OVERNIGHT ENERGY: National Parks head's exit sparks concerns over replacement | Interior chief's former client among firms that secured COVID-19 relief | Proposal would ease royalty calculations for public lands drilling

OVERNIGHT ENERGY: National Parks head's exit sparks concerns over replacement | Interior chief's former client among firms that secured COVID-19 relief | Proposal would ease royalty calculations for public lands drilling
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VELA OUT AT NPS: Acting National Park Service (NPS) Director David Vela is retiring, he announced Friday, leaving the job amid a lawsuit challenging the legality of his tenure.

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Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) acting director Margaret Everson, a former Ducks Unlimited lobbyist who also worked at Interior under the George W. Bush administration, will take over Vela’s role.

Vela is leaving in September after 30 years of service with NPS. The first Latino to rise to the highest ranks of NPS, he was well-liked by some conservation groups because of his experience within the department.

But after initially being nominated by President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE to serve as NPS director, his nomination languished and he was never confirmed.

Vela has served as acting director of NPS through a series of temporary orders — the same method Bernhardt used to place Everson in the role — which is being challenged in a lawsuit.

“I’m a little surprised there's been a change and concerned too that we no longer have a career National Park Service employee in place to represent the men and women of National Park Service and its values,” said Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks who himself worked for NPS for 41 years before retiring.

Francis said he doesn’t know Everson but worries about the direction of NPS under the Trump administration, including the weakening of some hunting regulations, a suite of environmental regulations and efforts to give private companies more of a say in the management of parks.

“Privatizing campgrounds, changing franchise fee arrangements, rolling back [the National Environmental Policy Act] and air quality regulations, no emphasis on global climate change, not filling positions in a timely and permanent way,” Francis said. “There is a long list of issues that this administration has created and it all appears to be not so much to make the Park Service better or to protect parks but an effort to politicize the agency and to re-elect the president.”

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Bernhardt thanked Vela for his service, saying, “he has always been committed to the mission of the National Park Service.” He called Everson “a great leader who will provide a steady hand as this transition takes place.”

The release from Interior describes Everson as a counselor to Bernhardt “supporting the NPS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service” in addition to serving as principal deputy director of FWS, the highest ranking post in the agency as its director role remains vacant.

The number of vacancies in Interior’s highest ranks, as well as the temporary orders used to keep various agencies running, has long been a sticking point with conservation and watchdog groups.

Read more on those legal issues here

WHAT A RELIEF: A former industry client of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was able to secure significant relief from a government agency at a time when oil prices hit historic lows during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since April 1, the federal government has allowed Samson Resources to hit pause on at least 51 drilling leases belonging, at least in part, to the oil and gas company. Drilling operators can request suspended leases when oil and gas prices are low, allowing them to resume operations when the market is more favorable.

The Samson lease suspensions were granted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is overseen by the Interior Department. The BLM says it has evaluated requests for lease suspensions on a case-by-case basis since the start of the pandemic.

The agency granted other lease suspensions during that period, but the ones approved for Samson accounted for about one-eighth of the total amount. The suspended leases were first identified by the progressive Western Values Project and verified by The Hill.

“For most things that we’ve tracked in the Trump administration, things don’t happen by chance,” said Western Values Project Director Jayson O’Neill.

“We’ve seen time and time again in this administration and particularly in the Interior Department, run by a former lobbyist, that that former lobbyist’s clients tend to get favorable treatment,” O'Neill added.

An Interior Department spokesperson said all companies applying for lease suspensions are treated equally, with no special considerations.

“Entities with leases sometimes request suspensions. Any company is free to submit an application and all companies are subject to the same standards, reviewed by State-level BLM career employees. Nothing else is relevant to that determination,” spokesperson Conner Swanson said in an email.

At the start of the pandemic, decreased demand for oil combined with international disputes led to a historic plunge in prices, which dropped at one point to negative $40 per barrel, meaning people were being paid to take possession of the commodity.

Since then, prices have somewhat rebounded, coming in around $41 a barrel Friday afternoon.

When the oil market appeared to be in free fall, congressional Republicans called on the Interior Department to provide relief to producers by reducing the royalties paid by companies that drill on federally owned land.

The Trump administration said in April it would not provide blanket relief, but would instead use “long-standing regulatory tools” like allowing producers to apply for royalty relief or a lease suspension.

The BLM approved the majority of applications, including suspensions for 422 leases and royalty rate cuts on 471 leases from April through July.

Operators applied for suspensions on 517 leases and cuts on 618 leases.

Read more about efforts to boost the industry here

PULL OUT YOUR CALCULATORS: The Interior Department on Friday proposed a new rule that would allow oil and gas companies to pay less money to the government in exchange for producing energy on public lands by changing how these royalties are calculated. 

The proposal would allow oil and gas companies to deduct more for transportation and processing costs from the fees they pay. 

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It would also use an average weekly benchmark price for the commodities rather than the highest weekly benchmark prices to assess royalty payments for certain sales. 

Proponents say this will ease burdens on regulated industries and promote energy independence. 

“This proposal provides regulatory certainty and clarity to States, Tribes and stakeholders, removing unnecessary and burdensome regulations for domestic energy production,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement. 

Opponents argue that the changes unfairly let companies pay less money they owe to the taxpayers. 

“David Bernhardt all along has had one job to do and that is to give as many handouts as possible to his former clients in the oil and gas industry,” said Aaron Weiss, the deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities. 

The proposed rule would lessen royalties paid by some oil companies by allowing them to ask the government for transportation cost allowances that exceed the current cap of 50 percent of the oil’s royalty value. 

It would also let some gas companies pay fewer fees by permitting them to ask the government for processing cost allowances that exceed the current cap of 66-and-two-thirds percent. 

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This part of the proposal mirrors changes requested by oil lobbying group the American Petroleum Institute (API) last year. 

In a letter to department Assistant Secretary Susan Combs, API senior policy advisor Emily Hague wrote that Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) limits on deductions companies are allowed to take were arbitrary. 

“Without the ability to report an allowance above 50% and 66.66% respectively, ONRR is left with the task of devising a way for industry to report the sales with no value on their system,” she wrote. 

Read more about the proposed changes to the royalty calculations here

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

This giant climate hot spot is robbing the West of its water, The Washington Post reports

‘Super-pollutant’ emitted by 11 Chinese chemical plants could equal a climate datastrophe, InsideClimate News reports

Canada's last intact Arctic ice shelf has collapsed, USA Today reports

Problems plagued CO2 capture project before shutdown, Reuters reports

ICYMI: Stories from Friday (and Thursday night)...

EPA, employee union sign contract after years of disputes

Italian resort evacuates due to glacier melting

National Parks chief exit sparks concerns over replacement

Interior chief's former client among firms that secured COVID-19 relief

Interior proposes easing royalty calculations for public lands drilling