The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Environmentalists rally to #SaveGrouse after Trump makes it easier to drill in habitat

with Paulina Firozi


Environmentalists are aflutter over the Trump administration’s plan to loosen protections on land inhabited by the imperiled greater sage grouse.

They are denouncing the Trump administration’s plan to strip Obama-era protections for what my colleagues Darryl Fears and Juliet Eilperin call a "uniquely American bird" on nearly 9 million acres in western states — in favor of giving more federal leasing opportunities to oil, gas and mining industries.

The #SaveGrouse hashtag was retweeted through the weekend after the Friday announcement.

From Friends of the Earth:

The Audubon Society:

From the Wilderness Society:

And critics might not stop at tweets: “Opponents are expected to challenge the changes in court,” the Associated Press’s Matthew Brown reported.

“Brian Rutledge with the Audubon Society said the revisions will make it harder to stop the long-term decline of sage grouse by giving oil and gas companies access to crucial grouse habitat,” according to Brown.

“It’s a free for all, based on prioritizing fossil fuel extraction over any other use of the federal landscape,” Rutledge told him.  

As Darryl and Juliet report, the sage grouse has a storied history in the United States:

“Sage grouse exist only in the United States. Scientists consider them an indicator species because their status reflects the overall well-being of many animals in the sagebrush sea, which encompasses about 160 million acres across 11 states.

Sixty-seven million of those acres were designated for protection under a 2015 federal plan designed to increase the bird’s population and bring it back from the brink of being placed on the endangered species list. The new decision eliminates or weakens protections on 75 percent of the area in the original plan.

On their expedition across what became the United States, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark noted that flying sage grouse blackened the skies, leading to unconfirmed estimates that their historical numbers stood at 16 million. Since the bird’s habitat has been cut in half by human expansion and development, those changes, coupled with invasive species and disease, have shrunk their numbers to fewer than 500,000.”

Environmentalists also objected to plans outlined by Joe Balash, the Interior Department assistant secretary for land and minerals management. My colleagues report that Balash confirmed “he told leaders of the fossil fuel industry last month that the Atlantic coast will almost certainly be included in the administration’s plan to expand federal leasing to nearly the entire outer continental shelf.”

As Darryl and Juliet point out: “Offshore leases haven’t been granted in the Atlantic for decades, and drilling hasn’t been allowed for a half-century.”

Balash “said the department’s determined effort to approve seismic surveys is a sign that the Eastern Seaboard is in serious play — despite concerns that blasting piercing sounds every 10 seconds for weeks on end pose risks to whales and dolphins, according to conservationists and some scientists.”

From Western Priorities:


— “We support the Mercury Rule”: A bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the EPA opposing a planned rollback of mercury emissions standards. The letter, signed by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), warned the deadly toxin “harms the development of fetuses and children” and called on the agency to withdraw the proposal that said it’s no longer “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from coal- and oil-fired plants. “This could result in installed mercury and air toxic control technology to be turned off, erasing all the benefits we have seen from the Mercury Rule,” they wrote.

— “Bring jobs home!”: Trump again pressed General Motors on Twitter over the move to close a manufacturing plant in Ohio, urging the company to speed up discussions about reopening the facility. “Trump has used this tactic of lashing out at a local union leader before when blue-collar jobs that he promised to save ended up going away,” The Post’s Heather Long reports. “Trump went after a steel union president in Indianapolis when the Carrier plant there went forward with job cuts after Trump tried to intervene unsuccessfully.”

In response, "Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke on Monday showed up at a union hall in a beleaguered Ohio town to defend the local union’s leader against criticism from President Trump after General Motors shuttered a factory here earlier this month," Long reports. “I just want to tell you that so many of us around the country, although you might have been lit up a little bit by the president, are so proud of the way you conducted yourself,” O’Rourke said.

— 2020 watch: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is running for the Democratic nomination for president, said she would reenter the Paris climate accord on her first day in office.



— Much of Midwest remains underwater days after powerhouse storm: Several cities and towns from the northern plains to the Midwest are still engulfed in floodwaters after last week’s historic storm, with states of emergency still in place for Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin, The Post’s Ian Livingston reports. There have been at least three deaths in Nebraska and Iowa where there has been some of the worst flooding. Rivers are at record levels, levees have failed and vast regions are still underwater. “Scenes of devastation are too numerous to fully capture, but available photographs and imagery offer a sense of the extreme nature of this event,” Livingston writes.

A series of before-and-after images from shows “the small town of Bartlett, Iowa, situated near the Missouri River on the Nebraska border. It is completely engulfed by the flood. Scenes of such complete devastation are often reserved for major tornadoes in the region. But water can do serious damage, as well.”

The floods have also impacted farmers and ranchers at a time when they can least afford it, the New York Times reports, sparking concerns about whether “this natural disaster will become a breaking point for farms weighed down by falling incomes, rising bankruptcies and the fallout from President Trump’s trade policies.” Across the Midwest, farms that filed for Chapter 12 bankruptcy protection increased by 19 percent last year, the highest point in 10 years. “When you’re losing money to start with, how do you take on extra losses?” asked 23-year-old Clint Pischel of Niobrara, Neb.

— When weather forecasters are affected by the storm: On two occasions last week, local National Weather Service offices across the county had to escape an impending weather disaster themselves. The historic “bomb cyclone” that battered the Plains and Midwest first brought a tornado to Paducha, Ky., which narrowly missed the local weather forecast office there, The Post’s Matthew Cappucci reports. In Nebraska, the Weather Service office in Omaha had to abandon its building Friday because of flooding. Unlike in Paducah, which could turn its services over to a backup office, evacuation in Omaha for a flood meant powering down weather radar and sensitive equipment.

— Whales are facing the threat of massive ships: In 2018, there were 10 whale deaths attributed to ship strikes, the highest number since National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries started tracking these deaths in 1982. It’s a significant spike from the 3.4 ship strike whale deaths on average reported in each of the five previous years, Jesse Ryan reports for The Post. “Five of the 10 whales that died with boat collision injuries in 2018 were endangered or threatened fin, blue and humpback whales. Despite the prevalence of whale mortalities linked to ship strikes, few rules are in place on the West Coast to mitigate collisions,” Ryan writes. “Vessel strikes are one of the leading human-related causes of whale deaths."

On March 16, scientists in the Philippines discovered a dead Cuvier beaked whale with massive amounts of trash and plastic lining its stomach. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

— Speaking of whales: Over the last 10 years, the D’ Bone Collector Museum has recovered 57 whales and dolphins that have died after they consumed plastic garbage and fishing nets. Over the weekend, Marine biologist Darrell Blatchley, president and founder of the museum, found a 15-foot long young Cuvier beaked whale who he discovered died with 88 pounds of waste in its stomach, The Post’s Deanna Paul reports. The plastic had been in there so long it had started to calcify. “Lindsay Mosher, Oceanic Society’s Blue Habits project manager, said in an email to The Post that ‘this whale’s tragic death by plastic is an important wake-up call to the fact that we can and must do more to stop ocean plastic pollution,’” Paul writes.

— Coral conundrum: Bans on sunscreens that could harm coral reefs have led to a divide among coral scientists, as some argue there may not be enough evidence to merit the ban. “Last month, many scientists and professors who specialize in corals, toxicology and chemistry flooded the Coral-List, an Internet mailing list run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with comments for and against such bans,” Rebecca Beitsch writes for The Post. “Even among a group of people with a strong interest in protecting coral health, the discussion was divisive, with some accusing the sunscreen industry of ignoring the dangers of its products …. Some scientists say it is too early to know how damaging sunscreen is to corals because the studies are limited.”


— PG&E’s wildfire woes: The California utility’s electrical network has been linked to 5 of the 10 most destructive fires in the state since 2015. For many blazes, regulators say the company violated state laws or could have done more to ensure equipment safety. And the company has a broad history of safety problems beyond wildfires, the New York Times writes in this extensive report. After a 2010 explosion that killed 8 people, “ensuing investigations and litigation produced an alarming picture of the company’s practices and priorities,” the Times reports. “The state’s Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E, concluded that the company was more concerned with profit than with safety.” “There was very much a focus on the bottom line over everything,” said Mike Florio, who was a utilities commissioner from 2011 through 2016. “And things really got squeezed on the maintenance side.”

— "Borders on the ridiculous:" The Securities and Exchange Commission dismissed chief executive Elon Musk’s argument for why he shouldn’t held in contempt of court as absurb. After Musk told a federal judge he shouldn’t be held in contempt for tweets the government says violated a settlement deal, the SEC’s response “showed they were not backing down,” The Post’s Drew Harwell reports. “Musk’s contention — that the potential size of a car company’s production for the year could not reasonably be material — borders on the ridiculous,” SEC officials wrote. “Musk’s shifting justifications suggest that there was never any good faith effort to comply with the Court’s order and the Tesla Policy. Rather, Musk has simply elected to ignore them.”

— A petrochemical plant blaze continues: A fire that broke out Sunday at a petrochemical storage facility near Houston was expected to continue for days, the Wall Street Journal reports. By Monday, it had spread to seven storage tanks holding chemicals that are components of gas and lubricants and the company and local authorities were monitoring air quality. “Within 24 hours, the blaze had emitted more than 3 million pounds of carbon monoxide, naphtha and nitrogen oxides,” per the report. An earlier shelter-in-place order for residents of Deer Park., Tex. was lifted after officials said air quality monitoring showed pollution was below action levels.


Coming Up

  • The Atlantic Council holds an event on geopolitics, energy security and the U.S.-Japan alliance on Wednesday.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a meeting on Thursday.

— The Poppy Apocalypse: Massive crowds are swarming a small city in Southern California that’s the location of famed golden poppy fields. But the small town has already been overwhelmed. “This isn’t the first time the area has been flooded with tourists eager to see the abundant display of desert flowers known as a super bloom, a natural phenomenon in which wildflowers blossom at higher-than-normal rates following a period of unusually heavy rainfall and favorable temperatures,” as The Post’s Allyson Chiu writes.