By Dino Grandoni and Juliet Eilperin

THE LIGHTBULB

Opening a remote corner of pristine Alaskan wilderness to oil and gas development is one of the Trump administration's top energy policy goals — one it vowed to complete before the end of 2019.  

So why hasn't the administration yet leased a single acre of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and natural gas drilling?  

In an interview last week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt explained his department has not yet finalized its “record of decision” to lease off portions of the wildlife refuge’s 1.6 million acre coastal plain because he wants to guarantee its plan is one that can withstand courtroom scrutiny. 

"I want to make sure that record of decision is a record that can be well defended,” Bernhardt said. “There have been issues raised during the development of that I want to make sure that I feel very confident that we've adequately addressed.”  

The Trump administration finds itself caught between trying to make its leasing plan legally ironclad while still completing the controversial lease sale before the next presidential election. The 2017 budget law that opened drilling in the refuge requires the federal government to conduct two lease sales of 400,000 acres each by the end of 2024, at the latest.

Bernhardt’s latest comments are a change of tone from previous years, when the Interior secretary vowed a speedy environmental review and lease sale within the massive wilderness refuge, which at 19.3 million acres is roughly the size of South Carolina.

“We’re starting this process very, very soon,” he said at a breakfast meeting with oil executives from Alaska in 2018, according to the publication ArcticToday.

His deputy formerly in charge of land and mineral management, Joe Balash, was even more adamant last May. “That lease sale will happen in 2019,” he told an oil industry conference in Anchorage, according to Reuters.

But for nearly three years, environmental groups, Native American tribes and Democratic attorneys general have often prevailed in their legal challenges against the Trump administration’s energy and environmental agenda. One of the leading litigators, the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, says it has won 33 of the 39 lawsuits it has brought against the Trump administration through 2019.  

So now Bernhardt, himself an attorney, wants to avoid a similar legal quandary in the Arctic refuge. 

But the administration is up against a clock to hold an auction. Oil executives and Republicans in Congress want the lease sales to happen before a Democrat has a chance to regain the White House and mothball the plan indefinitely. 

Interior decision to take its time in issuing the final "record of decision" will "automatically push back when he can hold an auction," said Niel Lawrence, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Already some green groups are preparing to challenge in court what they see as a flawed plan to drill in the untouched home to polar bears, caribou, wolves and migratory birds.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director at the Defenders of Wildlife, said her group “found just enormous gaps” in Interior assessment of the environmental impact that leasing would have on the refuge. 

“We will certainly be analyzing and considering all of our options, including litigation,” she added. 

For example, Trump officials decided to restrict the analysis of its environmental impact statement, which was filed in September, to only the leasing stage of development. David J. Hayes, the former Interior deputy secretary under both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, noted the 2017 law directs the department to conduct a program that covers “the leasing, development, production and transportation.” 

In that same environmental impact statement, the administration claims its plan would only damage 2,000 acres of the refuge. 

“It’s fairly ludicrous that you can open up the entire area to drilling and only disturb 2,000 acres,” Hayes added. 

POWER PLAYS

— A record year for ocean temperatures: A study from researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research found 2019 was the warmest year on record for the oceans on Earth. “Since the middle of last century, the oceans have absorbed roughly 93 percent of the excess heat caused by greenhouse gases from human activities such as burning coal for electricity. That has shielded the land from some of the worst effects of rising emissions,” the New York Times reports

  • By the numbers: “If you look at the ocean heat content, 2019 is by far the hottest, 2018 is second, 2017 is third, 2015 is fourth, and then 2016 is fifth,” study author Kevin E. Trenberth told the Times.

— Australia is seeing sci-fi weather: The bush fires are so massive that they’re generating their own fire tornadoes, fire whirls and fire-generated thunderstorms. It’s an example of how climate change has caused natural events, like wildfires, to “mutate into more disastrous and deadly versions of themselves,” The Post’s Andrew Freedman and Sarah Kaplan report.

  • An unlucky confluence: “The scale of this fire season is unprecedented, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said last week. ...The fires in New South Wales are the largest in state history and have burned more area than has been ever been documented in eastern Australia,” they write. “The disaster is the result of climate change combined with an unlucky confluence of weather extremes. Australia has never been as hot and dry at the same time as it has been during the spring and summer of 2019 and 2020.”
  • Key quote: “ 'This is a real wake-up call,’ not just for Australia, but for the world, said Nerilie Abram, a climate scientist at Australia National University in Canberra. ‘We need to be looking at this and saying, ‘How much worse do we want to let this get?’ ”

— Climate activists are targeting financial giants: Numerous national environmental groups, including 350.org and the Sierra Club, have announced a new campaign to push banks and insurance companies to divest from fossil fuels. The campaign, “Stop the Money Pipeline,” is aimed at companies such as JPMorgan Chase, which environmental groups say has spent $196 billion toward fossil fuel projects since the 2015 climate deal was established, Politico reports

— Russians hacked Ukrainian gas company at center of Trump impeachment: Russian military spies hacked Burisma, the gas company at the heart of Trump’s impeachment trial, according to cybersecurity firm Area 1 Security, The Post’s Ellen Nakashima reports. Trump sought last year to pressure Ukraine to probe the company and its links to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. The Russian spy agency GRU began a phishing campaign against the gas company in early November. “The timing of the GRU’s campaign in relation to the 2020 U.S. elections raises the specter that this is an early warning of what we have anticipated since the successful cyberattacks undertaken during the 2016 U.S. elections,” said Oren Falkowitz, Area 1 Security CEO.

— Trump to talk energy, trade in speech to farmers: President Trump will address the American Farm Bureau Federation’s convention on Sunday, his third time speaking at the annual gathering. He is expected to highlight trade and energy policies in the speech, as well as his updated North American trade agreement, the Associated Press reports

— U.N. plan for ramping up biodiversity protection: The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity released a proposal calling on the world governments to protect 30 percent of the land and sea on Earth by 2030. The plan “outlines a path for combating the biodiversity crisis that many scientists say is the start of Earth’s sixth mass extinction,” HuffPost reports.

  • The details: The proposal includes putting at least 10 percent of lands and oceans under “strict protection,” coping with the spread and introduction of invasive species and reducing plastic and nutrient pollution by at least 50 percent. 
  • What’s missing: “While the goals of the U.N. proposal are clear, the draft offers few details about how nations can implement actions necessary to halt current declines. Among other things, it urges parties to ‘integrate biodiversity values into national and local planning’ and notes that ‘governments and societies need to determine priorities and allocate financial and other resources, internalize the value of nature and recognize the cost of inaction.’ ”

— Rob Bishop says he won’t run for governor in Utah: The Utah congressman and top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, who announced last year that he will retire from Congress, said he won’t be running for governor. “I don’t need to be governor. I don’t need it to validate my feeling of self-worth,” Bishop told the Deseret News. “Instead, Bishop said he will endorse former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright for governor out of the crowded Republican field vying to take over after Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not running for reelection after more than a decade in office,” the Deseret News reports. 

— The record closure of coal plants: Coal-fired power plants shuttered at record pace last year, Reuters reports, even as the Trump administration sought to bolster the industry. In 2019, companies retired or converted about 15,100 megawatts of coal-fired electricity generation, second behind the record 19,300 megawatts that were shut down in 2015 under the Obama administration. The coal industry has been in steep decline for a decade due to competition from cheap and abundant gas and subsidized solar and wind energy, along with rising public concern over coal’s contribution to climate change.”

— Global warming means more property loss, study says: New research from the American Academy of Actuaries found extreme weather linked to global warming cost the United States an extra $24 billion in property losses in the last quarter-century. “The southeast Atlantic region suffered by far the greatest, with extreme weather losses totaling $22 billion during the 25-year period, or 8% of all observed property losses in the region. This part of the country is most often hit by hurricanes,” E&E News reports. “Three other regions — the central east Atlantic, southern Plains and southwest Pacific — saw moderate losses. The Midwest, Alaska and the central west Pacific regions saw ‘no material impact from extreme weather,’ according to the index.”

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife holds a legislative hearing.
  • The House Transportation Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation holds a hearing on the path to a carbon-free maritime industry.

Coming Up

  • The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the Energy Department’s Office of Science on Wednesday.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Serena Williams highlights Australian fire-relief efforts: The tennis star donated her $43,000 winner's check from the ASB Classic in New Zealand, a warm-up for the Australian Open, to fire relief efforts amid the ongoing Australian bush fires, The Post’s Matt Bonesteel writes.