Overnight Energy & Environment

Overnight Energy & Environment — Court nixes offshore drilling leases

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Welcome to Friday’s Overnight Energy & Environment, your source for the latest news focused on energy, the environment and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup. 

Today we’re looking at a ruling against the Biden administration’s offshore lease sale, how past toxics cases inform current PFAS litigation, and joint assurances from the White House and the European Union on the Ukraine standoff. 

For The Hill, we’re Rachel Frazin and Zack Budryk. Write to us with tips: rfrazin@thehill.com and zbudryk@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @RachelFrazin and @BudrykZack. 

Let’s jump in. 

Court axes drilling leases from November sale 

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., just nixed offshore drilling leases issued by the Biden administration last year.  

Obama appointee Rudolph Contreras vacated both the decision to hold the lease sale, which was issued by the Trump administration, and “the action taken based on that Record of Decision,” including the sale itself, which was held in November.  

The judge returned the sale, known as Lease Sale 257, back to the Interior Department for further proceedings. 

He took issue with underlying Trump-era calculations behind the decision, saying the department “arbitrarily” excluded the impacts the sale would have on foreign energy consumption when calculating its potential contributions to climate change.  

The Biden administration last year originally issued a temporary pause on all new oil and gas lease sales, but held the sale in question after the pause was held up in court in June. 

In a statement, Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said that the department had been forced to carry out the lease sale because of the June decision.  

“To comply with the injunction imposed in the District Court of Louisiana litigation we were compelled to proceed with Lease Sale 257 based on the previous administration’s environmental analysis and its decision to approve the lease sale,” Schwartz said. “We are reviewing the Court’s decision concerning deficiencies in that record.” 

She also noted that, in a recent review, the department found “serious deficiencies” in the federal oil and gas program.  

Though the sale offered up as many as 80 million acres for lease, companies purchased the rights to drill on 1.7 million acres.  

Despite the June court ruling, some sale opponents argued that the Biden administration should have modified it or waited for the results of an appeal. 

Read more about the latest decision here.

THE LATEST ON UKRAINE, RUSSIA AND ENERGY

The United States is working with the European Union to prevent any energy supply disruption resulting from the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, President Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a joint statement Friday.  

Biden and von der Leyen said the U.S., which is the top supplier of liquified natural gas to the European Union, is working with the EU to circumvent any “supply shock” amid the Ukraine-Russia standoff. 

“We are collaborating with governments and market operators on supply of additional volumes of natural gas to Europe from diverse sources across the globe. [Liquefied natural gas (LNG)] in the short-term can enhance security of supply while we continue to enable the transition to net zero emissions,” the statement reads. “The European Commission will work for improved transparency and utilization of LNG terminals in the EU.” 

The two leaders also said they remain committed to integrating Ukraine’s gas and electricity supply into the EU’s markets as the U.S. and EU work toward their respective goals on transitioning to renewable energy. 

So what else has the U.S. been up to? An official previously said it is working closely with other nations and energy companies for a “contingency plan” in case of a Russian invasion that hurts natural gas infrastructure. 

“We’re working with countries and companies around the world to ensure the security of supply, to mitigate against price shocks affecting both the American people and the global economy,” a senior administration official said Tuesday. 

Russia is the source of more than 40 percent of European natural gas, much of which flows through Ukraine. 

Read more about the remarks here.  

Past toxics cases set the stage for PFAS suits 

Jorg Halaby, left with Erin Brockovich and youngest getting ready to leave Hinkley for the day, early 1990s. 

This story is part of the final installment of The Hill’s “Forever: a fractured legal system confronts chemicals here to say” series. Read the first three stories here, here and here.  

When Erin Brockovich was already knee-deep into investigating a chromium-six contamination case plaguing the Californian desert town of Hinkley, her boss Ed Masry warned her that he had run into a problem.  

“He pulled me into the law library one day and just said he didn’t think we could go forward,” Brockovich told The Hill. “I was stunned. And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Well, there’s a statute of limitations.’” 

A statute of limitations — or a law that prohibits legal claims after a prescribed period passes following the harm — can be a decisive factor when it comes to trying, or even taking on, a toxic exposure lawsuit. These restrictions, which vary in length and detail from state to state, are today playing a role in the litigation emerging following community exposure to “forever chemicals,” or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).  

But these statutes have long been a central player in other toxic exposure cases — making an appearance both in Brockovich’s real life and the Hollywood blockbuster film based on it starring Julia Roberts.   

Brockovich, who was working as a legal aide for Masry in the 1990s, said she had already spent many months interviewing people, going to the California Water Board, gathering documents and investigating Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) chromium-six contamination that was making Hinkley residents sick.  

Because building the case was expensive, Brockovich explained, Masry was looking for a partner — but he had trouble finding anyone to join them due to California’s strict one-year statute of limitations. PG&E had argued that it had warned residents about its total chromium use more than a year before, meaning that the statute of limitations would have already run its course.  

“And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s disappointing, Ed,’” Brockovich said. “‘So I’m sitting here in your law library — how did all these laws, these supposed statutes, even come to be? Because somebody challenged it? Somebody created it? Somebody changed what was already on the books? So you’re just status quo, it is what it is. Based on everything you’re saying, it’s not even something challengeable.’ And that’s when Ed kind of sat back and said, ‘You’re right.'”  

Ultimately, Masry, who died in 2005, decided to proceed with the argument that time hadn’t run out because PG&E hadn’t warned residents about the specific type of chromium causing the contamination, Brockovich explained. 

Toxic exposure cases present unique difficulties that would not come about from, say, a lawsuit regarding an automobile accident.  

Vehicle collision cases typically involve a precise incident and diagnosis, whereas the root cause of an injury is much more difficult to prove in toxic exposure scenarios, according to Kevin Hannon, the Denver-based head of toxics and environmental litigation for the nationwide Morgan and Morgan Law Firm and the founder of The Hannon Law Firm.  

But, in other types of cases, like medical malpractice, sometimes when the clock should start running isn’t totally clear.  

If, say, a surgeon accidentally left a sponge inside a patient, Hannon said, lawyers could spar over whether the statute of limitations is triggered on the date the sponge was left in the patient, the date the patient first started experiencing pain or the date someone discovers the missing sponge.  

And, he said, toxic exposure cases may be even more complicated.  

Hannon drew several parallels to other types of toxic exposures, noting that, for instance, it may take years for early childhood lead exposure to manifest difficulties in school.  

And when illnesses or disabilities can take years to develop, the short length of statutes of limitations in many states can make starting the clock particularly complicated.  

Read more here about some of the specific cases that may provide a window into how PFAS litigation will play out.

 

PROGRESSIVES PRESS ON PENTAGON EMISSIONS

More than two dozen congressional Democrats are calling on President Biden to change federal sustainability executive order to include the military, which is a major source of planet-warming emissions.  

In a new letter on Friday, led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), the lawmakers said the military exemptions should be removed given its sizable contribution to climate change.  

“In light of your commitment to a ‘government-wide approach’ to tackling the climate crisis, we encourage you to remove defense-related exemptions from your executive order on federal sustainability,” they said. “We also request that you provide a list of any broad exemptions that have already been requested and granted under the existing framework. 

ON TAP NEXT WEEK

On Wednesday: 

  • The House Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing on Farm Bill conservation programs  
  • The House Select Climate Crisis Committee will hold a hearing on U.S. manufacturing and climate solutions 
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on recycling and composting   
  • The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on a series of parks and trails-related bills 

On Thursday: 

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the following Biden nominees: Laura Daniel-Davis, to be Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, Maria Robinson to lead the Energy Department’s Office of Electricity and Joseph DeCarolis to lead the Energy Information Administration

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • For the First Time, a Harvard Study Links Air Pollution From Fracking to Early Deaths Among Nearby Residents (Inside Climate News) 

  • White House acting regulations director to depart (E&E News) 

  • Australia PM promises $700 million more to protect Great Barrier Reef (Reuters) 

  • Environmental groups aren’t pushing Supreme Court picks. Here’s why. (The Washington Post)

And finally, something offbeat and off-beat: The White House cat has arrived!

 

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s energy & environment page for the latest news and coverage. We’ll see you Monday. 

Tags Ed Markey Joe Biden Mondaire Jones

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