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The Energy 202: The two problems with Trump's offshore drilling push

with Paulina Firozi


President Trump is moving forward with a campaign promise to reopen federal waters in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans for oil and gas drilling.

But he and his administration still haven't fully answered the question: How much interest is there, really, in opening these waters to fossil fuel exploration and exploitation?

On Monday, the Interior Department published notice in the Federal Register that it is seeking public comment on the effects offshore drilling would have on 26 areas in U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico, North Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Ocean and Pacific Ocean both off the coast of Alaska and the lower 48 states.

The "request for information" is the first step in formally unwinding the five-year plan for oil and gas drilling President Obama put in place when he left office, which kept 90 percent of the outer continental shelf off limits as his administration sought to mitigate human impact on ocean life and reduce the emissions of planet-warming gases.

Last week, Vincent DeVito, Interior’s counselor for energy policy, countered that the Trump administration simply couldn't leave creating potentially 300,000 jobs off the table.

The history: Although drilling rigs stood shoulder-to-shoulder along the beaches of southern California about a century ago, drilling on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts has been suspended for more than three decades. The halt in drilling on those coasts is a result of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which soaked the coast and killed innumerable birds. The spill was a key catalyst for the modern environmental movement. 

Congress in 1982 started inserting a moratorium on Pacific and Atlantic drilling every year in the appropriations bill. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush a presidential directive banning offshore drilling outside the Gulf of Mexico and parts of Alaska. 

But President George W. Bush threatened to veto the appropriations bill in 2008 and the item was dropped. He rescinded his father’s directive and scheduled drilling off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in his final five-year drilling plan. President Obama overturned that, however. He added new lease sales in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and allowed seismic work off parts of the Atlantic coast for possible leasing at a future date.

Efforts to drill in the Arctic Ocean, greenlighted by both the Bush and Obama administrations over the last two decades, were less successful. Two years ago, Royal Dutch Shell abandoned an effort to develop offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea after failing to turn up enough oil to justify the cost of drilling in the frigid and difficult-to-manage Arctic waters.

The present: Currently there are two hurdles facing the president in his push for more offshore drilling — one political, the other economic.

1) Bipartisan opposition to more offshore oil and gas drilling. A handful of politicians in Trump's party, including Reps. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), have voiced support for or sponsored legislation, locking Obama-era offshore policy in place. These Republicans don't want to see oil rigs in their constituents' backyards, and risk backlash from any future spill due to a leasing push they backed. Plus, a local say in how nearby ocean waters are leased for exploration squares with the GOP ideology of states' rights.

"Clearly, the coastal governors will have different views about where they want to see offshore development," Katharine MacGregor, acting assistant secretary for lands and minerals management at the Interior Department, told a conference of offshore executives in May, according to the Houston Chronicle.

But she indicated her boss, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, may focus political fire at California, whose Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, also opposes drilling off his state's shores. "The secretary has had quite a few questions about California, and other areas that seem to come up every time you talk about a five-year plan," MacGregor said.

2) The price of oil. Due to strong natural gas production onshore in the United States (among other reasons), a barrel of oil is currently selling for less than $50, despite recent gains. The same supply-and-demand forces that kept gasoline prices low even during peak driving times over the Fourth of July weekend are giving oil and gas companies less motivation to build expensive offshore rigs with cheaper-to-extract natural gas available onshore.

Or as The Post's Darryl Fears reported last week, "many oil companies balk at the massive investment in equipment needed to drill offshore when the price is lower than $85, analysts say."

The price of petroleum, historically very volatile, could always rebound to the point of making offshore development economically viable. But so far, it doesn't appear that the Trump administration has offered an expected future price spike as justification for the current "drill, baby, drill" push. 

Steven Mufson contributed to this report.


-- This could be big: On Monday, a federal appeals court rejected the Trump administration’s delay of an Obama-era rule to limit methane pollution in oil and natural gas drilling.

The court sided with environmental groups, ruling that while the Environmental Protection Agency could reconsider the rule, it did not have the authority to implement the 90-day delay while it looked to rewrite it, The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson reported. 

The court will separately decide on the agency’s proposal to extend the rule delay to two years, but the EPA will have to immediately begin enforcing the rule, which the Obama administration established in 2016 to prevent leaks of climate-warming methane from oil and gas operations. 

Why it matters: The court decision only undoes a 90-day delay. But a judicial ruling reinstating one of his predecessor's policy could spell trouble for Trump as he pursues his agenda of revoking a large swath of Obama-era rules.

Eilperin and Mufson write: "The ruling could affect myriad agencies that have delayed the Obama administration’s regulations, some for long periods. And it underscores the extent to which activists are turning to the courts to block President Trump’s most ambitious policy shifts."

-- Shhhh: The Pentagon will now keep secret once public assessments of the safety and security of nuclear weapons operations, the Associated Press reported.

Before, details from inspection reports, including a base's "pass/fail" grade, were available to the public. But the Trump administration decided that was too much information to reveal to potential adversaries abroad.

The counter-argument: “I think the new policy fails to distinguish between protecting valid secrets and shielding incompetence,” Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists, told the AP. “Clearly, nuclear weapons technology secrets should be protected. But negligence or misconduct in handling nuclear weapons should not be insulated from public accountability.”

-- That damn dam: The Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River in Maryland may derail the $19 billion plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, The Post's Darryl Fears reports.

New technology shows that the reservoir will fill 15 years ahead of schedule. A report from the scientists on the EPA program managing bay cleanup found that the reservoir behind the dam has filled with sediment a lot quicker than predicted. The reservoir was meant to hit capacity between 2030 and 2035 but is already 95 percent full and could stop blocking sediment from the bay in the next three years.

Sediment has always flowed naturally down the Susquehanna and other rivers since time began, “but human development altered the landscape and caused more," Johns Hopkins University professor William P. Ball said. Too much sediment buries grasses that protect juvenile fish, crabs and other marine animals on the bay floor.

Now the burden of what to do without the help of reservoir falls to the six states in the Chesapeake Bay region, already in a multimillion dollar hole from the cleanup plan.


-- Totally new natural gas deal: Total signed an agreement with Iran to pump natural gas in the Persian Gulf. Working in partnership with government-owned oil and gas companies in Iran and China, the French major will invest $1 billion in developing part of the South Pars gas field. 

But the big risk to the project sits more than 6,000 miles away in the Oval Office. 

The New York Times reports: "The decision has far-reaching implications, not least setting a path that other Western energy companies could soon follow, and possibly giving Total an inside track for future contracts in Iran. But it also exposes the company to risk if Mr. Trump reneges on the Iran nuclear deal, or if the United States imposes further sanctions against Tehran."

-- Next weekend's beach read: Journalist Eliza Griswold has an article in the latest issue of The New Yorker profiling Veronica Coptis, an environmental activist married to a coal worker, and, more broadly, the rural southwestern Pennsylvania coal country where she was raised and works. 

The best line: For as much talk as there is about how jobs in the solar industry outnumber those in coal by more than two to one, those gigs often just don't have the same appeal to Greene County, Pa. residents — with some justification. "No job making solar panels was going to pay someone without a college education a six-figure salary," Griswold writes.


-- Nixing nuclear in South Korea: There's another nuclear issue brewing on the Korean Peninsula beside Kim Jong Un's missile tests. South Korea's new president, Moon Jae-in, promised to scrap plans for building any new nuclear power plants in South Korea after taking office in May. Now a group of about two dozen prominent scientists and conservationists are urging Jae-in to reconsider.

What they're saying: "Instead of phasing out nuclear, we encourage you to lead an effort to both make nuclear even safer and more cost-economical than it already is through the development and demonstration of accident-tolerant fuels and new plant designs," the group wrote in their letter. They said that it is hard to see South Korea meeting its Paris agreement goals without more nuclear energy.

Why it matters: South Korea has made nuclear energy work better than any other nation. As the letter writers note, South Korea is the only country where the cost of nuclear plants have declined. The South Koreans have become so good at building these plants that the United Arab Emirates hired the nation's major state-controlled electric utility, KEPCO, to build four reactors there. Jae-in's rollback threatens any future KEPCO contracts abroad.


-- Heavy stuff: The Post’s Jenna Gallegos wrote a good explainer on “weight restriction days” for commercial jets, and why you may be seeing more of them as heat waves proliferate.

The science: When it's hot enough at high elevations, the air will become too thin for laden airlines to take off (since planes achieve flight by pushing off of the air molecules around it). Days when extra precautions are taken are deemed “weight restriction days.” Last month, for example, nearly 60 American Airlines flights were canceled in Phoenix over the course of three scorching days.

What this means: There could be four times as many weight restriction days by 2050 for the most “at-risk” airports, according to a 2015 study. Airliners “lose weight” by leaving behind passengers, fuel or cargo. So for long flights on hot days, that could mean more passengers or more luggage left behind. Last year, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.N. agency that oversees aviation, said increase temperatures was one of its main climate-related concerns.

-- Do as the Romans do: The vast sea walls created by ancient Roman builders may help scientists create modern concrete walls to protect shoreline environments from rising sea levels.

Marie Jackson, an expert in ancient Roman concrete at the University of Utah, is “attempting to recreate this durable concrete using San Francisco seawater and more abundant volcanic rocks. She has several samples sitting in ovens and jars in her lab, which she will test for evidence of similar chemical reactions,” The Post's Ben Guarino reported.

“If her effort is successful, the concrete could yet have a role to play in human history — ‘if one was indeed interested in making sea walls” and “forced to protect shoreline environments,’ Jackson said. (In one 2014 study, a team of European climate scientists predicted that, if the next 90 years follow the trend of the past 30, the cost of constructing barriers to hold back the sea might rise to as high as $71 billion per year. The alternative, coastal flooding, could do trillions of dollars in damage annually.)”


Coming Up

  • The U.S.-China Green Energy Council will hold a Clean Energy and Smart Grid Forum in Palo Alto, Calif. Thursday
  • The Inter-American Dialogue will hold an event on Clean Power in Latin America Thursday.
  • The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy will host its International Solar Fuels Conference starting Thursday. It will continue through Monday.
  • President Trump will attend the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7 and 8.
  • The Sustainable Energy Coalition is hosting the 20th Congressional Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency EXPO and forum on July 11. 

-- Important for more than just George Washington's teeth: When the Declaration of Independence was signed 241 years ago, it was not coal or kerosene that powered the young republic, Columbia professor and former Obama adviser Jason Bordoff‏ pointed out on Twitter. 

It was wood.

How the Interior Department celebrated July Fourth:

Watch as firefighters rescue a baby deer from a wildfire: 

Members of the Flagstaff Hotshot crew rescued a pair of fawns from a wildfire burning in the Prescott National Forest. (Video: U.S. Forest Service — Prescott National Forest)

Apparent natural gas explosion kills utility worker in Pennsylvania:

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation into an apparent natural gas explosion that destroyed a Pennsylvania home and killed a utility worker on Monday, July 3. (Video: Lancaster Township Fire Department)