with Alexandra Ellerbeck

The federal government is blocking the release of a polar bear study conducted by its own researchers, in the latest instance of scientific work being muzzled by the Trump administration.

The animals in Alaska face a threat not only from the loss of sea ice due to climate change, but also from oil and gas drilling companies encroaching into the ecologically sensitive Arctic region. 

As my colleagues Juliet Eilperin and Desmond Butler report, concerns about making public the number of female polar bears that den and give birth on land near the southern Beaufort Sea led James Reilly, the head of the U.S. Geological Survey, to prevent publication for at least three months. 

In internal memos, Reilly questioned the way the data on bear dens was collected and wondered why the report needed to be made public at all.

Potentially at stake is a key part of Trump's energy agenda — expanding Arctic oil drilling. 

Officials are ready is sign off on a $3 billion drilling project on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, but they need to cite the USGS analysis to do so. 

The unpublished report could also have bearing on the Trump administration's plans to lease portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, because the study shows the coastal plain eyed for drilling has a significant number of polar bear dens.

The Trump administration is up against the clock to sell away drilling rights within the refuge to guard against the possibility that Joe Biden, Trump's Democratic rival for the presidency, will block leasing if elected. Democrats strenuously objected when Republicans moved to open the Arctic refuge to drilling during Trump's first year in office. 

USGS, the main science agency of the Interior Department, said the agency’s leadership “routinely reviews and requests additional information on scientific reports.”

But Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said the administration was hiding information.

“Suppressing reports by career scientists is a dangerous way to make policy and a waste of American taxpayer money," she said. 

This isn't the first time that USGS career scientists and Trump administration officials have butted heads.

Early in Trump's term, Doug Domenech, assistant secretary for insular areas at the Interior Department, told colleagues by email that USGS scientists went “beyond their wheelhouse” by writing the climate change has “dramatically reduced” Montana's glaciers.

The department also once deleted a line from a news release attributing sea-level rise to climate change. 

Read more here:

Power plays

The Interior Department will not name a new acting director to lead the Bureau of Land Management.

Instead, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt will oversee the agency in the wake of William Perry Pendley’s ouster by a federal judge, the Hill reports

“I understand there may be some questions about the ruling on Friday regarding William Perry Pendley’s leadership role at the Bureau of Land Management,” Casey Hammond, Interior's principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said in a letter to BLM staff. “Secretary Bernhardt leads the bureau and relies on the BLM’s management team to carry out the mission. Deputy Director for Programs and Policy, William Perry Pendley, will continue to serve in his leadership role.”

A Montana federal judge ruled on Friday that Pendley, who was never confirmed by the Senate, had been serving as acting director of the agency unlawfully. Pendley’s leadership position had been extended through a series of temporary orders well beyond the limits outlined by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, the judge said. The Interior Department has said it intends to appeal this decision.

Public watchdogs and environmental groups told the Hill that placing the agency under Bernhardt’s leadership would centralize decision-making authority with political appointees in Washington.

Coal baron who fought against black lung protections has filed for black lung benefits.

Robert E. Murray has an application in at the Labor Department for benefits for those suffering from black lung. In addition to being a Trump donor and adviser, the former chief executive of the now-bankrupt Murray Energy is known for fighting against regulations meant to stop the debilitating respiratory disease. 

"According to sources, Murray’s claim is still in the initial stages and is being evaluated to determine the party potentially responsible for paying out the associated benefits," West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports. “The Labor Department is required to determine a liable party before an initial ruling can be made on entitlement to benefits.”

“During my 63 years working in underground coal mines, I worked 16 years every day at the mining face underground and went underground every week until I was age 75,” Murray wrote in his claim.

A White House memo banning trainings on “critical race theory” left agencies scrambling.

A Sept. 4 Office of Management and Budget memo instructed federal agencies to halt any trainings that promote “critical race theory” or the idea of “white privilege,” while a second set of guidelines issued Monday outlined harsh penalties for any officials who failed to comply. 

The directives have caused confusion, with many agencies unsure how to respond and fearful of a backlash from the president. The Environmental Protection Agency canceled a planned speaker series on environmental justice, just days after EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the issue was a top priority, our colleagues Yeganeh Torbati, Juliet Eilperin, Lisa Rein and Josh Dawsey report.

The updated OMB guidance came after the National Park Service sent agency officials a memo suspending hundreds of training programs. Even though the parks agency later narrowed down the list, “some employees said they still included ones on sexual harassment, tribal consultation and how to respond to people with disabilities,” our colleagues write.

The memo has become a political flash point. Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform wrote to OMB on Tuesday requesting documents as part of a probe into whether the ban on the trainings undermined equal employment opportunity efforts. The ban also came up in Tuesday’s presidential debate as Trump and Biden sparred over the motives for ending racial sensitivity training.

FERC signaled an openness to setting regulations around carbon pricing.

Commissioners with the Republican-controlled Federal Energy Regulatory Commission questioned legal experts and industry representatives about their authority to set rules on state-level carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems during a conference on Wednesday, the Houston Chronicle reports.

“Our complex energy markets cannot be hermetically sealed from state environmental policies. That’s just an undeniable fact,” FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee said. “We’re at a pivotal point when it comes to these discussions — a point that I think, will ultimately lead to action in some shape or form.”

“While Chatterjee said at the outset of Wednesday's conference he's not interested in having FERC create a de facto national carbon price, he and Commissioner Richard Glick, a Democrat, have both said regulation is needed to keep state-level carbon pricing schemes from disrupting power markets,” the Houston Chronicle writes.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has introduced a carbon tax bill, opened the conference and urged FERC not to stand in the way of regional efforts to price carbon.

Republicans and even some fossil fuel industry leaders have started to come around to the idea of a national carbon tax, which has long been popular with many Democrats. Some left-wing environmental groups, however, have said such a tax would be too little, too late at this point

Thermometer

Greenland is on track to lose ice at the fastest rate in 12,000 years.

“The Greenland ice sheet is on track to lose mass at about four times the fastest rate observed over the past 12,000 years. At its current trajectory, such melting would dump huge quantities of freshwater into the sea, raising global sea levels and disrupting ocean currents, scientists concluded in new research Wednesday,” our colleagues Andrew Freedman and Brady Dennis report.

The new study, published in the journal Nature, warns that drastically curtailing greenhouse gas emissions is the only way to slow an accelerated meltdown that could trigger extreme sea-level rise. Greenland is currently the largest contributor to sea-level rise, although it could be outpaced by Antarctica.

“Researchers found that the current rate of mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet is already comparable to that seen at the end of the last ice age, during a geological period known as the early Holocene. At that time, the global average surface temperature was about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit above the preindustrial average, a temperature the world is on track to exceed by the end of this century, depending on rate of global emissions,” Andrew and Brady report.

Oil check

Shell plans to cut between 7,000 and 9,000 jobs as the company moves toward clean energy.

The job cuts at the oil and gas multinational were announced in an interview with Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden published on the company’s website, the Hill reports

“As a society, we need to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally below 1.5 degrees Celsius. That means society needs a net-zero emissions energy system,” van Beurden said in the interview. “Reducing cost is essential. We have to be competitive. We have looked closely at how we are organized and we feel that, in many places, we have too many layers in the company.”

America's second-largest coal company is moving away from fueling electricity.

Arch Resources said it plans to direct 95 percent of future capital spending toward mining metallurgical coal, which is used for making steel, rather than the thermal coal used to fuel power plants, E&E News reports.

The move away from thermal coal, used to generate electricity, was cemented on Tuesday when a court upheld a Federal Trade Commission order blocking the company from combining its operations with Peabody Energy in the Powder River Basin, a thermal-coal-producing region home to America’s most productive coal fields.

Earlier this year, Arch Resources changed its name from Arch Coal to reflect the company’s move toward mining coal used for steelmaking.