A federal watchdog agency will investigate whether the Trump administration broke the law by preparing lands within the old boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for potential fossil-fuel leasing.
The Government Accountability Office will probe whether the Interior Department, in charge of managing most U.S. public lands, went against spending instructions from Congress when it used federal funds to assess the suitability of lands once within the massive protected area in Utah for coal, oil and natural gas extraction.
Congressional Democrats have already criticized the decision as illegal. It was the top Democrats on the Senate and House Appropriations subcommittees on the interior, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who asked in May for the GAO to investigate the potential leasing activities on the more than 800,000 acres President Trump withdrew from the national monument.
In their complaint, McCollum and Udall point to a 2002 spending law that prohibits a number of activities, including fossil-fuel leasing, within the Staircase-Escalante “as the monument existed on January 20, 2001.”
“The environmental damage this administration would inflict on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is outrageous and precisely what the legislative prohibition was meant to guard against. But equally outrageous is this administration’s blatant disregard for the law and the Constitution,” McCollum said Monday.
Ever since Trump's decision to shrink the monument in 2017, tribal, hunting and environmental groups have protested the removal of protections for the archaeological sites of ancient Puebloans, as well as unimpaired canyon vistas that draw in modern visitors. A number of organizations have argued in lawsuits that Trump has no authority to reduce the size of national monuments established by his predecessors.
The Interior Department defended the legality of its decision to draft a plan for managing resources within the carved-out territory, which was done through the department's Bureau of Land Management.
“We look forward to providing factual information to GAO relative to their inquiry, and we are confident that their analysis will ultimately show we acted appropriately and within the law,” Interior Department spokeswoman Molly Block said.
GAO spokesman Charles Young confirmed the investigation but said it is too early to know when it will be completed.
The Trump administration and congressional Democrats have been in a standoff before about the monument. Last year, the Justice Department tried to block Democrats from filing legal briefs in support of those suing the administration over its decision to shrink Grand Staircase-Escalante as well as Bears Ears National Monument, also in southern Utah.
And it is not the first time Trump's “energy dominance” agenda, which seeks to expand energy production on public lands, has been tangled in legal issues. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled the administration did not adequately study the environmental impact of lifting a moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands put in place by President Obama.
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— The latest from Iran: The Pentagon announced it would send 1,000 more troops to the Middle East “for defensive purposes” after Iran announced it would increase its stockpile of enriched uranium to bypass the limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal, The Post’s Karen DeYoung reports. “President Trump has said repeatedly that his goal in Iran is ‘no nuclear weapons’ and that he does not want war,” DeYoung adds. “But events seem to be quickly moving in the opposite directions on both counts.”
Meanwhile: Saudi Arabia is reducing its oil output and will call on members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to do the same, even amid concerns about supply disruptions because of trade disputes and tensions in the Middle East, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Despite the heightened risks to oil supplies in the region, Saudi Arabia intends to push for tighter compliance to OPEC production curbs, Saudi officials said Monday,” the WSJ reports.
— High court upholds Virginia's uranium mining ban: The Supreme Court ruled 6-to-3 to uphold the state's decades-old ban on uranium mining, siding with the state, The Post’s Ann E. Marimow and Robert Barnes report. It was a battle over what could be the largest untapped uranium deposit in the country. Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett M. Kavanaugh joined Neil M. Gorsuch's opinion that “Congress conspicuously chose to leave untouched the States’ historic authority over the regulation of mining activities." Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan also concurred with the judgment.
— U.N. climate talks continue: Climate experts and diplomats are meeting in Germany for talks hosted by the United Nations on climate change that will go through June 27. There, delegates are “focusing on resolving issues that couldn’t be agreed upon at last December’s climate summit in Poland. This includes the rules governing the international trade in carbon certificates, which allow rich countries to offset emissions by paying for projects in poor nations,” the Associated Press reports. “ … While experts discuss technical issues in Bonn, European Union leaders will be debating the 28 nations' long-term strategy on climate change Thursday in Brussels.”
— A call for reviewing the Interior Department’s FOIA process: A coalition of environmental and advocacy groups wants the Interior Department’s inspector general to look into reports that agency political appointees are impeding the release of public records through Freedom of Information Act requests. The nonprofit watchdog Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint alongside groups like the Western Values Project. In a letter sent to the Interior’s acting inspector general, the groups claim the department is allowing “political appointees to opine on the substance of FOIA releases and potentially, to illegally delay the production of records and withhold documents from the public.”
— New York lawmakers reach deal on Green New Deal-style bill: State lawmakers came to an agreement on the state’s Climate and Communities Protection Act just before the end of the day on Sunday. The agreement on the ambitious climate proposal will have the state eliminate 85 percent of its emissions by 2050, offsetting or capturing the other 15 percent of emissions; will require 35 percent of state energy funding to go to vulnerable communities most impacted by climate change; and will mandate that all state energy project jobs pay fair union wages, HuffPost reports. “I believe we have an agreement on the climate change bill,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), whose administration had initially been touting its own climate proposal, in a Monday radio interview on WAMC. State lawmakers are expected to pass the final version of the bill this week.
— Oregon lawmakers close to goal on cap-and-trade: Oregon Democrats are poised to pass a cap-and-trade program that would allow polluters to buy credits for the amount of carbon they emit each year, such as the system that has been implemented in California. “Cap and trade has been a top priority this year for Oregon’s majority Democrats, and Gov. Kate Brown has said she would sign the measure, noting in a statement that ‘Oregon can be the log that breaks the jam nationally’ on climate policy,” the Associated Press reports. “Though the program’s approval is shaping up to be a sure bet, a decade’s worth of baggage from California’s cap-and-trade program has fractured support for the policy among environmental groups.”
— The trouble with California’s have-it-both-ways climate: The state’s massive winter snowpack means a boost for California’s water supply and a ski season that could last all summer. But it also creates problems as it solves others, as the new growth spurred by the wet season turns into fire fuel when the dry weather sets in, The Post’s Scott Wilson reports. “Awash in precious snow and water that will help meet the demands of the state’s 40 million residents, the wetness also is forcing California to confront an even greater threat of wildfire,” he writes. “The soaking spring nourishing the Jeffrey pines and sagebrush is giving way to a desert dry as soaring heat scorches the new growth into blankets of kindling.”
— How the Great Lakes’ rising water levels impacts shorebirds: The piping plover, one of the most endangered species of the Great Lakes region, is known for nesting along the shore. As beaches have been receding as water levels rise, that means reduced habitats for the birds, the Associated Press reports. “The Great Lakes are reaching some of their highest levels since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began keeping records 101 years ago. Many beaches are shrinking or are underwater,” per the AP. “Squeezed out of familiar turf, [piping plovers] move closer to places with trees and underbrush, where predators lurk.”
— Where does your plastic end up? A new investigation from the Guardian across 11 countries found that plastic waste from the United States frequently ends up in developing nations that are burdened with the task of sorting through the recycling. “Last year, the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the US to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste,” the team of Guardian reporters write. The most popular recent destinations for the plastic are also some of the poorest countries in the world, and the Guardian adds there are serious consequences for both the environment and the health of the workers who are part of this process: “While the exact health effects of workers’ exposure to plastic recycling operations have not been well studied, the toxic fumes resulting from the burning of plastics or plastic processing can cause respiratory illness.”
Meanwhile, how oil companies are responding: BP signaled to Axios it could meander into plastic recycling: “The solution here is to try to find technology that can recycle plastic far more efficiently and far more effectively,” top BP economist Spencer Dale previously told the publication. “That’s just the type of scientific problem that we’re quite good at solving.” Dale added: “Watch this space.” BP, like other oil companies, may be looking to respond to concerns about profit. In a column about plastic waste, Axios’s Amy Harder reported: “In response to growing concerns about plastic waste, BP modeled oil demand under a worldwide ban on single-use plastics — the first time BP has done that. It would roughly cut in half the growth of oil demand over the next two decades.”
— Banks to weigh climate considerations: Nearly a dozen banks announced they will start considering the environmental impact when they offer new shipping loans. The banks, which include Citibank and “have a combined shipping portfolio of around $100 billion, or about a fourth of the global ship finance market, have signed onto an industrial framework known as The Poseidon Principles, which seeks to direct new money for shipping toward environmentally friendly oceangoing vessels,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Michael Parker, global industry head of shipping and logistics at Citibank, told the newspaper the institution will consider the type of ship and fuel being used, and will aim to have 90 percent of its lenders sign the Poseidon Principles.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources holds a hearing to “to examine deferred maintenance needs and potential solutions on federal lands administered by the Department of the Interior and the USDA Forest Service."
- The American Enterprise Institute holds an event on “Environmental, social, and governance investing."
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks holds a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on “Legislative Solutions to Make Our Nation’s Pipelines Safer” on Wednesday.
- The House Science Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on fossil energy research on Wednesday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on geothermal energy development on Thursday.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittees on Consumer Protection and Commerce and Environment and Climate Change hold a hearing on the “Administration’s Rollback of Fuel Economy and Clean Car Standards” on Thursday.
- The Brookings Institution holds an event on carbon price proposals with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) on Thursday.
— What's your climate stripe? Climate scientist Ed Hawkins has created a website to customize a “warming stripe” graphic that can depict how much warmer every country as well as every U.S. state has gotten in the past century.
It's time to #ShowYourStripes by visiting: https://t.co/xZmp3uP2OQ!— Ed Hawkins (@ed_hawkins) June 17, 2019
We have made warming stripes graphics available for virtually every country, and including US states and UK regions. These are free to use however you like!
These are my #warmingstripes: England (1884-2018). pic.twitter.com/v5C6GD3koL