with Paulina Firozi

THE LIGHTBULB

For years, Republicans in Congress have been pushing to dismantle portions of the Endangered Species Act they say burden businesses but do little to help imperiled plants and animals.

So far, GOP congressional leaders have not landed a legislative blow. Now, President Trump’s administration is stepping in to do what Congress could not and strip some key provisions of the 45-year-old law. 

Officials at the Interior and Commerce departments, which are jointly charged with administering the law, pitched new rules for protecting endangered wildlife that had conservationists up in arms, I helped report on the story with Darryl Fears on Thursday.

Here's a rundown:

  • One new rule would end the practice at Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of granting certain protections for endangered species to most populations deemed threatened — a step below endangered status. Under the new rules, officials would decide whether to extend those protections on a case-by-case basis. Historically, the agency declined to issue those blanket protections to only a handful of species, such as the northern long-eared bat and the polar bear.
  • Another proposal strikes guidance telling officials at Fish and Wildlife and its Commerce counterpart, the National Marine Fisheries Service, to ignore the economic impacts when determining whether wildlife should be protected.

In a phone call with reporters Thursday, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt said the proposal is designed to fulfill Trump’s executive order to scale back government regulation. “Some of our regulations were promulgated back in 1986, and frankly a great deal has been learned” since, Bernhardt said.

After the rollout, conservationists says their greatest fears were realized. “These regulations are the heart of how the Endangered Species Act [ESA] is implemented. Imperiled species depend on them for their very lives,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, who was director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton. Clark is now president and chief executive of Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit advocacy group.

These environmental groups see the pitch from the Trump administration, if enacted, as a boon to energy and agricultural firms that want to drill or farm in the habitat of endangered populations. When asked whether the proposal would save those businesses money, Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for those industries, said “it’s not as much a matter of cost savings by anyone” but it is about “having a clear timely process” for listing decisions.

The proposal was months in the making, with Gary Frazer and Sam Rauch, top wildlife officials at Fish and Wildlife and NOAA, respectively, reviewing regulatory changes with wildlife experts starting in December. The proposal will be published in the Federal Register “in coming days.” The public can submit comments on a government website within 60 days.

Several of the suggested revisions align with legislative proposals shepherded by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who each chair committees that help oversee the administration of ESA. One of the bills to emerge from Bishop's panel, for example, would have the federal government consider the economic impact of saving a species rather than relying just on the science.

Last month, the Trump administration suggested an outright merger of the two wildlife agencies at Interior and Commerce. But Congress is unlikely to approve such a major reorganization. One of the motivations for this recent proposal is to have the two work better together.

POWER PLAYS

— About-face: The Pentagon reversed course Thursday, saying that it supports a Republican provision attached to a defense reauthorization bill that would prohibit the greater sage grouse and lesser-prairie chicken from being listed under ESA  for 10 years. Pete Giambastiani, the Pentagon's principal deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs, told members of Congress Thursday the provision would help avoid “negative readiness impacts on military facilities” that would result from declaring the birds endangered. The office of the sage-grouse rider sponsor, Rob Bishop, shared Giambastiani's note with reporters Thursday.

That’s a direct contrast with an “informal view” DoD previously sent lawmakers that said the Pentagon “objects to the House provision and urges its exclusion” from the defendse authorization bill.

— ANWR drilling one step closer to reality:  Interior has hired a firm to do an expedited environmental review of parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that would be used for oil and gas drilling, according to documents released via the Freedom of Information Act.

The Trump administration signed a nearly $1.7 million contract in April with Colorado-based Environmental Management and Planning Solutions Inc., The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson report, and it notes that a lease sale notice would be issued following the review next summer.

The contract “shows how rapidly the Trump administration is moving ahead with its plans to open up the refuge’s coastal plain to energy exploration,” Eilperin and Mufson report. The contract also indicates the review “must reflect the input of local tribes and the hundreds of thousands of public comments that have already been submitted.”

— Pruitt is gone, but news about his spending at the EPA is not: During ex-administrator Scott Pruitt’s $9,500 redesign of his Environmental Protection Agency office, his staff realized an elaborate desk Pruitt wanted was under a California warning about exposure to toxic formaldehyde, Politico reports. From there, Pruitt’s staff sought to protect him from such exposure. His deputy chief of staff contacted the then-head of the agency’s toxic chemicals office, who said the desk was “likely to be fine” but suggested airing it out for a few days, according to emails released via FOIA to American Oversight and obtained by Politico. Politico also reports it's unclear whether the desk was ultimately ordered for Pruitt's office.

The irony: “The email exchange about the desk last spring took place just months before top aides to Pruitt took steps to block a health assessment produced by another division within the agency that found the levels of formaldehyde that many Americans breathe in daily are linked with leukemia, nose-and-throat cancer and other ailments,” per the report.

— "The climate is changing:" Mary Neumayr, the president’s pick to lead the Council on Environmental Quality, stopped short during her nomination hearing Thursday in front of the Senate Environment And Public Works Committee of saying humans are primarily responsible for the warming atmosphere change, as scientists at NASA and elsewhere say.

"I agree the climate is changing and human activity has a role,” Neumayr said, per E&E News, in response to a question from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) about whether she agrees with the mainstream consensus about global warming.

Even so: The statement still ended up being stronger than what Trump's previous CEQ nominee, Kathleen Hartnett White, told that panel last fall. Hartnett White said that humans probably contribute to current warming but that “the extent to which, I think, is very uncertain.” The White House ultimately withdrew her nomination in February.

Mark your calendars: Chairman Barrasso said Andrew Wheeler, the newly minted acting EPA chief, will testify before the committee on Aug. 1. Barrasso said Wheeler told him “our committee was first on his list.” 

— After Flint, a call for more EPA oversight: The EPA’s internal watchdog is calling on the agency to strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs following the water crisis in Flint, Mich., according to a report out Thursday. EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins said in the report the federal government’s response in Flint was slow because of a lack of clearly delineated responsibilities or effective communication, The Post’s Brady Dennis reports. While the "EPA was not alone in its failure to address the crisis," Dennis reports, "the EPA's inspector general found that the federal government deserved significant blame for not more quickly using its enforcement authority."

— Powelson’s swan song: Outgoing member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Robert Powelson told Utility Dive he was never asked to leave the commission. "If that were the case, I would be more emboldened to stay,” he said, adding he leaves with his reputation “intact.” Powelson is stepping down from his position a year and a half earlier, leaving the commission split between two Republicans and two Democrats.

THERMOMETER

— Polluted parks: A new study found pollution levels are having an effect on visitor rates at national parks in the United States. The research from Iowa State University and Cornell University found “visitor numbers dropped almost 2 percent when ozone levels went up even slightly and by at least 8 percent in months with three or more days of high ozone levels compared with months with fewer days of high ozone,” the Associated Press reports, based on a study of two decades of ozone pollution information at 33 national parks.

— Seasonal shift: A new study published Thursday in the journal Science suggests climate change is causing the planet’s seasons to shift out of balance. Researchers looked at four decades of temperature data and found an “uneven pace of seasonal change in the atmosphere above the Northern and Southern Hemispheres’ temperate zones,” Bloomberg News reports, adding “summers in the troposphere are heating faster than winters, in a way physics would dictate if greenhouse gases were the culprit.” Researchers also noted such changes have “odds of roughly 5 in 1 million” of occurring naturally.

— Man, it’s a hot one: A mega-heat wave is hovering over Texas and surrounding states and is gaining strength. It’s the most severe one in Texas since 2011, The Post’s Ian Livingston reports. “A large swath of the south-central part of the country is under either a heat advisory or an excessive heat warning Thursday,” he reports. “There have already been five days in a row of 100 or greater in [the Dallas-Fort Worth area], with at least that many more to come.”

OIL CHECK

— Big Oil messed with New York's city hall — and won: A judge on Thursday dismissed New York City’s lawsuit that sought to hold oil giants ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillip accountable for their contribution to climate change. U.S. District Judge John F. Keenan echoed a similar conclusion as a federal judge in California last month. “Global warming and solutions thereto must be addressed by the two other branches of government,” Keenan ruled Thursday, according to Bloomberg News.

— Trump's coal and nuclear bailout has a billion-dollar price tab, opponents say: A new report says the Trump administration’s proposed plan to bolster struggling coal and nuclear power could cost anywhere from $9.7 billion to $35 billion each year, breaking down multiple scenarios for each cost estimate. The study was conducted by consulting firm the Brattle Group and commissioned by some of the chief opponents to the Trump plan, including the top lobbying firms for the wind and oil and gas industries in the United States.

— Oil news from Saudi Arabia:

  • The Saudis say they won’t be exporting much more oil this month than in June, even after last month’s crude boost of nearly 500,000 barrels a day. The announcement from Saudi Arabia's OPEC representative is “a blow to [Trump], who is depending on his allies in Riyadh to put more barrels on the market to tame fuel prices,” CNBC reports. “Meanwhile, Saudi crude oil exports are poised to drop by 100,000 bpd in August compared with July.”
  • General Electric may be facing some competition in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s state-controlled Saudi Electricity is one of GE’s largest and most valuable customers, Reuters reports, and is looking to get companies outside GE to bid to provide power plant services in an effort to lower costs.

— No more monkeying around: Audi chief executive Rupert Stadler has filed an appeal to be released after spending a month in jail. “Stadler was arrested in mid-June as part of a broader probe into emissions cheating at the premium brand, which is part of Volkswagen Group,” Reuters reports. “He is being held at a prison in the Bavarian city of Augsburg. A Munich court now needs to review his appeal.”

— Silicon Valley's renewable goals spread: Facebook is set to partner with Pacific Power to implement 100 percent renewable energy at its data centers in Oregon. Six solar projects will offset power use on that campus, generating 437 megawatts of power, according to the Oregonian. The data centers are set to run entirely on renewable power by the end of 2020.

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a hearing on assessing uses of coal on July 24.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Committee holds a hearing on urban air mobility on July 24.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on “Legislation to Authorize a Pilot Project to Commercialize the Strategic Petroleum Reserve” on July 24.
  • The House Oversight Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy and Environment holds a hearing on preserving opportunities for grazing on federal land on July 24.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs holds a legislative hearing on July 24.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a business meeting on various pending nominations on July 24.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee holds a hearing to examine factors that impact global oil prices on July 24.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— Earlier this week, this scary-looking funnel cloud hung over New York City: 

A scary-looking cloud was spotted over the New York harbor as severe storms rolled through the area on July 17. (Michael Uturn)