with Alexandra Ellerbeck

The Trump administration, in its final days, decided to open millions more acres of land in the Alaskan Arctic to oil and gas drilling. 

The decision from the Bureau of Land Management on Monday, finalized just two weeks before President Trump is set to leave office, will allow for fossil fuel extraction from 18.6 million acres in Alaska's North Slope along the Arctic Ocean — a remote area roughly the size of West Virginia. 

The last-minute move in the Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve is one of his administration's biggest efforts to expand oil and gas drilling given the sheer size of the acreage involved. 

Casey Hammond, the Interior Department's principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said the decision to build out Alaska's oil-producing capacity will create jobs and make the United States less dependent on foreign sources of energy.

This action is a significant achievement in delivering on our commitment to provide energy for America, from America, he said in a statement.

But several environmental and tribal groups warn that expanding drilling in the northern reaches of Alaska will potentially imperil wildlife and the Native Alaskans who hunt caribou for sustenance.

And it is especially wrongheaded, they say, at a time when the world is dangerously warming because of the burning of oil and gas. The northern reaches of Alaska, much of the rest of the Arctic, is one of the fastest-heating areas on the globe.

The move tees up major drilling in new areas of the Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve — though not anytime soon. 

What the Trump administration's action does is allow a future presidential administration to go ahead with oil and gas lease sales in the expanded area, unless the Trump-era plan is struck down in court or rewritten by President-elect Joe Biden's team.

Biden is unlikely to sell new leases there. He has promised to halt oil and gas auctions on all federal lands as part of a sweeping plan to address rising global temperatures.

The Trump administration's move already facing legal challenges from Earthjustice and other groups who say they did not properly assess the environmental impact of what it wants to do.

Jeremy Lieb, attorney for Earthjustice based in Anchorage, called the plan a “last-minute and irresponsible effort to open an enormous amount of land in a sensitive area.” 

Worth noting: Biden's promise to not hold any oil and gas auctions is a radical departure from what even the Barack Obama administration did in Alaska. 

Under the Obama-era plan for the National Petroleum Reserve finalized in 2013, half of the nearly 23 million acre reserve is open to drilling. ConocoPhillips has already been exploring and producing oil from the area. 

The reserve is at once one of the nation's most promising onshore oil prospects — and one of its most ecologically vulnerable habitats.

Originally set aside in 1923 by Warren G. Harding as an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy, the vast reserve has under it an estimated 8.7 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey

But for decades, the region was mostly left as wilderness and later recognized by Congress in the 1970s as valuable habitat for polar bears and other animals. In particular, the wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake are a crucial breeding area for migratory birds and calving grounds for roaming caribou. 

In the Trump administration's new finalized administrative plan for the reserve, the Bureau of Land Management required horizontal drilling from well pads miles away from certain ecologically sensitive areas, including around Teshekpuk Lake.

Industry representatives say they have experience mitigating its impact on wildlife in the region. “The Alaska oil and gas industry has worked for decades on the North Slope, including in the NPR-A, to operate in a manner that protects the environment and wildlife,” said Kara Moriarty, head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

But David Krause, assistant state director in Alaska for the Wilderness Society, said the plan still allows drillers to get dangerously close. Well pads, roads and other oil and gas infrastructure near protected areas, he said, could alter the flow of water and the movement of animals to and from the lake.

"The area around Teshekpuk is probably one of the most vulnerable wetland complexes in the world,” he said. “When you allow infrastructure into this very vulnerable area, you start to see changes.”

The all-Republican delegation in Alaska, whose residents rely on checks directly from oil and gas revenue, praised the management plan that is poised to boost production from the northern region.

“This is more good news for Alaskans as we chart a path to economic recovery and long-term prosperity for our state," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). 

The Trump administration is making another major move this week in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Long closed off to development, a nearly pristine coastal plain in the wildlife refuge was opened to oil and gas drilling as part of a 2017 tax package passed by congressional Republicans and signed by Trump. Three years alter, the BLM finally plans to hold an online lease sale for tracts there on Wednesday. 

That gives bureaucrats at the Justice Department and elsewhere just days to complete the paperwork needed to finalize the sale and make it difficult for the incoming Biden administration to reverse. 

Power plays

The Trump administration finalizes a rule that limits the science that can be used in setting public health safeguards.

The new rule would limit the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to consider studies that do not make their underlying data public, our colleagues Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report

The EPA has billed the new rule as a transparency measure, with the agency's administrator Andrew Wheeler writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday, “If the American people are to be regulated by interpretation of these scientific studies, they deserve to scrutinize the data as part of the scientific process and American self-government.”

The rule, which requires researchers to disclose their raw data before the agency can rely on them in its conclusions, will apply to studies that seek to determine how much a person's exposure to a harmful substance increases their risk.

“Many of the nation’s leading researchers and academic organizations, however, argue that the criteria will actually restrict the EPA from using some of the most consequential research on human subjects because it often includes confidential medical records and other proprietary data that cannot be released due to privacy concerns,” Eilperin writes.

The Trump administration is renewing grazing permits for ranchers convicted of arson.

The Bureau of Land Management proposed reissuing grazing permits to Oregon-based Hammond Ranches, sparking criticism from environmentalists who say that the Hammonds have a long history of permit violations and criminal convictions, the Oregonian reports. 

The renewal comes after Trump in 2018 pardoned ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond, who were serving sentences for setting fire to public lands. A federal judge previously overturned a renewal of the Hammonds' grazing licenses, ruling in 2019 that former interior secretary Ryan Zinke had failed to show that the Hammonds were in compliance with federal grazing regulations. 

The Biden administration could leverage the Defense Department to combat climate change.

The Defense Department is the largest energy consumer in the federal government and its $700 billion budget could provide the Biden administration with an opportunity to accelerate new clean energy technologies, Politico reports. Although its energy use has been declining, the department accounts for three-quarters of the total government energy usage and emits 1 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.

The Pentagon played a key role in jump-starting the U.S. solar industry, and under the Obama administration it experimented with biofuels and energy efficiency solutions to reduce ships’ dependence on oil. Trump reversed many of these initiatives, however, including through a 2018 executive order revoking specific carbon reduction targets for federal agencies.

Around the world

A Brazilian effort to curb deforestation in the Amazon failed.

Terrence McCoy and Heloisa Trainano detail for The Post how a covert mission to disrupt illegal gold mines in the Amazon fell apart. In August, environmental investigators were poised to fly to 49 illicit mines with the goal of destroying the equipment and shutting down operations, but after members of military leading the enforcement refueled their helicopters at an airport near the mines, the story leaked and the miners disappeared into the forest.

“The unraveling of the mission, reconstructed through court documents, illustrates many of the themes that have come to characterize Brazil’s militarized effort to end the escalating environmental destruction of the Amazon forest: disorganization, inexperience and allegations of political bias, ending in a failure to get the job done,” McCoy and Trainano write.

Brazil’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro has largely abandoned the environmental agencies that have traditionally worked to combat deforestation, instead empowering the military with new environmental duties. “Now, with Brazil consumed by the coronavirus, the Amazon is inching closer to what scientists warn is a tipping point, when large swaths of rainforest transform into arid savanna,” McCoy and Trainano write.

Extra mileage

A rare visit from a brilliantly colored bird drew crowds in Maryland.

A male painted bunting drew eager birders to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park along the Potomac River in Maryland. The bird, which is known for its kaleidoscope of colors, is commonly seen in the southern United States but rarely appears in Maryland, our colleague Samantha Schmidt reports. It’s possible that the bird ended up farther north as climate change causes a shift in winter ranges and breeding seasons.