President Barack Obama campaigned, was elected twice and has governed as a fervent friend of the environment. His administration has pursued private-sector polluters. But Obama’s record in cleaning up the government’s own environmental disasters doesn’t match his zeal against private industry and agriculture.
In fact, the federal government does not even seem to know how much pollution it is putting out – even though Uncle Sam is, by some measures, the largest polluter in the nation.
If comprehensive records of government pollution exist, federal officials haven’t produced them. When requested, federal regulators were unable to provide data on their own agencies’ pollution output.
The Environmental Protection Agency has no government-wide inventory or catalog of government pollution, spokeswoman Mollie Lemon told American Media Institute. She said she is not aware of any database that could show if Washington has tracked or improved its environmental performance.
Chuck Young, managing director of public affairs for the Government Accountability Office, said the GAO “team that handles environmental issues” is “not aware of a central information source of government-caused pollution.”
Both offices recommended federal websites, but these do not track increases or reductions of government-caused pollution under this or any other administration.
Federal government waste comes in a variety of forms. Although no solid figures are available, some of the most serious waste includes lead generated by police and military forces during weapons testing, as well as pollutants associated with power generation including nuclear waste. A 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report indicated that the Tennessee Valley Authority generated 51 percent of federal production-related waste. The Department of Defense generated 34 percent, while the Department of the Treasury was responsible for 10 percent.
Experts outside the government tend to be just as uncertain about the existence of a federal pollution database.
Jerry Taylor, president of the free-market Niskanen Center, told AMI he believes there is “no such agency, no hard data or good analysis available to make a concrete, defensible claim about the extent of impacts” government makes on the environment.
Yet the federal government’s impact on the environment is vast.
The Defense Department is the third-biggest polluter of America’s waterways, outpaced only by private companies AK Steel and Tyson Foods, the private watchdog group EnviroNews reported in February.
The Energy Department is “a huge polluter as well,” as are NASA, the Agriculture Department, the Interior Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Justice Department and multiple other agencies, EnviroNews reported.
The federal government’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen during the Obama years, according to the Energy Department’s Federal Comprehensive Annual Energy Performance Data. But while carbon dioxide has been linked to global warming, it is not pollution in itself.
“We’re here on this planet because we’re blessed with carbon dioxide,” Jay Lehr, science director at the Heartland Institute, tells the American Media Institute. “There are no downsides to carbon dioxide.”
The massive sprawl of federal agencies makes it likely that the government, considered as a corporation, is the largest single polluter in the United State. But if comprehensive records of government pollution are maintained, they are not readily accessible. Ned Mamula, a geoscientist who previously worked at the Energy Department, told American Media Institute the government “does it that way by design.”
The Obama administration has not been so forgiving of incomplete environmental monitoring in the private sector.
The administration’s demands have included a sharp increase in fuel-economy requirements for automakers, a moratorium on offshore drilling and stricter limits on ground-level ozone in 2015 for the first time in seven years.
In late 2014, the New York Times declared that Obama “could leave office with the most aggressive, far-reaching environmental legacy of any occupant of the White House.”
Although Congress rejected Obama’s proposal for a carbon tax, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has written regulations that would bypass Congress and have the same effect. The president tried to impose a Clean Power Plan on the private sector but was rebuffed by the Supreme Court. The president’s 2017 budget includes a $10-a-barrel tax on oil.
Even before he was elected, Obama was promising to put coal-fired power plants out of business and prevent the building of new ones. The president’s efforts to end coal usage could cost the public more than $200 billion in higher electricity bills, according to the Institute for Energy Research. The April bankruptcy of Peabody Energy, the country’s largest coal company, was due in part to “ongoing regulatory challenges,” the company reported at the time.
More recently, five U.S. senators wrote to letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, demanding “that the Department of Justice immediately cease its ongoing use of law-enforcement resources to stifle private debate on one of the most controversial public issues of our time: climate change.”
“Rather than assisting companies, the EPA simply chooses to impose aggressive and, at times, unreasonable penalties using questionable enforcement methods,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., complained to EPA official Cynthia Giles during a Senate committee hearing in June.
Justice Department records show there were 157 criminal prosecutions for environmental offenses in fiscal 2015, almost 87 percent higher than 20 years earlier.
The EPA reported that its actions in 2015 “resulted in $404 million in combined federal administrative, civil judicial penalties, and criminal fines.” That’s ramped up quite a bit over 2014, when the total was $163 million, although nowhere near 2013’s total of $4.5 billion in criminal fines and restitution, and another $1.1 billion in civil penalties. In 2012, the total was $252 million. 2013 stands out because of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
This year, federal regulators settled with Volkswagen for $15.3 billion over its efforts to skirt automobile emissions regulations.
The George W. Bush EPA published data on fines differently, so making a direct comparison is difficult between administrations. Still, some observers have seen enough to characterize Obama’s treatment of the private sector as hostile and duplicitous.
“The Obama administration’s regulatory double standard is flagrant hypocrisy animated by hard-left ideology,” said Lawrence Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education.
“While governments – federal, state and local – are the country’s biggest and most regular polluters, the administration ignores, excuses and covers it up,” Reed told AMI. “The private sector has a better pollution and regulatory compliance record than government does, but that apparently doesn’t matter if you’re a zealous bureaucrat who hates the very private sector that pays your salary.”
Gold King Mine spill
Lehr points to Washington’s response to last August’s Gold King Mine spill of contaminated water into the Animas River in Colorado as an example of a lax record on government pollution.
“There have been no recriminations” for the spill, Lehr said, “but they shut down anyone else who does one one-hundredth of that.”
That environmental mess was caused by an EPA onsite project team that triggered an uncontrolled release of about 3 million gallons of acid mine water, the U.S. Department of the Interior reported. The discharge “changed the acid water to a vivid orange-brown color,” the department said, and streamed heavy metals all the way to Lake Powell in Utah. It was reported widely that the toxic slurry ruined drinking water in three states as well as the Navajo nation.
Interior also found that the “the conditions and actions that led to the Gold King Mine incident are not isolated or unique, and in fact are surprisingly prevalent.”
The EPA’s response was inadequate, critics said. Steve Way, the onsite coordinator at the mine “cleanup,” retired with full benefits, the Daily Caller’s Ethan Barton reported, before a probe by the inspector general could be completed.
Barton told American Media Institute his experience in trying to pull information from the federal government has convinced him that the government wants to conceal a lot of this data.
Flint water crisis
The EPA’s role in the Flint, Mich., water crisis has further shaken the agency’s reputation. McCarthy said the EPA “did its job” at the time, but the Detroit News reported that the agency had known as early as April 2015 that there existed “a situation that likely put residents at risk for lead contamination.”
Obama doesn’t really care “a whit about the environment” Lehr said, adding that he believes the administration merely uses it as a weapon against the private sector.