with Alexandra Ellerbeck

A few days after pardoning a turkey for Thanksgiving, President Trump is moving forward with giving a reprieve to oil producers, electric utilities and other companies that accidentally kill birds. 

Trump officials took another step toward easing fines for “incidental” death or harm to birds under regulations set by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

While few were paying attention the Friday after Thanksgiving, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published an analysis saying the change “would not cause unacceptable environmental harm,” my colleagues Juliet Eilperin and Sarah Kaplan report.

Trimming the wings of the 102-year-old law is just one of several regulatory actions the administration is aiming to accomplish before its exit. The Trump administration is expected to finalize easing fines before Jan. 20.  

Companies that electrocute, poison and otherwise harm birds stand to benefit from the revision. 

Past administrations have used the law to financially penalize companies whose activities harm gulls, waterfowl and other migratory birds that plunge to their deaths in oil skim pits mistaken for ponds or find themselves dirtied by oil when pipelines break.

Perhaps most notably, BP pleaded guilty to breaking the law after the disastrous Deepwater Horizon spill killed an estimated 102,000 birds across 93 species.

The change means future spills would not be prosecuted under the law. In its environmental review, the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that companies would be less likely to take costly steps to prevent harm to birds if they face no legal liability — leading to more bird deaths.

Amy Emmert at the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas lobbying group, said the change “reinforces the original intent of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.” The Fish and Wildlife Service itself says it is promulgating the rule to "provide legal certainty for the public."

Environmental groups, meanwhile, criticized the Trump administration for what it calls a legally flawed analysis that will lead to unnecessary bird deaths. 

“At a time when North America has already lost 3 billion birds, the rule will further undercut our nation’s ability to conserve birds so many people care about deeply,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, the head of the Defenders of Wildlife.

Earlier this year, a federal judge struck down the administration's first effort to ease restriction on bird killings, which was opposed by 17 former Interior Department officials from both Democratic and Republican presidents.

The Trump administration's new rule could impact wind turbine operators, too. 

Trump, who for years fought the construction of a wind farm near his Scottish gold course, likes to complain about the “killing field” of birds created by collisions with the turbines. 

Wind turbines are blamed for killing about 250,000 birds a year. But many conservationists argue birds ultimately benefit if those cleaner forms of energy slow down the climate change that is disrupting their habitats.

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Power plays

The Trump administration denied a key permit for Alaska’s Pebble Mine. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday denied a permit for a massive gold and copper mine near Bristol Bay, ruling that it did not comply with the Clean Water Act, our colleagues Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report.

“While the Trump administration has pressed ahead to weaken environmental protections and expand energy development before the president’s term ends in January, the decision to torpedo the long-disputed mine represents a major win for environmentalists, fishing enthusiasts and tribal rights,” Eilperin and Dennis write.

Video recordings show Northern Dynasty Minerals CEO Ronald Thiessen saying U.S. political leaders were not a barrier for controversial mine. (Environmental Investigation Agency)

Environmentalists and tribal groups opposed to the project received a boost when Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, both of whom have enjoyed hunting and fishing in the area, came out against the project. Then, in September, secret recordings showed top Pebble Mine executives boasting about their influence with lawmakers and claiming the operation could last far beyond the permit requested. 

Although the firm behind the Pebble Mine could challenge the decision to deny the permit in court or file an amended application, environmental groups have expressed optimism that the incoming Biden administration will take a harder line on projects that could pollute waterways.

Biden is expected to nominate Neera Tanden as head of the Office of Management and Budget.

Tanden, who heads the Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank, will have an outsized role in impacting climate policy. Our colleagues Annie Linskey and Jeff Stein reported the personnel move.

The OMB exercises considerable power over executive branch rule-making, including through its role in issuing cost-benefit analyses regarding environmental regulations. Tanden and the CAP have been critical of the Trump administration's efforts to cut funding to the EPA and other environmental programs.

While Tanden is expected to face opposition from some Senate Republicans who see her as too progressive. She’s also had multiple online spats with Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) supporters and some on the left, including the Sunrise Movement, a youth environmental organization, which in 2018 accused her of not being ambitious enough in her climate proposals.

A Trump administration rule change may clear the way for strip mining near Okefenokee Swamp.

A Trump administration regulation that went into effect this summer rolling back federal protections for 45 million acres of wetlands has paved the way for a titanium mining project just outside the Okefenokee Swamp, a fragile ecosystem in Georgia. While the fate of the project, proposed by an Alabama company called Twin Pines Minerals, is still in question, it is “likely to be the first of a wave of efforts to commercially develop wetlands and tributaries across the nation,” our colleagues Steven Mufson and Desmond Butler report.

Environmentalists have beat back development proposals near the mine before, including a proposal to mine titanium in a similar area along the swamp in the 1990s, which was soundly rejected by federal regulators. Now, conservation groups have lined up again with lawsuits to challenge the Twin Pines project, setting up a legal test of the Trump administration’s new regulation on protected waters. 

Meanwhile, Twin Pines Minerals has enlisted the help of lobbying companies, and top mining executives have donated to state officials and to Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who is up for reelection in a January runoff race.

The EPA’s race to roll back environmental protections hits up against staff resistance.

As the Trump administration makes a final deregulatory push before the president leaves office on Jan. 20, political appointees are running into resistance from career EPA scientists and other staffers, the New York Times reports

The former director of the agency’s science advisory office, Thomas Sinks, wrote a blistering opinion about a pending rule that would limit the type of medical research the agency could consider in weighing the public health impacts of pollution and exposure to toxins. The formal dissenting scientific opinion, written before Sinks’s retirement in September, could help Joe Biden if he seeks to repeal the rule.

Meanwhile, career employees emailed out the results of a recent study that showed that many diesel truck owners and operators have been tampering with their vehicles’ emissions controls. Some officials at the Environmental Protection Agency have established back channels with the Biden transition team while awaiting formal approval for the transition process.

Climate solutions

An unusual snack for cows could cut back on a potent greenhouse gas.

Scientists are looking at the impact of adding seaweed to cows’ diets to neutralize the methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that comes when they burp. Asparagopsis and other types of seaweed make a compound that stops hydrogen and carbon atoms from forming methane in the stomach, potentially providing a solution to cut back on emissions produced by the world’s 1.5 billion cows, Tatiana Schlossberg writes for The Post

Farmers and researchers have found that feeding cows a small amount of seaweed can decrease production of methane, a type of greenhouse gas. (The Washington Post)

“In lab tests and field trials, adding a small proportion of this seaweed to a cow’s daily feed — about 0.2 of a percent of the total feed intake in a recent study — can reduce the amount of methane by 98 percent. That’s a stunning drop when most existing solutions cut methane by about 20 or 30 percent,” Schlossberg writes.

Extra mileage

Which one of you took it?

"Stumbled upon by bighorn sheep counters, the tall metal object in the Utah desert baffled officials — and delighted the public, who began speculating on a scene straight out of a science-fiction movie," our colleague Hannah Knowles reports.

“Now the monolith has vanished, leaving the curious with even more questions. The Utah Bureau of Land Management said this weekend that it has heard of “a person or group” removing the object on Friday night.”