the fake science of fake think tanks like the Heartland Institute, which regularly churns out bogus scientific reports to create the perception that there is significant disagreement about climate change. Another example was Pruitt’s decision that scientists who have received EPA funding within three years can no longer serve on the agency’s 12 scientific advisory committees. While that may sound like a smart conflict-of-interest provision, its actual effect will be to exclude the majority of scientific experts from serving on the committees, and to replace them with industry “experts” instead. For good measure, Pruitt has also defied economics as well. In fact, renewable energy generates more jobs than fossil fuel energy, but Pruitt endlessly repeats the lie that regulatory rollbacks are needed to save jobs. All this has happened away from the spotlight. “To the average person,” said Holstein, the EPA “seems like a murky government agency and nobody really knows how it works. But everyone who is familiar with it knows that its science and technology capabilities are at the heart of its success in protecting all of us from pollution.” 1. Climate Change Denial Finally, in terms of real-world consequences, there’s nothing that tops climate change. The World Health Organization estimates that 250,000 people will die each year between 2030-2050 from factors directly attributable to climate change. That doesn’t even count the mass migration crises that rising sea levels and changing crop zones will bring about. There is full scientific consensus that human emissions are warming the planet; over a five-year period, 928 peer-reviewed articles affirmed this fact, while zero opposed it. Pruitt has stuck the EPA’s head in the scientific sand. The phrase “climate change” has been erased from the agency website. Any offices working on climate change have been closed or reassigned. Pruitt has even created a blacklist of EPA employees who had worked or published on the issue. Meanwhile, Pruitt claims to have advised Trump to withdraw from the Paris accord on climate change, which he did, even though the rest of the world has signed it and is moving forward without the U.S. Nor is Pruitt alone. His chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, was previously the chief for Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who calls climate change a “hoax.” Pruitt has also hired Inhofe aide Byron Brown to serve as his deputy. Pruitt has gotten in a little trouble for these actions. After stating on CNBC that “I would not agree that [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” the EPA inspector general referred the matter to the EPA’s scientific integrity officer, Francesca Grifo, since EPA officials are required to reflect scientific consensus in their comments. (In response, a right-wing group demanded an investigation of Grifo.) But there’s little that can stop Pruitt’s anti-science crusade, absent congressional action, which, with the present Congress, seems highly unlikely. After going through some of this litany with the EDF’s Holstein, I asked him if there was anything that any of us could or should do. Holstein said the most important actions to watch for in 2018 may be in the obscure realms of budget cuts and regional office closures. “There are also a lot of things we’ll be looking at in terms of whether administration will lower the hurdle for pollutants, reduce enforcement at EPA and at the Justice Department, and try to dial the budget down at NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which often studies climate change] and other science agencies.” When I asked if there was any hope, given the awful news from 2017, Holstein took the long view. “What I say to people who want to give up is: Don’t do it,” he said. “We have built over the last 40 to 50 years a bipartisan national legacy of bedrock environmental protections and safeguards and we should fight for them. The fact that President Trump and Administrator Pruitt would like to help polluters avoid responsibility doesn’t change one bit the fact that we have nearly a half century of national and public commitment to a cleaner environment and healthier communities.” Besides, Holstein added, “we have a great deal at stake.” By Jay Michaelson

December 27, 2017 by
President Trump walks out after an announcement in the Rose Garden on June 1 that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. President Trump made his mark in the energy and environment world during his first year in Washington. Many of his actions aimed to undo work from the Obama era. Trump all but abandoned the nation’s efforts to combat climate change, and he shrank national monuments that President Barack Obama had established or sought to preserve. Trump scaled back regulations on the fossil fuel industry and pushed for more drilling on land and at sea. And in turn, much of the world pushed back. Protesters descended on Washington to oppose his policies and campaign against what they saw as an attack on science. Other nations denounced his decision to back out of an international climate agreement, leaving the United States at odds with the rest of the globe. Meanwhile, extreme weather nationwide wrought devastation. Hurricanes leveled homes, triggered floods and upended lives from Puerto Rico to Texas. Wildfires ravaged California, burning entire neighborhoods to ashes. It was a tumultuous year. Here are some of the most consequential environmental stories we covered along the way. 1. Withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump proclaimed from the Rose Garden in June. With those words, he declared his intention to withdraw the nation from a global effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to fend off the worst effects of climate change. The Obama administration had led the charge for the landmark deal in late 2015, helping to persuade other world powers — and major polluters — such as China and India to pledge to reduce their emissions in coming years. Trump reversed course, despite widespread criticism from world leaders, claiming that the Paris accord was a bad deal for the United States that would disadvantage American workers. The United States is now the only nation in the world to reject the deal. While the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement cannot officially be finalized until late 2020, the action sent a clear message: Climate action has little place in the Trump administration. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt holds up a hard hat he was given during a visit to Consol Pennsylvania Coal Co.’s Harvey Mine in Sycamore, Pa.  2. A sea change at the Environmental Protection Agency. “The future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA,” the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt, is fond of saying. That’s certainly true. In nominating Pruitt to head the agency that Trump once promised to reduce to “little tidbits,” the president chose a man who had long been one of its most outspoken adversaries. As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, challenging its authority to regulate toxic mercury pollution, smog, carbon emissions from power plants and the quality of wetlands and other waters. Now, as EPA’s leader, he has acted aggressively to reduce the agency’s reach, pause or reverse numerous environmental rules, and shrink its workforce to Reagan-era levels. He has begun to dismantle Obama’s environmental legacy, in part by rolling back the Clean Power Plan — a key attempt to combat climate change by regulating carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants. Along the way, Pruitt has become one of Trump’s most effective Cabinet members, as well as a lightning rod for criticism from public health and environmental groups. The sun sets over Bears Ears National Monument, as seen from the Moki Dugway on June 11, north of Mexican Hat, Utah. 3. The fight over national monuments. Trump issued an executive order in April to review 27 land and marine monuments. But it was clear that two particular monuments were in his crosshairs: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Utah’s congressional delegation and its governor had lobbied Trump’s inner circle to reverse the monument designations of these parks in their state even before he was elected. Utah Republicans called the designations by Obama and President Bill Clinton overzealous land grabs, and shortly after he took office, Trump adopted some of the same language. He promised to end what he called presidential “abuses” and give control of the land “back to the people.” In the end, Trump shrank both monuments by nearly 2 million acres last month, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the borders of other monuments in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as in the West, are being reviewed. Native American groups that had requested a Bears Ears designation are leading a wave of lawsuits against the Trump administration’s decision. Tugboats transport the Hess Corp. Stampede tension leg oil platform in the spring. (Eddie Seal/Bloomberg News) 4. Drill, baby, drill. Drilling platforms already dot the Gulf of Mexico, where the fossil fuel industry has extracted oil and gas for decades. But the Trump administration wanted to make history. In early November, it did so by announcing the largest gulf lease offering for oil and gas exploration in U.S. history: 77 million acres. The move was consistent with Trump’s push for “energy dominance.” He and Zinke are also opening more land to coal excavation in the West. One of Zinke’s first acts as interior secretary was to remove a bright and colorful picture of a western landscape from the Bureau of Land Management’s website and replace it with a black wall of coal. Oil prices are climbing after reaching record lows in recent years, but coal is struggling to make a comeback after the rise of natural gas. The Gulf of Mexico promises more oil, but it also might promise disaster. It’s the scene of the nation’s worst environmental disaster, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which fouled beaches and killed untold numbers of marine animals when oil spewed into the water for months. Is drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge next? The Republican-controlled Congress greenlighted leases for exploration in the recently passed tax bill completely along party lines. But let the buyer beware. Royal Dutch Shell drilled a $7 billion hole in the Chukchi Sea in 2014 and has nothing to show for it. A security volunteer stands in the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp near Cannon Ball, N.D., in January. (Terray Sylvester/Reuters) 5. Action on the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. As winter began to fade, it became clear that camps of protesters in Canon Ball, N.D., who for months had fought a pipeline that they argued could threaten the drinking water and cultural sites of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, had lost this particular battle. Days after Trump took office, he signed executive orders to revive two controversial pipelines that the Obama administration had put on hold — the 1,172-mile Dakota Access and the 1,700-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would extend from the Canadian tar sands region to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Oil is now flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline. And the company behind the Keystone XL this fall cleared a key regulatory hurdle in its quest to complete the northern half of the pipeline, running from Alberta to Steele City, Neb., when it received approval from the Nebraska Public Service Commission. Opponents of both projects have vowed to continue legal fights, as well as to protest any other pipelines they view as a threat to public health or the environment. But Trump shows few signs of backing down, calling his actions “part of a new era of American energy policy that will lower costs for American families — and very significantly — reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and create thousands of jobs right here in America.” Here are some of the animals that have been saved by the Endangered Species Act. 6. Attacks on the Endangered Species Act. It is arguably one of the most powerful environmental laws in the world, credited with saving at least a dozen animal and plant species from extinction. But who will save the Endangered Species Act, which is under attack by political conservatives inside and outside Washington? Led by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who said he wants to “invalidate” the 44-year-old act, some Republicans say the law interferes with commercial development, private landowner rights and excavation of natural resources such as coal and natural gas. Bishop’s committee passed five bills that would weaken protections for wolves, force federal workers who enforce the law to consider economic impact when deciding how to save animals and strip away a provision of the law that requires the federal government to reimburse conservation groups that prevail in court. The bills have set up a potentially titanic battle between wildlife advocates and lawmakers supporting farmers, housing developers and the oil and gas industry. It’s not the first time that conservatives have attempted to weaken the act, but it is the first time a presidential administration and the department that oversees the act appear willing to go along. The Utuado region in the interior of Puerto Rico was hard hit by Hurricane Maria. 7. Epic hurricanes and wildfires. Last year around this time, a strange wildfire rushed through the Tennessee mountains, killing 14 people, destroying homes and apartment buildings, and threatening a major recreation area in Gatlinburg. The 2017 fire disasters, some of which are still burning, were much more monstrous than that Great Smoky Mountain inferno. Two California fires, the Sonoma fire that burned north of San Francisco and the Thomas fire that burned north of Los Angeles, driven by fierce Santa Ana winds, have combined to kill 45 people, burn more than a half-million acres, destroy nearly 2,000 structures and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fight. The Thomas fire appears to be finally contained near Santa Barbara after burning the second-most acreage in state history. But fire wasn’t even the costliest disaster this year. Hurricane Harvey’s death toll in and around Houston was nearly double the number who perished in the two fires and sent 30,000 people in search of shelter. Miami, Jacksonville and Naples, Fla., were devastated by Hurricane Irma, which immediately followed Harvey. They were followed by Hurricane Maria, which leveled much of Puerto Rico and left at least 50 people dead, but that is probably a drastic under count and the toll could be as high as 500. More than a dozen state and local officials have been charged in a long-running water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich.  8. Criminal charges mount in the Flint water crisis. In June, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged the director of the state’s health department and four other public officials with involuntary manslaughter for their roles in the Flint water crisis, which has stretched into its fourth year. In addition to ongoing worries that thousands of young children were exposed to dangerous levels of lead in the city’s contaminated water supply, the crisis has been linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that contributed to at least a dozen deaths. The manslaughter charges were the latest reckoning. According to Schuette’s office, the investigation into the decisions that led to tainted water for a city of nearly 100,000 people has resulted in 51 criminal charges for 15 state and local officials. It remains unclear how many of the charges will stick. But the cases serve as a reminder of the human toll of the tragedy and how, even today, many residents in the largely low-income, majority-minority city trust neither the water from their taps nor the public officials charged with ensuring it is safe. \ Demonstrators hold a sit-in outside the White House during the People’s Climate March in Washington on April 29.  9. Climate march on Washington. It didn’t draw nearly the crowd that the Women’s March did in January. And it didn’t get as much national attention as the March for Science that came only a week earlier. Even so, on a sweltering Saturday in April, tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on Washington to mark Trump’s first 100 days in office. Their plea: Stop the rollback of environmental protections and take climate change seriously. Building on a massive demonstration three years earlier in New York, the People’s Climate March brought its message — and its many clever signs — to the White House. “Don’t destroy the Earth. I buy my tacos here,” one read. “Good planets are hard to find,” another read. “Make Earth Great Again!” read another. Trump wasn’t around that day to witness the protests on his doorstep, and the march’s organizers didn’t expect to change his mind. But they were gearing up for a long fight ahead. By the next morning, some participants met to discuss how to get more allies to run for public office. “It can’t just be a march,” one activist said. “It has to be a movement.” By Brady Dennis and Darryl Fears

December 26, 2017 by
Power plants will have to end the use of dirty fuel oil after City Councilman Costa Constantinides’ legislation was overwhelmingly approved. The City Council voted overwhelmingly to approve a bill that would require power plant operators to end the use of dirty fuel oils, which will decrease hazardous emissions and pollution. The legislation, co-sponsored by City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria), mandates that power plants phase out the use of No. 4 heating fuel oil earlier than the currently mandated deadline by following either of two options. If plant operators adhere to the currently mandated 2020 deadline of eliminating No. 6 fuel oil, they must stop using No. 4 fuel oil by 2025, which is five years earlier than the currently mandated 2030 deadline. Plant operators can also chose to keep using No. 6 fuel oil until 2022. However, they must also stop using No. 4 oil by that time and immediately transition to ultra-low sulfur No. 2 oil or another type of fuel. No. 6 fuel oil is from the bottom of the crude oil barrel and is the most polluting of the three grades burned in New York City. No. 4 is a heavy oil that is slighly less damaging to the environment. No. 2 is the cleanest of the three fuel oils but the most expensive. “For decades, power plants have been notorious for emitting dangerous pollutants that risk our environment and public health,” Constantinides said. “This pollution has contributed to increased respiratory illnesses, higher asthma rates, emergency room visits, and other public health issues. Ending the use of dirty fuel oils will reduce these emissions and bring benefits to our public health, including reduced risk of asthma and hospital visits.” Constantinides, who is head of the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, noted that 50 percent of the city’s power comes from generation plants in Astoria and Long Island City, known as “Asthma Alley” for pollutants caused by the plants as well as air traffic into and out of LaGuardia Airport. Legislation authored by City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) to keep parks clean and safe after the application of pesticides was also passed. The bill requires the city’s Park Department to clean playground equipment within 24 hours after the spraying of pesticides by any city agency. “Cleaning our city’s playgrounds after the application of pesticides is common-sense policy that will protect public health and quality of life for children and families throughout New York City,” Van Bramer said. “I fought for this legislation after several constituents came to me complaining about sludge left over from pesticide spraying at multiple playgrounds in my district. By passing this bill, we are ensuring that the health of our children and families come first, and our parks will be a safe and healthy public space for all.” By Bill Parry

December 11, 2017 by
Under the banner of welfare reform, the administration is eyeing changes to health care, food stamps, housing and veterans programs. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the welfare executive order as soon as January, according to multiple administration officials. The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress are hoping to make the most sweeping changes to federal safety net programs in a generation, using legislation and executive actions to target recipients of food stamps, Medicaid and housing benefits. The White House is quietly preparing a sweeping executive order that would mandate a top-to-bottom review of the federal programs on which millions of poor Americans rely. And GOP lawmakers are in the early stages of crafting legislation that could make it more difficult to qualify for those programs. In the meantime, the Trump administration has already begun making policy shifts that could have major ramifications. Federal health officials are encouraging states to impose work requirements on able-bodied adults on Medicaid — a major philosophical shift that would treat the program as welfare, rather than health insurance. The Agriculture Department said last week that it would soon give states greater control over the food stamp program, potentially opening the door to drug testing or stricter work requirements on recipients of the $70 billion program long targeted by fiscal conservatives. Another initial move has already backfired — the Veterans Affairs Department announced it would redirect hundreds of millions of dollars from a program for homeless veterans to local VA centers, but it reversed course after fierce blowback from advocates. While candidate Donald Trump pledged to protect some safety net programs, conservatives have long wanted to devolve control of social programs to the states and impose stricter work and drug testing rules. Now that they control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Republicans believe they have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul those programs, which they have long argued are wasteful, are too easily exploited and promote dependency. “People are taking advantage of the system and then other people aren't receiving what they really need to live, and we think it is very unfair to them,” Trump said in October. The president is expected to sign the welfare executive order as soon as January, according to multiple administration officials, with an eye toward making changes to health care, food stamps, housing and veterans programs, not just traditional welfare payments. To be sure, many of the changes are still in the talking stages, and it remains to be seen when and how they are actually implemented and at what political cost. And there remains internal debate in the administration over how to balance other priorities like an infrastructure bill. The White House's leading advocate for a welfare overhaul, Domestic Policy Council Deputy Director Paul Winfree, is slated to leave the administration on Friday, according to a person familiar with the move. But two administration officials said Winfree's departure won't hobble the welfare push, as the White House has already completed much of the groundwork on the issue. Defenders of the safety net programs, meanwhile, fear the effort could rob Americans — including many Trump voters — of a vital lifeline. “It would be a recipe for massively exacerbating poverty and inequality in America in violation of all of Trump’s campaign promises,” said Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Center for American Progress’ poverty program. “The poor are under attack,” said National Community Reinvestment Coalition President John Taylor, who accused Republicans of “rigging the system” for the top 1 or 2 percent at the expense of the middle class and poor. “Most Americans, if they really understood what was going on, would not support it,” he said. Although the effort to reshape the country's welfare system is all but guaranteed to produce powerful political backlash, it appears to have broad backing from conservative congressional Republicans, who are already coordinating with the White House on a legislative agenda to complement expected executive actions. White House Domestic Policy Council staff, who are working closely with congressional Republicans on legislation, are slated to meet this week with House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee staff. The exact provisions of the pending bill are unknown, but a conservative group closely aligned with lawmakers said Republicans intend to pass broadly focused legislation. “They’re thinking about welfare reform in a large, all-encompassing way, not a program way,” said Jason Turner, executive director of the Secretaries’ Innovation Group, a group of conservative officials who run state-level social programs and met with Ways and Means Committee Republicans on the Hill last week. Turner said he expects Republican leaders will seek to combine their ideas with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s vision in his “A Better Way” plan to create a “mega-idea” for reform with a focus on work. “In terms of scope, that is part of the discussions that we are having with the committees,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said. “We are still running options through the interagency process and consultations with Congress.” Ryan spokesman Doug Andres declined to offer more details, adding that Republicans would discuss the issue at their January retreat. In recent days, Ryan said he hopes to embark on entitlement and welfare reform next year. He has said entitlement reform — an overhaul of programs like Medicare and Medicaid that has been his priority since his days as Budget chairman — is essential for tackling the debt, which is set to surge by $1 trillion under the Republican tax reform bill, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. “We have a welfare system that’s basically trapping people in poverty and effectively paying people not to work, and we’ve got to work on that,” he said in a recent radio interview. Democrats immediately pounced on Ryan’s comments. “Paul Ryan just admitted that after providing $1 trillion in tax breaks to the top 1% and large corporations, Republicans will try to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and help for the most vulnerable Americans,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote on Twitter. It is unclear whether Republicans will take aim at Medicare given Trump’s campaign promise not to touch it. Trump also promised not to cut Medicaid or Social Security, the latter of which is trickier for lawmakers to change because of procedural rules designed to protect the program. If Republicans steer clear of Medicare, they say they will need to cut deeper into programs like food stamps and Medicaid. Despite Trump’s campaign vow on Medicaid, the GOP already placed the health insurance program for the poor on the chopping block earlier this year as part of its failed push to repeal Obamacare, proposing to siphon nearly $800 billion from the program over a decade. With strong Democratic opposition a certainty, GOP leaders will need to rely on a budget tool that allows them to jam bills past their Democratic counterparts. That tactic, known as budget reconciliation, allowed Republicans to pursue their successful push on tax reform this year, as well as an unsuccessful one on health care. But unlocking reconciliation will require Republicans to almost unanimously agree to a budget blueprint — unity that took months of wrangling by GOP leaders this year even on their longtime priority of tax reform. That unity may be even more difficult to achieve in an election year. Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) recently confirmed to a small group of D.C. conservatives that welfare reform would be the focus of the 2019 budget. But the reception wasn’t what he expected. Several people in attendance were shocked, according to one person familiar with the conversation — because they read it as Republicans abandoning their push for Obamacare repeal. “Not that we don't need welfare reform,” the person said. “But if you're looking to get something accomplished through 2018 and through the Senate, even on reconciliation, it’s hard to see how welfare is that policy.” But Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.), a longtime Budget Committee member, told POLITICO last week that he’s leaning toward using the reconciliation process for welfare reform. “When we're using reconciliation instructions, we should deal with the hard stuff,” Woodall added. “The easy things, people have done already. What's left is hard, and it's hard when you're dealing with food stamp programs, for example.” On the executive side, the Trump administration is moving ahead on its own even before Republicans work out the details of their legislative push. Food stamp changes One of the biggest programs that could be in the administration’s cross hairs is food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a $70 billion program that helps one in eight Americans buy groceries each month. The Department of Agriculture has said it’s developing a policy that could make it easier for states to impose stricter work requirements or drug testing on recipients — things that states like Wisconsin and Florida have long tried to do, but have been blocked by either courts or USDA. On Tuesday, USDA issued a vague announcement highlighting the principles around encouraging self-sufficiency, pledging to give more flexibility and “local control” to states administering SNAP in the coming weeks. “SNAP was created to provide people with the help they need to feed themselves and their families, but it was not intended to be a permanent lifestyle,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Many states already limit SNAP benefits to three months for able-bodied adults who don’t care for young children or an elderly parent, and who aren’t working or enrolled in a job training or volunteer program. Nearly half of all SNAP recipients are children. Handing over more control to states is loathed by Democrats and anti-hunger advocates who fear that Republicans will eventually try to block-grant SNAP, much like they did with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program during welfare reform in the 1990s — a change that led to a big drop in the rolls but, critics argue, didn’t actually reduce poverty. SNAP serves a vastly larger population than TANF and has been shown to reduce hunger and improve health outcomes. There’s also now renewed concern that more states could try to follow Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s push to impose drug screening on all able-bodied adults who apply for SNAP, which critics argue stigmatizes the program and costs many times more than it will save taxpayers. Medicaid work requirements Work requirements are just one of several new coverage restrictions federal health officials are expected to grant to red states trying to reduce enrollment in a program that now covers one in five Americans. Other proposals include imposing higher costs on enrollees, and strict disenrollment penalties for not following certain rules. But work requirements have generated the most ire from Democrats and advocates for low-income people, who argue that they do nothing to advance Medicaid's core purpose of providing health coverage to the poor. Ten Republican-led states are seeking the Trump administration’s permission to require certain enrollees to work or participate in other job-related activities as a condition of receiving health coverage. The restrictions, which were repeatedly rejected by the Obama administration, are primarily targeted at low-income adults who gained coverage under Obamacare's expansion of Medicaid. Yet other red states that never implemented that expansion — including Kansas, Maine and Mississippi — are also interested. Top health officials have actively encouraged states to enact work rules, saying the proposals are designed to reduce government dependency as Medicaid has grown to cover able-bodied adults rather than primarily serving the disabled, pregnant women and children. "The thought that a program designed for our most vulnerable citizens should be used as a vehicle to serve working-age, able-bodied adults does not make sense," Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma said in a November speech to state officials. Housing At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary Ben Carson has made clear his philosophy that welfare fosters dependency and has said government should be focused on the business of getting people out of public housing. HUD will be “significantly involved” in Trump’s welfare reform efforts, Carson told POLITICO. “Our objective is to empower people, to give people opportunity. “Housing and affordable housing is supposed to be something we provide for the elderly, the disabled and for work-able people. It should be a steppingstone toward self-sufficiency,” Carson said. “Obviously, that has not been the case for decades. We need to change that. But to change it, we need to be able to provide opportunities.” On Thursday, he launched his EnVision Center project, a multi-agency effort to create job training and educational opportunity hubs near public-assisted housing with the goal of self-sufficiency. HUD will track people using the center to see how many find long-term jobs, attain education and start a business. By ANDREW RESTUCCIA, SARAH FERRIS and HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH