Are you watching? From Australia to Canada, from the United States to Japan, and even in Singapore… Fishy things are happening right under our noses. And governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to justify these actions. If you haven’t paid attention, here are the environmental stories you need to keep up with this week.
In 2007, Naomi Klein dubbed the term “the shock doctrine”. It refers to the phenomenon wherein polluters and their government allies push through unpopular policy changes under the smokescreen of a public emergency. This week’s stories are jarring real-time reminders that disaster capitalism is still very much alive.
(Want to get top environmental stories in your inbox every week? Here’s the sign-up.)
1. Australia has allowed coal mining under a Sydney reservoir for the first time in 20 years.
A Peabody spokeswoman has come forth to say that the approvals would allow the mine to provide jobs for over 400 local mining families. She added that they have consulted experts and found that the Metropolitan mine “displays no evidence of a connected fracture regime to surface.” But environmental groups were angry with the ruling. Despite presenting a petition carrying 10,000-plus signatures opposed to the expansion, the petition was not debated in Parliament. It was scheduled for last week, but the pandemic closed Parliament a day earlier until at least September.
“It shows complete contempt for the community that they approved this even prior to the now cancelled debate,” Catherine Reynolds, executive director of the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre, said. “And with Peabody’s new exploration application [for a mine expansion] on top of it to rub salt into the wound.”
2. The EPA and Trump administration are exploiting the pandemic to make huge concessions to polluters.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has announced a freeze on enforcing environmental regulations due to the pandemic. The freeze is so sweeping in scope that critics are saying the change isn’t so innocuous. The EPA says it does “not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that Covid-19 was the cause of the noncompliance.” It basically means that factories, power plants, and other major polluters can exercise their own discretion in whether or not they think the pandemic will prevent them from meeting legal requirements on pollution and waste management. Without regulation, without punishment.
Taken together with the slew of announcements in the 24 hours after the EPA freeze, it seems there’s a clear agenda to privatise and deregulate. (And that’s unsurprising, because, you know… it’s Trump.) These announcements include: allowing a private company to take over the US Department of Agriculture’s inspection duties at a Tyson Foods beef slaughterhouse. Finalising a plan to roll back Obama-era rules raising fuel-economy standards on new vehicles. And publishing a review of a proposed road that would cut through a portion of Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and open up an area rich in copper, zinc and other minerals.
3. US states are quietly passing laws criminalising fossil fuel protests.
Over the past two weeks, Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia approved new laws meant to discourage Dakota Access-style protests*. They’ve put in place fines, felony charges and redefined certain key definitions. These make the price to pay for standing up against corporations harder. “These laws do nothing new to protect communities,” said Connor Gibson to HuffPost. (Gibson is a researcher at Greenpeace USA.) “Instead they seek to crack down on the sort of nonviolent civil disobedience that has shaped much of our nation’s greatest political and social victories.”
*Back in 2017, Trump fast-tracked the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. This disappointed many environmentalists and Native American tribes, after fighting for it desperately since 2014. Unsurprisingly, the pipeline has since leaked five times in its first year of operation alone.
On the bright side, however, there is good news. Just yesterday, a federal judge approved federal permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline. The USACE must complete a full consideration of concerns presented by the Standing Rock Tribe. (The tribe has asked the court to shut the pipeline down.)
4. Keystone XL Oil Pipeline is going ahead. Alberta contributed $1.1 billion.
The Canadian company said on Tuesday that it would start construction of the highly disputed pipeline in April, bitterly opposed by environmentalists and Indigenous peoples. Why? Firstly, deforestation along the route will destroy bird and wildlife habitats. And secondly, Indigenous peoples have said that the pipeline could break and spill oil into waterways. Critics have added that a spill is inevitable because the line is long and will cross many rivers and waterways. During his presidency, President Obama rejected the pipeline twice, worrying that it would make climate change worse. On the other hand, Trump has been a strong supporter of the project. He’s even issued a permit to the project that environmentalists called illegal.
What’s worrying is that the project could mean workers spreading the global pandemic to rural areas with limited healthcare services.
5. Japan just released their climate plans. Campaigners are saying they are “shameful”.
In lieu of the UN climate talks that are supposed to happen in Glasgow in November this year, Japan has laid out its plans to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. They’re the first large economy to do so. But their targets remain almost unchanged from commitments made in 2015. The Climate Action Tracker has rated their commitments “highly insufficient”. If all targets were at Japan’s level (a 26% emissions reduction by 2030), global warming would exceed 3°C. So it’s not surprising that campaigners are sorely disappointed, claiming the proposals shamefully insufficient.
Kimiko Hirata, international director of Kiko Network, a climate group in Japan, said that the prime minister appeared content “to settle for a low target and policies to continue to fund coal, which are firmly taking us down the path to economic and environmental ruin”.
6. BONUS: ExxonMobil holds virtual foundation-laying ceremony as it expands presence in Singapore.
The ceremony celebrates the multi-billion-dollar expansion of ExxonMobil’s Jurong Island refining and petrochemical complex. This move will increase its production capacity for higher-value products and cleaner fuels. Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean said: “Amidst a challenging outlook in the global economy and energy industry, this is a clear indication of ExxonMobil’s continued commitment to and confidence in Singapore, as its choice partner and manufacturing hub for the region. This investment will also provide a new boost to Singapore’s energy and chemicals sector, which has been an important and longstanding pillar of the Singapore economy.”
Local citizen group SG Climate Rally commented: “Disappointing. Make no mistake, the “cleaner fuels” in question is still fossil fuels. It’s remarkable that we continue to expand the petchem industry here, even as the world is waking up to the realities of ecological breakdown and the unsustainable nature of a world built on fossil fuels.”
Image credits: Wallpaper Flare