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President of Earthjustice on Being the Earth's Lawyer Under Obama

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Trip Van Noppen is the president of Earthjustice, one of the largest non-profit public interest law firms "dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment." As Barack Obama heads towards the White House, I spoke with him on his hopes for the environment under a new president, the environmental success and failures of the Bush administration, and the role Earthjustice plays in being the earth's lawyer.

Kuhn: First, is the environmental community optimistic for an Obama presidency?

Noppen: Yes. We are eager to work with the new administration. We expect the Obama administration to move in a much better direction on environmental issues than that of the last eight years. We hope the new administration will address the pressing problems of global warming, reliance on fossil fuels, and threats to our health, natural places and native wildlife. With that being said, we also stand ready to act to hold the new administration accountable if it fails to enforce laws protecting the environment.

How do you think environmental policy would have differed if McCain had been elected president?

While McCain has been a proponent of regulating greenhouse gas emissions in the past and said he favored creating green jobs, he also ran on a campaign motto of "drill baby drill" which called for immediate offshore drilling everywhere and placed a much higher priority on drilling than on efficiency and developing alternatives. Earthjustice has called for a time out before we issue new oil and gas leases and allow drilling in the Arctic Ocean. We would have definitely collided with McCain/Palin policy there.

Back in August the Bush administration released a plan to greatly weaken federal protection of America's wildlife by rewriting major provisions of the Endangered Species Act. The rewrite calls for taking federal wildlife experts at the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service out of the loop when decisions affecting wildlife are being made.
Barack Obama immediately came out and opposed this move. He stuck up for America's wildlife. We didn't hear a peep from John McCain about this.

Barack Obama spoke out in favor of the 2001 roadless rule, one of the most important federal protections for America's last wild, undeveloped national forests. The Bush/Cheney administration has worked since day one to repeal it and open these forests lands to development. We never heard McCain speak up in defense of the roadless rule and as a Republican, his voice would have carried great weight.

Earthjustice identified six areas of environmental policy that if the next administration focuses on can have a great impact. Briefly, what are they?

The US Supreme Court ruled in April of 2007 that the federal EPA can regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act but the Bush administration has stalled complying with the court's order. The Obama administration should move forward with requiring reductions in CO2 emissions under authority it already has under the Clean Air Act.

We're also calling on the new administration to restore the Endangered Species Act by reversing the recent Bush administration proposal that weakened the law, should it be finalized.

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule mentioned before should be restored. The rule was adopted in 2001, prohibiting most new road construction and logging throughout 58 million acres of the wildest remaining national forest lands. This forest protection rule is tied up in several different courts and we've called on the Obama administration to vigorously defend it. We've also called on them to let expire a rule the Bush/Cheney administration pushed through in 2003 that removed the Tongass National Forest in Alaska from the protections of the roadless rule. The Tongass is one of America's premier old growth forest and it deserves the same protections as forests in the lower 48 states.

Protection of America's rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands has been greatly diminished during the Bush/Cheney years and there are steps the Obama administration can do to restore the cleanliness and health of our waters.

As I said earlier, we think President-elect Obama should call a time out from the mad rush currently under way in the Arctic, especially offshore in the Arctic Ocean, to develop oil and gas. The Arctic is probably the least understood place on earth, especially in light of how global warming is changing the place. We need to slow down and do things right. For example, even the oil companies admit that they do not have the know-how to contain and clean up an oil spill in icy waters. We need to develop the science before we open the floodgates on Arctic oil development.

Last, the fastest and cheapest way to improve our energy supply and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to adopt tougher energy efficiency standards. The Bush administration refused to adopt state of the art standards for appliances and equipment like furnaces, refrigerators, and other electrical equipment. The new administration can easily embrace existing off the shelf technology today that would save Americans lots of energy and billions of dollars.

What environmental policy do you think is most necessary for Obama to work on first?

We agree with the President-elect's statement that energy is the highest priority. We hope and expect the administration to hit the ground running on energy and climate issues on multiple fronts: adopting energy efficiency standards and carbon dioxide regulations, approving the California clean car waiver, and proposing to Congress an economic stimulus package that will create millions of green jobs.

You are a lawyer, so how can, and does, your organization use the courts to shape environmental policy or certain policies of the Bush administration you feel are misguided?

There were a lot of Bush/Cheney anti-environmental policies launched that flat out contradicted the law. Check out the victory page on our website and you'll see a long list of court rulings we won over the last eight years that reversed or stopped environmentally-damaging actions of the Bush/Cheney administration. In every single case the courts ruled the administration violated the law at the expense of the environment. In most cases American environmental law allows citizens or citizen groups to bring enforcement actions to get results. This is where Earthjustice comes in. Earthjustice represents citizen groups in getting our environmental protections enforced when they are violated. Too often the government is distracted or, in the case of the Bush/Cheney administration, actively working to shield powerful corporate allies from having to comply with America's environmental protections. Citizens have recourse through the courts and Earthjustice represents them.

As you mentioned, Earthjustice has had a string of successes in the courts and many have helped overturn some of the current administrations policies relating to the environment. Do you see this occurring more now on a national or local level now with Obama in office?

Earthjustice will be really busy in the federal courts for a long time to come for three reasons. First, there are a lot of environmentally harmful rules and regulations still on the books from the Bush/Cheney years and more are being rushed out in the closing days of the administration. These will take years to clean up. Second, as the Obama administration generates and implements more environmentally-protective policies, the corporate players that sat at the right hand of the Bush/Cheney administration guiding their every move will be displeased and they will fight back. We will be needed to help push for and then defend those decisions. Third, the Obama administration won't have the budget or the political capital to do all that is needed on the environment, so there will undoubtedly continue to be a need for the administration to be pushed from the outside.

On the first item, Earthjustice worked to minimize the damage the Bush/Cheney team was able to do and we prevailed in many of those efforts, but not all. They were able to get some bad rules and regulations on the books that we've challenged and which are still hung up in court. It will take a lot more time and effort on the part of Earthjustice to get courts to order these regulations removed.

On the second point, protecting and restoring America's air, water, wildlands, public health and wildlife will incrementally cut into the profits of those who push their pollution and development costs onto society as a whole. There's a balance to be restored here. The corporate polluters will fight back with a vengeance when the new administration orders them to clean up their act and they will use an army of lawyers to do so. They will try to stave off any effort that curtails the privilege they've grown accustomed to over the last eight years. The last eight years have seen the tables heavily tilted towards private profit at the public expense and that will hopefully change. There will be a legal arena where this will play out and Earthjustice will be central in defending the public's right to a clean healthy environment. That's why Earthjustice is called a public interest law firm.

The third point is that to be able to accomplish real change, any administration depends on outside pressures as well as its own leadership. Earthjustice's work for the last eight years has set the stage for great progress on many environmental issues, but only if we and our allies keep up our work and don't let the inevitable political pressures and agency inertia get in the way. Earthjustice litigation is often the most effective tool to use for that purpose.

What has the Bush administration done to the environment that was the most damaging and also the most helpful?

Most damaging is clearly the complete stonewalling of any forward motion on climate change and promoting an ever-worsening dependence on fossil fuels.

What was most helpful? In a perverse way, the administration obstinate refusal to do anything on climate stimulated cities, states, businesses, and millions of citizens to begin to take action on their own. Because people knew they could not rely on the federal government for the past eight years, a tremendous amount of momentum has developed on addressing climate change and building a clean energy future. That momentum will enable the Obama administration to move forward quickly.

Are you worried about the actions the Bush administration will take during their last months? What are the dangers to the environment posed?

Earthjustice is working overtime to track and try and head off a slew of last minute rules coming from the Bush/Cheney White House that would be extremely damaging to the environment.

We mentioned earlier their effort to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act. The illegal burying of the Appalachian streams and creeks is the subject of another 11th hour Bush/Cheney rule that seeks to make burying these streams forever legal. They've proposed a rule that would let power plants off the hook for the additional pollution they'll generate when they expand their facilities. They're working on a rule that lets huge corporate animal feed operations off the hook for the massive quantities of water they pollute. They're working to finalize a rule that allows polluters to incinerate tons of hazardous waste, which will put the pollution into the air, rather than require safe disposal. There's a long list of others and folks can go to our website for a more detailed discussion of this. It's clear the outgoing administration is ignoring the mandate for change we just saw in the election. They're working overtime to grease the way for their friends while they still can.

Finally, if people want to become more involved in helping the environment at a grassroots level, what would you recommend they do?

Earthjustice and other environmental organizations have several ways private citizens can become involved in issues of the environment. It's critical that people let their senators and congressmen hear their views on the environment-healing initiatives we hope to see out of Washington soon. Remember, there will be a lot of pressure from those who would make a fast buck by dumping their pollution or taking oil, gas, other minerals, or timber off the public's land. There will be a look of push back from the fossil fuel industries to coming regulations, especially those that mine and burn coal. It will be important for the public to speak up and weigh in. People can visit the Earthjustice website to take action. At the website you'll find a "take action" icon, which will navigate to a list of action alerts that folks can take or sign on to. The more people are informed about the environment, the greater our chances of restoring and protecting the environment.

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