Overnight Energy: New Interior rule would limit scientific studies agency can consider | Panel battles over tree-planting bill | Trump to resume coal leases on public lands

Overnight Energy: New Interior rule would limit scientific studies agency can consider | Panel battles over tree-planting bill | Trump to resume coal leases on public lands
© Greg Nash

OPEN SCIENCE STRIKES AGAIN: The Interior Department is pushing ahead with a controversial proposal that would prohibit the agency from considering scientific studies that don't make all of their underlying data public.

Critics argue that the move, described by the agency as an effort to increase transparency, would sideline landmark scientific research, particularly in cases where revealing such data would result in privacy violations.

The proposal, dubbed the Promoting Open Science rule, mirrors a similar effort at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which critics argue would block that agency from considering renowned public health studies.


Interior's effort first surfaced as an order in October 2018, but the agency is now attempting to cement it as a rule, forwarding a proposal in mid-February to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The text of the rule is not yet public, but if finalized, critics fear it could hamstring future administrations from broadly considering science. Efforts to roll back the rule, if implemented, could take years.

"It doesn't do anything to help transparency. It's designed to restrict the science the agency can use," said Andrew Rosenberg with the Union of Concerned Scientists, arguing the agency is caving to pressure from polluting industries.

 Interior currently must rely on a wide variety of scientific research when weighing decisions. For example, oil and gas companies seeking permits on public lands must ensure they can meet air quality standards. And the department has to evaluate any impact on endangered species.

Interior argued the new rule would give the public more insight into how the agency makes its decisions.

"The proposed rule will ensure the department bases its decisions on the best available science and provides the American people with enough information to thoughtfully and substantively evaluate the data, methodology and analysis used by the Department to inform its decisions," Interior spokesman Conner Swanson said in an email to The Hill on Tuesday.

But Rosenberg sees the rule as caving to industry.

"Is there some clamoring from the public, anyone other than by industry for this? The answer is almost certainly not," he said.

Rosenberg said that even if the public wanted to review the scientific studies the department relies on, they wouldn't need the underlying data, which sometimes contains personal data.

"Over my career, I've reviewed hundreds of studies and papers. You don't review the raw data, you review the basic methods and statistics and results and see if the results support any conclusions that were drawn," he said.

Restricting which studies Interior relies on could land the agency in legal trouble, tipping the scales in favor of environmental groups that have filed suits against the department over its moves during the Trump administration.

"When you're in court, science is what prevails," said Steve Ellis, who worked at Interior until 2016, holding the highest career-level post at the Bureau of Land Management.

Read more about the open science proposal here


HAPPY WEDNESDAY! Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill's roundup of the latest energy and environment news. Please send tips and comments to Rebecca Beitsch at rbeitsch@thehill.com. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccabeitsch. Reach Rachel Frazin at rfrazin@thehill.com or follow her on Twitter: @RachelFrazin. 


THE TREE PEOPLE: The House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday debated competing visions for tackling climate change: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and planting trees to capture carbon. 

The panel considered a bill sponsored by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) that aims to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions on public lands by 2040 and a bill by Rep. Bruce WestermanBruce Eugene Westerman51 organizations call on House panel to move on Puerto Rico statehood Interior recommends imposing higher costs for public lands drilling Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — What a leading biologist says will save humans MORE (R-Ark.), which seeks to plant trees to capture carbon. 

Grijalva, who chairs the panel, criticized Westerman's bill, saying it would not do enough to mitigate climate change. 

"We must not lose focus on what the science tells us we must do to stabilize global temperatures and avoid catastrophic impacts. This will require a lot more than planting new trees," he said.  "We must dramatically reduce greenhouse gases and get to net-zero emissions as rapidly as possible." 

Westerman defended his legislation, saying, "Every American can support planting a tree. If we can connect that action with sustainability and carbon storage, we are one big step closer to solving a complex problem."

Grijalva's bill, introduced late last year, would halt fossil fuel production on public lands for at least a year and set five-year targets the Interior Department must meet on the way to becoming net-zero.


The department would be prohibited from issuing new leases until it came into compliance with the targets.

Westerman's bill aims to set targets for increasing domestic wood growth and creating a sustainable building tax credit. It's part of a package put forth this month by several House Republicans.

Democrats joined their chairman in criticizing Westerman's bill.

"Any bill, no matter how well-intended, that does not respond to this crisis needs to be recognized as part of the problem," said Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanIn their own words: Lawmakers, staffers remember Jan. 6 insurrection Overnight Energy & Environment — Manchin raises hopes on climate spending Energy & Environment — Advocates look for Plan B climate legislation MORE (D-Calif.). "We should plant trees, we should perfect cross-laminated timber... but we should not call these 'climate solutions' if we are using these strategies to continue deforestation and continue developing and burning fossil fuel at a completely unacceptable and unsustainable pace."

Read more on the hearing here.


COAL GETS A NEW LEASE ON LIFE: The Trump administration announced on Wednesday that it will be resuming coal leasing on public lands, angering conservationists.


The Bureau of Land Management said in a statement Wednesday that it had completed an environmental assessment and found no significant impact from lifting the pause on processing applications for new coal leases.

"Under President TrumpDonald TrumpHeadaches intensify for Democrats in Florida Stormy Daniels set to testify against former lawyer Avenatti in fraud trial Cheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll MORE's leadership, the Department of the Interior has ended the war on American energy and coal, which allows local communities to prosper," said Casey Hammond, the acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management, in the statement.

"Coal is and will continue to be a critical part of our nation's energy portfolio and we are committed to the responsible development of our abundant resources and advancing American energy independence, jobs, and economic growth," Hammond added.

The administration first attempted to end an Obama-era ban on new coal leasing on public lands in 2017. A federal judge ruled last year that the Trump administration policy did not include sufficient assessments of mining's environmental impacts.

According to the administration, nearly 40 percent of the country's coal is produced on federal lands and coal produced on these lands supported more than 32,000 jobs in fiscal year 2018.

Environmentalists criticized the review, implying that it was not objective.

"The result of this environmental review was cooked from the start--the Trump administration tried to end the coal moratorium three years ago, but was so sloppy that a judge told them to try again," Jennifer Rokala, the executive director of The Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement.


Read more on the decision here.


BLACK LUNG TRUST FUND IN THE RED: A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Wednesday found significant shortcomings in the Labor Department's oversight of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, costing taxpayers $865 million, almost three times the previous estimate, reports The Hill's Emily DiSalvo.

The GAO report found that since 2014, three coal companies have shifted hundreds of millions in liabilities to the Trust Fund -- a cost that the Department of Labor was tasked with monitoring. In all three cases, the DOL failed to make sure the companies had sufficient collateral to cover what they owed to the trust fund, according to the report.

The GAO previously estimated the losses at between $313 million and $325 million. The trust fund is currently $5.8 billion in debt.

Coal mine operators are required by law to pay for medical care for workers who contract black lung disease. But as more and more coal companies go bankrupt, those costs fall on the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.


ABOUT THAT DEBATE: Among the broad criticism of CBS's handling of Tuesday's debate was irritation that the moderators did not ask a single question about climate change or the environment.

The debate was held in Charleston, S.C., a city that has been hit hard by recent hurricanes and regularly floods with ocean water.

"Moderators ask about a ban on sugary drinks but not about the environment or climate change when we are sitting at sea level. Come on," tweeted Rep. Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamMace chief of staff steps down during turbulent week Pediatrician unveils challenge to GOP's Mace in South Carolina 'Blue wave' Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection MORE (D-S.C.).

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezMan who threatened to kill Ocasio-Cortez, Pelosi pleads guilty to federal charges These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Missouri House Democrat becomes latest to test positive for COVID-19 MORE (D-N.Y.), one of the sponsors of the Green New Deal, called the lack of questions "horrifying."

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) fought attempts from environmental groups and some candidates to host a debate dedicated to climate change.

"The @DNC told us: 'We're going to talk about climate change early, often, and in depth. We're still waiting," tweeted Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWhat if politicians were required to tell the truth? New Washington secretary of state orders staffers to be vaccinated Conservative Washington state lawmaker dies after positive COVID-19 test MORE (D), one former 2020 contender that pushed for such a debate.



The House Appropriations Committee will review the Forest Service budget and the Department of Energy budget, where Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette will testify

Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerVirginia exits multi-state coalition backing EPA in climate lawsuit Overnight Energy & Environment — Lummis holds up Biden EPA picks 150 ex-EPA staffers ask Virginia lawmakers to oppose Wheeler nomination MORE will sit down with the House Energy and Commerce Committee as they review his budget.

And the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on sexual harassment at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.



Columbia Gas of Massachusetts agrees to plead guilty to violating Pipeline Safety Act after Merrimack Valley explosions that killed one, injured others, MassLive reports.

Trump promised more water to California farmers. But dry weather gets in the way, The Sacramento Bee reports.

Could the Trump administration block congestion pricing in New York? The New York Times asks.

Maryland bill aims to transition state away from coal, the Associated Press reports. 


ICYMI: Stories from Wednesday...

BP withdraws from industry groups, citing climate disagreements

Trump administration freezes funding for study of hurricane barriers: report

EPA is conducting multiple criminal probes tied to 'forever chemicals'

New Interior rule would limit which scientific studies agency can consider

Panel battles over tree-planting legislation