Overnight Energy & Environment

OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court cancels shutdown of Dakota Access Pipeline | US could avoid 4.5M early deaths by fighting climate change, study finds | Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic

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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 or follow her on Twitter: @rebeccabeitsch. Reach Rachel Frazin at rfrazin@thehill.com or follow her on Twitter: @RachelFrazin.

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PIPELINE TO KEEP ON KEEPING ON: A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday reversed a lower court’s determination that the Dakota Access Pipeline should be temporarily shut down.

U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg had ordered the pipeline to be shut down last month while the Army Corps of Engineers works to prepare an environmental impact statement for a rule relaxation that allowed it to cross the Missouri River. That followed a prior ruling in which Boasberg determined that a previous environmental assessment was inadequate. 

However, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled Wednesday that the lower court did not have the “findings necessary” for such a move.

Still, Wednesday’s ruling was not entirely a win for backers of the Dakota Access Pipeline, with the appeals court declining to halt the prior ruling saying the Army Corps of Engineers needed to conduct another environmental impacts assessment. 

“Appellants have failed to make a strong showing of likely success on their claims that the district court erred in directing the Corps to prepare an environmental impact statement,” the judges said Wednesday.

Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman, who sued over the pipeline on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said in a statement that the split decision now leaves the pipeline “operating illegally” since a permit for it has been vacated, but it’s also continuing to transport oil. 

A news release from Hasselman’s group says that it’s now up to the Army Corps of Engineers to decide whether to shut down the pipeline and if it doesn’t do so, the matter will return to the lower court. 

“We’ve been in this legal battle for four years, and we aren’t giving up this fight,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Mike Faith said in the statement. “As the environmental review process gets underway in the months ahead, we look forward to showing why the Dakota Access Pipeline is too dangerous to operate.”

The oil and gas industry expressed mixed feelings over the latest ruling.

“The Court rightly stayed the decision to shut down and empty the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has been operating for over three years and provides millions of tax dollars to states, affordable energy to the entire region, and thousands of jobs along its route,” Paul Afonso, American Petroleum Institute senior vice president and chief legal officer, said in a statement.

“However, the failure to uphold the easement granted years ago by the federal government exemplifies the problems with our outdated permitting system, which allows protracted challenges to advance within the courts and ultimately take away jobs, tax dollars, and investments that pipelines bring to communities that sorely need them,” he added.

Read more about the decision here.


CLIMATE RISKS: The U.S. stands to avoid 4.5 million premature deaths if it works to keep global temperatures from rising by more than 2 degree Celsius, according to new research from Duke University.

The same study found working to limit climate change could prevent about 3.5 million hospitalizations and emergency room visits and approximately 300 million lost workdays in America.

“The avoided deaths are valued at more than $37 trillion. The avoided health care spending due to reduced hospitalizations and emergency room visits exceeds $37 billion, and the increased labor productivity is valued at more than $75 billion,” Drew Shindell, a professor at Duke University, told lawmakers Wednesday. 

“On average, this amounts to over $700 billion per year in benefits to the U.S. from improved health and labor alone, far more than the cost of the energy transition,” he added.

Shindell, who conducted the study alongside researchers at NASA, unveiled the findings during a House Oversight Committee hearing on the economic and health consequences of climate change. 

The study aimed to show the benefits to the U.S. if the nation sticks with the goal of the Paris Climate Accord, which President Trump has formally moved to leave. The U.S. cannot officially exit the agreement until Nov. 4 — the day after the presidential election.

Shindell encouraged committee members to transition away from fossil fuels, a move that would help ease climate change while also spurring health benefits from reduced air pollution.

The benefits could be seen in the relatively short term.

“Roughly 1.4 million lives could be saved from improved air quality during the next 20 years. As we’ve seen with the coronavirus lockdowns in many places, air pollution responds immediately to emissions reductions,” he said. 

Democrats have introduced a number of bills to combat climate change, but they’ve failed to get much traction.

The House passed a $1.5 trillion green infrastructure package in July, but the Republican-led Senate isn’t expected to take it up.

Just one day earlier, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis unveiled its road map for solving the climate crisis.

Read more about the study here.


CYBER THREATS: Senators and other energy sector officials warned Wednesday that foreign adversaries are continuing to target the U.S. electric grid, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored the dangers.

“The threat of cyberattacks by foreign adversaries and other sophisticated entities is real and it’s growing,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Wednesday during a committee hearing on cyber threats to the grid. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created a unique opportunity for cyber criminals to attack our networks, including critical energy infrastructure.”

Murkowski pointed to concerns over Russian targeting of the Ukrainian power grid in 2015, and to recently announced indictments by the Department of Justice against two Chinese hackers for targeting a wide range of groups including a Department of Energy site. 

“We all know the stakes here,” Murkowski said. “A successful hack could shut down power, impacting hospitals, banks, gas pumps, military installations and cell phone service. The consequences would be widespread and devastating, and only more so if we are in the midst of a global pandemic.” 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), the ranking member of the committee, warned during the same hearing that “threats to federal infrastructure are serious and increasing daily.”

“The COVID-19 crisis has made our nation and the world acutely aware of the consequences of being underprepared for a catastrophic event,” Manchin said. “The pandemic has forced the energy industry to adapt to new challenges and vulnerabilities with more employees working remotely.”

The senators’ concerns came on the heels of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issuing an alert in July warning that foreign hackers were zeroing in on critical infrastructure through targeting internet-connected operational technology (OT) assets.

“Due to the increase in adversary capabilities and activity, the criticality to U.S. national security and way of life, and the vulnerability of OT systems, civilian infrastructure makes attractive targets for foreign powers attempting to do harm to US interests or retaliate for perceived US aggression,” the agencies wrote in the alert. 

But this also isn’t brand new…

Former Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats warned in the 2019 Worldwide Threats Assessment that Russia, China and Iran all had the capabilities to launch cyberattacks that “cause localized, temporary disruptive effects on critical infrastructure.”

The Cyberspace Solarium Commission (CSC) – a congressionally-established group composed of federal officials, members of Congress and industry leaders – put out recommendations earlier this year for defending the U.S. in cyberspace and preventing a crippling nationwide cyberattack, such as one on the energy sector. 

CSC Co-Chair Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) testified Wednesday that the pandemic had taught the nation that “the unthinkable can happen.”

“A significant cyberattack is not unthinkable, we know that it is being planned, and we know that it is happening today,” King said. “I spoke recently to a utility sector executive who told me his system is attacked 3 million times a day, now, today, so this is not an abstract issue, this is something that we have to address.”

Read more about the risks here.


MAILBAG: More than two dozen Republican House members are pushing leaders on both sides of the aisle to maintain assistance for critical minerals in the latest coronavirus stimulus package.

The Senate version rolled out last week includes legislation from Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) that helps streamline mining of minerals necessary for numerous technologies.

“As the House and Senate work to develop consensus on COVID-19 response and recovery legislation, we urge your support for the inclusion of these provisions to begin to reduce the United States’ dependence on foreign minerals,” lawmakers wrote in a letter spearheaded by Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Committee on Science. 

The letter is the latest reminder of the unclear path for energy subsidies in any stimulus package. Aid for renewables has been left out of previous packages, as has direct aid for oil companies.

Critical minerals could be a more bipartisan effort, but Democrats may balk at efforts to boost mining.

Republicans maintain the U.S. needs to ensure minerals, which are used in batteries and some healthcare devices, do not come from foreign adversaries. 



California utilities regulator claims she’s being ousted after whistle-blowing, The San Francisco Chronicle reports

How a public institute in Oregon became a de facto lobbying arm of the timber industry, explains ProPublica, The Oregonian and Oregon Public Broadcasting

Utility company pleads not guilty to bribery scheme despite admissions made in government deal, The Chicago Sun-Times reports


ICYMI: Stories from Wednesday…

Forecasters predicting ‘extremely active’ hurricane season

Contractor at nuclear regulatory office tests positive for coronavirus

Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic

Court cancels shutdown of Dakota Access Pipeline

US could avoid 4.5M early deaths by fighting climate change, study finds 

Tags Angus King Donald Trump Joe Manchin Lisa Murkowski

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