Interior secretary Jewell dismisses call to end federal fossil fuel leasing, disappoints environmentalists

The Obama administration’s chief public land and continental shelf manager did not have any encouraging words Wednesday about a proposal to end federal oil and coal leasing.

Responding informally to a letter from more than 400 organizations and individuals concerned about anthropogenic climate change that was delivered Tuesday to the White House, secretary of the interior Sally Jewell rejected the idea of eliminating fossil fuel production on the federal estate because the country “continues to be dependent on fossil fuels.”

“Right now, we are sitting under lights that are most likely powered by coal, in the East,” she said, according to The Hill newspaper. “Maybe some of you walked here, but most of you probably burned some fossil fuels in one way or another to get here. There are millions of jobs in this country that are dependent on these industries, and you can’t just cut it off overnight and expect to have an economy that is, in fact, the leader in the world.”

Environmental group leaders roundly criticized Jewell’s comments.

“This is a straw man, and Secretary Jewell knows it,” May Boeve, the executive director at 350.org said in a statement. “Absolutely no one is suggesting that we can end society’s reliance on fossil fuel use tomorrow, but that’s no excuse for failing to do our part today.”

Taylor McKinnon, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, explained that current leasing plans account for “decades’ worth” of oil and coal, “more than can ever be safely burned.”

“The fact that society uses fossil fuels doesn’t obviate the need to quickly de-carbonize and stop digging them up,” McKinnon said. “Sixty-seven million acres of public land and ocean are already leased to industry. Those contain 43 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution. And this is atop 42 million more acres proposed by her agency on Friday.”

McKinnon was referring to two oil and gas exploration leases in the Gulf of Mexico that were proposed Sept. 11 by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

If approved, those leases could result in the production of at least 531 million barrels of oil and more than two trillion cubic feet of natural gas. They would cover more than 40 million acres off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

A report released last month by Eco-Shift Consulting on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth concluded that combustion of the remaining fossil fuels available on the federal estate would result in the equivalent as much as 450 billion tons of carbon dioxide being discharged to the atmosphere.

“This is equivalent to 13 times global carbon emissions in 2014 or annual emissions from 118,000 coal-fired power plants,” the report said.

President Barack Obama probably does have the authority to terminate future fossil fuel leases, both on the public lands and offshore. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 gives the President essentially unilateral authority to remove areas of the OCS from oil and gas exploration and extraction activities, while the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 requires only some reporting and analysis requirements as a prerequisite to executive authority to remove Bureau of Land Management acreage from energy leasing.

The Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act of 1987 grants to BLM and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service discretion to decide whether to permit oil and gas leasing. Similarly, the Mineral Leasing Act, as amended by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, affords both the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture wide latitude on the question whether to allow coal mining on BLM and USDA Forest Service land:

“The secretary of the interior is authorized to divide any lands subject to this Act which have been classified for coal leasing into leasing tracts of such size as the secretary finds appropriate and in the public interests and which will permit the mining of all coal that can be economically extracted in such tract and thereafter the secretary shall, in his or her discretion, upon the request of any qualified applicant or on his or her own motion, from time to time, offer such lands for leasing and shall award leases thereon by competitive bidding.”

The federal public lands comprise about 650 million acres, while the continental shelf exceeds 1.7 billion acres. The amount of federal public land leased for oil, gas, and coal extraction is about 55 times as large as Grand Canyon National Park.

The Sept. 15 letter to Obama by the coalition writing under the name “Keep It in the Ground” argued that Washington will not be able to meet any meaningful international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if federal fossil fuel leasing is not terminated.

“The science is clear that, to maintain a good chance of avoiding catastrophic levels of warming, the world must keep the vast majority of its remaining fossil fuels in the ground,” the letter said. “Federal fossil fuels — those that you control — are the natural place to begin. Each new federal fossil fuel lease opens new deposits for development that should be deemed unburnable. By placing those deposits off limits, stopping new leasing would help align your administration’s energy policy with a safer climate future and global carbon budgets.”

NYT: Obama administration to allow drilling off Atlantic coast, ban it in Arctic seas

The New York Times, in an online article that appeared Monday evening, reports that the Obama administration will announce Tuesday a decision to allow oil exploration on the Atlantic coast while forbidding it in areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska.

Areas along the Eastern seaboard that would be affected by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management decision would be between Virginia and Georgia.

No oil exploration has occurred off the country’s Atlantic coast since the early 1980s. However, political pressure to resume the practice has grown in recent years. In March 2010 President Barack Obama said that he favored drilling off the East coast states shorelines, but in the aftermath of that year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill along the Gulf coast, the Department of Interior decided to hold off issuing any leases until at least 2017.

A Dec. 2014 study by BOEM concluded that the mean quantity of oil beneath the Atlantic waves and under the continental shelf could be as much as 4.72 billion barrels. The amount exploitable between Virginia and Georgia would likely be as much as about 3 billion barrels, according to the agency. BOEM also found that the area along the coast that encompasses Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia may also hide about 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The decision on Arctic drilling would follow the announcement Sunday by President Barack Obama that he will ask Congress to designate more than 12 million additional acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. That designation, if approved by Congress, would included the refuge’s coastal plain.

About 7 million acres of the 54-plus year old Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was preserved from most forms of natural resource exploitation in 1980.

Obama’s effort to nearly triple the wilderness acreage in the Mollie Beattie Wilderness would, if successful, create the largest single component of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

 

Federal appeals court rejects U.S. plan for oil drilling in Chukchi Sea

The Obama administration’s plan to extract billions of barrels of oil from Arctic seas off the northwest coast of Alaska hit a roadblock in federal court last week.

The federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Jan. 22 that the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulations, and Enforcement’s ‘s environmental impact study was flawed because it assumed a production level far lower than the potential oil production from the project.

The case centers on a lease sale advanced by the administration of President George W. Bush. Called Lease Sale 193, the 2008 decision affects about 30 million acres of the marine region, an area larger than Pennsylvania.

The sale of 487 exploration leases in Lease Sale 193 produced more than $2.6 billion in revenue for Washington, with about $2.1 billion of that coming from Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s largest energy companies.

Opponents of the BOEM plan to allow drilling in the area point to the risks it poses to the region’s diverse wildlife.

“The melting Chukchi Sea is no place for drillships,” Rebecca Noblin, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska director, said in a statement. “It’s a place where polar bears hunt for ringed seals, where walruses socialize and bowhead whales make their way to rich feeding grounds.”

The opponents, who include 12 conservation groups, one native Alaskan advocacy organization, and one native Alaskan village, argued that, by underestimating the amount of oil that could be extracted from the area if drilling occurred, BOEM was risking a huge oil spill that would devastate that pristine area.

“This mistake means that the EIS gives only the best case scenario for environmental harm,” Eric Grafe, an attorney with the public interest law firm Earthjustice, said. “All is based on the number of barrels produced. If they get the number wrong, they understate all those other impacts.”

Grafe said that, even if only 1 billion barrels of oil were produced in the area that is subject to the oil lease sale, there would be a 40 percent chance of an oil spill.

“Because it’s so remote and so inaccessible, the assumption is that you’d have to find a significant amount of oil to justify the infrastructure that would have to be put in,” he said. “Right now there’s nothing. No roads, no pipelines. It’s a pristine area. It’s precisely because of that absence of infrastructure that it’s so risky to drill there. If there is an oil spill, you’re not going to have the resources to respond to that oil spill and you can’t clean it up in an icy environment anyway.”

The federal appeals court panel that heard the case agreed that the government’s reliance upon an estimate of 1 billion barrels of oil caused its study of environmental impacts from the drilling activity  to be flawed.

“In the case before us, BOEM was fully aware from the very beginning that if one billion barrels could be economically produced, many more barrels could also be economically produced,” Judge William Fletcher, the lead author of the appellate panel’s opinion, wrote.

There may be as many as 15 billion barrels of oil that are economically viable to extract beneath the Chukchi Sea, according to 1 2011 BOEM analysis.

Environmentalists also point to the contribution to ongoing climate change that extracted oil would make.

“We can’t afford to burn the oil found there,” Grafe said. “We shouldn’t be getting more oil out to burn it if we are going to stay within climate change parameters.”

Shell commenced drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2012 but experienced numerous problems. A  March 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Interior concluded that Shell committed a series of logistical and planning blunders in connection with its Lease Sale 193-related activities in the Arctic.

“They screwed it up really badly,” Grafe said. “Here’s a company saying ‘we’re ready to drill, we can do it safely’ and it’s a giant fiasco. Nothing goes right.”

Among those problems:

* a containment dome used to prevent the spread of oil spills that was being tested in Puget Sound was “crushed like a beer can,” according to a U.S. Department of Interior official who observed the test;

* a drill ship called the Noble Discoverer slipped anchor and nearly ran aground in Dutch Harbor, AK, then had to quickly be moved from Shell’s exploration site in the Chukchi Sea because an ice storm was rapidly approaching;

* U.S. Coast Guard inspectors found a litany of maritime regulation violations on the vessel and later referred its findings to the U.S. Department of Justice;

* the Noble Discoverer later caught fire and exploded while in port in the Aleutian Islands; and

* another drilling ship, the Kulluck, broke free of a tow and ran aground in Kodiak, AK in Dec. 2012. Shell was trying to move the ship to Seattle to avoid paying Alaska property taxes on vessels used for oil and gas exploration.

“Doing that in the winter when there’s lots of storms in the Gulf of Alaska is risky,” Grafe said. “But they did it.”

The incident involving the Kulluck drill barge remains under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 the U.S. Department of Interior has authority over oil and gas exploration and extraction on submerged lands along the country’s coasts. That cabinet department, in turn, includes a specialized agency – BOEM – to handle leasing of the submerged lands for oil and gas development activity. BOEM used to be known as the Minerals Management Service. The Obama administration changed its name in 2010, following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Chukchi Sea lease sale dispute will now go back before a U.S. district judge in Alaska. He will decide whether the holders of oil leases in the Chukchi Sea can proceed to drill after a modified environmental impact statement is prepared or whether the lease sales should be voided altogether.

Judge Ralph Beistline had previously rejected BOEM’s environmental impact statement in a 2010 decision. Later, after the Obama administration made changes to the EIS and proceeded with Lease Sale 193, Beistline upheld that decision. It was that 2011 order that was reversed by the Ninth Circuit last week.

Grafe said that the appeals court’s opinion gives BOEM time to decide whether to abandon the Chukchi Sea leases.

“They could put out a draft EIS and, while they’re doing that process to get a more accurate assessment, not allow any activities to happen on those leases,” he explained. “At the end of that EIS process, when we have a document that more accurately informs the public about the risks, they can reconsider the decision about whether the leases should be there.”

Grafe was referring to an environmental impact statement, which is the study of the environmental impacts likely to result from a “major federal action,” such as marine oil leases, mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

Shell announced this week that it would not attempt to drill in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas this year.

The case is Native Village of Point Hope v. Jewell, No. 12-35287.

Chukchi Sea ice - photo courtesy NOAA - photo by Karen E. Frey Beluga whale pod in Chukchi sea - photo courtesy NOAA, photo by Laura Morse Walruses in the Chukchi Sea - photo courtesy USGS

Kulluck aground - photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg

Top photo: Ice on Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Karen E. Frey)

Second photo: Beluga whale pod in Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Laura Morse)

Third photo: Walrus in Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

Fourth photo: The drill ship Kulluck aground in Kodiak, AK, Jan. 1, 2013 (photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg)

Interior department opens U.S. Atlantic coast for windmills

The Atlantic coast, or at least parts of it, will soon be dotted with windmills.

The Obama administration launched Friday an effort to lease more than a quarter of a million acres in federal waters off Virginia, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts for wind energy production. It is the U.S. government’s first-ever lease of rights to use the outer continental shelf as a site for production of renewable energy.

Interior secretary Ken Salazar explained that the lease, which will affect about 278,000 acres, is part of the administration’s commitment to an “all of the above” energy strategy.

“Wind energy along the Atlantic holds enormous potential, and today we are moving closer to tapping into this massive domestic energy resource to create jobs, increase our energy security, and strengthen our nation’s competitiveness in this new energy frontier,” Salazar said in a statement.

The 432 square miles covered by the leases are expected to produce a fraction of the power potential of wind along the eastern seaboard. According to a 2010 report produced by the environmental advocacy organization Oceana, wind power generated off the Atlantic coast could supply almost half of the electricity needed by 11 states in the region.

The economic benefits may be substantial, too. The Oceana report projected that production of the same quantity of power as is generated by wind in Europe would cost about $36 billion less than reliance on fossil fuels while generating between 133,000 and 212,000 jobs.

The U.S. government is not as sanguine about the advantages of wind energy, but nevertheless predicts significant benefits.

The major obstacle to increasing electricity production from wind energy is high capital costs. In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a wind power facility’s levelized cost of electricity is higher than that of a plant that burns fossil fuels.

The capital costs are higher for an offshore wind energy production plant than for a similar facility built on land.

Friday’s auction covers an area of about 164,750 acres off the Massachusetts and Rhode Island coasts and another area of about 112,800 acres.

The areas leased off the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island are about ten miles out to sea and are expected to produce enough electricity for 700,000 homes, The area leased off the Virginia coast, which will be developed about 23 nautical miles away from the shore, is expected to generate a similar amount of power.

The U.S. was, as of 2009, the world’s leading producer of wind energy. However, the country produced only two percent of its electricity from that source during 2009, making it a distant follower of Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and Germany. Each of those nations obtained at least seven percent of their domestic electricity needs from wind turbines.

Legislation enacted in 2005 authorizes the Interior department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to lease offshore waters for renewable energy production.

The Interior department will award the leases in 2013.