President Trump's seemingly off-the-cuff tweets about wildfires in California baffled experts who said the president did not seem to understand the basics about how the fires are being fought there.
Now, the Trump administration is turning those tweets into official administration policy.
On Wednesday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to prioritize sending water to firefighters to use against the flames over other concerns -- including making sure water flows to the habitats of endangered fish and other wildlife that that agency is tasked with protecting.
"American lives and property are at stake and swift action is needed," Ross said in a statement, noting that twin blazes in Northern California called the Mendocino Complex Fire has become the largest on record in the state.
California, however, says it does not need any more water. In response to the Commerce Department directive, the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, otherwise known as Cal Fire, said Wednesday that there has been "no shortage of water supplies," according to spokesman Michael Mohler.
Indeed, some of the largest wildfires in the state are burning near upstream reservoirs from which firefighters can already draw water if necessary, such as Clear Lake near the Mendocino Complex Fire and Trinity and Shasta lakes near the Carr Fire to the north.
On Twitter this week, Trump tied the historic forest fires to the debate how water should be divided between Central Valley farms and downstream habitat for fish, including protected ones like the tiny delta smelt and the winter-run Chinook salmon.
The hatchlings of the latter species need enough flow in the Sacramento River to reach the San Francisco Bay. To the chagrin of Central Valley farmers and their Republican allies, the State Water Resources Control Board is considering allocating less water to agriculture and more to the river ecosystem to sustain the fish populations.
Trump, characteristically, sided with farmers while ignoring the role higher temperatures due to man-made climate change have exacerbated the fire issues out West. "Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean," the president wrote on Twitter Monday. "Can be used for fires, farming and everything else."
But modern firefighters extinguish flames with more than just water. State and federal workers in California and elsewhere in the West drop chemical fire retardants from above and clear lines of vegetation on the ground to control blazes.
Water experts in the state say the two ecological issues are entirely unrelated.
"Despite the president's tweet, there's zero connection between the fires and the amount of water that is available to fight them," said Peter Gleick, a hydrologist in the state and founder of the Pacific Institute think tank. "And yet all of the sudden, now the federal agencies are starting to actually implement policies based on this completely false idea that will end up rolling back federal environmental protections. It's weaponizing an ignorant tweet from the president."
The directive asks the National Marine Fisheries Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act for many aquatic animals, "to make clear" to other federal agencies that "the protection of life and property takes precedence over any current agreements regarding the use of water in the areas of California affected by wildfires."
A department spokesman declined to elaborate on which agreements it has in mind, but the federal government runs the Shasta Dam in Northern California, which is built across the Sacramento and regulates its flow.
Another administration official, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, penned an op-ed Wednesday in USA Today blaming "frivolous litigation from radical environmentalists" for blocking loggers from removing from forests dying trees that easily burn.
"Radical environmentalists would have you believe forest management means clear cutting forests and national parks," Zinke wrote. "But their rhetoric could not be further from the truth."
Thinning out trees in wooded areas near homes is often supported by both forest managements and environmentalists alike. "Proactive fuels management as mentioned in his op-ed can be an effective band aid to apply in certainly regions where there is a confluence of people living in fire prone regions," said John Abatzoglou, a professor at the University of Idaho researching wildfires and climate change.
Republicans in Congress, with the administration's backing, are pushing to loosen requirements for environmental reviews on timber projects that sometimes end up in the crosshairs of environmental litigants.
Giving the public less of a voice through the environmental-review process is concerning, says Greg Aplet, a senior science director at one of those environmental groups, The Wilderness Society.
"We don't disagree with the notion that some management is appropriate," Aplet said. "What we don't want to see is people's concern about fire used to change the rules that govern environmental review for projects. What we've found is that when stakeholders get together around the table, they reach agreement fairly quickly on what to do."
Like Trump's tweets, Zinke's op-ed does not mention explicitly climate change. Though in Zinke's case, he does note "fires are burning hotter and more intense, due in part to hot and dry weather."
Government and academic research, including a 2016 study led by the University of Idaho's Abatzoglou, suggests climate change has already made forests out West drier and easier to burn.
"There's definitely no question," Cal Fire spokesman Mohler said of the effect of climate change on the fires. "We're just seeing, it's no longer fire season, it's fire year."
|You are reading The Energy 202, our must-read tipsheet on energy and the environment.|
|Not a regular subscriber?|
— Trump vs. California: State officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, have already vowed to fight a Trump administration plan to freeze fuel efficiency standards for U.S. cars and trucks through 2026, as well as revoke California's long-standing ability to set its own, stricter emissions requirements.
Now this week the California Air Resources Board released a 50-page regulatory filing that carried a simple message to the White House: Bring it on.
“Because neither the best available data nor the law support U.S. EPA’s recently initiated course of action, CARB will continue to advocate that the U.S. EPA alter its current course of attempting to weaken the federal passenger vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards,” the board wrote, adding that the Trump administration’s proposal “is premised on flawed compliance cost estimates” and “is contrary to the facts and the law.”
For the past decade, regulators in Washington and California have abided by an agreement to maintain a uniform set of fuel economy standards. In essence, the federal government agreed to put in place mandates that were strong enough to satisfy California’s push for ever-increasing fuel efficiency and reduced emissions, and California agreed not to put in requirements that exceeded those rules. The result was one national program that offered a measure of certainty to U.S. automakers.
But the Trump administration’s latest proposal threatens to upend that delicate balance. And California shows no signs of backing down. In this week's filing, CARB disclosed that it plans to vote in September on whether to scrap the “deemed to comply” provision that would keep the state on the same page as the federal government. If the state goes its own way, automakers would face the prospect of having to meet different standards in different parts of the country.
“Dirty, gas guzzling vehicles are a direct assault on public health, and foreclose our ability to rein in air pollution and greenhouse gases,” CARB Chair Mary D. Nichols said in a statement. “California will take all actions to ensure that the smart standards we developed in partnership with the auto industry to cut greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles stay in place.”
- Brady Dennis
— Tariff woes: China said Wednesday it would retaliate against the Trump administration’s tariffs by imposing its own tariffs on $16 billion worth of U.S. energy and auto products, the latest in the escalating trade tensions between the two nations. “The move came just hours after the Trump administration confirmed plans to proceed with a previously-announced round of import taxes on a range of Chinese products worth an equivalent amount,” The Post’s David J. Lynch and Amanda Erickson report. “When the additional tariffs go into effect on August 23, both sides will have taxes on about $50 billion worth of imports from the other." China’s announcement comes a day after the United States said it would impose new duties on products including motorcycles, steam turbines and railway cars.
— No justification needed: A federal judge has ruled the Trump administration is not required to provide any documentation or reasoning behind the decision to shrink two national monuments in Utah. The documents withheld “contain legal advice to the president and his advisers and should remain protected,” U.S. District Judge David Nye wrote in the Monday ruling, according to the Associated Press. “While public disclosure is an important and necessary part of any free society, so too is candor and privacy when those at the highest levels of government strive to determine the best course of action.” Idaho-based group Advocates for the West had sued the administration for 12 documents from the Justice Department related to the shrinking of the Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante monuments.
— Ex-EPA officials urge Wheeler to halt deregulation: Four former leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency’s air office joined former agency chief Gina McCarthy in writing a letter to acting administrator Andrew Wheeler and Bill Wherum, head of agency's Air and Radiation Office, calling for them to alter the current direction of the agency. "As your time as Acting Administrator begins, you have the opportunity to clearly set the direction of the agency and return to its core statutory mission of protecting public health," Roger Strelow, David Hawkins, Bob Perciasepe, Janet McCabe and McCarthy wrote, according to The Hill. "As you assume leadership, we urge you to reconsider some of the proposals that seem to be motivated by a reckless drive to de-regulate, no matter the cost."
— Rogue message: On Wednesday morning, a message in Chinese was broadcast over the intercom at the National Weather Service. “The voice was a woman’s, which also reached building employees via phone at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Weather and Climate Prediction in College Park, Md,” The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. “A Weather Service employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the phone message came about 15 minutes before the intercom message. Both messages lasted about 45 seconds. The employee said nothing else out of the ordinary had happened at the center Wednesday. The intercom message, translated from Chinese, said something to the effect of ‘you have a package from Amazon at the Chinese Embassy, press 1 for more details,’ the employee said.”
— Who is fighting California's wildfire? There are 14,000 firefighters battling blazes across the state, including some who are trained prisoners, and others from 17 states and from countries around the world who have joined the crews, the Associated Press reports.
In a snapshot: There are 1,916 California prisoners fighting fires, 200 soldiers who are in training and expected to be sent to California next week and 53 firefighters from Australia and New Zealand helping state crews.
— The downsides to "a climatological Hail Mary": A new report may deter scientists who say they can combat climate change by tampering even more with the atmosphere. The Post’s Joel Achenbach explains that following a volcanic eruption, such as the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, ash spewed into the upper atmosphere reflects sunlight and naturally cools the Earth. “People can't command volcanoes to erupt, but they can more or less mimic the effects of a volcano through technology,” Achenbach writes, “But a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature came to a different and surprising conclusion. Using historical data from two volcanic eruptions, the researchers concluded that tampering with the atmosphere would have no net effect on crop yields.” The study’s lead author and an agricultural economist at the University of California at Berkeley said the findings suggest “the side effects of treatment are as bad as the original disease.”
-- Where do flood, storm and tornado alerts happen most? The Post’s Ian Livingston breaks down all the “first-issue warnings” for severe thunderstorms, flash floods and tornadoes that the National Weather Service released between 2014 and the middle of 2018.
- Flash-flood warnings are mostly concentrated in south-central states.
- Highest winds are in the Plains and Midwest, “places that generally receive violent storms with greatest consistency,” Livingston writes.
- Large hail is most common the Plains and Northern Plains.
— The road ahead for Tesla: Several independent directors of the electric automaker’s board said they have met a number of times to discuss the potential of taking the company private, a proposal that Elon Musk publicly shared in a tweet this week. “Last week, Elon opened a discussion with the board about taking the company private,” read a statement from several board members, The Post’s Drew Harwell reports, who noted that a Barclays analyst wrote Wednesday: “This is out there, even for Tesla.”
Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into whether Musk's surprise tweet was indeed factual, the Wall Street Journal reports, as well as why the announcement was made in on Twitter as opposed to through a regulatory filing and whether it violated investor-protection rules. “The SEC’s inquiries, which originated from its San Francisco office, suggest Tesla could come under an enforcement investigation if regulators develop evidence that Mr. Musk’s statement was misleading or false,” the Journal adds.
— Big Los Angeles gas leak gets big settlement: Southern California Gas Co. has reached a nearly $120 million settlement and will payout to local, county and state governments following a historic blowout of methane at a Southern California storage field in October 2015. “In addition the utility will fund local environmental benefit projects and establish a program with the California Air Resources Board to mitigate the methane emissions from the leak,” the Associated Press reports. The utility also said “comprehensive safety enhancements” have been put into place at the Aliso Canyon storage field. The 2015 leak is often regarded as the largest in U.S. history.
— Trump team considering fracking in California: The Bureau of Land Management issued a notice on Wednesday indicating it will start opening up land in California to fracking for oil and gas. The notice in the Federal Register said the Trump administration will look to “analyze the environmental effects of the use of hydraulic fracturing technology in oil and gas development on new leases within the planning area.” The area set for fracking includes about 400,000 acres of public land and 1.2 million acres of federal mineral estate throughout California counties, including Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura counties, according to the notice.
- The United States Energy Association holds a presentation on using coal for value-added products.
— A look at the island of Hawaii's evolving coastline, via BuzzFeed News's Michelle Broder Van Dyke: