By Amy Westervelt and Emily Gertz
Published April 6, 2020. Last updated March 1, 2022 12:03pm ET
In August 2020, activists mounted a banner in front of the Trump International Hotel in Wash. D.C., criticizing Trump administration and GOP giveaways to the oil and gas industry under cover of the pandemic. (Credit: Getty Images for Climate Power 2020/Jemal Countess)
The fossil fuel industry and its allies in the Trump administration wasted no time in leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to increase the federal government’s financial favors to oil and gas, waive regulations that the industry finds onerous — including attempts at wholesale rollbacks of the nation’s most critical environmental conservation laws — and push forward with controversial oil and gas permitting and lease sales.
McConnell, Big Oil Push for Nationwide COVID-19 Liability Waiver
Oil and gas, plastics, and utilities are among the industries lobbying hard for a federal shield from COVID-19-related lawsuits. According to a Friends of the Earth review of quarterly earnings statements, firms actively pressing Congress for the waiver include ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips; trade groups such as the American Petroleum Institute and the Petroleum Marketers Association of America; and “conservative dark money” groups such as FreedomWorks. The Hill reported on July 31 that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is determined to get a liability waiver into whatever the next pandemic aid bill may be. Back in March, the Senate’s committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs inserted a liability waiver for energy and transportation companies, among others, into the CARES Act, but the language had vanished by March 25, when the Senate passed the legislation. Status: Despite multiple attempts, no liability waivers made their way into Covid relief packages.
Energy Extends Natural Gas Export Authorizations to 2050
The Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy has extended to 2050 “the standard term for authorizations to export natural gas from the lower-48 states — including domestically produced liquefied natural gas (LNG), compressed natural gas, and compressed gas liquid—to countries with which the United States does not have a free trade agreement.” The move could commit future administrations to allowing dozens of firms to export LNG, no matter what climate policies they seek to enact. Status: Rule finalized on July 29, 2020.
Trump Nominates Oil and Gas Ally to Manage Public Lands
The Trump administration announced its intent to nominate William Perry Pendley for Senate confirmation as permanent director of the Bureau of Land Management in June. An oil-industry lawyer, Pendley has long advocated privatization of U.S. public lands, which contain roughly a third of the nation’s minerals. In 1982, as a Reagan appointee, Pendley spearheaded the largest sale of coal mining leases in U.S. history. Evidence later emerged that he had attempted to rig the leasing process to let firms underbid for mining rights, which would have defrauded the public. As Trump’s BLM acting director for more than a year, Pendley has relocated most of the BLM’s 300 Washington, D.C. staff to offices in western states. The move forced out many career employees, and will make it harder for Congress as well as conservation watchdogs to monitor the agency’s activities. Status: On August 15, Outdoor Life reported that the Trump administration withdrew Pendley’s nomination, after failing to muster Senate support for a confirmation hearing.
Arctic Wildlife Refuge Drilling Plan Advances
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced that he has approved Bureau of Land Management plans to hold the first auction for oil and gas leases in the Arctic Refuge by December 22, 2021, although it could happen “right around the end of the year,” according to an interview reported in The Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Bernhardt said the drilling can be conducted in an environmentally sound manner,” reported The Journal, “and that Congress has set details into law that will help the plan withstand challenges from environmentalists.” Drilling in the refuge is a longtime Republican goal. Status: The BLM announced its “record of decision” for Arctic Refuge lease sales on August 17, 2020.
The new rule amends federal hazardous-materials guidelines that have prohibited shipping liquid natural gas by train because of the potential for the compressed gas to explode. This revision to the rules has been hotly contested by critics who have voiced concern about compressed gas passing through populated cities and towns. The Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice have already announced their intentions to question the rule change in court. Status: The Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration finalized the rule on July 24, 2020.
EPA and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Expand Regulatory Relief for Uranium Mines
The Trump administration has pledged, via a memorandum of understanding between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not to pursue more stringent regulations around uranium mine cleanup. Mining associations in uranium-rich states like Wyoming applauded the agreement. “This is something that has been in the works for several years and we’re pleased it has come to this point,” Wyoming Mining Association executive director Travis Deti told The Casper Star Tribune. “We are hopeful the MOU will streamline the regulatory process for uranium recovery, saving time and resources, which will help in getting the industry back on its feet.” Status: Agreement signed July 23, 2020.
Trump Administration Asks Supreme Court to Unblock Keystone Pipeline
The Trump administration highlighted the Keystone XL pipeline in an emergency application to the Supreme Court in mid-June, asking for a stay to an earlier federal court ruling that blocked the Army Corps of Engineers’ nationwide “blanket” permit to build pipelines through wetlands and streams. Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana had ruled that the permit was invalid because the Corps failed to do cross-agency consultations required by the Endangered Species Act. The Corps has applied the permit to more than 37,000 projects since 2017, reported AP. Status: On June 9, 2021, the Biden Administration revoked a key permit, effectively canceling the Keystone XL pipeline.
Acting Public Lands Director’s Contract Extended, Again
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has granted his 32nd extension of William Perry Pendley’s contract as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management. As an “acting” chief, Perry avoids the Senate hearings that come with a formal presidential nomination. Status: On June 26, 2020, the White House announced the president’s intent to nominate Pendley to be director of the BLM. The nomination was officially withdrawn August 2020
“Main Street Lending” expanded to benefit of fossil fuel firms
Bloomberg Law reported on May 12, 2020, that Secretary Mnuchin and the Federal Reserve announced further modifications to the Main Street Lending Program, expanding it to make mid-size companies eligible. This change may allow several additional independent oil and gas companies, such as Occidental Petroleum, to get loans through the program. The move follows an April 21 letter from 11 Republican senators to the Trump administration, urging it to change credit rating requirements under the federal stimulus loan program, so that more oil and gas firms would eligible to apply. The Fed announced, on April 30, an expansion of the Main Street Lending Program allowing oil companies to borrow money under the program and apply it to past debts.
EPA Won’t Slow Down a Controversial Alaska Mine
The Environmental Protection Agency informed the Army Corps of Engineers via letter that despite serious concerns about the Pebble Mine’s environmental impacts, the agency will not formally object to the controversial project. If EPA had opted to formally “elevate” its concerns to higher levels of the Fish and Wildlife Service as well as EPA itself, it would have slowed down the final approval process. In mid-2019, the EPA overturned an Obama-era ban on the proposed huge open-pit copper and gold mine, on the significant chances it would degrade thousands of square acres of wilderness, and damage the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. “If the Corps grants the permit, the EPA has the authority to veto it, but mine opponents say the new letter makes that look less likely,” reported Alaska Public Media. “Pebble Limited Partnership thinks so, too.” Environmentalists and locals, including more than a dozen Alaska Native tribes, have long fought to stop the project. Status: EPA released its required letter to the corps on May 28, 2020.
Feds Advance Oregon Gas Terminal Over State Objections
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reaffirmed its earlier approval of the controversial Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export terminal in Oregon, reported Courthouse News. The proposed project also includes construction of a 229-mile pipeline. The state government, tribal governments, landowners, and environmental organizations had petitioned FERC to reconsider its decision, given the project’s potential impact on the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals; wildlife including spotted owls, snowy plovers, marbled murrelets, salmon, and whales; wetlands; and coastal eel grass beds that serve as tidal nurseries for various species. FERC declined the requests, stating that the project is in the public interest. Status: FERC issued its decision on May 22, 2020, but in December 2021 after multiple local, state and federal battles, the project's developer (Calgary-based Pembina) pulled the plug on Jordan Cove.
Controversial Drilling Plan on California Grasslands Re-Approved
The Bureau of Land Management re-approved a controversial drilling plan within the Carrizo Plain National Monument, near San Luis Obispo, Calif., the first new drilling project proposed since the monument was established in 2001. The plan was first approved in 2018, then reversed in 2019 after environmental groups appealed the decision. Now the BLM says the plan has been revised to adequately address environmental concerns. The proposed drilling would create a new well on an existing well pad. Environmental groups and local legislators have decried the approval, including Republican assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, who said in a statement: “San Luis Obispo County and California does not want or need to open up our most precious pieces of open space for additional oil drilling. I am disappointed in the federal government’s decision, and urge them to reconsider.” Status: BLM released the decision on May 21, 2020.
Feds Approve Huge Arctic Gas Pipeline Project
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved construction of an 807-mile pipeline from Alaska’s arctic North Slope to the Kenai Peninsula in the state’s south-central region. The Alaska Gasline Development Corp.’s proposed plan also includes a new liquid natural gas terminal on the peninsula, a gas treatment plant on the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay, and two additional pipelines to bring gas from the North Slope to the treatment plant. One of FERC’s four commissioners voted against the project on climate grounds. “The Commission continues to treat climate change differently than all other environmental impacts,” wrote Commissioner Richard Glick in his dissent. “There are still a lot of things that have to happen before the project gets off the ground,” reports public radio station KTOO. “The state doesn’t have control of all of the land it needs, or the finances to get the $43 billion project built.” Status: FERC approved the project on May 21.
Interior Advances Drilling Near New Mexico National Park
The Bureau of Land Management published a draft drilling plan and environmental impact report involving 4.2 million acres of public and Navajo-held lands in northwest New Mexico on February 28, 2020. The plan would allow drilling within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site sacred to the Navajo and other Native Americans. The agency held five virtual public hearings in mid-May, as nearby Navajo communities reeled from the coronavirus crisis, and despite the fact that most Navajo households do not have broadband internet. The New Mexico congressional delegation, nearby Native American communities, and environmentalists called on the BLM to slow the project down. Status: On May 21, 2020 the BLM announced without explanation a 120-day extension of the deadline for public comment on the drilling plan, from May 28 to September 25, 2020.
Trump Administration Grants Millions in Oil and Gas Royalty and Rent Cuts
The Bureau of Land Management has granted every request to date by oil and gas drillers for royalty rate cuts, according to reporting by the Associated Press — all of which so far have come from Utah oil and gas producers. The BLM slashed the rates for Utah from 12.5% to 2.5%, and is likely to grant similar cuts to other states as well. Although the royalty relief is limited to 60 days, the reductions will probably put a sizable dent in the federal government’s onshore oil and gas royalties for 2020, which totaled $2.9 billion in 2019, according to AP, including $94 million from Utah. About half that amount went to the state government. Back in late March, a group of Republican senators asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to offer royalty relief and automatic lease extensions for oil and gas operations on public lands. Status: As of May 20, 2020, the agency continues to accept applications for reduced royalties.
Wyoming Public Lands Drillers Go Rent-Free
The Bureau of Land Management has suspended rent payments by oil and gas drillers across tens of thousands of acres of public lands, the Associated Press reported on May 21, 2020. “The suspensions to date have all been in Wyoming and were linked by agency officials to the pandemic.” President Trump’s recent executive order urging agencies to rescind any rules that could “inhibit economic recovery” has activist groups worried that these rent suspensions, as well as many other climate and environmental rollbacks, could become permanent.
President Orders Agencies to Make Pandemic Rollbacks Permanent
As the nation’s death toll from COVID-19 passed 90,000, President Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to “address this economic emergency by rescinding, modifying, waiving, or providing exemptions from regulations and other requirements that may inhibit economic recovery.” The order specifically instructed agency chiefs to review the regulations they have changed or paused during the pandemic crisis, “and determine which, if any, would promote economic recovery if made permanent.” These rollbacks include suspending environmental reviews and safety rule enforcement for pipeline projects, and pausing royalty payments by fossil fuel firms. Status: Executive order signed on May 19, 2020.
Trump Administration Unexpectedly Bills Solar & Wind Projects for Millions in Rent
The Department of Interior has called in millions of dollars in back rent payments from solar and wind operators on federal lands, reported Reuters, even though the clean power sector is among the industries struggling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Interior had suspended rent collection for two years pending a review of the rates, and did not answer Reuters’ queries on the review’s status. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is offering to suspend royalty payments by oil and gas drillers, and has given the nuclear industry a 90-day break from its federal fees. Status: Reuters reported the story on May 18, 2020.
Federal Energy Regulator Rejects Moratorium on Pipelines
Federal Energy Regulatory Comission Chairman Neil Chatterjee rejected a request from the governors of several states to pause permitting of new pipeline projects amid the COVID-19 pandemic, The Hill reports. In a letter to the attorney general of Virginia, one of the states that requested the moratorium, Chatterjee wrote, “Hindering the build-out of energy infrastructure now could have long-term and lasting negative impacts on the delivery of energy in the future.” Status: FERC announced its decision on May 12, 2020 in a letter to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
Trump Administration Rules You Can’t Put Safety Over Profits
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration overturned a move by the State of Washington to better regulate oil trains. As DeSmog reports, that rule aimed to “limit oil vapor pressure unloaded from trains to less than 9 pounds per square inch (psi) in an attempt to reduce the likelihood that train derailments lead to the now-familiar fireballs and explosions accompanying trains transporting volatile oil.” Two weeks after North Dakota oil producers and lobbying groups protested the regulation, PHMSA released an explanation for the ruling, noting that a state can’t use “safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth.” Status: Effective May 11, 2020.
Feds Move to Roll Back Environmental Reviews of Natural Gas Projects
The Department of Energy has proposed lifting requirements for environmental reviews of proposed natural gas import and export projects. The reviews are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, a keystone environmental protection law. The agency says the change is reasonable because the Energy Department has “no authority to prevent” any environmental impacts that NEPA reviews would reveal; and that rolling back the requirement “will improve the efficiency of the DOE decision-making process by saving time and money in the NEPA review process and eliminating unnecessary environmental documentation.” Status: Proposed rule change published May 1, 2020. Public comment period ends June 1, 2020
BLM Advances Utah Coal Mine Expansion Near National Parks
The Bureau of Land Management in late April opened a public comment period for a proposed 5,500-acre expansion of the Lila Canyon coal mine in southern Utah. Environmental activists have hotly contested the proposal, given the mine’s proximity to the Canyonlands and Arches national park and the coal industry’s current decline as well as the fact that Murray Coal, which owns the local company operating the mine, is in bankruptcy proceedings. In early April, environmental groups began raising concerns about a lease fire sale in the region, after oil and gas firms submitted proposals for extraction on 150,000 acres on public lands surrounding parks. The BLM told the Salt Lake Tribune that many of the filings were incomplete and not under consideration. Status: BLM posted the proposal on April 23, 2020. Public comment closed May 25, 2020.
The Environmental Protection Agency has allowed power plants to delay testing and reporting under federal Acid Rain and Cross-State Pollution programs, citing the impact of “travel, plant access, or other safety restrictions implemented to address the current COVID-19 national emergency.” Status: Waiver effective April 22, 2020. Public comments on the rule open through May 22, 2020.
The EPA moved to retain current air quality standards for levels of tiny soot particles (or fine particulate pollution, also called PM2.5), which are caused by burning fossil fuels including gasoline, coal, and natural gas. The decision flies in the face of growing scientific evidence that indicates breathing in fine particulate pollution is unsafe at any level, linked to asthma, heart disease, and premature death. In early April, a team of Harvard public health researchers released data that showed higher death rates from COVID-19 in regions with high levels of soot pollution. Status: Proposed rule published April 30, 2020. EPA holds virtual public hearing on May 20 and 21, 2020. Public comment period ends June 29, 2020.
Energy Dept. Recommends Government Purchases of Uranium
The Department of Energy’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group has recommended that the federal government buy up supplies of domestically-mined uranium, in a newly released proposal to “restore America’s competitive advantage in nuclear,” which the working group argues would also bolster national security The group also recommends rollbacks to environmental regulations around uranium mining, as well as public lands protections that bar mining in the Grand Canyon. Status: Proposal released April 23, 2020.
A group of 11 Senate Republicans led by Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) have urged the Trump administration to change credit rating requirements under the federal stimulus loan program, so that more oil and gas firms will be eligible to apply. In their April 21 letter, addressed to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, the lawmakers argue that many firms were already struggling due to the recent OPEC production and pricing war; and have now been hit by the pandemic’s effect as well “Assisting these companies could be the difference between maintaining our domestic energy production and workforce or shedding more U.S. jobs and returning to dependence on foreign sources of oil,” according to the senators, “and we should do all we can to avoid it.” Status: On April 30, 2020, the Federal Reserve announced revisions to the rules for the Main Street Lending Program that allow oil companies to borrow money under the program and apply it to past debts. On May 12, 2020, Bloomberg Law reported that Secretary Mnuchin and the Federal Reserve announced further modifications to the Main Street Lending Program, expanding it to make mid-size companies eligible. This change may allow several additional independent oil and gas companies, such as Occidental Petroleum, to get loans through the program.
Fossil Fuel Companies Get Millions in Small Biz Stimulus Loans
Fossil fuel firms have received at least $113 million from the Federal Reserve’s Main Street Lending Program, according to a review by The Guardian and watchdog group Documented. The program was supposedly established to help small businesses weather the coronavirus crisis. The Federal Reserve’s recent expansion of its Main Street lending program could open up more funding for oil and gas companies, including Occidental Petroleum Corporation, one of the oil companies represented at a White House meeting with President Trump in April.
Federal Regulator Moves to Weaken Natural Gas Pipeline Regulations
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has proposed “amendments to the Federal Pipeline Safety Regulations that are intended to ease regulatory burdens on the construction, maintenance, and operation of gas transmission, distribution, and gathering pipeline systems.” Status: Proposed rule change published on April 9, 2020. Public comment period closes August 10, 2020.
Wetland and Stream Protection Rollback Finalized
The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized its “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.” This rollback of Obama-era clean water reforms leaves most of the nation’s wetlands unprotected, and weakens clean water requirements for various industrial facilities, including power plants and petrochemical plants. Status: Rollback finalized April 21, 2020.
Public Comment Period Opens on Wyoming Pipeline Project
The Bureau of Land Management has opened a 90-day period for the public to comment on its proposed plans for 2,000 miles of fossil fuel pipeline in Wyoming. While environmental groups have raised concerns about the effects on sage grouse habitat, the project also has the potential for significant climate impacts. The plan’s carbon capture component, which sounds like climate change mitigation, is geared at enhancing oil recovery. If the BLM permits the project, it stands to benefit both the state’s oil and gas industry, and its dying coal mining industry. Status: Notice published April 17, 2020 in the Federal Register. Public comment period ends July 17, 2020.
Public Coal Firms Cash in on Small Business Payroll Loans
According to SEC filings, publicly-traded coal companies received $31 billion in coronavirus emergency lending from the Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program. Bloomberg reports that the extractive industries, including mining and oil and gas drilling, secured 78.7% of loans as a percentage of eligible payroll, more than retail or any other economic sector. Status: Data reflects loans distributed through April 16, 2020 under the initial PPP funding of $349 billion.
Regulators Undercut States’ Renewable Energy Mandates
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in mid-April affirmed an earlier directive that effectively undercuts some state renewable energy mandates, The FERC guidance, reported Utility Dive, involves power purchases by a regional grid operator, and rules that certain state incentives and subsidies for clean energy create unfair competition against fossil fuels. It’s aninteresting stance, given that federal subsidies for fossil fuels have tilted energy markets in their favor for decades. On Monday, April 20, a group of state regulators and renewable energy groups filed a suit contesting the decision. Status: FERC voted to uphold its decision on April 16, 2020.
Regulators Move to Rollback Pipeline Safety Rules
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration proposed to finalize the revision, rollback, or elimination of some pipeline safety requirements, including creation of oil spill response plans, as well as “safety and reporting requirements for pipelines transporting hazardous liquids or carbon dioxide.” PHMSA’s state goal is “to reduce regulatory burdens and improve regulatory clarity without compromising safety and environmental protection.” But the rule changes “could make the oil pipelines that crisscross our country more likely to create larger oil spills,” said Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. Status: Proposed rule change published in Federal Register on April 16, 2020. Public comment period closes June 15, 2020
EPA Moves to Finalize “Secret Science” Rule
The EPA forged ahead in mid-March with finalizing the so-called “secret science” rule, which will upend how the agency uses science to inform important anti-pollution regulations. Since first announced in 2018, scientists, public health groups, and environmentalists have steadily denounced this effort as a ruse to sever environmental regulations from key scientific findings, notably 1993’s landmark “Six Cities” study proving that tiny particle pollution (PM2.5) , which is created primarily by burning fossil fuels, severely harms human health. The rule changes will also give regulated industries unprecedented power in shaping the agency’s use of science by “allow[ing] stakeholders to reanalyze the data and models and explore the sensitivity of the conclusions to alternative assumptions.” Status: On April 17, EPA extended the public comment period on this rule change to May 18, 2020. On April 7, a team of Harvard public health researchers released data showing that death rates from COVID-19 have been 15% higher in areas with high levels of tiny particulate pollution.
Fossil Fuel Firm Requests Extension on Gas Export Terminal Project
The Cameron LNG Export Terminal project has asked the Department of Energy to extend, to 2026, its deadline for commencing operations at a liquid natural gas export terminal sited in Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes, Louisiana. This is the firm’s second extension request this year. The project’s original deadline was 2020, but in January the DOE pushed the deadline out to 2024. Status: Extension request published April 15, 2020. Public comment period ends April 30, 2020.
EPA Guts Obama-Era Mercury Pollution Rule
The Trump administration has finalized its rollback of groundbreaking controls on mercury and other air pollution from coal and oil-burning power plants — but not by actually rewriting or repealing any regulations. Instead, the EPA has changed how the costs and benefits of environmental rules are calculated, downplaying the savings from improved human health while elevating the costs to polluters to implement them. The move laid the groundwork for a regulatory upheaval. “The new method could be used to justify loosening restrictions on any pollutant that the fossil fuel industry has deemed too costly to control,” reported The New York Times. By EPA’s own estimates, the 2012 rule has saved as many as 17,000 lives a year, and prevented thousands of illnesses. Status: Effective April 15, 2020.
Trump Stacks “Opening the Economy” Energy Council with Fossil Fuel Donors
Eight oil and gas executives tapped by the White House for a 12-member energy industry economic task force “have collectively made more than $4.2 million in political contributions” to Republican PACs and candidates since June 2015, reported HuffPost. There are no representatives from the clean energy sector on the task force, one of several the White House announced in mid-April to “chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity [and]produce a more independent, self-sufficient, and resilient Nation” [sic]. Status: Task forces announced April 14, 2020.
Trump Fast-Tracks Border Wall by Waiving Environmental Rules
Under cover of the pandemic, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf moved to speed up construction of a Texas section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, by waiving “in their entirety, with respect to the construction of physical barriers and roads” the project’s compliance with over a dozen environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; and more. Status: Effective April 15, 2020.
Group Asks for Federal Oversight of Distributed Power Generation
A group called the New England Ratepayers Association has petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to assume oversight of net metering, the process in which utilities buy excess energy from residents or businesses generating power via onsite solar and other renewable energy. If FERC approves the petition, the regulatory change would affect 41 states with net-metering laws. Clean energy advocates have accused NERA, which paid an additional $30,000 fee to fast-track its FERC petition, of representing industry rather than ratepayers, and the nonprofit watchdog Public Citizen has filed to intervene in the review process. Status: Petition filed April 14, 2020. Comment period closes on May 14, 2020.
New Coal Lease in Colorado Issued
The Bureau of Land Management held a competitive coal lease sale for the Dunn Ranch Coal Tract in Colorado, estimated to contain 9.54 million tons of recoverable coal. Only one firm submitted a bid: Tijeras, New Mexico-based GCC Energy, LLC., which bid $3.4 million, or roughly $0.36 per ton. According to an April 7 report by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, coal’s share of electricity generation nationwide has steadily dropped for several years, from 40% in 2014 to 24% in 2019, and is projected to be about 20% in 2020. Status: Sale announced April 10, 2020, not finalized pending internal review.…
Proposed Aviation Noise Rollback Would Allow Comeback of SSTs
The Federal Aviation Administration has pushed forward with weakening noise limits for commercial airplane takeoff and landing, a rollback that would allow supersonic aircraft (SSTs) to make a comeback. Developed in the early 1970s and last flown in the U.S. in 2003, SSTs are super-polluting passenger planes that burn 5 to 7 times more fuel than current commercial jets. In a 2019 study, the International Council on Clean Transportation found that supersonic air travel would exceed the subsonic limits for nitrogen oxides by 40%. The FAA’s fact sheet on supersonic planes notes that they were “retired nearly two decades ago because of the high cost of meeting the environmental restrictions on sonic booms, inefficient fuel consumption, and other factors.” Status: Proposed rule released April 13, 2020. Public comment period closes July 31, 2020.
Final Drilling Plan Released to Open 1.7 Million Acres of Colorado Public Lands
The Bureau of Land Management largely ignored 42,000 public comments in opposition to the Uncompahgre Approved Resource Management plan, which the Colorado state government and various environmental groups opposed as inconsistent with state climate and land planning laws. “The Uncompahgre land-management plan gives the initial green light to widespread, long-term oil and gas development in the ecologically sensitive North Fork Valley,” Melissa Hornbein, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, said in a statement, and “has the potential to exponentially increase greenhouse gas pollution in the region over the next decade, when we need to be drastically reducing emissions.” Status: Finalized April 10, 2020
BLM Approves Nevada gold and silver mine
The Bureau of Land Management issued its final approval for a plan to create a quarter-mile-square open-pit, heap-leach gold and silver mine in Churchill County, an agricultural region roughly 100 miles east of Reno, Nevada. The mine will cause “approximately 180 acres of new disturbance” on federal public lands, according to the BLM. Status: Project approved April 9, 2020.
EPA Finalizes Emissions Rollback for Coal Plants in Pennsylvania and West Virginia
The Environmental Protection Agency finalized a new emissions standard for six coal-refuse plants in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, terming coal produced by this subset of plants “an important source of reliable energy” despite record drops in energy demand. The rollback allows the six facilities to emit higher levels of mercury and other toxic pollutants. Coal-refuse plants are an extra-dirty form of coal power, burning a mix of low-quality coal along with rock, shale, slate, clay and other materials. Status: Effective April 9, 2020.
Republican Senators Request Loans for Coal
A group of 17 Republican senators signed onto a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, asking that he not exclude fossil fuel companies from the $454 billion corporate loan program created under the CARES Act. The bond-purchasing part of that program is being administered by the global investment management corporation BlackRock, which earlier this year announced it would remove fossil fuel investments from its discretionary active investment portfolios. Environmental groups have urged Black Rock to weigh climate risk when administering the CARES Act program as well. Senators backing the coal bailout say that “BlackRock must act without regard to this or other investment policies BlackRock has adopted for its own funds.” Status: Letter sent April 7, 2020.
Trump Replaces Watchdog Overseeing Coronavirus Stimulus Funds
Citing vague “reports of bias,” President Trump abruptly fired Glenn Fine, the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, from his role leading oversight of how $2 trillion in pandemic stimulus funds get spent, reported The Washington Post. Fine has been with the Pentagon since 2015 and is known as a tough federal watchdog. Trump replaced Fine with Sean O’Donnell, the EPA’s inspector general. The move could shift some of his attention away from the EPA, where he has been fairly critical of Trump’s second agency chief, Andrew Wheeler. But The New York Times pointed out that given his scrutiny of Wheeler, “it is not a given that Mr. O’Donnell will toe the line at the Pentagon.” Status: Effective April 7, 2020.
FERC Fast-Tracks Requests for Regulatory Relief
With a stated goal of ensuring the “reliability of the nation’s energy infrastructure” during the COVID-19 emergency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has shortened the review period for requests and petitions to waive some regulations, or extend deadlines for meeting them. FERC regulates the nation’s electricity and natural gas suppliers, as well as oil pipelines. Status: Effective April 7, 2020.
September Oil and Gas Lease Sale Planned in Montana and North Dakota
In early April, the Bureau of Land Management kicked off a 15-day public comment period on potential oil and gas lease sites in Montana and North Dakota, with the final sale scheduled for September. Status: Agency opened public comment period on April 6, 2020, which ended on April 21. Lease sale scheduled for September 22, 2020.
Application to Extend Authorization to Export Liquefied Natural Gas to Non-free Trade Agreement Countries
The firm Energy Transfer has asked the Department of Energy to extend its authorization to proceed with the construction of a large liquefied natural gas export terminal in St. Charles, Louisiana. Shell exited the project in late March, citing low oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic. The current authorization, which allows for the export of LNG to non-free trade agreement countries, will expire in 2023 if the facility is not operating. An extension would buy the company two more years to finish construction and begin exporting LNG. Status: Application filed April 3, 2020
Interior Funds Problematic Forest Fire Suppression Project
The Department of Interior approved a $275 million Bureau of Land Management plan to construct and maintain a system of up to 11,000 miles of strategically placed firebreaks — strips of land with trees, deadwood, and undergrowth removed — across 223 million acres of federal public lands in California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Advocates say the firebreaks will slow or stop spreading wildfires. Critics say it’s an expensive end-run around environmental regulations that protect native vegetation, as well as vulnerable species such as the greater sage-grouse. Status: Finalized April 1, 2020.
Marathon Oil Takes CARES Act Tax Benefit of $411 Million
On its quarterly SEC filings, Marathon Oil attributed a $411 million tax benefit to a section of the CARES Act called the Net Operating Loss Provision. A sly late addition to the March legislation, this provision allows businesses to carry back losses from 2020 or 2021 to previous tax years. In other words, companies can apply a loss resulting from the pandemic to last year’s profits (or any year’s losses back to 2018). In many cases this can trigger a tax refund, particularly if the firm filed its 2019 taxes on time. Status: Marathon Oil took the pass-back on its quarterly earning statement (SEC Form 10-Q) dated March 31, 2020.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied Endangered Species Act protections for the Bi-State greater sage grouse, a distinct sage grouse sub-species that roams western Nevada and eastern California. The agency stated that voluntary conservation efforts by energy and ranching operations have been enough to protect populations of the bird. However, sage grouse populations across multiple states have continued to decline under these efforts efforts. Status: Finalized March 31, 2020.
Trump Admin. Rolls Back Fuel Efficiency Standards
The Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the rollback of the Obama administration’s signature climate emissions achievement: An agreement with automakers to raise fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks (known as CAFE, or Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards) to 55 mpg by 2025, significantly lowering greenhouse gas and other air pollution. The Trump administration has changed that mandate to about 40 mpg by 2026. Status: Rule finalized March 30, 2020.
Senators Ask for Breaks on Oil, Gas, Coal Royalties
Twelve Senate Republicans asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to “reduce, delay, or suspend the federal royalty payments for oil, gas, and coal” drilled on federal public lands, “particularly for small and midsize producers.” Without the royalty cuts, the senators warned, many companies might stop production and put thousands of workers out of work. Status: Letter sent March 30, 2020
Feds Plan Gasoline Rule Waiver That Could Increase Pollution
“EPA intends to provide additional flexibility to the marketplace to transition from winter-grade, high volatility gasoline to summer-grade low vapor pressure gasoline,” by temporarily waiving “the summer low volatility requirements and blending limitations for gasoline.” Winter-blend gasoline emits more volatile organic compounds, which are precursors of smog, when used in warmer weather. The agency cited “the steep fall-off in gasoline demand as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” which has led to oversupplies of winter-grade gasoline and limited storage capacity for summer-grade gas. Status: Effective March 27, 2020.
Industry Asks Trump Administration to Purchase, Stockpile Uranium
The National Uranium Miners Association has asked the Trump Administration to establish a strategic reserve for uranium, and purchase strategic stockpiles of critical minerals to fill it, arguing the moves are critical to saving jobs as mines have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Status: Letter sent March 27, 2020.
No Penalties for “Violations of Routine Compliance Monitoring”
The Environmental Protection Agency announced that it “does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations,” in situations that it deems “COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the EPA upon request.” Status: Agency memo issued on March 26, 2020.
Quarterly Oil and Gas Lease Sale Proceeds in Colorado
In late March, the Bureau of Land Management announced a $83,294.00 sale of nine oil and gas leases across 10,415 acres (16.3 square miles) ofJackson and Las Animas counties. “The BLM offered 20 parcels totaling 18,960.83 acres,” according to its press release, but despite the agency’s unabated push to lease fossil fuel development amid the COVID-19 pandemic, apparently just over half went unsold. Status: Sale held March 26, 2020.
EPA May Waive Some Toxic Chemical Regulations
The Environmental Protection Agency granted immediate regulatory relief and fee exceptions from the Toxic Substances Control Act, the federal law regarding the safety of chemicals used in commerce. The waivers apply to a wide range of chemical manufacturers, including petrochemical manufacturers. Status: Effective March 25, 2020.
No Extension of Public Comment Period on Wyoming Oil and Gas Leasing
The Bureau of Land Management published its final environmental report for the massive Moneta Divide energy leasing project, automatically triggering a 30-day public comment period. The agency subsequently denied requests from Indigenous and environmental groups to suspend the comment period for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. BLM’s preferred plan for Moneta Divide would allow two energy companies to build 4,250 new natural gas fracking wells across 327,000 acres (510 square miles) of mostly public lands in central Wyoming, with a projected influx of about 700 outside workers to a rural area with limited medical resources. The lease area is near the Wind River Indian Reservation, home to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, which both declared states of emergency in mid-March and closed nearly all tribal offices. Status: The BLM published its final environmental impact report on Feb. 21, 2020. Public comment period closed March 23.
In a letter to President Trump, the American Petroleum Institute has requested a “critical infrastructure” designation for every piece of the fossil fuel supply chain, and a waiver of what it called “non-essential compliance obligations.” Status: Compliance waiver granted, no decision on critical infrastructure designation announced. Letter sent March 20, 2020.
Request for Regulatory Relief and Reduced Fees for the Coal Industry
Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Mining Association has requested a reduction in the Black Lung Excise Tax, the elimination or reduction in royalty payments for coal mined on federal public lands, a reduction in fees collected for the Abandoned Mine Land Fund, and an increase in the availability of credit to the industry. Status: Letter sent March 18, 2020.
Proposal to Change Rule on Nuclear Waste Disposal
A proposal from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would allow for the disposal of some nuclear waste in municipal landfills, rather than a licensed nuclear waste facility. Status: Proposed rule change published March 6, 2020; public comment period closes April 20, 2020