Trump Administration Manipulated Wildfire Science to Promote Logging Interests


Trump's interior department sought to manipulate the 2018 California wildfires to encourage cutting down trees.

Internal emails revealed that the Trump administration’s interior department sought to play up climate pollution from California wildfires while downplaying emissions from fossil fuels as a way to promote more logging in the nation’s forests, according to The Guardian.

The emails obtained by the Guardian show officials seeking to estimate the carbon emissions from the devastating 2018 fires in California so they could compare them to the state’s electricity sector’s carbon footprint and then publish statements encouraging cutting down trees.

James Reilly, a former petroleum geologist and astronaut who is the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, asked scientists to “gin up” emissions figures for him in a series of emails in 2018. He also said the numbers would make a “decent sound bite,” and acknowledged that wildfire emissions estimates could very based on what kind of trees were burning but picked the ones that he said would make “a good story.”

Scientists who reviewed the exchange said that at best, Reilly used unfortunate language and the department cherry-picked data to help achieve their pro-industry policy goals. At worst, he and others exploited a disaster and manipulated the data.

Forests emit greenhouse gases when they burn, but one expert said the numbers the interior department put forth are significant overestimates. They say logging wouldn’t necessarily help prevent or lessen wildfires, but logging could negate the ability of forests to absorb carbon dioxide humans are emitting at record rates.

“The comparison of fire to electrical emissions [in California] was not explained or justified,” said Mark Harmon, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry. “Picking other sectors would have left an entirely different image in the reader’s mind...If the comparison had been made nationally it would have been found that fire related emissions of carbon dioxide were equivalent to 1.7% of fossil fuel related emissions. So it is hard to escape the conclusion that some cherry picking was going on.”

Jayson O’Neill, the deputy director of the Western Values Project, said the emails are another example of the administration “trying to find ways to tell a story to achieve industry goals.”

“As wildfire experts have repeatedly explained, you can’t log or even ‘rake’ our way out of this mess. The Trump administration and the interior department are pushing mystical theories that are false in order to justify gutting public land protections to advance their pro-industry and lobbyist dominated agenda,” he said.

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