The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Big businesses face pressure to avoid investing in areas Trump wants to develop

with Meryl Kornfield


Democrats are mounting an end-run around the Trump administration's plans to open public lands to oil drilling and other development-- by going straight to the purse strings. 

A dozen-and-a-half senators wrote letters to 11 of the largest U.S. banks asking them to back down from financing any oil and gas activity in an unspoiled expanse of Arctic wilderness. 

"The scale of your banks' assets individually, let alone together, give you the ability to drive change in protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in shifting towards a U.S. financial sector that effectively analyzes and plans for climate risks," the group of a senators, led by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), told Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and six other banks in a letter sent last Thursday. 

The Trump administration is preparing to lease off portions of a 1.6-million-acre coastal plain in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The nearly pristine wilderness is home to polar bears and caribou that some ecologists worry will be disturbed by noisy seismic testing and sprawling pipeline networks. A controversial provision in the 2017 tax bill, passed by a GOP-led Congress, required at least two lease sales in the refuge within seven years.

The lawmakers' push comes amid heightened attention among investors about how climate change will impact the bottom lines of corporations in which they have a stake. 

Democrats hope these banks follow the lead of one key peer: In December, Goldman Sachs said it is ruling out financing new drilling or oil exploration in the entire Arctic, which is the fastest-warming region on Earth

But that's not the only pressure point. The world's largest asset management firm, BlackRock, said last month it would divest from coal burned in power plants and make climate change a "defining factor" of its investing strategy. 

And just last week, a group of investors representing nearly $113 billion in assets under management issued a similar letter to energy, mining and timber companies. Their warning: Don't invest in certain federally controlled areas once protected but now open to development by the Trump administration.

These areas include not only the oil-rich Arctic refuge but also Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest where the U.S. Forest Service wants to allow new logging, and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a popular lake-pocked forest near where the administration wants to allow a copper and nickel mining operation.

The institutional investors, which include several religious funds as well as a fund established by the late oil heir David Rockefeller, warned companies that many of the administration's rollbacks of public land protections are legally precarious, and may be struck down by the courts or the next presidential administration. The letter went out to ExxonMobil, the timber company Weyerhaeuser and 56 other firms, according to Reuters.

"Many of these projects are mired in litigation," the letter stated, "challenging the legality of any current or future industrial activity initiated in these regions and providing evidence of the risks associated with conducting commercial development on lands that the American public has deemed valuable for protection."


— "Yes, that was doctored": The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a trove of documents Friday evening, showing how top officials along with rank-and-file scientists were enraged after Trump’s inaccurate assertion from Sept. 1, in which the president claimed that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian. The documents, released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from The Post and other media outlets, show that neither the acting administrator, Neil Jacobs, nor the No. 2 official at the agency, Ret. Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, approved a controversial unsigned statement criticizing the National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham for a tweet that contradicted Trump, The Post's Andrew Freedman and Jason Samenow report.

  • Sharpiegate, cont'd: The order for NOAA to issue the statement came from White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney at the request of the president, The Post previously reported.
  • Ongoing investigations: While the House Science Committee looks into the political pressure exerted on NOAA, the agency itself is internally investigating whether there was a violation of its scientific integrity policy, which prohibits politics from interfering with scientific findings and sharing those findings.
  • Key quote: "Corey Pieper, social media lead at the NWS, alerted the public affairs office that the forecast image was 'doctored.' Susan Buchanan, the director of the office, replied: 'Are you sure they were doctored?' Pieper responded: 'Yes, that was doctored.' "

— A proposal for a bipartisan "clean energy standard": In an op-ed for USA Today, Rep. David McKinley and Rep. Kurt Schrader — a Republican representing West Virginia coal country and a Democrat representing coastal Oregon — painted in broad strokes a bipartisan bill they hope to introduce that will require utilities to greatly cut carbon emissions by mid-century. The lawmakers told reporters that the bill they plan to introduce would require an 80 percent cut in power sector emissions by 2050, but it would not begin for up to 10 years, during which the industry would avert Clean Air Act carbon emissions regulations, Axios reports.

  • Their approach: “Republicans believe in the power of innovation; Democrats know we also need regulations, and that the current law isn’t well-suited to the job,” McKinley and Schrader write. “We need a new approach that combines these ideas — innovation and reformed regulations — in a pragmatic way.”
  • Reaction: The Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit international environmental advocacy group, called the proposal “promising” but adds, “Representatives suggest that innovation investments would come first and standards would follow. We don’t see any reason to wait to put standards in place. We can increase support for innovation and put standards in place at the same time, which are important to increase private-sector innovation.”

— Pave a refinery and put in a refinery: The Trump administration voiced support for keeping the property of Philadelphia Energy Solutions as a refinery, the Wall Street Journal reports. The refinery was expected to be sold in bankruptcy court to a real estate developer after a fire and explosions damaged the 1,300-acre site in June. 

  • Previously: When the plant closed, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported it would have a “huge impact on the Philadelphia economy and on regional fuel markets. The 335,000-barrel-day refinery, the largest on the East Coast, employs more than a thousand people directly, including nearly 700 hourly union workers, and thousands of contractors. The plant has long been a thorn in the side of environmentalists and neighbors who say it is a health risk.”
  • What was said: After meeting with local unions, Peter Navarro, director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, told the Wall Street Journal that he would “love” the property to remain a refinery. “Without putting a finger on any scale, we will be available to help in any way we can,” he said.

— State of the environment: As Trump hopes to put impeachment news behind him, a senior White House official told reporters that his State of the Union address on Tuesday will focus on his accomplishments of the past term, with a theme dubbed “great American comeback,” Associated Press reports. He is expected to highlight the strength of the economy under his watch. It’s not known what he will say about his energy policy or any impending changes. 

  • Play the tape: At last year's speech, Trump said, “My Administration has cut more regulations in a short time than any other administration during its entire tenure. Companies are coming back to our country in large numbers thanks to historic reductions in taxes and regulations. We have unleashed a revolution in American energy — the United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world. And now, for the first time in 65 years, we are a net exporter of energy.”

— What could climate change do to the wine industry? Crush it: Computer models show that if wine growers do nothing, global warming of 2 degrees Celsius would wipe out 56 percent of current wine-producing land. But there may be a fix, The Post’s Laura Reiley reports

A team of researchers from the National Academy of Sciences discovered that by reshuffling where certain heat-tolerant grape varieties are grown, potential losses at 2 degrees of warming could be halved, and cut by a third if warming reached 4 degrees.

  • How they did it: “The team used vintner and researcher archives to build a model for when each would bud, flower and ripen in wine-growing regions around the world under three different warming scenarios. Then it used climate change projections to see where those varieties would be viable in the future.”
  • To quote: Mike Heny, a longtime Virginia winemaker isn't sure whether consumers will be amenable to these changes: “A mutt is better than a purebred when the going gets tough. But people aren’t into drinking the mutt wines as much. At the end of the day, we have to make wines that people love.” 

— Green money: Chair Jerome H. Powell told reporters that the Federal Reserve probably will join the Network for Greening the Financial System, about 50 central banks and other institutions that are joined in combating climate change and the threat it poses on economies, Bloomberg News reports. While politicians should take most of the responsibility for changes that need to be made, “the public has every right to expect, and will expect, that we will assure that the financial system is resilient and robust against the risks of climate change,” Powell said. 

  • Upcoming: The Fed is researching the impacts of a changing climate and plans to hold its first-ever conference on the topic in November, Bloomberg reports.

— Seals’ fate: For spotted seals, climate change is both a blessing and a curse, The Post’s Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi report

  • On the one hand: Sea ice along Japan’s northern coastline is receding, allowing seals to swim through the La Pérouse (or Soya) Strait to the Sea of Japan along Hokkaido’s western coast. The seals go there to eat salmon and octopus from fishermen’s nets.
  • But on the other... The ice melting could be bad for spotted seals long term. Spotted seals raise their newborn pups on the ice in mid-March. “Poor quality or insufficient sea ice could reduce survival rates,” Denyer and Kashiwagi write. In addition, from seasonally melting sea ice comes phytoplankton, the base of the marine food web. 

— Endangered hunting: Fewer people are buying hunting licenses, permits and taxes on firearms, cutting funding for conservation, The Post’s Frances Stead Sellers reports. Hunting license sales have fallen by 2 million from the early ’80s to last year. This means states that rely on that money for conservation, including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Missouri, are cutting programs or finding new funds. States that use the license revenue on saving endangered animals will experience greater strain “with as many as one-third of America's wildlife species ‘at increased risk of extinction,’ Sellers writes. 

  • Demographics at play: “The financial troubles are growing as baby boomers age out of hunting, advocates say, and younger generations turn instead to school sports and indoor hobbies such as video games,” Sellers writes.
  • Washington's response? Bipartisan bills aimed at finding new funding and recruiting hunters have been considered federally, including legislation by Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) that would allow states to appropriate revenue from taxes on guns.

— Subpoena soon: The House Natural Resources Committee could vote to subpoena the Interior Department this week, the Hill reports. Since September, Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has threatened to subpoena the department for data and other documents explaining the rationale behind considering moving more than 200 positions from the Bureau of Land Management based in Washington to offices out West, The Energy 202 previously reported


Coming up

  • The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses will take place in Iowa on Feb. 3.
  • Trump will address Congress at his last State of the Union of this term on Feb. 4.
  • The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight holds a hearing on “Management and Spending Challenges within the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy” on Feb. 5. 
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a legislative hearing on Feb. 5. 
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies holds an oversight hearing on the Energy Department’s role in advancing biomedical sciences on Feb. 5.
  • The New Hampshire Democratic debate will be on Feb. 7.