CVIndependent

Sat04042020

Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

This is the final Democracy in Crisis column that I will be writing.

I remember the urgency with which it started. I was super-stoned in a Denver hotel room just days after Trump was elected. Editors at various alternative newspapers had been wringing their hands about how to deal with Trump. Many of these papers had been militantly local during the Obama era—when I was managing editor of Baltimore City Paper, my unofficial motto was “militantly Baltimorean.” But now it seemed that whenever someone picked up their local paper, they would want to see some news from the “alternative” angle—the independent, insouciant and fiercely opinionated alternative press.

Now, more than 70 weekly columns later (the Independent ran the column once or twice per month), either that has changed, or I was wrong-headed from the start. The Trump regime has taken up so much air from every other story that, while it is wildly important and has implications everywhere, each of these papers is better served covering the ways in which Trump’s policies affect their local communities.

If it were like the old days, when papers were fat and had money, a national column would be great. But this is a time of crisis for the press as much as it is for democracy. David Simon, creator of The Wire, has said the death of newspapers will usher in—or has already started ushering in—a golden age of corruption, because there is no one left to watch City Hall. Except for the wretches who work for the paper you’re reading right now.

Support them now, or you will miss them when they are gone. Since the beginning of this column in January 2017, my own home paper, the Baltimore City Paper, was shut down. We immediately responded with an attempt to start a new paper. We partnered with the nonprofit Real News Network and the Washington Blade and founded the Baltimore Beat. It lasted for four months before the people with the money pulled out.

Now, in Baltimore—where we will have more than 300 murders again this year, where we had a major police corruption scandal that will overturn nearly 2,000 cases, where the police commissioner was federally charged and resigned after only months in office—we have no outlet like the paper you are holding. There is no single place where you can mourn for those murdered, mock the bullshit politicians, and celebrate some artistic or culinary innovation or creature comfort. There is nowhere for this voice. And our city sorely misses it.

The art and music scenes are less cohesive, hardly scenes at all anymore. New writers aren’t following their passions and learning their chops. People aren’t doing insane experiments—like when I once listened to only local music for an entire year. (Music writers, take note.)

The Washington City Paper, one of the other early sponsors of this column, came dangerously close to death during the last year; an execution was stayed only by the intervention of a billionaire, a local rich dude. The Bezos model seems to work in Washington, but we can’t all count on that.

I’ve gotten countless emails from other editors saying something like, “Hey, man, we love the column but can’t afford it anymore.” I was once in the same boat myself as a managing editor. It is brutal.

Between the first draft of this column and this final version, five of my fellow reporters were murdered in their newsroom, an hour away from my own. Every reporter I have ever known has been threatened or maligned at some point, and this has gotten so much worse under Trump. We don’t need the CNNs and MSNBCs. We need the Annapolis Capital Gazettes and all the small, struggling papers that carried this column. Fuck you, Milo, and fuck you, Trump.

I learned from Spy Magazine that every good column has heroes and villains. Donald Trump was one of Spy’s main villains back in the 1980s, and he was the overarching villain of this column. But there were also all of those who enabled him, and whom he enabled, especially Michael Flynn, the alt-right goons of Charlottesville and the dark corners of the web—Project Veritas, and the ever-so-silly and sad “Western chauvinist”™ frat of the Proud Boys, whose litigious western chauvinist™ lawyer threatened legal action against the papers carrying this column.

Foremost among the heroes are the 230 people arrested during the inauguration protests. The very first column detailed those protests, after I was gassed and pepper-sprayed and almost arrested by the mobs of cops with covered faces who ultimately kettled a large group of protesters. The protesters were all charged with the few windows that were broken on the theory that because they wore black and were part of a “black bloc” protest, they all conspired to damage the property. They were facing more than 60 years each.

After a year and a half of the government paying two U.S. attorneys to prosecute the case, and a full-time detective and part-time Trump lover Gregg Pemberton to work it, several defendants have been acquitted on all counts, and the charges against many others have dropped. This includes the charges against Elizabeth Lagesse, one of the real heroes of this column, who taught herself everything possible about the case and went to nearly every proceeding, and filed suit with the ACLU against Washington, D.C.’s police department.

Aaron Cantú, a journalist at the Santa Fe Reporter, is still facing charges. Over the last year and a half, the #Resistance has half-heartedly fallen in love with the “free press,” railing against Trump’s tweets while still lying to us if they are politicians—and ignoring Cantú’s plight if they are Beltway journalists. He has been living under serious criminal charges for a year and a half because he covered a protest. And he’s a hell of a good reporter.

But the real heroes of the column are the alternative papers that ran it and the readers who followed along. I am so grateful to have been able to have a home in each of your cities and towns. And I learned so much from having editors in Colorado Springs or Jackson Hole, and so many others.

Mary Finn spent countless hours filing FOIA requests—some of which we are still waiting on (fingers crossed)—and editing the column. Brandon Soderberg was a tireless editor and a great friend and collaborator through this.

Brandon and I will be writing a book over the next year, so if you enjoyed the column at all, keep an eye out for it.

Published in National/International

On this week's post-fireworks weekly Independent comics page: Apoca Clips debates the merits of the president; Red Meat enjoys some arts and crafts; This Modern World drops the first F-bomb in its decades-long history to make a point; Jen Sorenson offers a nod to European culture; and The K Chronicles admires what rich people have.

Published in Comics

On this week's Supreme Court-swinging weekly Independent comics page: Jen Sorenson ponders the un-American invasion that's currently under way; The K Chronicles visits the National Black History Museum; This Modern World examines more incomprehensibly awful happenings; Red Meat is missing some magazines; and Apoca Clips asks Trumpy about Melania's jackets.

Published in Comics

On this week's zero-tolerance weekly Independent comics page: Jen Sorenson shakes her head as Americans are separated from decency; The K Chronicles looks at the powers Trump claims ... and the powers he doesn't; This Modern World has problems with satire; Apoca Clips listens in at the summit; and Red Meat launches some missiles.

Published in Comics

On this week's summit-level weekly Independent comics page: The K Chronicles pays tribute to the late Anthony Bourdain; This Modern World quizzes Rudy Giuliani on constitutional law; Jen Sorenson looks at the New World Order; Red Meat deals with some cattle problems; and Apoca Clips heads for Mars.

Published in Comics

On this week's 108-degree weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World again checks in with The Unbelievable Trump; Jen Sorenson examines the life cycle of a slur; The K Chronicles gets some chickens; Apoca Clips spots Trumpy with a gun; and Red Meat shares adventures from the bowling alley.

Published in Comics

On this week's weekly Independent comics page, which may or may not be part of a Deep State conspiracy: This Modern World takes a gander at the view from Trump's brain; Jen Sorenson examines ballcap semiotics; The K Chronicles looks back on a speaking tour; Apoca Clips listens to Trumpy rant; and Red Meat reveals that Earl is worried about his kitty.

Published in Comics

On this week's weekly Independent comics page, coming to you live from a Palm Springs vacation rental: The K Chronicles brings us an episode of Black Eye for the White Guy; This Modern World asks you to spot the mistakes; Jen Sorenson examines the phenomenon of Bourgeois Bubbas; Red Meat forces Milkman Dan to take some time off; and Pele gives Trumpy a cut at Apoca Clips.

Published in Comics

On this week's temblor-shaken weekly Independent comics page: Red Meat reveals that Earl is having problems sleeping; Apoca Clips receives a visit from America's Mayor; This Modern World calls Fox and Friends; Jen Sorenson bemoans the prevalence of the victim mentality; and The K Chronicles witnesses federal intimidation at a church.

Published in Comics

The punch-counterpunch sparring between the Trump administration and the state of California over rollbacks of federal environmental regulations is often described as a war of words, with neither the president nor Gov. Jerry Brown giving an inch.

Some of the disputes are largely symbolic—foot-stamping gestures from Washington, D.C., designed to resonate with the president’s core supporters rather than to hold up in court.

But the latest skirmish is serious: The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to unravel fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks not only threatens California’s autonomy in setting its own emissions limits; it also could derail the state’s ability to reach its future greenhouse-gas-reduction goals.

“This is a politically motivated effort to weaken clean-vehicle standards with no documentation, evidence or law to back up that decision,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state Air Resources Board, in a statement. “This is not a technical assessment; it is a move to demolish the nation’s clean-car program. The EPA’s action, if implemented, will worsen people’s health with degraded air quality and undermine regulatory certainty for automakers.”

The gauntlet was thrown down by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a darling of the Trump administration for his zeal in dismantling Obama-era environmental regulations. Even though Pruitt is the target of multiple investigations for alleged ethical transgressions and has found his job security in question, the effect of his current decisions may resonate far beyond his or his boss’ terms in office.

“There have been some troubling developments,” said Deborah Sivas, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School. “But I think a lot of this is ultimately not going to happen.”


Putting the Brakes on Fuel Efficiency

Sivas said an attack on the fuel-efficiency standard is one of the critical fights for California, which must drastically reduce emissions from the state’s enormous transportation sector to stay on track in cutting carbon.

At issue are miles-per-gallon standards set near the end of the Obama administration. They require an average 45.4 miles per gallon by 2022 and more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. Standards differ by vehicle type and are stricter for cars than for SUVs and light trucks.

Chet France, the former EPA senior executive who directed the office that crafted the regulations, says the fuel-standard rule is solid. France, who retired in 2012, said the benchmarks were the product of rigorous technical research and vetting with federal agencies, the California air board and car manufacturers.

The rule was reviewed again during the last days of the Obama administration and determined to be reasonable.

“The mid-term review was thorough and found that advances in auto-industry technology meant that meeting the standards was easier and cheaper than the EPA had predicted,” France said. “It concluded that the standards were attainable, and, if anything, they could have gone further.”

Pruitt called the current regulations inappropriate, saying they “set the standards too high.” He said his agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would revisit them, but he has not yet announced any proposed changes.

In explaining its rationale, the EPA is expected to dust off a decades-old analysis that suggests lighter, more fuel-efficient cars are not substantial enough to withstand crashes and thus pose a danger to drivers. Federal and state crash tests disprove that, but Sivas said she anticipates similar arguments.

The state is pushing back hard. Brown, during a recent visit to Washington, told reporters that the rollback is “not going to happen, and the attempts to do this are going to be bogged down in litigation long after we have a new president.”

On Tuesday, May 1, California filed its 32nd lawsuit against the Trump administration, asserting that in preparing to change the emission standards, the EPA is violating the Clean Air Act and failing to follow its own regulations. In announcing the suit, which 17 other states have joined, Brown conjured images of floods and wildfires ravaging the state as greenhouse gases warm the planet.

“This is real stuff,” he said. “I intend to fight this as hard as I can.”

In addition to rolling back mileage requirements, Pruitt has signaled that he may revoke California’s legal authority to establish its own emissions standards, independent of federal benchmarks. A dozen other states have adopted California’s standards; together, that coalition represents more than a third of the national auto market.

“California is not the arbiter of these issues,” Pruitt said in television interview in March. While the state may set its own limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, he said, it “shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country.”

California’s right to request a waiver from federal clean-air laws is well established and, legal experts say, the burden would be high for the administration to convince a court that there is a compelling reason to change the longstanding policy.

Pruitt told lawmakers in Washington, D.C., last week that his agency was engaged in talks with California officials regarding proposed changes.

California Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young said the state has had three meetings with the EPA since December, adding: “Nothing substantive was discussed, so I wouldn’t characterize them as negotiations.”

He said the board had not seen a final proposal, and no future meetings were scheduled.

On Friday, Nichols tweeted to Pruitt: “Call me.”


Opening the Coast to Drilling

Perhaps the most consequential of the administration’s many moves to expand domestic-energy production is the Interior Department’s five-year plan to offer lease sales in federal waters off the outer continental shelf, including parcels where drilling has been banned for decades. That includes the California coast.

The plan, announced by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, envisions drilling in the Arctic, off the Hawaiian coast and in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as expanding existing exploration into the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The leasing is scheduled to begin in 2019 off the north coast of Alaska, and then move to the lower 48 states, the agency said.

Zinke said the leasing plans would expand the country’s energy independence. “This is the beginning of an opening up,” he said, promising that the months-long public-comment period before enactment would include all stakeholders. “The states will have a voice.”

Whose voice will be heeded may be another matter. Florida’s governor has already negotiated directly with President Donald Trump to exempt his state from leasing. Even though Brown had a conversation with administration officials relaying California’s wish to be included in a similar exemption, no announcement has been made that would prevent drilling in federal waters off the coast.

But this is one issue where the state may get its way, thanks to current market forces and a stubborn regulatory blockade.

The oil and gas industries have shown little interest in exploring off the California coast, and the State Lands Commission has resolved to make it much more difficult and expensive for companies to get crude oil to land and into pipelines.

The commission’s policy to prevent construction of onshore infrastructure does nothing to stop drilling but could limit the volume of oil shipped at a time when the low price per barrel is already discouraging new exploration.

Given those financial and logistical headaches, companies may take a pass.

“A state like California is going to put its full force and resources on the line,” said Timothy O’Connor, a California-based attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. “There’s still an element of local and state control, and we are going to defend our values to their very core. That’s certainly one of them.”


Rolling Back Air Rules

California has notched two victories over the Trump administration’s efforts to undo a methane regulation instituted during Obama’s term.

The Waste Prevention Rule was to have gone into effect in January 2017, regulating emissions of natural gas leaking from more than 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands across the country.

The federal Interior Department delayed enactment of the rule and was sued by California and New Mexico. The states prevailed. The agency then suspended part of the new rule and the two states sued again, winning in court once more.

The victory has significant impact in California, home to vast, aging oil fields and energy infrastructure. Methane’s potent heat-trapping capacity makes it many times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The state Air Resources Board recently limited methane coming from both new and existing oil and gas sources.

Another win came in a suit the state joined after the EPA postponed implementation of yet another Obama-era rule aimed at combating smog. The “Ozone Rule” reduced allowable concentrations of ozone, a main component of smog.

Pruitt ordered the EPA to extend the deadline to comply with the new standards by at least a year. Two days after California and 15 other states filed suit, Pruitt reversed his decision.

The state also won a suit calling for federal transportation officials to monitor greenhouse-gas emissions along national highways, but the government is considering repealing the regulations.

In another pending case, California and other states are suing the EPA to identify areas of the country with the most polluted air. In April, Trump weighed in, directing the EPA to relax restrictions on state governments and businesses that have been key to cutting smog.

In a memo, the president instructed Pruitt to expedite a review of state smog-reduction plans and streamline the process for businesses to get air-quality-related permits. In addition, Trump ordered a review of other air-quality regulations related to public health to determine whether they “should be revised or rescinded.”

The agency said the directive was aimed at trimming costs and maximizing efficiency.


Dropping Protection for Water

In an effort to more precisely define which bodies of water are covered under federal law, the Obama administration adopted a rule in 2015 that effectively expanded the number of protected waterways, including springs and floodplains that appear for only part of the year.

The idea was to safeguard both water quality and water quantity, and to put an end to the time-consuming practice of determining status on a case-by-case basis. The U.S. Supreme Court had already weighed in, but the high court’s definitions of the “waters of the United States” failed to provide adequate clarification.

The Obama administration’s definition-stretching rules were strenuously opposed by developers, who said they swept up much of the undeveloped land in California, including wetlands.

Soon after Trump came into office, the EPA launched a review of the rule, and then got rid of it.

In February, California sued the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which signs off on development permits in protected wetlands.

The legal case is still pending, but Sivas said the Trump administration is doing an end-run by requiring the Army Corps to run all permit requests through Washington, rather than making those determinations in regional offices.

By centralizing the decision-making, Sivas said, political appointees can circumvent scientific and legal analysis performed by field offices and determine the outcome based on other factors.

“My guess is they are going to say (to developers), ‘You don’t need a permit,’” she said.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment