THE LIGHTBULB

For years, whenever companies wanted to drill for oil and dig for coal on federally owned lands, they often had to pay to offset any damage their activities had on the environment.

Now, no more. This week the Trump administration scrapped long-standing requirements that companies undertaking energy development and other work on Bureau of Land Management lands make up for any damage by paying the federal government or by purchasing new land to set aside for conservation.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has criticized the concept of “compensatory mitigation,” singling out the practice in June at a speech before the Western Governors Association.

“Some people would call it extortion,” Zinke said of a power line company’s having to pay a huge fee to offset its project’s impact, according to an audio recording of the session. “I call it un-American.”

A new memorandum published Tuesday by BLM, a division of the Interior Department that manages 245 million acres of land or about one-tenth of the nation's landmass, seeks to strike the practice entirely. "Except where the law specifically requires," it reads, "the BLM must not require compensatory mitigation from public land users."

Environmentalists regard such mitigation policies as a bedrock remedy for ecologically destructive development. 

“That is just over-the-top rhetoric,” Tracy Stone-Manning, the National Wildlife Federation's associate vice president for public lands, said of Zinke's speech. “It's not extortion. It's the cost of doing business on our public lands.”

Developers have long complained that federal bureaucrats apply mitigation requirements inconsistently. They say some firms have to pay more or less depending on which part of the government they dealt with. 

“In Alaska,” said Lisa Murkowski, a U.S. senator from the oil-rich state, “we have seen firsthand how the arbitrary application of these laws can foster uncertainty and hamper economic opportunities without delivering the promised environmental benefits.”

While the new policy affects all industries operating on public lands, it will provide the biggest boon to the bottom lines of energy companies because their projects have large footprints. “Energy is the big one,” Stone-Manning said. “There's not any other impact on the landscape that's big enough to require this.”

Under President Barack Obama, the Interior Department expanded mitigation policy in 2013 and again in 2015. Heeding industry concerns, Zinke last year swept away both of those Obama-era moves through secretarial orders.

But the BLM memo is “dialing it back even further,” according to Randi Spivak of the Center for Biological Diversity. "It takes a giant step backwards."

Jim Lyons, who served as the Interior Department's deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management under the Obama administration, said in an interview that eliminating mitigation requirements could undermine the kind of conservation deals the federal government has struck with industry and state officials.

The team of federal biologists and scientists who worked on a plan to avert the listing of the sage grouse out West, Lyons noted, “recommended no additional disturbance in priority sage grouse habitat.” So the plan the Obama administration brokered with several western states “included a requirement to mitigate any adverse impacts to habitat,” he added.

Recent mapping by the Wilderness Society, Lyons said, shows that three-quarters of the proposed or auctioned oil and gas leases under the Trump administration are on protected sage grouse habitat in Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. As a result, the species will get “a double whammy” if their habitat is disturbed and there is no effort to compensate for it.

“Mitigation,” he said, “is key to repairing any existing or future disturbance.”

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

POWER PLAYS

— Tariff truce: The United States and the European Union struck a deal to hold off on proposed automobile tariffs, and work toward a resolution on steel and aluminum tariffs in an effort to ease trade tensions following a White House meeting between Trump and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, The Post’s Damian Paletta and Jeanne Whalen report

The pair also announced a deal to ship more U.S. natural gas to Europe. Juncker said the EU will plan to build terminals to increase imports of liquefied natural gas. “They’re going to be a very, very big buyer," Trump said in remarks following the meeting. "We’re going to make it much easier for them."

In a speech later Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Juncker suggested such a deal came with conditions, Paletta and Whalen report. “We are ready to invest in infrastructure, new terminals, which could welcome imports of LNG from the United States and elsewhere, but mainly from the United States, if the conditions were right and price is competitive,” he said during his remarks.

Trump tweeted following the announcement: 

— Hack attack: Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) sent a letter to Trump on Wednesday calling for more action from the federal government to combat the threat of cyber attacks from Russia. “We are concerned about Russia’s capabilities with respect to cyber attacks on our energy infrastructure,” the senators wrote. The senators requested more information on the extent of the hacks that have already taken place at the hands of Russians on electric grids, pipelines and other critical energy infrastructure, information about how far such hacking can threaten infrastructure and details about what the administration is doing to stop it.

— Flood insurance program thrown a lifeline: Lawmakers on Wednesday voted 366-to-52 to extend funding for flood insurance through the end of November, sending the measure to the Senate on the second to last day before members of the House are set to leave for an August recess. It remains uncertain whether the Senate will move quickly to vote on the extension. The Dallas Morning News notes lawmakers have temporarily extended the program six separate times since December. “It's just rather disappointing that again we face the seventh time, the seventh time of not reforming a program that has no market competition, that is fiscally unsustainable,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) said on the House floor Wednesday.

— Twitter spat turns IRL in Congress: Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló skipped a hearing on the Hill related to the U.S. territory’s electric utility on Wednesday, following through on a threat he made to skip the House hearing over a Twitter jab. Last week, the House Natural Resources Committee tweeted "Call your office, @ricardorossello,” seemingly suggesting the governor was hard to reach during a trying time for the territory. The tweet was later removed, but chairman of the committee Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) declined to extend an explicit apology to Rosselló, who said “the incident was evidence of Puerto Rico’s inferior standing… in Washington, because it ‘never would have happened to the governor of Florida, Texas or New York,” per Bloomberg News.

In a letter to Bishop on Wednesday hours before the hearing, Rosselló said he would not be in attendance at the hearing. “I do not plan to attend the hearing because my attendance would legitimize a political exercise that was organized for the sole purpose of promoting flawed legislation that would severely hamper our reconstruction,” Rosselló wrote in a letter, referring to a proposal to overhaul oversight of the U.S. territory's electric utility.

More from the Natural Resources Committee: Bishop and his Democratic counterpart Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), frequent sparring partners from the dais during hearings, together introduced a compromise piece of legislation to address years of backlogged needs at national parks, including aging infrastructure. "I really can't remember when the chairman and I have had a joint press conference," Grijalva said during a news conference on Wednesday. "The good news is bipartisan priorities exist and can happen in this environment."

The Salt Lake Tribune reports the bill would set aside $5.2 billion over five years from oil and gas revenue on public lands for the Park Service. Additional funding will also be allocated for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Education. Originally, some Democrats, including Grijalva, worried about tying the viability of the park system to more drilling.  

— “Did I offend you?” Faith Vander Voort, a top spokeswoman for Zinke, once argued in a blog post that Muslims could not serve as president, HuffPost reports. “A devout Muslim could never serve in the Oval Office of the United States of America, not because of exclusion or discrimination, but because their own religion strictly prohibits them from taking an oath to anything other than Allah,” Vander Voort wrote in a 2015 post on her personal website. If a Muslim did win the presidency, they would “either be a shoddy and inconsistent Muslim or subject to impeachment the moment they took office because Shariah Law and the United States Constitution are not compatible,” she added. Vander Voort wrote the now deleted post while working as a press intern for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

THERMOMETER

— California is burning: Thousands of visitors at Yosemite National Park were told to evacuate by noon Wednesday as the nearby Ferguson fire continued to burn into another week. As of Wednesday morning, the fire had burned more than 38,500 acres and was just 25 percent contained, according to the Los Angeles Times. Areas of the national park have been closed until Sunday.

Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Oregon too: The New York Times reports the Ferguson Fire is one of 75 large fires blazing from Oklahoma to Alaska. “For all the attention the Yosemite fire has attracted, the situation was potentially more severe elsewhere, especially in Oregon, where 15 active fires have burned 110,000 acres,” per the report. “In California, five fires have consumed 42,000 acres; Colorado has eight fires with nearly 200,000 acres burned.”

— Where to point fingers for this wacky weather: You can blame a fast-moving air current that has usually retreated by this time in the summer but “not so in recent days,” The Post’s Jason Samenow and Matthew Cappucci report. The jet stream has stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and has caused both tornadoes and heavy rainfall. “As this jet stream and pool of cold air in its wake have interacted with all of the intense midsummer heat over the Lower 48, it has incited all sorts of unusual and severe weather,” Samenow and Cappucci report. “Not only has the pattern been extreme but it has also become stuck in place. This has led to day after day of remarkable and frequently disruptive weather.”

— 30 years of Shark Week: Shark Week, this year celebrating its 30th anniversary, is a “mixed bag” for shark conservation biologist David Shiffman, who explains in The Post some of his excitement as well as his ambivalence about the series. While the shows elevate science and likely inspire future generations of biologists, Shiffman writes the experts on the show are “almost always men, even though nearly half of shark researchers are women.” He expresses concern that the show can get basic facts wrong, sometimes seemingly to make them more entertaining. They promote the sharks, which are some of the most threatened animals, but the show has not much helped with preservation efforts. One expert also called it a “fearmongering week” that can incite concern about sharks.

OIL CHECK

— Big corporations praise GOP carbon tax: Top energy companies are applauding a proposal from Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) to impose a tax on carbon emissions. In a letter to Curbelo, several firms including BP America, Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, General Motors and PG&E Corporation joined other major businesses to “strongly support a collaborative, non-partisan solution to address climate change.” The letter noted that while the companies were not explicitly endorsing his bill, they “welcome your demonstrated commitment to finding common ground on federal policies that can mitigate the effects of climate change,” they wrote to Curbelo.

Notably absent from the letter was ExxonMobil, which advocates for a revenue-neutral tax. Instead, Curbelo's bill would use revenue to pay for infrastructure and other projects.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum is hosts an event on “New Innovations for Green Financing in Urban China."
  • The United States Energy Association holds a discussion on NET Power’s 50-MW demonstration emissions-free natural gas power plant.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— A “lake” discovery on Mars: Scientists have discovered a 12-mile body of briny water similar to a lake buried underneath an ice cap on Mars. The Post’s Carolyn Y. Johnson reports it “raises the tantalizing possibility of a very cold, very salty niche where life might have once existed — or even persisted.”