(de)regulation nation: seismic testing delayed in the Arctic Refuge

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Last week the Democratic-led House held three hearings on climate change science, impacts, and responses. Most of the lawmakers present affirmed that climate change is real, it’s a problem, and humans are responsible for it. Expert witnesses offered cogent advice on what should be done in response.

After being knocked dizzy by years of ignorance, nonsense, and lies coming out of Washington, it felt as if the room stopped spinning for a little while. There’s a tinge of amazement in Pacific Standard’s headline, “The House Science Committee just held a helpful hearing on climate science for the first time in years,” that I seriously relate to.

Something else has kicked off, too: a (mostly) reality-based public discussion on climate policies. For that we can thank week’s introduction of a Green New Deal resolution by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a move designed to spark public debate and conversation.

What are the GND’s details? How much will it slow down the advancing climate disaster? Will the public mobilize behind spending trillions of dollars in taxpayer cash on a national campaign that isn’t being waged by the Defense Department?

On the one hand, why even ask? President Trump, ally of coal barons and possibly a stooge for petro-states Russia and Saudi Arabia, isn’t going to sign a Green New Deal into law.

On the other: As crazy-making as it can be, talk must come before action in a democracy. The more we delve now into the scope of climate responses and solutions —what to do, and how quickly it needs doing—the better we’ll be prepared to put them into action if and when voters shift the power further in Washington towards the facts.

Esquire caught Capitol Hill’s change in tone last week as Trump and his allies lost control of the climate conversation, headlining that “the Green New Deal has put climate change denial out to pasture.

Onward.

a roundup of bad:

  • A federal judge gave a win to the EPA on Feb. 12, reports The Hill, ruling against a coalition of public health groups that sued agency for taking recipients of EPA research grants off its scientific advisory boards.

  • Civil liberties, pshaw! Minnesota police have “engaged in a coordinated effort to identify potential anti-pipeline camps and monitor individual protesters,” reports The Intercept, “repeatedly turning for guidance to the North Dakota officials responsible for the militarized response at Standing Rock in 2016.”

  • Bill Wehrum, the Trump administration’s top appointee for air pollution policy, kept in regular contact with folks at his former law firm after becoming EPA’s head of air policy, the Washington Post discovered. The firm lobbies on behalf of many fossil fuel, energy utility, and chemical interests regulated by the EPA.

  • Wehrum also refused, for nearly a year, to release a list of the clients he’d lobbied for, and the regulations he’d challenged in court on their behalf, while working at the law firm, reports E&E News. After a Democratic senator challenged him on it, Wehrum finally filed this “recusal letter” in September.

  • The Hill reports that on Feb. 11, a federal court of appeals upheld a lower ruling that the Trump administration has the authority to waive dozens of environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, to build barriers along the southern border.

  • For no clear reason that I have yet uncovered, the Department of Energy proposes to roll back Obama-era lightbulb efficiency standards due to take effect in 2020. The rule would save consumers $12 billion annually, reports The Philadelphia Inquirer, and curb greenhouse gas pollution by 34 million tons a year.

better: new House bill would ban oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge

  • On Feb. 11, two California Democratic lawmakers teamed up with a Pennsylvania Republican lawmaker to introduce the legislation in the House of Representatives.

  • Co-sponsors Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) chair the House Natural Resources subcommittees on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, and Energy and Mineral Resources, respectively. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) also co-sponsored the measure…

  • …which aims to repeal the section of the GOP’s 2017 tax law that opened the refuge to drilling. Knowledgeable Observers have generally credited Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ak.) with hooking that rider onto the tax law.

  • “The Trump administration is in a red hot hurry to try to get leases in place," Huffman told reporters at a press conference. “And we all know why. They know that a Democratic administration is going to undo this wrongheaded thing that they’re trying rush through.”

  • “Critics are not willing to trade an intact wilderness ecosystem and scoff at the tax bill’s projections that lease sales will put more than $1 billion into federal coffers over 10 years,” reports the AP.

  • But some supporters say Alaskans need the jobs that the drilling would directly and indirectly create.

    some Arctic background:

    Around 700 species of animals and plants call the refuge home for some or all of the year, including millions of migratory birds.

    But lawmakers have hoped to lease off its estimated 7.7 to 11.8 billion barrels of underground oil for decades, as described in this 2017 write-up of the situation on Columbia Univ.’s State of the Planet Blog.

    The 200,000-animal strong Porcupine caribou herd, a spiritual touchstone and food source of the Indigenous Gwich’in Natives in both Alaska and Canada, bears its young in the refuge each spring.

    "People like money, and so do I, but not if it's going to wipe out a whole nation of people, and not if it's going to disturb our future nation's chance at survival,” Bernadette Demientieff, who leads the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said at a Feb. 13. hearing on the drilling plan in D.C., according to CBS 2 KTUU.

good: Interior nixes seismic testing in Arctic Refuge until next winter

  • Late last week the Department of Interior told the Anchorage Daily News that there wouldn’t be any seismic testing on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge until December 2019.

  • The head of SAExploration, the firm planning to run the tests, told the Daily that “options are still on the table,” such as staging its equipment during late spring for testing later in the year.

  • But Interior has not publicly affirmed SAE’s comments.

  • President Trump’s recent shutdown of many federal agencies (a failed gambit to force Congress to fund a wall across the entire southern border as part of a larger federal budget bill) included Interior.

  • A next-winter seismic testing timeline could push attention on drilling in the refuge much closer to the 2020 presidential campaign. However, the federal government can auction drilling leases whether or not seismic testing occurs.

  • Interior tried to keep its original timeline ticking during the shutdown. That stopped after Congressional Democrats inquired about the agency’s selective recalls of staff to work on oil and gas leasing tasks, as noted in a recent (de)regulation nation.

  • Now Interior has extended the public feedback period on its draft environmental assessment of the plan, to March 13, 2019. This Bureau of Land Management web page has info on how to comment.

  • Seismic testing involves positioning multi-ton equipment on the tundra to send powerful sound waves into the ground. The sound waves would create a picture that petroleum geologists could “read” for underground oil and gas potential.

  • But the seismic waves would also disturb hibernating bears and cubs denning on the coastal plain. As rising temperatures melt Arctic sea ice, more bears are overwintering on land.

  • Read additional reporting in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

great: Trump leaned on a utility to keep a 49-year-old coal-fired power plant open. The utility will close it anyway.

  • Powerful Republicans, including President Trump and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, pressured the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to keep the half-century-old Paradise Fossil Plant operating.

  • The TVA (the nation’s largest public energy utility) nonetheless voted this week to shutter both the Paradise and Bull Run coal-burning plants, as InsideClimateNews reports, by 2020 and 2023 respectively.

  • Trump publicly twisted the TVA’s arm via tweet, prompting a careful reply from the utility:

  • TVA’s environmental review found that the breakdown-prone Paradise plant has become a boondoggle, creating higher energy costs and more air pollution for ratepayers.

  • Closing down Paradise will curb smog in the TVA’s seven-state operating area by up to 11.5 percent, and greenhouse gas pollution by more than 4 percent.

  • In the past several years, the utility has lowered its fuel costs by $1 billion a year by replacing coal with renewable, nuclear, and natural gas energy.

  • The Kentucky mines supplying coal to the Paradise plant are owned by Murray Energy, which is led by Bob Murray, a Trump supporter who contributed over $300,000 to his election campaign.


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This newsletter is written by me, Emily J Gertz. I’m a veteran environmental journalist. Learn more about me and see some of my work at my web site.

This week’s quote is by Ursula Le Guin, from her novel “The Dispossessed.”

I welcome your feedback, questions, and story tips: emily@deregnation.com