Another Keystone XL setback: environmental review ordered

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a setback for the Trump administration, a federal judge has blocked a permit for construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada and ordered officials to complete an environmental review. Environmentalists and tribal groups cheered the ruling by a U.S. district judge in Montana, while President Donald Trump called it "a political decision" and "a disgrace." The 1,184-mile (1,900 kilometer) pipeline would begin in Alberta and shuttle as much as 830,000 barrels a day of crude through a half dozen states to terminals on the Gulf Coast. Trump has touted the $8 billion pipeline as part of his pledge to achieve North American "energy dominance" and has contrasted his administration's quick approval of the project with years of delay under President Barack Obama. The pipeline was first proposed by Calgary-based TransCanada in 2008. It has become the focal point of a decade-long dispute that pits Democrats, environmental groups and Native American tribes who warn of pollution and increased greenhouse gas emissions against business groups and Republicans who cheer the project's jobs and potential energy production. U.S. District Judge Brian Morris put a hold on the project late Thursday, ruling that the State Department had not fully considered potential oil spills and other impacts as required by federal law. He ordered the department to complete a full review. Environmentalists and Native American groups had sued to stop the project, citing property rights and possible spills. Becky Mitchell, chairwoman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a plaintiff in the case, said her organization is thrilled with the ruling. "This decision sends TransCanada back to the drawing board," Mitchell said, calling the ruling "the results of grassroots democracy in action, winning for water and people." TransCanada said in a statement that it was reviewing the judge's 54-page decision. "We remain committed to building this important energy infrastructure project," TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said. The fight over the project has spanned several presidencies and involved standoffs between protesters and law enforcement. After years of legal wrangling, Obama rejected a permit for the pipeline in 2015. The company responded by seeking $15 billion in damages. Trump signed executive actions to again advance construction of the project in 2017. TransCanada had recently announced plans to start construction next year, after a State Department review ordered by Morris concluded that major environmental damage from a leak is unlikely and could quickly be mitigated. Morris said that review was inadequate. TransCanada has promised continuous monitoring and says automatic shut-off valves would help officials quickly identify a leak or rupture. Tom Goldtooth, executive director for the Indigenous Environmental Network said the ruling was a win for tribes, water "and for the sacredness of Mother Earth." He called the pipeline "the enemy of the people, the climate and life as we know it. It must be stopped."

Scoping period to start for ANWR lease sale

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is moving toward oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fulfilling a longtime Republican priority that most Democrats fiercely oppose. A notice being published Friday in the Federal Register starts a 60-day review to sell oil and gas leases in the remote refuge, one of the most pristine areas in the United States and home to polar bears, caribou, migratory birds and other species. President Donald Trump has said he "really didn't care" about opening a portion of the refuge to oil drilling but insisted it be included in recent tax legislation at the urging of others. Addressing fellow Republicans at a GOP conference in West Virginia in February, Trump said a friend told him that every Republican president since Ronald Reagan wanted to get oil drilling approved in the refuge. "I really didn't care about it, and then when I heard that everybody wanted it — for 40 years, they've been trying to get it approved, and I said, 'Make sure you don't lose ANWR,'" Trump said. President Bill Clinton vetoed a GOP plan to allow drilling in the refuge in 1995, and Democrats defeated a similar GOP proposal a decade later. The plan being published Friday starts a 60-day environmental review that includes public meetings in Anchorage, Fairbanks and other sites, including three in northern Alaska. Environmental groups denounced the plan and said it was "shameful" that it would be published on Earth Day — and the eighth anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the nation's worst environmental disaster. "The Trump administration's reckless dash to expedite drilling and destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will only hasten a trip to the courthouse," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife. "We will not stand by and watch them desecrate this fragile landscape." The Trump administration and congressional Republicans said the drilling plan would help pay for tax cuts approved by Congress and signed by Trump in December. GOP lawmakers project at least $1 billion in revenue from drilling leases over 10 years. Environmental groups and other critics call those projections wildly optimistic, saying low global oil prices and high exploration costs are likely to limit drilling revenue. The administration plan calls for at least two major lease sales over the next decade in at least 400,000 acres each in the refuge's coastal plain. Surface development would be limited to 2,000 acres.  

Senate approves budget that allows ANWR drilling

WASHINGTON (AP) — Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one step closer to oil and gas drilling. A budget measure approved by the Republican-controlled Senate late Thursday allows Congress to pursue legislation allowing oil and gas exploration in the remote refuge on a majority vote. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska said Congress can create jobs and enhance energy security by opening a small section of the 19.6 million-acre site to drilling. "More energy production means more American jobs, more American economic growth, more American national security ... and a more sustainable global environment, because no one in the world produces energy more responsibly than Americans, especially Alaskans," Sullivan said. But Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state said drilling was not worth the risks to a fragile ecosytem that serves as important habitat for polar bears, caribou and migratory birds. "The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most pristine areas of the United States, and we have been protecting it for decades for a reason," Cantwell said, criticizing the idea of sacrificing biologically important areas "for oil that we don't need. It's not worth it." The wildlife refuge has been the focus of a political fight for more than three decades. President Bill Clinton vetoed a GOP plan to allow drilling in the refuge in 1995, and Cantwell-led Democrats defeated a similar GOP plan in 2005. The Trump administration and congressional Republicans are pushing to revive the drilling plan as a way to help pay for proposed tax cuts promised by President Donald Trump. The GOP-approved budget includes $1 billion in revenue from drilling leases over 10 years. Democrats scoffed at that claim, saying the plan would generate far less revenue at a time when oil production in the lower 48 states, especially Texas and North Dakota, is booming. Royal Dutch Shell abandoned an oil exploration program in the Arctic Ocean in 2015 amid concerns that lower global oil prices made drilling in the remote region a risky investment. Debate on the drilling plan got personal Thursday night. Sullivan said he did not appreciate critical comments by Cantwell and other Democrats from the lower 48. "Senator Murkowski and I care a lot more about the environment, the wildlife, the pristine wilderness in our great, amazing state than any other member in this body," he said. "I don't need senators coming down from places like Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Rhode Island talking about Alaska's environment, OK? With all due respect, I know a heck of a lot more about it than any of them." Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., was unbowed. The GOP plan would "hand over the wildest place left in America to Big Oil," Markey said. "This is nothing more than fossil fuel folly." Markey accused Republicans of using the budget process "to ram through drilling in the crown jewel of America's wildlife refuge system" because they know they lack the 60 votes needed to approve the bill under regular order in the Senate. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, joined with Democrats to oppose opening the refuge, while Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., backed drilling. Any oil drilling is likely years away, although the Interior Department is moving forward with plans to conduct seismic studies to help determine where oil is located, a first step toward drilling. Congress has sole authority to determine whether oil and gas drilling can take place in the refuge.  

Senate blocks move to overturn Obama-era rule on drilling

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a surprising win for environmentalists and Democrats and a blow to the fossil-fuel industry, the Senate on May 10 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.

With hopes fading, Murkowski, lawmakers meet on energy bill

WASHINGTON — Congressional efforts to approve the first major energy bill in nearly a decade got a jump-start Thursday as lawmakers convened a long-delayed meeting aimed at finding a bipartisan agreement. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, acknowledged that the election-year bill faces long odds but urged her colleagues to “prove the skeptics wrong” and “succeed where so many anticipate we’ll fail.” Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy Committee and is among nearly 50 lawmakers from both parties who serve on a joint House-Senate panel tasked with developing an energy bill. The panel met for the first time Thursday after several months of delays. Prospects for the energy bill have dimmed amid partisan disputes over oil drilling, water for drought-stricken California and potential rollback of protections for the gray wolf and other wildlife, among other issues. A bill approved by the Republican-controlled House includes at least seven proposals that the White House strongly opposes or has threatened to veto. Still, Murkowski and other lawmakers said they hope to get a compromise measure to the president’s desk by the end of the year. “My goal is to update our energy policies in this country and get a ... bill that can be signed into law by the president,” she said. “This is our chance to modernize our energy policy. We all know we can do this. We all know how important it is to do this.” Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the top Democrat on the energy panel, also was optimistic that lawmakers can resolve their differences and deliver a bill that President Barack Obama can sign. With a “dramatic transformation in energy” ongoing in the United States, “it’s important that we are updating the policies at the national level to help that transformation continue to take place,” Cantwell said. “We don’t need to be pushing forward ideas that are going to be threatened by a veto,” she added. “Instead, let’s work together to get a policy that can move us forward.” Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House energy panel, said lawmakers face a different challenge from the task they faced in 2005 and 2007, when the last major energy bills were approved. “We are not here trying to address concerns about energy scarcity, high prices and dependence on imports,” Upton said. “Thanks to private sector innovations leading to increased domestic oil and gas output, the script has been flipped, and Congress can now approach energy issues from a position of strength.” Upton praised a recent GOP-backed law that lifted a 40-year-old ban on oil exports and said similar gains are possible by boosting exports of liquefied natural gas. Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, senior Democrat on the House energy panel, offered a lone note of pessimism. An advocate of renewable energy, Pallone said an effective energy policy must deal with climate change — a contentious issue that has long divided Congress along partisan lines. While agreement is possible, “’we must be honest with ourselves about our limited ability to resolve highly contentious and complex matters in the short timeframe we have,” he said.      

New rule would permit thousands of eagle deaths

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is revising a federal rule that allows wind-energy companies to operate high-speed turbines for up to 30 years, even if means killing or injuring thousands of federally protected bald and golden eagles. Under the plan being announced Wednesday, the companies could kill or injure up to 4,200 bald eagles a year without penalty, which is nearly four times the current limit. Golden eagles could only be killed if companies take steps to minimize the losses — for instance, by retrofitting power poles to reduce the risk of electrocution. Dan Ashe, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the proposal will "provide a path forward" for maintaining eagle populations while also spurring development of a pollution-free energy source that's intended to ease global warming, a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's energy plan. Ashe said the 162-page proposal would protect eagles and at the same time "help the country reduce its reliance on fossil fuels" such as coal and oil that contribute to global warming. "There's a lot of good news in here," Ashe said. The plan "is a great tool to work with to further conservation of two iconic species," he said in an interview. The proposal sets objectives for eagle management, addresses how bird populations will be monitored and provides a framework for how the permitting system fits within the agency's overall eagle management, Ashe said. Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet's wingspan. Blades can reach speeds of up to 170 mph at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are about 143,000 bald eagles in the United States, and 40,000 golden eagles. Wednesday's announcement kicks off a 60-day comment period. Officials hope to issue a final rule this fall. The plan was developed after a federal judge in California blocked a 2013 rule that gave wind energy companies a 30-year pass to kill bald and golden eagles. U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh ruled last August that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to follow environmental procedural requirements in issuing the 2013 directive. The agency classified its action as an administrative change from a 2009 rule, excluding it from a full environmental review. The agency adopted the 30-year rule as a way to encourage the development of wind energy, a key source of renewable power that has increased exponentially in recent years. A previous rule allowed wind farms to apply for renewable five-year permits. Golden and bald eagles are not endangered species but are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The laws prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests or eggs without a permit. Under the new proposal, companies would pay a $36,000 fee for a permit allowing them to kill or injure eagles. Companies would have to commit to take additional measures if they kill or injure more eagles than estimated, or if new information suggests eagle populations are being affected. The permits would be reviewed every five years, and companies would have to submit reports of how many eagles they kill. Now such reporting is voluntary, and the Interior Department refuses to release the information.

Murkowski’s energy bill revived in Senate, passage expected this week

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Tuesday revived a wide-ranging bill that would promote a variety of energy sources, from renewables such as solar and wind power to natural gas, hydropower and geothermal energy. The bill also would speed federal approval of projects to export liquefied natural gas to Europe and Asia, update building codes to increase efficiency and strengthen electric-grid safety standards among dozens of provisions. Senate passage is expected this week. The measure must be reconciled with a House-passed bill that boosts oil and natural gas and speeds completion of environmental reviews for a proposed coal export terminal in Washington state. President Barack Obama has threatened the veto the House measure. If approved by both chambers and signed by Obama, the bill would be first far-reaching energy law in nearly a decade. "Moving forward with this act will help America produce more energy and bring us one step closer to being an energy superpower," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, one of the bill co-sponsors. "At the same time, it will help Americans save more money and save energy with all of the energy-policy provisions." The bipartisan bill is widely popular, but was delayed in early February amid a partisan dispute over sending hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid to Flint, Mich., to fix and replace the city's lead-contaminated pipes. Michigan's Democratic senators dropped the Flint provision last week after a months-long standoff with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters said they would seek another way to get the Flint aid package through the Senate. Congress last approved broad energy measures in 2005 and 2007, during the George W. Bush administration. The two laws aimed to boost U.S. energy independence by cutting reliance on imported oil, boosting fuel economy standards for cars and imposing a mandate for ethanol in gasoline. Since then, the U.S. energy landscape has changed dramatically, as improved drilling techniques, including hydraulic fracturing, have sparked a years-long boom that has pushed the United States to lead become the world's largest producer of oil and natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, involves injecting water mixed with sand and chemicals into underground rock formations, allowing oil and gas to flow.  

McConnell: Obama climate plan hinges on next president

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Supreme Court ruling that delays a key element of President Barack Obama’s strategy to fight climate change will likely push a final decision on the issue to the next president, the Senate’s Republican leader said March 21 as he urged the nation’s 50 governors to continue a “wait-and-see” approach on Obama’s plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky advised the governors to defy Obama’s effort to limit carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants by refusing to submit compliance plans to the Environmental Protection Agency. In a follow-up letter to the governors Monday, McConnell said the Supreme Court’s Feb. 9 ruling reinforces his view that states should refuse to act on the power plant proposal until all court challenges are decided. McConnell’s call for defiance echoed a strategy he has adopted for the Senate GOP to refuse a hearing or votes on Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court. The high court’s action in a case brought by West Virginia and other states means a current delay “will likely extend well beyond this administration, providing a welcome reprieve to states while simultaneously underlining the serious legal and policy concerns I wrote you about last year,” McConnell told the governors. “This is precisely why I suggested a ‘wait-and-see’ approach” last year, McConnell said. Obama unveiled a sweeping plan last year to limit greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming. The so-called Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of Obama’s efforts to fight climate change, would mark the first time the U.S. has ever limited carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. The plan mandates a 32 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions nationwide by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. McConnell predicted the plan would be overturned by the courts, but told the governors that even if it ultimately is upheld, “the clock would start over and your states would have ample time to formulate and submit a plan.” McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are among more than 200 GOP lawmakers who are backing a court challenge to the power plant proposal. The lawmakers argue in a brief filed last month with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington that the EPA overstepped its legal authority and defied the will of Congress by regulating carbon dioxide emissions. More than two dozen mostly Republican-led states, led by West Virginia and Texas, have sued to stop the Clean Power Plan. The White House and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy have said they are confident the administration will prevail in court. Arguments in the case are set to begin in June. Regardless of which side prevails, further appeal to the Supreme Court is almost certain, pushing any final decision into next year.

Senate Democrats block energy bill in impasse over Flint

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats on Thursday blocked the first bipartisan energy bill in almost a decade after majority Republicans balked over sending hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid to Flint, Michigan, to fix and replace the city's lead-contaminated pipes. The impasse hardened an increasingly partisan response to the water crisis in Flint as Democrats press for swift help for a majority African-American city of 100,000 and point to the past, rapid response of Republicans to natural disasters in Texas and Florida. Republicans maintained that it was premature to send money until Michigan figures out what it needs and wrong to stall the energy bill. "One hundred thousand people in Flint, Michigan, have been poisoned, and Republicans do nothing" to help them, said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "Nine thousand little children ... have been poisoned. Still, Senate Republicans refuse to help." The vote was 46-50, short of a number necessary to move ahead on the comprehensive legislation. The bill promotes a wide range of energy, from renewables such as solar and wind power to natural gas and hydropower. The legislation also would speed federal approval of projects to export liquefied natural gas to Europe and Asia and boost energy efficiency. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Republicans and Democrats would continue negotiations through the weekend in hopes of salvaging the energy bill. Democrats proposed a $600 million aid package for Flint last week, but Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said they agreed earlier this week to cut that proposal in half. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican, said it was too early to provide funds. "The fact of the matter is, the state of Michigan and the city of Flint don't yet know what they need to do to fix the problem or how much it will cost," Cornyn said. Flint is under a public health emergency after its drinking water became tainted when the city switched from the Detroit water system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The impoverished city was under state management at the time. Water was not properly treated to keep lead from aging pipes from leaching into the supply. Some children's blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems. Michigan has approved $37 million in emergency funding for Flint for the current fiscal year. Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to propose an additional $30 million in state funding to help Flint residents pay their water bills. President Barack Obama has said that about $80 million in federal funding is being made available to Michigan for investment in water system upgrades. It's not clear how much money would go to Flint. Democrats have said officials would have acted sooner if Flint were wealthier and its population predominantly white. Flint, 60 miles north of Detroit, is 57 percent black, and 42 percent of its residents live in poverty. The Republican governor has dismissed those suggestions, but the questions remain. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., compared the Flint emergency to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when President George W. Bush was criticized for a lackadaisical federal response. "Katrina was a natural disaster. How it was handled was a man-made disaster," she said Thursday. Underscoring the political stakes of the Flint response, several Republican senators vulnerable in their re-election bids voted with the Democrats, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rand Paul of Kentucky. The lone African-American Republican, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, also voted with Democrats. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said the crisis in Flint demands immediate action. "If any of my colleagues here saw a tragedy like this in their home state, they would be standing here doing everything in their power to deliver assistance, whether the crisis was natural or man-made," he said in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor. Lawmakers approved millions in federal emergency aid for Texas after a catastrophic 2013 blast at a fertilizer plant, Peters and other Democrats said. "The people of Michigan, the people of Flint, through their tax dollars have stood with the people of Texas," Stabenow said. "This is as much of a national emergency as if a tornado or a hurricane ripped up a town, because the entire town can't drink the water and children are being poisoned." Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said discussions on ways to help Flint were continuing. "We want to get this solved," she said, adding that it was counterproductive for Democrats to block an energy bill that has been in the works for more than a year.  
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