THE LIGHTBULB

The Trump administration is proposing to cut down the amount of environmental review needed for many forest management decisions within nearly 200 million acres of federally controlled woodlands and grasslands.

In a sweeping set of proposed rule changes released Wednesday, the U.S. Forest Service is streamlining the steps needed to greenlight a number of activities on its lands, including the exploration for oil, natural gas, coal and hard-rock minerals as well as some types of logging and road construction.

The agency is billing the changes to the rules as a way to trim paperwork, grow jobs and — by speeding up approval of tree thinning or controlled burning on overgrown patches of forests — stave off the wildfires that scorched about 8.8 million acres nationwide last year alone. More than 80 million acres need restoration to reduce the risk of wildfire risk or drive back disease and bug infestations, the agency said.

“Because the effects of a changing climate, they're more prone to catastrophic fire right now,” said Chris French, an acting deputy chief at the Forest Service.

“We need to be able to thin or reintroduce fire into these forests in a much broader way,” he added. “We need to do it more quickly.”

Companies that manufacture paper and other wood products, which would have better access to national forests under the new rules, applauded the proposal.

“These proposed changes are overdue and modest steps to reduce the paperwork the Forest Service must sift through in order to manage the National Forests,” Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the trade group Federal Forest Resource Coalition, said in a statement.

But lawyers and conservation experts with environmental groups cautioned that the move is another instance of the Trump administration squeezing outside experts, as well as locals near national forests, out of the process of managing public lands — one that may lead to decisions detrimental to the well-being of forests and those living near them.

“Balancing America’s many needs and uses on our public lands is hard work, but it's the Forest Service's most important job,” said Sam Evans, who leads the Southern Environmental Law Center's National Forests and Parks Program. “Today’s proposal makes it clear that the agency is turning its back on that responsibility.”

The agency pushed back on that idea the public was being cut out of its planning process, saying that the new standards for environmental review still go above and beyond what other federal agencies do.

“These proposals that we put in here are either based on standard practice from other agencies or based on the analysis of our own work over the last five years,” French said. “So they're pretty reasonable.”

At times, the agency said, even a project as simple as repairing a parking lot can get tangled in a web of red tape.

“Right now, if we were to propose repaving the parking lot at one of our ranger districts, our current process would require us to take comment and to reach out to the state government and make sure that they were okay with us repaving our parking lot,” French said. “That's the sort of issue that got caught up.”

Under the new rules, which have yet to be finalized, timber companies will be allowed to cut down up to 4,200 acres of trees without having to go through a lengthy environmental review process, as long as the logging comes coupled with some sort of reforestation or other habitat restoration in nearby acreage.

So too would the agency be able to build up to five miles of new road through woodlands without triggering a review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“That's a lot of road,” said Ted Zukoski, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Roads are some of the most destructive things you can build through forests,” he added, noting that pavement reroutes rainwater and splits up animal habitat. 

But formal evaluations of environmental impacts under that half-century-old law, often called a bedrock of U.S. environmental policy, can stretch on for years. Those delays can be costly to companies operating on Forest Service lands and have led to calls from many Republicans in Congress to change the statute.

“I’m thrilled to see the Forest Service taking such bold action to improve forest management,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), who has introduced legislation that would streamline Forest Service decisions in ways similar to the Trump administration proposal. “In the fight to protect forests against catastrophic wildfires, we should all be on the same team. I’m grateful for the Trump administration’s dedication to sound forest management.”

But Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, suggested the rules, if enacted, could backfire on the Forest Service. If a litigious member of public cannot weigh in during a public-comment period before the Forest Service makes a decision, they may try to do so afterward — by taking the agency to court, causing further delays.

“I understand the Forest Service wants to increase efficiency,” she said. “But they are certainly cutting the public out of the process.”

On Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) agreed that the new rules could lead to more lawsuits. "This is going to be, if it were put in place, a full-employment plan for lawyers," he said during a congressional hearing.

POWER PLAYS

— Two more oil tankers under suspected attack in Gulf of Oman: The U.S. Navy says it’s assisting the two ships – one that was adrift and on fire and another that suffered damage to its hull – amid the suspected attack that comes as tensions rise between the United States and Iran in the region, The Post’s Erin Cunningham and Simon Denyer report. “The exact circumstances of the attack were unclear,” they write. “But the incident took place near the Strait of Hormuz, a flashpoint for tensions between Iran and the United States, which has stepped up its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign to isolate Tehran.” The latest incident follows an attack on four oil tankers last month, also near the Strait of Hormuz.

— Environmental groups sue over offshore drilling rule change: A coalition of environmental groups is suing the Trump administration over changes to Obama-era offshore drilling safety rules  put in place after the disastrous BP oil spill in 2010.

“The lawsuit broadly targets the Trump administration's decisions to water down blowout preventer performance standards, allow older rigs to adhere to outdated rules and minimize equipment testing and inspection requirements,” E&E News reports. "These rollbacks are a step back to the pre-Deepwater Horizon days when the offshore oil industry largely policed itself to disastrous effect," said Earthjustice attorney Chris Eaton in a statement. Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed the suit on behalf of a group of advocacy organizations, per the report.

— More lawmakers want an explanation for the suppression of congressional testimony on climate: All the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee sent a letter this week to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats calling for documents and communications related to the White House move to block a State Department senior analyst from submitting testimony about national security risks associated with the climate crisis.

“We share profound concern that current White House officials in this instance abused the interagency process in an effort to manipulate, remove, and ultimately suppress the independent, objective analysis State INR planned to present before the Committee on a matter of national urgency,” they wrote.

— Trump floats sanctions over Russia-Germany pipeline: The president said he is considering U.S. sanctions to block construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, although he didn’t specify who would be sanctioned, Bloomberg News reports.

There’s bipartisan concern in the United States about the pipeline because of worry it would lead Western Europe to be dependent on Russia for its energy needs, raising concerns about security. “We’re protecting Germany from Russia, and Russia is getting billions and billions of dollars in money from Germany” for its gas supply, Trump told reporters at a White House meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda.

— A study on border wall impacts: The House Appropriations Committee voted 29 to 20 to approve a bill with language to urge the Trump administration to study the environmental effects of the proposed border wall. "The Committee is concerned about the impacts of border barrier construction on sensitive lands and wildlife along the southwest land border, including impacts on national wildlife refuges, national forests, national monuments, wilderness areas, and imperiled species,” the provision states, E&E News reports.

— No more "manels": The National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins announced he will no longer accept invitations to all-male speaking panels. “I want to send a clear message of concern: it is time to end the tradition in science of all-male speaking panels, sometimes wryly referred to as ‘manels,’” Collins said in a statement. The statement from one of the federal government's top scientists may prompt other men in science to start asking whether women and other underrepresented people would be included in panels to which they are invited. “Collins speaks about 125 times annually, according to NIH, often as a keynote speaker but sometimes as part of a panel,” The Post’s Lenny Bernstein reports.

— Former Interior Dept. chief to take over at Nature Conservancy: The global environmental organization that’s roiled by controversies over harassment and misconduct  announced this week that former interior secretary Sally Jewell would take over as interim CEO after Mark Tercek announced his departure.

Jewell served under the Obama administration from 2013 to 2017. “I actually threw my hat in the ring,” Jewell told E&E News, adding: “The Nature Conservancy has obviously been struggling of late with its culture … From my perspective, what was clear is this is an organization that deserves to survive long-term.”

— Jerry Brown’s new climate gig: The former California governor will next month join University of California at Berkeley to launch the California-China Climate Policy Institute as well as to be a visiting professor at UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources and Berkeley Law School, the Sacramento Bee reports. The goal of the institute is to help California and China research technology to combat global warming, according to Reuters.

THERMOMETER

— A new global forecast model for the first time in decades: The National Weather Service has launched a new flagship computer prediction model for the first time in almost 40 years, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. “Brian Gross, director of the Weather Service’s Environmental Modeling Center, told reporters that the model will instantly result in improved hurricane track and intensity forecasts, as well as forecasts for nor’easters and other types of mid-latitude storms,” he adds.

— A new plan to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: A company in Boston is looking at one idea gaining ground to address the climate crisis: sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in the ground. The company, Indigo AG, announced Wednesday a plan to remove 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by paying farmers to change their practices — the company plans to sign up 3,000 farmers worldwide, The Post’s Laura Reiley reports.

“Whether they can get to one trillion tons of carbon is unknown, [David Perry, the company’s chief executive] says, but this represents one of the largest agricultural experiments lately, with software and satellite tools available to every farmer who signs up,” she adds. “The goal is to find out which crops, practices and geographic locations have the ability to drive more carbon into the soil.”

— The man who sparked California’s biggest wildfire: Glenn Kile, a rancher and former heavy equipment operator, spoke to the New York Times about his attempt to plug a wasp nest that may have sparked the biggest wildfire in the state’s history. After spotting an underground wasp nest, Kile took a metal stake and tried to plug the hole. “I smelled smoke, I turned around, and there it was,” he told the New York Times, which reported he seemed “more bewildered than remorseful about starting such a vast fire.” “Mother Nature," Kile added. "You have no control.”

OIL CHECK

— Lego hits a wall on plant-based products: The world’s biggest toy maker has been trying since 2012 to make its blocks with plant-based materials after vowing to use more sustainable alternatives by 2030. “Realizing the scale of the challenge, it later invested $150 million to hire scientists and fund research and development,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Lego has so far tested more than 200 combinations of materials, but just 2% of its products are made from plant-based plastic. The Danish company says it is still exploring several promising options, but finding the material to hit its target is proving difficult.”

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on fire and management programs.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife holds a legislative hearing.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate holds a hearing on safe storage and disposal of nuclear fuel.
  • The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis holds a hearing on renewables.
  • BP’s chief economist presents the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 at the Atlantic Council.
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