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The Energy 202: Almost 100,000 comments missing from federal sage grouse conservation report

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with Paulina Firozi


The Trump administration’s decision to amend a hard-fought compromise between states and the federal government on how to protect a chickenlike bird in resource-rich Western states sent green groups scrambling to mobilize their members to speak their minds to Washington.

Environmentalists registered their discontent over the reopening of the Obama-era conservation plan to protect the greater sage grouse, a bird that makes its home among the sagebrush sea stretching from Montana to New Mexico and from California to Colorado, by mailing by paper or electronically their objections during the official comment period. 

Altogether, roughly 267,000 individuals submitted comments to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management at the behest of about 20 environmental groups, they say.

But the BLM tallied far fewer comments received for its “scoping” report: About 170,000 individuals submitted comments, according to a memorandum by David Bernhardt, the No. 2 top official at the department, sent to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.  

“The comments demonstrated a varied range of views,” Bernhardt wrote.

The discrepancy left environmental groups scrambling to figure out why their comments did not show up in the public record. Phil Hanceford, conservation director of the Wilderness Society, called the missing comments “a glaring reminder that BLM has some pretty serious transparency issues.”

Even if a mistake, the omission may mean that many more absent comments submitted by individuals who aren't double checking the public record. 

Public comment periods are an important way for the federal government to measure the mood regarding a proposed rules change -- though advocacy groups organizing campaigns of opposition or support often find their way into the record too.

The BLM did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post, although a bureau spokesman did tell the Casper Star Tribune in Wyoming that it was “aware of the concern and are checking to ensure that all comments and issues are represented in the final scoping report.”

Many Western Republicans fear the conservation plan brokered by the Obama administration, covering an area pocked with coal mines and oil rigs, could impede energy development and the jobs it brings. But the bird’s numbers are estimated to have fallen by as much as 90 percent because of industrial mining and oil and gas drilling through 11 Western states. The Trump administration announced last June it would review the sage-grouse plan, and in October issued a formal notice, kicking off the comment period.

Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands for the National Wildlife Federation, said the BLM had been in touch with the organization, assuring it the omission was due to a technical error. She said only a "handful" of NWF comments made their way to the published record.

“Some people chalk this up to political chicanery,” Stone-Manning said. “I take the agency at its word when they say it's a technical error. But it's still a problem, because tens of thousands of American voices would have gone unheard had we not drawn the agency's attention to this.”

The bureau, Stone-Manning said, sent itself a test email to an address it used to solicit comments, and it failed to go through.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a hunting and fishing advocacy group that also registered criticism during the comment period, said it worked with the BLM to comb “through all the comments to find each one for us,” said John Gale, the group’s conservation director.

The most potentially influential feedback the Trump administration received, however, comes from governors of the president’s own party. 

Matt Mead, the Republican governor of Wyoming, which mines more coal than any other state, told Zinke that reopening the sage grouse plan was “not the right decision” because states were involved in crafting the original plan. “Wholesale changes to the land use plans are likely not necessary at this time,” Govs. Mead and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) wrote to Zinke last May. 

One fear is that rewriting the complex conservation strategy for the sage grouse could backfire. Rolling back protections could shrink its population even further, leading to the bird being granted endangered species status and to energy firms being subjected to even more stringent restrictions under the Endangered Species Act.

This is not the first time critics of the Trump administration noticed its comments were not being registered. Last December, the Department of Health and Human Services defended withholding comments critical of new abortion and transgender policy.

This story has been updated to reflect that the National Wildlife Federation found a "handful" of its comments in the sage-grouse scoping report.


— “Secretary’s Door:” The Interior Department is spending $139,000 on three sets of double doors in Ryan Zinke’s office, the Associated Press reports. When asked about the doors, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said Zinke was not aware of the contract. The work order was listed on an online government procurement database, noting the order for the $138,670 “Secretary’s Door” was completed in November. 

“The secretary was not aware of this contract but agrees that this is a lot of money for demo, install, materials and labor,” Swift said Thursday in a statement emailed to the AP. “Between regulations that require historic preservation and outdated government procurement rules, the costs for everything from pencils to printing to doors is astronomical. This is a perfect example of why the secretary believes we need to reform procurement processes.”

— The revolving door can also be controversial: White House counsel Don McGahn issued at least 37 ethics waivers to officials in the White House and across executive branch agencies, the Associated Press reports, exempting them from President Trump’s executive order barring lobbyists and consultants from working on any matter they previously worked on for private clients once they work in the government.   

And the AP noted that in the EPA, nearly half of the political appointees hired under Trump have strong industry ties.

“Of 59 EPA hires tracked by the AP over the last year, about a third worked as registered lobbyists or lawyers for chemical manufacturers, fossil fuel producers and other corporate clients that raise the very type of revolving-door conflicts of interests that Trump promised voters he would eliminate,” per the report. “Most of those officials have signed ethics agreements saying they would not participate in actions involving their former clients while working at the EPA. At least three have gotten waivers allowing them to do just that.”

— The Forest Service’s burning sexual harassment problem: Months before U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke abruptly resigned over sexual misconduct allegations, The Post’s Darryl Fears reports the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service, was sent a warning about Tooke. “As early as September, the office of Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) informed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office of a letter from a Forest Service retiree who wrote that Tooke wasn’t deserving of the post he was appointed to by Perdue the month before,” Fears writes. “Agriculture officials appointed an independent investigator to look into the claim. The accusation against a top official is especially stinging because the agency is investigating dozens of harassment claims, particularly from women in its firefighting division.”

President Trump said Mexico, Canada, Australia and other "longterm partners" may not have tariffs, and he'll be able "to drop out countries or add countries." (Video: The Washington Post)

— Steel yourself:

  • On Thursday, President Trump made it official. He signed an order to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, but signaled relief to some of the nation's allies, The Post's Philip Rucker, David J. Lynch and Erica Werner report. The tariffs are scheduled to take effect in two weeks and will initially exempt Canada and Mexico. Trump is also opening the door to exemptions for other countries. 
  • ExxonMobil's chief executive said Trump’s tariff plan may undo “positive steps” from Republican policies, including from the GOP tax overhaul and deregulation. Trump’s plan “takes us back in the opposite direction,” Darren Woods told CNBC.
  • Meanwhile, 11 countries signed a broad trade agreement on Thursday in a challenge to the Trump administration. The move comes as the president, who withdrew from an earlier version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal last year, was readying to sign his controversial tariff plan. “[T]he resuscitated deal serves as a powerful sign of how countries that have previously counted on American leadership are now forging ahead without it,” the New York Times reports.

— One step closer to Arctic refuge drilling: Two Interior officials visited communities in Alaska this week as the department moves closer to launching a regulatory process to lease lands for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The visit was an opportunity to let the communities of Kaktovik and Utgiagvik know “the agency in March will publish a notice in the Federal Register of its intent to move toward an environmental impact statement on the planned leasing,” the Anchorage Daily News reports.

— Action possible on grid resilience: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Kevin McIntyre detailed some of the commission's thinking on grid resilience. The commission rejected Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposal to bolster nuclear and coal-fired plants in January, launching a review on the matter.

“The compensation side is tricky and critical. If there are power plants — big, small or otherwise — that are making valid, resilience-focused contributions to our grid, essentially helping to keep the lights on in a way that shores up resilience, but are not being compensated for those attributes that they are providing to the grid, that is automatically of concern to FERC,” McIntyre said at the CERAWeek conference in Houston, per Axios. He told reporters that “I would be very surprised if we go through all that process and take no action.”

— House lawmakers voted Thursday to pass a bill to loosen EPA air pollution standards for hydrogen chloride and sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants that burn coal refuse, the Hill reports. The Satisfying Energy Needs and Saving the Environment Act passed on a 215-to-189 vote.

— Hold that thought: Utah Rep. Mike Noel (R), who sponsored a bill to honor Trump by naming a highway in the state after him, has decided not to move forward with the plan. “It’s still controversial, no matter what you do,” Noel told the local Fox 13 station. Noel had proposed naming a part of the Utah National Parks Highway the “Donald J. Trump Utah National Parks Highway” as a gesture to thank the president for his decision to shrink two national monuments in the state.

— Elsewhere in Utah: Struggling coal mines in Utah are poised to receive tax royalty reductions that could be worth millions of dollars, but there’s hardly any public information about it, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. Bowie Resource Partners requested the reduction in confidential filings to the Bureau of Land Management, per the report, and the federal agency is expected to approve it, “but citing the coal company’s need to protect trade secrets, BLM officials won’t divulge how large a royalty cut Bowie is seeking, how much coal the relief would cover, or what mining complications Bowie is encountering.”

Video filmed from New Jersey City shows a nor’easter storm crossing over the Hudson River and lower Manhattan on March 7. (Video: Steph Schlot)

— Under snow and in the dark: Millions of Americans were digging out from under heavy snow that fell across the Northeast as a result of the powerful nor’easter. More than half a million utility customers were waiting for their power to return on Thursday, NBC News reported. “This time, it was Massachusetts that had the dubious distinction of having the most residents in the dark, with electricity cut to more than 230,000 customers as of Thursday night. New Jersey was next, with about 140,000 customers still without juice, followed by Connecticut, with more than 80,000.”


— Like a volcano: A new study found that the record-breaking wildfire season in North America affected the Earth’s atmosphere to the same degree as a volcanic eruption. The impact of North American fires in 2017 also surpassed all other documented wildfires “since the beginning of stratospheric observations in the 1980s,” according to website GeoSpace, from the American Geophysical Union. “This event was so big and its fires were so powerful that not only did they inject material into the stratosphere, they injected enough material that the stratosphere was polluted on a hemispheric scale,” said Sergey Khaykin, an atmospheric scientist at Versailles University and lead author of the new study.


— Oil outlook: Royal Dutch Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden suggested global demand for oil could peak as soon as 2025 if the world continues to try to combat greenhouse gas emissions, Axios reports. Some context: His comments assume that nations will stick to standards set by the Paris climate accord, for one, and also “appear to be the most aggressive by any oil and gas executive on a topic that is central to the industry’s future profitability,” Axios notes.

— Another plan to save coal: The Trump administration is looking into how companies can help develop small-scale coal power plants, Axios reports. “Such technology is largely unheard of — today’s coal-fired power plants in the U.S. are big and not easily turned on or off. The Energy Department’s pursuit of these plants is among the strongest signals of President Trump’s desire to revive coal despite market trends going in the opposite direction.”

— One way to push electric vehicles: Salt Lake City has repealed user fees at electric vehicle charging ports to encourage the purchase of electric cars and use of the charging stations. Previously, drivers had to pay $1 to connect and 10 cents for every kilowatt hour, per Utility Dive.

And here are some good longreads for your weekend:

— These are the climate change skeptics running the Trump administration. From Politico: “Trump has chosen at least 20 like-minded people to serve as agency leaders and advisers, according to a POLITICO review of his appointees' past statements on climate science. And they are already having an impact in abandoning former President Barack Obama’s attempt to help unite the world against the threat of rising sea levels, worsening storms and spreading droughts.”

— Post-storm exodus: “Even before Maria strafed the region, a record number of Puerto Ricans were realizing that the declining island might be where their heart is but cannot be where their feet stay,” The Post’s Arelis R. Hernández writes. “Nearly 500,000 people left Puerto Rico for the mainland during the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center, pushing the stateside Puerto Rican population past the number living on the island last year — an estimated 3.3 million.”

— What went wrong: A five-month investigation from KQED examined what happened on the first night of the Atlas Peak and Tubbs fires in northern California last fall: “The review shows that even with homes burning and lives on the line, first responders and decision-makers remained hamstrung by those problematic procedures and policies. They struggled to adapt as quickly as the fires were moving.”




— Penguin selfie. Two emperor penguins in Antarctica found a camera left by a human and captured a 38-second video of themselves. Enough said.