The Drilled News Climate & COVID-19 Policy Tracker is keeping an eye on climate change-related rollbacks by the Trump administration and state governments amid the coronavirus crisis, along with favors to oil and gas, and other energy and climate-related industries.
Published April 6, 2020
Last updated May 21, 2020 5:00pm ET
The fossil fuel industry and its allies in the Trump administration have wasted no time in leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to increase the federal government's financial favors to oil and gas. The administration is also moving fast to stall or roll back regulations that the industry finds onerous, and push forward with controversial policies that, in some cases, benefit the petroleum sector.
We're documenting and mapping these fossil fuel-friendly changes here, on the Drilled News Climate & COVID-19 Policy Tracker, along with other moves at the state, federal, and international level that affect energy and climate-related policies and industries.
These changes are happening even as climate scientists warn that to have any chance of averting catastrophic climate change, industrial nations must slash their carbon pollution within roughly a decade.
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This map is interactive: Click the markers for information on a climate+coronavirus policy change or proposal.
Trump Administration Grants Millions in Oil and Gas Royalty and Rent Cuts The Bureau of Land Management has granted every request to date by oil and gas drillers for royalty rate cuts, according to reporting by the Associated Press — all of which so far have come from Utah oil and gas producers. The BLM slashed the rates for Utah from 12.5% to 2.5%, and is likely to grant similar cuts to other states as well. Although the royalty relief is limited to 60 days, the reductions will probably put a sizable dent in the federal government's onshore oil and gas royalties for 2020, which totaled $2.9 billion in 2019, according to AP, including $94 million from Utah (about half of which went to the state government). Back in late March, a group of Republican senators asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to offer royalty relief and automatic lease extensions for oil and gas operations on public lands. Status: The agency continues to accept applications for reduced royalties.
Wyoming Public LandsDrillers Go Rent-Free The Bureau of Land Management has suspended rent payments by oil and gas drillers across tens of thousands of acres of public lands, the Associated Press has reported on May 21, 2020. "The suspensions to date have all been in Wyoming and were linked by agency officials to the pandemic. President Trump’s recent executive order urging agencies to rescind any rules that could "inhibit economic recovery" has activist groups worried that these rent suspensions, as well as many other climate and environmental rollbacks, could become permanent.
President Trump Orders Agencies to Make Pandemic Rollbacks Permanent As the nation's death toll from COVID-19 passed 90,000, President Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to "address this economic emergency by rescinding, modifying, waiving, or providing exemptions from regulations and other requirements that may inhibit economic recovery." The order specifically instructed agency chiefs to review the regulations they have changed or paused during the pandemic crisis, "and determine which, if any, would promote economic recovery if made permanent." These rollbacks, as documented below, include suspending environmental reviews and safety rule enforcement for pipeline projects, and pausing royalty payments by fossil fuel firms. Status: The president signed the directive on May 19, 2020.
Trump Administration Unexpectedly Bills Solar & Wind Projects for Millions in Rent The Department of Interior has called in millions of dollars in back rent payments from solar and wind operators on federal lands, reported Reuters, even though the clean power sector is among the industries struggling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Interior had suspended rent collection for two years, pending a review of the rates; but the agency did not answer Reuters’ queries on the review's status. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is offering to suspend royalty payments by oil and gas drillers, and has given the nuclear industry a 90-day break from its federal fees. Status: Reuters reported the story on May 18, 2020.
Federal Energy Regulator Rejects Moratorium on Pipelines FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee rejected a request from the governors of several states to pause permitting of new pipeline projects amid the COVID-19 pandemic, The Hill reports. In a letter to the attorney general of Virginia, one of the states that requested the moratorium, Chatterjee wrote, “Hindering the build-out of energy infrastructure now could have long-term and lasting negative impacts on the delivery of energy in the future.” Status: FERC announced its decision on May 12, 2020 in a letter to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration Rules You Can’t Put Safety Over Profits The agency overturned a move by the State of Washington to better regulate oil trains. As DeSmog reports, that rule aimed to “limit oil vapor pressure unloaded from trains to less than 9 pounds per square inch (psi) in an attempt to reduce the likelihood that train derailments lead to the now-familiar fireballs and explosions accompanying trains transporting volatile oil.” North Dakota oil producers and lobbying groups protested the regulation and PHMSA overturned it. Two weeks later, the agency released an explanation for the ruling, noting that a state can’t use “safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth.” Status: Effective May 11, 2020
BLM Advances Alaska Drilling Project Without Public Input Extension The Bureau of Land Management held virtual public hearings in April on the environmental impact statement for a ConocoPhillips' plan to drill for oil in an area of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska that borders the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Despite the timing amid the pandemic, Local indigenous groups argued that two of the three communities most affected by the project were unable to attend virtual meetings due to lack of internet access and cell reception, but the agency declined to either pause the permitting process or extend the public comment period. Status: Public comment period closed on May 4, 2020.
Trump’s Interior Chief Extends Contract of Acting Public Lands Director, Again Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has granted his 32nd extension of William Perry Pendley’s contract as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management. As an “acting” chief, Perry (a career advocate for selling off public lands to the states) avoids the Senate hearings that come with a formal presidential nomination. In 1982, as a Regan appointee to Interior, Perry spearheaded the largest sale of coal mining leases in history; evidence later emerged that he had attempted to rig the leasing process to let firms underbid for mining rights. The Senate later rejected Perry’s nomination to another powerful energy post, over his support for conducting political screenings of scientists.
Agency Moves to Roll Back Environmental Reviews of Natural Gas Projects The Department of Energy has proposed lifting requirements for environmental reviews of proposed natural gas import and export projects. The reviews are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, a keystone environmental protection law. The agency says the change is reasonable because the Energy Department has “no authority to prevent” any environmental impacts that NEPA reviews would reveal; and that rolling back the requirement “will improve the efficiency of the DOE decision-making process by saving time and money in the NEPA review process and eliminating unnecessary environmental documentation.” Status: Proposed rule change published May 1, 2020. Public comment period ends June 1, 2020.
EPA Opts Against Science-Based Update to Air Pollution Rules The EPA has moved to leave in place current air quality standards for levels of tiny soot particles, air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels including gasoline, coal, and natural gas. The decision flies in the face of growing scientific evidence that indicates breathing in fine particulate pollution (which EPA regulates at sizes of 2.5 and 10 microns) is unsafe at any level, with exposure linked to asthma, heart disease, and premature death. In early April, a team of Harvard public health researchers released data that showed higher death rates from COVID-19 in regions with high levels of soot pollution. Status: Proposed rule published April 30, 2020. EPA holds virtual public hearing on May 20 and 21, 2020. Public comment period ends June 29, 2020.
BLM Advances Utah Coal Mine Expansion Near National Parks The Bureau of Land Management in late April opened a public comment period for a proposed 5,500-acre expansion of the Lila Canyon coal mine in southern Utah. Environmental activists have hotly contested the proposal, given the mine’s proximity to the Canyonlands and Arches national parks, the coal industry’s current decline, and the fact that Murray Coal, which owns the local company operating the mine, is in bankruptcy proceedings. In early April, environmental groups began raising concerns about a lease fire sale in the region, after oil and gas firms submitted proposals for extraction on 150,000 acres on public lands surrounding parks. The BLM told the Salt Lake Tribune that many of the filings were incomplete and not under consideration. Status: BLM posted the proposal on April 23, 2020. Public comment closes May 25, 2020.
Energy Dept. Recommends Government Purchases of Uranium The Department of Energy's Nuclear Fuel Working Group has recommended that the federal government buy up supplies of domestically-mined uranium, in a newly released proposal to “restore America’s competitive advantage in nuclear," which the working group argues would also bolster national security The group also recommends rollbacks to environmental regulations around uranium mining, as well as public lands protections that bar mining in the Grand Canyon. Status: Proposal released April 23, 2020.
EPA Waives Acid Rain and Cross-State Pollution Reporting Citing the impact of “travel, plant access, or other safety restrictions implemented to address the current COVID-19 national emergency,” the EPA has allowed power plants to delay testing and reporting under federal Acid Rain and Cross-State Pollution programs. Status: Waiver effective April 22, 2020. EPA “will consider” public comments on the rule through May 22, 2020.
Wetland and Stream Protection Rollback Finalized The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized its “Navigable Waters Protection Rule." This rollback of Obama-era clean water reforms leaves most of the nation's wetlands unprotected, and weakens clean water requirements for various industrial facilities, including power plants and petrochemical plants. Status: Rollback finalized April 21, 2020.
Republican Senators Back Stimulus Loans for Oil, Gas Firms A group of 11 Senate Republicans led by Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) have urged the Trump administration to change credit rating requirements under the federal stimulus loan program, so that more oil and gas firms will be eligible to apply. In their April 21 letter, addressed to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, the lawmakers argue that many firms were already struggling due to the recent OPEC production and pricing war; and have now been hit by the pandemic's effect as well “Assisting these companies could be the difference between maintaining our domestic energy production and workforce or shedding more U.S. jobs and returning to dependence on foreign sources of oil,” according to the senators, “and we should do all we can to avoid it.” Status: On April 30, 2020, the Federal Reserve announced revisions to the rules for the Main Street Lending Program that allow oil companies to borrow money under the program and apply it to past debts. On May 12, 2020, Bloomberg Law reported that Secretary Mnuchin and the Federal Reserve announced further modifications to the Main Street Lending Program, expanding it to make mid-size companies eligible. This change may allow several additional independent oil and gas companies, such as Occidental Petroleum, to get loans through the program.
Fossil Fuel Companies Get Millions in Small Biz Stimulus Loans According to a review by The Guardian and watchdog group Documented, fossil fuel firms have received at least $113 million from the Federal Reserve’s Main Street Lending Program, which was supposedly established to help small businesses weather the coronavirus crisis. The Federal Reserve’s recent expansion of its Main Street lending program could open up more funding for oil and gas companies, including Occidental Petroleum Corporation, one of the oil companies represented at a White House meeting with President Trump in April.
Fossil Fuel Could Reap Billions from Bond Buyback Program An analysis by the Rainforest Action Network finds that 90 oil and gas companies,150 utilities, and 10 of the top 40 fracking firms are eligible for the government’s proposed $750 billion bond buyback plan, The Guardian reported on May 12, 2020. “A separate study last week by economists and Oxford University found that putting public money into a green recovery would produce higher economic returns.”
BLM Opens Public Comments on 2,000-mile Wyoming Pipeline Project The Bureau of Land Management has opened a 90-day period for the public to comment on its proposed plans for 2,000 miles of fossil fuel pipeline in Wyoming. While environmental groups have raised concerns about the effects on sage grouse habitat, the project also has the potential for significant climate impacts. The plan's carbon capture component sounds like climate change mitigation, but is actually geared at enhancing oil recovery. If the BLM permits the project, it stands to benefit both the state’s oil and gas industry, and its dying coal mining industry. Status: Notice published April 17, 2020 in the Federal Register. Public comment period ends July 17, 2020.
Public Coal Firms Cash in on Small Business Payroll Loans According to SEC filings, publicly-traded coal companies received $31 billion in coronavirus emergency lending from the Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program. Bloomberg reports that the extractive industries, including mining and oil and gas drilling, secured 78.7% of loans as a percentage of eligible payroll, more than retail or any other economic sector. Status: Data reflects loans distributed through April 16, 2020 under the initial PPP funding of $349 billion.
Regulators Undercut States’ Renewable Energy Mandates The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in mid-April affirmed an earlier directive that effectively undercuts some state renewable energy mandates, The FERC guidance, reported Utility Dive. involves power purchases by a regional grid operator, and rules that certain state incentives and subsidies for clean energy create unfair competition against fossil fuels — an interesting stance given that federal subsidies for fossil fuels have tilted energy markets in their favor for decades. On Monday, April 20, a group of state regulators and renewable energy groups filed a suit contesting the decision. Status: FERC voted to uphold its decision on April 16, 2020.
Rollback of Pipeline Safety Rules The Department of Transportation has moved to finalize the revision, rollback, or elimination of some pipeline safety requirements, including creation of oil spill response plans, as well as “safety and reporting requirements for pipelines transporting hazardous liquids or carbon dioxide.” Transportation says the goal is to “reduce the regulatory burden on pipeline systems transporting hazardous liquids.” But the rule changes “could make the oil pipelines that crisscross our country more likely to create larger oil spills," said Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. Status: Proposed rule change published in Federal Register on April 16, 2020. Public comment period closes June 15, 2020.
EPA Moves to Finalize “Secret Science” Rule The EPA forged ahead in mid-March with finalizing new rules that will upend how the agency uses science to inform important anti-pollution regulations. Since first announced in 2018, scientists, public health groups, and environmentalists have steadily denounced this Trump administration effort as a ruse to sever environmental regulations from key scientific findings, notably 1993's landmark "Six Cities" study proving that tiny particle pollution (PM2.5) severely harms human health; it's created primarily by burning fossil fuels, The rule changes will also give regulated industries unprecedented power in shaping the agency’s use of science by “allow[ing] stakeholders to reanalyze the data and models and explore the sensitivity of the conclusions to alternative assumptions.” Status: On April 17, EPA extended the public comment period on this rule change to May 18, 2020. Note: On April 7, a team of Harvard public health researchers released data showing that death rates from COVID-19 have been 15% higher in areas with high levels of tiny particulate pollution.
Fossil Fuel Firm Requests Extension on Gas Export Terminal Project The Cameron LNG Export Terminal project has asked the Department of Energy to extend, to 2026, its deadline for commencing operations at a liquid natural gas export terminal sited in Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes, Louisiana. This is the firm's second extension request this year; the project's original deadline was 2020, but in January DOE pushed the deadline out to 2024. Status: Extension request published April 15, 2020. Public comment period ends April 30, 2020.
EPA Guts Obama-Era Mercury Pollution Rule The Trump administration has finalized its rollback of groundbreaking controls on mercury and other air pollution from coal and oil-burning power plants, but without actually rewriting or repealing any regulations. Instead, the EPA has laid the groundwork for a regulatory upheaval, by changing how the costs and benefits of environmental rules are calculated: downplaying the savings from improved human health while elevating the costs to polluters to implement them. “The new method could be used to justify loosening restrictions on any pollutant that the fossil fuel industry has deemed too costly to control,” reported The New York Times. By EPA’s own estimates, the 2012 rule has saved as many as 17,000 lives a year, and prevented thousands of illnesses. Status: Effective April 15, 2020.
Trump Administration Fast-Tracks Border Wall by Waiving Environmental Rules Under cover of the pandemic, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf moved to speed up construction of a Texas section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, by waiving "in their entirety, with respect to the construction of physical barriers and roads," the project's compliance with over a dozen environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; and more. Status: Effective April 15, 2020.
Trump Stacks “Opening the Economy” Energy Council with Fossil Fuel Donors Eight oil and gas executives tapped by the White House for a 12-member energy industry economic task force “have collectively made more than $4.2 million in political contributions” to Republican PACs and candidates since June 2015, reports HuffPost. There are no representatives from the clean energy sector on the task force, one of several the White House announced in mid-April to "chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity [and]produce a more independent, self-sufficient, and resilient Nation." [sic] Status: Task forces announced April 14, 2020.
Group Asks for Federal Oversight of Distributed Power Generation The New England Ratepayers Association has petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to assume oversight of net metering: the process in which utilities buy excess energy from residents or businesses generating power via onsite renewables, such as solar. If FERC approves the petition, the regulatory change would affect 41 states with net-metering laws. Clean energy advocates have accused NERA, which paid an additional $30,000 fee to fast-track its FERC petition, of representing industry, not ratepayers, and the nonprofit watchdog Public Citizen has filed to intervene in FERC’s review process. Status: Petition filed April 14, 2020. Comment period closes on May 14, 2020.
BLM Issues New Coal Lease in Colorado The BLM held a competitive coal lease sale for the Dunn Ranch Coal Tract in Colorado, estimated to contain 9.54 million tons of recoverable coal. Only one firm submitted a bid: Tijeras, New Mexico-based GCC Energy, LLC., which bid $3.4 million, or roughly $0.36 per ton. According to an April 7 report by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, coal's share of electricity generation nationwide has steadily dropped for several years, from 40% in 2014 to 24% in 2019, and is projected to be about 20% in 2020. Status: Sale announced April 10, 2020, not finalized pending internal review.
Proposal to Bring Back Commercial Supersonic Flights The Federal Aviation Administration has pushed forward with weakening noise limits for commercial airplane takeoff and landing, a rollback that will allow supersonic aircraft (SSTs) to make a comeback. Developed in the early 1970s and last flown in the U.S. in 2003, SSTs are super-polluting passenger planes that burn five to seven times more fuel than current commercial jets. In a 2019 study, the International Council on Clean Transportation found that supersonic air travel would exceed the subsonic limits for nitrogen oxides by 40%. The FAA's fact sheet on supersonic planes notes that they were "retired nearly two decades ago because of the high cost of meeting the environmental restrictions on sonic booms, inefficient fuel consumption, and other factors." Status: Proposed rule released April 13, 2020. Public comment period closes July 31, 2020.
Bureau of Land Management Releases Final Plan to Open 1.7 Million Acres of Colorado Public Lands to Fossil Fuel Extraction The BLM largely ignored 42,000 public comments in opposition to the Uncompahgre Approved Resource Management plan. The Colorado state government and various environmental groups opposed the plan as inconsistent with state climate and land planning laws. “The Uncompahgre land-management plan gives the initial green light to widespread, long-term oil and gas development in the ecologically sensitive North Fork Valley," Melissa Hornbein, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, said in a statement, and "has the potential to exponentially increase greenhouse gas pollution in the region over the next decade, when we need to be drastically reducing emissions.” Status: Finalized April 10, 2020
BLM Approves Bell Mountain gold and silver mine in Nevada The BLM issued its final approval for a plan to create a quarter-mile square open-pit, heap-leach gold and silver mine in Churchill County, an agricultural region roughly 100 miles east of Reno. The mine will cause "approximately 180 acres of new disturbance" on federal public lands, according to the BLM. Status: Project approved April 9, 2020.
EPA Finalizes Rule Lowering Emissions Standards for Coal Plants in Pennsylvania and West Virginia The EPA finalized a new emissions standard for six coal-refuse plants in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, terming coal produced by this subset of plants “an important source of reliable energy” despite record drops in energy demand. The rollback allows the six facilities to emit higher levels of mercury and other toxic pollutants. Coal-refuse plants are an extra-dirty form of coal power, burning a mix of low-quality coal along with rock, shale, slate, clay and other materials. Status: Effective April 9, 2020.
Republican Senators Request Loans for Coal A group of 17 Republican senators signed onto a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, asking that he not exclude fossil fuel companies from the $454 billion corporate loan program created under the CARES Act. The bond-purchasing part of that program is being administered by Black Rock, a global investment management corporation, which earlier this year announced it would remove fossil fuel investments from its discretionary active investment portfolios. Environmental groups have urged Black Rock to weigh climate risk when administering this program as well. Senators backing the coal bailout say that “BlackRock must act without regard to this or other investment policies BlackRock has adopted for its own funds.” Status: Letter sent April 7, 2020.
Trump Replaces Independent Watchdog Overseeing Coronavirus Stimulus Funds Citing vague “reports of bias,” President Trump abruptly fired Glenn Fine, the Pentagon's acting inspector general, from his role leading oversight of how $2 trillion in pandemic stimulus funds get spent. Fine has been with the Pentagon since 2015 and is known as a tough federal watchdog. Trump has appointed Sean O’Donnell, the EPA's inspector general, as Fine's replacement, a move that could shift some of O'Donnell attention away from the EPA, where he has been fairly critical of Trump's second agency chief, Andrew Wheeler. But The New York Times points out that, given his scrutiny of Administrator Wheeler, “it is not a given that Mr. O’Donnell will toe the line at the Pentagon.” Status: Effective April 7, 2020.
FERC Fast-Tracks Requests for Regulatory Relief With a stated goal of ensuring the "reliability of the nation's energy infrastructure" during the COVID-19 emergency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has shortened the review period for requests and petitions to waive some regulations or extend deadlines for meeting them. FERC regulates the nation's electricity and natural gas suppliers, as well as oil pipelines. Status: Effective April 7, 2020.
BLM Plans September Oil and Gas Lease Sale in Montana and North Dakota The agency in early April kicked off a 15-day public comment period on potential oil and gas lease sites in Montana and North Dakota, with the final sale scheduled for September. Status: Agency opened public comment period on April 6, 2020; it ended April 21. Lease sale scheduled for September 22, 2020.
Trump Floats Idea of Tariffs on Foreign Oil to Boost U.S. Oil Prices Following a meeting with oil executives on April 3, the president said he would not impose tariffs on foreign oil as a way to mitigate the impact of the Russia-Saudi oil price war on U.S. companies. But within 48 hours, at a COVID-19 pandemic press briefing, the president mentioned imposing such tariffs. “I would use tariffs, if I had to,” Trump said, adding that since he believed Russia and Saudi Arabia would soon agree to lower production levels (a move that would likely stabilize and increase global oil prices), he probably wouldn't have to. Status: President Trump made his comments on April 5, 2020, but has not announced any new tariffs.
Application to Extend Authorization to Export Liquefied Natural Gas to Non-free Trade Agreement Countries — The firm Energy Transfer has asked the Department of Energy to extend its authorization to proceed with the construction of a large liquified natural gas export terminal in St. Charles, La, even though Shell exited the project in late March, citing low oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic. The current authorization will expire in 2023 if the facility is not operating; an extension would buy the company two more years to finish construction and begin exporting LNG. Status: Application filed April 3, 2020.
California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington Fuel Breaks Project - Department of Interior/Bureau of Land Management Fuel Breaks Project DOI approved a $275 million BLM plan to construct and maintain a system of up to 11,000 miles of strategically placed firebreaks — strips of land with trees, deadwood, and undergrowth removed, which can slow or stop spreading wildfires — across 223 million-acres of federal public lands in California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Critics say it's an expensive end-run around environmental regulations aimed at protecting native vegetation and vulnerable species such as the Greater sage-grouse. Status: Finalized April 1, 2020.
Marathon Oil Takes Tax Benefit of $411 Million Under CARES Act On its quarterly SEC filings, Marathon Oil attributed a $411 million tax benefit to a section of the CARES Act called the Net Operating Loss Provision. A sly late addition to the March legislation, this provision allows businesses to carry back losses from 2020 or 2021 to previous tax years. In other words, companies can apply a loss resulting from the pandemic to last year’s profits (or any year’s back to 2018). In many cases this can trigger a tax refund, particularly if the firm filed its 2019 taxes on time. Status: Marathon Oil took the pass-back on its quarterly earning statement (SEC Form 10-Q) dated March 31, 2020.
Protections Removed for the Sage Grouse The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied Endangered Species Act protection for the Bi-state greater sage grouse, a distinct sub-species of sage grouse that roams western Nevada and eastern California, stating that voluntary conservation efforts by energy and ranching operations have been enough to protect populations of the bird. The sage grouse population across multiple states has continued to decline under voluntary conservation efforts. Status: Finalized March 31, 2020.
Rollback of Fuel Efficiency Standards Weakens the Obama administration's signature climate achievement: An agreement with automakers to raise fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks (known as CAFE, or Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards) to 55 mpg by 2025, significantly lowering greenhouse gas and other air pollution. The Trump administration has changed that mandate to about 40 mpg by 2026. Status: Rollback finalized March 30, 2020.
Request for Oil and Gas Royalty Relief Senate Republicans have asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to offer royalty relief and automatic lease extensions for oil and gas operations on public lands. Oil and gas royalties for drilling offshore brought in $3.8 billion to the U.S. Treasury in 2019. Critics argue that the royalty rate for onshore drilling should have been increased long ago: It was set at 12.5% in 1920 and has remained there ever since. Status: Letter sent March 30, 2020.
EPA Temporary Waiver on Summer Low-Volatility Gas Requirements "EPA intends to provide additional flexibility to the marketplace to transition from winter-grade, high volatility gasoline to summer-grade low vapor pressure gasoline. Due to the steep fall-off in gasoline demand as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, gasoline storage capacity is limited and more time is needed to transition the distribution system in order to come into compliance for the summer driving season. EPA will temporarily waive the summer low volatility requirements and blending limitations for gasoline." Winter-blend gasoline emits more volatile organic compounds, which are precursors of smog, when used in warmer weather. Status: Effective March 27, 2020.
Request to Establish a Strategic Reserve for Uranium The National Uranium Miners Association has asked the Trump Administration to establish a strategic reserve for uranium, and purchase strategic stockpiles of critical minerals to fill it, arguing the moves are critical to saving jobs as mines have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Status: Letter sent March 27, 2020.
EPA Will Not Penalize "Violations of Routine Compliance Monitoring" "The EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the EPA upon request."
Senate Committee Flirts with COVID-19 Liability Waiver Just a few days before the Senate voted on the $349 billion CARES Act, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee added a proposal to the bill that would have protected communications, energy, transportation, and water companies from lawsuits connected to "taking, or refraining from taking, any action" in relation to federal COVID-19 pandemic orders. But the language was gone from the bill by March 25, when the Senate passed the bill. Senate sources tell Drilled News that a similar liability waiver for utilities has been proposed for the next pandemic aid bill. Status: Failed: CARES Act enacted on March 27, 2020 without liability waiver proposal.
BLM Conducts Quarterly Oil and Gas Lease Sale in Colorado In late March, the BLM announced a $83,294.00 sale of nine oil and gas leases across 10,415 acres (16.3 square miles) of Jackson and Las Animas counties. "The BLM offered 20 parcels totaling 18,960.83 acres," according to its press release, but despite the agency's unabated push to lease fossil fuel development amid the COVID-19 pandemic, apparently just over half went unsold. Status: Sale held March 26, 2020.
Regulatory Relief from the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Provides immediate regulatory relief and fee exceptions for a wide range of chemical manufacturers, including petrochemical manufacturers. TSCA is the main federal law regarding the safety of chemicals used in commerce. Status: Effective March 25, 2020.
No Extension of Public Comment Period on Moneta Divide Oil and Gas Project On Feb. 21, the Bureau of Land Management published its final environmental report for this massive energy leasing project, automatically triggering a 30-day public comment period. The agency subsequently denied requests from Indigenous and environmental groups to suspend the comment period for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. BLM’s preferred plan for Moneta Divide would allow two energy companies to build 4,250 new natural gas fracking wells across 327,000 acres (510 square miles) of mostly public lands in central Wyoming, with a projected influx of about 700 outside workers to a rural area with limited medical resources. The lease area is near the Wind River Indian Reservation, home to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, which both declared states of emergency in mid-March and closed nearly all tribal offices. Status: Finalization pending. Public comment period closed March 23.
Request for "Critical Infrastructure" Designation and Compliance Waivers In a letter to President Trump, the American Petroleum Institute has requested a "critical infrastructure" designation for every piece of the fossil fuel supply chain, and a waiver of what it called "non-essential compliance obligations." Status: Compliance waiver granted, no decision on critical infrastructure designation announced. Letter sent March 20, 2020.
Request for Regulatory Relief and Reduced Fees for the Coal Industry Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Mining Association has requested a reduction in the Black Lung Excise Tax, the elimination or reduction in royalty payments for coal mined on federal public lands, a reduction in fees collected for the Abandoned Mine Land Fund, and an increase in the availability of credit to the industry. Status: Letter sent March 18, 2020.
Proposal to Change Rule on Nuclear Waste Disposal A proposal from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would allow for the disposal of some nuclear waste in municipal landfills, rather than a licensed nuclear waste facility. Status: Proposed rule change published March 6, 2020; public comment period closes April 20, 2020.
Interior Advances Drilling Plan Near New Mexico National Park The proposed lease sale involves 4.2 million acres of public and Navajo-held lands in northwest New Mexico, and would allow drilling within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park. As the Navajo Nation reels from the coronavirus crisis, Bloomberg News reports that environmental groups and the New Mexico congressional delegation have called for an extension to the public comment period, which has happened entirely amid the pandemic. The schedule includes four virtual public hearings in mid-May, but most Navajo households do not have broadband internet. Status: Draft plan published Feb. 28, 2020. Five virtual public hearing scheduled between May 14 and 18, 2020. Public comment period closes May 28, 2020
State, Regional, and Local Governments
California Issues Two Dozen New Fracking Permits In early April the California Geologic Energy Management Division issued 24 hydraulic fracturing permits in Kern Country, the state's primary industrial-scale agricultural region, KPBS reported. They're the first new permits the agency has issued in nine months, and came six months after Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on new drilling statewide. Status: Permits granted April 3, 2020.
Request to Delay All Air Resources Board Rulemaking to 2021 Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D - 11th District) has asked the Californiia Air Resources Board to delay voting or meeting on all proposed regulations until 2021. Status: Letter sent March 27, 2020.
Request for Delay in At-Berth Emissions Regulations at Ports The California Association of Port Authorities has asked the state's Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the California Air Resources Board, to delay implementation of new rules meant to reduce dockside air pollution at state ports. Status: Letter sent March 24, 2020.
Request to Delay Electrification of Big Rigs The Truck & Engine Manufacturers Association has asked the California Air Resources Board to delay or or modify a plan that requires 50% of all new medium-to-heavy truck sales, and 15% of all other new truck sales, to be zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Status: Letter sent March 23, 2020.
Temporary Restraining Order Against the City's Emergency Decree to Pause Fracking Flowback During Shelter-in-Place Because of their proximity to oil and gas operations, residents of Broomfield, Colorado are at risk of exposure to flowback-driven air pollution during shelter-in-place orders. So the city issued an emergency decree for local operations to cease fracking flowback during the pandemic. Oil company Extraction sued for a temporary restraining order to block the city's decree. It's the first test of Colorado's 2019 law prioritizing public health and safety over oil and gas production, which allows local governments to set safeguards that are more stringent than state regulations. "Flowback" happens when fracking fluids flow back up the well bore after a well is fracked. Air pollution is particularly likely during flowback and can include toxics like benzene, a carcinogen. Status: Restraining order denied. Broomfield issued the health order April 8, 2020 Note: Full story coming soon in the Drilled podcast.
New Law Protecting Key Infrastructure This new Kentucky law designates “natural gas or petroleum pipelines” as “key infrastructure assets” and makes it a felony crime to cause more than $1,000 in damages to pipelines “in a manner that renders the operations harmful or dangerous.” Status: Enacted March 16, 2020.
Offshore Drillers Request Royalty Cuts Citing the combination of the Russia-Saudi price war and pandemic-driven drops in demand, Gulf coast offshore drilling firms represented by the Houma, Louisiana-based South Central Industrial Association have asked President Trump and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for a reduction in royalties paid to the federal government. SCIA termed the confluence of COVID-19 and the OPEC spat an “existential threat to America’s ability to continue to produce energy in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond," reported Houma Today. Status: Letter sent March 27, 2020.
Regulatory Relief for Oil and Gas The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association asked the state regulator to lift plugging requirements for idle wells, fast-track permits for new wells, extend financial requirements for inactive wells, and extend and defer testing that ensures oil and gas operations are not contaminating water sources. Status: Request granted March 26, 2020.
Tax, Royalty, and Regulatory Relief for Oil and Gas Sector The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association has asked regulators to suspend state severance tax collections for one year, end coastal lawsuits, temporarily waive offshore drilling royalties in the Gulf of Mexico, ease conservation regulations, and find oil and gas reserves that will buy their product, reported the Daily Advertiser. The trade group argues that new OPEC production cuts don't go far enough to help its members weather the “perfect storm” of coronavirus and the oil price war. Status: LOGA statement issued April 13, 2020.
Designation of Natural Gas Construction Projects as "Essential" Gov. Charlie Baker has extended the definition of "essential construction" under the state's COVID-19 stay-at-home order to encompass various oil and gas projects, including the Weymouth natural gas compressor, which has no clear customers. Status: Order issued March 23, 2020.
Enbridge Requests Permit for Line 5 Tunnel A controversial project to update Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline, which runs along the Straits of Mackinac, a narrow waterway that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, moved one step closer to completion with this filing. If the permit is approved, the Canadian oil pipeline company could begin construction on its Great Lakes Tunnel Project in 2021, with a target operational date of 2024. The tunnel would house Enbridge’s new Line 5 oil pipeline and replace a 67-year-old pipeline that transports up to 540,000 barrels a day of natural gas and crude oil. Environmental advocates Indigenous rights groups, and Michigan’s own governor have criticized the project, which is currently the subject of a court case. The judge in that case ruled last year that construction could continue while the case is in progress.
Status: Pending. Permit application submitted April 8, 2020.
Permitting Process for Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline Moves Forward The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has continued to advance the permitting process for Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline replacement project. The agency extended the public comment period on the project by just a week, and moved in-person town halls to tele-townhalls, which activists said were stacked with pipeline supporters. The proposed replacement pipeline would have a capacity of 760,000 barrels a day, double the old pipeline's capacity; meanwhile, tar sands oil has hit a record low of less than $5 a barrel. Status: Pending. Public comment period closes April 10, 2020.
Polluters Can Ask for Waivers of Environmental Regulations The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has instituted a “flexibility” policy on enforcement of environmental regulations: Companies can request compliance waivers and delays, which are approved or rejected on a case-by-case basis. Of 227 requests made so far, only three have been rejected. The agency has also paused rule-making on its CleanCars initiative to regulate vehicle emissions until after shelter-in-place orders are lifted. Status: Effective March 2020.
Consumer Advocate Requests Suspension of Utility Energy Efficiency Programs Missouri’s Office of the Public Counsel requested that state regulators suspend utility energy efficiency programs in order to reduce ratepayers’ bills during the COVID-19 crisis. Executive Director James Owen of Renew Missouri, a clean energy advocacy group, told Energy News Network he believes the Office of the Public Counsel l”is trying to use this coronavirus issue to undo MEEIA [the Missouri Energy Efficiency Investment Act statute], or to weaken it.”
Status: Pending. Request filed March 2020.
State Approves Black Butte Copper Mine The Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved for a long-disputed underground copper mine in central Montana's Meagher County, a joint project of Canada-based Tintina Resources and Australian mining firm Sandfire. The mine will be located near a waterway called Sheep Creek, and about 20 miles upstream of the creek's confluence with the Smith River. The DEQ termed the plan “the most protective hard rock mining permit this agency has ever signed,” but "conservationists concerned about the effects the mine could have on the Smith River, a blue-ribbon trout fishery and popular floating destination, say the decision doesn’t go far enough," reported The Montana Free Press. Status: Approved April 9, 2020
Governor Exempts Keystone XL From Statewide Stay-at-Home Directive Deeming the Keystone XL pipeline “essential,” Montana Gov. (and Democratic candidate for Senate) Steve Bullock gave Canadian firm TC Energy the green light to bring in hundreds of out-of-state workers, in order to begin construction in April. Two counties on the pipeline's route are so far the least-affected in the nation by COVID-19. So county officials have mandated that out-of-state pipeline workers be quarantined for 14 days upon their arrival. But that quarantine does not prohibit them from working, so construction has begun and looks to continue unabated. Status: Enacted. Update: On April 15, 2020, Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana withdrew the Keystone XL's nationwide permit to build through wetlands and streams. Morris ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' "blanket permit" for approving construction across federally-protected waterways was invalid, because the Corps failed to do cross-agency consultations, required by the Endangered Species Act, to analyze the risks of the nationwide permit, which was also applied to other energy projects including wind turbines and transmission lines. The Corps has applied the permit to more than 37,000 projects since 2017, reported AP. On April 27, attorneys for the Trump administration argued in a court filing that Morris had overstepped his authority by applying his ruling not just to Keystone, but to all pipeline projects across the country.
Controversial Biomass Plant Project Seeks Public Comment During COVID-19 Crisis A hotly-contested proposed biomass plant has one more hurdle to clear: getting an air emissions permit from state regulators. The Department of Environmental Quality has twice extended the public comment period, now to May 27. But local environmental groups are worried that with the state moving the process forward amid the coronavirus pandemic, the permit may be granted without much citizen input. Status: Public comment period closes May 27, 2020.
Duke Energy May Stop Purchasing Solar Power In an early-April letter to independent solar producers and state regulators, Duke Energy warned that due to COVID-19 pandemic-related decreases in electricity demand, it "may curtail contracted power purchases," reported the Charlotte Business Journal. Status: Letter sent April 9, 2020.
Shell Plastic Facility An “Essential” Business When Shell applied for a waiver to continue construction on its ethane cracker plastic plant in Beaver County, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development told the company that as a natural gas facility, it was automatically exempt — even though that "essential" designation is intended for gas-fired power plants. Once in operation, the southwestern Pennsylvania operation will have the capacity to produce more than a million tons of plastic pellets annually. Status: Effective April 15, 2020.
Exemption for Mariner East PipelineTexas-based Energy LP asked the Penn. Department of Community and Economic Development for a waiver from Gov. Tom Wolf's emergency coronavirus shutdown, which would enable the company to continue construction on the controversial Mariner East pipeline, across 17 locations in Pennsylvania. Status: Waiver granted March 25, 2020.
Expansion of "Incitement to Riot" Law Expands the definition of incitement to riot to include “intentional use of force or violence by three or more persons” that causes “any damage to property.” The law's provisions could chill anti-pipeline protests. Status: Enacted March 23, 2020.
New Law to Designate and Protect Critical InfrastructureThe state's new “critical infrastructure” law extends the designation to all oil, gas, and utility equipment, and defines the crime of “substantial interruption or impairment” of such facilities as a felony. Status: Enacted March 18, 2020.
Waiver of Regulatory Requirements Oil and gas operators in the state may apply for a waiver of regulatory requirements on a case-by-case basis. Environmental groups have already documented an increase in methane emissions in the state's shale oil fields. Status: Waiver granted March 24, 2020.
Fracking Companies Ask Regulators to Impose Production Cuts At a three-hour virtual open meeting in mid-April, Texas regulators met to consider requests by shale gas firms Pioneer Natural Resources and Parsley Energy to mandate a statewide production cut. Nearly 60 stakeholders in the oil and gas industry testified both for and against the idea, reported TV station KOSA CBS7. It's the first time since the 1970s that oil and gas producers have asked Texas regulators to interfere in the global energy market. Status: Pending. Meeting held April 14, 2020.
Oil and Gas Are Well-represented on Texas Governor's Economic “Strike Force” "Even as it’s still far from clear whether Texas has seen the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic," Texas Gov. Greg Abbot’s has assembled a "cabal of his billionaire donors" for his “Strike Force to Open Texas,'' according to The Texas Observer. Members include Nancy Kinder, wife of Kinder Morgan pipeline CEO Richard Kinder, and Hilcorp Energy Company executive Jeff Hildebrand, Lobbyists from the Association of Electric Companies of Texas and the Texas Oil & Gas Association are leading the group’s subcommittee on the energy sector. Status Task force announced April 17, 2020.
Petroleum Association Asks for Relief from Health, Financial Regulations Having already been relieved of following national and state environmental rules amid the pandemic, the Utah Petroleum Association sent a letter to Governor Gary Herbert in late March to request additional regulatory breaks. The group has asked for a pause in well-site inspections, deferred royalty payments, a suspension of bonding deadlines, extended timelines for drilling permit approvals, and permission to let abandoned wells sit idle for up to seven years without any cleanup requirements. Status: Pending. Letter sent March 25, 2020
Critical Infrastructure Protection Act Expands definition of "critical infrastructure" to include a wide range of oil and gas production and distribution assets, including pipelines. Slaps fines as high as $20,000 on anyone found guilty of causing “damage, destruction, vandalization, defacing, or tampering” that totals $2,500 or more in damages. Status: Enacted March 27, 2020.
South African Ports Reopened for Coal and Minerals Exports The South African government announced March 31 that the country's ports would stay open for both incoming and outgoing cargo, according to Reuters. The move reversed an earlier decision to close the ports to mineral exports, and came amid a 21-day nationwide stay-at-home order that began on March 23; the government had already granted an exemption for coal imports. South Africa's ports are export points for both domestic mined minerals, and those produced in Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. Status: Effective March 31, 2020.
South African Utility Ceases Renewable Energy Purchases State-owned public utility Eskom suspended purchases of wind power, citing decreased demand due to the coronavirus pandemic. The move presumably means that the utility is now buying solely coal-fired power. While Eskom has said it would extend contracts "by the amount of time lost," make up for the wind suppliers' losses, according to South Africa business news site Tech Central, the South African Wind Energy Association announced in a statement that it will “[seek] legal counsel on whether the reduced electricity demand as a result of COVID-19 does in fact constitute force majeure, as declared by Eskom.” Status: Effective April 1, 2020.
Australia (contributed by Lyndal Rowlands)
Logging Industry Exempted from Conservation Laws for a Decade The State of Victoria has extended five agreements exempting the logging industry from conservation laws for another 10 years, until 2030. The move came on the heels of Australia's extreme 2019-2020 bushfire season: 7.38 million hectares burned, causing 830 million tons of carbon pollution. "Policy makers must recognize that historical and contemporary logging of forests has had profound effects on these fires’ severity and frequency," several ecologists recently argued in Nature Ecology & Evolution. Status: Extension announced early April 2020.
Australia’s “Gas-fired” Recovery Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison has created a National Covid-19 Coordination Commission to advise the nation's economic recovery, and stacked it with fossil fuel interests. After Energy Minister Angus Taylor told the Sydney Morning Herald that Australia’s recovery would be “gas-fired,” the commission’s chief spiked plans for a fertilizer plant powered by shale gas. Meanwhile, Woodside — Australia’s largest oil and gas producer — is still considering a massive natural gas project, even though its shareholders in April supported a resolution demanding that the firm slash its direct and indirect greenhouse gas pollution. Status: PM Morrison announced the commission on March 25, 2020.
State Government Advances Coal Mine Project Near Sydney The government of New South Wales is pushing ahead with consideration of a plan to extend the Dendrobium Coal Mine under the city of Sydney’s only water catchment, even though the state water authority has warned that the project could endanger the city’s drinking water supply. New South Wales’ water supply is already under pressure due to prolonged drought, private water sales to international firms for irrigation and bottling, and pollution from bushfire fallout and toxic firefighting chemicals. Status: State regulators formally asked mining firm South32 for additional information on April 20, 2020.
New Law Lets Industry off the Hook for Cleaning Up Old Wells A month after Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced a $100 million investment in the Orphan Well Association, the provincial legislature passed a law that has effectively turned the organization into a way for industry to offload its obligations to reclaim and remediate abandoned well sites. Known as Bill 12, the "Liabilities Management Statutes Amendment Act 2020" broadens the list of activities companies can carry out on private property without consent from or compensation for landowners. It also gives politicians, rather than scientists or industry experts, control over how the orphan well funds are spent. Further, it allows the OWA to take over the assets of bankrupt companies, continue operating their wells, and conduct clean-up free without consulting landowners. The new law “lacks any conditions that uphold Canada’s Polluter Pays Principle, ensuring industry pays for cleanup, property taxes and landowner compensation,” according to a statement from the Alberta Liabilities Disclosure Project. Status: Enacted April 2, 2020.
Fossil Fuel Asks Trudeau Government for Dozens of Regulatory Rollbacks Citing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s leading fossil fuel industry trade group sent a wish list of more than 30 regulatory rollbacks to to Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan. The group's asks ranged from a waiver for emissions reporting requirements, to a temporary suspension of transparency rules around lobbying. Weeks after the government received the letter, its contents were were leaked to the Environmental Defense Fund, which made it public. Status: Letter sent March 27, 2020, and made public April 17, 2020.
Alberta Puts $5.3 Billion Into Keystone XL Pipeline ProjectThe provincial government has granted firm TC Energy a $1.1 billion loan and $4.2 billion in government funding for the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial infrastructure project aimed at transporting tar sands oil to coastal shipping ports. Alberta's support comes at a time when tar sands oil has hit record lows of less than $5 a barrel, making the pipeline's economic justifications questionable. While the Obama administration denied the project a permit to build in the U.S., the Trump administration is trying to advance it. Status: Funding announced March 31, 2020.
Energy Regulator Waives Fees, Extends Mineral Agreements The Alberta Energy Regulator oversees permitting, operations, and environmental compliance of the provinces’s fossil fuel and mineral extraction operations, collecting administrative fees from industry to fund its operations. But citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency has stopped collecting those fees for six months; the loss will total around $113 million. AER also announced that it will automatically extend mineral agreements that were set to expire at the end of 2020. The agency regulates, among other things, more than 181,000 wells, over 258,000 miles of pipeline, 8 tar sands mines and 8 coal mines, according to its website. Status: Effective March 21, 2020.
Alberta Waives Environmental Regulations Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alberta provincial government has suspended some reporting requirements under three laws: the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the Water Act, and the Public Lands Act, claiming that for industry “there is hardship in having to comply with routine reporting requirements.” That hardship does not extend to continuing construction, which the provincial government has not only allowed, but has helped to fund. Status: Waivers effective March 17, 2020.
EU Commission HIres BlackRock to Consult on Climate Rules for Banks Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU Commission announced an unlikely pick to advise it on integrating environmental, social, and governance factors ("ESG" in green finance lingo) into banking regulation: BlackRock, one of the largest asset managers in the world, and a staunch critic of the commission's approach to sustainable finance. Among the points of disagreement, BlackRock disagrees with commission mandates that put assessment of the environmental and climate impact of business, on equal footing with assessing the effect of climate change on business; and has harshly criticized the EU's "Taxonomy Regulation," which establishes a bloc-wide classification system meant to provide a common framework for "environmentally sustainable" investments. “What is the coherence of having one of the biggest critics of the pillar of the EU approach to sustainable finance" advise the bloc," asked watchdog group Finance Watch in a statement. According to The Guardian, BlackRock controls upwards of $90 billion in fossil fuel company shares, and "is a top-three investor in all eight of the world's largest oil companies." Status: Contract awarded April 2020.
Andalusia Rolls Back Environmental Regulations Citing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses, the government of Andalusia, an autonomous region in southern Spain, has passed a law mandating what it calls "regulatory simplification," and what conservation groups contend is using the coronavirus crisis as cover for massive environmental deregulation. The government is "taking advantage of the current exceptional situation" to gut environmental protections and limit the public's right to have a say in regulations, said Friends of the Earth and several other green groups in a statement," Status: Enacted April 3, 2020.
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