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This past April was the second hottest in recorded history, according to data released by the Japan Meteorological Agency. The report found that April 2019 was the second hottest month since records began in 1891, rivaled only by April 2016. Five of the hottest recorded Aprils have occurred in the past decade, according to the agency, with April 2017 and 2018 being the third and fourth hottest months respectively across the globe. April 2014 and 1998 tied for fifth.
For more than 100 days in 2015 and 2016, gas leaked out of the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility near Los Angeles — the largest known leak of methane in United States history. More than 8,300 households were evacuated, and people exposed to the gas reported nosebleeds, dizziness and respiratory problems. This week, California regulators said they now knew why the environmental catastrophe happened. In a 258-page report, investigators said that groundwater had corroded the metal lining of a more-than-50-year-old underground well, leading to its rupture at 892 feet below ground. The report also said that SoCalGas, the company that owns and operates the natural gas well, did not meaningfully investigate or analyze more than 60 previous leaks at the complex. The company did not properly monitor its wells at the site, the report said, adding that “the approach to well integrity at Aliso Canyon had been reactive rather than proactive.”
More than a dozen states are moving to strengthen environmental protections to combat a range of issues from climate change to water pollution, opening a widening rift between stringent state policies and the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda. In recent months, Hawaii, New York and California have moved to ban a widely used agricultural pesticide linked to neurological problems in children, even as the administration has resisted such restrictions. Michigan and New Jersey are pushing to restrict a ubiquitous class of chemical compounds that have turned up in drinking water, saying they can no longer wait for the Environmental Protection Agency to take action. Colorado and New Mexico have adopted new policies targeting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel drilling and limiting where these operations can take place. And more than a dozen states have adopted policies that would force automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars than required by federal standards.
The Environmental Protection Agency plans to adopt a new method for projecting the future health risks of air pollution, one that experts said has never been peer-reviewed and is not scientifically sound, according to five people with knowledge of the agency’s plans. The immediate effect of the change would be to drastically lower an estimate last year by the Trump administration that projected as many as 1,400 additional premature deaths per year from a proposed new rule on emissions from coal plants. That, in turn, would make it easier to defend the new regulation, known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which is meant to replace former President Barack Obama’s signature climate change measure, the Clean Power Plan. It is not uncommon for a presidential administration to use accounting changes to make its regulatory decisions look better than the rules of its predecessors. But the proposed new modeling is unusual because it discards more than a decade of peer-reviewed E.P.A. methods and relies on unfounded medical assumptions. The five people familiar with the plan, who are all current or former E.P.A. officials, said the new modeling method would be used in the agency’s analysis of the final version of the ACE rule, which is expected to be made public in June. William L. Wehrum, the E.P.A. air quality chief, acknowledged in an interview the new method would be part of the agency’s final analysis of the rule.
Around the country, the EPA under Trump is delegating a widening range of public health and environmental enforcement to states, saying local officials know best how to deal with local problems. Critics contend federal regulators are making a dangerous retreat on enforcement that puts people and the environment at greater risk. One administration initiative would give states more authority over emissions from coal-fired power plants. Another would remove federal protections for millions of miles of waterways and wetlands. Some states and counties say the EPA is also failing to act against threats from industrial polluters, including growing water contamination from a widely used class of nonstick industrial compounds. Michigan, New Jersey and some other states say they are tackling EPA-size challenges — like setting limits for the contaminants in drinking water — while appealing to the real EPA to act. In Houston's oil and gas hub, local officials and residents say a lax EPA response to toxic spills during Hurricane Harvey left the public in the dark about health threats and handicapped efforts to hold companies responsible for cleaning up. Nationwide, EPA inspections, evaluations and enforcement actions have fallen sharply over the past two years, some to the lowest points in decades, or in history. The agency says environmental enforcers remain on the job despite the plunging enforcement numbers.
Wall Street watchdogs often tout the fines they levy on alleged wrongdoers. Yet much of that money is never collected. The Securities and Exchange Commission over the five years ending in 2018 took in 55% of the $20 billion in enforcement fines set through settlements or court judgments, according to agency statistics. During the prior five years, from 2009 through 2013, the SEC collected on 60% of $14.6 billion. And in 2018, the commission collected just 28% of almost $4 billion. That rate—the lowest in a decade—was due in part to an unusual $1.7 billion settlement with the Brazilian oil company Petrobras that may never require payment to the SEC. The SEC has struggled for years to get defendants to pay more of their fines, although some are almost certain to avoid payment forever. That includes people who went to prison on related criminal charges, or people behind Ponzi schemes who spent the funds they took from defrauded investors. The Government Accountability Office, an investigative agency for Congress, criticized the SEC in 2014 for record-keeping lapses that understated the amounts owed by defendants by at least $42 million. Since then, the commission has been building a new computer system to track unpaid fines.
The travel industry is strictly regulated for health and safety, a fact for which we should all be grateful. But when it comes to consumer protection — and comfort — most laws still favor businesses. What do passengers say they want? Transparent pricing. Fair business practices. And a little more legroom on the plane, please. In recent years, efforts to make those things happen have met with mixed results. Here’s where they stand as we head into the summer travel season. So here we are, approaching the beginning of summer, with the same scant consumer protections we had last summer. Advocates are waging a lonely fight to strengthen our consumer laws and regulations. Let’s hope they’ll have something to show for it by this time next year.
The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Thursday recommended that the agency demand $124,000 in reimbursements from former Administrator Scott Pruitt. The watchdog found that Pruitt made “excessive airfare expenses ... without sufficient justification to support security concerns requiring the use of first- and business-class travel.” "The OIG made a total of 14 recommendations, of which 10 are unresolved. Overall, actions need to be taken to strengthen controls over agency travel to help prevent the potential for future fraud, waste and abuse," it said in a press release accompanying the report.
A coalition of consumer and labor groups is challenging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s proposal to ease an Obama-era restriction on payday lenders, using language that suggests there are legal grounds to block the new rule. CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger in February introduced the bureau’s proposed plan to effectively unwind regulation imposing underwriting standards on payday lenders, which was originally supposed to go into effect Aug. 19. The proposed rule has been championed by payday and auto title lenders but opposed by consumer groups. The coalition, led by Americans for Financial Reform and the Center for Responsible Lending, submitted its 220-page comment Thursday, when the comment period on the CFPB’s proposal closed. The consumer advocates called the proposal “arbitrary and capricious,” a direct reference to the Administrative Procedure Act, which tells courts to invalidate agency actions that are found to be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”
Boeing said Thursday that it has completed a software update for its 737 Max planes, a key step in getting the aircraft flying again after aviation authorities grounded the jets around the world following two fatal crashes. Boeing said it is planning to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to schedule a certification flight.
The question is whether large penalties imposed on companies deter them from future bad behavior. The answer appears to be “no.” All that suggests companies have little to worry about from government investigations and penalties that may be assessed. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, is pushing to change that. She introduced a bill that would allow prosecutors to pursue charges against executives for negligently permitting or failing to prevent a criminal violation by the company. Whether this proposal will gain any traction in Congress is an open question, but it would certainly get the attention of chief executives if they discover problems inside the company. But the Justice Department under President Trump has favored deferred and non-prosecution agreements rather than guilty pleas. The penalties imposed have been relatively small over the past two years, compared with those seen at the end of the Obama administration. That raises the question of whether the friendlier climate in Washington will engender greater compliance, or foster the view that a violation will result in only an expensive speeding ticket.
A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to speed up its reviews of thousands of electronic cigarettes currently on the market, siding with public health groups that sued the agency. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Maryland last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other public health groups. They argued that the FDA's delay in regulating e-cigarette products led a spike in underage vaping. According to the judge, the FDA's decision to delay reviewing electronic cigarette products for several years amounted to a serious dereliction of duty.
Half of Fortune 500 company CEOs said in a new survey that they believe Facebook should be more regulated. Fifty percent of the industry leaders in the Fortune survey released Monday said they agreed that Facebook “has grown so large and influential that it needs additional regulation.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote next month on a proposal to let phone carriers block certain calls by default in an effort to crack down on unwanted robocalls, the agency announced Wednesday. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said his proposal would clarify the commission’s rules to let carriers filter out robocalls or scam calls from fraudulent numbers. The FCC will also be voting on a rule to give safe harbor to carriers implementing call blocking informed by a new authentication standard that the industry is expected to adopt this year.
In a little-noticed memo, several weeks ago, the Office of Management and Budget modified its guidelines on the Information Quality Act (IQA). These modifications increase the responsibilities of agencies to carefully respond when a member of the public submits a complaint about information that the agency has made public. The revised guidelines are similar to an effort by the Environmental Protection Agency issued in April 2018, to “strengthen science used in EPA regulations.” At the same time that the Trump administration is purporting to strengthen science, it is being regularly criticized for ignoring science and economics in many of its individual policy initiatives. The administration has worked to eliminate information on climate change from its websites. Its economic analysis of its regulations have been regularly criticized. Just last week reports surfaced regarding the EPA ignoring scientists when it issued new regulations on asbestos exposure.
Carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere was measured at a record high of 415 parts per millions (ppm) on Friday, scientists said. The reading was made by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which has maintained a rolling measure of CO2 levels since 1958. Ralph Keeling, director of Scripps CO2 Program at the observatory, said that the carbon dioxide "growth rate is remaining at the high end."
In the nearly five decades since, the Clean Air Act has saved literally millions of American lives and trillions of dollars ― $22 trillion in its first 20 years alone, government studies have found. Despite the angry protestations of polluting industries it forced to change, the law’s benefits, in dollar terms, have proved dozens of times greater than the costs. That’s because just as higher rates of pollution are linked to more death and illness, cleaner air means fewer heart attacks and strokes, less cancer and dementia, and longer lives. But as the Trump administration rolls back the regulations that turn the law’s principles into reality on the ground, and guts the agency charged with enforcing them, the Clean Air Act’s considerable accomplishments are at grave risk. The Clean Air Act is far from perfect, but its successes are a testament to the idea that congressional power, when used wisely, can change Americans’ lives for the better.
Two former Treasury secretaries joined two former Federal Reserve leaders on Monday to warn that the Trump administration’s efforts to relax oversight of certain financial firms could seriously threaten the stability of America’s financial system. The stark warning came two months after a federal oversight panel said it planned to stop designating large, non-bank financial institutions like insurers and asset managers as “systemically important” and placing them under stricter federal oversight. The Financial Stability Oversight Council move would ease a process put in place after the 2008 financial crisis that aimed to prevent non-bank financial firms, like American International Group, from posing a risk to the American economy. Instead of designating companies that the government believes pose a risk to the financial system, the oversight council has proposed designated “activities” that pose a risk, such as certain financial products. Regulators who dealt with the aftermath of the crisis fear that dropping the designation could be a grave mistake. On Monday, the former Treasury secretaries, Jacob J. Lew and Timothy F. Geithner, and the two former Federal leaders, Ben S. Bernanke and Janet L. Yellen, urged their successors, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chairman, to rethink the plan.
Once upon a time in America, when banks or investors lent money to a company, they expected to receive years of agreed-upon interest payments plus the return of the money borrowed. If the business did well, the lenders were paid back on time and made money. So they wanted the company to succeed. Not anymore. Instead, the misuse of financial instruments is creating perverse incentives, rewarding crafty creditors for forcing companies into bankruptcy. Thanks to a lack of rules requiring creditors to be transparent, companies, their employees and their investors may have no way of knowing a creditor’s real intentions until it’s too late. The main, but not the only, culprit is a form of financial insurance called credit-default swaps — and the hedge fund wiseguys who wield them like cudgels. Credit-default swaps, you may remember from the 2008 financial crisis, allow creditors to insure themselves against the risk that the borrower responsible for debt they own might go into default. Buying insurance means that in case of default they can still get paid back 100 cents on the dollar.
The Department of the Interior has acknowledged the widespread opposition with platitudes and meaningless theater. Former Secretary Ryan Zinke went so far as to tweet that Florida waters would be safe from offshore drilling after the Trump plan was released, a promise that was later retracted. There have been no official assurances provided by the Department of the Interior that any area will be protected from offshore drilling. For now, the Obama-era program will remain in effect, and plans for new lease sales in sensitive areas, like the Beaufort Sea, cannot go forward. But as we celebrate the delay of the offshore oil and gas plan, we must also redouble our efforts to stop expanded offshore drilling. A delay is not enough. We cannot stop until there are tangible protections for our ocean and the wildlife and communities that depend on them. Congress has the power to provide the protections that coastal communities around the country are demanding. Congress must take action — now.
States are preparing to fight back as the Trump administration moves to erase Obama-era standards for lightbulbs. The Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed new regulations for lightbulbs that would eliminate efficiency standards for half the bulbs on the market. The move has prompted a backlash from a bipartisan mix of state attorneys general and governors who say it is harmful to the planet and may be illegal.
Across the agencies, enforcement actions against polluters, banks, and corporations have dwindled. The Environmental Protection Agency collected a mere $69 million in civil and administrative penalties from polluters in 2018, the lowest amount levied by the agency in more than a decade. Criminal fines collected by the EPA from polluters plunged to $88 million, the lowest total for such penalties assessed in a decade. In 2018, EPA referred the fewest new criminal cases to the Justice Department in any year since 1988. The nation’s financial sectors also received a reprieve. Corporate penalties imposed in Justice Department prosecutions plummeted by 72 percent during the first 20 months of the administration, compared to those levied during the final 20 months of the Obama presidency. Meanwhile, penalties imposed and illicit profits ordered returned by the Securities and Exchange Commission fell by 62 percent. The volume of publicly announced enforcement actions by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under Donald Trump’s tenure has also steeply declined. Often, the enforcement decline is less a product of slash-and-burn practices than slow bloodletting and bureaucratic sandbagging. Staffing reallocations, buyouts, and mass resignations have diminished parts of the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency, including the divisions responsible for civil rights and environmental enforcement. Several agencies have curbed their fact-finding activities, ensuring there is little grist for the enforcement mill. Formal guidance issued by top officials has sewed confusion and injected additional supervision and control over lower-level investigators and enforcement lawyers. And reporting relationships between boots-on-the-ground staff and senior agency officials have, at times, been replaced by commands to seek approval from political appointees.
Early in President Trump’s term, a powerful group of manufacturers delivered to his deputies a “wish list” of regulations they wanted rewritten. Two years later, the Trump administration appears to have largely followed through on those requests, according to a new report. An analysis from Public Citizen, a left-leaning nonprofit consumer rights advocacy group, examined how various government agencies have responded to the 132 requests that the group, the National Association of Manufacturers, submitted to the Trump administration about two months into his presidency. Public Citizen found just 71 of those requests seemed to actually line up with major government rules on which the Trump administration could take action. Of those, government agencies — such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department — moved to modify, delay or get rid of 60 of them during Trump's time in office. That's about 85 percent.
The government must hold Mark accountable. For too long, lawmakers have marveled at Facebook’s explosive growth and overlooked their responsibility to ensure that Americans are protected and markets are competitive. Any day now, the Federal Trade Commission is expected to impose a $5 billion fine on the company, but that is not enough; nor is Facebook’s offer to appoint some kind of privacy czar. After Mark’s congressional testimony last year, there should have been calls for him to truly reckon with his mistakes. Instead the legislators who questioned him were derided as too old and out of touch to understand how tech works. That’s the impression Mark wanted Americans to have, because it means little will change. We are a nation with a tradition of reining in monopolies, no matter how well intentioned the leaders of these companies may be. Mark’s power is unprecedented and un-American. It is time to break up Facebook.
The Federal Aviation Administration told U.S. airports in a letter released on Wednesday they could not install drone countermeasures without federal consent, warning they could pose an aviation safety risk by interfering with aircraft navigation and air navigation services. The FAA said only federal agencies with explicit authority should install systems designed to detect and potentially destroy drones. The agency added: "There are many related efforts that are under way that will make it easier to identify drone operators." There has been rising concern about drones near U.S. airports.