News Article | April 17, 2017
A couple of weeks back I wrote about the shifting focus of anti-fossil fuel conflict groups in their efforts to impede the nation's energy development in various parts of the country. That focus, which since about 2008 had centered on the boogeyman "fracking", has now shifted to a new, midstream boogeyman in the form of pipelines. When conflict groups have identified a good boogeyman, they flaunt it at every opportunity, and it becomes a rationale for them and their supporting web-based media outlets for stopping whatever other activities they want to stop. Of course, what they really want to stop is all development of fossil fuels. Thus, over the last decade, we have seen minor spills of returned fluids from hydraulic fracturing jobs blown up into a reason to halt all drilling in a given basin or state. Now, we see the same dynamic at work, in which even the smallest event that can (at least seemingly) be attributed to a pipeline forms the rationale for halting all activity in an entire region. That previous piece focused on an incident involving a natural gas pipeline leak in Alaska's Cook Inlet, which is operated by Hilcorp, and the manner in which Hilcorp's efforts to coordinate with regulators to address the issue were distorted by one of those web-based media groups, EcoWatch. Repairs to that pipeline are underway, with no discernible impacts to surrounding wildlife or the environment, but it placed Hilcorp on these groups' radar as a target for exploitation. Sure enough, when Hilcorp properly reported seeing a small sheen of what appeared to be oil off of one of its platforms in the Cook Inlet last week, the conflict groups sprang into action. Within hours of the report, The Center For Biological Diversity (CBD) issued a press release carrying the following breathlessly-worded first paragraph: Thus, a small sheen off a single platform in a vast body of water becomes a rationale for shutting in all oil and natural gas production in the Cook Inlet for what would be a very, very long time. And note the identification of the favored boogeyman "pipelines" as the alleged culprit here, even though there was no evidence at the time that a pipeline was in fact the source of the sheen. More on that later. Shortly after CBD's missive, Lois Epstein, Director of the Wilderness Society's arctic program, published an online op/ed in which she characterized the sheen as coming from an "oil leak from an underwater pipeline". Ms. Epstein then goes on to allege the following: As with the natural gas pipeline leak of a couple of weeks ago, the effort here is to paint the incident in the most negative light possible, ascribing it all to the current boogeyman of preference. Both pieces are also highly critical of Alaska regulators in an effort to pressure them into taking some global action on the basis of a minor isolated incident. Never mind that Alaska's regulators have by all rational accounts performed their jobs quite well in response to both incidents. And here's the kicker: Hilcorp ran an eight-hour pressure test on the pipeline connected to its platform this past Saturday, and the test revealed that the pipeline was not the source of the three gallon leak (no, the initial estimate has not been revised). There was indeed a one-time, very small spill of oil that caused a sheen on the water's surface, but that sheen dissipated so quickly that it was no longer visible to over-flights of the platform a few hours later. So, the boogeyman failed to perform as anticipated. It's important to examine what the consequences would be to Alaskans should these conflict groups get their way , and shut down all offshore exploration and production as a result of a three-gallon spill. The production of oil and natural gas has been the life's blood of the Alaskan economy for more than forty years now. It has provided many thousands of jobs, led to the creation of billions of dollars in economic impacts, funded the majority of the state's government for decades, and in most of those years resulted in significant annual tax refunds to Alaska residents. If the conflict groups get their way, all of that economic benefit to the state would simply disappear, with no viable replacement on the horizon.
News Article | May 3, 2017
A coalition of environmental groups on Wednesday sued the Trump administration over its efforts to expand offshore drilling, arguing the move violates the president’s legal authority, threatens a multitude of wildlife and could harm the fishing and tourism industries. The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Alaska, comes days after President Trump signed an executive order aimed at jump-starting offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, as well as assessing whether energy exploration can take place in marine sanctuaries in the Pacific and Atlantic. The policy could open millions of acres of federal waters for oil and gas leasing, just months after President Barack Obama withdrew the areas from possible development. At a signing Friday in the Roosevelt Room, Trump emphasized that the United States has abundant offshore oil and gas reserves and made clear his intention to tap them if possible. “We’re opening it up,” he said. Wednesday’s lawsuit argues that Trump’s executive order exceeds his constitutional and statutory authority. It notes that Obama used his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Acts to permanently end drilling in much of the Arctic and key parts of the Atlantic but says that no president has ever undone or reversed such a decision and that the law “does not authorize the president to reopen withdrawn areas.” [Trump signs executive order to expand drilling off America’s coasts: ‘We’re opening it up.’] “The permanent protections President Obama established for the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans were won with years of research, lobbying and organizing,” Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. Until Wednesday, his group had never filed a legal challenge. “Offshore drilling and the associated threat of devastating oil spills puts coastal economies and ways of life at risk while worsening the consequences of climate change. Now, President Trump is trying to erase all the environmental progress we’ve made, and we aren’t about to go down without a fight.” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, called Trump’s order an example of his administration’s “single-minded focus on fossil fuel extraction at the expense of every other value.” “Exposing the enormously sensitive ecosystems of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans to the risk of a catastrophic oil spill is playing roulette with the nation’s coasts, wildlife, birds and fish. It is also manifestly illegal,” Clark said in an statement. “No president has ever before tried to undo a previous president’s determination, made under a specific grant of authority from Congress, that ecologically sensitive offshore waters deserve protection from the risks inherent in oil drilling. We do not need and cannot use the oil that may lie under these waters if we ever hope to meet our nation’s commitment to addressing climate change.” Other groups joining the lawsuit include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, the Alaska Wilderness League and the Wilderness Society. A White House official on Wednesday said the administration is “confident that President Trump’s common-sense decision to boost our energy sector will be vindicated in the judicial process.” Even Trump administration officials have acknowledged that it would take a couple of years or longer to rewrite federal leasing plans and open up areas of the Arctic and Atlantic to drilling. And if global oil prices remain low, that could deter investors from pursuing offshore drilling in the near term, despite the administration’s efforts to make more areas eligible for development. That said, the administration and supporters of the president’s approach have argued that future oil demand and prices remain uncertain and that the country ought to keep open the option to drill offshore. Last week, Vice President Pence described the executive order as “an important step toward American energy independence” that would generate additional U.S. jobs. Wednesday’s lawsuit marks the latest effort by activists to challenge the Trump administration’s energy and environmental policies in the courts. Groups such as Earthjustice and others, for example, have filed suits over Trump’s order to approve two pipeline projects and over an order aimed at opening tens of thousands of acres of public lands to coal leasing. They also have opposed other measures, such as efforts to roll back the Obama administration’s key regulation to cut carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants and a move to delay the implementation of tougher standards to limit smog that were finalized in 2015. Also Wednesday, the Sierra Club and other groups sued the head of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency over a recent decision to halt an Obama-era regulation aimed at limiting the dumping of toxic metals such as arsenic and mercury by the nation’s power plants into public waterways. Beginning in 2018, power plants would have had to begin showing that they were using the most up-to-date technology to remove heavy metals — including lead, arsenic, mercury and other pollutants — from their wastewater. But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced last month that the agency would postpone compliance deadlines for the regulation while it reconsiders the rule, which is also being challenged in a federal court. “These standards would have tackled the biggest source of toxic water pollution in the country, and now the Trump EPA is trying to toss them out. It’s indefensible,” Pete Harrison, an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, said in a statement. “The EPA didn’t even pretend to seek public input before plowing ahead with this rollback that could allow millions of pounds of preventable toxic pollution to go into our water.”
News Article | April 28, 2017
President Trump signed an executive order Friday that aims to expand offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, as well as assess whether energy exploration can take place in marine sanctuaries in the Pacific and Atlantic. The “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” will make millions of acres of federal waters eligible for oil and gas leasing, just four months after President Barack Obama withdrew these areas from possible development. In late December, Obama used a little-known provision in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to bar energy exploration in large portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and a string of canyons in the Atlantic stretching from Massachusetts to Virginia. At the signing in the Roosevelt Room, where the audience included Vice President Pence and members of Congress, Trump emphasized that the U.S. has abundant offshore oil and gas reserves, “but the federal government has kept 94 percent of these offshore areas closed for exploration and production, and when they say closed, they mean closed.” Noting that the lawmakers needed to return to Capitol Hill to approve a stopgap measure to keep the federal government open, Trump said, “We can’t spend too much time talking about drilling in the Arctic, right? And we’re opening it up.” Still, even Trump administration officials said it would take years to rewrite federal leasing plans and open up these areas to drilling. And global energy prices may deter investors from moving ahead with additional drilling in the Arctic Ocean in the near term, despite the effort to make more areas eligible for development. Speaking to reporters Thursday night, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said it would likely take about two years to do a thorough review of what new areas could be put up for auction. Still, on Friday, Pence described the order as “an important step toward American energy independence” that would generate additional U.S. jobs. [While Trump might want more offshore drilling, global energy investors will make their own call] Environmental groups decried the policy shift as reckless and possibly illegal. Kristen Miller, interim executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement, “In no point in history has a president challenged another administration’s permanent withdrawals. Trump’s action could set a dangerous precedent, which will only undermine the powers of the office of the president.” And Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, said that when it came to the Arctic, “the chance of a tragic spill in those remote, icy waters is simply too high, and the impacts to marine life and the pristine coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be devastating.” The order, Williams added, “amounts to another brazen power grab for the oil lobby that we, and the American people, will oppose.” Industry officials hailed the new directive as an important corrective to Obama’s overly restrictive approach to energy policy. “We are pleased to see this administration prioritizing responsible U.S. energy development and recognizing the benefits it will bring to American consumers and businesses,” said American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard in a statement. “Developing our abundant offshore energy resources is a critical part of a robust, forward-looking energy policy that will secure our nation’s energy future and strengthen the U.S. energy renaissance. But in a sign of how the oil and gas industry’s economic interests may still be at odds with federal policy, Gerard said, “We must particularly look to and embrace the future development of domestic sources of oil and natural gas in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.” Administration officials, however, said that the order does not require leasing in the eastern Gulf, which many Floridians oppose. Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said the U.S. is the only country in the Atlantic Basin that closes off “94 percent of its Outer Continental Shelf” to exploration. “I’m quite optimistic” about future development, Luthi said. “The Arctic still holds a lot of promise.” Officials in Alaska embrace the idea of expanded offshore drilling, while many in the Southeast — including some prominent Republicans in South Carolina and North Carolina — oppose it. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) applauded the order, saying in a statement, “State governments have been eager to explore offshore, but the Obama administration blocked them from allowing it. Harnessing our nation’s energy resources creates jobs and gives us leverage on the foreign stage. President Trump gets this.” In addition to reviewing what drilling can take place off Alaska and the East Coast, the new directive charges Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to halt the expansion of any new marine sanctuaries and review the designations of any marine national monument established or expanded in the last decade. That includes Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which Obama quadrupled in size last year, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off Massachusetts. According to a White House fact sheet, no national marine sanctuary can be designated or expanded “unless the sanctuary designation or expansion proposal includes a timely, full accounting from the Department of Interior of any energy or mineral resource potential within the designated area and the potential impact the proposed designation or expansion will have on the development of those resources.” Richard Charter, a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation, said in an email that this means the administration could be reviewing the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off the Sonoma and Southern Mendocino Coast, as well as the expansion of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “Each of America’s national marine sanctuaries is the product of decades of bipartisan consultation with elected officials at all levels, ocean businesses, governors, and members of Congress, individually created using sound scientific groundwork to set aside recognized national treasures,” Charter said. “And these waters are clearly the absolute last place Trump should even consider for dangerous offshore drilling.” Zinke told reporters that he understood environmentalists’ worries about expanded drilling. “That’s a valid concern, and a concern the president and I both share,” he said. “America leads the world in environmental protection, and I assure you we will continue that mission.”
News Article | May 17, 2017
A predicted shortage of gas for electricity generation in Australia from 2018 will not eventuate, and the recent surge in domestic prices will not be mitigated by opening up new coal seam gas fields, according to a new report. In March, the Australian Energy Market Operator (Aemo) predicted that without national reform, Australia would face gas shortages, which would drive power outages, in 2018 and 2019. “If we do nothing, we’re going to see shortfalls in gas, we’re going to see shortfalls in electricity,” Aemo’s chief operating officer, Mike Cleary, told the ABC at the time. Despite being described by some as “major”, the actual shortfall of electricity from the gas shortage amounted to the equivalent of less than 24 hours over a 13-year period, according to the new report by Tim Forcey and Dylan McConnell at Melbourne University’s Australian-German climate and energy college. In any case, less than two weeks after Aemo predicted the shortfall, it published an updated forecast of how much electricity would be needed in the period. It downgraded the previous forecast and completely wiped out the predicted shortage. The Melbourne University report, which was commissioned by the Wilderness Society and Lock the Gate, also noted that later in March Shell announced it was proceeding with its “Project Ruby” that involved 161 gas wells in Queensland, and also would have closed the shortage, if it were real. “A lot of people right up to the prime minister got excited, more excited than they should have because Aemo’s gap has already disappeared,” Forcey said. “Just 11 days after Aemo called ‘shortfall’, Aemo then reduced their demand forecasts. That gap everyone got excited about is already gone. It was a short-lived shortfall.” The report acknowledged that while there was no shortage, there was a “gas price crisis”. Wholesale prices have gone up 300% since 2009, driven by several factors including the overconstruction of gas export capacity with contractual export overcommitments, opaque gas market behaviour, and the high costs of coal seam gas. While the federal minister for the environment and energy, Josh Frydenberg, blamed high prices on state-based policies limiting coal seam gas developments, the report says increasing CSG will not drive down prices. “New gas sources are expensive to produce, and in any case, in the sellers’ market that now prevails, domestic wholesale gas prices are linked to international benchmarks,” the report says. It estimates that after transport costs are included, the wholesale cost of gas from new CSG projects is likely to be as high as $9.25 per GJ – higher than the current price of about $9. The report notes that wind and solar could produce cheaper electricity than gas, and if combined with storage, would protect electricity prices from the high gas price. The report concludes: “Gas has often been characterised as a ‘transition fuel’, on the pathway to a zero-emissions power system. The falling costs of renewable energy and storage technologies, the increasing gas cost, and climate change objective suggest this transition is no longer necessary, and indeed a detour.” The Wilderness Society’s national director, Lyndon Schneiders, said Australia needed to embrace renewable energy rather than push expensive and environmentally destructive coal seam gas. “Aemo and the Turnbull government have used this confected crisis to push gas expansion, backing such environmentally destructive gas schemes as Santos’s Narrabri coal seam gas scheme, which threaten NSW’s last great inland forest, the Pilliga, the surrounding productive Narrabri farmland and the Great Artesian basin, inland Australia’s essential water source,” he said.
News Article | May 10, 2017
This story has been updated. The Senate on Wednesday narrowly blocked a resolution to repeal an Obama-era rule restricting methane emissions from drilling operations on public lands — with three Republicans joining every Democrat to preserve the rule. The 51-to-49 vote on a procedural motion marked the first time since Trump’s election that Republicans have failed in their attempt to use the Congressional Review Act to overturn Obama-era rules. Thirteen other resolutions, based on the 1996 law that allows Congress to overturn rules within 60 legislative workdays of their adoption, have succeeded. Thursday is the deadline for using the Congressional Review Act this way. The methane emissions rule, issued by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management in November, addresses a potent greenhouse gas that is accelerating climate change. The rule would force oil and gas companies to capture methane that had been previously burned off or “flared” at drilling sites. According to federal estimates, the rule would prevent roughly 180,000 tons a year of methane from escaping into the atmosphere and would boost federal revenue between $3 million and $13 million a year because firms only pay royalties on the oil and gas they capture and contain. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) unexpectedly voted no against a motion to proceed with consideration of the resolution, along with GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). Two Democrats who had considered backing the rule’s elimination — Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — voted against the motion, and sent a letter asking Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to make it less burdensome. In a floor speech after the vote, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), said “the very first victory” lawmakers have had in beating back a Congressional Review Act bill this year came from a combination of Democratic unity and a few Republicans’ willingness to buck their leadership. “Thank you so much for coming forward and seeing the common-sense nature of this issue,” Udall said, referring to Collins, Graham and McCain. [Earth could break through a major climate threshold in the next 15 years, scientists warn] Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, hailed the vote as an example of how grass-roots organizing can work. “In recent months, thousands of Americans asked the Senate to stand up for clean air and against the oil lobby, and their efforts were successful today,” he said. Republicans and industry officials said they would now switch their focus to getting the Interior Department to rewrite the rule, and Trump officials confirmed Thursday they would seek to either change or pull it back altogether. Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said his group “looks forward to working with the Interior Department on a targeted, meaningful solution that will achieve the common goal of ensuring the American taxpayers receive a fair and equitable return in the form of royalties while developing a workable regulation, instead of this one-size-fits-all approach.” [EPA dismisses half of key board’s scientific advisers; Interior suspends more than 200 advisory panels] And Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a statement that Interior should withdraw the regulation outright. “If left in place, this regulation will only discourage energy production, job creation, and economic opportunity across the West.” Kate MacGregor, Interior’s acting assistant secretary for land and minerals, said in a statement that as part of President Trump’s energy plan and related executive order, Interior “has reviewed and flagged the Waste Prevention rule as one we will suspend, revise or rescind given its significant regulatory burden that encumbers American energy production, economic growth and job creation.” “The vote today in the Senate doesn’t impact the administration’s commitment to spurring investment in responsible energy development and ensuring smart regulatory protections,” she added. Before this year, Congress had only nullified one rule, a regulation on ergonomics former president Bill Clinton enacted during his final year in office. In less than four months, Republicans have wiped away rules covering everything from limits on the dumping of waste from surface-mining operations to enlarging states’ power to offer retirement accounts to private-sector workers. But the move to strike a rule requiring companies to limit the practice of flaring, or leaking, methane from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal land had given some Republicans — who control 52 seats in the Senate — pause. Many Republicans and fossil-fuel producers criticized the regulation after it was finalized last year, and a resolution to repeal it passed quickly in the House of Representatives at the end of January. But despite Trump’s support, the repeal measure had been sitting in the Senate for months. It had to pass by Thursday to be eligible to be signed into law. Democrats, as well as environmental and public-health groups, ran a months-long campaign to persuade Heitkamp and Manchin not to disclose their position publicly while arguing to centrist Republicans that abolishing the rule would cost taxpayers money as well as harm the environment. [Trump undertakes the most ambitious regulatory rollback since Reagan] Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also remained on the fence until Monday, when he announced in a statement that he would vote to overturn the BLM regulation. Two other wavering Republicans, Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Dean Heller (Nev.), ultimately joined Portman in voting to proceed with the bill’s consideration. “Unfortunately, the previous administration’s methane rule was not a balanced approach,” Portman said. “As written, it would have hurt our economy and cost jobs in Ohio by forcing small independent operators to close existing wells and slowing responsible energy production on federal lands. There’s a better way.” He added that he believes the Interior Department should still work to reduce venting and flaring on public lands. Last week, Portman wrote to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, calling for a commitment that the department would continue to work to reduce methane waste if the Obama rule were reversed. On May 4, Zinke responded, affirming that “the Department is committed to reducing methane waste, and under my leadership, we will take important steps to accomplish this goal.” Environmentalists urged Portman to reconsider. In a statement on Tuesday, Environmental Defense Action Fund Executive Director Fred Krupp said Zinke’s assurances were “unfounded” and argued that the strategies for reducing methane waste outlined in his letter would have little impact. A coalition of industry groups have argued that they are taking steps to reduce fugitive methane emissions because they recognize capturing them can yield additional profits. The American Petroleum Institute noted that the Environmental Protection Agency data, released in March, shows about an 8 percent drop in methane emissions from petroleum production since 2014, largely because of improved gas venting and flaring techniques. The legislative window for Congressional Review Act resolutions to be considered ends Thursday, though a handful of conservative analysts believe that agencies’ failure to submit a two-page report on previous rules to Congress could open the door to reconsideration of dozens of much older rules. Curtis W. Copeland, a regulatory expert who specialized in American government at the Congressional Research Service, said in an email that regardless of how many rules this Congress ultimately overturns, “The CRA can no longer be described as ‘obscure’ or ‘little known.’ It now has to be viewed as a substantive tool of congressional oversight regarding an outgoing President’s rules, and it is likely be used again in the future.” ‘We all knew this was coming’: Alaska’s thawing soils are now pouring carbon dioxide into the air New EPA documents reveal even deeper proposed cuts to staff and programs For more, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter here and follow us on Twitter here.
News Article | May 10, 2017
A pumpjack brings oil to the surface in the Monterey Shale, California, in a file photo. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Wednesday rejected a resolution to revoke an Obama-era rule to limit methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands, dealing a blow to President Donald Trump's efforts to free the drilling industry from what he sees as excessive environmental regulation. The Congressional Review Act resolution received just 49 votes after Republican leaders scrambled for weeks to secure the 51 needed to pass it. The resolution would have revoked the rule and prevented similar regulations from being introduced. Getting the Trump administration to repeal the BLM rule had been a top priority of the oil and gas industry. Companies said it was unnecessary, would could cost them tens of thousands of dollars per well and hinder production. But not all Republicans supported the measure, in part because it would have made regulating methane waste more difficult in the future. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona made a surprise vote against the resolution, joining fellow Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine in opposition to torpedo it. "While I am concerned that the BLM rule may be onerous, passage of the resolution would have prevented the federal government, under any administration, from issuing a rule that is ‘similar’," McCain said in a statement. He said the Interior Department should issue a new rule on to replace the existing one on methane leaks, which he called a public health and air quality issue. The rule, finalized by President Barack Obama in his last weeks in office, updated 30-year-old regulations that govern flaring, venting and natural gas leaks from oil and gas production. Obama's administration said it would preserve up to 41 billion cubic feet (BCF) of natural gas per year that is currently lost to leaks and flaring. The American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups have said the methane rule is unnecessary because companies have made strides in reducing leaks on their own. "The rule could impede U.S. energy production while reducing local and federal revenues," said Erik Milito, API's Upstream and Industry Operations Group Director. Members of the Western Energy Alliance, which include Devon Energy , Whiting Petroleum and EOG Resources had also been strongly opposed to the rule. Environmental groups hailed what they depicted as a rare victory for the environment after several regulatory rollbacks by the Trump administration. “In recent months, thousands of Americans asked the Senate to stand up for clean air and against the oil lobby, and their efforts were successful today," said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society. The Western Values Project estimated that if the rule had been rescinded, the U.S. Treasury would have lost out on $800 million in lost potential royalties from leaked or vented natural gas over the next decade. Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works who supported the resolution to kill the rule, called on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to act unilaterally to revoke it.
News Article | May 10, 2017
FILE - In this Oct. 22, 2015 file photo, workers tend to oil pump jacks behind a natural gas flare near Watford City, N.D. The Republican-controlled Congress is moving to overturn an Obama administration rule intended to clamp down on oil companies that burn off natural gas during drilling operations on public lands. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File) WASHINGTON (AP) — In a surprising win for environmentalists and Democrats and a blow to the fossil-fuel industry, the Senate on Wednesday failed in a bid to reverse an Obama-era regulation restricting harmful methane emissions that escape from oil and gas wells on federal land. The vote was 51-49 in the Republican-led Senate with three GOP lawmakers — Maine's Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona — joining forces with the Democrats to block efforts to overturn the rule. Graham and Collins had publicly opposed the repeal effort, but McCain's vote surprised many on both sides of the debate. McCain said in a statement he is concerned that the Interior Department rule may be "onerous," but said passage of a resolution undoing the rule through the Congressional Review Act would have prevented the federal government from issuing a similar rule in the future. "I believe that the public interest is best served if the Interior Department issues a new rule to revise and improve the (existing) methane rule" administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management, McCain said. The Obama administration finalized a rule in November that would force energy companies to capture methane that's burned off or "flared" at drilling sites because it earns less money than oil. Energy companies frequently "flare" or burn off vast supplies of methane — the primary component of natural gas — at drilling sites because it earns less money than oil. An estimated $330 million a year in natural gas is wasted through leaks or intentional releases — enough to power about 5 million homes a year. Gas flaring is so prevalent in oil-rich North Dakota that night-time flaring activity on drilling sites is visible in NASA photos from space. For months, Republicans have rammed through reversals of rules issued by President Barack Obama on issues including gun rights, coal production, hunting and money for family planning clinics. The GOP has used the previously obscure Congressional Review Act, which requires just a simple majority in both chambers to overturn rules recently imposed by the executive branch. The latest target was the Interior Department rule on methane. A coalition of groups with ties to the fossil-fuel industry and the conservative Koch Brothers had waged a public campaign to overturn the rule, which they said would decrease energy production on federal lands, raise energy costs and eliminate jobs. Republicans and industry groups call the rule an example of federal overreach under Obama and say it duplicates state rules in place throughout the West. Democrats and environmental groups countered that the rule protects the public health and generates millions of dollars in revenue for state, local and tribal governments. Gleeful Democrats hailed the vote as a breakthrough in the GOP-controlled Congress. "Today's vote is a win for American taxpayers, a win for public health and a win for our climate," said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. "Rejecting this Republican attempt to allow oil and gas companies to continue wasting natural gas owned by the American people will ensure that American taxpayers will not get burned. And it will ensure we don't lose control of managing methane emissions on public lands that contribute to climate change." The American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry's top lobbying group, called the Senate vote disappointing, but said in a statement it looks forward to working with the Trump administration on policies to boost energy production. Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, an environmental group that had pushed to defend the Obama rule, said the Senate vote was the result of grassroots efforts by voters across the country. "In recent months, thousands of Americans asked the Senate to stand up for clean air and against the oil lobby, and their efforts were successful today," Williams said. For more news videos visit Yahoo View, available now on iOS and Android.
News Article | January 31, 2017
Now that Republicans have quietly drawn a path to give away much of Americans’ public land, US representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah has introduced what the Wilderness Society is calling “step two” in the GOP’s plan to offload federal property. The new piece of legislation would direct the interior secretary to immediately sell off an area of public land the size of Connecticut. In a press release for House Bill 621, Chaffetz, a Tea Party Republican, claimed that the 3.3m acres of national land, maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), served “no purpose for taxpayers”. But many in the 10 states that would lose federal land in the bill disagree, and public land rallies in opposition are bringing together environmentalists and sportsmen across the west. Set aside for mixed use, BLM land is leased for oil, gas and timber, but is also open to campers, cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts. As well as providing corridors for gray wolves and grizzly bears, low-lying BLM land often makes up the winter pasture for big game species, such as elk, pronghorn and big-horned sheep. Jason Amaro, who represents the south-west chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, describes the move as a land grab. “Last I checked, hunters and fishermen were taxpayers,” said Amaro, who lives in a New Mexico county where 70,000 acres of federal lands are singled out. In total, his state, which sees $650m in economic activity from hunting and fishing, stands to lose 800,000 acres of BLM land, or more than the state of Rhode Island. “That word ‘disposal’ is scary. It’s not ‘disposable’ for an outdoorsman,” he said. Scott Groene, a Utah conservationist, said the state’s elected officials were trying to “seize public lands any way they can”, without providing Americans a chance to weigh in. If residents knew their local BLM land was being threatened, said Groene, “I’m sure the communities would be shocked”. Chaffetz introduced the bill alongside a second piece of legislation that would strip the BLM and the US Forest Service of law enforcement capabilities, a move in line with the Utah delegation’s opposition to all federal land management. “The other bill hamstrings our ability to manage and ensure that our public lands are being kept safe,” said Bobby McEnaney of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “When you have those two combined, it’s a fairly cynical approach to how public lands can be managed.” The 10 states affected are Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. Residents can see how much acreage is earmarked for “disposal” in their counties by checking a PDF on Chaffetz’s website. Due to a controversial change this month to the House of Representatives’ rules, the sale does not have to make money for the federal government. A representative for the interior department, Mike Pool, who weighed in on a version of the bill in 2011, said selling those 3.3m acres “would be unlikely to generate revenue”. A Republican conservation group in Utah likened it at the time to “selling the house to pay the light bill”. The acreage identified is drawn from a 1997 survey conducted by the Clinton administration, which sought to identify potential offsets to revive the Florida Everglades after decades of pollution from the sugar cane industry. The actual language of the 1997 survey, which did not result in land being sold, prefaced its findings with a caution: “Please note many lands identified appear to have conflicts which may preclude them from being considered for disposal or exchange.” The vast majority of the thousands of parcels have “impediments to disposal”, according to the survey, including hosting endangered species and wetlands or having “cultural significance”. Barack Obama created at least two federal protections in counties with large swathes of BLM land now designated for disposal: New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monument, in 2014, and Utah’s Bears Ears national monument, in 2016. Arizona’s Parashant national monument, near the Grand Canyon, was designated by Bill Clinton in 2000 and also sits in a marked county. A spokesperson for Chaffetz said he was not available for comment. To outdoorsmen like Amaro, selling off individual parcels of national land creates a “multiplier problem”, where a small parcel of land turned private can cut off access for many. That’s what happened in Coronado national forest, he said. Ten acres that led on to hundreds of thousands of acres of public property were turned into state trust land. “Access has been eliminated for much of the forest. The private landowners now effectively have their own private hunting preserves by not allowing public hunters a way into the national forest,” Amaro said. Chaffetz’s proposal might in fact be in violation of the common-law Public Trust Doctrine, which requires that the federal government keep and manage national resources for all Americans. Courts have upheld the policy that sale or use must be in Americans’ interest. John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers in Missoula, Montana, said the Utah representatives were pushing the bills despite their proven unpopularity. “It’s not only an assault on our traditions,” Gale said. “It’s the idea that they’re stealing that from our children.”
News Article | February 15, 2017
As Republican members of Congress continue their efforts to overturn federal regulations passed under the Obama administration, they are now taking aim at the process for managing public lands. In the past few weeks, Congress has introduced a number of resolutions under an obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act, which could undo multiple environmental rules finalized last year. And one of the latest to come up for the chopping block is a regulation passed late last year by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), intended to make federal land use planning more efficient and accessible to the public. A resolution to nullify the rule has already passed in the House and may soon come to a vote in the Senate. The regulation — commonly known as the BLM Planning 2.0 rule — was meant to address concerns about the time and transparency associated with land planning processes, which can include everything from decisions about energy development on public lands to the protection of endangered wildlife. The final rule expands the process of gathering data and information for decision-making processes, allowing for greater and earlier public input on land planning decisions and calling for decisions to be based on the best available science. Upon its finalization, BLM officials claimed that the rule would help decisions to be made more quickly, in a way that better reflects the condition of the land and the concerns of affected communities at the time the plans are carried out. “Under the current system, it takes an average of eight years for the BLM to finish a land use plan,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze in a statement at the time. “Too often, by the time we’ve completed a plan, community priorities have evolved and conditions on the ground have changed as well. This update to our planning rule allows for a more streamlined process that also increases collaboration and transparency.” But critics have claimed that the rule reduces the authority of county commissioners and other local land managers and undermines local interests. Last week, a letter from the Western Governors’ Association to members of Congress expressed concern about the involvement of state governors in resource management plans moving forward, as well as the rule’s potential to favor national objectives over state interests. The letter urged Congress to direct the BLM to reexamine the regulation. Under the new resolution, however, the rule would not just be revisited — it would be done away with entirely, with a provision prohibiting any substantially similar rule from ever being enacted again without congressional approval. President Trump has already indicated his intention to sign the resolution should it pass through Congress. It’s the second major BLM rule to be targeted for repeal under the Congressional Review Act. The first was a highly controversial regulation aimed at curbing excess methane emissions from oil and gas operations on public lands — it was pinned as a likely target for action under the Trump administration nearly as soon as it was passed in November. This resolution is also awaiting a vote in the Senate. The Planning 2.0 rule has received somewhat quieter pushback since it was finalized in December, making it a slightly more surprising target for congressional action. It was not pegged by experts as an early priority for repeal, nor was it included in an initial report from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), head of the House Freedom Caucus, containing a comprehensive list of rules and regulations Congress should focus on overturning in the new administration’s first 100 days. However, the rule was included on a list of targets for action under the Congressional Review Act compiled by the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of Republican lawmakers representing the Western states. “We already think that Congress has spent way too much time on this planning rule, which should be a nonissue and noncontroversial,” said Phil Hanceford, assistant director of the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “I’m not saying that people’s complaints or problems with the rule aren’t valid, but they can be fixed through very surgical means.” He added that the previous Congress held three hearings on the rule before it was finalized, two in the House and one in the Senate, and that “we were surprised that they spent that much time on the rule in the first place.” However, some groups have hailed the congressional action. Ethan Lane, executive director of federal lands with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a statement last week that the rule was a “massive regulatory overreach” and that the new congressional resolution represented a “huge victory for America’s cattle producers and a sign that some common sense is finally being restored in Washington.” But environmentalists have maintained that concerns about specific provisions of the rule could still be addressed administratively by the BLM, instead of subjecting the entire regulation to the chopping block. “If the planning rule is overturned by the CRA, then we go back to the out-of-date, inefficient way of planning for public lands that everybody has complained about for decades,” Hanceford said.
News Article | March 1, 2017
Editor’s note [03/01/2017]: On March 1, the Senate confirmed Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary. Read the resurfaced article below for insight into Zinke’s views on public lands and the environment. Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Interior, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (R), started his confirmation hearing Tuesday by aligning himself with one of the giants of American conservation. “Upfront, I am an unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt,” Zinke said, adding that Roosevelt “had it right” when he protected millions of acres of federal lands and created the U.S. Forest Service. With a right-wing movement to wrestle control of public lands from the federal government gaining momentum, Zinke’s rhetoric offered conservationists some measure of comfort. The question now, many say, is whether Zinke will walk—not just talk—like Roosevelt, balancing conservation and development on public lands. “While he continues to paint himself as a modern Teddy Roosevelt, his very short voting record shows him repeatedly siding with industry,” says the Sierra Club’s Matthew Kirby, who works on western public lands issues. According to the League of Conservation Voters, only 3 percent of Zinke’s votes in Congress qualify as “pro-environment,” Oil and gas organizations like the Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association of America applauded Zinke’s nomination, but conservation-minded hunting and fishing groups welcomed it, too. Zinke, in other words, is a bit hard to box in. If confirmed, he will be responsible for a large and diverse department. Most of the federal agencies responsible for managing public lands and wildlife are housed within the Department of the Interior, including the National Park Service; the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages lands for recreation, mining and energy development; and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which works to recover endangered species. The department oversees 500 million acres in total, or about a fifth of the land in the U.S. Most of that land lies in the U.S. West, and it is an unwritten rule that the Interior secretary post goes to a westerner. Zinke has served only one term in Congress and does not have a deep record on natural resources policy, but he is an outdoorsman who learned to hunt on public lands and therefore recognizes their value for recreation and wildlife. He is also from a state where fossil-fuel production on public lands is a cornerstone of the economy, and he believes Pres. Barack Obama’s administration has been too tough on the industry. Zinke’s views on easing energy development on public lands seem largely in line with his party. During Tuesday’s hearing, for instance, Zinke told Sen. John Barrasso he would support the Wyoming Republican’s effort to scrap a recently finalized BLM rule to limit methane waste from oil and gas drilling. Methane is a greenhouse gas as well as a source of energy, but it is often vented or burned as waste in drilling fields where the infrastructure does not exist to capture it and move it to market. The BLM rule would limit venting and flaring, and allow taxpayers to earn royalties on methane now treated as waste. Industry opposes the rule as unnecessary and expensive whereas environmental groups and the Obama administration say it is common sense. Peter Aengst, who works in Montana with the Wilderness Society, says the methane rule is one of the ways in which the Obama administration tried to modernize energy policy on public lands. “The Trump administration has vowed to unravel those (reforms),” he says. “That’s where I think Ryan Zinke is probably most concerning for those of us who care about the wise management of our public lands.” Zinke’s stances on some other big issues he will face as head of Interior are much murkier. He said Tuesday that he would work to restore trust between federal land managers and local communities, promising to be a “listener” rather than a “deaf adversary.” He repeatedly emphasized the need for more collaboration between the feds and locals. But as a congressman he opposed the Obama administration’s attempt to collaborate with states to keep the greater sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act. The bird is found in 11 western states, and a listing could have led to significant restrictions on land use across more than a hundred million acres. Instead, the administration developed state-based conservation plans that built on existing state efforts to protect the bird. “It’s an unprecedented engagement that happened with private landowners and with state agencies to make sure that bird was not listed,” says Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a Montana-based group that advocates for public lands access and wildlife protections. “Those plans need to be implemented.” Zinke dodged a question on how he would handle sage grouse protections at his hearing. It is similarly unclear where he will come down on controversial national monuments designated by Obama, such as Bears Ears. Utah’s congressional delegation is pressuring Trump to rescind the monument—an unprecedented, and possibly illegal, move—and Zinke would presumably be a close adviser on any changes to the monument. Both Aengst and Tawney are encouraged by a few of Zinke’s other positions, particularly his flat opposition to selling or transferring public lands to states or private interests, along with his support for permanently authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which funnels oil and gas royalties to projects that promote recreation, wildlife habitat, parks and wilderness. Zinke also said addressing the maintenance backlog at national parks would be one of his top priorities, indicating that money to keep up roads, trails and toilets in the parks should be included in the infrastructure bill President-Elect Donald Trump has promised. All in all, Tawney is optimistic, and expects sportsmen to have a voice in Zinke’s Interior Department. “He’s a straight shooter,” Tawney says. “We’re not going to agree on everything but at least you know where he sits and we can have a conversation.” Others in the conservation community remain skeptical. Kirby argues that opposition to selling off public lands should be a prerequisite for any Interior secretary, not a note of distinction. “You don’t get brownie points for that.” But context does matter. In a different political climate it might not have been newsworthy that Zinke went on record Tuesday saying climate change was not “a hoax” and humans had a role in causing it. Similarly, opposition to disposing of federal lands was not a given among the candidates Trump considered for the job. Zinke is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate.