Overnight Energy: Interior watchdog says officials misled Congress | Trump admin finalizes rule on royalty cuts for mining

HAPPY TUESDAY! Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill’s roundup of the latest energy and environment news. Please send tips and comments to Rebecca Beitsch at rbeitsch@thehill.com. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccabeitsch. Reach Rachel Frazin at rfrazin@thehill.com or follow her on Twitter: @RachelFrazin.



a group of people on a sidewalk: Overnight Energy: Interior watchdog says officials misled Congress | Trump admin finalizes rule on royalty cuts for mining | Groups pressure Biden to exclude fossil fuel execs


© Rebecca Beitsch
Overnight Energy: Interior watchdog says officials misled Congress | Trump admin finalizes rule on royalty cuts for mining | Groups pressure Biden to exclude fossil fuel execs

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THE LEAD STORY: Top Interior Department officials misled Congress when they claimed high office rent in Washington, D.C., was a factor in the need to move the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to a new headquarters in Colorado, the agency’s internal watchdog found.

A report on Tuesday from Interior’s Office of Inspector General found that two officials overplayed the cost of BLM’s M Street SE lease near Nationals Park as a motivating factor in the move, as the agency already had plans underway to return to office space owned by the government.

Joseph Balash, a former assistant secretary for land and minerals management who now works in the oil industry, and BLM acting Director William Perry Pendley, whose tenure with the agency is the subject of a lawsuit, are implicated in the report.

Both men wrote in correspondence with Congress that BLM would be unable to stay in its existing M Street SE office because the cost would exceed the $50 per square foot limit set by the government.

The report found the claims were “misleading” and said that “the future lease cost of 20 M Street was irrelevant.”

Interior announced in July 2019 that it would move more than 200 of BLM’s D.C.-based employees to existing offices across the West, while putting nearly 25 of its top-ranking leaders at a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo. The move would leave just 61 of BLM’s 10,000 employees in Washington.

The move was considered a victory for Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is facing a tight reelection campaign, but it raised the eyebrows of former BLM employees, who questioned why the agency would leave such a small footprint in D.C. and set up shop in a town four hours from any major airport.

But well before Grand Junction was on the drawing board, BLM was already planning to leave its M Street SE space.

“When we got that lease it was a bargain,” said Steve Ellis, who retired from the highest-ranking career position within BLM in 2016.

“Since we moved people in there, Nationals Park popped up across the street, the area’s become much more popular and built up. That’s a good thing, but it meant the lease would be cost prohibitive when it ended, so we we’re looking around at options.”

Rather than pay more than $50 per square foot, the inspector general found evidence from both 2016 and 2017 that the department “had longstanding plans” to move BLM employees either to the Main Interior Building (MIB) or another federal facility.

“The evidence indicated that the future lease cost of 20 M Street was irrelevant at that point due to the department’s earlier plans to move the BLM into the MIB or another Federal facility. Simply stated, the evidence established that the department never seriously contemplated renewing that lease or moving BLM staff into a new commercial location in the Washington, DC area.”

Interior’s planning behind the move has long been questioned by members of Congress and other critics. The inspector general report referred the matter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, but his office dismissed the report as a byproduct of congressional backlash to the move.

“On this subject matter, it is clear that some politicians weaponized the BLM’s relocation. Their conduct is intimately tied to the creation of this report,” Interior chief of staff Todd Willens wrote to the inspector general, adding, “I consider this matter closed.”

Read more about the IG report here.

ROYALTY NEWS (THE MONEY KIND): The Trump administration has finalized a rule allowing itself to issue areawide and industrywide reductions on fees that companies pay to the government in exchange for the ability to extract certain minerals from public lands.

While these royalty rate cuts are typically granted by the Bureau of Land Management on a case-by-case basis when companies apply for them, the agency’s new rule codifies its ability to issue reductions “on its own initiative.”

The rule applies to existing leases for mining of materials that are not energy producing minerals such as soda ash, potash, phosphate, sodium, potassium, sulphur and gilsonite on public lands.

An agency analysis found that if it were to implement a 2 percentage point reduction in royalty rates for soda ash, a mineral that’s used in glass manufacturing and cleaning products, taxpayers could lose about $17.7 million annually.

The administration argues that its changes increase U.S. competitiveness, while opponents characterized it as a giveaway to industry.

“The Trump Administration has had enough of foreign powers taking aim at our nation’s domestic mineral producers. Foreign competitors have been trying to corner the minerals markets for decades,” Interior Deputy Secretary Kate MacGregor said in a statement.

“The drafters of the Mineral Leasing Act clearly envisioned the need to adjust royalty rates to ensure the greatest ultimate recovery of the resource,” she added. “This rule restores our regulations to this statutory mandate so that we may be more responsive to these changing global market dynamics.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) argued that the move will help industries that are harmful to the environment at taxpayer expense.

“This administration and its allies deliver constant lectures about why clean, renewable energy sources should compete without any assistance, and then when it’s time to give hundreds of millions of dollars away to old, destructive industries, it’s suddenly all about jobs,” Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.

“Trump and his Cabinet look at the federal treasury as a piggy bank to break open and toss around until someone takes it away from them, and we should expect more of these giveaways until they’re removed from office,” he added.

Read more about the rule here.

NO EXECUTIVES IN THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH? More than 100 climate and advocacy groups are asking Joe Biden’s presidential campaign to commit to blocking fossil fuel representatives from its transition team or administration should the former vice president win the election.

“We urge you to ban all fossil fuel executives, lobbyists, and representatives from any advisory or official position on your campaign, transition team, cabinet, and administration,” the groups wrote in a letter to the campaign, which was signed by a mix of 145 environmental groups, progressive organizations, faith-based groups and others.

The letter comes a day after Biden responded to a number of attacks on his energy policies from the Trump team while campaigning in Pennsylvania.

“I am not banning fracking,” the Democratic presidential nominee said. “Let me say that again: I am not banning fracking no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.”

Biden’s plan, though the most aggressive ever put forward by a Democratic nominee, has faced criticism from some environmental and progressive groups who have sought to push his policies further to the left.

It calls for an end to any new oil and gas drilling on public lands, but would still allow drilling elsewhere. He also calls for an investment in clean energy technology and would require net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, meaning any emissions from fossil fuels would need to be offset by reductions elsewhere.

Groups such as youth climate activists Sunrise Movement and Greenpeace, both signers of the letter, argue a Biden administration needs to move away from fossil fuels entirely, both for the sake of the climate and to be responsive to the vulnerable communities most harmed by pollution.

“To advance environmental justice, you must stand up to fossil fuel CEOs, stop the expansion of oil, gas and coal production, and rapidly transition us away from fossil fuels. A Biden administration free of fossil fuel interests would signal your commitment to restoring a government by and for the American people,” the letter states.

Using their guidelines, anyone who served on a fossil fuel industry board or advised the industry should be barred from the administration, along with those who “receive funding from fossil fuel companies to espouse ‘reasonable’ climate positions.”

Read more about what the advocacy groups want from the campaign here.

EMINENTLY QUOTABLE:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has confirmed that its controversial policy that allowed some regulated entities to forgo pollution monitoring has terminated.

“EPA’s temporary enforcement policy issued in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency is expiring tonight,” the agency told The Hill via email on Monday.

The policy spurred several lawsuits, with critics arguing that not requiring monitoring could give facilities a license to pollute. However, the agency defended its policy, saying that it didn’t allow for any additional pollution and argued that facilities would have to prove that their inability to monitor their pollution was related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The agency did issue new policies this month that allow for alternatives to requirements for physically signing documents.

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

Chlorine, other chemicals detected near Hurricane Laura-damaged chemical plant, EPA says, Nola.com reports

Wildfires Have Burned Colorado’s Iconic Forests. Because Of Climate Change, Some Won’t Grow Back The Same, Colorado Public Radio reports

After 3 unplanned shutdowns at Florida nuclear plant, feds launch ‘special inspection,’ The Miami Herald reports

ICYMI: Stories from Tuesday…

Army Corps urges DOJ to settle case with ND over $38M DAPL damages

Tribes, green groups sue over Trump rollback of water rights

Trump administration seeks to lift ‘endangered’ status on wolves by end of year

Interior watchdog: top officials misled Congress on BLM relocation out West

Land management bureau rule allows itself to issue mass royalty cuts for mining

Groups pressure Biden to exclude fossil fuel execs from team

FROM THE HILL’S OPINION PAGES:

Christopher Barnard, the national policy director at the American Conservation Coalition, writes about “Opening up post-COVID-19 free trade to save the planet.”

Video: Environmental groups defend clean car plan (KARE-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul)

Environmental groups defend clean car plan

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