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The Energy 202: Trump administration moves forward with Arctic oil plan wildlife staff deem 'not adequate'

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with Paulina Firozi


The Trump administration is moving forward with a seismic testing plan in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge over the objections of government wildlife experts who warned the proposal was “not adequate.”

But Trump administration officials counter the testing will use modern techniques meant to minimize the impact on the relatively untouched landscape.

For decades, the remote coastal plain of the Arctic refuge in northeastern Alaska was closed off to fossil-fuel extraction. But before companies can begin to drill for oil there, they need to know where it is. So two Alaska Native corporations and a small oil services firm applied to do extensive seismic testing there this coming winter in order to map underground reserves of petroleum.

The application describes how special trucks weighing as much as 90,000 pounds would pound the ground with large, metal plates, sending vibrations through the earth. By recording how the sound waves reflect off underground rock formations, the researchers can create a three-dimensional map of the oil and gas.

Career staff at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a blistering response to the idea earlier this year. In an 18-page review of the application, the career staff there say the company did not provide studies about the effects of that work on the wildlife in the refuge, writing "there is no documentation of environmental effects, whether positive or adverse." Environmentalists worry that the thumping from seismic testing may disturb calving caribou, migrating birds and denning polar bears there.

But Joe Balash, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for land and minerals management, told The Post in an interview on Monday that seismic testers have become much better at reducing the footprint they leave behind after their work.

"Some of the impacts that we still see today from the 1960s, those are not the impacts you will see today," Balash said. 

For example, decade-old scars of vehicle tracks from past testing are still visible in the tundra in the refuge. Balash said today's softer tires and tracks will not tear into the ground like that. 

But many environmentalists balk at the idea of developing at all one of the few still-unspoiled stretches of wilderness in the United States.

“It's landscape of the level of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon,” said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society. “Treasured and unique and near- pristine.” She added that after development, the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge “will no longer look like the pristine landscape it is now.”

The Bureau of Land Management, a division of Interior responsible for managing the refuge's subsurface resources, posted the application on its website this month, indicating it will go forward with the plan despite the objections of career staff at Fish and Wildlife. The Wilderness Society used software to compare the original application with the one recently posted to BLM's website, and discovered they were identical. 

The Interior Department is currently developing an environmental assessment of seismic testing in the Arctic refuge to determine if the impacts will be significant and if a broader review is warranted.

"Depending on what we conclude from that, we will outline what our plan is for the scope of the review and public comment," Balash said, adding that the department will decide by the end of the week whether it will take public comment on the environmental assessment. 

Whether there would be a public comment period for the environmental assessment has been a sticking point for environmental groups. The Wilderness Society and Defenders of Wildlife said they received conflicting information about whether they and other members of the public would be able to formally weigh in on the assessment. 

BLM's Alaska office told the local media in July there would be a 30-day comment period for an environmental assessment of the seismic plan. “That was the working understanding,” said Patrick Lavin, senior Alaska representative for the Defenders of Wildlife.

But in early August, the agency told environmental groups during a meeting that BLM could not say yet whether there would be a comment period for the assessment.

SAExploration, the Houston-based oil services company that submitted the seismic testing plan to BLM, already has said it will avoid known polar bear dens. The seismic permit application was filed by a consortium of SAExploration and two Alaska Native corporations, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. 

But another concern among Fish and Wildlife staff and non-governmental environmental groups is that heavy seismic equipment is usually used atop ground packed with snow. The wildlife agency had noted some areas of the Arctic refuge have little to no snow even in winter.  

Last year President Trump and Republicans in Congress, backed by the oil and gas industry, opened the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also called the 1002 area, to drilling as part of the GOP's tax bill. The entire refuge is about 19 million acres.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the coastal plain holds between 5.7 and 16 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil reserves. But that analysis relied on seismic data from the 1980s, so the actual figure may be higher.

“My expectation is that if we do our work right at the department,” Balash said during a speech this month, “there are going to be some eye-popping numbers that show up.”

Balash added during the speech that he hopes BLM holds a lease sale for the Arctic refuge “sometime next year.” Congress directed the agency to conduct two such sales, each covering 400,000 acres, within the next decade. Elected officials in Alaska are pushing hard to lease portions of the refuge before a Democrat potentially wins back the White House in 2020.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said The Post interviewed Joe Balash on Tuesday. The interview happened on Monday.


— Trump’s power plan: The Trump administration is set to announce Tuesday its new power plan to replace the Obama administration’s climate rule, and The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports details of the plan indicates millions more tons of CO2 and other pollutants will be released into the air over the next decade. For example: “Under the EPA’s new plan, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that help form smog would be cut between 1 percent and 2 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. Under Obama, the agency projected its policy would reduce those pollutants by 24 percent and 22 percent, respectively, by the end of the next decade.” President Trump is expected to head to West Virginia for the announcement, per the New York Times.

Meanwhile: The Trump administration’s plan is set to delivery a major win for former clients of William Wehrum, the head of the EPA’s clean air office who was a corporate lawyer for chemical manufacturers, oil refineries and coal-burning power plants and who is the subject a recent New York Times front-page story. The paper writes that "to proponents of a tougher stance on industries that contribute to global warming, Mr. Wehrum is regarded as the single biggest threat inside the E.P.A., with Tuesday’s expected announcement to weaken what is known as the Clean Power Plan the most recent evidence of his handiwork."

— But when it comes to other Trump administration rollbacks, the government keeps losing: Last week, federal judges delivered three separate blows to the Trump administration’s environmental agenda. They ruled that the administration “short-circuited the regulatory process in its push to reverse policies on water protections, chemical plant safety operations and the controversial Keystone XL pipeline,” Eilperin reports. “The recent rulings all date back to decisions made early in President Trump’s tenure — often at the urging of industry groups who accused Obama officials of federal overreach.”

— Pruitt is gone, but news about his spending at the EPA is not: The ex-EPA administrator made just one five-minute call  from his pricey private phone booth, according to newly released records. If that call to the White House was the only one ever made to or from the booth, it essentially cost the government $8,600 a minute. “EPA officials said Monday that they could not specify how many incoming calls Pruitt received from the White House in the soundproof booth,” The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report, adding that the Verizon phone logs released in response to a suit filed by the Sierra Club do not show incoming calls.

— On second thought: The Interior Department on Friday nixed a plan posted by the BLM to potentially sell land previously part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which Trump shrunk last year. “Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt issued a statement Friday taking responsibility for an oversight that led to the bid to dispose of 1,600 acres outside the redrawn boundary despite Zinke’s vow during his Senate confirmation hearing and to department staff members shortly after he took office,” The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. Bernhardt said in his statement: “The failure to capture this inconsistency stops with me.”


— California is burning: But who is to blame? It’s almost always a human being’s fault whether intentionally or not, the New York Times reports, even as the warming globe becomes more of a factor in catastrophic blazes. “This year, even as firefighters battle one blaze after another across the state, investigators are already finding answers for how some of the fires started,” per the report. “One began with a spark from a flat tire. Another when someone hammered a fence post amid dry vegetation. Still another was allegedly ignited by a conspiracy-minded recluse who had sent a text message to a local firefighter warning the place 'is going to burn.'"

— Sea level rise is already costing coastal residents: Three studies have found that higher seas are decreasing the value of coastal properties, and The Post’s Chris Mooney and John Tibbetts write  homeowners “on the front lines of society’s confrontation with climate change” are feeling the impact. Their homes are affected by worsening sea levels not just during floods but “in extreme events like hurricanes, but also heavy rains and even high tides,” they write.

— Daily contact lens wearers, beware: Contact lenses that are flushed down the toilet or washed down in the sink may not biodegrade easily after entering wastewater treatment facilities, according to new research presented this weekend at the American Chemical Society’s meeting in Boston. The research found 20 percent of 400 surveyed contact wearers flushed or washed down contacts instead of throwing them in the trash. But in wastewater treatment facilities, “they can cause environmental damage and may add to the growing problem of microplastic pollution,” the New York Times reports

— Storm watch: One of three tropical cyclones in the Pacific Ocean may hit Hawaii in the coming days. The Post’s Jason Samenow writes while Hurricane Lane "could pass south of Hawaii, merely throwing back big waves on its south-facing beaches, it has become more likely that the storm will veer north and bring more serious effects from wind and rain over portions of the islands.”


— The road ahead for Tesla: Tesla chief executive Elon Musk described an “excruciating” year at the helm of his ambitious electric car company in an interview with the New York Times. He addressed his recent controversial tweet suggesting he take the company private, as well as details about his own physical health amid a crunch to deliver on production goals for the Model 3. The normally brush Musk "demonstrated an extraordinary level of self-reflection and vulnerability, acknowledging that his myriad executive responsibilities are taking a steep personal toll,” the Times writes.

Arianna Huffington, a longtime sleep advocate who co-founded the HuffPost, prodded Musk to get more shut-eye:

Musk's response? “Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy,” he responded on Twitter Sunday. “I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.”

How Musk's surprise going-private announcement is affecting the company: “On Monday, JPMorgan said it expected Tesla shares to continue to fall for the rest of 2018 following Musk’s announcement about taking Tesla private,” The Post’s Rachel Siegel reports. “In a note, its analyst said an ‘interpretation of subsequent events’ after Musk’s Aug. 7 tweet ‘leads us to believe that funding was not secured ... nor was there any formal proposal.’”

— Oil watch: For the first time ever, oil exports from the Gulf Coast of Texas have surpassed imports. “In April oil exports in the Houston-Galveston port district exceeded imports by 15,000 barrels a day, and in May that difference grew to 470,000 barrels a day,” the Houston Chronicle reports, citing data from the Energy Department. “In May total U.S. crude oil exports rose to a record 2 million barrels a day. A year prior exports were just over 1 million barrels a day."

— Walmart will stop selling two controversial toxic chemicals commonly found in paint strippers: The retail giant joins a growing number of retailers banning methylene chloride and n-methylpyrrolidone, and will do so as soon as February, the big-box store chain said, following similar moves from Lowes, Home Depot and Sherwin Williams. Meanwhile, advocacy groups are still waiting on the EPA to issue a ban of its own after signaling it would do so. 



  • The Senate Armed Services Committee holds a confirmation hearing on Alex A. Beehler to be Assistant Secretary Of The Army For Installations, Energy, And Environment.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on “energy efficiency of blockchain and similar technologies.”
  • The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy hosts the 2018 Better Buildings Summit in Cleveland.

Coming Up

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining holds a hearing on various bills on Wednesday.
  • The EPA holds a public meeting to receive feedback on the IRIS Assessment Plan for Naphthalene on Thursday.

— Watch how the wildfire smoke blankets most of the country: The Post’s Christopher Ingraham compiled about 100 daily images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that shows how wildfires in the United States and Canada have sent smoke across the continent.