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

Arctic Wildlife Refuge Drilling Plan Advances

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced that he has approved Bureau of Land Management plans to hold the first auction for oil and gas leases in the Arctic Refuge by December 22, 2021, although it could happen “right around the end of the year,” according to an interview reported in The Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Bernhardt said the drilling can be conducted in an environmentally sound manner,” reported The Journal, “and that Congress has set details into law that will help the plan withstand challenges from environmentalists.” Drilling in the refuge is a longtime Republican goal. Status: The BLM announced its “record of decision” for Arctic Refuge lease sales on August 17, 2020.

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July 2020

Acting Public Lands Director’s Contract Extended, Again

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has granted his 32nd extension of William Perry Pendley’s contract as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management. As an “acting” chief, Perry avoids the Senate hearings that come with a formal presidential nomination. Status: On June 26, 2020, the White House announced the president’s intent to nominate Pendely to be director of the BLM.

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June 2020

Controversial Drilling Plan on California Grasslands Re-Approved

The Bureau of Land Management re-approved a controversial drilling plan within the Carrizo Plain National Monument, near San Luis Obispo, Calif., the first new drilling project proposed since the monument was established in 2001. The plan was first approved in 2018, then reversed in 2019 after environmental groups appealed the decision. Now the BLM says the plan has been revised to adequately address environmental concerns. The proposed drilling would create a new well on an existing well pad. Environmental groups and local legislators have decried the approval, including Republican assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, who said in a statement: “San Luis Obispo County and California does not want or need to open up our most precious pieces of open space for additional oil drilling. I am disappointed in the federal government’s decision, and urge them to reconsider.” Status: BLM released the decision on May 21, 2020.

Feds Approve Huge Arctic Gas Pipeline Project

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved construction of an 807-mile pipeline from Alaska’s arctic North Slope to the Kenai Peninsula in the state’s south-central region. The Alaska Gasline Development Corp.’s proposed plan also includes a new liquid natural gas terminal on the peninsula, a gas treatment plant on the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay, and two additional pipelines to bring gas from the North Slope to the treatment plant. One of FERC’s four commissioners voted against the project on climate grounds. “The Commission continues to treat climate change differently than all other environmental impacts,” wrote Commissioner Richard Glick in his dissent. “There are still a lot of things that have to happen before the project gets off the ground,” reports public radio station KTOO. “The state doesn’t have control of all of the land it needs, or the finances to get the $43 billion project built.” Status: FERC approved the project on May 21.

Interior Advances Drilling Near New Mexico National Park

The Bureau of Land Management published a draft drilling plan and environmental impact report involving 4.2 million acres of public and Navajo-held lands in northwest New Mexico on February 28, 2020. The plan would allow drilling within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site sacred to the Navajo and other Native Americans. The agency held five virtual public hearings in mid-May, as nearby Navajo communities reeled from the coronavirus crisis, and despite the fact that most Navajo households do not have broadband internet. The New Mexico congressional delegation, nearby Native American communities, and environmentalists called on the BLM to slow the project down. Status: On May 21, 2020 the BLM announced without explanation a 120-day extension of the deadline for public comment on the drilling plan, from May 28 to September 25, 2020.

May 2020

Controversial Drilling Plan on California Grasslands Re-Approved

The Bureau of Land Management re-approved a controversial drilling plan within the Carrizo Plain National Monument, near San Luis Obispo, Calif., the first new drilling project proposed since the monument was established in 2001. The plan was first approved in 2018, then reversed in 2019 after environmental groups appealed the decision. Now the BLM says the plan has been revised to adequately address environmental concerns. The proposed drilling would create a new well on an existing well pad. Environmental groups and local legislators have decried the approval, including Republican assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, who said in a statement: “San Luis Obispo County and California does not want or need to open up our most precious pieces of open space for additional oil drilling. I am disappointed in the federal government’s decision, and urge them to reconsider.” Status: BLM released the decision on May 21, 2020.

Feds Approve Huge Arctic Gas Pipeline Project

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved construction of an 807-mile pipeline from Alaska’s arctic North Slope to the Kenai Peninsula in the state’s south-central region. The Alaska Gasline Development Corp.’s proposed plan also includes a new liquid natural gas terminal on the peninsula, a gas treatment plant on the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay, and two additional pipelines to bring gas from the North Slope to the treatment plant. One of FERC’s four commissioners voted against the project on climate grounds. “The Commission continues to treat climate change differently than all other environmental impacts,” wrote Commissioner Richard Glick in his dissent. “There are still a lot of things that have to happen before the project gets off the ground,” reports public radio station KTOO. “The state doesn’t have control of all of the land it needs, or the finances to get the $43 billion project built.” Status: FERC approved the project on May 21.

Interior Advances Drilling Near New Mexico National Park

The Bureau of Land Management published a draft drilling plan and environmental impact report involving 4.2 million acres of public and Navajo-held lands in northwest New Mexico on February 28, 2020. The plan would allow drilling within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site sacred to the Navajo and other Native Americans. The agency held five virtual public hearings in mid-May, as nearby Navajo communities reeled from the coronavirus crisis, and despite the fact that most Navajo households do not have broadband internet. The New Mexico congressional delegation, nearby Native American communities, and environmentalists called on the BLM to slow the project down. Status: On May 21, 2020 the BLM announced without explanation a 120-day extension of the deadline for public comment on the drilling plan, from May 28 to September 25, 2020.

April 2020

Energy Dept. Recommends Government Purchases of Uranium

The Department of Energy’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group has recommended that the federal government buy up supplies of domestically-mined uranium, in a newly released proposal to “restore America’s competitive advantage in nuclear,” which the working group argues would also bolster national security The group also recommends rollbacks to environmental regulations around uranium mining, as well as public lands protections that bar mining in the Grand Canyon. Status: Proposal released April 23, 2020.

Republican Senators Back Stimulus Loans for Oil, Gas Firms

Republican Senators Back Stimulus Loans for Oil, Gas Firms A group of 11 Senate Republicans led by Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) have urged the Trump administration to change credit rating requirements under the federal stimulus loan program, so that more oil and gas firms will be eligible to apply. In their April 21 letter, addressed to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, the lawmakers argue that many firms were already struggling due to the recent OPEC production and pricing war; and have now been hit by the pandemic’s effect as well “Assisting these companies could be the difference between maintaining our domestic energy production and workforce or shedding more U.S. jobs and returning to dependence on foreign sources of oil,” according to the senators, “and we should do all we can to avoid it.” Status: On April 30, 2020, the Federal Reserve announced revisions to the rules for the Main Street Lending Program that allow oil companies to borrow money under the program and apply it to past debts. On May 12, 2020, Bloomberg Law reported 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.

Fossil Fuel Companies Get Millions in Small Biz Stimulus Loans

Fossil fuel firms have received at least $113 million from the Federal Reserve’s Main Street Lending Program, according to a review by The Guardian and watchdog group Documented. The program was supposedly established to help small businesses weather the coronavirus crisis. The Federal Reserve’s recent expansion of its Main Street lending program could open up more funding for oil and gas companies, including Occidental Petroleum Corporation, one of the oil companies represented at a White House meeting with President Trump in April.

March 2020

Senators Ask for Breaks on Oil, Gas, Coal Royalties

Twelve Senate Republicans asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to “reduce, delay, or suspend the federal royalty payments for oil, gas, and coal” drilled on federal public lands, “particularly for small and midsize producers.” Without the royalty cuts, the senators warned, many companies might stop production and put thousands of workers out of work. Status: Letter sent March 30, 2020.

Feds Plan Gasoline Rule Waiver That Could Increase Pollution

EPA intends to provide additional flexibility to the marketplace to transition from winter-grade, high volatility gasoline to summer-grade low vapor pressure gasoline,” by temporarily waiving “the summer low volatility requirements and blending limitations for gasoline.” Winter-blend gasoline emits more volatile organic compounds, which are precursors of smog, when used in warmer weather. The agency cited “the steep fall-off in gasoline demand as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” which has led to oversupplies of winter-grade gasoline and limited storage capacity for summer-grade gas. Status: Effective March 27, 2020.

Industry Asks TRump Administration to Purchase, Stockpile Uranium

The National Uranium Miners Association has asked the Trump Administration to establish a strategic reserve for uranium, and purchase strategic stockpiles of critical minerals to fill it, arguing the moves are critical to saving jobs as mines have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Status: Letter sent March 27, 2020.

State, Regional, and Local Governments

California

Request to Delay Electrification of Big Rigs

The Truck & Engine Manufacturers Association has asked the California Air Resources Board to delay or or modify a plan that requires 50% of all new medium-to-heavy truck sales, and 15% of all other new truck sales, to be zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Status: Letter sent March 23, 2020.

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Colorado

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Kentucky

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Louisiana

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Massachusetts

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Michigan

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Minnesota

Polluters Can Ask for Waivers of Environmental Regulations

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has instituted a “flexibility” policy on enforcement of environmental regulations. Companies can request compliance waivers and delays, which the regulator says will be approved or rejected on a case-by-case basis. But of 227 requests made so far, only three have been rejected. The agency has also paused rule-making on its CleanCars initiative to regulate vehicle emissions, until after shelter-in-place orders are lifted. Status: Effective March 2020.

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Missouri

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Montana

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North Carolina

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PENNSYLVANIA

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South Dakota

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Texas

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Utah

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West Virginia

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