These are difficult times. Most of us are sacrificing to protect ourselves, our families and our communities from COVID-19. Unfortunately, there are others who are using this crisis as cover to further their own exploitative agendas.

According to Associated Press reports, the oil and gas industry approached the Environmental Protection Agency, seeking easing of enforcement on environmental protection rules in recognition of the industry’s supposed virus-related staffing issues. But Trump’s EPA, run by a revolving door of former industry officials, went far beyond relaxing a few rules.

It suspended the issuance of fines and other penalties companies might incur for failure to report or monitor the release of toxic pollutants. In the words of former Barack Obama-era official Gina McCarthy, this latest gift to the fossil fuel industry is “an open license to pollute.”

Besides ensuring unhindered continuation of its polluting and climate-destroying emissions, the oil and gas industry has been busy on other fronts. While we’ve been self isolating, sanitizing and social distancing, the industry stealthily has approached Republican legislators in conservative states and enlisted them in criminalizing citizen protests against oil and gas operations, protests that inconveniently bring attention to how dirty and toxic oil and gas development is to our families’ health and future.

Within the span of a few days in mid-March, they were successful in passing felony anti-protest laws in Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia.

The industry, and the Trump administration, are using the current crisis, a crisis worsened by the president’s own inaction, to first designate oil and gas facilities “critical infrastructure” and to then use that designation to rationalize these free speech-chilling statutes.

By criminalizing any peaceable assembly that may be construed as “impairing” or “interrupting” operations and by making any perceived damage to property more than $1,000 a felony, the industry and its political cronies again have successfully sold out our constitutional rights for fossil fuels’ profits, pollution and domination of our democracy, all while our attention is focused elsewhere.

Why is this important now? Perhaps you agree that the industry should be given free rein at this vulnerable time. Well, here a few things to consider.

Fracking in northern Colorado is the primary driver of our ultra high levels of ozone. These levels, which exceed allowable federal standards, are both a primary driver of respiratory illnesses such as asthma and an immune system suppressant.

This makes those experiencing respiratory distress, particularly the elderly and the immuno-compromised, more susceptible to the severest effects of COVID-19.

There’s more. According to recent studies, Earth’s glaciers and permafrost, thawing as a result of continued fossil fuel production and use, confine multiple species of ancient bacteria and viruses, many of which could be released into our environment with potentially tragic results.

This thawing, according to one Tibetan glacier study’s authors, "will release glacial microbes and viruses that have been trapped and preserved for tens to hundreds of thousands of years." Not only ancient microbes, but relatively recent ones that we thought we had eradicated, such as smallpox, may be poised for release from the ice and permafrost.

One last consideration: COVID-19, along with other recent epidemic diseases such as SARS, Ebola and AIDS, are thought to be zoonotic in origin; that is, they transferred from animals to humans. In response to climate change, we are seeing more people in environmentally stressed locales shift to over-reliance on their local fauna resources for basic survival needs, increasing the chances for these inter-species transfers.

Meanwhile, oil and gas agents in Colorado and neighboring states haven’t been idle. They also heard the industry call to get moving on its schemes. The industry, fearing that laws such as Colorado’s Senate Bill 181 might lead to a surge in municipalities banning fracked “natural” gas in homes and buildings, is pushing for laws outlawing such bans.

A new law in Arizona prohibits cities from restricting energy “choices” and an initiative to do the same is in the works for the November ballot right here in Colorado. This is just one backstab of a planned multi-pronged industry assault on the health and future of Coloradans (and people everywhere) for the upcoming ballot and legislative sessions.

Manipulators and opportunists in our society always have taken advantage of difficult times to rationalize away our rights, health and futures, enlisting the morally compromised among officials and politicians in their efforts. But as President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “The opportunist thinks of me and today. The statesman thinks of us and tomorrow.”

Harv Teitelbaum is a retired environmental science teacher who now works with such organizations as 350Colorado, the Sierra Club and Physicians for Social Responsibility.