with Alexandra Ellerbeck

A major court battle over the Trump administration’s plan to use deafening blasts to search for oil under the sea is ending with a whimper.

As Darryl Fears and I report, oil drilling opponents declared victory on Thursday after the government acknowledged that permits to allow seismic blasting in the ocean will expire next month and not be renewed. 

Nine state attorneys general and several conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit early last year to block seismic blasting, arguing it could harm endangered whales and other marine animals. 

The court battle between the Trump administration and green groups dragged out so slowly that time ran out on the permits.

Donna Wieting, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said this week that her agency “has no authority to extend the terms of those [permits] upon their expiration. 

Further, NMFS has no basis for reissuing or renewing these [permits].” The five companies that were granted permits would have to restart the months-long process leading to approval or denial, Wieting said.

Also on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel of South Carolina held a telephone conference with all parties of the lawsuit to determine how to move forward. The judge is expected to declare the case moot because the seismic mapping cannot occur without the permits, said Michael Jasny, who was on the call and is director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“It’s most definitely a win. There’s no question,” Jasny said. “Given the broad bipartisan opposition that the threat of seismic blasting and drilling has stirred in communities up and down the coast, it should be the nail in the coffin for oil and gas exploration on the coast.”

The American Petroleum Institute saw the issue differently. “In the long-run, the world is going to demand more energy, not less, and our industry’s priority is ensuring that demand is met by energy produced here in the United States,” said Andy Radford, a senior policy adviser for API, the largest oil and gas lobbying group in Washington.

Gail Adams, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, which represents seismic testing companies, said the judge "has not issued an order dismissing the plaintiff's claims," but declined to comment further.

The Trump administration's once ambitious plan for offshore oil drilling collided with politics. 

In 2018, it rolled out a plan to allow drilling along nearly the entire Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico. But President Trump turned against his own plan in an effort to bolster support from coastal Republicans worried that drilling could result in a spill that would hurt economies that rely on pristine beaches and tourism.

So on Sept. 8, Trump flew to Florida, an important swing state where his proposal to drill is widely opposed by voters, and signed an executive order to extend a moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, as well as expand the ban up the Atlantic to South Carolina. Trump later said he would extend the ban to North Carolina and Virginia.

“This protects your beautiful Gulf and your beautiful ocean, and it will for a long time to come,” Trump said in Jupiter, Fla., last month, calling himself a “great environmentalist.”

The executive order was a stark reversal for the president, but the stakes are different now. North Carolina, Georgia and Florida — states Trump won in 2016 — are hotly contested by Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee. Biden has vowed to ban any new offshore oil leasing in an effort to fight climate change. Polls show a tight race between the two in all three states.

A drilling ban might also lift the election hopes of two Trump allies — GOP Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) — and increase the chances of Republicans retaining control of the Senate. Both praised Trump for expanding the ban to the coast off their states.

In a court filing last week, another federal agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said it would still consider issuing its own permits to let boats with compressed-air guns out onto the water. The bureau has had nearly a year to approve the permits and has not. Companies would still need the NOAA permits to move forward with exploration.

Read more here:

Lightbulb

Millions of Americans are unable to pay their energy and water bills.

“The worst economic crisis in more than a generation has thrust potentially millions of Americans across the country into a similar, sudden peril: Cash-strapped, and in some cases still unemployed, they have fallen far behind on their electricity, water and gas bills, staring down the prospect of potential utility shut-offs and fast-growing debts they may never be able to repay,” our colleague Tony Romm writes.

While many states put moratoria on disconnecting power or utilities at the beginning of the pandemic, only 21 states and the District of Columbia still have such bans in place, leaving roughly 179 million Americans at risk of losing service, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA).

Many Americans are unable to afford the bills. NEADA found that energy and gas debts alone could exceed $24.3 billion by the end of the year. In Indiana, for example, 112,000 households are more than 120 days behind on their power bills, according to a Washington Post analysis of energy companies’ records. Meanwhile, less than half of the country is protected from water shut-offs.

In states that have suspended collections, disconnections and late fees, many Americans have bills piling up that they won’t be able to pay when they come due. The impending financial cliff has many advocates calling for more federal aid to help families pay their bills.

This crisis affects not only the health of families but also the fate of many “utilities themselves, some of which are already signaling they may have to raise rates or take other drastic steps to make up for the anticipated losses,” Romm reports. 

Power plays

Joe Biden announced that he won't allow lobbyists or fossil fuel executives on his transition team.

In an ethics plan released Wednesday the Biden plan indicated that people who have led fossil fuel companies won't be welcome in group preparing for the Democratic nominee to take office, should he win in November, E&E News reports.

“Vice President Biden aims to ensure that those who serve are aligned with his values and policy priorities, and have not, for example, been leaders at fossil fuel or private prison companies,” the plan states.

The plan also excludes anyone who registered as a lobbyist or foreign agent over the past year from serving on his transition team, unless they are given special approval by the general counsel. To avoid revolving door conflicts of interest, the plan extends that prohibition forward as well, asking transition team members to commit that they will not lobbying with any agencies in their core purview during the 12 months after their time on the team.

In a public letter on Tuesday more than 140 environmental organizations had urged Biden to “ban all fossil fuel executives, lobbyists, and representatives from any advisory or official position” in his “campaign, transition team, cabinet, and administration.”

FEMA lost track of millions of dollars’ worth of aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

“FEMA lost visibility of about 38 percent of its commodity shipments to Puerto Rico, worth an estimated $257 million. Commodities successfully delivered to Puerto Rico took an average of 69 days to reach their final destinations,” according to a report released Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general's office.

“The end result of a shortfall in supplies and some of the available supplies never arriving was that after waiting at least ten days for any kind of assistance to arrive, just 20% of municipalities on the island received enough food and only 27% of municipalities received enough water to supply survivors of the hurricane,” BuzzFeed News reports.

Nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans died in the months following the storm, many from lack of access to clean water, electricity and medical care, according to an analysis of excess deaths conducted by researchers at George Washington University.

The Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule that could reclassify some major polluters, allowing them to follow weaker emissions standards.

The move "could reclassify many ‘major’ sources of pollution as minor ones, allowing facilities to abide by less-stringent emissions standards for dangerous substances such as mercury, lead and arsenic,” the Hill reports.

The rulemaking changes a 1995 regulation that held major polluters to tighter standards even if they later reduced their pollution. Advocates of the rule change say that the Clinton-era policy, known as “once in, always in,” disincentives companies to reduce their pollution.

Critics, however, say that the new rule, which allows so-called major polluters to be reclassified if they meet the hazardous air pollutants standards in place for lower-level “area” polluters, will result in facilities being subject to a weaker standard and cutting back on their emissions controls.

Thermometer

New wildfire warnings continue in California amid yet another record-breaking heat wave.

Tens of millions of Californians were under heat warnings on Thursday as a record-breaking heat wave sent temperatures soaring 30 degrees above average for this time of year in some places, our colleague Andrew Freedman reports.

“The heat elevated wildfire risks to ‘critical’ in some areas, including parts of the North Bay, where the devastating Glass Fire continues to burn near hard-hit Calistoga,” Freedman writes. High winds could also exacerbate the fire, which has forced about 80,000 to evacuate from Napa and Sonoma counties.

Heat waves “show a significant human fingerprint, with greenhouse gas emissions boosting the odds and severity of these events. There have even been some case studies published showing that individual extreme heat events would not have occurred without human-caused global warming,” Freedman writes.

Climate-fueled natural disasters pushed demand for emergency shelters to a record high.

“A year already filled with historic wildfires and hurricanes can now claim another dubious distinction: Americans have spent far more time in emergency housing than in any year during the past decade, smashing 2017’s full-year record with three months left to go,” the New York Times reports.

Americans spent 807,454 nights in emergency shelter, more than four times the yearly average, according to data the Red Cross provided to the Times.

The coronavirus pandemic may have increased demand for emergency shelter, as families who have lost jobs or income because of the pandemic may have fewer options to find pay for their own accommodations. The pandemic, however, has also made accommodation harder for emergency responders, who have been forced to shelter more disaster victims in hotels and motels rather than an congregate settings such as gymnasiums, where the virus might spread more easily.

“The surge reflects the growing toll of climate change, as the country has staggered from disaster to disaster,” the Times writes.