Another day, another regulatory rollback from the Trump administration: This week, the Interior Department took another step toward reopening a conservation controversy over the sage grouse.
However, unlike most other regulatory changes undertaken by the Trump administration, this one doesn't have the full endorsement of local Republican politicians representing states with energy interests.
And with good reason: It could backfire, impose even more stringent regulations on Western states and energy companies operating in them and reshape the region's economy in ways those governors never asked for.
Here's what happened Thursday: The Bureau of Land Management issued a formal notice of its intent to reconsider a plan to protect the greater sage grouse, a Western bird that makes its home in the sea of sagebrush that stretches from California to Colorado.
The complex conservation plan was born out of negotiations between the Interior Department, the BLM’s parent agency, and Western governors, who sought to keep the bird off the endangered species list and avoid the stringent restrictions such a listing would impose on states.
But Interior, now under new management, felt the Obama-era deal was out of balance. In June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke asked for a review of plans to protect the sage grouse to see whether they limit jobs and energy development. Published in August, a 53-page report concluded that management responsibility for the bird, known for its flamboyant mating dance, should be shifted to the states.
“During this process, we are particularly interested in hearing from the many governors whose states put hard work and time into collaborative efforts to develop the existing plans,” BLM acting director Michael D. Nedd said in a statement. “We welcome their input.”
The issue: The thing is, Western governors already turned over their input. In a letter to Zinke in late May, the two co-chairs of the interstate Sage-Grouse Task Force, Republican Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado expressed their reservations about Interior’s review.
“We understand that you are considering changing the Department’s approach to sage-grouse, moving from a habitat management model to one that sets population objectives for the states,” Mead and Hickenlooper wrote. “We are concerned that this is not the right decision.”
Yet two weeks later, Zinke kicked off the review. And Mead, at least, is still apprehensive.
“We can’t have wholesale changes in wildlife management every four or eight years,” he told the Casper Star-Tribune this week. “I don’t think that is the best way to sustain populations or provide the necessary predictability to industry and business in our states.”
Why is that? Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said part of the apprehension in the West came from fear that rolling back protections could shrink the sage grouse’s numbers — and lead to an endangered species listing.
“If they go too far in unraveling the basic framework of the agreement,” he said, “it will lead to a listing. That’s what everyone was trying to avoid.”
Nada Culver, senior counsel at the Wilderness Society, echoed that concern. Interior decided “to run at the plan with scissors and not think about what the consequences might be,” she said.
So who is happy here? Extraction companies operating out West, such as those represented by the National Mining Association and the Western Energy Alliance, praised Interior’s announcement, saying it fit squarely with Trump’s objective of developing U.S. energy resources.
“Today’s action shows the importance of fact-based policymaking,” NMA President Hal Quinn said in a statement. “This damaging and unnecessary ban would have barred mining on 10 million acres of mineral-rich lands, further increasing our import dependence.”
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-- It's happening: The next deregulatory aim of President Trump and Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is the Clean Power Plan. The Post's Dennis Brady reports on the big news: "The Trump administration plans to scrap former president Barack Obama’s signature plan for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from the nation’s power plants, arguing that the previous administration overstepped its legal authority, according to a 43-page proposal obtained by The Washington Post."
The proposal was first reported by Bloomberg News. The EPA is not yet offering an alternative plan for regulating emissions of carbon dioxide, which the Supreme Court has ruled the agency is obligated to do. Rather, the agency said it plans to seek public input to answer that question.
-- R.S.V.P.: The Post’s Darryl Fears wrote about an invitation-only conference with Interior officials and state and local government representatives, and how leaked meeting notes revealed discussions on ways to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act, the granddaddy of U.S. environmental law.
Fears reports: “During the Sept. 21 webinar, the BLM and its guests discussed ways to water down NEPA and more. They talked about working around environmental analyses that determine whether infrastructure projects harm ecosystems, about stripping conservation groups of the power to sue the BLM if it wrongly approves a project and about limiting the number of federal Freedom of Information Act requests that allow the public to scrutinize how decisions were made.”
-- Already, we're seeing the fruits of some of that outreach at Interior: The Post's Juilet Eilperin reports: "Top Interior Department officials worked privately with energy industry representatives during the first weeks of the Trump administration to suspend a new accounting system that would have forced companies to pay millions of dollars more in royalties to the government, documents show." Those documents come from a batch obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council under the Freedom of Information Act.
--”From campaign event to campaign event:” A recent $5,000-per-couple photo-op at a political fundraiser during a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands was one of more than a half-dozen times Zinke has participated in a political event while on department travel, Politico reports. A governmental specialist for watchdog Public Citizen told the publication that it’s “not very common practice for Cabinet members to be hopping around from campaign event to campaign event like we’re seeing with Zinke.”
From Politico: “Ethics watchdogs say Zinke is combining politics with his Interior duties so frequently that he risks tripping over the prohibitions against using government resources for partisan activity, even though his appearance at the Virgin Islands event seems to have been legal. Democrats have also seized on the issue, including 26 House members who wrote in a letter Tuesday that Zinke’s travels 'give the appearance that you are mixing political gatherings and personal destinations with official business.'"
-- Remember Wheeler? Trump has nominated Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, to serve as deputy administrator of the EPA. The choice of Wheeler, who also previously worked for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and joins many other ex-Inhofe staffers at the EPA, has prompted a starkly divergent reaction from industry and environmental groups. The president of the Institute for Energy Research called him a “solid choice,” per the New York Times. The Sierra Club called the nomination “absolutely horrifying.”
Background: One of Wheeler's former clients is Murray Energy, one of the nation’s bigest coal mining companies. Chief executive Robert E. Murray was one of the industry's most vocal supporters of Trump's candidacy. Recently, though, Murray was rebuffed after asking the White House for an emergency order to prop up one of the company's customers.
In any case, Trump this week has finally made good on a rumor about Wheeler's nomination that had been circulating since March.
WH today nominated Andrew Wheeler as EPA deputy. We first reported it was coming in MARCH https://t.co/t2U1yIVstU— Alex Guillén (@alexcguillen) October 5, 2017
--Everything old is new: Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said he plans to oppose Trump’s pick to lead the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. William Wehrum served in the same role in an acting capacity under President George W. Bush, Morning Consult reports, and his nomination was eventually pulled in 2006 over opposition from Democrats.
Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, reiterated his opposition to Wehrum at a Thursday hearing, referring to lawsuits against the EPA in which he represented industries and adding that he “deferred too frequently to industry rather than protecting public health.”
-- Trump's flood plan: The administration has proposed cutting off federal flood insurance for new homes in areas prone to flooding. In a letter to Congress on Wednesday, budget director Mick Mulvaney urged changes to the National Flood Insurance Program, which is $25 million in debt. From Bloomberg: “Mulvaney’s proposals included preventing homes built in flood plains after 2020 from obtaining insurance under the program. Those homes could instead seek private coverage, which is often prohibitively expensive -- if it’s available at all.”
And surprise: The flood insurance plan actually won praise from some on the left. As New York magazine's Eric Levitz writes: "To be sure, there is not enough housing stock in this country. And limits to development can impair affordability. But it seems unlikely that the solution to these problems is to build lots of homes in places that no one would want to live if the government wasn’t willing to spend billions of dollars subsidizing the cost of their inevitable flood repairs."
-- ANWR onward: The House passed a budget proposal on Thursday that set a path toward drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.The Republican budget resolution calls on the House Natural Resources Committee to come up with $5 billion in savings over the next decade, and committee chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he wants part of that savings to come from oil and gas revenues from ANWR.
The narrower needle to thread is, of course, the Senate, which is also marking up a budget resolution that contains instructions for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee to find $1 billion in revenue to offset tax cuts. Using the budget to approve ANWR drilling deprives Democrats of the chance to filibuster. But there's no guarantee, as The Energy 202 wrote about earlier this week, that Republicans can get 50 votes for the measure.
The latest on Puerto Rico:
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency removed statistics about access to drinking water and electricity from a web page that once listed them, The Post's Jenna Johnson reports. Those statistics are still tracked on www.status.pr, a website created by the Puerto Rican government. A FEMA spokesman, William Booher, also said the measures were given to the media in calls twice a day and at news conferences, but “but he didn't elaborate on why they are no longer on the main FEMA page." Removing information from government websites is becoming a pattern during the Trump administration.
- The administration said it doesn’t think that an extension of the 10-day waiver of the Jones Act will be necessary to support hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico. The Department of Homeland Security issued the waiver on Sept. 28, temporarily lifting a law that allows only U.S.-owned ships to move goods between U.S. coasts. That waiver expires on Sunday.
- While critics have focused on the federal response to Puerto Rico, Bloomberg News notes that “states -- a significant source of disaster assistance -- also took far longer to dispatch equipment and personnel to the island after Maria than to Texas or Florida after Harvey and Irma.” States say Puerto Rico didn’t ask for help quickly enough. Puerto Rico’s governor says that’s inaccurate.
-- The TransCanada pipeline company is canceling a plan to build a pipeline from western Canada to the Atlantic Coast that would move 1.1 million barrels of oil a day, reports the Associated Press reports. From the AP: “TransCanada Chief Executive Officer Russ Girling said in a statement that "after careful review of changed circumstances," it won't go ahead. Girling had called the pipeline a historic opportunity to connect the oil resources of Canada's west to eastern consumers. He'd noted the oil could be shipped to the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, Asia and Europe.”
-- It never ends...: Areas in Louisiana have been ordered to evacuate ahead of Tropical Storm Nate, which strengthened from a tropical depression Thursday and is expected to strengthen into a hurricane this weekend. The Associated Press reported that as of Thursday afternoon 15 people died in storm-related flooding in Nicaragua on Thursday, and another seven were killed in Costa Rica. Capital Weather Gang’s Brian McNoldy and Angela Fritz add: “On Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center’s forecast cone only highlights a small region of the coast, including New Orleans and Pensacola, Fla., but the storm could bring direct effects from Southeast Texas to the Florida’s west coast. In this region, tropical storm-force winds could arrive by late Saturday.”
The storm is also threatening to wreak havoc on oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and cotton and citrus crops in the Southern part of the United States, per Bloomberg. From Bloomberg: “Offshore rigs and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico account for about 17 percent of U.S. crude oil output and 4 percent of gas production. About 45 percent of petroleum refining capacity and 51 percent of gas processing is along the coastline.”
-- One of the oldest climate change experiments comes to a troubling conclusion: A recently published major climate change study used a 26-year record of observations to reach what our colleague Chris Mooney wrote is a “worrying” conclusion. From Mooney: “The research, tracking the emissions of carbon from artificially heated plots of a forest in Massachusetts, reinforces fears about the possibility of a climate change 'feedback' involving the planet’s soils, one that could pile on top of and substantially worsen the ongoing warming trend triggered by the burning of fossil fuels.”
- The Bipartisan Policy Center holds an event with former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on October 18.
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