Activists protest the nomination of Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt. (Photo: Lorie Shaull/cc/flickr)
It turns out, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt’s plan to gut environmental protections is wildly unpopular as a call for public comment amassed nearly 60,000 responses that ranged from simply “No” to passionate reminders that the “EPA is for the people.”
The public comment period, which closed on Monday, gave voters a chance to weigh-in on President Donald Trump’s effort to “alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens,” as stated in a February executive order that directed federal agencies to “evaluate existing regulations…and make recommendations…regarding their repeal, replacement, or modification.” Continue reading →
“Like so many of our colleagues in the broader research community, we have deep concerns about the leadership at EPA and its continued obfuscation of scientific evidence and the research enterprise,” wrote Carlos Martín and Peter Meyer. (Photo: Lorie Shaull/flickr/cc)
Protesting the Trump administration’s “continued obfuscation of scientific evidence and the research enterprise,” two scientists resigned Friday from an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory subcommittee focused on public health and pollution.
Specifically, Drs. Carlos Martín and Peter Meyer cited the EPA’s recent decision to not renew the terms of Drs. Courtney Flint and Robert Richardson on the agency’s Board of Scientific Counselors. News outlets reported this week that the EPA was considering replacing up to a dozen such scientists with representatives of the very industries the agency is tasked with policing. Continue reading →
Heads of state cheer after the Paris Climate Change Agreement was signed at COP21, 2015, by 197 parties. (cc/Wikipedia)
The world is worried as Decision Day nears.
At a April 29th rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Trump said he would make a “big decision” on Paris within the next two weeks and vowed to end “a broken system of global plunder at American expense.”
Now the Trump administration has a meeting scheduled this Tuesday to decide whether to drop out of the Paris Agreement. Continue reading →
Organizers said that an estimated 200,000 participated in the flagship Peoples Climate March in Washington, D.C., while tens of thousands more demonstrated at more than 350 solidarity events in cities across the United States as well as in Asia and Europe.
Following closely on last week’s March for Science, activists are preparing for the People’s Climate March on Saturday, April 29. This event will mark President Donald Trump’s 100th day in office, and comes as the Trump administration is debating whether the United States should continue to participate in the 2015 Paris Agreement on limiting global carbon emissions.
Among the areas now at risk are Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which protects more than 1.3 million acres of land. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management/flickr/cc)
President Donald Trump on Wednesday ordered federal officials to launch a review of national monument designations, potentially setting the stage to gut environmental protections for public lands and oceans.
The executive order instructs the Department of the Interior to review the designation of every monument larger than 100,00 acres protected by the Antiquities Act since 1996. It could give fossil fuel companies access to millions of acres for new drilling, climate justice advocates warned. Continue reading →
“The true depth of the administration’s unswerving commitment to an especially savage version of corporate capitalism is now, as we approach the first 100 days under the Trump administration, utterly clear.”
President Donald Trump “has gleefully signed measures making it easier for coal companies to pollute streams and rivers; authorizing Big Oil to hide payments to developing country governments; erasing obligations for government contractors to ensure the safety and health of their employees; and making it possible for cable and Internet providers to collect and sell our most personal information,” observed Public Citizen president Robert Weissman. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/cc/flickr)
President Donald Trump approaches his 100th day in office the most unpopular U.S. leader in modern history for a reason.
Exacerbating his failure to uphold his populist campaign promises, a new report found that Trump spent the majority of his presidency enriching his own business empire while appointing fellow “corporate cronies” at the highest levels of government leading to what Public Citizen describes as “an unprecedented corporate takeover.” Continue reading →
Arctic lands and waters hold irresistible allure for global oil companies. Despite opposition from environmental groups and President Obama’s 2016 ban on drilling in federal Arctic waters, exploration in Alaska has revealed massive new volumes of oil.
This comes at a time of low oil prices, when many observers felt the Arctic would remain off limits. Alaska has proved precisely the opposite. Although it has gone largely unnoticed outside the industry, foreign firms are partnering with American companies to pursue these new possibilities. I expect this new wave of Arctic development will help increase U.S. oil production and influence in world oil markets for at least the next several decades.
This is a global story, spurred by continued growth in world oil demand, especially in Asia; the dynamism of the oil industry; and the fact that the United States has become a major new petroleum exporter, something that would have seemed impossible only a few years ago. Such realities imply that decisions made in Washington, D.C. are far from the only forces shaping U.S. energy and climate change policy.
Fracking comes to the Arctic
Over the past year oil companies have discovered volumes on Alaska’s North Slope totaling as much as five billion barrels or more of recoverable oil. This is a 14 percent increase in U.S. proven reserves, based on recent estimates, which is no small thing.
One discovery, “Horseshoe,” made this year by the Spanish company Repsol in partnership with Denver-based Armstrong Oil and Gas, is the largest new U.S. find in more than 30 years. It is estimated at 1.2 billion barrels, and comes just after a find by ConocoPhillips in January, called “Willow,” evaluated at 300 million barrels.
Both of these are dwarfed by “Tulimaniq,” a spectacular discovery drilled by Dallas-based Caelus Energy in the shallow state waters of Smith Bay, about 120 miles northwest of Prudhoe Bay, in October 2016. Caelus has confirmed a total accumulation of as much as 10 billion barrels of light, mobile oil, with 3-4 billion barrels possibly recoverable at current prices of about US$50 per barrel.
These new finds may only be the beginning. Tulimaniq will produce from reservoirs of the same age as Horseshoe and Willow, 75 miles to the southeast. This strongly suggests that a large new stretch of the North Slope, mostly on federal land and in state waters (within three miles of shore), has been defined for further exploration. Burgundy Xploration of Houston and Australia-based 88 Energy also have another new drilling program underway to test shale intervals known to have sourced some of the oil at Prudhoe Bay, a supergiant field that has produced some 13 billion barrels to date.
A number of these new wells will be fracked – the first use of this technique in the Arctic. One or more of the oil-bearing rock units at sites being explored on the North Slope have low permeability, meaning that oil can’t flow within them very well or at all. Company engineers expect that hydraulic fracturing will be able to free such oil so it can be produced. Such has been the result for other shales and low-permeability reservoirs in places like North Dakota and Texas.
The logistics of finding large quantities of water and sand needed for fracking in the Arctic will be challenging, and probably more expensive than similar operations in the lower 48 states. It remains to be seen whether operators will clean, reuse and carefully contain frack water.
Green lights from the Trump administration
In another significant find, Italian company Eni has developed an oil field that lies in state waters, and so is not affected by Obama’s drilling ban. But the oil reservoir extends into federal waters of the Beaufort Sea. Called the Nikaitchuq Unit, it lies just west of Prudhoe Bay and is producing around 25,000 barrels per day.
Eni developed this field between 2005 and 2015 using an artificial island to drill horizontal wells in various directions from a single site. The company stopped activity in 2015 when prices collapsed, but intends to drill up to six wells this year. Its leases, which continue north into federal waters, were not automatically canceled by the federal ban, but Eni needs a federal drilling permit and has submitted an application to the Interior Department. The company plans to run a long horizontal well to access the additional oil, thereby avoiding any need for a rig in federal waters.
The Interior Department is now reviewing Eni’s application, which I expect it will approve. Geologic studies indicate that the oil continues across the state/federal boundary, and Eni’s proposal to use a horizontal lateral from an existing drill site appears to be aimed at minimizing environmental impacts.
Moreover, the Trump administration has pledged to promote fossil fuel development. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is a former congressman from Montana, which produces oil, gas and coal, and Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan are strong proponents of oil and gas development.
The oil industry’s new dynamics
Why is all of this new Arctic drilling happening at a time when oil prices are low and in a place where production costs are high? The oil price collapse that has occurred since mid-2014 is the deepest slump since 1986.
Oil companies have ways of being nimble in hard times, such as selling assets, adjusting production levels and seeking mergers. Now rapid innovations in drilling, seismic imaging and data processing enable well-run companies to cut costs in multiple areas. Some firms can make money today at prices as low as $35 to $40 per barrel or even lower. This includes drilling offshore and fracking onshore.
Innovation and cost-cutting have made U.S. firms a potent global force and eroded OPEC’s dominance by keeping oil supplies high, despite a significant production cut by the cartel and many non-OPEC producers, including Russia. In this new era, smaller companies are making inroads in areas once reserved for giants like BP and Exxon. This shift is significant because smaller, independent companies, for whom new discoveries are especially important, tend to be aggressive explorers.
Oil remains our one unreplaceable energy source. Global mobility and a modern military are, as yet, inconceivable without it. Growth in global demand, centered in developing Asia, will continue for some time, as it did even from 2010 through 2014 when prices were above $90 per barrel.
The United States now exports around 5.7 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products, double the level of five years ago and by far the largest volume in our nation’s history, thanks to major increases in sales to Japan, South Korea, India, Taiwan, Singapore and China. In short, we would be expanding fossil fuel production even without a Trump administration.
If these new discoveries become producing fields, the Alaskan Arctic will write a new chapter in the U.S. oil industry’s dramatic ascent. It will increase our leverage over OPEC and may help to counter Russia’s geopolitical influence. This prospect raises a new question: How will we will use our clout as the world’s most important new oil power?
The executive order signals a sharp shift in federal climate change rules, standards and work procedures. This was expected based on Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his selection of Cabinet members and advisers. But as with other Trump White House initiatives, it is unclear how much change the administration can deliver and at what pace.
It took a long time for the Obama administration to formulate some of the central climate change rules now targeted by the Trump administration, and it will take years trying to change them. The signing of the executive order is just the administration’s opening salvo in what is destined to become a protracted and high-stakes battle.
The Trump attack
Cloaked in unsubstantiated “pro-growth” rhetoric, the executive order targets the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. It also focuses on mandates to cap methane emissions, looks to increase support for the extraction and use of coal and other fossil fuels, and changes the ways in which climate change concerns are embedded in actions by federal agencies (including taking into consideration the social cost of carbon).
The Clean Power Plan was designed to curb carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants as well as to promote renewable energy production and greater energy efficiency. The Obama administration also set emissions standards for new power plants. These and other measures were issued in response to the unwillingness by the U.S. Congress to pass any separate climate change legislation.
Announced in August 2015, the Clean Power Plan was immediately challenged in court by a group of 29 states and state agencies with the support of a variety of firms and industry organizations, including Oklahoma while current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was the state’s attorney general. The opponents argued the EPA had overstepped its regulatory authority with the new rules and they therefore should be struck down.
The Supreme Court in an unprecedented decision in February 2016 ordered the EPA to temporarily stay the implementation of the Clean Power Plan until a lower-level court had made a ruling on the EPA’s authority to set such standards. Oral hearings were held in the D.C. Circuit Court in September 2016, but a decision is still pending.
Because the EPA under Pruitt will review the Clean Power Plan and roll back other Obama initiatives, the executive order alters basic legal dynamics. Now, lawsuits making their way up the court system will change. Instead of challenging the Obama rules, suits will be aimed at forcing the Trump administration to either uphold them or take other forms of meaningful regulatory action.
Many states and environmental groups that support the Clean Power Plan and other existing measures stand ready with a lineup of lawyers to fight back. They will argue that the federal government must act based on a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision classifying CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and a 2009 EPA Endangerment Finding stating that current and projected atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.
Will we still always have Paris?
The executive order is silent on the Trump administration’s intent vis-à-vis the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which nearly 200 countries agreed to lower greenhouse gas emissions. But it casts a long shadow both on the U.S. ability to meet its Paris goal and the future of U.S. international leadership on climate change.
The implementation of the Clean Power Plan is central to fulfilling U.S. commitments under the Paris Agreement of reducing national GHG emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28 percent. By 2014, national emissions were down 9 percent compared with 2005 levels.
Electing to either leave or ignore the Paris Agreement would not provide the United States with more independence and flexibility, as it reduces its political influence and ability to shape future decisions in global climate negotiations.
There are other global environmental treaties around biodiversity protection and the management of hazardous chemicals and wastes to which the United States is not a party. As a result, the U.S. ability to influence regulatory decisions under these treaties is severely limited – for example, specific chemical compounds where there is a need to protect human health and the environment, or where U.S. firms have economic interests. This foreshadows the kind of outsider status that the United States may gain if it backs out of the Paris Agreement.
Notably, ceding international leadership on climate change may serve only to embolden other countries, including China, to take on a more prominent role at the expense of U.S. influence. It would also further increase many other countries’ rapidly mounting frustration with the Trump administration.
Many different stakeholders, including ExxonMobil, argue that it is better for the United States to be on the inside rather than the outside when it comes to the future climate change cooperation. Former ExxonMobil CEO and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested the U.S. should stay in the agreement.
US paying for assistance or ammunition?
Even if the United States stays with the Paris Agreement, President Trump and Republicans in Congress have made it clear they want to severely limit, or completely cut off, U.S. contributions to climate finance in support of mitigation and adaptation measures in developing countries. The United States so far has provided US$1 billion of the $3 billion pledged by the Obama administration to the Green Climate Fund.
Carrying through on these statements by significantly reducing U.S. international assistance would effectively erode an important basis of U.S. political leadership and influence. But they appear to be part of a larger shift in the use of foreign policy instruments from nonmilitary means, such as climate and development aid, to military ones.
Trump’s “skinny budget” proposed a 31 percent cut to the EPA budget and a 29 percent reduction in funds for the State Department and other development programs. There is very little chance that Congress will approve such dramatic cuts, but these proposals tie in with what seems to be a broader change in U.S. foreign policy strategy.
As Trump proposed a 10 percent increase in the military budget, foreign policy experts worry that a significant cut in nonmilitary resources will severely undermine U.S. leadership and the ability by the State Department and other government agencies to promote U.S. interest and political stability.
The court of public opinion
As the battle over federal climate change policy continues, President Trump risks losing the public opinion battle on climate change beyond his most ardent base.
A recent poll shows that 75 percent of Americans believe that carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant and that 69 percent believe that there should be limits on emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.
If such polling numbers remain strong, the Trump administration will be fighting an uphill battle in both courtrooms and the public sphere.