Environmental groups seek intervention in oil industry effort to preserve Arctic leases

Drillship Kulluk, 2012 - photo courtesy Royal Dutch Shell
The drillship Kulluck in the Beaufort Sea, 2012. Photo courtesy Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

The environmental advocacy community aims to have a voice as the Department of Interior addresses oil industry arguments that rights to drill for oil in Arctic seas were unlawfully taken away.

In a motion filed Wednesday with the Interior Board of Land Appeals, nine organizations asked for permission to intervene in two Royal Dutch Shell PLC subsidiaries’ efforts to force the Obama administration to extend exploration leases for five years.

“The agency was right to reject Shell’s extension request, and we look forward to helping it defend that decision,” Erik Grafe, an attorney at Earthjustice who is representing the groups, said.

Royal Dutch Shell announced on Sept. 28 that it would cease all exploration activities in the Alaskan Arctic. However, the oil giant had asked the Obama administration in July 2014 to grant a Suspension of Operations for its leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. In legal terms, an SOO is a pause in the duration of an exploration lease that allows it to be extended by a time equivalent to that lost when drilling is economically impractical.

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement then said on Oct. 16 that it had denied the SOO request by the two subsidiaries.BSEE found that Shell had failed to provide a “reasonable schedule” of exploration resumption.

As a general rule, companies can retain marine exploration leases only if they are actively engaged in an effort to find and extract energy resources.

Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. and Shell Offshore Inc. filed an appeal of the BSEE decision with IBLA, the department’s panel of administrative judges, on Dec. 15. The subsidiaries have not yet filed a statement of the reasons they argue justify a reversal of BSEE’s decision.

The Beaufort and Chukchi leases are due to expire in 2017 and 2020.

Conoco-Phillips Co., another giant in the energy industry, has also asked IBLA to force the administration to grant it an SOO for its Arctic leases.

House to vote on Senate-passed KXL bill next week

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote next week on whether to adopt the KXL pipeline bill approved by the Senate.

The chamber’s majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., announced Tuesday his intention to move the controversial proposal to President Barack Obama’s desk.

“Next week we will take up the Keystone pipeline as passed by the Senate and send it to the President’s desk,” McCarthy said during a press conference.

If the House, as expected, passes S.1 without changes, then Obama will soon be in a position to impose a promised veto of the legislation.

Senate votes approval of KXL pipeline bill

The U.S. Senate approved Thursday the contentious bill to cut the President out of the process of deciding whether to authorize the KXL oil pipeline.

The vote followed two more days dedicated, in part, to debate on a series of amendments to the bill.

Nearly all of those amendments failed to reach the 60-vote threshold for adoption.

Senators voted on about a dozen amendments this week, following a successful filibuster of S.1 by minority Democrats late last week, and several of them implicated the nation’s environmental policy:

  • proposal by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., to assure that communities along the pipeline route are notified of the risks of leaks or ruptures was defeated, 37 ayes to 67 nos.
  • Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., sought to require a certification by federal pipeline regulators that they have adequate resources to assure safety; it was beaten back by Republicans, 40-58.
  • An amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to provide tax rebates for solar energy systems failed on a 40-58 vote.
  • An attempt by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., to force the removal of the lesser prairie chicken from the federal list of endangered and threatened species was voted down, 54-44.
  • Montana GOP Sen. Steve Daines offered an amendment that would have forced presidents to obtain the approval of state governors and legislatures before designating national monuments; it failed, 50-47.
  • An amendment by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., that would have put the Senate on record as recognizing the impacts of climate change on the nation’s infrastructure was voted down, 47-51.
  • Alaska’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, proposed to end wilderness study area status for all areas not designated by Congress as wilderness within one year of being considered; that amendment was rejected on a 50-48 vote.
  • Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., offered an amendment that would have permanently re-authorized appropriations into the Land and Water Conservation Fund; that amendment lost by one vote, 59-39.
  • An effort by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to include in the bill a federal renewable energy standard was defeated, 45-53.

After debate and votes on all amendments, Democrats again sought to delay a vote on the merits. This time they were unsuccessful, as the Senate shut off debate with a 62-35 vote for cloture.

Democrats Michael Bennet of Colorado, Thomas Carper of Delaware, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Joseph Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, and Mark Warner of Virginia voted with all of the chamber’s Republicans to move to a final vote on the bill.

The final vote mirrored that margin, with the same Democratic senators voting with the majority GOP.

S.1 now moves back to the House of Representatives, where Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio will have to decide whether to ask that chamber to vote to approve the amendments approved by the Senate or, instead, send the different House and Senate versions to a conference committee.

Josh Earnest, a White House spokesperson, reiterated Thursday that President Obama will veto any bill that attempts to deprive him of authority to decide whether to grant the permit necessary for a Canadian corporation to build the KXL pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border.

“[O]ur position on the Keystone legislation is well known,” Earnest said. “And if, in fact, the legislation that passed the House also passes the Senate, then the President won’t sign it.”

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.

 

COMMENTARY: New Colo. Sen. Gardner’s votes on climate change amendments are proof of unwillingness to lead

Cory Gardner, Colorado’s brand-new Republican U.S. senator, has had a charmed career. The “cherubic” legislator from the Centennial state’s eastern plains rose in about nine years from obscurity to one of the state’s most powerful politicians.

He got there because he’s likable, because he had the good fortune of running against an incumbent U.S. senator who ran a less-than-stellar re-election campaign, and because he promised Coloradans that he would be a different sort of Republican – one more attuned to the changing priorities of a politically moderate Western state than are many of his GOP colleagues in Washington and elsewhere.

This week, as the Senate debated a bill to green-light the controversial KXL oil pipeline, Gardner had the chance to prove that his words were sincere. He failed to do that and, in the process, reinforced fears that he will give more priority to the desires of fossil fuel interests than to the imperative of a cogent national response to anthropogenic climate change.

Gardner had four chances to acknowledge, with his vote and, maybe, with his voice, that humans are causing Earth’s climate to change. When he had the opportunity to vote for amendments to S.1, the KXL pipeline bill, offered by Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Brian Schatz, D-Haw., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that forthrightly recognized that indisputable fact, Gardner blew it. In each case he voted “no.”

To be fair, few of his GOP colleagues voted any differently and, during his campaign last year, Gardner never took a clear stand on climate change. Nevertheless, the senator represents a state that stands to be severely impacted by climate change, with a serious potential of lower winter snow pack, earlier snow melt that reduces summer flows in the state’s rivers and streams and the volume of water in its reservoirs, and increasing drought on the senator’s native Great Plains. Colorado is a state that depends heavily on tourism, as people from all over the world travel to its mountains to ski, snowboard, and otherwise revel in the wintry white, and its burgeoning high technology sector draws talented employees who value the state’s equable climate and four-season playground far more than they do the parochial desires of oil company executives for increased profits at the expense of a warmed planet.

Environmental policy is central to Colorado’s economy, quality of life, and culture. Gardner’s votes this week indicate a surprising willingness to overlook that reality. It is difficult to believe that Gardner is not familiar with the clear scientific consensus that climate change currently causing rapid and dramatic change all over the planet is anthropogenic in origin. It is likewise difficult to believe that Gardner does not know that the widespread and ever-growing combustion of fossil fuels accounts for the heating of  our atmosphere and oceans.

The senator’s votes this week are a sad reminder that even those politicians who cannot count on a consistent trend of support for one party or the other are willing to disregard their constituents’ justifiable and genuine concern for the future of their state, the nation and civilization itself. They also tell every Coloradan that Cory Gardner is not a leader. He has not shown a willingness to be honest about humanity’s impact on the air we breathe and the oceans upon which we depend and, apparently, is comfortable with policies that will only add to the harm caused by our society’s intentional and destructive chemical experiment in the atmosphere.

EPA to delay emission rules for new and existing power plants

The Obama administration announced earlier this month that it would delay release of final rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing electric power plants and release proposed rules governing greenhouse gas pollution from new power plants several weeks later than originally planned.

Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator Janet McCabe disclosed the modified schedule during a press conference on Jan. 7. She said that the regulatory issues common to both new and existing power plants dictated a simultaneous release of the respective Clean Power Plan regulations.

The agency also said it would develop a model emissions rule to be imposed on states that refuse to act on their own to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity generation sector.

Since news of the delay in release of the two Clean Power Plan rules broke, commentators have speculated that the administration is seeking to maximize the likelihood that both will survive an expected legal challenge from the industry and others. One law professor who specializes in the Clean Air Act suggested on the Legal Planet blog that EPA may be seeking to harmonize the standards applicable to new and existing coal-fired power plants, particularly those that aim to encourage use of carbon capture technology.

EPA will issue the final rule for existing coal-fired power plants and the proposed rule for new, modified, and reconstructed facilities this summer.

 

Senate kills two more proposals to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change

The U.S. Senate again refused on Thursday to acknowledge the human role in climate change, voting down two proposals that would have forced members to go on record as recognizing scientific reality.

Senators first rejected an amendment to the underlying bill authorizing the KXL oil pipeline that specified that climate change is “real” and “caused by human activities” and “has already caused devastating problems in the United States and around the world.” The proposal, offered by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also included language that encouraged research into “clean fossil fuel technology.”

The Senate tabled the amendment, 53-46, with only one Republican – Mark Kirk of Illinois – voting with Democrats to allow floor debate on its merits.

Later, an amendment introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that also acknowledged human impacts on the atmosphere and oceans and that emphasized the importance of developing non-fossil fuel energy sources was also tabled.

The chamber, with every one of 54 majority Republicans opposed to it, voted 56-42 to table it. Democratic senators Heidi Heitkamp of oil-producing state North Dakota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri also voted to deny consideration of its merits.

Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced late Thursday night that the Senate would not consider additional amendments to S.1. A vote on whether to cut off floor debate on the bill itself is expected early next week.

President Barack Obama has threatened to veto any bill that interferes with his authority to decide whether or not to grant the permit required to construct the KXL pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border.