with Alexandra Ellerbeck

The Trump administration is racing to sell off the right to drill deep in the Alaskan Arctic – to protect against the possibility that Joe Biden, if elected, could undo one what would be among the president's most significant energy policy achievements. 

The presidential election is putting pressure on Trump's deputies at the Interior Department to be on track to complete a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before Inauguration Day in January 2021. 

That would make it much more difficult for a future Democratic administration to reverse the decision to open the ecologically sensitive caribou and polar bear habitat to oil and gas extraction, experts say. 

“They have a very narrow window,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank that opposes drilling in the Arctic refuge. “They certainly can do it, but the margins of error are smaller.”

The Interior Department just finalized a plan to hold a lease sale, but didn't say when exactly it would take place.

The plan released Monday calls for the first oil and gas auction to be held by December 2021. The move opens the door for leasing on the 1.6 million-acre coastal plain on Alaska's North Slope after drilling there was authorizing by congressional Republicans in a 2017 budget bill.

Without mentioning the upcoming election, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt suggested his department may complete the lease sale soon.

“I do believe that there certainly could be a lease sale by the end of the year,” Bernhardt told reporters this week, though he added that he is “not really driven by the political dynamics.”

“The president has this issue as one of his priorities that he discussed with us,” he said.

Looming over the leasing process is a promise from Biden to block drilling in the refuge if elected president. His campaign reiterated that commitment Monday after the Trump administration released the plan.

Now both the oil industry and politicians in Alaska are eager to see leases sold sooner rather than later. 

Frank Macchiarola, a senior vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, a major oil and gas lobbying group in Washington, said his organization “would support seeing a lease sale this year.”

“This has been an important priority for the industry for a number of years,” he added.

Perhaps no one did more to usher the drilling provision through Congress than Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Getting Congress to permit drilling there was a goal long sought by Alaska politicians, including her father, former senator and governor Frank Murkowski (R).

She, too, wants “to see a lease sale this year,” she said. “We should not delay this opportunity,” she added.

Despite the recent drop in oil prices because of the coronavirus pandemic, Murkowski noted that “global demand will continue for decades to come” and that it will "take time to begin responsible development and production” on the coastal plain.

Issuing the leases in the five months between now and Inauguration Day is realistic — if Trump's deputies act soon.

The next step in the leasing process is a call for nominations. A required public comment period for that usually lasts around 30 days, though it can be shorter, according to Lee-Ashley. 

After that, the Bureau of Land Management will release a lease sale notice. After waiting another 30 days, the agency's Anchorage office can auction off the leases online.

But environmental groups and some Alaska Natives — including the Gwich’in, who hunt caribou from the refuge — are opposed to developing the nearly pristine landscape and are ready to throw a wrench into the leasing process through the court system. 

Erik Grafe, an attorney in the Alaska office of the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, indicated his group will soon file a lawsuit over the final Arctic drilling proposal.

“The administration’s plan to ruin this place for short-term private oil profit is unlawful,” he said in a statement, “and we will soon see them in court.”

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said that he expects environmentalists to file a lawsuit in either federal district court in Alaska or the District of Columbia, and that a favorable court ruling could stall the leasing process.

“Bernhardt contends that Interior may auction oil leases right around the end of the year,” he said. “However, litigation could delay the auctions until much later than that, if successful.”

Opponents already see legal vulnerabilities in the Trump administration's plan.  

In its environmental review, for example, the Interior Department restricted its analysis to the leasing stage. But the 2017 law giving the green light to drilling instructs the department to conduct an oil and gas program that covers “the leasing, development, production and transportation of oil and gas” on the refuge's coastal plain.

“I think that statutory language is a real tripwire for these guys,” David J. Hayes, former deputy interior secretary under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, said earlier this week.

At the same time, Interior sunk significant resources into ensuring the oil and gas leasing program was legally defensible. 

Department spokesman Conner Swanson said the “environmental review involved more than 70 employees from across federal and state agencies that contributed their expertise to this analysis, working more than 30,000 labor hours.”

If Trump's team clears those legal hurdles, it will be hard for Democrats to take back leasing. 

For example, Devon Energy held onto disputed oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area of northwest Montana for years after originally being issued in the 1980s. The Obama administration only reached a settlement with the company and canceled those leases in 2016 at the behest of the Blackfeet Tribe, which considers the land sacred.

There is some precedent, though, for an incoming president's team to take back recently sold drilling rights. A month after Obama entered office in 2009, the Interior Department canceled 77 leases in Utah auctioned off the previous December. 

The reversal was upheld in federal appeals court three years later, but mostly on a technicality. A three-judge panel ruled that energy companies and local Utah officials did not file their lawsuit in time. 

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

Power plays

On the Democratic convention's Day 3, the party made its appeal to young voters concerned about climate change.

Democrats aired a segment outlining Biden's plan to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, after only glancing mentions in the previous days.

The segment made an appeal to young voters, showing footage of wildfires, hurricanes and kids at climate protests, including Alexandria Villaseñor, who at the age of 14 helped organize strikes where students skipped school to protest at the U.N. headquarters.

“Climate change is impacting us now, and it’s robbing my generation of a future,” Villaseñor said. “For young people my age, every aspect of our lives from where we go to school, to what kinds of careers we have, to whether or not we can raise a family depends on us taking climate change seriously now.”

Also making an appearance was 18-year-old singer and songwriter Billie Eilish, who urged fans to vote “like our lives and our world depends on it.”

Democrats highlighted that Biden was among the first to introduce climate change legislation into the Senate back in the 1980s. While he stakes a more moderate position on climate change during the Democratic primary, last month he adopted a more ambitious climate change plan in part to win over the left wing of the party.

The Biden campaign reaffirms it wants to end subsidies for fossil fuels.

The DNC had dropped language calling for the end of fossil fuel subsidies, HuffPost reported earlier this week — a move that clashed with the former vice president's climate plan and sparked anger and confusion among environmental groups.

On Wednesday, however, the policy director for the Biden campaign, Stef Feldman, tweeted that the candidate remained committed to ending fossil fuel subsidies.

Biden’s campaign tells Pennsylvania television stations to stop airing an ad that claims he will “eliminate fracking.”

In a letter, the former vice president's team says that the ad from America First PAC, a pro-Trump super PAC, makes false claims, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

Biden has said that he does not want to get rid of fracking but would instead ban new oil and gas permits on federal land. Existing permits or fracking on state or private land could still go forward. 

“The campaign's attempt to correct the record over Mr. Biden's position on fracking underscores a theme of 2020 presidential politics in Pennsylvania, where Republicans have made it a frequent talking point to warn voters of the Democrat's apparent disdain for drilling and his plans to do away with it completely,” the newspaper writes.

Biden’s refusal to push for a total ban on fracking drew the ire of many environmental activists during the primary. His running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, said during a CNN town hall in September that she favored a ban on fracking.

Some Republicans are pushing to block a controversial Alaskan gold mine — and are getting the White House’s attention.

“As President Trump posed for photos with donors at his eldest son’s Bridgehampton, N.Y., home on Aug. 8, precious metals magnate Andrew Sabin made a hasty pitch to the commander-in-chief: block the huge gold and copper mine his administration is poised to approve within weeks in order to protect Alaska’s sockeye salmon fishery,” my colleagues Juliet Eilperin, Ashley Parker and Steven Mufson report.

This last-minute campaign by a handful of high-profile Republicans — including Vice President Pence’s former chief of staff Nick Ayers, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr — is prompting the White House to reassess the mine.

 Administration officials "now weighing whether to delay granting a key permit to the mine’s sponsor, Pebble Limited Partnership. The president may not take direct action, one official added, but the move could have the effect of stalling the project," they report.

Even after the withdrawal of his nomination, William "Perry" Pendley is still in charge of public lands.

Last week, the Trump administration withdrew the controversial nomination of Pendley to head the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley, who has served as acting bureau director for more than a year, previously said that he believes the Founding Fathers intended for the government to sell all public lands. He also came under fire for dismissive comments made about Black Lives Matter.

But Pendley remains in charge. In May, when a temporary authorization for his leadership was about to expire, he signed an order making his own position the default in the absence of a permanent director, the Associated Press reports.

“Critics say the administration is falling back on semantics and legal sleight of hand to obscure Pendley’s control over an agency that oversees oil and gas drilling, grazing and other activities on vast areas in the U.S. West,” the Associated Press writes.

Thermometer

Environmental groups see a climate solution locked in America’s dwindling prairies.

“Scientists say the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half by mid-century to avert catastrophic effects from global warming,” Mary Beth Gahan writes in The Post. “That’s where the prairie comes in. As part of photosynthesis, plants pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their stems, leaves and roots. Unlike trees, grasslands store most of their carbon underground, in their roots and the soil."

A University of California at Davis study found that prairies are more reliable at storing carbon than trees because, unlike forests, when prairies burn the carbon stays trapped underground.

But the tallgrass prairie system running from Texas to Manitoba in Canada is “one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world,” Gahan reports. The Blackland Prairie in Texas alone has gone from 12 million acres to a mere 5,000 — less than 0.1 percent of its original size.

A group led by the Baker Institute at Rice University in Texas is working on a plan to pay for carbon storage in the soil beneath prairies, farmlands and grassland.

“The first priority is we’ve got to get a market,” Jim Blackburn, a professor leading the initiative, told Gahan. “Landowners need to see that there’s money to be made off of carbon in the soil.”

Thousands of Californians are under evacuation orders as wildfires expand.

After weeks of freak thunderstorms, extreme heat, power outages and even fire tornadoes, California is dealing with a yet another scourge: wildfires.

Thousands were under evacuation orders in Central and Northern California as dozens of major wildfires continued to ravage parts of the state on Aug. 19. (The Washington Post)

“Sparked by more than 10,000 lightning strikes and intensified by record-breaking heat, fires have erupted all over the state, spewing large columns of smoke and fouling air quality,” my colleagues Andrew Freedman, Jason Samenow and Hannah Knowles report. “Tens of thousands are under evacuation orders in California with 367 known fires torching parts of the state.”

Vacaville, a city of 100,000 to the southwest of Sacramento, is under partial evacuation orders.

Oil check

Occidental is backing a venture aimed at pulling carbon out of the air.

The oil company's plan is to build the world’s largest direct air capture facility in Texas’s Permian basin. To do so, Occidental’s venture capital arm has teamed up with private equity firm Rusheen Capital Management to license a Canadian direct air capture technology.

“Interest in DAC has grown in recent years, from companies seeking to offset their climate impact to public officials worried about the slow pace of international agreements to cut emissions.” Reuters reports. “The cost of carbon-removal technologies like DAC, however, is high, and they have yet to be deployed on a mass scale. Environmentalists have also argued that they reflect a lack of resolve to end the use of fossil fuels.”

The United Nations has said that carbon removal technology may be necessary to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

In the states

  • The EPA is giving boat builders extra time before they must start installing more environmentally friendly engines in high-speed commercial vessels. The change is a “bid to help the Maine lobster industry—and possibly the re-election chances" of GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Bloomberg News reports.
  • Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) announced on Wednesday a plan to cut emissions by more than a quarter in before 2025 and to reach “net zero” by 2050, the Times-Picayune reports. The governor also signed two executive orders: one will add a position dedicated to climate resilience to the his office, while the other will create a task force to guide the state to its emission reduction goals.