On Monday, the Interior Department changed its mind again.
The Bureau of Land Management, a division within the department, removed about 17,300 acres of land in central Montana from an upcoming oil and natural gas lease auction, just a week before the scheduled sale, Juliet Eilperin and I reported Monday.
The department was set to auction off leases for 109 parcels stretching across the Big Sky State from the Canadian border to Wyoming. But a cadre of local and national environmental groups filed formal protests against the sale, contending that drilling would adversely impact the Yellowstone River and other areas.
With his decision, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke withdrew 26 parcels in his home state from possible leasing arrangements, along with portions of two others. Taking a page from his boss's playbook, President Trump, Zinke tweeted his decision before the BLM formally announced it:
Zinke elaborated later in a statement: “Multiple use is about balance. I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to develop and where it’s not. This area certainly deserves more study, and appropriately we have decided to defer [these parcels]."
Even if temporary, the withdrawal of Montana land from oil and gas development is the latest whipsaw in Interior’s oil and gas policy as officials push to auction off a slew of leases near protected areas in the West.
Environmentalists derided the changes of heart as made for reality TV. Oil and gas industry representatives, meanwhile, worry about having the certainty they need to pursue projects on public lands at a time when the Trump administration wants to rev up fossil-fuel development as part of its "energy dominance" agenda.
“It seems as though Secretary Zinke is feeling pressure from those who do not want oil and natural gas development,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance.
Last week, for example, Zinke postponed the sale of leases covering 4,434 acres near Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a sacred tribal site in northwestern New Mexico, after tribal officials and conservationists argued drilling could damage prized cultural artifacts.
Petroleum producers say those concerns would have been taken into consideration through the normal environmental review process after leasing.
“The concerns expressed in the Chaco Canyon area also stem from a misunderstanding of how development is compatible with protecting cultural resources,” Sgamma said. “Before any development can occur, companies must conduct extensive cultural surveys, and any development must avoid and protect any artifacts found.”
Environmentalists responded to the moves in Montana and New Mexico by saying that leases for land near protected areas “should never have been on the table to begin with,” according to Kate Kelly, public lands director at the Center for American Progress.
That said, green groups criticized the way in which Zinke made the announcements. “Secretary Zinke is once again treating America’s public lands like contestants on a reality show, handing out roses to the places he chooses to save while casting the rest aside,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director for the Center for Western Priorities.
Then there's the biggie: Florida. In January, Zinke unexpectedly announced — again, via Twitter — that Florida would be exempt from an upcoming five-year offshore oil-and-gas development plan after meeting Republican Gov. Rick Scott in a Tallahassee airport.
The eastern Gulf of Mexico, abutting Florida's western beaches that drive much of the state's tourism economy, was a high-priority target of oil and gas drillers, who already work and have infrastructure in central and western portions of the Gulf. But since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, offshore drilling has grown increasingly unpopular in Florida, according to polling done by the University of South Florida and Nielsen. Scott, a one-time supporter of offshore drilling, now opposes it as he considers running against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in November.
Jack Gerard, head of the American Petroleum Institute, the largest U.S. oil and gas lobbying group, smacked the Florida exemption as "premature."
“Americans support increased domestic energy production, and the administration and policymakers should follow the established process before making any decisions or conclusions that would undermine our nation's energy security,” Gerard said in January.
Indeed, Zinke's Florida declaration is not a done deal, casting even more doubt over the fate of oil in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Walter Cruickshank, acting director of the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management, later told Congress "the secretary's statement stands on its own. It is not a formal action."
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— Extra income: Two top EPA political appointees were granted approval from the agency's ethics office to collect outside income while working in the Trump administration, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. “Letters from the EPA’s office of general counsel, which were released Monday by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, show that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s special assistant Patrick Davis and the deputy associate administrator for the office of public affairs, John Konkus, sought permission to work for private clients even as they occupied full-time federal jobs."
— "Sometime in 2019:" Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) suggested Monday the first auction for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could start as soon as next year. "It’s my hope, and this is a very aggressive timeline, that we would have the first lease sale ... to be sometime in 2019,” Sullivan told an audience at the oil conference CERAWeek, per The Hill, adding Interior officials are currently in Alaska.
— "Acting" no more: Zinke signed an order in January to make permanent ten of the department's acting directors. The Jan. 12 order gave “temporary redelegation of authority” to the ten officials including those who head the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management among others, The Hill reports, citing an order obtained by watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “The order is intended to ensure uninterrupted management and execution of the duties of these vacant non-career positions during the Presidential transition pending Senate-confirmation of new non-career officials."
— Steel yourself: President Trump tweeted Monday he would not negotiate lower tariffs on steel and aluminum for Mexico and Canada unless the nations came to a “fair” NAFTA agreement. Trump later told reporters he spoke with negotiators who signaled the two countries were open to discussion, Bloomberg reported. “But if they are not going to make a NAFTA deal, we’re just going to leave it this way,” Trump said.
We have large trade deficits with Mexico and Canada. NAFTA, which is under renegotiation right now, has been a bad deal for U.S.A. Massive relocation of companies & jobs. Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum will only come off if new & fair NAFTA agreement is signed. Also, Canada must..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 5, 2018
...treat our farmers much better. Highly restrictive. Mexico must do much more on stopping drugs from pouring into the U.S. They have not done what needs to be done. Millions of people addicted and dying.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 5, 2018
— The Chesapeake Bay's "secret garden:" A new study is crediting the EPA's Chesapeake Bay restoration program with fueling the resurgence of underwater grasses and other aquatic vegetation there, The Post’s Darryl Fears writes. But the federal and multistate effort is one that President Trump's budget office has proposed drastically cutting. Last week, however, the EPA did restore funding to a small newspaper reporting on the environment in the bay called the Bay Journal.
— California’s water woes: Some much-needed snow in California has slowed the state’s return to drought, the Associated Press reports. Last week’s winter storm also brought rain to parts of the state – more than it had seen all last month – and snow to the Sierra Nevada. Runoff through the spring “historically supplies Californians with one-third of their water, although scientists say climate change is altering that.”
— Study says equality key to solving climate change: New research shows reducing economic inequality will be a key factor in combating the effects of climate change. The study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change found “risk of missing emissions targets increased dramatically under economic scenarios that emphasizes high inequality and growth powered by fossil fuels,” Bloomberg News reports.
— More nor’easter: Massive waves crashed onto Puerto Rico on Monday, forcing evacuations and closing roads. The swell is the largest to hit Puerto Rico in more than a decade, the Associated Press reports, causing 30-foot high winter storm waves bigger than those that slammed into the U.S. territory during Hurricane Maria. It’s the ripple effect from last week’s nor’easter, The Post’s Angela Fritz explains.
And last week's brutal nor’easter is poised to make a comeback on Wednesday and Thursday, Matthew Cappucci writes for The Post. “While coastal flooding and destructive winds are a much lesser threat with this system compared with the severe nor’easter that hit Friday and Saturday, more cold air in place will mean the rain/snow line can make a run much closer to the coast.”
— U.S. can feed an oil-hungry world: Oil production in the United States is expected to meet 80 percent of global growth in demand in the next five years, the International Energy Agency said in an annual report on Monday. The group said the world’s energy demand will jump 7 percent by 2023 to 104.7 million barrels of oil a day, per the Associated Press, and the world capacity for oil production will hit 107 million barrels a day.
— Northam nudged: Environmental groups are looking to urge Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to uphold a campaign pledge to hold pipeline projects “to the highest environmental standards” as the pipelines move toward construction. A letter sent to the state’s environmental agency from the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council and NextGen America urged that “an individualized evaluation of these pipelines’ pollution impacts, guided by your call to use the best available scientific evidence, in a transparent, public process, is the best way to ensure protection of Virginia’s waters,” reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
— Momentum-stopping counter punch: ExxonMobil and other oil and gas giants are taking steps to fight back against the cities and municipalities suing the companies over climate change. And while some move was expected, McClatchy reports, the tactic may be working to slow down efforts against the oil companies.
“We knew they were going to deliver a counterpunch, but we didn’t know what it would be,” Ryan Coonerty, a supervisor in Santa Cruz County, told McClatchy, calling Exxon’s response “particularly outrageous and clearly an effort of intimidation.” The report noted that since Exxon’s counter suit, “no other state has joined New York and Massachusetts in going after the oil giant.”
— Steel tariffs may trip up another industry Trump loves: President Trump’s steel tariffs may have a downside for coal miners in the United States. The reason? Most of the market for metallurgical coal, used in the steelmaking process, is abroad at foreign plants, Bloomberg News explains.
- CERAWEEK energy industry leaders’ conference continues.
- The House Natural Resources Committee will hold an oversight hearing.
- The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the future of fusion energy research.
- The House Science, Space, Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the future of transportation fuels and vehicles on Wednesday.
- The Cleantech Group holds a conference on biotech and sustainability on Wednesday.
- The Blockchain in Energy Forum will be held on Thursday.
- R Street, Texas Clean Energy Coalition and The American Conservative hold an event on “How market driven clean energy is transforming the Texas electric grid tickets” on Thursday.
— Blowout in the Potomac: The blustery winds in the Washington region last week drained the Potomac River and revealed a few artifacts from long ago, Kevin Ambrose writes for The Post. The finds included an antique looking milk bottle. But the blowout also revealed evidence of a sinking District and rising sea levels: stone walls that were once above water but are now submerged.