Bay Journal

Washington reporters outline enviornmental stories they expect

Climate change to chemicals

  • By Rona Kobell on January 27, 2015

On Friday, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program hosted a panel titled The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy at the Center’s Washington, D.C., headquarters., The panel featured some of D.C.’s top environmental writers and editors talking about what we could expect from Congress and the President this year.

I went because I am a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and I wanted to see what the Washington reporters would say is most important. Though I am focused on regional issues, I want to know what’s coming down the pike, in terms of policy on waterways, toxins, pesticides, agriculture and climate change. It helps provide context for our stories in the Bay Journal.

Larry Pearl, director of environmental news for Bloomberg BNA, said that there are a few potential areas of compromise for President Obama and his Republican-majority Congress. There is agreement on addressing coal ash, the by-product of coal-fired power plants that can cause devastating water and air quality problems. There is some agreement that we need more energy-efficient appliances, and to be a more energy- efficient country, and that we need to move quickly to redevelop Brownfields and reform some of the nation’s chemical policy ( he didn’t really explain that, but I’m thinking he’s referring to how substances are approved and regulated). Finally, he said, both parties will likely agree to support infrastructure improvements. As a resident of an old suburb near an even older city, I continually encounter crumbling infrastructure - For example a street that just collapsed a few miles from my house in Baltimore. So, let’s hope even the most embittered foes can agree we’d like to see less of that.

Pearl continued that Republicans will keep pushing for the Keystone Pipeline, while Democrats oppose it. They will fight to keep state regulations in place for fracking, because they tend to be more lenient, but will want federal preemptions on any laws for chemical changes, because those tend to be in industry’s favor. There will continue to be fights in court over who can regulate pesticides, greenhouse gases and endangered species. Pearl also expected a tougher ozone standard to better safeguard air quality, an attempt by the EPA to expand the parameters of the Clean Water Act to cover more waterways with a pushback from the Republicans; and final rules to limit the carbon dioxide from power plants in advance of the big climate meeting in Paris later this year.

Of note to our area: Pearl said the Republicans will continue to push for liquefied natural gas terminals to facilitate exporting the gas, such as the one at Cove Point. Opponents are still fighting that plant, but it’s cleared all its hurdles.
When Pearl finished, the rest of the panel took its places. Amy Harder of the Wall Street Journal talked about cheap oil prices sticking around for a couple of years. Lisa Palmer, a freelance writer who is also a Wilson Center scholar, talked about how scientists are working in a more inter-disciplinary fashion than ever before to attempt to solve problems; and the Dallas Morning News’ Randy Loftis took on a wager at the final number of the ozone standard.

But it was InsideClimate’s Neela Banerjee who stood out. Banerjee, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, began talking about how people assume that government regulators have gotten it all taken care of, that they’re protecting human health. But, she said, they’re not. Substances regularly go into the marketplace before they’re proven safe. And food? Agriculture?

“They’re enormously powerful,” she said. “Nobody touches agriculture.”

As the panel swung back to discussions of the big Paris climate meeting meeting, I kept my hand up. It was a crowded room, but I wanted my question answered. Finally, the moderator called on me. Mine was the last question.

I wanted to know if agriculture was still untouchable given recent events: The algae blooms in Lake Erie that deprived the city of Toledo of its drinking water came from farm runoff, particularly phosphorus. A water company in Iowa is suing several area farms for polluting drinking water. And here in the Chesapeake Bay, we’ve had our own struggles with phosphorus in waterways. We still don’t have a limit on how much a farmer can apply anad  newly elected Gov. Larry Hogan pulled proposed regulations before they could be published last week.

Given the harm we know phosphorus from agriculture can inflict on our drinking water, I asked, is agriculture still untouchable?

Yes, Banerjee said. Even more so than Big Oil, Big Ag is the sacred cow. Not only does every state have agriculture, she said, but we tend to view farmers as salt-of-the-earth family enterprises and not the factory operations many of them have become.

“I don’t know how much more needs to occur, but I don’t think we have hit that critical mass where the federal government will come in,” she said.

Harder agreed. The EPA, she said, “has found out how hard it is to regulate agriculture.”

Loftis, who reported on the fertilizer factory explosion in Texas that killed 15 people, was reminded of his readers’ loyalty to agriculture when his stories outlined the many ignored safety measures and the lack of inspections that led to the explosion. People complained, Loftis said, that he was attacking agriculture, the lifeblood of Texas.

“That of course reminded people how ingrained that idea is,” Loftis said, “Even when it blows up and kills a bunch of people.”

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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