THE LIGHTBULB

The Trump administration has told park superintendents around the country they must notify Washington supervisors before issuing comments to other parts of the federal government when they are worried about drilling and other proposed developments near national parks.

In an Aug. 13 memo obtained by The Washington Post, David Vela, the National Park Service's acting deputy director, told field offices they need to notify headquarters in Washington if they want to submit comments to other agencies considering proposals on a broad swath of issues.

Former park officials and park advocacy organizations who reviewed the memo criticized it as an effort to rein in regional officials who may object to development such as the erection of oil rigs or cellular towers near national parks, potentially hampering the experience of parkgoers. 

“Certainly, it seems to be a pretty big change from the days I spent my 40 years in the National Park Service,” said Phil Francis, who has served as the top official at the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He is now chair of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, an advocacy group.

Jeremy Barnum, a Park Service spokesman, countered that the guidance memo is simply clarifying existing policy and does not make any substantial changes to how park officials share information with other parts of the federal bureaucracy.

“This is not anything new,” Barnum wrote by email. “The memo was sent to provide common sense guidance to National Park Service managers on how best to provide consistent, productive, and timely engagement in other agencies’ proposals and projects that may affect parks and the visitor experience.” 

The guidance may make it easier to allow development on government land adjacent to national parks, which are meant to give visitors a reprieve from the grind of modern life despite the fact that civilization often lurks at parks’ edges. Many national parks abut other federal lands that could be used for oil drilling or cattle grazing, which are often administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Both the BLM and NPS are agencies in the Department of the Interior.

But a park can lose some of its wild luster with cell towers looming in view or oil drillers obstructing migrating animals trying to make their way to the park. That has led park superintendents to offer written feedback on proposals outside Park Service borders.

In 2017, for example, local park officials in Utah asked BLM to hold off on leasing 17,000 acres of public land for drilling. 

Staffers were concerned about how dust and smog from the oil and gas activity could worsen air quality and obscure the night sky across the canyon-cut parklands in southern Utah and southwestern Colorado. 

“The visiting public expects high-quality experiences across federal land, and we are concerned that continuing to offer parcels for oil and gas exploration and development in proximity to our parks will be detrimental,” wrote Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Park Service’s Southeast Utah Group, in an October 2017 comment on the potential impacts to Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments.

BLM went ahead with the sale anyway.

Further north, the outcome was different near Dinosaur National Monument, a fossil-filled wilderness at the Utah-Colorado border.

A proposed lease sale in 2017 at the doorstep of Dinosaur stoked opposition from both its superintendent, Mark A. Foust, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), as well as environmental groups.

The bureau ultimately decided to spare two parcels from an oil and gas lease sale.

Natalie Levine, program manager for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, suggested that kind of candid communication — available for all to read on BLM’s website — may now no longer be made public under the new guidance.

“This is limiting the public's ability to see and hear what the Park Service might be concerned about,” she said.

According to Vela’s memo, parks must submit weekly reports notifying headquarters if they plan to file official comments on any “projects that relate to DOI priorities,” ideally giving Washington officials at least three weeks’ notice before submitting them to other agencies.

Those priorities include leasing for oil and gas, building hiking trails, maintaining wildlife migration routes and constructing power lines and cell towers.

Vela said that park superintendents should be prepared to provide headquarters with drafts of the comments if needed. He reassured park workers that “[w]e continue to rely heavily on the expertise and professional judgment of parks.”

NPS spokesman Barnum noted that past administrations have sought to make sure comments filed by field offices are in line with departmentwide priorities. “As has been the case in any administration, Washington may ask parks to provide the comments they are preparing should Washington determine that senior level awareness and coordination are needed,” he said. “That is not anything new.”

Francis, superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway from 2005 to 2013, said he did not need guidance from Washington higher-ups when submitting comments. He remembers writing to the U.S. Forest Service with his concerns about clear-cutting trees near his park, which runs for nearly 500 miles through Virginia and North Carolina.

“It makes me wonder what the motive really is,” Francis said. “I know that there's a lot of interest in energy development.”

POWER PLAYS

— Trump vs. California: The fight between the president and the most populous state seems to have gotten worse since news broke the Trump administration intends to end California's right to set auto pollution standards.

  • State officials pledge legal action: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) spoke at a news conference about the need to combat tailpipe pollution. “You can’t get serious about climate change unless you’re serious about vehicle emissions,” he said. California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols called it the “fight of a lifetime. We have to win this.” She added: “There's no question, of course, that we will be in court.”
  • Trump strikes back: Chatting late at night with reporters aboard Air Force One, the president announced the Environmental Protection Agency will hit San Francisco with an environmental violation within a week because of its homeless population. He didn’t specify what the city is accused of violating but said the homeless population has contributed “tremendous pollution” – including needles – to the oceans, as The Post’s Allyson Chiu writes.
  • It’s a terrible situation — that’s in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” the president told reporters aboard Air Force One. “We’re going to be giving San Francisco, they’re in total violation, we’re going to be giving them a notice very soon.”

Stepping back: The administration’s latest move “sets up a potential clash over the state’s long-standing ability to set its own more stringent standards for tailpipe emissions and fuel efficiency, a power the courts have upheld for the past half-century,” The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. The president's statements echoed the administration's pitch that the change would lower vehicle sticker prices, driving Americans to buy newer, safer cars.

But: The Trump team has acknowledged easing fuel-efficiency standards will increase fuel consumption "by roughly a half-million barrels of oil per day, an increase of 2 to 3 percent, and would lead to an increase in greenhouse-gas emissions." 

— "Listen to the scientists": Teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg tour of Washington continued as she joined three fellow youth climate activists at a hearing before the House Climate Crisis Committee and a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. Thunberg, who submitted the landmark 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in lieu of written testimony, called for climate change to be treated “like the existential crisis it is.” “People in general don’t seem to be aware of how severe the crisis is,” she told lawmakers.

— Climate town hall counterprogramming: Two of the five high-profile Democratic presidential candidates skipping this week’s climate town hall airing Thursday and Friday on MSNBC have their own climate-related events scheduled instead.

  • Joe Biden: The former vice president is scheduled to speak at a town hall focusing on “climate and other issues” on Friday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, according to a Facebook event. The event is part of a series of “climate conversations” hosted by Iowa State Sen. Rob Hogg.
  • Beto O’Rourke: The former Texas congressman’s campaign told The Energy 202 that O’Rourke is unable to attend the MSNBC forum due to scheduling but said he’s planning to attend a youth climate strike while in Denver.

— FEMA nominee pulled: The White House is withdrawing its nomination of Jeffrey Byard to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Politico reports. The White House will now nominate Peter Gaynor, who is the current acting chief. “The official said that Byard withdrew his nomination after an accusation surfaced that he was in an altercation. The official also said that the FBI determined that the accusation was unsubstantiated,” per the report.

THERMOMETER

— Imelda drenching Texas Gulf Coast: A tropical depression named Imelda has soaked parts of the Texas Gulf Coast with the heaviest rainfall since Hurricane Harvey. The region has seen life-threatening flash flooding with estimated totals of 13 to 15 inches of rain along the Matagorda coast, where Imelda made landfall on Tuesday, The Post’s Matthew Cappucci reports. Some officials in parts of Texas said there hadn’t yet been a severe impact from the tropical depression but warned the storm had not yet passed, the Associated Press reports. “[W]e’ve got two more days to go on this,” said Glenn LaMont, deputy emergency management coordinator in Brazoria County. “It’s too early to breathe a sigh of relief.”

The latest sign of the new normal: “If it seems as if the greater Houston area is getting wetter, you’re not imagining things. The nation’s fourth-largest city found itself under the gun again Wednesday as a relentless tropical rainstorm dumps flooding rains just southeast of the city,” Cappucci writes. “…It’s another puzzle piece that fits into an alarming trend — a trend that bears the fingerprint of climate change.”

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The House Agriculture Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management holds hearing on federal farm and disaster programs.
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies holds a hearing on STEM engagement.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Committee holds a hearing on science and technology at the Environmental Protection Agency. 
  • The New York Times’s Lisa Friedman moderates a conversation that includes Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) at the World Resources Institute.

Coming Up

  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on "Building a 100 percent Clean Economy" on Friday. 
EXTRA MILEAGE

— Coming soon to a theater near you: Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway are starring in a film called “Dark Waters” out in November that tells the story of an attorney, Rob Bilott, who fought the chemical company DuPont over water contamination in West Virginia from a group of manmade chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.