with Alexandra Ellerbeck

President Trump's new ban on drilling off of the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida still leaves the door open to conducting deafening probes for oil that could harm marine life. 

His moratorium will not stop companies from requesting to use the controversial sonic blasts to search for oil under the sea floor, the federal government said in a court filing this week. 

The offshore oil ban, announced by Trump in Florida earlier this month, was a stark reversal for the president as he strives to shore up votes before Election Day. Polls show the president and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, running neck-and-neck in that perennial swing state. 

But his critics say the decision to not ban seismic testing is equally problematic.

“If Trump was really serious about protecting the Atlantic, he would have prohibited seismic testing,” said Kristen Monsell, of the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, an environmental group that is backing Biden.

Searching for oil underwater is, in some ways, almost as controversial as actually drilling for it. 

That's because the firing of air guns to map the ocean floor can harm or even kill whales and dolphins that use echolocation to communicate, studies show. Nearly 2.5 million dolphins in the middle and southern Atlantic would be harassed by the blasts every year, according to one prediction in a 2014 federal study.

In 2018, the National Marine Fisheries Service approved five requests allowing companies to conduct the surveys. The Trump administration was laying the groundwater for greatly expanded leasing not only into the gulf near Florida but also across the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

In response, wildlife conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, argue in a lawsuit the agency is failing to protect marine life by giving the greenlight. 

The seismic testing companies are still awaiting a second permit from another federal agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, to proceed. In a Sept. 21 filing, the agency told U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel that Trump's announcement has no bearing on approving seismic testing. 

In the past, BOEM has considered the threat from  seismic mapping to be “negligible.” Seismic testers say trained observers aboard boats look out for marine mammals before firing the compressed-air blasts.

Expanding offshore drilling proved to be unpopular even in many red states.

Both Democratic and Republican governors in coastal states resisted the Trump administration's initial offshore exploration plans, with the memory of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill still fresh. 

Now in a pre-election about-face, Trump vowed not to lease waters off the coasts of those three politically important states to bolster his and his allies' reelection chances.

In addition to Florida, both Trump and Biden hope to win Georgia, a one-time Republican stronghold that is competitive this year.

Meanwhile in South Carolina, GOP Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R), a Trump ally, is in a tougher-than-expected race with Democratic opponent Jaime Harrison (D).

And in North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis (R), who has a strong challenger in Democrat Cal Cunningham, said Monday Trump will add his state to the moratorium. The White House declined to comment.

Biden, who goes further by promising to ban drilling across all federal waters, has accused Trump of acting only out of political expediency.

Blasting air guns far out at sea bothers marine life, not beachgoers. 

Allowing seismic testing to go forward is unlikely to cause as swift of a political backlash from tourism-dependent cities and states. 

The federal government can allow seismic testing regardless of whether an offshore area can be leased. Data collected by companies on the size of offshore oil patches can be used to lobby officials to eventually open areas for drilling. 

BOEM said there is no timeline for when it may approve or deny the second and final permits the companies need to commence the acoustic blasts. Gail Adams, a spokeswoman for International Association of Geophysical Contractors, which represents seismic testing companies, declined to comment on Trump's order, citing the pending litigation.

The oil and gas industry is not giving up in its efforts to open the Atlantic to drilling. “Safely and responsibly developing key parts of the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf is in the national interest and could support new American jobs, economic recovery and future energy security," said Lem Smith, vice president of upstream policy at the American Petroleum Institute. 

Opponents to offshore drilling worry Trump could pull another reversal if he stays in office. “The new filing is perfectly consistent with a scenario in which Trump reverses course yet again and opens every part of the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling,” Monsell said.

Power plays

The House passed a clean energy bill.

“The House has approved a modest bill to promote ‘clean energy’ and increase energy efficiency while phasing out the use of coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators that are considered a major driver of global warming,” the Associated Press reports.

The bill boosts renewable energy, authorizes funding to speed up the electrification of the transport sector, provides research and development funding for the Energy Department, and sets stricter energy efficiency standards for buildings. It also would phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas used for cooling.

The House passed the bill by a vote of 220 to 185 on Thursday, sending it to the Senate, where a separate energy bill is pending. The bill is significantly more limited in scope than plans Democrats have endorsed aimed at reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

“I want to give a clear-eyed assessment: This bill is not going to stop climate change,” Rep. Paul Tonko, (D-N.Y.) said. “But it is a good opportunity to make good and sometimes necessary changes to programs, which might make it easier to do a bigger, more ambitious bill in the near future.”

Leading Republicans, however, described the bill as costly and full of onerous government mandates. Eighteen Democrats voted against the bill, while seven Republicans voted for it.

New Jersey is poised to pass what might be the toughest plastics ban in the country.

The New Jersey Senate and Assembly passed one of the toughest bans on plastic in the country on Thursday, The Record in New Jersey reports

The ban prohibits polystyrene foam containers and single-use plastic bags and would require restaurants to provide plastic straws only upon request. It also bans paper bags at large supermarkets, a concession to a large supermarket trade group that was concerned about the price of paper bags.

If Gov. Phil Murphy (D) signs the bill into law, the state will join Maine, Vermont, Maryland and New York City in banning polystyrene foam containers.

At least eight states have bans on plastic bags, but even more states have passed laws protecting them, according to a Politico analysis earlier this year.

Trump administration is poised to open the Tongass National Forest for logging and road construction.

“The Trump administration is expected on Friday to finalize its plan to open about 9 million acres of the pristine woodlands of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging and road construction,” the New York Times reports.

Efforts to open up the nation’s largest national forest have been in the works for two years. On Thursday, the Uepartment of Agriculture announced the Forest Service’s upcoming environmental impact statement for the Tongass forest will endorse fully exempting the reserve from a Clinton-era policy, known as the roadless rule, that bans logging and road construction in many federally owned forests.

The Forest Service is expected to conclude that opening up about 9 million of the Tongass forest’s 16 million acres to development will not impose significant environmental damage. It’s a view opposed by many environmentalists, who point out the forest is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks and that cutting down trees releases harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Biden nets a pair of endorsements from left-leaning environmental groups.

Friends of the Earth Action and 350 Action announced their support of Biden on Thursday. Both environmental groups dually endorsed Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during the presidential primaries.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the North America director for 350 Action, said that Biden was running on “the strongest climate platform of any presidential ticket, ever.” Friends of the Earth Action, meanwhile, expressed regret over its failure to endorse Hillary Clinton during the 2016 elections.

“We underestimated Donald Trump’s ability to win the electoral college," Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action, said in a statement. "We will not make this mistake again.”

The pesticide industry lobbied against any mention of fungicides in international health guidelines.

Emails show that pesticide industry lobbyists urged U.S. agriculture officials to keep antifungal compounds out of United Nations guidelines on combatting drug resistance, the New York Times reports.

Health officials have long warned about the dangers from overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. At least 35,000 Americans die each year from drug-resistant infections and overuse of antibiotics can favor the survival of pathogens resistant to treatments. There is less extensive research on agricultural fungicides, but researchers believe the use of these pesticides could be behind deadly infections.

When an intergovernmental task force on antimicrobial resistance met with South Korea in 2018, “the American delegation insisted that the guidelines omit any references to fungicides, a stance that infuriated other participants and forced a monthslong delay in the task force’s work,” the New York Times reports.

Emails obtained through a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity show employees from the Department of Agriculture actively soliciting the input of business interests. 

The USDA described this as standard engagement with industry in a statement. Several food-safety and health advocates who have been active in the antimicrobial task force, however, told the New York Times that they did not receive similar outreach.

Oil check

Two-thirds of Dallas oil businesses predict that demand for oil has already reached its peak.

“The latest Dallas Fed survey results paint a bleak picture of an oil and gas industry that has plummeted from a lofty perch it held six months ago as it angled toward record oil production of more than 13 million barrels a day, a trajectory thrown off course by the coronavirus pandemic's dampening effect on commuters,” Politico reports.

The survey released Wednesday by the Dallas Federal Reserve board found that of 154 energy executives whose businesses are located or headquartered in Dallas, 66 percent said oil demand has hit a peak.

The International Energy Agency says that carbon capture technology will be crucial to meeting climate targets.

“A sharp rise in the deployment of carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology is needed globally if countries are to meet net-zero emissions targets designed to slow climate change, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Thursday,” Reuters reports.

A new report from the IEA, a Paris-based inter-governmental organization that advises countries on climate change, argues that the emissions goals adopted by many countries in the wake of the 2015 climate accord will be “virtually impossible” without carbon capture. The report calls for up to $160 billion in investments in the technology, with a goal of capturing 800 million tons of carbon in 2030, compared with 40 million tons today. 

Extinction events

A rare Nevada wildflower is under threat.

“Nestled among the slopes of Nevada’s Silver Peak Range are six patches of Tiehm’s buckwheat, a rare flowering plant found nowhere else in the world. Only an estimated 42,000 plants remain on 20 acres,” High Country News writes. “But over the weekend of September 12, conservationists discovered that 40% of the total population had been destroyed.”

The flower is threatened by a proposed lithium and boron mine, which would encompass the entire range of the flower, according to conservationists from the Center for Biological Diversity and the California Botanic Garden. Lithium and boron are both involved in clean-energy technology.

There is dispute over what caused the damage: Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that during a field survey, he saw all six existing patches of the flower destroyed in what he described as a “well-organized effort.” Executives from the mining company, Ioneer, and a scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno, however, blamed the destruction on rodents.