The EPA Is Doing Its Job Again

Illustration for article titled The EPA Is Doing Its Job Again

Photo: Mark Wilson (Getty Images)

For the Environmental Protection Agency, having Donald Trump in office was kind of like letting loose a bull in a china shop for four years. Now, the Biden administration is rapidly attempting to clean up the mess he left behind. In doing so, we’re getting a better picture of just how far the agency has fallen behind in holding polluters accountable even before Trump showed up.

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The EPA said Thursday that it was moving to rescind a rule issued under the Trump administration that hamstrung the agency’s ability to effectively calculate and enforce air pollution violations under the Clean Air Act. The regulation, known as the cost-benefit rule, required the agency to complicate its cost-benefit analysis for rulemaking. Trump’s EPA chief Andrew Wheeler said it was designed to reduce transparency, but also admitted would prevent the EPA from passing future regulations on things like mercury pollution from power plants—a rule that cost industry $9 billion to comply with after it was passed under the Obama administration. (The cost-benefit regulation was a long-awaited wish list item for the fossil fuel industry, which gives you an idea of who really benefited from the rule.)

The move is the latest in this administration’s effort to undo the damage Trump did. President Joe Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office requiring the EPA to review all rules and policies passed under Trump. That’s good and all given the widespread damage Trump did to the agency by appointing coal lovers Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler to lead the EPA during his administration.

But a new report from the agency’s watchdog shows the EPA has been dragging its feet a little on keeping polluters in line even before our last Big Wet President wreaked havoc. The EPA’s Office of Inspector General issued a report Thursday that found that between 2007 and 2018, there was a decline across the board in enforcement actions from the EPA with some types of enforcement actions declining by as much as 50%. This decline was despite a corresponding boom in industrial activity and economic growth that should have prompted the agency to go after polluters even harder.

“The decline in compliance monitoring activities meant that, over time, the Agency and the public had less knowledge about compliance by regulated entities and whether facilities emitted pollutants that could be harmful to people,” the report found.

The reason for this decline, the report found, was a decline in resources. The budget for EPA enforcement in 2018 was 18% less than it was in 2006, laeding leadership to cut resources even as polluting industries saw a boom. The report also found that leadership in the agency chose to put most of their enforcement resources into bigger efforts, leaving the smaller enforcement actions to less-well-funded state agencies.

Much of this decline in funding happened pre-Trump; his gutting of the agency, including eliminating some wonky but key enforcement actions, served to hamstring enforcement even further. But there are signs that the Biden EPA is working to make up for lost time, especially as it commits itself to climate progress and environmental justice. Last week, the agency’s acting assistant administrator sent a memo instructing the agency to ramp up “enforcement of violations of cornerstone environmental statutes” in communities vulnerable to pollution. The agency also issued a fresh update this week with new statistics and measurements on its Climate Change Indicators site, which sat long-neglected under the Trump administration. (The EPA climate change subsite also returned earlier this year.)

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It was wild watching how quickly the Trump EPA moved to roll back environmental protections—but disappointing knowing the agency was letting some polluters off the hook even before he showed up. Here’s hoping the new administration will work double-time to right the ship.

Project Veritas Reportedly Turned Its Feckless Smear Machine on Trump’s FBI

Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida in 2021.

Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida in 2021.
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

Project Veritas, the shadowy yet wildly incompetent far-right group that stages sting operations to film and release hoax exposés on liberals, enlisted a British spy to help run an operation intended to discredit the FBI and suspected enemies within Donald Trump’s administration, the New York Times reported on Thursday.

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The Ouroboros of an operation, which involved efforts to smear Trump’s own advisers, reportedly involved a $10,000 a month base of operations in a Georgetown residence, female operatives recruited to date FBI staffers, and former British spy Richard Seddon—who Project Veritas affiliate and mercenary contractor Erik Prince previously enlisted to help the group infiltrate labor unions and political campaigns. The Times reported that Project Veritas operatives launched surveillance of FBI employees in the hopes of recording something that could be twisted into evidence of an FBI conspiracy to dethrone Trump. Some of its members also planned a sting operation to send a woman with a hidden camera to meet with then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster with an identical objective, though the Times noted it they couldn’t verify Project Veritas actually directed it.

The Times report also doesn’t assert that Trump or the White House was actually aware of the effort, though one of the amateur agents claimed they had access to inside information:

Whether any of Mr. Trump’s White House advisers had direct knowledge of the campaign is unclear, but one of the participants in the operation against Mr. McMaster, Barbara Ledeen, said she was brought on by someone “with access to McMaster’s calendar.”

At the time, Ms. Ledeen was a staff member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, then led by Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa.

Project Veritas can really only point to one major slimy success in its past—it managed to force the dissolution of advocacy group ACORN with selectively edited and manipulated footage of Veritas founder James O’Keefe pressing low-level ACORN employees for advice on how to run a prostitution ring. The Government Accountability Office later cleared ACORN of mishandling any federal funds. Other than that, the group’s efforts have largely amounted to political stunts of the type that might conveniently convince deep-pocketed but not particularly discerning Republican donors that Project Veritas is a serious investigative operation.

Some of the more infamous Project Veritas grifts have included a failed effort to enter the offices of Senator Mary Landrieu while disguised as telecom repairmen that ended with O’Keefe convicted on a misdemeanor charge, mostly fruitless plots to catfish Twitter employees and a failed effort to trick Washington Post reporters into discrediting themselves by publishing obviously false accusations against now-former GOP Senator Roy Moore (so as to distract from very real and well-evidenced accounts of Moore sexually abusing minors).

The group also launched various failed efforts to prove Donald Trump actually won the 2020 elections and Joe Biden’s victory was fraudulent, such as backing a U.S. Postal Service “whistleblower” who later admitted to USPS investigators his claims the USPS was involved in vote by mail fraud were the product of his imagination. Many of Project Veritas’s so-called sources have quickly cashed in by launching lucrative fundraisers on GoFundMe, usually claiming they need tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend themselves against liberal backlash.

The scheme against McMaster, the Times wrote, came after a BuzzFeed article quoted him as calling Trump an “idiot” no smarter than a “kindergartener” at a 2017 dinner also attended by Oracle CEO Safra A. Catz. Catz complained to the White House, which could not substantiate her account of the remarks. Veritas operatives and other Trump loyalists came up with a plan to prove McMaster’s disloyalty by having a woman with a camera loosen the national security adviser, who is married, up with booze. The Times reported:

Soon after the BuzzFeed article, however, the scheme developed to try to entrap Mr. McMaster: Recruit a woman to stake out the same restaurant, Tosca, with a hidden camera. According to the plan, whenever Mr. McMaster returned by himself, the woman would strike up a conversation with him and, over drinks, try to get him to make comments that could be used to either force him to resign or get him fired.

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McMaster was already unpopular in the Trump world, and the president was regularly railing against phantom “deep state” operatives in the CIA, FBI, and State Department seeking to undermine him. According to the Times, Ledeen, the Senate Judiciary employee, said she was asked to help with the plan by “someone she trusted” (but conveniently could not remember the name of) and passed on information to a man who may have been a Veritas operative using a false name. The paper wrote that interviews and documents show Seddon, the former British spy, offered Veritas operative Tarah Price $10,000 to carry out the sting. Project Veritas never got a chance to pull it off, as McMaster resigned anyways in March 2018.

Seddon was also involved in Project Veritas training efforts at a Wyoming ranch owned by Prince, the mercenary contractor who founded Academi (formerly Blackwater USA). The Times wrote:

After Mr. Seddon joined Project Veritas, he set out to professionalize what was once a small operation with a limited budget. He hired former soldiers, a former F.B.I. agent and a British former commando… One role-playing exercise involved a trainee being interrogated by a law enforcement officer and having to “defend their cover” and “avoid exciting” the officer.

Another exercise instructs trainees in how to target a person in an elevator. The students were encouraged to think of their “targets as a possible future access agent, potential donor, support/facilities agent.”

“The student must create and maintain a fictional cover,” one document read.

The effort to entrap FBI employees began around the time McMaster resigned, according to the Times, and was led by Seddon at a Georgetown house close to the stairway from The Exorcist. Women living at the house created fake dating profiles and referred to each other with code names like “Brazil” and “Tiger”; one was reportedly a former contestant on Survivor. This operation managed to dig up a handful of government employees who expressed their opposition to Trump on hidden cameras, but by that point, Project Veritas had no pull outside of diehard Republican circles and conspiracy theorists, meaning its efforts came to virtually nothing of importance. None of those government employees worked for the FBI, but various other agencies.

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Seddon apparently had reached the limits of his patience with Project Veritas and quit by the time the first video was released, with three former Veritas telling the Times (in the paper’s words) the former spy was “chafing at what he viewed as Mr. O’Keefe’s desire to produce quick media content rather than to run long-term infiltration operations.”

O’Keefe told the Times their article was a “smear piece” that was related to a lawsuit over the paper’s “continued pattern of defamation of Project Veritas.” Neither McMaster, Prince, or Seddon gave statements to the Times. Ledeen told the paper she was merely a messenger and “am not part of a plot.”

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[New York Times]

Michigan Republicans Want to Legally Protect Their ‘Right to Be Wrong Without Being Told So’

Trump supporters protest the 2020 election results on Nov. 7, 2020, outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing.

Trump supporters protest the 2020 election results on Nov. 7, 2020, outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing.
Photo: Seth Herald/AFP (Getty Images)

Republicans! They just love their live-action role-playing, don’t they folks. They’re still questing to find the magic law that will stop the nefarious Silicon Valley leftists and antifa journalists from censoring the land of Real America. The latest proposal? Forcing fact-checkers to register with the state.

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The Detroit News reports that Michigan state Representative Matt Maddock (R-Milford) has introduced the “Fact Checker Registration Act,” a bill that requires all individuals who publish in print or online in Michigan, is paid by a fact-checking organization and is a member of the International Fact Check Network to file a $1 million fidelity bond with the Michigan Secretary of State’s office. (Importantly, the IFCN certifies Facebook’s fact-checkers.) Any “affected person” could then file a claim for “any wrongful conduct that is a violation of the laws of this state” in county district court and the bond could be forfeited if a judge ruled the fact checker’s work had resulted in “demonstrable harm.” Thus the bill, as written, tries to fulfill a conservative fantasy of any aggrieved conservative being able to sue fact-checkers for six figures for practically any reason agreed upon by a judge (hopefully a loyal Republican).

In a post on Facebook, Maddock wrote, “My legislation will put Fact Checkers on notice: don’t be wrong, don’t be sloppy, and you better be right.”

The bill would also fine fact-checkers $1,000 a day if they failed to register. Eight other GOP representatives, Pat Outman, John Roth, Gary Eisen, David Martin, Robert Bezotte, Beth Griffin, John Damoose, and Steve Carra, are co-sponsors on the bill.

Maddock has a history of anti-democratic stunts and obvious personal antipathy for fact-checkers in general. According to the Detroit News, he’s proposed burning voting machines belonging to a voting tech manufacturer that right-wingers baselessly accused of electoral fraud “so we don’t use them in future elections,” he was involved in a failed federal lawsuit demanding presidential election results be certified by GOP-controlled state legislatures in five swing states, and he signed onto another failed federal suit before the Supreme Court trying to invalidate Joe Biden’s victory in Michigan. All of these efforts relied on what might be euphemistically deemed “alternative facts.”

According to the Detroit Metro Times, Maddock rallied a crowd to attempt to disrupt vote counting at TCF Center on Nov. 6, 2020, fabricating a claim that 35,000 votes for Biden “showed up out of nowhere.” He also urged former Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the 2020 election results under the mistaken argument that Pence could have somehow single-handedly kept Trump in office, one of the key motives of the crowd of Trump supporters that threw a riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, ultimately resulting in several deaths.

Republicans have largely swallowed hook, line, and sinker conspiracy theories that social media companies are biased against conservatives. They have been especially enraged about piecemeal efforts by companies like Facebook and Twitter to fact-check some posts, as the companies attached fact-checking labels to posts by Donald Trump and other Republican politicians and otherwise imposed speedbumps on the virality of hoax news.

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Several states have seen pushes by GOP legislators to introduce laws that would clear the way for conservatives to bombard websites with “censorship” lawsuits, while Republicans in Florida are trying to pass a law that would fine sites that “knowingly de-platform” candidates. (In reality, the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube amplify the right-wing online noise machine that heavily influences the day-to-day priorities of GOP politicians and candidates, with Facebook, in particular, going out of its way to treat conservatives preferentially.)

The Washington Post noted other GOP-backed legislation has included a 2016 bill in South Carolina that would have the state only allow “responsible” journalists to publish, a 2017 bill in Indiana requiring licensing of journalists, and a 2019 proposal in Georgia to create a state “Journalism Ethics Board” that would control the way journalists did their work and impose punishments for non-compliance.

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Let’s just take a moment to really emphasize that libel and defamation laws already exist.

These and other related speech bills such as congressional Republicans’ threats to throw out Section 230, a law that protects websites against most liability for user-generated content or their moderation decisions, all have two things in common. While they’re couched as protecting First Amendment rights to free speech, they’re really designed so as to assist conservatives in suppressing any speech that challenges their own speech. And barring some truly extreme upsets to legal precedent—something that’s certainly possible with a Supreme Court packed with right-wingers and/or a Republican takeover of Congress and White House in 2024—the proposals largely amount to magical thinking about the way Republicans think the First Amendment ought to be, rather than how it actually works in practice. Virtually all of the aforementioned laws would be likely thrown out in court on constitutional grounds, as journalists and social media firms both have First Amendment rights of their own, to rule otherwise would invite disastrous secondary consequences.

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Case in point: In a statement to the Washington Post, Maddock suggested that the First Amendment actually means people have a right to be wrong without being told so.

“This isn’t about journalists or free speech,” he said. “It’s about the fact-checkers who have been injected into our First Amendment right to be wrong if we want to. If a fact check entity is bankrupting businesses and cancelling people with lies, they should be held accountable. If they have high standards and are doing good fact checking, they have nothing to worry about.”

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It’s Raining Oil in St. Croix for the Second Time This Year

The Limetree Bay plant, pictured in 2011.

The Limetree Bay plant, pictured in 2011.
Photo: Jason Bronis (AP)

A refinery on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands has shut down temporarily after oil rained down on surrounding residents’ homes and cisterns used to collect drinking water. Astonishingly enough, this nightmarish situation isn’t even new; it’s just the most recent incident in the past three months and has added to the growing outcry from the community about the safety and future of the private equity-owned facility.

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Residents of St. Croix have been subject to some truly horrendous conditions since the Limetree Bay facility restarted its operations in February. Noxious fumes from the refinery forced three schools to close just last week, following what the refinery said was maintenance being conducted on its coker unit; some schools also closed in April after the refinery began emitting excess hydrogen sulfide, which also caused headaches and other health impacts for people living nearby. In February, a misfiring valve rained oil residue on more than 130 homes in the area, just three days after the refinery reopened.

“When it rains, it doesn’t wash out,” resident Armando Muñoz told the Washington Post in April of the oil. “It’s in all the plants we have, avocado trees, and breadfruit trees, and fruit trees, and regular household plants.”

Wednesday’s oilstorm comes after residents spotted a huge, firey flare coming from one of the refinery’s smokestacks. People in the area are being told to not drink water from their cisterns. In the meantime, Limetree has said it will be providing water to the affected communities and has shut down the refinery as it investigates the problem.

The multiple oil downpours (can’t believe I’m typing that) and other recent issues are part of the refinery’s troubled history. First built by Hess Oil’s Virgin Islands division in the mid-1960s and later sold to Hovensa, a joint venture of Hess and a Venezuelan state-owned company, Limetree Bay churned out oil until 2012 when Hovensa closed it due to falling revenues. The refinery has a horrendous environmental track record: It leaked 43 million gallons of oil between its opening and the early 1980s and was fined $5.4 million by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 for various Clean Air Act violations. All this pollution wreaked havoc on the primarily Black and Latinx communities surrounding the refinery—even as the facility provided jobs for families in the area.

“I remember my parents replacing the screens in my house because of the corrosion. I remember helping my father wash the roof,” Virgin Islands Sen. Sammuel Sanes said during a hearing on the refinery reopening in 2018. “But at the same time, too, half of the men in my family, and some ladies, were hired by Hovensa.”

In 2018, a private equity group, ArcLight Capital Partners, bought the refinery, and said it planned to begin churning out 210,000 barrels of oil per day. Thanks in part to ArcLight’s ties to then-President Donald Trump, as E&E reported in 2019, the EPA worked to help ArcLight and others with interest in the refinery cut through red tape and speed through permitting processes. The refinery once again fired up under the Trump administration and the resulting relaxed standards for the refinery have created “an environmental monster,” the St. Croix Environmental Association and other environmental groups have said. (The modern-day refinery employs around 400 workers and has injected money into an economy battered by a downturn in tourism due to the pandemic.)

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The private equity gamble may not be paying off as well as investors had hoped. In April, three top executives at the refinery’s operating company, including its chief financial officer, resigned; March production rates, according to Reuters, showed only about 44,300 barrels per day being produced.

The Biden EPA has also been keeping an increasingly close eye on the refinery. It has withdrawn a key permit for Limetree Bay in hopes of tightening up pollution controls and, earlier this month, it determined that Limetree had violated the Clean Air Act following April’s school closures for failing to operate sulfur dioxide monitors.

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The nightmare conditions in St. Croix are the amalgamation of overlapping crises: the relaxed red tape, private equity profiting from poor enforcement of standards, the creation of communities whose livelihoods depend entirely on a polluting industry. The residents living in the refinery’s long shadow deserve justice as quickly as possible, but it’s also clear bigger fixes are needed to ensure these injustices aren’t perpetrated anywhere.

The Fight to Define What ‘Clean’ Energy Means

Wind turbines and solar panels sit in a field.

These are clean energy. Environmentalists don’t agree on what else is.
Photo: Sean Gallup (Getty Images)

After four years of backsliding under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. is back to increasing its climate ambitions. But there’s a fight brewing over what exactly constitutes zero-carbon energy, showing that challenges decarbonization faces.

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President Joe Biden has proposed a clean electricity standard to reduce emissions, and various proposals and bills would create one for the U.S. On Wednesday, though, 650 organizations including Climate Justice Alliance, Greenpeace, Food and Water Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Earth sent an open letter to Congress asking it to eschew the clean electricity standard proposals and take another route to clean energy, known as a renewable electricity standard, instead.

If you’re confused, I don’t blame you—the terms “clean” and “renewable” for energy are often used interchangeably. But in this case, while the CES defines non-polluting energy as anything that falls under a certain pollution standard, the RES simply lists out forms of energy that count. The letter calls for a bill that would require the U.S. to solely use renewable sources—defined as wind, solar, and geothermal—to meet its carbon-free electricity needs by 2030. That’s five years ahead of Biden’s current timeline in addition to the only renewables requirement.

“One of the most basic and important questions of climate policy is how you define clean energy,” said Lukas Ross, program manager at Friends of the Earth while noting that “definitions matter.”

Capitol Hill has seen a number of CES proposals. One that the letter specifically cites, the CLEAN Future Act of 2021, sets a metric of “clean” as any source that results in less than 0.82 metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per megawatt hour of energy. (Carbon dioxide-equivalent is a metric that normalizes other types of greenhouse gas emissions, some of which are more potent, to carbon dioxide.) That standard would disqualify coal but allow most gas. Past legislative proposals have included standards that are twice as strict, but an analysis by Friends of the Earth found that even under those, “fewer than 1% of gas-powered facilities would be excluded from qualifying for the standard.”

Disagreements over whether a RES or CES are preferable aren’t new. In fact, CES policies came out of attempts to compromise in the late 2000s, when they were billed an alternative to a renewable portfolio standard that could include things like “clean coal” and natural gas.

Today, coal is all but dead thanks mostly to market shifts. The fight over these limits is largely one about natural gas, which while less polluting than other energy sources like coal, still results in greenhouse gas emissions when dug up and burned. It’s also the number one contributor to the increase in U.S. carbon pollution in 2019.

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“A CES does not need to include fossil gas and it shouldn’t,” said Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

That could, however, come with one caveat—gas producers could use carbon capture and sequestration technology to suck up their emissions. A recent report from Evergreen Action and Data for Progress that Stokes co-authored lays out a stringent CES that only gives credits to gas if it is paired with carbon capture technology. Existing forms and techniques to capture carbon suck up only 0.1% of global emissions. But technological developments could, in theory, make CCS possible. The vast majority of modeling scenarios to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) also require at least some form of CCS. Scientists also generally disagree about if the world can transition to solely renewable energy by 2030.

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Yet CCS falls under what the groups opposed to the CES call “false solutions.” Among the issues are the high costs to build carbon capture facilities and the fact that it fails to address methane emissions and other forms of air pollution tied with natural gas. And further, the groups argue that the mere inclusion of natural gas of any kind in a CES would send a signal to the industry that it’s okay for it to continue writing gas expansion into its business plans.

“If you look at the at the business models that are continuing to be promoted by Shell, BP, and particularly by Exxon, those business models even to this day, show continued growth in natural gas production and consumption and the thing that makes it magically disappear, is CCS,” Caroll Muffett, ‎president of the Center for International Environmental Law, said.

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There’s also, of course, the question of political viability to going 100% renewable. Even with Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, passing policies to decarbonize the grid won’t be easy, let alone a RES. With the filibuster in place, Evergreen Action and Data for Progress have argued that the best way to pass a CES is to use the complex process of reconciliation, which allows a simple majority of the Senate to pass legislation. This would still require conservative Democrats’ support, namely Sen. Joe Manchin, who’s sent mixed signals on whether or not he’d support such legislation. A CES that includes gas, with or without carbon capture, could be more likely to get him on board.

But for the RES advocates, that’s simply too big a compromise to make. Jean Su, energy justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that’s especially true for frontline communities who live in the communities where natural gas plants, carbon capture pipelines, biomass plants, or other polluting infrastructure are sited.

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“We need to shift the conversation from what is feasible to what is necessary. The climate emergency is a ticking time bomb, and we have no time to embrace electricity standards that lock in decades of dangerous gas and reinforce our profoundly racist and ecocidal energy system,” she said.

Ultimately, the difference between CES advocates’ vision and that of RES advocates’ seems to be this question of compromise. While the former are concerned about acting quickly to pass something that could usher in a better yet imperfect energy system, RES advocates fear that buckling on these key issues renders the project too weak and all too easy for the fossil fuel industry to co-opt.

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“We believe that Congress is basically going to have one shot at getting this done and that they need to get it done right,” Mitch Jones, policy director of Food and Water Watch, said.

Update 5/21/2021, 2:22 p.m. ET: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the quote from Friends of the Earth analysis was about the CES in the CLEAN Futures Act. We regret the error.

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Trump Is a Low-Ratings, Computer-Blogging Loser

Illustration for article titled Trump Is a Low-Ratings, Computer-Blogging Loser

Photo: Mandel Ngan (Getty Images)

Did you know that former edgelord president Donald J. Trump is now an edgelord blogger? Most people do not, evidently. Operation: Blog, aka “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump,” launched last Tuesday. In the meantime, Trump has posted 19 times, beginning with an Armageddon-inspired trailer ending with the message “SAVE AMERICA.” America has not yet been saved, and data reveals that the ratings (or whatever they call it in “blog”) are a hair’s breadth away from a MySpace page.

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As NBC first noticed, data from the social media analytics company BuzzSumo shows that the blog now has a little over 221,000 total organic shares across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit, and links. (This isn’t counting backlinks from news sites announcing the launch of the blog.) His worst-performing post, ringing in at 25 shares, contains whining about how “election reforms” in Georgia didn’t pass in time for him to win the presidency.

BuzzSumo data shows that Kourtney Kardashian’s blog Poosh is putting up nearly 600,000 shares on an average Tuesday.

The blog is either highly suspect or represents a stunning achievement. First, someone’s gotta upload blogs, using a computer, which he famously does not do: meaning that in mere months, he has learned to process words through a word processor, master a browser, keep track of login credentials, and navigate the mind-bending complexity of the backend. He has adopted the Oxford comma and occasionally correctly places other commas between independent clauses. The spacious single-paragraph format has freed him to spell the full word “and” and to expand the noisy parentheticals into full sentences. In the place of menacing ellipses, one of his favorite tweet closers, thoughts now more logically conclude with exclamation points!

The conquest has publicly evolved from a few thwarted sorties to wrest back his Twitter powers. In February, the Daily Beast reported that he scribbled down insults about Liz Cheney for other people to tweet. After Mission: Napkin Tweet failed to launch, we then received the tweet-length emailed statements on “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” letterhead. (Twitter has suspended an account devoted to tweeting them.) In March, Trump told Newsmax that his mini-press releases were “more elegant than tweeting, as the expression goes.” It’s a blogger expression. The backlog of those faux tweets now appear on Trump’s blog along with recent musings, most of which I won’t transcribe in this blogspace, but he called a racehorse a “junky” the other day.

Nobody is allowed to hang out there or comment or follow, but the terms of service suggest that some social media functions are coming down the pike. It includes a note that the site reserves the right to remove any user-generated content “at any time and for any reason without notice,” exactly the kind of 1984 Censorship(!!) which inspired his executive order to make Twitter let him say whatever he wanted.

You can give him money, but he makes no promises about what he’ll do with it.

Can one blogger save America? Mark Zuckerberg can, in the sense that he can do nothing.

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Trump 2020 Holdouts Stand in Line for 7 Hours to See World’s Biggest Corn Cob, Err, Mike Lindell

The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota in 2015.

The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota in 2015.
Photo: Dirk Lammers (AP)

Hundreds of Republicans that still believe that, contrary to any and all evidence, Donald Trump actually won the 2020 elections and only didn’t get a second term in office due to mass voter fraud congregated together on the Corn Palace in South Dakota on Monday to see the World’s Biggest Corn Cob. By which we mean, a sweaty guy with a mustache yelling about voting machines and who kept on telling them to log onto his friend Frank.

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The Corn Palace is a big arena slash tourist trap that is themed around corn. Usually, the biggest corn cobs on display there are statues with cartoon faces on them, accompanied by lots of other regular-sized corn cobs for theming. MyPillow co-founder and attempted coup leader Mike Lindell spoke there on Monday to continue spreading a hoax theory that the Chinese government, or other nefarious foreigners, worked in concert with U.S. election tech firms such as Dominion Voting Systems to subvert the outcome of the 2020 vote. He was also there to promote the supposed re-launch of his failed social media website, Frank Speech, which almost entirely consists of Lindell livestreams and ads for pillow coupons. He claimed 30,000 would be in attendance.

Well, Lindell fans reportedly came from as far afield as Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin—Texas being a 15-hour drive or so—and formed lines that stretched around the building, with some reportedly waiting seven hours or more to get into an event they had been assured would be packed to capacity.

After all that waiting, it turns out the line was a crock of shit. There weren’t more than about 1,500 people inside, about half of the total that can fit in the Corn Palace. Anyone could have waltzed right in. And, as mentioned before, the only giant corn cob on display was Mike.

This corn-themed hellhole show went on for the next three and a half hours. The Dickinson Press summed it up as largely consisting of Lindell reiterating debunked claims he’s repeated endlessly on air, as well as predicting that regular citizens would successfully petition the Supreme Court to return Trump to the presidency by the end of the summer:

Lindell spoke for nearly 90 minutes, serving as the crescendo for the crowd in attendance after seeing a number of conservative personalities for the prior two hours… He says his evidence shows that China corrupted election machines and changed the voting results in the election, denying Donald Trump from winning by 14 million votes. Lindell’s goal, he said, is for regular citizens to put significant pressure on the U.S. Supreme Court to look at the evidence. He said if that happens, Trump will be back in office as president by August.

“They will have to protect our country and it’s going to be a 9-0 vote to pull the election down,” Lindell said, adding that “evil is overplaying its hand” in politics in this country.

Lindell, who told the crowd that he doesn’t know anything about cybersecurity or informational technology, said he has kept his name in the news since November to help spread his claims about the election being fraudulent.

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Frank Speech’s original rollout in April was plagued with crashes and glitches, which Lindell and his partners blamed on DDOS attacks, rather than obvious technical ineptitude and the apparent lack of any social features. Despite the event on Monday being billed as a relaunch, the only content on the Frank Speech website appears to be livestreams of Lindell and other conspiracy theorists talking, reposted news articles, and podcast episodes. The signup screen returned an error stating “The website encountered an unexpected error. Please try again later.” The signup attempt later succeeded, though there appears to be no difference in functionality beyond the ability to log in and log out and the collection of personal information during the signup process—possibly for the purpose of selling it to political committees. Despite the website requiring users to input a phone number for the ostensible purpose of anti-spam verification, Frank Speech happily accepted the phone number “1-111-111-1111”.

Anyone displeased with the festivities at the Corn Palace won’t be getting a refund for their ticket, as it was a free event. Perhaps they could sue, but something tells us Lindell would love that.

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Survive the Future Is a Sneaky-Simple Game That Makes Our Climate Choices Real

Environmental activists take part in a rally coinciding with global protests on the climate crisis on Sept. 25, 2020 in Manila, Philippines.

Photo: Ezra Acayan (Getty Images)

“You are the senior editor of the world’s most popular and trusted news organization. You have the enviable power to set the news agenda, and thereby shift the zeitgeist.” So reads the introductory text to Survive the Century, an online game. Also my dream bio, but I digress.

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What follows is a Choose Your Own Adventure-style series of prompts that allows you to game out the next decade as the world battles the pandemic, climate change, inequality, and conflict. At the end, you get to read the headlines from 2030 based on the stories and ideas you championed for the public. It’s a novel way to make the big forces that shape our world manageable, putting them in the hands of everyday people—and it allows players to imagine how to change course from our current destructive one.

Survive the Century is the brainchild of two climate scientists and an author of a book about managing money and horror. (Those are separate topics, though sometimes they go hand-in-hand.) The collaboration grew out of a workshop convened two years ago by Christopher Trisos and Simon Nicholson, climate researchers at the University of Cape Town and American University, respectively, who helped conceive the game, that brought together people from different backgrounds from around the world to think about the climate emergency. Sam Beckbessinger, the aforementioned author, was one of those attendees and the game’s co-creator. (There are also four fiction writers who contributed as well as a slew of scientists who advised the project.)

I think for a little bit of extra madness sprinkled on top, they brought in some science fiction writers, which is how I ended up there,” Beckbessinger said. “And we had this incredible series of conversations where we were trying to do exercises around imagining futures. Chris had actually been talking about the Choose Your Own Adventure format for a while. It’s something I loved as a kid.”

The logo for "Survive the Century," a new game about climate change.

Image: Survive the Century

In the intervening two years since the workshop, the pandemic has changed everything, and it figures prominently in the game just as it does in society. And while Survive the Century begins in late 2021, the choices are ripped straight from today’s headlines focusing on vaccine access and distribution in poor countries. The opening prompt reads that “poor countries, who haven’t been able to afford vaccines, are seeing wave after wave of the virus. Experts are worried that it’s continuing to mutate and to become more aggressive. They say our best chance is to get the whole world vaccinated.”

The choices for how to get more vaccines to the rest of the world reflect the worst tendencies of society—relying on billionaires, traditional government donations, or conspiracies to dictate vaccine distribution—as well as the possibility of something new. The most progressive choice is having each country kick in 1% of its GDP to a vaccine fund, reflecting a world that relies on cooperation and shared responsibility rather than rich folks and lies.

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As a climate journalist, I’m pretty prone to doom and gloom. But the first pathway I tried to wander down was the most positive one. There’s no shortage of bad climate news. The past is rife with failures and damage to the climate from Big Oil’s decades of lies to sow doubt to former President Donald Trump’s deregulatory bender, to the fact that despite two-plus decades of climate talks, global carbon emissions have risen. But the beauty of a Choose Your Own Adventure approach is that past results do not have to dictate the future. I chose the GDP commitment option and continued down the road of cooperation in my subsequent choices.

In 2030, I was treated to headlines involving Chevron’s CEO facing life in prison for ecocide as well as surprises like a rise in “illicit underground meat restaurants … commonly known as ‘meat-ups’” (I chortled) after California banned the sale of animal products. That’s the thing about the future and even the best-laid plans.

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“I’ve been trained to think about the future,” Tristos said, noting that the rigidity of modeling made him feel “like once you’re in that box, it’s hard to find your way out of it. This Choose Your Own Adventure format, for me, was very liberating because it opens up the potential for rapid change, for surprises, for unexpected consequences of particular decisions that can take you to really good places. The other thing it does is it shows that sometimes you can stabilize the climate, but the world is not so friendly to live in.”

Indeed, in other endings, the world met the Paris Agreement target of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) but structural issues persisted. In one particularly gross future that nevertheless had a stable climate, Brazil erected a massive statue of Jeff Bezos in an effort to lure his business. This was, unfortunately, all-too-easy to imagine for me (cough, cough Climate Pledge Arena, HQ2), and I quickly closed the screen. Still other futures were more harrowing.

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“This is not a predictive tool at all, it’s about opening up possibilities,” Nicholson said. “It’s about helping people explore what futures might emerge, given what we know about today.”

The team behind the game will be collecting analytics (anonymously, of course) on gameplay to gauge what pathways people choose and how they jump between them. The dynamics of gameplay reflect the dynamics of the world, which is prone to occasional lurches toward good decision making. Tristos likened it to a highway with multiple exits, saying “if you miss 1.5 [degrees Celsius], there’s still a good reason to get off at 1.6 or 1.7.”

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Justice Department Quietly Seized Washington Post Reporters’ Phone Records During Trump Era

Illustration for article titled Justice Department Quietly Seized Washington Post Reporters' Phone Records During Trump Era

Photo: Brendan Smialowski (Getty Images)

The Department of Justice quietly seized phone records and tried to obtain email records for three Washington Post reporters, ostensibly over their coverage of then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election, according to officials and government letters reviewed by the Post.

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Justice Department regulations typically mandate that news organizations be notified when it subpoenas such records. However, though the Trump administration OK’d the decision, officials apparently left the notification part for the Biden administration to deal with. I guess they just never got around to it. Probably too busy inspiring an insurrection and trying to overthrow the presidential election.

In three separate letters dated May 3 addressed to reporters Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller, and former reporter Adam Entous, the Justice Department wrote they were “hereby notified that pursuant to legal process the United States Department of Justice received toll records associated with the following telephone numbers for the period from April 15, 2017 to July 31, 2017,” according to the Post. Listed were Miller’s work and cellphone numbers, Entous’ cellphone number, and Nakashima’s work, cellphone, and home phone numbers. These records included all calls to and from the phones as well as how long each call lasted but did not reveal what was said.

According to the letters, the Post reports that prosecutors also secured a court order to seize “non content communications records” for the reporters’ email accounts, which would disclose who emailed whom and when the emails were sent but not their contents. However, officials ultimately did not obtain these records, the outlet said.

“We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists,” said the Post’s acting executive editor Cameron Barr. “The Department of Justice should immediately make clear its reasons for this intrusion into the activities of reporters doing their jobs, an activity protected under the First Amendment.”

Frustratingly, the letters apparently don’t go into why the Department of Justice seized this data. A department spokesperson told the outlet that the decision to do so was made in 2020 during the Trump administration. (It’s worth noting that former President Donald Trump has made it crystal clear that he despises news media and the government leakers that provide them their scoops.)

Based on the time period cited in the letters and what the reporters covered during those months, the Post speculates that their investigations into Sessions and Russian interference could be why the department wanted to get its hands on their phone data.

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During that time period, the three reporters published a story detailing federal correspondence that indicated then-Sen. Sessions of Alabama had discussed the Trump campaign in 2016 with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. at the time. In that same period, the reporters also wrote about how the Obama administration struggled to counter Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Sessions, who later acted as Trump’s attorney general from 2017 to 2018, held a news conference in August 2017, just four days after the time period cited in the letters, where he committed to ramping up efforts to suss out and prosecute government leakers.

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“This culture of leaking must stop,” Sessions said at the time.

For the Justice Department to subpoena records of reporters, it must have exhausted all possible avenues for obtaining that information and secured the attorney general’s approval, according to the agency’s regulations. On Friday, Justice Department spokesperson Marc Raimondi told the Post it’s considered a last resort that the agency doesn’t take lightly:

“While rare, the Department follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into unauthorized disclosure of classified information. The targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”

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Regardless, the news sparked fierce condemnation from media organizations, who argued the Justice Department’s actions may have violated the First Amendment. Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called it “imperative” that the Justice Department explain its reasoning and why the agency is only just now notifying the Post months after the decision was made.

“It is imperative that the new Justice Department leadership explain exactly when prosecutors seized these records, why it is only now notifying the Post, and on what basis the Justice Department decided to forgo the presumption of advance notification under its own guidelines when the investigation apparently involves reporting over three years in the past,” he said a statement issued Friday.

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Being a Dick on a Plane Could Cost You $32,750

Illustration for article titled Being a Dick on a Plane Could Cost You $32,750

Photo: Stephen Brashear (Getty Images)

The Federal Aviation Administration is upping its “zero tolerance” war on pandemic passengers who disrupt flights by refusing to wear masks. In a press release on Wednesday, the agency proposed fines of $9,000 to $32,750 against three violators of the mandatory policy.

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The $32,750 fine may hit a JetBlue Airlines passenger flying from the Dominican Republican to New York who committed a laundry list of offenses, including refusal to comply with repeated instructions to don a mask:

… failed to comply with multiple flight attendant instructions to wear a facemask; threw an empty alcohol bottle into the air, almost hitting another passenger; threw food into the air; shouted obscenities at crew members; grabbed a flight attendant’s arm, causing her pain; struck the arm of another flight attendant twice and scratched his hand; and drank alcohol that had not been served to her by the cabin crew.

The FAA wrote that the flight was forced to return to its country of origin as a result of the passenger’s antics. Another $16,500 fine was proposed against a Southwest Airlines passenger flying from Chicago to Sacramento, California. That passenger refused to comply with flight attendants’ requests to mask up before takeoff and was instructed to leave the flight by a supervisor; on their way out, they called the attendants “pathetic” and hit one of them with his luggage. The remaining $9,000 fine may go to an Alaska Airlines passenger flying from Bozeman, Montana, to Seattle, Washington, who refused to put on a mask after boarding and thus forced the flight to return to its gate.

The FAA proposed another $9,000 fine against a passenger who walked up and down the aisles of a flight and refused to return to their seat, the agency didn’t indicate the incident involved a dispute over masks.

The zero-tolerance policy, which the FAA announced in January 2021, came after what the agency described as “a disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior.” It created “a special emphasis enforcement program applicable to passengers who assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of a crewmember’s duties in violation” of federal law.

The FAA said there were two primary causes of the incidents, the first being jerks who refuse to wear a mask onboard planes and thus risk spreading the novel coronavirus to those nearby. The second cause, involving many of the same anti-maskers, were incidents related to “recent violence at the U.S. Capitol.”

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Airlines have banned thousands of people since implementing mandatory mask requirements in June 2020, and ABC News reported a spike in bans after the January 6 Capitol riots, when Donald Trump supporters disrupted flights by refusing to wear masks and harassing fellow passengers and crew. Other right-wingers to receive airline bans for violating the mask policies have included a Republican state legislator in Alaska whose only other option to get to the capital ended up being a 20-hour commute and a pro-Trump grifter who was maybe just staging a publicity stunt.

Hopefully, this doesn’t end up being another one of the permanent escalations of aggressive security procedures at airports and on flights that have sprung up over the past 20 years, which are sometimes applied as indiscriminately against people who have done nothing wrong as they are against actual troublemakers. FAA administrator Steve Dickson recently extended the zero-tolerance measure, originally intended to expire in May, until at least September 2021. According to CNN, the FAA says reports of unruly passengers used to come in every few days, but despite a massive drop in passenger volume during the pandemic, they now often receive multiple such reports a day.

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