Energy & environmental Reporter

THE LIGHTBULB

When a U.S. Geological Survey study on climate change was published last year, it caught the attention of top-level officials within both the Trump administration and the social media behemoth Facebook, sending them on an improbable collision course in the Montana woods. 

Here's how it happened: Last May, researchers from the USGS and Portland State University released a study documenting how climate change has “dramatically reduced” the size of 39 glaciers in Montana over the past half-century.

That descriptive language used in USGS's press release quickly caught the attention of high-level Interior Department officials, according to a batch of records newly released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Their issue: The Trump officials questioned federal scientists’ description of the decline, Juliet Eilperin and I reported Wednesday evening.

Doug Domenech, assistant secretary of insular areas at Interior, alerted colleagues in a May 10 email to the language USGS had written to publicize the study.

The news release began: “The warming climate has dramatically reduced the size of 39 glaciers in Montana since 1966, some by as much as 85 percent.” Highlighting that sentence, Domenech wrote to three other Interior officials, “This is a perfect example of them going outside their wheelhouse.”

Scott Cameron, who now serves as a principal deputy assistant secretary, responded: “They probably are relying on the percentages but the most basic point is we need to watch for inflammatory adverbs and adjectives in their press releases."

Meanwhile, the very same study also piqued the interest of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. He contacted officials at Montana’s Glacier National Park and visited two months later as part of his 2017 tour of the United States, eager to see the park's glaciers before they disappeared.

But in the days leading up to Zuckerberg’s arrival, political appointees at Interior abruptly removed one of the study’s co-authors from a delegation scheduled to give a tour of the park.

“I literally was told I would no longer be participating,” Daniel Fagre, a USGS research ecologist based at Glacier, told The Washington Post last July. 

According to emails released last fall, aides to Zinke at Interior headquarters objected to Zuckerberg receiving a briefing from Fagre. The National Park Service’s public affairs staff was also instructed not to post anything about Zuckerberg’s visit on social media, according to individuals familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. The prohibition included sharing this Facebook post Zuckerberg wrote during the visit in which he expressed alarm at the park’s shrinking glaciers, one of its major attractions for visitors:

But the recently released email thread, published in response to a FOIA request from former Interior climate scientist Joel Clement, is just one instance of Interior’s political appointees keeping a watchful eye on the work of climate scientists within the sprawling department managing one in every five acres of U.S. land. Since taking office, Trump appointees have scrutinized — and occasionally worked to curtail — climate change communication to the public.

Interior officials, for example, asked for a line attributing rising sea levels to climate change to be removed from a news release for a study published in late May in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, and took offline reports chronicling the impact of climate change on the American Southwest.

The study in Scientific Reports, like the one on Montana glaciers, was a collaboration between researchers at USGS and academics outside the federal government. According to the study’s non-federal contributors, the deleted line read, “Global climate change drives sea-level rise, increasing the frequency of coastal flooding.”

In contrast to the suggestion such language was outside the agency's "wheelhouse," USGS, the main scientific arm of Interior, publicly describes its mission as providing “impartial information” about the environment, including “the impacts of climate."

Yet under a policy established under the current administration, news releases issued by Interior’s different agencies must undergo a “policy review” before they are released.

At the time, Cameron had authority to review USGS news releases and the May 10 statement included the contested language. It's unclear whether the Interior employees were commenting on a draft of the release or the final product.

POWER PLAYS

— Forest Service chief out: The head of the U.S. Forest Service resigned Wednesday amid allegations of sexual misconduct made against him. According to Politico, reports of sexual harassment at the agency revealed the Agriculture Department was investigating allegations against Forest Service chief Tony Tooke. In a statement to agency employees, Tooke said he admired the courage of the many women at the Forest Service who came forward with accounts of sexual harassment over the past several years.

“I have been forthright during the review, but I cannot combat every inaccuracy that is reported in the news media,” Tooke said of Agriculture Department’s probe, per Politico. “What I can control, however, are decisions I make today and the choice of a path for the future that is best for our employees, the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I must also think about what is best for my family.”

— Here are some highlights from Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s remarks at the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston on Wednesday.

  • “Ongoing conversation:”  Perry said he is not sure whether President Trump has made a final decision about the direction of the steel and aluminum tariffs he announced last week (despite the fact they could be announced as soon as this afternoon). "I think this is an ongoing conversation and a debate, if you will, an internal discussion," Perry said, per the Houston Chronicle. "I'm not going to speak for the president here today. I'm not sure he's made up his mind with clarity where he wants to go on this."
     
  • “New energy realism:” Perry also declared the United States had entered a period of “energy realism.” "Energy security is a road map to economic prosperity," he said, per CNBC. "It's a road map that our nation has tried to follow, though we've had some detours along the way. But today, we have the opportunity to reaffirm a new direction. I call it the new energy realism."
     
  • Perry said it was “immoral” to shift away from fossil fuels, suggesting it would leave behind poorer nations. "Look those people in the eyes that are starving and tell them you can't have electricity," he said, per the Houston Chronicle. "Because as a society we decided fossil fuels were bad. I think that is immoral."

In contrast...

  • Elsewhere at CERAWeek, the head of Royal Dutch Shell called on the energy industry to focus on cutting carbon emissions worldwide. “The energy landscape is changing fast. So we must change, where change is what the world needs,” Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said.

— BUT: Steel yourself:

  • The White House said Wednesday President Trump is poised to sign the steel and aluminum tariffs this week, despite ongoing objections from Republican lawmakers, economists and businesses. But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders noted Canada, Mexico and other countries could be exempt on a “national security” basis, The Post’s David J. Lynch and Damian Paletta report.

As The Post's Josh Dawsey notes: 

  • A coalition of oil, gas and pipeline lobbying groups sent a letter to the president on Wednesday calling on him to back off tariff proposals. “While we discourage you from imposing steel tariffs, we urge you at least to allow exemptions when steel products [are] needed for energy production, processing, refining, transportation, and distribution are not sufficiently available in domestic markets,” the groups said in a letter to Trump, per the Washington Examiner
     
  • Meanwhile, U.S. Steel chief executive David Burritt said Wednesday that his company would reopen an idled steel plant and bring back 500 employees because of President Trump’s tariff announcement, per CNBC.

— Pruitt’s pricey travel: On just a few occasions, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt took first-class flights before becoming the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Oklahoman reported. Four trips out of the 80 he took between 2012 and 2017 as Oklahoma’s attorney general involved first-class flights, per the report.

— EPA probe, expanded: The Government Accountability Office has agreed to probe the EPA’s process for picking members of the agency’s advisory committee. In a letter to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the watchdog said it would include its investigation with an existing review of the agency, responding to a request from Carper and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).  

 — A quiet backtrack: The Trump administration quietly announced a decision last week to allow Americans to bring elephant parts into the country as trophies, a departure from the support President Trump voiced for a trophy ban. The move was announced in a March 1 memo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Post’s Eli Rosenberg reports. After an initial move to lift a ban on imports of elephant trophies was met with public opposition, Trump called elephant hunting a “horror show” and said it would be “very hard pressed” to change minds on that.

— "We urge you to pursue it:" Two top Democrats from the House Natural Resources Committee want the Office of the Special Counsel to probe whether Zinke violated the Hatch Act with an event in close proximity to the boundaries of an upcoming Pennsylvania election. “State Rep. Rick Saccone, the Republican candidate for the open House seat, attended the Feb. 24 event during which Zinke announced grants to help clean up abandoned mining sites nationwide, including $56 million in the state,” Politico reports.

"Only a full investigation can clarify whether Secretary Zinke violated the Hatch Act when traveling to the PA-18 boundaries to announce [abandoned mine lands] funding," Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Donald McEachin (D-Va.) wrote in a letter. "We urge you to pursue it."

— Meanwhile in the Senate: A bipartisan group of senators, with support from Zinke, introduced a bill that would allocate funding for national parks from money from oil drilling. The National Park Restoration Act would use half of the money the federal government acquires from energy productive that is not otherwise allocated, The Hill reports.

— Cold water on gas tax: This week, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) again threw cold water on hiking the nation's gasoline tax. On Wednesday, his office responded to an inquiry from The Post's Ashley Halsey III by providing a 2015 article in which Ryan said he was “against raising the gas tax.” House subcommittee on highways and transit Wednesday held a hearing on fundraising for infrastructure.

— No Yucca deal yet: House and Senate appropriators have no plans this year to fund the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in Nevada, Bloomberg News reports: “Trump has vowed to revive long-stalled efforts to construct the underground repository for spent nuclear fuel from power plants and requested $120 million to pay for initial work needed for those efforts. But a disagreement between the two chambers over whether additional nuclear waste sites should be constructed before Yucca is built tanked those efforts, [Rep. Mike] Simpson said.”

THERMOMETER

— Scientists just showed what building new suburbs does to the atmosphere: "A team of scientists this week reopened the debate over suburbs vs. city centers, with new research showing that carbon dioxide emissions increased as suburban areas developed to the southwest of Salt Lake City in the past decade — while comparable population growth in the center of the city did not have the same effect," The Post's Chris Mooney reports.

The reason: Much of it probably has to do with cars. More growth in urban areas, replete with public transport, walking and biking options, doesn’t necessarily mean more cars on the road like a population uptick in suburban areas does.

— Trump vs. kids: "The Trump administration cannot short-circuit a federal climate change lawsuit brought by a group of 21 children and teenagers, an appellate court ruled on Wednesday, probably sending the ambitious case back to a lower court in Oregon for trial," Mooney also reports.

— California weighs plastic bans: Golden State lawmakers are weighing a bill that would ban detachable bottle caps from plastic bottles. Such a decision could set a bottling standard for the entire country, CNBC reports, if the companies decide they want to create a new industry-wide bottle instead of having a California-specific bottle. The state is also weighing restrictions that would require restaurants to hand out plastic straws only if customers ask for them.

— If a tree falls in the woods…: A group of researchers hiked a mountain trail in El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico to get a better understanding of how the growing occurrence of extreme weather may affect forests ability to help protect the climate. “Organized quickly after the hurricane, the research — starting with a painstaking, tree by tree damage assessment in representative plots — will analyze how severe storms affect the amount of carbon forests pull out of the atmosphere and store,” the New York Times reports.

— Underwater sooner than expected: San Francisco is sinking, and the sea is rising. And a new report signals that the sinking land may worsen the flooding in the Bay Area. A larger portion could be underwater by 2100 than previously thought, the New York Times reports.

OIL CHECK

— Eclipsed: Tesla lost its spot as the top installer of residential solar in the United States, GTM Research estimated this week. Tesla has ceded solar market share in most quarters since it bought SolarCity, Bloomberg News reports, as one reporter notes the shift comes as Tesla undergoes a business-model transition.

—  Luck or smarts: Chevron has long owned acreage in the Permian Basin and today controls 2.2 million acres of Permian rock. Now it has made the oil giant a leader in shale. “[A]s the Permian boomed from 2010 to 2014, local lore has it that you could tell which land was Chevron’s because it was the only area around Midland that was barren of rigs. Now, Chevron is drilling everywhere,” Bloomberg News reports. “Chevron is pouring nearly a fifth of its global spending this year into the Permian, aiming to increase production to 650,000 barrels a day by the end of 2022, from about 100,000 barrels daily as recently as 2014."

DAYBOOK

Today

  • CERAWEEK energy industry leaders’ conference continues.
  • The Blockchain in Energy Forum.
  • 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.”
EXTRA MILEAGE

— Mount Shinmoedake erupts: The Shinmoedake volcano on Kyushu island in south Japan, once featured in a James Bond film, erupted for the first time in seven years on Tuesday.