Trump prefers oil over wind on public lands

Source: Brittany Patterson, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, November 11, 2016

The oil and gas industry is smiling in anticipation of an Interior Department under President-elect Donald Trump, while many environmental advocates fear their hard work is about to be dismantled.

Interior has emerged as a force in climate regulations, in part because of the abundance of natural energy resources found on public lands. Industry leaders say they expect a much different story under President Trump.

“It’s just nice to have a potential new administration that is not actively working against responsible development on public lands,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance.

For environmental groups, a Trump presidency means the game plan for federal lands has shifted.

“I can tell you that we’re still working through a lot of the implications,” said Joshua Mantell, carbon management campaign manager with the Wilderness Society.

Tentative plans include looking at precedent set by the courts for factoring in climate change and pushing for the use of regulations already approved, he said.

The new administration could scrap finalized regulations; however, the changes need to be consistent with Congress’ intent for the law they are based on, and changes are subject to the rulemaking process. Environmental groups would also likely litigate such changes.

Compared with other agencies, the Trump campaign provided clues about the policies that its Interior Department would favor. They included details about plans to expand oil and gas development, but they were light on information about conservation policy, another large part of the agency.

About 30 percent of U.S. energy resources are produced on public lands, generating more than $10 billion annually for taxpayers, according to the agency.

Interior’s Bureau of Land Management oversees 245 million surface acres and 700 million subsurface acres of mineral estate. That includes offshore and onshore oil and gas development and coal and renewable energy production on public lands.

To understand Trump’s priorities, E&E News surveyed industry representatives, environmental advocates and former agency officials. They highlighted these areas as important to watch.

Federal coal review — on ice

In January, Secretary Sally Jewell issued a secretarial order instructing BLM to pause the leasing of federal lands for coal mining while the agency puts together a programmatic environmental impact statement, or PEIS. It’s a full review of how the coal program could be reformed, and it takes climate change into consideration.

Trump spoke in late August at the Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh and said his administration would rescind that three-year federal coal leasing moratorium. Interior’s Stream Protection Rule would also go, and Trump said he would “conduct a top-down review of all anti-coal regulations issued by the Obama administration” (EnergyWire, May 27).

Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, an industry group, applauded the move.

“That whole process is designed to make it harder to produce coal in the Powder River Basin and on other federal lands,” he said. “There’s no need to move forward with it.”

Many environmental groups agreed that there is little hope for the PEIS process to continue past Jan. 20, because it’s not a rulemaking.

Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director with WildEarth Guardians, said he expects the review to “fade away.”

Bob Abbey, a former director of BLM under Obama, expressed more optimism about the current review process.

Although said he is not sure the review will survive in a Trump administration, he speculated that the work that has already been done might live on. The agency is expected to release an interim report before the end of the year; it’s a compilation of thousands of comments and dozens of public meetings.

Chiefly, he said, that is because both the U.S. and global markets for coal have slumped. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported this year for the first time that natural gas-fired electricity generation exceeded coal-powered generation.

“I think as we look to the future, whether or not you have a pro-coal administration in place or not, there’s going to be less use of coal,” Abbey said. “I would hope that any development that would occur regarding coal … including the need to do a thorough analysis of the effects of coal as part of energy portfolio, is addressed.”

Offshore drilling in Alaska

Before Obama leaves office, Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is expected to release the next five-year offshore drilling plan. The document will lay out which areas of the outer continental shelf will be offered up for development between 2017 and 2022. During the process, advocates convinced the current administration to pull the Atlantic Ocean off the table, and they pushed for the removal of sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in Alaska, as well.

Michael LeVine, senior counsel for Oceana’s Pacific region, said there is precedent for incoming administrations to take a recently completed plan and make changes. The Obama administration shelved an altered George W. Bush draft plan in favor of their own.

He said it’s unclear what a Trump administration might do offshore. In a speech at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, N.D., in May of this year, Trump noted that much of Alaska’s oil reserves are protected, and he vowed to unleash the “untapped oil and gas reserves on federal lands.”

Pyle, with the American Energy Alliance, said he would encourage President-elect Trump to “start over” on the upcoming five-year plan.

Renewable energy leasing: cautious optimism

Over the last eight years, the Obama administration has built a new renewable energy leasing program in Interior. It was a first. Since 2009, the department says, it has approved 60 solar and wind projects on public lands, totaling 15,000 megawatts of energy.

“One of the overwhelming successes has been the renewable energy program that was started pretty much from scratch and built up into a significant force to be able to cope with future demands that a clean energy economy would have,” said Mantell with the Wilderness Society.

BLM is expected to release a long-awaited rule by the end of this year that the agency says will streamline wind and solar development by encouraging competitive leasing within special zones.

Trump has been less forthcoming with his thoughts on renewable energy. He said multiple times on the campaign trail that he favors an “everything” energy strategy, including wind and solar power. He also decried wind turbines as being unsightly, too costly and bird killers (ClimateWire, Oct. 27).

These comments garnered cautious optimism around renewable energy development on public lands.

“I truly believe that they will pursue an all-of-the-above energy initiative similar to what President Obama did upon him taking office,” said Abbey. “I would hope that that would continue to be an emphasis under the new administration, but having said that, I do know that his statements would lead me to believe that there’s going to be probably a greater emphasis on the use of fossil fuels.”

Increasing onshore oil and gas development

Trump has emphasized oil and gas development.

“We need an America-first energy plan,” Trump said at the Shale Insight conference. “This means opening federal lands for oil and gas production, opening offshore areas, and revoking policies that are imposing unnecessary restrictions on innovative new exploration technologies.”

For Sgamma, with the Western Energy Alliance, an Interior Department under Trump would mean dialing back regulations that she said are constraining Western oil and gas producers.

“We have had an administration that has put forth countless regulations either directly aimed at the oil and gas industry or countless updates to plans or all kinds of new processes on the public lands,” she said.

One such regulation is the final Methane and Waste Prevention Rule, expected before the year is up. It would limit the amount of methane that producers on federal lands could release into the atmosphere and require operators to pay for any gas that is flared, or burned.

Many people said the markets might have something to say about a “drill, baby, drill” strategy.

Low prices for oil, natural gas and coal ultimately dictate the extent to which companies want to acquire new leases and develop public lands, said Nichols with WildEarth Guardians.

“There is declining demand. Coal is being replaced by renewable energy, and there’s a surplus of natural gas, and OPEC is keeping the oil pipes running,” he said. “Trump can say all he wants, but he can’t change the economics of fossil fuels right now.”