In the West, President Trump’s administration is “working nearly unimpeded” on oil and gas leasing. In Alaska, it has “barely slowed” efforts to open Arctic wilderness to fossil fuel development. And off the nation’s coasts, it is “moving full speed ahead” to craft a plan to auction off ocean drilling rights.
House Democrats levied accusation after accusation against the Trump administration yesterday on Capitol Hill for seeming to give preferential treatment to the oil and gas industry during the partial government shutdown.
More than a dozen Cabinet-level departments in the federal government have ceased all but the most essential activities after running out of congressionally appropriated funds late last year. They include the Interior Department, which oversees oil and gas leasing on thousands of acres of public lands.
But what gets classified as essential government work largely depends on who is in charge of the executive branch. For the Trump administration, much of the work done to lease and permit oil and gas activities is a go.
That fact has rankled Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and other newly empowered House Democrats who held a forum on Thursday hosted by the Natural Resources Committee. (A forum, not a hearing, since the committee has not yet officially reconstituted.)
“At a time when the shutdown is exacting so much pain on Americans across all walks of life,” Lowenthal said, “it is utterly immoral that the Trump administration treats one group of friendly businesses, the fossil fuel industry, as more valuable and deserving than all others.”
At one point, he and other Democrats wondered whether the spending violated federal law prohibiting agencies from using money in ways not approved by Congress.
“Do we have a legal case?’" Lowenthal asked a panel of representatives from environmental groups and Native American tribes.
The Trump administration and the industry each pressed back against the idea that preferential treatment is being given to oil and gas firms.
“Interior is working on oil and gas permit processing and so much more during the partial lapse,” department spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said by email. “To say that we are playing favorites is fake news.”
She noted that the department is doing plenty of work unrelated to the oil and gas business, such as running schools for Native Americans, delivering health benefits to retired miners, approving grazing permits and feeding wild horses.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said there is nothing unusual about oil and gas work continuing during the shutdown. “The fact is, just because the government is shut down doesn’t mean everyone else stops,” she said in an interview.
She added that what she saw among House Democrats was “two years of pent-up desire to yell at the Trump administration about public lands issues.”
In many ways, the industry hasn't felt much impact from the shutdown. The department is still processing paperwork on new and existing drilling, for example. As of Thursday morning, the Bureau of Land Management had approved 15 new leases for oil and gas development on public lands and 22 permits for new drilling operations, according to figures collected by the Center for Western Priorities, an advocacy group opposed to the Trump administration.
Among the approved drilling permits is one for ConocoPhillips to work in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, or NPR-A. The oil giant’s chief executive, Ryan Lance, told Fox Business Network last week that his company hasn’t been “materially impacted” yet by the shutdown.
Separately, the Trump administration is rewriting an Obama administration plan for what activities are be permitted within the petroleum reserve in the northwest corner of Alaska.
Work on finalizing that plan has continued during the shutdown as BLM held public meetings on the issue.
At times, the agency gave the public little notice it was going forward with the hearings. BLM confirmed that a Jan. 9 meeting in the remote Arctic village of Wainwright was going forward only one day before the event.
“It’s not some trip that can be thrown together in a day’s time,” said David Krause, an Arctic conservation specialist at the Wilderness Society.
Senate Democrats have taken hold of the issue, too. This week, 14 of them sent a letter to David Bernhardt, the acting interior secretary, asking for the legal justification for bringing back Bureau of Ocean Energy Management employees to work on the administration's controversial five-year offshore drilling plan that promises to greatly expand offshore drilling along the coasts of many states where both local Democrats and Republicans fear the risk of an oil spill, and oppose development.
Panelists convened by House Democrats echoed that sentiment.
“Notably, we’ve seen no such directive or urgency to pursue offshore wind,” said Franz Matzner of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Public meetings for an offshore wind project near Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts had been canceled due to the shutdown.
Seemingly in response, Bernhardt announced via Twitter on Thursday that BOEM would use carry-over funds to reschedule the meetings for the much-anticipated renewable energy project.
Excited to announce @BOEM_DOI will use carryover funds, previously appropriated by Congress, to reschedule public meetings for the Vineyard Wind offshore renewable project very soon! Stay tuned. #AllofTheAbove #EnergyDominance— Acting Secretary David Bernhardt (@DOIDepSec) January 24, 2019
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— The new normal: Last year was probably the fourth-warmest year on record, the latest example of a “new normal” and part of a recent set of record-hot years suggesting the Earth has entered an irreversible pattern of warming, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. According to findings from climate science nonprofit Berkeley Earth, 2016 was the warmest year on record for the world’s land and oceans, followed by 2017, 2015 and now 2018. “It’s significantly warmer than any of the years before 2015,” Berkeley Earth research scientist Zeke Hausfather said. “There’s still this big bump up after 2014, and 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 are all in a class of their own.”
The numbers: Berkeley Earth found that in 2018, a year of extreme weather events from deadly wildfires to severely hot summers, 29 countries saw record-hot years as did the continent of Antarctica. “In Berkeley Earth’s data set, the last 5 years are all above 1C; in two other data sets the last four years are expected to be above that threshold, according to data provided by Hausfather,” Mooney writes, adding it is notable “because scientists have outlined increasingly dire consequences as soon as the Earth reaches 1.5 C or 2C, temperature targets that are both flagged in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.”
The map: The team also put together this timelapse of surface temperature increasing over more than a century and a half.
Along with Berkeley Earth's review of global temperatures in 2018, we have prepared an updated movie showing the evolution of Earth's surface temperature from 1850 to 2018.— Robert Rohde (@RARohde) January 24, 2019
Spoiler alert: #GlobalWarming gets quite dramatic towards the end.https://t.co/EW2UhvQX7a pic.twitter.com/17WlsHW79n
— "The problem is clear, but it has yet to consume us": Meanwhile, The Post’s Dan Zak writes an eloquent yet troubling piece about how people can continue to live each day with constant reports reminding them the changing climate means the Earth is in trouble. “Your basement now floods every year instead of every five or 10 years. Your asthma has gotten worse. You grew up wearing a winter jacket under your Halloween costume in Buffalo, and now your kids don’t have to. The southern pine beetle that made its home in South America 400 years ago is now boring through trees on Long Island,” he writes. “Hold the problem in your mind. Freak out, but don’t put it down. Give it a quarter-turn. See it like a scientist, and as a poet. As a descendant. As an ancestor,” he writes. Poet Alice Major told Zak: “It’s an immense privilege to be alive at this time.”
THE SHUTDOWN'S IMPACT
... on Berkeley Earth’s release: Mooney notes the ongoing shutdown has meant annual temperature rankings released by government agencies have been delayed. NOAA and NASA have yet to release their findings, which last year went out on January 18. And Hausfather explained “a coordinated release had been planned for January 17 with his organization and the U.S. government agencies — before the shutdown, that is. Once that happened, he said, Berkeley Earth decided to go ahead and release its own numbers,” Mooney writes. Still, Hausfather says there is not likely to be a dispute about the temperature rankings once other findings are published.
...on research: Environmental research across the country — conducted by federal agencies as well as projects by universities, nonprofits and private companies — continues to be delayed and disrupted. Nongovernment scientists who usually rely on federal partners are worried about whether the ongoing impasse will put their work at risk. “Researchers might miss court-ordered deadlines for reports involving endangered plants or animals,” the Associated Press reports. “Warm-weather field studies that must be planned months in advance could be delayed or canceled. And studies that rely on strict monitoring or testing schedules could be compromised.” One project in California that gathers information on how climate change affects oceans is at a standstill because a research ship owned by NOAA is currently off-limits and “no suitable replacement is available.”
... on the civil service: One major concern amid the shutdown is what will happen with civil servants working for government agencies. For these critical high-skilled workers, there’s an element of good will in choosing to work for the government when there’s “usually companies willing to offer them much higher salaries — double or even triple in some cases — on top of the free lunches and stock options,” the New York Times reports. The Post’s Danielle Paquette reports labor groups warn “such a loss of talent could weaken the federal workforce for years, draining institutional memory, countless hours of training and a shared sense of mission.” Paquette writes of an employee at the Federal Emergency Management, Freda McDonald, who is “75 percent sure she’s going to quit.” McDonald said it “dawned on me that I didn’t matter. I might as well go for the bucks.” In another example, Steve Reaves, a FEMA employee who leads a worker’s union for the agency, told the Times he “knew firsthand of six experienced people who had left the agency since the shutdown began. Two went to BP, the oil giant.”
...on the Weather Service: A dozen lawmakers sent a letter to Trump expressing concern for employees of the National Weather Service, who like other federal employees face a second missed paycheck on Friday, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. “Every community that your supporters call home depends on America’s NWS to keep them safe, healthy and ready,” write the group of lawmakers, which includes some who represent districts with NWS offices and panel leaders like Rep. Kathy Castor, who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. “We remain deeply concerned that this shutdown is undermining the ability of dedicated public servants to deliver necessary lifesaving services and may permanently compromise the ability of the agency to do its work.”
… on new cars: Automakers say the release of new vehicle models will also be delayed because of necessary certifications from the Environmental Protection Agency. Most of the agency has been furloughed, including employees who are responsible for verifying emissions data compliance for new car models, Reuters reports. “Former acting administrator of the EPA, Stanley Meiburg, noted the agency’s certification process was central to discovering Volkswagen’s past efforts to cheat on emissions,” per the report.
...and even on popular programs: The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pays for the conservation of popular places like parks and wildlife preserves with oil and gas revenue, enjoys broad bipartisan support. But it lost its legislative authority nearly four months ago, and the shutdown puts it in an even more precarious spot. Reauthorizing the fund is an example of the sort of work Congress would be doing right now if not for the shutdown, The Post’s Joel Achenbach reports. Tom Cors, spokesman for the coalition backing the fund, said it is “being held hostage.”
— Venezuela watch: Trump’s move to support the opposition leader in Venezuela is a risky one for “a president whose foreign policy is staked on prizing American interests over others and keeping the country out of foreign quagmires,” The Post’s Anne Gearan and Karen DeYoung report. “For now, the hope is to use the newly declared interim government as a tool to deny [President Nicolás Maduro] the oil revenue from the United States that provides Venezuela virtually all of its incoming cash, current and former U.S. officials said.” They write the United States has already faced a conundrum over the last two years, grappling with whether to impose oil sanctions that would deprive Venezuela of much of its cash income but that could also result in increasing energy prices in the United States. If imports were halted, many Gulf Coast oil refineries would have to temporarily shut down. Gearan and DeYoung also add the campaign could in part lend Guaidó “both international legitimacy and practical help” with control over oil revenue.
2020 watch: During a two-day visit to the East Cost, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee set the stage for what is clear to be a climate-focused agenda should he launch a bid for president. “He’s hardly the only Democrat talking about the issue, but his exhaustive focus could test whether climate change resonates among voters after it barely entered the conversation during the 2016 campaign,” the Associated Press reports. “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last generation that can do something about it,” Inslee told a group of college students this week in New Hampshire.
— It's still two minutes to “midnight”: The organization behind the notorious Doomsday Clock is keeping the clock set to two minutes to midnight, citing climate change and nuclear weapons. Rachel Bronson, the president of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, told The Post the “daunting time” was appropriate because “the time corresponded to the message we were sending,” The Post’s Lindsey Bever and Abby Ohlheiser report. Bronson told reporters the clock’s continued position at 11:58 “should not be taken as a sign of stability but as a stark warning … This new abnormal is simply too volatile and too dangerous to accept as a continuing state of world affairs.”
— FOIA fracas: Advocates are pushing back on an Interior Department proposal to limit public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The proposal would allow the department to “not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search” of documents and allow the agency to set a monthly limit for processing records, the Associated Press reports. The agency said the proposal was prompted by an “exponential” rise in records request under Trump. Adam Marshall, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said the move is “directly contrary” to the purpose of the act and told the AP the “solution to increased public interest and attention is not to clamp down on transparency.” Meanwhile, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has called on the agency to hold public hearings on proposed changes and to extend the 30-day public comment period.
— PG&E cleared of blame for Tubbs Fire: California fire investigators revealed electrical equipment for a private home is to blame for the deadly 2017 Tubbs Fire, clearing Pacific Gas & Electric from responsibility for one of the state’s deadliest fires from that year. The finding gives the utility “a bit of financial breathing room as it prepares to file for bankruptcy protection,” The Post’s Scott Wilson reports. “The cause of the wildfire was expected to be attributed to PG&E, whose equipment was blamed for starting more than a dozen other wine country fires,” he reports. “In anticipation, the company last year wrote off $2.5 billion from its 2017 earnings, a figure a PG&E official said at the time was ‘a low end to our possible liability.’ Estimates placed the company’s potential liability for the Tubbs Fire at $8 billion.” While Cal Fire’s conclusion clears the company of that particular financial burden, PG&E still faces potential whopping costs if fire officials conclude it is responsible for another fire, the Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest and most destructive fire on record.
— A new report from Climate Liability News this week found two public relations strategists representing Exxon posed as reporters to try to interview an attorney representing two Colorado communities suing the oil and gas giant. The duo “did not deny they represent Exxon,” per the report, but their “call to Marco Simons, general counsel for EarthRights International, who represents the city and county of Boulder and the County of San Miguel in a lawsuit the communities filed last year seeking climate damages from Exxon, potentially runs afoul of ethics rules for both the legal and public relations industries, and appeared to be a fishing expedition for information about Simons’ clients in that suit.”
- The Wilson Center and the Society of Environmental Journalists hold an event with speakers including Post reporter Juliet Eilperin and Bill Wehrum, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the office of air and radiation.
— Wherefore art thou: Researchers were concerned that the world's last known Sehuencas water frog, named Romeo, had all but given up on finding a mate after a decade living alone in captivity. “But this month, scientists with the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny and Global Wildlife Conservation announced a discovery that seemed to end this Shakespearean ecological tragedy,” Jason Bittel writes for The Post. “Five Sehuencas water frogs — three males and two females — were found at the foot of a small waterfall, offering the possibility that Romeo and his new crew would breed in captivity, and that one day Sehuencas water frogs might be released back into the wild.”