Energy & environmental Reporter

THE LIGHTBULB

Drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one step closer to reality.

On Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced a measure meant to open a corner of coastal plain in northwest Alaska that conservation advocates and Senate Democrats insist is too environmentally fragile to drill on.

In a 13-to-10 vote largely along party lines — only Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) crossed the aisle — the measure cleared the committee and will be added to the broader tax package the GOP is attempting to pass before the end of the year. A big reason it is cropping up now is that the measure would raise an estimated $1.1 billion in revenue over 10 years when the GOP is desperately searching for ways to pay for tax cuts for corporations and individuals.

“Our bipartisan vote today is another positive step forward for Alaska and our nation, and I thank my colleagues for their strong support,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement. “Opening a small part of the non-wilderness 1002 Area for responsible energy development will create thousands of good jobs, keep energy affordable for families and businesses, ensure a steady long-term supply of American energy, generate new wealth, reduce the federal deficit, and strengthen our national security.”

Passage of a law authorizing drilling in the oil-rich section of the wildlife refuge called the "1002 Area” has long been a political goal of not only Murkowski, the measure's sponsor and committee's chairwoman, but of her father Frank, a former senator from Alaska.

Since the 1980s, Republicans have agitated to harvest the oil under the reserve to ensure the United States has enough petroleum to weather fluctuations in global energy markets and, at least for the Alaskan congressional delegation, enrich state residents who each get a check from state oil revenues.

Murkowski's proposal authorizes the Interior Department to conduct two leases in areas at least 400,000 acres large each. Drilling proponents note the rest of the refuge — about 17.8 million acres — is still off-limits to industry. Environmentalists say the area in question is the calving grounds of one of the largest U.S. caribou herds.

Other areas of Alaska's sweeping North Slope to the west of the refuge are, and have been, the source of oil pumped down a pipeline bisecting the state to the port of Valdez, where it is shipped to California and Washington state for refining. 

Both of those states are increasingly reliant upon foreign oil as Alaska's production wanes, Murkowski's office has noted. Maria Cantwell, the committee's top Democrat who has unsuccessfully sponsored amendments to stop Murkowski's measure, is the senior senator from Washington.

But as committee member Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) noted on Twitter, oil and gas firms were pumping in 2016 on less than 2 percent of leased land in Alaska:

With the boom of natural gas production in the Lower 48 states, the United States is producing enough of its own fuel to ease concerns about too much dependence on oil from the Middle East — the main argument that George W. Bush administration officials made in 2005 when trying to authorize Arctic refuge drilling. In fact, the United States is poised to become a net energy exporter by 2026, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The tax plan faces a number of tripwires before landing on President Trump's desk, however.

On Wednesday, it was dealt a blow when at least three GOP senators — Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Bob Corker of Tennessee and John McCain of Arizona — expressed reservations about the package (Johnson came out and said he won't support it). Republicans, who have only a 52-member hold on the chamber, can afford to lose only two GOP votes if the Democratic caucus unanimously opposes the tax plan. The tax bill also includes language to roll back the individual insurance mandate in the Affordable Care Act, giving Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) pausel, too.

It may make Murkowski uneasy, as well. She and Collins, along with McCain, made up the cohort of moderate Republicans who voted against legislation to repeal Obamacare in July. If the tax plan ever comes to a full Senate vote, the inclusion of mandate repeal forces Murkowski to choose to choose between her convictions on health care — and an energy proposal that she believes will greatly help Alaskans.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the size of area being leased in the Arctic refuge.

POWER PLAYS

-- Trump hires "only the best people," but...: All of the 50 political appointees hired to work in President Trump’s Agriculture Department identify as white, according to a new report by BuzzFeed. Two political appointees who identify as minorities were not appointed by the administration, the report notes. Sonny Ramaswamy, the director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, was appointed to a six-year term under former President Obama and Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong was appointed in 2002 by former President Bush.

By contrast, in September 2016, about a fourth of the political appointees in Obama's USDA identified as a racial or ethnic minority, per the Office of Personnel Management. BuzzFeed’s Jeremy Singer-Vine notes that this appears to be part of a broader trend within the Trump administration: “The Department of Agriculture, while an extreme, represents a broader shift. Among mid-level political appointees under President Trump — those easiest to quantify in the personnel data, and whom account for the vast majority of appointees — only 11% identify as minorities.”

Here’s another interesting data point: Trump’s appointees are one-third as diverse as “permanent” staff members and less than half as diverse as political staff under Obama at the end of his second term. The mix is roughly equal to the political staff around the end of former Bush’s second term -- as far back as the government’s data on diversity is available.      

-- Democrats, the party of climate change, do not have a unifying strategy to fight climate change: “This is true at almost every level of the policy-making process" writes The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer. "It does not have a consensus bill on the issue waiting in the wings; it does not have a shared vision for what that bill could look like; and it does not have a guiding slogan—like 'Medicare for All'—to express how it wants to stop global warming." In an illuminating piece, Meyer outlines three key problems the party faces in attempting to come up with a plan:

  1. There is a  “disintegrating” relationship between environmentalists and labor groups.
  2. Democratic voters “still don’t care about climate change very much,” seeing it as a low-priority issue, even though research shows a majority of the country believes the climate is changing.
  3. And lastly, Meyer writes, enacting policy to deal with climate change is generally hard.

Meyer points out there's a window of time before the next presidential election during which Democrats can unify around policies to mitigate climate change. After that, if the party recaptures Congress and the White House, “history suggests they will get a sliver of time to commit any kind of new policy to statue before public opinion turns against them." If all this sounds implausible, consider the very recent history of the GOP's attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

-- The "scorecard:" The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis debrief on a closed-door meeting in a Houston hotel last week with “giddy and grumpy” activists at a conference hosted by free-market think tank the Heartland Institute. While the Trump administration has mainly focused on rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations, many of the activists gathered agreed that it's not yet enough. 

At the meeting, Heartland officials handed out an “Energy Freedom Scorecard,” Eilperin and Dennis report, to measure how the Trump administration has fared on top energy and environmental priorities.

Eilperin and Dennis add: “The scorecard, obtained by The Washington Post, and the private discussion, which was recorded and shared by a participant, highlight the extent to which those on the right are pushing Cabinet members such as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to enact even more sweeping changes."

So how is the Trump team doing, according to the scorecard? Listed in the "done" category are pulling out of the Paris agreement and rescinding the Clean Power Plan. Listed in the "not done" column are ending federal tax credits to wind and solar producers and no longer basing military planning and strategies “on the predictions of flawed climate models.”

-- Monuments update: A staffer for Utah's Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch said President Trump plans to shrink the state’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by about half, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. Hatch’s central and eastern Utah director Ron Dean told the publication the monument would be trimmed to between 700,000 and 1.2 million acres. Dean also added that the Bears Ears National Monument would shift to between 100,000 to 300,000 acres from the current 1.35 million acres. 

-- Go West, young interior secretary: Zinke is considering moving the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters out West, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. “We’re certainly looking at where would be the right place,” Zinke told The Salt Lake Tribune, adding there is a “preponderance of activity is in the West” for the bureau. The publication cited Salt Lake City or Denver as potential destinations for the headquarters. 

-- It's looking dour for Dourson: The Star-News, a daily newspaper for Wilmington, N.C., reports that the state's two GOP senators, Richard Burr, and Thom Tillis, will both oppose the nomination Michael Dourson to the EPA's top chemical post. Even among EPA nominees, Dourson's nomination engendered a significant outcry from environmentalists. The Intercept's Sharon Lerner explains what the North Carolina delegation is particular concerned about:

The state is home to Camp Lejeune, the military base where TCE and other carcinogenic chemicals seeped into drinking water, leading to a cluster of cancer cases. As retired Marine Jerry Ensminger pointed out in the Raleigh News and Observer, Dourson’s evaluation of TCE, which was paid for by the American Chemistry Council, calculated a safety level that was less protective than the one set by the EPA. Ensminger, whose daughter died of leukemia at Camp Lejeune, has called on his senators to oppose Dourson, whom he calls a "walking, talking example of conflict of interest." 

-- "One of the industry’s worst offenders:" The Senate on Wednesday confirmed David Zatezalo to lead the Mine Safety and Health Administration, voting 52 to 46 along party lines. The two independent senators joined Democrats in voting against Zatezalo, while two Democrats did not vote, according to the Wheeling News-Register.

Zatezalo was formerly the chairman and chief executive of Rhino Resources, which had a history of safety violations while he was on board, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Zatezalo was the top executive at the company in 2011 when a death occurred as a result of a falling rock from a mine wall.

"Instead of nominating an advocate for workers’ health and safety, President Trump nominated one of the industry’s worst offenders," Sen. Patty Murray, (D-Wash.) said Tuesday after the Zatezalo’s nomination advanced, per NBC News. "David Zatezalo is a mining industry executive who has made it clear he cares more about corporate profits than workers."

-- As goes the power, so goes everything else: Parts of Puerto Rico were plunged back into darkness on Wednesday once again after a new power outage hit the San Juan area. The outage came after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló touted that the island regained 50 percent of its power as it reached the 56th day since Hurricane Maria hit.

The blackout was caused by the same line failure on Nov. 8, causing an hours-long interruption, CNN reported, noting that Wednesday’s incident seemed to cover a larger area.The outage affected San Juan and other nearby towns along the island's north coast, per the Associated Press, the island's most populated region. 

Earlier Wednesday, Rosselló tweeted thanking those who helped reach the goal of 50 percent power generation on the island:

Rosselló previously vowed to get 80 percent of the island's power restored by the end of this month and to 95 percent power by Dec. 15, AP reports. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it expects 75 percent of power on the island to be back by the end of January.

PREPA tweeted Wednesday that following the latest blackout, the percent of the island with power dipped back to 22 percent:

The New York Times details the daily plight of residents on the island, many of whom have gone without power even before this most recent outage, and the effect on small businesses that remain shuttered since the storm because of a lack of reliable power source. At an unemployment office in Bayamón, the report notes that 22,000 people applied last month for benefits, more than three times the 6,800 who applied in October of last year.

The Trump administration is reversing a rule that banned the import of trophies from elephants legally hunted in Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Darryl Fears and Juliet Eilperin
A House Democrat wants more information on the contacts and testimony of Rebeckah Adcock, who leads the Agriculture Department’s deregulation team.
The New York Times
OIL CHECK

-- Endangerment finding in danger: A lobbying group backed by the Koch Industries and coal giant Peabody Energy is looking to push the EPA to repeal the endangerment finding, a 2009 determination finding that climate change justified regulation that provided the basis for efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions.

The American Legislative Exchange Council is working on a resolution that state legislatures could adopt to urge the Trump administration to reject the 2009 EPA report, Bloomberg reports.

"So long as the endangerment finding remains in place, efforts to roll back climate regulations will likely fail," reads the draft of the resolution on the group’s website. "Research has shown that recent changes in temperatures, sea level rise, and the frequency of extreme weather events are far from unusual in the historic and geophysical record."

Meanwhile, Zack Colman of E&E News reports there is a "civil war brewing at ALEC" over the climate issue. He writes:

ALEC's conservative wing says the organization — which convenes corporations, think tanks and legislators — is capitulating to left-of-center interests to regain funders after an exodus of corporate titans like Google LLC and Royal Dutch Shell PLC over the organization's climate change positions. Others, however, contend that the conversation on climate has shifted away from hard-liners, with a growing number of Republicans and conservatives embracing clean technology and climate science, according to several of the group's members.

-- How the racketeering lawsuit against Greenpeace came about: The Intercept reports that Energy Transfer Partners, the owner of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, hired the private security firm TigerSwan not only to physically protect the pipeline but also to "gather information for what would become a sprawling conspiracy lawsuit accusing environmentalist groups of inciting the anti-pipeline protests in an effort to increase donations." In August, Energy Transfer Partners filed a racketeering lawsuit against Greenpeace and other environmentalists that labeled them "rogue eco-terrorist groups." Three former TigerSwan contractors describe some of the information-gathering work that led to that lawsuit, which critics contend is a ploy to discourage legal protesting.

For months, a conference room wall at TigerSwan’s Apex, North Carolina, headquarters was covered with a web-like map of funding nodes the firm believed it had uncovered — linking billionaire backers to nonprofit organizations to pipeline opponents protesting at Standing Rock. It was a “showpiece” for board members and ETP executives, according to a former TigerSwan contractor — part of a project that had little to do with the pipeline’s physical security.

Neil Chatterjee, the acting FERC chairman, wants RTOs and ISOs to update their tariffs to keep coal and nuclear plants online as his commission considers broader changes to wholesale market compensation. 
Utility Drive
THERMOMETER

-- These are the melting glaciers that might someday drown your city: New research from NASA and an accompanying  online interactive can now warn people from 293 coastal cities about how certain melting glaciers may pose a danger to them. New York City needs to worry about a very specific area of Greenland collapsing, The Post's Chris Mooney explains, while Sydney should be concerned about the breakdown of parts of Antarctica — the ones farther away from it, and not so much about the ones nearer. 

Why is that? That’s because sea levels actually decrease near an ice formation when it loses mass because it no longer exerts the same gravitational pull on the ocean, so the water shifts farther way. So living closer to a large melting ice mass may be safer than would intuitively make sense.

What the research doesn’t take into account, Mooney adds, is that shifting ocean currents can end up redistributing ocean mass and changing sea levels, and the changing climate can cause seawater to expand and water levels to steadily rise in general.

DAYBOOK

PROGRAMMING NOTE: The Washington Post is hosting “A World In Balance: Solutions for Sustainability,” an event with experts in sustainability and the conservation community this morning.

Today

  • The Progressive Policy Institute & Common Good host “Rebuilding America: What are we Waiting For?” 

Coming Up

  • Former vice president Al Gore will host a 24-hour live broadcast about climate activism through The Climate Reality Project on Dec. 4-5.
EXTRA MILEAGE

President Trump once criticized Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for awkwardly sipping from a water bottle – but the president just had a water bottle moment of his own:

Watch a pod of dolphins glide along the Sydney coastline:

Lawmakers speak out about sexual assault in Congress:

Samantha Bee says "each community has to kick out their own creeps:"