The Trump administration’s indifference to the environment and President Trump’s hostility to the laws providing clean water and air, protecting endangered species and keeping public lands and forests free from commercial intrusion have been so unsparing that one had to blink twice at what, finally, after nearly four years, was a piece of undiluted good news.
Yet there it was: a decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to deny a permit for a massive gold and copper mine in Alaska proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the heart of a multimillion-dollar regional fishing industry. This is a devastating blow for the project and a triumph for conservationists, Native tribes and commercial fishing interests that believed, quite rightly, that the mine and its discharges would not only destroy a delicate marine ecosystem but also gravely threaten one of the richest salmon fisheries in the world.
The project was proposed roughly two decades ago by a Canadian-British mining consortium (only one of the original partners remains) that promised to add 1,000 permanent jobs to Alaska’s struggling economy while unearthing $300 billion in copper, gold and molybdenum. In 2008, the people of Alaska came very close to blocking the proposal in a referendum supported by three former governors, including two Republicans, and the then-powerful dean of the state’s congressional delegation, Senator Ted Stevens. A huge advertising campaign by the mining industry and a last-minute pro-mining push by then-Gov. Sarah Palin turned the tide in the mine’s favor.
Over time, however, the scientific evidence turned decisively against the project, and in 2014 the Environmental Protection Agency determined that even a carefully designed operation, in the words of Gina McCarthy, the E.P.A. administrator, would most likely cause “irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries.”
That determination did not kill the mine, because the company was still free to file for a permit from the Army corps, which wobbled for a while but ultimately denied the request. The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., a sportsman who has fished in the region, tweeted his opposition to the mine in August, a rare and welcome burst of environmental stewardship from the first family.
The action by the Army corps seems the death knell for the project, though the company might still contest the decision in court, or file an amended permit application. President-elect Joe Biden had already promised that it would not be built on his watch.
In any case, Mr. Biden has his work cut out for him to find ways to reverse the many environmental travesties hatched during the Trump years, whether by legislation, litigation or executive order. That is a tall order following four years of an administration that gave the oil and gas companies every incentive to pursue what the driller in chief called “energy dominance.” Mr. Biden’s challenges include protecting two national monuments in Utah established by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both of which Mr. Trump shrunk beyond recognition (perhaps illegally; the courts will tell); millions of acres of public lands in the West, once set aside for the threatened sage grouse, that the Trump administration hoped to open to drilling; and much of the outer continental shelf, although that particular ambition has been blocked for now by the courts.
The assault continues, even now, as the lame-duck administration seeks to lock in drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, proceeds with plans to open up protected areas of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska to drilling and moves toward a narrower and more industry-friendly definition of what constitutes necessary habitat for endangered species. For good measure, the administration is also seeking to end two decades of protections against logging and other development in more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, an ecological treasure that, like Bristol Bay, provides habitat for salmon and other species and serves as a huge sink for carbon dioxide.
These restorative challenges, it must be said, are in addition to all the things Mr. Biden has promised to do in his $2 trillion plan to fight global warming, and indeed must do to reach his stated goal of net-zero emissions by midcentury. He has already drawn praise for naming John Kerry, former secretary of state and one of the architects of the Paris Agreement, as his envoy to the world on the climate issue and as proof of his determination to re-engage America in what, after all, has to be a global effort to keep greenhouse gases from reaching a point of no return.
Mr. Biden knows that much of his $2 trillion plan has little chance in a divided Congress and that an economywide approach — a carbon tax, for instance, or an updated cap-and-trade bill — is for now a very long shot. Nevertheless, one can imagine a productive legislative package of efficiency measures, infrastructure upgrades, big investments in wind and solar power and electric vehicles, all aimed at reducing emissions and gradually weaning the country from fossil fuels and all tucked into the economic recovery measures that are likely to be Mr. Biden’s first big order of business. Mr. Biden is also expected to make global warming a priority throughout his cabinet departments, in sharp contrast to the current administration, which fired, demoted or otherwise silenced many officials who took the issue seriously.
It’s generally agreed that climate change is the No. 1 issue, the big enchilada, in the environmental space, which means that a lot of the other bad things left behind by Mr. Trump could fall by the wayside. The hope here is that this will not happen and that the other Bristol Bays still waiting to be addressed will get the attention they deserve.
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