THE LIGHTBULB

The federal government is partially shutdown due an impasse over one of President Trump's top priorities in office: the construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But while thousands of federal workers are furloughed, the Trump administration is trying to press ahead with another top goal: increasing oil and gas drilling.

The Post's Juliet Eilperin and I report that officials at the Department of the Interior have made a conscious effort to prioritize energy exploration during the shutdown, according to a top department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk frankly. 

When discussing what is most critical during the shutdown, “we have looked first to executive orders, those things the president has made a point of giving us guidance and direction on, and secretarial orders,” the official said. 

The Trump administration's decision means the oil and gas business, one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States, says it has yet to feel any real consequence from the shutdown. 

“To this point, we have not seen any major effects of the shutdown on our industry,” Mike Sommers, president and chief executive of the oil and gas business’s chief lobbying organization, the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters Tuesday.

The department’s Bureau of Land Management, for example, has accepted and published 22 new drilling permit applications in Alaska, North Dakota, New Mexico and Oklahoma between the start of the shutdown and Wednesday afternoon. Officials said they did not anticipate any delays in the processing of either permit applications or requests for inspections of drilling operations on federal land.

But elsewhere the department says it is not even accepting other sorts of filings — such as public-records requests from journalists, activists and other members of the public made under the Freedom of Information Act — due to the shutdown.

“It seems that the oil companies are getting services from the Department of the Interior when the public is not,” said Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director at the Western Watershed Project, an advocacy group.

But Kathleen Sgamma, president of the  Western Energy Alliance, said that "few weeks of shutdown are not going to be that impactful" because companies plan months ahead for permit processing time and BLM has a funding stream from fees and other sources.

The department is also pressing ahead with its goal of preparing the Alaskan Arctic for more oil and gas drilling. The department decided to go ahead with four public listening sessions about BLM’s push to define what activities can be permitted at the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska because doing so would help the scoping process move forward. The sessions, which were slated to wrap up before Interior stops accepting comments on Jan. 22, had been postponed because of the Nov. 30 earthquake that hit Alaska.

“The NPRA was one that jumped out as being one of those priorities,” said the official, adding that only two to three employees were required to conduct the listening sessions.

It remains unclear if the shutdown will stymie perhaps the top goal in Alaska for the Trump administration: opening the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. While the agency announced Wednesday that it would postpone meetings in Alaska and Washington to discuss a draft document evaluating the impact of drilling on caribou, polar bears and other animals there, it indicated the Feb. 11 deadline for public comments remained unchanged.

The administration, along with Alaska’s Republican delegation in Congress, wants to see sections of the refuge’s coastal plain leased before the end of Trump’s term and a new potential president in 2021 has the chance to slow down energy development in the Arctic refuge. 

The push to press ahead with as many operations as possible marks a sharp contrast with how Interior, which oversees 1 in every 5 acres of U.S. land, operated during extended shutdowns under Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. The department is one of nine Cabinet-level departments hobbled by this partial shutdown.

POWER PLAYS

— It's officially official: Trump has officially nominated Andrew Wheeler to be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The president had expressed his intention to nominate the former coal lobbyist as the next administrator in November, announcing during a Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House that Wheeler had done a “fantastic job” in his acting role. Wheeler took over in an acting capacity after Scott Pruitt resigned amid swirling ethical scandals. His official nomination makes certain that a continued agenda of revising old regulations at the EPA, as The Post’s Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin reported in November.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will have to next hold a hearing with Wheeler before his bid moves forward. Committee chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo) said in a statement following the nomination that he would corral members of the panel to confirm Wheeler.

Wheeler also visited with Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) on Wednesday, his former boss and a member of the Environment and Public Works committee who expressed support for his nomination:

— And what about replacing Zinke? The White House is discussing nine-term retiring Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) in addition to acting interior secretary David Bernhardt as possible nominees to lead the department permanently, Bloomberg reports, after Ryan Zinke resigned from the post amid investigations into his conduct in office. Bishop, who previously led the House Natural Resources Committee, tamped down suspicions about his nomination, per the report, saying in response to whether talks were ramping up over the role: “I don’t know. If it is, I am not aware of it.” He told Bloomberg regarding his prospects: “Don’t bet your retirement system. Keep it in the bank for now.”

SHUTDOWN WATCH

Scientists : Thousands of furloughed federal employees are researchers, including scientists at various government departments including the Agriculture Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, among others. “Furloughed government scientists are banned from any form of work activity — they cannot so much as open an email,” The Post’s Ben Guarino, Carolyn Y. Johnson, Sarah Kaplan and Lenny Bernstein report. Conferences are emptier, paychecks haven’t been doled out and critical research for many has stalled. The Post team writes of an ecosystem ecologist who, for the first time since the early 1980s, will have a gap in his weekly data from the inability to collect water samples from Shenandoah National Park during the shutdown.

Food inspectors: The Food and Drug Administration has had to sharply reduce inspections of the nation’s food supply, suspending all routine inspections of domestic food-processing facilities because of the furloughing of hundreds of agency employees. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told The Post’s Laurie McGinley and Joel Achenbach he was working on bringing inspectors back as soon as next week to resume inspecting food at high-risk facilities, such as those that involve soft cheese, seafood or that have a history of issues.

Farmers: The shutdown also means some farmers aren’t receiving subsidy checks from the government, a source of support that’s become a lifeline for some across the country, The Post’s Annie Gowen, Jeff Stein and Sean Sullivan report. The Trump administration pledged to help farmers who were impacted by international trade tensions with $12 billion in subsidies. Some farmers are stuck waiting for those checks, while others “who still must have their crop totals approved by the government to receive aid were left with no way to apply for it.”

Weather forecasters: More than 4,000 employees at the National Weather Service are continuing to work without pay amid the shutdown. “Meteorologists are uniquely devoted to their jobs. So devoted that they will work for weeks, including night shifts, without a paycheck,” The Post’s Angela Fritz reports, describing a 24-hour, seven days a week operation, with rotating night shifts, so that forecasters can bring the country watches and warnings for various storms and weather events and alerts for natural disasters. One employee at the Omaha forecast office told Fritz her colleagues don’t openly discuss feelings about the shutdown. “Even though the National Weather Service is unionized, there is a strong aversion to speaking openly about their jobs or the organization,” Fritz writes. “But she sees the morale dropping across the Weather Service as a whole."

And yet, the national parks... Many of them are not closed, but Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is saying that leaving them open visitors during the shutdown is “unsafe.” He also called for wildlife refuges overseen by Fish and Wildlife Service to be closed as well. “Right now, there’s damage being done to our national parks, and we don’t have the capacity right now or the staffing to both protect the land and protect visitors,” he told reporters, according to The Hill. “If you shut them, it’d be safer for both the public and, more importantly, less damage.”

— Another day, another Trump tweet about California's wildlife: But this one carries a threat. The president tweeted that he is slashing emergency aid to California used for recovery from forest fires, repeating a claim lacking evidence that funds would not be needed if California's forests (many of which are already overseen by the federal government) were properly managed. It’s unclear if Trump has already directed FEMA to withhold funds to the state, The Post’s Amy B Wang and Katie Mettler write.

Can he do that? “Whether the president even has the authority to rescind FEMA funding that has already been approved remains unclear. Guidelines for the way federal dollars flow after the president declares a national disaster, like he did after devastating wildfires in California this year, are outlined in the Stafford Act, said Rafael Lemaitre, the former director of public affairs for FEMA under the Obama administration,” Wang and Mettler report. “It’s possible Trump could follow through on his threat by closing recovery centers in California or slowing the bureaucratic process by which public assistance and individual assistance is transmitted to the state, Lemaitre said. In a statement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Trump’s attacks are “yet another low for this president.”

The newly sworn-in Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) decried the “partisan bickering” over forest fires:

— The dark money that supported Pruitt’s nomination to the EPA: Nearly $400,000 was raised by a dark money group that backed Pruitt’s confirmation to become EPA administrator — and few details about the group are just now coming to light, Politico reports. The group raised funds from Pioneer Natural Resources, a Texas-based oil and gas company, as well as other unidentified donors. “Along with Pioneer, 16 other donors contributed between $5,000 and $75,000 apiece to the group, according to a redacted list of donors submitted to the IRS,” per the report. Pioneer voluntarily disclosed its $100,000 donation, the biggest single contribution. It’s not clear if the former EPA administrator was aware of the donors to the dark money group, called Protecting America Now, and Pruitt had said before his confirmation that he was not affiliated with the group.

Another notable tidbit: “A few weeks before Pruitt was confirmed, Pioneer identified EPA's methane regulations among a list of rules that could ‘adversely affect demand’ for its products, according to its 2016 annual report to the SEC,” per the report. “Once he was in place at EPA, Pruitt halted work on that rulemaking.”

— Trump energy panel pick won’t recuse himself from resilience debates: Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Bernard McNamee said the panel’s ethics officials advised him not to recuse himself from debate on grid resilience unless proceedings “closely resemble” the Energy Department’s proposal to bailout coal and nuclear plants that he helped draft, Utility Dive reports. Democrats had been calling on McNamee to do so following the emergence of a video from a February event where he was critical of renewable energy. “As I stated in my confirmation hearing, I pledge to be a fair, objective and impartial arbiter in the cases and issues that will come before me as Commissioner,” he said in a letter to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), who called for the commissioner’s recusal on matters related to coal and nuclear plant subsidization.  

2020 WATCH:

— Inslee signs "no fossil fuel money" pledge: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a likely presidential candidate, further cemented what could be a climate-focused agenda by signing a pledge to reject contributions from fossil fuel companies. The Democrat added his name to the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, which more than 1,300 politicians have joined, HuffPost reports. “This is just one small statement that they should not continue to have undue influence over our decision-making over the existential threat against our nation,” Inslee told HuffPost, which reported the governor is “the third likely contender for the next Democratic presidential nomination to take the pledge, after Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).”

— Steyer is not running: ​Tom Steyer, a billionaire investor and environmental activist, announced he will not run for president in 2020, saying he will instead focus on pushing Democratic lawmakers to start proceedings to impeach Trump. "I said last year that I am willing to do whatever I can to protect our country from this reckless, lawless, dangerous president. Every day since, Mr. Trump has revealed new depths to his incompetence, corruption and cruelty," Steyer said in prepared remarks for his announcement in Des Moines, The Post's Chelsea Janes reports. "The threat he poses to the American people has only grown."

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The National Council for Science and the Environment’s 2019 annual conference continues.

Coming Up

  • The Environmental and Energy Study Institute holds an event on “Reframing Energy for the 21st Century” on Friday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— From Post cartoonist Tom Toles