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Trump v. California

In this corner: Environment

For basic background, start with The weigh-in: Environment

Clean Energy
Climate Change
Oil and Gas
All talk, no action—yet
It's on!
On the ropes
California wins!
Trump wins!

The Trump administration has begun the process of opening virtually the entire U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling, making good on a campaign promise to exploit the country’s troves of offshore energy.

The Interior Department unveiled a five-year plan to establish lease sales in federal waters off the outer continental shelf, including parcels where drilling has been banned for decades. That includes the California coast.

The plan, announced by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, envisions drilling in the Arctic, off the Hawaiian coast and in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as expanding existing exploration into the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The leasing will begin in 2019 off the north coast of Alaska then move to the lower 48 states, the agency said.

Zinke told reporters on a conference call that the leasing process would expand the country’s energy independence, a policy emphasis that the agency has already made a priority on public lands. “This is the beginning of an opening up,” he said, promising that the months-long public comment period before enactment would include all stakeholders. “The states will have a voice.”

California has already been heard on this topic, loudly and often, and weighed in again today.

Oil platform off the California coast. Image by Wikipedia

“Drilling off the shores of California’s coast is a non-starter,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “Our state has banned offshore drilling for a reason: because we don’t want it and because we know what happens when it goes wrong. We are evaluating all of our options to protect our state’s pristine national resources. And it should be underscored that regulatory agencies in our state will have a say in whether any offshore drilling ultimately does occur.”

The last time federal oil leases were offered off California was in 1984, and the region was not included in leasing plans under the Obama administration. There has been no leasing in state waters since 1969. State officials have long sought to permanently ban offshore drilling there.

On one hand, California’s protestations are sound and fury: The state has no jurisdiction over federal waters, which begin three miles off the coast. On the other hand, the state could thwart the intent of the plan by making it more expensive to get the oil to land from offshore rigs.

A bill that would prohibit the State Lands Commission from approving any new infrastructure that supports offshore oil and gas development died in the Legislature last year, but the agency issued a resolution that achieved much the same result.

“California’s door is closed to President Trump’s Pacific oil and gas drilling,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who chairs the Lands Commission and is running for governor, said at the time.

Offshore rigs generally pump crude through submerged pipelines to onshore receiving facilities, joining an extensive network of pipelines that move the oil to storage sites and refineries. While not stopping the drilling outright, the state’s regulations would make it more expensive for companies to operate. That could limit the volume of oil shipped at a time when the low price per barrel is already discouraging new exploration.

Zinke’s announcement came a day after the administration proposed to roll back Obama-era regulations put in place after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 that more strictly regulated offshore drilling operations.

Many Californians still have memories of a massive 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara that despoiled beaches and killed wildlife. The area was hit again in 2015, when a pipeline failure sent more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil onto the beach at Refugio State Park.


The Trump administration announced today that it won’t support a tunnel project to transport water from the California Delta to thirstier parts of the state, only to pedal back from that statement hours later.

“The Trump administration did not fund the project and chose to not move forward with it,” Russell Newell, deputy communications director for the U.S. Interior Department, told the Associated Press.

Such a retreat by the feds would have been a massive blow to Gov. Brown, who has been pushing for the project.

The California Delta, also known as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, has deteriorated and wildlife is being threatened after decades of pumping. Brown wants to divert some of the Sacramento River’s flow upstream and pipe water to existing pumps through two new 35-mile-long tunnels. It would be a way to keep water flowing south and avoid having to shut off the pumps and lose water to the ocean, which occasionally happens now because of environmental requirements to protect fish.

Funding has been a sticking point. Brown wants California water districts to pay $16 billion for the tunnels, but in recent weeks he has talked about scaling back the project after two key water districts opted not to pay for it.

The Brown administration did not comment on the Interior Department’s initial announcement, which marked a reversal from Obama administration’s prior support for the project.

Although the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is not helping to pay for the project’s construction, the bureau has helped with planning and preparing environmental documents. The Interior Department clarified today after hours of confusion that it would continue to work with the state.

“While the Department of the Interior shares the goals of the state of California to deliver water with more certainty, eliminating risks to the California water supply, and improving the environment, at this time, the Department under the current state proposal does not expect to participate in the construction or funding of the CA WaterFix. The Department and Reclamation will continue to work with the state and stakeholders as the project is further developed,” the department said.

Last month, an audit found that Interior officials under the Obama administration improperly spent $84 million in federal taxpayer money to help California pay for planning for the tunnels. On Tuesday, five California Democrats asked the U.S. General Accountability Office to determine whether those payments were illegal.

California wins!

A federal judge in San Francisco has ruled that the Trump administration must immediately begin enforcing rules restricting methane emissions, a legal win for California, which had filed suit in July.

The federal court in San Francisco ruled against the Trump administration regarding methane emissions. Image via Flickr

U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte ruled yesterday that the federal Department of Interior illegally postponed the Obama-era Waste Prevention Rule, which had gone into effect in January. The agency delayed enactment of the regulation, which governs the emission of natural gas escaping more than 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands.

Methane’s potent heat-trapping capacity makes it many times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Regulating methane emissions is a critical component of California’s effort to reduce greenhouse gases. The state Air Resources Board recently limited methane coming from both new and existing oil and gas sources.

The lawsuit also contended that the failure to contain the gas—which can be captured and sold to utilities—meant millions of dollars in lost royalties to the federal government.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra noted that it was the third time in recent months that the state has successfully blocked the administration’s moves to roll back environmental protections.

“No one is above the law,” he said in a statement. “As a result of this Rule’s implementation, oil and gas operators on federal and Indian lands will be compelled to prevent the waste of natural gas. Natural gas emissions threaten the health of nearby residents and contribute to climate change.”

California wins!

The Trump administration today reinstated federal greenhouse gas rules on cars and trucks, backing down from its suspension of climate standards after legal pressure from California and others.

The decision published in the Federal Register means states will be required to measure and track on-road greenhouse gas emissions and set local targets to reduce transportation emissions on national highways.

It signifies a win for California and seven other states, which last week sued the U.S. Department of Transportation for both delaying and suspending what is known as the Greenhouse Gas Performance Measure, a program crafted by the Obama administration and finalized days before President Trump took office.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra described the reversal as a victory that “will help us tackle climate change.” In the United States, the transportation sector is the largest source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

Smoggy traffic in the Newhall Pass.

Smog-fueling traffic in the Newhall Pass. Photo by Jeff Newhall via Flickr

In another legal move this week, Becerra filed an amicus brief petitioning the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to rehear a case involving a federal ban of hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) in their products.

The plea comes after a three-judge appeals panel ruled last month that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lacked the authority to ban HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas, under the Clean Air Act. California law requires the state to reduce HFCs by 40 percent by 2030.

“We need the EPA to act in concert with us to close a very big loophole that allows these dangerous chemicals to continue to be used despite the availability of less polluting alternatives,” California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols said in a news release.

The air board, the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Washington, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency joined the amicus brief.

On the ropes

California has adopted an undeniably pugilistic stance toward the Trump Administration, fighting against every edict that appears to undermine the state’s own policies and views.

Boxers. Photo by Flickr.

But not every blow lands.

That was the case last week, when a bill explicitly designed to protect California’s environment against rollbacks of federal laws, failed to come up for a vote in the last days of the lawmaking year.

The California Environmental, Public Health and Workers Defense Act was intended to make federal laws that protect air, water and endangered species enforceable here even if those standards were weakened by the Trump administration.

The measure, co-authored by Democratic Sens. Kevin de León of Los Angeles and Henry Stern of Canoga Park, also sought to maintain current regulations for public health and worker safety.

The bill did not make it to the Assembly floor. It is expected to be revisited after the Legislature reconvenes in January.

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