Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs

Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs
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Oh boy, it's been a busy week so let's just dive right in with the Trump administration's long-awaited update to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), new lawsuits over Obama rule rollbacks, and some big changes at the Interior Department's ethics office.

 

ESA NOT LOOKING SO GOOD FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES: The Trump administration on Monday announced it has finalized a controversial rollback of protections for endangered species, including allowing economic factors to be weighed before adding an animal to the list.

The Interior Department regulations would dramatically scale back America's landmark conservation law, limiting protections for threatened species, how factors like climate change can be considered in listing decisions and the review process used before projects are approved on their habitat. 

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Critics pounce: "It means that in all likelihood that the federal government itself and individuals will be damaging the habitat and likely increase the timetable and likelihood of a species going extinct," David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center and a former deputy of Interior, said in an earlier interview with The Hill. 

Going forward, the Endangered Species Act will no longer offer the same protections for threatened species -- those at risk of becoming extinct in the foreseeable future -- as those that are already endangered.

"These changes crash a bulldozer through the Endangered Species Act's lifesaving protections for America's most vulnerable wildlife," Noah Greenwald, the Center for Biological Diversity's endangered species director, said in a statement.

The administration's side: Monday's rule finalizes an earlier proposal from the Interior Department and prompted threats of lawsuits from many environmental groups who say the changes will gut the law.

The Endangered Species Act, first passed in 1973, is considered a success globally, surpassing protections for flora and fauna in many other countries. Environmentalists see it as one of America's premier environmental laws.

But in the U.S it has been a target of industry, heavily criticized by some developers and lawmakers for working almost too well, making it difficult to encroach on habitat even once a species rebounds. Many would like species to be more easily removed from the list.

Interior described the new regulation as a modernization of the act "designed to increase transparency and effectiveness and bring the administration of the Act into the 21st century," the agency said in a press release.

What's next? Environmentalists argue many of Interior's changes will weaken protections for threatened and endangered species.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said the law creates two tiers of animals by ending the practice of offering threatened species all the same protections as endangered ones.

"You'll see a parade of species listed as threatened because they will have no protective teeth behind them," she said. "It's absolutely driving species closer to extinction."

Democrats and environmentalists raised a number of other issues with the rule. Environmentalists are also concerned about how the regulation changes the process for setting aside habitat deemed critical for the recovery of a species. The regulation takes a higher level approach to analyzing what habitat is needed for a species, something environmentalists say will limit important breeding and feeding grounds when a healthy, growing population would demand more space, not less. 

The Trump administration also removed language from the Endangered Species Act that specifically bars financial considerations when weighing whether to list a species -- opening the door to allow financial impacts to ranchers, utilities, and oil and gas companies influence such decisions. 

"Science must guide our decisions, not dollar signs. We shouldn't use economic factors to decide whether a species should be saved," Rebecca Riley, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

Environmentalists and Democrats were also outraged by the Trump administration's push to block climate change from consideration with its definition of "foreseeable future," the timeline used to determine whether a species may soon face extinction. 

"We will look out into the future so far as we can reliably predict and not speculate," Gary Frazer, the associate director for endangered species at the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a call with reporters. "This might be climate-induced changes in a physical environment."

Read about the rule here and the pushback here

 

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Tuesday was litigious...

22, YES 22, STATES ARE SUING OVER A POLLUTION RULE: A coalition of mostly Democratic-led states has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, arguing its rules for addressing power plant pollution are so weak they violate federal law.

Attorneys general from 22 states and several major cities including New York City and Los Angeles argue that the Trump administration's rule violates the Clean Air Act by having virtually no impact on carbon emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had finalized the rule in June to repeal and replace a capstone Obama-era carbon pollution regulation they say exceeded agency authority.

The new replacement rule to the Clean Power Plan (CPP), deemed the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, aims to give states more time and authority to decide how to implement the best new technology to ease net emissions from coal-fired plants.

"Besides ignoring the science of climate change – the text of the ACE rule barely mentions climate change, much less recognize[s] the dire threat it poses to people's health, the economy, and the environment – the rule disregards requirements of the federal Clean Air Act," which requires regulators to use the "best system of emission reduction," New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) said in a press release.

The suit is the second against the rule, following one filed in July from the American Lung Association.

"The ACE plan is trying to reduce the progress California and other states are making and keep failing coal pants on life support," California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols said while standing alongside California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraCalifornia leads states in lawsuit over Trump public charge rule Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs California counties file first lawsuit over Trump 'public charge' rule MORE, who is also joining the suit.

Becerra referred to the ACE rule as a "toothless substitute" that artificially narrows the EPA's authority.

Shortly after ACE was released, states and environmental groups said they would challenge the law in court, arguing it does so little to curb pollution, it cannot even be considered a serious regulation.

The Trump administration rule does not set a specific carbon reduction target for states, and it is narrowly tailored to deal with physical changes that can be made at power plants rather than broader regulatory solutions that could be imposed by states.

"Power plants can run less frequently, less intensely; there can be renewable generation that fills up the gaps," Andres Restrepo, a lawyer with the Sierra Club, said of potential alternative measures when ACE was first announced.

What to watch for: The legal battle will largely boil down to how much action the Clean Air Act requires of the EPA. A decision could have major consequences, as a win for the agency could stymie future administrations from addressing climate change.

Read about the lawsuit here

 

On Wednesday, green groups followed up with...

 

A LAWSUIT OF THEIR OWN: Ten environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, arguing its new power plant rule is insufficient to the point it violates federal law.

"We will challenge every part of this misguided rule, which has already been broadly denounced by the medical, environmental, and legal communities as a poorly constructed band-aid for the coal industry's economic woes," the Sierra Club, one of the parties in the suit, said in a statement.

Read about that suit here.

 

The big news Wednesday, though, came out of the Department of the Interior…

 

CENTRALIZING ETHICS: The Department of the Interior will be centralizing ethics reviews across its many agencies at its headquarters, following years of ethics investigations centered on many of the department's top staff.

In an order signed by Secretary David Bernhardt Wednesday and shared with The Hill, ethics officials at the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and others will report to ethics officials based at Interior's headquarters rather than agency directors.

But ethics officials who reviewed the plan criticized its broad focus on all agency employees rather than the high-level officials currently being investigated for ethical lapses.

Scott de le Vega, director of Interior's Departmental Ethics Office, said the change was designed to ensure Interior's roughly 70,000 employees are getting consistent ethics advice regardless of which branch of the department they serve.

They also want to ensure ethics officers are held accountable for the advice they give.

"The Department of the Interior has received criticism from the Government Accountability Office, from the Office of Government Ethics, not to mention from the Hill itself and Republican and Democratic administrations about lapses in ethical behavior from the highest levels to the lowest levels at the department," de la Vega told The Hill.

"The way we are reorganizing and restructuring things will build a stronger program so that we ensure that our employees have the best tools and resources for them to mitigate and reduce the chances of those ethical lapses occurring again."

Why experts have concerns: Ethics experts apprised of the plan by The Hill criticized its focus on thousands of employees rather than the top staff whose actions have resulted in at least half a dozen investigations by the agency's Office of Inspector General, as well as countless other requests for investigations.

Much of the attention to ethics issues within the department during the Trump administration has focused squarely on those at the top, particularly at Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist who has been followed by protesters donning "swamp creature" masks during many of his congressional appearances.

"Ethical leadership should come from the top of the top. An ethical workplace depends on leadership that sends the tone," said Delaney Marsco, ethics counsel at the Campaign Legal Center (CLC). "So the idea that the fix is to centralize who other ethic officials report to ... they might be missing the boat a little bit. They should definitely be focused on ensuring their senior level officials are complying with ethics laws first."

The CLC was one of several groups to file an ethics complaint against Bernhardt following reporting from The New York Times that he was influential in easing rules that would benefit a former client. 

"The ethical problems at Interior have nothing to do with 70,000 rank-and-file employees and has everything to do with David Bernhardt and his inner circle," said Aaron Weiss, at the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group that has repeatedly criticized ethics issues at Interior. "There's 70,000 employees getting good ethics advice, and we know David Bernhardt has been getting poor ethics advice and in some cases doing everything he can to skirt his ethics obligations."

Also noteworthy... The centralized ethics office will be housed within Interior's solicitor's office. That's not unusual, ethics experts say, but the man nominated to fill that post and who already fills the role in a de facto capacity, Daniel Jorjani, has been mired in ethical issues of his own.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenPrediction: 2020 election is set to be hacked, if we don't act fast Wyden blasts FEC Republicans for blocking probe into NRA over possible Russia donations Wyden calls for end to political ad targeting on Facebook, Google MORE (D-Ore.) has vowed to try and block his confirmation given concerns about whether he was truthful to Congress during his confirmation hearing about his potential involvement in a controversial ethics policy at the Interior Department that has been criticized for giving political appointees more power over public records. 

Read more about the new policy here.

 

And last but certainly not least...

 

A SILENT WATCHDOG: A new policy rolled out by the Interior Department's inspector general puts strict limits on the office's interactions with reporters.

The press office for the agency's internal watchdog, which is investigating a number of Interior officials, including Secretary David Bernhardt, is now prohibited from providing journalists with information on its work beyond, "Our report speaks for itself," or "We have no comment."

The policy, which took effect Aug. 5, is a change from the previous practice of sometimes providing reporters with background or additional information.

When asked this week about a new report released by the IG office, the press office told The Hill it could use one of two statements: "Our report speaks for itself" or "We have no comment."

The policy change comes under the leadership of acting Inspector General Gail Ennis.

Unlike most IG officials, who are usually career government employees, Ennis is a political appointee who previously contributed to Trump's campaign.

She donated $4,275 in total to Trump's Make America Great Again Committee and his presidential campaign, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Read more about that scoop here

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY: 

-Newark hands out bottled water after its filter program fails to fix lead problem, CNN reports.

-Clean energy powers California climate emissions drop, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

-Montana schools would have to be airtight against wildfire smoke under proposed new rules, the Billings Gazette reports.

 

ICYMI: Stories from this week...

-Trump rolls back endangered species protections

-Democrats, environmentalists blast Trump rollback of endangered species protections

-Green groups sue Trump administration over reduced penalties on fuel efficiency

-Russia: Radiation levels up to 16 times higher than normal after rocket test explosion

-London university bans beef in climate change fight

-22 states sue Trump over repeal of Obama-era power plant rules

-Trump rewrite of endangered species rule could threaten monarch butterflies

-Green groups sue Trump for gutting Obama power plant rules

-Interior centralizes ethics reviews after recent high-profile probes

-New policy at Interior's in-house watchdog clamps down on interactions with press