Overnight Energy: Fourth aide departs EPA| Interior prohibits staff from telling builders to get Endangered Species Act permit| Lawmaker sues Forest Service over protest rights

Overnight Energy: Fourth aide departs EPA| Interior prohibits staff from telling builders to get Endangered Species Act permit| Lawmaker sues Forest Service over protest rights
© Getty Images

FOURTH EPA POLITICAL AIDE RESIGNS IN FIVE DAYS: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) media aide John Konkus is adding his name to the growing list of political staffers leaving the agency this week.

Konkus became the fourth Pruitt aide to resign in five days — and the second in Pruitt's media department. Pruitt's communications head, Liz Bowman, announced her departure Thursday.

Konkus serves as deputy associate administrator in the EPA’s office of public affairs, the second in command on the communications staff.

ADVERTISEMENT

Ryan Jackson, Pruitt's chief of staff, confirmed Konkus's departure Friday and said he was leaving to take a communications job at the Small Business Administration.

“From transition, working side by side with John as one of the ‘sherpas’ for Administrator Pruitt’s nomination, through his work on the beachhead early at EPA, and as Deputy Associate Administrator, John has been a valuable member of the EPA communications team," Jackson said in a statement.

"Administrator Pruitt is grateful for John’s service and wishes him well as he continues to serve the Trump Administration leading communications at the Small Business Administration."

Konkus did not respond to a request for comment.

Konkus's resignation comes amid reports that agency aide Michael Abboud had shopped around a story earlier in the week alleging that an Interior Department staffer was conspiring with a former EPA aide-turned-whistleblower to spread stories about Pruitt.

Read more here.

Why it’s notable: Konkus joins the ranks of three other EPA political aides who resigned this week from the agency. In addition to Bowman, two other Pruitt aides, also mired in their own scandals, resigned. Albert Kelly, who was hired to lead the agency's Superfund program last year, resigned Tuesday and Pruitt's head of security, Pasquale Perrotta, resigned on Monday.

ADVERTISEMENT

 

FWS EMPLOYEES LIMITED FROM TELLING DEVELOPERS TO GET ESA PERMIT: Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) staff can no longer advise builders they need to obtain a permit mandated by law to maintain endangered species habitat, according to new Interior Department guidance.

An April 26 memorandum sent from FWS Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan to regional directors wrote that it was "not appropriate" for personnel to tell private parties when it's required under the law for them to seek an incidental take permit (ITP).

Businesses and individuals must request an ITP if they believe their developments could interfere with the habitat of endangered species, under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Sheehan writes in the memo: "It is also vital that staff recognize that whether to apply for a section 10(a)(1)(B) permit is a decision of the applicant. Service staff can and should advise non-federal parties on the law, our regulations and guidance, and the potential for take of listed species incidental to their activities, but it is not appropriate to use mandatory language (e.g. a permit is 'required') in the course of that communication."

A section under the ESA allows owners the ability to develop on land they believe might affect the habitat of endangered species if they create a habitat conservation plan and get an ITP. The memo says that when FWS employees advise owners on when they might need to get an ITP, they can no longer say it is a need and that "whether to seek a permit belongs with the private party."

"They may proceed (at their own risk) as planned without a permit, modify their project and proceed without a permit, or prepare and submit a permit application," Sheehan's letter reads. "The biological, legal, and economic risk assessment regarding whether to seek a permit belongs with the private party determining how to proceed."

Animal advocates alarmed: One wildlife expert equated the memo to putting a "leash" on employees. Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the guidance underscores a trend that's been occurring at the FWS — employees are more relaxed in their ESA enforcement. He believes that the guidance will make it harder to enforce because the FWS will no longer leave a paper trail of recommendations for permits.

"They are putting even a further chill on FWS actually enforcing it," Greenwald said. "It's kind of true that it's the landowner's choice. They can take the risk or get an ITP — but what happens is a record of liability is essentially erased at this point."

Guidance highlights new administration theme on ESA: The FWS announced it is taking into consideration the “removal” of the policy, adopted under the ESA, that prohibits the harming, harassing, killing and habitat destruction of threatened species. The text of the rule change proposal tailors the protections for all future listed threatened species to instead determine regulations on a species-by-species basis.

The FWS submitted the proposal within days of reports that President TrumpDonald John TrumpWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Coronavirus hits defense contractor jobs Wake up America, your country doesn't value your life MORE picked Susan Combs to oversee wildlife and parks at the Interior Department. Combs, a former Texas comptroller, has a long a history of opposing endangered species protections.

Read more here.

 

VA LAWMAKER SUES FOREST SERVICE OVER PROTESTER RIGHTS: A Democratic Virginia state lawmaker is suing the U.S. Forest Service for access to a road where a group of protesters are demonstrating against a pipeline project.

ADVERTISEMENT

State Sen. Chap Petersen filed the suit in federal court on Wednesday, according to The Washington Post, alleging that officials are illegally blocking access to the road in order to prevent people from bringing food and supplies to a “tree sitter.”

The protester named in the suit, identified only as “Nutty,” is one of several tree sitters attempting to block federal officials from clearing trees to build the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Forest Service officials said they blocked access to the road for safety reasons, but Petersen argues in the lawsuit that they are in violation of the First Amendment, and is asking that the road to be reopened to the public.

“People have a right to be there,” he told the Post. “This is a political act that’s taking place; it’s political expression.”

Read more here.

 

THE WEEK AHEAD:

ADVERTISEMENT

Monday, a panel of the House Appropriations Committee will do a markup of the fiscal year 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill.

Tuesday, the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the state of Puerto Rico’s electric grid.

Wednesday, the Senate committee on Indian Affairs will consider the nomination of Tara Sweeney, of Alaska, to be an assistant secretary of the Interior.

Wednesday, a subpanel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the law enforcement programs at the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service and how they coordinate with other law enforcement.

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

UK to ban most hybrid cars starting 2040, the Financial Times reports.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority decide how to privatize within 18 months, Bloomberg BNA reports.

Ongoing volcano eruption that dates back more than three decades hits Hawaii, The Washington Post reports.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

Check out these stories from Friday...

 

— Pruitt had travel wish list and asked staff to find ‘official’ reasons to go: report

— Adelson helped arrange canceled Pruitt trip to Israel: report

Please send tips and comments to Timothy Cama, tcama@thehill.com, and Miranda Green, mgreen@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @Timothy_Cama, @mirandacgreen, @thehill