As environmental disasters go, the Animas River wastewater spill is unique. The residents of lower Colorado are in the midst of a nightmare, much of which is of the federal government’s making. Three million gallons of waste and heavy metals spilled into the river after Environmental Protection Agency agents inspecting the abandoned Gold King Mine near Durango accidently triggered the disaster. But the captious media profiles of the hard-working indigenous peoples and the local wildlife that has been traumatized by this tragedy that would normally accompany an environmental catastrophe of this scale were replaced by something quite different. Instead, the political press expressed the fear that this cataclysm might hinder the EPA from its Obama-era mandate of closing American coal-fired power plants en masse. 

“The federal agency’s critics are already seeking to use its much-maligned handling of the mine spill to undercut the Obama administration’s rollout of major regulations aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the nation’s power plants,” the Associated Press reported in the second paragraph of its story on the Republican reaction to this terrible tale of EPA malpractice. The AP is correct to fret about the future of this regulatory agency. The EPA has been the president’s preferred instrument for effecting policy that otherwise cannot receive the imprimatur of the people’s elected representatives. Even the Supreme Court, which recently ruled that the EPA must consider lost revenues before implementing onerous new regulatory guidelines that may negatively impact coal plants, has not dissuaded the president from leaning on the agency to secure his environmentalist legacy.

The political effect of the Animas River disaster was immediately apparent, even if its impact on local residents and the ecosystem will not be fully understood for some time. At a press conference on Tuesday, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy opened with a speech touting the agency’s new carbon emissions-reduction efforts, but reporters’ questions focused almost exclusively on the agency’s efforts to mitigate the damage they wrought in Colorado. “The very good news is that we see that this river is restoring itself,” she later said of the now burnt orange colored river. That is excellent news – just don’t apply this logic to carbon emissions.

On Monday, the EPA’s inspector general okayed an independent investigation into the agency’s role in the spill, a development that will only provide the agency’s opponents more fodder with which to blunt its anti-coal efforts. Exposing the EPA as an activist instrument of progressive governance rather than a regulatory body is just one of many setbacks for the environmental left. On Monday, one of its most sacred of precepts was violated when the White House belatedly approved of a request by Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil off Alaska’s northwest coast. It will be the first time that a resource exploitation firm has been allowed to tap into the region’s vast expanses of oil-bearing rock (26 billion barrels in recoverable oil, according to U.S. Geological Survey estimates) in over 20 years.

“Environmental groups oppose Arctic offshore drilling, saying industrial activity will harm polar bears, Pacific walrus, ice seals and threatened whales already vulnerable from climate warming and shrinking summer sea ice,” the AP warned. The report quoted a number of environmentalists, whose formative years were spent fomenting opposition to oil exploitation in a portion of the massive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The environmentalists who spoke to AP struggled to reconcile this betrayal by the Obama administration. In fact, this represented the second such betrayal in just a handful of days.

The White House revealed late last week that it was taking steps to waive a 40-year ban on the export of domestically produced crude oil. On Friday, the Commerce Department approved of a proposal to swap American light crude for Mexican heavy crude, further eroding a ban on U.S. oil exports that has been in place since 1975.

The barriers toward trading American natural resources on the international market are collapsing all over. Last week, the Department of Energy permitted the export of domestic liquid natural gas to nations without a U.S. free trade agreement. This is the third time this year that the DOE granted an American firm the authority to export natural gas, but the first time that a waiver was issued overriding a law that stipulates those exports must be to countries that are signatories to an American FTA. The environmental left has, of course, responded to this development unreasonably.

On Thursday of last week, a collation of environmental groups signed a petition to ban the export of natural gas similar to the rapidly crumbling ban on crude exports. “Exporting natural gas worsens global warming, harms local communities, raises domestic energy prices and benefits only multinational fossil fuel corporations,” snapped Bill Snape, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. “If the Obama administration’s really serious about addressing the climate crisis, it has to rein in the gluttonous natural gas industry.” It surely stung to utter those words out loud. They represent the self-realization that the only gift to the environmental left that the Obama White House remains committed to preserving is the deeply unpopular purgatory to which the administration has consigned the Keystone XL Pipeline.

But the unkindest cut that the environmentalist left has been nursing is a self-inflicted one. The great white whale of the movement has always been the fiction that a self-sustaining “green” economy could be realized if only lawmakers showed the will to rein in and domesticate the wild impulses of capitalism. This was always ever a fiction, and the environmentalist left’s laboratory experiment – the state of California – has unequivocally demonstrated as much.

“California lawmakers from both parties are calling for more stringent oversight of a clean jobs initiative after an Associated Press report found that a fraction of the promised jobs have been created,” the AP revealed. The biggest beneficiaries of the vast sums dedicated to this project have not been green energy producers but politically well-connected “consultants and energy auditors.”

The environmentalist left movement’s fatal conceit is that it is dispassionate, objective, and committed to empiricism, and there is no amount of evidence to the contrary that can shake their faith in that conviction. The environmental movement’s ever-expanding regulatory push is not founded in science, as they so incessantly claim, but in conviction in their own correctness. No matter how much damage they do to their surroundings, they see themselves as a vanguard of historical forces that will ultimately vindicate their efforts.

As is the case for almost every sect that grows popular enough to make their vision manifest, the real world has not been kind to the faithful. Rather than acknowledge this and revise its course, the environmentalist left has dug in. On Monday, the EPA revealed its intentions to curtail oil and gas exploration further by proposing new rules that would dramatically curtail methane emission from those practices in obstinate defiance of June’s Supreme Court ruling. There must always be a new debate, a new push forward, a new goal, and a new enemy to demonize. If the environmentalist left fails to project outwardly it will invite introspection, and a movement so festooned with failure cannot afford that.

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