Overnight Energy: Coronavirus package punts on environmental fights | Court sides with tribes in Dakota Access Pipeline case | Trump officials walk away from ethanol court fight

Overnight Energy: Coronavirus package punts on environmental fights | Court sides with tribes in Dakota Access Pipeline case | Trump officials walk away from ethanol court fight
© Greg Nash

A COMPROMISE: The Senate is positioned to move ahead with a coronavirus emergency aid package free of controversial efforts to bolster the oil industry or measures to reduce the carbon footprint of the airline industry that threatened to spark protests on both sides of the aisle.

Summaries of the historic $2 trillion legislation show there is no "$3 billion bailout for big oil," in the words of Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Top intelligence officials to brief Gang of Eight on Thursday Over 1700 veterans ask Senate to pass statehood bill MORE (D-N.Y.), and it does not require airlines to go carbon neutral with domestic flights by 2025.

Environmental measures were a sticking point for lawmakers in both parties, with Republicans repeatedly comparing certain Democratic proposals as being akin to the Green New Deal.

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The oil purchase fight:

Various Democrats had penned letters expressing their opposition to any oil industry bailouts, arguing a public health crisis shouldn't be used to contribute to climate change.

The omission of $3 billion to purchase oil is a significant blow to the Trump administration, which earlier this month had expressed confidence Congress would provide the full funding needed to fill the nation's petroleum reserves.

"It is a common sense move. Everyone who has done any version of investing knows you try to buy low and sell high," Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said on a call with reporters last week in announcing the department's plan to buy 30 million barrels of oil.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE's directive to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve "right up to the top," would max out at 77 million barrels.

The Department of Energy did not respond to questions from The Hill as to whether the 30 million barrel purchase would continue.

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The oil industry, which has been hit hard by falling prices, would still be eligible to participate in a $500 billion corporate assistance program that's part of the overall package.

Democrats initially warned that the program could easily turn into a "slush fund," but the measure now includes provisions for stricter oversight, namely a Senate-approved inspector general.

 

The airline emissions fight:

Also absent from the Senate bill were proposals from Monday's $2.5 trillion House bill that sought commitments from the airline industry to reduce their emissions in exchange for taxpayer funds.

Democrats had argued that the $25 billion for passenger airlines, as well as the $4 billion for cargo carriers, needed to come with strings attached, much like the auto industry bailout from the Great Recession was followed by regulations increasing fuel economy.

"Airlines that want public support should live public values," Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats warn Biden against releasing SCOTUS list Key Democrat accuses Labor head of 'misleading' testimony on jobless benefits Sheldon Whitehouse leads Democrats into battle against Trump judiciary MORE (D-R.I.) tweeted last week when pushing for environmental guardrails.

The House version would have required airlines to post emissions from flights alongside prices and set binding targets to reduce emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. It also would have initiated a government program to buy older, less efficient places from airlines.

Senate Republicans blasted the possibility of including emissions standards in an emergency coronavirus aid package.

"Emissions standards? What's that got to do with the virus? Nothing," Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenate rejects Paul proposal on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan Liberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP McConnell: Trump shouldn't veto defense bill over renaming Confederate bases MORE (R-Okla.) said on the floor Monday.

Instead, the package helps secure airline industry jobs and prevents companies from stock buybacks while relying on federal funds, plus an additional year.

Read more about the stimulus 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.

 

PIPE DOWN: The controversial Dakota Access Pipeline hit another roadblock Wednesday when a federal judge struck down permits for the pipeline and ordered a full workup of the environmental impacts of the project.

North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had sued over the project with protestors from around the country coming to rally against pipeline construction that would travel across native lands and cross the Missouri River.

The U.S. District Court for the D.C. Circuit sided with the tribe, ordering the Army Corps of Engineers, which granted the permits for the project, to do a full environmental impact statement. In the next phase of the case, a judge will weigh whether the pipeline should be shut down while the case continues.

"After years of commitment to defending our water and earth, we welcome this news of a significant legal win," Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Mike Faith said in a statement. "It's humbling to see how actions we took four years ago to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices ultimately affect this planet."

President Trump signed an executive order to expedite construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline during his first week in office.

 

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So why did the judge rule against the pipeline?

Judge James Boasberg, an Obama appointee, said the environmental analysis by both the companies behind the pipeline and the Corps was severely lacking.

"In projects of this scope, it is not difficult for an opponent to find fault with many conclusions made by an operator and relied on by the agency," he wrote in the 42-page decision. "But here, there is considerably more than a few isolated comments raising insubstantial concerns.

"The many commenters in this case pointed to serious gaps in crucial parts of the Corps' analysis -- to name a few, that the pipeline's leak-detection system was unlikely to work, that it was not designed to catch slow spills, that the operator's serious history of incidents had not been taken into account, and that the worst-case scenario used by the Corps was potentially only a fraction of what a realistic figure would be," he continued.

The 1,200-mile pipeline carries oil from North Dakota to Illinois. It became a rallying point for many environmental groups as the Standing Rock tribe voiced concerns that leaks from the pipeline could poison their water sources.

The environmental impact statement required by the court is more thorough than the environmental assessment the Corps completed earlier and could take years to complete.

Energy Transfer Partners, which operates the pipeline, did not immediately respond to request for comment, nor did the Army Corps of Engineers.

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But Grow America's Infrastructure Now, which advocates for pipeline development, said the decision could stymie investment in such projects.

"This is a stunning decision that flies in the face of decades of widely accepted practice. The Dakota Access Pipeline is already the most studied, regulated, and litigated pipeline in the history of our country and has been safely operating for nearly three years," the group said in a release.

"These companies that invest and support large scale infrastructure projects want certainty from the government; and those who built and now operate the pipeline followed every applicable local, state, and federal rule – but now a court is putting their work in potential peril."

The decision comes as the Trump administration is rapidly moving ahead with plans to roll back the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the law Judge Boasberg relied on in his decision. The law requires thorough environmental review of projects like pipelines. 

Read more about the court ruling here

 

REFINED DISTASTE: The Trump administration has walked away from a chance to appeal a court decision on its refinery waiver program, delivering a win to ethanol producers while angering oil refiners.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) program, which grants economic hardship waivers to small oil refineries that are otherwise required to blend ethanol into their supply, shortcut national goals for ethanol use. 

The Trump administration had previously asked for a two-week extension to file an appeal to the case, but ultimately filed nothing before the midnight Tuesday deadline. 

"It is astonishing that President Trump has abandoned our country's small refinery workers and the communities that rely on these critical facilities in this time of national crisis and economic uncertainty," the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, which represents oil refineries, said in a statement. 

The tension between the oil industry and ethanol producers has been a continually tricky issue for Trump, who views both as part of his base. But farm groups, particularly in corn-heavy bellwether Iowa, had made it increasingly clear Trump was at risk of losing their vote.

The waiver program has grown drastically under the Trump administration. The Obama administration issued 10 hardship waivers over eight years, while Trump officials have issued more than 80 in his first term. 

Ethanol producers sued over three waivers, prompting a January decision from a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit forcing the EPA to reconsider.

Though the Trump administration did not appeal the decision, refiners have appealed in the hopes of hearing the case before the full circuit.

Read more about the decision here

 

GOING VIRAL: Visitors are flooding national parks, leading to worries that the areas could become breeding grounds for the coronavirus. 

National parks have seen a surge in visitors as they have dropped entry fees, and as people have stayed home from work and school as a result of social distancing policies meant to get the virus's spread under control.

But the rush to the parks, which some have compared to busy summer seasons, has prompted new concerns about the spread of the virus while creating serious problems for the parks themselves.

Last week, a double line of cars could be seen entering Arches National Park in Utah. It extended for at least a quarter-mile from the park's entrance, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. 

Thousands of visitors descended upon Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, local reports said. The park said in a tweet that Saturday's visitors hadn't followed social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

In Washington D.C., the NPS urged people to stay away from the Tidal Basin after large groups of people attempted to view flowering cherry blossom trees. 

The flood of visitors came at the invitation of the Trump administration, which in waiving entrance feels last week at parks that remained open said it would  make it "a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks." 

 

So... what do experts think?

The CDC advises that people should avoid being in close contact with each other in communities where the virus is spreading.

"People want to be able to get out and exercise and have some fresh air, but when they congregate together it poses a risk of spreading the virus," said Matthew Freeman, an associate professor of environmental health and epidemiology at Emory University.

Freeman particularly raised concerns about people who are traveling out of state to go to national parks and spreading the virus across state lines. 

"New York, Washington state, California have taken aggressive steps to try to contain the local outbreak, but people are leaving those outbreaks to go to places with less restrictive guidance which means that you may see the virus hotspots moving from some of these areas to areas where the guidance is more lax," he said. 

 

And parks advocates?

Phil Francis, the chairman of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, raised concerns that high parks attendance could pose risks to visitors, employees and neighboring communities. 

Francis, who is also the former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said national parks should have been "totally closed unless the superintendents could justify their opening." 

Some parks, such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Great Smoky Mountains, have closed due to coronavirus concerns. But according to the National Park Service, more than 300 are at least partly open. 

"I'm receiving calls from park workers who are concerned about their health and the health of their coworkers," Francis said. 

He added that people flocking to these sites during the offseason may catch parks off guard and understaffed. 

"This time of year is not the time of year when parks have all their employees on board. The busy summer season is usually when the parks are their most crowded and many parks rely upon seasonal maintenance employees," he said, adding that this creates problems with "garbage and vandalism.

NPS told The Hill in a statement this week that decisions to change operations are being made on a "park-by-park basis by the respective superintendent, using the most current guidance from state and local health authorities."

Read more about the issue here.

 

EMINENTLY QUOTABLE: "The Trump EPA's rollbacks have direct, dire consequences for Americans' health. During this global pandemic, EPA must do the right thing and extend its comment periods to give our health experts time to review @EPA's proposals," Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) tweeted. 

Advocacy groups have been pushing back on 'business as usual' at agencies during the coronavirus outbreak. 

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

Coal miners told to keep working during the outbreak despite close quarters, damaged lungs, The Washington Post reports

Coronavirus Throws EU Climate Plans Into Disarray, Forbes reports

Iconic plant's end spells doom for struggling coal industry, The Associated Press reports

 

ICYMI: News from Wednesday…

Trump administration walks away from ethanol court battle, angering oil refiners

Court sides with tribes in Dakota Access Pipeline case, ordering full environmental review

Social-distancing visitors flood national parks, creating new coronavirus concern

Democrat calls on EPA to withdraw 'secret science' rule

Coronavirus package punts on environmental fights