The Climate Rules Being Rolled Back During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Amy Westervelt and Emily Gertz

Published April 6, 2020. Last updated August 17, 2020 12:22 pm ET

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August 2020 protest banner erected in Washington DC, reading in part: For Sale: 2020 GOP. Several politicians available! Features: COVID denial and indifference to 170,000+ deaths; climate change denial; controlled by oil and gas CEOs.

In August 2020, activists mounted a banner in front of the Trump International Hotel in Wash. D.C., criticizing Trump administration and GOP giveaways to the oil and gas industry under cover of the pandemic. (Credit: Getty Images for Climate Power 2020/Jemal Countess)

The fossil fuel industry and its allies in the Trump administration wasted no time in leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to increase the federal government’s financial favors to oil and gas, waive regulations that the industry finds onerous — including attempts at wholesale rollbacks of the nation’s most critical environmental conservation laws — and push forward with controversial oil and gas permitting and lease sales.

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Federal  Government

August 2020

McConnell, Big Oil Push for Nationwide COVID-19 Liability Waiver

Oil and gas, plastics, and utilities are among the industries lobbying hard for a federal shield from COVID-19-related lawsuits. According to a Friends of the Earth review of quarterly earnings statements, firms actively pressing Congress for the waiver include ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips; trade groups such as the American Petroleum Institute and the Petroleum Marketers Association of America; and “conservative dark money” groups such as FreedomWorks. The Hill reported on July 31 that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is determined to get a liability waiver into whatever the next pandemic aid bill may be. Back in March, the Senate’s committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs inserted a liability waiver for energy and transportation companies, among others, into the CARES Act, but the language had vanished by March 25, when the Senate passed the legislation. Status: The House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion-plus package of new pandemic aid on May 15, but it’s not clear if or when the Senate will take it up.

Energy Extends Natural Gas Export Authorizations to 2050

The Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy has extended to 2050 “the standard term for authorizations to export natural gas from the lower-48 states — including domestically produced liquefied natural gas (LNG), compressed natural gas, and compressed gas liquid—to countries with which the United States does not have a free trade agreement.” The move could commit future administrations to allowing dozens of firms to export LNG, no matter what climate policies they seek to enact. Status: Rule finalized on July 29, 2020.

Trump Nominates Oil and Gas Ally to Manage Public Lands

The Trump administration announced its intent to nominate William Perry Pendley for Senate confirmation as permanent director of the Bureau of Land Management in June. An oil-industry lawyer, Pendley has long advocated privatization of U.S. public lands, which contain roughly a third of the nation’s minerals. In 1982, as a Reagan appointee, Pendley spearheaded the largest sale of coal mining leases in U.S. history. Evidence later emerged that he had attempted to rig the leasing process to let firms underbid for mining rights, which would have defrauded the public. As Trump’s BLM acting director for more than a year, Pendley has relocated most of the BLM’s 300 Washington, D.C. staff to offices in western states. The move forced out many career employees, and will make it harder for Congress as well as conservation watchdogs to monitor the agency’s activities. Status: On August 15, Outdoor Life reported that the Trump administration has withdrawn Pendley’s nomination, after failing to muster Senate support for a confirmation hearing.

July 2020

Federal Regulators Okays LNG By Rail

The new rule amends federal hazardous-materials guidelines that have prohibited shipping liquid natural gas by train because of the potential for the compressed gas to explode. This revision to the rules has been hotly contested by critics who have voiced concern about compressed gas passing through populated cities and towns. The Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice have already announced their intentions to question the rule change in court. Status: The Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration finalized the rule on July 24, 2020.

EPA and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Expand Regulatory Relief for Uranium Mines

The Trump administration has pledged, via a memorandum of understanding between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not to pursue more stringent regulations around uranium mine cleanup. Mining associations in uranium-rich states like Wyoming applauded the agreement. “This is something that has been in the works for several years and we’re pleased it has come to this point,” Wyoming Mining Association executive director Travis Deti told The Casper Star Tribune. “We are hopeful the MOU will streamline the regulatory process for uranium recovery, saving time and resources, which will help in getting the industry back on its feet.” Status: Agreement signed July 23, 2020.

Trump Administration Asks Supreme Court to Unblock Keystone Pipeline

The Trump administration highlighted the Keystone XL pipeline in an emergency application to the Supreme Court in mid-June, asking for a stay to an earlier federal court ruling that blocked the Army Corps of Engineers’ nationwide “blanket” permit to build pipelines through wetlands and streams. Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana had ruled that the permit was invalid because the Corps failed to do cross-agency consultations required by the Endangered Species Act. The Corps has applied the permit to more than 37,000 projects since 2017, reported AP. Status: On July 6, 2020, the Supreme Court revived the Army Corps’ blanket nationwide permitting program — but excluded the Keystone pipeline. So federal environmental reviews of Keystone must be completed before construction can continue.

June 2020

“Main Street Lending” expanded to benefit of fossil fuel firms

Bloomberg Law reported on May 12, 2020, that Secretary Mnuchin and the Federal Reserve announced further modifications to the Main Street Lending Program, expanding it to make mid-size companies eligible. This change may allow several additional independent oil and gas companies, such as Occidental Petroleum, to get loans through the program. The move follows an April 21 letter from 11 Republican senators to the Trump administration, urging it to change credit rating requirements under the federal stimulus loan program, so that more oil and gas firms would eligible to apply. The Fed announced, on April 30, an expansion of the Main Street Lending Program allowing oil companies to borrow money under the program and apply it to past debts.

EPA Won’t Slow Down a Controversial Alaska Mine

The Environmental Protection Agency informed the Army Corps of Engineers via letter that despite serious concerns about the Pebble Mine’s environmental impacts, the agency will not formally object to the controversial project. If EPA had opted to formally “elevate” its concerns to higher levels of the Fish and Wildlife Service as well as EPA itself, it would have slowed down the final approval process. In mid-2019, the EPA overturned an Obama-era ban on the proposed huge open-pit copper and gold mine, on the significant chances it would degrade thousands of square acres of wilderness, and damage the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. “If the Corps grants the permit, the EPA has the authority to veto it, but mine opponents say the new letter makes that look less likely,” reported Alaska Public Media. “Pebble Limited Partnership thinks so, too.” Environmentalists and locals, including more than a dozen Alaska Native tribes, have long fought to stop the project. Status: EPA released its required letter to the corps on May 28, 2020.

Feds Advance Oregon Gas Terminal Over State Objections

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reaffirmed its earlier approval of the controversial Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export terminal in Oregon, reported Courthouse News. The proposed project also includes construction of a 229-mile pipeline. The state government, tribal governments, landowners, and environmental organizations had petitioned FERC to reconsider its decision, given the project’s potential impact on the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals; wildlife including spotted owls, snowy plovers, marbled murrelets, salmon, and whales; wetlands; and coastal eel grass beds that serve as tidal nurseries for various species. FERC declined the requests, stating that the project is in the public interest. Status: FERC issued its decision on May 22, 2020

May 2020

“Main Street Lending” expanded to benefit of fossil fuel firms

Bloomberg Law reported on May 12, 2020, that Secretary Mnuchin and the Federal Reserve announced further modifications to the Main Street Lending Program, expanding it to make mid-size companies eligible. This change may allow several additional independent oil and gas companies, such as Occidental Petroleum, to get loans through the program. The move follows an April 21 letter from 11 Republican senators to the Trump administration, urging it to change credit rating requirements under the federal stimulus loan program, so that more oil and gas firms would eligible to apply. The Fed announced, on April 30, an expansion of the Main Street Lending Program allowing oil companies to borrow money under the program and apply it to past debts.

EPA Won’t Slow Down a Controversial Alaska Mine

The Environmental Protection Agency informed the Army Corps of Engineers via letter that despite serious concerns about the Pebble Mine’s environmental impacts, the agency will not formally object to the controversial project. If EPA had opted to formally “elevate” its concerns to higher levels of the Fish and Wildlife Service as well as EPA itself, it would have slowed down the final approval process. In mid-2019, the EPA overturned an Obama-era ban on the proposed huge open-pit copper and gold mine, on the significant chances it would degrade thousands of square acres of wilderness, and damage the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. “If the Corps grants the permit, the EPA has the authority to veto it, but mine opponents say the new letter makes that look less likely,” reported Alaska Public Media. “Pebble Limited Partnership thinks so, too.” Environmentalists and locals, including more than a dozen Alaska Native tribes, have long fought to stop the project. Status: EPA released its required letter to the corps on May 28, 2020.

Feds Advance Oregon Gas Terminal Over State Objections

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reaffirmed its earlier approval of the controversial Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export terminal in Oregon, reported Courthouse News. The proposed project also includes construction of a 229-mile pipeline. The state government, tribal governments, landowners, and environmental organizations had petitioned FERC to reconsider its decision, given the project’s potential impact on the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals; wildlife including spotted owls, snowy plovers, marbled murrelets, salmon, and whales; wetlands; and coastal eel grass beds that serve as tidal nurseries for various species. FERC declined the requests, stating that the project is in the public interest. Status: FERC issued its decision on May 22, 2020

April 2020

BLM Advances Utah Coal Mine Expansion Near National Parks

The Bureau of Land Management in late April opened a public comment period for a proposed 5,500-acre expansion of the Lila Canyon coal mine in southern Utah. Environmental activists have hotly contested the proposal, given the mine’s proximity to the Canyonlands and Arches national park and the coal industry’s current decline as well as the fact that Murray Coal, which owns the local company operating the mine, is in bankruptcy proceedings. In early April, environmental groups began raising concerns about a lease fire sale in the region, after oil and gas firms submitted proposals for extraction on 150,000 acres on public lands surrounding parks. The BLM told the Salt Lake Tribune that many of the filings were incomplete and not under consideration. Status: BLM posted the proposal on April 23, 2020. Public comment closed May 25, 2020.

EPA Waives Acid Rain and Cross-State Pollution Reporting

EPA Waives Acid Rain and Cross-State Pollution Reporting The Environmental Protection Agency has allowed power plants to delay testing and reporting under federal Acid Rain and Cross-State Pollution programs, citing the impact of “travel, plant access, or other safety restrictions implemented to address the current COVID-19 national emergency.” Status: Waiver effective April 22, 2020. Public comments on the rule open through May 22, 2020.

EPA Opts Against Science-Based Update to Air Pollution Rules

EPA Opts Against Science-Based Update to Air Pollution Rules The EPA moved to retain current air quality standards for levels of tiny soot particles (or fine particulate pollution, also called PM2.5), which are caused by burning fossil fuels including gasoline, coal, and natural gas. The decision flies in the face of growing scientific evidence that indicates breathing in fine particulate pollution is unsafe at any level, linked to asthma, heart disease, and premature death. In early April, a team of Harvard public health researchers released data that showed higher death rates from COVID-19 in regions with high levels of soot pollution. Status: Proposed rule published April 30, 2020. EPA holds virtual public hearing on May 20 and 21, 2020. Public comment period ends June 29, 2020.

March 2020

Marathon Oil Takes CARES Act Tax Benefit of $411 Million

On its quarterly SEC filings, Marathon Oil attributed a $411 million tax benefit to a section of the CARES Act called the Net Operating Loss Provision. A sly late addition to the March legislation, this provision allows businesses to carry back losses from 2020 or 2021 to previous tax years. In other words, companies can apply a loss resulting from the pandemic to last year’s profits (or any year’s losses back to 2018). In many cases this can trigger a tax refund, particularly if the firm filed its 2019 taxes on time. Status: Marathon Oil took the pass-back on its quarterly earning statement (SEC Form 10-Q) dated March 31, 2020.

Endangered Status Denied for Unique Sage Grouse Population

Endangered Status Denied for Sub-species of Sage Grouse The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied Endangered Species Act protections for the Bi-State greater sage grouse, a distinct sage grouse sub-species that roams western Nevada and eastern California. The agency stated that voluntary conservation efforts by energy and ranching operations have been enough to protect populations of the bird. However, sage grouse populations across multiple states have continued to decline under these efforts efforts. Status: Finalized March 31, 2020.

Trump Admin. Rolls Back Fuel Efficiency Standards

The Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the rollback of the Obama administration’s signature climate emissions achievement: An agreement with automakers to raise fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks (known as CAFE, or Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards) to 55 mpg by 2025, significantly lowering greenhouse gas and other air pollution. The Trump administration has changed that mandate to about 40 mpg by 2026. Status: Rule finalized March 30, 2020.

State, Regional, and Local Governments

California

California Issues Two Dozen New Fracking Permits

In early April, the California Geologic Energy Management Division issued 24 hydraulic fracturing permits in Kern Country, the state’s primary industrial-scale agricultural region, KPBS reported. They’re the first new permits the agency has issued in nine months, and came six months after Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on new drilling statewide. Status: Permits granted April 3, 2020.

Request to Delay All Air Rules Until 2021

Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D – 11th District) has asked the California Air Resources Board to delay voting or meeting on all proposed regulations until 2021. Status: Letter sent March 27, 2020.

Request for Delay in Dockside Pollution Regulations

The California Association of Port Authorities has asked the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the California Air Resources Board, to delay implementation of new rules meant to reduce dockside air pollution at state ports. Status: Letter sent March 24, 2020.

Colorado

Judge blocks Colorado City from issuing emergency drilling suspension

A judge approved a 14-day delay on an emergency order that the city of Bloomfield was considering, reported the Denver Post, to stop oil and gas operations near private homes during the state’s stay-at-home order. Extraction Oil and Gas sued for the temporary restraining order and refused the city’s request to temporarily suspend operations, which can generate toxics like benzene, a carcinogen. Status: A judge blocked the city’s emergency decree on March 28, 2020. Note: Full story coming soon on the Drilled podcast.

Kentucky

New Law Protecting Key Infrastructure

This new Kentucky law designates “natural gas or petroleum pipelines” as “key infrastructure assets” and makes it a felony to cause more than $1,000 in damages to pipelines “in a manner that renders the operations harmful or dangerous.” Status: Enacted March 16, 2020.

Louisiana

Offshore Drillers Request Royalty Cuts

Citing the combination of the Russia-Saudi price war and pandemic-driven drops in demand, Gulf coast offshore drilling firms represented by the Houma, Louisiana-based South Central Industrial Association asked President Trump and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for a reduction in royalties paid to the federal government. SCIA termed the confluence of the OPEC spat and COVID-19 an “existential threat to America’s ability to continue to produce energy in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond,” reported Houma Today. Status: Letter sent March 27, 2020.

Regulatory Relief for Oil and Gas

The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association asked the state regulator to lift plugging requirements for idle wells, fast-track permits for new wells, extend financial requirements for inactive wells, and extend and defer testing that ensures oil and gas operations are not contaminating water sources. Status: Request granted March 26, 2020.

Tax, Royalty, and Regulatory Relief for Oil and Gas Sector

The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association has asked regulators to suspend state severance tax collections for one year, end coastal lawsuits, temporarily waive offshore drilling royalties in the Gulf of Mexico, ease conservation regulations, and find oil and gas reserves that will buy their product, reported the Daily Advertiser. The trade group argues that new OPEC production cuts don’t go far enough to help its members weather the “perfect storm” of coronavirus and the oil price war. Status: LOGA statement issued April 13, 2020.

Massachusetts

Designation of Natural Gas Construction Projects as “Essential”

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker extended the definition of “essential construction” under the state’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order to encompass various oil and gas projects. They include the Weymouth natural gas compressor, which has no clear customers. Status: Order issued March 23, 2020.

Michigan

Enbridge Requests Permit for Line 5 Tunnel

A controversial project to update Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline moved one step closer to completion with this filing. If approved, the company could begin construction on its Great Lakes Tunnel Project in 2021, with a target operational date of 2024. The tunnel would house Enbridge’s new Line 5 oil pipeline, replacing a 67-year-old pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac, a narrow waterway between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Line 5 transports up to 540,000 barrels a day of natural gas and crude oil from Canada. Environmental advocates Indigenous rights groups, and Michigan’s own governor have criticized the replacement project, according to The Guardian. The judge in a related court case ruled last year that construction could continue while the case is in progress, the Detroit News reported. Status: Permit application submitted April 8, 2020.

Minnesota

Permitting Process for Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline Moves Forward

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has continued to advance the permitting process for Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline replacement project. The agency extended the public comment period on the project by just a week, and moved in-person town halls to tele-townhalls, which activists said were stacked with pipeline supporters. The proposed replacement pipeline would have a capacity of 760,000 barrels a day, double the old pipeline’s capacity; meanwhile, tar sands oil has hit a record low of less than $5 a barrel. Status: Public comment period closes April 10, 2020.

Missouri

Consumer Advocate Requests Suspension of Utility Energy Efficiency Programs

Missouri’s Office of the Public Counsel requested that state regulators suspend utility energy efficiency programs in order to reduce ratepayers’ bills during the COVID-19 crisis. Executive Director James Owen of Renew Missouri, a clean energy advocacy group, told Energy News Network he believes the Office of the Public Counsel ”is trying to use this coronavirus issue to undo MEEIA, or to weaken it,” referring to the Missouri Energy Efficiency Investment Act. Status: Request filed March 2020.

Montana

State Approves Black Butte Copper Mine

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved a long-disputed underground copper mine in central Meagher County. The mine is a joint project of Canada-based Tintina Resources and Australian mining firm Sandfire, and will be located near a waterway called Sheep Creek, about 20 miles upstream of the creek’s confluence with the Smith River. The DEQ termed the plan “the most protective hard rock mining permit this agency has ever signed,” but “conservationists concerned about the effects the mine could have on the Smith River, a blue-ribbon trout fishery and popular floating destination, say the decision doesn’t go far enough,” reported The Montana Free Press. Status: Approved April 9, 2020

Governor Exempts Keystone XL From Statewide Stay-at-Home Directive

Deeming the Keystone XL pipeline “essential,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democratic candidate for Senate, gave Canadian firm TC Energy the green light to bring in hundreds of out-of-state workers, in order to begin construction in April, reported the Montana Free Press. Two counties on the pipeline’s route are so far the least-affected in the nation by COVID-19, so county officials have mandated that out-of-state pipeline workers be quarantined for 14 days upon their arrival. But that quarantine does not prohibit them from working, so construction has begun and looks to continue unabated. Status: Enacted.

North Carolina

Controversial Biomass Plant Project Seeks Public Comment During COVID-19 Crisis

A hotly-contested proposed biomass plant has one more hurdle to clear: getting an air emissions permit from state regulators. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has twice extended the public comment period, now to May 27. But local environmental groups are worried that with the state moving the process forward amid the coronavirus pandemic, the permit may be granted without much citizen input. Status: Public comment period closes May 27, 2020.

PENNSYLVANIA

Tax Breaks for Petrochemical Facilities

Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law a bill that gives $670 million in tax breaks to Pennsylvania manufacturers which use dry natural gas to make petrochemicals and fertilizers. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette characterized the bill as, “aiming to lure petrochemical and fertilizer plants to Pennsylvania,” and Bloomberg called it a “fracking tax credit,” given the connection between fracked gas and petrochemical facilities — including ethane crackers, which turn a component of fracked gas into single-use plastic. Status: Signed into law July 23, 2020

Shell Plastic Facility An “Essential” Business

Shell applied for a waiver from state coronavirus shutdowns in order to bring 500 workers back to the construction site for its ethane cracker plastic plant in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Beaver County, reported West Virginia State Impact. The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development told the company that as a natural gas facility, it was automatically exempt — even though that “essential” designation is intended for gas-fired power plants. Once in operation, the operation will have the capacity to produce more than a million tons of plastic pellets annually. Status: Effective April 15, 2020.

Exemption for Mariner East Pipeline

Texas-based Energy LP asked the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development for a waiver for the Mariner East Pipeline from Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency coronavirus shutdown. It would enable the company to continue construction on the controversial pipeline across 17 locations in Pennsylvania. Status: Waiver granted March 25, 2020.

South Dakota

Expansion of “Incitement to Riot” Law

South Dakota expands the definition of incitement to riot to include “intentional use of force or violence by three or more persons” that causes “any damage to property.” The law’s provisions could chill anti-pipeline protests. Status: Enacted March 23, 2020.

New Law to Designate and Protect Critical Infrastructure

South Dakota’s new “critical infrastructure” law extends the designation to all oil, gas, and utility equipment, and defines the crime of “substantial interruption or impairment” of such facilities as a felony. Status: Enacted March 18, 2020.

Texas

Waiver of Regulatory Requirements

Oil and gas operators in the state may apply for a waiver of regulatory requirements on a case-by-case basis. Environmental groups have already documented an increase in methane emissions in the state’s shale oil fields. Status: Waiver granted March 24, 2020.

Fracking Companies Ask Regulators to Impose Production Cuts

At a three-hour virtual open meeting in mid-April, Texas regulators met to consider requests by shale gas firms Pioneer Natural Resources and Parsley Energy to mandate a statewide production cut. Nearly 60 stakeholders in the oil and gas industry testified both for and against the idea, reported TV station KOSA CBS7. It’s the first time since the 1970s that oil and gas producers have asked Texas regulators to interfere in the global energy market. Status: Meeting held April 14, 2020.

Oil and Gas Are Well-represented on Texas Governor’s Economic “Strike Force”

Even as it’s still far from clear whether Texas has seen the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbot’s has assembled a “cabal of his billionaire donors” for his “Strike Force to Open Texas,” according to The Texas Observer. Members include Nancy Kinder, wife of Kinder Morgan pipeline CEO Richard Kinder, and Hilcorp Energy Company executive Jeff Hildebrand, Lobbyists from the Association of Electric Companies of Texas and the Texas Oil & Gas Association are leading the group’s subcommittee on the energy sector. Status Task force announced April 17, 2020.

Utah

Petroleum Association Asks for Relief from Health, Financial Regulations

Having already been relieved of following national and state environmental rules amid the pandemic, the Utah Petroleum Association sent a letter to Governor Gary Herbert in late March to request additional regulatory breaks. The group has asked for a pause in well-site inspections, deferred royalty payments, a suspension of bonding deadlines, extended timelines for drilling permit approvals, and permission to let abandoned wells sit idle for up to seven years without any cleanup requirements. Status: Letter sent March 25, 2020

West Virginia

Critical Infrastructure Protection Act

New West Virginia state law expands definition of “critical infrastructure” to include a wide range of oil and gas production and distribution assets, including pipelines. Slaps fines as high as $20,000 on anyone found guilty of causing “damage, destruction, vandalization, defacing, or tampering” that totals $2,500 or more in damages. Status: Approved by the governor on March 25, 2020.

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