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.”

Interior gets new deputy secretary, NOAA gets new director

New leaders are on board at two of America’s natural resources policy agencies.

The U.S. Senate, after a nearly seven-month delay, has confirmed Michael L. Connor as deputy secretary of the interior.

Connor, who previously served as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, counsel to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, director of the Department of Interior’s Indian Water Rights Office, and staff lawyer for the cabinet department, was approved for the post by a 97-0 vote on Feb. 27.

Connor will be number two at Interior to secretary Sally Jewell, overseeing a team of more than 70,000 employees and an annual budget of around $18 billion.

His nomination had been in limbo since Obama nominated him for the post in July 2013.

Lowell Pimley, an engineer who has been an employee of the Bureau of Reclamation since 1980, will serve as interim director of that agency until the Senate confirms Connor’s replacement in the job.

On March 10 Obama nominated Estevan Lopez, the director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, to lead Reclamation.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also welcoming a new leader.

Kathryn Sullivan, a retired U.S. Navy Reserve officer, astronaut, oceanographer, and former NOAA chief scientist, was confirmed March 6 as the tenth director of the agency and undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.

Obama adds to California national monument

Image

Image courtesy U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

President Barack Obama has used his pen to grant additional protections to more than 1,600 spectacular acres along California’s Mendocino coast.

On March 11 Obama designated the Point Arena-Stornetta unit of the California Coastal National Monument.

“As some of you know, in my State of the Union address I talked about taking any actions that I could to ensure that this incredible gift of American lands, the natural bounty that has been passed on to us from previous generations, is preserved for future generations,” Obama said during a signing ceremony. “And I pledged to act wherever I could to make sure that our children, our grandchildren are going to be able to look upon this land of ours with the same wonder as we have.”

The country’s newest addition to the inventory of national monuments is situated along about 12 miles of the Pacific coast, near the tiny town of Point Arena. The Point Arena-Stornetta unit connects the beach in Manchester State Park to the town and includes the estuary of the Garcia River, cliffs, dunes, and meadows.

Rixanne Wehren, the coastal committee chairperson for the Sierra Club’s Mendocino Group, said that the new preserve is unique because of the undeveloped nature of the area’s coastline and the scenic features included within it.

“It has beautiful coastline resources, both based in the water and based on the land,” she said. “It also has one of the very few waterfalls that comes directly off the land into the ocean and many tide pools and near-shore habitats that are quite prolific with sea life, all observable from the shore.”

These picturesque magnets for tourists are not the only reasons the Point Arena-Stornetta unit has significant environmental value. It is also home to at least four threatened or endangered species, including Behren’s silverspot butterflyCalifornia red-legged frog, Point Arena mountain beaver, and snowy plover.

Salmon may also benefit from the new preserve. Chinook and coho salmon are native to the Garcia River watershed, as are steelhead. The chinook run is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, as are the region’s steelhead, while the coho stock is endangered.

While the protection of the coastal prairie and beach south of that river probably will not affect upstream impacts on the two endangered runs, advocates for conserving California’s fisheries lauded Obama’s move as a boost for public-private partnerships and recreational fishing.

“Designating the Point Arena-Stornetta public lands as a national monument is a no brainer, for fish and for people,” Brian Johnson, director of Trout Unlimited’s California Program, said.

Obama emphasized the environmental, educational, and economic value of the Point Arena-Stornetta lands at the signing ceremony.

“We are talking about over 1,600 acres of incredible coastline in California that reflects the incredible diversity of flora and fauna,” the president said before signing the document that invoked the Antiquities Act. “It is a place where scientists do research; where people who just want to experience the great outdoors can take advantage of it. It is a huge economic boost for the region.”

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management acquired most of the Point Arena-Stornetta land in 2005, when the family that had owned it for three generations sold 1,132 acres to the government for about $7.8 million. Other conservation efforts added 533 more acres in the immediate area to the BLM’s holdings.

Former President Bill Clinton established the California Coastal National Monument in January 2000. It protects more than 20,000 reefs, islands, and rocks that serve as important habitat for a variety of wildlife species.

The New York Times recently highlighted the Point Arena-Stornetta area as third among 52 places suggested for tourists to visit during 2014.

BLM must develop a management plan for the new national monument addition by March 2017.

NOTE: This post was updated on March 23, 2014.

Image courtesy Rixanne Wehren, GeoGraphics Maps & Photos
Image courtesy Rixanne Wehren, GeoGraphics Maps & Photos

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)

Obama nominates Kornze to lead BLM

President Barack Obama has nominated a senior Bureau of Land Management administrator to become the next director of the agency.

Neil G. Kornze, a native Nevadan, got the nod Nov. 7.

“Neil has helped implement forward-looking reforms at the BLM to promote energy development in areas of minimal conflict, drive landscape-level planning efforts, and dramatically expand the agency’s use of technology to speed up the process for energy permitting,” Interior secretary Sally Jewell said.

Kornze, 34, has been at BLM since 2011, when he joined the agency as a senior advisor to the director. He has been serving as acting director since March of this year.

BLM has not had a permanent director since March 2012, when Bob Abbey retired.

Before joining the agency Kornze worked for Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

He has a masters degree in international relations from the London School of Economics, in addition to a B.A. in politics from Whitman College.

Kornze’s family has a long history of work in the mining industry in the Elko, Nev. region.

Notwithstanding the possibility that the nominee will be sympathetic to mining interests, which rely on BLM lands throughout the West, environmental organizations generally welcomed the nomination.

“As a westerner, he knows first-hand the importance of careful stewardship of our public lands,” Alex Taurel, the deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, said. “He’s the right choice for the job, and the Senate should act quickly on his nomination.”

Trout Unlimited touted Kornze’s consensus-building skills.

“During his time on Capitol Hill and in recent years at the BLM, Neil has demonstrated a pragmatic, solutions-oriented approach to public lands challenges,” TU president and chief executive officer Chris Wood said.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Interior

Ninth Circuit considering whether to grant en banc review in Drakes Bay Oyster case

The San Francisco-based federal appeals court that upheld an Obama administration decision not to renew a permit allowing oyster farming at Point Reyes National Seashore is considering whether to re-hear the case.

In an order released Tuesday, the judges who wrote the Sept. 3 opinion asked the U.S. Department of Justice to inform the court whether it thinks en banc review is appropriate. The court set a Dec. 2 deadline for the Obama administration’s brief.

The case involves a clash between a 1970s decision by Congress to designate an estuary called Drakes Estero, the likely site of the first landing by Europeans in California in 1579, as a potential addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System and a shellfish farm that has been in operation for about eight decades. 

Former secretary of the interior Ken Salazar announced in Nov. 2012 that a 40-year lease allowing use of about 1,100 acres located in the western half of the estuary for shellfish harvesting would not be renewed.

If the Interior Department’s decision not to renew the lease and accompanying special use permit is upheld, then the Drakes Estero acreage used by Drakes Bay Oyster Co., as well as about 1,600 additional acres, will become part of the first marine wilderness area on the west coast.

En banc review, or reconsideration of a three-judge panel’s opinion by a larger group of judges, is conducted in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit by 11 judges. According to the court’s rules, the judges who would sit on such a panel are chosen at random by a member of the clerk of court’s staff.

Federal law authorizes appeals courts to grant en banc review if the case is of “exceptional importance” or if the decision by the panel of three circuit judges is in conflict with a decision by another three-judge panel.

In the Drakes Bay case, the permit holder argues that an amendment to a 2009 law authorizes perpetual operation of the oyster farm, despite the 1976 statute.

The case is Drakes Bay Oyster Co. v. Jewell, No. 13-15227.

Obama nominates REI head Jewell to replace Salazar at Interior Department

President Barack Obama has broken recent tradition when it comes to picking a secretary of the interior.

Obama has nominated Sally Jewell, the president and chief executive officer of outdoor gear giant Recreational Equipment, Inc., for the post.

Donald P. Hodel, who served during the second Reagan administration in the 1980s, was the last person without experience as a statewide elected official or member of Congress to be appointed secretary of the interior.

“So even as Sally has spent the majority of her career outside of Washington, where, I might add, the majority of our interior is located,” Obama said during an announcement at the White House Wednesday, “she is an expert on the energy and climate issues that are going to shape our future. She knows the link between conservation and good jobs. She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress; that in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand.”

Jewell has a background as a commercial banking executive and as an engineer. She joined the board of directors at REI in 1996 and became the retailer’s CEO in 2000.

REI was founded in 1938 and has 127 stores around the world. The company generated revenues of about $1.8 billion in 2011 and employs about 11,000 people.

Those numbers are a mere fraction of similar measurements of the department of the interior’s fiscal situation.

The nation’s primary land management agency spent about $21.5 billion in fiscal year 2011 and employs more than 70,000 people.

The prospect of Jewell’s nomination was lauded by leaders of several national environmental organizations.

Francis Beinecke, the president of Natural Resources Defense Council, said that Jewell has “the heart of an environmentalist and the know-how of a businesswoman” and applauded her “unique experience and “love of the outdoors.” The Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, complimented Jewell for her “demonstrated commitment to preserving the higher purposes public lands hold for all Americans,” while Defenders of Wildlife president Jamie Rappaport Clark said that her organization is optimistic that Jewell will be a “strong conservation leader who will protect our natural heritage, promote a positive vision for our public lands and wildlife and stand with us to help renew America’s commitment to conservation.”

The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, also welcomed the expected nomination. He said, in a statement posted on the committee’s website, that she is an “inspired choice” who will “bring a new vision to the Interior Department.”

“Her record shows that she understands the importance of preserving our public lands for future generations, as well as the critical links between public lands, natural resources and economic growth,” Wyden continued.

The committee’s ranking Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, took a much more cautious stand on the nomination.

“The livelihoods of Americans living and working in the West rely on maintaining a real balance between conservation and economic opportunity,” Murkowski said. “I look forward to hearing about the qualifications Ms. Jewell has that make her a suitable candidate to run such an important agency, and how she plans to restore balance to the Interior Department.”

A representative of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas industry trade association, issued a more positive statement, albeit one that included a pitch for a greater emphasis on public lands oil and gas extraction.

“Her experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation’s energy portfolio,” Tim Wigley, the organization’s president, said. “We hope to see a better balance of productive development on non-park, non-wilderness public lands that enhances the wealth of America and creates jobs while protecting the environment.”

Most interior secretaries in the post-World War II era have been western politicians. For example, incumbent Ken Salazar is a former U.S. senator from Colorado and state attorney general.

His predecessors in the George W. Bush administration, Gale A. Norton and Dirk Kempthorne, were, respectively, a former Colorado attorney general and ex-U.S. senator from Idaho. Clinton administration interior secretary Bruce Babbitt was a former Arizona governor and attorney general, while Manuel Lujan, Jr., who held the job between 1989-1993, was a former congressman from New Mexico.

If confirmed, Jewell would be the nation’s 51st secretary of the interior, but only the second woman to hold the job.

A native of England, Jewell has lived in the United States since early childhood and is an American citizen.