As a planet, our environmental policies and the current coronavirus pandemic are undeniably linked. The way in which we manage our natural resources, such as cutting down forests, can have unintended consequences, such as exposing humans to wild animals (like bats) that, as a result, are forced to find new habitat and come in closer contact with humans and inevitably transfer disease. Likewise, just as our environmental policies can affect the chances of a future pandemic, a current pandemic can affect the status and role of existing environmental policies. Currently during this Coronavirus pandemic, we are seeing its effects on a number of existing environmental policies. Change and adaptation during times of emergency is important, but it is crucial for us to understand which changes are necessary and beneficial to communities, and which changes are simply politically motivated and beneficial only to special interest groups.
For instance, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, some states like Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and California have temporarily banned the use of reusable bags and temporarily overridden their respective bans on single-use plastic bags. Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts recently ordered a temporary repeal of local bans on single-use plastic bags and has banned the use of reusable bags in grocery stores. Governor Baker stated that given the evidence of Covid-19’s ability to reside on surfaces for extended periods of time, he felt “the risk was simply not worth it” (Crawford). This kind of adaptation might make sense in the midst of an impending crisis. However, it is important that we don’t allow war time efforts to erase the progress we have made up to this point to pass legislation that will continue to benefit the planet and our communities beyond the times of crisis. Lobbyists for the Plastics Industry Association are jumping at this opportunity to permanently roll back legislation banning single-use plastics. A letter written by the Plastics Industry Association and sent to Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services, claims that “single-use plastics are the safest choice” (Crawford), and that the department should “speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk” (Crawford).
Legislative overrides and rollbacks aren’t the only issue. Newly proposed ‘pandemic-time’ legislation ought to be analyzed with a critical eye as well. Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, some state officials are seizing the opportunity to protect fossil fuel companies by elevating their status and classification as “critical Infrastructure.” Since the months-long protests at Standing Rock in 2016 to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline (a project of the company Energy Transfer Partners), a number of states, including Oklahoma, Louisiana, Iowa, Ohio, Wyoming, and Minnesota, have attempted to introduce “critical infrastructure” bills aimed at elevating the status and protections for fossil fuel companies. In Iowa, where this kind of legislation was passed into law back in 2018, it is now a criminal act to “protest on anything that could be conceivably understood as part of the fossil fuel industry’s ‘critical infrastructure’” (Gullapalli). Furthermore, any act “that intends a substantial and widespread “interruption or impairment of a fundamental service” (Biggers) of gas, oil, petroleum or refined petroleum products is a felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison” (Gullapalli). A similar law passed in Louisiana in 2018 states that “Disrupting operations [of any critical infrastructure] is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison” (Gullapalli). The panic and distraction the Coronavirus pandemic has created now in 2020, seems to be the opportunity some other state officials have been looking for to pass this kind of legislation into law in their own states.
Three state governors, Andy Beshear (D) of Kentucky, Kirsti Noem (R) of South Dakota, and Jim Justice (R) of West Virginia have all signed legislation that impose criminal penalties for demonstrating protests against fossil fuel companies during the pandemic. Governor Beshear has categorized natural gas and petroleum pipelines as “critical infrastructure,” and thus “tampering with, impeding, or inhibiting operations of a key infrastructure asset,” is to be considered a “criminal mischief in the first degree” (Axelrod). Governor Noem of South Dakota has also signed into law a classification of oil and gas pipelines and other utility equipment as “critical infrastructure,” capitalizing on the opportunity of the pandemic to provide these companies with extra protections and importance under the law. Governor Justice in West Virginia has deemed oil, gas, and pipeline facilities as “critical infrastructure” as well, supporting efforts to provide added protections and status to these companies in the name of supposed necessity during this pandemic.
As far as banning reusable grocery bags and lifting bans on single-use plastics, many agree that these are not normal times and being extra careful may be a wise decision at the current moment. However, evidence supporting the claim that single-use plastic bags are a safer option than cloth reusable bags, is not very convincing. According to Amanda Mae Simanek, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the Covid-19 virus “could remain viable or potentially infectious on copper for four hours, on cardboard for 24 hours, on stainless steel for two days and on plastic for up to three days” (Crawford). The researchers for this study did not test cloth, but “in general viruses are less likely to be transmitted by soft surfaces than hard ones” (Crawford). Simanek also reminds us that when it comes to the ability of reusable bags to transmit the Covid-19 virus, “there haven’t been any scientific studies and CDC has definitely not made any blanket recommendations about not using reusable bags” (Crawford). Simanek and others, like Ivy Schlegel, a senior research specialist at the environmental nonprofit Greenpeace, feel that for now, to “err on the side of caution” is a reasonable practice, but according to Schlegel, when it comes to the intense response by the plastics industry during this pandemic, “what we’re seeing is an attempt to roll back legislation and sort of go back in time” (Crawford). Schlegel, and her co-authors of a recent research brief, have gone so far as to accuse the plastics industry of “exploit[ing] the COVID-19 emergency to create fear about reusable bags” (Crawford).
In regards to state protections of fossil fuel companies and the passing of “critical infrastructure” legislation, many see this as nothing more than a strategically timed effort to pass controversial laws that benefit fossil fuel interests while media attention is focused on covering the pandemic and not fossil fuel protests. According to Connor Gibson, a researcher at Greenpeace, “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” (Axelrod). Gibson claims that “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” (Axelrod). Suspicions of this timing strategy are only further fueled when one sees a similar correlation with the timing of legislation proposals coming from the EPA and Federal Government to halt pollution monitoring requirements for the fossil fuel industry, reduce emissions standards for the automotive industry, and waive fines for fossil fuel, agriculture, and construction companies that harm local bird populations.
Environmental Integrity Project
- 501 (c)(3) nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that advocates for effective enforcement of environmental laws. Comprised of former EPA enforcement attorneys, public interest lawyers, analysts, investigators, and community organizers
Natural Resources Defense Council
- Working to ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water and the wild, and to prevent special interests from undermining public interests.
- Exposing global environmental problems, and promoting solutions for future generations.
- Axelrod, Tal. “Three States Push Criminal Penalties for Fossil Fuel Protests amid Coronavirus.” The Hill, Capitol Hill Publishing Corporation, 27 Mar. 2020, www.thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/489960-three-states-push-criminal-penalties-for-fossil-fuel-protests-amid.
- Crawford, Amy. “We Made So Much Progress On Plastic Bags. Coronavirus Could Undo It All.” Huffpost, Huffington Post, 27 Mar. 2020, www.huffpost.com/entry/single-use-plastic-bags-coronavirus_n_5e7dc718c5b6256a7a286cfb.
- Deese, Kaelan. “San Francisco Bans Reusable Bags in Coronavirus Fight.” The Hill, Capitol Hill Publishing Corporation, 2 Apr. 2020, www.thehill.com/homenews/news/490835-san-francisco-bans-reusable-bags-in-coronavirus-fight.
- Lustbader, Sarah, and Vaidya Gullapalli. “States Use Anti-Protest Laws to Protect Oil Pipelines and Criminalize Environmental Activism.” The Appeal, Tides Advocacy, 22 Aug. 2018, www.theappeal.org/states-use-anti-protest-laws-to-protect-oil-pipelines-and-criminalize-environmental-activism/.