At the end of last year, President Trump and Congress officially gave the green light to oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). For Alaskan lawmakers, the inclusion of a drilling provision in the GOP tax bill was a victorious end to a nearly 40-year struggle to develop parts of the resource-rich refuge.
But lifting the decades-old ban on fossil-fuel development in the refuge, it turns out, is just the start of a scramble to actually erect rigs into the air and get drills into the ground.
With control of the executive and legislative branches, Republicans are eager to get through the environmental review process before a Democrat has a chance to regain the White House in 2020.
Officials are racing to auction off drilling rights — because once they do that, it makes the job of again closing ANWR to drilling that much harder in the future.
“Once the leases are sold, it's hard for the next administration to undo,” said Erik Grafe, a staff attorney in the Alaska office of Earthjustice, which opposes refuge drilling.
On Friday, the Interior Department will kickstart the lengthy environmental review process, allowing members of the public to weigh in on developing the pristine coastal plain. During the 60-day comment period, citizens can write to the agency's Bureau of Land Management to identify potential environmental issues. The BLM will also hold public hearings in Anchorage, Fairbanks and three Arctic communities in the state.
This “scoping” period is just the first of several steps mandated under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), often called the nation's bedrock environmental law, to assess the ecological impact of oil and gas work on the caribou, bears, wolves and migratory birds that populate ANWR.
The tax bill requires federal officials to auction off mineral rights in areas encompassing at least 400,000 acres each in the refuge. Despite that language, some Republicans worry that it could be reversed in future administrations.
“The push right now within Interior is to [issue leases] before four years,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told an Anchorage business group in February, according to E&E News. “They are working fairly and aggressively to put in place, to lay the groundwork for what comes next ... because once you get those leases out into the hands of those who can then move forward, it's tougher to throw the roadblocks in place.”
Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wrote the tax bill's ANWR drilling provision. Both she and her father, former Republican senator and governor Frank Murkowski of Alaska, championed refuge drilling.
Another concern is litigation from environmental and Native American groups, who often sue the government for failing to properly follow NEPA. They will probably do the same to slow down leasing in the refuge.
“The administration has made my people a target,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, told The Washington Post's Darryl Fears. “We will not stand down. We will fight to protect the porcupine caribou herd … every step of the way.”
In turn, the Trump administration in February proposed sweeping changes to the 48-year-old environmental law as part of its infrastructure package. The plan, which at this point is not going anywhere, is designed to streamline project approvals. The House Natural Resources Committee has taken interest in revamping NEPA as well, holding a hearing in November titled “Modernizing NEPA for the 21st Century.”
“NEPA was originally intended to be a tool to assess the impacts of government actions on the environment. Unfortunately, today it has become a sweeping regulatory framework that does the exact opposite,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the committee's chair. “Like some of our other bedrock environmental statutes, they had a noble intent. But when you write something in an open-ended and vague manner of statutory language, it simply means that administrations and litigation can make it a far cry from what Richard Nixon signed back in 1969.”
The committee scheduled another NEPA hearing for later this month after some streamlining provisions were included in a draft of the farm bill, which is up for renewal this year.
The Alaskan Arctic is not the only place the government is moving forward quickly with lease sales. This year the department has held oil and gas auctions in Wyoming, Montana and southeast Utah, close to the Bears Ears National Monument, which Trump shrunk last year to the consternation of environmental and Native American groups.
An Interior memorandum issued this year directs field offices “to simplify and streamline the leasing process” so that federal leases to the oil and gas industry can be expedited “to ensure quarterly oil and gas lease sales are consistently held.” The aim is to have the BLM process each proposed lease within six months.
“The Administration is opening up public lands to oil and gas drilling all over the American West,” Michael Burger, executive director of the Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, wrote in an email. "The Administration appears to be doing everything it can to lock in as many fossil fuel lease sales as possible before time runs out.”
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— Another day, another inquiry, writes The Post’s Brady Dennis: This time, the EPA’s inspector general announced he will review Administrator Scott Pruitt’s round-the-clock security detail on personal trips, which have included a family trip to Disneyland, another to the Rose Bowl and another to a basketball game at the University of Kentucky. “The latest probe comes as Pruitt faces more than a half-dozen inquiries into his spending habits, living arrangements and management at the agency. The investigations are taking place within both the House and Senate, the EPA and the White House,” Dennis writes.
Drip … Pruitt’s condo controversy may entangle another Republican. According to the watchdog group Campaign for Accountability, committees for Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) hosted campaign fundraisers out of the Capitol Hill space where Pruitt was living, but no payments were reported to the condo’s owners for the events, Bloomberg News reports. And if the condo was used free as a fundraising site, it could be considered an "in-kind contribution," which would need to be disclosed. And it’s not just Crapo. The Daily Beast previously reported Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) held an event at the location; Bloomberg reports Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) reportedly also held a breakfast there.
…drip: Pruitt spent $45,000 in government money to fly an "advance" team of two aides and three security agents on business-class tickets to Australia to prepare for a trip that was later canceled. “The purchase of business-class tickets was not a violation of U.S. government policy, which allows federal employees to travel business class on trips lasting 14 hours or more,” Reuters reports.
Meanwhile, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are calling for Republican leaders to force Pruitt to testify under oath. “Mr. Pruitt’s extraordinary lack of responsiveness to congressional inquiries, legal violations resulting from EPA’s failure to notify Congress about his expenditures, and serious questions about the veracity of his statements regarding a number of these ethics issues make this request necessary,” the committee's top Democrats wrote in a letter to committee chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and chairman of the environmental subcommittee, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.)
The EPA is also reviewing all of its Freedom of Information Act responses to double check they’ve included all of Pruitt’s email accounts, per the Washington Examiner. "As long as EPA administrators have had secondary email accounts, EPA staff have routinely searched requested accounts in response to FOIA and congressional requests," Steven Fine, the agency’s deputy chief information officer, wrote in a letter to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo). "However, in response to your concern, my office is conducting a full review of the searches conducted regarding FOIA requests seeking Administrator Pruitt's emails."
— Democrats tell Zinke his new policy is for the birds: Dozens of lawmakers are calling on the Interior Department to reverse a recent reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (which The Energy 202 explored this week). “Congress determined that protected birds shall not be killed 'by any means or in any manner' without a permit, and administrations for decades have reasonably applied the law’s mandate to address not only hunting, but industrial hazards as well," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, per the Hill. The Trump administration said the law will no longer apply even after a catastrophic accidents like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the 8th anniversary of which is this weekend.
— A Cold War strategy to keep coal and nuclear plants hot: The Trump administration is considering invoking a 68-year-old law to help struggling coal and nuclear plants stay running: the Defense Production Act used under President Harry Truman, Bloomberg News reports. The statute would give the administration the authority to nationalize the private industry to make sure the country has resources needed in case of a disaster or a war. The effort has been backed by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who urged Trump in a Wednesday letter to invoke the law. “When President Roosevelt declared that universal freedom was predicated on the United States being the ‘arsenal for democracy,’ the coal industry kept the lights on in the factories, plants and shipyards across the country. And it is ready and willing to continue to do so, but this industry and the men and women who work in it can no longer do it alone.”
— Ready for launch: The Senate voted narrowly Thursday to confirm Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) as the NASA administrator, despite concerns from Democrats about his scientific experience and concerns from Republicans that did not ultimately stop them from voting to approve the Oklahoma Republican. The chamber voted to confirm Bridenstine, 50 to 49.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who initially expressed reluctance to vote for someone without a background in space to lead NASA, “ultimately sided with all other Republicans to confirm Bridenstine,” The Post’s Seung Min Kim and Christian Davenport report. “I was not enthused about the nomination. Nothing personal about Mr. Bridenstine. NASA is an organization that needs to be led by a space professional,” Rubio said before the confirmation. But “my view of it is, and it has been the tradition of the Senate for the entire distance of the republic, that we give great deference to the president on choosing qualifications.”
We have seen this story before from Rubio, who expressed grave concerns about Rex Tillerson and his business dealings in Russia as ExxonMobil's chief executive...
Being a "friend of Vladimir" is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState - MR— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) December 11, 2016
...before ultimately voting to confirm him as secretary of state last year.
— Pipeline review: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday voted to begin a review of its policy for approving natural gas pipeline projects. The commission voted unanimously to issue a draft notice of inquiry, the Washington Examiner reports, which will begin a 60-day public comment period.
— A D.C. lawmaker's image rehab: D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr., who sparked criticism last month for saying a Jewish banking family controlled the climate, paid a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday. The story of the visit, from The Post’s Peter Jamison, is worth reading in its entirety. Here's how it starts:
The photo, taken in 1935, depicts a woman in a dark dress shuffling down a street in Norden, Germany. A large sign hangs from her neck: “I am a German girl and allowed myself to be defiled by a Jew.” She is surrounded by Nazi stormtroopers.
D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) studied the image. “Are they protecting her?”
Lynn Williams, an expert on educational programs at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and White’s tour guide for the day, stared at the photo. “No,” she said. “They’re marching her through.”
“Marching through is protecting,” White said.
— Out of the dark, mostly: The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said Thursday electricity had been restored across the island to all customers who had power before the previous day’s blackout. Before Wednesday’s outage, about 40,000 customers had still been without power since Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory seven months ago. “What’s happening is that the places where there are more clients who remain without power were the areas most impacted, damaged by the hurricane,” Geraldo Quiñones López, a PREPA spokesman, told NBC News.
—This year only seems colder than usual: The global average temperature has been warm compared to historical averages, according to federal data, even though the first quarter of the year has been cooler than recent years, Axios reports. "The 2018 year-to-date value was 0.77°F lower than the record high set in 2016 and was the coolest such period since 2014. The years 2015-2017 rank among the three warmest January–March on record," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted in its latest monthly climate report.
— "Very High!" Early Friday morning, President Trump tweeted about the creeping price of oil, which is set to drive the price at the gasoline pump over $3 per gallon as the summer driving season approaches:
Looks like OPEC is at it again. With record amounts of Oil all over the place, including the fully loaded ships at sea, Oil prices are artificially Very High! No good and will not be accepted!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 20, 2018
The increase in the price of crude oil, now just under $70, are driven both by high demand from the hot global economy and, indeed, by a lower supply of petroleum from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, a cartel of oil-producing nations. Saudi Arabia, OPEC's biggest member, reportedly wants to see a high price for oil as it prepares an initial public offering for Saudi Aramco, its state-run oil company.
But Trump himself may ultimately not help keep prices low if he decides to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, since any new sanctions on that oil-producing nation will further constrain the global supply.
— Carbon-neutral car sharing: Lyft announced Thursday it will offset emissions from rides by investing in projects that seek to reduce other greenhouse gas sources. The company aims to support renewable energy, reforestation and other projects that will make up for the carbon impact from every mile driven by the more than 1.4 million cars in Lyft's network, including miles driven during rides and on the way to pick up passengers, Reuters reports. “This in a sense puts a tax on ourselves to continue to move toward shared rides and lower emission vehicles,” Lyft co-founder and president John Zimmer told Reuters.
—Suncor Energy’s oil refinery is expelling 8.5 tons of invisible hydrogen cyanide gas every year over low-income Denver neighborhoods, The Denver Post reports. “Community groups in Globeville, Swansea and Elyria this week petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to require Colorado health officials to set a limit that protects people and at least require Suncor to disclose emissions of the gas to local emergency responders,” per the report. “CDPHE air quality control officials in January approved a change to Suncor’s air pollution permit that exempts the company from a federal requirement to disclose hydrogen cyanide emissions. The officials set an emissions limit of 12.8 tons a year — higher than the 8.5 tons Suncor reported it emits — for the purpose of letting Suncor use a legal loophole that lets companies with permitted limits avoid disclosure of those emissions, a state document shows.”
— And here are some good longreads for your weekend:
When parents complained, an oil company chose a fracking site closer to a poorer school: Four environmental and civil rights groups are suing the Colorado commission that oversees oil and gas development for letting a company build 24 oil and gas wells by a public school in a low-income area. The school was chosen, Mother Jones reports, only after the company decided not to build near a charter school with mostly white, middle-class families. “When they were looking for another site away from Frontier, where does it wind up? In the Hispanic community, by the Hispanic school,” said Eric Huber, an attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, one of the groups filing the suit.
Blue states’ car problem: Emissions from cars, trucks and other mobile sources are up, especially in blue states, “where power-sector emissions have plummeted and planet-warming tailpipe pollution remains stubbornly high,” E&E News reports. “The transportation sector emits at least twice as much carbon as power plants in states like California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Washington … The dynamic illustrates one of the wider challenges in American climate policy, analysts said. If greening the electric sector was ‘Climate Policy 1.0,’ cleaning up the transportation sector is ‘Climate Policy 2.0.’ And where climate conscious states have made significant progress on the first score, they have barely moved the needle on the second.”
Can dirt save the Earth? “The world is warming not only because fossil fuels are being burned, but also because soils, forests and wetlands are being ravaged," the New York Times Magazine reports. "In recent years, some scientists have begun to ask whether we can put some of that carbon back into the soil and into living ecosystems, like grasslands and forests. This notion, known as carbon farming, has gained traction as it becomes clear that simply reducing emissions will not sufficiently limit global warming.”
- Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies hosts a forum on the renewable energy future in Puerto Rico.
- The Environmental Law Institute hosts the Second National Conference of Lawyers Committed to Addressing the Climate Emergency.
- Brookings Institution hosts an event on building a sustainable financial system.
— A raccoon's early 4/20: An Indiana woman took her pet raccoon to a fire station because she was worried it had been exposed to “too much” marijuana.