Trump Officials Rush To Auction Off Rights To Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Before Biden Can Block It

The Trump administration is rushing to issue permits, finalize major environmental regulations and even sell the rights to drill for oil in Alaskan wilderness before Inauguration Day in a push that could complicate Joe Biden’s climate and conservation agenda. Trump Officials Rush To Auction Off Rights To Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Before Biden Can Block It

The 11th-hour regulatory race underscores the extent to which federal agencies are anticipating Biden’s swearing-in as U.S. president on Jan. 20 even as President Donald Trump refuses to concede the election. It also reveals a widespread effort by Trump officials to leave their imprint on federal policy and — at least temporarily — tie the hands of their successors.

“Everyone has to be vigilant over the next 60-odd days because the administration can create more work for the people coming in,” said David Hayes, a former deputy Interior secretary who leads New York University’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center. “They can take additional actions here that will put sand in the gears of the early Biden administration.”

The Trump administration took a major step Monday toward selling drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite Biden’s vow to protect that Alaskan wilderness.

And officials are reviewing measures that would lift criminal penalties for accidentally killing migratory birds, lock in existing air pollution limits and make it harder to impose new environmental safeguards.

Altogether, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs that is in charge of reviewing proposed rules is looking at 23 measures submitted just since Election Day, foreshadowing the coming deluge.

While Biden officials can unwind many Trump rules, that will consume time and resources, even as the incoming administration intends to write new measures regarding pollution, energy efficiency and drilling regulations.

And the Biden administration probably won’t have help from Congress immediately on overturning rules under the Congressional Review Act, since Republicans are likely to maintain control of the Senate. The law makes it easier to repeal last-minute regulations enacted by an outgoing administration.

“They have to clean up this huge mess that’s been deliberately left behind before they can even start advancing their affirmative agenda,” said James Goodwin, an analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform.

“The story for the last four years is how can we tear down these agencies and make them as useless as possible,” Goodwin said. “The next few weeks is going to be dedicated to that, and they will not miss a trick when it comes to making the Biden administration’s life a misery.”

For instance, the White House just began scrutinizing a final rule to end criminal penalties for oil explorers, homebuilders and other companies that accidentally kill migratory birds, setting the stage for the Interior Department to finalize the measure within weeks.

And on Thursday, the White House started reviewing a rule defining the “habitat” that gets protection under the Endangered Species Act, just four weeks after the deadline for public comments on the proposed measure.

The Energy Department is trying to finish regulations weakening energy efficiency standards for furnaces and other appliances. That includes a rule greenlighting high-flow shower heads with multiple nozzles — a measure that drew momentum after Trump complained that with more efficient models “you can’t wash your beautiful hair properly.”
EPA Regulations

The Environmental Protection Agency is rushing to codify decisions to retain existing air quality limits on ozone and particulate matter, rebuffing public health advocates’ calls to tighten the pollution standards.

The administration also is propelling regulations that go to the heart of federal agencies’ power.

For instance, Trump’s EPA is close to finalizing two measures that could make it harder to impose pollution curbs. One would block the agency from relying on scientific research that isn’t or can’t be made public. Another would limit how the agency calculates the costs and benefits of future regulations.

It’s customary for administrations to finalize a spate of rules during their final months in office, with a final spurt of so-called midnight regulations.

“One big difference from the recent past is that because Trump is only a one-term president, there is more for EPA to rush to finalize then when we’ve had two-term presidents,” observed Amit Narang, a regulatory policy expert with the watchdog group Public Citizen. “But there is a real risk that anything EPA rushes out the door in sloppy fashion will get struck down in court, just like so many of EPA’s rollbacks under Trump have been.”

Though Inauguration Day is still nine weeks away, the regulatory clock may run out sooner. The enforcement of any final rules that haven’t become binding by Jan. 20 can be postponed by a new administration, buying time for a rewrite.

Because there is a 60-day waiting period for major rules to come into force, the Trump administration actually needs to get those measures published in the Federal Register by Nov. 21.

The EPA already is trying to beat that clock with an air permitting regulation teed up for publication in the Federal Register on Nov. 19, just two days before the cutoff.

The push goes beyond well-telegraphed rules to permitting decisions and project approvals that may be harder to undo.

For example, the Interior Department is fast-tracking a proposal to conduct seismic surveys in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — an industrial operation designed to help pinpoint possible oil reserves that environmentalists say risks scarring the tundra and trampling polar bears in snow-covered dens.

Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League said he’s deeply concerned the Interior Department is trying “to jam this massive seismic program through in the final minutes of the Trump administration,” without enough environmental review and against the wishes of the American people. “It’s Defcon one on the level of concern list,” Kolton added.

Last-Minute Push

While regulations can be undone, the Biden administration could not repair damage if heavy seismic vehicles roll into to the refuge and begin work, Kolton said. “If you want to throw a hand grenade in the middle of the Interior Department transition team, this would be the way to do it,” he said.

The Trump administration also is preparing to sell drilling rights in the refuge before Jan. 20. On Monday, the Interior Department gave oil companies 30 days to nominate tracts for sale, setting up a possible auction in December or January.

Every step advancing Arctic oil development could complicate a Biden administration retreat — especially if leases are formally issued before Trump leaves office. And Interior Department officials are meticulously planning every step toward a sale, mindful of the tight timeline.

For instance, though it typically takes the government about two months to vet bids and issue leases — including through a 30-day attorney general review — the agency is looking at ways that process can move more quickly, according to an administration official who asked for anonymity to more candidly discuss the logistics.

Oil companies also can expect a few more chances to buy up drilling rights in other parts of the U.S., including during a Trump administration sale of coveted New Mexico territory Jan. 14.

The last-minute push is essential, said Tom Pyle, the president of the American Energy Alliance, a free-market advocacy group that has cheered much of Trump’s deregulatory agenda.

“Even as President Trump and his legal team continue to explore their options, it is critical that his agencies to put a full-court press on getting the remainder of his agenda across the finish line as an insurance policy,” Pyle said. “Joe Biden did not receive a mandate from voters to upend all the gains that President Trump made with respect to our energy independence.”

Trump To Rush Drilling Leases In Arctic Before Biden Takes Over

The Trump administration is advancing plans to auction drilling rights in the U.S. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has vowed to block oil exploration in the rugged Alaska wilderness.

The Interior Department is set to issue a formal “call for nominations” as soon as Monday, kick-starting a final effort to get input on what tracts to auction inside the refuge’s 1.56-million-acre coastal plain. The plans were described by two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named detailing administration strategy.

Biden has pledged to permanently protect the refuge, saying drilling there would be a “big disaster.” But those efforts could be complicated if the Trump administration sells drilling rights first. Formally issued oil and gas leases on federal land are government contracts that can’t be easily yanked.

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the refuge’s coastal plain might hold between 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels of technically recoverable crude. Yet it’s unclear how many oil companies would have the appetite to mount costly operations in the remote Arctic wilderness amid low crude prices, steep public opposition, and regulatory uncertainty. Major U.S. banks have sworn off financing Arctic drilling projects, and conservationists are also pressuring oil executives to rule out work in the region.

Truly Wild

Environmentalists argue Arctic oil development imperils one of the country’s last truly wild places — a swath of northeast Alaska populated by polar bears, caribou, and more than 200 species of birds.

The Trump administration is also fast-tracking a proposal to conduct 3-D seismic surveys inside the refuge before Jan. 20. The surveys can help pinpoint possible underground oil reserves, but environmentalists warn they are large industrial operations that threaten polar bears hidden in snow-covered dens.

Oil companies that buy leases in the refuge might never get the opportunity to use them while Biden is in the White House. Even if leases are sold and issued before Jan. 20, companies will need permits governing air pollution, animal harm, water usage and rights of way that the new administration could stall or deny.

Congress mandated the Interior Department hold two auctions of coastal plain oil leases before Dec. 22, 2024. But environmentalists, states and indigenous groups have already mounted legal challenges against the leasing plan. Any victory by the conservationists or settlement with the Biden administration requiring more environmental review could jeopardize leases.

Interior Department representatives didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. The “call for nominations” will help Interior’s Bureau of Land Management decide the contours of an auction. The agency still must issue a formal “notice of sale” before holding one.

Updated: 11-18-2020

Trump To Saddle Biden With Last-Minute Flurry Of Policy Moves

President Donald Trump is rushing to leave his final mark on energy, financial and foreign policy while stalling the transition to President-elect Joe Biden — who warned that further delays in the handoff risk increasing the coronavirus death toll.

The Pentagon told military commanders on Monday it would draw down U.S. deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to about 2,500 troops in each country by the end of the year. The announcement followed administration moves to escalate tensions with Iran and China, offering the incoming president unenviable choices as he seeks to revive international accords struck under former President Barack Obama.

Domestically, Trump is rushing to lease oil drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before Biden takes office. And Senate Republicans are trying to push through a controversial nominee for the Federal Reserve board of governors, Judy Shelton, so that the new president won’t be able to fill the vacancy.

The outgoing administration’s aggressive rear-guard tactics go well beyond past last-minute actions undertaken by parties about to lose control of the White House. Major decisions, involving both domestic and foreign policy, are in the works that Trump and his aides know Biden opposes.

The Trump appointee in charge of the General Services Administration hasn’t yet announced that Biden is the incoming president, delaying the start of a formal transition.

And with the virus surging across the country, Biden on Monday presented the standstill as a matter of life and death. “More people may die if we don’t coordinate,” he said.

One of the easiest areas for Trump to advance his vision and limit the options for his successor is in foreign policy, where the executive branch has wide latitude and the president-elect has pledged not to interfere before his inauguration.

The administration has built what it calls a “sanctions wall” against Iran in recent months to punish Tehran on human rights and terrorism grounds. To scale it back, the Biden administration would have to show that Iran has made progress in combating terrorist groups and improving its human rights record.

The new sanctions are intended to foil Biden’s plans to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, that Obama signed and Trump departed.

“These sanctions will be well predicated on Iranian bad behavior,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Depending on the sanctions, it will be much more difficult for Biden to provide a clean return to the JCPOA.”

China, too, is facing additional U.S. hostility before Trump leaves office. His national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, said last week that the administration is preparing new sanctions over the Communist Party’s clampdown on opposition politicians in the former British colony of Hong Kong.

The U.S. has held off targeting Beijing’s senior leadership, in part out of concern for ruining Trump’s so-called “phase one” trade deal with China. But administration officials have signaled more severe punishment now that Trump is leaving office.

Sanctions singling out China’s leaders would infuriate tthe government of President Xi Jinping and bring ties between the two nations to their lowest point in decades. Biden would struggle to clear such a toxic atmosphere as he seeks to cooperate with China in areas, such as climate change, that the Trump administration neglected.

The president is expected to soon issue a formal order to the Pentagon to draw down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 in each country before the end of his term. The instruction came after Trump earlier this month fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top officials at the Pentagon.

Those troop levels are in line with what Biden has said he regards as necessary. But the quick, calendar-based withdrawal might risk emboldening insurgent forces in those regions -– creating an immediate foreign policy headache for the new president.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that the consequences of a “premature American exit” would “be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”

While foreign policy offers the lame-duck president the most leeway, Trump has also sought to fortify domestic policy accomplishments.

The administration is currently rushing a series of energy initiatives including the issuance of new permits and the sale of oil drilling rights in the Alaskan wilderness – all an apparent effort to head off conservation efforts expected by the Biden administration.

That includes a notice on Monday that the Interior Department is accepting nominations for specific tracts in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that oil companies would like to purchase, setting up the possible auction of drilling rights before Biden takes office.

The Trump administration has also proposed nearly two dozen new rules, including measures that would make it harder to impose new environmental safeguards. Those regulations would – at the very least – require the Biden administration to devote significant time and resources to unwind.

And without control of the Senate, congressional Democrats would likely be unable to erase any last-minute Trump regulations under the Congressional Review Act, used to great effect by Republicans after Trump took office in 2017.

As if to underscore the Republican recalcitrance on Capitol Hill, a top Senate Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama, on Monday shrugged off Biden’s call for immediate passage of a new coronavirus stimulus package.

The president-elect said the outgoing administration’s lack of cooperation on the transition belied the urgency of the pandemic.

“If we have to wait to Jan. 20 to start that planning, it puts us behind over a month and a half,” he added. “So it’s important that it be done, that there be coordination now or as rapidly as we can get it done.”

Separately, the White House and McConnell are pushing to confirm Shelton to the Fed board, ensuring a seat at the central bank for the former Trump adviser through 2024.

It isn’t clear she has the votes, after retiring Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander said Monday he would not support her. But if she’s approved by the Senate, Trump appointees would hold at least four of the seven seats on the Fed board, giving them outsize influence on discussions about how the central bank can help the economy recover from the pandemic.

Shelton opposed lower interest rates during the Obama administration, only to reverse course during Trump’s presidency, and her opponents worry her stance could shift with the political winds once again.

McConnell has also vowed to continue confirming Trump-appointed judges through the end of the year, with the Senate set to vote on six judicial nominations this week alone.

“We go through the end of the year, and so does the president,” McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt late last month. “We’re going to clean the plate, clean all the district judges off as well.”

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