Paris Agreement takes effect; American presidential winner casts shadow over international effort to fight climate change

The Paris Agreement on climate change took effect on Nov. 4, days before American voters elected as their President a candidate who has promised to abandon the nation’s commitment to fighting climate change.

According to a press release issued by the United Nations on Nov. 5, the accord has become operative faster than any other recent international agreement.

“The speed at which countries have made the Paris’s Agreement’s entry into force possible is unprecedented in recent experience of international agreements and is a powerful confirmation of the importance nations attach to combating climate change and realizing the multitude of opportunities inherent in the Paris Agreement,” Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in a statement.

The agreement, which was reached last December, could not begin to bind the nations that developed it until thirty days from the date on which the number of countries to ratify it reached 55 and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions accounted for by the ratifying countries reached 55 percent of the worldwide total.

unfccc-22-nov-2016
Nations that are parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are meeting this month in Morocco.

Parties to the UNFCCC are now gathered for their 22nd annual meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco to establish a governing body that will oversee implementation of the Paris Agreement and rules to guide nations in their compliance with it.

The Paris Agreement does not limit national greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, it requires signatory nations to specify Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. INDCs are used to detail each country’s effort to limit the atmospheric temperature increase caused by human activities to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Nations that do not meet their INDC obligation are not penalized.

Since the accord took effect, uncertainty about its future has increased around the world in the aftermath of the U.S. election. Although he did not win the majority of votes cast by Americans, New York real estate developer and reality TV star Donald J. Trump will become the nation’s chief executive because he carried a majority of the state-based votes that will be cast in the country’s archaic Electoral College.

Trump defeated former secretary of state and senator Hillary Clinton, along with a slew of minor party candidates including Libertarian former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, to capture the presidency.

Trump’s comments during the long political campaign leading up to the election indicated that the United States may abandon the Paris Agreement. Trump said in May that he would “cancel” the American commitment to it.

Earlier statements by the Republican businessman, who has no political experience, also indicate that there is a risk that the country which emits the most greenhouse gases might quit the effort to limit them. Trump has said, for example, that he believes climate change is a “hoax” developed and encouraged by China.

Since his election on Nov. 8 Trump has made no public comments about his plans for continued U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement. However, he has chosen a well-known climate science denier, Myron Ebell of the libertarian advocacy group Competitive Enterprise Institute, to manage the transition of personnel and policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Trump has also indicated that he is considering several oil executives and at least one politician who is adamantly in favor of increasing American fossil fuel production to lead the U.S. Department of Interior, which regulates energy exploration and extraction on public lands and on the continental shelf.

The United States cannot formally leave the Paris Agreement for four years, according to its terms. However, Trump has a number of options for limiting or preventing its impact on the country’s fossil fuel extraction and use. He could, for example, re-characterize the deal as a treaty and submit it to the U.S. Senate, controlled by Republicans, for ratification. Ratification would be unlikely. Trump could, if he desired to land a stronger blow against international climate change diplomacy, pull the United States out of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He could also simply ignore the INDCs agreed to by the administration of President Barack Obama, a path that would result in little tangible consequence for the U.S. other than international condemnation.

A Reuters report published Saturday indicates that Trump has not backed down from his stated desire to abandon the Paris Agreement. The article, citing anonymous sources close to the president-elect, said that Trump will move quickly to terminate any American commitment to international climate change policy and programs.

Other nations have continued to act in support of the Paris Agreement since its Nov. 4 effective date.

Australia announced Thursday that it had ratified the accord, joining 108 other nations that have done so.

The country’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said at a press conference that Australia expects to meet its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent by 2030.

“Almost a year from the Paris Conference, it is clear the agreement was a watershed, a turning point,” he said. “The adoption of a comprehensive strategy has galvanised the international community and spurred on global action.”

“As you know, we are playing our part with ambitious targets. We are on track to meet and indeed beat our 2020 targets. We will review our climate and energy policies next year to ensure that we meet, as we believe we will and are committed to do, to meet our 2030 targets under the agreement.”

Botswana, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, and Italy ratified the Paris Agreement on Nov. 11, Pakistan ratified it on Nov. 10, Japan on Nov. 8, and Gambia on Nov. 7.

Those national decisions followed a string of other ratifications earlier in November: Denmark, Estonia, Gabon, Ireland, Jordan,  Luxembourg, South Korea, Sao Tome and Princepe, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Vietnam all adopted it during the first week of the month.

Eighty-eight countries that are parties to the December 2015 agreement have not yet decided whether to formally adopt it.

 

China, U.S. formally enter into Paris climate change agreement

Obama signature on Paris Agreement document, Sept. 3, 2016
President Barack Obama signed the Paris Agreement on behalf of the United States on Aug. 29, 2016. Photo courtesy The White House.

President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, announced Saturday in Hangzhou that the world’s two leading greenhouse gas emitters have formally acceded to the terms of last year’s Paris Agreement on climate change.

The two nations account for 40 percent of the planet’s atmosphere-warming pollution. Obama pointed to the action Saturday as a key step in assuring that the 195 country-strong deal reached last December in France does lead to an effective response to climate change.

“We have a saying in America — that you need to put your money where your mouth is. And when it comes to combating climate change, that’s what we’re doing, both the United States and China. We’re leading by example. As the world’s two largest economies and two largest emitters, our entrance into this agreement continues the momentum of Paris, and should give the rest of the world confidence –- whether developed or developing countries -– that a low-carbon future is where the world is heading.”

Nations were able to sign the Paris Agreement starting on Earth Day of this year. The Paris Agreement will take effect only when 55 countries that represent 55 percent of all GHG emissions on Earth ratify, accept, approve, or accede to it.

With the acceptance by both China and the U.S., 179 nations and the European Union have indicated approval, but only 26 have ratified it. The ratifying nations account for about 39 percent of planetary GHG emissions.

NATION CONTINENT RATIFICATION DATE
Bahamas, The Aug. 22, 2016
Barbados Apr. 22, 2016
Belize North America Apr. 22, 2016
Cameroon Africa Jul. 29, 2016
China Asia Sept. 3, 2016
Cook Islands Oceania Sept. 1, 2016
Fiji Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
Grenada Apr. 22, 2016
Guyana South America May 20, 2016
Maldives Asia Apr. 22, 2016
Marshall Islands Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
Mauritius Africa Apr. 22, 2016
Nauru Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
North Korea Asia Aug. 1, 2016
Norway Europe Jun. 20, 2016
Palau Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
Palestine Asia Apr. 22, 2016
Peru South America Jul. 25, 2016
Saint Kitts and Nevis Apr. 22, 2016
Saint Lucia Apr. 22, 2016
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Jun. 29, 2016
Samoa Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
Seychelles Apr. 29, 2016
Somalia Africa Apr. 22, 2016
Tuvalu Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
United States of America North America Sept. 3, 2016

The Paris Agreement was reached at the 21st Gathering of the Parties of the UNFCCC. As the first international agreement aimed at limiting the warming of the planet’s atmosphere and oceans now underway as a result of human exploitation of fossil fuels, the Paris Agreement does not require any specific actions by nations to reduce GHG emissions.

Instead, the accord is aspirational. As the United Nations assistant secretary-general for climate change told CBS News last December, it is a plan that aims to “name and encourage” the nations who fail to meet commitments to reduce GHG emissions.

Those commitments, known as “nationally determined contributions,” are to be “ambitious” and “represent a progression over time.” The content of NDCs are to be established “with a view to achieving the purpose of the [Paris Agreement].”

The core of the Paris Agreement is the specification of climate change-related objectives:

“(a) Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;

“(b) Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production; [and]

“(c) Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.”

During the first half of this year the average worldwide temperature was about 1.3 degrees Celsius above that recorded in 1880. Moreover, a study published in Nature on June 30 concluded that all of the NDCs in place so far would not lead to warming of less than 2 degrees Celsius.

 

 

 

 

 

Obama talks conservation in Nevada and Hawaii

President Barack Obama spoke Wednesday about the virtues of conservation before audiences at Lake Tahoe and in Honolulu, emphasizing the connection to fighting climate change and highlighting its benefits to wildlife and people.

Addressing the annual Lake Tahoe Summit, the chief executive explained that public policies aimed at conserving land and waters are essential to the entire range of Earth’s biodiversity.

“Conservation is critical not just for one particular spot, one particular park, one particular lake,” Obama said. “It’s critical for our entire ecosystem.”

The President told the audience that there is no doubt that human activities are causing the planet’s climate to change and, later in the speech, bluntly warned that any meaningful effort to address climate change must include preservation programs:

“A changing climate threatens even the best conservation efforts. Keep in mind, 2014 was the warmest year on record until, you guessed it, 2015. And now 2016 is on pace to be even hotter. For 14 months in a row now, the Earth has broken global temperature records. And because climate and conservation are challenges that go hand in hand, our conservation mission is more urgent than ever.”

Obama addressed the twentieth annual gathering of federal, state, and local leaders involved in ongoing efforts to protect Lake Tahoe’s water quality and aquatic life.

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe - photo courtesy Wikimedia
Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay is shown in this photograph. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

The lake, which is the largest alpine lake and second deepest lake in the nation, is warming rapidly as greenhouse gas emissions accumulate in the atmosphere. According to a report released by the University of California, Davis’ Tahoe Environmental Research Center, during 2015 Lake Tahoe’s surface reached a temperature higher than at any time in recorded history.

Water at greater depths is also warming as fast as 15 times greater than the historic norm and only about 6.5 percent of precipitation in the 6,000 foot-plus elevation Lake Tahoe ecosystem now falls in the form of snow.

Since the first Lake Tahoe Summit in 1997, governments have spent more than $1.8 billion on projects aimed at restoring wetlands, building transportation infrastructure, improving roads to reduce carriage of polluted runoff into the lake, and lower wildfire risks in the national forest that surrounds the lake.

The administration announced Wednesday that the administration would invest more than $29 million more into Lake Tahoe-related conservation efforts during the coming fiscal year.

A fact sheet released by the  White House said that the money would finance ongoing programs to reduce the number of dead and dying trees to reduce the likelihood of wildfire and improve stormwater systems.

In addition, the National Forest Foundation will pump at least $4 million into efforts to restore watersheds and assure that recreational activities are consistent with the region’s ecological health.

The administration also announced a draft of a compensatory mitigation policy that would allow individuals and entities to trade habitat for endangered and threatened species for credits that could be sold to developers.

The tool, called a habitat exchange, has been used in efforts to conserve a number of imperiled species. They include the monarch butterfly, greater sage grouse, and lesser prairie chicken.

“By adding habitat exchanges to the suite of preferred mitigation solutions, the Service is providing a foundational step to unleash the untapped potential of America’s working lands – its farms, ranches and forests – to reverse habitat loss and stop the extinction crisis,” Eric Holst, an associate vice president at Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.

Later in the day Obama spoke to leaders of Pacific Rim nations attending the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Congress in Hawaii.

His address there took on a personal tone. The President emphasized the need for a unified approach to climate change policy.

“When it comes to climate change, there is a dire possibility of us getting off course, and we can’t allow that to happen,” Obama said. “That’s why our united efforts are so important.”

Referring to the convention facility in Honolulu, he also spoke of his personal ties to Hawaii:

“[F]or me, this is especially meaningful. I was telling my staff, a lot of my life started about a mile from around here. My mother and father met probably a couple hundred yards from here. It’s true. I went to school about a mile from here. I was actually born about a mile from here. My grandmother and my grandparents lived most of their lives a short way away from here.

“And so since Malia was born, since my oldest child was born, I’ve brought them here every Christmas for the last 18 years now. And I want to make sure that when  they’re bringing their children here, or their grandchildren here, that they are able to appreciate the wonders and the beauty of this island and of the Pacific, and every island.”

Obama planned to visit Midway Atoll on Thursday. While there, the President is to see some of the ocean territory included in a marine national monument he expanded  an executive order issued last week.

 

Reuters reports that U.S. will sign Paris accord even in face of Clean Power Plan stay

Todd Stern
Todd D. Stern is the Obama administration’s leading diplomat on climate change issues. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of State.

The United States will sign the Paris climate accord despite the stay order entered against the Obama administration’s signature greenhouse gas emission reduction program.

Reuters reported Wednesday that Todd D. Stern, the Department of State’s special envoy for climate change, told reporters that the administration would proceed with the multi-national agreement reached in December.

“We’re going to go ahead and sign the agreement this year,” he is quoted as saying in the Reuters article.

American negotiators agreed, as part of the Paris Agreement, to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Because fossil fuel combustion for electricity generation is the single largest contributor to the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, the administration’s regulations – called the Clean Power Plan – aimed at forcing new and existing coal-fired power plants to reduce carbon dioxide pollution is a critical component of the U.S. Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) under the Paris Agreement.

The Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote last Tuesday, blocked the Clean Power Plan from going into effect while litigation challenging it proceeds.

One of the justices that voted for the stay, Antonin Scalia, died on Saturday, but there has been no indication that the administration will ask the surviving eight members of the high court to reconsider the Feb. 9 order.

The Paris Agreement opens for signature on April 22. Parties will have one year in which to formally acknowledge their commitment to its terms.

COMMENTARY: Supreme Court’s Clean Power Plan order is partisan and a betrayal of the law and science

partisans

Tuesday’s shocking (and unexplained) decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to block implementation of the Obama administration’s signature program to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions is more than legally questionable. It indicates that the willingness of the five justices who supported the order to march in lockstep with the party of the Presidents that appointed them is so determined that even the growing evidence that anthropogenic climate change threatens this planet’s ability to support life, and the stability of human civilizations, does not deter them from their partisan, extra-legal loyalties.

It is not easy to get a stay of a challenged government action pending resolution of a lawsuit on its merits. In fact, until yesterday, it was thought by most legal scholars to be darn near impossible to get such an order without a clear showing that the party requesting it had suffered and would continue to suffer harm. U.S. solicitor general Donald Verrilli made this clear in the government’s response to the request for a stay. “Applicants identify no case in which this Court has granted a stay of a generally-applicable regulation pending initial judicial review in the court of appeals,” he wrote.

Texas and the other states that have petulantly objected to the necessary task of reducing reliance on coal for electricity generation have suffered none. The Clean Power Plan requires no actual changes in the make-up of the power mix for several years, at minimum, and the plan does not require states even to adopt a plan. They could choose to defer to the federal government. Nor has the coal or utility industries, since the Clean Power Plan allows the prospect of as much as six years before any changes to the generation mix are mandated and, in any case, the demands of the market are causing a shift from coal.

Apparently, the Supreme Court’s own direction, given in 2007, to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act also was thought by ideologues John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito to be irrelevant, even though the Court has previously and frequently held that a party seeking a stay must demonstrate a likelihood that they will win their argument on the merits.

So, too, did the five Republican justices, in thrall to their party’s utter refusal to acknowledge that human combustion of fossil fuels is changing our atmosphere and oceans, ignore the reality that mankind has a limited window in which to reduce and eliminate carbon pollution before the impacts of greenhouse gas accumulations become so potent that society will effectively lose the ability to control the outcome. Thus they twisted or ignored yet another requirement for a stay: that the public interest must be served by one.

Then, too, the Supreme Court’s ill-advised intervention has undermined the most significant achievement of international negotiators in all the years since the phenomenon of climate change has been understood – last December’s Paris accord. How long will it be before China and India, the world’s two other leading emitters, decide that there is no point in their nations undergoing the expense and turmoil associated with transforming the way electricity is produced and transportation is provided if the United States of America cannot keep its word?

So what’s next?

The Obama administration should, first, invoke section 115 of the Clean Air Act and re-issue the Clean Power Plan under the aegis of that provision. As a recent report indicates, section 115 provides a virtually unassailable basis for emission reduction mandates when international agreements dictate them.

Of course, yesterday’s action by the Republican five, unaccompanied by any statement of the reasons that Messrs. Roberts et al. think justify their choice, indicates that not even a clear-cut statutory foundation of a regulation will be enough to sustain it if their partisan ideology and loyalty to the bottom line of oil and coal companies and the ideology of this country’s most politically backward states dictates they stand against it.

The real solution is going to have involve a replacement of at least one of the five Republican justices. Sure, given that Scalia and Kennedy are close to eighty years old, nature may provide an opportunity for that replacement sooner rather than later. But that’s hardly a sure thing and, in any event, even the contempt the Republican five has so richly earned does not impel a wish for personal bad fortune. No, wishing for a vacancy on the Court is not the right response.

Instead, the administration should start to play hard ball.

The U.S. Department of Justice should ask at least one of the Republican justices to recuse themselves from future involvement in the Clean Power Plan litigation on grounds that partisan loyalty and bias precludes them from making a fair decision. If that request is denied, the administration should use whatever legal tools that even remotely offer the prospect of a compelled recusal to force the issue.

Of course, that tactic has only uncertain prospects for success and so the administration should determine to step up the fight in the legislative branch, too. President Obama should explain to the grandees of Congress that none of the GOP’s priorities will be enacted into law, at least with his signature on any bills that reflect them, unless and until both chambers send him a bill that explicitly clarifies that the Clean Air Act authorizes the Clean Power Plan.

And, of course, the administration should be making the case to voters very clearly that the outcome of this fall’s election will, quite plainly, dictate whether humanity acts in response to the plain and overwhelming evidence that our addiction to fossil fuels is endangering our economic and social foundations. Famine, rapid and widespread transmission of tropical disease, and drought are, after all, no picnic. Mr. Obama should not hesitate to mention – often – the risks to Earth’s biodiversity and ability to sustain life.

As for the people of this country, they should take note. The future quite literally depends on their choice this autumn. If ever there was a time to learn about climate change, and to take seriously the most awesome environmental challenge of modern history, that time is now.

Obama administration seeks reduction in methane emissions from oil and gas facilities on public lands

The U.S. Department of Interior has proposed regulations aimed at limiting the amount of a potent greenhouse gas emitted from oil and natural gas exploration wells.

Announced Jan. 22, the new rule would require energy companies to scale back the amount of flaring from 7,200,000 cubic feet per month per well to 1,800,000 cubic feet per month per well within three years. Well operators would have the choice of capturing gases that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere or reducing production as means of achieving the target. Emergency flaring would not be limited.

“I think most people would agree that we should be using our nation’s natural gas to power our economy – not wasting it by venting and flaring it into the atmosphere,” secretary of the interior Sally M. Jewell said in a statement. “We need to modernize decades-old standards to reflect existing technologies so that we can cut down on harmful methane emissions and use this captured natural gas to generate power and provide a return to taxpayers, tribes and states for this public resource.”

Flaring is used by energy producers as a way of eliminating gases released from underground during extraction of fossil fuel resources, particularly oil. The gases are considered by the fossil fuel extractor to be either not economically useful or infeasible to store or transport.

These “waste” gases are mostly methane. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that about 29 percent of total American methane emissions to the atmosphere comes from fossil fuel extraction infrastructure, including wells, storage tanks, pipelines, and processing facilities. Worldwide, as much as 5.3 trillion cubic feet of methane is released to the atmosphere every year from fossil fuel extraction, transportation, storage, and processing systems.

Aside from the methane emissions caused by flaring, about 400 million tons of carbon dioxide are also added to the atmosphere every year as the result of flaring around the world.

Flaring also costs the taxpayer money. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the gases flared to the atmosphere from wells and related infrastructure on U.S. public lands means that about $23 million in royalties otherwise payable to the federal treasury is lost to the government.

Video courtesy U.S. GAO.

Environmental advocacy organizations reacted cautiously to the Obama administration’s initiative.

“These rules are an important start to reducing potent methane pollution—which fuels climate change and threatens public health—from oil and gas companies operating on our nation’s public lands,” Meleah Geertsma, an attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “However, they fall short of what’s necessary to tackle the full scope of the problem, including leaving significant gas leaks and flaring unaddressed.”

“At a minimum, the administration should require the industry to put all of the available and cost-effective measures in place to curb this rampant air pollution problem,” Geertsma continued. “That’s true not just for public lands—but all oil and gas operations, new and old, nationwide.”

The rules announced by Jewell are not yet final. The proposed rule has not yet been published in the Federal Register. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Department of Interior, will accept comments for 60 days following publication.

President Barack Obama announced in Jan. 2015 that his administration would seek to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by 40 to 45 percent by 2025. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed in August 2015 a regulation that would limit methane emissions from new or modified oil and natural gas extraction facilities.

 

NYT: Obama to ban new coal leases on federal land

President Barack Obama will announce Friday a ban on new federal coal leases, according to a report in the New York Times.

The story by veteran Times environment reporter Coral Davenport said that the move would come as part of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s periodic effort to update policy relating to leasing and royalties.

Any executive order by Obama would rely on authority provided by the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

Coal production from lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service generated about $682 million in royalties during fiscal year 2015, according to data made available by the Department of Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue. Counting other fees and sources of income related to coal leasing, the federal government’s revenue from the program exceeded $1.2 billion in 2014. BLM alone leased more than 475 million acres of land for coal production during that year.

Federal coal leases generally allow production to occur for 20 years. Davenport’s story indicated that current levels of coal production from the federal estate would be likely to continue for about the same amount of time even if Obama acts to block new leases.

The President said during his State of the Union address on Tuesday that he would impose reform on the federal coal leasing program in order to assure that it takes account of the environmental cost of fossil fuel combustion. In addition, Interior secretary Sally Jewell said in a March 2015 speech that she thought “it’s time for an honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal coal program.”

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.

Environmental groups challenge Forest Service permit authorizing helicopter use in wilderness

Gray Wolf - courtesy USFWS, photo by Gary Kramer
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is hunted in several western states. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, photo by Gary Kramer.

The Obama administration is taking heat over a decision to allow the use of helicopters in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Attorneys representing a coalition of environmental advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boise, arguing that the plan violates the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

It is the second time the agency has become enmeshed in controversy over the issue of helicopter use by the state of Idaho. The earlier go-round involved the state of Idaho’s effort to support the federal government’s re-introduction of gray wolves to the wilderness area. U.S. district judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled in a Feb. 2010 decision that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service could permit the state’s Fish and Game Department to carry out helicopter monitoring of the wolves, but also made clear that its permission indicated a rare exception to the Wilderness Act’s general prohibition of machinery in protected reserves.

This time, the Forest Service has granted a permit to the Idaho Department of Fish & Game so that it can tag elk within the wilderness area. A Jan. 6 notice by the Forest Service said that IDFG would be allowed to make as many as 120 helicopter landings inside the preserve.

The state agency wants to tag the elk as part of its obligation to facilitate hunting.

“Our goal is to manage those [elk] populations in a way that there will be a surplus for hunting and to reduce impacts and instances where, perhaps, predation by wolves, bears, or mountain lions may also be impacting that potential surplus,” Michael Keckler, a spokesperson for IDFG, explained.

IDFG has said that it wants to kill sixty percent of the wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness.

The Idaho fish and wildlife agency argued in a 2014 document that the number of elk in the 1.7 million-acre Middle Fork Zone of the wilderness area declined by more than 40 percent between 2002 and 2011. “It’s been five years since we were in there and really been able to see what’s going on,” Keckler said. “We’re pretty sure those declines have continued.”

IDFG has indicated that it believes predation is a major cause of elk population declines in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. “Based on population modeling, the MFZ elk population is expected to continue to decline at [three] to [seven percent] annually if predation rates are not reduced,” the agency said in its Predation Management Plan for the Middle Fork Elk Zone. The IDFG plan also specifically blamed wolves for a significant portion of the decline.

Opponents of the state fish and wildlife agency’s plan disagree that predators are the culprit for any decline in the number of elk inhabiting the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

“I think, historically, elk populations, they weren’t that high in these areas,” Ken Cole, a biologist with Western Watersheds Project, said. “It’s not what you would consider high quality elk habitat. It was more of a bighorn sheep-mule deer habitat. The reason that elk populations got so high in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s is because they eradicated the wolf population and the grizzly population. You would expect the population of elk to decline once the native predators were reestablished.”

The Wilderness Act, which was enacted into law in 1964, includes broad language indicating that helicopters are, for the most part, forbidden in wilderness areas. Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act provides:

“Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

Federal courts have interpreted the phrase “administration of the area” to authorize only those activities that advance a protected preserve’s “wilderness character.”

Winmill’s 2010 decision in Wolf Recovery Foundation v. U.S. Forest Service indicates that he may be skeptical of the Forest Service’s effort to extend helicopter use beyond monitoring of wolves to monitoring of wolf prey. “[H]elicopter use in a wilderness area is antithetical to a wilderness experience, and that the approval of the single project at issue [in that case] — based on unique facts — is unlikely to be repeated,” he wrote in her opinion.

A USDA Forest Service regional forester in Arizona reached a similar conclusion last year.

Salmon-Challis National Forest supervisor Chuck Mark authorized the IDFG plan without requiring USDA Forest Service personnel to complete an environmental impact statement. He wrote in a Jan. 6 Record of Decision that the agency’s authorization of helicopter landings is “very restrictive” and that the aircraft will be permitted to land only in a “mere fraction” of the Middle Fork Zone. Mark did not specify the exact amount of the wilderness area’s acreage that would be directly impacted by helicopter landings or by helicopter flights overhead.

“The map that we’ve seen shows it to be a fairly significant area,” Cole said. “I’d say probably 20 to 30 percent of it.”

The landings would occur on one or more of USDA Forest Service’s eight airstrips within the wilderness area.

According to an editorial column published by Mark in the Jan. 7 edition of the Idaho Statesman, IDFG plans to land helicopters in the Middle Fork Zone on five days between mid-January and March 31.

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness encompasses more than 2.3 million acres and is the largest forested designated wilderness area in the country. During 2014 observers noted the presence of 119 wolf packs in Idaho. IDFG thinks the wolf population might be a little lower than that.

“Last year we documented 104 packs within the state,” Keckler said.

About eight of those packs are resident to the Middle Fork Zone of the wilderness area.

Wolves in the northern Rockies were protected by the Endangered Species Act from 1973 until April 2011, when President Barack Obama signed a budget bill that included a rider that forced the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to remove Canis lupus in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington from the list of threatened and endangered species.

The plaintiffs in the Idaho case include Friends of the Clearwater, Western Watersheds Project, and Wilderness Watch. They seek an injunction to prevent the helicopter landings from going forward.

Winmill has been assigned to hear the case for the Idaho federal court, Cole said.