Overnight Energy & Environment

Overnight Energy & Environment — Southwest sees worst drought in a millennium

Ethan Swope/ AP
A kayaker fishes in Lake Oroville as water levels remain low due to continuing drought conditions in Oroville, Calif., on Aug. 22, 2021. 

Welcome to Monday’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 the American Southwest’s worst “megadrought” in over 1,000 years, reforms at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a probe into a methane cloud visible from space.

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.


Megadrought worst in 1,200 years: study 

Dry and cracked soil near an irrigation ditch

The extreme weather conditions that have desiccated North America’s Southwest over the past 22 years have now become the region’s driest “megadrought” since the year 800, a new study has found. 

The ongoing megadrought has supplanted the previous record-holder: a late-16th century dry spell previously considered the worst such drought in the past 1,200 years, according to the study, published on Monday in Nature Climate Change.

What they’re saying: The study’s authors in large part attributed the severity of the current megadrought — defined as a drought lasting two decades or more — to human-induced climate change. 

“Without climate change, the past 22 years would have probably still been the driest period in 300 years,” Park Williams, lead author and a geographer at UCLA, said in a statement. 

“But it wouldn’t be holding a candle to the megadroughts of the 1500s, 1200s or 1100s,” he added. 

The scientists focused on the area from southern Montana to northern Mexico, from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains — finding repeat megadrought periods from 800 through 1600 that exceeded any subsequent event in severity through the 1900s. 

How did they reach the conclusion? To pinpoint particularly severe stretches of drought, the authors analyzed tree ring patterns — which reveal critical information about annual soil moisture — and cross-checked their results with historical climate data. Ultimately, they found that such dry conditions coincided with high degrees of “soil moisture deficit,” a metric that compares soil moisture with normal saturation levels. 

The scientists found that since the year 2000, the average soil moisture deficit was twice as severe as the deficit in any 20th-century drought — surpassing the driest periods of all the most severe megadroughts in the past 1,200 years. 

Soil moisture plays a critical role in drought — impacting runoff levels, streamflow, agricultural productivity, ecosystem health and wildlife activity, according to the study. 

Read more from The Hill’s Sharon Usadin here.


Feds unveil Native American detention reforms 

Interior Secretary nominee D Haaland

The Bureau of Indian Affairs on Monday announced a series of reforms to its correctional program after a four-year period that saw 16 inmate deaths. 

Reforms announced to the Bureau’s Office of Justice Services (OJS) include geographically positioning the bureau’s Internal Affairs investigators in locations that allow quicker responses, as well as monthly briefings to the OJS director on investigations of in-custody deaths. It would further update any existing law enforcement and detention handbooks to reflect new policies. 

“We will not shy away from acknowledging the past and taking ownership of the path to improve conditions in our facilities,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said in a statement. “The reforms we are announcing today represent a new chapter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as we move toward organizational culture change.”   

The story so far: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, has announced several initiatives aimed at improving tribal relations and addressing historical wrongs. Last September, she announced an investigation in conjunction with tribal leaders into the legacy of federal boarding schools, where generations of Indigenous children were forced to cut their hair and renounce their language and culture. 

However, the initiatives also come amid controversy over the announcement last week that Darren Cruzan, the former assistant director of Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, will be hired as a private contractor to review in-custody deaths. Cruzan would be charged with investigating a number of deaths that occurred during his own tenure at the Interior Department, according to an NPR investigation

Read more about the announcement here.


Louisiana officials are investigating the cause of a massive methane cloud that was spotted on satellite imagery, Bloomberg reports

A plume of the gas — the highest concentration of the powerful greenhouse gas spotted by the satellite in the U.S. since October — was detected on Jan. 21. 

Had the release lasted an hour, it would have produced the same harmful short-term effects as the annual emissions from more than 1,900 cars, notes Bloomberg. 

Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources is now looking into what could have caused the plume, which likely originated near gas pipelines owned by Energy Transfer LP, Kinder Morgan Inc. and Boardwalk Pipelines LP. None of the companies have claimed responsibility for the gas cloud. 

According to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, no reports of a gas release were made in the area. 

The Biden administration in November announced a series of actions aimed at tackling methane, which is responsible for 10 percent of the United States’ contribution to climate change. 

Read more about the probe here.


  • The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on environmental justice legislation 
  • The Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on “restoring Brownfield sites to economic engines” 
  • The House Climate Crisis Committee will hold a hearing on grid resilience and reliability  



  • DOE plans to turn fossil fuel waste into rare materials for tech components (CNN) 
  • In Texas, Prisons Without Air Conditioning Are Getting Hotter (The Intercept) 
  • There’s an invisible ecosystem in the air — and climate change is disrupting it (Grist) 
  • Fight over Wheeler nomination broadens in Virginia (The Associated Press) 
  • Formaldehyde exposure increases by 17 percent the risk of memory, thinking woes (The Washington Post) 

And finally, something offbeat and off-beat: The eyes have it 


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 Tuesday.

Tags Deb Haaland

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video