The Trump administration’s infrastructure plan released earlier this week is designed to stimulate the construction of more oil and natural gas pipelines across the country.
To make the building of new pipelines easier, the White House wants to make it harder for the next big anti-pipeline movement to win in the courtroom. How? By limiting the legal options available to lawyers at environmental groups opposed to new fossil-fuel infrastructure. Such a move could be a significant blow to the slew of protesters who spent years agitating against the Keystone XL pipeline and more recently the Dakota Access one.
But environmentalists can probably rest easy despite the broadside: A new network of pipelines built with little legal opposition is probably a pipe dream for Trump and his allies because it involves the arduous task of getting Congress to rewrite long-standing environmental laws.
"I would hope that Congress would stand up to protect bedrock environmental protections," said Kelly Martin, a deputy director at the Sierra Club.
Among the changes sought by the White House in its infrastructure plan -- a longshot for passage as it requires a lot of new government spending -- is reducing the statute of limitations for challenging permitting decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) from six years to 150 days.
Changing NEPA, which requires that federal agencies prepare environmental reviews of major projects, has been a focus of Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee, which held an oversight hearing on restructuring the 48-year-old law in November. The law has served as a model for environmental-review legislation in other countries, but Congress has amended NEPA only once, in 2015.
The smaller window for challenging permits would give environmental groups less time to mount legal challenges, although “the reality is that most of the truly controversial projects would be challenged right out of the gate,” said James Coleman, an energy law professor at Southern Methodist University.
The White House also wants to c the standard under which a pipeline project could be temporarily halted by a judge.
A legal challenge under NEPA can currenntly delay the start of a project if a plaintiff demonstrates the possibility of irreparable injury from green-lighting the project, among other criteria. Environmental and Native American activists have sought to delay Keystone XL and Dakota Access through such injunctions.
The Trump administration wants to limit those injunctions to “exceptional circumstances,” with little more explanation, according to its infrastructure proposal.
As the law stands, states can also stall natural gas pipelines that cross through their borders by delaying or denying water permits for them. The state of New York did just that with two projects, the Constitution and Millennium pipelines.
Trump’s infrastructure plan calls for amending the Clean Water Act to change the period for issuing those certifications to “reduce this delay.”
Finally, the infrastructure plan seeks to grant the head of the Interior Department — currently, Ryan Zinke — the power to allow the construction of oil and gas pipelines through national parks. Right now, only an act of Congress can permit the construction of pipelines through the parks.
"The provisions within President Trump’s infrastructure proposal streamlining federal permitting are what will enable success on the ground and maximum return on investment for communities across the country," House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said earlier this week.
The oil and gas industry is generally supportive of such changes, and has called for the streamlining of permitting for liquefied natural gas terminals and interstate natural gas pipelines by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
"We’re trying to remind people: Keep us part of the broader infrastructure plan," Jack Gerard, president and chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, said in January.
Trump's proposed changes to NEPA may have a chance of passing the House, but it’s unlikely they could overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate. Environmentalists like Tom Steyer — the billionaire Democrat who was one of the most vocal opponents to Keystone XL during the Obama years and is now leading a charge to impeach Trump — would agitate vocally against such a plan.
Trump’s proposal “neglects crucial environmental protections for our air, water, and wildlife, while allowing the billionaires in his cabinet and his corporate allies to build dirty fossil fuel pipelines," Steyer said in a statement earlier this week.
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Scott Pruitt and the Environmental Protection Agency continued to parry fallout from the administrator's first-class travel habits. Here are a few of the most recent developments:
- Pruitt began switching his flights to first or business class after verbal confrontations with members of the public, officials told The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis. Henry Barnet, who directs the EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training, told The Post he recommended Pruitt adjust his travel accommodations to provide a “buffer” after an incident in which someone approached the administrator with “threatening language” that was “vulgar.”
- One of those confrontations involved a passenger yelling "'Scott Pruitt, you’re f---ing up the environment,' those sort of terms," Barnet said, according to Politico.
- The Sierra Club is calling on Pruitt to return the money he spent on first-class travel. "This behavior wasn't acceptable from Tom Price, who was quickly fired, and it's not acceptable from Scott Pruitt," legislative director Melinda Pierce said in a statement.
- In 2016, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study finding that "[a]fter analyzing data on ‘disruptive passenger incidents,' " according to a description of the study in Science, "researchers found that flights with a first-class section were nearly four times more likely to have air rage incidents in their economy class, and that these incidents of ‘belligerent behavior’ or ‘emotional outbursts’ became nearly 12 times more likely among first-class passengers and more than twice as likely among economy-class passengers if people were made to board from the front of the plane and walk through the first-class section together."
— Penalty down play: The EPA under Trump has collected about half as much in civil penalties from polluters compared with the first year of the previous three administrations, according to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project. Eric Schaeffer, head of the nonpartisan organization and a former director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement, believes “the declines send the wrong signal to would-be polluters, coming amid cuts in agency staffing that may reduce the agency’s ability to pursue violators,” Bloomberg News reports.
— More states find drilling workarounds: The state of Washington will probably block the permits that would allow the Trump administration to pursue oil drilling off its shores, Reuters reported. “Given the danger offshore drilling poses to our environment and economy, I do not foresee how any proposal to use our aquatic lands to service offshore wells is in the best interest of Washington,” Hilary Franz, state commissioner of public lands, wrote in a letter to Zinke.
— Making hay out of a hay farm: Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) did not have a business license to run his multimillion-dollar 180-acre farm until last week, the Reno Gazette Journal reported Thursday. He also was not granted an exemption to operate the farm without it. "But Heller — who spent more than a decade overseeing business filings as Nevada’s secretary of state between 1995 and 2007 — said he doesn't need a license because his farm is a household business that has never turned a profit," per the report.
— A leg-up for energy storage: FERC voted unanimously Thursday to approve a rule to remove barriers faced by energy storage in electricity markets. In a statement, FERC said the decision will “enhance competition and promote greater efficiency in the nation’s electric wholesale markets, and will help support the resilience of the bulk power system.” Energy storage is a burgeoning technology that allows wind and solar sources to deliver pent-up power during off hours, when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining.
— Trump pick comes out against Russia pipeline: Francis Fannon, Trump’s nominee to be assistant secretary of state for energy resources, said at a Thursday confirmation hearing he would oppose the proposed natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany. “The United States’ position, it is my understanding, is to strongly oppose that pipeline,” he said, per Reuters.
— Hold the spray bottle: A new major study warns everyday chemicals found in personal-care products, paints, indoor cleaners and other chemical-containing agents are increasingly rivaling cars as a main source of emissions for volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. As cars become cleaner, scientists found the sources of VOCs, which can contribute to the formation of dangerous ozone and particulate pollution, are diversifying.
— Shell’s renewable shift: Royal Dutch Shell announced a new deal this week to provide backing for California-based Inspire Energy Holdings, a clean energy smart-home company. “While Shell and its major rivals still have the bulk of their investments in oil and natural gas, they are taking steps to diversify,” Bloomberg News reports.
— U.S. solar surge: The nation’s solar industry has spiked since a decade ago, mostly as a result of cheap imports and lower prices that were accompanied by policy and tax incentives, Axios reports. But the news site describes with a graphic “the bind America finds itself in; cheap imports are fueling its solar boom, but it's not stymying a domestic manufacturing base of solar panels themselves.”
And here's a great longread for your weekend:
— “I’m just more afraid of climate change than I am of prison:” The New York Times magazine describes how five activists, dubbed the "Valve Turners," devised a plan to fight against climate change by driving toward the Canadian border to turn off the valve for the 2,700-mile-long Keystone Pipeline: “What Foster didn’t expect was that once he’d broken through the chain-link fence, he would be briefly overwhelmed by the magnitude of what he was about to do. He faced away from the biting wind, and allowed himself to cry.”
- The 2018 Ocean Science Meeting continues in Portland, Ore.
— Fish finds: The American Wind Energy Association and University of Delaware's Special Initiative on Offshore Wind released footage of fish feeding at the nation's first offshore wind farm, near turbine foundations the groups said "act as artificial reefs:"