Trump administration moves to open 1.6 million acres to fracking, drilling in California

Ending a five-year moratorium, the Trump administration Wednesday took a first step toward opening 1.6 million acres of California public land to fracking and conventional oil drilling, triggering alarm bells among environmentalists.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management said it’s considering new oil and natural gas leases on BLM-managed lands in Fresno, San Luis Obispo and six other San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast counties. Meanwhile, activists in San Luis Obispo are pushing a ballot measure this fall to ban fracking and new oil exploration in the county.

If BLM goes ahead with the plan, it would mark the first time since 2013 that the agency has issued a new lease for oil or gas exploration in California, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which immediately vowed to fight the move. California is the nation’s fourth largest oil-producing state, after Texas, North Dakota and Alaska, with much of the production concentrated in the southern San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

The Trump administration is trying to “sell off our public lands again,” said Clare Lakewood, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. The federal government oversees about 15 million acres of public lands in California, and leases some of them for private use by contractors.

Lakewood said environmentalists are particularly concerned about the possibility of a big increase in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial process of extracting oil or gas by injecting chemicals or other liquids into subterranean rocks. The notice released Wednesday by the BLM, which allows for 30 days of public comment, specifically seeks “public input on issues and planning criteria related to hydraulic fracturing.”

Environmentalists say fracking can contaminate groundwater and increase earthquake risks, and they’ve called on Gov. Jerry Brown to ban the practice. The energy industry says there’s no evidence of environmental harm from fracking. The U.S. Geological Survey says that, when “conducted properly,” poses little risk to groundwater.

Kara Siepmann of the Western States Petroleum Association, the leading oil lobby in California, said the association is “supportive of BLM beginning the comprehensive evaluation and scoping process of federal lands in California.” Rock Zierman of the California Independent Petroleum Association, whose members include smaller oil companies, said expanded production could reduce the state’s growing dependence on imported oil.

Although Brown has allowed fracking to continue, the Legislature has passed a law that requires energy producers to get additional permitting if they practice fracking. And earlier this year, when the Trump administration began the process of repealing all federal regulations of fracking, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the administration.

Fracking has become a hot-button issue in particular in San Luis Obispo County, where county supervisors placed a measure on the November ballot that would ban new oil wells and new fracking operations in unincorporated regions of the county.

The measure’s leading proponent, Charles Varni of the Coalition to Protect San Luis Obispo County, said he was angered to hear of the Bureau of Land Management’s decision, which would affect pockets of land throughout the county but primarily in the eastern and northwestern areas.

“We don’t want to see any expansion of oil and gas extraction in San Luis Obispo County,” he said. “We want to protect our groundwater resources for higher uses.”

A relatively small amount of oil is produced on private land in the Price Canyon area of San Luis Obispo County.

Varni acknowledged that his ballot measure, if passed by voters, would have no impact on energy production on federally-managed lands.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the federal government hasn’t opened any new energy leases in California since 2013, when a federal judge ruled the Bureau of Land Management violated federal environmental laws by issuing oil leases in Monterey County without studying the impact of fracking.

Trump to Seek Repeal of California’s Smog-Fighting Power

The Trump administration will seek to revoke California’s authority to regulate automobile greenhouse gas emissions — including its mandate for electric car sales — in a proposed revision of Obama-era standards, according to three people familiar with the plan.

The proposal, expected to be released this week, amounts to a frontal assault on one of former President Barack Obama’s signature regulatory programs to curb greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. It also sets up a high-stakes battle over California’s unique ability to combat air pollution and, if finalized, is sure to set off a protracted courtroom battle.

The proposed revamp would also put the brakes on federal rules to boost fuel efficiency into the next decade, said the people, who asked to not be identified discussing the proposals before they are public. Instead it will cap federal fuel economy requirements at the 2020 level, which under federal law must be at least a 35-mile-per-gallon fleet average, rather than letting them rise to roughly 50 mpg by 2025 as envisioned in the plan left behind by Obama, according to the people.

As part of the effort, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will propose revoking the Clean Air Act waiver granted to California that has allowed the state to regulate carbon emissions from vehicle tailpipes and force carmakers to sell electric vehicles in the state in higher numbers, according to three people familiar with the plan.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will likewise assert that California is barred from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from autos under the 1975 law that established the first federal fuel-efficiency requirements, the people said.

The proposal is still in the final stages of a broad interagency review led by President Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, but these major elements of the plan were not expected to change, the people said.

Messages seeking comment from OMB, NHTSA and the EPA were not immediately returned. California Air Resources Board head Mary Nichols declined to comment. Once the agencies formally unveil the proposal, the public will have a chance to weigh in, with those comments used to develop a final rule that could be implemented as soon as the end of the year.

Although the proposal will outline other options, the administration will put its weight behind the dramatic overhaul, including the revocation of California’s cherished authority, the people said.

The state’s 2009 waiver under the Clean Air Act has allowed California to set emissions rules for cars and trucks that are more stringent than the federal government’s. But the state has aligned its rules with those set by the EPA and NHTSA in a so-called national program of clean-car rules. Negotiations toward another set of harmonized rules has not yet yielded agreement.

If Trump’s plan sticks, it could be his biggest regulatory rollback yet. Agencies are expected to claim it will reduce traffic fatalities by making it cheaper for drivers to replace older, less-safe cars, while paring sticker prices for new vehicles even if motorists have to spend more for gasoline.

California, for its part, rejects the idea that its 48-year ability to write its own tailpipe emission rules should end. “We have the law on our side, as well as the people of the country and the people of the world,” said Dan Sperling, a member of the state’s Air Resources Board.

The most-populous U.S. state and 16 others plus the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit on May 2 seeking to block the Trump administration’s effort to unravel the Obama-era emissions targets. Sperling said that number will grow as more and more people come to realize how fundamentally Trump is attacking the idea of states’ rights.

Caught somewhere in the middle are automakers, which in recent months have stressed they would not support freezing the federal targets and want Washington and Sacramento to continue linking their vehicle efficiency goals. While they spent the first year of the Trump administration attacking Obama’s rules as too costly, they fear the regulatory uncertainty that a years-long court battle over a rollback would create. In addition, other major auto markets such as China and Europe are pressing forward with tougher mandates of their own for cleaner cars.

“This is nothing less than an outrageous attack on public health and states’ rights,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “It’s a dumb move for an administration that claims it wants peace, because this will lead to an emissions war: progressive states versus a reactionary federal government. The big question: who will the car companies back?”

Some conservatives have long chafed at the rare authority granted California and welcome the effort to revoke.

“Congress didn’t intend for California to set national fuel economy standards,” said Steve Milloy, a policy adviser for the Heartland Institute, a group critical of climate science. “It’s nutty it’s been allowed to develop. National fuel economy standards are set by the federal government so that’s what we are going to do.”

[Bloomberg]

Trump’s EPA rolls back Obama-era coal ash regulations

The Trump administration announced Wednesday that it is relaxing rules for the disposal of spent coal used to fuel hundreds of power plants nationwide.

But environmental groups say the rollback of coal ash storage regulations established by the Obama administration in 2015 could affect drinking water near dozens of sites.

Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club’s deputy legislative director for land and water, said legal action was being considered. “We are pouring through the rule change see what our next steps might be,” she said

The coal industry petitioned the Trump administration for the roll back, announced by Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler — a former lobbyist for the coal industry.

It’s not like EPA has granted us free pass here,” said James Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Advisory Group, an industry organization that had pushed for the changes. “It just gives us additional time to operate those facilities and better synch them up” with the upcoming wastewater guidelines.

The EPA states that the relaxed rules will save affected utility companies $28 to $31 million a year in regulatory costs.

These amendments provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs.”

The EPA extended the time by 18 months that the industry can use unlined coal ash ponds and groundwater-adjacent sites for dumping. The Obama administration sought to phase out those sites by April 2019.

The unlined ponds are considered by environmentalists to be the worst offenders for polluting groundwater that sometimes is tapped for drinking.

“The Trump administration is turing a blind eye to damage done to our drinking water,” said Lisa Evans, senior counsel for environmental group Earthjustice. “This is aimed at saving industry money instead of protecting the public.”

[NBC News]

EPA’s Pruitt Made Young Staffers Pay for His Hotel Stays, Then Refused to Reimburse Them

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, already famously scandal-ridden, made even more ridiculously ethically questionable decisions than were previously known, the Washington Post reported on Monday.

Two top Pruitt aides spoke to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about even more of what the administrator asked staffers to do for his personal gain, including pressuring them to arrange first-class travel for him and to find a six-figure job for his wife – all this against the counsel of many of his allies.

The new information comes after EPA’s chief ethics officer, Kevin Minoli, told the Office of Government Ethics last week that he thought the investigation into Pruitt should be broadened, saying: “additional potential issues regarding Mr. Pruitt have come to my attention through sources within the EPA and media reports,” the Washington Post reports.

Amazingly, a current and former EPA official also revealed that Pruitt would ask his assistants to put hotel reservations on their own personal credit cards – not his – on a routine basis.

According to former deputy chief of staff Kevin Chmielewski, during the presidential transition one staffer charged approximately $600 to her credit card for a hotel booking for Pruitt’s family. The staffer later approached Pruitt’s chief of staff to explain that the period for transition reimbursements had expired and that Pruitt had not covered the bill.

As the Hill first reported, Pruitt’s chief of staff ended up giving her $600 in cash – out of his own pocket.

“She literally went to Ryan and said, ‘Look, Pruitt needs to pay me back for this. It was $600 bucks.’ And Ryan took six $100 dollar bills out of his pocket,” Chmielewski told the Hill last month.

Scotty, for the love of God, man. There’s only so long the entirety of civilization can look down upon you. I hear in Oklahoma, the wind comes right behind the rain – neither of which may be around for too much longer if you stick around the Capitol.

[Mediaite]

Utah oil drillers won pollution break from Pruitt

Utah oil and gas producers tried for years to get the EPA to exempt them from smog rules meant to prevent ailments like asthma.

They finally got their relief after Scott Pruitt took charge of the agency, newly released emails show.

To groups opposed to President Donald Trump’s policies, the records are yet another sign that Pruitt has transformed an agency created to protect the environment into a tool for granting favors to industry. They say that’s troubling even if it falls short of the overt collusion his critics have accused him of amid revelations about his ties to lobbyists who helped him arrange housing and travel.

“The public is being shut out of the decisions that affect the air we all breathe while polluters have Pruitt at their beck and call whenever they ask to throw out a life-saving protection,” said Matt Gravatt, the associate legislative director at the Sierra Club, which obtained the emails in a lawsuit over a public records request.

EPA’s aid for the oil and gas companies in Utah came after an industry lobbyist, Marc Himmelstein, a former American Petroleum Institute executive with longstandingconnectionsto top GOP fundraisers, enlisted help from another like-minded Republican, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who has pushed legislation to promote oil and gas development and ease permitting requirements.

Himmelstein coordinated a July 2017 phone call between the Utah lawmakers and Pruitt, offering specific talking points for Bishop to use, according to the records obtained in a lawsuit by the Sierra Club.

EPA was set to declare that the tribal land in the Uinta Basin in Utah was not meeting standards for smog, or ozone pollution. Once that happened, oil and gas producers wouldn’t be able to use a streamlined permitting process and would instead have to seek approval for each of the thousands of wells they aim to drill there.

“We ask the Agency to develop a streamlined permitting solution for future development of the Basin,” Himmelstein’s talking points for Bishop said.

In April, EPA proposed just that.

[Politico]

Whistleblower says Pruitt kept secret calendar to hide meetings with industry reps

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt and his aides maintained “secret” calendars in order to prevent controversial meetings or calls with industry representatives getting out publicly, according to a CNN report.

The news outlet reported on Monday that the findings were revealed by a former EPA official who is scheduled to testify before Congress soon.

The report says that EPA staffers consistently met in Pruitt’s office to go through a process in which they would either remove or alter records from the EPA chief’s calendar. Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, reportedly said the reasoning for this was because the meetings could “look bad.”

The scrubbing led to a noticeable difference between Pruitt’s public calendar and what internal EPA schedules and emails show. CNN notes that more than two dozen meetings, events or calls were removed from his public calendar.

Chmielewski, who said he was forced to leave the agency in February because he questioned its spending and management, said some meetings were purposefully omitted from Pruitt’s calendar after they happened. For example, Pruitt’s meeting with Cardinal George Pell, who faces multiple historical charges of sexual offenses, was removed from the calendar.

“We would have meetings what we were going to take off on the official schedule. We had at one point three different schedules. One of them was one that no one else saw except three or four of us,” Chmielewski told CNN. “It was a secret … and they would decide what to nix from the public calendar.”

CNN noted that if the allegations are true, the EPA’s practice of removing or altering public calendars could violate federal law.

[The Hill]

Trump admin tightens media access for federal scientists

The Trump administration is directing federal scientists in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to get approval from the Department of the Interior, its parent agency, before speaking to reporters, according to the Los Angeles Times.

USGS employees interviewed by the L.A. Times said the policy is a departure from decades of past media practices that allowed scientists to quickly respond to media requests. The employees said that the new policy will significantly undermine this.

A spokesperson for Interior disputed this description of the policy to the L.A. Times, saying that “the characterization that there is any new policy or that it for some reason targets scientists is completely false.”

Deputy press secretary for the Department of the Interior, Faith Vander Voort, told the outlet that Interior had only asked the USGS public affairs office to follow 2012 media guidelines established under former President Obama.

The guidelines say Interior’s communications office must be notified ahead of some types of interviews but does not say that scientists must get approval before speaking with reporters as an internal email obtained by the L.A. Times indicates.

The employees said that they believe the new policies were established to control the voices of Interior employees. They believe the move is a part of larger efforts to quell discourse about climate change, which the agency has produced research on.

[The Hill]

Trump rescinds Obama policy protecting oceans

President Trump is repealing a controversial executive order drafted by former President Obama that was meant to protect the Great Lakes and the oceans bordering the United States.

In his own executive order signed late Tuesday, Trump put a new emphasis on industries that use the oceans, particularly oil and natural gas drilling, while also mentioning environmental stewardship.

“Ocean industries employ millions of Americans and support a strong national economy,” the new order states, mentioning energy production, the military, freight transportation and other industries.

“This order maintains and enhances these and other benefits to the Nation through improved public access to marine data and information, efficient interagency coordination on ocean-related matters, and engagement with marine industries, the science and technology community, and other ocean stakeholders,” it states.

The order encourages more drilling and other industrial uses of the oceans and Great Lakes.

The order stands in contrast to Obama’s policy, which focused heavily on conservation and climate change. His policy was written in 2010, shortly after the deadly BP Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling explosion and 87-day oil spill.

“America’s stewardship of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes is intrinsically linked to environmental sustainability, human health and well-being, national prosperity, adaptation to climate and other environmental changes, social justice, international diplomacy, and national and homeland security,” Obama’s order stated.

[The Hill]

Yellowstone chief says Trump administration forcing him out: ‘I feel this is a punitive action’

Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent said Thursday that he’s being forced out in an apparent “punitive action” following disagreements with the Trump administration over how many bison the park can sustain, a longstanding source of conflict between park officials and ranchers in neighboring Montana.

Superintendent Dan Wenk announced last week that he intended to retire March 30, 2019, after being offered a transfer he didn’t want. He said he was informed this week by National Park Service Acting Director Paul “Dan” Smith that a new superintendent will be in place in August and that Wenk will be gone by then.

“I feel this is a punitive action, but I don’t know for sure. They never gave me a reason why,” Wenk said. The only dispute he’s had with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees the park service, was whether the park has too many bison, Wenk said.

Ranchers in neighboring Montana have long sought reductions in Yellowstone’s bison numbers because of worries that they could spread the disease brucellosis to cattle and compete with livestock for grazing space outside the park. Brucellosis causes animals to prematurely abort their young and can be transmitted through birthing material. It also can infect people.

Park biologists contend the population of more than 4,000 bison is sustainable. But Zinke and his staff have said the number is too high, Wenk said, and raised concerns that Yellowstone’s scenic Lamar Valley is being damaged by overgrazing.

Zinke, a former Montana congressman, has paid close attention to projects back home, including proposing a new national monument near Glacier National Park even as he pushed reductions to monuments elsewhere in the U.S. That’s stirred speculation he has future political ambitions in the state.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift declined to comment directly on Wenk’s assertions or the issue of bison management. She referred The Associated Press to a previously issued statement saying President Donald Trump had ordered a reorganization of the federal government and that Zinke “has been absolutely out front on that issue.”

Wenk said he had multiple conversations with Zinke and his staff about bison, most recently this week.

“We’re not a livestock operation. We’re managing a national park with natural systems,” he said. “We do not believe the bison population level is too high or that any scientific studies would substantiate that.”

The livestock industry wants Yellowstone’s bison herds reduced to 3,000 animals, a population target specified in a 2000 agreement between Montana and the federal government. Montana Stockgrowers Association interim vice president Jay Bodner said Zinke “understands the issues around bison, not only in the park but how that impacts the livestock issue.”

[NBC News]

Scott Pruitt Sought ‘Business Opportunity’ With Chick-fil-A While Leading E.P.A.

Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, gave a political aide the task of helping him seek a “business opportunity” for his wife with the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A.

Emails released to the Sierra Club under the Freedom of Information Act show that Sydney Hupp, a former scheduler for Mr. Pruitt, contacted Chick-fil-A’s chief executive, Dan T. Cathy, in May 2017 at Mr. Pruitt’s behest to set up a meeting.

After a back-and-forth in which Ms. Hupp initially said the administrator “didn’t mention a specific topic” of discussion, she told the company’s director of regulatory affairs that Mr. Pruitt’s request was of a personal nature. “The Administrator would like to talk about a potential business opportunity with Mr. Cathy. Nothing very pressing, just hoping to connect sometime in the next month or so,” Ms. Hupp wrote.

Mr. Pruitt ultimately spoke by phone with Chick-fil-A representatives.

Mr. Cathy, reached by phone, referred questions to a company spokeswoman, Carrie Kurlander. Ms. Kurlander said she would not comment further. In an email to The Washington Post, which first reported Mr. Pruitt’s effort to seek a business deal with Chick-fil-A, Ms. Kurlander had said the call was about the possibility of Mr. Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn, opening a franchise of the fast food chain. Ms. Kurlander told the Post that Mrs. Pruitt never completed the franchisee application.

Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the E.P.A., did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, said in a statement that Mr. Pruitt had been engaged in “unethically and illegally seeking personal benefits because of the job Donald Trump has entrusted him with.”

The revelation that Mr. Pruitt asked an E.P.A. employee to help coordinate efforts to seek a personal business opportunity comes amid a wave of investigations into the administrator’s spending and management decisions including his first-class travel and spending on security, as well as his decision last year to accept a $50-a-night lease on a condominium from the wife of a lobbyist with business before his agency. Currently Mr. Pruitt faces 12 federal investigations.

 

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/06/05/climate/pruitt-epa-chick-fil-a.html

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