Ever since massive pushback to the Keystone XL pipeline during President Obama’s tenure, environmentalists have rallied around the pipeline cause as an effective and loud focal point for political action.
Since Donald Trump’s election, energy activists have shifted their sights to the coutroom -- concentrating instead on mounting legal challenges to regulatory rollbacks at the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere in the federal government.
But this week, pipeline politics became even more fraught. On Tuesday, Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, accused Greenpeace and other environmental activists who helped organize the protests of eco-terrorism, racketeering and other crimes.
"This is one of the most aggressive lawsuits against an environmental group that I've seen," said Michael Gerrard, a professor of environmental law at Columbia.
Greenpeace defended its activism at the Dakota pipeline project, which drew international attention for potentially imperiling drinking water and disturbing sacred burial and archaeological sites. It accused the firm’s lawyers of being “corporate mercenaries willing to abuse the legal system to silence legitimate advocacy work,” according Tom Wetterer, general counsel for Greenpeace USA.
Here's some helpful context:
What is Greenpeace being accused of? Energy Transfer Partners has accused Greenpece and the other activist organizations and individuals, which it branded “putative not-for-profits and rogue eco-terrorist groups," of running afoul of the federal organized crime law used to try members of the mafia, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.
Among the accusations, Energy Transfer Partners said Greenpeace and the other defendants fabricated GPS coordinates for cultural and religious artifacts found along the Dakota pipeline route and falsely claimed that the company encroached on tribal treaty lands.
But perhaps the most provocative charge was that the environmentalists, through two of the groups named in the lawsuit -- Earth First! and Red Warrior Camp -- violated the U.S. Patriot Act by attempting to sabotage the pipeline, acts that, according to the company, amounted to “serious terrorist threats.”
Sounds familiar? It is. Last year, a Canadian logging company called Resolute Forest Products, filed a RICO lawsuit against Greenpeace after the environmental group mounted a multimedia campaign against the company for harvesting trees in Canada’s sensitive boreal forests. As part of that campaign, Greenpeace branded Resolute a “forest destroyer.”
Greenpeace countered that lawsuit by arguing that Resolute's actions were a so-called "strategic lawsuit against public participation," or SLAPP. The group filed an anti-SLAPP motion in the case.
Is there a Trump angle to this story? Well, there usually is one.
Energy Transfer Partners and Resolute are being represented by Kasowitz, Benson & Torres LLP, a law firm founded by Marc Kasowitz, President Trump’s longtime attorney who was sidelined recently in the Russia investigations.
“This is the second consecutive year Donald Trump’s go-to attorneys at the Kasowitz law firm have filed a meritless lawsuit against Greenpeace,” Wetterer said in a statement.
To that, Michael J. Bowe, the partner at Kasowitz's law firm representing Energy Transfer Partners, responded: "Notably, Greenpeace's response to this suit was not to defend the truth of its challenged statements, but to attack the lawyers who exposed those statements as false."
Against this backdrop, what's the future of pipeline politics? With President Obama, environmentalists had an executive branch willing to listen to and respond to their demands. The pipeline protests proved to be an opportunity to test Obama on that commitment.
But after Trump's surprise election victory, environmental groups are now raising money for what they view as a more pressing fight against the regulatory rollback of environmental and energy rules from an administration they feel is largely deaf to its pleas.
But by injecting new life into both the Dakota and Keystone XL pipelines through an executive order in January -- only four days after taking office -- Trump made pipelines relevant again.
A month earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers under Obama shut down construction of the final piece of the Dakota pipeline under Lake Oahe, near the border between North and South Dakota, to consider alternative routes. But Trump’s revival put the pipeline on track to begin pumping in June.
If indeed the intended effect of the lawsuit was to silence Greenpeace, as it claims, the tactic did not work, at least not yet, in the Resolute case.
Greenpeace turned the Resolute case into a rallying point in one of its latest campaigns, using "its court battles with Resolute as a jumping off point to encourage people to use their voices in order to counter multimillion-dollar corporate PR campaigns," according to Fast Company.
The bigger question, which will only be answered over the coming months, is whether the lawsuits from Energy Transfer Partners and Resolute will discourage other protests at other pipeline projects.
The Trump administration, at least, does not appear to have discouraged such protests. The Standing Rock rally in North Dakota last year provided a model for similar movements in Texas and Louisiana in 2017.
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-- THIS IS NEWS: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) may have made a public show of settling their differences over a beer following the ugly fight over the health-care bill that she opposed. But the Interior Department'sOffice of Inspector General isn't willing to let things go when it comes to Zinke's alleged arm-twisting of Murkowski during the failed effort to repeal Obamacare.
The department's inspector general confirmed it "is undertaking a preliminary investigation into the matter," according to a letter sent to Congress earlier this month. The Interior department, which runs agencies that collectively control more than 55 percent of Alaska’s land, holds much sway for Murkowski's state.
Interior IG confirms it's investigating Sec Ryan Zinke's apparent (failed) effort to pressure Sen Murkowski to vote yes on Obamacare repeal pic.twitter.com/isLnpUyDMX— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) August 23, 2017
But don't expect the OIG to be very forthcoming on what it discovers. The office has a reputation for launching many investigations, but making very few of them public.
-- Monumental update: Ahead of Zinke’s deadline this week for his recommendations to potentially shrink 27 national monuments, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Susan Levine take us through the nation’s most endangered monuments. In the months since Trump signed an executive order directing the review, the Interior department has received 2.4 million public comments about the 27 monuments — and Zinke has already announced he will recommend no changes to six of them.
One thing to follow: Whether the designations of monuments with resources locked under them — oil in Southern California’s Carrizo Plain, coal in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante — are rolled back. An analysis from Energy Desk, an investigative arm of Greenpeace, found that up to 2.7 million acres in lands designed as national monuments could contain potential fossil fuel reserves.
-- Follow the money: Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer’s group NextGen America will spend $2 million to support the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, which Steyer called “the race of the year.”
“It seems like there is a struggle for the hearts and minds of Americans right now, and it’s taking place as much in Virginia as anyplace else in the United States of America,” Steyer told The Post’s Fenit Nirappil.
NextGen America will focus on turning out millennials to elect Democrat Ralph Northam, and the cash infusion is expected to pay for 70 staffers on 25 college campuses in Virginia as well as a digital campaign.
-- Red light: The Interior Department has ordered the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to pause studies of health risks for people living near coal mining sites in the Appalachian Mountains, The Post’s Darryl Fears reported on Monday.
The department will conduct an agency-wide review as a result of proposed Interior budget cuts. Fears writes that it’s not clear when the review will start or end.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which is a network of private, nonprofit research groups that provide information on science, technology and medicine to the government, said in a statement that it plans to move forward with previously scheduled public meetings on the project, which is permitted in the Interior letter sent to the network.
-- What just happened? During a rambling campaign-style speech in Phoenix Tuesday evening (read The Post's Jenna Johnson's full account of it here), President Trump again declared victory for his side in the so-called "war on coal:"
We've ended the war on beautiful, clean coal, and it's just been announced that a second, brand-new coal mine, where they're going to take out clean coal — meaning, they're taking out coal, they're going to clean it — is opening in the state of Pennsylvania.
That is not how "clean coal" works. The term is usually used to describe carbon-capture-and-storage technologies that attempt to scrub the greenhouse gas out of the air after the fossil fuel is burned. Trump suggests that coal is somehow cleaned before burning.
From The Post's Phillip Bump:
It’s low on the list, but Trump’s descriptions of clean coal are— Philip Bump (@pbump) August 23, 2017
And New York's Jonathan Chait:
I really want to see the scene Trump envisions when he says this. Is he imagining guys rubbing soap on the coal? He might be. https://t.co/B2alhXJkR5— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) August 23, 2017
-- New leadership is coming to Chevron. John Watson is planning to step down from his post as the chief executive at the No. 2 U.S. oil-and-gas-company, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The parting between Chevron and Watson, who has served in the position since 2010, is apparently amicable, according to The Journal. The company’s vice chairman Mike Wirth is expected to replace Watson.
But the decision is telling about the future of managing an oil major in the age of cheap shale gas. With oil no longer selling for $100 per barrel, the incentive for companies like Chevron to strike splashy drilling deals abroad has dried up. Instead, "many are now turning to executives adept at squeezing every last dollar from a barrel through refining, and shorter-term investments that turn a profit faster," wrote WSJ's Bradley Olson.
The elevation of Wirth to CEO would mean that four of the five largest publicly traded energy companies — Exxon, Shell, Total and now Chevron — are run by refining specialists.
The company tweeted Tuesday that the WSJ report was "speculation" and declined to comment further:
We are not commenting on @WSJ reporting and speculation re: changes to Chevron leadership.— Chevron (@Chevron) August 22, 2017
-- More pipeline politics: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that federal regulators did not properly assess the climate impact of a natural gas pipeline project carrying gas through Southeastern states.
The appeals court ruled two-to-one that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s environmental impact statement “should have either given a quantitative estimate of the downstream greenhouse emissions that will result from burning the natural gas that the pipelines will transport or explained more specifically why it could not have done so.”
Why that matters: It added fodder to environmentalists arguments that analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act still need to take climate change into account, despite President Trump directing federal agencies through an executive order to stand down from calculating the cost of carbon emissions on society.
“These rulings show how President Trump’s executive order withdrawing support for the social cost of carbon is misguided and shortsighted," Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity, said in a statement. "The executive order gives federal agencies a false sense of security that they can ignore the cost of greenhouse gas emissions in their policy decisions."
--Energy boost: In a first, the United States sent a shipment of coal from a facility in Pennsylvania to a company in Ukraine, as part of an effort to boost energy exports to allies.
Ukraine’s national utility, Centrenergo, signed a deal with the United States to buy coal from the Pennsylvania facility soon after President Trump met with the Ukrainian President, the Washington Examiner reported.
"This shipment will boost both of our country's economies by supporting jobs in the coal and transportation industries," Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in a statement on Monday. "The department and this administration look forward to making available even more of our abundant natural resources to allies like Ukraine in the future to promote their own energy security through diversity of supply and source."
--On a mission in the Arctic: While The Energy 202 was out, The Post’s Chris Mooney and Alice Li completed their reporting trip to the Northwest Passage.
In one dispatch, Mooney writes about navigating the narrow Bellot Strait that he writes is the “narrowest and notorious for being a difficult trip.”
“Has complex currents,” one Northwest Passage authority warns.
That turns out to be an understatement, as two journalists from The Washington Post found out last week when they — with a full complement of scientists from the ArcticNet consortium at Université Laval in Quebec City — passed through the strait last week aboard a Canadian coast guard icebreaker, the CCGS Amundsen.
In case you missed it, read all five stories from Chris Mooney and Alice Li.
And here's a great time lapse from Li:
--Does one tree a day keep climate deniers at bay? A trio of New Zealand-based environmentalists developed a plan to counter President Trump’s undoing of President Obama’s climate policies with a “Trump Forest.” The website, created by entrepreneur Adrien Taylor, British climate scientist Dan Price and political scientist Jeff Willis and detailed in a story by Vox, aims to encourage people to donate to plant a tree, and send a receipt to the site, which will add it to their pledge count. The group said the trees are meant to make up for the greenhouse gas emissions that would be released without the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.
The goal? 10 billion trees. So far the site’s counter shows more than 340,000 trees pledged.
-- Eclipse week, cont'd: Monday’s total solar eclipse is reportedly the most-observed and most-photographed in history, according to the Associated Press. NASA reports that 4.4 million people were watching its livestream coverage at the halfway point of the eclipse, breaking a streaming record for the space agency.
But, as Vox’s Ruairi Arrieta-Kenna noted, the Science Mission Directorate’s Thomas Zurbuchen said in June that it’s not possible to know whether any records were broken.
"My personal feeling is that it will be the most watched," Zurbuchen said in June. "but I can't prove that scientifically. We don't have really hard numbers on any [previous eclipses].”
- The 14th Annual EPA Drinking Water Workshop continues in Ohio.
- The 10th Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in Life Sciences continues in Seattle.
- The Interior’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization’s Navy Gold Coast Small Business Procurement conference continues today.
- The EPA holds a national stormwater calculator webinar.
- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has until Thursday to make his final recommendation on whether to shrink or eliminate 27 national monuments.
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