THE LIGHTBULB

When a major piece of energy infrastructure is built on public lands, a towering stack of paperwork laying out the environmental risks the new construction may pose is often also erected.

But the Trump administration, aiming to rebuild ailing U.S. infrastructure as quickly as possible, wants to cap how long such environmental impact statements (EIS) run. 

In a quietly issued memo last week, the Interior Department directed its agencies to limit environmental impact statements to 150 pages "or 300 pages for unusually complex projects," with exceptions being granted only by higher-ups within the department. 

The order, citing the need to "reduce paperwork" and to focus on environmental concerns that "truly matter rather than amassing unnecessary detail," also asks agencies to complete environmental impact statements within one year once determined that such a statement is necessary.

"This is common sense and good government," said Heather Swift, press secretary at the Interior Department. "Should a team feel as though more time is needed to complete the assessment, they need only ask."

But environmental groups criticized the decision, signed by Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, arguing that arbitrary time and length limits undercut the public's ability to weigh in on how major projects like oil pipelines and drilling rigs are built on federal lands. 

"There is no good reason to shortcut or sidestep opportunities for the American public to have a say about what happens on their lands," Nada Culver, senior director at the Wilderness Society, said.

The environmental studies are mandated by the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In 1978, guidelines issued by the Council on Environmental Quality attempted to corral the length of environmental impact statements to, again, 150 pages or, for unusually complex projects, 300 pages.

But over the decades, such environmental impact statements have been known to run into the tens of thousands of pages.

"In contemporary Department of Interior practice, a 150-page EIS is very rare," said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "It would mean a significant change in current practice."

The Interior Department completes about 80 such environmental studies per year, with the studies on average taking three to five years to finish. In an email, Swift, Interior's press secretary, noted that the streamlining effort "impacts every project the Department assesses including solar and wind projects."

The new secretarial order dovetails with an executive order signed by President Trump in August that called for "timely decisions" on projects with the goal of completing "environmental reviews and authorization decisions for major infrastructure projects within 2 years."

But an arbitrary time limit could have the unintended effect of dragging out projects.

"It’s likely to result in projects taking longer," said Keith Benes, a former State Department lawyer who handled the environmental study for the Keystone XL pipeline.

NEPA does not require federal agencies to avoid environmental impacts, but it does mandate them to identify potential environmental issues and mitigation measures. Rushed studies could lead to oversights — and, consequently, legal challenges.

Agencies, Benes said, "will try to go faster and there will be a much higher risk of a court invalidating what they do, and they’ll have to go back to do it over. 

Some aspects of these environmental reviews, he added, such as studying the impacts on migratory birds, can only be conducted during certain seasons, making a one-year due date difficult.

POWER PLAYS

-- BRACING FOR IRMA"We're as well-prepared as you can possibly be," President Trump said Thursday, adding he was "very concerned" about Irma's impact on Florida. But he expressed optimism that the state is "as well-prepared as you can possibly be," praising Gov. Rick Scott (R)'s work. 

"The people of Florida are like the people of Texas, Louisiana — you’ve seen how the people of our country have reacted under this tremendous pressure, and these horrible things that we call hurricanes. This is something that is probably bigger — not as much water but much more power — than Harvey," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. "The governor has so far done a terrific job, they’re prepared. We don’t know exactly where it’s landing, where landfall will be, we think we’re as well-prepared as you can possibly be."

Much more on Irma below, and you can follow the course of the storm all day at The Post.

President Trump tweeted out a warning again this morning, and praise for the Coast Guard: 

-- "Not now:" Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt emphasized a slightly different point about what not to stress when discussing Irma. In an interview with CNN, Pruitt said that now is not the time to talk about climate change:

Here's the issue: To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm; versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced... What we need to focus on is access to clean water, addressing these areas of superfund activities that may cause an attack on water, these issues of access to fuel. ... Those are things so important to citizens of Florida right now, and to discuss the cause and effect of these storms, there's the... place (and time) to do that, it's not now... Congress should address that at some point. And Congress hasn't. All I'm saying to you is, to use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to this people in Florida.

Pruitt is casting discussion of climate change as an either-or choice: Either talk about the underlying reasons a storm like this may be intensifying or talk about helping those who will be hurt by the storm. To Pruitt, policymakers can't do both at once.

Here's the thing: This is a classic false dichotomy. Policymakers can do both. Especially top brass like Pruitt, whose job it is to set the agency's agenda going forward, not just respond to crises happening now.

-- FERC filling up: On Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held confirmation hearings for two nominees for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — a Republican, Kevin McIntyre and a Democrat, Richard Glick — as well as some Interior nominees. 

After months of having too few members to approve energy projects, FERC regained a quorum in August. Filling more seats at FERC will get more pipelines (and other infrastructure projects) in the... pipeline.

Which had some environmentalists upset. Protesters attempted to shout over the Senate confirmation hearing, chanting “no eminent domain for private gain,” the Washington Examiner reported. "Mind your conscience, FERC is destroying our atmosphere," other protesters yelled. Capitol Police later escorted protesters out of the hearing room in Dirksen.

-- Harvey aid on track to pass: The Senate advanced $15.25 billion in relief aid as part of the deal President Trump came to with Democratic leaders to increase the federal borrowing limit and keep the government open until Dec. 8.  

The bill passed by a vote of 80-17 on Thursday and is expected to quickly be approved in the House, reports our colleague Kelsey Snell, despite opposition from conservatives who have criticized packaging aid with debt and funding legislation.

-- A test for Tester: Lola Zinke, wife of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, was tapped this week to run the campaign of the Montana businessman Troy Downing running against Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) in 2018.

“This isn’t title only, I’m going to be hands-on in this campaign because its’ vital for Montana and America that we elect Tony,” Lola Zinke said in a statement.

Downing tweeted that he was “ecstatic” to have Lola Zinke join his team.

“Her dynamic presence is a major addition to my team as we give the citizens of Montana a clear conservative voice focused on Montana values, not Washington, D.C.’s Elizabeth Warren values,” Downing said in a Wednesday statement, reported the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

OIL CHECK

-- “Nothing less than chaos:” The seven first responders who were hospitalized following the explosions at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Tex. are suing the owner of the plant for more than $1 million, The Post’s Brady Dennis and Steven Mufson report. The responders are claiming Arkema “ignored the foreseeable consequences of failing to prepare.”

The responders manning the perimeter of the mandatory 1.5 mile evacuation area said they “vomited and gasped for air in the middle of the road in a scene the suit describes as ‘nothing less than chaos.' "

The lawsuit paints a grim scene: “Immediately upon being exposed to the fumes from the explosion, and one by one, the police officers and first responders began to fall ill in the middle of the road." The responders’ lawyer, Mo Aziz, said they initially saw no smoke in the darkness.

This lawsuit is just beginning, but what's clear now is that Arkema's response to the explosions at its Crosby facilities will become a textbook case of how not to communicate during a crisis.

Initially, the company's press officers tried to play down what was happening at the plant. An "overpressurization... followed by a fire" shouldn't be called an "explosion," a spokesperson told reporters, including the Houston Chronicle's Keri Blakinger.

Similarly, the first responders allege the company failed to communicate the full danger to them. "Although the explosions had occurred, no one from Arkema alerted the first responders who were manning the perimeter of the arbitrary mandatory evacuation area," their lawyers said in a news release.

How is Arkema responding now? In a statement, the company said it regretted that anyone suffered harm but added it rejects “any suggestion that we failed to warn of the danger of breathing the smoke from the fires at our site, or that we ever misled anyone. To the contrary, we pleaded with the public, for their own safety, to respect the 1.5 mile evacuation zone imposed by the unified command well prior to any fire.  We will vigorously defend a lawsuit that we believe is gravely mistaken.”

Responders said they were respecting the 1.5 mile perimeter, and still got sick.

-- "Chevron, if you’re watching me right now, you need to call us:" Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who activated a price gouging hotline ahead of Irma, called out Chevron gas stations in South Florida during an interview on Fox News.

“You cannot inflate prices during a time of a hurricane for essential commodities — food, water, fuel, etc,” she said. "So Chevron, if you’re watching me right now, you need to call us and tell us why your prices are inflated in South Florida, because in Tallahassee they’re not, in Tampa they’re not, in South Florida they’re high and there’s no excuse for that."

In response, Chevron pointed out that many of its gas stations are independently owned. "Our fuel supply agreements with independently owned Chevron and Texaco stations in the state and elsewhere require them to comply with all laws,” Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall said in a statement, according to Reuters.

Chevron, the second biggest U.S. oil and gas company, made the same point during Hurricane Harvey in Texas:

-- Meanwhile, the EPA has issued a waiver on federal requirements on fuel production ahead of the impact of Irma on gasoline supply. The waivers will allow winter-grade gasoline to be sold through Sept. 15 in most states, Reuters reported, and will lift federal requirements on production and blending of winter gasoline through Sept. 26.

The situation in Houston is not helping. A significant portion of chemical makers are still offline nearly two weeks after Harvey first made landfall in Texas.

The Houston Chronicle reported Thursday that “more than half of the country’s output of natural gas-derived ethylene, the primary building block for most plastics, hasn’t come back online” and “41 percent of propylene production assets are still offline.” Other petrochemical facilities that make propylene are beginning to restart in Corpus Christi and Texas City, and could be up and running this week. 

THERMOMETER

-- The latest on Irma: Irma was downgraded to a Category 4 hurricane early Friday, but don't be mistaken. The storm will “continue to bring life threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall hazards,” according to the National Hurricane Center.

The center said the storm is still likely to “make landfall in southern Florida as a dangerous major hurricane” even with the downgrade. The center also said there is a chance of direct impact in areas within Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, but that it was “too early” to specify the “magnitude and location of these impacts.”

(Read more about the latest on Irma from Capital Weather Gang's Angela Fritz this morning here.)

-- Overnight in Mexico: A massive 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck off the southern coast of Mexico late Thursday night, in what President Enrique Peña Nieto called the biggest quake in a hundred years, reports The Post’s Joshua Partlow.

Tsunami warnings were put into effect along the Pacific Coast. At least six people were killed. Schools were ordered closed in the capital on Friday so that infrastructure could be checked following the hit.

Partlow writes:

The epicenter of the earthquake was off the coast of Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico, but the rumblings rocked the Mexican capital more than 600 miles away, causing electricity failures, and reports of sporadic damage. Many Mexicans were roused from bed by the quake and evacuated their shuddering apartment buildings in pajamas and stocking feet.

The U.S. Tsunami Warning System said hazardous tsunami waves were possible on the Pacific coasts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Honduras within three hours. There was no tsunami threat for the West Coast of the United States, but the warning system said waves could reach Mexico and as far as Ecuador.

A few important details to know on Irma (especially if you're in the path of the storm):

  • Gov. Rick Scott (R) ordered all public schools, state colleages and universities, and state offices closed through Monday, and directed all available spaces to be used for emergency shelters and staging.
  • In the Florida Keys, authorities have warned residents to heed evacuation warnings as all hospitals will be closed this morning and ambulances will not be running. Monroe County administrator Ramon Gastesi said 911 will not be answering.
  • Miami-Dade County ordered some mandatory evacuations, per Post reporters Joel Achenbach, Patricia Sullivan and Mark Berman, including for Key Biscayne and Miami Beach, and areas in the southern half of the county that are not protected by barrier islands.
  • Governors in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia have declared a state of emergency. Irma could hit the Carolinas and Georgia early next week. 

And one energy item to note: Florida Power & Light has decided to shut down its two nuclear power plants ahead of Irma’s arrival in the state. The electric utility serves power to about 10 million customers across about half of Florida, according to Reuters.

Here's a roundup of some of the visuals being shared on social media surrounding Irma: 

From the National Hurricane Center's Eric Blake: 

From National Geographic's Mike Theiss: 

Jonathan Falwell from the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., son of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, shared images from St. Martin: 

From writer Joel Nihlean:

-- The Wall Street Journal outlines how a shortage of construction workers is expected to cause severe delays in rebuilding and prompt a spike in labor costs as Texas starts to rebuild from Hurricane Harvey.

The Journal reports: “Already, an estimated 30,000 homes in Houston were destroyed by Harvey, more than this city was expected to build in all of 2017, according to the Greater Houston Builders Association. Tens of thousands more were damaged.”

The executive director of the Texas Association of Builders Scott Normal said it would be a “monumental challenge that is going to be frustrating for people who just went to get their lives back.” 

-- Water drops: The amount of rain that fell on Houston during Harvey may have caused the city to sink 2 centimeters, a geophysicist says.

Chris Milliner, a post-doctoral fellow at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, tweeted earlier this week that the flooding caused a flex in the Earth’s crust:

The storm unloaded 51.9 inches of rain in the Houston area, the most ever recorded in the Lower 48 states. Milliner told the Houston Chronicle that the change was likely a “temporary drop," and the land will lift back up similar to "if you were to jump on-and-off your mattress."

-- And finally, meet the other Harvey and Irma: Harvey and Irma Schluter, a couple married 75 years, talked to the New York Times about seeing the news of two major back-to-back hurricanes with their names.

The Times writes: “They vividly remember many of the major events of the 20th century, from her first time spotting an airplane, during the Great Depression, to his wonder at watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. In a recent phone interview, Mrs. Schluter even recalled the weather near her home in Spokane, Wash., on the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. (Cool and cloudy.)”

“I don’t know how they’ve done that, to have a Harvey and Irma,” a 93-year-old Irma Schluter told the Times. “I don’t know how that worked out.”

The Times noted that the storm that followed Harvey used to be called Irene, but the name was retired, to be replaced by Irma, after Hurricane Irene in 2011.

Read more about the couple’s story here

DAYBOOK

Today

  • Atlantic Council holds a panel discussion on “Science Exchanges with Iran” on Friday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

President Trump says Irma 'not looking particularly good' for Florida

Here are some dramatic images of Irma from space: 

Florida National Guard prepares for Irma:

Seth Meyers compared Trump’s cozying up to Democrats to a hurricane with no path: