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The Energy 202: Interior greenlights desert water project, prompting call for investigation

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with Paulina Firozi


Last week, the Interior Department sent a letter to Cadiz Inc. that the company long had hoped to receive.

For years, the renewable resource company had been trying to build a drinking-water pipeline between land it owned over an aquifer in the Mojave Desert and thirsty residents of Southern California. To help get the go-ahead from the federal government, it hired the law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck to help grease the wheels in Washington.

But in 2015, Cadiz’s effort sputtered when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within Interior, said the company would have to obtain permission from the government to build the 43-mile pipeline along an existing railroad.

President Trump’s Interior Department, under new management, has now changed course and told Cadiz that the pipeline “does not require authorization by BLM” anymore.

Part of that new management is David Bernhardt, Interior’s deputy administrator. Before he became Interior’s No. 2, he was a partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the firm Cadiz had hired.

In an email, Interior was unequivocal about Bernhardt’s lack of involvement in the pipeline decision. “Deputy Secretary Bernhardt has absolutely no role in anything related to Cadiz,” spokeswoman Heather Swift wrote. Bernhardt was not a lobbyist for Cadiz during his time at the firm, she added.

Before his nomination, Bernhardt led Trump’s transition team at Interior. When asked if Bernhardt discussed or shared information regarding Cadiz with anyone at Interior before the announcement of his nomination, Interior spokesman Russell Newell wrote "he did not." 

Given that connection, David J. Hayes, who held that same No. 2 post at Interior under President Barack Obama, called for an investigation into the pipeline decision:

The Mojave Desert Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation group that has opposed the pipeline, echoed that concern.

“He was one of the folks directing operations at the law firm that was lobbying for Cadiz, and that’s a pretty close link,” said Frazier Haney, conservation director at the land trust, adding that “it’s very troubling that Mr. Bernhardt was on the transition team.”

Haney and other environmentalists fear that tapping Mojave groundwater will siphon water from desert springs that sustain bighorn sheep, migratory birds and other wildlife, whose presence in turn underpins the local desert tourism economy driven by the nearby Mojave National Preserve and Mojave Trails National Monument.

With BLM’s letter, Cadiz can use the existing right-of-way permit for a railroad through the desert for the pipeline. Under Obama, BLM and Office of the Solicitor had determined otherwise. Bernhardt was Interior’s solicitor under President George W. Bush. 

Cadiz plans to press forward with the project, which it says can provide 400,000 residents of drought-stricken Southern California with drinking water.

“It has been reviewed, approved and upheld in accordance with California’s stringent environmental laws,” said company spokeswoman Courtney Degener, adding that Cadiz can pump and deliver water “without harm to the environment.”

“The company is very pleased to receive this letter from the BLM,” Scott Slater, Cadiz’s chief executive, said in a statement. Slater is also a partner at the Brownstein firm, which was awarded shares in Cadiz for its work.

Cadiz says it will not pump at a rate that will suck the aquifer dry, and that building along the rail line minimizes the project’s environmental footprint.

But BLM was just one obstacle to bringing the project to fruition. The state of California owns a 1-mile-long strip of land through which the pipeline would run, and the California State Lands Commission recently told Cadiz that it would need its approval, too.

There’s also one other potential hurdle at the federal level: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “It’s no surprise the Trump administration is willing to look the other way while Cadiz drains a vital desert aquifer,” Feinstein said in a statement after the decision. “California must now step up to protect the Mojave desert from Cadiz and its friends in the administration.”

Spurred by a request from Feinstein, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies the region’s drinking water and would need to greenlight the project, too, said in September that the Mojave water contains arsenic and other contaminants at levels too high to drink without treatment.

If Cadiz required federal approval, as Interior said it would under Obama, the project would have had to undergo a lengthy environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act that could have restricted the project.


-- Corn wars: Before a meeting with Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt on Tuesday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) signaled that Midwestern senators could hold up Trump administration nominations over a proposed rollback of Renewable Fuel Standard requirements, which Grassley says goes back on the president’s campaign promises.

Grassley told reporters on a conference call that holding up EPA nominees is something that several of his colleagues would consider. “I think there’s plenty of senators who would do that,” Grassley said, per the Quad-City Times.

After the meeting, Grassley's press shop put out a statement saying the "message seemed to be well-received by Administrator Pruitt," without getting into too much more detail.

But then Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, postponed the confirmation votes of four EPA nominees scheduled for today. That suggests that senators may have not gotten the commitment they were seeking from Pruitt, and that one or both of the Midwestern Republicans on the committee, Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), were willing to buck the Trump administration on the nominees.

-- More from Pruitt: In a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, Pruitt suggested he will restrict scientists who get EPA grants from serving on the agency's scientific advisory boards. According to The Post's Brady Dennis, Pruitt said: “If we have individuals who are on those boards, sometimes receiving money from the agency … that to me causes questions on the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way.”

Critics rapidly responded to call Pruitt's plan a veiled attempt to purge the agency of scientists independent of industry, who Pruitt did not single out in his speech but who also serve of those boards. As Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a blog post: "Industry participation on the Science Advisory Board is not a problem. But candidates should be evaluated on their scientific expertise and ability to remain objective. So let’s recap: according to some, scientists who receive money from oil and chemical companies are perfectly qualified to provide the EPA with independent science advice, while those who receive federal grants are not. It’s a fundamental misrepresentation of how conflicts of interest work."

-- "A monumental waste:" A group of more than 350 retired, former, or current employees of the National Park Service wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about the results of his months-long review of the nation’s national monuments.

The members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which wrote that it “actively participated in the public comment period and expressed strong objections to weakening protections,” demanded the secretary make the details of his findings public.

The Coalition wrote: “The results of your evaluation are directly counter to what the vast majority of commenters have called on you to do. This review has clearly been politically motivated and a monumental waste of government time and resources, especially when there are many other urgent issues facing our national parks and other public lands. Furthermore, the Interior Department’s ongoing failure to release the report or provide supporting documentation for your recommendations to the public is utterly unconscionable given the administration’s false allegations about the lack of transparency that occurred during the process that led to the creation of the monuments.”

In late August, Zinke recommended that President Trump modify 10 national monuments, and shrink at least four of the Western sites. In the letter, the coalition details the “recommendations that we find most unacceptable.”

-- "A Big Oil polar payout:" Senate Democrats are working on an amendment that would stop their Republican colleagues from using the budget process to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “We’re going to work together with our colleagues to determine just the right moment in this budgetary process to make this amendment,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told reporters, according to The Hill. “But we are going to do so, and we are reaching out to Republicans to try to make this as bipartisan as we can. It should be a bipartisan issue.” Markey called the provision “heartless,” per the report and “nothing more than a Big Oil polar payout.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, pointed to the use of the budget process to try to “sneak” in ANWR drilling. “It tells you something that this idea does not stand on its own. It tells you that every time it has to be paired with something else as almost a sneak attack, you have to vote for this because of these other issues,” she said.

-- The latest from Puerto Rico: Puerto Ricans faced a new problem this week as heavy rainfall set back weeks of cleanup and led to a mudslide that took out a bridge in the Guaynabo neighborhood outside San Juan, CNN reported. This area is near where Trump tossed out paper towel rolls to residents during his trip to the island. 

Parts of this same neighborhood have yet to receive FEMA aid, per CNN. Local mayor Angel Perez told the network that the help from FEMA was there. “It’s been slowly, but it’s there," he said. “They have given us water, food, the tarps.”

-- "I don’t know:" In an interview with Politico’s “Off Message” podcast published Tuesday, Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in Congress, called the president’s recent remarks about the U.S. territory “shocking.”

Two weeks ago, González-Colón came back from President Trump’s trip to Puerto Rico with “what seemed liked commitments to the recovery,” writes Politico’s Edward-Issac Dovere. “She doesn’t understand why the president, having seen the disaster with his own eyes, hasn’t prioritized federal resources and instead issued threats.”

When asked whether she thought the president understands the magnitude of what’s going on on the island,” she responded. “You know what? Maybe I’m going to be nice here: I don’t know.”

And González-Colón noted that Trump’s comments don’t line up with the actions of the federal government thus far: “He’s sending the resources. He’s granting everything that has been asked. He’s having daily briefings on the island. He’s sending the troops.”

-- Part of the disconnect: The USNS Comfort, a hospital ship that was deployed as part of federal relief efforts, is barely in use. Of the 250 beds on the ship, just 33 are being used about two weeks after the ship arrived, CNN reports. Clinics don’t know how to get their patients to the offshore hospital. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló blamed the difficulty on communication.

-- A 20-point slide: People seem to be hanging on to the president’s public response to the recovery, and it’s showing in his approval ratings. A new CNN poll found that the president's approval rating for his handling of the response to recent storms slid 20 points. In mid-September, 64 percent of Americans approved of the president’s handling of the post-hurricane recovery. Now, just 44 percent of people approve.

Obama environment chief Gina McCarthy's portrait is missing from Trump's EPA (Washington Examiner)


-- Explosion in Louisiana: The Coast Guard has stopped looking for a man who went missing after an oil rig explosion in a Louisiana lake on Sunday. Timothy Morrison, 44, was one of eight people aboard the offshore platform in Lake Pontchartrain when it exploded. The other seven were taken to the hospital. Three of the injured were still in the hospital on Monday, with one still in the intensive care unit, reported The Post's Kristine Phillips. “The decision to suspend a search is never an easy one,” Coast Guard Cmdr. Zac Ford said in a statement.

Many nearby residents reported not even being aware that there were oil and gas platforms in the lake. That’s because there’s very little production left in the area. From the Times-Picayune: “Over 30 years, oil and gas production from Lake Pontchartrain represented only about 3 percent of the annual production from offshore drilling in Louisiana. That lack of production is one reason why a moratorium was placed on drilling in the lake in 1991."

-- $$$ for "clean coal:" Trump's Energy Department opened up its wallet for an energy technology the president doesn't really seem to understand himself: "clean coal," or carbon capture and storage. This week, the DOE announced it will provide up to $26 million under the Office of Fossil Energy for research-and-development of the technology, which involves capturing the carbon dioxide from smokestacks on coal-fired power plants and other sources and storing it underground.

The department will select 14 projects, including those researching new material to absorb CO2. That kind of money might not be as plentiful in the future: In May, the White House proposed slashing Fossil Energy's budget.

Trade talks with Canada and Mexico dissolve in harsh words (Steven Mufson)

Feds subpoena developer behind canceled SC nuclear plant (The Hill)

Horacio Hernandez and Laura Gomez lost the two-bedroom home they rented in the Santa Rosa fire. They had no insurance and are now struggling to find a new place to live. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

-- California is still on fire. The wildfires in Northern California raged on for a 10th day on Tuesday. They’ve burned through 200,000 acres — an area greater than the five boroughs of New York City — and have killed at least 41 people. And new fires have cropped up. 

Displaced residents were asked to register with FEMA so the agency can determine how much housing assistance may be needed, The Post’s Lisa Bonos reports. She wrote of the residents in Santa Rosa who vowed to stay in the area even after losing their homes. “The first option is to locate a place that’s close to where they lived before. That’s essential, but it’s not always possible,” FEMA spokesman Victor Inge said.

-- The four largest fires were more than 50 percent contained as of Tuesday morning, the Los Angeles Times reported

-- As of Tuesday afternoon, about 60 people remained unaccounted for in Napa and Sonoma counties, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, down from about 100 on Monday.

-- State officials are still investigating the cause of the fires. Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said an arson suspect was arrested on Sunday but Cal Fire continues to look into possible causes, CNBC reported. PG&E's parent company said in an SEC filing last week that it was aware of the investigations and that the probes include "the possible role of power lines and other facilities" of its Pacific Gas & Electric utility subsidiary.

A timelapse of the fires from the Los Angeles Times, shared by the Wall Street Journal's Brian McGill: 

-- “Please hurry:” A man who says he was trapped inside a manhole on a Houston highway for six days following Hurricane Harvey was found alive early Monday. “Please hurry, I got six days inside this hole!,” the man said when a road repair worker discovered him in the uncovered manhole, reports the New York Times. The Times noted that public works crews had replaced about 65 manhole covers since the storm.


-- The Oregonian published the first part in a series this week on the life of Nora, a 2-year-old polar bear who was abandoned, raised in captivity and who lived at the Oregon Zoo in Portland for a year:

Here’s just a bite of chapter one of the series from reporter Kale Williams: “Nora was the first newborn polar bear to live more than a few days at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium since it opened in 1927. Her birth in a concrete den in central Ohio represented all the ways humans and polar bears were inextricably tangled – from the day nearly three decades before when an orphaned cub was pulled from an icy den in the Alaskan wilderness, to the political battle that appointed her species the sad-eyed symbol of climate change. She represented the damage humans had done to the Earth, and she offered the thinnest hope of setting things right.”



  • The Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office holds its fifth annual National Bioenergy Day.
  • The Bipartisan Policy Center holds an event with former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
  • The United States Energy Association holds an event on the DNV GL Energy Transition Outlook.
  • The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies holds a public seminar on the prospect of electric vehicle production in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Coming Up

  • The Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office holds a call on the latest developments in batteries and residential energy storage on Thursday.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds a conference on vehicle efficiency and electricity regulation on Thursday.
  • The National Capital Area Chapter of the United States Association for Energy Economics hosts a presentation on Big Data and Weather Markets on Friday.
  • The Brookings Institution holds an event on Trump’s deregulatory agenda on Friday.

San Francisco firefighters tend to chickens that survived wildfires:

San Francisco firefighters helped a flock of chickens that survived the wildfires in the Santa Rosa, Calif., area Oct. 16. (Video: San Francisco Fire Department)

NAFTA teeters as talks fail to ease tensions:

Trade ministers from the United States, Canada and Mexico on Oct. 17 wrap up a round of NAFTA negotiations dominated by U.S. demands. (Video: Reuters)

President Trump says "I want Merry Christmas:" 

While delivering a speech to the Heritage Foundation on Oct. 17, President Trump said store employees should wish "Merry Christmas" to their customers. (Video: The Washington Post)

Watch President Trump’s speech to the Heritage Foundation, in three minutes:

President Trump on Oct. 17 delivered a speech to the Heritage Foundation about his plan to revise the tax code. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Trevor Noah takes on President Trump's "BFF presser" with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.):