Department of the Interior

Shell To Proceed With Arctic Drilling Despite Damaged Icebreaker Ship Carrying Critical Emergency Gear Heading To Portland For Repairs

Shell officials are still hoping to launch exploratory drilling this month at the company’s Burger prospect, 70 miles off the coast of Alaska in the Chukchi Sea, even though a key ship in its fleet was forced back to port before it had even left the harbor last week after a 3-foot-long gash was discovered in its hull.

The company has to send the MSV Fennica to Portland because Terminal 5 at the port of Seattle, where Shell’s two drilling rigs were stored before they departed for Alaska, is a cargo terminal that doesn’t allow heavy repairs.

It is expected to take several weeks to repair the Fennica, according to FuelFix. The trip to Portland alone will take more than a week, and the Fennica appears to still be in Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands right now. But Shell has already begun moving its fleet into place in the Chukchi Sea, and does not plan on waiting for the Fennica to return before commencing drilling activities.

Fossil Fuels from Federal Lands Create One Quarter of Total U.S. Carbon Emissions, New Report Concludes

A newly released analysis by the Climate Accountability Institute concludes that fossil fuels extracted from federal lands release carbon equal to a quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The rate has stayed roughly consistent from 2003 to 2014.

When it comes to coal, the rate was even higher than average last year, the report concluded. “In 2014, two-fifths (40.2 percent) of U.S. coal  production was from leases on Federal Lands;  production on Indian Lands accounted for an additional 1.9 percent of U.S. coal production,” wrote Rick Heede, author of the analysis.

US Could Slash Global Warming Emissions By Curbing Fossil Fuels Extraction On Public Lands

The U.S. Department of the Interior this week announced new fracking regulations that will serve as the only federal rules enforcing any kind of safety measures on the controversial drilling technique when they go into effect in a few months.

The rules only apply to oil and gas wells on public lands, however, and most fracking is done on private or state-owned land. The Obama Administration says it is hoping to set an example for states to follow when setting their own fracking standards, but if that’s the case, the federal government actually has plenty of opportunity to lead by example when it comes to reining in carbon emissions from fossil fuel development.

According to a new report by the Center for American Progress and The Wilderness Society, there is “a blind spot in U.S. efforts to address climate change.” Fossil fuel extraction on public lands, the source of almost 30% of U.S. energy production, is responsible for more than a fifth of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the carbon equivalent of having 280 million more cars on the road. But the DOI “has no comprehensive plan to measure, monitor, and reduce the total volume of GHG emissions that result from the leasing and development of federal energy resources.”

“The Department of the Interior has long been in the business of approving well after well, mine after mine, without assessing the impacts of its energy policies on U.S. carbon pollution levels,” Matt Lee-Ashley, senior fellow and director of the public lands project at the Center for American Progress, told FuelFix.

Obama Administration Hopes Third Time’s A Charm For Chukchi Sea Lease Despite Major Risks

The US Department of the Interior released the final supplemental environmental impact statement for Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193 yesterday, continuing to move the process of affirming the leases originally sold in 2008 forward despite acknowledging the major risks of allowing drilling in the Arctic.

The story of the US government's attempts to sell off its stake in the Arctic Ocean to oil companies eager to exploit the oil reserves beneath the waters is a strange and sordid saga.

The Bush Administration originally leased 30 million acres of the Chukchi Sea for oil drilling in 2008 while relying on incomplete information about the local wildlife. A judge with the Federal District Court in Alaska determined the leases violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) in 2010.

The judge ordered the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to reconsider the leases, but a year later, the Obama Administration made the decision to let them stand and issued the first Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193 in 2011.

In January of 2014, the Court Of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled once again that the leases violated the law by failing to adequately consider the potentially catastrophic effects of drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. A new draft analysis was released by BOEM in October 2014, and this time it conceded that there was a 75% chance of one or more large oil spills (defined as more than 1,000 barrels) occurring if the leases were developed.

In response, the environmental group Earthjustice issued a statement saying, “There is no way effectively to clean up or contain an oil spill in Arctic Ocean conditions.” The group also says that millions of Americans responded to the draft analysis by calling on the Obama Administration to stop drilling in the Arctic Ocean once and for all.

Instead, BOEM released the second final supplemental environmental impact statement, marking the federal government’s third attempt to justify Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193 even while acknowledging how disastrous oil drilling in the region could be. Environmentalists were quick to point out that the new analysis did not correct the problems identified in the initial draft.

“Today’s impact statement confirms again that drilling in the Chukchi Sea puts Arctic people and wildlife at risk from major oil spills,” Earthjustice staff attorney Erik Grafe said in a statement. “It concludes there is a 75 percent chance of one or more major oil spills if the Chukchi Sea is developed, and there is no way to clean or contain such a spill.”

BLM Hasn't Performed An Environmental Review of Coal Leasing Program Since 1979

It has been 35 years since the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last performed an environmental review of its coal leasing program.

Two environmental groups are suing the BLM to force a review of the program.

Given advances in scientific knowledge of the risks posed by mining and burning coal to human health and Earth’s climate made since 1979, the groups argue that the review will “compel the Bureau of Land Management to deliver on its legal obligation to promote environmentally responsible management of public lands on behalf of the citizens of the United States.”

Friends of the Earth and the Western Organization of Resource Councils filed the lawsuit last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, naming Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and BLM Director Neil Kornze as lead defendants, along with the Department of the Interior and the BLM.

Government Accountability Office: Taxpayers Getting Stiffed by Flawed Federal Coal Lease System

The Department of the Interior is selling publicly-owned coal for much less than it is worth, essentially allowing the coal industry to fleece U.S. taxpayers of at least $200 million. 

That is one of the main takeaways from a much-anticipated report released today by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which confirms that the coal leasing program is fundamentally flawed and deserves an overhaul. 

The GAO report, “BLM Could Enhance Appraisal Process, More Explicitly Consider Coal Exports, and Provide More Public Information,” finds that the coal leases employed by the Bureau of Land Management within the Department of the Interior lack competition, use outdated methods to determine “fair market value,” ignore the growing trend of coal exports, and deliberately keep information from the public. 

Senator Markey, who has been calling for an overhaul to the coal lease system since 1982, and who demanded this GAO review, responded to the report's release

These noncompetitive practices are costing taxpayers in Massachusetts and across the nation, benefitting just a few coal companies who may be leasing public coal resources at bargain basement prices,” said Senator Markey. “Taxpayers are likely losing out so that coal companies can reap a windfall and export that coal overseas where it is burned, worsening climate change. This is a bad deal all around.”

A vast majority of federal coal leases take place in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. Coal companies like Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, and Cloud Peak Energy are all deeply dependent on this artificially cheap coal from federal leases. 

One of the report's most stunning revelations is that roughly 90-percent of the leases issued by Interior were “single bidder” auctions, won by the company that applied for the lease, and who didn't bid against anyone else. 

Of the 107 leased tracts, sales for 96 (about 90 percent) involved a single bidder, which was generally the company that submitted the lease application,” according to the report. 

Another key finding is that the BLM uses outdated and incomplete methods to determine “fair market value” of the land and the coal. This is of particular importance when there is only a single bidder, as the auction process demands that the winning bid achieve “fair market value.” According to staffers in Senator Markey's office, “for every cent per ton that coal companies decrease their bids for the largest coal leases, it could mean the loss of nearly $7 million for the American people.”

Selective Shutdown: Congressman Raul Grijalva's Petition to Ban Drilling on Public Lands While Public is Locked Out

As the government shutdown drags well into its second week, the gates to America’s national parks, wildlife refuges, and national forests remain closed and the taxpaying public is denied access. Not everyone will be turned away at the gates, however: oil, gas, and coal companies that are already drilling and mining on our public lands can proceed with business as usual.

A quick survey of the contingency plans (see: Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, National Park Service) of various federal agencies shows how extraction can continue unfettered, even while the rest of of are shut out of our public lands. Today, there are 12 national parks with oil and gas drilling operations underway, and coal mining is widespread across BLM lands, particularly in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. 

As Corbin Hair reported on SNL:

The Department of the Interior, which oversees oil and natural gas drilling as well as U.S. public lands, will furlough up to 58,765 of its 72,562 employees, according to its updated plan. National parks will close and reviewing new oil and gas leases will halt, but the DOI will continue monitoring existing operations.

“The majority of the personnel that are excepted are law enforcement, wildland fire, emergency response and security, animal caretakers, maintenance and other personnel that would be focused on the custodial care of lands and facilities and protection of life and property,” the DOI's plan said. On the outer continental shelf, “the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement would continue to ensure the safety of drilling and production operations and issue drilling and other offshore permits, however renewable activities and five year plan work would be terminated.”

At least one elected official recognizes this as unfair and unjust. On October 3, Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging the officials to halt mining and extraction on public lands while the public itself was locked out.

Rep. Grijalva’s letter reads:

Obama Admin. Approves ALEC Model Bill for Fracking Chemical Fluid Disclosure on Public Lands

On May 16, the Obama Interior Department announced its long-awaited rules governing hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) on federal lands.

As part of its 171-page document of rules, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), part of the U.S. Dept. of Interior (DOI), revealed it will adopt the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model bill written by ExxonMobil for fracking chemical fluid disclosure on U.S. public lands.

ALEC is a 98-percent corporate-funded bill mill and “dating service” that brings predominantly Republican state legislators and corporate lobbyists together at meetings to craft and vote on “model bills” behind closed doors. Many of these bills end up snaking their way into statehouses and become law in what Bill Moyers referred to as “The United States of ALEC.”

BLM will utilize an iteration of ALEC's “Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act” - a bill The New York Times revealed was written by ExxonMobil - for chemical fluid disclosure of fracking on public lands and will do so by utilizing FracFocus.org's voluntary online chemical disclosure database.

In a way, it's all come full circle. As we covered here on DeSmogBlog, the original chemical disclosure standards and the decision to utilize FracFocus' database came from the Obama Dept. of Energy's (DOE) industry-stacked Fracking Subcommittee formed in May 2011. DOE gave a $1.5 million grant to FracFocus

The Texas state legislature soon thereafter adopted the first bill making FracFocus the fracking chemical disclosure database at the state level in June 2011. Since then, it's been off to the races, with the Council of State Governments adopting the TX bill as model bill in Aug. 2011, ALEC adopting it as a model bill in Oct. 2011, and the bill becoming state law in Colorado, Pennsylvania and other states.

Both the Illinois and Florida state legislatures have also tried to push through this model, but it died dead in its tracks.

FracFocus has been an anemic and failed effort by the Obama Admin. to alter the George W. Bush Admin. “Halliburton Loophole” standards for fracking chemical disclosure, which allowed the recipe of fracking chemicals to remain a “trade secret.” It's amounted to nothing more than the same game by a different name, with a Harvard study recently giving FracFocus a “failing grade.”     

Former Clinton and Bush Cabinet Members, Now Oil and Gas Lobbyists, Expect Keystone XL Green Light

The Tar Sands Blockade of TransCanada Corporation's “Keystone XL South” continues in Texas, but former members of the Clinton and George W. Bush cabinets believe the northern half will soon be green-lighted by President Barack Obama. 

In a Nov. 13 conference call led by the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), an oil and gas industry front group, CEA Counsel John Northington said he believes a “Keystone XL North” rubber stamp is in the works by the Obama Administration. 

I think the Keystone will be approved in fairly short order by the administration,” Northington said on the call.

Northington has worn many hats during his long career:

[He] served in the Clinton Administration at the Department of the Interior as Senior Advisor to the Director of the Bureau of Land Management. Mr. Northington also served as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management with energy policy responsibility for the former Minerals Management Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Mr. Northington began his government service at the Department of Energy, where he served as White House Liaison, Chief of Staff for the Office of Fossil Energy and Senior Advisor for Oil and Natural Gas Policy.

After his tenure working for the Clinton Administration, he walked through the revolving door and became a lobbyist, representing many clients over the past decade, including the oil and gas industry. Northington has represented ExxonMobil, Devon Energy, CONSOL Energy, and Statoil. ExxonMobil, Devon and Statoil all have a major stake in the tar sands. 

Interior Dept Okays Thousands Of New Unconventional Gas Wells In Utah

Last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that his department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are fast-tracking unconventional gas drilling permits in Utah’s Uintah Basin.

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