Energy & environmental Reporter

THE LIGHTBULB

The National Park Service does not have one. Neither does the Bureau of Land Management. Same goes for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

None of those three land management agencies, which together oversee more than 480 million acres of surface area nationwide, according to figures on their websites, have received a permanent director during the nearly 18 months since Donald Trump became president.

Instead, those agencies are being run by temporary “acting” officials — people not formally nominated by President Trump and who do not require confirmation by the Senate.

In the Trump administration, the absence of Senate-confirmed officials is hardly unique to the Interior Department, which houses those three agencies. Altogether, Trump has not nominated individuals to 185 ambassadorships, directorates and other high-level posts in his administration, all political jobs that require Senate nomination, according to data kept by the Partnership for Public Service

But the absence of confirmed leadership presents challenges for a department with the physical and regulatory scope of Interior  — and one with the sweeping ambitions of its secretary, Ryan Zinke. 

Zinke is pursuing a plan to group the department’s several agencies into new geographic regions to more readily fight wildfires and issue permits. He also is asking Congress to divert revenue from oil, natural gas and other energy projects on public lands to a new fund to pay for much-needed repairs in the national parks, which face a $11.6 billion maintenance backlog.

But President Trump has yet to fill seven of the department's 17 positions that require Senate confirmation. Trump also has yet to put forward nominees for such jobs as solicitor, inspector general, special trustee for American Indians and assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. Only last week did the Senate install its 10th Interior official — Tara Sweeney as assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

“Secretary Zinke has found creative ways to carry out all the work necessary with a lean staff,” Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said.

But Zinke has called the lack of Senate-confirmed leadership a “frustration” in congressional testimony — one that he does not expect to go away anytime soon.

“It is unlikely, as a secretary, that I will have a director of the Park Service, a director of BLM and a director of the Fish and Wildlife Service by two years in,” Zinke told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in May.

“That’s unfortunate, because we need them all,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the subcommittee’s chairwoman, said in response.

Zinke reiterated his annoyance in an interview last week on the radio show Voices of Montana. “One side refuses to negotiate in good faith,” Zinke said of Democrats. For example, Zinke's office said that Sweeney, the Indian affairs official, was confirmed unanimously by the Senate only "after eight months and several Democratic holds."

But the Trump administration has yet to put forward any nominees for those three top land-management posts. “Secretary Zinke’s attempts to blame Senate Democrats for his own intransigence is laughable,” said Aaron Weiss, media director for the Center for Western Priorities, a nonprofit group critical of Zinke.

One top House Democrat thinks that despite his disagreements with Trump administration policy, the agencies are ill served with temporary leadership.

“I don't think it's good to be hobbled,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “You always hear rumors about every month or two weeks about somebody in play for it, but then it just dissipates and never happens.”

For example, rumors have swirled for months that attorney Karen Budd-Falen, who has represented controversial Nevada cattleman Cliven Bundy over grazing issues, would be tapped to run BLM. Budd-Falen herself once told the environmental publication E&E News that the administration was considering her to run the agency. 

But neither her name nor anyone else’s has formally been put forward yet for the role.

That agency is instead being run by Brian Steed, who has the unwieldy title of deputy director of policy and programs who is “exercising authority of the director.” Similarly, P. Daniel Smith, the Park Service’s deputy director, and Greg Sheehan, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s principal deputy director, have such “exercising authority.”

Many Republicans, focused on the officials' actions rather than their titles, are satisfied with the agencies' effort to make it easier for companies to comply with endangered-species and environmental-review requirements.

“They've already implemented changes in practices to make it more logical, more efficient,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in an interview in March. “So, yeah, they don't have the title. But they're damn good.” 

But there are legal limits on how long they can wield that acting authority. Under the 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act, acting officials usually may serve for only 210 days before the president presents a nominee.

To not run afoul of that vacancies law, Zinke gave 10 acting directors the power to carry out duties “not required by statute or regulation to be performed only by the Senate-confirmed official,” according to a Jan. 12 order obtained by the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. 

It and other advocacy groups have questioned the legitimacy of that order — and of the profusion of acting directors across the federal bureaucracy. Democracy Forward, a liberal-leaning litigation and policy shop, has even sued the Trump administration over who is legally allowed to stand in for fired former Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin.

But there is little legal guidance on how much power acting directors can wield. Democracy Forward is tracking policy changes coming out of the Interior Department, but has yet to take any legal action against the department over the vacancies law.

“Because the president has adopted such an extreme approach and such a complete indifference to Senate confirmation,” said Jeff Dubner, senior counsel for Democracy Forward, “there haven’t been many opportunities for the courts to elaborate on the specifics” of the vacanies law.

POWER PLAYS

— Drip, drip, drip… It’s another sweltering week in D.C., and the news about Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt keeps trickling out. Former aides to the administrator revealed new details of his spending and management habits to staffers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, according to new reporting in The Post and elsewhere. The new details include:

  • The EPA’s former associate administrator for the Office of Policy, Samantha Dravis, told the committee the EPA chief had asked her to reach out to the Republican Attorneys General Association, which Pruitt used to run, to help his wife find a job. Dravis declined to do so, fearing she could violate the legal limits on federal officials’ political activities. Dravis also told investigators Pruitt wanted his wife to earn more than $200,000 annually.
  • According to Dravis, Pruitt also roped her and another former top aide, Sarah Greenwalt, into reviewing a rental agreement he wanted to break. “The Pruitt and his wife lived briefly last year in Washington’s U Street corridor before relocating — a move that forced them to pay a penalty," The Post's Juliet Eilperin, Josh Dawsey and Brady Dennis report. "The administrator asked the two advisers, both of whom are attorneys, to examine the lease to see if there was a way to avoid the penalty.”
  • Dravis "also told the investigators that she had cautioned Mr. Pruitt that he would have to disclose his wife’s income on federal financial disclosure documents, and that he responded that he would create a limited liability corporation," according to the New York Times.
  • And, uhhh: "According to a current and former EPA official, Pruitt routinely asked his assistants — including then-executive scheduler Sydney Hupp — to put hotel reservations on their personal credit cards rather than his own," The Post reports.
  • And finally, from CNN: "Pruitt and his aides have kept 'secret' calendars and schedules to overtly hide controversial meetings or calls with industry representatives and others," according to an another ex-aide, Kevin Chmielewski.

What all this means: Trump, ultimately, is the only one who can fire Pruitt, but has so far demurred. Meanwhile, the agency’s chief ethics officer disclosed last week that he has urged the EPA's inspector general to open even more investigations into potential abuse of Pruitt's office.

EPA head Scott Pruitt was 3 tables away as I ate lunch with my child. I had to say something. This man is directly and...

Posted by Kristin Mink on  Monday, July 2, 2018

— Protesters finally find Pruitt eating out: By now, we’re used to seeing Trump officials, such as White House aide Steven Miller and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, harangued while dining out in D.C. But so far the impromptu protests have been over immigration policy — until this week. Kristin Mink, a sixth-grade teacher according to the Washingtonian, confronted Pruitt after spotting him at the Penn Quarter joint Teaism.

What she said: Mink urged the EPA chief to resign. “We deserve to have somebody at the EPA who actually does protect our environment, somebody who believes in climate change and takes it seriously for the benefit of all of us, including our children,” she told Pruitt while holding her 2-year-old son in her arms.

What he did: Mink reported on her Facebook page that Pruitt "had no response," and that he and his team left the restaurant before she had even gotten back to her seat.

— Senate Republicans seek overhaul of the Endangered Species Act: Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) released draft legislation Monday that would rewrite the Endangered Species Act to empower state officials in species management.

What the bill does: The proposal, written in consultation with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) and the Western Governors’ Association, is designed to allow states to lead recovery efforts for listed species and improve transparency around data used to make decisions about the status of species.

What environmentalists worry about: Green groups who have already come out against the legislation, like the Center for Biological Diversity, are concerned the bill would give industry-allied governors in red states the power to veto scientific decisions about protections.

THERMOMETER

— The mysterious disappearance of “climate change:" The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has scrubbed that phrase from much of its website after Trump's election, according to a new report by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agency, which once sought to publicize the dangerous impact of heat on outdoor workers' health, did so before his inauguration — and before Trump's team was in place to call for the edits.

Why? The CDC brushed off the changes as “planned updates" in a statement to The Post's Chris Mooney. But some "suspect, however, that the changes were made by agency employees looking to keep the Obama-era, climate-focused program below the radar and avoid drawing a new president’s ire," Mooney writes. 

It's not the first time: Career employees elsewhere in the government, including the Energy and Transportation departments, did such rebranding in order to avoid scrutiny from new Trump appointees.

— Hawaii is about to ban a bunch of sunscreens: Gov. David Ige (D) is expected this week to sign “a first-in-the-world law,” as one state legislator put it, that would bar most uses of sunscreens containing two chemicals found harmful to one of the island chain's crucial tourism draws, its coral reefs.

Here's the rub: The bill is opposed by sunscreen companies and even some dermatologists, who argue it pits the welfare of people against that of the environment, The Post's Lindsey Bever reports. One lobbying group, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, noted the bill would ban “at least 70 percent of the sunscreens on the market today.”

OIL CHECK

— Trump tweets... and then his press team clarifies: By his own telling, Trump successfully pressed Saudi Arabia to up its oil production by "maybe up to 2,000,000 barrels" a day in the face of rising gasoline price at home, according to a Saturday morning tweet from the president.

What actually happened: But by Saturday evening, Trump's press team tried to clarify what he and Saudi King Salman actually talked about. In a press release, the White House press shop said "Salman affirmed that the Kingdom maintains a two million barrel per day spare capacity."

Even so, energy analysts are skeptical Saudi Arabia "can easily and sustainably add more than 700,000 barrels of production a day without drilling and other work that would take time," per the New York Times.

Why Trump cares: According to The Post's David Nakamura and Steven Mufson, the "impact of rising gas prices in offsetting the pocketbook benefits of the tax cuts approved by Congress in December could dampen public enthusiasm over the economy ahead of the midterm elections."

Flashback to 2012: Indeed, Trump once used high gas prices (along with so, so many other things) as a cudgel against former president Barack Obama.

— Mexican election spooks oil producers: "For decades international oil and gas companies have been pressing Mexico to open its oil industry to investment from abroad," Mufson reports. "Now, only four years after Mexico held its first-ever competitive round of bidding on land to explore for oil, new populist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador has said he wants to review whether the projects will benefit the Mexican economy."

What's at stake: Under his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico entered into 107 exploration contracts with nearly 80 companies, including Exxon and Chevron. They and other U.S. oil firms were already afraid of the president on this side of the border, Trump, upending the North American Free Trade Agreement, which includes a system of resolving international trade disputes that helps protect their operations in Mexico from just the sort of government interference the new Mexican president-elect is contemplating.

— Smallest state sues Big Oil: On Monday, Rhode Island filed a lawsuit against a number of oil and gas heavyweights, including ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Chevron, over the "increased costs associated with climate change," according to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin (D). The office of Ocean State's top law enforcer cites "the rebuilding of coastal structures" as one of the many costs of rising sea levels and other climate effects.

Rhode Island is the first state to sue fossil-fuel companies over climate change following a spate of similar suits from municipalities like New York City, Oakland and San Francisco.  

EXTRA MILEAGE

— This vacationer in Australia wanted to feed a shark... but aghh no not like that why???