Overnight Energy: Green groups sue Trump over Endangered Species Act changes | Bureau of Land Management retirees fight plan to relocate agency | Wildfires in Amazon rainforest burn at record rate

Overnight Energy: Green groups sue Trump over Endangered Species Act changes | Bureau of Land Management retirees fight plan to relocate agency | Wildfires in Amazon rainforest burn at record rate
© Getty Images

THE FIGHT IS ON: Some of the country's largest environmental organizations have filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration challenging a new rule that could weaken protections for threatened and endangered species.

Eight environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a joint lawsuit with the Northern District of California on Wednesday challenging the Interior Department's move to change the way species are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The changes rolled out last week by the agency include decreasing protections for threatened species and allowing the economic impacts of protecting species to be considered prior to making listing decisions.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Trump administration rule also changes how factors like climate change can be considered in listing decisions and the review process used before projects are approved on certain species' habitats.

Environmentalists say the regulatory tweaks will amount to a dramatic decrease in protection for plants and animals, arguing the changes were made largely to benefit industry groups and landowners.

"Nothing in these new rules helps wildlife, period. Instead, these regulatory changes seek to make protection and recovery of threatened and endangered species harder and less predictable. We're going to court to set things right," Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles said in a statement.

The lawsuit claims that the Trump administration failed to analyze how changes to the rule could impact species, a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. Administration officials have been frequently critiqued for failing to explain how the rule change will help the recovery of species.

The lawsuit also argues that changes made in the final version of the rule were not included in the agency's draft proposal, and therefore not made available to public comment -- another legal violation.

Karimah Schoenhut, Sierra Club staff attorney, called the decision political.

"The new rules move the Endangered Species Act dangerously away from its grounding in sound science that has made the Act so effective – opening the door to political decisions couched as claims that threats to species are too uncertain to address," she said. 

"In the face of the climate crisis, the result of this abandonment of responsibility will be extinction."

An Interior spokesperson called the lawsuit a way to "weaponize" the ESA and promised the agency would be "steadfast" in defending the rule change.

Read more on the lawsuit here.

 

Happy Humpday! And welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill's roundup of the latest energy and environment news. 

A programming note: During August recess we'll be publishing our recaps once a week. Keep an eye out for Overnight Energy on Wednesdays.

Please send tips and comments to Miranda Green, mgreen@thehill.com and Rebecca Beitsch, rbeitsch@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @mirandacgreen, @rebeccabeitsch and @thehill.

CLICK HERE to subscribe to our newsletter.

 

FALLOUT OVER TRUMP PLANS TO RELOCATE AGENCIES:

Retirees fight plan to relocate Interior agency out west: A group of retired Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees are pushing the Senate to hold a hearing on the agency's plan to move its headquarters to Colorado and scatter Washington-based staff in offices across the West.

The Public Lands Foundation, a 600-member group comprised of former BLM employees, asked leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to hold a hearing on a relocation they say will "functionally dismantle" the agency.

The Department of Interior announced in July that it would move 27 top BLM officials to a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., while nearly 300 other D.C.-based staffers would head to existing offices elsewhere in the country.

"This plan is so radical that we question whether it was studied or analyzed by non-political budget analysts or organization experts and whether BLM senior management were involved or consulted," the group wrote to committee Chairwoman Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSinema touts bipartisan record as Arizona Democrats plan censure vote Kavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw McConnell lashes out at Democrats over 'unhinged' criticism of Kavanaugh MORE (R-Alaska) and ranking member Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSchumer: I don't know any 'Democrat who agrees' with O'Rourke on gun seizures O'Rourke: Many Democrats 'complicit' in gun problem The Hill's Morning Report - Pompeo condemns Iran for 'act of war' while Trump moves with caution MORE (D-W.Va.). 

Interior has argued the move will get high-level career staff closer to the lands they manage, which are primarily located in the West.

But critics say it will break up staff by spreading them across the country, keeping them away from the corridors of power in D.C. while putting them closer to energy interests.

"We believe this plan will result in BLM serving only the short-term wants of locally powerful stakeholders to the detriment of all other constituents and the long-term needs of public lands," the group said in its letter. 

Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment and neither did representatives for the committee.

The House Natural Resources Committee has already scheduled a hearing on the BLM move for September. 

If the move is carried out as planned, just 61 of BLM's roughly 10,000 employees would remain in Washington, D.C.

"They say they're trying to move decisions to the ground but most decisions are already made on the ground. Ninety-seven percent of employees are out in the field," Ed Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, told The Hill.

Read more here.

 

At USDA: Research agency cuts payments promised to researchers amid move to Kansas City: A union for employees at the research wings of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says the agency has reneged on payments promised to employees, rolling back assistance to those who will be forced out of the agency if they do not agree to move to the Kansas City area.

"Due to the volume of applications and in an effort to afford all employees who applied the opportunity to receive the incentive payment, the amount approved for all applicants has changed from $25,000 to $10,000," the USDA wrote on a form for employees applying for the assistance.

USDA announced in June that it would be moving its two research agencies to Kansas City.

Employees at both the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) unionized in the wake of the agency's relocation plans, and the USDA has been heavily criticized by lawmakers for the short timeline and chaos surrounding the decision.

Two-thirds of staff at the two agencies said they would face termination from the agency rather than uproot. 

Those departing employees were expecting buyouts of $25,000, only to learn from the USDA that they'd be reducing the payout in light of the number of employees fleeing the agency.

"Employees now have less than a week to decide whether to accept the reduced buyout, which also bars them for working at another federal agency for five years. Many of these employees have spent their careers devoted to agricultural research and furthering their agencies' missions, and they deserve to be treated better than this," American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement. "It's hard to imagine USDA management finding more ways to demoralize the workers at these two agencies, yet they continue to top themselves at every turn."

USDA did not agree with the union's contention that the payments were promised. The department is not required to offer Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIP) nor must the payments be a certain amount, a spokesperson said.

The agency attributed the change in the payment to an effort to make sure all employees would be able to get a payout.

"In keeping consistent with the Secretary's commitment to "Do Right" by our employees, the Department's priority was to offer a standard VSIP to every eligible employee who applied, instead of on a first come first serve basis," an agency spokesperson said in an email to The Hill. "The Department has made it a priority to treat all employees fairly and consistently, and offering VSIP to every employee who applied aligns with that commitment and ensures all eligible employees have access to available options."

Read more here.

 

CLIMATE ON THE FRONT BURNER: Wildfires have proliferated in the Amazon rainforest this year, producing fears about the impacts of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro's environmental policies and how the damage could contribute to climate change.

Brazil's space research center, the National Institute for Space Research INPE, released data this week showing that wildfires had reached a record high in the region. The center, which began tracking wildfires in 2013, said that the Amazon has experienced more than 74,000 wildfires so far this year, an 84 percent uptick over the same period in 2018.

The damage could be extremely detrimental to efforts to combat climate change. Home to millions of species of plants and animals, the Amazon rainforest is considered to be a crucial carbon store that mitigates the speed of warming climates.

An estimated 20 percent of the Earth's oxygen is produced in the region alone. While the Amazon rainforest encompasses several South American nations, the majority of it occupies Brazil.

Here's what's going on.

 

Meanwhile...

 

TRUMP PLANS TO SKIP UN CLIMATE SUMMIT, OFFICIALS SAY: President TrumpDonald John TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it MORE plans to skip the upcoming United Nations Climate Action Summit, according to three senior administration officials that spoke with McClatchy.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Trump officials formally revoke California emissions waiver | EPA's Wheeler dodges questions about targeting San Francisco over homelessness | 2020 Dems duke it out at second climate forum EPA head dodges questions about environmental action against San Francisco Yang floats nominating Inslee as 'climate czar' MORE will lead the U.S. delegation at the Sept. 23 summit, McClatchy reported Wednesday. 

"Administrator Wheeler will be participating in part of the Summit to highlight America's environmental progress," an EPA spokesperson confirmed to The Hill.

The agency directed specifics on who is leading the delegation to the State Department.

A State Department spokesperson was not immediately available for comment, but a department official had told McClatchy that "the United States is considering the nature of our participation at the UN Secretary General's Climate Summit."

It is also unclear whether Trump's new ambassador to the U.N., Kelly Craft, will participate.

One administration official told McClatchy the situation could change closer to the summit.

Whoever represents the U.S. will reportedly argue that the nation has made progress in reducing carbon dioxide emissions even though Trump withdrew the country from the Paris climate agreement and has taken countless steps toward deregulating the fossil fuel industry. 

Trump has long denied the human impact on climate change. 

Read the full story.

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY: 

-Walmart sues Tesla for solar panels that went up in flames, the Associated Press reports.

-Amazon burning: Brazil reports record forest fires, Reuters reports.

-Earth's future is being written in fast-melting Greenland, the Associated Press reports.

-California to build largest wildlife crossing in world, the Associated Press reports.

 

ICYMI: Stories from this week...

-NOAA expects 2019 to be one of five hottest years on record

-EPA walks back use of 'cyanide bombs' to protect livestock from wild animals

-Democratic AGs push back on EPA plan to limit review of pesticide impacts on endangered species

-EPA sued for allowing use of pesticide harmful to bees

-USDA cuts payments promised to researchers as agency uproots to Kansas City

-Harris to appear in CNN climate town hall after backlash

-Environmental groups sue Trump administration over Endangered Species Act changes

-Trump plans to skip UN climate summit, officials say

-Bureau of Land Management retirees fight plan to relocate agency out west

-Trump administration erases key environmental enforcement tool