Last week, Senate Republicans sparked an uproar from environmentalists and their Democratic allies after voting to raising revenue by drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the northeast corner of Alaska.
Though pushed for years by Alaska’s congressional delegation, tapping that land, set aside for caribou herds and other wildlife, is still not a sure thing. The Senate, House and President Trump each need to agree to a budget proposal that sets up the prospect of a tax code rewrite. Passing a revamp of the tax code is still a big if.
But to the west of the refuge along the state’s North Slope is another massive stretch of land with its own significant oil reserves. Unlike with ANWR, the Trump administration already has the authority to begin leasing tracts of that land for oil and gas development.
On Wednesday, it began doing just that — to the tune of 10.3 million acres.
The Bureau of Land Management, an office in the Interior Department, announced that in December it will sell off leases to 900 tracts of land in the nearly 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. Currently, only about 1.4 million acres are leased for drilling.
Alaska’s congressional delegation has long sought to open more federally owned land in Alaska to oil and gas drilling — a big political winner in a state in which each citizen is cut an annual check from the proceeds of fossil-fuel revenue. Interior runs agencies that collectively control more than 55 percent of Alaska's land.
“I welcome the BLM’s announcement today,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said in a statement. “Exploration and development of the NPR-A offers a promising opportunity to fill TAPS,” referring to the pipeline system running from the North Slope to the port of Valdez, where oil is shipped to refineries in the Lower 48 and elsewhere.
In 2012, the Obama administration began putting in place the first comprehensive plan to manage the NPR in Alaska. Interior’s plan allowed for new drilling on approximately more than half the reserve, and puts the other half off-limits to industry.
The administration’s decision puts up for sale all 900 tracts of land in that first half.
Environmental groups were generally supportive of the previous administration’s plan, but worry the Trump administration is rushing to lease that land designated for drilling with the sale scheduled for Dec. 6.
“Americans should not stand by and allow our public lands to be plundered without restraint,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for the Wilderness Society. “We need a thoughtful, careful approach that emphasizes responsible development and recognizes that some places are simply too special to drill.”
And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is taking steps toward removing the protection for parts of the reserve currently off-limits. In May, Zinke signed an order to review and possibly revise the former administration’s land-management plan for the reserve. Three months later, BLM invited the oil and gas industry to nominate new tracts for development that currently are not eligible for leasing.
Alaskan oil interests see filling up the Trans Alaska Pipeline System, or TAPS, as crucial for keeping the petroleum flowing. If there's too little oil in pipeline, none of it moves.
“In May, I put my hand on TAPS and pledged to help fill it by putting Alaskans back to work on the North Slope," Zinke said in the announcement.
Environmentalists counter that there is indeed enough oil in TAPS. "Many in Alaska and elsewhere don’t acknowledge that flow is increasing and that pipeline operations are fine because it counters their narrative that the state is desperate for more production in the Arctic," said Lois Epstein, and engineer and Arctic program director at The Wilderness Society.
The NPR-A news comes a day after another Interior agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, proposed leasing nearly 77 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for offshore drilling.
This week, Interior issued a list of “burdens” to domestic energy production, which include many of the previous administration’s rules already targeted for elimination. The report responded to an executive order from Trump.
"This report is not particularly creative or surprising," said Kate Kelly, public lands director at the Center for American Progress, "it simply reads as a checklist of how to roll back any protections designed to protect people, land or water."
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-- Cruz vs. Whitefish: Controversy continues to swirl around the tiny Montana-based company that received a contract to fix Puerto Rico’s power grid. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz called for ending the contract with Whitefish Energy, based in Inteior Secretary's Zinke's hometown, which she said raised ethical questions. “The contract should be voided right away, and a proper process which is clear, transparent, legal, moral and ethical should take place,” Cruz told Yahoo News late Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Montana’s Whitefish Energy fired back. In a statement, the company said the mayor’s “comments are misplaced.”
And a Twitter back-and-forth ensued:
You would think I am the only one in the world that has commented on this. What is it about women having an opinion that irritates some? pic.twitter.com/XxGNLomjQy— Carmen Yulín Cruz (@CarmenYulinCruz) October 25, 2017
If @WhitefishEnergy feels that asking for transparency is ”misplaced”, what are they afraid we will find.— Carmen Yulín Cruz (@CarmenYulinCruz) October 25, 2017
We’ve got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city & 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working?— Whitefish Energy (@WhitefishEnergy) October 25, 2017
@WhitefishEnergy implies that you will not treat the City of San Juan with the diligence it deserves. Thus admitting political motivations.— Carmen Yulín Cruz (@CarmenYulinCruz) October 25, 2017
Realizing it may have taken the spat too far, Whitefish Energy apologized later Wednesday evening.
Now, Puerto Rico’s financial oversight board intends to appoint an emergency manager amid the criticism of the contract. The board said Wednesday it will name Noel Zamot, a retired Air Force colonel and member of the oversight panel, to oversee operations at PREPA, report The Post's Steven Mufson and Aaron C. Davis.
The politics: That decision comes as House and Senate Democrats — including, crucially, Senate Energy and Natural Resouces Commitee Chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — called for an investigation into the utility’s agreement with Whitefish. Murkowski promised to examine the grid-rebuilding efforts at an upcoming hearing. Zinke may yet regret trying to strong-arm Murkowski over health care this summer.
-- Climate change, scrubbed (again): A leaked draft of the Interior Department’s strategic plan for the next five years sets out to achieve what the Trump administration has referred to as “energy dominance.”
The Nation, which obtained the copy, said there’s a major concept missing from the draft: Not once does the 50-page document mention climate change or climate science. “That’s a clear departure from current policy: The previous plan, covering 2014–18, referred to climate change 46 times and explicitly stated that the department was committed to improving resilience in those communities most directly affected by global warming,” The Nation notes.
-- Hike to the gas tax may come to pass: Trump’s economic adviser Gary Cohn told Republican and Democratic lawmakers that the administration may press for a increase to the gasoline tax to pay for infrastructure spending. Cohn told legislators "they will have a chance to vote to hike the gas tax as part of an infrastructure package in early 2018," Politico reported.
Don't tell Trump: Given that a gas tax has some of the same emissions-reducing effects as a tax on carbon itself — pushed for by many Democrats and some Republicans demanding action on climate change — it's a rare Trump proposal that could win some non-negligible support from across the aisle (but for the tax hike part).
-- Nominees, approved: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted to approve two controversial picks for roles within the Environmental Protection Agency. The panel voted 11 to 10 to advance Michael Dourson to head the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention and Bill Wehrum to be associate administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation.
Democrats concerned with the picks’ industry ties spoke against the nominees following the committee’s vote. Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) called the committee’s approval of the pair “one of the low points of my entire career,” while Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said Dourson was “the absolute worst person I can think of to be in charge of chemical safety in this country.”
-- Red team-blue team update: Conservative think tank Heartland Institute has submitted a list to the EPA identifying potential scientists for agency head Scott Pruitt’s planned “red team-blue team exercise.” And the list, which both E&E News and HuffPost published, includes people who “reject the mainstream scientific conclusion that humans are the primary drivers of climate change,” E&E News reported.
E&E reports: “Heartland Institute CEO Joseph Bast said in an email obtained by E&E News that the conservative think tank had recently sent a list of names of potential red team members to EPA for feedback. Heartland has been working behind the scenes to develop a red team as some proponents of the idea have expressed skepticism that Pruitt would follow through on publicly debating climate change science."
-- Meanwhile, EPA chief Scott Pruitt reiterated his commitment to conducting the "red team" climate exercise in an interview with Bloomberg News.
Pruitt used the interview to push back on the accusation that he is in industry's pocket. He vowed on Wednesday to go after corporate polluters and denied that he had close ties with companies, telling Bloomberg News: “They don’t know me.”
“We are going to do enforcement, to go after bad actors and go after polluters,” Pruitt said in an interview with Bloomberg published Wednesday. "I know what it means to prosecute people … And we’ve got some of those folks across the country -- those people that are intentionally taking steps to pollute our water, to pollute our air."
One other quote: "I am here because I really feel called to it. My desire each day is to bless the president and the decisions he’s making."
Puerto Rico recovery:
The state of the water supply in Puerto Rico may be worse than the official reporting. The government’s own website indicates that 75 percent of the island has water, but Vox reports that publicly available data and interviews with local officials tell a different story. From Vox's the website's Alexia Fernández Campbell: “Only 15 out of 167 water treatment and distribution plants have regular power, and only 16 out of 2,186 water pumping stations are hooked to the power grid. Without electricity, water distribution sites can't filter and pump water into homes. Plus, the water company is telling residents the water out of the tap isn’t safe to drink. On its website, PREPA is urging those who have running water to boil it or purify it with chlorine tablets before drinking.”
One step at a time: Tesla has installed a solar panel farm on the island to restore power to a children's hospital, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk posted on social media. Musk called it "the first of many" similar projects.
The future is too far off: Before they worry about a potential “grid of the future,” Puerto Ricans just want their electricity back, in whatever form possible. Bloomberg News reports that energy experts are dismissing the possibility of any renewable energy, such as what has been suggested by Tesla's Musk, anytime soon. “You can’t deploy and build the systems that Tesla is talking about, and these very sophisticated microgrids between now and December, and have them fully operational,” Thomas Lewis, the U.S. regional president of Morristown, N.J.-based contractor Louis Berger told Bloomberg.
Just how far off? Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson estimated Wednesday at an event hosted by The Hill that rebuilding in the island would take “between one and 100" years.
-- Man, it's a hot one: Two locations in Southern California hit 108 degrees Tuesday, the hottest weather observed on record in the United States this late into the year. In Los Angeles, where the Houston Astros met the Los Angeles Dodgers for Game 1 of the World Series, the first-pitch temperature was a scorching 103 degrees, setting a new record for a postseason game that was previously a 94-degree day in 2001.
“The historic heat in Southern California, the most extreme witnessed in the United States so late in the calendar year, joins many other remarkable hot-weather milestones set around the country and the world,” writes Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow. “It is not a stretch to say that, collectively, these are in-your-face examples of how climate change is shaping the weather.”
And Houston, of course, faced Hurricane Harvey in September. The Post's Philip Bump adds that the oppressive heat is "a little on-the-nose for 2017." He charted out just how much of an outlier temperatures during this World Series have been.
— Sea levels might be rising faster than we thought: From The Post’s Chris Mooney: "Climate change could lead to sea level rises that are larger, and happen more rapidly, than previously thought, according to a trio of new studies that reflect mounting concerns about the stability of polar ice. In one case, the research suggests that previous high end projections for sea level rise by the year 2100 — a little over three feet — could be too low, substituting numbers as high as six feet at the extreme if the world continues to burn large volumes of fossil fuels throughout the century.”
The American Gas Association’s Natural Gas Roundtable luncheon is scheduled.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to examine Cyber Technology and Energy Infrastructure.
The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds a legislative hearing on various bills.
President Trump met with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and other state officials to discuss recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey:
A bizarre insect in Indonesia goes viral:
Meet Chi Chi, the quadriplegic dog who's Internet famous:
NRATV responds to CNN's "This is an apple" ad: