A group of former Interior Department officials from both major parties is calling a Trump administration move to ease wildlife restrictions bird-brained.

Seventeen former political appointees and career officials sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging him to reconsider easing rules around a century-old law used to prosecute oil firms and other companies for the killing of migratory birds, Juliet Eilperin and I report today.

“This legal opinion is contrary to the long-standing interpretation by every administration (Republican and Democrat) since at least the 1970’s,” the group wrote in a letter sent to Zinke on Wednesday, as well as to members of Congress.

The letter-writing group is diverse, spanning the administrations of former presidents Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama. Paul Schmidt, assistant director of migratory birds at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) from 2003 to 2011, organized the effort, saying both Republicans and Democrats were easy to recruit. “There wasn’t any hesitation on anyone’s part," Schmidt said. "We finalized that letter in short order.”

Interior’s principal deputy solicitor, Daniel Jorjani, issued the new legal interpretation three days before Christmas — one of several last-minute stock-stuffers given out by Trump's environmental officials.

The law being reinterpreted is the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, or MBTA, one of the nation’s oldest environmental statutes. The act made it illegal to “pursue, hunt, take, [or] capture” any migratory bird “by any means whatever [and] at any time or in any manner.”

Because the law is so broadly worded, incidences like a motorist striking and killing a bird “might be a technical violation," Schmidt said. But in practice, he added, federal prosecutors tend to exercise restraint, bringing cases against companies that had failed to take precautionary measures aimed at averting bird deaths.

Interior's office of the solicitor, however, worried the law still "hangs the sword of Damocles over a host of otherwise lawful and productive actions." Under the new interpretation, a company would be in violation of the law only when it is “engaged in an activity the object of which was to render an animal subject to human control.”

The former Interior officials felt that interpretation was far too narrow: “This is a new, contrived legal standard that creates a huge loophole” in the existing act, the letter-writers wrote, “allowing companies to engage in activities that routinely kill migratory birds so long as they were not intending that their operations would ‘render an animal subject to human control.’ "

Interior did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. But in late December, Interior’s deputy director of communications, Russell Newell, said in an email the opinion issued just days before President Trump’s inauguration “criminalized all actions that killed migratory birds, whether purposeful or not.”

One experience that may have swayed Interior is that of Harold Hamm, as Eilperin explained in December:

One of the sharpest critics of the MBTA is Harold Hamm, chief executive of the energy exploration company Continental Resources, who served as Trump’s energy adviser during the 2016 campaign. In 2011, a U.S. attorney in North Dakota charged Hamm with a criminal misdemeanor after a Say’s phoebe got stuck and died in a pond of oil waste. Hamm fought the charge and got it dismissed in 2012.

Trump attacked the Obama administration over the incident during an energy speech in May 2016.

This is far from the first time officials from past administrations have chewed out Trump's crew over environmental policy.

Last month, three former administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency under Republican presidents joined with Bill Clinton’s Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, in publicly criticizing the proposed opening of an Alaskan gold and copper mine near Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon fishery. In June, seven former heads of the Energy Department’s energy efficiency and renewables office wrote in protest of proposed budget cuts there.

Read the letter here and the full story here.

Programming note: The Energy 202 will not publish on Monday, Jan. 15, for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We'll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.


— Zinke's Sunshine State burn continues: Formal requests from states besides Florida are piling up on the Interior secretary's desk demanding meetings after the announcement of the department's new offshore oil drilling plan (states like Washington and Virginia are mad after the Trump administration exempted Florida from the effort). Democrats, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), cast the decision to exempt Florida as a political favor to Gov. Rick Scott (), who Trump is trying to woo to run against Nelson in November.

  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) asked for an exemption, joking in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he would need to bribe Trump to make it happen: “We believe America deserves a president who will protect our beaches from sea to shining sea, not just those who have a political pal who’s in trouble in a Senate race in Florida…I don’t know, maybe I have to buy Donald Trump a golf course in Washington or something to get him to protect us.”
  • North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) insisted in a statement that like Florida, “offshore drilling threatens tourism, which is a vital economic driver" in his state.
  • More from Axios: "Zinke spoke Thursday with the South Carolina governor about that state’s opposition to offshore drilling, and Friday Zinke has calls set with the governors of Delaware, California and North Carolina to discuss the same thing..."
  • And 22 senators, led by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed, sent a letter to Zinke calling for the same exemption. “We urge you to honor the commitment of this Administration by listening to the local and state voices that we represent and to respect their overwhelming opposition to oil and gas drilling off our coasts,” they wrote.

Read the letter, via HuffPost’s Chris D’Angelo below: 

  • Meanwhile, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied on Thursday that Zinke’s decision was politically motivated. "I'm not aware of any political favor that that would have been part of," Sanders said.

— The latest on Puerto Rico:

  • Post-hurricane murder spike? The Associated Press reports officials in Puerto Rico are wary of the spike in violent crime as the island struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria. In the first 11 days of the year, 32 people have already been killed on the island, nearly double the number from the same time last year.
  • Worth a reread: Politico’s October feature on “Katrina brain” on the invisible long-term effects of a megastorm is a good one to revisit: “Public health officials say that, in the aftermath of an extreme weather event like a hurricane, the toll of long-term psychological injuries builds in the months and years that follow, outpacing more immediate injuries and swamping the health care system long after emergency workers go home and shelters shut down... [M]ental health experts warn that the hidden psychological toll will mount over time, expressed in heightened rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, domestic violence, divorce, murder and suicide.” 
Under the Obama administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service had viewed the Canada lynx as doomed in much of its habitat without continued protection.
Darryl Fears

— Export milestone: The United States became a net exporter of natural gas for the first time since at least 1957, Bloomberg News reports: “A ‘significant projected increase’ in natural gas sent by pipeline to Mexico and a growing number of liquefied natural gas shipments to the rest of the world should guarantee the trend moving forward, [The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Victoria] Zaretskaya said by email on Wednesday.”

Last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated the United States could become an overall net energy exporter by 2026 — a tipping point Trump hopes happens sooner because of its "energy dominance" deregulatory agenda.

But there's a rub: The Trump administration's energy goals could be undermined by the president's distaste for free-trade deals. The role Mexican energy demand played in that tipping point is notable. Earlier this week, Jack Gerard, the head of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents natural gas firms, urged the Trump administration to stay in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) if an update to the agreement cannot be brokered between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

"As the Trump administration continues negotiations with Canada and Mexico," he said, "we urge them to seek modernization in ways that maintain these benefits."

For months, the oil and gas industry has feared what Trump might do on NAFTA. The free-trade agreement allows gas to flow across the U.S.-Mexico border unencumbered by heavy tariffs and puts in place a system of resolving international trade disputes, called investor-state dispute settlement, that oil and gas developers in Mexico such as ExxonMobil rely upon.


— The Golden State’s last nuclear plant, shuttered: Diablo Canyon, the last nuclear plant in California, will close by 2025, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The California Public Utilities Commission voted to close the plant by a unanimous vote, ending a long history of nuclear energy in the state: “State law forbids building more nuclear plants in California until the federal government creates a long-term solution for dealing with their waste, a goal that remains elusive despite decades of effort…. Diablo Canyon’s planned shutdown is the latest blow to America’s nuclear power industry, beset by plant closures and the cancellation of proposed reactors.” 

The shutdown could be a blow to California's ambitions of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Several commissioners are pushing to replace the nuclear power generated with other carbon-free sources.

While debate rages over how much lithium the battery industry can consume, there’s a more scarce mineral that has carmakers worried.
Bloomberg News

 — The latest on the California mudslides: Rescue efforts continue in Southern California, where many are still missing amid the mud and debris. More than 500 first responders and ten dogs were deployed on Wednesday to search for victims, CNN reported, as officials completed an initial search of three-quarters of the debris field. On Wednesday, dogs helped rescue ten stranded people. On Thursday, officials turned to areas that hadn't been searched, and meanwhile expanded evacuation zones. 

The number of missing people was in flux on Thursday, with Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown saying as many as 43 people could be missing. It was not yet confirmed that all those people were unaccounted for, he noted.

“It is a massive operation that we have underway, still in the search and rescue mode, as mentioned, but as we transition and will transition to a recovery mode, we realize that this is going to be a long and difficult journey for all of us and for our community,” Brown said, per the Los Angeles Times.

But still, The Post's Max Ufberg, Mark Berman and Scott Wilson write, officials found reason to be optimistic: “Officials also said that fewer homes had been destroyed than initially believed, though far more had been damaged. By Thursday morning, Santa Barbara authorities said 65 homes had been destroyed, down from the 100 homes they reported the night before. Another 446 homes were damaged, up significantly from the 300 believed to be damaged on Wednesday night.”

Tony Biasotti, Ufberg and Wilson report on the “evacuation fatigue” that set in for many residents of fire-scarred counties as the storm hit: “On Monday, emergency officials again told residents of much of Montecito to leave. Heavy rains were expected, and the loose, fire-charred hillsides above the area would likely wash away, downhill from the Santa Ynez Mountains to the Pacific Ocean with Montecito in between. The predicted happened. As the flooding began, emergency officials sent out cellphone alerts. Some had left, many hadn’t — and then scrambled to do so after the opportunity had passed.”

Also worth a read: The New York Times’s Jennifer Medina and Patricia Mazzei on a survivor of the recent wildfires who was killed in the mudslides. 

 — Frigid cold in a warming world: The record cold that blew in with the start of this year will become increasingly rare in a world gradually warming because of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, reports Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow: “An international group of scientists has concluded the recent piercing chill was 15 times less likely than it would’ve been 100 years ago, when temperatures in such cold waves averaged about 4 degrees lower. The cold was ‘highly unusual in the current climate’ wrote the scientists who analyzed the temperatures…

The flip side: A growing body of hotly debated literature is pointing to climate change as causing the jet stream to wobble, and deliver cold Arctic air to North America. But not all climate scientists are on board with that theory.

It’s also not common for ice to form over the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, but after weeks of recent frigid temperatures the bodies of water froze over, writes John Hopewell for Capital Weather Gang. And the National Ice Center reports more ice is on its way: “Conditions remain favorable for the ice to persist until Thursday and Friday, when warmer air will aid in the melting of the ice … Expect ice to potentially re-form later in the weekend with the resurgence of cold air.”

As quickly as the ice forms, it can melt. Below are images from the NOAA that show changes from Jan. 8 to Jan. 10:

— Just like the oceans, freshwater absorbs CO2 too: Carl Zimmer's latest column in the New York Times explains how a group of scientists assessed carbon dioxides’s effect on lakes and streams. They did so studying specimens in the water, such as water fleas or mussels. “Rather than the acidity of the water, carbon dioxide itself seems to be affecting the water fleas," Zimmer writes. He continued: "the team studied two species of mussels. One species relaxed its muscles in water high in carbon dioxide, so that its shell gaped open. The other species clamped its shell shut, so that it could no longer filter food.”

— And finally, here are some great longreads for your long weekend (if you have MLK day off, that is): 

Reeves Wiedeman profiles the Rockefellers who are taking on ExxonMobil, the progeny of the company that made them Rockefellers, (New York magazine

Lyndsey Gilpin writes about the major oil and gas companies pivoting to wind. (InsideClimate News)


Coming Up

  • Politico holds an event on "Driverless Cars and the Future of Mobility" on Jan. 16.
  • The Bipartisan Policy Center hosts FERC commissioners Neil Chatterjee and Cheryl LaFleur for a discussion on the proposed Grid Resiliency Pricing Rule on Jan. 16.
  • The United States Energy Association holds the 14th Annual State of the Energy Industry Forum.
  • The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds its 6th annual Lunch & Learn event to decide what topics to cover in 2018 on Jan. 23.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on Canada’s energy future on Jan. 23. 

Watch the Coast Guard airlift dogs stranded on a golf course in California: 

Workers get caught in strong Texas sandstorm:

Here's a running list of countries Trump has insulted: 

Watch The Daily Show's Trevor Noah on Trump's "shithole" remark: