Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Broadcast and cable news are ignoring the brazen Big Polluter agenda happening under the cover of the coronavirus

As the nation grapples with the deadly coronavirus pandemic and the economy is brought to a standstill, the Trump administration is moving forward with its deregulatory agenda which severely threatens public and environmental health -- and in some cases, makes us more vulnerable to COVID-19. While polluting industries have long sought sweeping deregulatory changes, the collective national focus on the coronavirus pandemic now gives them the perfect opportunity to accelerate those changes and pursue additional oversight rollbacks only possible during a national crisis.

Climate reporters, digital outlets, and some legacy news media have done an excellent job of highlighting these regulatory assaults on the environment, but broadcast and cable TV news have been nearly silent on these issues. That silence is journalistic malpractice at a time when social distancing and stay-at-home orders have caused broadcast and cable news shows’ ratings to skyrocket. Shining a light on the Trump administration’s environmental abuses is a story that absolutely needs to be told now -- in some cases, these actions have direct implications for the pandemic. 

It is more important than ever to know about the dangerous priorities of this administration and the polluting industries that are being favored by the president during a national emergency. Below are some of the major environmental rollbacks and pro-polluter actions that the Trump administration is pushing forward during the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Companies are given a free pass to pollute

    On March 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended its Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program, meaning that companies will not face any penalties for polluting air or water. This announcement came after the oil industry’s largest lobby group, the American Petroleum Institute (API), sent letters to Trump and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler asking them for regulatory and compliance relaxations on their operations. API cited coronavirus as the reason for these relaxations. Ironically, these new rules will result in more pollution, a major cause of respiratory illnesses -- “potentially putting the communities who live near these facilities at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19.”

    This move was met with swift condemnation from environmental groups and leaders. Natural Resources Defense Council President Gina McCarthy called it “an open license to pollute,” and noted that this “brazen directive is an abdication of the EPA's responsibility to protect our health.” The New York Times quoted Obama administration EPA official Cynthia Giles, who said: “This is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules. It is so far beyond any reasonable response I am just stunned.” The Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out that the EPA did not provide opportunity for public input before this action went into effect. 

    The New York Times, The Guardian, The Hill, and Vox were some of the major news outlets to cover the EPA’s action, and The Hill also followed-up several days after the announcement and wrote about the backlash that the EPA was receiving from House Democrats. 

    There was much less coverage of the EPA’s move on major television news shows. In fact, this drastic relaxation of pollution laws was mentioned only three times -- once on the March 28 edition of PBS NewsHour, once on the March 30 edition of MSNBC Live with Craig Melvin, and once on the April 5 edition of MSNBC’s Velshi. In the March 30 mention, retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré warned that the EPA’s move will have especially grave implications for people along Louisiana’s “cancer alley,” adding that “they’re going to have a higher risk of dying as a result of this coronavirus because their immune systems have already been attacked by pollution”:

    Video file

    Citation From the March 30, 2020, edition of MSNBC Live with Craig Melvin

  • Restricting the role of science in crafting environmental policy

    At a time when the Trump administration is under intense scrutiny for dismissing warnings by the scientific community, the EPA has moved to fast-track a long-standing effort to limit the amount of scientific and health research that is used in shaping environmental policy. InsideClimate News wrote that the agency’s so-called “secret science” rule, which was first floated by scandal-ridden former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, would “restrict the agency's use of studies that rely on confidential human health data, including some of the seminal studies linking air pollution to premature death,” explaining, “If the Trump administration succeeds in pushing the regulation through and barring the EPA from using those two studies, it will make it more difficult for the agency to show that the benefits of air pollution regulations outweigh the costs.”

    This is a move that the fossil fuel industry has long championed, but perhaps the most egregious part of the Trump administration ramming this proposal through is that the public comment period was originally open until April 17. One Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) director said, “Bringing this extensive proposal forward during the COVID-19 pandemic is reckless and would divert critical public health expertise from the singular mission of protecting the public and controlling the pandemic.” Jared Blumenfeld, California’s Secretary of the Environment stated, "A comment period that short would be inadequate for such a complex and consequential rule even in ordinary circumstances and is especially so in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic.”

    After statements like these, the EPA extended the deadline until May 18 -- which is still far too early than what many state attorney generals were asking for.

    In addition to InsideClimate News, climate reporters at E&E News, The Hill, Bloomberg Environment, and Science Mag have also covered this proposal. The Boston Globe editorial board lambasted the proposal and mentioned that Harvard University’s groundbreaking “Six Cities” study from 1993, which discussed the dangers of air pollution on public health, would surely be under attack by the “secret science” rule.  The board concluded that the new rule is “a bad idea, because it would force the EPA to base decisions not on the best science but on other priorities.” However, despite the long-term implications of this act and its clear relationship to the Trump administration’s failed response to the coronavirus, there was not a single mention of this action on any broadcast or cable TV news show going back to March 1, just prior to when the EPA made a new update to its proposal.

  • Department of Interior pro-polluter actions go unnoticed on TV, too

    On March 24, The Associated Press’ Ellen Knickmeyer detailed a host of “major public health and environmental rollbacks” being pursued by the Trump administration during the coronavirus pandemic:

    The Interior Department, for example, is moving ahead with a measure that would greatly ease protections under the more than century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Interior closed the 30-day comment period for the change as scheduled last week. Critics say the changes could devastate threatened and endangered species and speed an already documented decline in U.S. bird populations overall.

    Interior also ticked off required procedural steps in March on consideration of a ConocoPhillips oil and gas project in the Alaska wilderness and on a development plan for land surrounding New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a World Heritage site at the center of a long debate over oil and gas development, among other projects.

    In addition, E&E News wrote on March 17 that despite pleas from environmental groups, DOI won’t slow lease sales or rule-making during the coronavirus pandemic. The report noted that DOI has “more than 20 public comment periods set to expire within the next 30 days, covering a wide range from reclassifying the humpback chub from an endangered to a threatened species to a proposed Gulf of Mexico outer continental shelf oil and gas lease sale.”

    Climate reporters at Mother Jones, The New York Times, The Independent, and The Hill have covered these DOI actions, however, none of them have been mentioned on broadcast or cable TV news during the coronavirus pandemic going back to March 1.

  • Moving forward with contentious Keystone XL pipeline

    On March 31, Canadian company TC Energy said that it would begin construction on a portion of the Keystone XL oil pipeline in April. Critics were quick to lambaste the pipeline, which may have numerous negative effects on climate, the environment, and wildlife -- and potential deadly consequences for rural communities trying to contain the spread of the coronavirus. A Sierra Club representative said it was “a shameful new low” to push the project forward during a pandemic. The Omaha World-Herald detailed the response of a local Nebraska environmentalist opposed to the project:

    Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, a coalition of environmentalists and landowners who oppose the pipeline, said TC Energy’s announcement “smacks of such arrogance” given the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

    “Big Oil takes advantage of situations whenever there’s a crack,” Kleeb said. Opponents, she said, cannot mobilize right now due to restrictions on public gatherings, and it appears that Alberta is willing to provide “a bailout” for the project.

    The Keystone XL would not be feasible except for the province’s money, Kleeb said.

    TC Energy said it has a financing plan for the project that includes a $1.1 billion investment by the Alberta as well as $4.2 billion in loan guarantees by the province.

    NPR noted that “opponents argue the project has never been economically viable because tar sands crude is some of the most expensive in the world to produce,” while “others worry construction workers traveling to rural communities along the pipeline route will help spread the virus.” NPR also quoted Kleeb, saying, “Our rural communities are strained as it is for medical supplies and hospital beds amid a global pandemic. TC energy must put an end to any construction in our small towns as the pandemic grows across our country.”

    Since March 30, no broadcast or cable news show has mentioned the Keystone XL pipeline, failing to address the risks projects like these pose to our country’s effort to contain the coronavirus. 

  • Criminalizing pipeline protests

    In September, The Intercept reported on the Association of Oil Pipelines, “a lobbying group in Washington, D.C., that represents Koch Industries, Kinder Morgan, TransCanada, Phillips 66, Energy Transfer Partners, Enbridge, Plains All American, and other major oil and gas pipeline interests.” The group was behind now-stalled efforts to push federal legislation that included a maximum 20-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of “interfering with pipeline operations.”

    Undeterred, the industry has continued to find success at the state level -- most recently in Kentucky, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Using the seemingly benign euphemism of bills to protect “critical infrastructure,” those states have passed laws that could subject people found guilty of physically blocking pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure to long prison sentences and exorbitant fines. Regarding the timing of these criminalization efforts, Alexander C. Kaufman at HuffPost noted:

    The efforts on both the state and federal level offered jarring real-time examples of what the author Naomi Klein dubbed “the shock doctrine”: the phenomenon wherein polluters and their government allies push through unpopular policy changes under the smokescreen of a public emergency.

    “While we are all paying attention to COVID-19 and the congressional stimulus packages, state legislatures are quietly passing fossil-fuel-backed anti-protest laws,” Connor Gibson, the researcher at Greenpeace USA who tipped HuffPost off to the bills’ passage, said by email Friday. “These laws do nothing new to protect communities. 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.”

    The United States has a long and dangerous history of criminalizing the act of protest. And since the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protest led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the fossil fuel lobby has been among the most persistent promoters of draconian laws designed to silence dissent. So it’s no surprise that some of the very worst actors on the planet are using the media’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic to quietly pass anti-protest laws.

    To say the least, these bills could do lasting harm to the climate movement’s use of civil disobedience. As Emily Atkin neatly summarized in the newsletter Heated: ”Of course, no one is allowed to [attend mass public protests] now because of COVID-19. And if the fossil fuel industry gets its way, no one will be allowed to do it afterward, either.” 

    There has been no cable or broadcast TV news reporting on the three states that have recently criminalized protests against fossil fuel infrastructure as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to escalate.

  • Keeping the oil and gas floodgates open

    On March 23, Steve Horn at Desmog wrote:

    With major cities and states issuing stay-at-home orders as coronavirus cases have swept throughout the United States, the Trump Administration opened the floodgates for more offshore drilling and issued a permit for a long contested gas export project.

    On March 18, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) held a lease sale for 397,285 acres of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico that attracted bids by companies such as BP, Chevron, Shell, Total, BHP Billiton and a slew of smaller independent drillers. A day later, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) handed a permit to the long-embattled Jordan Cove LNG export facility, located in Coos Bay, Oregon.

    Last May, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality denied the long controversial Jordan Cove project a key certification on the grounds that “there is insufficient information to demonstrate compliance with water quality standards, and because the available information shows that some standards are more likely than not to be violated.” In fact, the state has denied the project three necessary permits, which makes the timing of FERC’s recent approval even more questionable. 

    Neither cable nor broadcast TV news have reported on these actions, which are increasingly crucial to coverage around the oil glut and the declining financial viability of the oil industry during the pandemic.

  • Weakening vehicle emissions standards

    On March 31, the EPA finalized its rule to roll back the Obama administration's vehicle emissions standards, an act which multiple studies show will increase both harmful air pollution and CO2 emissions. Miles Keogh, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, told The Guardian that the decision to move forward with weakening the standards in light of the COVD-19 pandemic is “appalling,” further noting, “We know coronavirus preys on people with respiratory problems, and this dirty air rule will make more Americans vulnerable.”

    The emissions rollback was mentioned only five times across broadcast and cable TV shows since Monday, March 30. There were brief mentions on the April 1 editions of MSNBC’s The 11th Hour with Brian Williams and MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes, and PBS NewsHour ran an excellent, in-depth story about the emissions rollback on March 30. PBS Newshour weekend also ran a segment featuring New York Times climate reporter Coral Davenport on April 4, while on April 5, MSNBC’s Ari Velshi interviewed former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy about the emissions rollback. 

    Anchor Judy Woodruff began the March 30 PBS Newshour segment by noting, “It is hard to focus on anything aside from COVID-19 these days, but it remains important to keep an eye on how the federal government is working in other ways. The Trump administration today moved to roll back another federal regulation intended to reduce global warming.”

    The PBS segment set a standard for how news networks can balance the need to cover COVID-19 with their responsibility to report on other stories, especially stories about the Trump administration’s craven use of the pandemic to push an agenda that will exacerbate public harm. Although cable and broadcast TV rarely talked about this issue in 2019, now is a critical opportunity to spotlight the Trump administration’s contrasting claims that coronavirus requires it to cease enforcing environmental regulations at the same time it enacted harmful new rules that continue to sacrifice public health -- especially the health of frontline communities -- on the altar of Big Oil’s profits.

  • TV news outlets must incorporate these unconscionable attacks into their coronavirus coverage

    The Trump administration has sent a clear signal that it will use this crisis to advance the interests of polluters at the expense of nearly everyone else. While tens of millions of Americans wait anxiously for paltry $1200 checks, unemployment relief, and, hopefully, another round of stimulus spending, oil company CEOs recently had a private audience with Trump to ask for their bailouts in person.

    There are numerous news outlets and organizations reporting on these rollbacks and giveaways, however, cable and broadcast TV news have not yet given these issues much substantive attention. But the next round of stimulus negotiations will provide a prime opportunity to shine a light on how the world’s most destructive companies have the audacity to ask the American taxpayers for a handout while being granted a free hand by the Trump administration to pollute our environment. It is even more outrageous considering hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies the fossil fuel industry has already received. 

    It’s far past time for what this administration is doing on behalf of the fossil fuel industry in the dark of a global pandemic to come into the media spotlight.

    Drilled News created an interactive map to track the fossil fuel industry's efforts to use the COVID-19 pandemic to advance its regulatory agenda. You can track these changes using Drilled News' "Climate-COVID-19 Policy Tracker."

  • Methodology

    Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on cable networks CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC; ABC's Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS' This Morning, Evening News, and Face the Nation; NBC's Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press; and PBS' NewsHour and NewsHour Weekend.

    We included specific mentions of any of these following actions in our article. Search dates starting on March 1 are arbitrary and indicate that these actions were initiated under the Trump administration within the last three years and have reached significant regulatory milestones within the timeframe of the worsening coronavirus pandemic. Search dates other than March 1 indicate the start date of the action.

    For the pollution waiver rule , Media Matters searched any of the terms “EPA” or “Environmental Protection Agency” within close proximity of the term “rule” or any variation of the terms “pollution,” “waiver,” or “relax” between March 26 and April 5.

    For the EPA’s “secret science” rule, Media Matters searched any of the terms “EPA” or “Environmental Protection Agency” within close proximity of the terms “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” “secret science,” “health,” “science,” “transparency,” or “rule” between March 1 and April 5.

    For the Department of Interior actions, Media Matters searched any of the terms “Interior Department,” “Department of Interior,” “Bureau of Land Management,” “DOI,” or “BLM” between March 1 and April 5.

    For mentions of the Keystone XL pipeline, Media Matters searched for the term “Keystone” between March 31 and April 5.

    For the pipeline protest bills, Media Matters searched any of the terms “fossil fuels,” “oil,” “gas,” and any variation of the term “pipeline” within close proximity of the term “infrastructure” or any variation of the terms “protest,” “criminalize,” “illegal,” or “damage” between March 1 and April 5.

    For offshore drilling leases, Media Matters searched for any variation of the term “offshore drilling” between March 1 and April 5.

    For the auto emissions rollback, Media Matters searched any of the terms “EPA,” “Environmental Protection Agency,” “Trump administration,” or “rollback” within close proximity of any of the terms “vehicle,” “clean car,” “auto companies,” “automobile,” “rule,” “emission,” “fuel,” or any variation of the term “efficiency” between March 30 and April 5.