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The Energy 202: Trump administration jams in environmental rollbacks in final days

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with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Even as they're packing their bags, President Trump's team is jamming in more rollbacks to energy and environmental restrictions. 

As Juliet Eilperin and I report, the slew of new rules — several of which will help the fossil fuel, logging and mining industries that have benefited from past Trump administration action — sets up a clash with the incoming president. 

President-elect Joe Biden and his aides may spend months unwinding these policies as they gear up to cut greenhouse gas emissions — unless congressional Democrats or federal judges step in to overturn them more quickly. Biden becomes president Wednesday.

Trump, like other departing presidents, is trying to lock in his agenda before the term is up. 

Yet he has managed to usher through an unusually large number of policies. Since his election loss in November, Trump has finalized more than two dozen, according to a Washington Post analysis

His final full week in office was especially busy. 

At the Interior Department alone, the outgoing administration cut 3.4 million acres in critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, which faces extinction; expedited approvals to lease more than 550,000 acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for energy development; and approved a four-lane highway through Utah’s Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, which had been permanently protected as a wildlife reserve 25 years ago.

And on Friday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order to allow mineral leasing across 9.7 million acres in western Alaska, including on the Seward Peninsula and between the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.

In an email Interior Department spokesman Nicholas Goodwin said that no official was available for a phone interview to discuss the recent decisions, “given our focus on ensuring a smooth transition for the incoming administration.”

The oil, gas and mining industries often stood to gain the most from these final rule changes.

On Friday, for example, the Energy Department granted the natural gas industry’s petition to ensure less energy-efficient furnaces and water heaters remain on the market. 

The American Gas Association cheered the move for giving consumers more choices, but Andrew deLaski, executive director of the energy-efficiency advocacy group Appliance Standards Awareness Project, said it could lock in pollution from home heating for years to come, a big if underappreciated source of greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s a legal trick that is designed to tie the hands of the Biden administration,” he said. “This really matters for the climate.”

The Interior Department also overturned an Obama-era measure that increased royalties that oil, gas and coal companies pay the federal government.

And the U.S. Forest Service on Friday issued a final environmental impact statement and draft decision that would pave the way for a subsidiary of two mining giants, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, to develop the Resolution Copper Mine on an area in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest that is sacred to the San Carlos Apache tribe.

Finally, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule Tuesday that exempts oil refiners, steelmakers and landfills from future carbon emission limits. 

The courts probably will decide the fate of many of those quickly finished policies.

In the case of the northern spotted owl, for example, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials determined last month that the Pacific Northwest’s iconic bird should be upgraded from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act. But the agency declined to do that, citing resource constraints, and on Wednesday it cut the owl’s protected habitat by more than a third, to 3.4 million acres.

Bernhardt and Interior Deputy Solicitor Karen Budd-Falen personally pushed for the move over the objections of agency scientists, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. As recently as August, officials indicated in court that they would scale back the habitat designation by 205,000 acres — indicating Bernhardt exercised “his discretion” in expanding it.

In a statement, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith called the changes “common-sense revisions.”

But Susan Jane Brown, staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, said the secretary had overstepped his bounds given the fact that the northern spotted owl’s numbers are declining because of land clearing and other threats. “You don’t have that kind of discretion,” she said.

When it comes to the EPA's greenhouse gas rule, agency chief Andrew Wheeler said in a statement that the decision to exclude certain industries “adheres to the specific requirement laid out in the Clean Air Act” that sectors contributing less than 3 percent of total gross greenhouse gas emissions nationally are not “significant” sources of pollution.

But David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that threshold is arbitrary and the decision could be legally vulnerable since it came “out of the blue,” without public comment.

Congressional Democrats will also have a say in which Trump-era policies stay or go.

Biden’s allies in Congress are already eyeing rules they can abolish under the Congressional Review Act, which nullifies regulations within 60 legislative days of enactment by a simple majority vote and the president’s signature.

Democrats are considering using the law to reverse an EPA rule limiting the science it can use in crafting public health safeguards and one from the Treasury Department penalizing big banks that refuse to lend money for fossil-fuel operations.

The incoming majority leader, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), is willing to use the law. 

“Senate Democrats are committed, as we have been, to working with the incoming Biden-Harris administration and looking at every tool in our toolbox, which includes using the Congressional Review Act, to find ways to prevent Trump’s most egregious policies from becoming a reality,” he said in a statement.

In an interview, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said that they need to be careful because once repeal is enacted, the law prohibits issuing a rule that is substantially similar to it. “Part of what we have to do is coordinate very tightly with the Biden administration,” he said.

Read more here:

In Trump’s last days, a spree of environmental rollbacks (Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni)

Power plays

Biden is preparing to sign a slew of executive orders on his first day in office.

Among his first actions will be rejoining the Paris agreement to signal an immediate break from the Trump administration, our colleague Matt Viser reports. He also plans to cancel a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline connecting Canadian crude to American refiners, the CBC reports.

“Any president’s opening agenda provides a window into his top priorities and offers the first clues as to which agenda items will be prioritized. But Biden’s unusually sweeping list reflects not only the multiple challenges he faces, but also illustrates his desire to quickly emerge from the shadow of his predecessor, closing a dark chapter in American history marked by false claims of election fraud, an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and a second impeachment,” Viser writes.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), among others, praised the president-elect for the swiftly fulfilling the campaign promise on Keystone while TC Energy, the company behind the pipeline suggested it would try to find a way of moving forward.

Biden announced that he will make the White House Office of Science Policy a Cabinet-level agency.

The president-elect will nominate Eric Lander, a mathematician, biology professor and geneticist, to head the agency, our colleague Sarah Kaplan writes. The appointment of a scientist with a background in the life sciences suggests a renewed attention to biological expertise amid the coronavirus pandemic. The job has usually gone to physicists who can advise the president about nuclear weapons and other technologies. 

Biden also announced that MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, a planetary scientist, and Nobel chemistry laureate Frances Arnold would become the first women to co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

“Though Biden ran on a promise to tackle global warming, there is no obvious climate expert among his OSTP nominees and appointees,” Kaplan writes. “But Biden has named former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy to be the first-ever national climate adviser with an office in the West Wing. And former secretary of state John F. Kerry will serve as special presidential envoy for climate, the first time the National Security Council includes an official dedicated to the issue of climate change.”

Pete Buttigieg’s confirmation hearing for transportation secretary is scheduled for Thursday.

Buttigieg has called for putting millions of electric vehicles on American roads and promised that combating climate change will be a key focus if he is confirmed to lead the transportation agency. 

Buttigieg’s experience with transportation policy was shaped by his work as mayor of South Bend, our colleague Ian Duncan writes. Buttigieg pushed the Indiana city to adopt a $25 million plan to revamp downtown streets and make them more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.  

Amy Coney Barrett is set to hear a climate lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell, which employed her dad for 29 years.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in Baltimore’s lawsuit against energy companies including Shell, BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil, HuffPost reports. The Supreme Court will consider whether federal or state courts are the proper venue for the city's lawsuit, which seeks damages for harms sustained because of climate change, including increased flooding caused by rising sea levels.

Coney Barrett has given no public indication that she will recuse herself from the case. Justice Samuel Alito, who owns stock in several oil and gas companies, has already recused himself, documents filed with the court show.

Coney Barrett's father Michael Coney served as one of Shell's top lawyers and was employed by the oil company in 1988 when the company’s own climate scientists wrote a memo warning that the burning of fossil fuels was the major cause of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“It is entirely possible that Justice Barrett’s father could be a witness at a later point in this case,” Marco Simons, the general counsel at the environmental legal nonprofit EarthRights International, told HuffPost. “It sure creates a very problematic appearance that she is very close to the facts of this case, and in most cases that would lead a judge to recuse.”

The Interior Department inspector general will examine events surrounding the Capitol attack.

The department joins three others — Justice, Defense and Homeland Security — in examining what federal officials knew in the lead-up to the riot and how they prepared for it, as well as their actions on Jan. 6, our colleagues Devlin Barrett and Missy Ryan report

“The multiagency review was announced as the nation’s capital is on edge, with a growing security presence aimed to dissuade any further violence this weekend or at President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday. Government officials are sealing off streets and some large public areas in hopes of preventing a repeat of last week’s chaos,” Barrett and Ryan write.

Capitol Police were unable to stop a breach of the Capitol. Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig and a former Senate Sergeant at Arms describe the events. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Reuters/The Washington Post)

The Interior Department oversees the U.S. Park Police, which are charged with protecting iconic sites, including the Mall and the Washington Monument. They have jurisdiction over the Ellipse, a park south of the White House fence, where Trump’s rally took place, and also sent officers to support the U.S. Capitol Police once the rally descended into a mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol. 

Natural history museums could play a bigger role in the study of animal-borne pathogens.

An international team of biologists is making the case that researchers’ failure to preserve biological specimens of infected animals has hampered our ability to trace the origin of pathogens, such as the novel coronavirus, that crossed over from animals to humans.

“But biologists could have an ace up their sleeve, if they choose to use it: museums,” Erin Blakemore writes for The Post. In the paper, published in the journal mBio, the scientists point out that specimen repositories stored in natural history museums helped researchers identify the origins of a novel rodent-borne hantavirus after it led to a cluster of deaths in the American Southwest.

Oil check

The French oil giant Total is leaving the American Petroleum Institute trade group.

The French oil giant will become the first major petroleum company to leave the trade group, our colleague Steven Mufson reports. Total cited differences with API over carbon pricing, subsidies for electric vehicles, the regulation of methane emissions and the trade group’s donations to politicians who opposed U.S. entry into the Paris agreement.

“We are committed to ensuring, in a transparent manner, that the industry associations of which we are a member adopt positions and messages that are aligned with those of the Group in the fight against climate change,” Patrick Pouyanné, Total’s chief executive, said in a statement.

“Other major oil companies have quit trade groups, but have avoided leaving the influential API,” Mufson writes. “BP, Shell and Total have already severed ties with the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and BP has also exited the Western States Petroleum Association and the Western Energy Alliance.”

The Trump administration accused Mexico of favoring its state-owned energy companies.

Top officials sent a letter warning Mexico that it might be in violation of its free-trade agreement with the United States and Canada. The letter, sent by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, cites reports that the Mexican government denied permits to foreign-owned energy companies and wrote regulations to favor Pemex and other state-owned companies, the Houston Chronicle reports.

“While we respect Mexico's sovereign right to determine its own energy policies, we are obligated to insist that Mexico lives up to its [U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement] obligations, in defense of our national interests,” the letter reads.

Extra mileage

Washington saw a magnificent sunrise.

The fiery blend of yellow, orange and red was the result of the Mid-Atlantic being sandwiched between two weather systems, our colleagues Matthew Cappucci and Jason Samenow report. To the west, strong winds lofted wispy high-altitude clouds up from an approaching cold front and low-pressure system, while to the east high pressure offshore wiped out any low-level clouds, allowing the rising sun to pour unobstructed rays into the sky.

The sunrise “reflected the adage ‘Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.’ With storms generally approaching from the west at the mid-latitudes and sunrises always in the east, a colorful sunrise typically requires high-level outflow clouds, portending a storm system on the way,” Cappucci and Samenow write.