Eye on Washington: the 116th Congress

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After a significant delay caused by the government shutdown, the 116th congress kicked off with a new Democratic majority in the U.S. House. New members of the U.S. Senate were sworn in, committee chairs appointed, and hearings started with a bang. The House, determined to get climate change back on the agenda, started with a round of hearings to identify the various areas of concern and government responsibility for addressing the threats posed by climate change. These are primarily oversight or information-gathering hearings, but new legislation is expected to grow from them.

Our own Rep. Jared Huffman was appointed to this reinstated House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, chaired by Rep. Castor of Florida. As stated in the Press Democrat in February, “If Americans needed more proof that elections matter, this committee provides it. There had been a climate change committee launched back in 2007, but Republicans disbanded it when they took over the House in 2011. Under the GOP, climate change was a nonissue in Congress even as the dangers and impacts became ever more evident.”

It is a new day. Let’s get started.

Pushback on Offshore Oil Drilling

Early in his term, President Trump issued an executive order to open all of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) for energy development (offshore oil and natural gas drilling). In January, 2018 then-Interior Secretary Zinke released the five-year Draft Proposed Program—which included leases along the entire length of the Pacific Coast. An announcement on the next stage is considered imminent.

Representatives of some coastal states, including California, have proposed legislation prohibiting oil and gas development in both state and federal waters. The first bill introduced by Rep. Jared Huffman in this congress, H.R. 310, the West Coast Protection Act of 2019, is one such bill. H.R. 310 would amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act by prohibiting oil and gas leasing in the outer continental shelf off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. Huffman also introduced H.R.309, the Stop Arctic Ocean Drilling Act of 2019, to extend closure of the OCS to the U.S. Arctic.

Huffman, along with 109 members of Congress, also introduced H.R.1146 the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act to repeal the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) oil and gas program. While Huffman’s intentions are clear, congressional support for his cause is difficult to predict. Huffman introduced similar legislation in 2017, and though the bill garnered the support of many cosponsors, it died in the Senate Subcommittee of Energy and Mineral Resources. Senator Murkowski (R-AK) fought hard for her signature bill to open up ANWR to energy development and it is unlikely she will allow Huffman’s bill to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate nor is it likely President Trump would sign the bill if it reached his desk. Regardless, Rep. Huffman should be thanked for pushing back on this egregious attempt to expand the serious threat oil spills cause as well as the desperate attempt to feed the world’s insatiable appetite for oil and gas.

S.47 – Public Lands Bill

The sweeping legislation had broad bipartisan support and was signed by President Trump in March.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that the bill is, in fact, a compromise bill. The bipartisan desire in Congress to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)—which skims proceeds from offshore oil profits to fund local and national conservation and recreation projects—was the driving force of the bill. However, key members of Congress were allowed to add projects to legislation that are important to their local constituencies, especially if they will soon be up for reelection.

Many of those projects are high priorities for conservationists such as the new designated wilderness acres in Southern Utah but, significantly, the legislation failed to address the reduction of acres in Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase of the Escalante by Trump and his henchman Sec. Zinke.

Also included was a significant victory for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Safari Club International—two organizations that promote increased public hunting on federal lands and oppose most gun safety proposals. Our public lands (except National Parks) are now open for hunting unless the managing agency goes through a NEPA process to close the area to hunting.

More Federal Agency Musical Chairs

People move in and out of office at a staggering rate in the current administration. The latest include a new Secretary of the Interior (DOI) after Sec. Zinke resigned in disgrace due to unethical land dealings, and Scott Pruitt’s less repugnant but equally damaging replacement­, Andrew Wheeler.

Secretary of the Interior (DOI): DOI Sec. Zinke resigned in disgrace after becoming the target of an investigation regarding unethical land dealings. His replacement, Colorado native David Berhardt, was nominated and awaits confirmation. Mr. Bernhardt had already joined the Trump Administration in an acting capacity. He also served in the DOI under President George W. Bush. After he left the DOI in 2009, he joined a law firm that represented oil development corporations such as Haliburton. Mr. Bernhardt, who is suspected by some conservation organizations to have conflicts of interest, has been no friend to California conservationists. The law firm he worked for sued the federal government in an attempt to undo court-imposed protections for endangered salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a groundwater pumping scheme to in California’s Mojave Desert.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Though current NOAA Director, Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, will remain at NOAA, Neil Jacobs has been appointed Acting Chief and his confirmation will be heard in the Senate in the next month or so. Jacobs is an atmospheric scientist and his credentials prepare him for the position. He is likely to advance a controversial policy of privatizing the nation’s weather service, which many sectors of industry as well as private citizens rely on for important decision-making. Some argue that weather services are so basic to everyday life—from farmers to airlines— that accurate forecasting and data collection are key responsibilities of the government, while others feel privatization could lead to greater competition and scientific advancement. Many people assume private weather forecasters (such as those on TV networks) do their own data collection, but the data is actually collected and analyzed primarily by government scientists. Weather reporters may also then add personal analysis using their own academic work and knowledge.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Good-bye corrupt Scott Pruitt and hello less repugnant but equally damaging to environmental regulations Andrew Wheeler. In March 2019, the U.S. Senate confirmed Wheeler as the new Director of the EPA. Mr. Wheeler has a deep record of lobbying for the coal industry—an industry his agency regulates. We may be looking at yet another fox guarding the henhouse here—time will tell.