House Democrats — and a small group of Republicans — just issued one of the starkest rebukes yet to the Trump administration’s efforts to expand U.S. oil and natural gas production.
The House's passage of a pair of bills Wednesday banning oil and gas drilling in most federally-controlled waters solidifies Democrats' decade-long shift against offshore drilling amid growing concerns about oil spills and global warming. Democrats also pushed through a bill on Thursday banning drilling in an ecologically sensitive but oil-rich section of northeast Alaska.
The trio of legislation stands little chance of passing the GOP-controlled Senate or being signed by President Trump, whose administration has sought to aggressively expand energy development. But it's politically significant for a party that has been slowly inching toward this moment ever since the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 endured the world’s largest marine oil spill — and ammunition for the many Democrats running for president who have promised to end federal oil and gas leasing both on- and offshore.
Democrats had help from a dozen Republicans to approve a prohibition 238 to 189 on offshore drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. A similar measure to permanently extend a moratorium on oil and gas leasing in much of the oil-rich eastern Gulf of Mexico, an area long eyed by drillers, passed by an even wider margin of 248 to 180. Several coastal Republicans, including nearly the entire Florida delegation, backed that ban. The eastern Gulf moratorium, put into effect in 2006, is set to expire in 2022.
A day later, the House voted 225 to 193 to reverse the opening of 1.6 million acres of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, which was included in the 2017 Republican tax cut package.
Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), lead sponsor of a measure to block offshore leasing in the eastern Gulf, noted the significance of the political shift — describing a time when Democratic leaders sought to open new ocean expanses to drilling.
“I remember very well counseling then-Senator Obama on the campaign trail and was very disappointed to get a call from the White House, early in their tenure, that said, ‘Yeah, we may open up some areas,’ ” she said before the votes Wednesday. Both parties were once motivated by a desire to keep gasoline prices low and reduce dependence on foreign oil.
In early 2010, Obama proposed to the consternation of environmentalists to open a swath of the Atlantic from Delaware to Florida to drilling. But ever since the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in April of that year, Castor added, there has been a “sea change.”
Soon after the disaster, which unleashed hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf and devastated beachfront economies along the Gulf, the Obama administration halted new offshore lease sales and split up the agency overseeing offshore oil activity. Though by 2015 his administration was back to pursuing leasing the Atlantic, Obama tried cementing his environmental legacy on his way out of office in 2016 by withdrawing hundreds of millions of acres of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans from new offshore oil and gas drilling.
The public is now more or less in line with that position. According to a Pew poll from early 2018, 51 percent of Americans oppose allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling, while 42 percent support it. The portion of Americans who support offshore drilling declined by 10 points in the four years since 2014, they survey found.
But in Washington this week, Republicans leaders branded the bills as a handout to Russia, whose state-run energy companies would face less competition in international oil markets if the United States produced less oil.
“Let’s call this bill what it is: a gift to Vladimir Putin at the expense of American taxpayers,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) wrote on Twitter.
Key business lobbying groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Ocean Industries Association, also came out strongly against the legislation, lamenting how many Democrats are now opposed to offshore drilling entirely.
“We've seen a substantial shift on the other side,” said Tim Charters, NOIA's vice president of governmental and political affairs. “There are a number of folks around town who are trying to figure out how to actually communicate the importance of this energy to folks.”
Charters added that with gasoline prices so low for so long, the oil industry is the “victim of our own success,” as Americans do not clamor as loudly for more domestic drilling to lower their transportation costs.
Even the Trump administration has been susceptible to pressure to scale back its drilling ambitions, pausing its offshore oil plans in the face of opposition from coastal Republican governors and an unfavorable court ruling out of Alaska earlier this year.
Still, GOP leaders were united in their opposition to the permanent drilling bans. The White House suggested before the votes that Trump would veto the bills should they reach his desk. A senior Senate Republican aide laughed when asked if the Senate would consider undoing its decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
“Let's just say there's some ties to the oil industry in the GOP leadership that have proven unsettling to me and some of the leaders have been a little more open than others,” said Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), a lead sponsor of the bill extending the eastern Gulf ban.
He noted that Steve Scalise (La.) and Liz Cheney (Wyo.), respectively the No. 2 and 3 Republicans in the House, are from oil-producing states.
— Controversial NOAA statement traced back to Trump: The president ordered his staff to push the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to correct a tweet from weather forecasters that appeared to refute his assertion that Hurricane Dorian posed a risk to Alabama. Trump complained for several days about the issue — and it led White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to call Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to urge him to fix the issue, The Post’s Andrew Freedman, Josh Dawsey, Juliet Eilperin and Jason Samenow report.
What happened next: That series of communications led to an unsigned statement issued Sept. 6 from NOAA that criticized the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office over its Sept. 1 tweet declaring there would be no impact in the state from Dorian. “The NOAA statement resulted in part from pressure that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross brought to bear on Neil Jacobs, the acting head of NOAA, in an early morning phone call on Friday from Greece, where the secretary was traveling for meetings, according to three individuals familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to speak on a sensitive issue,” The Post team reports.
But: Trump told reporters he did not make any instructions to Mulvaney to push NOAA to renounce its statements on Dorian and Alabama.
House lawmakers to investigate Ross’s involvement in NOAA statement: Democrats on the House Science Committee are now probing the Commerce Department’s role — Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) and Oversight and Investigations Chairwoman Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Ross requesting additional information, including any records of communication between department officials, NOAA and the White House from Sept. 1 to 9. Johnson and Sherrill wrote they are “deeply disturbed by the politicization of NOAA’s weather forecast activities for the purpose of supporting incorrect statements by the president.”
The Commerce Department’s inspector general has also launched an investigation, as has NOAA’s acting chief scientist.
Meanwhile, a storm is brewing, and this one could actually affect Alabama: The National Hurricane Center is monitoring a tropical system near the Bahamas that could become Tropical Storm Humberto and affect Florida, Alabama and other parts of the Gulf Coast sometime between late this week and early next, The Post's Matthew Cappucci reports.
— Another day, another rollback: The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to repeal the Obama-era Waters of the United States rule that expanded how much power the federal government has over wetlands and tributaries, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. “What we have today is a patchwork across the country,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told The Post in an interview. “We need to have a uniform regulatory approach.” He added the Trump administration wants to “make sure that we have a definition that once and for all will be the law of the land in all 50 states.” Eilperin and Dennis add: “Wheeler, who said the administration will finalize a new definition for which water bodies deserve federal protection within a matter of months, said the agency is seeking to end any lingering uncertainty and return more oversight to individual states.” The Obama-era regulation has been a priority for the president, who issued an executive order for the EPA to review the rule in order to make way for “the elimination of this very destructive and horrible rule.”
— Another White House exit: William Happer, the national security adviser who has said carbon emissions can be a benefit and pushed for a White House panel to challenge mainstream climate consensus, is stepping down from his post on Friday, E&E News reports. “Happer's departure comes a day after National Security Adviser John Bolton abruptly resigned amid a dispute with President Trump over holding negotiations with the Taliban,” per the report. “Bolton supported Happer's effort to try to weaken the science backing the National Climate Assessment.”
— Texas oil tycoon dies at 91: T. Boone Pickens, an infamous entrepreneur and savvy Texas oil tycoon who later become an influential voice on environmentally sound energy policy, died Wednesday at his home in Dallas at 91 years old. “His death was announced by his spokesman Jay Rosser, who did not give a precise cause. Mr. Pickens had been ailing since a series of minor strokes in 2016 that led to what he called a ‘Texas-sized fall,’ ” Chris Power writes for The Post. “Over a six-decade career of dramatic successes and setbacks, he had recently started to drill for oil on his 65,000-acre ranch in the Texas Panhandle, not long after he bought the rights to 400,000 acres of water in the Panhandle. He put his spread up for sale in 2017, for $250 million. In 2018 he also closed BP Capital, his energy hedge fund.”
— Climate group to push carbon tax plan: A group of major oil, power and consumer product companies are set to unveil a carbon tax plan that aims to reduce the carbon emissions that warm the planet by 50 percent by 2035. The Climate Leadership Council’s plan “calls for a $40 tax to be levied on each ton of carbon dioxide, with the fee increasing at least 5% every year and proceeds rebated to American consumers,” Bloomberg News reports. “The tax would be imposed on carbon dioxide emissions at the mines and power plants whose products generate the greenhouse gas.” The effort comes as momentum builds behind putting a price on carbon emissions — some Democratic presidential candidates have released plans that include a carbon tax, an idea that has gained support among some Republicans as well.
Meanwhile, BP makes moves to meet climate goals: The CEO of oil giant BP said the company plans to sell off some oil projects and limit the development of others in order to be consistent with the targets under the Paris climate accord, Bloomberg reports. The company’s chief executive Bob Dudley said on a conference call that executives huddled recently to talk about ways to limit carbon output as it deals with a shareholder resolution requiring the company explain how its spending lines up with the climate accord. “Still, the plan may prompt questions about how selling assets to another producer can help curb global emissions,” per Bloomberg.
- The Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis will hear from professional athletes at a hearing on the impact of climate change on outdoor recreation and winter sports.
— The latest in the search for life in the universe: “In the dim, red light of an alien sun, scientists have found the first evidence for water in the atmosphere of a 'super Earth'-sized planet,” The Post's Sarah Kaplan reports.