In the spirit of “energy dominance,” President Donald Trump lavished gifts on the extractive industries over the holidays. The Trump administration finished 2017—a year that saw the shrinking of two national monuments and the general favoring of private industry over wild lands—with an anti-environmental bang.
For example, at the end of December, the Interior Department eased the offshore drilling safety rules put in place following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which killed 11 people and released 3.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. That action could have impacts beyond the Gulf; on Thursday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced plans to open up the majority of both the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines to oil and gas companies.
That wasn’t all. The Trump administration was busy over the holidays, so here’s what else you probably missed.
No More Fracking Water-Source Regulations
In 2015 the Bureau of Land Management issued tighter guidelines for fracking on federal and Native American lands. The goal was to prevent groundwater contamination, because the fracking process shoots a chemical-laden solution into the ground to crack fissures in the rock. Among other things, the guidelines required operators to receive BLM permission before fracking, provide information about their water source, disclose chemicals in their fracking mix, and test the cement-lined wells to ensure they wouldn’t crack during the process.
The BLM scrapped the rule on December 29, citing the president’s earlier executive order to remove burdens on the energy industry. Lawsuits by extraction-reliant western states and industry groups prevented the 2015 rule from ever being implemented, and in repealing the rule, BLM essentially sided with those plaintiffs by saying it lacked authority to impose such restrictions.
In general, regulators have struggled to keep up with the fracking boom over the past two decades. And by announcing this rule repeal, the BLM made clear that it feels state and tribal regulations are enough to prevent groundwater contamination, even though there’s evidence to the contrary. The BLM also calculated that rescinding the 2015 rule would save oil and gas operators almost $10,000 per well in compliance costs.
It’s Okay to Kill Migratory Birds—So Long as It’s an Accident
Energy development is hard on birds. Each year, approximately 175,000 of the animals collide with wind turbines, 750,000 perish in oil-waste pits, and some 25 million die on power lines. Since 1918, the Department of the Interior has used the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) to prosecute energy firms that don’t take precautions against wanton avian injury. Federal circuit courts have come to different conclusions on whether companies can be held liable for accidentally killing birds. Further legal clarity won’t be coming anytime soon, though, because the Trump administration has decided not to prosecute these types of cases.
Interior Department Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani decided on December 22 that the MBTA doesn’t prohibit the accidental killing of migratory birds. He reasoned this by saying that “the phrase ‘incidental take’ does not appear in either the MBTA or regulations implementing the Act.” This means corporations will face prosecution only if it can be proved they killed the birds intentionally.
Jorjani has deep ties to the Koch brothers, and his opinion would have real consequences for oil and gas producers. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for instance, BP pleaded guilty to violating the MBTA and paid $100 million to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund. If a similar oil spill took place today, such a payout wouldn’t occur—BP didn’t release all that oil to intentionally kill birds, so the feds wouldn’t hold the corporation liable.
Mining the Boundary Waters
Jorjani’s pre-Christmas work extended to a controversial mining lease that borders Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In December 2016, the Obama administration opted not to renew a Chilean mining company’s leases, which were necessary for a proposed underground copper-nickel mine. The Interior Department also imposed a moratorium on all new mines in the area while the U.S. Forest Service conducted a two-year study on the environmental impact of such projects. Jorjani, however, said the Interior Department lacked the authority to deny this lease, opening the door for further extraction near the Boundary Waters.
Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Chilean mining titan Antofagasta, says the leases would provide 650 jobs and operate for 30 years, but others worry that the mine would squander the blossoming adventure-based economy around the Boundary Waters. Interior’s legal opinion doesn’t immediately green-light the mine, and the BLM and the Forest Service have pledged to continue the environmental impact study.
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