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Saturday, March 11, 2017 10:16 pm

Banks unsure of climate change

Brian Francisco | The Journal Gazette

Freshman U.S. Rep. Jim Banks is vice chairman of a House subcommittee on the environment. Banks also is uncertain whether climate change is happening and, if it is, whether human activities are a contributing factor.

"I believe there is some evidence and some scientific research that might support that, and other research that doesn’t.

"And I look forward, as a member of the committee, to learning, just as I do being a part of other committees," Banks, R-3rd, said in a recent interview.

When he was a candidate for the northeast Indiana seat in the House last fall, Banks told a public forum that climate change "is largely leftist propaganda to change the way Americans live and create more government obstruction and intrusion in our lives."

That comment prompted Scientific American magazine to label Banks a climate change denier in January when he was named to a seat on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Banks later was appointed vice chairman of the panel’s environment subcommittee.

"I do not consider myself to be a climate change denier," Banks said in an interview in his Fort Wayne office on a February day when outside temperatures reached 63 degrees, which was 24 degrees higher than normal.

"I have yet to take a stance on a single piece of legislation in the committee. I look forward to those debates," he said.

Bowden Quinn, director of the Indiana chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization, said Banks seems to be ignoring the consensus opinion of climate scientists that climate change is real and caused in large part by humans.

"It is incredibly blind to say we are not encountering climate change, and I don’t believe that Rep. Banks’ constituents would agree with him on this," Quinn said in a phone interview.

"For a person in Rep. Banks’ position to say, ‘Well, the jury is still out,’ is completely wrong," he said.

The Science Committee’s environment subcommittee on which Banks sits has jurisdiction for the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA’s Earth science activities. All three agencies have said that humans are causing climate change.

Banks’ views are not out of line with those of most other members of the subcommittee. According to media reports and government watchdog groups, all 10 Republicans on the panel either have expressed disbelief or doubts about climate change, say it is naturally occurring or believe that U.S. economic growth is more important than federal regulations to protect the environment. The three Democratic members say climate change is happening and that people are contributing to it.

By contrast, a survey released this year by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 70 percent of adult Americans believe global warming is happening and 53 percent believe it is mostly caused by human activities. The survey showed 64 percent of Hoosiers and 62 percent of adults in Banks’ 3rd District believe global warming is real.

Oft-repeated studies stating 97 percent of climate scientists believe people are warming the planet have been disputed by detractors and fact checkers. But the nonprofit Skeptical Science reviewed seven climate consensus studies – including one led by the organization’s founder – and found the consensus on human-caused global warming ranged from 91 percent to 100 percent, with four of the studies at 97 percent.

Repealing water rule

When Banks was named vice chairman of the environment subcommittee, he said in a statement that he wanted to examine EPA regulations "that hurt small businesses and hinder job creation. Addressing overregulation and red tape will be a major priority, and I look forward to this role."

He repeated that position in his interview with The Journal Gazette.

"What I am looking at is ways that we can reduce the authority of the executive branch of the federal government, outside the scope of the legislative branch, to pass rules and regulations that impede on landowners and businesses in northeast Indiana," said Banks, 37, a commercial real estate broker before joining Congress this year.

The Columbia City resident said 3rd District farmers have complained to him about "onerous regulations" from the EPA, particularly the Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the United States rule. As a congressional candidate last year, he heard "over and over again" from northeast Indiana landowners worried about having to comply with the 2015 regulation.

Rule opponents, including farm groups and homebuilders, insist the regulation would give the EPA broad jurisdiction over virtually every drop of water – even puddles and water-filled tire ruts. A federal court stalled implementation of the rule a few months after it was finalized, and President Donald Trump recently issued an executive order promising to rewrite or repeal the regulation.

The Sierra Club’s Quinn dismissed criticism of the waters rule as "baloney" and said the regulation would apply only to bodies of water that might pollute other waterways, such as rivers, tributaries and wetlands, that already are regulated by the EPA.

"It all depends on what happens downstream," he said.

The rule states that the EPA does not have jurisdiction over artificially drained areas; artificial lakes, ponds and basins; water-filled depressions created by mining or construction activity, such as gravel pits; erosional features; and puddles – providing those waters don’t drain into wetlands or tributaries.

National concerns

Banks, a former state senator, said Congress and state government agencies, such as the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, should take over many of the regulatory functions of the EPA.

IDEM "can make better decisions than bureaucrats within the EPA" because it "is more local and in touch with Hoosier farms and landowners," he said.

Quinn said the Sierra Club is "very happy" with the new IDEM commissioner, Bruno Pigott. But threats to the environment cross state lines, he said.

"So if one state wasn’t protecting its water and its air sufficiently, then the state downriver or downwind from it would suffer. To a certain extent, these protections have to be addressed at the federal level," Quinn said.

For example, agriculture fertilizer runoff is blamed for Lake Erie algae blooms; the one in 2014 forced the shutdown of Toledo’s drinking water system. Lake Erie drains from the Maumee River watershed, which includes northwest Ohio, portions of six counties in northeast Indiana and parts of two counties in southeast Michigan.

"We have to recognize that environmental problems are national and even global and cannot be addressed on a state-by-state basis," Quinn said.

Banks said oversight must be a balance between federal and state agencies that would "still maintain a reasonable level of regulations that would impact interstate commerce."

"I’ve never advocated for a full elimination of the EPA," Banks said. "But I do believe on the committee that we can look at ways to reduce the number of burdensome regulations and roll back authority to the states to make some of these decisions."

Since the interview with Banks, the Washington Post has reported that a White House document it reviewed proposes reducing the EPA’s staff by one-fifth, from 15,000 employees to 12,000. The Post also has reported that a memo it obtained showed the Trump administration seeks to cut by 17 percent the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which produces data on climate change.

And on Thursday, new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in an interview with CNBC that he "would not agree" that human activity is "a primary contributor to the global warming that we see."

bfrancisco@jg.net