The Trump administration is taking its first steps toward expanding oil and natural gas drilling in an area roughly the size of Indiana in the Alaskan Arctic.
The Interior Department is ready to abandon a management plan put in place under Barack Obama for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, or the NPR-A.
Joe Balash, assistant secretary of land and minerals at Interior, said that in light of "some exciting new discoveries" as well as "advances in drilling technology," the Trump administration wanted to open up more acreage in the reserve to drilling.
"We think it's time to re-evaluate some of the areas that were previously left unavailable for leasing," Balash said in a call, according to a recording of the call obtained by The Washington Post. He added that it will take "about a year" to develop a new plan for managing the petroleum reserve after publishing a notice Tuesday.
The move is in line with other attempts under President Trump to expand fossil-fuel extraction nationwide, whether by trying to revitalize coal mining in the Appalachia mountains or offshore drilling in the Pacific Ocean.
When it comes to onshore oil development, Alaska has been a main locus of that push. And unlike efforts to boost coal mining or offshore drilling, Trump has seen significant success in the nation's northernmost state.
The Republican tax bill signed by Trump nearly one year ago mandated oil and gas lease sales in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is to the east of the petroleum reserve. For decades, environmentalists successfully fought to keep a coastal tract of relatively untouched wilderness there full of caribou and polar bears free from energy development. By opening up the refuge to leasing, Trump succeeded where George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush tried and fell short.
As its name suggests, Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve was originally earmarked for eventual oil extraction. In 1923, President Warren G. Harding set aside the area over oil supply concerns as the U.S. Navy started burning oil rather than coal to power its ships.
But as time passed scientists and conservationists began to recognize the area's ecological importance, particularly to migratory waterfowls that liked to frequent its wetlands. Working with subsistence hunters in Alaska and environmentalists in the Lower 48, the Obama administration put half of the petroleum reserve, or about 11 million acres, off-limits to oil drilling.
Environmentalists like Mark Salvo, vice president of landscape conservation at the Defenders of Wildlife, criticized the Trump administration for throwing out a management plan that took years to make. Interior similarly is trying to scrap wildlife management plans for the Mojave Desert in California and for sagebrush habitat through much of the rest of the western United States, Salvo noted.
"These are examples of the Trump administration stealing defeat from the jaws of victory," he said. "These plans took years to produce and tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer resources to arrive at these carefully crafted compromises to conserve public lands."
Alaska's oil and gas industry, which originally balked at the Obama-era decision, praised the Trump administration for aiming to reverse it.
"There have been recent discoveries in the NPR-A and adjacent state land that suggests it may be a more prolific area for oil and gas development," said Kara Moriarty, president and chief executive of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
Last year the U.S. Geological Survey, Interior's main scientific arm, reassessed the reserve and estimated that it and the state and tribal areas around it contain 8.7 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of gas. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had ordered the survey after ConocoPhillips announced a promising oil discovery in the northeast corner of the refuge earlier in 2017.
But a lease sale in NPR-A last December, which Zinke once touted as “large and unprecedented,” got only seven bids for less than 1 percent of the area offered.
Now the Trump administration is suggesting the land it is considering unlocking will garner more attention from oil and gas developers. "I do think it's important to point out that some of the acreage that is probably most prospective is currently not available for leasing," Balash said.
Of particular interest to the oil industry and concern to wildlife conservationists is Teshekpuk Lake and the surrounding area. That 320-square-mile freshwater body, the largest in the Alaskan Arctic, plays host to half a million shorebirds and tens of thousands of molting geese that groups like the Audubon Society worry will be impacted by oil operations.
Balash, the Trump land management official, told reporters the department's geologists believe the area around the lake is "extremely prospective" due to the volume of oil underneath it. But in the same breath, he recognized the needle the department must thread between not only the interests of wildlife conservationists but Native Alaskans who live and hunt in the reserve.
"The big question is: Can we make some of that acreage available in a manner that is responsible and and honors the subsistence way of life that the people who live in the NPR-A have lived for thousands of years?" Balash said.
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— More from the Arctic: As the ice melts in the polar region, the U.S. military is grappling with the impact of the change and potential threats from Russia and China as its own presence grows in the area. “The slowly evolving plan has included stationing more fighter jets in Alaska, expanding partnerships with Nordic militaries, increasing cold-weather training and designing a new class of icebreaker ship for the Coast Guard that could be armed,” The Posts Dan Lamothe reports. “The vision could take greater shape by the end of the year: Both the Navy and Coast Guard are working on new Arctic strategies in light of the quickly changing circumstances senior U.S. military officials see.”
— Zinke has no plans to disappear: The interior secretary remains dismissive of reports of any departure from the Trump administration amid investigations into alleged ethical violations, The Post’s Lisa Rein and Juliet Eilperin report. Even as questions swirled, Zinke flew home to Whitefish, Mont., spending Veterans Day weekend there before leaving to visit wildfire devastation in California.
The scene: “The secretary spent the Veterans Day weekend at his family home here, enjoying drinks at a local bar,” Rein and Eilperin write. “A month and a half ago his critics distributed fliers mocking him at local breweries during the city’s Oktoberfest celebration, which read, Ryan Zinke’s Double Tap Brewing Company, sponsored by Halliburton, opening soon in Whitefish, Montana.’ It’s here that he faces the glare of a federal inquiry that shows no sign of wrapping up.”
"Yes, the radical environmental groups": In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Zinke reiterated his blame on “radical environmental groups” for poor forest management that has led to the spate of deadly fires in California. Zinke called out “lawsuit after lawsuit by, yes, the radical environmental groups that would rather burn down the entire forest than cut a single tree or thin the forest,” CNN reports. The secretary did not name specific groups, while Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on the call pointed to “well-meaning environmentalists.”
The remarks echoed Zinke’s comments in a weekend interview with Breitbart News. On Wednesday morning, he added on Twitter:
People who claim forest management means clearcutting or largescale logging are either lying or just don’t know what they’re talking about. Management = scientifically determining unhealthy tress to remove, prescribed burns, reseeding diverse species, salvaging burnt logs, etc.— Secretary Ryan Zinke (@SecretaryZinke) November 21, 2018
— House Democrats want answers on climate rollbacks: Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), poised to lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee when the party takes control of the chamber come January, sent a letter to acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler calling for information on the administration’s moves to rollback climate policies. The letter from Pallone and Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Paul D. Tonko (D-N.Y.) calls for EPA memos, briefings and electronic communications that will “help us understand how these decisions were made and how these actions will affect the environment and human health.”
Why this matters: Pallone’s letter is an early signal of how the incoming Democratic majority plans to scrutinize the administration on environmental issues. “My priority is policy,” Pallone told The Energy 202 last week.
— “Fossil fuels are not something dirty": Trump’s nominee for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission touted fossil fuels and criticized renewable energy in a February speech. During his remarks at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s 2018 policy orientation for the state’s lawmakers, according to a video sent to The Energy 202, Bernard McNamee said it’s important to understand that “fossil fuels are not something dirty, something we have to move and get away from, but understand that they are key not only to our prosperity, but to quality of life and also to a clean environment." Later during his remarks, he said that renewable energy “screws up the whole physics of the grid.”
Why this matters: During a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week, McNamee insisted he would be an “independent arbiter” and that his decisions “won’t be influenced by politics” when asked about his role in supporting an unsuccessful Energy Department proposal to bolster struggling coal and nuclear plants.
— Talk of a landmark climate bill in New York: A New York City policymaker announced a new bill that could set a standard for cities around the world. The legislation, from City Councilman Costa Constantinides, proposes “cutting pollution 40 percent by 2030,” HuffPost reports. A top adviser to grassroots group New York Communities for Change said the bill “rises to the challenge of the U.N.’s report.” HuffPost adds the bill “follows two attempts by Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) to mandate emissions cuts from privately owned buildings, first in 2016 and then again in 2017. The plans went nowhere.”
And in DC, a climate bill advances: Two D.C. Council committees separately unanimously approved a bill that would adopt the nation’s first 100 percent renewable energy standard. The bill now moves to a vote before the full council, the Washington Examiner reports, which is scheduled to take the first of two votes on the legislation on Nov. 27.
— California is on fire: The deadly Camp Fire in Northern California is 70 percent contained as of Tuesday. But as recovery efforts continue, a rain forecast “threatens to hinder the search for human remains, wash out tent camps providing shelter to evacuees, and trigger mudflows across the barren landscape, imperiling roads and infrastructure that are critical to the recovery,” The Post’s Frances Stead-Sellers reports. “On the steep and once-scenic drive from Oroville to Paradise, the roadsides have been sprayed green with a tacky substance in a technique known as hydroseeding designed to hold the ground in place…Huge vacuum trucks are sucking up debris in grates and storm drains, preparing for the downpour. Sandbags have been stacked to redirect water on road surfaces.”
How the fires impact farmworkers: Even as health officials urged people to stay inside because of the dangerous air quality, some farmworkers continued to work out of fear of losing their jobs. And some described to The Post’s Danielle Paquette “a patchwork of measures — including shortened hours and partial access to protective masks — to deal with the air-quality threat.” “A sharp increase in wildfires, heat waves and other climate-fueled disasters has added urgency to California’s efforts at employee protection, especially for the most vulnerable — low-income and undocumented workers on the state’s sprawling farms." The California Labor Federation is urging for legislation that would protect such workers.
“A world that’s uninsurable”: The continuing scourge of devastating fires in California is putting pressure on property insurers, as some have been refusing to renew insurance policies in fire-prone areas, the New York Times reports. “Of California’s eight million houses, about three million stand on the wildland-urban interface. And of those, 1.7 million are considered highly prone to wildfire. Real estate agents warn home buyers, but they pay little attention.”
Eyes on Pacific Gas & Electric: A lawmaker in California is drafting a bill that could help relieve the state’s largest utility of the liability from wildfires. The bill from California Assemblyman Chris Holden (D) "may serve as a framework for lawmakers to consider relief for PG&E from the billions of dollars it faces in potential liability for death and property damage in Northern California’s Camp Fire," Bloomberg News reports.
So if you thought it was just a bit hazy this afternoon, we have a California fire smoke plume moving through. pic.twitter.com/PsYNlAWrgA— Gary Szatkowski (@GarySzatkowski) November 19, 2018
— All the way in Washington, signs of California's fires: Eastward winds picked up some of the smoke lingering over the state's deadly fires, resulting in a stretch of haze in “more than a dozen states from Southern California to Massachusetts,” The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. “On top of that, high pressure over the region is forcing some of the smoke particles toward the ground, which is leading to higher pollution levels.”
— Speaking of air pollution: The Post has a new, stunning visualization showing just how many years are being shaved from lives due to air pollution based on where they live. The average person would live 2.6 more years if the air had none of the deadliest type of pollution. In the United States, Southern California is the worst area for particle pollution (even before two years of massive fires), and parts of Ohio are the second worst, The Post’s Bonnie Berkowitz, John Muyskens, Manas Sharma and Monica Ulmanu report.
— Man it’s a hot one: Data released from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found last month ranks as the second warmest October on record, falling just behind October 2015.
— Government orders cleanup of lingering oil leak: The U.S. Coast Guard ordered an energy company to clean up a massive 14-year oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that has leaked more than a million barrels of oil since 2004, The Post's Darryl Fears reports. Following a report from Fears last month on the spill, the federal government called on Taylor Energy Co. to either “institute a … system to capture, contain, or remove oil” from the area or pay a $40,000 per day fine, Fears reports. “Taylor has already plugged nine of the 28 wells at its platform,” Fears adds. “The company has disputed that the wells, buried under 100 feet of mud from an underwater avalanche triggered by the hurricane, are the source of a massive spill. It said ‘the best science’ shows that the wells were low pressure, meaning that little oil remained at the site.”
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on addressing America’s surface transportation infrastructure needs on Nov. 28.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on the nomination of Alexandra Dunn to be Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on Nov. 29.
- The Women's Council on Energy and the Environment holds an event on incorporating intelligent water systems in U.S. water utilities on Nov. 29.
— You won't have these Peas and Carrots at your dinner table: Trump on Tuesday pardoned these two turkeys at the annual pardoning ceremony at the White House.