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By Kim Smaczniak
Most Americans probably don't know that an independent—and up to now nonpartisan—government agency has played a key role in our nation's transition to cleaner energy technologies. Under the radar and hidden beneath a layer of technical jargon, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has shepherded changes to electricity market rules that have gradually allowed the superior economics of clean energy technologies to out-compete clunky, old fossil fueled power plants. And it has done this for decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
By Elliott Negin
President Trump wants to set the regulatory clock back to 1960, and last week he acted it out for the cameras.
Wielding a pair of golden scissors at a White House photo op, he cut red tape strung around two stacks of paper. One was a small pile of some 20,000 pages representing the amount of regulations in 1960; the other a mound of more than 185,000 pages representing those of today.
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A supervisor at the Department of Energy's Office of International Climate and Clean Energy told staff to stop using the phrases "climate change," "emissions reduction" and "Paris agreement" in any official written communications, according to POLITICO's sources.
The House Science Committee will hear testimony March 29 that will question whether climate change is a human induced phenomenon. The hearing, Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications and the Scientific Method, is a just another prong in the current effort to undo the environmental progress made during the Obama years.
It coincides with the efforts of the Trump administration, which has proposed to strip the federal budget of any monies that would be targeted to cutting carbon dioxide emissions. To that end, the president has signed executive orders to weaken Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would cut CO2 emissions by 32 percent by 2030, and eliminate rules to cut methane emissions from natural gas drilling.
Drilling has taken place on federal lands for years, with more than 100,000 wells in existence. In 2015, the Interior Dept. issued new standards aimed at making the process safer, including stricter and higher design standards for wells and waste fluid storage facilities to mitigate risks to air, water and wildlife. Companies would also be required to publicly disclose chemicals used in fracking.
However, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl blocked the Obama rule in June after accepting the argument from energy companies and several states that federal regulators lack congressional authority to set rules for fracking.
The Obama administration appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit, but the rule could be killed for good. The Trump administration said in court filings Wednesday it is withdrawing from the lawsuit.
Justice Dept. lawyers representing Interior and the Bureau of Land Management asked the court to "continue the oral argument and hold these appeals in abeyance pending a new rulemaking" on the issue.
"As part of this process, the Department has begun reviewing the 2015 Final Rule (and all guidance issued pursuant thereto) for consistency with the policies and priorities of the new Administration," the motion reads. "This initial review has revealed that the 2015 Final Rule does not reflect those policies and priorities."
Neal Kirby of the Independent Petroleum Association of America praised the withdrawal of the rule, calling it "unnecessary, duplicative and would further drive away independent producers from federal lands."
"Every energy-producing area has different needs and requirements, which is why the states are far more effective at regulating hydraulic fracturing than the federal government," he said.
Many environmental advocates felt that the 2015 rule was already too lenient, but the Trump administration's latest action could be even more worrisome to fracking opponents.
"This disturbing decision highlights Trump's desire to leave our beautiful public lands utterly unprotected from oil industry exploitation," said Michael Saul, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Backing away from these modest rules is doubly dangerous given the administration's reckless plans to ramp up fracking and drilling on public lands across America."
Other environmental organizations spoke out against the announcement.
"Today's news demonstrates the degree to which Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration are in the pocket of the oil and gas industry," said Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman.
Earthworks policy director Lauren Page said: "By moving to overturn these common-sense protections, the Trump administration is positioning itself against the disclosure of toxic chemicals, protecting clean water and preserving our public land."
Groundwater contamination is one of the biggest concerns about unconventional oil and natural gas production. While the industry maintains the safety of the process, in December the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its highly anticipated final report identifying cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.
"With [Wednesday's] decision, Trump is making it clear that he thinks we need more fracking operations contaminating our drinking water, causing earthquakes and polluting our environment, not less," Sierra Club Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign director Lena Moffitt said. "The Sierra Club will continue to defend this rule, ensuring that our publicly-owned lands remain protected from fracking and Donald Trump."
President Trump has plans to open up federal lands for more energy development. As a candidate, Trump campaigned on a promise to "unleash America's $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, plus hundreds of years in clean coal reserves."
He accused President Obama of "denying millions of Americans access to the energy wealth sitting under our feet" by restricting leasing and banning new coal extraction.
Incidentally, the actions of the current administration go against the sentiments of the majority of Americans, who are opposed to fracking and drilling of public lands, according to a new Gallup poll.
The poll, released on Tuesday, determined that 53 percent of Americans oppose fracking as a means of increasing the production of natural gas and oil in the U.S. Only 46 percent support for opening up federal lands for oil exploration, compared to 65 percent who favored it in 2014.
"Americans Tilt Toward Protecting Environment, Alternative Fuels"Gallup
The Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans support spending more government money on energy alternatives such as solar and wind power. About two-thirds of Americans favor more strongly enforcing federal environmental regulations and setting higher emissions standards for business and energy.
Public opposition to fracking has grown in recent years, as counties and cities across the country are passing resolutions and ordinances to ban the practice.
Even states are getting behind the action. The Maryland House of Delegates passed a milestone bill earlier this month that would ban fracking statewide.
Fracking opponents are now urging the Maryland Senate to pass the same legislation. On Thursday morning, a group of protesters‚ including including faith leaders and western Maryland residents, barred the entrance to the State House in a peaceful act of civil disobedience. Thirteen were arrested.
"As stewards of God's creation, United Methodists are opposed to hydraulic fracturing because of the serious consequences for the environment, including damage to water and geological stability," said Rev. Julie Wilson, chair for the Board of Church and Society for the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. "We support a ban on fracking."
Garrett County in western Maryland is likely to be the first area targeted if fracking is allowed. The demonstrators say that fracking would threaten the area's local economy, which relies heavily on tourism and agriculture.
"Western Maryland would be targeted first by fracking, and western Marylanders overwhelmingly know that we can never allow it to take place," said Ann Bristow, Garrett County resident and member of Gov. O'Malley's Marcellus shale advisory commission.
"The more we learn about fracking, the more we know we need a ban. Our water, health and climate are far more important than short term gain for the natural gas industry. Once free of worrying about fracking in Maryland, we can all turn our attention to a renewable and sustainable future."
By Alleen Brown
In Donald Trump's first week as president, text describing two rules regulating the oil and gas industry was removed from an Interior Department website. The rules, limiting hydraulic fracturing and natural gas flaring on public lands, are in the crosshairs of the Trump administration.
By Martha Roberts
Scott Pruitt, President Trump's pick for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is withholding thousands of emails related to his ties to major energy interests who may have donated to his political causes.
Such stonewalling makes it difficult for senators to vote on his nomination since they can't know if these contacts were appropriate. It is particularly disturbing because Pruitt—who as EPA administrator would be charged with overseeing vital clean air and clean water protections for our nation—has a long history of opposing bedrock safeguards in concert with industry players.
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) filed a report Tuesday about the absent emails with an Oklahoma court, the latest chapter in the watchdog group's two-year saga to get a response to its request for records from the Oklahoma Attorney General's office. An emergency hearing before the court has been scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 16.
Pruitt's absent emails so concerned Senate Democrats that they have asked that voting on Pruitt's nomination be postponed until after the Oklahoma court holds its hearing. Meanwhile, questions surrounding Pruitt's nomination continue to grow.
In January, Environmental Defense Fund filed a Freedom of Information Act request for EPA records relating to development of Pruitt's bare bones ethics agreement with the EPA. Unfortunately, the request to get these records swiftly, in time to inform consideration of Pruitt's nomination, was rejected. We continue to wait for these key documents.
What Else Is Out There?
Pruitt's office has said it identified more than 3,000 emails responsive to CMD's request. But when CMD finally got a response last week—after two years of waiting and a hearing before a state judge—Pruitt's office only provided 411.
Moreover, in at least 27 instances, emails responsive to CMD's request were previously released in a separate open records request—but not turned over to CMD. All this begs the question: What else is Pruitt's office withholding from the public?
Pruitt's Past Professional Behavior is Revealing
In 2014, Pruitt was identified as leading an "unprecedented, secretive alliance" with big energy interests.
He copied and pasted industry requests and sent them to senior federal officials under the seal of the Attorney General's office. And his staff fundraised from oil and gas interests during work hours.
Pruitt also routinely joined with major industry players in 14 lawsuits against bedrock EPA clean air and clean water protections that limit dangerous pollutants such as mercury, smog, arsenic and carbon.
Efforts to roll back such protections endanger children's health. Without these safeguards, our kids would suffer from even more asthma attacks, more brain development risks and other serious health consequences.
Pruitt Even Refused to Answer Senators
Meanwhile, Pruitt is even stonewalling U.S. senators charged with taking his testimony under his confirmation process. In written answers to questions posed by senators, Pruitt told them almost 20 times to file open records requests in Oklahoma rather than answering the senators' questions—the same kind of requests that suffer a two-year backlog in the office Pruitt leads.
In one instance, he even told a senator to file an open records request with his office to get more information—about open records requests in Pruitt's office.
It's already clear from the information we do have on Pruitt that he's entangled in a web of campaign contributions and lawsuits to oppose clean air and clean water safeguards. It's deeply troubling to consider that there's even more out there that we just don't know about.
Martha Roberts is an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Legal and Regulatory Program. She works to support climate change mitigation and secure clean air through policy initiatives and strategic litigation.
President Trump signed his first Congressional Review Act-sponsored bill (CRA) Tuesday, declaring at the signing that "energy jobs are coming back" and "lots of people [are] going back to work now."
The legislation, in fact, doesn't deal directly with jobs, but rather repeals a Dodd-Frank rule requiring extraction companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments—a regulation Trump's new Sec. of State Rex Tillerson lobbied against as CEO of ExxonMobil.
Some in the GOP may have a bit of buyer's remorse about the bill: a group of senators who voted for the resolution sent a letter to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this month asking the agency to create a new version of the rule and supporting any "legislative or other solutions" to address limits imposed by the CRA.
"The U.S. had been at the forefront on the transparency issue, with more than 30 countries following in its footsteps to pass similar legislation," said Isabel Munilla of Oxfam International in a statement after the House initially voted to kill the rule. "State-owned companies from Brazil, China and Russia are all now required to disclose their payments. If the Senate follows suit in overturning this rule, the U.S. will go from a leader into a laggard."
For a deeper dive:
Commentary: Vox, Brad Plumer analysis
I coined the term "Serengeti Strategy" in my 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. It's meant to describe how industry special interests and their patrons in power single out individual researchers or teams of scientists for attack, in much the same way lions of the Serengeti single out an individual zebra from the herd. In numbers, after all, there is strength, while individuals and small groups are far more vulnerable—and the purpose is two-fold: to undermine the credibility of wider scientific consensus and to discourage other researchers from sticking out their necks and participating in the public discourse over matters of policy-relevant science.
When it comes to attacks on climate scientists specifically, this strategy follows a familiar script. On the eve of a critical Congressional vote, hearing or climate policy summit, a late-breaking "scandal" suddenly erupts. Individual scientists are typically charged with claims of misconduct, fraud or data manipulation and soon enough, right-wing blogs, climate-denying websites and the conservative establishment media are trumpeting the accusations. In time, more objective media outlets are forced to cover the uproar, lending it credibility and oxygen, even as it is responsibly dissected.
With the public conversation hijacked, meaningful progress on climate policy is blunted and the vested interests seeking to maintain our current addition to fossil fuels prevail.
The latest example of this strategy began unfolding earlier this month when David Rose, an opinion writer for the British tabloid The Daily Mail—known for misrepresentations of climate change and serial attacks on climate scientists—published a commentary attacking Tom Karl, the recently retired director of the National Centers for Environmental Information at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a scientist for whom I have deep respect. Rose accused Karl and his co-authors of having "manipulated global warming data" in a 2015 study published in the journal Science. These charges were built entirely on an interview with a single disgruntled former NOAA employee, John Bates.
Rose's charges and Bates' allegations have since withered under scrutiny by journalists—and by the wider scientific community, which quickly noted that the findings of the 2015 Science paper have been independently and repeatedly, verified by other researchers. Bates' secondary claims that data from the Science paper had not been properly archived and that it was "rushed" to publication, have also fallen apart.
Still, the mission of this latest disinformation campaign has been accomplished and with its mooring in technical details too remote for casual news consumers to fully investigate, the headlines will nonetheless create additional drag on any well-meaning efforts to address climate change.
As a climate scientist, I should know. I've found myself at the center of such episodes more than once, as a result of what's become known as the iconic "hockey stick" diagram that my co-authors and I had published in the late 1990s—a graphic display of the data that made plain the unprecedented rate of global warming. While the hockey stick is hardly the basis of the case for human-caused climate change, the visually compelling character of the graphic has made it—and indeed me—a target of climate change deniers for years.
A version of the so-called hockey-stick diagram, made famous by the author—and attacked by his critics.
In the fall of 2003, just days before a critical U.S. Senate resolution to acknowledge the threat of human-caused climate change, an article in the journal Energy & Environment—regarded by many as a haven for climate skeptics —engaged in unsubstantiated attacks of the hockey stick. A group with ties to the fossil fuel industry published an op-ed trumpeting those criticisms in USA Today on the morning of the Senate vote. Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has described climate change as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," gleefully read the article aloud during the Senate floor debate. While the critique on the hockey stick would soon be summarily dismissed, it served the short-term purpose of hijacking the discussion and the bill did not pass.
By Steve Horn and Itai Vardi
Believe it or not, there's a key connection to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, in the fight over North America's controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
One of President Donald Trump's first actions in office was to sign an executive order on Jan. 24 expediting the approval of the Keystone XL. Owned by TransCanada, this tar sands oil pipeline was halted by former President Barack Obama in November 2015. Trump signed another order on Jan. 24, calling for steel for U.S. pipelines to be made in the U.S. to the "maximum extent possible" and two days later TransCanada filed a new presidential permit application for Keystone XL with the U.S. Department of State.
Critics, such as John Kemp of Reuters, pounced on the caveat language in Trump's steel order and noted that it appears "designed to preserve lots of wiggle-room." In fact, a DeSmog investigation reveals that much of the steel for Keystone XL has already been manufactured and is sitting in a field in rural North Dakota.
DeSmog has uncovered that 40 percent of the steel created so far was manufactured in Canada by a subsidiary of Evraz, a company partly owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who is a close ally of Putin and a Trump family friend. Evraz has also actively lobbied against provisions which would mandate that Keystone XL's steel be made in the U.S.
Abramovich is described in the 2004 book Abramovich: The Billionaire from Nowhere by British journalists Dominic Midgley and Chris Hutchins as "one of the prime movers behind the establishment of the only political party that was prepared to offer its undiluted support to Putin when he fought his first presidential election in late 1999. When Putin needed a shadowy force to act against his enemies behind the scenes, it was Abramovich whom he could rely on to prove a willing co-conspirator."
Evraz describes itself as "among the top steel producers in the world based on crude steel production of 14.3 million tonnes in 2015."
DeSmog's findings comes as Trump is under scrutiny from Congress, U.S. intelligence agencies and others for his personal and presidential campaign team's ties to Russia. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded in January that Russian state-sponsored actors had hacked into the email databases of both the Democratic National Committee and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign in order to influence the election in favor of Trump.
Meet Roman Abramovich
After helping launch Putin's presidency in Russia, Abramovich also was instrumental in the vetting and picking of Putin's cabinet, according to Midgley and Hutchins in their book. They also reveal that Abramovich was instrumental in the creation of Putin's political party, Unity.
Abramovich bought a 41 percent stake in the steel producer Evraz in 2006. Prior to that, he owned a 72 percent stake in the Russian state-owned oil company Sibneft, which was eventually purchased for $13 billion by the state-owned company Gazprom and became known as Gazprom Neft.
Before this, however, Sibneft merged in 2003 with the company Yukos, then owned by Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in an attempt to create what was envisioned as a competitor to the likes of ExxonMobil. Had it materialized, the resulting company, called Yukos-Sibneft, would have been at that point the fourth largest oil producer in the world.
Under pressure from Putin, however, and with what was reported as the helping hand of Abramovich, the deal was called off and Khodorkovsky ended up arrested and then jailed for eight years for alleged tax evasion and fraud. Abramovich's personal wealth doubled as a result of the later Sibneft-Gazprom merger.
The Telegraph reported that Abramovich met with Putin before the Yukos-Sibneft deal was tossed to the curb.
"The revelation of the meeting will fuel suggestions that the Kremlin is closely involved with the fate of the two companies," The Telegraph wrote at the time. "Many industry commentators saw [the] decision to halt the merger as a government-backed effort to further weaken Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former chief executive of Yukos and its largest shareholder."
Abramovich's influence would continue in the years ahead. The 2010 book The Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism and the Medvedev Succession, written by Richard Sakwa, further describes Abramovich as someone "whose wealth in the Putin years increased at least tenfold and he remained one of Putin's closest confidants" while Putin carried out his first term as president.